Monday, 16 April 2018

Phoenix Film Festival 2018


I've been providing daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival (and especially its International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival genre track) for a number of years now and, this year, I wrote it for Nerdvana, as I did in 2015. Thanks, Jayson, for the platform.

Harkins has renovated the Scottsdale 101 since last year's festival, replacing the small traditional theatre chairs and cramped aisles with large recliners and spacious walkways, so there are half as many seats in each theatre as there were. Given that there are always sold out screenings and many more come close, that change would have limited the ability of moviegoers to get into a lot of what they'd have liked. The Phoenix Film Foundation, which runs the event, proactively countered that problem by extending the festival to eleven days and having films screen more often. Each competition film got three screenings this year instead of two, on top of any encore performances they might earn by winning an award.

I found out that eleven days makes for a long event, even if it includes two weekends, but this year's selections were so consistently good that it still felt worthwhile to forego sleep every time. Press don't get into the opening night film, so I was there for ten days and I wrote daily coverage for each of them after getting home.

Looking back, I'm not sure how I stayed awake throughout. Over those ten days, I watched 43 movies (either features or feature length blocks of shorts), wrote almost 23,000 words in daily coverage, travelled 600 miles to the theatre and back, worked four days and filed my taxes. Needless to say, I didn't sleep much. At one point during day nine, I decided to miss the only non-IHSFFF film on my schedule for the day and sleep in the car instead.

Here's my experience in miniature with links to my daily coverage:

Day 1: Friday, 6th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much (2017)
dir: C. J. Wallis

Fascinating documentary about Theodore 'Ted' Slauson and his experiences with and on the gameshow The Price is Right, leading up to the moment when Terry Kniess bid the exact amount in the Showcase Showdown. Recommended.

DriverX (2017)
dir: Henry Barrial

Henry Barrial's third feature at PFF after Pig and The House that Jack Built and the first one that didn't win a Best Feature award. It's a drama that follows a man who works for DriverX, a fictional Uber, as he discovers that he's lost touch with the current generation. Highly recommended.

All the Wild Horses (2017)
dir: Ivo Marloh

Another documentary, this one about the longest and toughest horse race on the planet, the Mongol Derby, which runs for 1,000 km across the Mongolian steppes, mirroring the path of Genghis Khan's postal service. Fascinating stuff and the winner of the Audience Award in the World Cinema category. Recommended.

The Last Movie Star (2017)
dir: Adam Rifkin

A very old Burt Reynolds shines as the title character, who accepts an invite to be honoured at a tiny film festival not far from where he grew up. Ariel Winter is just as great as the punk chick who ends up driving him around. This showcase feature touched me on two fronts, that of someone living a long way from home and someone who runs a small film festival. Highly recommended.

Hunting Lands (2018)
dir: Zack Wilcox

A slow and mostly dialogue-free thriller, this won Zack Wilcox the Best Director award and that's well deserved. It's not what most directors would have made, but that's how we discover talent. It follows a man who has retreated to the Michigan woods but, while hunting, finds a woman left for dead. It's far from action packed but it's fascinating. Recommended.

The Idea of Manhood (2018)
dir: Serge Kushnier

Winner of both Best Picture and Best Screenplay, the judges liked this more than I did but it's an interesting, if very low budget, look at the lives of two men, one who drops in unannounced on the other and stays the weekend. The humour is clever and that helps to lighten the philosophical dialogue-driven script.

Cynthia (2018)
dirs: Devon Downs and Kenny Gage

A highly popular start to the IHSFFF, at least half a dozen people went back to see it again a few days later. It's an over the top horror comedy from the folk behind Girls and Corpses magazine about a couple who finally manage to conceive but end up with a baby and a living tumour. The cast have fun, though the supporting actors (Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Robert LaSardo and Lynn Lowry) steal the show, along with the title puppet. Recommended if you have the stomach for it.

Day 2: Saturday, 7th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


On Borrowed Time (2018)
dir: Yasir Al-Yasiri

"Life is what you make it" sounds utterly poetic in Arabic and we discover that watching four friends at a home for the elderly in Dubai rekindle the spirit of life in surprising ways. This is often very funny as a comedy but it's also an impressive drama, with a couple of great performances from Sad Al-Faraj and Salloum Haddad. Recommended.

The Guilty (2018)
dir: Gustav Möller

An ambitious thriller from Denmark, this feature not only unfolds in real time but away from all the action. While a kidnapping case unfolds, we watch the cop working as a 112 operator (999 for Brits or 911 for Americans) throughout. I was thoroughly impressed and the vicious twists have stayed with me. Highly recommended.

Under the Tree (2017)
dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Another northern European thriller, this drama from Iceland is less tense but just as vicious in its way. It revolves around two families who live next to each other but don't get on. How the argument about a tree overshadowing a porch escalates is both brutal and ironic. Recommended.

Summer of 84 (2018)
dirs: François Simard and Anouk & Yoann-Karl Whissell

One of the best IHSFFF showcase features this year, I enjoyed it immensely but don't ever expect to go back to it. It looks back to the eighties very well indeed, in both style and substance, with a story about kids who believe they've figured out who the local serial killer is and try to prove it. Recommended.

Imitation Girl (2017)
dir: Natasha Kermani

While I didn't get this at the time, partly for cultural reasons, it stayed with me throughout the rest of the festival and grew inside my head. Lauren Ashley Carter is certainly a revelation in a dual role as a classical pianist turned porn actress and an alien who shows up on our planet as black sludge and forms into her lost half. I'd love to see this again to see how much better it plays second time through.

Day 3: Sunday, 8th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Touched (2017)
dir: Karl R. Hearne

A thoroughly imaginative and genre-bending thriller, this is part ghost story and part psychological drama, in which a tenement landlord who's 'touched' (ie not quite right in the head) investigates the death of one of his tenants, who talks to him in the form of her nine year old self. Hugh Thompson is marvellous as the lead but he's gifted with a fantastic part. Highly recommended.

More Than Enough (2017)
dir: Anne-Marie Hess

This was renamed before the festival to Good After Bad but should be renamed back because the original title has a lot more meaning to it. Whatever it's called, it's an indie drama about an odd relationship between a female problem child in high school and an adult male friend of a friend who takes her in as his ward. That there's nothing sexual in play is only the first cliché avoided and it continues to avoid them throughout. Billy Burke is excellent and Maddie Hasson is pretty good too. Recommended.

The Best People (2017)
dir: Dan Levy Dagerman

I adored this comedy drama, which has an intriguing premise: a couple meet, fall in love and plan to be married, but their respective best people (best man and maid of honour) think it's the worst idea they've ever heard and they team up to save their friends. As a comedy, this is hilarious, often outrageously so. As a drama, it reels itself in and doesn't end the way we might expect. Anna Lieberman is fantastic as one of the would-be saboteurs. Recommended.

Rock Steady Row (2018)
dir: Trevor Stevens

I found that I liked the idea of this movie more than I liked the movie itself. It's an old story—Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, depending on how old you are—transplanted into a dystopian American college campus where the currency du jour is bicycles. If you think that's a great idea, you'll love this movie. If you think it's stupid, you won't.

Day 4: Monday, 9th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Free Fire (2016)
dir: Ben Wheatley

This isn't a new film and was included in the Recent Retro section of theatrical films from the last few years that we might have missed. I certainly missed this one and was very happy to not miss it again. It's a real time battle set in Boston in 1978, where Irish terrorists are buying guns from the Americans. One unfortunate quirk of circumstance (and two idiots gofers) and everything goes pear-shaped. This is a wonderful film full of tension, memorable dialogue and great choreography, not to mention the best use of a golden oldie since Reservoir Dogs. Highly recommended.

