New Books!

Apocalypse Later has now expanded from blog to print! My first two books are now available at Amazon and the other usual online stores.

Click on the images above or the titles below to visit their pages at amazon.com.

Autographed copies can be ordered from Dog Eared Pages used bookstore in Phoenix.

Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made
(front cover by Eric Schock of Evil Robo Productions)

Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana
with a foreword by Peaches Christ and an afterword by Cody Jarrett
(front cover by Keith Decesare of KAD Creations)

Festival Coverage

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Ouroboros (2014)

Director: Alexander Broderick
Stars: Amanda Melby, Nancy Mercurio and Steve Briscoe
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Ouroboros (at least the one marked VI for 2014 at IMDb, because everyone and their dog are apparently making movies called Ouroboros) is a major release from the Digital Video Program at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, so precisely nobody will be surprised to discover that it looks absolutely gorgeous from the swirling O that immediately appears in the middle of the screen to play its role in the opening credits and then the beginning of the film itself. There’s so much visual effects work, every bit of which looks slick and professional, and it’s so well integrated into everything around it that we actually wonder if Amanda Melby is real or yet another digital creation. She’s playing Dr Faye O’Neill, in a future America of 2035 where the military has partnered with her lab to build Star Trek-style transporters using quantum entanglement technology. Given that the US military has just partnered with companies in the UK and US to build Star Wars-style hoverbikes, I just wonder if 2035 is too safe an estimate. Who knows?

Well, 2035 looks pretty damn good, if this is anything to go by. It isn’t all digital, because the costumes of Nola Yergen are as amazing as ever, but most of it is computer generated. As an IT tech, I tend to despise Hollywood’s attempts to visualise user interfaces, not being knocked out by any cinematic interpretations until an indie short called Restitution in 2013. The students at UAT clearly spent a lot of time thinking out how they wanted to present current hot tech topics like the Internet of Things and instant synchronisation between portable and fixed devices. There’s a lot of handprint authentication here, minor AI and a host of TLAs to go along with the military designations: TBL, QTM, SEC and the like. Digital effects date and these will be no exception, but they look pretty damn fine right now. Unfortunately, while they might drive odd discussions amongst film fans who work in IT, they certainly don’t drive this story. They just sit there and look both awesome and busy while the story tries to steal some focus back and, eventually, fails.
I’ve reviewed a lot of UAT films over the last few years and, while visual effects are always a strong focus, inevitably given that they’re made by a Digital Video Program, there are usually stronger stories to sit in front of them. I’m thinking varied films like Red Sand, Screaming in Silence and Flight of the Melvin, with common ground in having strong stories as well as strong visuals. The story here is a mishmash of tropes that I’m not sure even makes sense in the end. It’s a time travel film, a parallel universe film, a futuristic technology film... and yet it has to wrap itself up in under sixteen minutes. That’s insanely ambitious and, frankly, this needed a lot more time to allow the various themes to evolve naturally. I could see this script being expanded out to feature length and finding substance in explorations of what appears here only as wild dialogue (like ‘It’s an Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Bridge!’), especially as even lines that outrageous are used appropriately rather than as random scientific gibberish, but it just doesn’t have that luxury.

If, in a parallel universe, this might have become a deep and scientifically accurate feature, it’s actually a surface scratching short that seems to be constructed entirely out of Hollywood stock moments, because Hollywood never wants to go deep and scientifically accurate. It just wants to reuse memorable moments like a scientist being confronted by a future version of themselves, or the revelation that one action made the universe split and now the entire timespace continuum is falling in on itself. We get a whole collection of these moments here, none of them explored beyond the usual because of the time constraints. Only a deus ex machina moment, quite literally for a change, goes beyond that and it gives Steve Briscoe some opportunity to act. If this could be viewed as a sixteen minute edit of an imaginary ninety minute feature, the work of Briscoe, Melby and Nancy Mercurio finds some power. Certainly, each of these actors finds a way to do more with their material than it deserves at this length.
Fortunately, there’s more than just visual magic and good acting to recommend Ouroboros, and I’m not just talking about the neat conceit of having the background doctors be called Tennant, Smith and Baker (Tom, I hope, not Colin). Many of the other technical jobs are performed as capably as the visual wizards, just less obviously, from the cinematography of Annie Winn to the sound editing of Gwyneth Christoffel and Nick Francia; Christoffel also edited with Reginald Riley. The casting is top notch too, especially with Nancy Mercurio tasked with playing an older version of Amanda Melby; I honestly wondered on my first viewing if the latter was playing both roles with different make up and I couldn’t quite get that out of my head even once I knew better. So this is the slick and professional sci-fi yarn we’ve come to expect from UAT, just one that’s as hampered by time as is its leading lady. Because of that, the weak point is clearly the script, but maybe it will provide the spur for UAT to stretch itself and produce that first feature!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Focus (2014)

Director: Matt Chesin
Stars: Julia Severance, Christopher Bradley, Erus Harrington and Mike Rolfe
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
There’s a lot going on in a short amount of time in Focus, a fourteen minute short made at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre early in 2014. It’s usually described as a drama, under which banner it’s won awards, but I’m screening it at LepreCon 41 in a science fiction set with a time travel theme and it could easily be categorised as fantasy. The drama is in the emotions that the story arouses in the viewers and characters alike, while it moves into genre territory to allow them to happen. It gets ruthlessly emotional by the finalĂ©, but I think it works because it’s never, erm, focused on a single subject. The story is framed around one girl, Sloan Beck, but she’s not the only recipient of that emotional buildup and it covers more than just one issue even for her. Maybe this is why I wasn’t as fond of this on my first viewing, but it built well each successive time through. The script is strong, written by Christopher Bradley and developed by Jeff Lynn, Brian Kiefling and director Matt Chesin; it just takes a couple of viewings to grasp it all properly.

