Monday 16 April 2018

Phoenix Film Festival 2018

I've been providing daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival (and especially its International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival genre track) for a number of years now and, this year, I wrote it for Nerdvana, as I did in 2015. Thanks, Jayson, for the platform.

Harkins has renovated the Scottsdale 101 since last year's festival, replacing the small traditional theatre chairs and cramped aisles with large recliners and spacious walkways, so there are half as many seats in each theatre as there were. Given that there are always sold out screenings and many more come close, that change would have limited the ability of moviegoers to get into a lot of what they'd have liked. The Phoenix Film Foundation, which runs the event, proactively countered that problem by extending the festival to eleven days and having films screen more often. Each competition film got three screenings this year instead of two, on top of any encore performances they might earn by winning an award.

I found out that eleven days makes for a long event, even if it includes two weekends, but this year's selections were so consistently good that it still felt worthwhile to forego sleep every time. Press don't get into the opening night film, so I was there for ten days and I wrote daily coverage for each of them after getting home.

Looking back, I'm not sure how I stayed awake throughout. Over those ten days, I watched 43 movies (either features or feature length blocks of shorts), wrote almost 23,000 words in daily coverage, travelled 600 miles to the theatre and back, worked four days and filed my taxes. Needless to say, I didn't sleep much. At one point during day nine, I decided to miss the only non-IHSFFF film on my schedule for the day and sleep in the car instead.

Here's my experience in miniature with links to my daily coverage:

Day 1: Friday, 6th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much (2017)
dir: C. J. Wallis

Fascinating documentary about Theodore 'Ted' Slauson and his experiences with and on the gameshow The Price is Right, leading up to the moment when Terry Kniess bid the exact amount in the Showcase Showdown. Recommended.

DriverX (2017)
dir: Henry Barrial

Henry Barrial's third feature at PFF after Pig and The House that Jack Built and the first one that didn't win a Best Feature award. It's a drama that follows a man who works for DriverX, a fictional Uber, as he discovers that he's lost touch with the current generation. Highly recommended.

All the Wild Horses (2017)
dir: Ivo Marloh

Another documentary, this one about the longest and toughest horse race on the planet, the Mongol Derby, which runs for 1,000 km across the Mongolian steppes, mirroring the path of Genghis Khan's postal service. Fascinating stuff and the winner of the Audience Award in the World Cinema category. Recommended.

The Last Movie Star (2017)
dir: Adam Rifkin

A very old Burt Reynolds shines as the title character, who accepts an invite to be honoured at a tiny film festival not far from where he grew up. Ariel Winter is just as great as the punk chick who ends up driving him around. This showcase feature touched me on two fronts, that of someone living a long way from home and someone who runs a small film festival. Highly recommended.

Hunting Lands (2018)
dir: Zack Wilcox

A slow and mostly dialogue-free thriller, this won Zack Wilcox the Best Director award and that's well deserved. It's not what most directors would have made, but that's how we discover talent. It follows a man who has retreated to the Michigan woods but, while hunting, finds a woman left for dead. It's far from action packed but it's fascinating. Recommended.

The Idea of Manhood (2018)
dir: Serge Kushnier

Winner of both Best Picture and Best Screenplay, the judges liked this more than I did but it's an interesting, if very low budget, look at the lives of two men, one who drops in unannounced on the other and stays the weekend. The humour is clever and that helps to lighten the philosophical dialogue-driven script.

Cynthia (2018)
dirs: Devon Downs and Kenny Gage

A highly popular start to the IHSFFF, at least half a dozen people went back to see it again a few days later. It's an over the top horror comedy from the folk behind Girls and Corpses magazine about a couple who finally manage to conceive but end up with a baby and a living tumour. The cast have fun, though the supporting actors (Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Robert LaSardo and Lynn Lowry) steal the show, along with the title puppet. Recommended if you have the stomach for it.

Day 2: Saturday, 7th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

On Borrowed Time (2018)
dir: Yasir Al-Yasiri

"Life is what you make it" sounds utterly poetic in Arabic and we discover that watching four friends at a home for the elderly in Dubai rekindle the spirit of life in surprising ways. This is often very funny as a comedy but it's also an impressive drama, with a couple of great performances from Sad Al-Faraj and Salloum Haddad. Recommended.

The Guilty (2018)
dir: Gustav Möller

An ambitious thriller from Denmark, this feature not only unfolds in real time but away from all the action. While a kidnapping case unfolds, we watch the cop working as a 112 operator (999 for Brits or 911 for Americans) throughout. I was thoroughly impressed and the vicious twists have stayed with me. Highly recommended.

