Friday, August 22, 2014

A MOVIE WORTH WAITING FOR: "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Is Disturbingly Nihilistic, But Uniquely Presented

Deep dish pizza … southern fried chicken … cheesecake … French fries … T-bone steak ... bacon double cheeseburgers … a stack of melted-butter, rich maple syrup drenched pancakes … what do all these foods have in common? A one-way ticket to a myocardial infarction; a caloric, fat-laden miasma of fat and grease that when consumed in great amounts can make one feel sickeningly nauseous…but oh, does it taste so gooooood going down. 

Come on…you know you want me.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is a lot like that.

”Sin City”, the brain child of comic book writer/artist and director Frank Miller, was a groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed combination of 90’s grim-and-gritty chic with the style of pulp magazines and classic film noir; a formula that was successfully translated onto the big screen in 2005 by directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez. With A Dame To Kill For, lightning has struck twice…tenfold. It’s akin to experiencing an unfolding disaster; horrifying to witness much less contemplate, yet too tantalizing to look away.  

The film engenders that feeling because it looks so damn good, more likely due to Rodriguez’ guiding hand then Miller’s (as anyone who’s watched Miller’s solo-directorial effort The Spirit (2008) can attest). If last year’s Machete Kills was Rodriguez’ grindhouse pastiche of gory excess, A Dame To Kill For is his art house love sonnet. Rodriguez’ sensibilities combined with Miller’s overall vision captures the look and feel of the source material, while at the same time rising (in varying degrees) above its conventions. Technology has caught up with their combined vision and the visuals are much more powerfully impressionistic than in the first outing (even more so in 3D). The city itself is the main oppressively omnipresent character; an indifferent god engulfing the denizens of its streets. Nihilistic despair rises from the sewers and permeates the air, while corruption and vice ooze from the pores of every piece of brick, mortar, and metal. It’s a seedy world where hope is not unknown but unwelcome. The “city as Hell metaphor” is a benchmark of many a story, but rarely as prevalent as here.  [Ba]Sin City is its own dark dystopia divorced from the real world, its citizens enmeshed in its seductive embrace with no way out save one.

This place is Disney World by comparison… 

Each scene is meticulously and (dare I say) lovingly rendered (with some, as in the first film, practically lifted from the panels of the comics) as if a visually lyrical painting. This attention to detail is evident from the opening scene, which serves as the synopsis for the entire experience: an act of brutal violence rendered in over-the-top animation, with Mickey Rourke's gravelly voice-over describing the unfolding events, his raspy delivery teetering between sincerity and mockery; a confluence of the disturbing and the comical. It leaves you feeling like you have to take a much needed shower even as you revel in the opportunity to get dirty. 
Oooooo, baby…. 

Like the original, the film is made up of vignettes from the original comics which are only tangentially connected within the film’s framework.  Despite a couple of pacing issues, the stories draw you in even as they balance the tightrope between straight treatment and ludicrousness. The majority of the tales ("Just Another Saturday Night", "A Dame To Kill For," and "The Long, Bad Night," respectively) take place before the events of the first movie; hence why, for example, the character of Marv is such a big presence in this film. Each story follows a particular character: (1) Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a lucky guy looking to make a statement in Sin City by insinuating himself into a card game headed by the villainous, corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth) (2) A pre-plastic surgery Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over the reins from Clive Owen) being drawn against his better judgment into protecting his femme fatale ex Ava (a perfectly cast Eva Green); (3) a minor sub-plot involving Detective Mort (Christopher Meloni), a cop who is drawn into the Dwight/Ava dynamic; and last but not least Nancy (Jessica Alba), who is filled with rage, remorse, and regret over Hartigan’s (Bruce Wills) self-sacrificial suicide and desires nothing more than to see Senator Roark dead. The actors clearly throw themselves into their work, even if the characters they portray seem joyless. One of the notable exceptions to this is Booth as Roark.  Having played “Phillip Marlowe, Private Eye” on cable in the 80’s, Booth is no stranger to what is required of a noir villain. He revels in his charismatically cruel character, who wears the City’s dark heart like a comfortable, lived-in leather duster.

