Saturday 9 April 2016

Phoenix Film Festival - Day Two

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! this year and I'm kicking off with Friday 8th, which is Day 2.

Why not Day 1? Well, Day 1 for me is just picking up my press pass and tickets for the films on my schedule. For VIPs, it's the opening night film, which this year was Morris from America, and the opening night party, neither of which I can get into. So here's Day 2!

I got to see five features and two sets of short films today. 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 1: Jessica (2015)

Jessica is a drama playing in competition at the PFF and it's a heck of a gamble. It's a women's movie written by two men and it hangs entirely on the performance of the relatively inexperienced lead actress, Maya Boudreau, who is rarely off screen. Fortunately she does excellent work and the resulting film is well worth seeing.

That said, it's not one that's likely to stay with me because it's a character study focused on a woman who's not really that likeable, albeit for fair reasons. She obviously has some history to hide from that we'll discover as the film runs on and she's doing a good job of avoiding life. She alternately lives in her past and shrinking from it, which is an intriguing mixture. She manages to piss off everyone else in the picture without quite pissing off the audience, which is a neat trick.

Boudreau shines brightest but the story gives her a very deep character to shine as and it finishes up with an appropriate compromise that avoids both the usual Hollywood ending and terminally depressing us. I was less fond of Foley's editing than I was of his direction though.

Block 2: Horror Shorts A

The first block of Horror Shorts was a mixed bag, as they've been over the last few years.

Gotcher (2014) is a superbly put together horrific spin on an old childhood game that impresses in many ways but it ends just as we're getting into it. I want to see this feature not just its introduction! I doubt that'll happen, though.

Ideal (2015) is a very neat look at success and the lengths to which people are willing to go to get it, framed as a blistering commentary on the fashion industry and its extreme take on what the perfect body might be. Both the acting and the dialogue stand out for notice and I wouldn't mind a second look to see how well it stands up with foreknowledge of where it goes.

Blight (2015) was my favourite short in this set. It's an Irish drama revolving around a priest who attends an apparently possessed pregnant woman on a remote island, but it moves into a lot more than just exorcism. I can't say more without spoiling it and this one really deserves to be seen. It's also shot wonderfully with what appears to be just natural light from lanterns, candles and fires.

The Man Who Loved Flowers (2015) is a quirky short based on a Stephen King story and it's shot very well, but I found that story the weakest link by far. It feels like a heck of a lot of setup for a relatively cheap and unsatisfying twist. The still photographs during the end credits are beautifully done though.

A Way Out (2015) really isn't a horror movie, more of a gangster thriller, but it's a good one. Director Jason Tostevin is an IHSFFF regular, having provided us with the magnificent Till Death a couple of years ago and I Owe You last year. It's magnificently acted by Robert Costanzo as Vic the Pick, an aging gangster who wants to retire, with Adam Hampton able support. The dialogue is highly literate, wearing a clear Tarantino influence, but it's delivered well. It's also ably shot, given that we spend the entire film either in or next to the gangsters' car.

The Smiling Man (2015) was a real disappointment to me because it has absolutely no substance. It exists to showcase a man named Strange Dave as the freaky title character and it does that very well indeed but it does precisely nothing else at all. I expected it to go somewhere in the end but it couldn't be bothered.

Deathly (2015) was another lower point in the set, being ruthlessly predictable throughout. It's capably acted, with one excellent shock moment and a good last line, but it's been done so many times that we really don't need to see it again.

Yummy Meat: A Halloween Carol (2015) is another predictable story that is part of a series called Scary Endings. It's a cautionary Halloween story that's well put together with a fantastic performance by young Lucas Jaye. It also has Lou Ferrigno Jr as a werewolf and let's just say you wouldn't like him when he's hungry.

Welcome to the Party (2015) finished the set strongly. It's an odd piece that I'd love to see again because, while I think I know what's going on, I may be missing something. It's a complex nest of flashbacks (so what seem like a whole bunch of continuity errors aren't) revolving around an odd quintet of people. We spend the whole film trying to figure out what's going on but we're never bored. It's shot with style and the many segues are cleverly done. I think this one's going to resonate with me.

Block 3: Sci-Fi Shorts B

The second set of Sci-Fi Shorts was very promising but ultimately unfulfilling. I felt that most of the films were really good and really bad at the same time.

Tomorrow's Dream (2015) was easily the weakest of the bunch, playing like a good 48 hour film challenge entry. It's a time travel piece, with an overplaying actor attempting to go back to save the life of his dead wife and unborn child. His lab is an odd set of vaguely technical props but it's decent enough. The magic ending was uncalled for though.

Ozone (2015) was the first of a string of post-apocalyptic dystopian futures that this set took us to and it's by far the most gorgeous to watch. The cinematography, matte paintings and CGI are fantastic eye candy and the actors add to that style. The leads are generally silent with the dialogue abstracted a level to telephone operators, radio news broadcasters and robotic outputs. The story is cryptic and I'd like a second viewing to figure it all out. Surely it's not about a soldier who traverses a wasteland to save his RealDoll, but the nuances hid behind the amazing visuals. Maybe it's a Serbian thing but I doubt it.

