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Also announcing the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival - Day Four

I'm posting daily coverage of the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Sunday 12th (Day 4) to help guide what you might want to look out for once they're widely released.

We had aimed to spend a full morning on Sunday watching movies but events made that impossible and we didnt make it over to the Clark Memorial Clubhouse in Clarkdale until twenty minutes or so into the Skin Crawler Shorts set.

I have seen a few of the films that Bill Pierce programmed for his annual Forbidden Films set so I'll kick off with those and look forward to tracking down the others.

Forbidden Films

Four Millimeters is the story of a tough decision and it walks a firm line right down the middle with each side beckoning. Emily is a young figure skater following in the footsteps of (and perhaps living the dreams of) her mother and coach, Diana. A competition is coming up and it's important but Emily discovers that she's a mother to be and she's stuck deciding between family and career, boyfriend and mother. It's a powerful film, all the more so for not poking us in the forehead and telling us how powerful it is.

The Wishing Skull is one of my favourite Arizona shorts, which is one reason why I've screened it myself more than any other title in my mini-film festival sets, including at Jerome in 2014. It's part steampunk, part dieselpunk, part somethingelsepunk unique to Dirt Capsule Films, and it does a lot with a little. A fantastic antique skull beckons a young man into an enticing past to learn its history the hard way. I think I've run out of audiences to screen this for but if I'm asked to put a set together for a new one, this may get hauled out yet again with a grin on my part.

Malparido was an IFP Beat the Clock 48 hour challenge film last year and it won Best Picture and Best Director, among other awards. As an unashamed art film, it stood out from its peers and still comes back to mind on occasion almost a year later. It's about addiction, but that's about as far as plot synopsis goes, because it's phrased in metaphor rather than story. It's delicious visually and the actors and mix of languages back up the eye candy with agreeable style.

Skin Crawler Shorts

I missed Market St and Awakenings, so I won't comment on those.

Sacramentum is less a short film and more of an introduction to a potential feature. It casts Bill Connor so well as a cultist so set on summoning Nyarlathotep through human sacrifice that I can forgive him reading hieroglyphics in Latin. It doesn't do much as a short film but it does capably set a tone for a wider story that I'd very much like to see.

I'm really not sure what The Babbit House really aimed to be, beyond the director's comments during the Q&A that he was just happy to be a part of things. Little more than a good choice of location, I think it wants to capture a creepy tone by moving a phone around a room full of doll houses. It does that, I guess, but nothing more.

I was really taken by Whisper, an Irish ghost story that bathes in texture and tone. It follows a young lady as she retreats to a cabin by the sea to get away from something (perhaps a habit or a relationship or both). However she finds that she takes a lot more with her than she thinks and the horrific consequences are shot beautifully. I'd very much like to see this one again.

Yotlungerdal deservedly won the award for Best Horror Short in Jerome because it's an ambitious attempt not only to make a new silent film but to make it appear as if it was shot in Germany in the expressionist era. Starting out like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and adding Häxan into the mix partway, it feels very authentic, right down to the costumes, casting choices and even the text in the intertitles. I adored this European folk tale of creatures stealing the children of townsfolk and can't wait to see more by writer/director Wesley Gunn.

Time to Eat is predictable but no less fun for that, especially as it unfolds well without needing dialogue to explain itself. A young boy plays with a ball which ends up bouncing into the basement and he goes to retrieve it even though we have a good idea what else might be down there. This is the sort of horror short that makes everyone happy: short and sweet, well produced and with a neat little twist.

Blurred Vision was a competitor in Jerome's horror film short challenge last year and it's still a lot of fun in completely different ways to Time to Eat. Unashamedly torture porn, we're in the lair of a serial killer torturing his blonde victim with relish until a knock at the door interrupts his enjoyment. The effects are much of the point but there's a twist in the tale that is as enjoyable as it is unlikely. And it's yet another role for actor J Lyle, who was all over this festival in wildly different performances in wildly different films.

Exit Thread

We stuck around talking to various filmmakers represented in the Skin Crawler Shorts and ran out of time to head back to Old Town Cottonwood to see Intersection, so we stayed to watch Exit Thread instead, our original intention.

