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Starfish

“People are going to die anyways. Their stories don’t have to.”

Aubrey

If you could turn your grief into a horror film, what would it look like? A.T. White’s new film Starfish transforms the mourning process into a cosmic and post-apocalyptic drama that is as quiet and spare as it is fraught with tension and mystery.

After the sudden death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson), Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) travels back to her hometown for the funeral. The small town seems even smaller one day when Aubrey wakes up in Grace’s apartment to discover she’s the only one left. Extra-terrestrial creatures had invaded and killed everyone in town and possibly everyone else on earth. It isn’t until she comes face-to-face with one of the deadly creatures that she hears another human voice by way of a walkie talkie. Before Grace passed away, she uncovered a series of mysterious transmissions by which the creatures transported themselves to earth. Through a series of mixtapes she created a way to save Aubrey and save the world. The voices through the walkie talkie help Aubrey but eventually she must face the barren landscape and escape the creatures on her own. 

Starfish was written, directed, edited, produced and composed by A.T. (Al) White. This film is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s more of a mood than it is a cohesive story. White plays with different mediums and one scene is even told through animation. We’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is reality or Aubrey’s dissociation as a result of her grief. I love how the film plays with our perceptions, distorts the story and both confuses and intrigues us at every turn. One beautiful shot projects an imagined scene on the ceiling. Another scene takes Aubrey out of her reality and onto a movie set where she sees a version of herself talking to a director and surrounded by a film crew. Very meta. The time setting is left ambiguous but there are some clues in the technology used including an old TV set, the FM/AM radio that receives the mysterious transmissions, a rotary phone, cassette tapes, etc.

Overall the film is quite intimate. We never stray far from Aubrey as she guides us through her world. The star Virginia Gardner is up to the task and delivers a beautiful and haunting performance. 

I interpreted the film as a metaphor for grief and mourning. When someone you love dies, it feels like they’ve abandoned you and you’re left to fend for yourself. I know I felt this way when my father passed. What they leave behind, in the case of Starfish it’s the mixtapes Grace leaves Aubrey, helps us get through the pain and the days to come. I could identify with the themes of loneliness and abandonment. 

As someone who doesn’t watch horror, I found this one to be manageable. There was enough to frighten me but not too much to overwhelm. It’s a film both horror enthusiasts and avoiders can appreciate.

Starfish is available on digital VOD through iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, FandangoNow and other platforms in select territories. The film is dedicated to Sayako Grace Robinson who passed away in 2014 and all profits the director makes from the film are to be donated to cancer research.

The Fever and the Fret

High school student Eleanor Mendoza (Adelina Amosco) is tormented by her peers. Why? Because of large birthmarks on her face. They taunt her, harass her, spread rumors about her and physically abuse her. One student in particular, Carly (Vanessa Carmona), really has it out for Eleanor. As a result Eleanor has become incredibly withdrawn and barely speaks to her peers. Ms. Gutierrez (Kathleen Changho) reaches out to Eleanor but can’t help her to the fullest extent because of Eleanor’s lack of communication. To escape the torment, Eleanor finds solace working on her art at home where she lives with her grandmother (Shirley Cuyagan O’Brien) and in her affair with an older man, Alex (Rod Rodriquez) who runs the restaurant where Eleanor works part-time. As things escalate, Eleanor is overwhelmed by the pain and enters an altered state. In this alternate world, she imagines herself in a desolate and beautiful natural space. She’s essentially alone but is joined by an imaginary child who represents her younger self in various stages of development. When a confrontation with Carly turns ugly, Eleanor world starts to fall apart. Will she be able to find her voice again and stand up for herself? Can she find any semblance of happiness in the real world?

Directed and written by Cath Gulick, The Fever and the Fret is a powerful anti-bullying tale that isn’t afraid to dive into the pain and the torment victims suffer and the feeling of helplessness as those who hold social power continue to victimize them. Adelina Amosco delivers a powerful yet subdued performance as Eleanor. The camera spends much time on Eleanor’s face which is marked also her countenance carries a map of the world. We see the inner turmoil through her eyes, through her tears and through her silence. Every minute of this film is powerful. For anyone whose been the victim of bullying, myself included, you’ll be able to relate to Eleanor even if your situation wasn’t as dire as hers. 

