Phoenix Film Festival 2019 posters

2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 2

Events Movies Sci-Fi & Fantasy

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

I watched five features today, along with the second half of the Live Action Shorts B block. Traffic sucked and we were late, so we shuffled a couple of items around. The much better scheduling this year made that easy.

Some general notes first:

  • My current count of sold out screenings is 25, checked before the final set today.
  • Eleven features in, it’s weird not seeing Cox, Starz or AARP commercials before each show. Some longstanding sponsors are no longer on board.
  • And this year’s Phoenix Film Festival video, which screens at the beginning of each slot, is an odd one. It looks gorgeous, with some really interesting editing of recent film footage into a very unique animation. However, I’d say it’s failing at its job because it’s too good at stealing our eyes. Eleven features in, I don’t think I’ve even seen the first few sponsor logos yet.

Live Action Shorts B

This set included seven shorts but I came in late, so I can’t comment on the first three films. I can, however, talk about the last four.

Every Other Weekend is one of these short films that I admire far more than I enjoy. It’s the story of a troubled Brooklyn mother spending the day with her two kids, who presumably live with their rich father instead.

Mum is obese, poor, angry, frustrated and fond of the bottle, but the kids aren’t much more to shout about. None are sympathetic. Even when they do good things or have good motives, they’re really bad at it. There are a few glimmers of hope, because they all care in their own ways and even Ruby and her mum can find just a little common ground before the day is out.

It’s not particularly enjoyable, but that reflects on the characters rather than the production. That’s top notch: well written, well shot and well edited. All three leads do a great job. It’s an excellent film, just one that I doubt I ever want to watch again. It’s better than Disappearing Inka, which promises much but doesn’t seem to know how to deliver.

This revolves around a brother and sister, the latter of whom has acquired a habit of disappearing without notice, literally. One minute she’s there, having a conversation, the next she’s not, because some force is transporting her to other places, only to transport her back again. It’s a great idea. I’d love to see this short when it’s developed.

My favourite two films from this set were A Civilized Life and Never Land.

The former is set in Utah back in 1870 when men bought wives at marriage markets. Two of these wives, Jack and Dana, find that they’re fed up enough of their husbands to do something very drastic about it. It’s beautifully shot in what feels like natural light and the actors, especially Britt Lower as Jack, are fantastic. She channels some Jennifer Tilly here, showing a believable strength and confidence at a time when that wasn’t desirable.

Never Land takes us back to New York and a young African American boy whose life isn’t much to write about. Well, except by himself in lyrics that aren’t read until he’s been shot. It’s a very powerful piece, that speaks to bullies, teacher responsibility, foster homes, the dangers of the street, the power of reading and the benefits of an imagination, given that he’s a reader who finds escape from his reality by thinking himself into the Lost Boys of Peter Pan.

I’ve never enjoyed a film that contains a rap song quite so much in my life. It’s brilliant work and young Malakai James isn’t the only one involved who deserves praise. This seemed like a good set, with three excellent films in just the four I saw.

The Grounds

Back to PFF competition features and the best one I’ve seen thus far. It’s telling that the screening I attended suffered from technical issues, some missing sound at the very beginning and a problematic frame rate, but, after ten minutes or so, it sucked me in so deeply that I forgot to notice and just enjoyed myself. That’s powerful filmmaking.

The Grounds is a story about two very different but very broken men who change each other’s lives. Jack is a rich and terminally depressed recluse, who never leaves his absolutely gorgeous mansion, lives on coffee and gummi bears and plans suicide. Calvin is the alcoholic stoner who cons his way into Jack’s employ as the man’s groundskeeper.

It’s almost unfortunate that the film starts with Calvin passed out at the whatever hole on a golf course that’s about to fire him, because he’s very clearly attempting to be Bill Murray. However, this isn’t Caddyshack by any stretch of the imagination. It’s funny, often brutally so (the central scene in the bathroom is gloriously inappropriate and utterly hilarious), but it’s primarily a drama that takes us to some powerful places.

What I liked most here is that the story is the usual rise, fall, rise three act play but for two people rather than one and the initial rise takes up most of the film, is spent almost entirely in an isolated location and with almost entirely only three actors. It’s not the most surprising film ever made but it doesn’t fall into cliché, even if we often think it’s about to and the film ends before the more obvious cheap plot progressions happen, leaving us to wonder whether they ever will.

Trevor Morgan is fantastic as Calvin and Michael Welch does a fine job as Jack, even if we spend most of the film thinking we’re watching Bill Murray and Joel Edgerton. Ashley Hinshaw lends some welcome elegance to her role as Julie, Jack’s link to the outside world. However, the film also benefits from a perfect location, is shot beautifully and features glorious music.

I’ve seen some great films this year, but this is the only one so far that honestly feels like an award winner.

