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.

January 20, 2014

JDIFF 2014: 20 Films

Booking opens for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival at 9am tomorrow, so here are 20 films to keep an eye on at the festival.

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CALVARY (7:30pm Thu 13th Feb, Savoy)

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to The Guard laces the trademark McDonagh black comedy with a more philosophical approach akin to Dostoyevsky as Brendan Gleeson’s priest is told in the confessional that he will be murdered in one week. As he tries to identify the murderer from the miscreants (Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson) who make up his flock, with little success, he realises that he may have to prepare to meet his maker. Only God Forgives cinematographer Larry Smith imbues the Yeats country of Sligo with an appropriate contemplative grandeur.

BIG SUR (9:00pm Fri 14th Feb, Lighthouse)

Twin Falls Idaho director Michael Polish tackles Jack Kerouc’s 1962 work Big Sur. At a brisk 81 minutes this shares none of the bloat of Walter Salles’ disastrous On the Road, though it shares a liking for direct quotation from Kerouac as voice-over. Jean-Marc Barr is the increasingly alcoholic and depressed Kerouac, who attempts to get sober and productive by gathering old friends Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty) and Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) for a trip to an isolated Big Sur cabin (given extra sheen by cinematographer M David Mullen).

MYSTERY ROAD (9:00pm, Fri 14th Feb, Cineworld)

Red Hill’s set-up is reversed for another modern western set in Australia. Writer/director/editor/cinematographer/composer Ivan Sen creates a brooding mystery as Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his outback hometown, where his white colleagues deride him even as the aboriginal community distrusts him. He’s assigned the case of a young girl found dead in a drainage ditch as a deliberate dead-end, however, as he interrogates persons of interest including Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten he discovers that even this sun-blanched town can harbour dark secrets. Sen’s enigmatic achievement is essentially a Western meets Chinatown.

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ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (11:00am, Sat 15th Feb, Savoy)

Jim Jarmusch’s unsurprisingly meditative vampire film is described as being “a shrewd and sensual subversion on familiar gothic mythology” as Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play Adam & Eve, centuries-old vampires reuniting after a spell apart to live in a grungy house in decaying Detroit, Adam being a reclusive musician. Eve’s feisty sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears, however, and disturbs their nocturnal utopia. Jarmusch’s recent films have been becoming an ever more acquired taste, so the joy of seeing John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe may not recompense for the glacial pacing.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2:00pm, Sat 15th Feb, Cineworld)

Wes Anderson. Your reaction to those two words is all you really need to know… Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H, the legendary concierge of the titular hotel, and newcomer Tony Revolori plays Zero Revolori, his young friend and sidekick. Together they become embroiled in a plot revolving around a priceless Renaissance painting and a family fortune. The cast includes Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, and the inter-war setting gives Anderson’s regular production designer Adam Stockhausen scope to really go wild with the archly mannered sets.

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (6:30pm, Sat 15th Feb, Cineworld)

A striking adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning novel by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele, this film follows two women during the dramas of Nigeria’s independence. Driven by powerful and moving performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls), we follow sisters Olanna (Newton) and Kainene (Rose), daughters of a well-to-do businessman, as their lives take very different paths. Olanna falls in love with a revolutionary, while Kainene enters into a romance with a white British writer. As civil war spreads, the sisters both flee to Biafra.

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STAY (8:00pm, Sat 15th Feb, Cineworld)

Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Irish-Canadian co-production is based on Aislinn Hunter’s acclaimed novel Stay, set in Galway and Montreal. Archaeologist Aidan Quinn (Elementary) lives on Ireland’s west coast trying to bury his past. His young lover Taylor Schilling (Mercy) leaves when he disavows having children, returning to her native Montreal to reflect on her situation. Meanwhile, the local community trundles its way through death and birth, economic collapse and survival. But just as his professional and human engagement is renewed by a bogland find, her emotional confusion grows as she excavates her own family history.

