Apocalypse Later Empire



I also write books, for sale at Amazon and the other usual online stores.
Click the images to go to the Amazon pages or check out Apocalypse Later Press.



Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
Filmmakers, submissions for horror and sci-fi shorts are open through Film Freeway.

Please feel free to contact me by e-mail.

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

Monday, 11 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Four

I'm posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year. Here are some rough notes for Sunday 10th (Day 4) to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival or look out for them after they're released.

Sunday is a shorter day because things wrap up early to allow for the awards ceremony.

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 15: Displacement (2016)

All three of the sci-fi competition features this year were time travel movies, though they each had different angles to explore. This one was the most expected, with a physics student travelling in time, generating some sort of problem which threatens to unravel the spacetime continuum. Stuck inside this problem is that physics student, Cassie Sinclair, who's being subjected to odd time slips and memory lapses as she tries to figure out what's going on and what can be done to fix it.

Courtney Hope is excellent as Cassie, believable as a science nerd fluent in technobabble and a judgemental bitch who makes snap judgements that aren't always the right ones. Even when I didn't like the character, I liked what she was doing and Hope carries the film well. She's backed up by few major names, Sarah Douglas and Bruce Davison amongst them, who both do good work, but it's her film.

Time travel movies are all about paradoxes and the more complex ones warrant at least a second viewing to properly evaluate whether they actually make sense or not. It's easy to see the goofs in most films, but it's a lot harder in pictures as complex as this. I grasped most of it and appreciated how the various scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character added clarity without seeming forced. I still have questions though and look forward to that second viewing.

Block 16: Horror Shorts B


Like the A set, Horror Shorts B (2015) contains a varied bunch of films, from mundane filler up to the best picture I've seen at the entire event.
A Tricky Treat (2015) is a cheap and cheerful way to kick off a set of horror shorts. It's agreeably icky, as a family team up to dump a severed head in a bowl, crack it open, pull out its innards and... well, that basic introduction alone is enough to spoil the film which is entirely predictable and very short. The credits are possibly longer than the film itself.
Night of the Slasher (2015) is an inventive take on the slasher movie which just about manages to keep us on the hop even though it's clear where it's going to take us. A young lady runs through all the horror movie sins because... and you can guess most of the rest, given the title, but it's not entirely that simple. I had minor problems throughout but it's still a bundle of fun.

Miriam (2015) is a beautifully shot Italian short that uses great composition of frame to show off the local cityscapes. Within them, a man robs a convenience store at gunpoint only to find, as he reaches his escape car, that a young lady needs his help. The bad guy becomes a good guy but, of course, things aren't as straightforward as that might suggest. It's a succinct piece, capably set up and capably brought home, but it's not as original as it would like.
The Voodoo Dick (2015) is 'a short film based on a bad joke' and it's one that I'd heard before, so nothing surprised me here. It's done well enough and it elicited a number of laughs from the IHSFFF audience. The casting felt wrong, but the actors do OK and the effects guys back them up. It comes back to the joke though, which isn't fleshed out that much.
Larry Gone Demon (2015) is an over-the-top short which is like cheap comedy take on The Exorcist for stoners. Three roommates are having trouble with a fourth because he won't pay his rent, won't talk to them and, well, is clearly possessed by a demon even though his friends are oblivious. It might appeal to Troma fans, but it jumped the shark too many times to really impress.
Flush (2015) is an interesting little short that makes a movie villain (or hero, depending on your point of view) out of an airport bathroom. The red HAL 9000 light on the toilet is put to very good use, as an arrogant traveller gets his just desserts.

