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2018 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 3

Hola! Hal Astell here from Apocalypse Later. Here’s my coverage of day three at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival (PFF) and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival (IHSFFF).

Ed.: (Day 1’s recap is here and Day 2 is here.)

I watched four features today, three of them in competition. Oddly, every film I’ve seen thus far that’s competing for Best World Cinema Feature has been in the English language, Touched being from Canada.


I liked this one a lot, which perhaps isn’t too surprising as it meets some of my favorite aspects of indie film: it tells a refreshingly different story with an experienced character actor in the lead role and it’s happy to sit in whatever genres it damn well pleases.

IMDb says that it’s part murder mystery and part love story between an unlikely father figure and a 9-year-old girl, though that’s a little misleading as there’s nothing sexual here at all. The opening scene does suggest another meaning to the title, as it features that 9-year-old climbing out of a window and running into the woods, where a hand in a bush grabs her and our unlikely father figure wakes up. “I had a dream tonight,” he tells her, “and I think it was about you.” However, that’s not where we’re going.

It would be fairer to say that it’s part ghost story and part psychological drama, because that 9-year-old girl was dead before we began and she’s only nine in the mind of the lead character anyway. He talks to her ghost, trying to find some sort of meaning in her death, and his subsequent investigation into it brings a lot of parallels into play.

That lead is Gabriel Tillman, the landlord of a tenement building in New York, where Caitlin, the 9-year-old girl, lived and died as an adult. That’s one connection between them, but another is that they’re both touched, in the old sense of someone who is not quite right in the head. Other connections show up too, like the fact that they were both foster children who couldn’t speak until much later than is considered normal.

Another is the way that they both haunt their former homes. Caitlyn does that literally, assuming that we buy into the ghost story angle. Gabriel does it through routine; every Friday he buys a loaf of bread from a particular bakery, entirely because the building used to be the group home in which he grew up.

Hugh Thompson is the lead actor and he’s marvelous. He’s clearly not like anyone else around him but he doesn’t sell that through the usual Rain Man routine. He does it through much more subtle means, including eyes that seem perpetually nervous. Thompson owns this picture as much as the man who wrote and directed it, Karl R. Hearne.

Hearne did a great job here too and I should give him kudos for how he treated the police. It’s refreshing to see them treated as capable human beings without the need to become heroes. He told me that he has a release set up for Canada but not for the US yet. Watch out for it, because this one really deserves to be seen.

More Than Enough

Talking of films that tried to do things differently, here’s More Than Enough, which has been renamed to Good After Bad and should be renamed back because the original title has a lot more meaning to it.

It feels like the combination of a few stories that you’ve seen many times before but it manages to avoid most of the clichés that usually come along with them. For instance, the problem child in the lead isn’t as much of a problem as her mother; the relationship between a man in his fifties and a girl still in high school never becomes anything romantic or creepy; and the token black kid isn’t remotely a token black kid. I appreciated all those approaches.

The girl is Shelly, who starts the film losing her friends because of a socially awkward moment at a party that prompts a lot of craziness on social media. Of course, they weren’t really her friends anyway and she’s much better off hanging out with Greg, the black kid whose race doesn’t matter; it’s more relevant that he’s gay because that heads off another clichéd subplot before it begins.

The fiftysomething is Wes Thorn, an art broker who’s also a godfather to a couple of those better lost friends. She knew him through them and he’s a good and sincere man who’s bored; he seems to tolerate the world and everything in it without really having much drive or purpose. He finds that in Shelly, because she runs away from a bad parental situation and he takes her in as his ward.

I can’t say that everything here is surprisingly, original and fresh because it isn’t, but enough of it is to make this stand out from a lot of other indie dramas that trawl these ideas. Maddie Hasson plays Shelly like a younger Christina Applegate might have attempted Debbie Harry, but she fleshes out the character well, even when she’s making stupid mistakes. Billy Burke is excellent as Wes, a character who would have become a fortune cookie factory in lesser hands but steals much of the movie in his.

My biggest problem was with the balance between how Shelly develops and how Wes develops. It’s Shelly’s story but not entirely and I felt that Wes deserved a little more time and attention, especially towards the end.

