Friday 30 May 2014

LepreCon 40 Mini-Film Festival

The first time I hosted an Apocalypse Later mini-film festival was at LepreCon 39 in May 2013. That means that when I reprised the event with entirely new material for LepreCon 40 in May 2014, I was celebrating my first year as a programmer. I'll be doing so officially at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival in mid-June where I'll re-screen each of the local sci-fi shorts that I've screened at various events this year.

I've learned a lot as I've gone, from that first eyes wide open attempt at LepreCon, through similar follow ups at CopperCon and DarkCon to my return to LepreCon this year, as well as a similar programming event in a different format at Wild Wild West Con.

I expect to change some minor details as I program such mini-film festivals at conventions during 2014 and 2015. I may stick to short films and ditch the feature I've been adding after those sets. If I replay on a second night during the con, I should time it to begin an hour after the vendor hall closes. That sort of thing.

Mostly I believe I've found a pretty solid framework to work to. The most important decision I took has surely been to ditch the submission model and go entirely with carefully selected material, casting my net internationally but also taking a strong look at local films and, where possible, bringing out filmmakers for Q&As. It's the quality of the films that I screen that is bringing regulars back time and time again to see my selections.

And with that said, I'm going to start posting about the sets I've programmed thus far, to highlight the films and the filmmakers and to allow more people to see them, when they're available online.

First up, here's my anniversary set at LepreCon 40, which included nine short films from five countries and a feature.


Logan Must Make Star Wars (2014) 5m
Squishy Studios (USA)
dir: Nathan Blackwell (local filmmaker)

Trial of the Mask (2013) 13m
40+BC (USA)
dirs: Cory McBurnett & Bill Reichardt
not on IMDb

Terminus (2013) 13m
Angel Ruiz (USA)
dir: Angel Ruiz (local filmmaker)
not on IMDb

Timeholes (2013) 2m
Berry Cinema & Grey Area (UK)
dir: Ben Mallaby

The Secret Keeper (2012) 18m
College and Main Productions (USA)
dir: Bears Fonté

Present Tense (2013) 7m
Skinny Bones Productions (USA)
dir: Jaz Garewal (local filmmaker)

Elephants Dream (2006) 11m
Blender Foundation (Netherlands)
dir: Bassam Kurdali

Sight (2012) 8m
Bezaleal Academy of Arts and Design (Israel)
dirs: Daniel Lazo & Eran May-Raz

Evergreen (2006) 14m
The Team (Greece)
dir: Iphigeneia Kotsoni

Idaho Transfer (1973) 86m
Pando Company (USA)
dir: Peter Fonda

Three were local Arizona shorts, with two from elsewhere in the United States. The UK, the Netherlands, Israel and Greece also contributed a short film to round out the set. The feature was also American, a 1973 picture in the public domain called Idaho Transfer, directed by no less a name than Peter Fonda.

Logan Must Make Star Wars
Logan Must Make Star Wars was a submission to the A3F 48 Hour film challenge in 2014, where it won for Best Comedy, Best Director and the Brock H Brown Award for Best Script.

It's such a quintessential Squishy Studios comedy that we'd recognise it even if the cast didn't have familiar faces. The consistently funny tone is very recognisable from earlier films like Zombie Team Building and Masters of Daring, not to mention the Voyage Trekkers web series, but it's given a fresh target, namely the Star Wars series and its creator George Lucas.

Logan Blackwell, well known for a long series of lovable but inept characters, plays another one here. In shenanigans only summarised at the outset, he finds himself thrown back in time to 1974 where he causes the death of George Lucas. Horrified at the idea of a future without the Star Wars trilogy, he slaps on an astonishingly fake disguise which isn't questioned once and attempts to make A New Hope from memory. As they say, hilarity ensues as Logan highlights truth after truth about the first Star Wars feature in an effortless set of gags.

My first Squishy Studios film was Zombie Team Building, which played both the Phoenix Fear Fest and the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, and I've been hooked on their work ever since. I was honoured that writer/ director Nathan Blackwell allowed me to screen his rarely seen 2007 feature The Constant Epiphanies of Billy the Blood Donor at LepreCon last year. We also had a fun Q&A after the screening. I'm sure you'll see more from Squishy Studios at future events.

Most of their films are available online to watch for free, including this one, which is at YouTube and Funny or Die.

Trial of the Mask
There are fan films everywhere. Trial of the Mask serves double duty on that front because it's not just a Star Wars fan film, it's also a fan film about its lead character, Steampunk Boba Fett. It provided his alter ego, John Strangeway, with a means to go beyond mere cosplay and build depth, substance and history to his character.

Strangeway is based in Georgia but travelled to Arizona to be a special guest at Wild Wild West Con 3 in Tucson this March, where he granted me permission to screen the film wherever I wanted. Like so many filmmakers, making a short film is just the beginning; the real challenge is to get it seen and any new eyeballs are good eyeballs.

It's not without its seams. In particular, the CGI backgrounds are decent but can't match the rightfully acclaimed physical design of costumes like Strangeway's and the steampunk Darth Vader who hires him to track down and kill someone from his past.