Bad Blood (2015) is a slow and atmospheric short with a very European flavour, an evocative score and some nice cinematography. A serial killer tracks a new victim, only to discover that she's more than she seems. I expected a further twist which never came, but it's capable enough with the main one.
Little Old Cat Lady from Rancho Cucamonga (2015) unfortunately can't live up to that magnificent title, though it does try extra hard. Four American football players violently rob the little lady of the title, who closely resembles the grandma in the old Little Red Riding Hood cartoons, but she finds vitriol enough to wish upon a star that her cat, Georgie Pie, will kill them all. It goes way overboard so can't be taken seriously, but it does generate a few laughs.
20 Matches (2015) is so far and away the best horror short shown at this year's festival that I was truly stunned to hear that it was beaten by Night of the Slasher. Nah, bad call, Danny. It has an incredibly minimalist setup, just a single girl, played by the fantastic Nina Rausch, talking to us through the fourth wall about an Austrian serial killer to the light of a succession of lit matches. Her story progresses magnificently from banal history through disturbing insight to vicious irony. I couldn't look away from the screen and that progression floored me. I salute the filmmakers for achieving so much with so little.
Ray Schillaci talking to composer Chris Wirsig (20 Matches), writer/director Aleksandra Lagkueva (Bad Blood) and director/co-writer Matt Cooper (Flush)
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Block 17: The History of Time Travel (2014)

I enjoyed the heck out of this documentary style sci-fi competition feature, but the ending spoiled it for me. I figure that the approach taken only has two valid explanations and the ending sadly chose an invalid third.

It's ostensibly a TV documentary made for History Television about Edward Page and his son, Richard, who pioneered time travel. Everything expected is here, from the variety of interview subjects to the collation of aged video and distressed photos, live interviews and dramatic reconstructions, insight and light humour. All are exhibited with panache.

What really sells this film though is the way things change. As if someone was changing history while we're watching, little details shift in the background and what we're told gradually morphs into something else too. If I could buy the internal logic, I'd love it all. Unfortunately I can't.

Block 18: The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015)

I have no idea what the title means, though the original title of February isn't much better. I do get that, but it's not exactly insightful. Whatever it's called, it's an interesting and unsettling horror piece that is confident enough to tell its own story in its own way and take its own bleeding time about doing so.

To suggest that this is slow is an understatement. We're introduced to three girls whose activities eventually coalesce into a single story, but we do wonder for a long time what that might be. Two are students at what appears to be a Catholic boarding school and they're stuck there during a week's break because their respective parents haven't come to pick them up. The third is a damaged creature who has apparently escaped from some sort of institution and gets a lift from a good samaritan and his wife.

In most respects this is spot on, if you can cope with the lack of pace. The one real negative is the apparently uncontrolled way in which the stories are spun together. We're set up to follow one, only to suddenly be thrown at another with no suggestion of a connection. That sort of thing continues and could have been addressed by better flowing editing.

The trio of young actors do their jobs well, especially Kiernan Shipka as Kat, and they shine even above the established couple of James Remar and Lauren Holly. I like the story's direction, if not its choppy and cryptic back and forth nature. The central point of the film is an intriguing one too, which feels very original.

This film highlights how Monte Yazzie is definitely making his mark on the IHSFFF with yet another film in an increasingly diverse set of showcase feature. I've seen five of the ten thus far and am really looking forward to the remaining half during the week.

Copper Wing Awards


Sunday night is awards night and many were given to filmmakers present and absent. Here's a complete list of what won (in order), so you can figure out what might show up in the Award Winner and Festival Choice slots during the week.

Best Arizona Short - Dino Park
Best Student Short - The Bench
Best Live Action Short - A King's Betrayal
Best Documentary Short - Keep It Grand
Best Animated Short - Burnt

Best Sci-Fi Short - Helio
Best Sci-Fi Feature - Parallel
Best Horror Short - Night of the Slasher
Best Horror Feature - Night of Something Strange

Arizona Filmmaker of the Year - Colleen Hartnett
Volunteer of the Year - Aaron Kes
Colleen Hartnett
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Best World Cinema Short - Violet
Best World Cinema Director - Cody Campanale for Jackie Boy
Best World Cinema Picture - Home Care

Sydney J Shapiro Humanitarian Award - Rwanda and Juliet

Best Arizona Feature - Carry On: Finding Hope in the Canyon
Best Ensemble - Welcome to Happiness
Best Screenplay - James Steven Sadwith for Coming Through the Rye
Special Jury Prize for Acting - Stephen Lang for Beyond Glory
Best Director - Logan Kibens for Operator

Best Documentary Feature - Rwanda and Juliet
Best Picture - Coming Through the Rye
Audience Favourite - No Greater Love

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Three

I'll be posting daily coverage of the The Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year and here's Saturday 9th, which is Day 3.

