Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Paris Je Lame

Year: 2014
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Cast: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for the first half hour of As Above, So Below. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Found Footage. 

Found Footage is what brings us together today. It awoke in America with The Blair Witch Project, slumbered peacefully until the advent of the Paranormal Activity franchise, and reached its brightest dream with the Spanish cinematic sledgehammer that is [REC]. But instead of hibernating once more, awaiting its resurgence like the behemoth that is the 3D fad, found footage stayed quite active, festering at the fringes of mainstream society, setting in like a permanent rot on the eaves of Hollywood.

You see, unlike 3D, found footage costs almost nothing to make. There's no extra processing fees, no unwieldy cameras. It's no fiscal strain to crack open a prosumer camcorder from Target. Loving the fact that this cinéma vérité trend kept their wallets nice and limber, studios have been keeping the subgenre on life support, refusing to pull the plug.

In fact, this year already saw two found footage releases (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Devil's Due) within two weeks of each other. Now, I'm a big fan of this filmmaking style - it's a delightful way to thrust oneself into a new world and the genre produced my favorite film of all time - and find something to love in even the most tawdry of shaky cam nasties (Save one - Zombie Diaries 2: World of the Dead, which you may never get a review of considering the fact that the only way I'll be able to sit through it again is if it's playing in my funeral home. And that's just because I won't have had enough time to teach my incorporeal ectoplasmic form how to change the channel.).

So I find no problem in the current FF boom, nor do I side with the common recent complaint that casting recognizable actors ruins the illusion (news flash - nobody actually believes these movies to be real anymore - that idea died with Heather Donahue in Blair Witch). But I do take issue with the outrageously mistaken concept that using the found footage gimmick can cloak egregious story flaws thanks to its artificial realism (and, more importantly, still make a metric buttload of return on investment).

You bet your sweet bippy I'm going somewhere with this.

As Above, So Below starts off well enough. In fact, it starts off fascinating. [LAST CALL FOR FIRST ACT SPOILERS] Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an intrepid young scholar, wants to continue the lifelong quest of her recently deceased father - namely, finding the sorcerer's philosopher's stone, the fabled alchemic token that can grant eternal life. She ropes in her Aramaic-speaking friend George (Ben Feldman) to help her with translation and young filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge, the Stranger from The Purge) to create a documentary about her pursuit of the stone through the catacombs of Paris.

On their way, they gather three experienced Parisian cave-explorers, only one of whom, Papillon (François Civil), is particularly important because he is very handsome. So, things happen and they end up exploring a possibly cursed uncharted tunnel of the catacombs in their pursuit of the stone (and the treasure rumored to be buried with it). Some nasty things begin to happen, but the trailer has spoiled enough, so this is where we get off the plot train.

And onto the... analysis... bus? Captions are hard.

Aside from the dazzlingly out-of-left-field plot device provided by the presence of the philosopher's stone in the narrative, As Above, So Below also boasts a tremendously intriguing mixture of ancient cultures and religious iconography, as well as calling influence from such classic films as The Descent, Indiana Jones, AladdinNational Treasure, and even Enchanted (more than once, if you can believe it).

This dense array of narrative elements sets out a keen and complex bed for the themes and plot to lay on. Unfortunately, after a night of hard drinking, they prefer to sleep on the floor. By the time the film crosses the 90 minute finish line, it has absolutely bungled almost each and every one of the elements that seemed so promising in the beginning, bogging down the insightful thematic material with needlessly generic jump scares and piercingly inane, resolutely muddled plot beats.

The fact that amid the piffling nonsense, the film gives the viewer anything to parse out and discuss afterwards is a triumph, but As Above, So Below could so easily have been a ten out of ten film that it's hard to come out of it tasting anything other than the bitter tang of defeat.

And the faint, but ineradicable aftertaste of Nicolas Cage.

I can't dig into the film too much because, again, spoilers, but there are enough wan plot devices in the first third to accurately exemplify the kind of execrable nonsense one is likely to encounter later on. First off, we're meant to believe that our sexy young leads have had the time and inclination to study an entire encyclopedia's worth of culture, science, and language, spreading across centuries. These kids do have masters degrees, but every time they go from zero to Copernicus in the blink of an eye, it reeks of movie magic, bringing one out of the movie far swifter than any vaguely recognizable genre actor could have.

And my doctor says I have to cut down on snark in my diet, so I'll limit myself to one more nitpick, but it's a big'un. A hastily translated Aramaic passage rhymes. In English. Something tells me that the ancient civilization that penned the inscription hadn't quite planned far enough ahead to anticipate the development of anglophone linguistics. Not unless Marty McFly had something to do with it. But then again, the lack of Chuck Berry lyrics would seem to rule that hypothesis out.

But this is a movie, not a doctoral thesis. Who cares about rhyme scheme? As Above, So Below is efficiently scary, disorienting, claustrophobic, and effective, justifying its documentary aspects with relative ease. So that alone makes it one of the better found footage efforts of the decade. It utilizes its budgetary limitations to tremendous effect especially in terms of set design, it creates tension within the audience even when it doesn't deserve it, and it tells a story that falls flat, but at least it takes the leap in the first place.

So what if the premise doesn't pan out one hundred percent? So what if the third act feels more like a Da Vinci Code-themed Universal Horror Nights maze? It provokes a feeling in the audience and conceptually, there's nothing else quite like it. It'll never be an enduring classic, but as a stepping stone toward a sleeker, better genre, As Above, So Below is essential viewing.

TL;DR: As Above, So Below is a waste of a brilliant premise, but in terms of scares remains a rather strong genre picture.
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Skip it in theaters. This is definitely a RedBox movie. Save it for a rainy day. Lower your expectations, drop a blanket on your bod, and have a good time.
Word Count: 1210

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