Under the Tree (2017)
dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Another northern European thriller, this drama from Iceland is less tense but just as vicious in its way. It revolves around two families who live next to each other but don't get on. How the argument about a tree overshadowing a porch escalates is both brutal and ironic. Recommended.

Summer of 84 (2018)
dirs: François Simard and Anouk & Yoann-Karl Whissell

One of the best IHSFFF showcase features this year, I enjoyed it immensely but don't ever expect to go back to it. It looks back to the eighties very well indeed, in both style and substance, with a story about kids who believe they've figured out who the local serial killer is and try to prove it. Recommended.

Imitation Girl (2017)
dir: Natasha Kermani

While I didn't get this at the time, partly for cultural reasons, it stayed with me throughout the rest of the festival and grew inside my head. Lauren Ashley Carter is certainly a revelation in a dual role as a classical pianist turned porn actress and an alien who shows up on our planet as black sludge and forms into her lost half. I'd love to see this again to see how much better it plays second time through.

Day 3: Sunday, 8th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Touched (2017)
dir: Karl R. Hearne

A thoroughly imaginative and genre-bending thriller, this is part ghost story and part psychological drama, in which a tenement landlord who's 'touched' (ie not quite right in the head) investigates the death of one of his tenants, who talks to him in the form of her nine year old self. Hugh Thompson is marvellous as the lead but he's gifted with a fantastic part. Highly recommended.

More Than Enough (2017)
dir: Anne-Marie Hess

This was renamed before the festival to Good After Bad but should be renamed back because the original title has a lot more meaning to it. Whatever it's called, it's an indie drama about an odd relationship between a female problem child in high school and an adult male friend of a friend who takes her in as his ward. That there's nothing sexual in play is only the first cliché avoided and it continues to avoid them throughout. Billy Burke is excellent and Maddie Hasson is pretty good too. Recommended.

The Best People (2017)
dir: Dan Levy Dagerman

I adored this comedy drama, which has an intriguing premise: a couple meet, fall in love and plan to be married, but their respective best people (best man and maid of honour) think it's the worst idea they've ever heard and they team up to save their friends. As a comedy, this is hilarious, often outrageously so. As a drama, it reels itself in and doesn't end the way we might expect. Anna Lieberman is fantastic as one of the would-be saboteurs. Recommended.

Rock Steady Row (2018)
dir: Trevor Stevens

I found that I liked the idea of this movie more than I liked the movie itself. It's an old story—Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, depending on how old you are—transplanted into a dystopian American college campus where the currency du jour is bicycles. If you think that's a great idea, you'll love this movie. If you think it's stupid, you won't.

Day 4: Monday, 9th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Free Fire (2016)
dir: Ben Wheatley

This isn't a new film and was included in the Recent Retro section of theatrical films from the last few years that we might have missed. I certainly missed this one and was very happy to not miss it again. It's a real time battle set in Boston in 1978, where Irish terrorists are buying guns from the Americans. One unfortunate quirk of circumstance (and two idiots gofers) and everything goes pear-shaped. This is a wonderful film full of tension, memorable dialogue and great choreography, not to mention the best use of a golden oldie since Reservoir Dogs. Highly recommended.

Zoo (2017)
dir: Colin McIvor

A family friendly look at one schoolboy's bizarre experiences in Belfast during World War II. German bombs are coming and he's unhappy that the ministry has ordered the dangerous animals in the zoo shot, in case they're freed. He steals the elephant and works to keep her alive and safe until such time as he can return her. It's done well, so if you're grinning at that synopsis, this film is for you.

Lowlife (2017)
dir: Ryan Prows

A sort of modern day Pulp Fiction, this fantastic film introduces us to a number of unusual characters, whose individual stories merge together into a brutal and memorable picture. There's a third generation luchador, an African American lady who owns a motel, an accountant, a young man released from prison with a large swastika tattooed over his face and the inevitable crime lord. Highly recommended.

The Dead King (2018)
dir: Austin Harmon

My first Arizona film of the festival, this is an interesting but clearly zero budget look at how the dynamics of a group shift after one of them dies. In this instance, he's Sammy, the king in a long-running game of Dungeons & Dragons and the rest of the group meet up again to remember him in-game instead of going to his wake. Things don't go remotely as expected.

