Thursday, 30 January 2014

Benny Loves Killing ...and Wearing Different Wigs

The Film:
Benny Loves Killing (2012)

The under-the-radar-factor:
An independent UK feature that has been on the festival circuit, has won some prizes and is slated to appear on the American Online Film Awards with secure streaming access for two weeks in May.

The review:

"It seems that most guys that I run into who are making digital films are just auditioning to get to make "that" stuff. (He shrugs) It's kind of have the opportunity with this gear to do whatever you want. What are you waiting for?"
   -from this interview with underground film legend Robert Downey Sr.

"A lot of people are using DSLR cameras...because they allow a lot of democratization of moving images...they provide opportunities that don't exist with film...instead of trying to use it to look like previous films, we take it and we try to go somewhere new..."
   -from an interview with Benny Loves Killing director Ben Woodiwiss.

Mr. Downey would be very happy to know that Mr. Woodiwiss followed his suggestion and then some with the British filmmaker's impressive feature debut being proof.

Benny (Pauline Cousty - after this you'll remember the name) never met a line of coke she didn't like. It's what she goes for the instant she experiences the least bit of stress - and she seems set off by ANY dilemma of ANY degree that comes her way. Benny complains about the condition of her mother's home even though she has own hygienic challenges. She expects academic funding for her horror film project even though she's going directly against the rules for her particular curriculum. She'd rather avoid mom's place and try to crash at the pads of semi-strangers, even when leading to eventual rejection or unwanted sexual advances. She has no use for other's views but complains no one is listening to her. She wants folks to trust her, even though she knows she's untrustworthy herself. Benny has issues that seem to be of her own doing. Perhaps. She leads a life that's easy to describe but not to understand, which is one of the challenges (and strengths) in watching this film.

The main protagonist is a French ex-pat in London. Her mom is there too, arguably more troubled than Benny, still addicted to heroin and insisting that she and her daughter are very much "the same person". This seems to have been one of the incentives for Benny to lift some different colored wigs from one of the places she has crashed at - she tells her filmmaking partner Alex it's like being a whole new person. The only thing she does easier than change her hair color is to break into people's homes, where she steals stuff to fund her drug habits and fill her grocery bag. But no matter what appearance she takes, Benny can't stop the same reoccurring dream from taking place - the one with the haunting voice coming from the other side of a door that always has her waking in a cold sweat. Her filmic endeavors...and her ominous sleep experiences...continue until there is a resolution, of sorts, with both.

Benny's character, in explaining her rejection of the use of a POV shot in the horror film she's directing, states "You sympathize with who you're looking at, not with the eyes you're looking through". And for all her illogical, erratic behavior, you end up feeling much of what Benny goes through - sympathetic with her to a degree and always never less than fascinated by the world she has made for herself.

Woodiwiss aims for being original and has done so to a great extent but, for a point of reference, there is a clear similarity in the look and feel of this film to the work of the Dardenne Brothers and, in particular, their critically acclaimed Le Fils. (It would be interesting to count which film had more back-of-the-head shots - in this one, it's predominantly male scalps being inspected.) The point being that, as with Olivier Gourmet's performance in the D-brothers flick,  the camera crowds into the face of the main protagonist (who is in every moment of the film) in such a way that any false sense in her portrayal of this troubled, multi-layered character would show up in a split-second. Cousty doesn't disappoint - her amazing eyes tell more than spoken words ever could and she gives Benny a verisimilitude in both her troubled real world and haunted dream states that is entirely convincing. It's fascinating watching her break into people's homes in a calm manner - even taking time to play with pets - but become unglued when the least provocation - real or imagined - confronts her elsewhere. The rinse-repeat cycle of snort-steal-lie would have become tedious in lesser hands - Cousty never allows you to take your eyes away from her in this captivating performance. (Kudos also go to Canelle Hoppe in her short but demanding appearances as Christine, the tormented mother.)

Technically, the movie is highly accomplished. Taking full advantage of DSLR mobility, Woodiwiss and DOP Markus A. Ljungberg take the viewer through different rooms of homes as if going through different chambers of the mind. And the care/attention to sound recording and editing goes beyond what one would expect in many productions with higher budgets - the echos provided by the clock in the mother character's home suggest both an anchor in reality and an eerie other world quality. This attention to visual and aural detail never lapses and, rather amusingly, contrasts to the slapdash, inept way the Benny character is trying to assemble her film-within-the-film. I was watching and waiting to see any stumbles in the movie as a whole but, while the pacing may be a matter of taste and some scenes may seem repetitive to some, I felt Benny Loves Killing felt genuine throughout. The character's explanation of her world towards the end of the story, in regards to the connection to the reoccurring dreams she's had, could be seen as either a shortcoming on detail or a necessary ambiguity to further challenge and involve the audience in the whole process. Depends.

