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.

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