My eyes hurt. Between the 2009 Toronto After Dark Festival, getting caught up on recent releases, and sitting slack-jawed through Tarantino’s maybe-masterpiece, I feel like in the past week I’ve spent more time watching films than I have sleeping. Things are starting to bleed together in my mind, with the exploding heads from District 9, Inglourious Basterds and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl seeming pretty interchangeable. Well, what better way to make sense of this movie-watching than a little capsule commentary?
AFTER DARK 2009
As anyone in Toronto who spent last week in the packed, sweaty Bloor Cinema (or saw the line of ticketholders snaking down Bloor St. and up Albany) can attest, After Dark 2009 was a massive success. The Opening Night Gala was a smash, with Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite proving an overwhelming crowd-pleaser. I usually approach the whole nostalgia film thing with a good deal of reticence—no matter how clever or ironic the guise, retreading over bygone genre conventions tends to foster laziness and narcissism in equal measure—but Black Dynamite really blew me away. While Sanders is clearly enamoured with the blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s, and while Dynamite is clearly a love letter to the genre, there was enough spoofing of the genre’s variously silly excesses and inadequacies (Marvin Gaye-ish songs that explain the plot, boom mics dropping into the frame) to make it more than just another sloppy rehash. It’s also one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while, indebted as much to Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker as it is Gordon Parks.
But everything Black Dynamite did right, Dead Snow did wrong. Trying too hard to situate itself alongside The Evil Dead, Shockwaves and other claustrophobic splatter flicks (a character dons a Brain Dead shirt—WINK! NUDGE!) Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi zombie film proves how uncreative genre filmmaking can be. Coasting by on its premise—a bunch of Norwegian kids vacationing in the mountains find out that the land is haunted by undead SS officers (of course)—and its admittedly awesome tagline (“Ein! Zwei! Die!”), Dead Snow is an uninspired clusterfuck with no character development and dull, repetitive gags. I mean really, how many times can you see a piece of intestine get stuck on a tree and still care?
More resourceful in its handling of guts, gore and arterial spray was Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s gruesome high school romance Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. Nishimura endeared himself to last year’s After Dark crowd with the fittingly titled Tokyo Gore Police, and proved again this year that he’s one of the most gifted practical effects artists working these days. While the film—essentially a love triangle that has two high school girls (one a vampire, the other a living patchwork of other students jerry-rigged together with some galvanized screws and a bit of magic) vying for the affections of the same boy—is as gory (and at times genuinely sweet) as anything you’ll ever see, a subplot about an after-school club where girls tan excessively to look African struck me as more than a little racist. Granted, the filmmakers couch their abuse of the worst kind of blackface stereotyping in a “critique” of the Japanese ganguro subculture. But there’s no doubt in my mind that their desire to get a few cheap laughs outweighed any loose sociological imperative. I was fine with the after school wrist-cutting club, though. That’s just good satire.
Another After Dark highpoint was The Children, a legitimately spooky (i.e. not just gory) horror film from British director Tom Shankland. I won’t say much, other than to say that after watching a film where kids begin systematically murdering their parents and guardians, I was seriously considering the plus/minus of getting a vasectomy. If you’re into being terrified, check out The Children when it arrives in theatres or on DVD.
The festival’s centerpiece, a long-awaited Trick ‘r’ Treat, managed to live up to the hype. A Halloween horror anthology in the style of George Romero’s Creepshow (though Trick ‘r’ Treat’s narrative strands are more intricately woven), the film is an instant classic. It’s the perfect film for a new generation of kids to grow up watching on Halloween night, once they outgrow Charlie Brown’s antics.
Genre festival junk aside, there’s a couple of real gems in the multiplexes this weekend. Last weekend’s must-see movie, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is definitely worth checking out. While some critics will balk at its extraterrestrials-in-exile allegory for South African apartheid, I feel Blomkamp is cleverer than his detractors would be willing to admit. Armond White really laid into Blomkamp, effectively gumming up D9's flawless rating on the ol' Tomatometer, but anyone who reads criticism knows that not matter how talented White may be, he's often little more than an eloquent shit disturber. Roger Ebert has even called him a troll. And besides all the social prodding, D9 is probably the best action/sci-fi setpiece since Aliens.
But the big one this weekend is of course Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating WWII revenge-fantasy. Again, its depiction of a Dirty Dozen-style squad of Jewish American soldiers who repay the violence visited upon them with even more violence is bound to have people parsing the Apache ethics of eye-for-an-eye (or scalp-for-a-scalp). But politics aside, the film is an unqualified triumph. (And, as Michael Koresky wonderfully illustrates in his great piece for Reverse Shot, the film’s competing moral impulses ultimately cancel each other out.) As someone who was a bowled over by Tarantino as anyone who saw Pulp Fiction when they were 13 could be, but quickly turned on Kill Bill and loathed the naval-gazing indulgence of Death Proof, I was frankly a bit blown away by Basterds. Christopher Waltz’s Sherlock Homes-style Nazi investigator (who relishes his nickname, “The Jew Hunter”) is a virtuoso performance of likely the best character QT has ever written—I’ve always had a soft spot for Robert Forester’s Max Cherry in Jackie Brown, but authorial credit is there ceded to Elmore Leonard.
There’s still the pratfalls of most any Tarantino flick—most of the characters, despite social class or military rank, speak like gifted pop logicians, possessing a masterful handling of both German cinema and the categorical syllogism—but it’s all forgivable. Unlike his past few films, Tarantino here proves himself able to seamlessly weave together his various cinematic pilferings and, as the premise alone suggests, often turns them on their ear in a way that proves that he’s just as clever and talented as everyone says he is. Calling him an inheritor to the cinema of Peckinpah, Leone or Godard seems now more like a justifiable assertion, and less like a trumped-up term paper thesis. Again, I’m not keen to spoil the film. But suffice it to say that Tarantino wrote the better ending for World War II.