As with Day 2, I got to see five features and two sets of short films today and they included some really wild trips. 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.

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 8: Home Grown Shorts


Home Grown Shorts are films made by Arizona filmmakers that aren't in competition for awards (that's the Arizona Shorts set). That's a shame because there were a few real gems here.

Reading Out Loud I can't comment on because we had car trouble and showed up five or ten minutes late. The two gentlemen who represented the film in the post-set Q&A seemed like real characters though and I'm eager to find this soon and take a look.

Little Donkeys is a documentary about Chris Vena's search for the origins of the burrito. I only caught the end of this one but it seemed interesting.

Reality (2015) I'd seen before. It's a shorter film than Chris Wilembrecht is known for and it's a freaky horror drama with a very neat twist that sold well to this audience even though it was half past nine in the morning. The lead is stiff but the technical side is consistently strong and Ken Miller is especially well cast as a character he may not want to be especially well cast for.

In the Blink (2015) is an interesting experiment by Damien Patrik to look at how time passes us by through the avatar of a gentleman who always used to be the youngest person in the room until he suddenly found himself the oldest. The lead actor delivers better with his voice than his body but he does a decent job and the piece has something to say.

A Proper Pint (2015) is another film I'd seen before and it played even better this time, though it runs very long for a set like this. It's a documentary about a community pub in rural Ireland and I found myself reaching towards the screen for my drink instead of the cupholder in my seat. It's evil of Keven Siegert to dangle so many pints of Guinness in front of me at ten in the morning. Some will find this too long and there's a little unnecessary repetition and deviation but it's consistently accomplished and it reminded me in very favourable ways of the pubs I visited over the previous couple of weeks in Scotland. Excellent narration and spot on cinematography anchor this but it's worth coming back to for more than just that.

The Composer (2016) is one of the films I'd been looking forward to in this set, as it melds the live action of Darien Marion and the animation of Gwyneth Christoffel, both UAT students. It turns out to be an interesting piece as both sides of the film have highlights and they're merged well. Marion's very assured opening and a great use of sound are followed by Christoffel's quirky musical notes interacting with the lead. I just wonder if the composer of the title should have remained silent throughout and let the film and the music within it speak for him.

The Simplicity of Chaos (2015) is an absolute gem that came out of nowhere for me. It's a comedy that hits us with gag after gag and few miss the mark. What's more, it evolves very believably into a romantic drama while we're laughing and leaves us with as much of a grin as a chuckle. If you ever wondered how your life would be if you had superpowers, this is a film to check out because it nails it. You'll like it for reasons you don't realise yet.

Closing Doors (2015) is a tease of a drama that kept skirting badness with the lead actor's rambling improv and unneeded grin, but also kept nailing line after line to keep us paying attention and growing with the film. Every time I thought it was going nowhere, it arrived somewhere instead with a great line to hook me back in. It gets better as it focuses in and I realised the twist only a couple of lines of dialogue before it was revealed. I'd like to see it again now I know where it's going.
Me attempting to be as tall as the gents from Reading Out Loud
photo: Countess Chaos Creations

Block 9: The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man (2015)

I mentioned that today sent me on a number of freaky trips and that started here with an IHSFFF competition feature that plays like Tod Browning's Freaks would be if it were phrased as a Grand Guignol performance piece and set in an underground New York cabaret.

Mr Choade, a Groucho Marx flavoured impresario (the actor claims W C Fields as the key influence), has made a deal with the devil in the form of the Medicine Man of the title to swap the souls of young ladies for 'a temple of high art'. That's not a difficult thing to do when you're killing people on stage every night. It just means some of the fake deaths need to be real ones.

All performers except the leading lady are real performers whose grand guignol, burlesque or cabaret routines are great fun to watch. Mr Choade himself is only the most obvious character to remain in a carefully crafted stage persona even when off stage, suggesting that these folk never stop performing. Some viewers will have trouble with that approach, but I loved it.

