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Fantastic Fest: ‘Lords of Chaos’ Raises Hell in the Norwegian Black Metal Scene

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You don’t need to be a metalhead to enjoy this harrowing true story about how one black metal band went too far to prove they weren’t mere posers following the latest musical trend. Inspired by the controversial book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, director Jonas Akerlund brings to life the legacy of the band Mayhem and its contribution to the Norwegian black metal scene in the early nineties. Beyond its influential music, the band is most notable for its involvement in a series of crimes ranging from arson to murder. With visceral direction and engaging performances, Lords of Chaos blends comedy, tragedy, and a dash of psychological horror to tap into the darkness that fueled the music as well as the music that fueled the darkness in a generation of troubled youths.

The film is narrated by Mayhem founder and guitarist Oystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin) also known as “Euronymous” as he guides the audience through the history of the band, his hatred of what he considers “life metal,” and the search for a new lead singer. He discovers Per “Dead” Ohlin, a melancholic Swede who possesses an unhealthy obsession with death. After Dead’s gruesome suicide, Euronymous views his death as an opportunity to promote the band’s image and authenticity rather than as the tragic loss of a friend. Soon, a wide-eyed admirer who calls himself “Varg” (Emory Cohen) approaches Euronymous, eager to please. Despite Euronymous being initially unimpressed by Varg’s appearance (even criticizing him for have a Scorpions patch on his jacket), he listens to his demo tape and is blown away by the innovative sound. It isn’t long before Varg’s desperate need for approval becomes destructive when he begins displaying disturbing behavior and a hunger for committing crimes. Euronymous’ cultlike “Black Circle” of followers begin to feel that they too have to prove themselves in order to maintain respect in the metal community.

Lords of Chaos Review

Aside from the music history lesson, the true core of the film focuses on the obsession with perception vs. reality when it comes to one’s image. Like any subculture, the metalheads try hard to prove that they aren’t just sell-outs jumping on the bandwagon but also have to realize that they actually are. While Euronymous fronts like he is a morbid servant of Satan, he really is an all-bark-no-bite businessman who is aware of what sells. Throughout the film, it is shown that the Mayhem members all live with their loving parents who financially support their endeavors. It is one of the many instances of privileged kids desperately wanting to find identity, community, and authenticity and going to extreme measures to acquire them.

Lords of Chaos is a headbanger that will make you raise up the devil horns

For a film that focuses on Mayhem’s Norwegian pride and their desire to give Norway a distinct place in the metal scene, it seems odd and distracting to hire American actors and have them keep their American accents. Regardless, Rory Culkin gives a sympathetic, layered performance as Euronymous and Emory Cohen manages to capture the brainwashed darkness beneath his babyfaced innocence.

Whether or not you know the first thing about Norwegian black metal, it won’t get in the way of you appreciating Lords of Chaos. Akerlund successfully depicts the viciousness surrounding Mayhem’s tragic story without being histrionic and manages to maintain a self-deprecating good sense of humor. Lords of Chaos is a headbanger that will make you raise up the devil horns but hopefully not make you want to burn down a church.

Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – September 27. Visit the official website for more information.

Sarah Truesdale is a movie (watching) monster that runs on black coffee, amber ale, and biscuits and gravy. She graduated from University of North Texas in 2014 with a degree in Radio/TV/Film and English and has been a contributing writer for various websites since. She also works as a concert videographer and editor for a music school in Austin, TX.

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Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest 2019 First Wave of Films Includes ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ and ‘Jojo Rabbit’

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Fantastic Fest 2019

With our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival winding down this week, we now have another genre film festival to look forward to. The first wave of films that will be playing at Fantastic Fest has arrived, and we couldn’t be more excited.

This year marks the milestone 15th anniversary for the festival and once again, our staff will be attending the fest!

There’s a lot of great movies we’ve already seen and recommend including Ant Timpson’s genre-bender Come to Daddy, the bloody, the insane black comedy Why Don’t You Just Die, and the offbeat coming-of-age thriller Knives and Skin. There are also a lot of movies we can’t wait to see including Taika Waititi‘s Jojo Rabbit and the world premiere of Jim Mickle’s serial killer thriller In the Shadow of the Moon.