Day 5: Tuesday, 10th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Revenge (2017)
dir: Coralie Fargeat

A rape revenge movie directed by a woman (and a Frenchwoman at that), this is a fascinating take on that subgenre, aided by some amazing cinematography. I'd surely buy that house in Morocco for a dollar! It's predictable and wildly overdone on the use of blood, but interesting in its approach, especially when you think about the decisions made by the filmmaker. Recommended.

Porcupine Lake (2017)
dir: Ingrid Veninger

The weakest film I saw all festival, this is still a decent coming of age drama set in northern Ontario. A young girl spends the summer in Port Severn because her parents want to see if their relationship might work again, though her mum knows it won't. Bea meets Kate and suddenly her life is interesting. The best thing about it is the performance by young Aussie actress Lucida Armstrong Hall as Kate.

Day 6: Wednesday, 11th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Downrange (2017)
dir: Ryuhei Kitamura

Proof that horror movies can be intelligent and not end after two minutes, this thriller centres on the occupants of a car which is driving happily down the road until its tyre is shot out. There's a sniper in a tree who apparently wants to kill them all and the survivors are stuck behind it trying to figure out how to escape. An incredibly good script and some great stuntwork elevate this one. Highly recommended.

Director's Cut (2016)
dir: Adam Rifkin

The most original movie on show this year and the second from director Adam Rifkin (after The Last Movie Star), this unfolds as a 'director's cut' of a routine thriller, as created by a rogue crowdfunder turned director, complete with commentary. As this rogue is played by Penn Jillette, we're in for some wacky humour and a deconstruction of movie magic. Best line, told to Teller: 'You have the right to remain silent...'

Day 7: Thursday, 12th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Feral (2017)
dir: Mark Young

The weakest showcase feature at IHSFFF this year, Feral was relentlessly predictable and fell for all the clichés that Downrange avoided. Still, it's a capable story of monsters taking down a sextet of campers in the woods with some decent sound and a strong performance by Scout Taylor-Compton, which is better than her role in Cynthia, even if the latter was a much better film.

The Heretics (2017)
dir: Chad Archibald

I still haven't figured out why I don't like The Heretics more than I do. Certainly, it's a reasonably original storyline with a couple of excellent twists and some good performances from Nina Kiri and Jorja Cadence. The former is a young lady who's recovering from a kidnapping five years ago, only to be kidnapped again by the same people; the latter is her girlfriend who is caught up in the search for her. It just misses the mark somehow and I wish I could figure out why.

Day 8: Friday, 13th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Sci-Fi Shorts A

The first of two Sci-Fi Shorts sets, this one included seven short films including a couple of great ones. The Apocalypse Will Be Automated features a zombie apocalypse in near future Melbourne, which three friends try to escape in a high tech smart car that doesn't want to play ball. Visage features an actor auditioning for a role, only to find 'he's not what the audience wants', even though he literally could not be more perfect for the part.

Arizona Shorts B

Sadly I only caught one of the Arizona Shorts sets, as I love to keep up with local filmmakers. This is the best such set I've ever seen at PFF because it doesn't include one average film, let alone a bad one. Helsing, Inc. is a hilarious short that won as Best Arizona Short; it's set around a helpdesk for monster hunters, exorcists and paranormal investigators. It was my favourite too but I especially appreciated The Secret Lives of Teachers, a quirky romance between a couple of odd members of a school's staff. This was a very varied set but a very impressive one too.

Marla Mae (2018)
dir: Lisa van Dam-Bates

While this horror feature got a little muddled by the end, it's still a fascinating and original film, amazingly the debut of Lisa van Dam-Bates, who wrote, directed and starred as a waitress who has an IUD fitted by a family friend and starts to kill people during sex. It's gross in all the best ways, neatly ambitious and fiercely different. Recommended.

Closer Than We Think (2017)
dir: Brett Ryan Bonowicz

This is a documentary about unjustly overlooked commercial artist Arthur Radebaugh and the many predictions of the future he made over sixty years back in syndicated newspaper cartoons like Closer Than We Think. This was fascianting to me and I really felt the passion behind the project. I learned a lot here and was thoroughly entertained as I did so. Recommended.

Secret Santa (2018)
dir: Adam Marcus

Adam Marcus, who directed and co-wrote, warned us before the film that it was guaranteed to offend everyone at some point and he wasn't wrong. It's a fantastic and very bloody look at a single, very dysfunctional family, when their respective restraints have been lifted, all during Christmas dinner. I'll be buying this when it's released to DVD in November so I can show it to my family at Christmas and see what they think. Highly recommended.

