Review: Punta Sinistra — Fantasia Festival 2022

Director Renaud Gauthier came into my radar with the 2019 film Aquaslash, a bare-bones slasher film taking place in a water park where a serial killer has inserted large blades inside of a water slide. It appeared to me that Aquaslash was the sort of movie that hearkened back lovingly to the B-movie slashers of the day. The problem was that the film was not well-made in its own right, so instead of coming off as a B-movie homage it came off as a purposeful attempt at the “so bad it’s good” variety (emphasis on the bad). At the very least, Aquaslash was good for a few cheap laughs.

Gauthier’s newest feature, Punta Sinistra, is an ultra low-budget crime film set in Mexico. From its protagonist’s half-baked voiceover, it feels like Gauthier is going for a neo-noir vibe. This hero, a journalist from Canada, travels to the island of “Punta Sinistra” to investigate a downed drug smuggling plane. Along the way, he encounters seedy criminals and a femme fatale type who all intertwine into a knotty web of intrigue.

Only, it’s not so knotty. And it’s devoid of intrigue.

Punta Sinistra is playing this year’s Fantasia Festival, and their program notes for the film call it inspired by B-movies and ’70s Italian horror. Having seen my fair share of both varieties, I believe Punta Sinistra to not be reminiscent of either. Yes, it is dubbed like ’70s Italian films were. Other than that, I don’t see the resemblance.

The only other possibility for comparison is that the film’s low quality is meant to homage the B-movie, and, if that is the case, Punta Sinistra is something of an insult to the B-movie. B-movies are known for being low grade and low budget, this is true. But every B-movie I’ve seen is more competently produced than Punta Sinistra. Calling a film a send-up of the B-movie and then presenting something that is so bad as to appear unfinished does not do justice to the legacy of the B-movie. On the contrary, it gives the appearance that the filmmaker is hiding behind the moniker of “B-movie” in order to excuse the film’s poor quality.

It is somewhat difficult to articulate just how poor quality this film is, because I do not know if the copy of the film I received for review purposes is the same one which will premiere at Fantasia. I certainly hope that what I watched is not the print to be screened, because it is an unfinished product. The soundtrack is not properly mixed, and it is missing some sound effects and ADR for certain characters’ dialogue. As a result, I could not follow what was happening in certain scenes, as it would cut to a character mouthing words to no sound.

I’ll try not to hold this aspect against the filmmaker, as I hope in good faith that this is a problem which has been remedied before the film was shown to the public. But there are persistent issues with this film’s technical aspects that would be much more difficult to fix in post.

For one, the color and lighting within a given scene change wildly. Many scenes look naturally lit, but the blocking of actors is such that their faces are completely covered in shadow. Occasionally, as a scene goes on an actor will become more enveloped with shadow, most likely because the shooting of the scene carried on until sundown with no one accounting for the change in light. As for the color, I can only assume that the scenes were never properly white balanced, so one side of a shot-reverse shot has a much different color profile than the other side.

These are rudimentary problems which a filmmaker should be equipped to recognize and prevent. And it doesn’t help matters when, within these inadequately lit scenes, the blocking of actors is stiff and the composition of the shots look flat. Imperfect lighting in a shot can be excused if the shot is striking enough to warrant inclusion. But when a good number of shots are both unremarkable and murky, the film as a whole starts to suffer.

There is more to critique with Punta Sinistra. The hokey hard-boiled dialogue. The lack of a compelling story line. The belabored final set piece, burdened by a flashback structure that reveals an inconsequential and uninteresting twist. The leaden acting. But I will leave it at this: I love B-movies. Select B-movies have given me immense amounts of pleasure and, in my view, hold up against the canonized classics of cinema. If the goal with Punta Sinistra was an earnest send-up of the B-movie, it simply does not succeed. On the contrary, it spits in the face of the B-movie.

Punta Sinistra: D-

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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