It's a Canadian thriller set in Nova Scotia with a minimalist approach that applies to both its core cast, which is very small, and its pace, which is slow and sure with long takes and a lean script that eschews distractions to focus in on the key details and how the characters react to them. On the basis of this film and its approach, I'd be interested in seeing some of director Paul Kimball's previous features, like Eternal Kiss, which wears its influences overtly in its cast of characters.

The story initially appears to be a routine love triangle with its happy couple and an inevitably batshit crazy ex-girlfriend, complicated by Thomas Decker's profession as priest. However, it soon turns out to be a little more twisted than that in ways I'm not willing to spoil.

I'm still puzzling as to the actual mechanics of what proceeds to unfold, especially if it allows the characters to look like soap opera stars, but I liked the gradual turning of the screw, mostly courtesy not of the third wheel but of another clergyman who has returned to town and does a great job of looking sinister whilst manipulating everyone else cleverly. Robert G Slade is far from the lead, but he's the visual that abides after his work is done.

Home, James

A good feature was a good way to wrap up our Jerome screenings for this year and we headed back to Old Town Cottonwood for the awards ceremony, various congratulatory handshakes with old and new friends alike and goodbyes all around.

Founder and organiser Toni Ross at the awards ceremony
photo credit: Countess Chaos Creations

The Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival has changed considerably over the four years of its run and I'm intrigued to see how it will continue to change in the future.

On its first year, it was a condensed event that flowed through Jerome, populated by most of the filmmakers we've met in Arizona. It was a sort of reunion weekend, accompanied by screenings of films in unique venues. As it moved on, it moved progressively out, down the hill to Clarkdale and now also to Cottonwood. It's no longer a Jerome event, hence the 89A that founder and organiser Toni Ross has added into her graphics.

The make up of both the schedule and the audience has changed too, with less and less of an Arizona focus and more of a wider scope. This year, we hardly recognised any of the filmmakers as the locals didn't show, replaced by filmmakers from California, Colorado, New York, Toronto and even further afield. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of the small town vibe of the event, whose lack of slickness adds to its charm (I still don't know how the folk putting the award screens together managed to spell 'Yotlungerdal' correctly but not 'Wheels' or 'Lazy'). Many friendships were formed on the Verde Valley Railroad and at other events over the weekend.

The quality of material on the screen has changed too. I've seen this festival as press, as a submission screener, as a judge and as the programmer of sets in various combinations, so I have an insight into what gets shown and what doesn't. I was especially impressed by the quality of films this year, even if it made the job of judging particularly tough. The Narrative Shorts and Music Videos were of especially consistent quality and I wish I could have picked more than one winner for each. I left with the surety that some of the films that didn't win will surely win elsewhere. I also left with a list of films I didn't see that I need to track down soon, like Intersection and Eccentric Eclectic. That's a good feeling to have!

And so that's it for this year. See you back on the 89A in 2017!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival - Day Three

I'm posting daily coverage of the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Saturday 11th (Day 3) to help guide what you might want to look out for once they're widely released.

Jerome is a quirky affair and what we saw today highlights that well.

Faye's Redemption (2016)

We kicked off with an early screening of Faye's Redemption in the Clark Memorial Clubhouse in Clarkdale. It's the new feature from George O'Barts, creator of the legendary Pizza Shop: The Movie. I couldn't help but watch with that in mind, even though it's a completely different film. The good news is that the former is certainly a better film than the latter. The bad news is that it's a heck of a lot less fun.

For all the faults that Pizza Shop: The Movie has, it's packed full of grossout humour and it's worthy of repeat viewings with the right drunken reprobate friends. Sure, they need to be into John Waters and Troma but all the best friends are.

Faye's Redemption has a better story and actually features some good acting (though not in the more histrionic scenes). However it's a drama not a comedy and it's a dark one whose tone just keeps getting darker. Don't expect a traditional story arc, this one throws everything at poor Faye until she understandably almost dies of alcohol abuse. And that's just the beginning! It gets more depressing from there as a collection of flashbacks flesh out her trial of a life. The title is a spoiler in itself, so I can get away with saying that there's a happy ending but it was really welcome!

There are other problems like inconsistent acting, inconsistent sound and flagrant use of stereotypes, but they're all better than Pizza Shop: The Movie, which survived mostly on where it chose to go. I applaud George's ambition to make a serious drama and he's certainly improving as a filmmaker, but I'm still more likely to go back to Pizza Shop than this.

