Highlights from The 17th Annual Phoenix Film Festival 2017 – Part 1


Highlights from The 17th Annual Phoenix Film Festival 2017 – Part 1

Article by Ray Schillaci

Brave New Jersey
The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins
Land of the Little People
The Night Watchmen

This year, the Phoenix Film Festival not only delivered some enormously entertaining movies to its audiences, the festival also had to be one of the biggest events in its history with six opening night films (every World Cinema film selling out), an expanded week of films (after awards night), and one of the smoothest running events this critic can remember (in the last decade of attending). They also developed a program entitled “Unified by Film.” This program included short films directed by African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans.


Since 2000, the festival has grown considerably, yet still remains one of the friendliest to independent filmmakers and their audiences, largely due to the attentive staff, volunteers, and the man who guides them, the executive director, Jason Carney. In years past, one could easily tell what picture could garner Best Screenplay, Director or Picture, but this year proved to be anybody’s guess since the line-up of competition films were so well crafted.

As always, I will be splitting this article up into three parts since there is so much to talk about. Opening night provided a party replete with live entertainment, silent auction, and Phoenix’s best restaurants laying out a variety of delights for all tastes. The opening night feature made women swoon over Sam Elliott in The Hero, the story of a western icon struck down in his later years with cancer, and all the regrets he has to face while trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Although not my festival favorite due to its maudlin tone, it does have one of Elliott’s best performances, along with notable star turns by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), Laura Prepon (Orange is the New Black), and Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones).

quaker oaths

Once again, there were so many competition films vying for recognition in the awards category that you could not help but be disappointed that some were overlooked! Two big audience pleasers that were not honored: Louisiana (Lucy) Kreutz’s delightful Quaker Oaths and Austin Everett’s uncomfortable comedy/drama Secondhand Hearts deserve more than a mention (and I will do that later). I enjoyed both so much that I couldn’t get them out of my head. But what beat them out was the triple threat of the festival, Jody Lambert’s incredibly engaging Brave New Jersey, garnering Best Ensemble Acting, Best Director, and Best Picture.

Brave New Jersey
Director/co-writer Lambert weaves a fanciful tale around the panic in a small town in New Jersey during the infamous broadcast of 1938, War of the Worlds. Orson Welles is probably best remembered for that ultimate radio hoax that frightened millions of people. Lambert and his writing partner, Michael Dowling, give us a splash of Capra with the quaint town of Lullaby, NJ, and all the inhabitants’ eccentricities. Great production values and a very likable cast set the stage for a night of fun lunacy preparing for a martian invasion, but it is not without some very subtle poignant moments that give this film a real heart.

On the surface, the story appears to circle around the crazy antics brought on by the broadcast, led by an over zealous war veteran, Captain Ambrose P. Collins, played with biting gusto by Raymond J. Barry, but the down-to-earth center is Tony Hale’s fumbling, insecure mayor, Clark Hill. Mr. Hale channels the spirit of Jimmy Stewart and brings his everyman to the forefront while trying to be the voice of reason during a very trying time for his town.

Even though we have several entertaining subplots, the writers always come back to Clark Hill, who, besides everything else, conceals his affections for Lorraine, played sweet and demure by Heather Burns, who is married to the town’s blow hard mogul. Then there is the pastor dealing with an end of days he did not see coming while trying to comfort his parishioners, a school teacher who is less than innocent fending off her fiancee, and the kids’ point of view of this memorable night. Throughout it all we can’t help but cheer for Clark and the movie as a whole. It’s to the writers, director’s credit and a great cast that Brave New Jersey remains fresh and sweet throughout the fun and sentimental journey it takes us on.

The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” ZalkinsThe Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins
Imagine, it’s the mid ’90s, you’re young, full of life, partying every night with your buds, your best friend’s band has just broken through with a hit video, and you’re the star of it. Drugs, alcohol, and raucous music rule your frenzied lives until one night you miss a phone call from that best friend, and he’s discovered dead from a heroin overdose leaving behind a wife, child, and a budding career. Now, what do you do?

