Talking Movies

March 13, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Alas, Max Von Sydow

Another great has left the stage. 13 years younger than Kirk Douglas, Von Sydow was still working in high-profile productions. Indeed he worked for so many decades that one could say there are multiple Von Sydow personae. There is the Bergman art-house God that my mother remembered from The Virgin Spring, beating himself with sticks to build himself up for his vengeful rampage. There is the priest from The Exorcist and assassin from Three Days of the Condor which properly established him with American audiences after his underwhelming Hollywood debut The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there was the first von Sydow I encountered, unrecognisable as Ming the Merciless in the gloriously silly Flash Gordon. He was already very old when I came across him as another villain, this time in Minority Report. And then I started coming across him in the art house as a tremendous supporting player in Intacto and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is astonishing to think that while Kirk Douglas thru ill health and bad luck had his last important roles in the early 1980s Von Sydow was still working in his 90s and goes out with cameos in The Force Awakens and his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones as recent reminders of his potency.

The Desplat Factor

I have, of late, been trying to distil down the elements needed to reproduce the essential Wes-ness of a Wes Anderson film. Some are practical for guerrilla film-makers, others less so. Colour coded costumes, hand-crafted sets of increasingly outrageous artificiality, whip-pans, tracking shots, overhead shots, especially of handwritten notes, and the laying out inventories, droll narration … Bill Murray. And, one might add, a score by Alexandre Desplat. Which itself may or may not be connected to the increasingly outrageous artificiality of Wes Anderson’s cinemascapes. Certainly I still regard The Darjeeling Limited as the highpoint of his work, and it was after that film, which used pre-existing music, that he replaced Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer for his first four films, with Desplat for his next four films. I rather liked Desplat’s largely percussive score for Isle of Dogs, but was not particularly taken at the time by either his Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel work. Although the latter is growing on me as I soak it in. I think my objections circle a certain childishness at the core of the Desplat/Anderson enterprise. The score for Fantastic Mr Fox had a childlike quality, which was entirely appropriate to the material. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film I thought soured in dialogue and action by an unexpectedly mean spirit, seemed to be given the same treatment. And in both cases they shared their approach with Moonrise Kingdom where, in thrall to the featured music of Benjamin Britten (especially his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) Mr Desplat’s orchestration was explained in ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe Part 7’. Ralph Vaughan Williams held that a composer lacking confidence in their themes could be depended upon to orchestrate all hell out of them. Desplat’s work for Anderson though is a horse of a different colour. The orchestration is sparse but determinedly eccentric, with featured unusual instrument after featured unusual instrument [“Not to speak of the glockenspiel” “The glockenspiel?” “I asked you not to speak of it”]. And this complicated curating of harps, flutes, piccolos, pizzicato strings, electric guitars, ukuleles, classical guitars, dangling blocks, sixteen bass baritone singers, balalaikas, celestes, banjos, tubular bells, cymbals, timpani, vibraphones, xylophones, triangles, clarinets, French horns, tenor saxophones, trombones, tubas, trumpets, organs, snare drums, bassoons, pianos, and, yes, glockenspiels, is far more important than his simple melodies: timbres are more important than themes. In a sense that’s a musical reflection by Desplat of style being more important to Anderson than substance. Has Anderson fallen into the same trap of Tarantino, of losing touch with basic reality and human emotions in favour of constructing his own Neverland ranch? We shall see later this year…

No Time to Die Edit

Now that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed to November it might be an idea for Cary Fukunaga to go back into the editing suite and make some cuts. The already ramping up publicity push had unwisely seen Lashana Lynch brag about how 007 got put in his place for sexual harassment in this movie. Coming just weeks after Birds of Prey bombed after a publicity campaign that couldn’t stop talking about everyday sexism, male gaze, and misogyny, you have to ask the question staff most feared hearing from President Obama – ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ The trailer had already seen my tepid interest evaporate. Craig looks as past it physically as Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but without even the lingering interest in the role. The moment where the security guard has no idea who Bond is clearly is meant to be hilarious and subversive, and yet it makes no sense; MI6 would remember. Think of the scene at the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where a similar character realises who Ethan Hunt is, “I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true…” Lashana Lynch’s dialogue and smirks in the trailer quickly pegged her character as insufferable and, once again, made you yearn for any Craig-era Bond girl to measure up to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. But the idea that No Time to Die will see Bond, and by implication the audience, receiving an endless series of lectures makes one think again on the reasons for delaying it. Quite simply, this film cannot fail or it sinks MGM. But… even if everyone is primed to go back into packed cinemas in November, will anybody bother if the cast and crew of the film keep telling them it’s not a rollicking adventure but a vitally necessary lecture on their implicit biases? The evidence of Birds of Prey, Charlie’s AngelsTerminator: Dark Fate, and Ghostbusters (2016) suggests not. Films that wish to lecture a pre-existing audience must reckon with that audience not showing up, and the supposedly untapped new audience of people on Twitter that like and retweet that pre-existing audience getting owned will also not show up, they never do. Which means of course that no one shows up. And then goodbye MGM. Time to edit?