Legacy (2015) was the only story in the set to really explore something in anything close to an original fashion and I enjoyed it immensely. It's an Aussie short about the transference of human consciousness but explores this by having a scientific genius avoid death by uploading himself into a device that allows him to occupy the body of his son on a part time basis and so continue his work. The problem, of course, is what that means to his son and the extrapolations are well handled indeed. Very nicely done.

Populace (2015) returns us to dystopia with a decent but overdone story of clones and conformity. It's far too blatant and it relies too much on cliché but it's well shot and acter with sharp editing. Why are all dystopian future so grim and oppressive? In reality, most people ignore their gradual erosion of rights and those in power don't have to exert any effort to oppress them. In dystopian films, though, everyone is either an authoritarian thug or a holy freedom fighter and a whole set of looks and feels have to be copied. Let's have some originality.

The Grid (2015) explores the odd concept of The Truman Show as a sort of competition. People choose to go into the virtual reality world of the Grid and attempt to escape from their deepest fears. It's shot in documentary style and revolves around a family who are caught up by the Grid. It has depth but can't avoid an expected ending.

Helio (2015) is another good looking dystopian future that overdoes it all to a massive degree and ends up bludgeoning us with cliché. This time, it's a society living underground after the Final War who dish out light at clinics and hide from what might be out there in the former world. One man fights to see what the rest don't want to know.

Block 4: The Dark Tapes (2016)

Oh, wow, I really didn't like this one, which is in competition for best horror feature, but I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the very concept of a found footage anthology. Who found these tapes and who collated them? I couldn't figure this out and the approach confused me.

While some of the segments feature interesting ideas, from the couple who hire a set of ghost hunters to the experimental physicists who believe that night terrors are real but operating at a different time dilation to the rest of us, none are really handled properly. We're kept bouncing around in time and location and the plot conveniences kept on proliferating to scary degrees. The inevitably hand held camerawork is yet another annoyance to add to this film's collection.

Block 5: Parallel (2015)

Parallel is absolutely a movie that needs two viewings, at least, to figure out properly. I'd love to see this again to see if I can continue to peel back the layers of the onion that combines time travel and parallel universes.

It's in competition for best sci-fi feature and, without seeing what it's up against yet, it feels viable for that honour. It certainly carries itself with a knowing pace and a self assured style and the leads are very capable. The picture knows what it's doing, even if we have to struggle to figure it out for ourselves.

The cast is very small, focused mostly on two actors who play multiple versions of themselves in slightly different universes. The connections trigger when one, a maths genius, obsessed with time travel because his pregnant wife was killed, makes it viable and does it himself.

There's a strong merging of science with spirituality here which probably makes more sense than I got out of it on a first viewing. I need to see this again to see if the complexity clears up or it's all going to fall apart completely. I'm not convinced yet which way it's going to go.

Block 6: Under the Shadow (2016)

Now this one was magnificent. It's a very international film, co-produced in the UK, Qatar and Jordan and shot in Iran, but it reaches similar heights as The Babadook and in similar ways.

We're in Tehran and the Iran/Iraq War is raging. Iraq is rumoured to be about to hurl missiles at its neighbour and many people are moving out of the capital city to avoid them. This tense background is heightened for a young wife and mother named Shideh because her political past during the revolution is blocking her from going back to school to become a doctor and her liberal ways put her at odds with society and even her husband, Iraj. He's deployed to a dangerous field hospital and their daughter, Dorsa, becomes inexplicably sick.

What unfolds from there could be explained either as the product of understandable stress or in a more sinister supernatural light, the work of djinni. As Shideh is told at one point, 'People can convince themselves anything's real, if they want to.'

Narges Rashidi is excellent as Shideh, though young Avin Manshadi may be better still as her daughter. The film is shot well, with one fantastic jump scare that had someone in the theatre respond audibly and almost jump out of his seat.

I'm not sure how widely this will find a release, but it's well worth tracking down.

Block 7: Dead Body (2015)

A fun way to finish off the night before heading back to Industry Night in the Party Pavilion tent, Dead Body is very much a popcorn flick, not standing up to a lot of scrutiny but entertaining us well enough and distracting us well enough with its fast pace in the meantime.

It appears to be the old cabin in the woods chestnut with a bunch of kids who've graduated from high school and are getting ready to go to Harvard. Certainly, the stereotypes are all there, but the actors don't have Hollywood physiques and the script is a little more clever than that. It cleverly turns a game of Dead Body into a real murder mystery by having people die for real and then point their fingers at whoever they can. It's a mixture of hide and seek and Clue that becomes a slasher movie.

Everyone's going to want to figure out the mystery, especially as the red herrings are plentiful, but it's ultimately unsurprising. It's also shot with almost no light, meaning that we can't see much of what goes on and the piece becomes a sort of radio play with periodic visual intermissions. I've never been more aware of a green EXIT light as I was during this movie and I don't think that's a good way to remember a film!

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