It’s been a while, folks, since I last checked in. Now, judging by the outpouring of concern I can see that you’re all thirsty for an update of where I’ve been. Suffice to say, I’m still here, I’m still writing up a storm, and I’ll be back more regularly soon. In the meantime, though, our good buddy Ray checks in from the Phoenix Film Festival to talk about gems that came to the desert.
Highlights from the PFF by Ray Schillaci
At first glance one may wonder if the 13th Annual Phoenix Film Festival (PFF) was following a theme of mental illness and riding on the coattails of the popular “Silver Linings Playbook”. With not one, but three films involving mental disorders, the powers that be at PFF might have considered a more mainstream thought of choosing just one. But instead, the festival took a bold step forward and disregarded the similar themes and placed three wonderful and enlightening films in competition with completely different tones. “Lonely Boy,” “The Story of Luke” and “Putzel” opened our minds, tugged at our hearts and even made us laugh. The films proved to be only the beginning of some remarkable work by the independent film community.
Thirteen proved to be a very lucky number for the festival that included the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival (IHSFFF). Many had questioned how the festival (PFF) would top themselves after last year. The festival provided the answer with…more premiers, an abundance of great films and a much smoother running film festival than ever before. Talent from all over the world attended and they made themselves readily available for the audience that enjoyed their work.
The IHSFFF delivered a fun filled time with most of the shorts being as entertaining as the features. The audience wound up clapping and whopping it up in the middle of some of these highly imaginative horror and sci-fi shorts. Best Horror Short went deservedly to “Killer Kart” an extremely funny and gory piece of food chomping madness. The festival also had Meg Foster presenting the John Carpenter cult classic, “They Live”. If you have not seen this one, run out to your nearest Red Box or Blockbuster (if it hasn’t closed its doors) and rent this horror/sci-fi/social commentary piece of paranoia that is more relevant today than it was when it was released.
Many of the competition films at PFF became in such high demand it was hard to get a good seat or see all of them over the seven day period. “The Retrieval” was one film that built tremendous momentum leaving the audience blown away and eventually winning Best Ensemble Acting, Best Director and the Cox Audience Award. I had to wait a couple of days to find the time to see what the buzz was all about.
Director, Chris Eska delivers an Oscar worthy film with riveting performances along with a budget that appeared the size of a studio production. Of course, that is not the case and kudos to Mr. Eska to not only push the budget boundaries of an independent feature, but also bring us a first rate production that leaves an indelible mark on our hearts and minds. Chris Eska is one to watch out for.
This civil war western is a jaw dropper that had some comparing it to “Django Unchained”. But that would be a disservice to both films. While Tarantino’s film is a slick and entertaining homage to spaghetti westerns and all sorts of other films with a subplot involving slavery, “The Retrieval” takes a far more serious look at the skeleton in our nation’s closet and delivers an original nailbiter.
From the opening shot that fills the screen with dread; Eska introduces us to a 13 year-old slave and his uncle who are being used by an unscrupulous bounty hunter to snare unsuspecting runaway slaves. This scenario alone captures our attention with a diverse range of emotions. How far will one go to survive? They are eventually dispatched to retrieve a slippery and allegedly dangerous slave only known as Nate, played brilliantly by Tishuan Scott, under false pretenses.
All three leads, Tishuan Scott, Ashton Sanders as the 13 year-old Will and Keston John as Uncle Marcus, ratchet the tension playing off each other and leave us breathless as they take us on a dark and harrowing journey of mistrust. The turnkey performance being that of Tishuan Scott, commanding the screen and bringing comparisons as far back as the legendary Paul Robeson. In fact, seeing Scott in this fascinating role and meeting him in person, one cannot help but know that he is classically trained with his unique stature and rich eloquent voice.
This is not to undercut the other leads’ acting ability. Sanders and Keston bring so much believability and heart to their characters that when one combines all three they become a dream team which is why they won Best Ensemble. “The Retrieval” with its stunning visuals, brilliant acting and four star production values is not just a must see, it’s a must own.
Paul Osborne is no stranger to PFF. The director brought his scathing and very funny documentary that exposed many film festivals to PFF with a rousing acceptance several years ago. This year director, Osborne premiered his new feature film “Favor” to the competition. After seeing the director’s, “Official Rejection,” who would think that the man was capable of such Hitchcockian darkness? In fact, being spoiler free, I will only tell you that at one point towards the end of the film I actually got up from my seat and approached Mr. Osborne who was observing the audience reaction on the side and whispered to him, “You’re a very sick man.”