Sloan is a precocious young lady, way ahead of the rest of her photography class but taking it seriously and finding a lot of fault in her work. She’s naturally horrified to find that her dad has pawned her laptop and her camera lenses, not only because it’ll affect her schoolwork but because all the pictures she had to remember her mother are now gone. Dad is a broken but barking Christopher Bradley, looking awful and sounding believably worse, but he’s only here briefly to set up that heartache and set Sloan on the road to a local photography store to find a new used lens. This is important because, when she connects it to her camera and experiments with it in the desert, it highlights more than was there at the time. How she reacts to this discovery and where it leads her, you’ll need to find out yourself because that way lie spoilers I’m not willing to expose. Suffice it to say that there’s a big picture here that hasn’t yet found its focus and I honestly wasn’t trying to throw out photography pun after pun but they just happened.
Julia Severance is decent as Sloan and she has some very good moments indeed in what I believe is her debut on film, but she does seem to be trying too hard for much of it. It wouldn’t have mattered in a less well cast piece, but there are points, especially when she’s interacting with others, where she could have been more natural. Christopher Bradley is resonant in his brief appearance and Mike Rolfe is excellent as a character who is almost the exact opposite: a father figure who is smooth where Mr Beck is abrasive and compassionate where he’s ruthless. Erus Harrington impressed me too as a young man believably out of time. He’s shot in colour for the most part, but I remember his role in black and white because he feels so close to the kids who mixed capability and innocence so well in movies from the thirties and into the forties. The opening scene could have begun an old Monogram mystery movie with child detectives solving the case that the adults couldn’t.

Technically, this excels but watching the credits afresh highlights a lot of good names that I’ve seen on a lot of good credit lists. Cinematographer Jason Ryan, who keeps the camera notably moving throughout, is especially racking up a heck of a portfolio, but he’s not alone in that. However, Kendall Humbert, who edited the film with aplomb, apparently hasn’t done anything before this, at least according to IMDb. I’m sure that will change soon. The only negative aspect on the technical side is that there’s too much wind in the outdoor desert scenes, a curse that’s particularly prominent in Arizona filmmaking but one that’s not horrendous here. We can still hear everything we want to hear, but that wind could still have been a little less prominent in the mix. At the end of the day, this comes back to the script, which is deceptively full of clever little details. A cynic might find fault with the emotional manipulation but, even though I’ve seen it all, it caught at my throat too and I’m certainly not complaining at how well it did so.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Thrasherland (2015)

Director: Joshua J Provost
Stars: Casey Likes and Cara Alvey
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
If Logan Must Make Star Wars was what this year's Home Grown Shorts set needed to lighten the notably dark tone, Thrasherland is what it needed to wrap things up. It's a strong bookend to Grace of a Stranger, a very different film indeed but another one tied to both hope and skateboards. However, instead of two adult actors to tell its story, it relies on one child actor, Casey Likes, with very little support, and frankly, as strong as the sentiment of the short is, it would have failed if he hadn't have been up to the task. The good news is that he's excellent, especially at the beginning but also throughout the twelve minutes that it runs until a conclusion that sits well not just for Thrasherland but for the whole Home Grown Shorts set. I've mentioned the programming of this set a number of times as I've reviewed the films that played in it, because I've been learning the fine art of set programming on my Apocalypse Later mini-film festivals at local conventions and this set, unlike many nowadays, really shone from that angle.

Casey Likes plays Carpenter, a thirteen year old kid who's unhappy that his family won't be able to go to California this year on holiday. Sure, he cares for his little sister, Charlie, who's in hospital for a reason we aren't let in on but which we assume is serious. However, he comes across as the usual petulant youth as he pouts at the lack of holiday. He doesn't stamp his foot when he shouts, 'That's not fair!', but that's only because Joshua J Provost, the writer and director, didn't want to be quite that stereotypical. Life sucks for young Carpenter but it's clearly not as simple as him being selfish. There's a great line early on when his mum suggests that he go see Charlie: 'I don't like to see her like that,' he says, highlighting that he cares but can't give voice to his feelings in terms that his mother would understand. So, when he packs for the road, we know it isn't as simple as just running away from home. The rest of the story fills in the gaps, as he takes a journey whose meaning is eventually made clear through a fantastic and touching plot device.
I happened to sit close to Provost at the screening of Bread and Butter and talked to him about the film of his that would screen later in the festival. While Thrasherland details a journey taken by Carpenter, it also represents a journey for Provost. It took him nine years to make the film, which was originally aimed to be a feature. Eventually he realised that it wasn't going to happen, just like Carpenter's California holiday, so he turned it into something that would, namely this short. I got a real kick out of it, though I wonder what the impact would be if it were to be extended to feature length. It relies on a restrained introduction, that strong lead performance from Likes and a great ending. What we see on the journey is more important to the character than to us, though I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing these sights on the big screen, as my better half and I saw them earlier this year when driving to north Hollywood to take part in the shoot for Flight Fright. We stopped at the Cabazon dinosaurs and the wind farm this side of the mountains too.

