The films created for the IFP Mystery Box Film Challenge screened on November 14th at the Cine Capri in Scottsdale. While the films continue to improve technically, the filmmaking continues it’s downward spiral. As cruel winds whip through the desert, scooping up actors and filmmakers and herding them like Lemmings toward the western fringe, those that remain are keeping their eye on the prize, while losing sight of the big picture. More specifically, ‘the big picture-show.’ Previously, films that had been created for the film challenges often provided the burgeoning stock from which to cull the best representations of Arizona short films; films that would go on to national and international acclaim. But where the seeds of creativity are watered in the effluent of complacency, so now the tree of expression hath borne bitter fruit, and the once vibrant, succulent harvest now lays withered on the vine. The concept of this recent challenge was to retrieve a prop and a line of dialog (contributed by the other filmmakers) and make their film from there. While the multitude of props and lines did seem promising; for the filmmakers, it appears the Mystery Box yielded a choice between Schrödinger’s dead cat and some spent plutonium rods. Here are the films I saw in no particular order.
The Prescription – Untrained Slackers
Angry housewife fights with unappreciative hubby. She orders a potion online that will transform them physiologically into each other. He spends a day in her shoes beating a speeding ticket, getting overcharged by a mechanic and menstruating. Meanwhile, she pees standing up, scares kids in the park and gets no sympathy from the cops. Good photography tries its best to carry this uninspired comedy, but the complete absence of any homeostasis makes its condition terminal.
Final Take – I want a new drug.
The Lights – Mighty Motion Picture Company
A very bored and underlit cop gets debriefed by an equally lethargic interviewer. Apparently, he encountered some aliens during his last warehouse raid. No, it didn’t end Arizona style with fake Fox headlines and a photo-op with Steven Seagal, this is some strange, floating blue energy that zaps cars and vaporizes the other cops. Great photography, cool FX and the most realistic cop uniforms I’ve seen in ages, but crammed with empty, overabundant dialog delivered with all the passion of a solar powered speak-n-spell in a total eclipse. “To be continued…” Great.
Final Take – Half lit.
The Will – Carefree Wright Productions
Three relatives vie for Aunt Gertrude’s inheritance, but before they can cash in, they must abide by the following conditions: one must spend thirty days in a haunted house, another must avenge Gerties violent death, and the third must safeguard a cursed monkey puppet for a month. After thirty days of outrageous misfortune, nephew Gary disregards his potential payday and is more than happy to unload the smelly, bad luck monkey on some kid in the park. Funny and energetic performances can’t protect this film from its own built-in blight.
Final Take – The won’t.
Smiling – Studio Gaijin
A crazy clown whines to his shrink that he cant put a smile on his (bipolar) sisters face. As a result of his anger mismanagement, he slashes her mouth into a permanent smile using a straight razor. This odious excuse for a film takes itself seriously enough to the point of high drama, then begs forgiveness with horrifically lame attempts at humor. Never funny or serious, not shocking or edgy. No irony, no tragedy, no nothing. ‘Smiling’ exists in a black hole of neither talent or creativity. A terrifying place devoid of energy or inspiration, existing solely for the selfish purpose of wasting my time.
Final Take – Last laugh.
Catch The Frog – Running Wild Films
A girl carrying a stuffed frog is chased through a parking garage by two bad guys. After some kung-fu fighting on the pedestrian overpass, she gives them the slip. She rendezvous with a kid at the McDonalds Playland, who then hands the frog over to a guy eating french-fries (get it? get it?). Fry guy and gangster girl meet up again a week later and speak French (eh? eh?) and he provides her next super secret assignment. The talented team of Running Wild delivers the goods as always, with great photography, sound and a tailor made soundtrack. But ‘Frog’ is way too easy, especially for this group of filmmakers, appearing as though it was busted out in the parking lot across the street from the kickoff party.
Final Take – Might as well jump.
Breakdown – Jump Ship Productions
Three people riding across the desert experience car trouble and pull into a creepy repair shop in the middle of nowhere. The loony station attendant imprisons the passengers in his garage/mad scientist lab, programming them kill each other just for funzies. The female of the trio survives and drives away, still under the control of the evil mechanic, and minus 20 fuel points. Outstanding photography and a terrific location demonstrate the mega-talented team at Jump Ship clearly piled into the pick-up, prepared to pound out another stellar production. ‘Breakdown’ barely turns the ignition before taking a wrong turn into dullsville and leaving their ‘vehicle’ in park. The filmmakers got the misalignment, while we all get the lube job.
Final Take – Tow away.
The Diner – Reckless Endeavor Productions
A melancholy kid with OCD fidgets in a diner until his waitress arrives. She’s out of sorts after losing her lucky pen. They engage in some pointless dialog about luck and superstition until she goes nuts and stabs him in the face with golf tees. The cook arrives and finds her lucky pen. Numbingly inane dialog, bad acting and rock bottom production are the only items on the menu.
Final Take – Doggie bag.