He actually smiled at me in glee and said, “Wait, there’s more”. Damn him for being right. This is not to say that Osborne has delivered a disgusting film, but a very unsettling tale of friendship, favors and a very dark part of the human soul that unsettles the audience to no end. Is it entertaining? In a very sick and twisted way…YES! Watching Osborne avoid mimicking Hitchcock and instead capturing his spirit can be pure joy for those willing to take the ride. It brings to mind the Coen Brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple” and yet Osborne is straight forward with his nasty tale and more interested in good storytelling than displaying technique that could take away from the harshness of it all. Best Screenplay at the Phoenix Film Festival was a well deserved honor to writer/director, Paul Osborne.
From the opening shot “Favor” grabs you. Kip Desmond (Blayne Weaver) has it all; wonderful, good looking wife, great rewarding job, affluent lifestyle and a better looking waitress on the side for sex. It all comes crashing down at a seedy hotel when Kip’s side dish drops dead. What’s a guy to do? Let the chips fall where they may and risk everything or stack the deck and solicit a childhood friend for that “favor” he always agreed upon? Kip confides his tale of woe to Marvin Croat (an unnerving performance by Patrick Day) and brings him to the scene with eventually ugly results.
Marvin is the “closet” friend that people like Kip only see on occasion. Life has been cruel to Marvin. At least he would tell you that. He’s lost his job, his wife and practically his life and has no idea how to function in Kip’s world. But he remains a faithful friend because he remembers how close they were when they were kids. For Marvin, that has never changed. For Kip, he doesn’t care. Marvin is the scapegoat. And, if he can help him with this one “favor,” he will be eternally grateful (only on the surface). But Marvin takes that literally and that is where the chaos begins.
There are so many devilish twists and turns in Paul Osborne’s film, one cannot help see the extreme dark humor in it all akin to the best of the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” series. Weaver and Day play a wonderful game of cat and mouse, keeping us on our toes while the supporting players provide the empathy as the victims on the sidelines. “Favor” keeps us guessing and makes us think twice before asking.
A standout at the IHSFFF was director/writer, Drew Thomas’ science fiction opus, “Channeling”. Once again, it was exciting to see a filmmaker do wonders within his limited budget. Killer car chases, cool stunts and a wonderful take on the near future of social media. “Channeling” has it all and then some.
I usually go into low budget science-fiction films with a prejudicial judgment. But I must admit, every so often some creative artist delivers a kick to the head with the likes of a “Terminator” or “Robocop”. Drew Thomas’ feature may not be as action packed, but it is as intriguing and thought provoking. His feature is a slick, well oiled machine that is ready to take you on a wild ride.
Thomas introduces us to a world where people are broadcasting their lives via a high tech contact lens and basically shaping their lives to their ratings. They can even get sponsors to endorse them and their antics. The shows can range from anything; a young girl just trying to get recognized in clubs to carjacking expensive cars, only to race them and then ditch them. It is the later that a young soldier accidently becomes involved with after his brother’s suspicious death. He only has 72 hours to delve into the mystery and possibly bring his brother’s alleged conspirators to justice.
In so many low budget sci-fi films the acting is awful to passable, production values are limited to the cheapest CG that makes Hannah-Barbera cartoons looking more realistic and there is little attention to detail. Usually it’s because producers look at them as a silly little cash cow that can be abducted by aliens and dumped onto the Scyfy channel. What makes the film “Channeling” so good is the look of a high quality production and the cutting edge writing that brings to mind some of Paul Verhoeven’s sarcasm and commentary on social values displayed in “Robocop” and “Starship Troopers”. Landon Ashworth plays the soldier, Max Hodges with an appealing laconic machismo and a dash of the fresh fish out of water. The rest of the cast do a bang up job to get us to root for our hero. “Channeling” is an exciting first feature from Drew Thomas. One can only imagine what the man and his company could do with a medium to big budget.
