Sunday 9 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Three

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Saturday 8th, which is Day 3.

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.

Surprisingly, none of the preview material is annoying the crap out of me yet, which is unusual for something I get to see twenty or thirty times in one week. I do want to tell the AARP lady that Phoenix isn't gorgeous or warm; the state of Arizona is gorgeous but Phoenix is the boring bit down and over a little and we escalate past warm when we hit February. I also want to tell the AARP gentleman that it's rude to tell a lady who's dining out alone that she can take her friends anywhere; she clearly doesn't have any or there would be another glass on that table.

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 8: Inherit the Stars: The Director's Cut (2016)
The films programmed for IHSFFF, especially the features, tend to be of consistently high quality. Every now and then, though, there's an exception, like Monster Brawl, Betamax and now Inherit the Stars.

This was the worst film to schedule at 9.00am on a Saturday, with many of the attendees recovering from seven sets of films on their full Friday and very little sleep. Those of us who made it through to the end, and many didn't, should get a badge of honour for the achievement. I like many slow films, including the controversial Beyond the Black Rainbow, which played IHSFFF in 2012, but this is so slow that it almost ran backwards.

It's a Japanese feature, that sounded intriguing and action-packed: Russian and American soldiers tracking down 'witches', which here mean those with extra-sensory powers, like being able to start fires with their minds. It turned out to be the opposite of action-packed. This founds an entirely new genre, that of the inaction movie, where nothing happens and the actors do their best to mimic human statues by freezing their muscles into place.

You know the explanatory monologues that Bond villains are contractually obligated to deliver? This movie is a series of such monologues that seem neverending. About six hours from the end, I thought the next monologue would be the last... and the next... and the next... but they just kept on coming.

The only thing I liked here was the beautiful Japanese countryside and the fact that the torture did, eventually, end. The acting was so minimal that I felt like I was watching a collection of still photographs, even when they emoted their hearts out. The score was epic and overblown emotional music that didn't fit at all. The story had more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese.

What scared me the most is that this is the Director's Cut. I can only assume that the original is a four minute short and they just stretched it out to two and a quarter hours.

Block 9: Horror Shorts A

With Horror Shorts B full of comedians, I was on tenterhooks as to whether Horror Shorts A would follow suit. It does.

The comedy starts immediately, with Unfinished Business (2016), in which a new employee at a big but surprisingly empty corporate behemoth is surprised to find that he can see the dead. When he helps one pass on safely to the next world by having all new employees watch the hitherto ignored sexual harassment training video, he finds that the rest are all tormented too and he must help them find peace. It's a solid short that delivers the laughs but it's nothing special and I doubt anyone didn't see the twists coming.

Next up is something truly original, which is a real plus in these comedy shorts sets. It's Wandering Soul (2016), an Australian film that's predominantly in Vietnamese. It has to do with a couple of Viet Cong hiding in underground tunnels during the Vietnam War. One wants to leave because the Americans are coming, but the other stays to appropriately honour the dead who are buried in the walls, reciting the right prayers and performing the right rituals. It's appropriate atmospheric and claustrophobic and the twist is all the more brutal because it's true, something that I plan to do some serious reading up on.

Spell Claire (unknown year) returns us to comedy with a predictable but superbly constructed short. Claire is gaga for nostalgia and her kick is the eighties, so when she finds a Speak & Spell like the one that dominated her childhood, she snaps it up and takes it home. Wendy Jung, who plays Claire, is gloriously expressive and her reactions are priceless when her fun starts to twist away from what she expects. The crew did a fantastic job of making the toy look and sound right, which underpins the progression of the story.

Creatures of Whitechapel (2016) mixes things up completely. It's a steampunk horror that combines Dr. Frankenstein's experiments with the Jack the Ripper murders. It's long, but vibrant, filled with garish colour, wild characters and mad antics, just like a film should when it's inspired by the penny dreadfuls. Rick Macy channels Christopher Lee as Dr. Pretorius and Carlee Baker is a revelation as Frankenstein's assistant, Igor, surely the lead role, but everything backs them up. It's not remotely subtle, but it isn't meant to be.