In many ways, it's an ethereal piece that often slips away from dialogue into a jangly score as Carpenter makes it further down the road. Provost does drop some hints early on, but then it's just the highway; we do know where he's going, because it doesn't take any knowledge of the road to grasp that, but we don't quite know why and we have to wait it out with Carpenter before Provost opens it up and brings it home. Given that the wait constitutes the majority of the film, which Carpenter either makes it through alone or shares with people we don't see, the technical side of the picture is often in focus. I enjoyed some of the camerawork, like the shadowplay on the bridge, but found some shots too handheld for my liking. The impressive choice of locations is strung together capably by editing, but it's Likes who always keeps us going, the determination on his face only occasionally lost to a fear that he's doing the wrong thing. I bet Provost had the same looks over nine years, but Thrasherland is definitely the right end to his journey.

Logan Must Make Star Wars (2014)

Director: Nathan Blackwell
Stars: Logan Blackwell, Brian Blackwell, Craig Curtis, Shay Alber, Kellen Garner, Bob Caplan, Lauren Henschen, James Hoenscheidt, Christopher Hoenscheidt, Darren Ito and Josh Kasselman
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
While Stolen Afternoon was only five short films earlier in the Home Grown Shorts set at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, it felt like an aeon. The Class Analysis, Duty and Fish Hook are hardly light viewing and the documentary, Fighters Move Forward, didn't exactly avoid the darkness either. So, by the time Logan Must Make Star Wars showed up in the set, the audience were overdue for some laughs, especially given that it was a Saturday morning. I knew it would play well because I'd seen the film before; even though I missed its original screening at last year's A3F film challenge, I keep up with Squishy Studios and Nathan Blackwell kindly allowed me to screen it myself in the Apocalypse Later short film set at LepreCon 2014, a year end wrap up at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and a small charity event for Oakwood Care. It played well every time but it was so precisely the perfect antidote to all the dark material in this set that it surely won't ever play anywhere quite so well as this again.

Anyone who's seen the work of Squishy Studios, from Masters of Daring to Zombie Team Building via the Voyage Trekkers web series, knows their sense of humour and that's very much in evidence here, as they add the Star Wars universe to the list of sci-fi staples that they've lampooned. It won't surprise any to find that Logan is played by Logan Blackwell, but the setup is the sort of genius that Squishy Studios is known for. We're not given any explanations of how this happened (perhaps because they could easily constitute a prequel), but Logan plunges backwards in time to 1974 and accidentally kills George Lucas. To avoid an unimaginable future without the Star Wars trilogy (props to Blackwell for not mentioning more than three films), he has to make A New Hope himself, merely without any money, actors or props that he can't find himself. That's mirrored in Logan Must Make Star Wars itself, which is populated by Voyage Trekkers props and characters and a beard for Logan as transparent as those of the Monty Python crew in Life of Brian.
What we're here for, though, isn't realism, it's the Squishy Studios brand of humour, which has a habit of poking fun at culture in a deceptively light-hearted way. I'm hardly going to call this the deepest short in the set, but there's a little more going on here about both the art and business of filmmaking than might immediately meet the eye, culminating in a wonderful cameo by Josh Kasselman as a Roger Corman-like producer, all ready to snap up stock footage for another cut and paste job. The dialogue is as sparkling a highlight as we've come to expect, but not only through choice of words. Sure, Logan's glorious opening lines to potential backers are, 'So, we start on the fourth movie, OK?' but Lauren Henschen's outrageous Georgia peach accent for Princess Leia never ceases to make me laugh, even on my tenth time through. Logan gets the truest line in 'I guess the dialogue's always been bad,' but James Hoenscheidt gets a gem in the reworked cantina scene as Han Solo arguing with Greedo.

While Logan Must Make Star Wars is surely just a scratch on the surface of the Star Wars universe, a five minute short film to compare to the two seasons of Voyage Trekkers making affectionate fun of Star Trek, it crams a surprising amount of story arcs into such a brief running time. We start with a big fall with the death of George Lucas (for the time, folks; this is 1974, remember, when he was about to become great), but there's a big rise, another fall, a second rise and eventually a great finish. That's as many story arcs as the entire Star Wars trilogy. I'd love to see more of this sort of material from Nathan Blackwell, but it's hardly his focus right now with the long awaited Voyage Trekkers feature in pre-production. Maybe there will be another 48 hour film challenge that falls into a free timeslot so the Squishy Studios crew can turn this into a trilogy. After all, by the end of this short film, Logan may have made Star Wars, but he hasn't followed up with The Empire Strikes Back yet. At least he can hire another director to do that, right?