Films on the Verde Valley Railroad

No, that's not a movie, it's an actual railroad which runs from Clarkdale to a ghost ranch called Perkinsville through amazing countryside. The Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival booked a carriage, as it did last year. We chatted away the journey out, networking with filmmakers and listening to Threefold Fate playing an acoustic set in the open air, and watched movies all the way back.

Threefold Fate rocking the Verde Valley Railroad
photo credit: Countess Chaos Creations

Sadly, the train's tour commentary couldn't be switched off again this year, even though they'd promised that it could be done. That was really annoying, as were a couple of kids screaming at the back of the carriage, but hopefully those problems can be addressed before next year's event.

Here are the films that screened on the train:

Grand Canyon is a music video by Jerome's own Puscifer. It's a better song than the other one of theirs in the festival and it's accompanied by a set of drone photography of the title landmark and what appears to be other scenic parts of Arizona. I wasn't sold on some of the staccato editing but the footage is magnificent and it's timed to the song well.

Move Me is a textbook short film, taking a single conceit and building on it throughout its running time until a surprise ending that folk should see coming but often don't. A young couple find what appears to be a mannequin in the desert, only to realise that he's a human being who only lives while being touched by another; without human contact he's motionless, apparently dead. I was really happy to see Katie Parker from Absentia in another film (and watch out for a review soon of her new feature, The Binding). She does a great job as the traditional lead and Danny Jacobs is just as good as her screen husband, but Aidan Bristow steals the show as a thoroughly believable mannequin with intermittent moments of life and a purpose we ache to discover.

Thanks for the Drugs is another music video, this time by Lundon Crow. It's animated and as trippy as the title might suggest, though I haven't figured out precisely what's happening yet. I enjoyed it but would enjoy it more if I knew what it meant.

Blood Run is a post-apocalyptic western by Michael Freeman that gets better each time I see it because of some good decision making on his part. He doesn't explain what apocalypse took us down because he doesn't care, happy to show us the detritus of civilisation and tell us that the Dead Zone on the other side of a wall is a dangerous place. He doesn't give us any background to our hero, whom he also plays, content to have him recover from an attack by raiders, realise that they stole something from him and promptly chase after them to get it back. He's believably stubborn and single-minded and it gets him into as much trouble as it gets him on the right track, but that just makes him a real hero rather than a Hollywood one. Real heroes don't kick thirty shades of ass without blinking; they just accept how hurt they're going to get doing what has to be done and do it anyway. If there's a downside, it's that it's not too surprising what was stolen from him, but that's hardly a good reason not to watch this. Fingers crossed that Freeman can finance a feature length version.

Kevin's Story was an odd choice of film to screen on the train, after half the audience had happily partaken of the bar in our carriage. It's a true story narrated to us by Kevin's father because Kevin himself can't do it himself, because he died too young, of alcohol poisoning after a housewarming party. It's well done and it hits all the right emotional notes, but it's a radio presentation with unnecessary visuals and it should have been screened at a different time.

Bingo is an animated short from the Netherlands, a much better choice for the train ride. It was odd to realise that it was actually in unsubtitled Dutch but that it really didn't matter. We could tell exactly what was going on and enjoy it all the way to the final inevitable word.

Baits & Hooks I won't comment on because it was a Russian film with tiny English subtitles that I couldn't read on the screen at hand. I think I got the drift of what was happening but ought to see it properly to comment. Note to the festival organisers: no subtitled films on the train ride!

A Western is a pointlessly generic title for a decent short film that follows a pair of outlaw brothers who have different thoughts about the status that they've found themselves in. It's a quality piece of work, well acted and well shot, especially the final few visuals, but it had a tough time closing out a set that featured shorts as strong as Move Me and Blood Run. It was trying to tell its story as the train pulled into Clarkdale but had trouble competing with the railroad's canned music and screaming kids. Those still on the train by the end should watch it again in the appropriate set to realise how capable it is in the proper surroundings.

Snow White

After dinner in Old Town Cottonwood (a place I've really come to appreciate over the last few days), we headed back to the Old Town Center for the Arts to see something truly special that I'm really happy Toni and her crew managed to put together for this year's festival.

