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Butter on the Latch
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by Jay Seaver

"I did not want the main characters to be eaten by bears. That's something."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Butter on the Latch" was listed in the program as playing before director Josephine Decker's next film, "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely", as if it was a short film rather than a 63-minute feature. The programmers and projectionists mercifully flipped the order; I can only imagine how the audience might have revolted if this had played first. The properties that make it not a very good movie would have made it even more of an endurance test if the audience was sitting through the whole thing to get to the film whose name actually appears on the ticket.

It's an improvised thing, mostly set around two friends (Sarah Small & Isolde Chae-Lawrence) attending a Balkan music and dance seminar in Mendocino, California. Isolde says she's just broken up with her boyfriend for real this time but isn't looking for a replacement, while Sarah is on the lookout, with her gaze eventually landing on a cute banjo player (Charlie Hewson). The event is mostly held outdoors and in tents, which also means that Sarah and Isolde are staying in tents in the middle of the woods, providing ample opportunity to get lost in the dark.

The multiple scenes that take place in near-total blackness, with what available light there is coming from Sarah's headlamp, aren't the most trying visual element of this movie, though. That would be cinematographer Ashley Connor's frequently out-of-focus camera work. Decker and Connor would tone that down a fair amount for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but here, it seems as though every scene starts blurry until they figure out what they want the audience to concentrate on, and it's brutal, to the point of being headache-inducing from the strain of one's eyes naturally trying to accomplish what the camera refuses to do. It may be meant to emphasize dreaminess or searching for clarity, but it looks like a problem with projection.

As for what is actually happening when the screen comes into focus, one's mileage may vary. The opening scenes set one thing up and are barely referenced throughout the rest of the movie, which is frustrating. The Balkan music stuff is interesting enough in the background that it might have been nice for it to be more a part of what story there is. There are weird sequences that seem disconnected from anything, and while there's a neat trick or two in there, like when having a main character sitting in the middle of the frame keeps the viewer from realizing just how distorted the old lady's face is getting over to the left, but it's a frustrating distraction from how nothing is happening. At least Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence seem to have enough natural charm to carry the movie, especially as it's improvised. If either of them were off-putting, this would be a complete disaster.

I didn't much like "Butter on the Latch", but I must admit that Josephine Decker has some skills that could be refined into something interesting. Most of the time when a movie features two characters in the middle of nowhere, engaging in small talk when doing anything at all, I start hoping for some sort of disaster. In this case, I did not want Sarah & Isolde to be eaten by bears, and while that's an accomplishment, I do hope Decker achieves a bit more in the future.

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originally posted: 07/23/14 00:46:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2014 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.

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  14-Nov-2014 (NR)



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