Shallow ‘Below,’ Silly ‘Innocence,’ Goofy ‘Identical’

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FS, Contributing Writer

 

“As Above, So Below”

Yet another found-footage based horror movie, “As Above, So Below” (wide release) sends a group of scruffy young explorers into the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris to find the legendary philosopher’s stone, the alchemical holy grail that their leader, an enthusiastic (and pretty) linguist-archeologist, believes is hidden there.

The claustrophobic passages the intrepid band follows for some unexplained reasons engender hallucinations that call up each member’s most personal demons.

The premise itself is quite dumb, but the filmmakers still might have used it as an effective basis for a shocker if they hadn’t embraced the jittery, hand-held camera style that has afflicted all the “Blair Witch” imitators to have appeared over the past 15 years. It’s a technique that keeps production costs down, but the audience pays the price by having to endure reams of murky, blurred, barely intelligible footage.

In the end the journey takes the “cataphiles,“ as they’re called, to what are literally supposed to be the gates of hell. Anyone unlucky enough to be watching “As Above, So Below” has beaten them there by about ninety minutes.

 “Innocence”

A well-received novel is the source for “Innocence” (wide release), but whatever virtues the book might possess aren’t evident in the film adaptation.

It’s essentially a pint-sized version of “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which a coven of witches who make up the staff of a posh New York prep school for girls keep their youthful appearances by drinking the blood of virgins. For their upcoming ceremony of rejuvenation they target a new enrollee whose mother has recently died, though the girl possesses a rather obvious means of protection in the boys’ campus down the road.

The movie seems to take forever to slog its way to the ritual where goodness finally triumphs — although a last-minute twist suggests that the coven’s malignant influence might just continue into a sequel. What’s certain is that Kelly Reilly gives an absurdly overripe performance as a school nurse so sultry and provocative that you’d swear she was engaged in a very different, far older profession.

This picture is aptly named in that it is innocent of any style, wit or logic.

From left, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in “Love is Strange.” -Photo courtesy of Tribeca Films
From left, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in “Love is Strange.”
-Photo courtesy of Tribeca Films

“The Identical”

It’s clear that “The Identical” (wide release) is a loony “what if” take on the life of Elvis Presley. But since the makers couldn’t afford to pay for The King’s songs, they call their rock ‘n’ roll icon Drexel Hemsley instead, though they cast an Elvis impersonator named Blake Rayne (who incidentally can’t act a whit) in the role.

The rather ghoulish idea is that like Presley, Hemsley had a twin, but unlike Presley’s brother, who was stillborn, Hemsley’s survives. Since it is the time of the Great Depression and their parents can’t afford two sons, they give one of the infants to a childless preacher and his wife to raise as their own. That one grows up to become the world’s best Drexel imitator, though being a remarkably uncurious fellow. He doesn’t have an inkling of who he really is until after the superstar’s death.

There’s a “faith-based” subtext to the movie: the preacher’s son is pressured by his adoptive father to follow in his clerical footsteps, but his dad must eventually admit that the boy has music, not gospel, in his blood. Precisely how this message is supposed to be inspiring is unclear.

Even the faux-Presley songs in “The Identical” are poor imitations of the real thing.

“Love is Strange”

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina give superbly observed performances in “Love Is Strange” (Angelika) as a couple who have lived together for decades but are forced to separate when they run into financial difficulties and can no longer afford the co-op they’ve long shared. They move in with friends and relatives temporarily, and the film is largely about the discomfort they feel in being apart.

The material could easily have been played in a stridently propagandistic way. But writer-director Ira Sachs prefers restraint and naturalism to melodramatic excess, and his film is all the more moving for it.

He also secures excellent performances from his cast, including Molina and Marisa Tomei as a relative who welcomes one of the men into her home.

But it is Lithgow who most viewers will remember after the film ends. Usually an extroverted actor (remember his wildness in “3rd Rock from the Sun”?), he plays his role with remarkable gentleness and delicacy, a visual counterpoint to the music of Chopin that fills the soundtrack.

 

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