Zoo (2017)
dir: Colin McIvor

A family friendly look at one schoolboy's bizarre experiences in Belfast during World War II. German bombs are coming and he's unhappy that the ministry has ordered the dangerous animals in the zoo shot, in case they're freed. He steals the elephant and works to keep her alive and safe until such time as he can return her. It's done well, so if you're grinning at that synopsis, this film is for you.

Lowlife (2017)
dir: Ryan Prows

A sort of modern day Pulp Fiction, this fantastic film introduces us to a number of unusual characters, whose individual stories merge together into a brutal and memorable picture. There's a third generation luchador, an African American lady who owns a motel, an accountant, a young man released from prison with a large swastika tattooed over his face and the inevitable crime lord. Highly recommended.

The Dead King (2018)
dir: Austin Harmon

My first Arizona film of the festival, this is an interesting but clearly zero budget look at how the dynamics of a group shift after one of them dies. In this instance, he's Sammy, the king in a long-running game of Dungeons & Dragons and the rest of the group meet up again to remember him in-game instead of going to his wake. Things don't go remotely as expected.

Day 5: Tuesday, 10th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Revenge (2017)
dir: Coralie Fargeat

A rape revenge movie directed by a woman (and a Frenchwoman at that), this is a fascinating take on that subgenre, aided by some amazing cinematography. I'd surely buy that house in Morocco for a dollar! It's predictable and wildly overdone on the use of blood, but interesting in its approach, especially when you think about the decisions made by the filmmaker. Recommended.

Porcupine Lake (2017)
dir: Ingrid Veninger

The weakest film I saw all festival, this is still a decent coming of age drama set in northern Ontario. A young girl spends the summer in Port Severn because her parents want to see if their relationship might work again, though her mum knows it won't. Bea meets Kate and suddenly her life is interesting. The best thing about it is the performance by young Aussie actress Lucida Armstrong Hall as Kate.

Day 6: Wednesday, 11th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Downrange (2017)
dir: Ryuhei Kitamura

Proof that horror movies can be intelligent and not end after two minutes, this thriller centres on the occupants of a car which is driving happily down the road until its tyre is shot out. There's a sniper in a tree who apparently wants to kill them all and the survivors are stuck behind it trying to figure out how to escape. An incredibly good script and some great stuntwork elevate this one. Highly recommended.

Director's Cut (2016)
dir: Adam Rifkin

The most original movie on show this year and the second from director Adam Rifkin (after The Last Movie Star), this unfolds as a 'director's cut' of a routine thriller, as created by a rogue crowdfunder turned director, complete with commentary. As this rogue is played by Penn Jillette, we're in for some wacky humour and a deconstruction of movie magic. Best line, told to Teller: 'You have the right to remain silent...'

Day 7: Thursday, 12th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Feral (2017)
dir: Mark Young

The weakest showcase feature at IHSFFF this year, Feral was relentlessly predictable and fell for all the clichés that Downrange avoided. Still, it's a capable story of monsters taking down a sextet of campers in the woods with some decent sound and a strong performance by Scout Taylor-Compton, which is better than her role in Cynthia, even if the latter was a much better film.

The Heretics (2017)
dir: Chad Archibald

I still haven't figured out why I don't like The Heretics more than I do. Certainly, it's a reasonably original storyline with a couple of excellent twists and some good performances from Nina Kiri and Jorja Cadence. The former is a young lady who's recovering from a kidnapping five years ago, only to be kidnapped again by the same people; the latter is her girlfriend who is caught up in the search for her. It just misses the mark somehow and I wish I could figure out why.

Day 8: Friday, 13th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Sci-Fi Shorts A

The first of two Sci-Fi Shorts sets, this one included seven short films including a couple of great ones. The Apocalypse Will Be Automated features a zombie apocalypse in near future Melbourne, which three friends try to escape in a high tech smart car that doesn't want to play ball. Visage features an actor auditioning for a role, only to find 'he's not what the audience wants', even though he literally could not be more perfect for the part.

Arizona Shorts B

Sadly I only caught one of the Arizona Shorts sets, as I love to keep up with local filmmakers. This is the best such set I've ever seen at PFF because it doesn't include one average film, let alone a bad one. Helsing, Inc. is a hilarious short that won as Best Arizona Short; it's set around a helpdesk for monster hunters, exorcists and paranormal investigators. It was my favourite too but I especially appreciated The Secret Lives of Teachers, a quirky romance between a couple of odd members of a school's staff. This was a very varied set but a very impressive one too.

Marla Mae (2018)
dir: Lisa van Dam-Bates

While this horror feature got a little muddled by the end, it's still a fascinating and original film, amazingly the debut of Lisa van Dam-Bates, who wrote, directed and starred as a waitress who has an IUD fitted by a family friend and starts to kill people during sex. It's gross in all the best ways, neatly ambitious and fiercely different. Recommended.

Closer Than We Think (2017)
dir: Brett Ryan Bonowicz

This is a documentary about unjustly overlooked commercial artist Arthur Radebaugh and the many predictions of the future he made over sixty years back in syndicated newspaper cartoons like Closer Than We Think. This was fascianting to me and I really felt the passion behind the project. I learned a lot here and was thoroughly entertained as I did so. Recommended.

Secret Santa (2018)
dir: Adam Marcus

Adam Marcus, who directed and co-wrote, warned us before the film that it was guaranteed to offend everyone at some point and he wasn't wrong. It's a fantastic and very bloody look at a single, very dysfunctional family, when their respective restraints have been lifted, all during Christmas dinner. I'll be buying this when it's released to DVD in November so I can show it to my family at Christmas and see what they think. Highly recommended.

The Ranger (2018)
dir: Jenn Wexler

While I liked parts of this a lot, it never figured out what it wanted to be and so ends up notably muddled. A set of punks escape to a cabin in the woods that one of them inherited and misbehave, while the local ranger of the title shows up to stir things up. Chloe Levine sells the lead role well, as a misfit in a band of misfits, and the ranger gets some fantastic dialogue, but they feel like they're in two different movies.

To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story (2017)
dir: Derek Dennis Herbert

I've seen a lot of Kane Hodder movies and met him in person, but I learned a lot about him here in a long string of interviews, with him, many of his co-workers and some of his fans. It was great fun to watch this on Friday the 13th. The first hour and change are fascinating, with long sections dedicated to his time in school, his role as Jason in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and the horrific burns he experienced when he was 22 years old. It slows a lot after that as the film becomes less focused, but it's always interesting. Recommended.

Day 9: Saturday 14th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Horror Shorts B

I've had some issues with the Horror Shorts in recent years, not the quality of the films but their variety. This year's selections were incredibly good, both in quality and variety. I saw five of the six shorts in this set and was blown away. Hope I already knew as I'd screened it ALIFFF last year (where it almost won my Festival Director's Award). What Metal Girls are Into, The Day That Mum Became a Monster and Grin were all wildly imaginative and thoroughly different shorts and I couldn't have been happier with this set.

Sci-Fi Shorts B

The Sci-Fi Shorts were great this year too and this was a second strong set. Noro played with the same themes of AI, experimentation and what it means to be human as many of the films in Sci-Fi Shorts A; it won as Best Sci-Fi Short. SadBox is a superb film about grief and regret, channelled through a VR set. And the most CGI-centric short, Caronte, is an interesting tie between a damaged teenager playing a Nintendo DS and a future lieutenant flying a huge CGI spaceship. Great stuff.

