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By Christopher Stipp

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Check out my other column, This Week In Trailers, at SlashFilm.com and follow me on TWITTER under the name: Stipp

Highlights from the 11th Annual Phoenix Film Festival and Int’l Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival Part I By Ray Schillaci

pff_bg_for_dianaThe best of both worlds and a real treat for film lovers was the combining of two film festivals even though it proved to be a little confusing at times. But what they had to offer was a dynamite line up of talent that may be pegged as the best yet. In fact, there was so much offered I could not possibly see it all, hence breaking this review up. What I did see throughout both festivals was very ambitious or exciting talent that blew away audiences at the screenings.

This year Live Action Shorts was a huge buzz at the festival. Several filmmakers stated that they had never seen that many outstanding films (A & B) in a shorts program and I have to agree. That is why I am starting this off with a bow to those incredibly talented filmmakers. Much too often short subjects get pushed aside and forgotten, but they can actually be the trailblazers that hook a director, writer or any number of talented crew and cast up with a feature. Attention Industry pundits check out those mentioned below.

The three shorts that seemed to have so many people talking was Kamal John Iskander’s funny and incredibly shot, “Jesus Comes to Town,” Michael Maney’s insane, “Meth” and Brenden O’Neill Kohl’s controversial, bold and laugh-out-loud, “Day Labor”. These guys are damn brilliant each in their own way. There are other wonderful shorts that I will mention, but the following three really took all of us by surprise.

jesus_comes_to_townIskander’s “Jesus…” has a black and white look that I have not seen since the days of David Lynch’s “Elephant Man”. It’s not just the way it’s filmed but the images he conjures are absolutely wonderful. The story of an unexpected guest at an underworld poker game is highly entertaining especially with the cast of uniquely acted characters Iskander has assembled.

Maney’s, “Meth” is almost beyond praise. Take Danny Boyle’s, “Trainspotting” and mix it with “The Twilight Zone” and you may be close to the unnerving experience. It’s an edgy tale of one drug addict’s nightmare that turns unusually real. The blending of different styles of sight and sound to put us in the addict’s head is highly disturbing. But it’s the story itself that really grabs us. When you find out who the lead characters ends up playing host to it will disturb you to no end. This one really cries out to be stretched to a feature film.

“Day Labor” is a perfect short and also a brave move in these times by filmmaker, Kohl. The story encompasses bike messengers, day laborers and outsourcing gone wild. It is by far the most unique film at the festival, sending a powerful message and having us laugh at the same time. From here, Kohl could go onto do many things. He could be as capable as Michael Moore with an insightful documentary that is as entertaining as it is informative or he could be a humorist filmmaker like an early Woody Allen or Mel Brooks. I am looking very forward to his next project.

Other shorts definitely worth recognizing were “Write of Passage,” an amusing tale of writer vs. writer’s block and an obstinate typewriter. “Eulogy Maker” tugs at our heart with a young country boy preparing for life’s losses. “Just in Case” is an unusual love story on a bus with a Russian soldier, an American pianist and a suicide bomber. “All That Remains” is a heart wrenching tale of a WWII veteran, dementia and a bizarre relationship with Death. Also, “God of Love” is a warm and funny experience with wonderful black and white photography, and an incredibly likeable cast. This was yet another short that reminded me of the early funny days of Woody Allen.

On the film feature end we had an incredible array of surprises that either thrilled us, touched our hearts, made us laugh and sometimes brought us to tears. In the fright category, “Midnight Son” and “Absentia” took us to places we rarely go. These two films dominated the Int’l Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival.

midnightson_keyart_2011There have been comparisons to George Romero’s, “Martin,” but Scott Leberecht’s, “Midnight Son” is way beyond that cherished classic. Leberecht has fashioned a real ghoulish show that we have not experienced in many years. The way he slowly and unnervingly rolls out this macabre tale is a joy to behold for fans of the genre.

Jacob is a young man confined to isolation due to a rare skin disorder. He can only go out at night. As time goes on he discovers that he is also developing a unique form of anemia and no matter what he feeds himself with his ravenous appetite, he is never satisfied. His world is soon broken into by another tormented soul, Mary, a local bartender and what ensues in regards to self discovery and vampirism has to be seen to be believed.

Everything about this film is great from the cast to the crew. Everyone involved have given their all and have delivered something very special that any horror buff would cherish. Zak Kilberg as Jacob has a haunting quality that keeps us watching at every turn. Maya Parish plays the lost and tortured soul, Mary to perfection. And, then there is Jo D. Jonz as Marcus, the coolest on screen presence since the discovery of Wesley Snipes. The man is bad ass to the bone.

If we were back in the seventies or eighties “Midnight Son” would dominate revival theaters and midnight shows. It has that certain something that Stephen King and George Romero praise. Scott Leberecht has given us a terrifying gift and we should cherish it for a long time. “Midnight Son” is what independent horror films are all about; bold, beautiful and breathtaking.

absentia“Absentia” is a cross between “Carnival of Souls” and a haunted house ride with a tinge of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. But do not mistake it as a grab bag of horrors. This is a carefully crafted tale that easily gets under our skin and leaves us with goosebumps. Director, Mike Flanagan, has delivered a twisted tale of a woman, Tricia, which has mourned the loss of her husband for seven years. He disappeared one morning and never came back. In the interim, she has become pregnant, has possibly found a new beau in a police detective and has decided to have her husband declared “dead in absentia.” But she starts seeing extremely frightening images of him appearing in all sorts of strange places, nearly driving her to a breakdown. Tricia enlists the help of her sister (who has a tainted past) to help her to pack and move on with her life. But soon after Tricia decides to get on with her life, hubby shows up emaciated and wearing the same clothes he disappeared in. He then starts raving about creatures and being trapped inside. Tricia’s sister soon discovers that a nearby tunnel may hold many a mysterious answer. Flanagan plays with our senses and has us jumping at nearly every sound and unsettling us when we enter the dark. The actors are spot on in their portrayals and the special effects, though minimal, are very effective. “Absentia” is an evil funhouse ride that leaves one with the chills.

