Monday 10 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Four

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Sunday 9th, which is Day 4.

With scheduling for the IHSFFF so good nowadays, I mainlined that over Friday and Saturday, catching every competition feature and short, as well as the showcase features in the evening. With those done, I spent most of Sunday catching a few PFF competition features, always favourites of mine.

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.

The AARP commercial is getting a little more annoying. Now I'm trying to figure out why the AARP dude teleports forward six inches halfway through his dialogue.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF 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 PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 15: Unnerved (2017)
While Unnerved was a PFF competition feature, it could easily have played the IHSFFF. It's likely to be described as a paranormal horror thriller but it's really a love story that happens to be set against the backdrop of a haunting.

We begin where most horror movies usually end, with a couple leaving their house, with their child left behind, just so that they can survive. As Frank says to his wife, Mallory, he's not going to lose her as well. Unfortunately she's seriously traumatised by whatever went down, to the degree that she grabs the wheel at speed, flipping them over a number of times.

Fast forward a few years and they've moved five times, finally to a lakeside cabin that Frank won't leave, remaining inside in the wheelchair his crash injuries earned him. However, they are still a couple; even if they have to fight Frank's self-pity and Mallory's guilt, they are at least still fighting to stay together during an ongoing nightmare that would have claimed most relationships.

The problem is that something is following them, something that does many of the usual paranormal things we know from crappy Hollywood movies but which are shown in an unusual way. This movie isn't about jump scares and visual effects, just as the lady this couple hire to help them is not your usual ghosthunter. This means that, while much of what we see isn't remotely new, it's all presented in a refreshing way and the focus on the couple is the most refreshing of all.

While it's cleverly written and capably shot, it would have failed horribly if the acting wasn't up to snuff because its success hangs on three actors. Fortunately they're all superb, especially Katie Morrison as Mallory, who gets the most to do, Frank being restricted in motion and their paranormal investigator Eleanor not showing up until quite a way into the picture. I was surprised to find that this was only her second picture and I look forward to seeing more.

'Unnerved' was a great way to start the day, as well as the PFF side of the festival for me. It didn't win anything tonight at the awards, but I felt that it was stronger and more consistent than the Best Picture winner, for which see two films below.

Block 16: Painless (2017)
While Painless was also a PFF competition feature it too could easily have played the IHSFFF. It's a drama but one with a strong science fiction base, namely the efforts of one man to find a cure for the disorder from which he's suffered since birth: the inability to feel pain. This leads to all sorts of odd alleys, especially trading studies of his body to a medical researcher for a restricted chemical that he needs for his experiments.

This disorder might sound like a wonderful thing to have, especially if you just stubbed your toe, but, as this man explains, pain keeps us safe and not feeling it means that you wouldn't tend to know when you've been hurt and that can be so dangerous that it could kill you. He's Henry Long and he puts ice cubes into cartons of Chinese food just to make sure that he won't burn his mouth. Think about it.

To Long, 'everything is a threat' and the story extrapolates from that line of dialogue to produce a lonely man who avoids relationships and any other 'distraction' from his quest to feel pain like everyone else. One fantastic angle, raised and left to resonate, is that every living thing experiences pain, even fish, so what does that make him? That must be the most extreme form of loneliness, to be unlike anything living.

It's the ideas that succeed the most here, courtesy of writer/director Jordan Horowitz, but Joey Klein nails the part of Henry too. He's Canadian but he appears like the love child of Christopher Walken and Tom Sizemore and he sells the part absolutely. We really feel for him, pun well and truly not intended, even if he's his own enemy and we feel for some of the people who have to deal with him as well.

The film was represented in person by writer/director Jordan Horowitz (no, not the one from the Oscars) and one of the producers, Anthony Ambrosino (I think). The lady on the left is Phoenix filmmaker and critic Shari K. Green.

Block 17: Brave New Jersey (2016)
While Brave New Jersey was another PFF competition feature, it was a third... well, the trend doesn't quite continue, but this drama was written out of the notorious Mercury Players broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, so it certainly has interest to genre fans.

I'll have to be really careful both here and especially when I dig deeper later on in a full Apocalypse Later review because it's really a 'stupid Americans' movie. We're in the small town of Lullaby, NJ, where the small town folk who live there are going about their small town lives until, that is, they tune into the radio and hear about Martians invading a town only a couple of hours away.

It's fair to say that 'panic sets in' but that's a wild oversimplification and this film does a great job of digging deep into what it really means, especially in an environment where the leadership is almost non-existent. The priest has lost his faith, the sheriff is a moron and the mayor is the odd job man around town whom everyone looks past. That means that Captain Ambrose P. Collins, the local PTSD sufferer, gets to rile them all up into making a stand.

For a film set in 1938, it also feels very timely. Faced with an unknown external threat that they can't quantify, the townsfolk leap into fighting, hiding or blaming but none leap into reading or checking the facts. That sounds like Facebook eighty years later. Other than Collins, who has his own agenda, only a little girl is savvy enough to realise what's actually going on.

Brave New Jersey won three awards tonight, including Best Picture and I can't argue too much. It looks great, it sounds great and the acting, from a string of recognisable faces from film and TV, is top notch. The script tops them all though, because it explores a host of different mindsets but never gets lost. There's a lot to read into this and I'll have fun writing a more detailed review.

The only downside for me was restricted to the unrealistic Hollywood ending, which was unworthy of the material that went before it.

Block 18: The Good Goering (2016)
Unless I get to see Land of the Little People, which looks utterly fascinating, The Good Goering is the only world cinema feature I'll get to see this year. It's a look at Albert Goering the lesser known but still notable younger brother of Herman, Hitler's right hand man.