I feel that this is an indie feature that will find a strong niche when it gets released. It's more Jodorowsky and less grindhouse than pictures like The Burlesque Assassins and it plays more consistently too. I'm very happy it got made and reached this festival screen and I wish it all the very best.
Me with writer/director/star James Habacker
photo: Shawn Flanders

Block 10: Sci-Fi Shorts A


I saw the Sci-Fi Shorts B set first but caught up with the A set today. Like B, it's an interesting set but most of the films remain better for their visuals than their stories. Fortunately there were a few exceptions here.

Project: Horizon (2015) I'd already seen because director Kirill Kripak sent it to me after kindly allowing me to screen his previous short, RomantiCorp, also an IHSFFF film, at a local convention. Beyond looking gorgeous, the dialogue between a spaceman trying to save the human race and his floating ball of AI is worthy of note. I only wish it were longer.

Clones (2015) boasts Rutger Hauer as its lead and that can never be a bad thing. He turns lines as banal as 'Good morning, Mr Freeman' or 'Everything seems to be in order' into poetic renderings. Here he's a doctor on a space station who's tasked with removing a large brain tumour from a maths genius. Conversation focuses on the backup procedure which would copy his consciousness into a clone and that's what the film is really about. There's a little annoying technobabble but otherwise this plays well and Hauer is as great as ever.

Back to the Gaia (2015) is a Chinese film that benefits from awesome locations in a variety of Chenzhou scenic spots. The story takes some leaps as a young lady attempts to locate a particular element in order to help the Earth recover from the asteroid strike that caused it to become uninhabitable decades earlier. Those attempts involve spaceships, caves and fog in the good old pulp tradition of Buck Rogers, or even the original Star Trek, and it carries as much fun as it lacks real substance.

Iris (2015) is my pick for best sci-fi short of the festival, not only because it puts story before effects work, without ever skimping on the latter. The NextPhone Iris has been released and it's a marvel of technology, obviously inspired by Apple Siri but clearly working with Microsoft minutes. The problem is that it's a little too bright, as a hitman finds out when he tries to bury a body that will land him $100,000. I adored this and its many levels. Bravo!

Jakob (2015) is a French short that places a spin on Asimov's laws of robotics, which it quotes at the outset. Jakob is a robot who looks very human because his costume is only a pair of blue contact lenses. He's under arrest for murder, which prompts intrigue because Asimov's laws say that can't be possible. The concept is explored reasonably well but I expected more from the ending.

Younglings (2015) played amazingly well at IHSFFF, unsurprisingly given that it's another glorious riff on Star Wars. What's different here is that we're in the future, where four old guys argue about the franchise while playing poker from a point where there have been five trilogies and a whole bunch more to discuss than we know today. Things build to a hilarious head and no pop culture fan can fail to be both moved and entertained by this one.

Avant (2015) is another intriguing French film about a robot, but this one is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a young boy scavenges for food and stuff, only to discover a robot following her. Where it goes I won't spoil but it really isn't a Hollywood film in all the best ways. It's subtle but always interesting and Yanis Richard does a great job as the boy.

As They Continue to Fall (2015) wraps up the set with John Henry Whitaker from The Class Analysis as a sort of hunter of angels. It takes an urban fantasy approach with film noir influences and it looks good in ways that the various special effects shorts don't. Its biggest problem is that it ends, as I would very much like to see the feature that this could easily grow into.

Block 11: Night of Something Strange (2016)

A few people had mentioned Night of Something Strange to me as a movie that goes beyond what most horror films would dare and they really weren't kidding. It certainly spends more time and effort going to places that up the ick factor than on concentrating on the story development, but that's fine because zombie movies aren't exactly deep in the first place and the vague underpinning theme here of schoolkids and STDs is more than many have.

Now, when I say 'ick factor', I don't mean gore, though there's a heck of a lot of that and it's done well. This isn't really influenced by the Italian gore legends, it's more like a Troma picture done with professionality and with heavy influence from the slasher movies of the 1980s. This could easily have been called Freddy vs Jason and Carrie and Christine feature heavily too.