Come on…you know you want me. 

If Roark is emblematic of the city’s seedy evil pestilence, then Marv is it’s righteous and vengeful wrath; an idea which is crystallized in this film and makes his fate as documented in the first film even more tragic. It’s been a while since Mickey Rourke got top billing in any film, especially in a film that contains luminaries such as Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Josh Brolin among others, but he certainly earns it as he serves as the lynchpin to all the stories. While his character is the most visually excessive, his bearing is surprisingly the most restrained; a pillar of steely calm in an otherwise outrageously manic word, though he explodes into ferocious violence at the drop of a dime. 

Sadly, with the passing of both Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy, the parts of Manute and Shellie necessitated recasting, though of more import is the former.  Dennis Haysbert has the thankless task of stepping into Duncan’s large shoes. Haysbert does better in the role than expected; though he lacks some of Duncan’s presence in both stature and menace, he gives enough to be more than effective in the role even if he does imbue the character with a gentlemanly air the Duncan's interpretation lacked.  

Being a killing machine…that’s Allstate’s stand…Are you in good...oh, wait... 

Brolin’s Dwight is a character all his own, which undermines the character’s connection between the two films but still compelling in it's own right. Pay attention as Christopher Lloyd makes a brief but thoroughly enjoyable cameo as Kroenig, who is imagined as a “Doc Brown” who achieved his degree by way of Gotham City U. Levitt's Johnny is cocky brashness, his buoyant demeanor both compliments and contrasts his environs and makes his particular storyline hit all the right emotional beats.

On the surface, A Dame To Kill For seems to be brutally and degradingly misogynistic. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a subversive subtext extolling of female empowerment, for it’s the women who drive the events of the film (directly or otherwise). As the ostensible dame to kill for, Eva Green is sublime both in visuals (which the film browbeats with as many lovingly rendered nude shots of her as humanly possible*) and in performance; the acting that was derided in Dark Shadows serves her well here, giving her character much needed bite. Rosario Dawson returns as Gail, who’s not given as much to do this time around but gleefully makes the most of it.  Of all the returning players, Bruce Wills as the ghostly Hartigan is the most marked in terms of real-time age. However, his worn and haggard look serves the character well, lending a spectral, heavy gravitas to what amounts to an extended cameo. but who's presence fuels Jessica Alba's Nancy, giving focus to her character's pain and overall wretchedness. She in turns seethes and despairs, transitioning between both sans subtlety.  She's given more to do here than in the last film, and it is her story that drives the film's final arc; one which borrows an element from The Sopranos and, in keeping with this film's tonality, uses it to better effect. 

As a whole, the actors teeter on the verge of parody, but for the most part Rodriguez reins them in just enough to remind the viewer that this is a world of unreality where none of this is to be taken seriously. His judicious yet sparse use of color in a world of literal black-and-white reinforces this sense of fantasy, even as the black-and-white merge into an oppressive, overriding grey. The original score by Rodriguez and collaborator Carl Thiel use the noir hallmarks of brass and woodwinds and ratchet them to the nth degree, further heightening the sense of foreboding. 

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is not just another comic book movie. It’s a film that plays with different opposing motifs and styles, blending them into a fully realized world. There’s no in-between: It’s a film you will either love or hate for it's not a "fun" film in the conventional sense. It is lurid, apprehensive, and morbidly bleak. It is also a vivid, extremely well-crafted and executed piece of modern noir. While the characters are not as well-defined as in the first outing (which is disappointing but expected given the enormity of the cast), the performances are solid. This is a film that must be watched in 3D as it is one of the rare films that deserves the technological treatment (keep a special eye out for the opening credits and a pool scene). It balances macabre hopelessness with wry absurdity.  It’s a film that is a combination of conflicting styles that is not afraid to laugh at itself, making for a cinematic experience that is uniquely it’s own.