I have been asked in the last several months to look at a number of independent releases and Benny Loves Killing is the most accomplished of these works. I'm excited to see what Woodiwiss and Cousty come up with next - in the meantime, they can both be very proud of what they have done here.

(Update 10/09/2014 - Benny Loves Killing is now available on VOD.)

(Update 11/22/2017 - Benny Loves Killing is now available on Amazon Prime in the USA well as in the UK.)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Briefly - The Beauty Strip

Let's start with some food for thought...

"Lamenting the decline of the once "venerable leg-shows", it opined : "Since the striptease bit of midway hocus-pocus started turning burlesque into a peep show about ten years ago, the dank, dead attitude of the audience and the foulness of the comedy have very nearly destroyed the revelry that at one time was both coarse and wholesome and much prized for an occasional night out of bounds. Burlesque was at one time lively fooling"
-from "Behind the G-string: An exploration of the Stripper's Image, Her Person and Her Meaning" by David A. Scott.

"The stripper puts on her audience by taking off her clothes..."
-Marshall McLuhan.

...and now get into Ginnetta Correli's The Beauty Strip (the trailer is definitely of the NSFW variety...)

The actual description from the Marshmallow Press productions site suggests a "cinéma-vérité film about individual erotic perception featuring soundtrack by electronica sound artists...headphones and sedatives suggested." Well, yes ...I agree headphones would be a good idea.

Just under an hour long, The Beauty Strip is largely a cyber-burlesque mind-fuck music video-ish performance collection featuring several different women with a few direct documentary interludes. The performance pieces (and the women in them) create varying degrees of interest, beyond any skin deep concerns.

As one of the character's recites, "Individuality is a very complex thing" and that pretty much sums up how each different viewer will regard this project. From my end? -  the film strikes me as an attempt, on one hand, to return to playful exploration regarding sexuality and eroticism from a thinking perspective rather than just groin heat - hence my reference to burlesque above. But the ever present filter of a camcorder viewfinder with its "rec" light lit up on screen brings about the realization that the focus is less on the identities of its subjects and more on its viewers - right, Mr. McLuhan? Was this exploration worthwhile? - yes, for the most part. Was 58 minutes long enough? - actually, even as a short feature it felt rather padded.

Being offered on demand, that trailer actually gives you a good idea of what to expect from the film , if you feel like checking it out yourself.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Let The Right One In (and maybe the other one too)

The films:
Let The Right One In (2008), a Swedish production based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqivst and directed by Tomas Alfredson, which was then remade stateside as Let Me In (2010), helmed by Matt Reeves.

The under-the-radar-factor:
The original Swedish film wowed both audiences and critics alike but its release by Magnet/Magnolia Pictures couldn't crack the subtitle-averse crowd in North America. Speculation had already emerged that a more Hollywood-ish style remake of the vampire movie was inevitable. With a little over $12 million at the U.S. box office, the American production raked in more cash domestically than its predecessor but was hardly a huge hit.

The reviews:

While differing in some presentation aspects, as well as a degree of overall tone, the two films follow the same basic plot:

Vampire, Swedish Style
Vampire, American Style
A person everyone assumes by appearance to be a youngish girl has moved into an apartment complex with an older chap who seems to be her guardian...of sorts. The lass only emerges from her new home at night and seems oblivious to the cold wintry conditions outside (in a Stockholm suburb or Los Alamos, depending on version).

Already residing in the commons is a 12 year old boy in a single parent household, without friends, and bullied at school. At first the girl, revealing she is "more or less twelve" as well, states the two of them can never be friends but they begin spending most evening hours together anyway. The youths even devise a morse code based system to communicate between the wall of their adjoining apartments. Meanwhile, her guardian begins to prowl the area looking for people to kill, draining their blood into containers to take home for the younger co-tenant. Errors occur and the girl decides to go out on her own, ambushing an unsuspecting victim, leaving "daddy" to clean up the trail. At the same time the boy is under increasingly dangerous physical duress from his school tormentors. The girl finds herself alone as her guardian dies after having bungled another murder attempt. With her encouraging the neighbor to fight back against the bullies and his part in helping her lead a more "normal" existence (while a suspicious individual closes in on her whereabouts), the two of them grow from helping each other out to genuinely falling in love. This is in spite of his discovery of her need of human blood and the fact that she has been a "12 year old" for a long, long time. The girl decides she must leave just as her new love is about to be confronted by his tormentors in a most serious and physically dangerous way.

Here is the trailer for Let the Right One In...

And for the American version...

