Sunday 21 October 2012

Lo (2009)

Director: Travis Betz
Stars: Jeremiah Birkett, Sarah Lassez, Ward Roberts, Devin Barry and Aaron Gaffey

Given that Dust Up was a pleasingly riotous surprise that I've been happily telling all and sundry about, it seemed appropriate that I follow it up with this quirky genre buster with close ties to it in a number of ways. Released in 2009, it's the third film from Drexel Box Productions, Dust Up being the fifth (in between is The Dead Inside, to be released in November). It was written and directed by Travis Betz, who played Herman, the waste of space who caused most of the trouble in Dust Up. The actor apparently isn't too much like the character, as that film was the only one of the five that he didn't write and direct; the lead actor here, Ward Roberts, did. Bizarrely, Betz neither appears noticably in this one nor Roberts in that one. Go figure. What's more, the demon who gives his name to the title is played by Jeremiah Birkett, the wild drug dealing lunatic, Buzz, from Dust Up; and Devin Barry and Aaron Gaffey are prominent in both films too.

It begins slowly but surely with a young man in a painted pentagram in his apartment, preparing to summon a demon. He has a book that looks like it's bound in human flesh and would have fit well in The Evil Dead. He's less Bruce Campbell though and more Xander from Buffy, perhaps a Xander who's trying to be Bruce Campbell. Anyway, the ritual works and he gets to command Lo, a sassy demon with a powerful roar and half his skull missing. Yet, as surprising as it may sound, this is a romcom, albeit one that's a little quirkier than usual. You see, our hero, whose name is Justin but who Lo calls Dinner, has lost his girlfriend, April. She was abducted by another demon, who left Justin with nothing but scars on his chest, and he wants her back badly, badly enough to call up a demon from Hell and command it to rescue her for him. I'm not sure whether that's love or stupidity, but it's certainly dedication. Of course, it's not going to be that easy, right?

Well, never mind easy or hard, it's pretty tough to figure out what's real and what isn't. It's very confusing, but in a really good way. After Lo comes crawling out of the darkness, everything we see is what Lo wants him to see. It might be truth, albeit truth plucked out of Justin's head and reenacted on an imaginary stage on his apartment wall. It might be lies, manipulations from a trickster demon who wants to eat him and has enough imagination to conjure up anything that might persuade his unwanted master into slipping up somehow. Lo's quickly expounded theory, from apparent first hand knowledge, is that April wasn't what she seemed. He explains that she's really a demon too, one who didn't love Justin because demons don't know how, and who saw him as nothing more than safe harbour during her escape from Hell. She wasn't kidnapped by a demon, she was just brought back to pay for her crimes in the deepest pits.

Of course, what we find is that it doesn't really matter. Sure, there's a story here, a plot to which we want to discover the outcome, and a host of quirky characters to flavour the journey. There's a gay demon in an antique military uniform and a Nazi armband, who feels that he has to sing his story to the backing of a Las Vegas lounge band. There's an omnipresent waiter who turns cocktail mixing into a bizarre dance form. There's even a demon rat, which is frickin' awesome even though it doesn't do anything whatsoever except be a demon rat. Each of these play part of a backdrop, in front of which Lo and Justin talk back and forth about humanity and love and meaning, all of which resonates beyond the framework they're bandied about within. By the time the truth comes out, courtesy of a neat but not unexpected twist at the end, it's part of a much bigger picture. Realistically how much you take away from it will depend on how much you bring.

Lo is a surprising but very welcome film. It's experimental and brave and ambitious and all those other words that tend to get lumped into descriptions of films that don't fit in the mainstream but folk want to talk about anyway, usually to highlight their failings. It's extremely minimalist, not quite as far as Dogville but certainly to the degree that it could be easily adapted to the stage. It obviously cost almost nothing in sets, the only one that we see being mostly hidden in the dark, and we never set foot outside Justin's apartment, cutting down location work to nothing. What we get is a very small cast, who hardly move from the spots they arrive in, talking a lot but not doing a heck of a lot else. To break this up, we get a routine or two and a few notably theatrical explorations of Justin's past. On the bad side, it has little substance and it's definitely stretched out a lot further than it should have been. On the good side, it never loses our interest.

The inspiration is from Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, as filtered through Jan Švankmajer's Faust, which combined live action with stop motion animation at a feature length. I've long enjoyed Švankmajer's work, though I've not yet seen his Faust, and it's truly wonderful to see a young filmmaker inspired by him to create something new like this. Travis Betz deserves a great deal of respect just for that. He deserves more for what he manages to do with it, though it's not entirely a successful experiment. There's some excellent writing in the dialogue heavy script and nuanced performances from Ward Roberts as Justin and Jeremiah Birkett as Lo do it justice. Yet while the overall sweep is more successful than Dust Up, it doesn't hold together throughout. At eighty minutes, it's half an hour too long and the pace feels slowed to allow for feature length. The routines are fun but they don't serve any purpose and will get worse on repeat viewings.

I was impressed by Roberts, though his overt channelling of Bruce Campbell became overdone at times. Some scenes almost felt like reenactments, especially when he's talking to his hand. I wondered for a while when he was going to cut it off and replace it with a chainsaw. To be fair, it's a challenging role, given that he's confined to a magic circle for the entire film, except when playing himself in the staged flashbacks. Burkett is just as impressive, confined even more. Lo is crippled, so gets to crawl into view without the option to leave the spot or to even stand up. He gets no flashbacks, of course, and he's stuck inside particularly effective make up, to the degree that I wouldn't have known he was black if I hadn't seen Dust Up first. His performance isn't as derivative, though there are hints of Beetlejuice when he plays to the film's audience more than to Justin. The best parts are when he viciously focuses back in, as Birkett's delivery is superb.

I was less impressed with the rest of the cast. Sarah Lassez proves versatile as April, but she's really the MacGuffin of the piece and, perhaps because of clumsy writing or perhaps because of clumsy acting, she's unable to sell us on why Justin is so hooked on her. I get the impression that Devin Barry does exactly what he was meant to do as Jeez, the gay singing demon, but that isn't much in the big picture, partly as he's just a distraction and partly as he's far too reminiscent of Lorne, the lounge singer demon in Angel. Aaron Gaffey similarly can't be faulted for his work as the omnipresent waiter but he ends up inconsequential, even with both eyes in place. While I did enjoy these various distractions, Lo really should have ended up as a two man show, running for maybe fifty minutes at most, with Justin and Lo's verbal sparring tightened up, sped up and focused in on. I'd really love to see that, however experimental, brave and ambitious it would be.

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