The Ranger (2018)
dir: Jenn Wexler

While I liked parts of this a lot, it never figured out what it wanted to be and so ends up notably muddled. A set of punks escape to a cabin in the woods that one of them inherited and misbehave, while the local ranger of the title shows up to stir things up. Chloe Levine sells the lead role well, as a misfit in a band of misfits, and the ranger gets some fantastic dialogue, but they feel like they're in two different movies.

To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story (2017)
dir: Derek Dennis Herbert

I've seen a lot of Kane Hodder movies and met him in person, but I learned a lot about him here in a long string of interviews, with him, many of his co-workers and some of his fans. It was great fun to watch this on Friday the 13th. The first hour and change are fascinating, with long sections dedicated to his time in school, his role as Jason in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and the horrific burns he experienced when he was 22 years old. It slows a lot after that as the film becomes less focused, but it's always interesting. Recommended.

Day 9: Saturday 14th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Horror Shorts B

I've had some issues with the Horror Shorts in recent years, not the quality of the films but their variety. This year's selections were incredibly good, both in quality and variety. I saw five of the six shorts in this set and was blown away. Hope I already knew as I'd screened it ALIFFF last year (where it almost won my Festival Director's Award). What Metal Girls are Into, The Day That Mum Became a Monster and Grin were all wildly imaginative and thoroughly different shorts and I couldn't have been happier with this set.

Sci-Fi Shorts B

The Sci-Fi Shorts were great this year too and this was a second strong set. Noro played with the same themes of AI, experimentation and what it means to be human as many of the films in Sci-Fi Shorts A; it won as Best Sci-Fi Short. SadBox is a superb film about grief and regret, channelled through a VR set. And the most CGI-centric short, Caronte, is an interesting tie between a damaged teenager playing a Nintendo DS and a future lieutenant flying a huge CGI spaceship. Great stuff.

Horror Shorts A

These may be shorter films than Horror Shorts B, but they're just as interesting. Fisher Cove is a tale of the one that got away, but in reverse; it won as Best Horror Short. I was impressed by Love Cuts Deep, a serial killer romcom, and blown away by both The Dollmaker and Avulsion. The former involves a couple bringing their dead daughter back to life, with the inevitable caveats. The latter involves an Aussie goth girl with a gorgeous voice and a client who needs her body for an hour, but it's not remotely like what you're thinking. Best year ever for horror shorts!

The Evil Within (2017)
dir: Andrew Getty

I've wanted to see this film ever since I first read about it a few years ago. It was shot in 2002 with a number of recognisable faces: Sean Patrick Flanery, Dina Meyer, Michael Berryman, Kim Darby and Matthew McGrory, who died over a decade before the film was finished. It was written and directed by Andrew Getty, grandson of J. Paul Getty, who was a meth addict who spent his fortune and thirteen years perfecting it in post. It's flawed but it's a real trip, weird and wonderful and utterly engaging. It may all be a dream within a dream but I know I'll be watching this a lot. Highly Recommended.

All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018)
dirs: Rebekah & David Ian McKendry

A horror anthology written around the Christmas holiday, this is an uneven but often brilliant film featuring a few great segments and some equally great performances. Best is a story about a man who locks his keys in his car on Christmas Eve so finds himself stuck in a parking lot with a creepy van over in the corner. Also impressive are the segment about a Christmas grump and one about aliens visiting every year. Recommended.

Wildling (2018)
dir: Fritz Böhm

One of the most original films playing IHSFFF this year, this follows a young girl who grows up isolated in a single room by her 'daddy', wonderfully played by Brad Dourif. Eventually he tries to kill himself and she escapes, but she's not what anyone thinks. Bel Powley does a great job as the grown up Anna and the cinematography often matches her. There's a lot of depth here and I'd love to see it again to see how that resonates. Recommended.

Day 10: Sunday 15th April

Coverage at Nerdvana

Andover (2018)
dir: Scott Perlman

The second Sunday turned out to be Sci-Fi competition feature day and all three were interesting. This is easily the best of them, a deceptively light look at grief. A genetic scientist loses his new wife to a tragic accident and decides to use a strand of her hair to clone her exactly as she was. Needless to say, it doesn't work out remotely how he expects but the side effects are incredibly well explored. Scout Taylor-Compton was back for her third film this week, supporting Jonathan Silverman and his real life wife Jennifer Finnigan. Probably the best film I saw all festival. Highly recommended.