The film’s villain Carly is played by Vanessa Carmona who delivers a seamless performance as the privileged bully who expects to get away with her bullying because Eleanor is “weird.” Her lies eventually catch up to her and I found that resolution so emotionally gratifying. 

Gulick imagined her 76 minute low-budget indie film as a fairy story where realism meets dark magic. She say “I imagined a girl who was tormented during the day but who could travel to another dimension at night… The story of a young girl who is discounted by other people in the ordinary world, but has her own secret reality is something that has always resonated with me.” 

Eleanor’s world is black and white yet when she escapes to this alternate world the film switches to color. To me The Fever and the Fret was more realism than magical realism. Eleanor’s escape into the altered state felt less like fantasy and more like self-preservation.

The Fever and the Fret has a diverse cast and crew. It’s directed, written, edited and produced by women, features mostly Asian-American actors. One of the producers, Victoria Negri is one of my favorite up-and-coming filmmakers. She wrote, directed and starred in one of my favorite indie films, Gold Star.

The Fever and the Fret is available to watch on Amazon Prime. It’s screened at the Queens World Film Festival, LA Asian Pacific Film Festival and Lighthouse International Film Festival and has received jury prizes and honorable mentions. Visit the official website for more information.

We Believe in Dinosaurs

I had first heard about The Creation Museum by way of the Duggars. You remember them. The Quiverfull family who had their own hit show on TLC that went from 17 to 18 to 19 Kids and Counting. It was eventually pulled off the air when their oldest son was involved in a sex abuse scandal and a spin-off show eventually replaced it. On one episode of the 18 Kids and Counting, the Duggar clan visits said museum and I was both fascinated and horrified by what I saw. The fierce protection of their literal interpretation of the book of Genesis meant that dinosaurs had to be explained and Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be debunked. Led by Ken Ham, the president and founder of Answers in Genesis, the museum’s sole purpose is to prove that the Bible is scientifically accurate.

A new documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross visits Petersburg, KY, home of The Creation Museum and the center of a turbulent battle between creationists and pro-science communities. Shot over the course of four years, it chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. In addition to interviews with creationists who work for the museum or support its cause, the documentary also follows two outspoken critics. First there is Dan, a pro-science geologist who has had a lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. Then there is David, a former creationist with a lifelong membership to the museum whose Christian beliefs have evolved away from the psuedo-science of creationism. The events in the documentary lead up to the unveiling of the Ark Encounter and the consequent protest. As a whole the film serves as a portrait of a rural conservative town that has a complicated relationship with the Creation Museum and the economic growth that it promises to bring but ultimately fails to.

I’m impressed by how We Believe in Dinosaurs takes a balanced approach to this subject matter even though it’s clear that this is a critique on creationism. We hear from both sides which is quite extraordinary as the creationists are very protective of their ideology. Ken Ham is not interviewed but several others are including a lecturer, one of the artists working on the Ark Encounter and a pastor who orchestrates a protest to the protest.

“The film echoes the present political climate as Americans stare across a divide at one another, science growing ever more politicized and truth dependent on one’s worldview. Given this highly polarized state of affairs, we understand that WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS will not convert creationists to the truth of evolution. However, we do believe the film will spark a vibrant dialogue about the thorny intersection of belief, religion, and science, penetrating the cultural “bubbles” in which so many Americans seem to exist.”

–    from the directors’ statement by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross

As someone who grew up in a Christian denomination that promoted a problematic interpretation of Genesis, I felt closest to David. I wanted to hear more from him. In fact, this would have been a better documentary had David been the center of the story. He’s an in-between figure; someone who’s been on both sides of the creationist vs. science debate and can offer a unique perspective. It would have grounded the story and made it more relatable.

We Believe in Dinosaurs opens up a dialogue about America’s problematic relationship with science. It’s a difficult subject to broach and will make some viewers angry. Where it lacks in storytelling it makes up for in starting the much needed conversation that we’ve all been avoiding.

