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

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