Check out the full list of the first wave of films from the press release down below and be sure to check back in September for our coverage of the fest.

****

Fantastic Fest 2019

4X4
Argentina, Spain, 2019
North American Premiere, 93 min
Director – Mariano Cohn
A 4×4 car will be the battleground between a brash thief trapped inside and the mysterious man who will do anything to keep him imprisoned.

BLOODY BIRTHDAY: Presented by AGFA + Arrow Films
USA, 1981
World Premiere of Restoration, 85 min
Director – Ed Hunt
The classic Killer Kids slasher, newly restored by Arrow Films and presented by AGFA.

THE CLEANSING HOUR
USA, 2019
World Premiere, 95 min
Director – Damien LeVeck
Reverend Max and his best friend Drew have a hit web show where they make a pretty good living faking exorcisms for hundreds of thousands of fans until the evening a real demon takes over and terrorizes their crew.

COME TO DADDY
New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, 2019
Texas Premiere, 94 min
Director – Ant Timpson
When 30-year-old Norval receives a letter from his estranged dad begging him to visit, he is set on a weird path of discovery, unusual encounters… and a lot of violence.

COSMIC CANDY
Greece, 2019
World Premiere, 95 min
Director – Rinio Dragasaki
Anna, an eccentric supermarket cashier with an obsessive taste for a trippy treat called Cosmic Candy, undergoes a quirky transformation when forced to care for a ten-year-old neighbor girl.

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG
USA, 2019
Austin Premiere, 107 min
Director – Daniel Scheinert
Dick is dead but no one knows how, and Zeke and Earl are desperate enough to go to any lengths to stop anyone from finding out the reason… but a small town in Alabama is not the kind of place where secrets can stay buried for long. Soon all hell breaks loose, engulfing the two men in a reckoning they had never even considered.

DEERSKIN
France, 2019
North American Premiere, 77 min
Director – Quentin Dupieux
When Georges buys himself a deerskin jacket, he will find his life on a collision course with madness, crime, and the desire to be the only man wearing an overgarment.

DIE KINDER DER TOTEN
Austria, 2019
North American Premiere, 90 min
Directors – Kelly Copper & Pavol Liška
In this experimental adaptation of an epic Elfriede Jelinek novel, a group of Austrian tourists is killed in a traffic accident before reanimating as zombies and terrorizing a local pub.

DOGS DON’T WEAR PANTS
Finland, Latvia, 2019
US Premiere, 105 min
Director – Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää
A heartbroken heart surgeon is introduced to the dark and extreme when his daughter gets her tongue pierced, sending him down a path of pain, dreams, life, love, death, and awakenings.

FIRST LOVE
Japan, 2019
US Premiere, 108 min
Director – Takashi Miike
When aspiring boxer Leo discovers that he may not have long to live, he goes all out to help drug-addicted call girl Monica, facing down gangsters, assassins, corrupt cops, and much more over the course of one long night.

FRACTURED
USA, 2019
World Premiere, 100 min
Director – Brad Anderson
An unfortunate accident at a truck stop means Ray has to rush his daughter to the nearest hospital for a broken arm, but when his family disappears, he soon finds himself in a frantic fight to discover what happened.

THE GOLDEN GLOVE
Germany, 2019
North American Premiere, 110 min
Director – Fatih Akin
Based on true events that transpired in the grimy slums of 1970s Hamburg, loner-turned-murderer Fritz Honka stalks his local drinking spot, The Golden Glove, in search of his next victim.

HAPPY FACE
Canada, 2018
Texas Premiere, 97 min
Director – Alexandre Franchi
In Attendance – Director Alexandre Franchi and Actor E. R. Ruiz
An attractive teenager infiltrates a support group for those with facial differences in hopes of learning how to connect with his cancer-stricken mother in Alexandre Franchi’s (THE WILD HUNT) deeply personal, often hilarious, and powerfully inclusive sophomore feature.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON
USA, Canada, 2019
World Premiere, 115 min
Director – Jim Mickle
In 1988, a Philadelphia police officer doggedly hunts a serial killer whose crimes seemingly follow no pattern, but he hasn’t considered how far the repercussions of his hunt may go.

