Thursday, September 27, 2007


Death Proof may just be the 'ultimate' Quentin Tarantino film. I say this not because it is necessarily his best film (that would be 1997's Jackie Brown), but merely because it is the comfort zone that Q.T. seems to want to reside in artistically and cinematically. In the media's rush to label Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as a breath of fresh air blowing from somewhere in between art house and genre subversion (a la the many of the early French New Wave directors films), they forgot to look at the script work for From Dusk Till Dawn and Natural Born Killers. Certainly the frenzy that was Kill Bill made it quite clear that playing on the trash side of cinema for the sake of being fun and nasty is his idiom.

The concept of the Grindhouse experiment reigned in the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach taken with Kill Bill and let Tarantino focus on blending three types of films with Death Proof: The Women-Out-Of-Control style exploitation (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), the slasher flick (Halloween) and the muscle car potboiler (Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, both explicitly referenced in the dialogue here). As a side note, Robert Rodriguez who had the opening feature in the Grindhouse double bill went the pile on route with Planet Terror which has about 10 films vying to escape from his flasher parody of 80's style Golan Globus films - but the commercial failure of Grindhouse has split the two features into separate films (and Planet Terror is the weaker of the two).

Death Proof is really a 'hanging out' kind of movie. Barely interested in getting to its plot or even the big 'money shots' (of which there are several). The film is more interested in hanging out and listening two groups of girls talk (and talk, and talk). Fortunately, Q.T. has a gift for writing smooth flowing dialogue. If there isn't the showy one-liners of his other features on display here, the movies strength is how it flows smoothly along, utilizing a ripping soundtrack (usually contained in the film via car radios or jukeboxes around the Austin venues the first set of girls hang out. The other strength that the director is famous for is bringing out the best performances from actors which have been (more or less) cast in the dustbin. Here it is Kurt Russell, fabulously introduced in the unglamorous close-ups of him inhaling a plate of nachos and cheese, the camera lingering on greasy fingers and smacking lips, before tilting up to see Russell's weathered face sporting a wicked scar over his right eye. A bit of a power-junkie and a bit of a dork, Russell attempts to impress the locals with the shows he worked on before realizing that the young Austin crowd hasn't really heard any of these 70's action TV relics. Instead he flirts with the shyest of the girls before going into stalking mode (a transition Tarantino winks to the camera with the flourish of having Russell flash one of the most joy-filled grins right to the audience.

The second half promises to be a repeat of the first, yet the next group of girls is a little less slutty (certainly Q.T. is adhering to convention with this aspect of the movie) and a little more aggressive. Stuntman Mike is dealing with Stuntwoman Zoe and cohorts, who aren't going to take his shit and show him a little Girl-Power in a muscle car show down.

The key to enjoying Death Proof is an ear for texture and detail. It's not the broad strokes character building, plot, action where the film shines, but rather the small observations in the girls personalities - vanity, ego, or in the case of Rosario Dawson's Abby, discovering just what you are capable of if your friends are there to show you the way. As talented actresses go, Dawson makes the most with a fairly small role, she is a joy to watch. As is Uma Thurman's Stunt Double, Zoe Bell, here playing herself in front of the camera, and clearly loving every minute of it. Bell may not be the actress that Dawson is, but her enthusiasm is so winning that watching her character strut her stuff is one of the drawing pleasures of the film.

I don't know if I've sold the movie or not to anyone reading this, as I have been on the defending side of this film from a lot of folks who think all the time spent with these girls is wasted and this ramble may reflect that defensive posture. But like Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, Spike Lee's 25th Hour and The Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski (note all three of those have been past KBT screenings), Death Proof is a film that gets better with subsequent viewings that allow anyone willing to go along for the ride to feel the texture of what is really accomplished here. It may not be what the audience for Grindhouse actually thought they might be getting. The result is actually something better.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

TIFF07 - Wrap Up: Film Capsules and Links to My Reviews

This was probably my most intense go around at TIFF in the nine years I've been attending. I met a lot of fascinating individuals and managed to catch 40+ films besides. Considering the massive size (275 features) of TIFF, there is always a 'perfect' festival buried in the deluge of cinema on offer over the too-short 10 days, the trick is to find the good ones. Easier said than done though, often film selection amounts to a pulling the level on a slot machine and hoping for the best.

This year I opted for more mainstream stuff. In previous festivals, my strategy was to see films that would never ever make it to any sort of commercial cinema release. This year, due to so many interesting quasi-mainstream films, I went the other way. A mixture of expectation and anticipation may have caused the feeling that film-wise this was not the best TIFF by a long shot. There was no PERFECT, want to rave about, 10 out of 10 film this year (Last year had Pan's Labyrinth, The Fountain, and Little Children - curiously the mainstream choices. Strange.) However, there was a lot of great films on offer and I'll give the barest of comments on each of the films. Live links will go to the coverage I did for Twitch this year, I managed a bakers-dozen of reviews, which I think is pretty good considering the insanity of the festival coupled with daily commutes into Toronto.