Darken (2017)
dir: Audrey Cummings

This is a new Canadian feature but it feels like an old BBC sci-fi drama for a YA audience. The lack of budget is obvious in the stagebound sets and limited costumes but there is imagination in the religious regime of Darken, into which a nurse from our world is thrust. I would have adored this when I was twelve but, at almost four times that, I can see through it and its one note characters. It's fun but more so if you're still young.

Chimera (2018)
dir: Maurice Haeems

Winner of the Best Sci-Fi Feature, this is a much more scientific take on the themes of Andover. Another geneticist is stricken by grief, this time at the loss of one of his children and the imminent loss of two more to an incurable genetic disease. The differences are that the science is much stronger, the sense of location is much more important and the characters are all loathsome. Kathleen Quinlan and Erika Ervin deliberately overplay it for effect but the rest of the cast are lost in the science. Recommended.

Flash Gordon (1980)
dir: Mike Hodges

IHSFFF Festival Director Monte Yazzie finished up with a classic film, the first to show at IHSFFF since Cujo back in 2014. He had the volume turned up and we all sat back and revelled in the outrageous campness that was the 1980 Flash Gordon. I'd watched this again last year, before Sam Jones guested at Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, but it was fantastic to watch it on the big screen with an appreciative audience, most of whom had been thoroughly entertained for ten days. This was surely the best IHSFFF I can remember. Now I can sleep.

Saturday 24 February 2018

AZUFF Phoenix - Day 2

After the excellent selections on Thursday night, I was keen to see what else David Pike and his team had up his sleeve for the first AZUFF Phoenix. And to sample some more of the Prescott Brewing Company's Achocalypse porter. That's highly recommended too.

Block 3

First up was a block of short films, named Shorts Block 1: Cinephiles Attack!, a title surely inspired by the meta play on offer in a couple of its films.

Brock Bledsoe: Future Hero (2018)

And talking of meta play, here's the first example. The apocalypse has come and our only hope is Brock Bledsoe, a muscular gentleman in an eyepatch. Who is promptly shot dead in front of our eyes to twitch horribly like a fish out of water. This shot is very deliberately embarrassingly long because...

Cut! This is a film set and the director, played by the director of our film, is not happy with the work of his leading man. Less is more, he tells him, and that just begins a saga that will be very recognisable to anyone who's spent more than ten minutes on a film set.

Well, for a while at least. This goes a little further than we tend to see on real sets and it has a grand old time doing it. The actors do their jobs well but I got a real kick out of the hyper boom operator too.

Stages (2017)

Josh Berghoff is the man behind Kick Ass Cops, which this film firmly isn't. It's not remotely funny but, for a change, it isn't meant to be. It's a drama that aims to explore the seven stages of grief and it does so with enough power that the audience was really glad when the positive emotion kicked back in. This got dark fast and it stayed there for a while.

It's relatively predictable but that was inevitable, given what the script was aiming to do. When you're exploring a documented list of stages, you're not going to surprise people with what comes next. The film works because of how well the script, by Berghoff himself, is crafted and how well the lead actress, Shaniya Brown, is able to carry it. She had a tough job to do but she did it well.

The audience tonight certainly took an emotional rollercoaster with her. It rose and sank as required, especially in a key scene with a broken bottle, one that featured a very neat piece of cinematography with a flashback that shows up on a piece of glass. As much as I like Berghoff's comedy, this says in no uncertain terms that he can make serious films too.

Idea Guy (2017)

I liked this comedy for most of its running time, but it lost me at the end. The punchline would be pretty cool in a conversation but a short film needs a little more, I think.

The idea behind Idea Guy is that a guy named Jared has ideas and does nothing with them. It's infuriating his girlfriend, whose therapist suggests that she try to help with one of his many unfinished projects. She does and... well, you'll need to see the film yourself to see where that goes.

There's nothing spectacular here, but the film does what it needs to do and I laughed and nodded knowingly when I should.

Page One (2017)

While Page One hardly treads new ground, it does at least tread old ground in a way that I hadn't seen before. It was my favourite film of the night and I'd love to see it again.

Like Brock Bledsoe, the apocalypse has come and we join the fray at the point that four actors make it off their set into a safe room. Well, maybe safe and maybe not. The fake nurse is sick and the fake cop is arrogant. It falls to Abel to talk sense but will they listen to him? After all, he's the black guy who always dies on page one.