IN THE TALL GRASS
Canada, 2019
World Premiere, 90 min
Director – Vincenzo Natali
Adapted from the eponymous novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill, IN THE TALL GRASS follows siblings Cal and Becky who find themselves trapped within a vast field of tall grass when they venture in to answer the cries of a young boy.

JOJO RABBIT
USA, 2019
US Premiere, 108 min
Director – Taika Waititi
In Attendance – Director Taika Waititi
Writer director Taika Waititi (THOR: RAGNAROK, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE), brings his signature style of humor and pathos to his latest film, JOJO RABBIT, a World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy (Roman Griffin Davis as JoJo) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.

KNIVES AND SKIN
USA, 2019
Texas Premiere, 109 min
Director – Jennifer Reeder
The disappearance of popular teenager Carolyn Harper has a profound ripple effect across her small midwest town in Jennifer Reeder’s hypnotic musical mystery.

KOKO-DI KOKO-DA
Sweden, Denmark, 2019
Texas Premiere, 86 min
Director – Johannes Nyholm
When a disconnected couple take a camping trip in an attempt to mend their marriage after tragedy, they find themselves tormented by a peculiar band of misfits.

THE LAST TO SEE THEM
Germany, 2019
Texas Premiere, 79 min
Director – Sara Summa
One summer evening in rural Italy, the Durati family is murdered during a home robbery. THE LAST TO SEE THEM chronicles the previous — and final — day of their lives.

LIMBO: Presented by AGFA + Bleeding Skull!
USA, 1999
Texas Premiere of Restoration, 55 min
Director – Tina Krause
Tina Krause’s unseen and unreal shot-on-video horror movie, newly preserved by AGFA + Bleeding Skull!

THE MCPHERSON TAPE: Presented by AGFA + Bleeding Skull!
USA, 1989
World Premiere of Restoration, 63 min
Director – Dean Alito
The world’s first found footage horror movie, newly preserved by AGFA + Bleeding Skull!

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN
USA, 2019
Texas Premiere, 93 min
Director – Alexandre O. Philippe
Following up his deconstruction of PSYCHO’s shower scene in 78/52, documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe is back with his analysis of ALIEN, its origins, and the impact of Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi shocker.

NAIL IN THE COFFIN: EL VAMPIRO CANADIENSE
Canada, 2019
World Premiere, 88 min
Director – Michael Paszt
In Attendance – Director Michael Paszt
An intimate and heartfelt look at professional wrestler Vampiro’s past, and his new life navigating the management of a lucha libre federation in Mexico, while raising his teenage daughter in Canada.

NIGHT HAS COME
Belgium, 2019
World Premiere, 56 min
Director – Peter Van Goethem
In Attendance – Director Peter Van Goethem
In a dystopian society, the population is threatened by a virus eating its way through the brain, erasing memories. After developing a treatment to store and classify memories, the State requires citizens to comply.

THE PEANUT BUTTER SOLUTION: Presented by AGFA + Severin Films
Canada, 1985
World Premiere 2K Restoration, 93 min
Director – Michael Rubbo
The Canadian children’s oddity takes youthful fantasy to strange new places in a brand new 2K restoration.

THE POOL
Thailand, 2018
Texas Premiere, 90 min
Director – Ping Lumprapleng
When a dog trainer and his pet finish their commercial gig, it’s time to head home and enjoy a lazy afternoon floating in the pool… until he wakes up to the pool being drained and no way out.

REFLECTIONS OF EVIL: Presented by AGFA
USA, 2002
World Premiere of Restoration, 137 min
Director – Damon Packard
The new ground zero for gonzo horror surrealism in the 21st century, newly preserved by AGFA.