Documentaries were very powerful this year, but the won that won our hearts and Best Documentary at the festival was Elise Salomon’s fun-filled touching glimpse into an L.A. indie music label, Wild Records. “Los Wild Ones” chronicles the beginnings, struggles and future of this very edgy music label that favors Hispanic Rockabilly music lead by Irish rebel, Reb Kennedy. If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will. Salomon’s film is infectious, audacious and raucous all at the same time. The musical artists are riddled with turmoil and talent making a combustible paradigm along with a vinyl-loving leader who defiantly opposes iTunes.
Salomon handles the chaos well and sometimes gives us a very difficult peak at struggling artists who also juggle their family life while others are at odds with their addictions and discipline. She does not shy away from the realities of it all, but accomplishes a sense of hope for so many involved.
Salomon goes beyond the sordidness of reality TV and delivers a noteworthy film that not only sheds light on a very little known fringe of the music scene, but introduces some very talented musicians that appear far more exciting and fresher than anything we have witnessed on the homogenized shows of American Idol or X Factor. Her focus on Reb Kennedy as father/confessor nearly presents him in a legendary status. Reb would deny that right away and place his wife on the pedestal for keeping things running in a semi-professional manner. But his stories, his thoughts, his interactions with his artists are what really fuel this enjoyable film. Elise Salomon delivers a movie that makes you want to get up and dance while rooting for the underdogs of the music industry. Rock on!
Mentioned in the beginning, PFF introduced three very different films involving mental disorders. Each one was lauded with recognition and all well deserved. “Lonely Boy,” Dale Fabrigar’s sensitive look into the mind of a schizophrenic and how this disorder affects the people who care for him became a Festival Favorite. Alonzo Mayo’s “The Story of Luke” won the Special Jury Prize for Lou Taylor Pucci’s remarkable portrayal of a young man coming-of-age with autism. Finally, there was the huge crowd pleaser that won Best Picture, Jason Chaet’s, “Putzel” concerning not only a young man dealing with a form of agoraphobia that keeps him within the confines of his small community in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but also has him struggling to be the heir of his uncle’s smoked fish emporium and juggling falling in love with his uncle’s mistress.
Director, Chaet was proud to wear a button asking “What is a putzel”. His answer was, “go see the movie and find out”. And, that is probably the best answer for anybody that is not Jewish or aware of the expression. I knew of “schmuck” and “schmeckel,” but Chaet was quick to point out those were Yiddish words. Most importantly you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this very funny romantic comedy.
Chaet’s comic timing along with his cast is impeccable. But the film is not just played for laughs. There is a sensitive side to “Putzel” (and I feel weird stating that) and Rick A. More and Jason Chaet’s story plays to our heart as well. The cast goes beyond the stereo-types and reaches into the complex souls of these characters. Jack Carpenter is both endearing, charming and a bit of a putz as Walter the young man with the mild obsession in succeeding his uncle. Walter’s mental disorder (agoraphobia) appears as more of a sub-plot to all the other antics surrounding him and driving him nuts. Melanie Lynskey and John Pankow (as Uncle Sid) also add much heart and humor to an extremely funny situation that gets awkward by the minute.
There are also hilarious turns by the supporting players; Allegra Cohen as Walter’s unfaithful wife Willa, Adrian Martinez as Hector the man whom Willa is cheating with and also the guy that tries to befriend Walter and give him advice! To top off the hilarity there is Fred Berman as Tunch, a man with an unusual passion that has to be seen to be believed.
Once again, the producers and director pull off the magic feat of making a production look far more impressive than the limitations they were faced with. That is a big plus for the “Putzel” cast and crew. The acting is spot on and the look and feel is a fun cross between earlier Woody Allen films and Borscht Belt comedy that tickles the audience incessantly. But most important, this film is about family, how we treat one another and how far we can come when we manage to let go. “Putzel” is pure joy.
A far more serious and sensitive approach to mental disorder was Dale Fabrigar’s, “Lonely Boy”. Alev Aydin (also the screenwriter) plays Franky a man that is struggling with himself, his family’s past and the harsh world of dating while dealing with schizophrenia and trying to wean off his prescription drugs. It’s a world few of us have encountered on the screen without crass exploitation. Fabrigar has a light approach and does not hammer us with the seriousness of the situation.