Unfortunately, when Bradley Nowell from the band Sublime passed away, it sent his best friend, Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins in a tailspin with an addiction that few have ever survived. The man who didn’t sleep for 44 days, and was known to have taken eighteen Oxycontin (80mg/tablet), sixteen Norco (Vicodin), and three Fentanyl sticks (800mcg) in one day, eventually faced his demons and stepped up to a challenge that he would later discover was a crisis in our nation…the ever increasing opioid addiction. Here is The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins, the winner of Best Documentary, a fascinating story of one man’s personal struggle with painkillers (something that actually effects millions of Americans).

The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” ZalkinsDirector Richard Yelland and subject Todd Zalkins take us on this harrowing journey that eventually leads to a near impossible redemption. But, this is not just a flat out warning tale of the danger of prescription drugs. This road traveled is filled with young person angst, chronicling life in Long Beach, CA for the young hell raisers of the ’90s, and the edgiest of bands, Sublime.

Yelland with Zalkins’ narrating takes you back with an in-depth look into the Long Beach scene, the non-stop fun they all had, the beginnings of Sublime, and a very interesting take on its lead singer, Bradley Nowell, that only a best friend could have. We witness how out of control they became, and it appeared that it made them even more popular due to the notoriety. The reveled in it. But there was a sweet side to Zalkins’ best friend. Nowell was known to be emotional, sensitive, artistic, and loved his dog, “Lou Dog,” that he adopted as a puppy, an abused dalmation that would end up going just about everywhere with Nowell.

Zalkins relays his story with the band and his friend, Brad, with such love and conviction that by the time we are told about the heroine overdose we cannot help feel his pain. Instead of a warning sign this horrible tragedy had Todd Zalkins take the most dangerous detour plunging into opioid addiction. He details how he was able to manipulate the system for his ever increasing need, and frankly it was dumbfounding.

Through some creative animation and Zalkins’ “from-the-heart” narration, director Yelland is able to have us get as close to Zalkins’ struggles as it is possible and keep our attention through the whole process. The documentary opens on Zalkins relating his story to young people. And, that has become Zalkins’ quest to keep following generations from reliving his near-fatal mistakes. We also see Zalkins helping Nowell’s son through addiction, and this is one of the most heart wrenching scenes to watch. Zalkins and director Richard Yelland have developed more than just a documentary with The Long Way Back, they have created a tome of sorts for hope, dreams and miracles.

Land of the Little PeopleLand of the Little People
Now, award for the most misleading title for a movie – Land of the Little People, also the winner of the World Cinema Director Award. Here was my original take before seeing the film or reading its synopsis. I thought, how fun! Lilliputians running around happily singing joyous songs. But, noooo! I could not have been further off.

To a few older audience members, it was a shocker discovering this Israeli entry was part Lord of the Flies with a dash of horror fantasy. In fact, some even claimed it to be a straight horror film with its amount of violence. But I strongly felt that was a knee-jerk reaction to a film steeped in controversy. We in America may feel it’s very outside the norm while those in Israel and other parts of the Middle-East may find it merely grounded.

Writer/director Yaniv Berman transports us to a small village in Israel where the men are expected to serve in the army, and be called back to service whenever needed to fight the war, while leaving their wives and children only to see them during military leave. The children show little fear for their fathers for it is common in their world. What is not acceptable is desertion.

Land of the Little PeopleTwo young soldiers have abandoned their post and lie in wait in a rundown building on an abandoned military base for their friend to pick them up. It just so happens the area is occupied by four children. And that’s what gets the taunting going in this little cat-and-mouse game, not to mention the kids found some kind of beast deep inside a well that they provide sacrifices for.

These four kids claim that large parcel of land as their own while they deal with their home life, bullies in school, and now these two men, who they have no respect for. In the beginning, the kids steal cigarettes and food from the deserters, but when a gun is stolen, the violence escalates. And whatever resides in the well demands to be fed.

Berman’s take on these four begins with normal pre-teen adventurous behavior; telling stories, playing war, but there is also a darker side that lingers when it comes to whatever is at the bottom of the well. Their mischievous turns anger the two deserters, and when these two men try to reign the children in, that is when Berman’s allegory becomes unflinching and brutal. But it is not without a powerful message that is a near gut punch by the closing credits. Land of the Little People is a striking ode to the end of innocence.