Horror Shorts A

These may be shorter films than Horror Shorts B, but they're just as interesting. Fisher Cove is a tale of the one that got away, but in reverse; it won as Best Horror Short. I was impressed by Love Cuts Deep, a serial killer romcom, and blown away by both The Dollmaker and Avulsion. The former involves a couple bringing their dead daughter back to life, with the inevitable caveats. The latter involves an Aussie goth girl with a gorgeous voice and a client who needs her body for an hour, but it's not remotely like what you're thinking. Best year ever for horror shorts!

The Evil Within (2017)
dir: Andrew Getty

I've wanted to see this film ever since I first read about it a few years ago. It was shot in 2002 with a number of recognisable faces: Sean Patrick Flanery, Dina Meyer, Michael Berryman, Kim Darby and Matthew McGrory, who died over a decade before the film was finished. It was written and directed by Andrew Getty, grandson of J. Paul Getty, who was a meth addict who spent his fortune and thirteen years perfecting it in post. It's flawed but it's a real trip, weird and wonderful and utterly engaging. It may all be a dream within a dream but I know I'll be watching this a lot. Highly Recommended.

All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018)
dirs: Rebekah & David Ian McKendry

A horror anthology written around the Christmas holiday, this is an uneven but often brilliant film featuring a few great segments and some equally great performances. Best is a story about a man who locks his keys in his car on Christmas Eve so finds himself stuck in a parking lot with a creepy van over in the corner. Also impressive are the segment about a Christmas grump and one about aliens visiting every year. Recommended.

Wildling (2018)
dir: Fritz Böhm

One of the most original films playing IHSFFF this year, this follows a young girl who grows up isolated in a single room by her 'daddy', wonderfully played by Brad Dourif. Eventually he tries to kill himself and she escapes, but she's not what anyone thinks. Bel Powley does a great job as the grown up Anna and the cinematography often matches her. There's a lot of depth here and I'd love to see it again to see how that resonates. Recommended.

Day 10: Sunday 15th April

Coverage at Nerdvana


Andover (2018)
dir: Scott Perlman

The second Sunday turned out to be Sci-Fi competition feature day and all three were interesting. This is easily the best of them, a deceptively light look at grief. A genetic scientist loses his new wife to a tragic accident and decides to use a strand of her hair to clone her exactly as she was. Needless to say, it doesn't work out remotely how he expects but the side effects are incredibly well explored. Scout Taylor-Compton was back for her third film this week, supporting Jonathan Silverman and his real life wife Jennifer Finnigan. Probably the best film I saw all festival. Highly recommended.

Darken (2017)
dir: Audrey Cummings

This is a new Canadian feature but it feels like an old BBC sci-fi drama for a YA audience. The lack of budget is obvious in the stagebound sets and limited costumes but there is imagination in the religious regime of Darken, into which a nurse from our world is thrust. I would have adored this when I was twelve but, at almost four times that, I can see through it and its one note characters. It's fun but more so if you're still young.

Chimera (2018)
dir: Maurice Haeems

Winner of the Best Sci-Fi Feature, this is a much more scientific take on the themes of Andover. Another geneticist is stricken by grief, this time at the loss of one of his children and the imminent loss of two more to an incurable genetic disease. The differences are that the science is much stronger, the sense of location is much more important and the characters are all loathsome. Kathleen Quinlan and Erika Ervin deliberately overplay it for effect but the rest of the cast are lost in the science. Recommended.

Flash Gordon (1980)
dir: Mike Hodges

IHSFFF Festival Director Monte Yazzie finished up with a classic film, the first to show at IHSFFF since Cujo back in 2014. He had the volume turned up and we all sat back and revelled in the outrageous campness that was the 1980 Flash Gordon. I'd watched this again last year, before Sam Jones guested at Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, but it was fantastic to watch it on the big screen with an appreciative audience, most of whom had been thoroughly entertained for ten days. This was surely the best IHSFFF I can remember. Now I can sleep.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

AZUFF Phoenix - Day 2



After the excellent selections on Thursday night, I was keen to see what else David Pike and his team had up his sleeve for the first AZUFF Phoenix. And to sample some more of the Prescott Brewing Company's Achocalypse porter. That's highly recommended too.

Block 3


First up was a block of short films, named Shorts Block 1: Cinephiles Attack!, a title surely inspired by the meta play on offer in a couple of its films.


Brock Bledsoe: Future Hero (2018)

And talking of meta play, here's the first example. The apocalypse has come and our only hope is Brock Bledsoe, a muscular gentleman in an eyepatch. Who is promptly shot dead in front of our eyes to twitch horribly like a fish out of water. This shot is very deliberately embarrassingly long because...

Cut! This is a film set and the director, played by the director of our film, is not happy with the work of his leading man. Less is more, he tells him, and that just begins a saga that will be very recognisable to anyone who's spent more than ten minutes on a film set.

Well, for a while at least. This goes a little further than we tend to see on real sets and it has a grand old time doing it. The actors do their jobs well but I got a real kick out of the hyper boom operator too.


Stages (2017)

Josh Berghoff is the man behind Kick Ass Cops, which this film firmly isn't. It's not remotely funny but, for a change, it isn't meant to be. It's a drama that aims to explore the seven stages of grief and it does so with enough power that the audience was really glad when the positive emotion kicked back in. This got dark fast and it stayed there for a while.

It's relatively predictable but that was inevitable, given what the script was aiming to do. When you're exploring a documented list of stages, you're not going to surprise people with what comes next. The film works because of how well the script, by Berghoff himself, is crafted and how well the lead actress, Shaniya Brown, is able to carry it. She had a tough job to do but she did it well.

The audience tonight certainly took an emotional rollercoaster with her. It rose and sank as required, especially in a key scene with a broken bottle, one that featured a very neat piece of cinematography with a flashback that shows up on a piece of glass. As much as I like Berghoff's comedy, this says in no uncertain terms that he can make serious films too.

Idea Guy (2017)

I liked this comedy for most of its running time, but it lost me at the end. The punchline would be pretty cool in a conversation but a short film needs a little more, I think.

The idea behind Idea Guy is that a guy named Jared has ideas and does nothing with them. It's infuriating his girlfriend, whose therapist suggests that she try to help with one of his many unfinished projects. She does and... well, you'll need to see the film yourself to see where that goes.

There's nothing spectacular here, but the film does what it needs to do and I laughed and nodded knowingly when I should.


Page One (2017)

While Page One hardly treads new ground, it does at least tread old ground in a way that I hadn't seen before. It was my favourite film of the night and I'd love to see it again.

Like Brock Bledsoe, the apocalypse has come and we join the fray at the point that four actors make it off their set into a safe room. Well, maybe safe and maybe not. The fake nurse is sick and the fake cop is arrogant. It falls to Abel to talk sense but will they listen to him? After all, he's the black guy who always dies on page one.

One reason why they should listen to him is that this was the third film in four to feature an African American lead and that's refreshing to see. All those leads are great, but the African American lady who backs Page One up is even better. I don't know what her name is but she was fantastic!

Unauthorized (2017)

Unauthorized was an interesting film and I applaud the ambition of Justin Stabley and his crew in attempting it, but it clearly needed a lot more money than they had in their budget.