So it begins with necrophilia and digs a deeper hole from there. Cornelius, who is surely the most outrageous character I've ever seen in film, measured by what he does in the screen time he has, rapes a corpse and obtains an STD that turns him into a bloodthirsty nymphomaniac zombie. He goes home, rapes his wife and, when she sticks him with a kitchen knife, rips out her uterus and eats it. Or is it an unborn foetus?

Anyway, that's just the first five minutes so merely the beginning both to his rampage and a wider plague. Both continue to find depths like these to plumb and the cast and crew enjoy the heck out of doing so. I won't spoil them because you deserve to be wet slapped in the face with them like the rest of us so I'll just say that they're both plentiful and imaginative.

It's not really disturbing (as some have said) and it's not really offensive (as others have said; that would be easier achieved by bringing religion and politics into the fray). It's just icky, professionally so and you'll watch it because it moves the bar up another notch and, in doing so, sets a challenge for the rest of the horror filmmaking community to outdo it.
Me with writer/director Jonathan Straiton and star Michael Merchant
photo: Shawn Flanders

Block 12: Coming Through the Rye (2015)

Working almost like a palate cleanser, I followed up the outrageous Night of Something Strange with a PFF competition feature that contains nothing outrageous whatsoever. It's a true story (well, mostly), written and directed by the man who did what his lead character does.

It's 1969 and Jamie Schwartz is a dorky outsider student at prep school who was affected by A Catcher in the Rye and identifies strongly with Holden Caulfield. He's adapted the novel into a play which he wants to produce for his senior project but there's one catch: permission from the author, J D Salinger, who is a notorious recluse.

After some decent character building, Jamie runs away from school with the goal of tracking Salinger down and obtaining his permission in person. Anyone who knows anything about Salinger knows what the answer is going to be but it's the journey that matters here as much as the destination and it's a good journey, one which opens his eyes and helps him to see what's around him.

James Steven Sadwith wanted real sixteen year olds to play his sixteen year olds and he cast well. Stefania Owen reminded me very much of Samantha Mathis in Pump Up the Volume, in very positive ways, and Alex Wolff is much more believably real than Christian Slater was in that film. Others, including the criminally underrated Chris Cooper as Salinger, support well.

Block 13: High-Rise (2015)

J G Ballard was a challenging writer who wrote challenging books and any film adaptation of his work has to retain that challenging nature or fail. This one does magnificently, as High-Rise hauls us through the degeneration of an insular society, disturbing us as much as if we were there.

It's shot superbly, the hallucinatory editing leaping out for attention but with many other jobs following quickly in its tracks. Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as Dr Robert Laing, a traveller within the various subcultures that grow up within a state of the art high-rise block from which, as in The Exterminating Angel, people seem incapable of leaving (except to go to work). They devolve into a microcosm of society, seen in a very dark light indeed.

This is definitely a film to watch more than once to figure out the many dynamics in play and I'll certainly be picking the original novel up off my shelf to help me flesh it all out. I grew up within the British class system, which makes this arcology an enticing and incredibly rich setting to explore. Only the timeframe seems odd, three months seeming rather quick.

Perhaps it touched me especially because the film's director, Ben Wheatley, to whom Ballard's novel clearly spoke, was born in the same small English town as I was and only a year after me. I don't know him but it's very possible that I did as a young child and the social fabric of Essex, outside but so close to London, must have worked similar things on both of us.

Block 14: The Greasy Strangler (2016)

I think I'm still in shock from The Greasy Strangler, which really isn't either a horror or sci-fi movie but which fits well into the underground world of cult film that horror and sci-fi fans so often inhabit. It's a comedy, I guess, that reminds of where someone like John Waters would go but in the bizarre world of, say, Napoleon Dynamite.

To say that this isn't a film for everyone is an abject understatement, but it's an experience that is likely to resonate with anyone who watches it. It could be outsider genius or it could be utter garbage, but it's not likely to be anywhere in between.

The actors are amazingly confident in their roles, given what those roles call on them to do, while the script is a strange creature that doesn't so much set up its jokes as carefully define them, strangle them to death while we watch, then revive them and run through the cycle a few more times until they're stuck in our minds like memes.

It's going to be an interesting experience to cover this one at length over at Apocalypse Later, but it'll surely become a Weird Wednesday review and, for regular readers, that should say plenty all on its own.