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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 Chloƫ 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

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