How apropos to have a solid piece of cinema arrive that actually details the humanity of police officers during such trying times. Writer/director/retired officer Thomas Marchese delivers his message with honor and nobility, detailing the lives of those that have “fallen”, their families, friends, and colleagues. Fallen is a sobering tale that opens our eyes, hearts and minds, challenging anyone who dares perceive those officers of the law as an “us vs. them” issue. It certainly grabbed the attention of everyone at PFF, having the film win the Audience Award of 2017.

Thomas Marchese served fourteen years in law enforcement until he was wounded in the line of duty. It nearly cost him his life. He was retired due to his injuries, and went on to be a filmmaker. This highly personal and informative documentary is not about him, but about his fellow officers. Michael Chiklis (The Shield) narrates and helps take us beyond the numbers (that have risen dramatically over the years) of officers shot and killed.

FallenAs we witness the tragedy of the impact on family and friends losing their loved ones, we are also subjected to on-the-street opinions of police officers and their job. At times, those opinions are sensible, some complacent, and then there are the arrogant/ignorant ones, and the last is the most aggravating, especially after what we witness these officers go through on a daily basis and the hostile environment surrounding them.

No matter what your views may be on law enforcement, if you have any kind of a heart you cannot help get emotional over the stories told here. Marchese’s film also demonstrates a tremendous sense of brotherhood and loyalty among these brave men and women, and their families, and that is what keeps them all together and stronger in the long run. Fallen tears away at the adversarial positioning we see so often on the news while shedding a much needed humanizing light on those that serve and protect.

The Night Watchmen

The Night Watchmen
The International Horror and Sci-Fi Film festival that runs concentrically with PFF had a lot to roar about between their competition, showcase, and short films. The one with the biggest bite was Michael Altieri’s The Night Watchmen, which won Best Horror Feature. The very funny story of three bumbling nightshift security men in a business building who, on one very strange night, encounter a plague of vampires is kinda like everything I wanted in a Ghostbusters sequel that was never quite delivered.

Sophomoric and even ridiculous at times, writers Ken Arnold, Dan DeLuca, and Jamie Nash unearth so much fun with the genre that it’s hard not to have a good time. It also helps to have an enjoyable cast that includes Arnold, DeLuca, Kara Luiz, Matt Servitto (Banshee) and James Remar (Dexter). But the absolute stand out is Kevin Jiggetts as “Jiggetts,” one of the night watchmen. His character has us laughing at nearly every turn, seemingly coming from the school of Key & Peele.

The Night WatchmenWe start off with the silly antics of three man/boys who just happen to be night watchmen. They may say that they live by a code, but that code seems to change whenever necessary. As they haze the new guy, they find an unexpected delivery, a coffin with a body in it. We can already telegraph what comes next, but all the blood and guts aside, this nearly plays as well as zombie comedy favorite, Shaun of the Dead.

The night watchmen’s unexpected visitor turns out to be one powerful vampire that is hell bent on reigning bloody havoc on the city of Baltimore, but first he is starting with the business building he was inadvertently sent to. Those he infects are ravenous, and the chaos that ensues only escalates the comedic factor with the inept night watchmen trying to fend them off.

The Night Watchmen is a free-for-all of bloody laughs and near non-stop action. In the jokes department it has far more hits than misses largely due to the talented cast. Some may look down upon the film as another “B” monster movie, but what sets director Michael Altieri’s film apart from so many others is the fun factor that has audiences applauding and wanting more.

Fairy Tales for Emma

I wish I had the time to see all the award winners. The World Cinema Audience Award, Fairy Tales for Emma, had everyone talking about the touching story of a single mother who passes away after an accident, leaving her little girl to a man she claims is her father. The Best Sci-Fi Feature went to The Open, the odd tale of three misfits in the near future playing air tennis in the middle of nowhere attempting to live out a dream before the end of the world.

For more information on the other winners of the Phoenix Film Festival and the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival please visit,

Next, I’ll give you highlights of the showcase films and shorts from the Phoenix Film Festival 2017. Stay tuned!

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