Talking Movies

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

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January 9, 2012

2012: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:03 pm
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Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

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