Early December has become my favorite time of the year for Arizona independent film, always culminating with the ASU Capstone screenings from the fall Film and Media Program. This is my opportunity to see some amazing student films and, in many ways, to get a pretty good read on where AZ indie film may be going and what next year has in store. The past two years I have been attending the Capstone screenings at the Galvin Playhouse have provided a consistently astounding array of films ranging from dark and surreal, almost experimental films to raw and rakish comedies. This year was nothing like the previous years however, as the high end, high quality filmmaking I so eagerly anticipated all but vanished. Where the films previously filled the screen in stunning cinematic solidarity, they now clumsily struggled to occupy the luminous void. The stories were agonizingly irresolute, and seemed to lumber in a lymphatic limbo, grabbing inspiration and ideas cafeteria-style before cashing out. So much went on this year at the ASU Film and Media Program, with the imminent departure of program founder and director F. Miguel Valenti, film instructor Adam Collis busy directing the feature length production “Car Dogs,” and the introduction of the film department’s new Professor of Practice, Andrés Torres-Vives, leaving a still relatively up-and-coming film program thrust into a state of transition. Here are the films I saw in the order they were screened.
Clean - Seo-Young Jun
Young Sophie (Jing Song) is in financial trouble and labors away at the local dry cleaners. Bored with her job and rude to the customers, she scrubs bloodstains off of the bathroom floor for her creepy yet handsome boss Tom (Kasim Aslam). An attractive young woman arrives for her articles just as Sophie is locking up, so Tom rushes Sophie out the door with a pittance in hush money. Without enough change for the bus, Sophie returns to work, only to discover Tom violently assaulting the young woman in the bathroom. Plugging her ears and hiding in a corner, Sophie rides out the graphically portrayed horrific attack until the next day, as she cleans bloodstains off the bathroom floor yet again. As customers begin to arrive, she realizes what has been taking place and calls for help. It’s hard not to make a creepy movie in a dry cleaners: the labyrinth of machinery and clothing, the steamy, bubbling chemicals, and director Jun finds herself hard pressed with what exactly to do with the eerie location. Flashbacks of the customers engaging in their daily activity help to fill in the gaps in no way whatsoever, while the talented actors Aslam and Song are clearly at a loss in expressing just exactly who they are and what it is they are experiencing. ‘Clean’ lures us into a dark and dangerous tale of lunatics in the laundromat, but sputters in the spin cycle, leaving an overly produced, simple and underwhelming allegory on taking a stand against an abusive relationship.
Final Take – Rinse, repeat.
Una Luz - Micaela Femiano
Student filmmakers arrive in El Salvador to make a documentary on the plight of Salvadoran orphans, and the severely limited, practically non-existent resources available to them. Upon arrival, the filmmakers are informed that they will no longer be allowed to film their documentary due to the recently passed ‘Directive 13’ which basically mandates that the best place for the tortured children is back at home where all the abuse began in the first place. Undeterred, the filmmakers still manage to pull it together, allowing the orphans the opportunity to tell their story. Very well shot, well intentioned doc that clearly got derailed, but still managed to stay on track.
Final Take – Illuminating.
Next Four Years – Jared Doles
“There are almost 22 million students in the American college system. Each has their own dreams, each has their own stories. These are three of them.” Are you sure about that? I could barely keep track of one of them. Crazy kids converge on the college campus and reveal their apprehension, optimism and anxiety over the next four years. One is a rock star laid low from a bad breakup, I’m pretty sure number two is a freshman who recently lost her dad. Number three is anyone’s guess: the pasty poet, the irritating rich roommate, the girl endlessly texting guitar boy, the goofy gamer. There’s a lot going on in this film with nothing really happening, jammed with extended scenes containing big chunks of dialog that are delivered via text message. A lyrical lovelorn freshmen Skype’s every night with his sweetheart across campus, but he doesn’t want to meet her face to face for fear that she’ll be disappointed (??). Seriously(????). Elsewhere on campus, the rock star dodges the paparazzi by ducking into a live folk song/performance art piece in which the musicians ceremonially burn pictures of the scumbags that broke their heart. There’s plenty of campus hijinks including teen idol ditching his own concert and his bitchy girlfriend/manager getting tossed into a fountain by an angry mob. Destitute dormie with a heart of gold gets a free trip to Paris courtesy of her spoiled rotten roommate, and guitar boy and lover-girl continue to engage in safe text. Originally intended to be a musical, 'Years' is constantly confounded with competent photography contrasted with bad sound, leaving this potentially tune-filled fun campus frolic bogged down by its own banausic, bombastic bulge.
Final Take – Grad school confidential.