Logan Must Make Star Wars is available to watch for free on Vimeo and YouTube (the latter is longer):

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Fish Hook (2014)

Director: Nickolas Duarte
Stars: Ryan DeLuca and Paul Hickert
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
I'd seen many of the Home Grown Shorts at this year's Phoenix Film Festival before, but Fish Hook was a new one on me and it was the one that I knew I needed to see again. It's a real oddity: a picture that's all about impact, which we feel in our gut far more than we see on the screen because this is as ephemeral as anything I've seen. If you scribble down every fact presented, it'll be a very short list indeed. We only meet two of the three characters in the story; beyond names, we're never told who anyone is or how they connect to anyone else. What happened in the past is skirted around with practised skill; what happens in the present is brutal. None of this really tells us anything at all. Yet, at the same time, we're given such impressions that we believe that we know a whole heck of a lot. We know who all these people are, what they did in the past and why they do what they do in the present. We look at all the things on screen but effectively see the unseen hanging in the air between them and watch it manifest in our minds.

That's clever filmmaking, but we have to wonder if we got the right picture. Perhaps that's the point. The director and co-writer, Nickolas Duarte, may have had a completely different vision of the story than I do or you do. He could make three more films about the same subject from different perspectives, then tie them together into an episodic feature and call it Rashomon. When the credits rolled on the big screen, I had a good idea what was going on but wanted the film to start afresh and let me check my theory. After a second viewing, I'm relatively sure that I have a crystal clear vision of the big picture, but I'm also well aware that it's entirely fashioned from my personal interpretations which could be completely off base. I would recommend this to any university film class as it really ends with an unspoken suggestion that the entire audience should immediately form groups and dissect the film frame by frame to check their own interpretations and figure out what it's really saying.
This makes a synopsis very difficult. The film opens with sinister imagery: drills, saws, blood spurting into a sink. Davey texts Brandon, but Brandon doesn't respond. We watch him not respond, instead taking a glass and balancing it on the edge of a table, playing with it until it inevitably falls. This abstraction sets the stage admirably for the personal conflict to follow. The text was about Mr Mike and Brandon's reaction is to eventually go to see him in his workshop. They talk banalities. Well, Mr Mike does; Brandon keeps his mouth mostly shut, letting the heavy air in between them speak for him. There's more hanging in this air than exists otherwise in the workshop, a sword of Damocles with a fraying thread, a vast shared McGuffin as hard to remove as a fish hook. I know what Mr Mike says to Brandon but I also read its meaning, which is another thing entirely. I don't know if Mr Mike tries to hug him, wrestle him or protect him. There's just so much history here that it's threatening to erupt from Brandon's body and leave him a shell.

And when it does erupt, the sound kicks in beyond the ambience that's been droning quietly behind it all. 'My body is a cage,' sings Daniel Vildosola, who composed the wonderful music that is so relevant that it always had to be original. The cinematography of John Sears keeps the violence as impressionistic as the script, shooting so closely that we see blurs that only occasionally manifest themselves into recognisable clarity. You know, like a fight really is. Ryan DeLuca does a magnificent job as Brandon, screaming at us in silence until Duarte ramps up the volume to eleven. Paul Hickert is almost as good, a sort of Willem Dafoe next door who seems to be one thing but might just be another; even though he has more dialogue, he's still acting mostly with body language, which tells its own story. Once I post this review, I'm going to ping Nickolas Duarte, who wrote the script with Drew Grubich, and ask him what he believes he said. I wonder if it will match what I heard him say.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Duty (2014)

Directors: Rob Burson and Victoria Rincon
Stars: Rob Burson, Aimee DuMars, Sandy Owens and Robbie King
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Another flawed thirteen minute Arizona short, Duty has the opposite problem to Fighters Move Forward. That documentary featured too few people saying too few things, so that it never really finds where the real story is. This human interest drama has too many people too quickly focused on where we're going, so that the real story is heavily telegraphed in the first scene. I'm careful to avoid spoilers and know that synopses should only be detailed up to a point; that could be ten minutes in or sixty, but here it's scene one. We're in small town America where the cops are good guys and the sheriff isn't being investigated by the feds, but the first thing we see is Lance stealing money from the evidence locker. IMDb explains that we're 'in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-2009' and we soon discover that it's dragging this cop down. He can't afford to cover his daughter's meds and the bank is getting ready to foreclose. He's pursuing a few odd avenues to solve his financial problem, but none of them are advisable.