Here they are in no particular order.

Weirdsville – 6/10 – veering wildly between too stylish and too goofy. Alan Moyle's low-key but densely plotted stoner flick involving murder, drugs and Satanists is more quiet smiley moments than laugh-out-loud funny ones.

My Winnipeg - 9/10 – Guy Maddin's loopy tribute to his home town and varied nooks and crannies of his own psyche is the auteurs most accessible film to date and also the funniest – plus it contains one of creepy images I've seen all year – Frozen Horse Heads.

Lust, Caution – 6/10 – Perfect in every technical category except completely lacking a soul. The tension is muted and the sex just sits there, preventing any deeper reading other than scrutinizing Tony Leung's scrotum.

The Substitute – 5/10 – Top shelf visuals and a deliciously screen-chewing Paprika Steen performance are marred by a rushed (and sometimes baffling) conclusion. It felt like the film was missing a reel!

Jar City – 7/10 – Intellectual, grotesque and well executed crime procedural film from Iceland which morphs into a much more interesting drama with more than one memorable image.

The Orphanage – 8/10 – Featuring the best Jump Scare of the past few years, a predictable, but solid story, and a central performance worthy of Nicole Kidman from The Others. A Spanish ghost-story that comes close to the work of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish language films.

Mother of Tears – 4/10 – Sure it is entertaining in a loopy-funny sort of way. But I want something that crawls up into my brain and lays eggs from Dario Argento, not knee-slapping parody.

The Banishment – 7/10 – As austere as his debut feature, Andrey Zvyagintsev's follow-up to The Return has a much longer run-time, and relies on a few convenient plot points, but it's a knock-out in the dark, deliberate style department.

Juno – 7/10 – Sure it is Ghost World lite and obviously the product of a writer over 30 (see also Veronica Mars) but the acting and visual style of the film make it a crowd-pleaser and laughs abound if you like quirky with a side-order of snark.

Deuxieme Souffle – 7/10 – A stylish colour-noir experiment benefits from hardboiled dialogue, a great collection of actors and bursts of vibrant violence. It is a little long, and Monica Bellucci as a blonde is a tad flat.

Silent Resident – 1/10 – Yawner of a Sci-Fi picture and paranoia parable. It thinks it is too smart and too edgy for its own good. I liked it better when it was called The Lost Highway.

Diary of the Dead – 7/10 – George A. Romero is back with a goofy, funny, and gory new Dead film. It's no classic, but nevertheless hits the entertainment spot, especially with an Amish fellow called Samuel.

Frontiere(s) – 4/10 – Technically virtuoso in the same way as Aja's High Tension. But story-wise, it is derivate to all hell (excluding a batshit crazy Nazi dude). It is too long and the lead actress is more than a little spotty at times.

Mongol – 7/10 – As big an epic as you are going to get on screen this year. Light on action, but getting into the headspace of a young Genghis Khan was a real surprise.

No Country For Old Men – 9/10 – The Coens darkest picture to date by a long shot. No musical score and a whopper of a psycho from Javier Bardem give it a novel mood. Tommy Lee Jones is the soul of the story and he delivers resigned defeat in spades.

They Wait – 3/10 – Too earnest and too derivate Canadian horror flick that look great, but had little else going for it.

Vexille – 4/10 – A text book case of trying to solve acting/script problems with very loud music. In this case, the great techno from Paul Oakenfold was like oil to Vexille's water. Great Ideas, great animation, but hollow and empty story-wise.

Chrysalis – 6/10 – A spectacular technical demo of both set design and camera savvy. Vicious fights and iconic images are not enough to sustain a film not as full of ideas as it would like to be. Looking forward to see what LeClercq does next though.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age – 3/10 – Wow. A bombastic mess of a film with some of the worst musical cues heard in ages. Cate Blanchette and Clive Owen are great in the bodice ripper aspects of the film and there is a spectacular image or two in there, but otherwise a complete fiasco!

Dr. Plonk – 5/10 – Great concept, great execution, but Dr. Plonk could have been more if the gags were escalated rather than endlessly repeated. It's a movie of diminishing returns when it should have been building up to something on the level of Keaton or Tati's best work.

Terra – 2/10 – The folks behind this CGI feature have the visual chops, but slice and dice a plot out of Star Wars and sci-fi clichés without adding a single thing to the mix. The concept of human invasion of peaceful aliens is totally wasted here.

Romulus, My Father – 3/10 – Gorgeously shot, but relentless depressing. Romulus is a shot of cough medicine for high-school students in Australia. A feel bad childhood memoir for the ages, it is guilty of wasting Franka Potente and Eric Bana, somehow Marton Csokas shines through the misery though.