December 15, 2019

From the Archives: The Golden Compass

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A shockingly humourless bore that is even more tiresome than 2005’s Narnia. The first thing to go with fundamentalists, whether they are religious fundamentalists or atheist fundamentalists like Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins, is always the sense of humour. It should come then as no surprise that there is only one gag, involving Sam Elliott’s daemon rabbit, in The Golden Compass. Philip Pullman fans have whinged that the message of the book has been neutered. One can only wonder how stridently didactic the book’s Anti-Catholicism is if that’s true, because it is painfully obvious here that The Magisterium is the Catholic Church, which must be EVIL because all the actors playing its members have adopted the camp Nazi mannerisms of ’Allo, ’Allo. Beating the mortal crap out of Catholicism is of course socially acceptable, we just shouldn’t hold our collective breath waiting for Pullman to do a similar hatchet job on Islam or Judaism. Such bigotry makes the posturing of the Oxford dons about ‘tolerance’, and the existence of the daemons as the incarnate souls of each person, preposterously illogical.

Director Chris Weitz thinks that if he throws enough CGI at the screen and sets the orchestral bombast at a (noticeably) ear-piercing volume he can distract from the pathetic script. He’s badly mistaken and the result is just plain boring. Heroine Lyra Belacqua’s carefully cultivated Mockney accent, despite being the niece of Lord Asriel (played by Daniel Craig, for literally 7 minutes), is incredibly irritating and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards lacks the acting chops to overcome such a fatal character detail. At no point do we care about Lyra’s fate, even when imprisoned by Nicole Kidman’s typically anaemic villain. Some actors do salvage something from the wreckage though. Ian McKellen is clearly enjoying himself far too much voicing an armoured polar bear, as is Sam Elliot in a reprise of his Big Lebowski role as an Old West character comically out of place, while Eva Green’s cameo as a flying witch queen should convince everyone that she needs to play the lead in the new Wonder Woman movie.

The final showdown at an arctic Magisterium facility that is half mental hospital, half convent school, is the occasion for some more deeply confused Catholic-bashing as children are separated from their daemons. ‘Dust’ and Sin are hilariously equated before a comically inept Empire Strikes Back style “No Lyra. I am your mother!” revelation occurs, which is then ignored in the rush to get to the badly choreographed ‘epic battle’ and much speechifying to set up the plotline for a sequel or two.

1/5

November 15, 2018

From the Archives: Casino Royale

An unprecedented journey into the past finds amidst the uncollected material from even before the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of the film that brought James Bond back from the dead, where, in retrospect I find that I had been very willing to leave him after suffering thru Brosnan’s quartet.

I hate 007. It’s important to clarify this at the beginning so you will understand that it is through extremely gritted teeth I have inform you that not only is Casino Royale brilliant, but it is brilliant in all the specific areas where a Bond film has no right to be even half-decent. Specifically a strong female character, an element of realism, a coherent plot, a lack of cheesiness, a believable torture scene and Bond displaying human emotions.

The screenplay is credited to three people. The writing partnership of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who wrote the last three execrable Bond films drafted the script, which was then completely rewritten by one Paul Haggis. I am not a fan of Haggis. I had a mean gag lined up about him being renowned in Hollywood by which I would mean not his back-to-back Screenplay Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby but rather his ability to make Oliver Stone look subtle. It is with seething fury then that I have to tell you his contributions to this film are masterful. He locates Bond firmly in the real world of post 9/11 intelligence, complete with MI6 cleaners to get rid of dead bodies. We meet 007 assassinating crooked agents and investigating two bomb plots, all with thrilling believability, before he finally discovers who is financing these terrorist activities: a private banker named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Bond must defeat Le Chiffre at a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale where his buy-in is supplied by Treasury official Vesper Lynd. Their first meeting on the train to Montenegro is delicious. Over dinner the pair verbally dissect each other’s characters based on their first impressions of each other. Bond is cruel but Vesper hurts him back with interest. Eva Green plays the first Bond girl who really is his equal. Furthermore in his relationship with Vesper we actually see James Bond displaying human emotions! There is a scene with Vesper slumped in the shower trying to wash blood off her hands after helping James in a gruesome murder which is jaw dropping: Bond makes no gags and does not try to take sexual advantage but actually just sits next to, and comforts, her.

