Deja Vu Blocks Search for Bigfoot in Old-Hat 'Willow Creek'

Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait; Runtime: 77 minutes
Grade: C+

Typically, the first thought that comes to mind about Bigfoot -- or Sasquatch, or yetis -- probably isn't one of terror, but more of enigmatic curiosity and apprehension over the unknowns lurking in the wilderness. It's a frame of mind that writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait banks on with Willow Creek, his micro-budget venture into the found-footage horror genre, as an enthusiastic aficionado and his doubtful long-term girlfriend document their trip to the famed shooting location of that blurry Bigfoot footage so ingrained in popular culture. Contrary to the dark humor or clever subversion of World's Greatest Dad or God Bless America, however, Goldthwait doesn't leave many signature footprints within the interviews, wilderness travel, and things going bump in the night that hallmark other films of its breed. His by-the-books take on the genre will seem entirely familiar to anyone who's endured interrupted faux-documentary horror before, with the couple's trip through the woods barely enlivened by the anticipation of observing what one of the shaggy hominids might actually do in the wild.

The discovered footage kicks in as Jim (Bryce Johnson, Sleeping Dogs Lie), an amateur Bigfoot buff, readies his camera in a car passenger seat for his journey deep into Six Rivers National Forest, the location of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film that introduced the fabled creature to the world in the late-60s. He's accompanied by his girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore, World's Greatest Dad), an up-and-coming voice actress who's more than a little skeptical of Bigfoot's existence, but whose affection for Jim gets her to go along anyway. As they arrive at Willow Creek, a small town molded into a tourist trap around the mountain-dwellin' monster, Jim gives the documentary thing the old college try by interviewing locals and experts. Despite being met with some hostility and spooky firsthand accounts, the pair venture deep into the woods by themselves, in hopes of reaching the shooting location and, perhaps, catching some wind of their subject out there. What they encounter, however, is much more unsettling than a hazy look at a furry biped briskly walking in the opposite direction.

Before Jim and Kelly actually get into the woods, Willow Creek endures many of the unsurprising trappings of its genre in their investigation of local mythology. The clash between enthusiasm and skepticism over what they're researching doesn't tread into any uncharted territory amid the build-up, either, sluggishly moving the film along the same paths paved by The Blair Witch Project and other faux-documentary flicks built around belief in the unknown. Instead of generating a tense atmosphere, director Goldthwait weighs down the pace with deadpan glimpses at Willow Creek's kitschy obsession with their local monster, where minutes-long singing numbers and a quirky dining spot overshadow the flickers of eeriness -- the formation of Bigfoot as a credible threat -- in Jim's interviews. Despite the opening shots of adjusting the camera and keeping tabs on cutting and rolling during Jim's doc, few noticeable steps are taken to sell the atmospheric illusion of this being found footage, merely readjusting the genre's assumed conceits to focus on Bigfoot's stomping ground.

Excluding the hairy beast of myth, the developing rapport between the couple becomes Willow Creek's defining and reliable characteristic, with Jim's gusto getting challenged by Kelly's practical cynicism as they inch closer to their time in the wild. Respectable character drama carries on between them as they drive between locations, built on how their different viewpoints -- both about Bigfoot and their relationship in general -- could create rifts under enough pressure. Paired with the reminders of hostile mountain locals and the presence of bears throughout the forests, their hike through Bigfoot's suspected location provides just enough of said pressure; however, despite their tenuous romance, the head-butting between them touches on the same old conflicts seen elsewhere, over tussled camping sites and navigating the byzantine woods. Stomach-turning handheld camerawork captures the honest back-and-forth squabbles between Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, who feel like a real couple, nailing down the requisite validity without tapping into much originality.

Willow Creek only branches into distinctive territory once the sun sets, hinged on the anticipation of experiencing what lurks in the forest's darkened depths. While it's unsurprising to see the spookier side of the film go down outside a tent in the dead of night, director Goldthwait uses ambiguous sounds and the intermittence of Jim's recording to strengthen the camping-gone-wrong atmosphere, including a nuanced twenty-minute long take that relies on the reactive body language and verbal tone of the actors for its chills. By that point, though, he's already meandered through so much of the formula to get there that it's hard to justify the approach for the film's spine-tingling lynchpin, especially when he reverts to predictable and overdone lost-in-the-woods mischief in response. For a comedian/filmmaker who rejuvenated his career by undermining expectations with his offbeat directing and writing style, it's disappointing to see him craft such an imitative drag out of his search for Bigfoot.

