DragonCon Independent Film Festival 2015

dragoncon

This past weekend, I attended the massive nerd event DragonCon, which is now a cultural staple of Atlanta, GA. There is a lot to say about the conference as a whole, but I first want to spotlight the DragonCon Independent Film Festival, which I spent most of my conference time attending. Unfortunately, due to the crowds, it was impossible for me to see all of the films in the lineup. That said, here are the selections I did manage to catch, with my brief thoughts on each.

Younglings
Younglings is a Star Wars fan film that closed out the Fan Films block of the festival. It gives a snapshot of a distant future in which the series has branched out to multiple trilogies (unimaginable!), and the original fans are now well into their twilight years. It all takes place around a table in a diner, where a group of old friends come to blows regarding Star Wars fandom and the value of Boba Fett. It is worth checking out if you can get a hold of it.

Writer’s Cramp
I have a lot to say about Writer’s Cramp, one of the few feature-length entries in the festival. It has a solid enough concept behind it, but it is really only enough to fuel the content for a short film. The movie gets slow and repetitive quickly, as it relies almost exclusively on malapropisms and spoonerisms for humor, which gets hokey and tired very fast. Unfortunately for everyone, this movie clocks in at over 100 minutes. To make matters worse, there are unnecessary segments scattered throughout the run-time that really should have been cut, so the run time total was certainly not all essential viewing for the story. Most of the characters in the story lack any sense of realism or voice, particularly the child whose only characteristic is verbosity. That said, there is good costuming and style at times, and the acting is pretty solid given what they were working with.  Judging from the information offered by the director/writer/editor/producer/etc (?) at the festival, this appears to be a case where people were ousted from the production quicker than in a George R. R. Martin work. Apparently an editor quit, the initial director was dismissed, and the writer took on both roles rather than fill them in with someone else. The result is something that reeks of creative control without reasonable checks: a one-trick pony feature that runs far too long on a premise that would have suited a short film at best, and had a creative force behind it that was never forced to kill her darlings.

Victim
Victim takes place entirely in an interrogation room, where two cops are interviewing a woman who was found at the scene of a brutal and mysterious decapitation. Overall, it is an ok flick. It suffers from being a bit too predictable and having a really terrible anticlimax, thought (a cringe-y one-liner that doesn’t land).

A Tricky Treat
A Tricky Treat is simple, gory, and has just the right amount of humor involved to make it work. To say anything more about it would serve to spoil the twist (which is predictable, but worth seeing). I’ll just say that it makes for a classic Halloween tale.

SuperBob
SuperBob was one of the few feature-length entries in the festival, and the only one I saw that I liked. It is an interesting film that tackles the serious ethical implications of super-heroism while also staying a romantic comedy throughout. Catherine Tate is solid in her supporting role, and was far less grating and obnoxious than I was used to. There was also good casting for the lead role: a guy who at once strikes as a wholesome every-man, but is also nondescript enough to be your boring neighbor. He also deals with a wide range of emotions throughout the story, as it twists from serious drama to dark comedy to romance at the drop of a dime. Typically that would be an issue for me, but this flick manages to blend political satire, romance, and dry humor in a way that builds some really identifiable characters in the chaos of it all, and you see real growth in them as it moves along. The biggest flaw lies in the documentary perspective of the film, which goes in and out without consistency. However, it wasn’t extremely distracting for me. The movie is a long way from being Big Man Japan or Man Bites Dog, but it is more than worth giving a shot. If you want a more approachable fictional documentary along the lines of those two acclaimed movies with a welcome injection of dry British humor, then seek it out once it is released.

Tenspotting
Tenspotting is kind of an unbearable fan film, even for a Doctor Who fan. The plot in summary is that an obsessive and elitist fan is seeking out an equally dedicated loyalist at a Doctor Who convention, and has unwavering standards for knowledge of the franchise. She eventually learns that there is more to life than Doctor Who minutia, but the fact that was a necessary lesson for her should point out a pretty serious flaw: you simply can’t identify with her, let alone like her.

Sharkasaurus
Sharkasaurus feels like any given movie in The Asylum’s filmography, but boiled down as far as it could go. There is a bit of a culture war element to it between science and religion, but nobody wins in the end (except for the Sharkasaurus, of course).