We are slowly sucked into Franky’s world and struggle with him as he tries so hard to escape the clutches of his disorder. It’s a slow awkward spiral that does have its share of light moments, but we are always aware of the circumstances that can be devastating. “Lonely Boy” also takes into account the family that is affected and their frustration in consistently trying to be there for an adult that may not be able to care for himself. It is a quandary and one that keeps us glued to Franky’s journey towards self-actualization.
At times Alev Aydin’s script sometimes feels more like a play rather than a film. But that may have something to do with the way Fabrigar has us viewing so much through Franky’s eyes. The portrayal is a mix of being fascinating, sad, awkwardly funny and sometimes downright scary.
Then there is Franky’s connection with Alex, Natalie Distler delivering an earthy performance that throws so much off kilter (in a good way). Alex may be Franky’s savior or his downfall, we’re just not sure and that is what makes “Lonely Boy” so interesting. Dale Fabrigar’s direction and Alev Aydin’s script have presented a unique look into the world of schizophrenia, one that is definitely worth viewing.
“The Story of Luke” happens to settle somewhere in the middle of the other films. It is both a serious, funny and engaging story of a 25 year-old autistic man that lived a sheltered life with his grandparents. That all changes when grandma is laid to rest, grandpa is going senile and the caretakers, Luke’s dysfunctional aunt and uncle, look for a place to retire grandpa leaving Luke very alone. Luke becomes obsessed with his grandfather’s final words urging him to get a job, find a girl, go scr*w and live your own life.
Luke’s obsessive quest becomes his new family’s problem as if they did not have enough with their own problematic kids. But Luke’s obscure ways seem to slowly work their way into the family’s hearts and makes them view things in a whole different light. Lou Taylor Pucci does not play Luke; he is the young afflicted man. It’s no wonder he was awarded the Special Jury Prize. His portrayal is so multi-layered and convincing that you end up hanging on his every thought.
Kristin Bauer and Seth Green turn in wonderful performances as well. They make us cherish every scene they share with Lou Taylor Pucci. Director/writer Alonso Mayo definitely has a keen insight into the spectrum of autism and has delivered a story with warmth, heart and hope. It had audiences applauding at the end.
Finally, one of my favorites and another Festival Choice was Ben Shelton’s “Waking”. Writer and lead actor Skyler Caleb as Ben gives us a piece of romantic fantasy bliss. Ben appears to have everything going for him; on the verge of success, riding on his fiancée’s father’s coattails and soon to marry his long term girlfriend/now fiancée. But from the outside looking in, we can see that Ben’s fiancée is annoying and working under daddy may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Enter the girl of our dreams…literally.
Ben is suddenly conflicted with dreams of a young mystery woman, Nadia, who inhabits his dreams and makes him feel truly alive. To make things even weirder, this mystery woman exists (hundreds of miles away) and she is sharing these dreams with him while in a relationship as well. Shelton and Caleb’s story works so well due to the chemistry shared by both Skyler Caleb and his co-star Meg Cionni.
Cionni is a rare find. She is not only perfectly cast as a dream girl, but brings an innocence and vulnerability to her character that is both genuine and sublime. She is a joy to watch and listen to with a lilt in her voice that is near mesmerizing. Outside of his dreams, Cionni’s Nadia captures us with her sweet apprehension and honest confusion as to how to handle such an impossible situation. Ben was not the only one taken by Nadia, most of the audience (men and women alike) were also captured by Cionni’s performance as well.
Ben Shelton’s “Waking” touched the romantic in me and much of its audience. It’s a fun tale of chasing your dreams even though they could come crashing down and hoping against all odds that everything works out. “Waking” is a crowd pleaser and makes one feel really good about films that put a song back in your heart. Thank you, Ben Shelton, Skylar Caleb, and Meg Cionni.
As mentioned before, there were so many other films that I have not been able to view from World Cinema to documentaries and horror. I hope to have the chance to see a few more so I may get the word out. One that now intrigues me is the winner of Best Horror film at IHSFFF, “Found”. Having heard about the subject matter I had second thoughts in the beginning about viewing it. But the word is out that it is a must see. I will leave you with a taste of what is to come…”Found” is a coming-of-age horror story about a shy, bullied fifth grade boy that takes refuge in horror films until his life becomes one. He discovers that his older brother has a penchant for severed heads and a ghastly use for them. The young boy tries to save his brother and his family, but not even good counseling is going to aid in the release of such darkness.
Until next time.
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