Phoenix Film Festival 2019 posters

2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 1

Events Movies Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Hola! Hal Astell here from Apocalypse Later. I’m very happy to be back, providing daily coverage of the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival (PFF) and especially its International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival (IHSFFF) track here at Nerdvana.

Phoenix Film Festival 2019 posters

The 2019 Phoenix Film Festival

The 2019 PFF began on Thursday, April 4, with one special opening night film, Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. It continues, as last year, for another 10 days, including two full weekends, ending with a closing night film, Lulu Wang’s appropriately titled The Farewell.

Like last year, I’m enjoying the refurbished theatres at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, which contain all recliner seats in big aisles. Not having to trip over people and their stuff is a big deal.

The catch is that this means a lot fewer seats per theater and that means that screenings sell out a lot more. Five had sold out before the festival began and that number had increased to 16 by the end of Friday. Numbers there are a little lower than last year, where they were seven and 17, respectively.

The most obvious thing about this year’s festival is that someone has done a bang-up job on the programming schedule, dedicating individual screens to particular tracks. Not only can we see every competition feature and every International Horror & Sci-Fi Festival film, but it’s easier than ever to map that out. Kudos to whoever took care of that.

Day 1 for me is Friday, April 5, which is technically the second day of the festival, and I got to see six features today. What’s odd is that four of them are genre films — a documentary about a science fiction writer, a dark thriller, a post-apocalyptic drama and a parallel universe comedy — but are competing on the Phoenix Film Festival side rather than the International Horror & Sci-Fi Festival side. Being a genre fan, of course, I’m hardly complaining.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

I kicked off the festival with this feature documentary about the American science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, winner of a whole slew of awards, including both the Hugo and Nebula for two separate novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossed, and a bunch of completely different awards for her children’s fantasy series, A Wizard of Earthsea.

I absolutely loved this film, because it both entertained me and taught me a heck of a lot, even though I know Le Guin and have read some of her work. I reviewed each volume of the original Earthsea trilogy last year in her memory after she passed.

Fortunately, this was shot before she passed, because she constitutes a good chunk of the core interview footage and she’s a generous subject. While she pioneered change in the genre, she also dates far enough back to have been both of her time and ahead of it. One quote that stood out to me was, “Just because I’ve written a book doesn’t I’ve stopped thinking about it.”

She kept on evolving her thinking throughout her life and career and she owns up to each of her earlier limitations. She’s very honest about what she did right, what she did wrong and what she did right eventually.

She’s not the only interview subject. I particularly enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s comments, not least because he was clearly overcome by emotion when speaking to Le Guin’s importance. He’s far from your usual talking head. Other subjects include names as important as Samuel R. Delany, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon.

Arwen Curry, the writer and director, didn’t limit the film to interviews though and, there, not just to authors. Some of the most telling sections are those shot in a high school, where a class is intelligently discussing one of her short stories, and a set of archive clips from science fiction conventions like the first Aussiecon, the Worldcon in Melbourne in 1975, where she won the Hugo for Best Novel for The Dispossessed. There are also brief clips of a blistering acceptance speech she gave at the National Book Awards, which I need to track down.

That she speaks very well isn’t surprising to me. I’ve read some of her work and often had to stop to read sections aloud to myself because her prose is so beautiful. I’m very happy that it extends to her speeches and there are real gems here.

I had a blast with this documentary and only wish it was twice the length so I could learn as twice as much from it. This is highly recommended and the perfect film to kick off the festival.

Cruel Hearts

Wow, has it been six years since Paul Osborne brought his wonderful film Favor to the Phoenix Film Festival? Apparently so and it’s screening again this year, but so is his new feature, Cruel Hearts.

Anyone who saw Favor knows that Paul crafts his films out of his scripts and he does another good job here. This is a little more predictable than Favor; it’s completely obvious from moment one that the story is about a set-up, but we have to sit back to learn all the details: the who, the how and the why, for a start. It takes a while to have our suspicions confirmed or denied.

Now Paul is an evil man because this film does a textbook job of cutting the hamstrings of critics by not revealing the real point of the film until the very end. I do applaud that, with a mildly annoyed stare in his general direction, but it means that I can’t talk about what I want to talk about without spoiling the entire picture, which I’m not going to do.

So, I’ll mention that it kicks off wonderfully, with a stranger sitting down next to Burt Walker at a bar to tell him that he’s been sleeping with his wife. That’s a rather dangerous thing to do, given that Walker is in organised crime and it’s his bar, but the point of it is that the stranger didn’t know. Being aware of who and what Walker is, he wants to come clean about it to avoid a lifetime of looking over his shoulder. That’s honesty for you and it’s a fantastic opening scene.