ROCK, PAPER, AND SCISSORS
Argentina, 2019
North American Premiere, 83 min
Directors – Macarena García Lenzi & Martín Blousson
When Magdalena returns to Argentina to confront her half-siblings about her share of the inheritance, the stage is set for a family reunion both bloody and brilliant.

SHE MOB: Presented by AGFA + Something Weird
USA, 1968
World Premiere 2K Restoration, 82 min
Director – Harry Wuest
A gang of lesbian prison escapees kidnaps a gigolo in a 2K preservation of this sexploitation classic.

SOMETHING ELSE
USA, 2019
Texas Premiere, 83 min
Directors – Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella
In Attendance – Directors Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella
When Hank’s longtime girlfriend Abby leaves him, he spirals into a cycle of drinking and depression. But it’s the monster that shows up every night that’s really driving him crazy.

SON OF THE WHITE MARE
Hungary, 1981
US Premiere 4K Restoration, 81 min
Director – Marcell Jankovics
A psychedelic animated cult classic is back on the big screen in this brand-new restoration. Three brothers join forces to restore order in their kingdom, encountering bizarre and mind-bending challenges along the way.

SWALLOW
USA, 2019
Texas Premiere, 94 min
Directors – Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Beautiful newlywed Hunter has a perfect home, perfect life, and perfect husband. When the pressure to maintain that perfection builds after the announcement of her pregnancy, she develops an unusual craving: swallowing random household objects.

TAMMY AND THE T-REX: Presented by AGFA + Vinegar Syndrome
USA, 1994
World Premiere of Restoration, 91 min
Directors – Stewart Raffill
Fully restored and ready to tear your head off. Literally.

THE WAVE
United States, 2019
World Premiere, 87 min
Director – Gille Klabin
Frank (Justin Long), a bored corporate lawyer, decides to shake it up with a wild night out. In the process, he takes a mysterious drug that launches him into a mind-bending time travel adventure.

THE WHISTLERS
Romania, 2019
US Premiere, 97 min
Director – Corneliu Porumboiu
Corneliu Porumboiu mixes Romanian New Wave with Hollywood noir beats as he follows a corrupt detective who helps a wealthy criminal escape from jail by learning the ancient, secret language of silbo whistling.

WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE!
Russia, 2019
Texas Premiere, 100 min
Director – Kirill Sokolov
In Attendance – Director Kirill Sokolov
After agreeing to kill his girlfriend’s father, Matvei gets in way over his head when he arrives at her parents’ apartment to learn her dad’s a cop.

WRINKLES THE CLOWN
USA, 2019
World Premiere, 78 min
Director – Michael Beach Nichols
In Attendance – Director Michael Beach Nichols
Pennywise isn’t real. But Wrinkles is. This documentary explores the story of the infamous freaky clown from Naples, Florida who makes a living being hired by parents to terrorize their naughty children.

YOU DON’T NOMI
USA, 2019
Texas Premiere, 94 min
Director – Jeffrey McHale
In Attendance – Director Jeffrey McHale

Using cleverly edited clips of Paul Verhoeven’s genre-spanning filmography, Jeffrey McHale’s video essay explores the decidedly un-titillating and delightfully inexplicable SHOWGIRLS and its continued, ever-expanding legacy.

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Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest: ‘Ladyworld’ Shows There is Nothing Ladylike about Widespread Panic

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There’s nothing quite like a disaster and the looming presence of the end of the world to reveal who you really are. Are you the leader? Are you the rebel? Maybe you’re the follower? And what if you are the coward? It becomes even more apparent when you are locked in a room with other people with no resources and no way out. Enter Ladyworld, a slow-burning post-apocalyptic thriller that will have you wanting to claw your way out of the claustrophobic chaos. Director Amanda Kramer provides a gynocentric Lord of the Flies scenario after eight teenaged girls are trapped in a house alone in the middle of nowhere following a massive earthquake. It is a daring look into the power of paranoia and fear as well as the deep-seeded brutality within all of us.