The Exodus – 5/10 - A conspiracy of women murdering men they do not approve of? This absurdist noir piece defies expectations. There is something sly going on under its calm exterior and a second viewing is in order. The opening tracking shot is fantastic.

Sukiyaki Western Django – 7/10 - Cultural appropriation is on the menu of Takashi Miike's overstuffed eastern-western. This is a film that can occupy your brain or melt your eyes depending on your mood. Better experienced in a crowd environment, but will remain a lasting cult curio for years.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead – 9/10 - A noir-ish crime-gone-horribly-bad film with the catch that everything is contained within a single family. Sidney Lumet still has it, as this film delivers drama, suspense and a compelling collection of despicable characters caught in a web of their own weaving.

M – 9/10 - Lee Myung-Se's avant garde visualization of how fear, anxiety and regret alter perception of both the past and the present. Shot with his usual bold style which in this case is perfectly married to the material. Its and intellectual and emotional puzzle-box where getting lost in it is more important than actually solving it.

Mad Detective – 7/10 - Compared to Election or Exiled, this is lesser To. However an intense Lau Ching-wan performance and wacky sense of humour of the film make it a winner. The closing set-piece seals the deal as To lays on the eye-candy in a masterful scene involving split personalities and mirrors.

Reservation Road – 5/10 - Fine performances cannot save this over-wrought and and co-incidence. Any emotional truths or character revelations are overshadowed by both pandering to and manipulating the audience in an obvious attempt to bait a golden statuette.

The Devil's Chair – 0/10 - Irredeemable trash. Smug. Ugly. Sadly lacking in entertainment value, and after the 1999 slew of twist-y ending flicks, this one feels warmed over.

Stuck – 6/10 - Deliberately small scale, yet engrossing tale of a man stuck in a windshield and the girl who wants the problem to just go away. Taking a real story but re-spinning it as a black comedy with more than a little gore as the cherrry on top.

Walk All Over Me – 6/10 - A feel-good S&M crime story does not quite all glue together, but entertains in fits and starts. Gary Burns-lite, sure, but a nice enough start from young director Robert Cuffley and a fine performance from Leelee Sobieski.

Flash Point – 7/10 - This would be an easy 10/10 if the story was not so painfully conventional and the action nearly all in the last 25 minutes. With the incorporation Mix Martial Arts into contemporary guns and fist HK cinema, the bar has been set so high that it will be fun just to see if anyone can reach it again, let alone raise it!

The Tracy Fragments – 8/10 - Avant garde editing, often involving dozens of splitscreens, meets the raw style of Bruce MacDonalds previous road pictures. A full on performance from rising star Ellen Page seals the deal that Canadian Cinema is still willing to push boundries.

Madame Tutli-Putli – 9/10 - If Salvadore Dali was giving David Lynch a shiatsu massage during an overnight train ride between Calgary and Vancouver, then this might be the film that takes place in his head. Stop Motion animation has never looked this good.

Son of Rambow – 7/10 - Feel good nostalgia piece involving two young kids, a VHS camera and Stallone's First Blood. Meshing a plethora of (amped up) memories from growing up early 1980s with some fine child-actor performances and more than a little heart make this a fun way to spend a rainy day.

The Passage – 5/10 - A stylish set piece late in the film involving a tunnel and a flash-bulb coupled with a great lead actress and exotic location shooting is unable to save this film from falling face first onto the 'derivative' pile. It is a shame because the message of the film is a relevant one. Watch Frears' Dirty Pretty Things to see how this is done right.

Dia Nipponjin – 7/10 - Deadpan has never been done as accomplished and deliberate as what is on display here. As the absurdities mount, it becomes clear that there is no way to end this movie properly, and that is the only stumbling point of an otherwise pitch-perfect cult item.

Nothing is Private – 2/10 - No movie at this years festival pissed me off more than this one. In its attempts to be transgressive, it comes of as laughable, which undermines the few interesting tidbits along the way. While white kittens are run over and pregnant ladies fall on their stomach, many of the actors look either uncomfortable or embarrassed to exist in an up-the-ante and bombastic display of American Beauty hubris.

Ex Drummer – 6/10 - If American Psycho was lensed from inside Trainspotting's 'worst toilet in Scotland' you might end up with this picture which makes Man Bites Dog look like Lady and the Tramp. Not for the squeamish.

A L'Interieur – 9/10 - Wow! Simply wow. The perfect merging of body horror, hitchcock and the slasher aesthetic to make something that simply transcend the horror genre in ways that one can only hope for. Definitely not for anyone expecting a baby, or those who like to feel superior to the genre. This is a nasty little ride that offers a curious ennui after everything is done with. Let the red stuff fly.

Nearly all of these films (and many more!) have full reviews over at Twitch's MASSIVE coverage of the festival this year, probably the most review-heavy coverage on the internet outside of the trade-rags Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Screen.

And thus the waiting begins to 2008's festival.