Needless to say, of course, Burt is far from happy and everything escalates from there. While it’s a writer’s film, with dialogue that thinks about being Tarantino cool but thankfully pulls back a little, it’s acted very well indeed by a small cast.

Patrick Day, one of the two leads in Favor, does good work as Burt, given that he’s tasked with spending most of the film angry, and Alev Aydin does a great job as the Stranger, channeling some knowing John Cusack in the process. Aydin isn’t very prolific but his debut feature, Lonely Boy, was perhaps coincidentally competing against Favor at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2013. I also liked Bonnie Root as Burt’s wife Teri, because she’s the most in the dark of all the characters but stays grounded throughout.

It’s great to see Paul Osborne back at the festival again and especially with a new feature, given that he’s only made shorts since Favor. This is another winner and, frankly, the worst thing about it is its generic title.

This World Alone

Not content to let Cruel Hearts be the only competition feature to kick off with a great scene, This World Alone sets its stage through a set of old images: photos, postcards, adverts, you name it, all animated cleverly to the accompaniment of succinct narration from a young lady named Sam, born before the Fall.

On the face of it, this is a post-apocalyptic picture and the Fall is why, but it’s a complete MacGuffin of a cataclysm that destroys human society, wipes out the majority of the population and reduces the survivors to small pockets of civilization. We never see it and it’s never explained. What we get are more of those narrated animations at points, to highlight Sam’s understanding of a society that she’s only learned about through books.

Really, it’s a coming-of-age story and for more than just Sam because we meet another character partway through who’s given a complete story arc too. This really is framed well, because the ending is the real beginning, not that any sequel is needed. In many ways, this is a 90-minute prologue.

Sam’s pocket of civilisation is as small as three people, because she shares a house with her mother, Connie, and a not-by-blood sister, Willow. She wants to leave, especially after her mum butchers her pet pig and best friend, Wilbur, and dishes him up for lunch, but she’s clearly not ready, not that she believes her mum when she tells her that.

Cue a whole bunch of walking, neatly presaged by the first live-action scene featuring Sam reading Tolkien to Wilbur. It’s prompted by Willow getting injured, badly enough that she’ll need antibiotics to survive. The nearest antibiotics are in a place called New Macedonia, to which Sam must quickly trek. Cue the rest of the film.

What impressed me most here, beyond the acting of Belle Adams as Sam in a performance full of the fierce independence of a young Sissy Spacek, is the way that the filmmakers do so much with so little. The budget is clearly not large (I was still surprised at the amount) but it’s put to very good use indeed.

Most exercises in low budget filmmaking, for instance, stick the characters into a single location and let them talk for an hour and a half, but this one follows Sam out into the world, where she discovers much, about herself and about what’s out there to deal with.

I’m sure that the film would have benefitted from a higher budget, but the lack of one prompted the filmmakers to use their ingenuity instead and that’s always a good thing. The only time it affected the quality was in a few handheld shots that could have done with being more stable. And, if that’s the worst thing about a film, it’s well worth your attention.

The Wrong Todd

I liked The Wrong Todd, though I wish that writer/director Rob Schulbaum had added an extra twist, because I saw through the ones he had pretty easily. It isn’t a particularly surprising film, though I think it might prefer to think it is, but it is a very entertaining one.

Like This World Alone, it’s a self-contained film with very few cast members. As the title suggests, it’s primarily about Todd, who’s in a relationship with Lucy, who I presume he met through her brother Dave, who has been his best friend forever.

As we begin, Lucy springs a big life decision on Todd: she wants to take a better job within her company in Seattle and he completely bungles the response. The only reason he doesn’t look like a complete idiot is because Dave is that complete idiot and, if only by comparison, Todd is relatively grounded. Unfortunately he isn’t for long.

Enter the hook to the film in Other Todd, a parallel universe version of himself, who has traveled to this universe to take his place and be with Lucy. Given that he seems to be a better Todd in most ways, that ought to work out pretty well for him. The fact that he sends the original Todd to replace him in his universe helps too.

And, frankly, you could write the rest of the script from here. Obviously, Todd wants to depose Other Todd, reverse his shenanigans and get Lucy back, but that’s going to take some work and we enjoy watching him figure out a) what’s going on and b) what to do about it.

The script is capable, if predictable, and the comedy is handled very well, lighthearted but consistently good. The acting is strong too, with three of the core actors playing dual roles or, perhaps, dual versions of one role. Each of them does that well, far beyond Sean Carmichael slapping on a thick moustache to become Other Dave. At no point did I ever get confused as to which version is which and that happens often in other films built off the dual role concept.

I liked all the analogue equipment in the technician’s mobile home lab. It felt like a modern day Frankenstein’s lab with buttons, switches and levers galore, but done on an appropriately low budget. I recognise the CPU fans and the microwave touch was genius, all the funnier because it was far from dwelled upon.

