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16th Phoenix Film Festival
Has Something For Everyone

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From Profound Documentaries Like Rwanda & Juliet To Heartfelt Coming Of Age Stories Like Sing Street, The 2016 Phoenix Film Festival Brought A Little Bit Of Everything To The Table


By Ryan Scott
Modern Times Magazine

April 12, 2016 — The Phoenix Film Festival, which takes place in conjunction with the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, is currently celebrating its 16th year in existence and, as filmmakers and attendees have come to expect, the 2016 festival offers more than a little something for everyone. From poignant documentaries and indie comedies to inventive sci-fi, here is a quick look at everything we took in at this year’s event. Films are listed in the order of when we watched them, not necessarily in order of how much we liked or disliked them.

Rwanda & Juliet
Director Ben Proudfoot may only be in his mid 20s, but as a documentary filmmaker he appears to be lightyears ahead of his age. With Rwanda & Juliet, Proudfoot managed to tell a heartwarming, grounded, funny and honest story about a country most people in the western world only associate with genocide through the lens of a college professor who heads to Rwanda in order to put on an ambitious production of Romeo & Juliet. There are many sources documenting the atrocities that took place in the small African country, but this is an excellent way to learn about the people of the country. When this documentary inevitably hits Amazon Prime or Netflix, be sure to stream it.

Rwanda & Juliet | Official Trailer from Breakwater Studios Ltd. on Vimeo.

The Dark Tapes
“I’m not sure everyone understood it,” said The Dark Tapes co-director Michael McQuown at the film's world premiere on Friday night at Phoenix Film Festival. Though that may be true, that doesn’t mean there is no value here. The film is a horror anthology in the vein of V/H/S by the director’s own admission, but isn’t quite as effective. That being said, great horror anthologies are very hard to find, and there are some very enjoyable themes and bits in here. Stream this one with some friends and have a few drinks. Horror junkies will find something in here they like. Casual horror fans may want to look elsewhere though.

There are lots of films coming out that deal with our relationship to technology with varying degrees of success, but Logan Kibens’ Operator is an undoubted success and stands out from the crowd. Martin Starr (“Silicon Valley”) plays a programmer named Joe who uses the voice of his girlfriend Emily, played by Mae Whitman (“Arrested Development”), in an advanced digital customer service rep. The film takes cues from Her, but is much less cute and a much more un-romantic comedy, for the most part. An excellent cast compliments the film, which is funny yet heavily and effectively emotional and, most importantly, very enjoyable and timely.

Welcome To Happiness
As many people know, anything Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) touches pretty much turns to gold. Granted, Offerman only plays a small role in writer/director Oliver Thompson’s Welcome To Happiness, but the rule still applies. Knowing much of anything about this film will spoil the experience, but it is essentially a superb ensemble film that is only barely sci-fi and feels like something Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson would have made together early in their careers. Perhaps Thompson said it best at a Q&A after the Saturday screening: “I wanted to make a movie that feels like the TV show “Lost”...but in a guys apartment.” This is a must see.

A Light Beneath Their Feet
Personally, I don’t have a lot to say about this film other than that it just missed the mark for me. There are themes worth exploring in this film about a high school senior (Madison Davenport) who has to take care of her mentally ill mother (Taryn Manning) while trying to decide what to do with her life as graduation looms. Manning and Davenport deliver great performances, but the movie feels as though it doesn’t explore the correct things at times and ends very abruptly. A coming of age film with virtually no levity will always be fighting an uphill battle, and that is the battle A Light Beneath Their Feet is definitely fighting.

The Meddler
If nothing else (but there’s definitely more), The Meddler will remind everyone just how excellent an actress Susan Sarandon still is as she delivers one of the best performances of her recent career. Sarandon is joined by Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons and Cecily Strong in this very well-crafted film that could have easily been a run of the mill chick flick, but instead delivers a light-hearted comedy that also takes on the concepts of loss, moving on and modern family dynamics. Fellas, if you have to go see a movie your girlfriend will like later this year, The Meddler is a safe bet, because the alternative will surely be less enjoyable.

Dead Body
Low budget horror films are a tricky thing. Sometimes the constraints will force filmmakers to think outside the box and create something truly unique and other times they just look and feel as cheap as they are. Dead Body really doesn’t really fit into either of those categories, but it is low budget horror done very well. Is it an original film? Not in the slightest. However, it is an insanely enjoyable “teenagers getting murdered in the woods” film. The acting is not nearly as cheesy as horror fans typically have to endure and the Clue mixed with Friday The 13th vibe works perfectly. Most horror fans should enjoy this film and director Bobbin Ramsey deserves a lot of credit for turning what could have been an uninteresting, stereotypical pile into something really fun.

Stereotypically You
The term “romantic comedy” definitely comes with a certain connotation to it that can turn away a lot of viewers. Stereotypically You, though best described as a rom-com, comes with very few of the usual tropes and is instead a very meta, strange, quirky and funny film about a recently single man (Aaron Tveit) navigating the modern dating scene in New York City. Tveit is joined by Abby Elliott, Kal Penn and Lewis Black. Is this film for everyone? No. It is definitely pretty strange at times and that could be off putting for those wanting very straightforward storytelling. However, many people should find this very refreshing.

Sing Street
I simply can’t imagine a better film to end a festival with. Sing Street is currently killing it on the Tomatometer, and there are a ton of great reasons for that. Director John Carney took the concept of That Thing You Do and placed it in 1980s Dublin,  putting the weight of the story on the shoulders of a 14-year-old kid who starts a band simply to impress a girl. The movie is hilarious, heartwarming and looks incredible. The original music in the film is straight out of 1984, and it is hard to believe that songs like “Drive It Like You Stole It” wouldn’t have been hits in their day. The cast is superb, the pacing is perfect and the writing is all around great. As for what’s to not like about Sing Street? I’m coming up empty. See it.

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