Many have noted that there was no real need to do a remake of the outstanding and unique Let the Right One In (outside of North American subtitle-phobia) and I am in complete agreement on that. The original Swedish version is a near masterpiece and, except as noted below, provides a more haunting aura through it's more subtle approaches to make it the superior of the two films. Not that Let Me In bites (pardon the pun)...far from it, although its assertiveness (and a few logic loopholes) results in some absurd moments landing with a heavier thud. There are some who will cite a lack of originality in some of the Yankee compositions - many of the shots in Let Me In seem lifted right out of the first film to a surprisingly high degree. The original is also better in striking the balance between terrifying and tender, all without resorting to anything close to Twilight blah.

Still, Reeves remake does offer two areas of improvement over it's predecessor. If one wants to rack up tension for what's at stake for our vampire in term of being discovered and apprehended, try using a determined police officer closing in (the Let Me In character played by Elias Koteas) rather than the loutish, drunken neighbor in the Swedish edition. Also, the American version has the good fortune of having the wonderful Richard Jenkins portraying the so-called guardian of the girl - he delivers a performance that has more tension and sympathy to it than is displayed by his colder and more clinical overseas counterpart.

Both versions are certainly worth seeing because of the excellent performances by each set of young actors. Chole Grace Moretz as Abby and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen were as astute casting decisions on this side of the Atlantic as the placing of Linda Leandersson and Kare Hedebrant in the roles of Eli and Oskar turned out to be in Sweden. All four actors are excellent in drawing in the viewer to their pre-adolescent worlds of alienation, fear, and yearning for understanding and acceptance.

Let the Right One In is THE film to show to anyone who thinks they would hate watching a vampire film, with Let Me In as an acceptable backup (but gimme a break, folks...learn to accept kimchi, planting trees, and reading subtitles in this world!). Both films move beyond the conventions, expectations, and limitations that have set into that genre. Many critics - but not enough audience eyeballs - have noted the fresh blood (pardon that pun too) these films deliver - two movies set in the dark night that will burn bright in your mind for a long time afterwards.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

World's Greatest!

The film:
World's Greatest Dad (2009)

The under-the-radar factor:
The movies of Bobcat Goldthwait as director are not known for receiving heavy marketing pushes and raking in big box office bucks and this film was no exception. Despite respectable notice from the critics, the fim scored less than $1 million at the domestic box office.

The review:

If being a perfect, thoughtful person is scored as a 10 and the total scum-hole of the universe a 1, a lot of us are bouncing on the scale between 4 and 6, give or take a point or two on good and bad days. World's Greatest Dad is the story of someone whose public perception goes from rock bottom to saintly at the hands of the person who knew him best...and is now in line to benefit the most.

Kyle Clayton (Daryl Sabara) is an insensitive and selfish turd, the exact opposite of his kind, gentle father Lance (Robin Williams), left alone to try and raise the problem child. The senior Clayton teaches an unpopular poetry class at the same high school attended by his son. His closet lover Claire, the art teacher (Alexie Gilmour), should be taking Lance's mind off his woes but actually starts rubbing salt into the wounds of his psyche. Claire has been noticing the success of the attractive male English teacher who's just had an article appear in The New Yorker, contrasting with wannabe author Lance's piling publisher rejection slips for his latest book. Meanwhile, potty-mouthed Kyle is trying his best to disrespect his dad and alienate Andrew, the only school mate who will spend any time with him. The son takes his porn addiction to a new level (and it's as extreme as it gets), leading to tragic results which, ironically, become the means for his father to finally establish himself as a brilliant, sensitive writer...or, at least, as circumstances dictate, a brilliant, sensitive ghost writer.

You may now relax and breathe - this film features none of Bobcat Goldthwait's trademark goofiness from his Police Academy performances, nor the lazy paycheck entries that has made Robin Williams' former fans squirm for more than a decade. You'll almost feel like you have landed in a high school across town from the one in Alexander Payne's Election. Like that wicked satire, this is biting, blackish comedy from the word "go", with all the outside trappings of the mainstream but a let-no one-off-the-hook interior in examining celebrity culture. Great credit goes to Williams, delivering a performance with depth in a neglected film that would help take the bad taste out of moviegoers mouths from the dredge they have noticed him in lately.

Preceding Goldthwait's God Bless America by three years, World's Greatest Dad has more polish and a subtler bite, although there is an annoying lull in the last half hour as actions and reactions to the situation surrounding the Claytons become rather predictable. Still, it's a highly effective piece of work overall, serving ugliness and sweetness in fairly balanced doses in what most regard as Goldthwait's best film to date. Between tackling bestiality (Sleeping Dogs Lie), killing celebrities (God Bless America) and the elements in this film, Bobcat is becoming somewhat of an "event" filmmaker. Go figure.