Shah Mat is a short twist film from Kirill Kripak, who tends to be represented at IHSFFF by sci-fi shorts. A man inexplicably finds himself on an old boat where he's expected to play chess with Death. We expect a twist but the one that arrives may not be the one we think is coming. It's simple but effective.

While the previous two films aren't comedies, there's much comedy in them. Mister Sewer's Murder Room returns us to outright comedies and it's really effective. Six idiots wake up chained to toilets in an underground room. There are things around them and a man with a sinister voice hurling out challenges, but their reaction isn't quite what we might expect. I'm giving the edge to Born Again but that and this could battle it out for the best comedy of this year and either could win. That there's depth behind the laughs is a real bonus.

The set finished up with A Horror Story, the generic name having a good reason to be there. It's apparently the third in a series of shorts following a character who is really good at making really bad decisions. This time, he's trying to get back together with his wife at a Halloween party but a single decision has a catastrophic outcome. It's well put together with good acting and some great comedic timing and I'm eager to see the other two in the series, but it isn't as consistently on the money as the prior short.

Block 10: The Night Watchmen (2017)
Brandon Kinchen did a fantastic job selecting the horror features this year, with three very different films that could each conceivably win out as Best Horror Feature. This is the funny one of the three and it's a relatively consistent laugh, with only a few scenes getting too stupid or too clichéd. Think Shaun of the Dead if London was Baltimore and zombies were vampire clowns. Yes, I said vampire clowns and, really, do you need another reason to watch this?

A young man joins the security crew at The Gazette but his training is interrupted by the erroneous delivery of Blimpo the Baltimore clown's coffin, which had been flown back home from Romania after he and his troupe had died of an unknown illness. When Blimpo arises in the warehouse as a clownpire, the building is quickly overrun and it falls to the night watchmen and one hot journalist to save the day.

It's not surprising to find that two of the four night watchmen are also two of the three folk who wrote this script, because they know to play it as if it was utterly real to the characters. The movie knows that it's funny but the characters don't and that's crucial to making this work (and the reason why so many modern comedies don't). Ken Arnold is like an American Simon Pegg (with bigger muscles), Kevin Jiggetts is hilarious as the 'worst black man ever' and Dan DeLuca is a suitably sinister Italian. Max Gray Wilbur is the new fish and he gets some fantastic scenes too.

Local favourite Tiffany Shepis shows up in a cameo that isn't substantial but surely gave her a fun day's shoot. The other recognisable name is that of James Remar, who I've never seen play a character so gloriously wild and perverted as this one.

I, along with most of the audience, laughed my ass off during this movie but it occasionally falls prey to temptation and gets stupid for the sake of being stupid; the fart thing was funny once but gets old immediately after that. The ending, while capable, is also underwhelming and leaves some odd loose ends.

Block 11: Sci-Fi Shorts A

Sci-Fi Shorts B yesterday was comprised of five long shorts but A is more traditional, full of the variety that is science fiction and evidence once again that Mike Stackpole knows exactly how to program a set that flows.

Like almost always, he kicks off with a short animation, this time a Chinese film called in the west Dogstein: Super Science Adventure (unknown year) that was clearly inspired by German expressionism and Japanese tokusatsu. A dog catches frisbees thrown by a robot, but there's a reason for this that puts it firmly into sci-fi territory. It's a good settle down short to start a set.

Dark Machine (2016) appears to be a film noir for quite some time, with a Dutch photographer getting involved with a scientist's wife after a mysterious phone call gives him her name and a party assignment puts him in the same place at the same time. It's well acted and I wasn't surprised to find Fockeline Ouwerkerk singing because her speaking voice is a langurous treat all on its own. I'd have liked a little more to the ending but this is a solid short that mixes genres well.

The New Politics (2016) is a peach of a playful short that builds us capably in one direction, with future politics replaced by global games with designated representatives battling it out. However, The Hunger Games this isn't; writer/director Joshua Wong pulls the carpet right out from under us and we applaud him for it.

The Night Shift (2016) is a dark little creature that applies the model used by many shopping mall pet stores that put expiry dates on their animals (the opposite of a no kill shelter) to unwanted children during an overpopulation boom. It's well written and well constructed and it raises in brutal fashion some interesting points of discussion, but could have done with a little bit more polish.

