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‘4×4’ Starts Steady, but Slips When Changing Gears

Fantastic Fest 2019

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When focused and self-contained, Mariano Cohn’s 4×4 slowly accelerates until seemingly primed to peel out toward a hectic finale. However, its attempt to finally peel out in telling the story of a small-time Argentinian thief held prisoner inside a deathtrap SUV, the film ultimately careens off the road into broader, muddled social issues that never quite ram home. 

4x4 movie

After cleverly breaking into a parked, pristine vehicle in an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood, a young man named Ciro takes pleasure in swiping the stereo and urinating on the back seat. It’s clear he is making a statement against the haves in favor of the have-nots, while at the same time imagining himself in the kind of lifestyle that possesses such a smoothly upholstered vehicle and the chic sunglasses that come with it. The petty heist turns on a dime, however, as Ciro soon discovers that the SUV’s doors will not open, the windows don’t break, and there is effectively no way out of this machine.

After stupidly wounding himself in the leg while trying to shoot his way out (though somehow not suffering the deafness that would surely follow), Ciro receives a call from the owner: the calm voice on the other end of the line has been the victim of too many assaults and robberies to simply stand by anymore, and has decided to take matters into his own hands. He has created a trap, and has no intention of letting this street punk get away with something for which he feels society has far too long turned a blind eye to. Ciro is here to suffer for his sins, and over the course of the next fews days and nights, slow suffering is just what 4×4 depicts.

At first, the resourceful Ciro roots around like a caged animal, testing any possible weaknesses in his posh cell. A few cursory lines fill him and the audience in on how simple solutions to this predicament, like banging on the windows at passersby or honking the horn, won’t draw anyone’s attention — even the occasional ticket-giving police officer — and as long as viewers can buy into the albeit flawed logic of the premise, 4×4 rolls along as a smooth ride. Without food or water, Ciro’s rebelliousness is slowly broken down, and he is forced to engage with a mysterious man whose ultimate endgame is still somewhat unclear.

The first two-thirds of 4×4 takes place almost exclusively inside the vehicle, eliciting a growing tension from the claustrophobia. The confined space at times can feel suffocating even to those merely watching, though Cohn certainly keeps the visuals from getting dull by consistently finding new angles from which to shoot. That variety is of extreme importance during that first hour, as it not only prevents the same boredom that Ciro experiences from setting in on the audience, but also cleverly constructs the space to a point where viewers can practically sketch the layout of the vehicle from memory, giving the film a great (if somewhat intentionally torturous) you-are-there feel.

Throughout, Peter Lanzani admirably holds the camera’s attention as the increasingly beleaguered Ciro, managing to portray street-sharpened instincts beneath layers of general dimwittedness. He also finely balances Ciro’s foggy version of morality against earning sympathy for someone who is essentially still a violent criminal. It’s a turn that earns more respect as 4×4 goes on, as Lanzani simultaneously shows his darker side while reflexively casing potential neighborhood victims, yet also depicts an inner tenderness in his interactions with a chirping cricket that happens to be riding shotgun.

4x4 trapped

Where 4×4 ultimately stalls is in its final act, which opens up the scope to the point that the film’s engine becomes flooded. Cohn is working with complex social issues here, but tries to wrap things up too fast and too neatly. The introduction of the tormentor, up to then a mere voice that’s both warm and chilling at the same time, ultimately backfires in a series of diatribes from both both sides of the problem. These platitudes are too tidy to be effective, and land with a resounding thud.

Still, the simmering that precedes the fizzle showcases how much can be done with so little. 4×4 can’t maintain an entire trip on cruise control, but while that tense, claustrophobic ride lasts, its an entertaining one.

Fantastic Fest runs September 19 – September 26. Visit the official website for more information.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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Fantastic Fest

Stripped Down: ‘You Don’t Nomi’ Discussing the Polarizing Viewpoints of 1995 Cult Film ‘Showgirls’

Fantastic Fest 2019

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Showgirls has a notorious reputation as the most over-the-top, un-erotic erotic thriller in recent years. What was intended to be a career-making, hard-hitting drama that unveiled the dark gritty truth of life as a Vegas showgirl turned out to be an awkwardly acted, poorly written exploitation film disguised as a Lynchian satire that has been reviled and mocked by critics and viewers alike. However, it has garnered a fairly large cult following for its value as a so-bad-it’s-good camp classic. Filmmaker Jeffrey McHale has produced a feature-length video essay that cleverly discusses whether or not Showgirls is a masterpiece or a ‘piece of shit,’ and more importantly, how it can be both. 