Vanilla

I wonder why this film is called Vanilla. Sure, it’s a play on the fact that one of the two lead characters is a software developer working on an app to pitch to the ice cream industry, but it has a sexual connotation too that is far from where this film goes with regard to sex.

The developer is Elliott, who needs money to pursue his dreams, so sells his van. The buyer is a local pizza shop, through the owner’s ex-niece, Kimmie, though the majority of the film is spent with the two of them driving from New York to New Orleans so she can sell it to Elliott’s ex-girlfriend. That does make sense, I promise.

I think my biggest problem here, which I puzzled about, is that it’s almost a mirror image of The Grounds. Instead of two broken people finding a way to at least begin to heal themselves, we’re given two apparently normal people who are gradually revealed to be broken. The ending is dark and, while I’m not going to suggest it’s not the right ending to take, it’s a potentially very dark one indeed.

Kelsea Bauman is very good indeed as Kimmie and Will Dennis does a solid job too as Elliot. Kimmie is always on, a wannabe goofball comedian who’s very engaging and believably flawed. A gradual revelation of some of her secrets highlights some very clever writing, as we realise how she’s delineating the different parts of her life and how her efforts to do so highlight problems. She vehemently refuses to let anyone pay for her food; she sleeps in a separate hotel room, even when she’s having sex with Elliott; and she has an inability to perform in front of live people, ironic, given some of those secrets. There’s a lot of depth to the reasons why.

For his part, Elliot is nice but clingy at best and obsessive at worst. His secrets aren’t as wild but he’s perhaps even more broken and he realises it even less. What I think about Elliot now, having seen the entire film, isn’t what I thought about Elliot for most of its running time.

There’s a lot here below the quirky surface, enough for me to suggest that, while this works on a first viewing, I’d really like to watch it again to see how the depth works when I know how the film ends. A lot of this ties to identity and how we define ourselves. Are we defined by our work or who we think we are? Gender roles and privilege and life choices all play parts. There’s a lot about independence and success. Most of all, there’s the idea of control and who has it in a relationship.

Much of this will seem vague because I’ve seen the film and you haven’t. It will come clear when you see it and you should. It’s the film that’s made me think the most thus far at PFF 2019 and I have a feeling it’s going to stay with me. I’ll seek out a copy after the festival so I can rewatch and see if some of my thoughts are bolstered by a second viewing.

Hudson

A second film in a row to revolve around a road trip and to feature fortune cookies and ice cream, Hudson is a simpler, smoother and less nuanced story than Vanilla, but it’s very capably done.

The core of the story features cousins Ryan and Hudson driving to the willow tree at Cherry Ridge that featured strongly in their childhood, so that the latter can sprinkle his mother’s ashes there. There are factors complicating this, not least that we assume from early on that Hudson is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. A different explanation is eventually provided, adding a powerful extra layer in the process, but our response doesn’t change.

I recognise a lot of these symptoms. He doesn’t understand time well. He’s resistant to change. He doesn’t grasp nuance. However, he has high function and I wondered often whether his dialogue was him being sarcastic, funny or just him. He writes cool haikus.

David Neal Levin is outstanding as the title character. I always had trouble with Dustin Hoffman’s often lauded role in Rain Man because I couldn’t see a character there, just Hoffman’s acting. Levin plays Hudson so naturally that it’s hard to believe that he isn’t on the spectrum himself. He deserves even more awards than Hoffman racked up. Gregory Lay does well in a more dramatic role as Ryan and Mary Catherine Greenawalt is sheer joy as the third major character, a wild and free spirit named Sunrise.

The quirkiness works here in a different way to Vanilla because there’s only one character playing along. I thoroughly enjoyed Hudson’s reactions to the ice cream stand not being open at 7am out of season or his crazy golf card, but Ryan doesn’t and that puts a different spin on things.

While much of this is unsurprising, there’s a key point late in the picture that I really didn’t see coming and felt was superbly handled.

While Ryan is the character with the most substantial story arc and by far the most development, Hudson grows nicely as a character and Sunrise doesn’t need to. I adored her character here. She breezes into the film with a neat sense of character, displays a glorious freedom from responsibility, making her mark in the world almost by accident, merely by being who she is, and eventually breezes on out again, leaving our cousins better for her having been part of their life, however briefly.

Hudson is a very easy film to like and it’s highly enjoyable. Maybe it could have been shorter or had a little more included, but maybe not. Its patience is part of its charm.

Curtiz

My first and only competition feature this year from the World Cinema track, Curtiz is a deep look into the making of the classic film Casablanca in 1942 with a close focus on its director, the Hungarian born Michael Curtiz. Don’t expect to see much Bogart or Bergman. The actor with most screen time is his fellow Hungarian, S. Z. Sakall, who played Carl, the head waiter at Rick’s, because he was a friend and confidante of Curtiz. Conrad Veidt gets a few important scenes.