STRANGER BY THE LAKE (9:00pm, Sat 15th Feb, Lighthouse)

Alain Guiraudie’s film starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, and Patrick d’Assumçao set Cannes abuzz. We follow Franck, a gay man who frequents the lake, popular with nudists and men cruising for sex in the surrounding forests. He comes to know Michel, to whom he is dangerously and foolishly attracted, and refuses to stay away from – entering a deadly game of cat and mouse. Hailed as a masterpiece of carefully constructed narrative and concentrated visual storytelling, electric with tension, desire and danger and featuring graphic unsimulated gay sex, it’s like explicit Highsmith.

TRACKS (11:00am, Sun 16th Feb, Savoy)

The Painted Veil director John Curran helms a story about one young woman’s nine-month trek across the Australian desert. Mia Wasikowska is mesmerising as a would-be lone explorer who does it because it’s there and she wants to be alone. She does, however, meet people on her trip, including Aboriginal ‘old fella’ Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) who helps see her through sacred desert areas. The stunning scenery is enhanced by judicious use of overhead shots, while cinematographer Mandy Walker does a spectacular job in conveying the stark beauty and inherent danger in the shifting landscape.

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A LONG WAY DOWN (8:00pm, Sun 16th Feb, Cineworld)

French rom-com specialist Pascal Chaumeil tackles Nick Hornby’s best-selling novel. Disgraced chat show host Pierce Brosnan reaches rock bottom on New Year’s Eve, standing on the roof of London’s premier suicide spot. But his suicide is thwarted by the arrival of other jumpers; Aaron Paul, a failed rock star with terminal cancer; Imogen Poots, an MP’s neglected daughter; and single mother Maureen Toni Collette, struggling to care for her severely disabled son. The quartet all pledge to refrain from attempts at suicide until Valentine’s Day – thus forming an unlikely support group.

THE WONDERS (PLAOT) (8:30pm, Sun 16th Feb, Cineworld)

Veteran director Avi Nesher indulges in labyrinthine comic fantasy as Ariel Navon (Ori Hizkiah), an art-school dropout and cartoonist, spots a strange flash of blue light emanating from an apparently vacant building. His investigation yields an encounter with famed modern-day prophet Rabbi Knafo (Yehuda Levi). Is Knafo being held against his will? And who would do such a thing? Cartoons come to life when nobody’s looking, and conspiracies keep being conspired when nobody’s looking, as Woody Allen’s films vie with shades of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in the influence stakes.

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (9:00pm, Mon 17th Feb, Cineworld)

Irish director Ruairí Robinson makes his feature bow with this oblique tale of life on Mars. Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai and Olivia Williams are crew-members on the first manned mission to Mars. All goes well, until the final day when an exciting discovery is made a few miles from base. Obviously, unlike Antarctic scientists who begin each whiteout season with a viewing of The Thing, none of these astronauts had seen Alien. After an officer goes missing collecting evidence of Martian life the crew are soon violently fighting for life.

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BEFORE THE WINTER CHILL (AVANT L’HIVER) (6:15pm, Tue 18th Feb, Lighthouse)

Daniel Auteuil is a respected surgeon, Kristin Scott Thomas cooks and gardens exquisitely, together, they bring stability to their extended family and community of friends. But the passion for Paul of Leïla Bekhti brings chaos. Novelist/film-maker Philippe Claudel’s second film opens as a Gallic take on Fatal Attraction, with a nod to the great Claude Chabrol, before morphing into something original and passionate as Claudel extends the strong creative partnership he began with Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long and extracts a superb, poignant performance from Auteuil.