Next week I’ll move onto some of the standout feature films from the Phoenix Film Festival. I will also sing the praises of one fine actor that delivered the most notable performance in the film festival. This actor is a real find and his talent has already enhanced one of the most popular multiplayer online role-playing games in the history of gaming. Until next week remember, life is too short not to be entertained.


no-one-knows-about-persian-cats1There isn’t a more appropriate time to watch a movie like this than right now.

It isn’t a political tinged film about some Iranian musicians wanting to make their way to London to play a concert. What ought to be a simple film of someone’s passion meeting with opportunity the movie is about these handful of people just looking to take advantage of that opportunity as their talents have to be hid from public consumption.

It is Iran, after all, where political and personal freedoms don’t quite align with the rest of the world’s, but this film is wonderful because we don’t get what would be the natural tendency of a film like this. We don’t see the police shutting down these secretive concerts when they catch wind of them, although it certainly would juxtapose the situation there to that of rebellious teens of the 1960’s just looking for some peace and understanding. No, instead we’re treated to montage after montage that showcase the talents of various musicians and styles all across Tehran, lingering a while whenever a certain song is allowed to be played, the faces and people of this country shown as if to say, “This is who we really are and it’s not much different from you.”

This is the power of this movie. It shows you hope and it allows you to listen to the beating drums of a culture that is not in lockstep with its leader. It is not idly standing by and acquiescing to every command that is given to them. No, there is a power of this youth culture that is looking to change things and this film is splendid in the way it depicts, but never preaches, individuals who are looking for a better way and better path for their lives. A must see for anyone.

About the DVD:


Renowned Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq) returns with “an exhilarating examination of a leading Iranian criminal enterprise – music” (The Wall Street Journal). Ghobadi’s Cannes prize winner NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS was co-written by imprisoned Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, the film, shot with documentary-like realism, is an indictment of artistic repression in Iran’s exciting underground music scene and a funny and moving celebration of an entire generation of Iranians striving for personal and creative freedom.

Shot in secret and featuring extraordinary performances by real underground bands, NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS follows a pair of young musicians (Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad), recently released from prison, on a mission to take their rock band to Europe. Forbidden by the authorities to play in Iran, they plan their escape abroad with a fast-talking promoter. Vowing to play one last show before leaving Tehran, their dangerous mission takes them on a free-wheeling journey through the city’s vibrant and diverse underground scene, home to an estimated 2,000 illegal independent bands.


a-summer-in-genoaMichael Winterbottom, the man behind The Killer Inside Me, has a movie that is filled with a little sentimentality, some romanticism, but has a genuine soul to it that simply should not be overlooked.

The long and short of the film is that a family of three picks up and goes on an extended holiday after the accidental death of the matriarch, caused in some part by one of the young daughters. They ship off to Italy to get their bearings and, on that trip, the dad and the older daughter learn to open themselves up again to the restorative powers of love while the youngest is probably the most affected by the events that she will no doubt be carrying with her for the rest of her fictional life.

What makes this movie such a gem is that it doesn’t presume itself to be anything but the breezy 90 minute drama that it is. It’s tight and lean, there are no endless moments of exposition that would get at the heart of life in general, as it’s just a movie that hits the right beats with regard to pacing and exposition. The directing is surprisingly loose, creating a more intimate mood throughout the whole picture, and I was amazed of how much human emotion he was able to get out of his actors as they all dealt with the death of mom in their own way. It’s harrowing, heartbreaking, and I could not recommend this more for those looking for a date film that could reaffirm everything they believe love is supposed to be.

About the DVD:


In A SUMMER IN GENOA, director Michael Winterbottom’s powerful tale of grief, Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, A Single Man) is Joe, a professor at the University of Chicago who takes his two daughters to Italy after the accidental death of their mother (Hope Davis, “In Treatment”, Charlie Bartlett). The mysteries of a seductive new country stimulates eldest daughter Kelly (Willa Holland, Legion, “The O.C.”) who engages in sexual adventures with the local boys, and Firth’s distracted professor is comforted by a friend (Catherine Keener, Cyrus, The Soloist, 40 Year Old Virgin) with romantic longings. Younger daughter Mary, however, remains troubled by guilt over her mother’s death, suffering from night terrors and haunting visions and the family soon finds themselves in peril. Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me, A Mighty Heart) won the Best Director prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival for this film that the Chicago Tribune calls “beautifully raw” and “wonderfully acted.”


One Response to “Trailer Park: Highlights from the 11th Annual Phoenix Film Festival, NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS, A SUMMER IN GENOA”

  1. Ray Schillaci Says:

    Winterbottom is also the director of the much underappreciated dark film, “Wonderland”. The film was a stark retelling of what led up to the Wonderland murders and John Holmes involvement. Val Kilmer gave an eerie performance as the spiraling pornstar.

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