The 2017 Phoenix Film Festival – Special Report

If you’ve read a valley newspaper recently, you’ve seen the ads. If you’ve been to the movies during the past month, you’ve seen the posters. The 17th Annual Phoenix Film Festival, incorporating the International Horror Sci-Fi Film Festival, begins this week, Thursday, April 6 and continues for 8 days until April 13.

Ever since Arizona’s largest film festival first arrived on our doorsteps seventeen years ago it has continually broken attendance records. What began with an expectation of only 500 attendees grew last year to an incredible 25,000, with hopes that this year will see even more film enthusiasts at the ticket center.

The week-long event will be held once again at Harkins Scottsdale Theaters, 700 E. Mayo Blvd. Phoenix, AZ 85054. The benefit of hosting the films at Harkins Scottsdale 101 is simple; there’s no need to drag yourself around town, checking times, dates, and schedules while making sure you’ve journeyed to the right theatre – it’s all there, all in one place, including the ticket center and the Party Pavilion, plus the festival filmmaking seminars, parties, and several other exciting events for the valley film enthusiast.

The opening night April 6 film will be the comedy/drama Hero with Sam Elliot starring in a role that sounds tailor-made for the actor: he plays a Western icon with a golden voice, though his best, silver screen performances are decades behind him. The festival’s closing night April 13 film will be Tommy’s Honor, the true story of the father-son team who ushered in the modern game of golf, starring Peter Mullen. And in-between, the festival will screen over 175 films. While checking through the schedule, here are five films for five very different tastes you should consider.

Brave New Jersey is a 90 minute comedy from director Jody Lambert loosely based on true events. Remember that famous night in 1938 when Orson Welles took to the airwaves and delivered his own version of War of the Worlds? Instead of presenting it as a straight-forward re-enactment of the H.G.Wells novel, he re-crafted the whole thing as a series of radio News Breaks and interruptions, creating the impression that a martian invasion was really taking place, and those aliens were landing in New Jersey. If anyone had simply moved the dial, they would have known it was all just a hoax, but many didn’t, including the small town of Lullaby, NJ whose citizens thought it was to be their last night on earth. They panicked accordingly. And why would the aliens land near Lullaby?  “We’ve got the fourth tallest water tower in three counties!” states the town spokesman.  Starring several familiar faces, including Anna Camp, Tony Hale and Raymond J. Barry, Brave New Jersey may sag in its pacing during the second act, but there is a lot to enjoy, including several big, unexpected laughs as the terrified town folk fight an alien invasion in which the aliens never show up. Brave New Jersey will screen Friday, April 7 at 9:20am, Saturday April 8 at 5:55pm, and again on Sunday April 9 at 1:55pm.

Fallen is an outstanding documentary from director Thomas Marchese that presents a gripping account presenting the issue of line-of-duty police deaths across the country and how these losses affect those close to the fallen. As the film shows, not everyone is an admirer of the police. “They’re paid to bully all day long,” states one interviewee.  Of course, in reality, it’s hardly that simple, and attitudes will always be determined by personal experience. “In the movies,” begins a police officer, “Bad guys are clearly bad guys, and what needs to be done is clear. But in real life, it’s just not like that.” As narrated by Michael Chiklis, Fallen presents a view of American police officers in a way you may never have previously considered, working an occupation that is often considered 90 percent boredom, 10 percent sheer terror. Highly recommended. The documentary will screen Friday, April 7 at 7:00pm, Saturday, April 8 at 1:30pm, and again on Sunday, April 9 at 11:55am.

The Midnighters is a thoroughly engaging and well-acted American drama telling of an aging ex-con, just released from prison after having served three decades behind bars. He’s trying to adapt to an unfamiliar world, but instead of going straight, he finds himself drawn back into the game doing the one thing he really knows how; cracking safes. Directed by Julian Fort and starring Leon Russom and Gregory Sims, the power of The Midnighters is that despite its deliberate, slow-burn, the film holds on to you and never lets go, due in part to excellent performances from its principal players and a conclusion of twists and turns you won’t see coming. You’ll sense something’s not right, but you won’t know what or how it’ll occur. The Midnighters will screen Friday, April 7 at 7:15pm, Saturday, April 8 at 3:25pm, and again, Sunday April 9 at 12:05pm.