I even liked the cheesy lines. “I wasn’t myself last night,” Other Todd tells Lucy at one point, in a neat touch of ironic honesty. Best of all though, was the conversation between Other Abby and Other Dave, in which she doesn’t say a word, simply stares at him, while he conducts the entire conversation on his own. It’s fantastic writing and very good delivery.

I can’t see this winning Best Feature but, if the Phoenix Film Festival awarded a Best Popcorn Flick award, it would be seriously in ther unning.

Off the Rails

Like The Wrong Todd, Off the Rails is a lesser picture in competition this year but it was still highly entertaining.

It’s the story of three unkempt young men in Florida in 1972 who take advantage of an opportunity when it knocks and enjoy a wild adventure while it lasts. They’re Chris, Liam and Manny and, when Chris impresses Sal Silverstein, he’s put in charge of a bar, which they name Off the Rails, being very close to the train tracks in a town called Seaside. Somehow they get the wreck of a place into good shape, open up and do pretty well for themselves, but that, of course, is just the beginning.

The biggest success the film has is the way it just rolls along. It’s funny in a lighthearted way, there’s characterisation everywhere from an ensemble cast and there’s some sort of new drama every scene. It’s a very easy film to watch and it would be very hard not to enjoy it.

The biggest problem it has is that it seems highly content to be everything I just mentioned. The humour never gets clever, the characterisation never gets deep and the drama rarely gets explored. Most of the time, it just resolves itself so that it doesn’t bog down the script. This train has to keep a-rollin’ all night long.

What that means is that it’s fun but inconsequential, simple but convenient, enjoyable but forgettable. The best scene is one that’s clearly inspired by a scene in Road House and I don’t mean Patrick Swayze’s butt.

The three leads are engaging. James Robert Wood gets the most to do as Chris but he’s hindered the most too by some blatant personality shifts that serve only the scene at hand and quickly shift again for the next one. David Gallegos is much more grounded as Manny, but that also makes him less interesting. It was Vance Vlasek who got the best part as Liam because he looks and acts like the resident hunk, chasing every bit of tail he can find, initially at least, but has a lot of hidden depth and Vlasek finds a good way to explore that.

The many girls are almost interchangeable, as gorgeous as some of them are, and Steven D. Mairano has to fight to keep Sal from turning into a Rodney Dangerfield character. But it’s never really about them. It’s always about our core trio and they make this work, as flawed as it is.

The Hole in the Ground

I wanted to like The Hole in the Ground a lot more than I did. It’s the only film that I saw today from the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival side of things, where it screened as a Showcase feature.

It’s an Irish picture made with Belgian and Finnish assistance that was shot beautifully in the gorgeous countryside of Ireland and it features a couple of fantastic performances from Seána Kerslake and young James Quinn Markey. There are some wonderful showpiece scenes too. However, I wanted a lot more from the story than it gave me, not least some explanation about the hole in the ground of the title and some depth around what it comes to mean.

Kerslake plays Sarah O’Neill and Markey her son Chris. They’ve moved to a new home way out in the countryside, leaving Chris’s father deliberately behind. The scar on her forehead is reason enough. Sarah wants nothing more than for Chris to settle in, make new friends and help her make this place their new home. Chris, perhaps understandably, given his age, has trouble with this.

He soon comes around, but in suspicious fashion and we don’t need the local crazy woman to memorably attempt to break through Sarah’s car window with her forehead, screaming, “He’s not your child!” to realise that something is clearly going on.

Director Lee Cronin, who wrote the screenplay with Stephen Shields, is much more interested in developing characters than in explaining anything. Sure, the O’Neills are living at the edge of a very cool forest and, within that forest, is a huge hole in the ground. We’re never told whether it’s a quarry or a meteor crater or the gateway to Hell, but IMDb’s description suggests that it’s a sinkhole. But what does it do?

I understand and often appreciate keeping things vague so that viewers can make up their own minds about what they saw, but I felt that this was kept too vague. I don’t buy into Sarah being so stressed that she starts to hallucinate; surely this is told as it goes down. But who’s replacing kids with fake kids and why? What Celtic folklore does this tie into? This isn’t a changeling thing, right? Is there meaning to all this and, if so, what is it? Is this possession?

We never really find out any of this. Either Chris is replaced by a fake of some description and Sarah comes to realise it or he isn’t and she’s having some mental issues. Neither approach really satifies me.

So I wanted to like this more. There’s a lot of good here. It’s acted very well, James Quinn Markey bringing a young Haley Joel Osment to mind, and the technical side is just as good: the cinematography, the score, the editing, you name it. My problems are pretty much all with the script, but that’s a rather important component to a film like this.

Now — sleep! I’ll be back with another half-dozen reviews tomorrow night!


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