It was a screening of the 1916 Famous Players adaptation of Snow White, the first film Walt Disney ever saw, with Marguerite Clark in the lead and Dorothy Cumming as her screen mother, Queen Brangomar. It was given live accompaniment by the amazing RPM Orchestra, who I've seen a number of times before and always appreciate. To highlight how special this was, one of the young kids right behind us proclaimed to one and all about ten seconds into the movie that, 'This is boring!', only to settle down and enjoy the rest of the movie in silence.

RPM Orchestra were as enjoyable as ever, to the degree that I often forgot that I was listening to a live accompaniment, so well did they draw me into the film. As to the film itself, it wasn't a good print (it was the Alpha Video DVD rather than the copy in Treasures from American Film Archives), but it's a quirky telling, with character designs reminiscent of early 'Wizard of Oz' shorts: the seven dwarves look like they're played by children in beards and wigs, while Witch Hex's familiar is another one inside a pantomime cat suit.

The RPM Orchestra getting ready for Snow White
photo credit: Countess Chaos Creations

Friday, 10 June 2016

Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival - Day Two

I'm posting daily coverage of the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Friday 10th (Day 2) to help guide what you might want to look out for once they're widely released.

Firstly, some key notes to help you understand the event. This is year four for Toni Ross and her crew and since it began, it's expanded further into the surrounding area. Jerome is still the most awesome venue for a film festival I've yet encountered (and I've screened movies on the stage of the Saloon at Old Tucson Studios). I've been to screenings under stores, above the fire station and even in the parking lot next to a haunted mine more than a mile up in the hills. It's impossible to keep that sort of atmosphere down the hill in Clarkdale or a little further away in Cottonwood, but Old Town does have its charms and the primary venue this year is certainly not without its own character. This year also marks a return to the Verde Valley Railroad, which is a joyous place to spend four hours, chatting, drinking and watching movies.

Day one was yesterday, Thursday, but that didn't involve screenings, just the opening night's event at Four Eight Wineworks in Clarkdale. Films began this morning and we were only a few minutes late into the one I wanted to see most today, a documentary called The Hollywood Shorties.

The Hollywood Shorties (2016)

This was everything I want from a documentary. Its only obvious downside was that it loses its way a little at the very end and could have been edited maybe ten minutes shorter. I still enjoyed those ten minutes but I'm not convinced they shouldn't have been extras on the DVD. Maybe I'll reevaluate when I re-watch because I want to see the beginning of the film.

I knew a little about the subject, but not a lot, just enough to pique my interest when I realised that Ryan Steven Green had made this documentary. The Hollywood Shorties were actors, stuntmen, little people who made a living from the inside of cheesy monster suits in cheap sci-fi movies. This isn't a documentary about that angle of their lives, though I'd happily watch one. I didn't even recognise all the films used here in montages, though many brought back good memories! What this is about is the other life many of them built as professional basketball players, touring around to challenge high school teams in battles that were half real sports and half comedy routines. Think the Harlem Globetrotters without players over five feet tall.

I learned a lot, because Green had the right access to the right people, asked the right questions of them and did his homework to back up his interview footage. I especially appreciated how much work he and his crew put in to track down archive videos and other ephemera to illustrate the film. It brought this overlooked era home wonderfully. The editing shone too, even when used to manipulate our emotions because it was done so well.

It's also a real story, unlike the fluff that's used as subject matter for some documentaries nowadays. It's a story of great depth that speaks to more than its heroes, the Hollywood Shorties themselves, to a time and an attitude that isn't here any more. Times have changed and this is fascinating insight to a history that's not long passed but feels like a different era entirely.

Naomi from Intellexual Entertainment conducting a Q&A with the gentleman
from Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements whose name isn't on his card!
photo credit: Countess Chaos Creations

Industry Mixer

This was a great way for us to kick off our Jerome viewing pleasure. We took care of other business during the day before attending Industry Night, but we'll be watching a lot more on Saturday and especially Sunday. Watch this space!

The Industry Mixer at Cellar 433 in Jerome
photo credit: Countess Chaos Creations

They even let international cult megastars into the Industry Mixer!
photo credit: Countess Chaos Creations

Friday, 15 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Eight

I'm posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Thursday 14th (Day 8) to help guide what you might want to look out for once they're widely released.