The Fountain - Zac Donohoe
A young man (Ramiro Quezada) in need of a heart transplant lays in his hospital bed reading his favorite fairy tale about a fountain of youth to his girlfriend (Taryn Elise Lafferty). The doc (Al Lowe) arrives with some bad news, and the ill-fated couple visits the museum. Inserts of the characters from his favorite story battle for the secret of the fountain, while in reality he battles for his life. She leaves for a job in Seattle and he gets a heart transplant, the hero of the fairy tale simultaneously discovering the fountain of youth. With his replacement pumper in place, he leaves the hospital and surprises his girlfriend at work. While intentionally allegorical, the two stories never seem to unify, existing as two separate entities and never combining to strengthen or inspire, leaving an overall sterile presentation void of any aesthesia. The triple-threat talents of Sean Laguna, Ross Gosla, and Kasim Aslam are squandered as they have little to do in this film but chase each other through a forest. Well acted and very well shot. Good sound.
Final Take – Bum ticker flicker.
Ladykillers Inc. - Christopher Gallego
When a junior high nerd is shot down in burning flames by the girl of his dreams, there’s only one place to turn to get his confidence back: the professionals at Ladykillers Inc. A group of guys unlucky with the ladies spend their summer with a team of high-dollar yuppies who teach the tykes everything they need to know about absolute acquisition and corporate conquest. Bad editing and rambling story are sometimes hard to follow, with an oddly unnecessary, completely unresolved plot twist (all is nearly lost when it is discovered that two brothers are receiving the same services from Ladykillers Inc(?)). Despite its flaws, it’s hard not to like this film, with all of its fun ingenuousness and sincere desire to entertain. Props to actor Jon Ray as the indifferent yet endearing confidence coach, always willing to offer support as long as payment is made in advance.
Final Take – Killed it.
The Wish – Katherine Foust
A young girl suffering from the loss of a loved one finds a new friend in the majestic forest outside her new home in Colorado. They go hiking together and push themselves further with each trek, until the trees are adorned with sinister symbols and the teen’s young hiking pal gets terrorized in a small mysterious shack, suffering a near fatal asthma attack. With her young pal near death, the teen ventures into the darkest depths of the forest, discovering an altar whereupon she can wish for her friend to recover. Script and story get in the way of this visually stunning student offering, presenting great locations overshadowed by an under-developed plot.
Final Take – If only.
Cold Blooded – Taylor Williams
Hiking pal hydrates outside his stucco while his best friend is getting’ it on with his hiking partners girlfriend AZ indie style (underwear on). After picking him up, they head for the hills and complain about their cellular service until lover boy gets snake bit. He pleads with his pal to suck out the venom, and discovers he’s pretty good at it. Carrying his injured pal on his back, they struggle down the trail to find the car. Things are looking grim for rattler boy, who tries to lighten the awkward moment by confessing that he’s been playing lubed-ladder Candyland with his rescuers girlfriend. They swear at each other for a while, until Dudley Doofus decides now would be a good time to leave the traitorous turncoat to roast in the desert. Outrageously predictable plot with bad acting and photography that will make you shudder.
Final Take – Needs to thaw.
Frost-E – James Steller
Most venues provide a snack bar for me to conveniently duck out, load up and dodge the need to dish when a film comes along that is so jacked-up, I can’t even pretend that I enjoyed any of it. C’mon Galvin Playhouse, would it kill you to at least put in a vending machine? O.k, here goes: A secret government project to create a super-cyborg during WWII has gone to hell, leaving scientists dead and the projects director, Army Major Paul Jansen sent to prison. Now there are reports of a monster lurking in southern Nevada, so Jansen is released from prison and rents a room in the small Nevada town where the frozen freak was last reported. Meanwhile, other scientists working on project FROST-E have placed the brain of a Nazi war criminal into the sneaky cyborg snowman who goes out at night kidnapping American children in order to convert them to the Hitler youth. Jansen rescues the landlady’s grandchild held captive in the Nazi robot snowman’s evil snow-cave/mad scientist lab and has an animated, green-screen shoot-out with Charlie chiller who torments Jansen with memories of his dead wife while chasing him with a LAWS rocket and you know what…I am so done. A host of AZ indie favorites including Steve Marmon, Joe Jauch, Donald Steward and Greg Joseph get to enjoy the air conditioned comfort of the green-screen while I yearn for popcorn and a Dr. Pepper. Terrific acting with great costumes and props are all you really get in this overcomplicated, unfunny farce jam packed with the most amateurish, ill-advised, 90’s CD-ROM-looking CGI ever conceived.
Final Take – Christmas evil.
