Thursday, November 3, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Smashing Pumpkins

In which we explore mini-reviews of movies I watched during the month of October, but weren’t quite important or horror-y enough to break their way into my scary movie-exclusive run of reviews.

Miss Bala
Year: 2011
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Noé Hernández, Irene Azuela
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A beauty pageant contestant accidentally witnesses a raid on a club and becomes embroiled in a Tijuana drug war.

I was quite excited to see Miss Bala. A Mexican thriller from producers Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, from the description I was imagining an edgy, female-led action romp that’s part Miss Congeniality and part Sicario. Of course, that’s not how the Mexican drug wars work. Unfortunately in its pursuit of grim, arty authenticity, Miss Bala completely eradicates any reason for it to exist.

If there’s one thing I hate in movies, it’s a protagonist without an ounce of agency in her body, and our beauty queen Laura Guerrero is empty of almost everything else, too. We know nothing about her, save that she has a friend who pushes her to join a beauty contest. We can guess as to why she agrees, but one hypothetical trait does not a lead character make. Laura is an empty plastic bag drifting through this movie, doing what other people tell her and consistently making the single dumbest choice it’s possible to make in any given situation. This is a chick who would order the salmon at a Denny’s if given the opportunity.

I get what they’re doing here. Laura is meant to be an innocent who is randomly swept up in the pure evil of the drug wars just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s not allowed an arc or a happy ending, because that’s the reality of it. Frankly, it’s a Halloween-esque storyline. That pure simplicity could have worked, but we need to understand more about Laura in order to sympathize with her plight. Unfortunately Miss Bala is an arid thriller that doesn’t allow any humanity to leak out.

Also the character motivations (both from the good guys and the bad guys) are incoherent, and the criminal plot is a sloppy mess, so Miss Bala is running on three flat tires. The opening act has a confused, frenzied energy, but as the story plays on and things don’t get any clearer, the film shows its hand: It really doesn’t know what it’s doing, and pretty much everything good is an accident. Then the pointlessly artsy lingering shots suffocate the film even more, as if it needed the help. It’s a damn shame that this movie utterly failed to meet its staggering potential, but they can’t all be winners I suppose.

Rating: 5/10

Death Proof
Year: 2007
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Two groups of girls are stalked y a psycho stuntman who commits murders with his tricked-out car.

I’ve seen the highlights of the oeuvre of one Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, what have you), but I’ve still seen far too few of his films, by some people’s accounts. I probably shouldn’t have rekindled that viewing with Death Proof, his contribution to the 70’s throwback double feature Grindhouse, which he created with Robert Rodriguez back in 2007. And no, I didn’t watch Planet Terror, but if you have a spare three hours handy, I would gladly borrow them.

Anyway, it turns out there’s a genre of film that Tarantino does not have mastery of, and that’s 70’s-style exploitation, which you think he’d fit into like a glove. But all his usual Tarantino-isms, which he applies liberally to Death Proof, are actively rejected by the genre like a bad transplant. First off, a key element he totally missed about grindhouse movies is that they’re short. The simplistic plot, which at certain points maps onto either the proto-slasher or rape-revenge genres is too elemental to be sustained for two f**king hours, especially when there are five minute swaths of film that so obviously could have been cut if he wasn’t so obscenely overconfident in his writing and his obnoxious cameo performance.

Speaking of writing… Tarantino is well-known for his dialogue, especially his long conversations laced with pop culture ephemera, during which he tosses all pretense of filmmaking to the floor and bathes in his own words for eight to ten minutes. This happens no fewer than four times in Death Proof, inflating the already punishing run time, and proving one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: Tarantino can’t write for women.

These conversational scenes have worked extremely well in his other films, but the dizzyingly high proportion of women in Death Proof mean that these scenes usually take place within a group of 3 to 5 females. When you’re a person who views that half of the population as giant pairs of feet with assess attached to them, it becomes difficult to craft compelling characters, which he fails to do ten times over, at one point literally forgetting about the existence of a girl who had – until that moment – held a major role.

Some of the dialogue itself is still fun taken on its own (although the single best line is beaten to within an inch of its life with ceaseless repetition), but these scenes drag the film’s already wonky pacing down like an anchor. And it’s not like the sole major male character, Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike, fares much better. He’s given way too much to say, babbling like an infant in a way that completely undercuts his eventual menace. Russell does a great job of course, hamming it up to a pitch perfect degree in the gonzo grindhouse finale, but across the board this is probably the worst script Tarantino has ever written.

