OBSOLESCENCE (2011) & LETHAL OBSESSION (2010): THE POTENTIAL AND FAILURE OF INDEPENDENT FILM

Jakob Bilinski‘s last film, Shade of Grey (2009) was a well-crafted feature, compellingly approached, yet flawed by inexperienced acting in key roles.  Bilinski has returned to the short film format with Obsolescence (2011), having considerably improved his craftsmanship, first and foremost in the acting. That is beneficial, because Obsolescence turns out as Bilinski’s best effort to date.

The seed of the idea for this psychological science fiction was inspired by Bilinski’s wife, Mackenzie.  It was shot in L.A. on a minuscule budget with a two day shooting schedule and a meager cast of four.  Far more often than not, guerrilla film-making methods such as these only lead to an execrable experience, but Bilinski is a conceptual artist who molds his gem with intelligence and style.

“Better never to have met you in my dream than to wake and reach for hands that are not there.”–Otomo No Yakamochi.  This introductory quote aptly dissipates shortly before the opening view of an empyrean horizon, its composition dismantled by Bilinski’s feverish, frenzied camera—a sign of things to come.  Nick (Scott Ganyo) is bathed in a bucolic landscape, but the deceptive harmony fails to mask a twitch.

Still from ObsolescenceTess (Rosalind Rubin) is strapped to a chair in a desolate location.  She is being held hostage by Nick.  In lesser hands this would have been the predictable setup for an adolescent excuse to show a torture fest, but Bilinski and the superb Rubin invest kinetic, tense excitement into the conflict.  Nick has poisoned Tess.  Her salvation lies in information that Nick requires regarding the death of his wife, Annie (Jen Lilley).  Rubin hypnotically conveys fear, frustration, and futile effort as she witnesses humanity slipping away from her captor, who is engulfed in grief.  Nick’s ability to empathize trickles away like water into sewage.  He is more fascinated than compassionate when the poison begin to take hold of Tess.  Wracked with pain, Tess’ eyes roll back, like a wounded doe, as her life decays.  The scene is intensely internalized and haunting.

A flashback to the sublime life of Nick and Annie is a cruel facade.  As Nick tells her he loves her so, we know the saccharine sentimentality will give way to a savagely barren tragedy.  Lilley poignantly expresses naivete, lush attachment to her husband, and subtle pathos as she is resigned to melancholy in regards to her inevitable fate.

Lucas Ellis as Detrick is so wonderfully slimy that he leaves a trail.  Nick’s descent into the dark night of the obsolete soul is hardly voluntary.  When he is confronted by Detrick, the memories of a past life fiercely propel Nick into the form of an astonished animal.  Although Ellis steals the scene, Ganyo is at his best here, far more than the earlier scenes in which he is lost in fantasy. In those earlier scenes, Ganyo has genuine chemistry with Lilley, but he also has equally awkward expressive moments that seem forced.  In a way, however, the rudimentary emoting of Ganyo’s acting in the earlier scene convinces us of this pitiless fable.

Bilinski’s camera work is polished and opulent.  Equally superb is Christopher John De Mory’s score.  Bilinski and co-writer Ganyo follow in the Terence Fisher/Rod Serling tradition of existential narrative disguised in a populist entertainment genre.  Bilinski helms a compact myth through vibrant character development.  Obsolescence is meant to be a film of its own, but it also is the planned seed of a feature or web series.  Hopefully, this will come to fruition.

If Jakob Bilinski’s Obsolescence is an affirmation of the refreshing potential of independent cinema, then Lethal Obsession (2010) flails in its redundant failure.  Directed by Chris Jay and Jason Hignite, Lethal Obsession is the equivalent of a low budget,  NC-17 Hershey Bar, manufactured for an imbecilic audience.  Every bad movie cliche is intact, without the benefit of intentional humor or an occasional surprise.  Even the title is pedestrian and predictable.  The film is over-lit in a feeble attempt to make it look like a Hollywood grunge film, without having the budget, or standards (such as they are) to pull it off.

