Highlights from the 11th Annual Phoenix Film Festival Part Deux By Ray Schillaci
As mentioned before, there were so many good films to choose from at the Phoenix Film Festival, dubbed the friendliest film festival to independent filmmakers, that it was extremely hard to catch them all. There are four specific films I will attempt to get screeners of and give a review later next week. From what I’ve heard, you’ll want to hear about them.
Unfortunately, I missed the much talked about documentaries, “Thespians” and “Wild Horse, Wild Ride”. “Thespians” is an involving tale of four acting troupes competing in the largest high school competition in the world and I heard that it did bring some grown men to tears. The film also walked away with the Best Documentary Award. “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” chronicles the remarkable story of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge: a contest that challenges 100 people to tame 100 wild Mustangs in order to get them a better life. The documentary also won two awards; Special Jury Prize for Cinematography and Cox Audience Award.
I only caught the last twenty minutes of the much ballyhooed performance of Christie Burson in “Dirty Little Trick” and I am crying foul right now! This spunky little actress drew comparisons to Linda Fiorentino’s performance in “The Last Seduction” and Lena Olin’s killer femme fatale in “Romeo is Bleeding”. From what I witnessed, the praise is much deserving.
Praise also went to Tara Miele’s “The Lake Effect” for Best Screenwriting and Best Ensemble. Once again, I only caught bits of it and what I did see appeared beautifully told. I will make it a point to catch up with these films later in the week.
Speaking of praise; a memorable film performance at the festival was Carlos Larkin’s turn as a cold-blooded mobster in David Dilley’s “Suspicion”. Let me start off by saying that director Dilley has come through with a good tight human drama laced with a “Sopranos” vibe and a dash of compassion. The story of an aging ex-mobster dying of cancer who strikes up an unusual relationship with an attractive young law student is engrossing with all its twists and turns. Brad Blaisdell as Darrell Jacobs and Suzanne May as Alicia Foret have a wonderful chemistry and what appears to be a genuine concern for each other. Blaisdell comes across part curmudgeon, sage (in a street sense way), threatening and vulnerable.
Writer/director, Dilley nurtures the relationship, having us see beyond their labels and we get wrapped up in the danger that surrounds their lives. Dilley carefully walks a tight rope with moral conflict as we witness the polar opposite lives of these two people. But that is where the writer/director displays his real strength, giving us real people rather than characters. This also brings to the forefront the dangerous players who are disrupting our lead characters’ world.
Enter Carlos Larkin’s, Professor Evans an underworld figure giving pointers to an up-and-comer. Every so often an actor comes to the screen and lights it on fire and people take notice. It is the way they deliver their lines, their stature, and the sheer presence that they exude, that makes one can’t wait to see what they will do next. This brings to mind the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and Gary Oldman.
At first glance, Larkin could be mistaken for a young Peter Fonda, but as Evans he has the unmistakable gravelly tone of a Kris Kristofferson or Nick Nolte. What a winning combination, but it does not stop there. The man displays a lethal gait that echoes a menacing persona that you dare not have a conflict with. The best part of it all was discovering, while at the festival, that Mr. Larkin is a chameleon-like actor. The voice, walk and the dangerous look were an entirely made up character. He is quite gracious and very passionate about filmmaking. He is also four of the voices on one of the most popular online games of all time, “World of Warcraft.”
“Suspicion” sucks you into its dark underbelly while affording a glimpse into the human side of those involved. Dilley delivers memorable scenes that quicken our pulse and occasionally give us a chuckle. But it is the combination of David Dilley’s casual writing and directing style that catches us off guard with such a subject matter and Carlos Larkin’s on screen presence that ignites this film and puts it above so many in its genre.
On the lighter side, the winner of Best Picture went to the much deserved comedy/drama, “A Little Help” by writer/director Michael J. Weithorn. The off-beat story of a dental hygienist whose life goes spiraling out of control after a comical tragedy is poignant and inspiring.
Jenna Fischer plays Laura Pehlke, a literal punching bag of low self-esteem who tries very hard to change her meek and often misguided ways. She finds herself controlled by her husband, 11 year-old son, older sister and her domineering mother (played deliciously by Lesley Ann Warren). We continuously root for Fischer’s character, because she is not portrayed as a victim but as someone who is consistently trying to improve herself and her situation. Fischer tackles the role with spunk and verve and makes us laugh and tugs at our heart all the way through.
“A Little Help” is also a delightful showcase for many of the supporting actors, especially Ron Leibman who plays Warren, Laura’s “in-his-own-world” but harmless father. He’s a joy to watch and one cannot help but to compare him to any off-the-wall relative that has embarrassed us at times. Brooke Smith as Laura’s overbearing sister is pitch-perfect with her annoying and intrusive ways. Daniel Yelsky is very convincing, touching and funny as the troubled son and Chris O’Donnell does a nice cameo as the harried schmuck husband.
Weithorn’s film brings to mind such classics as “The Big Chill” and “Terms of Endearment” with snappy dialogue, awkward real-life moments and a story that continues to resonate in your mind long after the film is over. It is a feel good film without a hint of sappy trappings. “A Little Help” is smart story telling with a cast that makes it all the better.
William Kaufman’s “The Hit List” is a fun dark ride with Cuba Gooding Jr. as your demented conductor. The story brings to mind the kind of pulp fiction Larry Cohen (Best Seller, Phone Booth) would entertain us with. A fascinating character or characters keeps the story going because we have no idea what they will do next.
That is precisely what is going on with Cole Hauser’s, Allen Campbell. Hauser has the stature of his father (Wings Hauser from the tawdry B thriller “Vice Squad”) so it is a little hard to see him cower around a gun, but it is funny and realistic. In one day, Allen loses his promotion to an A-hole co-worker who steals his idea, he realizes he is invisible to his boss and discovers his wife with another man – oops, it’s his best friend. What’s a guy to do?