One reason why they should listen to him is that this was the third film in four to feature an African American lead and that's refreshing to see. All those leads are great, but the African American lady who backs Page One up is even better. I don't know what her name is but she was fantastic!

Unauthorized (2017)

Unauthorized was an interesting film and I applaud the ambition of Justin Stabley and his crew in attempting it, but it clearly needed a lot more money than they had in their budget.

It's a cyberpunk thriller, but it's not set in Tokyo with a cast of Asians and a token white hacker dude; it's set in Phoenix with a few young actors who are mostly Hispanic. Again, that's refreshing to see and they gave it a pretty good shot, but Stabley needed better equipment, especially better sound equipment, more money to add some digital effects and yet more money to allow him to bring a lot of what's obviously in his head to the screen.

I won't say I didn't enjoy this film, because I did, but I'd see it as more of a stepping stone or a test run. I'd very much like to see what Stabley will be making in a few years time.

Molassus and Lemon (2017)

A short experimental film, Molassus and Lemon is about love and heartbreak, the sheer glory of the former and the soul-destroying darkness of the latter and how the two interact. It's told by many different voices and illustrated with some interesting visuals.

I liked it, but it's the sort of film that you know you'll like or not by reading the paragraph above.

Claws (2017)

I was very interested to see Claws because I know a bunch of the people who made it, both on and off the screen, and this is surely their most ambitious work to date, not least because it's 38 minutes long. I found a lot of that ambition on the screen too, especially in some artistic transitions that work really well for the most part.

The idea is pretty simple. Kris Cane is swamped with work and unable to find the time to get into the Christmas spirit with his wife and two kids. He's also plagued by a creepy Santa Claus who looks like a bum and turns out to be more like Santa Claws. Bodies start to add up, murdered by this Father Christmas of Death, but the cops are on the case and... nah, you need to see this one too, with friends and copious amounts of rum in their eggnog.

Tony Noyes does a great naturalistic job as the lead, though he sadly shows up a couple of the actors who can't match him, even though I've seen them do great work elsewhere. Gary Herkimer is a lot of fun though, as always; I've never seen him on screen without a whole bucketful of character and he has a new bucket here, playing believably drunk.

Claws is a lot of fun and will be even more fun around the holiday season, but it's too long. If the good folk who made it are too close to be willing to wield the scalpel, perhaps they should hire an editor to chop it down to twenty or twenty-five minutes at the most.

Block 4

Derelicts (2017)
Director: B. C. Glassberg
Writers: B. C. Glassberg, Clay Shirley and Andre Evrenos
Stars: Kelly Dealyn, David Lee Hess, Emily Ammon, Dalton Allen, Steve Uzzell, Lana Dieterich, Les Best, Samson Pleasant, Clay Shirley, Kara Mellyn, Marcela Louise and Andre Evrenos

This ensemble feature from Texas confused me, because it felt so Australian to me that I was planning to google whether the Aussies have their own form of Thanksgiving when I got home. Now I wonder if the ladies from Austin who were sat across from us were part of the film.

It's an interesting piece but I believe I need to see it again to figure out exactly what it's trying to do. You know thosse films where you naturally assume one thing for most of the movie and then something happens to change your perspective on the whole thing? Well, this is like that except that it's literally the last shot that questions our perspective. I spent the end credits playing the whole film back through my mind and a few of us chatted about it afterwards for a little while.

On the face of it, it's a home invasion movie, albeit utterly unlike Framed from the previous night. A family with obvious problems prepare for their Thanksgiving meal and wait for a couple more relatives to arrive. Sadly, they never will because they were waylaid on the way by a band of crazies who drag them out of their ar and kill them. Even more sadly, they were following directions on GPS so those crazies drive on to take their place.

Of course, that doesn't go remotely well and we witness a particularly dark, cruel and sadistic feast. I honestly wondered at a few points how the film was going to change tone; it couldn't stay that sadistic throughout. Could it?

Well, the family being tormented do find some balls, but they're hamstrung by a set of discoveries that show how they're not so great themselves. The best line of the picture, delivered by another African American character, comes after one of those discoveries and one of these murderous thugs says, 'I thought we were the assholes.' We never, of course, buy into them being the good guys, but we do start to question whether there are any such folk in this movie.

It's also odd that the tormentors are mostly men (Kara Mellyn is fantastic as the one exception) but the strongest characters are all women, whichever side they happen to be on. I'm not going to talk down the male actors, as everyone on screen does their job well, but it gradually becomes clear who we're really watching here.

