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.

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