Thursday marks the end of the festival when everything wraps up with the closing night movie. We were hoping to catch one more film before that but grandkid duty rendered that non-viable.

It's been a great week though and I've managed to catch 27 blocks of films: 22 features and 5 sets of short films, including everything that screened in the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival portion of the event.

I've written them all up here at Apocalypse Later Now! and will aim at reviewing many of them in greater depth at my main review site, Apocalypse Later. I tend to prioritise the IHSFFF side of the house, then Arizona films and then PFF competition features. I know I want to catch up with some other short film sets too, as both Live Action Shorts sets looked particularly inviting but I was unable to fit them into the schedule.

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 Phoenix Film Festival index and here's the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival index.

Block 27: Five Nights in Maine (2015)

I've had a blast over the last week, enjoying almost everything I've seen. Some of the short sets were inconsistent, I found Patagonia Treasure Trail poor and I hated The Dark Tapes, but the films in the rest of the 27 blocks I saw ranged from good to awesome. I'd be hard pressed to pick the best feature as a few would have to battle it out, but 20 Matches trumps them all as the best short and the best film of the entire festival for me.

Sadly the closing night film turned out to be the weakest feature I saw except for the two mentioned above. It's not a bad film but it's not a good film either and I have no idea what the point of it was.

Sure, it's about survivor guilt, explored through Sherwin going to see Lucinda. He's the husband of a young lady called Fiona who is killed in a car accident very soon into the movie. She's Fiona's mother, who is fighting cancer and apparently was opposed to the marriage. So they don't get on, which is understandable, even though he treats her with respect and she responds with polite insults. But what have they learned at the end of the movie that we didn't know at the beginning? I can't think of anything of substance.

If the script is a weak link, the camerawork is weaker. Almost the entire film is shot in close-ups, with little to showcase the beauty of rural Maine or highlight distance, either literal or figurative. What's worse, writer/director Maris Curran or her DP felt the need to jiggle the camera every time emotions were raised. This may have been appropriate occasionally, such as when a bored cop literally phones in the news of Fiona's death to Sherwin and the camera jars along with his mind, but far more often this approach spoils scenes of potential power, especially the last one with Lucinda which could have been an absolute gem.

There's a good side too. Even if the script got nowhere in the end, that doesn't mean it didn't find places of power on the way and there are a number of excellent scenes dotted in and amongst that are worthy of mention. The acting is especially strong, with the fantastic Dianne Wiest and David Oyelowo both doing good work as Lucinda and Sherwin respectively and Rosie Perez even better as Ann, Lucinda's nurse. If only they had a better movie to be excellent in.

Final Words

And that's it for this year's Phoenix Film Festival and its genre track, the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. As with every year thus far, I'll leave it with many memories.

Like last year, Cox Communications is pushing Gigablast hard, even though they still won't actually sell it to me. At least every day was still enhanced by George Takei's amazing laugh during the AARP commercial, though what are movies for grown-ups anyway?

I thoroughly appreciated being able to see every IHSFFF film at the festival, the first time that's been remotely possible. All the stupid scheduling issues that plagued the last few years went away because the Phoenix Film Foundation listened and acted. I have a lot of respect for that. I also have a lot of respect for what Festival Director Monte Yazzie did in his debut year and am eager to watch his vision develop over the next few years.

His showcase features were varied but always interesting. Under the Shadow and The Eyes of My Mother worked as excellent bookends to my IHSFFF experience this year. It was Saturday that will resonate most though. The double bill of High Rise and The Greasy Strangler was a real trip, especially given that I'd watched the competition features, The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man and Night of Something Strange earlier. What a memorably weird day that was! If only Antibirth had taken the place of Coming Through the Rye, I might still be in a state of shock.

I was very happy to see not one but two excellent Arizona features, Postmarked and Lucky U Ranch. Every time my periodic pessimism about local film kicks in, someone throws something up onto the screen to replace it with hope.

And so, to old friends and new ones, get some sleep and we'll see you back at Harkins a year from now for the 2017 festival and another run of daily coverage at Apocalypse Later Now!

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Seven

I'm posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Wednesday 13th (Day 7) to help guide what you might want to look out for once they're widely released.

