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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February 17, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D

The lunatics behind the Crank movies shake up the comic book genre visually but can’t quite match the previous high standard of fun nonsense they’ve set themselves.

Ghost Rider 2 assumes that you’ve never seen Ghost Rider 1 and so gives you an animated introduction to your hero Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), stunt motorcyclist who made a deal with Roarke aka the Devil, and is now cursed to spend his nights as a fiery skeleton roaring around the world sucking the souls out of guilty people. Guilty of anything at all, even illegal downloading, and sssshlurp there goes your soul… Hiding out in Eastern Europe he’s contacted by bibulous priest Moreau (Idris Elba) who promises to lift the curse if Blaze finds Nadya (Violante Placido) and protects her son Danny (Fergus Riordan), who just happens to be the Anti-Christ; and who Roarke needs for a solstice ceremony to walk the earth in a purpose-conceived mortal vessel capable of containing his immortal powers.

Johnny Whitworth, a Talking Movies favourite, is Blaze’s adversary Carrigan, Nadya’s ex and an associate of Roarke who counters the Rider’s supernatural powers with ever more ludicrously high-powered weaponry until a slumming Ciaran Hinds as Roarke decides he’s being inefficient and grants him the power of decay. Finally a supervillain, a showdown beckons even as Blaze holds Moreau to his promise to rid him of his supernatural powers. The final act is a ramble thru old favourites like Hellboy and Superman II but while a loveably drawling Whitworth has some fun you’ll be riveted by Cage’s self-parodic performance. All I could think of was Studio 60’s “Welcome TO the Nicolas Cage SHOW!” during an interrogation scene which should become comedy legend as Cage bulges his eyes, twitches his head, laughs maniacally, and sings his lines to suppress the emerging Rider.

Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor make set-pieces such as an assault on a cameoing Anthony Head’s monastery vividly immediate, and their insistence on hand-held in-close camera-work elevates this genre nonsense above its scripting. Their flair for nonsense is also proudly displayed in absurdist moments like Moreau hanging upside down in a tree to the strains of the Marsellaise, and Blaze explaining how relieving himself when possessed by the Rider gives him a flamethrower to add to his usual weaponry of chains. But despite encouraging Nicolas Cage to let it all hang out there this is no Crank, and it falls a bit short of the gleeful knowingness of Drive Angry; despite its pounding ‘Led Zeppelin jamming’ soundtrack. An unusually reflective moment when Elba gives Blaze Holy Communion and the origin of the Rider are the only original elements of the script.

This is good silly fun, but unless you have a taste for nonsense or Nicolas Cage going mad, and those two categories are practically one category, it’s not essential viewing.

3/5

November 2, 2010

Enron

Velociraptors in the basement, sex in the boardroom, trading shares to techno music, and wielding light-sabres in the dark; just another day at the office in Lucy Prebble’s demented satire Enron.

Director Rupert Goold picked up his second Olivier award this year for his energetic interpretation of her script which rambunctiously charts the rise and fall of Enron under the stewardship of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. An impressive trading exchange dominates the stage, which runs Enron’s share price across its screen, and onto which TV footage from the era, including Alan Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’ speech, is projected. Much like The Silver Tassie, which it succeeded in the Gaiety, Enron is a play with music rather than a musical. Composer/lyricist Adam Cork only writes three genuine musical numbers, including a jaunty 1920s style routine complete with cane-twirling by cheerleading financial analysts (“He’s our man/If Jeff can’t do it, no one can!”), and a show-stopping hymn to the market when Skilling’s dream of an in-house trading floor becomes a reality with chanted verses of price movements to juddering techno yielding to ambient backed choruses of reverence by the traders for Gold or Aluminium or whatever commodity is going up. Elsewhere Cork’s sound design is high-octane dance music and Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ for a slow-motion physical theatre depiction of Skilling’s lethal team-building automotive weekends.

Prebble’s script develops four characters in detail and surrounds them with a circus of caricatures, the most amusing of which include the easily persuaded conjoined twins the Lehman Brothers and the equivocating auditors Arthur Andersen, one man and his truth-telling puppet. Sara Stewart (Batman Begins’ Martha Wayne) is Claudia Roe, the only executive who questions Skilling’s wisdom. Her insistence on building a power plant in India is continuously derided as passé, physically making electricity instead of just trading it, but in the end the plant is the only tangible asset remaining. Clive Francis is wonderfully despicable as Ken Lay, whose avuncular folksiness is only maintained by not asking questions he knows have uncomfortable answers. Paul Chahidi is magnificent as financial wunderkind Andy Fastow whose hero-worship of Skilling extends as far as naming his son Jeffrey. Fastow sees the smartest guy in the room succeeding and to hell with the social niceties he can’t master, but Skilling turns out not to be that clever as (to the bitter end) he cannot see that other people can’t and won’t ‘catch-up’ to his schemes. Corey Johnson (Hellboy’s retiring partner) deserves high praise for making his arrogant protagonist charismatic enough to be sympathetic.

Skilling’s new accounting system logs future revenue as present revenue, but present expenses are actually present, which quickly leaves him in debt. Fastow explains to Skilling with the help of a laser-pen that if his cavernous basement office is the debt that needs to be hidden, selling it to ‘independent’ entities which only need 3% of non-Enron stock to be independent, Fastow can use a tiny amount of Enron stock to create almost infinite layers of shadow entities he calls ‘raptors’ so that “this red dot fills the whole room”. Fastow later finds two hatched eggs, nervously asking “Is there anyone down here?” a velociraptor appears, “Clever girls”, and a blackout leaves only the raptor’s red eye visible – a precursor of the madness of the second act. Lay’s politicking with Dubya destroys energy regulation and a cash-strapped Skilling sends in his traders to profiteer from creating rolling blackouts in California. A darkened stage is lit up by choreographed traders wielding light-sabres as Skilling barks orders before the light-sabres power-off on Skilling’s jibe: “You want to know the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down it still had lights on”. But this tactic destroys Enron’s reputation and share-price precipitating the catastrophic end.

An incarcerated Skilling defiantly addresses the audience, his peroration is disturbingly thought-provoking; not just progress but also love and parenting depend on irrational exuberance -“The best things I did in my life I did in a bubble. When there was that atmosphere of total hope, and trust…and stupidity”.

4.5/5

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