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.