Dark Planet - Marcus Quaratella
Space aliens arrive on earth to abduct earthlings and eventually enslave them, but the tables are turned on the extraterrestrial tyrants when they arrive on the planet only to discover that earth is overrun with flesh eating zombies! Pretty cool FX. Tasty zombies.
Final Take – Planet Z.
Dromedary – Collier Shutter
Trailer park pyro Bobby Ferrin (Declan Kinnane) records his podcast and then heads off to school. He gets pelted by dodge balls and beaten by a bully in the boy’s room before heading home to the polished chrome where he has an awkward encounter with moms (Dawn Nixon) twitching boy toy Kevin (Adal Robles). Adoring fan Perdita Milland (Shelly Boucher) writes a note to Bobby asking him to meet her at a motel on Grand Ave. They get it on and the remorseful Perdita throws him out and joins a convent. After an ill-fated attempt at reconciliation with Perdie, he tells his mom she is an unfit mother and feeds a girl baking soda outside his locker, who then accompanies him to his trailer and participates in his podcast. Shakespeare is quoted, lines are spoken and somewhere deep within the recesses of this wordy, confusing mess beats the heart of a mildly interesting coming of age tale.
Final Take – Chrome drome.
Dearly Departed – Ashley Sinn
Rockabilly babe Allison (Candace Damiani) gets it on with frisky fiancé Jake (Vincent Torres) AZ indie style (you know). They head to the club where Allison’s pals give her a mystery gift while Jake tears it up on stage with his rockabilly band “The Embalming Hour.” The hot-rod rocker goes into vapor lock on stage and croaks, forcing Allison and Jake’s uptight brother Ryan (Liam Hawley) to make funeral arrangements with an inappropriately upbeat undertaker (Christopher Bradley). Unable to accept Jakes death, Allison dons her stylish yet slutty wedding dress and liberates Jakes corpse from the funeral home. At their honeymoon cabin, Allison models lingerie for dead Jake and then jumps his bones. She makes her extra stiff lover breakfast in bed and spends the afternoon frolicking with her dead fiancé in a humorous split-screen montage. Meanwhile, the unfortunate undertaker informs Ryan that Jakes body is missing. Ryan locates Allison and a violent confrontation ensues before Ryan dies after being impaled on Jakes broken guitar. Allison loads the decomposing duo into her vehicle and they depart for new adventures. Competent comedy that digs its own grave when it becomes a serious slasher. Great music provided by The Moonlight Howlers. Damiani is quite comfortable in comedy, but bored silly in the serious scenes. Hilarious performance by the woefully underutilized Bradley.
Final Take – Rockin’ necro-mance.
Sine Missione – Ben Strobel
A group of boisterous youngsters have a chugging contest in the kitchen while upstairs, drunken floozy Allie (Chloe Rossman) begs for sex from first timer Derek (Zachery Jost) who refuses to proceed until she assures him that the sex will be meaningful (???). Next morning, Derek dishes to his best pal David (Benjamin Strobel) who is preparing for a prizefight. With Derek as his trainer he wins his match, but Derek leaves for a new Job and David drinks heavily and fights with horny hillbillies. He rescues Derek’s one-night-stand Allie from assault and calls her out for being a ho and breaking his best friends heart. She clears the air and explains that she was actually prepared to spend the rest of her life with Derek until he passed out on the floor after their first sexual encounter thus spoiling their wedding plans (???). Suddenly Derek returns and its all good in the neighborhood, as the lovers are reunited ‘cause it’s understood, and David trains for the title fight ‘cause it feels so good. Absurd story that could have worked as a comedy, with boxing casually tossed in the ring. Acting is on the ropes.
Final Take – Sucker punch.
Sign My Balls: A Grapher’s Tale – Ethan Roth
Mini doc about spoiled rotten rich kid (director Roth) who refuses to give up his globetrotting adventures collecting baseball autographs, even after his dad is sent to prison and his family is kicked out of their mansion. This grotesquely vapid doc somehow manages to entertain without ever trying to inspire, educate or enlighten; simply providing a platform for the unapologetic Roth to show off his skills (and bank account) as a professional autograph hound.
Final Take – Strike three.
Tank – Gloria Tello
A young woman (Kamila Sheats) awakens in her tastefully decorated portion of Papago Park, is terrorized and befriended by a boy (Max Mendoza) dressed exactly like her and eats a lot of oatmeal. This split/tri/multi screen offering tries its darndest at surrealist social commentary, but the contrasting collection of props looks like a yard sale in the desert, while the uninteresting, unnecessary dialog and irritating editing encloses this bromidic betide in a self imposed non-sequitur.
Final Take – Stairmaster to heaven.