While Girl #2 (unknown year) played in a sci-fi set, it really had no business being there. It felt like there were so many horror-themed comedies in the horror sets that they overflowed into this one. Featuring a sorority house whose residents are being killed by a giant wacko with a sledgehammer, it relies on solid acting to sell the neat twist and the unknown actress in the lead does a fantastic job.

Real Artists (2017) isn't just the best sci-fi short screening at IHSFFF this year, it may well be the best sci-fi short I've seen in a decade (and Mike Stackpole has brought us a few other solid contenders in that time). It's a story about a young lady who has been invited to apply to work at an major animation studio (we're clearly supposed to think Pixar from the modified posters on the wall). She's given a tour by the ever-lovely and talented Tamlyn Tomita and the real artists watching will be horrified to see how their films are actually made. Everything about this short is spot on including the lead performance by Tiffany Hines (from Bones) who matches Tomita step for step. Discussion will always return to the script, though, which is based on a story by Ken Liu. It's topical and applicable to current trends, it raises ethical concerns about culture and art, and it simultaneously impresses us by what may well soon be technologically viable and horrifies us that it might actually happen. It's a great example of how much can be done with only twelve minutes.

Everybody in sci-fi fandom will laugh aloud to Where No Jedi Has Gone Before (2016), which is a neat extrapolation of the Star Trek vs. Star Wars cultural war into a metaphor about race. A young white man shows up in jedi robes to dinner with his girlfriend's family, all Japanese and wearing Starfleet uniforms. It's sharp, it's funny and it's even touching, but it's not quite as great as I thought it was on first viewing. It turns out to be merely damn good and the final twist is glorious.

And that leaves another genre-merging short called The Massacre at Black Divide (2016), which plays out like a western but is really a sci-fi yarn that plays in a time loop. One man hunts a notorious mass murderer in the California Sierras of 1881 for reasons that turn out to be self-fulfilling. It's well shot, well acted and well written, but there could have been a little more grounding to ensure that we got what was going on.

There were filmmakers present from a couple of these short films, but I was only ale to get a picture with Ryan Gold of The Night Shift. Maybe I'll find The Massacre at Black Divide folk tomorrow!

Block 12: The Open (2015)
The last of the sci-fi competition features, The Open is thoroughly original and oddly engaging. It's a post-apocalyptic movie in roughly the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a space telephone movie, in that it's true but that's hardly important in the grand scheme of things. We see a nuclear explosion in western Europe and the world is plunged into war, but we don't see much of that. We spend our time playing tennis.

Mark Lahore, who wrote and directed, takes some experimental approaches to filmmaking that mostly succeed. The film is almost entirely shot with only three people and perhaps even fewer buildings because almost everything is outside on the austere but beautiful Hebridean islands of Scotland. Some of the scenes are shot as sequences of effectively edited still photographs and the beginning is handheld footage. It even bounces back and forth between French and English, often within sentences. Yet it all plays well together, as do our characters once they get settled in.

With Paris destroyed and Europe engulfed in war, tennis player Stéphanie Tavernier, who's ranked number four in the world, moves to the UK with her trainer, André. They wander around the wilderness training for the French Open, which they know full well isn't going to happen. For better effect, they kidnap a newly enlisted British soldier called Ralph, who had cracked the Top 1000 rankings, to train with her.

What's weirdest is that they don't have anything except their imaginations and the things around them. They mark out courts on beaches or in fields, they use rackets with no strings and they don't even have a ball. The sight of capable players volleying an imaginary object is only matched by the imaginary games which Stéphanie and her coach play constantly.

There's a lot here to explore and I know I need to watch again to clarify a few minor details, which are thin on the ground. We know there's war, but we don't know who started it or who's even fighting. It's irrelevant to the characters, who do what they do for their own reasons, whether it's for emotional stability, out of guilt, to help others or even because it's all they know. We join this madhouse with Ralph, so we discover along with him and our reactions don't always mirror his but we understand how his views grow and change.

This isn't going to be for everyone but those with a more imaginative bent might get a real kick out of this one.