You Don’t Nomi covers the basic arguments used to defend Showgirls, such as how the entertainingly campy acting and melodramatic writing has gained it a ‘guilty pleasure’ status and a large following in the LGBT community. However, Jeffrey McHale goes deeper into the inner workings of the film’s creative choices by comparing them to the other films of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s previous work at the time included the ultraviolent sci-fi satires RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). What truly put him on the map in the U.S. however, was the blockbuster erotic thriller Basic Instinct in 1992, earning over $300 million despite mixed reviews. You Don’t Nomi argues that critics appreciated Verhoeven’s films when they satirized society with plenty of violence and just enough sex to titillate the audience. However, when sexuality was front and center with violence creeping in the background, audiences labeled him a pervert. The documentary compares recurring themes and visuals in several of Verhoeven’s films ranging from women vomiting, the use of mirrors, strong depictions of sexual violence, and political satire, trying to prove that Verhoeven is an auteur in his own right. Whether or not the audience is convinced remains to be seen. 

One may never believe that a schlocky film like Showgirls could have any emotional impact on a person. However, it did for New York actress April Kidwell. In an interview, Kidwell discusses dealing with severe post-traumatic stress after a sexual assault. She was eventually cast in back-to-back Elizabeth Berkeley roles as the Off-Broadway musical version of Jessie Spano and Nomi Malone. Despite the campy, parodic nature of her performance in Showgirls: The Musical!, Kidwell found empowerment and catharsis in her role, raising the argument that Nomi Malone was a symbol of feminist self-empowerment and sexuality. Her story brings much more heart than one would have predicted in a documentary mostly compiling drag shows and corny Joe Estzerhas dialogue. 

You Don’t Nomi easily could have been a run-of-the-mill YouTube video discussing standard arguments any cult film lover would have already known and been bored hearing again. However, McHale digs deep with critics, scholars, hardcore fans, actors, and writers to create a new level of discourse on such a seemingly silly topic. The film doesn’t necessarily choose a side and therefore can sometimes appear to lack direction but overall it makes for a fascinating watch and might encourage you to sit through Showgirls again. 

Fantastic Fest runs September 19 – September 26. Visit the official website for more information.

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‘Ride Your Wave’ Ebbs and Flows Between a Sickly Sweet Love Story and Poignant Coming-of-Age Tale

Fantastic Fest 2019

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Masaaki Yuasa’s latest anime, Ride Your Wave, starts off as a simple enough boy-meets-girl love story. However, the cutesy ukulele duets and handholding are over as quickly as they began, as devastation brings the summer loving to a crashing halt. Soon, the budding romance educes a journey of self-empowerment and healing in times of loneliness, loss, and unobtainable love. 

Hinako Mukaimizu (Rina Kawaei) is an inspiring oceanographer whose clumsiness is far too insufferable to be endearing. However, as uncoordinated as she is on land, she is as effortlessly graceful on a surfboard, capturing the attention and admiration of onlooking firefighters Minato (Ryota Katayose) and Wasabi. Minato and Hinako bond over a nostalgic J-Pop song called “Brand New Story” that eventually becomes their love anthem, and the catchy earwig that will inevitably make you hum along through your grit teeth. Hinako is immediately impressed that Minato is seemingly good at everything except surfing, and begins to teach him how to ride the waves.

Ride Your Wave

These surf sequences really emphasize the marvel of the hand drawn animation, as the vibrant cerulean waves take on a life of their own to the point that the ocean is a character itself. Hinako soon finds herself all alone with nothing but the ocean and “Brand New Story” to comfort her through a coping mechanism that treads the line between grief-stricken delirium and magical realism. Meanwhile, Minato is stuck between worlds, and finds new life in various bodies of water, lingering as a ghost in the machine — or more specifically, a ghost in an inflatable finless porpoise. 

The title Ride Your Wave refers not only to the literal surf lessons throughout the film, but the message to Hinako that she needs to stand tall on her own, which goes with the proverbial flow to endure whatever may come. The metaphor is a bit on the nose, and tends to hit the audience over the head, but it is a valid moral taught in a clever depiction. Throughout the film, Hinako struggles with basic adult tasks like cooking eggs, whereas Minato can expertly cook and brew his own coffee. At its core, Ride Your Wave is Hinako’s coming-of-age story — not only by showing her emotional trials and occupational struggles, but also her transition from being an awkward college student into a fully formed young woman. 

Hinako and Minato’s love story is a wholesome, tender, surprisingly chaste romance considering that they cannot touch for the majority of Ride Your Wave. What truly links them together is that they are each other’s hero, admiring and relying on one another for different reasons. They have an endearing give-and-take relationship, ebbing and flowing like the ocean they fell in love in. 