This is certainly not a film for everyone. It's not the gore that feels odd (though I have to say that I never thought I'd see an eyeball extracted with a penis pump), it's the nasty tone of the film that will turn many off. I'm not one of them, though I found it disturbing, and I really want to see it again because I'm still unclear as to which of two very different readings is the right one.

Friday 23 February 2018

AZUFF Phoenix - Day 1

I've been aware of the Arizona Underground Film Festival (AZUFF) for a while. It celebrated a decade in Tucson last year and it's shown some amazing films over that time.

In fact, while I haven't yet managed to take that two hour trip to sample its delights, its mission was one of the key influences on me setting up my own film festival. Put simply, it's a wide genre festival, without restrictions to any one particular genre. Sure, it screens horror, plenty of it, but also an abundance of thrillers, mysteries, science fiction films, action flicks and, of course, what can only be described as cult cinema. I adore that diversity in genre cinema and wanted to see it represented in a festival in Phoenix, so I set up the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival (ALIFFF).

David Pike, who runs AZUFF, clearly believes the same thing and has expanded his festival to Chandler, hosting it over three days at the Alamo Drafthouse at Arizona Ave (the 87) and Chandler Heights Rd. It started on Thursday 23rd with a couple of features, each accompanied by a short, and it'll continue tonight and for much of Saturday.

Details can be found on the AZUFF website, including the film schedule.

I'm going to see as much of it as I can and I'll review the films here.

Block 1

Heavy traffic getting to Chandler meant that we missed the opening short, which was an Australian film called Mrs. S. I checked out the teaser trailer, though, which is fun. It's a dark comedy in which a mismatched brother and sister aim to surprise their estranged mother with a visit, only to find that she surprises them on account of being dead.

Kyrsyä - Tuftland (2017)
Director: Roope Olenius
Writers: Roope Olenius and Neea Viitamäki
Stars: Veera W. Vilo, Saara Elina and Miikka J. Anttila

The feature accompanying it was a Finnish thriller called Kyrsyä or Tuftland or both, directed by Roope Olenius, who had previously made a mark as an actor in films like Bunny the Killer Thing. He also co-wrote the film.

A young textiles student called Irina needs to get away from it all because her boyfriend's an ass, so she accepts the offer of a summer job in the rural isolation of Kyrsyä, a small village. It's a simple place, whose people live close to nature, so she's looking forward to peace, quiet and work. Of course, as this is the Finnish equivalent of a hillbilly horror movie, it doesn't quite work out that way.

The plot is so simple that it's almost not there, but there's a lot going on underneath it. At heart, it's a film about change. The people of Kyrsyä are insular and set in their ways and their isolation and size means that they're becoming inbred, but they know it. They don't want to change, because they see the big world outside as an evil to be avoided, but they know that they must in order to improve their blood.

What that means, of course, is that we have some sympathy for the villagers, even as their odd ways and freakish characters clearly sets them up as the monsters in a horror movie. Olenius keeps us on the hop, even as it's clear where we're going to end up, and that's a neat trick.

While films like The Wicker Man are fairly cited as an influence, I was surprised at how traditionally this played out. There's no sex, very little nudity (just a topless scene as a very timely distraction) and a surprising lack of gore. However, it's freaky from Irina's arrival in Kyrsyä and it only gets freakier, through some quirky characters and a few memorable scenes that aren't going to leave your mind any time soon. The word 'treat' now has a whole new meaning for me and it felt neatly odd to be eating during the 'harlot's eyes' scene.

I enjoyed this immensely. The young Veera W. Vilo does a capable job as Irina and she's backed by an ensemble cast who are as much texture as they are characters.

Block 2

Smiley's (2017)
Director: Mike James
Writer: Mike James
Stars: Wilson Mack, Lacy Hartselle and Emmanuel Carter

Smiley's is very much the product of Indiana, not the country's usual go to state for weirdness, but writer/director Mike James, with his composer, Sean Sumwalt, attended and introduced this premiere screening of his surreal 17m trip.

Mitch is a stressed college student with an upcoming exam, but his focus is spectacularly derailed by a new obsession: a soda machine in the middle of nowhere.

Now, this is an understandable obsession when you phrase it the way that Mitch's friends phrase it, wrapped up in country legend ('urban legend' surely can't apply to this emphatically rural location). They take him there on a break, detail the machine's background and highlight its rules.