Slut
Slut is a serial killer flick with a solid, identifiable heroine. She has a curious charm in her awkwardness, which reminded me a little of Carrie, though this short goes in a very different direction. There is definitely a message here about the skewed sexual ethics of horror movies which is pretty fantastic, and something that the genre deserves to be put to task for. The film holds on to an odd sense of humor throughout, despite the serious suspense and dark tone on the whole.

Prelude to Axanar
Holy cow, this was awesome. Apparently this movie is a pretty big deal, and raised over half a million dollars over the course of an IndieGoGo campaign. Word is that they are working on a full-length version of this short, which I am now eagerly awaiting. Essentially, this is a historical documentary about an event from the Star Trek universe that is entirely fictitious. The re-enactments are fantastic, the acting and cinematography of the interviews are stellar, and the whole film has an incredibly professional appearance. This one is available on YouTube, and is absolutely worth checking out.

Return of the Zombie Lawyer Commercials
Return of the Zombie Lawyer Commercials is exactly what it sounds like. It is what it is, and that isn’t a bad thing. It was clearly a back yard production, but the concept is really fun and there are some solid laughs to be had from it.

Postpartum
Creepy acting made this one stand out a lot for me. A woman loses her mind after a failed pregnancy, believing her child to be alive. This leads her to kill anyone who enters her home who would challenge her delusion, which makes for quite a creepy collection of skeletons in her closet after a while.

Kragos the Dishonored
I get what they were trying to do with this silent Star Trek fan film, but it just didn’t work at all if you ask me. The story is very poorly conveyed (even for a silent flick), and I don’t think the appeal extends much outside of Trek fandom. It stands in pretty sharp contrast next to the other Trek fan film in the fest (Axanar, which I mentioned previously).

Knock, Knock…
This is one of the few shorts in the festival that I had seen before. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about it, but it is certainly a good short, just perhaps not as memorable as some of the others in this particular lineup. I do recommend showing this to any young children that you want to terrify forever.

Invaders
Invaders is a funny flick with a lot of gore and some twistedly inspired cinematography. It is very brief, but manages to have some great banter and effects over its short run time. It is also one of the only flicks I recall from the festival that hilariously runs through its own credits.

I Dare You
I wish I had more positive things to say about this movie. The production design looked pretty ok? The zombie makeup is…adequate? At the end of the day, I Dare You looks and feels like a Hollywood-generic zombie movie, but shorter and without the money. Before I saw the movie, I attended a panel that featured the director of this film, which sent me some red flags before going into it. First off, he said that the most influential dystopian film on him and his work was Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil. That film isn’t totally without value, but that is hardly the future vision of Brazil, or Minority Report, or Children of Men, or Blade Runner, or A Clockwork Orange, or just about any other non-generic zombie movie in the entire genre of dystopian films. Even Repo: The Genetic Opera has a more interesting and well-fleshed vision of a dystopian future than Resident Evil. The second thing that he said on the panel that bugged me is that he specifically noted that he didn’t think about any social meaning for his work when he was creating it. Dystopian fiction, to be frank, requires some social criticism to even be watchable. The idea is to take a current social ill and exaggerate it over time to point out what it could ultimately do to society. For example, overreach of law enforcement in Minority Report, Corporatization in RoboCop, censorship and anti-intellectualism in Fahrenheit 451, and the unreasonable reign of bureaucracy in Brazil. Even I Dare You sort of says something about unethical scientific experimentation, though that seems to have been something of an accident. In any case, the twist is way too predictable in this movie, and it feels in totality like a collage of previous works that has been lightly reheated and labelled as something new, like a hot dog made from butcher scraps.

Grave Shivers
Grave Shivers is a short film that functions as a compilation of even shorter micro-films that are all pretty great. The highlight of the bunch is probably the Satanic Girl Scout troop, but all three of the shorts are entertaining. They are worth giving a watch, and the whole thing is available to check out on Vimeo.

Evercare
Evercare is a horror-comedy psuedo-documentary that is absolutely made by the performance of the lead character: a home care nurse who has adapted her skills to the world following a zombie apocalypse. As she explains in the introduction, the old folks weren’t able to make it through the incident (effectively eliminating her job), but that many families had loved ones who were turned into zombies. She discovered that the needs of zombies were similar to those of the elderly, and started a program for in-house zombie care. The setup is unique, the acting is great, and the jokes are consistently funny, making this a short that is more than worth checking out.

Dread
Dread has a good concept behind it (a child haunted by a mysterious spectre), but the style just didn’t work for me. It looked like a J-horror in many ways, which I have never really been on board with personally. Also, the title doesn’t really match with the content, and feels a bit tacked-on for dramatic effect.

