Aztec Box, The

Rating:

A truly independent film

Main Cast: Nick Uzarski, Suziey Block

Director: Serge Bronstein

Let’s face it.  Reviewing movies (or books or anything, really) is always a form of armchair quarterbacking.  I don’t make films, or act, or have to wrangle with studio executives to try and tell a story my way.  I’m the consumer, the receiver of the end product of a lot of people’s hard work.  So do I feel bad saying a movie sucks?  No.  My place in this scheme is to let people know what I think of the finished product and whether they should spend their hard-earned money or precious time buying or seeing it.  The industry touts its products so thoroughly and deceptively that if a big budget, heavily marketed movie is lousy, that’s on the studio.  They have all the money – why should they get yours if they can’t make an entertaining product?

But…there’s a different between armchair quarterback and asshat Little League parent, shouting and cursing at players just trying to learn and have fun and get their feet wet.  That’s how I feel about small, truly independent films.  Films like The Aztec Box.  This is a movie that was sent to me directly by writer/director Serge Bronstein.  I’m sure its entire budget was smaller than the breakfast budget for day one of filming Final Destination 19 (or whatever ridiculous number they’re on).  It’s a guy, probably his film school friends and a couple of cameras – it needs to be reviewed for what it is, not compared to movies with vastly more resources.

So is it a great little gem of a movie?  No, it is not – but it also isn’t all bad.  The Aztec Box is a found footage horror flick about a group of college students who find a deadly artifact buried in the backyard of their rental house.  There’s nothing new here, plot wise.  That isn’t a fatal flaw – all found footage movies are essentially the same.  Let’s look at some of the things that filmmaker Bronstein gets right.

First of all, he doesn’t make mistake jerking, shaky handheld camera work for high art.  He works his script to allow for the placement of still cameras and has his characters discuss the merits of holding a camera steady to film.  The cast is supposedly making a reality TV show for a college class, that’s the reason the “found footage” exists.  He uses that device to keep away from the usual roller coaster of nauseating scenes of people randomly darting around with a camera hanging at their sides.  I much appreciated his respect for audience motion sickness.

His focus on college students isn’t really novel, but it is quite well executed.  Most college students in movies bear no resemblance to actual college students.  This cast looks and acts like real college kids.  They are supposed to be filming their daily lives and some of it isn’t that exciting – just like real lives.  Nick Uzarski is Nick, the male lead, and he’s cute and silly without being unrealistic.  His girlfriend Karen (played by Brisa Freitas) isn’t as interesting, but her part is smaller and she isn’t given a whole lot to do.  She is the one who pulls off the best “college student” scene, where she should be studying but she’s really procrastinating.  It’s real enough to be pretty cute.  Darren (Hans Hernke) is Nick’s buddy and the third roommate.  He’s a little more wooden than the others in average interactions, but has one scene where he pulls out the stops and does a very fine version of freaked out.  The final roommate is Liz (Suziey Block) who arguably has the juiciest part.  She isn’t all that nice, and is the one most affected by the artifact.  She does a good job with her role as main creepy chick, escalating as the movie goes along.  She comes off as the best actor in the group, but I think it’s mostly because she has the meatiest material to work with.   The four of them study and squabble and fool around in between horror bits and all four main cast members seem very comfortable on camera and in character.  They aren’t the finest actors in the world, but someday –who knows?  Each of them has a good feel for dialogue and the physical expression of emotion that could conceivably serve them well at some point.  They probably are real college students, but that doesn’t automatically translate into the ability to portray that on film.  They all do a nice job.

Of course, The Aztec Box also has its share of problems.  Apart from the worn out concept, the telling of the story is choppy.  The best found footage movies slowly build atmosphere with small things happening on camera.  Here we have too much of nothing at all happening in long, lingering scenes followed by a burst of too loud jump scares that aren’t scary and don’t allow for the slow creep of apprehension so necessary for us to invest in the outcome.

The special effects, also, are too much.  Too extreme, too loud, too hokey.  Some of this is certainly small budget and as such forgivable, but some of it is just lack of subtlety.  There is one excellent scene in which two of the housemates are discussing their situation at a remote location.  The special effects are toned down a little; the outdoor location is far more effective than the inside of the house and the actors involved do a terrific job of being scary/scared.  This scene, all by itself, shows that the cast and crew of The Aztec Box have something more to offer, something I hope they get the chance to explore.   According to imdb.com, this is Bronstein’s first movie.  I’m looking forward to seeing more.

The film opens at festivals in October, 2013.  If you want to support new, independent films and filmmakers, I would encourage you to give it a shot.  It won’t be the best movie you’ll ever see, but there are enough nuggets of promise here that I think this is a guy to cheer from the sidelines.

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