2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 4

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

One of the busiest (but most interesting) days I’ve had in forever meant that I only get to see two films today, both of them showcase features from the IHSFFF side of the festival.

Some quick notes before I get to those, though! 37 screenings had sold out by the time I got to Harkins today and I had a chance to chat with some of the staff and other attendees to get an impression of the festival from their sides. With most things comparable to last year in quality, perhaps unsurprisingly as most of the crew behind the event stay pretty consistent, what’s better or worse?

On the better side, I’ve heard a lot about the scheduling this year. I think there’s a growing awareness that this has been getting better and better for a few years now and that 2019 saw a real leap up in quality. It’s never been easier for an attendee to organise a schedule! The other big jump for 2019 was in the online sales, which I’ve never used but apparently are quick and painless, so far more people than ever are using that approach.

On the worse side, the only negative comments I’ve heard have tied to the line control, something that’s rarely been a problem in the past. I wonder why it’s come up now. I know that I’ve accidentally ended up in a theatre on my own before I should have been in there and it seems like I’m not the only one.

I should add that I’d personally love to see World Cinema expanded. It was great to see the Competition Features bumped up a couple of slots this year without any loss of overall quality and I believe that the World track is a great candidate to follow suit. Slobodan Popovic has been programming great films ever since I started attending the PFF (I think the very first film I ever saw at the festival was an award winning World Feature) and attendees know it because they fill his theatres year after year.


While the festival runs on until next Sunday, the PFF side of things wraps up most of its competitions over the first weekend. Only the IHSFFF awards and the Arizona awards wait until the second.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Feature Film Awards
  • Audience Award – Hudson
  • Best Picture – This World Alone
  • Best Documentary – General Magic
  • Best Director – Sean Cunningham (Hudson)
  • Best Ensemble – Hudson
  • Best Screenplay – Hudson Phillips (This World Alone)
  • Sidney K. Shapiro Humanitarian Award – Families Like Yours

World Cinema Awards

  • Best Director – Lynsey Miller (Doing Money)
  • Best Picture – Doing Money
  • Best Documentary – Modified
  • Audience Award – Finding Alice

Foundation Awards

  • Volunteer of the Year – Linda Nguyen

Short Film Awards

  • Best Animated Short – L’Homme et le Poisson
  • Best Documentary Short – Live from the Astroturf, Alice Cooper
  • Best College Short Film – The Incident
  • Best Live Action Short – Never Land
  • Best World Cinema Short – Over the Wall
  • Best Latino American Short – Without Shame
  • Best African American Short – Asia A
  • Best Native American Short – Cowboy

I’m surprised at so many wins for Hudson; I enjoyed it but it didn’t shine for me like it apparently did for so many others, both judges and audience. I’m very happy at This World Alone‘s win for Best Picture, because it was a fantastic example of how to do a heck of a lot with not a heck of a lot. And special congratulations to General Magic, because it had crazy competition; each of the three documentaries I saw fully deserved to win but, of course, there can be only one.

And, with all that said, what about tonight’s films?

Survival of the Film Freaks

As I mentioned above, the documentaries this year have been top notch and it seems weird to suggest that this is the worst one thus far given that it’s a pretty damn good feature that I enjoyed immensely.

The synopsis is really simple: it’s a look at cult cinema. What is it? Where did it come from? Why does it continue to thrive? How has it evolved and how will it continue to evolve in the future?

The structure is pretty straightforward. The movie shifts gradually through undefined but clear sections (midnight movies, grindhouse theatres, VHS art, direct to video, cable TV, etc.). Each is explored through a combination of clips and interview footage with people who ought to know their stuff, given that they either had a hand in creating cult movies or work with them in some way, like critics, hosts or distributors.

I enjoyed both sides of this but have to give the nod to the clips. This is far from the only documentary out there on cult cinema and, while those who comment here do so well, so often do their equivalents in similar films. In some examples, they’re the same people; Lloyd Kaufman must spend more time doing this than making movies nowadays. On the other hand, the clip choice here is well above the norm, including many films that I ought to recognise but didn’t. I’ll be trawling through the credits later to figure out which.

The other major plus here is an admirable balance given to the themes under discussion. For instance, there’s a section on piracy which begins the way such sections always begin and I think I actually groaned aloud. However, it evolved into possibly the most balanced coverage of the topic I’ve seen in a documentary and I appreciated that immensely.

When you make a documentary about a subject that many other documentarians have already covered, you can’t just be good because there’s a lot of that already out there. You have to either add new value or do the job so well that you become the new standard.

I’m not seeing a heck of a lot of new value here, the excellent clip choices being the most obvious example. However, this film has a good shot at taking over as the new go to documentary on the subject because it moves through it in a confident and capable fashion and it covers the full scope better than the last few equivalents I’ve seen. It’s good stuff.

The Bastard’s Fig Tree

This is the film that I’ve been looking forward to the most out of all those on the schedule for 2019. I love Spanish horror, especially when it looks at history in the process, and this looks back to the era of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of General Franco. It’s precisely my sort of film!

What I should point out right now is that it isn’t a horror movie in the slightest. As it ran on, I felt like it would move into magical realism, but it never got there either. It’s fair to say that I felt disappointed (and I wasn’t alone tonight) but that disappointment is really undeserved. A film can’t meet our expectations when our expectations are wrong.

This is actually a drama with some comedy and, on that front, it’s very good indeed. Curtiz may still have the best cinematography I’ve seen this weekend but The Bastard’s Fig Tree has the best composition of frame and, by far, the best lighting. There are scenes early on here that are so beautiful that my jaw dropped.

These scenes are generally outside in the rain as Rogelio and his Falangist cohorts go hunting. That means that they’re fascists looking for republicans to execute each and every night, because they believing they’re purging the country of undesirables. No, they’re not nice people and this is a climate of evictions, confiscations and disappearances. This picture ably highlights Spain’s dark recent history and suggests that it hasn’t dealt with it well, sitting as it does on top of the corpses of the murdered.

The first murder we see is that of a man named Gurbieta and his son. Pedro Alberto, clearly a Hitler wannabe, is given their names by a snitch called Ermo, who joins them on the hunt and points out that the boy is sixteen, so old enough to be executed. Another son is younger and Rogelio wants to kill him too because he apparently spooks him bad, but the group doesn’t murder children and that’s that.

Before long, however, the experience changes Rogelio, partly spurred by the down to earth wife of the new mayor, Cipriana, who raises Our Lady of Carmel as a force behind Rogelio’s actions. He becomes a hermit paying for his sins by living in a field and caring for the fig tree that the boy plants after burying his father and brother. Years pass and this self-imposed penance changes him. I think the point of the film is that nobody else changes and Spain should acknowledge that.

Karra Elejalde is excellent as Rogelio, but I think I appreciated a couple of the supporting actors more: Carlos Areces, who makes Ermo a truly ratlike rat, and Pepa Aniorte, a brutally honest Cipriana. However, it’s the crew behind the camera that shone brightest for me and many of them too. I’d like to call out Ana Murugarren, not just for her writing and her direction but for her editing too. The score is top notch.

Most of all, the visual element is sumptuous: all praise to cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui and gaffer Diego Moyano! When was the last time you saw a gaffer called out for praise in a movie review? I can’t remember either but I’m damn well going to do it now because the lighting, especially in those early scenes, is absolutely perfect.

And, with that, I’m going to sleep. It’s going to be a long week and I don’t want to miss a moment of it.

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