And so another year of PUFF comes to an end, and I begin spending the next 12 months telling people to watch some good goddamn movies and eagerly anticipating the next festival. Thankfully, festival organizers Madeleine Koestner and company took the festival out with a bang, which they somehow manage to do every year.
Sunday opened huge, with one of the best movies at the festival, director Erik Kristopher Myer’s Butterfly Kisses. It’s a tough film to describe, and one I don’t want to ruin or spoil for interested viewers, which even the most basic description could do, but I’ll give it a shot. It’s about an aspiring filmmaker, Gavin Ross, who discovers some tapes in his in-laws basement of a couple of college students investigating a local Baltimore legend, Peeping Tom. Ross wants to edit the footage into a found footage horror movie, but would like to validate the tapes as real before embarking on that journey. In the interest of authenticity, Ross hires a documentary crew to film him on this quest, and as the mystery of what’s on those tapes gets deeper and weirder, so does Ross. This film within a film within a film premise reminded me a lot of Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves, and as the movie starts to spiral out, that comparison becomes more apt. It’s about narratives within narratives and the effects of authorial intent, both on the genre of found footage horror specifically, and artists and their drive more generally. I hope Myer will forgive this comparison, but it sort of does for found footage movies what SCREAM did for slasher movies – it openly comments on the tropes of the genre and if and why they work. It’s a fascinating movie, with some genuinely unnerving moments, the right amount of levity, and a fittingly troubling ending. I highly recommend people seek this out – whether you’re a fan of found footage horror or generally hate it (as Myer himself told me he tends to, mostly because they never follow their own rules) I think this movie will work for you. And once you’ve seen it, you’ll definitely want to know about how it was made and its authenticity, which I’ve been avoiding talking about here so you can discover this all for yourself, but I can tell you that Myer has very interesting stories to tell about his movie and you should seek out any interviews you can find with him. Hoping to have him on my podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, in the future.
BK was paired with an animated short, Dull Hope, directed by Brian Ratigan. This one is tough to describe – it features some old film footage mixed into the animation, which is of a dark figure watching the footage and perhaps going through memories of a kind, trying to unlock something. There’s a fluidity to the animation in this one that was really entrancing and allowed for a kind of beautiful ambiguity. I liked this one quite a bit.
Next up was The Queen of Hollywood Blvd, written and directed by Orson Oblowitz and starring his mother, Rosemary Hochschild, as the titular Queen herself. It’s the story of Queen Mary, vintage strip club owner, mother, and all around badass, on the night of her birthday. While unspecified in the film (to my memory), it would seem from the description it is her 60th birthday, and on this day a local gangster comes to collect on what he claims is a debt Mary owes him. His price? Mary’s beloved club. And so begins a birthday full of hellish revenge for Queen Mary. This is very much a “me” movie, being an exploitation film about vengeance, full of neon lighting (or as I like to say, it looks like a Pop Tart), and lead by an absolutely mesmerizing performance from an older actress (WRITE MORE PARTS FOR WOMEN OF ALL AGES – THANK YOU). Hochschild dazzles as Mary, and the design of her club is absolutely gorgeous. I could have spent four hours in the world of this movie, as long as it was all revolving around the Queen. If I’m being honest, the movie itself left a little to be desired, but while light on story, it does have some interesting commentary about the immigrant experience in America, though I’m woefully unqualified to dig into that all that much. Come for Michael Parks’ final performance (RIP, genuinely loved watching him act) and then get sucked in by Hochschild’s incredible presence and the lush neon design – if you’re anything like me, that’ll more than satisfy.
TQOHB was paired with another animated short, Sweet Delicious Earth, directed by Stephen St. Francis Decky. This was a very light, goofy little short about an alien that comes to Earth to eat people because they’re just so damn delicious. The animation was very simple, but complimented the simple premise well. The music was really memorable for some reason, I feel like it’s still on a loop in my head.