We got stuck in traffic tonight so missed the first film we'd hoped to attend, but we were still there in time for two more.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival 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 Phoenix Film Festival index and here's the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival index.

Block 25: The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

What a treat this IHSFFF showcase feature was! Even though it's another glacially slow film full of bleakness and isolation, it was utterly engaging and immersive. It's also completely gorgeous, comprised of long shots from a mostly static camera that often unfold in silence. It isn't only that it's in black and white that it reminded me of European silent film directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer or Victor Sjöström. It has that deep emptiness familiar from the Scandinavian wilderness.

The story is a dark one indeed. A man invites his way into young Francisca's rural home and murders her mother, a Portuguese eye surgeon. Her father catches him and chains him up in the barn, but doesn't kill him. Little Francisca cleans him up and stitches up his wounds, calling this captive her only friend. How friendly is open to question, given that she also extracts his eyes and removes his ability to speak. The why of it all is left open to our interpretation, but it's easy to read a variety of causes and effects into her history.

Kika Magalhaes is fantastic as the grown up Francisca, capably walking that fine line between innocence and knowingness. She was gifted with a great character but she brings her to life with substance. It's also not just what she does but what she doesn't do that deepens her. Placing her performance into Zach Kuperstein's gorgeous vistas creates magic.

This one will stay with me and, from what I heard after the screening, others too. You'll certainly hear a lot more about it when it gets a proper release later in the year.
Me with the fantastic Kika Magalhaes
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Block 26: Lucky U Ranch (2015)

Arizona has been inconsistently represented at the PFF this year, but there are some gems to be found. I got a real kick out of Postmarked and Lucky U Ranch is another peach of a feature with a recognisable face in the lead, Trevor Robins, who I've been watching grow from IFP challenge films, 52 Films in 52 Weeks entries and a variety of supporting roles in features. It's great to see him in the lead and it's even greater to see him carry the film capably.

This is a period piece, set in 1953, and Robins plays the fat kid everyone picks on at school, Junior McCaully, even if he needed twenty extra pounds to really justify that; Chunk he ain't. His world is shaped by what he doesn't have, including a father who he doesn't remember and describes as a mystery man, but he discovers that others do have it worse when Melissa's family take the next slot over in the Lucky U Ranch trailer park that they live in. Her world is shaped by what she has and what she used to have and the contrasts resonate throughout the picture as the two connect and she changes him.

Robins is good here, which won't surprise, but he's outshone by Donovan Droege in her film debut as the new girl next door because she is amazing. She may be new to the screen but she's assured and confident and a natural talent. If she stays with acting, she has a serious future.

Beyond the acting, it's the script that stands out here most with Ginia Desmond's story touching and poignant. I was impressed by the way that even scenes that we knew full well were coming, and so failed to surprise when they did, still played with palpable emotion. The locations and props successfully catch the era and the Arizona desert landscapes are evocative too. Also Michele Gisser's editing did indeed prove a lot better than her writing and direction in last night's Patagonia Treasure Trail.

The negative side is more in what isn't there than what is. A number of shots are good but could have been great had the cinematography been more inspired and I'm still not convinced that Robins didn't overdo the underplaying of his character, if that makes sense. I get that the character doesn't want to do things and that we needed a strong contrast between Junior and Melissa but I wasn't as sold on his don't want to know side as I was on his quirky and free side. There are moments of brilliance in the latter, but not so much in the former.

As with any Arizona feature, I hope this finds its way to be seen. At the very least, keep your eyes open for it at other local festivals.
Director Steve Anderson with filmmakers John Kestner and Stacie Stocker Director Steve Anderson and writer Ginia Desmond
photo: Countess Chaos Creations photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Six

I'm posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Tuesday 12th (Day 6) to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival (not too likely at this point) or look out for them after they're released.

From what I can see, this year's festival has run relatively smoothly, the odd hitches being on the technical side. The most obvious issue is the darkness of many films, which some filmmakers have stated is not due to their files; I can only assume that this ties to the contrast settings on the Harkins projectors. Another issue hit today though, with the scheduled screening of Badouet cancelled because of problems with the file. I know that people have been working hard behind the scenes to solve this but those problems escalated and the film sadly couldn't be shown.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival 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 Phoenix Film Festival index and here's the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival index.