Ladyworld movie

Eight girls of various personalities, races, and life experiences come together for a birthday party. After the natural disaster knocks out the power and traps them inside with no way to contact the outside world, some girls immediately panic. The two that reveal themselves to be leaders are the well-meaning Olivia (Ariela Barer) and the predatory Piper (Annalise Basso). Much like Ralph and Jack in Lord of the Flies or Jack and Sawyer in TV’s Lost, there always seems to be one leader who wants to save everyone and one who just craves power. After a few days futilely attempting to preserve battery power in their phones while living off birthday cake, the bleak reality of their situation begins to wear down the girls. It doesn’t help that there is allegedly a strange man lurking in the house planning to commit nefarious deeds against the vulnerable young women. Piper uses the fear surrounding this man to her advantage to personally victimize the childlike Dolly (Ryan Simpkins) and persuade some of the girls to be on her side in the fight for leadership. Inevitably, the house becomes divided into two groups. Some of the girls slowly give in to the anarchic nihilism and cake themselves with clownish make-up, reeking of sweat and desperation, while others try in vain to cling to hope that they will be rescued. Before long, the house becomes a nightmarish carousel of singsongy insanity.

Ladyworld is an unforgettable thriller

Where Ladyworld truly strives is the brilliant sound design and score consisting of eerie female vocals and ambient drones that provide jarring, bombastic discomfort in contrast to the moments of deathly silence. The music and tight cinematography provide a claustrophobic setting along with the slowly animalistic performances of the cast. As the film reached its climax, I found myself letting out a sigh of relief larger than any I had ever exhaled during a film.

Amanda Kramer succeeds in taking a low budget and limited set and providing an uncomfortable atmosphere yet thrilling ride. It is very reflective of the country’s current state of paranoia and fear and how those emotions can get the best of a person and force them to regress to baser instincts. It also takes the ‘mean girls’ concept to dark Darwinian level as some the girls start to prey on the weaker ones. Ladyworld is an unforgettable thriller that will assault your senses and find yourself waiting desperately to exhale.

Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – September 27. Visit the official website for more information.

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Fantastic Fest: ‘Slut in a Good Way’ – A Sexually Liberated Rom-Com

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In a longstanding stereotype of “locker room talk,” here comes a film that proves that women can hold their own in the sexually charged workplace atmosphere. Director Sophie Lorain brings audiences a French-Canadian romantic comedy that touches on the formerly untouchable. Slut in a Good Way is a refreshing take on raunchy romcoms that delves into insightful topics such as slut-shaming, self-respect, and the difference between love, sex, and intimacy.

After discovering that her beloved boyfriend is gay, 17-year old Charlotte (Marguerite Bouchard) decides to prove she is not emotionally dependent by taking a part-time job at a toy store with her two best friends and having rebound affairs with the various handsome older boys that work there. It is about a month when she has slept with every male employee at the store except for the charming Guillaume (Alex Godbout), with whom she shares genuine chemistry. After the humiliating revelation that she has slept with all the boys, it becomes a battle of the sexes and a fight against the double standards within the hotbed of promiscuity among the store employees. Her friends share different opinions on the matter with the cynical Megane (Romane Denis) believing that love is for fools and one should only have meaningless encounters, and the more romantic Aube (Rose Adam) having faith in true love and intimacy. Meanwhile, Charlotte struggles with her own ideas of self-worth and what it means to be a strong and independent woman.

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Slut in a Good Way introduces a new take on sexual politics and how a modern woman conducts herself. Charlotte meets two seemingly free-spirited older girls at work only to find out that they are just as judgmental as any traditional person. However, they eventually jump on the bandwagon and stand up against the boys who feel that the dynamic of the store is thrown off by the girls refusing to engage in meaningless sex with them. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s would-be suitor Guillaume doesn’t seem to care about her well-documented sexual history. Charlotte’s internal dilemma battling self-appointed shame and guilt plays a major factor in the film. The seemingly new moral seems to be: no one cares. No one cares who sleeps with whom. It is a radical idea but one that deserves to be addressed on film.