El Mano vs. Japanese Zombie
Even seen the classic short Bambi vs. Godzilla? Same thing, but with an El Santo analog.

Downstairs
Downstairs is a rare horror-comedy where the comedy honestly takes a back seat to the horror elements, but the synthesis works great on the whole. The movie displays top notch timing for both the humor and the scares (which are hard things to balance). I did think it suffered from a bit of an anticlimax, but the ride was definitely fun.

Directors on Directing
Directors on Directing is as hilarious as it is simple. The movie exists to poke at self-aggrandizing film-makers in a spectacular, explosive, and gory fashion, and it nails that biting tone perfectly. The setup is that of a fake documentary featuring directors talking about “the power of film-making,” which seems clear enough at first, until it is revealed that the “power” is the ability to cause dramatic cranial explosions.

Devil Makes Work
This was a visually striking film for sure, but there isn’t a whole lot to say about Devil Makes Work when it comes down to it. The acting is solid and the images are creatively synthesized, but I had a hard time remembering anything about this short until I watched the trailer. It just failed to stick with me at all, which probably says something about the film as a whole. Apparently I’m not alone in regards to those feelings, so I’ll just post the following from MJ Simpson’s blog post on the film, which says everything I could and more:

[Devil Makes Work] is a great showcase for the director and, frankly, if I was looking for someone to direct a big budget music video, I’d be knocking on his door. We can see that Soulsby has a very strong visual sense, that he has a masterful camera eye, that he has a strong worth ethic and that he has the organisational skills to lead a team of a hundred people and craft something amazing.

A feature film is more than a succession of stylish images…There is certainly a trend in Hollywood to make awful, empty movies that are rammed to the gills with vast amounts of special effects: all style and no substance, all sizzle and no sausage. Films that jump from one set piece explosion or alien spaceship or car chase to the next without any concern for making sense or appealing to anything but the most visceral emotions…Films which cost obscene amounts of money and, let’s face it, sometimes make obscene amounts of money back. Maybe that’s the gig that Guy Soulsby is pitching for here.

But films – good films – are about stories. And characters. And relationships. Devil Makes Work is a beautifully shot and edited sequence of vignettes but it’s not a narrative piece.

Dead Hearts
Dead Hearts is a well-shot, cute, and excellently-narrated dark romantic comedy: one of the finest entries into that sub-genre that I have seen. I was also shocked at how good the fight sequences are, and how well the visual design of the whole production comes off. It genuinely looks and feels like a cracked storybook, which is impressive to say the least. This might have been my favorite of the whole festival, which is not something I expected going into it.

The Case Of Evil
The Case of Evil is a sort of follow-up on the classic Robert Johnson tale. The film has a traditional, Twilight Zone-esque tone and look to it, which I really appreciated. I’m a little surprised how rare it is to see that nowadays, as there is such a long history to horror shorts with that appearance. In any case, it is somewhat predictable, but builds tension pretty well none-the-less.

The Bloodline
There were certainly good things stylistically about The Bloodline, but the Sin City / graphic novel look has just been done too much at this point, and didn’t really work here. The story also proved a little too predictable for my taste, and the writing and acting left a lot to be desired out of this one.

Bad Guy #2
Bad Guy #2 is a gory skewering of an old action movie trope: the volatile hierarchy of fictitious criminal organizations. The eponymous character takes his place just below “The Kingpin” and “The Right Hand Man,” but just above “Bad Guy #3.” His newly appointed position, however, is famously the first to be killed off when things go awry. This flick is definitely fun and filled with impressive effects, and is one of the films I most want to watch again out of the shorts lineup.

The Amazing Rondini
The Amazing Rondini is an entertaining spin on a “deal with the devil” story. A failing magician is recruited by a man who appears to be the Devil to execute a number of wayward souls in exchange for otherworldly magical powers. To the demon’s surprise, the magician is totally down with the idea, and proves to be a pretty efficient killer after working the kinks out.

600$
600$ is fantastic, and was undoubtedly one of my favorites of the festival. It had a number of good twists as the truth behind the plot is slowly revealed through flashbacks, and is funny in a broken sort of way. The story follows a hitman who has to change professions after the market for hired assassins drops out. His new job proves to be similar to his old: he gets paid to usher people into the next world, but this time via well-plotted assisted suicides.

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