Quentin Tarantino Spotlight
I still remember sitting in the dark theater years ago watching Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic tribute to the blood-soaked exploitation epics of yesteryear. It was the sort of movie experience that comes around once in a lifetime, and apart from sitting through multiple back-to-back screenings at several genre film festivals, there hasn’t been anything quite like Grindhouse since. Grindhouse is an important film for me, since at the time of its release it inspired me to produce and host a film review show on CJLO, a local radio station here in the city of Montreal. That film review show went on to be named Sound On Sight, and was eventually released in podcast form, leading to the creation of the now-defunct Sound On Sight website. For the unfamiliar, I, along with my colleague Simon Howell, had been reviewing movies on the Sound On Sight podcast from April 2007 to September 2015 – a total of 500 episodes to be exact, before we decided to call it quits. What went on to become a multiple award-winning podcast, and was once listed as one of the ten best film review shows in MovieMaker Magazine, is what eventually inspired me to launch the very website you are browsing today. Without Sound On Sight, there would be no Goomba Stomp and it all began with a review of Grindhouse. Yes, folks, the pulpy, campy, and over-the-top double bill is not only the first film we reviewed on our podcast, but it led me to where I am now.
For horror fans, Grindhouse has everything you could want.
Grindhouse, released on April 6, 2007, is a cinematic nod to those films of the past that pushed boundaries with extreme depictions of sex, violence, and gore, ones that tested the artistic taste of both audiences and filmmakers alike. Dripping in nostalgia, Grindhouse pays tribute to B-movies made in the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s in the best possible way. It wasn’t just in its style, image, and sound, but also in how Miramax agreed to distribute the film. Tarantino and Rodrguez set out to create an experience not seen in movie theaters in over three decades: masquerading as a double bill, Death Proof and Planet Terror were stitched together as a double feature and even included four “Coming Attractions” for nonexistent B-movies. During the intermission, viewers were treated to a collection of faux trailers from Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Rodriguez himself (his trailer, Machete, later becoming its own film). For the price of one ticket, you got two movies, four exclusive shorts, and more lurid sexuality and over-the-top violence than you could ever hope for.
For horror fans, Grindhouse has everything you could want. It’s a movie made in the grand tradition of Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Corbucci, Jack Hill, and John Carpenter, and it walks a fine line between tongue-in-cheek spoof and genuine homage. Beyond that, for movie fans in general, the experience was about as close as you could get in terms of reliving the experience of seeing a double bill at the drive-in. It was as good as I hoped it would be, but unfortunately, the general public didn’t take much interest. Despite a strong marketing push and a wide theatrical release, Grindhouse only made $25.4 million in the US (with a $53 million budget), and was later released on DVD with the two films separated – not the way the filmmakers wanted. A decade later, both Death Proof and Planet Terror have found a huge cult following, but fans continue to debate which of the two films is better. There’s no doubt that Grindhouse as a whole should be appreciated as a fascinating exercise in genre reinvention and a showcase for two radically different approaches to homage, but despite popular opinion, for my money, Death Proof is still the better of the two films.
Death Proof is a sly work of film criticism, commenting upon movie genres and gender roles.
Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.
Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character. Many complain about the “pointless” chatter, but the tough, vulgar, home-brewed Tarantino espresso dialogue buried under several in layers of quotation marks still makes for better writing than what we get in Planet Terror. The ensemble cast is also much more talented and better suited for their roles than the cast in Planet Terror, and while Planet Terror lacks a memorable villain, Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony. In addition, the remaining cast is uniformly strong. Everyone from stuntwoman Zoe Bell to Sydney Poitier and Rosario Dawson shines onscreen, not to mention the riotously funny performance from Tracie Thorns, and the wild card Rose McGowan.
Much like Planet Terror, Death Proof boasts an astonishing look, with a seemingly worn-out print covered in scratch marks, cigarette burns, bad jump cuts, and missing reels. But while playing by the genre rules, Tarantino – unlike Rodriguez – also gleefully subverts the genre to keep us on our toes. While Robert Rodriguez attempted to follow the “grindhouse” formula beat by beat and created a carbon-copy, Tarantino tried a more ambitious approach. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema.