We Believe in Dinosaurs had its world premiere at SFFilm.

Instant Dreams Poster

Instant Dreams

“The digital dark ages took over our lives…”

Edwin H. Land in The Long Walk

In 1947, Edwin H. Land introduced his invention to the world. The Polaroid camera would revolutionize photography. Inspired by his young daughter, who just couldn’t wait to see a photo that was just taken, Land decided he would develop the technology that would shorten the time gap between the shutter click and the final product. With Polaroid technology it would reduce the time to just one minute.

Fast forward to 1970, when Land was filmed for the short documentary The Long Walk in which he narrates a helicopter tour of several Polaroid facilities in Massachusetts and discusses at length the company’s new technological advancements and his predictions for the future. Land envisioned a day when we would have a portable camera, the size of a wallet, that would be used as regularly as the telephone.

In 2008, the bankrupt Polaroid announced it was no longer producing its trademark film stock. Although Polaroid still exists today, in a new iteration after the brand had been sold, and re-sold, it’s a shadow of its former self. What was once revolutionary is now obsolete in the rapidly changing landscape of the digital age. Have we lost the magic of Polaroid forever?

“It felt like I was confronted with the death of a friend.”

Photographer Stefanie Schneider
Scientists at work on developing Polaroid technology for the Impossible Project

Directed by Willem Baptist, Instant Dreams is a moody and atmospheric eulogy to a lost technology. It’s a quirky documentary that explores the importance of Polaroid as both art and science. The subjects in the film feel the profound loss of Polaroid. Scientist Stephen Herchen can be seen in the film trying to reinvent the lost formula of Polaroid for the Impossible Project. Other subjects include photographer Stefanie Schneider who uses the last of her Polaroid stock to capture her unique aesthetic and Christopher Bonanos, a Polaroid historian.

Instant Dreams captures the essence of Polaroid through its poetic approach in storytelling and visual artistry. If you’re looking for a more traditional documentary on the history of Polaroid, this isn’t it. It does require some patience from the viewer and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. 

Instant Dreams is my cinematic ode to that longing for magic, mystery and a celebration of the dreams of the future that are interwoven with this medium.”

director Willem Baptist

Instant Dreams opens in NYC and L.A. and 10 other North American cities today. Visit the official website for more information.

Maniac Landscapes

Maniac Landscapes is a hypnotic dream. One could even call it a beautiful nightmare. Windows serve as portals through which ethereal sources of light and energy feed the flowering pants below. These life forms snake toward the light, their buds opening dramatically. Streams and drops of liquid fall from an unseen source. Shades of red, pink, blue and purple are set against an infinite black landscape. In the background we hear ghostly sounds that are indistinguishable and haunting. The scene shifts when a skeleton appears, reconciling life with the concept of death. 

Maniac Landscapes is a 7-1/2 minute short film written, directed, edited and animated by Matthew Wade with sound design by Jacob Kinch. It is co-produced by Wade and Sara Lynch. Their short Eyes at the Specter Glass recently premiered at Slamdance (check out my review here). Wade describes the film with the following synopsis:

“As disembodied cries move through the rooms of a house, their emotional intensity provokes a reanimation of the dead, cosmic shifts, and the manipulations of time and place.”

Inspiration came to Wade from a series of dreams which he then interpreted into this this film. He gives it “a kind of dream logic in its final presentation.” It’s quite a surreal experience, as was Eyes at the Specter Glass and I’m looking forward to more from this innovative filmmaker.

If the events in the film were from my own dream, I’d interpret them as representations of the creative forces within us. The light, the liquid and the sounds are all sources of inspiration and the plants would symbolize the growth of ideas and the formation of our creative endeavors into their final artistic form. The skeleton’s presence would be thematic of how we take from past creations and breathe new life into them.

Maniac Landscapes premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival as part of their Best Animated Short competition line-up. It’s also part of the upcoming Alchemy Film and Arts Festival that takes place in Scotland next month.

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