The film makes an interesting choice sticking to black-and-white cinematography. While it is lovely and oddly appropriate for a French-speaking film, the amount of potential eye-popping color in a story that takes place in a toy store seems like a shame to waste. The performances are grounded and well-acted, particularly that of the radical activist friend Megane, who provides the biggest laughs and wittiest dialogue.

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Slut in a Good Way is a simple low-stakes romantic comedy that delves into the raunch factor without going too far. It shows provides a character study of young women expressing their sense of self-empowerment while not sugarcoating the amount of shame, judgment, and self-doubt they must endure to get to their desired state of self-assurance. It also contains a tremendous amount of heart and insight that deserves to be addressed in future romantic comedies or female-centered comedies in general.

Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – September 27. Visit the official website for more information.

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Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest: ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’ is a Movie You Won’t Soon Forget, for Better or Worse

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Jim Hoskings’ An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is a screwball comedy that throws the criminal ineptitude of Fargo and the absurdity of David Lynch’s work into a blender with the lid off, splattering into a kaleidoscopic blend of deadpan insanity and infectious fun. Filled with half-baked schemes, intentionally(?) bad acting and cringe-worthy dialogue (not to mention ridiculous Scottish folk singing), it is a voyage of ludicrous folly that will have you laughing and then laughing at how you could possibly be laughing.

The story begins with barista Lulu Danger (played by Aubrey Plaza, whose signature deadpan glare could give Wednesday Addams and Daria Morgendorffer a run for their money) being fired by her boss/husband Shane, portrayed by Emile Hirsch in a bizarre cartoonish blend of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Black that I never realized I needed in my life. After Shane Danger learns that his wife’s vegan brother Adjay has a large sum of money in a cash box at his store, his pride and greed cannot handle it and he enlists two of his employees to join him in a ridiculous heist involving unconvincing disguises. Despite their idiocy, they manage to take the box, causing Adjay to agree to hire a stranger in a laundromat, Colin (Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords), to rough up Shane and get the money back. However, the bad-haired hired hand is just as inept as the robbers and ends up being taken hostage by a fed up Lulu. Soon, the strangers are holed up in a hotel while Lulu finds a way to see the eponymous Beverly Luff Linn.

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Luff Linn is played by Craig Robinson, who has all the articulateness of Frankenstein’s monster. Yet, he seems to have cultivated a large following of adoring fans, especially Lulu. It is apparent that they have a romantic history that Lulu is interested in reigniting. Beverly’s partner Rodney (Matt Berry) is determined to keep Lulu and Beverly apart and Colin slowly reveals that he just a dimwit with a soft side and eyes for Lulu.

The film feels like an odd blend of Lynchian melodrama and nonsensical interactions that transcend any normal human behavior. The humor consists of long drawn out moments of uncomfortable awkwardness to the point where you are squirming in your seat until you find yourself laughing just to break the tension. Director Hoskings is best known for directing The Greasy Strangler, an indie film that had many people talking about its over-the-top disgusting antics, and is often compared to the work of John Waters. While this film may be more palatable for mainstream audiences, it will still struggle to land jokes with a majority of viewers. The acting is so over-the-top and seemingly amateurish which must be intentional considering the line-up of seasoned actors with comedic backgrounds. Some people may find it wildly entertaining while others may find it off-putting. Forcing a “so-bad-its-good” label on your film is a lot like trying to give yourself a nickname. It has to be done naturally by other people.

Prepare to spend the majority of the film with a “what the…?” expression on your face. But between those expressions, you’ll be laughing out loud. Plaza delivers a straight-faced performance fit for a telenovela as our lovelorn protagonist. Emile Hirsch by far gives the most farcical performance as the mobster-wannabe husband that audiences will love or hate but will certainly remember. That feeling can easily describe the entirety of An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn — regardless if love it or hate it, you will definitely remember it.

Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – September 27. Visit the official website for more information.

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Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest: ‘Starfish’ – Multi-sided and Pretty to Look at, But Slow Moving

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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.

Starfish Al White

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.

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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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