While Herman was a Nazi from the beginning, being wounded in Hitler's coup attempt in 1923, the Beer Hall Putsch, Albert was opposed to the Nazis from moment one and he stayed there throughout his life; this film suggests that he saved a thousand people from death at the hands of the Nazis, many of them Jews.

The film combines a number of approaches into what could be regarded as a docudrama. There's stock footage and a number of interviews with relatives of the key players, including the Goerings. However, most of it is dramatised, with actors playing real people in scenes that fit the known facts but still extrapolate for poetic license. For instance, there's a great scene with the two brothers and a couple of ladies, both famous German actors, one of them Herman's latest wife. It revolves around Nazi jokes, of which Herman was an unusual fan, but beyond knowing that these people met at this time, nobody knows what they actually said. It just rings true.

This isn't the sort of film that you enjoy, but it takes an interesting look at an unusual angle of a well-known era, a well-known public figure and his unjustly obscure brother. It deserves to be seen.

Block 19: Hounds of Love (2016)
The IHSFFF showcase features I saw over the last couple of days have been interesting but haven't wowed me. Well, until now. I'm eager to see this film again because I want to see how it stands up now that I know how it unfolds. Right now, it feels like the best horror movie I've seen in a long, long time and, finishing up a weekend where I've puzzled over endings over and over again, it demonstrates clearly how they should be done. I know roughly where this would end up, but I didn't know how it would get there or what would happen on the way and it made me very happy indeed.

It's a tough film and, like Unnerved, it's not really a horror movie first. It's a drama about mothers, which unfolds against a horror framework in Perth, Western Australia.

One is Maggie Maloney, who has left her surgeon husband and moved into a rough neighbourhood; she gets her daughter Vicki two nights a week and has no compunctions about grounding her when her grades are bad. Given that dad buys her a puppy and lets her do what she wants, you can guess who she likes most and who she blames for the breakup.

The other is Evelyn White, one of a married couple a couple of streets from Maggie's house, who abduct young girls to feed their perverse sexual needs, then murder them and bury them in the vast woods not far out of town; Vicki is their latest acquisition. However, unlike her husband, John, who is your standard run of the mill sexual psychopath, Evelyn is a massively complex character. She's certainly not a good person, but there's a lot more going on in her head than in his. The parallels between her and Maggie only begin with them both being mothers who do not have custody of their children.

Parts of this felt familiar and this ground has certainly been trod before, but I don't recall a film that shifted the torture porn off into a bedroom while we watch the other half struggle with what's happening. Evie grew up with abuse and has continued the cycle, but she loves and hates John at the same time and she's acutely jealous of the girls who steal his attention away from her. We always know how John will act but we keep wondering what Evie will do next and that plays out with aplomb.

Emma Booth is a revelation here in a part that can't have been easy to play. There are scenes where she has to change her emotions half a dozen times as she walks down a corridor and she nails it absolutely. This has been a great festival for actresses, with The 6th Friend, Anti Matter and Killing Ground, not to mention Unnerved and Brave New Jersey today, but it keeps getting better and better.

As an IHSFFF showcase feature, Hounds of Love is only playing once but it'll become available somewhere you can access it and I recommend that you do so as soon as you can.


Sunday night is awards night at the Phoenix Film Festival. Here's the full list of winners with congratulations to each of them:

Here's the full line up of winners:

Best Arizona Short - One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts
Best Animated Short - Pearl
Best College Short - Jewish Blind Date
Best Live Action Short - The Babysitter Murders
Best Documentary Short - Happy (the short)
Best World Cinema Short - Friday Night
Best Latino American Directed Short - Written Off
Best African American Directed Short - Ori Inu: In Search of Self
Best Native American Directed Short - Legacy

Best Sci-Fi Short - Real Artists
Best Sci-Fi Feature - The Open
Best Horror Short - Wandering Soul
Best Horror Feature - The Night Watchmen

Arizona Filmmaker of the Year - Ryan Thomas Andersen
Volunteer of the Year - Randy Robinson

Best World Cinema Director - Yaniv Berman for Land of the Little People
Best World Cinema Feature - Land of the Little People
Best World Cinema Documentary - The Islands and the Whales
World Cinema Audience Award - Fairy Tales for Emma

Sydney J. Shapiro Humanitarian Award - Happy (the feature)

Best Arizona Feature - IMperfect
Best Ensemble - Brave New Jersey
Best Screenplay - Julian Fort for The Midnighters
Best Director - Jody Lambert for Brave New Jersey
Best Documentary - The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd Z-Man Zalkins
Best Picture - Brave New Jersey
Audience Award - Fallen

Note: the two wins for films called Happy are for different films: the first a short, the second a feature. And this in a year that also featured The Happys and Happy Hunting. Don't worry, PFF goers, be happy.

By sheer coincidence, I got a picture before the awards with Randy Robinson, who would go on to win a highly deserved Volunteer of the Year award, with me wearing Robinson tartan for the occasion. Congratulations, Randy!

So how did I do with my guesses at IHSFFF winners from last night? Well, not too well on the horror side, as it turned out, but I did fine with the sci-fi.

I cheated with Best Horror Feature by suggesting that any of the three were viable winners. However, Brandon chose The Night Watchmen, which was my third choice of the three because it was the least consistent.

I was way off the mark on Best Horror Short. I had two shorts far above the rest and even guessed at a third being Danny's pick, but he went for another one entirely: Wandering Soul, which I'm not going to argue about as it's an unusual and atmospheric piece.

I knew that Best Sci-Fi Feature had to be one of two, because the third was embarrasingly awful, but which one? I ended up with myself but guessed that Mike would pick the other and I was right: The Open it was.

I nailed Best Sci-Fi Short, but Real Artists really was a gimme. I'd be hard pressed to think of something that could beat it from the whole of the last decade of this festival.

So, good picks, folks! Thank you, as always!

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