Duty has two names all over its credits, so it would seem safe to see the film as theirs. Rob Burson wrote the script and took the lead role for himself, produced the picture and co-directed it with Victoria Rincon, who also shot and edited the piece. Mostly they do good work. Burson is a decent lead, able to elicit our sympathy even after that opening scene. Lance is a good man, but it isn't just the financial crisis that's causing his problems; it's also his male chauvinist attitude, which we're never quite sure we should read as his alone or endemic to the role he plays in society. His wife is a good woman too; in fact, everyone in the film has our sympathy to at least some degree, even Crazy Willie who acts up at two in the morning and waves his shotgun around. I've seen films where I couldn't care about anyone, as important ones as Gone with the Wind, but I'm not sure I've ever seen one before where I cared about everyone and found that a problem. If these people are all so damn likeable, how come nobody is helping them?
While Burson has the screen time, Aimee DuMars is just as good as his wife, Julie, and so's Sandy Owens as the chief. The acting is strong throughout, except for Lance and Julie's screen kids who are obviously so happy to be in a movie that they can't stop grinning, a problem but a forgiveable one. I like Rincon's editing more than I do her camerawork, but she makes everyone look good. She merely likes to keep her camera handheld, presumably for a grittier feel, but the approach is overdone nowadays and has lost its impact. She finds some strong shots though, especially towards the end of the movie; the very last shot is superbly framed and the one soon before it when Lance handles the point of no return is pristine. The score is another plus, from Rincon's brother, Brendan, meaning that technically this is very capable. The script is clearly the weak link, not because of what it says or where it goes but because it's so inherently predictable, telegraphing every move like this is a pantomime rather than a dark drama.

The first time I watched Duty, at last year's Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, I felt that the script was a little too simple to boot but, watching afresh, at the Phoenix Film Festival and again here at home to put this review together, I've changed my mind on that front. While this is about a good man finding himself doing bad things for good reasons, it's far more than that too. It's as much a commentary on the macho mindset pervasive in the police force, even in a small town like this one with a capable female boss, and the self-destructive stupidity of those from which they protect us, as it is about the hard times brought to good men and bad by people a long way away and unseen to everyone who matters. Duty is duty to all the characters in this film, but the word means a different thing to each of them and it shapes how they choose their actions. There's a lot of depth here that I didn't see first time through and I wonder how it plays to different people. While there are questions here, I believe we need to find our own answers.

Duty can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Fighters Move Forward (2014)

Director: Jake Lee
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
The Home Grown Shorts set at this year's Phoenix Film Festival started very strongly indeed with not one but three superb and very different films: Grace of a Stranger, Stolen Afternoon and The Class Analysis. It had to drop the standard sooner or later and it turned out to be here, with a documentary called Fighters Move Forward. It's not a bad film and there are certainly good bits in it, but even at only thirteen minutes, it's too long; I found it repeating background shots pretty quickly and it just can't find enough subjects to interview. Fortunately, the focus of the piece, Pete Chavez, is excellent on camera, so it does have a firm foundation, even if not a heck of a lot to build onto it. Given that the whole thing is about boxing, I could switch metaphors and suggest that it's found a good stance already but still needs to learn how to punch. The other catch is that, like the Best Documentary Feature winner, Angel of Nanjing, it comes over more as a promo piece than a documentary. It's certainly a good cause but a film needs more than that.

In fact, while director Jake Lee quickly puts Chavez in front of the camera to explain to us why we're here and why we should care, it takes him three minutes to move on to someone else. The positive side is that Chavez must have run through this spiel many times because he comes across well and quickly covers a lot of ground. He started Chavez Boxing Gym back in 2004 to some decent success, but soon found kids who needed the environment he was providing but couldn't pay for it. He let some in for free but couldn't do the same for everyone he'd like because he was running a business not a charity. Phoenix magazine's article on the gym made the difference, bringing Chavez to the attention of a reader who suggested that he start a non-profit organisation, even bringing in a pro bono lawyer to get him a 501(c)(3) status. Now he runs the Chavez Boxing Foundation too, which helps more kids who need Chavez to mentor them, not only to succeed in the gym and the ring but also in life. It's why we have a movie.
By the five minute mark, when Chavez finally brings up something more than just why he's there, we've only heard from one other person and he isn't as good in front of the camera as he presumably is in the ring. This doesn't bode well for the movie, even if it has to be why we've been focused almost entirely on one speaker, but it's here that things get interesting, as a conflict develops between Chavez on one side, an upstanding citizen who runs a clean gym, lives his life as an example and practices what he preaches, and local gangs on the other, who see him as a threat to their future. Some break into his gym, vandalise his equipment and graffiti death threats on his wall, but Chavez goes looking for them, finding some in a nearby park in Chavez Boxing Gym shirts that they clearly stole from him. He confronts them too, which escalates into a fight, with him presumably outnumbered, though we're never told how many. This is so stereotypical a bad action movie storyline that we're taken rather aback and it's why we keep watching.

Of course, it doesn't end up quite how it would for Van Damme, Rothrock or Lundgren, but that's not the point. The point is that it's refreshing to know that there are actual people like the heroes in outrageous action movies who we enjoy but never consider realistic. Chavez has far too much screen time and that hurts the film's credibility; over the entire running time, there are only two other people who speak to us and both of them are recipients of scholarships from the Chavez Boxing Foundation. The only objectivity comes from a brief news clip and that's not enough. I wish we could have had heard from people in the local community: politicians, neighbouring business owners or even former gang members. The biggest gap is surely the family of Melyssa Gastelum, one of Chavez's boxers who died in an accident and gave her name posthumously to that scholarship fund. Why couldn't Jake Lee find these people? Fortunately, Chavez himself is believably sincere and I hope this flawed film still helps him and his work.