*Not that I'm complaining.
**Special thanks to Marjorie Lepowsky of Chatterbox Productions for her thoughts on technological advancement.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

NOSTALGIA ONLY GOES SO FAR: "The Expendables 3" Is Still Enjoyable Despite Being Run Of The Mill [Minor Spoilers]

There's a problem that is inherent with premises based on a gimmick. A gimmick can only go so far. Before 2010, it was practically impossible to conceive of a film that would star a plethora of big screen action heroes from the 80's and 90's; especially given the notorious egos of some (star Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example). Then came the first Expendables, a film that surprised many just by being made in the first place. The second one found the aforementioned 80's action triumvirate engaged in more than just an extended cameo sequence, and added Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix for what was to have been a career comeback. The gimmick of seeing all these stars together in one blockbuster blowout, with tongue-in-cheek references to actor-specific action tropes, mitigated the need for an engaging story, much less plot. 

But gimmicks wear out fast, which begets a "been there, done that" ennui; which is something that star and primary screenwriter Sylvester Stallone knows better than most. Say what you will about the actor's skill as a thespian, watch his filmography and one would be hard pressed to deny he knows a thing or two about crafting a story. In The Expendables 3, the team is sent to take out yet another enemy to freedom. However, much to Barney Ross' (Stallone) surprise, it turns out to be Col. Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a personal enemy of Ross; one who was thought long dead.  When he takes out one of the core members of the team, Barney comes to the conclusion that the weight of age and obsolescence hangs over his team like a shroud and disbands The Expendables to forced retirement including himself, but not before he settles his score with Stonebanks. To that end, with the help of recruiter Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Ross recruits a whole new team made of members under the age of thirty. However, things do not go as planned. 

One of the more interesting aspects about this film series is it's metatextual commentary on the action film in general, but the ageist aspect of its performers in particular, which have often been played to humorous effect. The normal rule regarding trilogies is that the third film spins the central conceit of the two films that preceded it. Whereas The Expendables and The Expendables 2 were all about showing that the old guard still had what it took to get the action job done, The Expendables 3 postulates their awareness that perhaps their time has run its course, at least in Barney's mind. So the Expendables become "The Replaceables" with much younger, equally capable, and more tech savvy counterparts. Without giving too much away, it's a given that both generations overcome their animosity towards each other and band together to stop Stonebank's machinations. However, the path to the getting there is somewhat pat and disjointed.  An action-packed first act leads in to a plodding recruitment second act that meanders and tries to find its footing. It's only when the teams finally blend is when the balls-to-the-walls action fest really begins, and this despite a number of plot holes big enough to shoot a missile through.

Characterization has never really been much of an issue for this series, since the entire premise has been comic book-ish in the most basic sense of the term. Yet despite director Patrick Hughes best efforts, this installment suffers from too many characters (some more thinly realized than others) with too little time for their development. All the original Expendables (Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren) return and are their usual, reliable selves. Among the newcomers, the stand outs are former Stallone antagonists Wesley Snipes as "Doctor Death", a maniac ex-member of the original Expendables team, and a manic, looney tunes cartoon come to life Antonio Banderas as a talkative, hyperactive "assassin" who doubles as an anti-aging infomercial guru. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, stiffly walks in and flies a chopper in a manner reminiscent of a scene he's done before but looks bored as hell doing it. On the youngsters side, MMA Ronda Rousey makes an impressive big screen debut, kicking ass as powerfully as her male counterparts.While Kellan Lutz of Twilight and The Legend of Hercules plays "Smilee" as the stereotypical heroic maverick with a heart of gold and ostensible Barney Ross protege.  Mel Gibson relishes his role as the most formidable of The Expendables villains, playing Stonebanks as a mirror universe Martin Riggs. Like most other actors of this franchise, his character's backstory parallels the actor's persona, but used to menacing effect.

In the end, The Expendables 3 is less an actual action movie and more of a string of scenes of a bunch of fan-favorite guys (and girl) getting together to have fun doing what they do best: chew scenery, fire guns, beat the bad guys to submission, blow stuff up, and give pithy comebacks while doing it.  All in all, it's a fun movie...really, what more could you want from an Expendables film?