It's a cyberpunk thriller, but it's not set in Tokyo with a cast of Asians and a token white hacker dude; it's set in Phoenix with a few young actors who are mostly Hispanic. Again, that's refreshing to see and they gave it a pretty good shot, but Stabley needed better equipment, especially better sound equipment, more money to add some digital effects and yet more money to allow him to bring a lot of what's obviously in his head to the screen.

I won't say I didn't enjoy this film, because I did, but I'd see it as more of a stepping stone or a test run. I'd very much like to see what Stabley will be making in a few years time.

Molassus and Lemon (2017)

A short experimental film, Molassus and Lemon is about love and heartbreak, the sheer glory of the former and the soul-destroying darkness of the latter and how the two interact. It's told by many different voices and illustrated with some interesting visuals.

I liked it, but it's the sort of film that you know you'll like or not by reading the paragraph above.


Claws (2017)

I was very interested to see Claws because I know a bunch of the people who made it, both on and off the screen, and this is surely their most ambitious work to date, not least because it's 38 minutes long. I found a lot of that ambition on the screen too, especially in some artistic transitions that work really well for the most part.

The idea is pretty simple. Kris Cane is swamped with work and unable to find the time to get into the Christmas spirit with his wife and two kids. He's also plagued by a creepy Santa Claus who looks like a bum and turns out to be more like Santa Claws. Bodies start to add up, murdered by this Father Christmas of Death, but the cops are on the case and... nah, you need to see this one too, with friends and copious amounts of rum in their eggnog.

Tony Noyes does a great naturalistic job as the lead, though he sadly shows up a couple of the actors who can't match him, even though I've seen them do great work elsewhere. Gary Herkimer is a lot of fun though, as always; I've never seen him on screen without a whole bucketful of character and he has a new bucket here, playing believably drunk.

Claws is a lot of fun and will be even more fun around the holiday season, but it's too long. If the good folk who made it are too close to be willing to wield the scalpel, perhaps they should hire an editor to chop it down to twenty or twenty-five minutes at the most.

Block 4



Derelicts (2017)
Director: B. C. Glassberg
Writers: B. C. Glassberg, Clay Shirley and Andre Evrenos
Stars: Kelly Dealyn, David Lee Hess, Emily Ammon, Dalton Allen, Steve Uzzell, Lana Dieterich, Les Best, Samson Pleasant, Clay Shirley, Kara Mellyn, Marcela Louise and Andre Evrenos

This ensemble feature from Texas confused me, because it felt so Australian to me that I was planning to google whether the Aussies have their own form of Thanksgiving when I got home. Now I wonder if the ladies from Austin who were sat across from us were part of the film.

It's an interesting piece but I believe I need to see it again to figure out exactly what it's trying to do. You know thosse films where you naturally assume one thing for most of the movie and then something happens to change your perspective on the whole thing? Well, this is like that except that it's literally the last shot that questions our perspective. I spent the end credits playing the whole film back through my mind and a few of us chatted about it afterwards for a little while.

On the face of it, it's a home invasion movie, albeit utterly unlike Framed from the previous night. A family with obvious problems prepare for their Thanksgiving meal and wait for a couple more relatives to arrive. Sadly, they never will because they were waylaid on the way by a band of crazies who drag them out of their ar and kill them. Even more sadly, they were following directions on GPS so those crazies drive on to take their place.

Of course, that doesn't go remotely well and we witness a particularly dark, cruel and sadistic feast. I honestly wondered at a few points how the film was going to change tone; it couldn't stay that sadistic throughout. Could it?

Well, the family being tormented do find some balls, but they're hamstrung by a set of discoveries that show how they're not so great themselves. The best line of the picture, delivered by another African American character, comes after one of those discoveries and one of these murderous thugs says, 'I thought we were the assholes.' We never, of course, buy into them being the good guys, but we do start to question whether there are any such folk in this movie.

It's also odd that the tormentors are mostly men (Kara Mellyn is fantastic as the one exception) but the strongest characters are all women, whichever side they happen to be on. I'm not going to talk down the male actors, as everyone on screen does their job well, but it gradually becomes clear who we're really watching here.

This is certainly not a film for everyone. It's not the gore that feels odd (though I have to say that I never thought I'd see an eyeball extracted with a penis pump), it's the nasty tone of the film that will turn many off. I'm not one of them, though I found it disturbing, and I really want to see it again because I'm still unclear as to which of two very different readings is the right one.

Friday, 23 February 2018

AZUFF Phoenix - Day 1



I've been aware of the Arizona Underground Film Festival (AZUFF) for a while. It celebrated a decade in Tucson last year and it's shown some amazing films over that time.

In fact, while I haven't yet managed to take that two hour trip to sample its delights, its mission was one of the key influences on me setting up my own film festival. Put simply, it's a wide genre festival, without restrictions to any one particular genre. Sure, it screens horror, plenty of it, but also an abundance of thrillers, mysteries, science fiction films, action flicks and, of course, what can only be described as cult cinema. I adore that diversity in genre cinema and wanted to see it represented in a festival in Phoenix, so I set up the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival (ALIFFF).

David Pike, who runs AZUFF, clearly believes the same thing and has expanded his festival to Chandler, hosting it over three days at the Alamo Drafthouse at Arizona Ave (the 87) and Chandler Heights Rd. It started on Thursday 23rd with a couple of features, each accompanied by a short, and it'll continue tonight and for much of Saturday.

Details can be found on the AZUFF website, including the film schedule.

I'm going to see as much of it as I can and I'll review the films here.


Block 1



Heavy traffic getting to Chandler meant that we missed the opening short, which was an Australian film called Mrs. S. I checked out the teaser trailer, though, which is fun. It's a dark comedy in which a mismatched brother and sister aim to surprise their estranged mother with a visit, only to find that she surprises them on account of being dead.

Kyrsyä - Tuftland (2017)
Director: Roope Olenius
Writers: Roope Olenius and Neea Viitamäki
Stars: Veera W. Vilo, Saara Elina and Miikka J. Anttila

The feature accompanying it was a Finnish thriller called Kyrsyä or Tuftland or both, directed by Roope Olenius, who had previously made a mark as an actor in films like Bunny the Killer Thing. He also co-wrote the film.

A young textiles student called Irina needs to get away from it all because her boyfriend's an ass, so she accepts the offer of a summer job in the rural isolation of Kyrsyä, a small village. It's a simple place, whose people live close to nature, so she's looking forward to peace, quiet and work. Of course, as this is the Finnish equivalent of a hillbilly horror movie, it doesn't quite work out that way.

The plot is so simple that it's almost not there, but there's a lot going on underneath it. At heart, it's a film about change. The people of Kyrsyä are insular and set in their ways and their isolation and size means that they're becoming inbred, but they know it. They don't want to change, because they see the big world outside as an evil to be avoided, but they know that they must in order to improve their blood.

What that means, of course, is that we have some sympathy for the villagers, even as their odd ways and freakish characters clearly sets them up as the monsters in a horror movie. Olenius keeps us on the hop, even as it's clear where we're going to end up, and that's a neat trick.

While films like The Wicker Man are fairly cited as an influence, I was surprised at how traditionally this played out. There's no sex, very little nudity (just a topless scene as a very timely distraction) and a surprising lack of gore. However, it's freaky from Irina's arrival in Kyrsyä and it only gets freakier, through some quirky characters and a few memorable scenes that aren't going to leave your mind any time soon. The word 'treat' now has a whole new meaning for me and it felt neatly odd to be eating during the 'harlot's eyes' scene.

I enjoyed this immensely. The young Veera W. Vilo does a capable job as Irina and she's backed by an ensemble cast who are as much texture as they are characters.