Fighters Move Forward can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Class Analysis (2014)

Director: Webb Pickersgill
Stars: John Henry Whitaker, Gerald Dewey, Fouad Hajji, Armando DuBon Jr, Doris Morgado, Paul Thomas Arnold and London Kim
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
There's an irony in The Class Analysis following Stolen Afternoon in the Home Grown Shorts selection at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, because the latter was made by Aaron Kes and T J Houle, who took over as program directors at IFP Phoenix from Webb Pickersgill, who directed the former for IFP award-winning filmmaker Jim Politano, who settled for producing this one. Traditionally, Politano's films, like Love Sucks and The Sisters of St Mary's, were poor technically (given that they were made on budgets close to zero with Politano himself as the entire crew) but rich in dialogue and humour. With enough money to make a 'real film' on a 'real budget', as he would put it, he hired Pickersgill and a strong cast of California actors (and Arizona actors who took that one road to Hollywood) to create the hardest hitting short I've seen in quite some time. While it was inspired by true events that anchor it to a very recognisable point in time and space, it extrapolates out easily to any time and any place and will remain timely from here on out.

Technically, we're not where I initially assumed we were after a couple of times through the film. It's just an everyday neighbourhood bar in an unnamed mining town, albeit one with a notably diverse clientele. The man who provides the opening narration, 'Where does nonsense end and wisdom begin?' then walks away from the camera to wait the film out is clearly of Chinese heritage. The barman is a white Vietnam veteran; his doo rag and country music hint at redneck, but his customers are all over the map, as far as class, race and religion. A well-spoken and well-outfitted black businessman chats at the bar with an old friend of Arab descent. Over in a booth, a Hispanic couple chat away in Spanish over food, clearly happy but perhaps also a little worried about the fact that she's very pregnant. And, to stir this melting pot, in walks a big Aryan Brotherhood biker with profanity tattooed on his knuckles and a mighty thirst. When the cast is this diverse, we know there has to be a reason and we know roughly what's coming, right?
Well, we get that but more so. The spark is a nothing moment, as they tend to be, as the barman fails to hear a drinks order from the men at the end of the bar and the businessman's polite but testy reaction is escalated by the biker. Suddenly it's on, with the biker bringing up the first racial slur and the black man hurling the first profanity. Jim Politano's story was adapted to the screen by Ioannis N Skiotes and he has no intention of holding back at all, so it's hardly comfortable viewing. The hatred that rapidly surfaces is equal opportunity; while we might assume the biker is going to be the bad guy and someone else, if not everyone else, is going to be the politically correct good guy, that's far from the case this time out. He's certainly ready and willing for a fight, but the businessman is overly sensitive and just as ready to react. His friend keeps out of it until his religion is brought up and then he's straight into the fight. Everyone is touchy about something, it seems, not least the barman who attempts to break it all up.

The film succeeds for a few reasons. One is that the writing is blistering, leaping around believably from college loans through the Crusades to modern day Bosnia. These characters hurl out whatever comes to mind and the majority of it is as valid on all sides as it is inappropriate to bring up in a bar. The acting is another, because, as much as this is a war of words, we can easily believe it becoming something more. Gerald Dewey, who won Best Actor for the year's IFP challenges for his work in Politano's Flight Fright, is even better here. John Henry Whitaker is note perfect as the biker, successfully avoiding the stereotype of stupidity and violence by infusing his character with intelligence and bitterness both, then letting the latter out slowly and easily like a provocateur who enjoys what he does. Paul Thomas Arnold and Fouad Hajji are just as strong but less obvious in roles that are quieter until, well, they're not. Armando DuBon soon gets his chance to join in and is immediately up to the high standards already set.
If the third reason is the golden oldie country music that wafts through the bar, as innocent as the chatter isn't, the fourth is the first twist, which of course I won't spoil. Suffice it to say that, as I'd seen the picture before and knew where it was going, I paid a lot of attention to the audience. It was clear that the deluge of vehement abuse and profanity had the audience shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, especially one this early in the morning and which included a bunch of kids there to support other films. Yet, almost nine minutes in when the first twist hits, it felt like they didn't just stop shuffling, they stopped breathing too. I don't believe I found a quieter moment during a screening any time during the Phoenix Film Festival. The script is tough and it's wordy but it knows when to shut up and let the background roll over everyone. It's not the only twist but it's the key moment and it's superbly handled. Instead of watching what the actors do, we watch what they don't do and it's even more powerful.

I have to add praise for London Kim, the pilot in Flight Fright, who brings the picture home with suitable gravitas, and the other actors who have less to do but nonetheless do it very well indeed: Doris Morgado and Lino Dumont especially. Fortunately the crew doesn't let the side down either, but they mostly keep a lower profile, succeeding not by thrilling us with their mad skills but by proving what mad skills they have by not making their work stand out above the rest of the production. Most notable were the camerawork of Rich Robles and the editing of director Webb Pickersgill, who was also responsible for the visual effects, but everything is strong. I was surprised when this didn't win for best Arizona short, because it seemed to be the obvious choice. Perhaps the judges, along with the audience, found it a little too disturbing to call out with an award. I'm just happy it played and played well and had people talking afterwards. As many actors happily returned for Flight Fright, Politano's next Hollywood film, his future is clearly a strong one.