Following a brief break was the Local Shorts Block, which is one of my favorite things that PUFF does every year. I love that this is a space for local filmmakers to show off their craft. I’ll keep these as brief as I can, but all of these filmmakers deserve a little love and ink. First was Painful Love, directed by Veronica Kegel-Giglio. It appeared to have been shot on an iPhone in portrait mode and was essentially one long take of a woman grieving her husband. The dialogue was pretty funny occasionally, though I’m not certain how intentional that was. Next up was Midnight Carnival, directed by Chung-Wei Huang, about a young Taiwanese girl who takes a job at a traveling carnival. This is gorgeously shot at an excellent location, and features a really fantastic lead performance by Tiffany Tsai. Easily one of the best shorts at the festival this year. Then we had T.M.I., which ended up winning the audience award for best local short, directed by Jes Vasquez, last year’s winner of the same award. T.M.I. is about a work Christmas party and that co-worker you should never talk to because they’ll drone on about something inane for way too long. Vasquez really knows how to land comedy beats and I’d be very interested to see her assemble a sketch show of some kind. Following that was Babyfat, directed by Miranda Zampogna, about a former pageant queen who decides to have a baby in order to claim the center of attention once more. I really, really liked this movie – it looks great and has the kind of comedic tone that I love, where jokes are being delivered without anyone actually having to say anything. Visual comedy can be so difficult and we don’t get enough of it in movies these days, where we really should as it’s a visual medium. Zampogna deserves a ton of credit for that. Next we had Aerial, an animated short directed by Dom Hilton. I really like the style of Hilton’s animation, there are some images here that resonated with me and have stayed with me since the festival. That was followed by His Heart in Lonesome Valley, directed by Benjamin Finkel, which may have been my favorite short of the whole festival. It’s extremely bizarre (it features a talking pea) and very haunting. But what I loved so much about it is it featured every location in Philadelphia that I’ve ever walked through and thought “this would look amazing in a movie”, like the weird hallway that connects the east and west platforms of the 2nd Street stop on the El. It’s a really gorgeous short that just made my filmmaking brain sing. I loved it. Up next was Faux Glow, directed by Mitch Marsico, about a woman in the midst of a quarter-life crisis who decides to make a new friend out of papier-mâché. There’s something to the premise of this one, trying to reconnect with one’s childhood, that’s both really charming and kind of troubling, which was an interesting tight rope to try and walk. Following that was Family Medicine, directed by Joe Kraemer, about a woman taking over her father’s primary care practice and trying to be seen as a capable successor in her father’s eyes, his former employee’s eyes, and his former patient’s eyes. This was really well shot and edited, with a charming sense of humor and some great performances. I noticed that Kraemer is who shot Midnight Carnival as well – he is very clearly a talented filmmaker. The final film in the block was Ronnie, directed by Aidan Guynes, about a strange man trying to connect with people. This is one of those movies that’s crazy uncomfortable to watch because the characters are so inappropriate in the way they interact with others, sort of like Michael Scott but to an even more troubling degree. You just kind of feel bad for everyone you meet in this movie.
The final film of the festival was an Argentinean possession movie called Luciferina, directed by Gonzalo Calzada. The film follows Natalia, a young woman who is about to become a nun but is delayed by the news of her mother’s passing which sends her back to a home she was trying to escape. There, she finds her sister in an abusive relationship and feels the need to protect her as she starts talking about going into the jungle to meet a Shaman and take some ayahuasca to help cleanse her soul. Natalia’s sister is afraid something is wrong with their family, as just before their mother passed she started painting odd religious paintings, where Jesus hanging from the cross looks much like a uterus, which partially prompts the idea for this trip. Accompanied by her sister’s friends, who each have a reason for wanting to be healed in this ceremony, Natalia enters the jungle and reluctantly joins them on their ayahuasca trip, which quickly turns into a Black Mass and a war with the Devil himself. I wish I was more taken with this movie, as the events themselves are fascinating and coupled with some excellent imagery. But it’s a bit scattershot in its storytelling and the tension you would imagine you’d feel in a movie like this simply isn’t there. That said, the final 10 minutes are absolutely breathtaking and worth watching this movie for. I would hate to spoil it for anyone, but it’s also the real reason I would recommend people see it, so I’ll leave you with one, hopefully vague enough word – sexorcism. The end of this movie is BONKERS and left the PUFF diehards buzzing as we exited the theater for the last time this weekend. We all had so much fun talking about this one when it was over, it really needs to be seen with some friends so you can talk about it afterwards.
Luciferina was paired with a short called Opus, directed by Nelson Vicens, who shot one of last year’s short films, and holy shit was this movie insane. I mean that as a high compliment – it’s an extremely trippy, visually stunning short about the artistic process, as an artist loses her mind in an attempt to make her magnum opus. Any artist should relate to this, and any film fan will be wowed by the technique on display. I hope Vicens has more opportunities to screen this on big screens, because these visuals really need to be seen that way, with an enormous sound system. Truly a great way to go out for the festival.
And that does it for PUFF 3, my favorite event in Philadelphia all year. I so look forward to this festival every year, and it always seems to just breeze by when it finally happens. That’s credit to Madeleine and her team, who put so much effort into making this a smooth, fun weekend. It all feels loose and DIY and punk rock, like it’s the easiest thing in the world, but I know it’s hard work to make an audience feel that kind of comfortable while still keeping a tight schedule and organized event. Not to mention the immense amount of work that goes into booking these films and venues – Philly doesn’t have a lot of events like this and I really appreciate that they go out of their way to bring something this cool and fun to our city. And the audience really seems to have grown, most of the screenings this year were really well attended, much more so than previous years.