Waking David is a 90 minute UK drama from director Kevin Nash telling of a young, American psychologist who, while delivering lectures in London, decides to visit her working-class English half-sister, whom she’s never met, while attempting to find out anything she can about her English father, who died 10 years earlier. What follows ultimately develops into a harrowing account of secrecy and lies and shows what happens when people, particularly family members, refuse to properly communicate, preferring instead to keep a truth bottled within. Waking David works so well because it reflects unexpected authenticity in its telling, delivered convincingly by an experienced cast who give genuine, lived-in performances. The UK drama is also highly recommended and will screen Friday, April 7 at 11:05am and again on Saturday, April 8 at 1:10pm.

Gold Star is a 90 minute, character-driven, American drama from writer/producer/director Victoria Negri, who also stars. Vicki (Negri) is a young woman, drawn from her New York residence, back to her Connecticut home in order be caregiver for her dying father, Carmine (Robert Vaughn in his last, credited film role) while trying to bring a sense of perspective to her own, directionless life. By its conclusion, the film leaves you with a sense of poignancy that feels earned. Plus, there are two important reasons to see Gold Star: One; the chance to see Robert Vaughn for his final performance, and, two; for Victoria Negri. As a performer, she possesses a naturally engaging screen presence that draws notice, but it’s as an emerging filmmaker – a writer/director/producer – that deserves our attention most of all. Gold Star will screen Friday, April 7 at 11:15am, Monday, April 10 at 7:10pm, and Thursday, April 13 at 12:30pm.

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Recently I had the opportunity of talking to the film festival’s Executive Director, Jason Carney for a brief Q&A regarding the background of the Phoenix Film Festival and his thoughts on its achievements.

When you first started the Phoenix Film Festival what were your expectations?

Year one, we just didn’t know if anyone would come. We were hoping that maybe 500 people would show up – at that time it was a 3 day event – but 3,000 people came. We didn’t lose money, which was great. We’re one of the top 25 film festivals in the country.

Is there a festival philosophy?

We believe more than anything that the films are the stars, not the celebrities. We bring out these independent films that people make with their credit cards, with their blood and their sweat, certainly not big studio financed films.

Why Scottsdale 101?

We originally started at the downtown theatre, at the Arizona Center, but after the third year, our rent was, kind of, well, raised, and we were looking for an alternative. And Harkins is now such a natural partner because of its commitment to independent film for so long, and they wanted to work with us.

But doesn’t Scottsdale 101 make it the Scottsdale Film Festival?

From our point we asked where could we take over where we needed so many screens and it not be a bother. The Scottsdale 101 and the Cine Capri had just opened. Well, we were concerned because we couldn’t have the festival in Tempe, and we couldn’t have it in Scottsdale because this was the Phoenix Film Festival. But, even though the 101 sounds as though it’s Scottsdale, everything west of the 101 is Phoenix; technically the theatres are in Phoenix, and so we had a great theatre, and, yes, it is in Phoenix. A great theatre with great sound.

If you were lucky enough to to be at the festival for all 8 days, how many films could you see?

Okay. Hmm. If you started 10 in the morning until the end of the days, for all 8 days, you could probably see… let me think. I would say something like 43 films, and if you go to the short films, you can see even more. It’s impossible to see them all, but if you plan your schedule accordingly, you can see a good portion of what we’re showing.

And you’ve designed it to be a social festival, too.

Exactly. Sure. It’s a film world. You do make friends. You’re standing in line, waiting for the next showing, and you’re talking to whoever is in front or behind you, and you make friends. The filmmakers are also there, and they love this. You can talk to them, ask them about their films, they’ll answer anything you want, they’re especially grateful. It’s really become the event we wanted when we started out. We’ve fulfilled that vision.

For times, tickets, dates and the festival schedule, CLICK HERE for the official 2017 Phoenix Film Festival website

Special thanks to Marty Freetage, Alex Patrick Merrill, Amy Borenstein, Brittney Rislund, Lisa Maria Lara, and NBMA Photography for the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival posters

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