The feeling I’m left with after Death Proof is frustration, and I wish that wasn’t true. But after being pummeled with yet another of his overwritten black characters, endless conversation essentially using foot massages as a currency, and a scene with a cell phone that pointlessly derails its period authenticity for a subplot that never comes to fruition, who can blame me? There is good here, mainly in the kinetic sequences of violence that close out the film’s two distinct chapters, and a car chase that will have you biting your nails until your cuticles bleed, but just like everything else, they go on for waaaay too long.

Death Proof saps the energy out of itself at every turn, and as dearly as I want to like it, it’s its own fault that I can’t.

Rating: 6/10

Year: 2014
Director: Oliver Blackburn
Cast: Haley Bennett, Ashley Greene, Lucas Till 
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A college student alone in the dorms over Thanksgiving break is targeted by a bloodthirsty cult.

Kristy is a Netflix horror movie if I’ve ever seen one. And I assure you, I most definitely have. Not quite a slasher, not quire a cultist film, not quite good, it is a film that clings to its own sorry existence by the skin of its teeth. But it’s reasonably entertaining and it’s free, so you might as well watch it.

By far the most interesting thing about Kristy is that it seems to genuinely still believe it’s the 90’s. There’s no winking throwback involved here, just a bunch of crop tops and an addiction to the wonders of modern gadgetry that seems to have missed the last decade or so of Apple press conferences. It’s odd that a movie that includes a crane shot clearly recorded by a drone (an exquisitely beautiful one, I might add, if a bit wobbly) should also insist that people still text like this: “U kil Kristy? ☺”

Its fabulously ill-conceived technobabble doesn’t stop there. Nor does it start there, as the entire opening is an exhausting slog through pixelated Darkweb nonsense that makes the webcam footage in Halloween: Resurrection look like 4K. Alright, after that brief detour to film nerd town, let’s get down to brass tacks. Kristy is a heaping helping of nonsense (apparently, by knowing Kristy’s phone number, the cult can hack 911?) but that has the unintended side effect of making it a pretty fun watch.

Kristy gets the job done in record time, never showing a full scene when a quick montage will do, and not overstaying its welcome by indulging in anything as ostentatious as a “theme” beyond the most superficial level. The crumpled tinfoil masks worn by the killers are pretty creepy, and although the film’s girl power finale is ruthlessly half-baked, it’s enough to have you rooting for her, even though her name isn’t even f**king Kristy.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1469


  1. Oh, Brennan.

    Oh, Brennan, Brennan, Brennan.

    I'm pretty sure Death Proof is my favorite Tarantino film. It is, in any event, it's the one I find to be the most effortlessly enjoyable in spite of its flaws (as you noted, the movie's decision to stop giving the slightest crap about Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character). I love how the structure of it is the message, and the message is essentially feminist, even if the issue is somewhat clouded by Quentin's well-attested fetishes. (Then again, it's almost auto-critiquing in that regard, since Stuntman Mike shares them--along with Tarantino's apparent belief that anyone gives a crap about movies from the 1970s. So, yeah, you've got Stuntman Mike too: an essentially flawless villain, fun and scary as hell, balanced right on the knife's edge between too campy and too realistically gross, and even if his crybaby finale is a little much, it does go to the point, so I can enjoy that part, too.)

    Finally, the ship's mast stunt would probably make it a 10/10, all by itself. I'd argue that Death Proof has the best stunt-driven car chase anyone has ever made, or, perhaps, ever will make--even if Fury Road's were more complex and technically involved, nothing will ever give me the same visceral exhilaration as watching Zoe Bell trapped on the hood of a Dodge Challenger and managing by the miracle of her badassery to not fall off.)

    P.S.: I've never seen Planet Terror either. Just haven't cared enough to do it. Nonetheless, I rather wish I had managed to see the double-feature in theaters.

    1. I agree the ship mast stunt is stellar, and I actually really enjoyed Russell's crybaby finale, I just thought the conversations sucked all the air out of the movie, ESPECIALLY the totally useless walk-and-talk setup with the two cops, the only line of which is in any way important is the very last, which sets up the great "he'll never get away with it in Texas" gag.

    2. FWIW three years later, the part with Earl and his son in the hospital plays much better with the double feature version.

      Also, if you do ever see the full Grindhouse, Death Proof is quite a bit shorter in it, as is Planet Terror.