The much touted castration torture scene meanwhile is gruellingly tense, blackly comic and utterly believable. This film has no Bond jokes. The funniest gags in the film are funny simply because they are unexpected unlike the double entendres of yore. David Arnold refrains from using the Bond theme for the entire film making its entrance incredibly impressive. Indeed the film’s final Get Carter style image confirms that Daniel Craig’s gritty Bond is in debt to Michael Caine’s unglamorous 1960s spy Harry Palmer. What’s more this scene makes us as impatient for a sequel as the promise of The Joker which ends Batman Begins. Damn…

4/5

November 5, 2018

From the Archives: Quantum of Solace

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up from the depths Daniel Craig’s pointlessly reviled outing; whose problems derive from the strike everybody knew about but affected not to.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in Quantum of Solace, which features a lot more action than Casino Royale. It doesn’t quite measure up to its mighty predecessor, but it does offer an intriguing re-invention of Bond’s 1960s foes.

The opening establishes that this is less the talk-talk-bang-bang formula of Casino Royale and more bang-bang-bang-BANG! The opening sequence is an incredibly frantic car-chase, after which we have to put up with the godawful Jack White song and sleazy silhouettes of naked ladies, but then it’s straight into the interrogation of Mr White, the villain Bond caught in the final scene of the last film. This scene features a shock so good it took me 20 minutes to get over it. 20 minutes of action as Bond travels to the Caribbean for a vicious Bourne style fist fight in a bathroom and a boat-chase. It really is surprising just how much action Marc Forster, the director best known for Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, has crammed in here. He only comes unstuck with an aerial dogfight which comes perilously close to returning the franchise to Roger Moore style campiness but just avoids doing so, and only displays art-house leanings with a silent shootout in Vienna wonderfully sound-tracked only by the opera the characters have been attending.

The sheer preponderance of action over meaty drama though makes this film feel like a victim of the writers’ strike. Paul Haggis’ rewrite of the script was infamously delivered mere minutes before the strike began last year and it could have used more character beats, even though there are great unexpected moments throughout. There is an absolutely priceless gag involving Bond’s distaste for cheap accommodation amid many other quotable lines. The CIA is depicted as morally bankrupt, willing to turn a blind eye to any right-wing dictatorship’s human rights abuses if there’s a plentiful supply of cheap oil to be had, while a high-ranking member of the British Government is revealed as a member of Quantum, Haggis’ reinvention of super-villain organisation Spectre. The rights to Spectre are owned by Irish writer/producer Kevin McClory so Haggis has re-imagined Bond’s 1960s foe as a network of ex-spooks and shady businessmen and politicians. This film pays further homage to the 1960s with the death of a major character, a score which evokes the softer, and more sinister, moments of John Barry’s scores, and a desert lair in Bolivia which is pure Ken Adam in its set design.

Mathieu Amalric, a god of French cinema, is slightly underwritten as Quantum villain Dominic Greene but makes his ‘environmental philanthropist’, who’s secretly plotting to seize control of the natural resources of Bolivia, a worthy foe for Bond. Olga Kurylenko, who graduated from taking her top off in French films (Le Serpent) to taking her top off in Hollywood films (Hitman), miserably fails to escape the shadow of Eva Green’s Vesper. Her character has an intriguing back-story but the parallels between her search for vengeance and Bond’s search for closure evaporate due to her inert screen presence.  The best relationship is between M and Bond who develop almost a fraught mother/son bond by the end. Craig is once again magnificent as Bond; physical, but also offering glimpses of the inconsolable grief behind his driven pursuit of Mr Greene. This is a good film and well worth seeing, and the consistently brutal action combined with some clever conceits left unresolved suggest that Craig’s next Bond film may surpass Casino Royale.

3/5

September 29, 2016

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton reunites with his Dark Shadows star Eva Green for a more successful outing than that fiasco, but not any meaningful escape from Burtonworld.