The Best People

Looking at The Best People in advance, I thought it was a comedy and it is, but it’s just as much a drama and the way the two genres play together here is oddly affecting.

Claire and Anna are sisters, but they’re notably different and they’re reacting to the loss of their mother in notably different ways. Claire is a good girl who cleans her house and pays her rent, even at 23 years of age. Anna, who lives with her, is a glorious amalgam of half a dozen addictions that she steadfastly refuses to address: alcohol, sex and drugs are just the beginning.

We catch up with them at the point where Claire meets Johnny and the two fall in love. Embarrassingly cute love. Which quickly advances to the point that, just seven months later, they’re engaged and not getting the reaction they expected from those they’re asking to be their best people: Anna as Claire’s maid of honor and Johnny’s roommate Art as best man.

Not only are Anna and Art not happy for them, they think that it’s an awful idea and they decide to do something about it. You know, sabotage, imaginative sabotage that is often laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re not howling at the vaginal yoga scene, then someone stole your funny bones and should bring them back forthwith.

As a comedy, this is hilarious. As a drama, it’s inconsistent but it goes where it needs to and ends pretty well, without ever becoming too outrageously awful or cloyingly sweet.

All the leads are good, but it’s Anna Lieberman (usually Anna Evelyn) who steals the show as her namesake (most of the cast play namesakes, including all the leads). She’s an absolute trip as the hilariously broken mess of a young lady but the way she reels that in is believable and effective. It’s not an easy part in the slightest but she makes it seem easy and that’s real talent. I was shocked to find that this was her debut in a feature. Her future is very bright.

Arthur Napiontek just didn’t have the same opportunities as Art and my biggest problems with the film was with how his character’s story arc was written. He didn’t need parity with Anna but he needed a similar level of subtlety.

Rock Steady Row

The IHSFFF feature for the night was Rock Steady Row, which was highly impressive both for a low budget feature and the feature debut for many of those involved, including the director and all the producers, as well as the leading man.

The downside is obvious from about ten minutes in, when the setting is explained and we start to move forward. This is a story you’ve seen before, either as Yojimbo or as A Fistful of Dollars, merely translated into a very different setting, the Rock Steady University, where “only the strong graduate”.

The concept is out there and whether you’re going to dig this film or not is probably going to be tied to whether you think it’s cool or stupid. Really it’s both, but I can’t say which you care about most.

Here goes. Tuition costs have skyrocketed and budgets have dropped. Rock Steady U is now a wasteland, somehow entirely isolated from the rest of the world except for the influx of new students with $50,000 a year to spend on tuition and the plastic red cup supply. The sororities have gone into hiding and two fraternity houses, Delta Brutus Omega and the High Society, control the illicit bicycle trade, and anyone who gets in their way ends up killed by a 2B pencil.

Yeah, this is out there, but it’s played with appropriate bravado by an interesting set of characters. It’s roughly jocks vs. nerds, though these nerds are faking (they don’t even need glasses), and with the Freshman stuck between the two, playing one against the other in order to get his own bike back. IMDb tells me his name is Leroy but he’s referred to throughout as simply the Freshman.

I didn’t recognize many of the actors: just Larry Miller as the Dean and Logan Huffman from Final Girl as the leader of the Kappas, Andrew Palmer. The thing is that Huffman plays Palmer emphatically like a young Johnny Depp, right down to the eye movements, with some Heath Ledger thrown in when he gets psychotic. His opposite number in the High Society is Augustus Washington III, played by Isaac Alisma doing a fair impression of Richard Ayoade in an afro.

The location is a good one, an abandoned airbase, I believe, but the lack of budget shows in the fact that we never see anyone getting anything for their $50,000 a year. Does this university actually hold classes? Is there anyone working there except for the janitor? Are there any students who don’t either pledge to one of the two fraternities or live in the small dorm room in which the Freshman ends up? Nah, those things would have warranted money to spend and that was in short supply.

You’re either going to enjoy the heck out of this or write it off as idiotic. By this point, you’re going to know which.

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