Musician Al White of the UK band Ghostlight makes his film debut as a director, writer, and composer in Starfish, a surreal blend of slow-burning experimental horror and soft science fiction. It leads the audience down a dreamy and bizarre rabbit hole, tackling themes of loss, grief, guilt, and self-forgiveness. While the film champions a catchy soundtrack, haunting scores, and exquisite cinematography, it still has its share of shortcomings in regard to the actual plot and storytelling.
Starfish focuses on Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) after the death of her beloved friend, Grace (Christina Masterson), who died from unexplained causes. Aubrey breaks into Grace’s apartment to wallow and take care of her menagerie of pets, including a tortoise named Bellini and a large bowl of jellyfish which she feeds by dropping starfish into the bowl. After getting settled into her squatting, Aubrey finds an envelope addressed to her with a mixtape inside that claims “This mixtape will save the world.” A recording of Grace’s voice declares that the tape contains signals within the songs that contain messages of impending doom. Aubrey must find all seven of the mixtapes hidden throughout the quiet, frosty town and piece them together. Thus begins a journey into the unknown, in both the external world and within Aubrey’s tormented psyche.
We see faceless chthonic monsters stalking Aubrey in her dreams, but Starfish is determined to be vague about what is literal and what is metaphorical. Aubrey is haunted by her grief over Grace and guilt about her own past, and the Lovecraftian humanoids seem to be personifications of her negative internalized feelings. The scavenger hunt for the mixtapes feels like the tape could easily have been nothing more than MacGuffin to help Aubrey embrace her very real, very grounded emotions. However, the film goes beyond metaphorical, and fully immerses itself in the speculative. The apocalypse is coming. With every tape she listens to, each well-curated song transports her through a dissociative interdimensional odyssey, bouncing from tundra to oceans to Japanese animation, and even dabbling in meta for a brief moment. It is a cerebral journey through space and time that has to pull over every once in a while to let Aubrey process her own personal turmoil.
Starfish makes for a compelling psychological thriller in the vein of ‘The Babadook’ in a Lovecraft scenario
While the film is visually stunning with its arthouse surrealism and breathtaking cinematography, it still struggles to seamlessly integrate the emotional grit with the cosmic horror. It has its strengths in both of these elements, particularly in White’s spectacular scores and the indie soundtrack (which I now want), but the science fiction/horror elements struggle to piece together any real plot. Little goes explained about how or why the world is ending, which leaves it open-ended yet frustrating when you’ve been invested in Aubrey and just want her to succeed and move on with her life. The music video-esque special effects and surrealism feel out of place in a story entrenched in down-to-earth humanistic themes such as grief and guilt.
Overall, I would have preferred Starfish to keep the Armageddon themes metaphorical and psychological rather than try to convince us it was really happening. At its core, the film makes for a compelling psychological thriller in the vein of The Babadook in a Lovecraft scenario, but it doesn’t have quite enough science fiction to call it a science fiction film, nor enough horror to call it a horror film. Still, it’s lovely to look at and has well-crafted shots. A personal favorite involves a conversation Aubrey imagines having with Grace in bed. Even though the camera goes from shot to reverse-shot as they talk, both women are laying on the same side of the bed rather than facing each other, reminding the audience that it’s all happening in Aubrey’s mind. That kind of attention to detail is very admirable for a first-time director. While the plot may have needed some strengthening, Starfish makes for a scenic cinematic experience into a new world.
Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – September 27. Visit the official website for more information.
‘4×4’ Starts Steady, but Slips When Changing Gears
Fantastic Fest 2019
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.
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.
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.
Stripped Down: ‘You Don’t Nomi’ Discussing the Polarizing Viewpoints of 1995 Cult Film ‘Showgirls’
Fantastic Fest 2019
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.
‘Ride Your Wave’ Ebbs and Flows Between a Sickly Sweet Love Story and Poignant Coming-of-Age Tale
Fantastic Fest 2019
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.
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.
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