Frankly, we're not even sure how the thing is powered, given that it's at the side of a rural road overlooking a cornfield, but it's apparently also stocked by a witch and has a power all its own. You don't select your soda by pressing a button, for example, you conjure it up through ritual before hitting the single 'Pot Luck' button and hope you get what you wished for.

His friends do and don't, but at least they get soda. Mitch gets a pair of plastic binoculars and, from them and that one weird experience, his obsession with the machine builds and his life spirals way out of control.

I adored this film. For an apparently low budget film from Indiana, it's technically spot on, almost like a showcase for the crew. The script shines first, the actors, especially Wilson Mack, show they can back it up and gradually everyone else demonstrates their worth too. Nobody lets the side down, but I'd call out the lighting as particularly strong, especially during the night scenes, and the editing as underpinning the whole thing, especially as Mitch really starts losing it.

Make sure to check this one out, folks, at whichever film festival near you is bright enough to select it!

Framed (2017)
Director: Marc Martínez Jordán
Writers: Jaume Cuspinera and Marc Martínez Jordán, from an original idea by Marc Martínez Jordán
Stars: Alex Maruny, Clàudia Pons and Joe Manjón

Framed, a Spanish splatter comedy feature, is 80 minutes long but it's so fast-paced that it felt like it was over in half that time. It's also a fantastic popcorn movie, if you like your popcorn drenched in gore.

The story isn't new, even though it tries to be cutting edge. Ostensibly it's about our obsession with being liked, followed, made to go viral, and it explores that territory through a new live streaming app called Framed, which has two syllables when spoken by Spaniards. It's a controversial app because it doesn't censor what its users stream, so all the usual intended banalities are quickly supplanted by amateur porn, instigated violence and over-the-top antics like the Extreme Gastronomy guy eating his own shit.

The film begins as it means to go on, with the first murder on Framed. A couple of wannabe megastars interrupt a businessman having sex in his car by introducing his pissed off wife and a baseball bat. She does the work and they film it. The bulk of the film follows their magnum opus, 'Amusement in Somebody Else's House', which is roughly what you might expect if you have a twisted mind, but probably taken just a little further still.

It's easy to find fault here with the basic concept, given that the people gathered together in this particular house for Álex's farewell party (he's moving to Berlin) are the first to tune into 'Amusement in Somebody Else's House', even though they don't immediately recognise it as their own, and the plot conveniences don't stop there. The audience numbers are unrealistic in the extreme and the inclusion of television news works on many levels, just not the one of reality.

However, there's so much energy and so much dark imagination that it's hard not to be carried along with this picture. One particularly subversive note is that the most magnetic character is 'Invasor 1', the mad maestro of this twisted tale of torture and torment. Àlex Maruny is an absolute revelation in this role and he plays it like Jared Leto should have played the Joker. His victims are varied and not unlikeable but they fade in his presence and we find ourselves, if not rooting for the villain, at least wanting to see what he's going to come up with next. And, of course, that's much of the point. We want to watch his trainwreck just like the audience that's tuning in.

In a way, he's like John Doe in Se7en, but high on adrenaline and without most of the elegance and irony. He still wants to be remembered and he's just as dedicated to that endgame. He plans well, for the most part, and he follows through all the way. What he adds to the idea is the fact that he's broadcasting his acts live from the camera strapped to his chest (and that of his odd accomplice, who's a man dressed as a girl), and even his next victims, trapped in the house, are watching him from their cellphones.

So, while Framed is far from as deep as it wants to be, it's still a wild ride that gorehounds will want to experience, probably more than once.


So day one for AZUFF Phoenix was a gem. I saw both features and one of the two shorts and can highly recommend each of them. They all mix horror and comedy, but they're thoroughly different films whose other shared attribute is sheer watchability. I can't wait for tonight's set!

I should also add that I hadn't been to this Alamo Drafthouse before, or indeed any Alamo Drafthouse, even though I've wanted to for some time. This one's much further south than it was originally intended to be and it's a long drive from west Phoenix; our travel time was only slightly less than David Pike's drive from Tucson, and that makes it a tough venue to become a regular stop.

However, I'm sure we'll be back once this festival is over, even if it's to the new location projected for Tempe, because the experience is excellent. The theatre was cosy, the seats comfortable and the service attentive. The beer selection is outstanding (two porters and two stouts amongst the 32 on draught) and the food was good too.

What's more, the long gap between sets was filled by a trippy collection of early live action/animation hybrids from the Gaumont Film Company (the oldest film company in the world), much more recent colour animations and weird selections from Japanese TV.