DF-07237 - Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) takes aim at her powerful enemies. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) runs a home for peculiar children on a Welsh island, but this story is really about young Floridian Jake (Asa Butterfield). When his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) is murdered, apparently by monsters, Jake is left with instructions to seek out the 1940s Children’s Home Abe lived in after fleeing the Nazis. Encouraged by psychiatrist Dr Golan (Allison Janney), Jake’s sceptical dad Franklin (a bafflingly miscast Chris O’Dowd) brings him to Wales. But they find Miss Peregrine’s Home was bombed by the Lutwaffe in 1943 with no survivors. But Jake in exploring the ruined mansion meets fire-starter Olivia (Lauren McCrostie), homunculi-manufacturer Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), and Abe’s lighter than air former girlfriend Emma (Ella Purnell). Miss Peregrine must explain the time-loop she has created in forever 1943, and the threat posed by Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson).

The work of Burton’s now regular cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is completely obscured by the 3-D: I’ve never seen a film so badly plunged into darkness by the act of putting on 3-D glasses. Ransom Riggs’ novel has been adapted by Kick-Ass and Woman in Black scribe Jane Goldman, but despite rattling along more efficiently than any number of Burton’s recent films this never really soars; undone as it is by an endless explaining of time-loops, as well as cliché, and Burton’s customary shortcomings. Burton seems to be targeting the YA audience to restore his credit rating after Dark Shadows and Big Eyes, but he can’t help himself. His love of the grotesque overcomes feigned interest in romance, and spurs him to depict villains feasting on mounds of children’s eyeballs, and go close on a character having his eyeballs showily removed.

Burton’s enduring reputation, born of confusing gothic with grotesque and fascination with evil as psychological darkness, continues to attract actors of high calibre; and, as so often, Burton has nothing for them. Judi Dench and Rupert Everett are almost comically under-used, and Kim Dickens seems to be in the movie because she wandered onto the wrong soundstage. It’s always great to see Stamp in action, and Purnell injects some life into her melancholic lead, while Butterfield is an effective hero, but there’s a hand-me-down feel to too much of the proceedings. Jackson’s Frankenstein’s monster of previous performances (Unbreakable, Jumper, Kingsman) is a lowlight, alongside Burton shamelessly lifting a Ray Harryhausen showstopper for his finale, and the pervasive X-Men-lite vibe emanating from a mansion housing children with superpowers and the betrayals of an elderly mutant who fled Nazis and speaks RP.

Tim Burton, on his 18th feature, is not going to suddenly change his stripes, and this is as wildly unsuitable for marketing to children as his warped Batman movies.

2.5/5

October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

mexico_city

James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

September 4, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl plays as a tragically awful The Fault in Our Stars and Be Kind Rewind mash-up by Wes Anderson.

MeandEarlandtheDyingGirl_article_story_large

Greg (Thomas Mann) navigates high school by being super-nice to all cliques, and a member of none. He avoids the cafeteria turf wars, eating with his sole friend Earl (RJ Cyler) in the office of cool history teacher Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). (You know he’s cool because he has tats and a shouted slogan ‘Respect the Research!’) But then Greg’s odd, odd mother (Connie Britton) forces him to befriend classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) when Rachel is diagnosed with leukaemia. Rachel’s weird mother Denise (Molly Shannon) is delighted at this development, and soon Greg’s eccentric dad (Nick Offerman) is hosting marathons for Rachel of the dreadful movies Greg and Earl have made. Greg is losing his treasured detachment, and, despite repeated protestations in his narration, Rachel is going to die; what will the emotional impact be on such a self-loathing figure?

You won’t care, because this film quickly becomes extremely grating. Set in Pittsburgh with an emotionally deadened hero who opens up under female tutelage this invites invidious comparisons with The Perks of Being a Wallflower; but Project X star Thomas Mann is no Logan Lerman, and novelist/screenwriter Jesse Andrews is no Stephen Chbosky. As for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who has worked on American Horror Story and Glee… This is his second feature after The Town That Dreaded Sundown. He’s not straying far from familiar settings. His whip-pans, arty tracking shots, hand-crafted animations, long-takes, narration, chapter titles, straight to camera monologues, odd perspectives, and painfully self-conscious quirkiness all play like ersatz Wes Anderson and become increasingly maddening. Having a character die of cancer doesn’t gift your movie instant profundity. Telling us twice that she’s not going to die is just annoying.