Planet Terror is what it is – a first-rate homage to the schlocky, sleazy B-movies of decades past.
Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see in Robert Rodriguez’s first half. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. Finally, viewers are treated to a climax that is more shocking, vicious, and hysterically satisfying than that of Planet Terror. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius.
As for the other half of the bill. Fans of genre film will find themselves transported back to the spirit of a magical era of cult cinema with Planet Terror. Rodriguez pays homage to the gruesome shockers of the early 1980s and late ’70s in a story that centers around an experimental bio-weapon that is released on a deep southern town, turning its residents into zombie-like flesh-eating creatures. All that stands between them and the end of the world is a rag-tag group of brave survivors who decide to fight back, led by go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and her machine gun for a leg. It’s a well-crafted modern-day drive-in movie that aims for big spectacle and retro silliness, and anyone nostalgic for ’70s mediocre filmmaking will find themselves loving every frame that gleefully exploits all the exploitation conventions – sex, nudity, vehicular horror, explosions, stunt work, terrific special effects, and more (I know I did). And like Death Proof, Planet Terror comes complete with missing reels, a scratched print, cigarette burns, various film stock (that drastically changes from scene to scene), deliberately choppy editing, nauseating cinematography, cheesy dialogue, and unrelated filler sequences. Applied to a double-bill along with the inclusion of Rodriguez’s spoof trailer for Machete, Planet Terror is the closest anyone has come to recreating the Times Square midnight movie experience.
Apart from the overall look of the film, the cast is also fantastic – particularly McGowan, a blubbering pole dancer who becomes the film’s iconic image and lead avenger. The one-time wanna-be medical-student-now-aspiring-stand-up-comedienne becomes a gun-toting heroine after a crazed zombie attack. Marley Shelton is equally good as the homicidal doctor planning to leave her husband (Josh Brolin) to run off with her former lesbian lover (Stacey Ferguson, aka Fergie). Brolin and her share great onscreen chemistry as the troubled cohabitants and Freddy Rodriguez fares well in his first starring role as an action star. His months practicing firing guns, handling knives, and choreographing fight sequences paid off. Tom Savini gets frequent laugh-out-loud funny moments, and Robert Rodriguez’s real-life nieces (“The Babysitter Twins”) and real-life son Tommy supply two of the film’s most memorable scenes. Meanwhile, images of Dakota struggling to open a car door with anesthetized hands and Josh Brolin under attack by the undead via a power saw will linger in your head. The mix of non-stop action, hospital melodrama, showgirl horror, mad scientist mayhem, and biological warfare makes for a highly entertaining exploitation thriller.
There’s no doubt, Rodriguez’s installment wins points for doing a better job faitfully replicating the look and feel of classic low-grade gore films. Unfortunately, the cast doesn’t always work – including Tarantino, who cameos as a rapist/soldier who takes a liking to McGowan’s physical resemblance to Ava Gardner. In addition, Bruce Willis pops up to no particular effect, leaving one to wonder if he just accidentally walked on set. Finally, the last act doesn’t quite live up to the previous ones, and the end result is a wildly uneven horror-comedy that starts tight only to eventually lose focus.
The argument as to which of the two films is better will continue to be debated. Many will say Tarantino failed to live up to the grindhouse mantle, but in my eyes Death Proof is a sly work of film criticism, commenting upon movie genres and gender roles. Planet Terror is what it is – a first-rate homage to the schlocky, sleazy B-movies of decades past, but nothing more. Yes, I love everything about it, from the geysers of blood, intriguing camera work, and an extremely playful editing style, to the gross-out effects, cheesy dialogue, and amputee action, but Tarantino gets a slight edge for delivering on his promise of classic exploitation tropes, while also demonstrating how the genre can continue to grow.
- Ricky D
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
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