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.

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