Bernthal is the only actor who escapes this farrago with dignity intact, as he has some interesting material on the nature of memory and biography to work with. Offerman is reduced to non-sequitirs and monologues akin to his workshop appearances on Conan. Shannon is creepy and disturbing as Rachel’s overly-sexualised mother, while Britton is unbelievable and bizarre as Greg’s mother pushing him into a weird gesture. Greg and Earl are ‘characterised’ by their love of Herzog, Kurosawa, and the Nouvelle Vague, which they pastiche in home-movies. The result is as infuriatingly pretentious, derivative, and mannered as the central trio in The Dreamers. So of course Greg’s former crush Madison (Katherine C Hughes) suggests making a new movie especially for Rachel. Dying is almost worthwhile if it inspires self-referential self-congratulatory cinema! This truly is Bret Easton Ellis’ nightmare conception of film-school student making films based on films, not on life; a cinematic parallel of Mannerist artists proudly painting based on Old Masters not on observed reality.

Having experienced Nico Muhly’s soundscape for the Wilton Diptych in the British National Gallery, I weep at his music being wasted trying to give Greg’s contemptible film some depth.

1/5

April 17, 2015

The Salvation

Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen faces off against Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a Western that might well have been pitched as Seraphim Falls meets Valhalla Rising. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

salvation_a

Jon (Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) were soldiers in the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, and, following Denmark’s catastrophic defeat, they fled to a life of farming in the Wild West. After seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) finally arrive to reunite the family. But they have the misfortune to share a stagecoach with thugs Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Lester (Sean Cameron Michael). Jon and Peter decide to head further West after this incident, but have not reckoned on the cowardice of their local sheriff/pastor Mallick (Douglas Henshall) and mayor Keane (Jonathan Pryce). They are eager to hand the brothers over to placate the enraged Col. Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), leader of a gang that includes the Corsican (Eric Cantona) and the mute Madelaine (Eva Green). But Delarue finds himself at war…

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org with Thomas Hobbes, Hannah Arendt, and Nicolas Winding Refn in the mix.

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…

marv

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…

0

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.

atheb2

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.

August 22, 2014

Sin City 2

Comic-book writer and artist Frank Miller returns with a sequel nobody particularly wanted, except presumably himself and co-director Robert Rodriguez.

0

Hard-drinking hard-bitten hard man Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, so, just another Saturday night in Sin City… Supernaturally lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town to take down unfriendly neighbourhood super-villain Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at his infamous poker game, assisted by lucky charm/hooker Marcie (Julia Garner). That doesn’t work out too well… Elsewhere Dwight (Josh Brolin, not Clive Owen), gets entangled with his seductive ex Ava (Eva Green) and her man-mountain muscle Manute (Dennis Haysbert, not Michael Clarke Duncan), and then another ex, Gail (Rosario Dawson), and her petite but equally terrifying muscle Miho (Jamie Chung, not Devon Aoki)… (Sheesh! Recasting is confusing!). And, in the final thread, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) prepares to shoot Roark as revenge for the suicide of her protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis); who now observes proceedings as a ghost.

I dismissed 2005’s Sin City as grotesque, witless garbage that was not so much pseudo-noir as porno-noir. And, hilariously, the sequel isn’t nearly as bad largely because of its abandonment of grotesquerie for the proud adoption of my latter tag. There still is nasty business; involving fingers, eyeballs, and bone splinting with Christopher Lloyd (who, joy!, insists a character call him Doctor); but there’s less of an emphasis on sadistic cruelty. Instead the emphasis is on lingering on Eva Green’s tits long enough so that (to paraphrase David Mamet) half America could draw them from memory. Green should watch Angel Face to see an actual noir version of her character, because her constant nudity is at first unusual, then laughably stupid, before it becomes a game of stop-watch to see if she’s topless for more than 50% of her screen-time.

Miller has written two new stories for this film, ill-serving JGL whose character really has no plan, and whose entire storyline is basically pointless. And ‘new’ is a strong term, because, like the original, this is incredibly repetitive stuff. Chandler used to have Marlowe get worked over real good once a book, Miller seems to have his characters get worked over good once a chapter. The violence is rendered more abstract this time round by greater recourse to white silhouettes, but Miller’s addiction to ultra-violence as the solution to all of life’s problems remains intact. Boothe is terribly one-note as Roark, but he has nothing to work with – Chandler or Paretsky can be opened on any page to find a zinger, Miller’s dialogue is unremittingly clunky. Sin City was an event, but the visuals don’t dazzle, they just highlight the poverty of writing behind them.

Sin City 2 is a less sadistically violent but more gratuitously sexualised (Juno Temple I’m looking at you…) reprise of its predecessor. It passes the time, but caveat emptor.

2/5

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.