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Cucalorus Report: Part 1

Reviews of fest flicks The Bounceback, Hank and Asha and Willow Creek, plus a Bobcat sighting

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The 19th Annual Cucalorus Film Festival is now underway in lovely Wilmington, and with more than 200 films on the schedule, there's certainly no lack of product. Here are reviews of the opening salvo I caught.

Sara Paxton in The Bounceback (Photo: Anaphrodisiac & Preferred Content)
  • Sara Paxton in The Bounceback (Photo: Anaphrodisiac & Preferred Content)

THE BOUNCEBACK — Dealing with onscreen horrors is nothing new to three of the stars of The Bounceback: Ashley Bell dealt with demonic possession in The Last Exorcism, Sara Paxton dallied with the dead in The Innkeepers and Michael Stahl-David witnessed a giant monster destroy New York in Cloverfield. But all that seems likes child's play when compared to the terrifying specter of messy relationships in this vulgar, vivacious and very funny comedy from writer-director Bryan Poyser. Co-scripting with Steven Walters and David DeGrow Shotwell, Poyser treks the romantic travails of Cathy (Bell) and Stan (Stahl-David), two nice kids depressed over their recent breakup. Now living on separate coasts, Stan notices (on social media, natch) that Cathy is heading back to their Austin hometown to hang out with best friend Kara (Paxton). Stan spontaneously books a flight to the Texas town, under the guise of hanging out with his bud Jeff (Zach Cregger, amusingly exuding Ryan Reynolds smarm) but actually in the hopes of hooking up with Cathy. But Kara's not about to let that happen, not only because she thinks it would be bad for Cathy but also because it means she would have to see her ex, Jeff. As they cool their heels, both Cathy and Stan find themselves drawn to other people they meet during their short stay. Cathy catches the eye of Tim (Justin Arnold), a former military man who's described as looking like that character from Midnight Cowboy (Jon Voight's Joe Buck, thankfully; not Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo). Meanwhile, Stan flirts with Haley (Addison Timlin), an aspiring cellist. Much of the film's appeal rests in the fact that its relationships never feel like half-baked, cookie-cutter conventions all on the fast track to preordained resolutions; on the contrary, the movie takes care to serve up believable groupings, and it's often not clear who might get back together, who might hook up for one-night stands, and who might be left on the outside looking in. The note-perfect cast deserves much of the credit, with Paxton a particular treat as the take-no-prisoners Kara, who amusingly offers a sound reason for being a self-professed slut (her work here couldn't be more diametrically opposed to her turn in The Innkeepers). Incidentally, there's one plot thread that must be seen firsthand to (for lack of a better word) appreciate. The Graduate gave us "plastics"; Citizen Kane offered "Rosebud"; Die Hard contributed "Yippee ki-yay, mother fucker." The Bounceback's contribution to cinematic vernacular? "Air sex."

Mahira Kakkar in Hank and Asha (Photo: Bianca Butti / Paper Chain Productions)
  • Mahira Kakkar in Hank and Asha (Photo: Bianca Butti / Paper Chain Productions)

HANK AND ASHA — Based on both a memoir and a play, 1987's 84 Charing Cross Road was a lovely film about the long-distance friendship between New York-based author Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) and London bookseller Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins). Theirs was a relationship based on a mutual love for literature, and the two characters never met in the flesh but spent the film's running time writing intercontinental letters to each other. The often enchanting Hank and Asha, an original creation by married moviemakers James E. Duff (writer, producer, director) and Julia Morrison (writer, producer, editor), feels like the 21st century version of this tale, with the two principal characters no longer middle-aged and the medium of choice no longer the printed page. Hank (Andrew Pastides), originally from Concord, NC, is an aspiring New York filmmaker whose first movie played the festival circuit. Asha (Mahira Kakkar) is an Indian woman who's attending film school in Prague and happened to catch Hank's picture. The pair set up a long-distance friendship by constantly mailing each other videos in which they speak directly into the camera. Asha shows off the sights of the Czech capital to Hank while he in turn allows her to see his van (which doubles as his office). They each down brews in bars (a humorous bit on her part, as she doesn't care for the taste) and show off the local cuisine. And so it goes, with the two film fans even making tentative plans to meet in Paris. But a secret revealed by Asha — easy to guess for anyone with any knowledge of Indian customs — threatens to derail any chance at a real relationship. Kakkar delivers a charming performance, Pastides makes the best of some fine quips (my fave: "What did people do before cell phones? Make plans and actually be forced to keep them?") and the film itself is a rueful look at how new-world technology can only go so far in facilitating meaningful connections between like-minded souls.

Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore in Willow Creek
  • Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore in Willow Creek

WILLOW CREEK — Not my cup of tea as a comedic actor, Bobcat Goldthwait has successfully reinvented himself as a director of cult-films-in-the-making, forgoing appearing in such moronic comedies as his '80s output (Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, Hot to Trot, etc.) and turning his attention to helming such interesting efforts as The World's Greatest Dad and God Bless America (which I reviewed at the 2012 Riverrun International Film Festival). Willow Creek is his latest picture, and it's the sort of movie (read: horror) guaranteed to garner blanket raves from online fanboy film critics. Yet while it's mostly engaging (especially during the first half) and always well-mounted, it's ultimately just one more entry in the beaten-to-death found-footage genre. Here, the starting point is the legend of Bigfoot, particularly the fearsome creature as it appeared in the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage that has been discredited by all but the most gullible as a hoax. A gung-ho filmmaker named Jim (Bryce Johnson) is a true believer, though, and with his skeptical girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) in tow, he heads to the titular California region where the Patterson-Gimlin film was shot. The residents of the surrounding area have turned the myth into a cottage industry, and some of the film's best sequences find Jim and Kelly encountering this community co-opting: They eat a "Bigfoot Burger" (with the bun in the shape of a foot) and chuckle over a mural showing various Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) doing menial labor under human supervision. Johnson and Gilmore have an easygoing rapport, and they really enliven the first half of the picture. But once their characters venture deep into the woods and set up camp, the film has nowhere to go but down the same narrative path as almost every found-footage tale since The Blair Witch Project began the craze back in 1999. Goldthwait's boldest decision as director is to film the couple's nocturnal cowering inside their tent in one continuous 20-minute shot, but the scene offers so little variety — and next to no mounting suspense — that, coupled with a rushed finale, Willow Creek ultimately proves to be no more disturbing than Dawson's Creek.

(Photo: Natalie Howard)
  • (Photo: Natalie Howard)

Incidentally, Goldthwait was on hand to introduce his film and hold a post-showing Q&A. Here he is on stage with Bigfoot and Cucalorus executive director Dan Brawley:

(Photo: Natalie Howard)
  • (Photo: Natalie Howard)

(The Cucalorus Film Festival runs through Nov. 17; go to www.cucalorus.org for complete details.)

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