Monday, March 31, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Otis

BUFF's closing feature is arguably not underground at all; it's made by a Hollywood insider, stars a bunch of recognizable names, and was produced for a major studio, which is even giving it a Blu-ray release, which isn't necessarily a given for films that wind up showing on a few hundred theater screens.

It was nifty to have that insider there for a Q&A afterward, as a contrast to the other filmmakers who visited. Most of them had been making their first movie and kind of learning as they went, while Krantz had done a lot of work behind the scenes in film and television before stepping into the director's chair. He talked about approaching it as filming it like two episodes of television rather than on a feature schedule. There's always a question about improvisation at this fest, and Krantz was pretty emphatic about saying no, they basically shot the script, because improvisation means that all the lighting and sound guys have to play catch-up and that's time and money they don't have. It's a very practical answer, one which the really indie guys maybe haven't yet got the experience to consider.

Looking at the video cover, I do have to wonder about the marketing of this. Aside from the above-the-title names not appearing on the cover (Daniel Stern, Illeana Douglas, and Kevin Pollack are named, but it's Bostin Christopher and Ashley Johnson who you actually see), it's advertised as "Otis: Uncut". The question is, of course, whether there was ever actually a cut version. As far as I know, Otis will have played about two festivals before showing up on video without a regular theatrical engagement, and I doubt BUFF showed a cut version. Also, to the guy at Bloody-Disgusting who name-drops Juno to describe this... Huh?


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

I didn't think much of Otis when looking at its poster/box cover, but the trailer offers up more black comedy with Illeana Douglas than novelty serial killer stuff. Of course, neat trailers can be a trap; not many movies can keep the pace that such a preview promises.

Otis Broth (Bostin Christopher) is a serial killer. The press is calling him the "Kim" killer, from the name he uses for the young girls he kidnaps and holds prisoner for a mockery of high school dating when he calls their parents. He's just grabbed Riley Lawson (Ashley Johnson), and the only thing driving father Will (Daniel Stern) and mother Kate (Illeana Douglas) more insane than his taunting is the apparent incompetence of FBI agent Hotchkiss (Jere Burns). Otis isn't counting on Riley being as smart as she is pretty, or Kate deciding that she's got nothing to gain by remaining timid.

Writers Erik Jendersen and Thomas Schanuz have come up with a pretty clever script. It starts out with what looks like a torture porn set-up - girls chained to a bed inside what looks like a massive toaster oven, watched by a creepy man who dispatches an escaping captive in the teaser - although the killer is a forty-year-old pizza deliveryman obsessed with taking his crush to the prom. The movie takes a couple of hard right turns, though, and the movie winds up being less about a lunatic killing girls than the Lawsons deciding to take the law into their own hands. It's to their credit that the story can change direction a couple of times without ever feeling disjointed.

The cast is pretty good, too - Illeana Douglas walks off with every scene she's in, whether she's called on to be impatient, frightened, or half-crazy with her thirst for revenge. You almost have to feel a little bad for Daniel Stern, whose Will is far more reasonable but often isn't nearly as much fun to watch as Douglas's Kate. The pair both work well with Jared Kusnitz, playing their trouble-making son Reed, especially when it comes down to Kusnitz and Douglas playing nuts and Stern trying unsuccessfully to be the voice of reason. Jere Burns does the sort of smarmy and not-so-bright character he's long since mastered, and always delivers the laugh asked of him. Bostin Christopher does a good job of making Otis a little more layered than this character otherwise might be, but Kevin Pollack is kind of under-used as his more openly abrasive brother.

Producer/director Tony Krantz does a pretty good job of tying everything together; the movie looks pretty good for a direct-to-video flick. The opening set piece, with Tarah Paige as the previous "Kim" trying to escape, is a really nice piece of work (it helps that half of Paige's credits are stunts, so he doesn't have to shoot around much). He does have a bit of trouble settling on just the right note for the black comedy at points in the middle, especially with one sequence that extends past the terrible mistake being funny (in a nasty way) without quite becoming horrifying.

That's part of the risk with a movie like Otis, though; switching directions like it does isn't always smooth. It makes up for much of its awkwardness by the end, and the dark comedy angle winds up being more entertaining than the serial killer movie this initially appears to be.

Also at HBS.

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