Lethal Obsession opens with adult model Memphis Monroe entertaining on a sexy web cam.  The camera follows her for half of forever as she smiles, applies make-up, flashes the camera, and finally gets killed by the resident serial killer.  There went the budget.  Enter less expensive adult model victims, detectives and execrable dialogue (paraphrased),  “The killer wore gloves.”  “Yeah, probably saw it on a cop show.  That’s where they get all their ideas.”  ” To kill a girl with a gun or knife is one thing, but to kill a girl with an axe… I don’t know man, I don’t know.”  Axe, hell!  Later, we get to see a model’s toes cut off, one by one, with garden shears, and another model killed when a cheese grater is shoved into her vagina.

Of course, the pesky Lois Lane styled reporter is on hand and she has to contend with the press-shy detective and her Perry White boss, who says something like, “Now, a serial killer—that’s news, and in case you forgot, we report the news!  Now, get on it!” So, Lois gets on it by annoying the detective: “All right, here it is!  My producer wants a story.  The sheriff’s department has been mute.   If you don’t give us what we want, you’re gonna lose this case.  My guess is that you want to stay on this case.  Am I right?” Detective hangs his head shamefully and relents, “Ok, Miss Lane.”  By gosh, Lois has her scoop!

Now the film ventures into Sharon Stone territory. Kitsie Duncan is the owner of the website, which all the murder victims worked for.  Kitsie has long legs and a curvy figure, so that means lots of shots of Kitsie slowly putting on hose, bending over, leaning over, crossing and uncrossing her legs, all to distract the detective and keep the audience titillated.

Still from Lethal ObsessionKitsie has an assistant who says she feels sorry for the girl victims. Kitsie is having none of that pity stuff: “Dammit, Janet, if they are so worried about their security, they would buy a damn dog!” We do not even get the benefit of a Charles Grey dance number for the “dammit, Janet” sequence. Kitsie attempts to sidetrack the detective. Unfortunately, that requires some dialogue, as she leans over: “I am a suspect? How exciting! Let me guess detective, you have seen my numbers since the murders and you see that they are up, so you think I might be the killer, to increase my sales.”  Kitsie slowly uncrosses her legs, but this cop is duty-bound.  “I am not playing games. This is serious. People are dead!”

For the set-up we need a geek and a jock roommate. The jock is nursing a broken heart. The geek is secretly in love with the jock, but his roommate keeps looking at porn and those nasty girls on the obsession cam website: “What the f_k  were you doing in my room?, ” says jock to geek.  “I didn’t think…” “That’s your problem, you don’t think!” ” Man, all you do is hang out in this room. We used to be friends man, we used to hang out all the time man, until that f_ing bitch came along!”  “Don’t you ever f_g  call her a bitch man. You don’t know anything about her!”  “You just sit around all day looking at porn.” “F_k you!” “F_k you, man!”

Just so this won’t be too obvious, the film throws in a red herring in the form of another geek who looks at porn: “Oh my God, you’re asking about those web cam girls!  Oh my God, that’s stuff is real?  I just thought the news was making that stuff up for a story, man.”  Lethal Obsession groans on for about 70 inane, inhuman minutes, killing brain cells as it goes, making one wonder if the actors ever had courage enough to complain to the producers for having to utter their dialogue with straight faces. Lethal Obsession thinks itself daring, hip, edgy, and against the grain, but it merely is a hopelessly dull, adolescent second hand copy of a third hand copy of the fourth rate product that Hollywood has been regurgitating, without much thought or care, for at least thirty years.

Amazingly, the outtakes, in the DVD extras, do their absolute best to make the finished film look good. This slipshod production only reiterates all the bad press independent cinema takes in. Still, for about every ten thousand of these hack fests, an occasional, rare film,  imbued with genuine craftsmanship, intelligence, substance, excitement, and love of medium, regardless of budget, is discovered.  Such a film is Jakob Bilinski’s Obsolescence.  Seek it out.

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