It really tries to do everything a Star Wars movie does, which includes the inevitable asteroid avoiding scene, but however much that and certain other scenes should have been trimmed or removed, I still enjoyed this better than the official Lucas prequels. The heart of the story rings truer than the prequels too, because the effects on the ground are delightfully real, unlike the terminally shiny CGI that Lucas fell in love with. It also helps that Steampunk Boba Fett embraces playing down and dirty just like any legendary bounty hunter would.

Strangeway will be back in Arizona in June to appear at Phoenix Comicon, where this will be screened once more. He'll even be taking part in the Steampunk Fashion Show on the Saturday afternoon. In the meantime, you can check out Trial of the Mask online at YouTube.

The most recent addition to my LepreCon set, Terminus is a local Arizona film starring Angel Ruiz, who also wrote and directed. Ruiz is a versatile and experienced talent who keeps new films coming every year, many of which play on the big screen at the Phoenix Film Festival, which is where I first saw Terminus this year.

I found this one more consistent than last year's fun offering, Interceptor, because the script rang more true, even if, as Ruiz believably suggested during the Q&A at the Phoenix Film Festival, that it only sprang out of a desire to tell Michelle Palermo to fuck off on screen.

Ruiz plays a man looking for a job and Palermo is the boss who puts him through a trio of tests during his interview. Terminus is the name of the company, highlighted at the beginning of the film with a fake commercial, that specialises in 'people placement'. Certainly that's what happens by the time the credits run, just not in the sort of way you might expect.

Ruiz and Palermo are regulars in local short film, as is Carrie Fee, who plays Palermo's secretary. With a cast as strong as this and a crew just as reliable, it really falls to the script to determine whether this is going to be a keeper or not and in my opinion it's the best Ruiz has written for quite some time.

It can't be seen online yet because Ruiz has a habit of letting his films slip away after they're made and screened. Every time I meet him I press him to get them online or at least to get pages up on IMDb for them. Those without a background in Arizona film might be excused for believing he's only made a handful of pictures, but there are a whole slew of them waiting for him to share online. Here's another reminder, Angel!

I couldn't resist Timeholes, a short short from the UK that runs a mere two minutes. It's as true a time travel film as I've ever seen, not because it wraps up all the inevitable complexity in a believable knot but because it looks beyond the technical details at the reality of how the concept might be used. The time travellers here aren't Victorian gentlemen or white-robed scientists. They're party animals out on hen and stag nights.

I first heard about Timeholes in February at Boing Boing, because of the conditions of its release. Director Ben Mallaby released it online under a Creative Commons 3.0 license that allows it to be screened, remixed or otherwise adapted for free with attribution. I'm a big fan of Creative Commons licenses and chose to publish both my books under one, which allows for non-commercial adaptation with attribution.

On following the link to Vimeo, I was happy to find that not only was Timeholes freely available for me to screen, it was also an excellent little film, superbly constructed without an ounce of fat on its bones. It's well acted and well shot with excellent effects and a special nod being deserved to the prop department who found just the right penis whistle.

It's watchable for free online at both Vimeo and YouTube.

The Secret Keeper
I've been trying to schedule The Secret Keeper for some time, but couldn't get in touch with the director, Bears Fonté, until recently. I first saw it at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2013 and reviewed it at Apocalypse Later. It was one of my favourites from two stellar selections of short films from sci-fi programmer, Michael Stackpole.

Partly this is because it doesn't feel like your usual sci-fi short film. There are no spaceships or ray guns, not even any extrapolations of current technology. Instead, it introduces an odd profession, that of the secret keeper, which is exactly what you think except in a more literal way. The service provided by a secret keeper has strong comparisons to both prostitutes and confessors, making it a fascinating mix of the sacred and profane.

I was hooked just on the concept, but Fonté script from a story he wrote with the excellent lead actor, Sara Fletcher, placed it into a believable world that isn't ours but isn't too far away from it. It's one of those films that plays better to me each time I see it and I was impressed on the first time through.

The Secret Keeper is not available to watch online at this time, though a number of trailers for it are.

Present Tense
I like to mix up my mini-film festivals so that the selections play well together but carry different tones, explore different sub-genres and never feel like they've repeated anything. Present Tense is another film I saw at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, made by a Tucson filmmaker called Jaz Garewal, who I'd forgotten had made another short film that I reviewed a couple of years ago, BlamBlamBlam ClickClickClick.

It's another comedic time travel movie, but with a completely different take to Logan Must Make Star Wars or Timeholes. This plays it far more conventionally but then ratchets it up beyond any level I've seen before.

The scene is a wedding, where Alex and Cynthia are about to become man and wife, but a future Alex throws a spanner into the works by appearing out of nowhere to try to convince him not to go through with it. Then another future Alex appears to tell him the exact opposite. And on and on it goes, until we can't fail to laugh at the insanity of it all. Yet each and every one of the many time travel paradoxes has been done before, sometimes recognisably and sometimes not.