In Allen’s case he seeks the nearest bar and finds comfort in alcohol, conversation and solace with another business man. The only problem being is when said business man decides to befriend Allen and reveal he is a professional hit man. Allen does not believe him and for shits and giggles gives him a list of names of as possible hits. The next morning, Allen wakes up failing to see the humor when somebody on his list is ruthlessly murdered.
Kaufman keeps the action going, but it is Cuba Gooding Jr. that thrills us with his take on the very disturbed hit man, Jonas Arbor. Gooding Jr. plays bad to the bone beautifully and rocks our world with his take no prisoners’ philosophy that he tries to instill on his new found friend. “The Hit List” is pure fun with an extra shot of adrenalin thrown in to make everything more thrilling.
A film that played to pack houses every night was “The Whistleblower,” starring Rachel Wiesz. This is a powerful true story that does not flinch from the ugly realities of human trafficking and all who were involved in it during post war Bosnia. Rachel Wiesz plays Kathryn Bolkovac a Seattle police officer who after several failed attempts at a transfer to be closer to her son, and after a difficult divorce, opts to transfer as a peace officer in Bosnia for a private company that was hired by the United States. The pay is too good to pass up; $100,000 for six months.
What Bolkovac eventually uncovered in Bosnia was horrifying. People that she worked with were not only using those who were being trafficked, but they were directly involved in the selling, torturing and in some cases murder of these young women, many of them minors. Bolkovac worked tirelessly to stop what was going on and to follow the chain of command, but it became too difficult when she discovered that those involved were very high up in the United Nations and the private company in question for so many atrocities was being paid billions and our government was merely ignoring their hands (the private corporation) in the involvement.
This is a very important story that is told with intense raw emotion. The direction is taut and the acting for all is first class. This is a film that should be seen by all and questions should be thrown at our government and answers demanded as to how they can condone still funneling a tremendous amount of funds to such a company that has so little regard for human life.
On a brighter note; the sweet and often funny, “Terri” took many of us by surprise with its tale of an overweight 15 year-old struggling through life in a town of indifference, starring the always reliable John C. Reilly. There was also “Falling Overnight” an insightful and inspirational look at a young man’s one night of self discovery before he is to go through a surgical procedure to remove a brain tumor.
Now the later may sound like a morose downer, but it has been handled with such a light and sincere hand with barely a heartstring pulled. Inspirational is the key word here and director Conrad Jackson and his star and one of the co-writers Parker Croft pull it off brilliantly. Jackson weaves the story and his actors the way the great John Cassavetes did, making the audience feel as if they were getting a glimpse of real life. He does this with a with a natural panache and never strays from his subject matter which is what some have done when mimicking the Cassavetes style. It should also be said that Jackson his no mimic, if anything his film feels more like of a homage to such styling’s and it never gets in the way of the storyline.
Parker Croft as Elliot is a wonderful conduit for Jackson’s lead character. Croft brings so many unexpected emotions to the table exhibiting unexpected boredom waiting for the inevitable, a vulnerable awkwardness that is more personality trait than physical and a sense of wonder over the night he experiences.
The main reason the night becomes so special is the chemistry Croft and his co-star Emilia Zoryan display from the time they first meet in a juice bar right up until the end of an almost perfect evening. Zoryan’s Chloe is perfect as the artistic free spirit that captures Elliot’s heart and ours as well. Their meeting and eventual date feels so organic thanks to Aaron Golden, Croft and Jackson’s natural feeling script that almost feels improvised (in a good way) ninety percent of the time and Croft in a Q&A revealed that it was not. “Falling Overnight” is a true testament to film as a collaborative effort. All involved have delivered a beautiful message about living life to its fullest.
I end this diatribe of highlights with my own personal favorite “Terri” which either had people indifferent or embrace it. The growing pains of puberty with the added problem of a dysfunctional family life and the burden of being overweight are told with a wonderfully deft touch by writers Patrick Dewitt and Azazel Jacobs. Jacobs also directs with a quirky set of humor and a lighthearted way of handling the subject matter.
Jacob Wysocki underplays the title character and gives us a unique glimpse into his awkward life. He can be both heart wrenching and funny, but most important, he is not a sad sack. Terri does not want to be treated any different even though he is so big, he has resorted to wearing pajamas at school.
The fact that Terri refuses to be accepted as a special needs kid even though he has social issues makes the dynamic between he and John C. Reilly’s vice principle all the more compelling to watch. Reilly’s character with all its flaws tries to be friends with the kids who are struggling with high school life. It’s a commendable attribute that Terri wants no part of.
The situations presented come across painstakingly real, but they are laced with humor which keeps us watching and hoping for a good outcome till the very end. If it were not for some language and an uncomfortable seduction scene “Terri” would be a must-see in schools to further tolerance. As it stands, “Terri” should be required viewing by adults and teenagers (perhaps 15 and up) alike. Azazel Jacobs directs a story with sensitivity and honesty while delivering a cast of characters that are less than perfect, but an absolute joy to watch.
The only problem with attending such a film festival with so much talent is watching it end. As a cinephile one cannot help but crash a little after being surrounded by so many devoted independent filmmakers and their films. Now we are left with an arid and vapid landscape of entertainment that the studios are trying to cram down our throats. I’m all for a good action film, a comedy, a well told fantasy, a horror or science fiction film now and then. But it’s hard for me to cater to the bombardment of 3D projects, retreads, sequel after sequel and the churning of superhero movies when there are so many wonderful independent productions out there needing a screen to share. I urge you to check out many of the films Facebook sights and web sites, and do what you can to join the support to get them seen. Life is too short not to be entertained.
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