Owen, Binoche Make the Most of Inflated 'Words & Pictures'

Directed by: Fred Sehepisi; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C

Recently, Clive Owen portrayed legendary author Ernest Hemingway in the television docu-drama Hemingway and Gellhorn, while Juliette Binoche wandered the paths of the philosophy and legitimacy of paintings in Abbas Kiarostami's quietly brilliant Certified Copy. There's something effortlessly appealing about both actors in those respective types of roles -- Owen as a gruff scholar; Binoche as an ensconced art enthusiast -- that should bolster Words & Pictures, a lithe rom-com from Roxanne and I.Q. director Fred Schepisi about two high-school professors embroiled in a lighthearted war about whether text or images carry more importance. Instead of letting the topic and the chemistry between two flawed-yet-passionate artists on involuntary creative hiatus play out organically, the debate gets tangled up in a broad, unnecessary web of events that appeals too easily to stereotypes and shoehorned drama, messily undermining the characters' strengths along its unsurprisingly therapeutic and uplifting path.

At Croydon Academy high-school, sardonic author/poet Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) learns that his job's in jeopardy, largely driven by his alcoholism and disruptive behavior. On top of that, the school's literary magazine -- which, of course, he's responsible for producing -- also might be on the chopping block due to a lack of funds and the uninspired submissions from the students. Shortly after discovering this, Marcus meets one of the school's new teachers: Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a dour and detached former painter who keeps people at arm's length because of her crippling health condition. As the semester progresses, a discussion emerges between their respective classes (which share most of the same students) about expression through words/literature against that of visual images, starting a back-and-forth "war" between the school of thoughts. While the students develop passion for the debate itself, Marcus and Delsanto build their own jokey rapport, a reprieve from their dire personal struggles outside of the classroom.

Written by Gerald Di Pego, the mind behind the bizarre thrills of Angel Eyes and The Forgotten, Words & Pictures discovers its best moments while flipping between the merits of literature and visual expression, guided by the two professors struggling with their personal wars with their individual crafts. The conflict between the opposing positions occasionally yields an enjoyable energy, referencing the communication skills of caveman, revolutionaries, and advertisements in what ultimately plays like the highlights of an anthropological lecture on the topic. Notably, it's amusing to see both Marcus and Delsanto tackle the oft-used and cliche "A picture is worth a thousand words" line, handled in a clever way on the school's grounds. As the war simmers at school, the story also reflects on the teachers' creative blocks and how neither are able to practice what they preach due to their individual circumstances. The foundation's there for a study of damaged artists passing their gifts on through teaching, as well as the idea of igniting passion for liberal arts through a form of cultural rivalry.

Apparently, though, that wasn't enough. The personal drama within Words & Pictures becomes overblown amid their fine-arts battle, dialing up the emotional vigor through inflated high-school theatrics and a baldly manipulative progression of the teachers' hardships. Di Pego's script has a tendency of forcing things to happen for the sake of lofty melodrama around the two teachers' hindrances, driving the story in disheartening directions -- mostly involving Marcus, transforming him from puckish rogue to straight-up imbecile -- that are both unnecessary and irreparably damaging to the film's overarching intentions. Worthwhile themes about the power and accountability of artistic endeavors lose their way under the shadow of Marcus' self-destructive drinking, especially after the informal reveal of the dumbfounding mistake he's made that cannot simply be shaken off. Reminiscent of Craig Zisk's The English Teacher, the line separating the depths of flawed characters and inconsistent sabotaging of the plot gets blurry.

Hence, the unavoidable romance in Words & Pictures also doesn't convince under the circumstances, despite the rapport between Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Owen wears the scruffy, conflicted writer well, tossing out the origins of words and credibly projecting the demeanor of an emotional drunk, like a tattered alter ego of Dead Poets Society's John Keating. Binoche struggles in the crippled artist's skin, leaving the audience uncertain if she's receptive to relationships while combating Rheumatoid arthritis, but that internal conflict's unique enough to embrace her temperament as she relearns how to paint. Their union, however, seems unreasonable in the story's context: despite Marcus' incessant pursuit and their flirtatious banter about prose and artistry, the chemistry between Owen and Binoche seems better engineered for professional camaraderie than crossing over to intimacy. That awkwardness lingers as Words & Pictures compulsively reaches its zenith of creative debate, weakened integrity, and unlikely romance: an unearned ceasefire that, despite noble intentions, ends up tongue-tied and out of focus.

