Violet & Daisy (2011)

2015 #34
Geoffrey Fletcher | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Violet and DaisyAfter winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher wrote and directed this zany hit-women movie. Or possibly he wrote it “in 1996, when everybody and their brother and their sister and their cousin twice-removed was trying to be Quentin Tarantino,” as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review for RogerEbert.com.

Indeed, the end result — which concerns two girl-ish assassins, played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, in a chaptered narrative that’s mainly about their confrontation with a mark, played by James Gandolfini, who actually wants them to kill him — plays like Tarantino with a metric tonne of Quirk slathered over it. On the bright side, it’s sort of entertaining, albeit fundamentally derivative with a sheen of left-field try-hard wacky-uniqueness.

There are good performances from Gandolfini (in particular) and Ronan, who manage to pull some genuine empathy out of the oddness. Unfortunately, this aspect of character drama comes too late — the early part of the film trains us to expect a stylised genre movie, then suddenly shifts into a meditation on loneliness and death. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t gel. I’m all for tonal dissonance, but it needs to be handled correctly. Sleepy cellHere, Fletcher either needs to settle on one or the other, or clearly signal his intentions earlier.

Violet & Daisy is a bit of a mess, but one that at least offers a worthwhile performance or two and some entertaining, inventive, if derivative, moments. The sheer scale of its self-conscious kookiness will just grate for some viewers, though.

3 out of 5

Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

2014 #126
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that Movie-Censorship.com list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

4 out of 5

This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

The Conspirator (2010)

2014 #54
Robert Redford | 117 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The ConspiratorAlthough John Wilkes Booth is famous as the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he was merely the person who pulled the trigger: eight people were tried for conspiracy to kill America’s 16th President; this is the story of what happened to the only woman among them.

Or, rather, it’s the story of the young lawyer who is forced to represent her. Rather than cave to pressure and more-or-less let the prosecution have their way, he fights her corner against a ludicrously biased system that would execute her without trial if only they could. The sheer weight of this bias — and the fact the story is from history, rather than a created-for-the-movies tale (with all the idealism that would bring) — means there’s a sort of crushing sense of inevitability about how it plays out. Some have criticised the film for lacking tension, a complaint that I think is to some degree misplaced — especially as, not knowing what happened, I felt it was fairly tense towards the end.

As the lawyer, James McAvoy has to lead the film against a few experienced names, but he can hold his own (which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise at this point) and is easily the best thing in the movie. OK, so he’s saddled with a well-worn “lawyer so dedicated to the case he sacrifices his personal life” character arc, but that doesn’t mean he plays it so half-heartedly. The only acting weak link is Alexis Bledel, who somehow seems far too modern; Co-conspirators?or rather, like an actress versed in playing modern characters struggling gamely with a period one, and coming up short.

The Conspirator takes a footnote from history and turns it into an engrossing legal drama. What it lacks in originality is made up for through compelling performances and the exposure of little-known facts and incidents surrounding one of American history’s most famous events.

4 out of 5