Your Turn To Smile – Team Enigma
Friends rally around their grief stricken pal, suffering from the loss of his sister. They help him come to terms with her death and allow him to find his own way to move on, retrieving simple notes from a smile jar. Well-shot and easygoing film is never preachy or pretentious. A tad melodramatic for my taste, but worthwhile acting and story keep it cohesive.
Final Take – Upside down frown.
3 Men and a Goblin – Good Stew Productions
Three old men sit around a nursing home reminiscing about their younger days and complaining about getting old. The hilarious and engaging dialog is tragically cut short by the unnecessary introduction of a lame plot. Something about a goblin and coins. A perfect example of how filmmakers invariably discover a bad way to ruin a good film.
Final Take – Sadly ever after.
After The Beep – Polymathus
An 80’s era answering machine reveals a tragic tale of marriage and family, death and infidelity, sorrow and addiction and devastating dysfunction. All excellently played out by only the voices on an answering machine, while simple prop changes around it keep us up to date. This engaging little film was nearly lost forever, buried in the miry murk of submissions and easily overlooked. Winner: Best Film.
Final Take – Get the message.
Next – Toast Productions
Lonely guy sits in his apartment watching Mexican novellas. He’s lost his job, his girlfriend and his cat. Kindly roommate suggests he try speed dating, where he encounters vegans, painters and his mom. He makes the standard discovery that it isn’t the perfect girl he’s looking for; it’s the perfect guy. Great acting and well shot, with the most flawless novella fan tribute ever created. Add this one to the burgeoning stack of speed dating sketches/customer service split screens and we’ve got ourselves a genre!’
Final Take – Take a number.
Gift Rush – Woo! Productions
A student suddenly realizes its his anniversary and he has nothing to give his sweetheart. He jets from Phoenix and travels the globe, grabbing goodies like Tiramisu from New York, Couture from France, flowers from Korea and a Mariachi from Mexico. Easygoing film with clever use of available locations. Good photography and sound.
Final Take – Regifted.
The Stretch – Grace North Back Row
A fierce gun battle ensues between three cars zooming down a deserted Arizona highway. No, this doesn’t end Maricopa County style with a fake Fox remote and some sound bites from Sheriff Joe. A girl with supernatural powers and her mortally wounded protector take refuge in a groovy abandoned building. As the bad guys approach, the two yammer on about atoms and monsters and dry cleaning, as he slowly reveals the secret to her gnarly powers. Extremely violent and bloody short with bad acting and lots of cool FX.
Final Take – Less patter, more splatter.
Lover Boy – Reel Films
Clumsy high school nerd lacks the courage to ask his cute classmate out on a date. He gives himself an internal pep talk in the boy’s room. It almost works when she turns the tables and asks him out instead. And then it ends.
Final Take – No love.
Brevity – Platypusducksnake
Clumsy high school nerd lacks the courage to play Hamlet in the school play. Dejected, he discovers a mask bestowed with magical acting ability. He triumphantly returns and nails the audition. And then it ends.
Final Take – Tragedy.
Deep Sleep – Midnight Pie Train
A guy dreams about being shot and drowning in a pool. He visits his Jungian head shrinker for the low down on his numbskull. She offers the standard prattle so he puts the kibosh on their session. While riding the light rail, he experiences violent flashbacks and speed dials Dr. Who the hell cares. She sets him up in a research lab so they can monitor his brain activity but uh oh! It was all a dastardly murderous plan orchestrated by the doc to get dream boy to kill her colleagues so she could take control of “the firm.”(???) Clearly a big ole’ honkin’ plot to this sleeper that we were graciously spared. Boring story with some nifty Go-Pro shooting.
Final Take – ZZZZZzzzzzzz
Zombies Of Capitalism – Glendale CC Cinema Society
Three guys trapped in a garage are attacked by zombies. They whack the zombies with a copy of “Gotcha Capitalism” which ultimately cures them of their zombitis. Suddenly, A mysterious man in a suit shows up. And then it ends.
Final Take – Mindless consumption.
Larper – Incoming Productions
Clumsy community college nerd plays video games all day. He gets out of the house and heads to the coffee shop to play more video games. After lying to the blue haired waitress that he is producing a play, he gives her the lead and gets her number. With the help of his RPG pals, they embark on a mission to create the worst stage play ever conceived, holding their dress rehearsal in a dive bar. As they say in RPG: Mission Accomplished.
Final Take – Disaster in 8 bits.
Long Way – Fur Pig
When their ride home is a no show, two kids improvise Halloween costumes and blend in with a throng of trick-or-treaters. Excellent and simple little film that is bursting with expression, somberly capturing the crossroads of childish adventure that intersects with creeping adolescent apprehension, and the fear of abandonment. Very well acted ‘coming of age’ tale with great photography and sound. Winner-Best Director.
Final Take – Home at last.
The Hedge Sculptor - #Renae
A girl always knows when it’s time to trim her bush: she gets a letter from the HOA. ‘Sculptor’ is a fun and frenetic ‘Orbit Gum’ commercial farce that is raunchy, raw and respectful. Short, sweet and to the point, made just for fun.
Final Take – Bushwhacked.