Block 2



Smiley's (2017)
Director: Mike James
Writer: Mike James
Stars: Wilson Mack, Lacy Hartselle and Emmanuel Carter

Smiley's is very much the product of Indiana, not the country's usual go to state for weirdness, but writer/director Mike James, with his composer, Sean Sumwalt, attended and introduced this premiere screening of his surreal 17m trip.

Mitch is a stressed college student with an upcoming exam, but his focus is spectacularly derailed by a new obsession: a soda machine in the middle of nowhere.

Now, this is an understandable obsession when you phrase it the way that Mitch's friends phrase it, wrapped up in country legend ('urban legend' surely can't apply to this emphatically rural location). They take him there on a break, detail the machine's background and highlight its rules.

Frankly, we're not even sure how the thing is powered, given that it's at the side of a rural road overlooking a cornfield, but it's apparently also stocked by a witch and has a power all its own. You don't select your soda by pressing a button, for example, you conjure it up through ritual before hitting the single 'Pot Luck' button and hope you get what you wished for.

His friends do and don't, but at least they get soda. Mitch gets a pair of plastic binoculars and, from them and that one weird experience, his obsession with the machine builds and his life spirals way out of control.

I adored this film. For an apparently low budget film from Indiana, it's technically spot on, almost like a showcase for the crew. The script shines first, the actors, especially Wilson Mack, show they can back it up and gradually everyone else demonstrates their worth too. Nobody lets the side down, but I'd call out the lighting as particularly strong, especially during the night scenes, and the editing as underpinning the whole thing, especially as Mitch really starts losing it.

Make sure to check this one out, folks, at whichever film festival near you is bright enough to select it!


Framed (2017)
Director: Marc Martínez Jordán
Writers: Jaume Cuspinera and Marc Martínez Jordán, from an original idea by Marc Martínez Jordán
Stars: Alex Maruny, Clàudia Pons and Joe Manjón

Framed, a Spanish splatter comedy feature, is 80 minutes long but it's so fast-paced that it felt like it was over in half that time. It's also a fantastic popcorn movie, if you like your popcorn drenched in gore.

The story isn't new, even though it tries to be cutting edge. Ostensibly it's about our obsession with being liked, followed, made to go viral, and it explores that territory through a new live streaming app called Framed, which has two syllables when spoken by Spaniards. It's a controversial app because it doesn't censor what its users stream, so all the usual intended banalities are quickly supplanted by amateur porn, instigated violence and over-the-top antics like the Extreme Gastronomy guy eating his own shit.

The film begins as it means to go on, with the first murder on Framed. A couple of wannabe megastars interrupt a businessman having sex in his car by introducing his pissed off wife and a baseball bat. She does the work and they film it. The bulk of the film follows their magnum opus, 'Amusement in Somebody Else's House', which is roughly what you might expect if you have a twisted mind, but probably taken just a little further still.

It's easy to find fault here with the basic concept, given that the people gathered together in this particular house for Álex's farewell party (he's moving to Berlin) are the first to tune into 'Amusement in Somebody Else's House', even though they don't immediately recognise it as their own, and the plot conveniences don't stop there. The audience numbers are unrealistic in the extreme and the inclusion of television news works on many levels, just not the one of reality.

However, there's so much energy and so much dark imagination that it's hard not to be carried along with this picture. One particularly subversive note is that the most magnetic character is 'Invasor 1', the mad maestro of this twisted tale of torture and torment. Àlex Maruny is an absolute revelation in this role and he plays it like Jared Leto should have played the Joker. His victims are varied and not unlikeable but they fade in his presence and we find ourselves, if not rooting for the villain, at least wanting to see what he's going to come up with next. And, of course, that's much of the point. We want to watch his trainwreck just like the audience that's tuning in.

In a way, he's like John Doe in Se7en, but high on adrenaline and without most of the elegance and irony. He still wants to be remembered and he's just as dedicated to that endgame. He plans well, for the most part, and he follows through all the way. What he adds to the idea is the fact that he's broadcasting his acts live from the camera strapped to his chest (and that of his odd accomplice, who's a man dressed as a girl), and even his next victims, trapped in the house, are watching him from their cellphones.

So, while Framed is far from as deep as it wants to be, it's still a wild ride that gorehounds will want to experience, probably more than once.

Summary


So day one for AZUFF Phoenix was a gem. I saw both features and one of the two shorts and can highly recommend each of them. They all mix horror and comedy, but they're thoroughly different films whose other shared attribute is sheer watchability. I can't wait for tonight's set!

I should also add that I hadn't been to this Alamo Drafthouse before, or indeed any Alamo Drafthouse, even though I've wanted to for some time. This one's much further south than it was originally intended to be and it's a long drive from west Phoenix; our travel time was only slightly less than David Pike's drive from Tucson, and that makes it a tough venue to become a regular stop.

However, I'm sure we'll be back once this festival is over, even if it's to the new location projected for Tempe, because the experience is excellent. The theatre was cosy, the seats comfortable and the service attentive. The beer selection is outstanding (two porters and two stouts amongst the 32 on draught) and the food was good too.

What's more, the long gap between sets was filled by a trippy collection of early live action/animation hybrids from the Gaumont Film Company (the oldest film company in the world), much more recent colour animations and weird selections from Japanese TV.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Seven

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Wednesday 12th, which is Day 7.

And that's it for us, as we can't get back tomorrow for the closing night film. However, we got to see every single feature and short from the IHSFFF side of things, plus three other films that could easily have fit there. Oh, and only one other, so it was a real genre festival for us this year. And a good one too!

Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for these last two films after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival, of course, as the festival is almost done.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 24: Sequence Break (2016)
The IHSFFF feature that blew me away this year was Hounds of Love but this one's likely to end up second on the list. I gave Happy Hunting a higher rating, but I know that's not going to change, while I have a feeling that I'm going to up this one on a second viewing.

While it's so influenced by David Cronenberg's body horror films that some will see this as an homage rather than an original work, I'd argue that it finds its way pretty well. We follow Oz, a young man born in the wrong time, given that he repairs arcade machines for a living in our now and doesn't own a phone. With his job about to be lost to progress and an actual nerdy girl talking to him and kissing him on rooftops, he's going to have to face the present and that's a scary proposition.

What we watch is really a love triangle between Oz, that girl, whose name is Tess, and a mysterious arcade machine. If you're wondering how that can be remotely possible, then you probably haven't seen Videodrome. This ups the ante nicely, with the effects work really good for a film that was completed in a stunningly short time: exactly one year from the beginning of pre-production to its first festival screening.

For those who enjoyed the short film, Spell Claire, earlier in the weekend but wanted to explore that concept in a longer and less comedic framework, this is the picture for you, as long as you're not repulsed by the body horror of Cronenberg or the hallucinations of Ken Russell. Graham Skipper, the writer and director, attended and mentioned 'Altered States' as his other primary influence. That makes sense, though these are toned down hallucinations, more sexual or sinister than blasphemous.

The other thing I'll mention here is the Tangerine Dream-style electronic score by Van Hughes, which serves as a thoroughly appropriate background to Oz's living out of time.

If the references in this brief touch on Sequence Break make it sound like your cup of tea, then you're going to adore it, but, if Cronenberg makes you go 'ick', then this really isn't going to be something for you.

Here's Graham Skipper, with producer and actor Lyle Kanouse and some random British critic in a kilt:

Block 25: Game of Death (2017)
I've been really impressed this year by how Festival Director Monte Yazzie organised the showcase features. It often felt like he was programming them with the variety but thematic flow that you might expect from a set of shorts, but over multiple nights with feature films.