It’s shot in black and white, mostly in English but partly in Hungarian and other languages, as Curtiz was multi-lingual. The acting is strong but the most obvious standout is the cinematography of Zoltán Dévényi. There are a number of very long takes where the camera moves in insanely ambitious ways to capture a dozen different stories unfolding at the same time in the same space and, eventually, return to its initial focus. Unless there were clever edits, such as in The Revenant, these are the best choreographed long takes that I’ve seen since the glory days of Max Ophüls, like the beginning of La Ronde.

The story here is complex because it features a large cast of characters who all seem to want something. Curtiz wants to finish his movie in peace. The government, now that the United States is at war, wants it to serve as a propaganda piece to justify it. The twin writers want to find an ending for the film. And Kitty, Curtiz’s Hungarian daughter, whom he’s rescued from a dangerous Europe but doesn’t want to be around, wants to be acknowledged.

While this is primarily a Hungarian production, with an entirely Hungarian crew, it refuses to canonise him and is very aware of his flaws, such as his sexual need for a new girl to be waiting in his office every 6pm. Ferenc Lengyel, a very experienced Hungarian actor, does a very good job in the lead and the rest of the cast follow his lead. I wasn’t fond of the casting generally though. While the iconic Bogart and Bergman, when they do appear, do so deliberately out of focus, I should recognise a bunch of people here and didn’t because the actors didn’t look enough alike their characters.

As a European, I particularly appreciated the half dozen or so moments which offer commentary not only on the events unfolding in 1942 but also those of the fifties and of today. Some of these are crystal clear, such as use of ‘make America great again’ or ‘alternative fact’, but others were just as powerful, like advice from a government representative (and would be rapist) for Americans to be careful expressing their opinions because they might be heard by patriots who are only keen about being patriots. We’re supposed to learn from history. I wish we would.

Classic film fans ought to enjoy the sets, recreating Rick’s Café and the small wooden plane from the end of the film, as well as a lot of cinematic history. The film is very quotable and I recognise some of the lines. The rest of the world should catch little touches of genius here and there too, like the moment when an actor removes his Nazi hat to reveal a yarmulke on his head underneath it.

This is powerful stuff and I highly recommend it. It deserves to be seen on a much wider basis than fans of Casablanca.

Boom

My last film tonight was a documentary in competition as best feature and it does everything I want a music documentary to do. It focuses on a subject of great importance and influence but who are relatively unknown to most. It’s able to provide their entire story, from soup to nuts, with a good flow, so that the audience can understand their importance and experience some of it. It’s pure undistilled discovery and I loved it.

The subject is the Sonics, a band who achieved local success in the Seattle area in the early sixties but who split up and went their own ways, unaware of their growing influence outside the area, notably in England. They were a garage rock band, who played more powerfully than anyone else at their time, and who sound not unlike punk long before not only the Ramones, but the MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls too.

The picture is a passion project for filmmaker Jordan Albertsen, who brings a suitably irreverent tone to the piece. Growing up, Jordan hated the sports his umpire dad obsessed over and thought that his taste in music sucked. At thirteen, however, his dad heard him listening to Nirvana and left him an LP by the Sonics that changed his life. The ensuing quest has brought them into friendship and closeness, not least at what seems very much like a fantastic Sonics gig in Seattle.

Everything I do at Apocalypse Later revolves around discovery, including my music reviews. There are so many artists, from occult rock pioneers Coven to the psychedelia of Linda Perhacs, who created music that either never found success at all or, in the case of the Sonics, did so on a local basis only, before vanishing into oblivion, only to prove wildly influential without the artists having a clue until much, much later.

I’d love to see films about a whole slew of these artists but Boom will do well for now. All the band members are substantially present, interviewed at length and with glorious humour, along with the gentleman who ran the record label which recorded them and later fed their music to Europe, Buck Ormsby. Together, these provide the core of the film.

Other people who knew the Sonics during their initial run are notable by their absence, but those who found them later gradually find their way into the film as it runs on, including notables like Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, and many others, not only musicians but folk who run record labels too.

As you may have guessed, after decades of not knowing how important they were, the Sonics eventually reformed, with three of the original members, and spent eight years touring the world to much acclaim. I hadn’t realised that they’d also recorded a new album in 2015, but I learned much here. The other notable absence is live footage because we see a lot of it but don’t hear any of it, because it was shot guerrilla style without sound.

While this is primarily a film aimed at existing Sonics fans, it ought to work very well for music fans generally and even those who may not dig the garage rock scene but find the band’s own discovery fascinating.

I left happy today. This was great and I’m happily writing to a soundtrack of Sonics Boom.

Check back in tomorrow to see if I’m as happy with the four films I’ll see on Sunday.

Here and there ...

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