Because it's so closely parodying famous films, this is the sort of picture where we cringe at the first homage, become bemused at the second one and gradually fall in love with how far Garewal was willing to take it, somehow wrapping it all up neatly at the end. I waylaid him immediately after his Phoenix Film Festival screening to ask for permission to screen it again at LepreCon, which he thankfully granted.

It's not available to watch online yet, but given that it was funded through Kickstarter I'm sure it will be at some point.

Elephants Dream
This 2006 Dutch animation from the Blender Foundation, cited as 'the world's first open movie' was my backup for a film I couldn't get permission for in time, but it's a visual treat. Blender is open source 3D rendering software and the folk behind it have made a number of films using it that get better all the time. I've screened one of them before, Tears of Steel.

The story of this one is too obscure for my tastes, the very deliberate open ending leaving a lot of unanswered questions, but visually it's a surrealistic gem, even after eight years, so I threw it in to segue between the wild comedy of Present Tense and the creepy near future realism of Sight.

All the Blender Foundation films are available to watch online for free and they're Creative Commons licensed which allows people like me to screen them in sets like this.

This one's at Vimeo and YouTube, as well as the Internet Archive.

I fell in love with Sight at the inaugural Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival last year, where it was almost the last film I saw on the Sunday afternoon after most people had left. It's an Israeli film, stunningly a graduation project at the Bezaleal Academy of Arts and Design, and it contains one of my favourite end credits sequences of all time that you just have to pay attention to. Before that is a chilling look at near future technology, extrapolated from imminent and already controversial concepts like Google Glass.

Sight is very similar augmented tech, but it goes a number of steps beyond what Google are aiming to shake the world with. Instead of a pair of glasses, Sight is more like a pair of contact lenses, that stay in all the time and drive every part of Patrick's day. It also turns almost everything into a game, from chopping up cucumbers to recognising constellations. The sinister side arrives when he applies this to dating Daphne.

There's so much to say about this film that I'll surely write a lengthy review at Apocalypse Later at some point, but suffice it to say that it's well shot, well acted and with amazingly well integrated CGI to overlay what the characters see through their Sight systems. With everything important digital, there's little to provide in the way of traditional sets. Patrick's apartment appears empty to us, just a couch and a blank wall, because he lives inside his Sight. I'd love to watch this again in ten years time and see how much of it has become routine.

Sight can be watched for free at Vimeo, where it was a deserved Staff Pick, and at YouTube.

The theme of LepreCon this year was '50 Shades of Green', which sounded way cool but turned out to be next to impossible to program around. All I could conjure up was muppet porn, so I found an image of Miss Piggy in bondage gear with Kermit on a leash to throw up as a backdrop. The one short film that I felt fit the real theme properly was this one, a short film from Greece by director Iphi Kotsoni.

It's a deceptive science fiction film because it starts out as a fantasy, with a woman bringing news to a village and hoping that tribal mistrust won't cause problems. Everything is beautifully realised, from the sets to the props via the costumes. The cast were well chosen, the lead being a believably strong woman in a world dominated by men. Even the tattoos are notable and the colour green is a very strong thematic element.

How fantasy becomes sci-fi you'll need to find out by watching the film yourselves, but it's through a stunningly believable escalation that reminded me of the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey, feudal fantasies that became pure science fiction over a series of world building.

Evergreen can be watched for free online at YouTube. This link is to the version with English subtitles but there are others that favour French or Greek.

Idaho Transfer
And so to the feature, which for a change was new to me as well as everyone else in the audience. I struggled to find a film that fit the theme of the convention but which I'd be able to find permission to screen, so I eventually settled for Idaho Transfer, a 1973 feature in the public domain, on the basis of what I'd read about it and the fact that I'd found a better quality copy than is normally available in the usual box sets.

It turned out to be an odd film, but one that generated some interesting discussion after the credits rolled. While I wouldn't call it a great movie, it has, however, stayed with me so there are definitely strong positive sides to it.

While the director is well known, being twice Oscar-nominated Peter Fonda making his second of three films as a director, the cast were and still are almost all unknowns, the only exception being a small role for a young Keith Carradine. The location is also a strong character in itself, the film being shot in the bleak Mountains of the Moon national park in Idaho.

It's another a time travel movie, one clearly birthed from the counterculture scene of the late sixties but with a pessimistic tone that is all seventies. The feel is that everything was possible until the Man screwed it all up. We're never told quite what ecotastrophe befell the planet, just that one did and we watch an odd set of youths flounder around in the aftermath until a stunningly out of the blue finalé.

It's an odd film in that it's consistently slow and nothing much happens in it, but it's haunting in a way that makes the hour and a half running time seem short. The jolt of the finalé shakes us out of what is almost a hypnotic state to ponder on the themes. I'm happy to have experienced this for the first time in good company with a chance to talk about it immediately afterwards.

And that was my mini-film festival for LepreCon 40 in May 2014. Next up, I'll work backwards to Wild Wild West Con and DarkCon.