This was the perfect palate cleanser to wrap up the IHSFFF because it began like a recap of the week: the acid party of The 6th Friend, the late ambulances of Killing Ground and the game theme from Sequence Break, not to mention the male masturbation scene from a surprising number of films (the most frequent elements were drone shots and male masturbaton). However, it also provided a counter to vague pictures like Tonight She Comes and Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl by playing as straight as it can.

The regular IHSFFF audience has been theorising about who was born at the end of Tonight She Comes and what the heck happened in Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, but Game of Death is simple. There's a game. Of death. That's it. No twists. No surprises. Just a game of death. There is no more honest advertising than this!

All the recap moments I mentioned happen during the opening scenes, which are full of young idiots doing all the usual young idiot things: partying with sex, drugs and alcohol. Then they find a game called Game of Death and, like the young idiots they are, start playing.

How do you play? Well it's pretty simple. They each start with a finger on a plastic skull around the rim; it pricks those fingers and steals a little blood, then provides a random number of 24. That's how many people they have to kill to end the game. If they don't kill someone within a time limit, the game will kill one of them, so it's kill or be killed. And, they quickly realise that it's real when their heads start exploding and the game's count drops with a 'One down!' and an electronic giggle.

Yes, this is dumber than a bag of rocks. For a start, why is there an open Game of Death sitting on a shelf in a house? Either it's sitting out in a room covered in blood or it's never been opened. And who would create such a game to begin with? This movie is not for those who ask fair questions like those. It's for those who want to see blood, because it has that in copious quantities.

The effects are spectacularly good and the dark humour is rather enjoyable. One of the Harkins folk walked in to do his routine check right at the point a bullet was revolving through the air in ultra-slow motion, to return to normal speed at the point it reaches a young lady's head, which splatters all over the ceiling. He promptly left again. That was so appropriate that it was almost part of the movie for me.

There's a little effort made to keep the story interesting by having some of the characters wonder about murder vs suicide, playing along or dying with their morals intact, killing innocents or just anyone, but only a little. This isn't remotely deep. However it is a lot of fun.

And it has manatees. While they have precisely nothing to do with the price of fish in Denmark, they're all over this movie like a rash. It's the horror movie of choice for manatee fans.

I've had an absolute blast this week. I was buzzed for the first IHSFFF in a new three year set with Monte Yazzie ready to shape it to his vision and he delivered a fantastic year. I'm a week without much sleep and I can't wait for next year!

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Six

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Tuesday 11th, which is Day 6.

While the weekdays at PFF are a great opportunity to catch award winners or other notable films being given extra slots, the highlight for us is always the IHSFFF showcase features, which continue on at the rate of two per night.

I got to see those two tonight. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for them after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 22: A Dark Song (2016)
Last night, we saw an impromptu black magic ritual performed in Tonight She Comes. It was fast and bloody and agreeably icky, driven by a wild but knowledgeable lady. Tonight, we see another black magic ritual, but in an emphatically different way.

For a start, it isn't fast. In fact, the preparation for the ritual takes a long time all on its own and the ritual itself takes much longer. Let's just say that the two characters we watch lose track of which month it is. Is it March or May? We have no idea either. This is a serious ritual and it takes months of meticulous work to get right. Which means two thirds of the movie.

It's also not bloody. It consists of a lot of study (of languages as much as rituals), purification and increasingly intricate circles. You can be sure that it's going to get somewhere much darker when we reach the third act, but that's an hour away when we begin.

And it's hardly icky. When that third act arrives, there's some madness, some tension and some scares, not to mention some revelations, but this is not about icky. There's a little blood drinking but it couldn't be further away from what we saw in Tonight She Comes if it tried.

However, it's still refreshing. I read a lot of horror novels back in the eighties about characters who delved into ritual magic, astral travel and all that jazz. Some were good and some were bad, but I've never seen the equivalent on screen. The magic rituals I've seen in movies tend to result in demons that play like zombies with horns, aching to eat everyone around them. That's not what we get here.

What's more, ritual magicians tend to be well groomed gentlemen in black with goatees and piercing eyes. Steve Oram plays Joseph Solomon like a guy you'd meet down the pub, a balding man with a common as muck accent and a shouty and abrasive personality. Catherine Walker is a higher class lady, a teacher of religious education, who is driven to make this ritual happen, even if she finds it abhorrent. Those are refreshing characters.

I have no idea if the ritual we're watching is remotely accurate or not, but to a fascinated non-expert, the detail rings incredibly true and I'm happy I've finally been able to see this attempted on film. I also saw a lot of the others factors that rarely get touched on, like the sheer dedication needed to do something like this, the risks that come with it and the costs that it takes.

The catch, of course, is that filmgoers wanting something with jump scares and sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are going to be sadly disappointed. This feature from across the pond, set in Wales and shot in Ireland, is for the more discerning fan who prefers a good location, good acting and a good if slow build. The twists are far from surprising but they're right, just like this movie.

Block 23: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)
A few features this year have left me scratching my head while the credits rolled but I was able to figure them out, or at least I think I was. This one, however still has me thoroughly confused.

Initially, it seems straightforward enough. A young lady named Adele moves into a dusty Victorian mansion to take care of her crazy aunt Dora, a cranky old agarophobic who communicates with her mostly through notes. Plain and naive, she finds herself drawn to Beth, apparently the only other young lady in town.

It's quite obvious that the two are opposites. Beth is a mild goth with a smouldering beauty, an impulsive spirit and a taste for the darker side. Adele, on the other hand, is plain, restrained and apparently without any hobbies except writing in her diary. If we didn't grasp it, Beth is mostly dressed in black and red, with Adele entirely in white or pale colours. Opposites, of course, attract and the two begin a tentative relationship, during which Beth's corrupting influence rubs off on Adele, and she starts to do things that she wouldn't have done previously.

Clearly influenced by seventies genre movies (and not grindhouse ones for a change), this is well shot, well situated and well grown. It's another slow build but it's a really good one until, well, the film ends. Just as I was ready for the second act to escalate into the third, it escalated into the end credits instead. The third act is basically one scene and one image and that feels like a real cheat.

And I sat there wondering what I'd missed. I saw two thirds of a story that still had the potential to move in a few different directions. Who is Beth? Is this a ghost story? If it is, who's the ghost? Why is Aunt Dora the way she is? What's with the ring? And the necklace? I was eager to find out how writer/director A. D. Calvo was going to wrap things up and then he didn't. Instead, I'm puzzling as to what that image means and what the final scene means. And three hours later, I'm no further, so I invite your theories.

For now, though, it feels like two thirds of a great film that could well have been made forty years ago, and a couple of missing reels.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Five

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Monday 10th, which is Day 5.

The busiest time at the PFF is the weekend, which is now over and hopefully everyone got some long overdue sleep. However, the festival continues into the following week, with reduced theatre and film counts but with encore screenings of award winners and other worthy pictures. On the IHSFFF side, the showcase features continue on with two each night and that's what I'll be covering this week.

I got to see two features today. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for them after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 20: Found Footage 3D (2016)
I hadn't read up on Found Footage 3D (which screened in 2D) beforehand so I was hoping that it wouldn't be a shakycam movie, as those things have a habit of giving me motion sickness. It wasn't, with the exception of a scene here and there, but it also wasn't at all what I expected otherwise.