Stolen Afternoon (2014)

Director: Aaron Kes
Stars: Mae Broeske, Cord Nash Skvarek, T J Houle and Aaron Kes
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
Given that the Home Grown Shorts set at this year's Phoenix Film Festival was packed full with impactful dramas that ran the gamut of homelessness, racism, terrorism, suicide, debt, addiction, abuse, revenge, murder and a runaway child, it might surprise that it was the two comedies that got the most reaction in a verbal way from the audience. Logan Must Make Star Wars clearly benefitted from being a break in this apparently relentless assault late on in the set, but Stolen Afternoon was second up and its predecessor, Grace of a Stranger, was calm and polite with its impact. Yet it played wonderfully and sold huge. I heard an 'It's funny!' from a young kid way down at the front and an 'Oh my God!' and a 'That's amazing!' from the folk sitting next to me. All those were during the film; there were a bunch more during the credits. It could be seen as an even greater accomplishment because director Aaron Kes made this in a mere 48 hours for the A3F film challenge in 2014, where it won the Audience Favourite.

It's a pretty simple story, as they go. T J Houle, Kes's partner-in-crime at the rival local film challenge, IFP Phoenix, plays the unnamed mother of an unnamed baby daughter. She's clearly highly capable but the phone rings with news that Carla has had a relationship crisis and needs to be picked up from the side of a road. What are friends for? Well, as Carla is the only character in this film to have a name, clearly she's important enough for her to leave her baby daughter behind for a few hours with her similarly unnamed brother, who's staying with them for a while on holiday. The bad news is that the only thing that Brother knows about babies is that his sister has one. He's clearly as prepared for a couple of hours in the smelly company of this cute baby girl as I am for the zombie apocalypse, which is to say not at all. Frankly, we'd call his stunning ineptitude into doubt if Cord Nash Skvarek wasn't so funny at being utterly useless. We don't want to imagine how bad things would have got if only Aaron Kes hadn't shown up to rob them.
And there you have it. What follows is utterly ludicrous, of course, but in the best possible way. We aren't supposed to buy into the situation; we're supposed to buy into how true to life it bizarrely manages to be while still remaining utterly ludicrous. There are hints at further depth here, in both of these men finding help in a strange way, but they're only hints as this aims mostly for the chuckle organs. Each of the four actors is perfectly cast and nails the tone of their characters: the matter of fact Houle, the deadpan Kes, the deer-in-the-headlights Skvarek and, of course, the cute Mae Broeske as the baby who obviously had an absolute blast on the set. At least, she did when she was on camera and that's what matters most to us. I value what Houle and Kes do for IFP Phoenix, but I do wish they'd make more movies. This is a gem, a comedy worthy of repeat viewings and yet it's not even my favourite of the two films Kes has directed. Following my all-time favourite IFP challenge film, La Lucha, was an impossible task, but this is worthy.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Grace of a Stranger (2014)

Director: Alex Thomas
Stars: Jaron Druyon, Jessalyn Carpino, James Hesapis, Clay Johnson and Jennifer Sandoval
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
I first saw Grace of a Stranger at last year's Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and it immediately found a hold. Watching it afresh at this year's Phoenix Film Festival at the frustrating time of 9.05am, I found that it still played well, even though it felt, at the time, like a surprising choice to kick off the set, given that it runs a deceptively relaxed eighteen minutes. A hour and a half later, I understood why and appreciated the skill with which the Home Grown Shorts set was programmed. Grace of a Stranger worked well as the first half of a pair of bookends with Thrasherland, another human interest journey with a skateboarding connection. It's also a hopeful film, so fits at the beginning or end of a set. That it was inspired by a true story adds a little oomph, even if it was written by an inmate of the Arizona State Prison Complex while a student in the Arizona Prison Creative Writing Workshops. Clearly something else went wrong for Aaron Keel after the events adapted to the screen here finished and, sadly, we're not told what that was.

The story follows two men. Aaron is a homeless man who has 'been in kind of a bad way' but who is now turned around and looking for a stable future. He's finding it tough, as we see when he cleans himself up in a Co-Op restroom and applies for a job; the manager can't even process his application because of the lack of contact details: no phone, no e-mail, no address. Unfortunately, given that the only thing he owns that doesn't fit in his rucksack is the skateboard he uses to get around and that's destroyed by a car after he hits a rock in a parking lot, he needs more than hope to move forward. Eventually he finds Bert at BLX, a skate shop which he co-owns with Zack, his unseen partner, who thinks up all sorts of rad (or bad) ideas when Bert's not there. The contrast in problems is clear and so is the fact that Aaron clearly can't afford a new board and Bert can't afford to hire him. The key moment is when Aaron leaves BLX without the board he clearly thought of stealing and Bert finds him a replacement for free, hence the title.
Aaron Keel is real and his two page short story, Acts of Kindness, first published in Rain Shadow Review, the Prison Creative Writing Workshops’ literary journal, can be read for free online at the film's website. It highlights how much director Troy Hollar, who heard the story read aloud on NPR by Erec Toso, a U of A English professor who also teaches workshops behind bars and set Aaron the task to write a piece about an act of kindness, took a few liberties with that story when adapting it to film with Andrew Newburg. It's actually a better, more nuanced story when stretched out from two pages of prose to an eighteen minute short film and it's brought to life very well indeed. It's the dialogue that sells it best, along with the actors who deliver it. Matt Letscher, who plays Bert, is a very experienced actor who many will recognise from a string of major TV shows, like Scandal, The Carrie Diaries and Boardwalk Empire. The awesomely named Nipper Knapp isn't, but he's also up to the challenge and the two of them nail the dialogue.