Lots of Peculiar Features, Emotions in Posen's 'Face of Love'

Directed by: Arie Posen; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: C

The Face of Love is the kind of drama that demands sympathy -- or, at the very least, considerate curiosity -- for the central character and the story's conceit if it's going to be watched. If someone goes into Arie Posin's mild psychological romance thinking that a widow's out of her mind for wanting to pursue a man who looks and sounds exactly like her husband, then the things she ends up doing aren't really going to convince anyone otherwise. Unfortunately, that's not the first hurdle that the audience must cross to grasp its obscured musings about grieving and attraction only to one's spouse, where the threshold separating fond remembrance and poorly thought-out recreation of experiences gets repeatedly crossed in a deadly-serious environment. Despite the unsurprising genuineness of the cast as they operate around the macabre enormity of the subject matter, The Face of Love's exaggerated treatment of a widow's anguished obsession undermines that authenticity.

Annette Bening plays the widow, Nikki, who lost her architect husband, Garrett, in a drowning incident while vacationing in Mexico. In the five years after, she's focused on her work as an interior decorator for vacant real estate in Los Angeles, never remarrying or letting go of her devotion to her husband -- to a degree where she nearly hallucinates his presence during everyday activities. She maintains a relationship with her Seattle-stationed daughter (Jess Weixler) who visits frequently, as well as with her next-door neighbor, Roger (a modest but reputable performance from Robin Williams), a widower himself who was also a friend of Garret's. On a whim, Nikki decides to visit the local art museum where she and Garrett would frequent, only she's shocked to spot a man who, for all intents and purposes, is her husband in appearance. She becomes transfixed with finding the man instead of shrugging it off, eventually leading to a relationship between them where Tom (Ed Harris), an artist and college instructor, remains unaware of his resemblance to her husband.

While it's clear that Nikki stands on shaky emotional ground as she pursues Tom following their first encounter, The Face of Love builds some interest in how she'll actually cope with the situation once she's made direct contact with her husband's doppelganger. Director Posin touches on the disarming nature of what it'd be like to essentially see the tangible ghost of one's spouse and the boundaries Nikki's forced to cross in order to further their interaction, especially how she grasps Tom's distinct personality and life experiences while still maintaining her illusion. The ways that Tom avoids discovering what Nikki's orchestrated are questionable -- partial internet searches, overlooked photographs, avoiding Nikki's neighbors in public -- but the psychology of her falling for someone else living in her husband's skin initially becomes enough to surrender to some of the story's whims, bolstered by Posin's steady and intimately expressive filmmaking. The potential for a unique character study emerges in her pursuit, namely in how she'll balance her past and present if things work out.

That is, until Nikki starts to push the boundaries of reliving her experiences with Garrett to literal and self-indulgent levels, hinged on some incredibly reckless choices she makes to feed her longing. Instead of a levelheaded assessment of how a person might handle her new lover's physical similarities to her deceased husband, The Face of Love opts for an overstated look at the emotional perils of an unbalanced woman flirting with calamity by dining at restaurants, trying on specific clothing, even traveling to a favorite vacation spot associated with the past. The drama meanders in wacky, doubtful directions for the sake of Nikki's self-deception, abandoning points that the film might make about singular tastes in romantic partners -- or how someone might break free from that singular focus -- for an exploration of her dishonesty and refusal to move on. Shades of Hitchcock's Vertigo appear in Nikki's nostalgic psychological turmoil, but it's like experiencing Scottie's fixation on the past without the backbone of an underlying mystery or the subtlety of earnest drama.

What ultimately drives The Face of Love beyond this point boils down to observing how high Nikki's able to stack her melancholy house of cards before they come tumbling down, whether she'll be discovered by someone close to her or if she'll reveal the truth on her own accord. Despite Annette Bening's ability to earn compassion amid her character's unbecoming actions, while generating complex energy with Ed Harris' stern yet sympathetic projection of Tom's artistic soul, she's only able to invigorate Nikki's psychosis so much within the space of the film's unsatisfying emotional tempo. While there's an elevation of drama at the end, it's for erroneous reasons that tap into unnecessary divergences in its themes of mortality and stunted catharsis after the death of a loved one. A more thoughtful meditation on this idea exists somewhere within Posin's film, coupled with the fleeting zest for life and the right and wrong ways to mourn, but that's not really what shores up here.