Block 13: Dave Made a Maze (2017)
Of all the showcase features at IHSFFF this year, Dave Made a Maze looked the most imaginative by far, but that sort of film often falls apart horribly when ambition outstrips ability. Fortunately, this one, with a few minor caveats, does precisely what it aims to do and it does it very well indeed.

It's a surreal idea but an enticing one. Dave's girlfriend arrives home from a trip to discover their apartment filled with a cardboard labyrinth, which Dave has built, entered and become lost in. Yes, he's lost in a maze in his apartment and that's because it's literally taken on a life of its own and is much bigger on the inside.

As it's a comedy, we know all sorts of uninvited guests show up and, against Dave's express wishes, join him inside. Their quest for escape is thoroughly engaging, in part because of the fantastic designs in cardboard and origami and in part because of the sheer imagination hurled at the screen by writer/creator Steven Sears and writer/director Bill Watterson. I shouldn't spoil them but I enjoyed this as much for its variety as for its dialogue, design and sheer surreality.

The letdowns are few and far between and the biggest one for me was that picture wraps up with an appropriate but safe and underwhelming ending that I would rather have seen as substantial and imaginative as everything that went before it.

The star is Nick Thune, who has a Leonardo DiCaprio vibe to him, but the most recognisable faces is Kirsten Vangsness, who I adore on Criminal Minds but who is rather annoying here, and Adam Busch, who was Warren on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who is drily hilarious here.

This may not be the best film of the festival but it's the must see picture and the theatre was sold out. This will surely go into quick distribution so check it out whenever you get a chance.

Block 14: Killing Ground (2016)
Saturday wrapped up with an Australian horror thriller called Killing Ground, which is decent and capable without ever really wowing us. One problem is that the film alternates frequently between two different dates but with the same characters often doing the same things, so it's going to be confusing until we realise that.

The present features a couple called Ian and Sam who go camping at Gungilee Falls. They find a toddler wandering around the campsite who presumably belongs to the family in the other tent who have completely vanished. They investigate, of course, but this is a horror movie so that's never going to end well.

The past revolves around the toddler's family who came to the same camping site some time earlier. It's a family of two young grandparents, their grown daughter and her very young son.

Hopefully it isn't a spoiler to mention that I appreciated, especially in an Australian feature, that a woman can kick arse while a man can flounder and panic. How we get to that point is shot superbly, with some incredible views of the New South Wales bush.

There's also some fantastic choreography, with on scene that rocked my world, that being the one when a woman walks toward us and the baby shows up out of nowhere wandering through the background with the focal point blissfully unaware. It's the sort of thing we expect from a serial killer set to shock us but this is subtle and so perhaps even more shocking.

Like a few films today, the ending was underwhelming, but unlike the others, this one may be appropriate because the information we need is there for us and we can write the next few scenes in our heads. It's just odd for a few of them not to be attempted anyway.

Award Suggestions

There are four awards given out at each year's IHSFFF: Best Feature and Best Short Film in each of the two categories, Horror and Sci-Fi. I don't have a great track record of picking the winners, but I'll give it a shot publicly and see how things turn out at tomorrow night's Award Ceremony.

Best Horror Feature

Any one of the three horror features is worthy of a win, but I'd go with Happy Hunting as the most consistent and deepest of the three. As programmer Brandon Kinchen gives this a lot of thought, I think he might agree with me.

Best Horror Short

I'd say that there are only a couple of contenders for Best Horror Short but it's picked by programmer Danny Marianino, who has a habit of giving this award to films that I wouldn't and, in some instances, wouldn't even have selected. I'd go with Black Ring over Born Again, but Danny is morely likely to go with the latter or even Mister Sewer's Murder Room.

Best Sci-Fi Feature

This is a tough one because the two real competitors are so different. I think I'd go with Anti Matter over The Open but programmer Mike Stackpole could well go the other way and I couldn't argue with him.

Best Sci-Fi Short

This is the only gimme this year, in my opinion. While there are a number of really good films, especially in the Sci-Fi Shorts A set, Real Artists is head and shoulders over all of them. Just in case Mike isn't as fond of that one as I am, I'd suggest Enora as the most likely film from the rest.

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