Ride Your Wave is an endearing effort that has a tremendous amount of heart in the face of a somber subject. Once you move past the hackneyed metaphors and mawkish puppy love, it is a mature story about growing up and finding light in a dark point in one’s life. Life is full of ups and downs. Might as well enjoy the ride. 

Fantastic Fest runs September 19 – September 26. Visit the official website for more information.

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‘Homewrecker’ Wobbles Under a Shaky Foundation

Fantastic Fest 2019

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Depicting a bizarro world where a shy interior designer defies logic by continually wading deeper into the life of an intense, saucer-eyed stranger’s life and home, Zach Gayne’s Homewrecker is both fascinating and clunky at the same time. At no point do the two women involved in what eventually becomes a buffoonish stalker-hostage scenario make decisions grounded in any sort of reality, yet their situation does make for some weirdly entertaining exchanges. Does the ensuing oddness amount to anything? Nope. But despite ultimately spiraling into utter nonsense, a key performance holds the film together even as the script falls apart.

Things start off overtly creepy enough, with middle-aged Linda (a laser-focused Precious Chong) staring holes through the younger Michelle (Alex Essoe) from across various gym rooms, as they coincidentally (?) happen to be enrolled at several of the same workout classes. Later, the two finally formally meet at a coffee shop; Michelle claims to be working on a design project but is actually coping with her latest failure to become pregnant, while Linda ignores all social conventions and invites herself to take a seat. Eventually the two get to awkwardly talking in a way that would be a social red flag to any actual human being, and Michelle unbelievably  accepts the alien-like Linda’s invitation to size up her house for a possible makeover.

Further hilariously bad judgment calls (though it’s hard to say from its tone whether Homewrecker is meant to be a laugh-out-loud comedy) wind up with Michelle drugged and a prisoner to crazy Linda, who keeps a menacing sledgehammer mounted on the wall as a reminder of her psychological breakthroughs. The gals chat through locked doors, clumsily wrestle in the hallways, explore relationship feelings over a board game, and generally behave like people who have no concept of how easy it would be just to break a window and leave.

Homewrecker game

It gets harder and harder to buy anything going on in Homewrecker as remotely plausible, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some fun to be had. First and foremost, Precious Chong absolutely kills it as Linda, a warped psycho frustrated by the passage of time and her lessening significance in the world. With an insanely cheerful facade masking serious insecurities beneath, Chong makes Linda unpredictable, seemingly on the verge of snapping any moment; it’s a performance that demands attention and gets it — surely this breakdown will be a good one. However, she also elicits real sympathy; sure, the overt bitterness, mental slips into a hunk-obsessed middle-school persona, and occasional violent rages don’t scream “feel sorry for me,” but a spiraling life has seriously screwed this person up. Linda just wants to be happy, to be loved, and who can’t relate to that?

By comparison, Michelle comes off as a bit of a mopey dud. Yes, she’s got her own problems, but at least she’s not single! At least she’s still young! And while Michelle wallows in wishy-washiness, Linda is actively trying to take control of her life. Which is more admirable? There are times when it seems like Homewrecker might almost embrace that point of view, but it eventually reverts to a safer tack, and becomes less interesting for it. Nevertheless, Linda remains perfectly watchable, and when the time comes, she does not disappoint.

It’s too bad then that the script and direction let her down. While Linda’s peculiarly probing conversational tactics are engaging, she’s denied a partner with equally intriguing responses. Michelle seems written more as a vehicle to get Linda from point A to Z rather than as a human capable of thinking, processing, and scheming in her own right; the relationship is one-sided. Nowhere is this on more on display than in the aforementioned board game scene, which takes a fantastic setup but only half-delivers the payoff.

Director Zach Gayne doesn’t help matters much with staging that doesn’t adequately communicate the space the characters are occupying (suddenly there’s a basement?), and choreography that’s sometimes borderline spoofy in its hamminess (a blow struck with an umbrella is just one of many questionable lapses in physical credibility). Maybe audiences are supposed to laugh at how improvisational parts of the fights seem, and it’s possible there’s some sort of poke here at a stereotypical Lifetime drama, but it’s hard to tell when those romps are followed by what seem like genuine attempts at emotional sincerity.

In many ways, Homewrecker just feels off, harder to pin down than a halfheartedly fleeing Michelle, teetering as often as Linda’s kooky sanity. The result is certainly a curiosity, but Homewrecker doesn’t build an a solid enough structure upon its intriguing foundation.

Fantastic Fest runs September 19 – September 26. Visit the official website for more information.

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