It's a found footage movie about the making of a found footage movie and the meta aspects don't end there. The film that we watch being shot, Spectre of Death, is about a married couple patching up their marriage stay in a haunted cabin in Texas that used to belong to her great uncle, who murdered his wife there. Well, it turns out that that describes the leads and the production too.

This sort of nesting of levels is surprisingly well done. Once we realise that Found Footage 3D is mirroring Spectre of Death and vice versa, we start to wonder whether what we're seeing is our film or theirs. What's more, we start to see the setups for that mirroring and anticipate how things are going to unfold, only for writer/director Steven DeGennaro to manipulate us a little more.

The humour is a major aspect too, with Spectre of Death's director, Andrew, possibly the most accurate avatar for the audience I've ever seen. Almost every line that comes out of his mouth is what we're thinking. We need an avatar too because the arrogant star, Derek, inhabits his own reality, to the degree that he decides to shoot a found footage movie in 3D, a concept which makes absolutely no sense at all.

I won't mention most of the problems I had with parts of the story, because there's such a close tie between the film and the film within a film that they may not be negatives after all and watching for a second time may well show that they're more like intentional goofs. That includes the ending, which felt a little cheap; maybe it should and maybe it shouldn't.

More when I tackle this one for a full review at Apocalypse Later. I may watch it again as a double bill with Brutal Massacre: A Comedy to see how different approaches to a similar concept compare.

Block 21: Tonight She Comes (2016)
I'd heard that Tonight She Comes was the most outrageous film in the showcase features block, inheriting that mantle from Night of Something Strange in 2016 and Deathgasm a year earlier. And, let me tell you, it certainly went there, where 'there' is a little bit further than you're thinking right now.

As a piece of cinematic art, it's a powerful statement, something that will stay in the mind and serve as a baseline for comparisons to future movies. As a story, I'm not sure how much sense it actually makes, but I certainly have a host of questions about why this and how that. As a metaphor, it may be an impressive way to suggest that the seventies kicked the ass of the eighties when it came to genre cinema.

Initially, everything we see is eighties, with some young idiots doing the sort of things that young idiots do in horror movies. We're clearly setting up for a slasher movie and we all know how those go.

The point where we start to doubt that is when the bloody naked corpse of Kristy walks into a lake, because that really isn't the sort of thing that the eighties did. It's what the seventies did and, before long, we find we aren't in Kansas any more, Toto. We're in a... well, I won't spoil where it goes but it's thoroughly seventies in style, subject matter and even goofs.

And that's why I'm mentioning this. There are all sorts of errors here, in character motivation, plot continuity and human nature, but I'm pretty sure that they're intentional. The gimme was when the time was announced twice, as eleven fifty six and three minutes to midnight. I don't buy that writer/director Matt Stuertz didn't notice something that blatant before sending it out to film festivals, so I'm assuming that the other errors are deliberate too, especially as the type of problem varies depending on which half of the film we're in. In the eighties half, it's things like ridiculous decision-making on behalf of pretty much all the characters. In the seventies half, it's more day/night continuity or weirdly overdone accents.

While the lengths to which this one goes are going to be the primary reason for horror fans to watch, I have to call out the acting performance of Jenna McDonald who plays Felicity as a fantastic shade of off, knowing precisely what she has to do at any point and doing it without any hint of awkwardness or knowledge of social space. It's a tricky role to get right and she nails it absolutely.

This film is certainly going to be for everyone (let's just say that ritual magic really should be a bloody mess but I've never seen it quite like this before). However, those it's for will be bringing it up in conversation for years.

Monday, 10 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Four

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Sunday 9th, which is Day 4.

With scheduling for the IHSFFF so good nowadays, I mainlined that over Friday and Saturday, catching every competition feature and short, as well as the showcase features in the evening. With those done, I spent most of Sunday catching a few PFF competition features, always favourites of mine.

I got to see five features and two sets of short films today. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival or look out for them after they're released.

The AARP commercial is getting a little more annoying. Now I'm trying to figure out why the AARP dude teleports forward six inches halfway through his dialogue.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 15: Unnerved (2017)
While Unnerved was a PFF competition feature, it could easily have played the IHSFFF. It's likely to be described as a paranormal horror thriller but it's really a love story that happens to be set against the backdrop of a haunting.

We begin where most horror movies usually end, with a couple leaving their house, with their child left behind, just so that they can survive. As Frank says to his wife, Mallory, he's not going to lose her as well. Unfortunately she's seriously traumatised by whatever went down, to the degree that she grabs the wheel at speed, flipping them over a number of times.

Fast forward a few years and they've moved five times, finally to a lakeside cabin that Frank won't leave, remaining inside in the wheelchair his crash injuries earned him. However, they are still a couple; even if they have to fight Frank's self-pity and Mallory's guilt, they are at least still fighting to stay together during an ongoing nightmare that would have claimed most relationships.

The problem is that something is following them, something that does many of the usual paranormal things we know from crappy Hollywood movies but which are shown in an unusual way. This movie isn't about jump scares and visual effects, just as the lady this couple hire to help them is not your usual ghosthunter. This means that, while much of what we see isn't remotely new, it's all presented in a refreshing way and the focus on the couple is the most refreshing of all.

While it's cleverly written and capably shot, it would have failed horribly if the acting wasn't up to snuff because its success hangs on three actors. Fortunately they're all superb, especially Katie Morrison as Mallory, who gets the most to do, Frank being restricted in motion and their paranormal investigator Eleanor not showing up until quite a way into the picture. I was surprised to find that this was only her second picture and I look forward to seeing more.

'Unnerved' was a great way to start the day, as well as the PFF side of the festival for me. It didn't win anything tonight at the awards, but I felt that it was stronger and more consistent than the Best Picture winner, for which see two films below.

Block 16: Painless (2017)
While Painless was also a PFF competition feature it too could easily have played the IHSFFF. It's a drama but one with a strong science fiction base, namely the efforts of one man to find a cure for the disorder from which he's suffered since birth: the inability to feel pain. This leads to all sorts of odd alleys, especially trading studies of his body to a medical researcher for a restricted chemical that he needs for his experiments.

This disorder might sound like a wonderful thing to have, especially if you just stubbed your toe, but, as this man explains, pain keeps us safe and not feeling it means that you wouldn't tend to know when you've been hurt and that can be so dangerous that it could kill you. He's Henry Long and he puts ice cubes into cartons of Chinese food just to make sure that he won't burn his mouth. Think about it.

To Long, 'everything is a threat' and the story extrapolates from that line of dialogue to produce a lonely man who avoids relationships and any other 'distraction' from his quest to feel pain like everyone else. One fantastic angle, raised and left to resonate, is that every living thing experiences pain, even fish, so what does that make him? That must be the most extreme form of loneliness, to be unlike anything living.

It's the ideas that succeed the most here, courtesy of writer/director Jordan Horowitz, but Joey Klein nails the part of Henry too. He's Canadian but he appears like the love child of Christopher Walken and Tom Sizemore and he sells the part absolutely. We really feel for him, pun well and truly not intended, even if he's his own enemy and we feel for some of the people who have to deal with him as well.

The film was represented in person by writer/director Jordan Horowitz (no, not the one from the Oscars) and one of the producers, Anthony Ambrosino (I think). The lady on the left is Phoenix filmmaker and critic Shari K. Green.

Block 17: Brave New Jersey (2016)
While Brave New Jersey was another PFF competition feature, it was a third... well, the trend doesn't quite continue, but this drama was written out of the notorious Mercury Players broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, so it certainly has interest to genre fans.