Block 22: Welcome to Happiness (2015)

Easily the most uplifting film I've seen so far this festival, this winner of the Best Ensemble award is a quirky and surreal drama that features a number of very recognisable faces. It starts oddly but endearingly with one key character, then proceeds to introduce a host of others at periodic intervals. Over time, their apparently disconnected strands of plot start to weave together until...

Well, I'm not sure. I'm not convinced that the filmmakers know quite where their story needed to go, perhaps mirroring the confusion of many of the characters in the film. In some instances, their confusion is resolved with their subplots but mine wasn't. I'm not sure where the film went in the end but it wasn't anywhere that made sense to me. Part of that may be because key supporting characters and the parts they play in proceedings are never explained. I felt that I should be able to define what they represented but couldn't.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the picture as a whole, along with each of the various characters within it and the surreal humour that pervades it. Some of the faces I recognised were clearly enjoying themselves, which is good because their names are on the film as producers too, and that enjoyment leaps out of the screen for us to bathe in. It's a difficult film to dislike and an easy one to smile at. I just wish I understood why I was smiling.

Block 23: Antibirth (2016)

Talking of surreal, it was particularly surreal to watch Antibirth next to a very heavily pregnant Shellie Ulrich. If there's a movie less likely to appeal to pregnant women, I'm not sure what it might be. Anyway, she enjoyed it but the baby... well, apparently not so much.

Personally, I had a blast. It's a neatly original story from Danny Perez, who also directed, that blurs drama, horror and sci-fi. I got a real kick out of the way the film was shot: the dialogue-driven script is aided by improvisational acting, effective editing and a great use of colour. Rather than just seeing and hearing, I felt this movie too because of its rich texture.

I also enjoyed the three most prominent characters being women, older ones too who aren't made up to look pretty. The actors involved are all great talents who, like many older women, are too often relegated to supporting slots nowadays. This film highlights what a loss that is to cinema. All three characters are coated in the detritus of their surroundings but shine metaphorically through all of it.

The lead is the easily recognisable Natasha Lyonne, who owns her role as an aging party girl called Lou who gets knocked up without sex, at least as far as she can figure out. Her best friend is Chloë Sevigny, who's a little more in control than Lou but still wrapped up in the same destructive cycles. The wildcard is Lorna, a strange lady played by Meg Tilly who arrives out of nowhere to insert herself into Lou's life and our story.

A number of films I saw this year were thoroughly enjoyable to watch but lessened by thought afterwards. This is one that plays the other way: the more I think about it the better it gets.
My better half with Shellie Ulrich and the baby bump who didn't like Antibirth
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Block 24: Patagonia Treasure Trail (2016)

With Badouet off the schedule and an encore screening of Dead Body taking its place, I took a look at the other options on offer and unsurprisingly picked the Arizona feature. I thoroughly appreciated how much of the Patagonia mountains it showcased with a keen photographer's eye, but sadly didn't find the film up to the same quality.

It's a message movie, made to tell us how the beauty of Patagonia would be wiped out if an open pit mine were introduced, and I wonder how that message will be received. I have sympathy for it and some of the others thrown out in support but was put off by how writer/director Michele Gisser bludgeoned me with them. She may be a decent editor (and she edited Lucky U Ranch, which I'll see tomorrow) but she's only a capable director and not a particularly memorable writer.

It was the writing that annoyed me most, because the politics are one sided and the relationships hamfisted. There's an initial attempt to explore both sides of the mining argument, through the lead character's father working the new mine in town but her mother an environmentalist fighting it, but it's clear that we're supposed to be on mum's side and Birdie moves in awkward leaps that way without much to make that viable. The general sweep of the script is fine but it really needed an established scriptwriter to come in to fix and polish.

Isabella Schloss is the best thing about the movie as Birdie, mostly managing to bring to her character the sort of depth that the film would like to have. Faye Jackson isn't bad as her mum either, but she's in Schloss's shadow hamstrung by a character that's too annoying to buy into. It's a female film, framed around the way these two bond on a horseback camping trip into the mountains, and the male characters get little substance. Craig is particularly awful with Galen Englund badly miscast and unable to do anything with the part at all.
Writer/director Michele Gisser during her Q&A
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Five

I'm posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Monday 11th (Day 5) to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival or look out for them after they're released.