MOOD INDIGO (L’ECUME DES JOURS) (8:45pm, Tue 18th, Lighthouse)

Director Michel Gondry adapts Boris Vian’s cult novel Froth on the Daydream with Populaire star Romain Duris as a Bertie Wooster type kept out of trouble by his own personal Jeeves, Omar Sy (The Untouchables). Duris decides he needs a girlfriend, and promptly meets Audrey Tatou. But Raymond Queneau described the 1947 novel as ‘the most heartbreakingly poignant modern love story’. Gondry’s lo-tech effects nail the writer’s surreal flights of fancy and wall-to-wall puns, but worsening health and financial crises make this a notably darker and more melancholy rom-com than usual.

CAS & DYLAN (6:30pm, Wed 19th Feb, Cineworld)
Before Jaws Richard Drefyuss starred in classic Canadian film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, now he makes a memorable journey across Canada as dying Winnipeg surgeon Cas in Jason Priestley’s touching road movie. Cas crosses paths with Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany’s Dylan, a free-wheeling chain-smoking kleptomaniac – and finds himself fleeing the scene of a crime with her in a stolen VW Beetle. Jessie Gabe’s wise and funny script gradually reveals the truth about the pair, while Dreyfuss Fassbenders thru his best role in years as the straitlaced doctor belatedly letting rip.

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UNDER THE SKIN (8:45pm, Wed 19th Feb, Cineworld)

Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer returns after a long absence with a sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as a classic femme fatale in the film noir tradition, down to the plump red lips and deep fur coat, but with a refrigerated nothingness at her core. Because she is in fact an alien who takes amorous Glaswegian men into her van turns them into Scotch broth. Glazer renders the Scottish landscape as alien: dawn mist rolls across lochs like curls of space dust, while Johansson has won surprised praise for her wordless performance.

THE CONGRESS (8:45pm, Wed 19th Feb, Lighthouse)

Waltz with Bashir director Ari Forman returns with a meta-textual Hollywood satire, inspired by Stanislav Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress, starring Robin Wright as herself, which morphs midway into a full blown sci-fi cartoon, but only to cut even closer to the philosophical bone in its investigation of femininity, fantasy and virtual reality. Actress Robin Wright is washed up, but Miramount executive Danny Huston has a proposition that will guarantee her riches for life. He wants to scan her and take full rights to virtual Robin Wright. But she must never act again…

AFTERNOON DELIGHT (9:00pm, Thu 20th Feb, Cineworld)

Writer-director Jill Soloway (United States of Tara) makes her feature film debut with a raunchy mixture of comedy and drama as thirtysomething mum Kathryn Hahn tries to spice up life with husband Josh Radnor at a Los Angeles strip club, only to develop an unhealthy fixation on young stripper Juno Temple. Desperate to escape the numbingly dull preschool parents in her neighbourhood, she invites her to become live-in nanny. Kathryn Hahn was very good in support in Revolutionary Road, and this seems like a more comedic take on delusions of grandeur and escape.

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THE DOUBLE (6:30pm, Fri 21st Feb, Cineworld)

IT Crowd star Richard Ayoade served notice of his directorial abilities with 2011’s Submarine so this second feature is eagerly awaited, but has already divided opinion at previous festivals. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella is relocated to anonymous office bureaucracy as Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, a belittled worker bee who’s shunned by the elfin photocopy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). And then a freight-train of confidence named James, also played by Eisenberg, starts work – instantly winning over the boss and charming Hannah to the horror of Simon who is the only who has noticed his doppelganger.

THE ZERO THEOREM (9:00pm, Fri 21st Feb, Cineworld)

Allegedly the final part of a dystopian trilogy comprising Brazil and 12 Monkeys, in which case God knows how many trilogies Hitchcock inadvertently knocked out… Christoph Waltz is an angst-ridden computer programmer tasked with proving the titular theorem, and thereby revealing the meaning of life. Anybody shouting ‘42’ will be ejected. His quest is supported by Mélanie Thierry and hampered by his supervisor David Thewlis and Matt Damon’s Management. Tilda Swinton scene-steals as an AI psychiatrist, and Gilliam’s inimitable visual style of odd angles, dizzy colours, and surrealism are on full display.

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