I'll have to be really careful both here and especially when I dig deeper later on in a full Apocalypse Later review because it's really a 'stupid Americans' movie. We're in the small town of Lullaby, NJ, where the small town folk who live there are going about their small town lives until, that is, they tune into the radio and hear about Martians invading a town only a couple of hours away.

It's fair to say that 'panic sets in' but that's a wild oversimplification and this film does a great job of digging deep into what it really means, especially in an environment where the leadership is almost non-existent. The priest has lost his faith, the sheriff is a moron and the mayor is the odd job man around town whom everyone looks past. That means that Captain Ambrose P. Collins, the local PTSD sufferer, gets to rile them all up into making a stand.

For a film set in 1938, it also feels very timely. Faced with an unknown external threat that they can't quantify, the townsfolk leap into fighting, hiding or blaming but none leap into reading or checking the facts. That sounds like Facebook eighty years later. Other than Collins, who has his own agenda, only a little girl is savvy enough to realise what's actually going on.

Brave New Jersey won three awards tonight, including Best Picture and I can't argue too much. It looks great, it sounds great and the acting, from a string of recognisable faces from film and TV, is top notch. The script tops them all though, because it explores a host of different mindsets but never gets lost. There's a lot to read into this and I'll have fun writing a more detailed review.

The only downside for me was restricted to the unrealistic Hollywood ending, which was unworthy of the material that went before it.

Block 18: The Good Goering (2016)
Unless I get to see Land of the Little People, which looks utterly fascinating, The Good Goering is the only world cinema feature I'll get to see this year. It's a look at Albert Goering the lesser known but still notable younger brother of Herman, Hitler's right hand man.

While Herman was a Nazi from the beginning, being wounded in Hitler's coup attempt in 1923, the Beer Hall Putsch, Albert was opposed to the Nazis from moment one and he stayed there throughout his life; this film suggests that he saved a thousand people from death at the hands of the Nazis, many of them Jews.

The film combines a number of approaches into what could be regarded as a docudrama. There's stock footage and a number of interviews with relatives of the key players, including the Goerings. However, most of it is dramatised, with actors playing real people in scenes that fit the known facts but still extrapolate for poetic license. For instance, there's a great scene with the two brothers and a couple of ladies, both famous German actors, one of them Herman's latest wife. It revolves around Nazi jokes, of which Herman was an unusual fan, but beyond knowing that these people met at this time, nobody knows what they actually said. It just rings true.

This isn't the sort of film that you enjoy, but it takes an interesting look at an unusual angle of a well-known era, a well-known public figure and his unjustly obscure brother. It deserves to be seen.

Block 19: Hounds of Love (2016)
The IHSFFF showcase features I saw over the last couple of days have been interesting but haven't wowed me. Well, until now. I'm eager to see this film again because I want to see how it stands up now that I know how it unfolds. Right now, it feels like the best horror movie I've seen in a long, long time and, finishing up a weekend where I've puzzled over endings over and over again, it demonstrates clearly how they should be done. I know roughly where this would end up, but I didn't know how it would get there or what would happen on the way and it made me very happy indeed.

It's a tough film and, like Unnerved, it's not really a horror movie first. It's a drama about mothers, which unfolds against a horror framework in Perth, Western Australia.

One is Maggie Maloney, who has left her surgeon husband and moved into a rough neighbourhood; she gets her daughter Vicki two nights a week and has no compunctions about grounding her when her grades are bad. Given that dad buys her a puppy and lets her do what she wants, you can guess who she likes most and who she blames for the breakup.

The other is Evelyn White, one of a married couple a couple of streets from Maggie's house, who abduct young girls to feed their perverse sexual needs, then murder them and bury them in the vast woods not far out of town; Vicki is their latest acquisition. However, unlike her husband, John, who is your standard run of the mill sexual psychopath, Evelyn is a massively complex character. She's certainly not a good person, but there's a lot more going on in her head than in his. The parallels between her and Maggie only begin with them both being mothers who do not have custody of their children.

Parts of this felt familiar and this ground has certainly been trod before, but I don't recall a film that shifted the torture porn off into a bedroom while we watch the other half struggle with what's happening. Evie grew up with abuse and has continued the cycle, but she loves and hates John at the same time and she's acutely jealous of the girls who steal his attention away from her. We always know how John will act but we keep wondering what Evie will do next and that plays out with aplomb.

Emma Booth is a revelation here in a part that can't have been easy to play. There are scenes where she has to change her emotions half a dozen times as she walks down a corridor and she nails it absolutely. This has been a great festival for actresses, with The 6th Friend, Anti Matter and Killing Ground, not to mention Unnerved and Brave New Jersey today, but it keeps getting better and better.

As an IHSFFF showcase feature, Hounds of Love is only playing once but it'll become available somewhere you can access it and I recommend that you do so as soon as you can.

Awards

Sunday night is awards night at the Phoenix Film Festival. Here's the full list of winners with congratulations to each of them:

Here's the full line up of winners:

Best Arizona Short - One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts
Best Animated Short - Pearl
Best College Short - Jewish Blind Date
Best Live Action Short - The Babysitter Murders
Best Documentary Short - Happy (the short)
Best World Cinema Short - Friday Night
Best Latino American Directed Short - Written Off
Best African American Directed Short - Ori Inu: In Search of Self
Best Native American Directed Short - Legacy

Best Sci-Fi Short - Real Artists
Best Sci-Fi Feature - The Open
Best Horror Short - Wandering Soul
Best Horror Feature - The Night Watchmen

Arizona Filmmaker of the Year - Ryan Thomas Andersen
Volunteer of the Year - Randy Robinson

Best World Cinema Director - Yaniv Berman for Land of the Little People
Best World Cinema Feature - Land of the Little People
Best World Cinema Documentary - The Islands and the Whales
World Cinema Audience Award - Fairy Tales for Emma

Sydney J. Shapiro Humanitarian Award - Happy (the feature)

Best Arizona Feature - IMperfect
Best Ensemble - Brave New Jersey
Best Screenplay - Julian Fort for The Midnighters
Best Director - Jody Lambert for Brave New Jersey
Best Documentary - The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd Z-Man Zalkins
Best Picture - Brave New Jersey
Audience Award - Fallen

Note: the two wins for films called Happy are for different films: the first a short, the second a feature. And this in a year that also featured The Happys and Happy Hunting. Don't worry, PFF goers, be happy.

By sheer coincidence, I got a picture before the awards with Randy Robinson, who would go on to win a highly deserved Volunteer of the Year award, with me wearing Robinson tartan for the occasion. Congratulations, Randy!

So how did I do with my guesses at IHSFFF winners from last night? Well, not too well on the horror side, as it turned out, but I did fine with the sci-fi.

I cheated with Best Horror Feature by suggesting that any of the three were viable winners. However, Brandon chose The Night Watchmen, which was my third choice of the three because it was the least consistent.

I was way off the mark on Best Horror Short. I had two shorts far above the rest and even guessed at a third being Danny's pick, but he went for another one entirely: Wandering Soul, which I'm not going to argue about as it's an unusual and atmospheric piece.

I knew that Best Sci-Fi Feature had to be one of two, because the third was embarrasingly awful, but which one? I ended up with myself but guessed that Mike would pick the other and I was right: The Open it was.

I nailed Best Sci-Fi Short, but Real Artists really was a gimme. I'd be hard pressed to think of something that could beat it from the whole of the last decade of this festival.

So, good picks, folks! Thank you, as always!