While the bulk of the PFF takes place over the three day weekend, wrapping up with the awards ceremony, the festival does continue on for another four days, with a closing night movie in the Ciné Capri on the Thursday night. It's great to see the weekday scheduling extend into the daytime this year, but unfortunately I'm not going to be able to benefit from it. Next year I'll plan ahead but tonight we got to see three films as usual.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival 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 Phoenix Film Festival index and here's the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival index.

Block 19: Postmarked (2016)

I love catching up with PFF features that were made in Arizona, partly to see what our local filmmakers have got up to and partly because so many of them come out to see their work on the big screen. A number of the cast and crew for Postmarked made it out tonight to support their film and they signed 27x40 posters for the audience.

While some of these work out better for an experience than a movie, this one is a great exception, even though it unfolds almost entirely in a single room with a small cast talking through a large quantity of dialogue. Nobody will be surprised that it's based on a play and that we're never bored once is testament to the high quality of the writing.

The concept is simple. People know that a mailman (sorry, letter carrier) has seen a murder in a particular house at a particular time. They want the information he knows but the operation to pick up that one mailman for interrogation has become complicated. The 'bad guys' rack up two corpses to their name before finding the right man and circumstances lead to four of them being tied to chairs in a quiet warehouse.

While this might sound like a Tarantino-esque festival of grue, it's really a dark comedy that gets funnier as twists sneak in and the trouble escalates. There are seven actors in this room, all of them get opportunities to shine and all of them do so, whether through monologue or, in a couple of instances, through more.

This was a great way to kick off our festival-going experience tonight and I hope the film gets distribution soon so a wider audience can enjoy it.
Director Gene Ganssle signing posters for fans
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Block 20: The Sublet (2015)

Beautifully shot and superbly acted, The Sublet unfortunately suffers from unoriginality and predictability.

There have been so many horror movies recently that revolve around a young couple, usually with a child, who move into a new place only to find that it affects the lady in the relationship severely, leading us to wonder if something supernatural is going on or whether she's just crazy. Some are great, like House of Good and Evil, while others fall short like last year's competition feature, The House on Pine Street. Still more only veer away from this model a little, like fellow showcase feature, Under the Shadow or the film it most closely resembles, The Babadook.

However well it's made (and it's made very well indeed), The Sublet adds nothing to this collection of films. It was clear from ten or fifteen minutes in where it was going to go and how it was going to end up. I was hoping for some sort of twist that I wouldn't see coming but it never arrived.

While the cinematography, editing and score are all worthy of note, it's lead actress Tianna Nori who shines the brightest. She runs through a whole slew of emotions as the film drags her through the wringer, from tired through angry to lost and eventually various degrees of crazy. She's relatively new but her credits are building and she's going to have an excellent future.

Block 21: Last Girl Standing (2015)

Benjamin R Moody pulls a number of neat tricks in Last Girl Standing. The first is to set us up with cliché before the title card, only to leverage that to create a story that's refreshingly new. It's not too hard to figure out where we're going, if we assume that we're really watching a horror movie rather than a psychological thriller, but the trip to get there is all the more enjoyable for its different take on that old subgenre, the slasher.

I was constantly impressed with how Moody kept it fresh. Beyond playing to one convention by writing a strong woman into the lead, it refuses to fall into the usual traps slasher movies set for their writers. We meet good people who help those in need, cops who do their jobs and a very poignant case of PTSD, given that the lead is the one survivor of a brutal campground massacre by a serial killer known as 'The Hunter' and her survival is where the film begins.

Akasha Villalobos does a solid job, even if she's playing opposite her real life husband, but others, such as Danielle Evon Ploeger as, in her own way, another last girl standing, impress even more. The whole cast does their job and they're backed up well by a strong score, highly appropriate editing and a camera that knows very much where to go.

If you've ever wondered about what would truly happen next for the characters (usually girls) who are the sole survivor of most slasher movies, this is much more believable an approach than any slasher sequel I've seen. However, it's as much an homage as it is a reinvention so expect something that's neatly new and traditional at the same time.
Me with writer/director Benjamin R Moody
photo: Countess Chaos Creations