Hollar brings in a variety of other details and themes to flesh out the bones of Keel's story, which is brief to the point that it could be described as an anecdote. He establishes Aaron's decency through the street mutt that follows him everywhere; he has nothing but he still feeds the dog. He turns the breaking of the skateboard into an accident rather than an act of karma. He uses jazz as an odd but believable bonding experience for the two men, using a Charlie Parker shirt as the catalyst. And he gives the whole story an ending too, as Aaron can give a little bit back to repay Bert's act of kindness, rather than just change his anger into hope. The film is better for the presence of all these elements, even though they're not part of Keel's original story. Hollar doesn't even really retain the core of the story, which is that kindness trumps anger or positivity beats negativity, instead focusing on the idea that there's always hope, even if it's an unimaginable distance away, which is why I much prefer the film to the story, even if it's not as true.

The Mutable Life of Oscar Clark (2013)

Director: Alex Thomas
Stars: Jaron Druyon, Jessalyn Carpino, James Hesapis, Clay Johnson and Jennifer Sandoval
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
One benefit I've found to watching the selections of Arizona shorts at the Phoenix Film Festival is that I'm able to discover films from further afield than just the Phoenix metropolitan area. While that's the hotbed of Arizona filmmaking, it's no monopoly and there's good and/or interesting work coming out of cities like Tucson and Flagstaff. This short film from the latter, successfully funded on Kickstarter to the degree that director Alex Thomas could pay his actors, is unlike anything else I've seen made in state and it remains refreshing today. In fact, it's both a complete story and a hint at what could be, as this is the only film in this particular Home Grown Shorts set that could easily be expanded into something bigger. There's a lot more life in this idea than what Thomas can give us in the short thirteen minutes that this film runs. Put simply, it tells of a character, the Oscar Clark of the title, who discovers that he's fictional when he meets his creator, who has written herself into his story. I love that idea.

I partly love that idea because I came up with it myself a couple of decades ago and wrote a story called The Sound of Shattering Glass, but it's a very different approach to a man meeting his maker. I didn't tie it to film, for a start, as Thomas does here. His take on the idea neatly creates conflict because films are rarely written by one person, this one being a great example, given that Thomas wrote it in collaboration with Clayton Johnson. While I hope they worked together amicably, that isn't often the case in Hollywood, where writers are hired and fired frequently before a project becomes what the studio execs want it to be. Kingdom of the Sun was a romantic musical comedy that, over six years, gradually transformed into The Emperor's New Groove, a wacky buddy flick, as far from the original as can comfortably be imagined. It's why authors are always very happy for Hollywood to option their books, because they get paid, but often cringe when they actually make the film adaptations, because they invariably aren't what they wrote.
Here, Kathryn Flint has written a touching romance between Oscar Clark and his significant other, Olivia, who does share his surname in the end credits even though he doesn't wear a wedding ring. The studio, on the other hand, turned it into a murder mystery, blowing up Olivia at the beginning of the picture and setting Oscar up for the crime. The two men in black he finds suddenly interrogating him under a sinister light found the C4 in his house, his fingerprints on the detonator and the life insurance policy on his wife. Why did he do it? How does he know? He wasn't involved. Why they're willing to torture him to force him into a confession when they have everything they need, I have no idea, but maybe it's because they're a pair of script doctors hired by the studio to mess with Kathryn's vision. Of all the films in the world, this is the one whose goofs can be most easily forgiven. For her part, Kathryn, unable to let go of her creations, writes herself into the script to save Oscar and Olivia and their relationship.

Alex Thomas calls himself 'a musician before anything else' and that's understandable because we hear his work before we ever see it, the accomplished score impossible to ignore as it's suitably overblown for anything but the Hollywood movie the fictional script doctors are keen to turn this into (there's a touch of genius in ironically casting co-writer Clayton Johnson as one of those script doctors, creating his real film by sabotaging someone else's fictional one). After the score, the effects are most notable, partly because there are so many of them, given that we leap around between location and location, aided by the sort of progressions and transitions we usually see in comic books. The final scene is great fun too and it segues cleverly into end credits that are as in your face as the score. Like other dark comic-infused effects-ridden action movies like, say, Sin City, the acting takes a back seat to the concept but it's decent enough, if not particularly notable. It's the concept that shines brightest and I'd love to see a feature version.