300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

2016 #78
Noam Murro | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Taking place before, during, and after the events of Zack Snyder’s surprise-hit graphic novel adaptation 300, belated follow-up Rise of an Empire tells the wider story of what was going on in the war between Greece and Persia. In particular, it follows Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he commands a series of sea battles against the Persian navy, led by Artemisia (Eva Green).

300 was known from the off as a case of style over substance, both in terms of its visuals (the ultra-heightened colour palette at a time when extreme digital grading still felt new; the slow-mo/fast-mo/etc editing) and its storytelling (taking an historical event and ramping it up to the level of legend; dialogue more concerned with being readily quotable than sounding plausible). But it committed so thoroughly to that methodology that it kind of worked, in its own ridiculous way. It helped that, as I said, it was all quite new — 300 was a visual revelation back in 2007, and that was enough. Now, plenty of films look like that, leaving 300 2 in search of a hook. It doesn’t find one.

It doesn’t help that the CGI this time is terrible, making the whole thing look like a computer game with real people occasionally dropped in. It’s not just the low quality of the graphics (calling them “effects” or “visuals” seems generous), but the way the camera moves and frames things. And the gore is gorno-level outrageous. In one shot early in the film, we see a horse rise up in fright, slow motion emphasising how its whole body is lifting into the air on its hind legs, its front hoof flailing, its eyes wild… before it comes crashing down, its hoof smashing into a grounded man’s head, the not-even-vaguely-plausible CGI blood exploding everywhere — in slow motion, of course.

It’s also terribly obvious that it was shot for 3D. I’m not normally one to criticise a film for that — I think when some critics know a film is being released in 3D they see that in its shot choices, even if they’re perfectly valid choices for 2D. But Rise of an Empire screams that it was made for 3D from the start, with all manner of things thrust towards the camera, usually in slow motion, and the constant explosions of blood (to call them squirts or sprays implies a more liquid-like quality than they actually possess) which go nowhere else but camerawards. Presumably the only reason it’s not an 18 for violence is because it’s all so bloody silly.

There is no point discussing or analysing any other aspects of the film. In every respect — from the clunky structure, to the leaden dialogue, to the poor performances, to the cheap visuals, to the fake CGI — this doesn’t feel like the $110 million blockbuster it is, but like a direct-to-Syfy TV movie.

1 out of 5

300: Rise of an Empire is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

High Noon (1952)

2015 #50
Fred Zinnemann | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / PG

On the day marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly), hands in his badge and plans to leave town, word reaches Hadleyville that a criminal he arrested, Frank Miller (presumably Will read DK2 and arrested him for crimes against literature), will arrive on the noon train, bent on revenge. Afraid that Miller and his cronies will terrorise the town and/or hunt down the newlyweds wherever they go, Will elects to stay and face the gang. But will any of the townspeople stand alongside him to defend their home?

Well, you probably know the answer to that — it’s one of the film’s more (in)famous facets. If you somehow don’t know and want to remain spoiler free, look away now, because the answer is: no. No one will stand with Will. Interpreted by the American left as an analogy for people being afraid to stand up to McCarthy’s HUAC witch-hunt, some on the right were less impressed: John Wayne and Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. Both are regarded as classic Westerns, so in that respect there’s no ‘winner’ there. Besides, High Noon was eventually embraced by the right as well, turning it around to see it as a celebration of one man’s dedication to his duty.

Some would contend it’s impossible to engage with High Noon and ignore that political allegory; others, like Mike at Films on the Box in his eloquent take on the film, would say it’s more than good enough to stand apart from such concerns. I have sympathy with both sides: the parallels are surely there, but it’s also a fine Western thriller in its own right. You certainly don’t need to know about the contemporaneous events it was reflecting to enjoy it. As to whether that subtext is a beneficial added dimension or a needless distraction, that’s down to personal preference.

There’s plenty else going on to keep a viewer engaged, anyway. It’s not an action-packed Western, the style many people at the time were accustomed to: according to Wikipedia, it faced criticism for its shortage of “chases, fights, and picture-postcard scenery”. In its place there’s the slow-burn tension of the clock ticking towards midday and the inevitable confrontation, as well as the moral and emotional dilemmas of the townsfolk, who’ve been happy to rely on Will’s marshalling ability for so long but refuse to help when he needs them.

There are personal relationships to contend with too: Amy is a Quaker and so a pacifist, and just wants to leave rather than face a violent confrontation; Will’s deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), refuses to help because Will refuses to recommend him for promotion; and then there’s hotel owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who’s currently Harvey’s lover, but used to be Will’s, and before that was Miller’s. She’s planning to flee town too because, well, wouldn’t you?

To top it all off, the film takes place in near-as-damn-it real time. Regular readers will know this is a plus for me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom. In a narrative such as this, however, it only adds to the tension: you know it isn’t going to jump from 11:30 to the titular time, for instance — you’re going to live every one of those minutes with the characters; that’s exactly how much, or little, time Will has left to get ready.

Then it all culminates in a strong extended action sequence. Surely anyone feeling deprived of such thrills was satiated at that point? Maybe the now-more-familiar structure of building to a single big sequence at the end was less accepted back in 1952.

And the attitudes of 1952 do continue to surround the film. The activities of HUAC had a serious, enduring impact on Hollywood (you only have to see the footage of Elia Kazan receiving his honorary Oscar in 1999, and the varying reactions it provoked from the audience, to appreciate that), so it’s no surprise that a film that engages with those events, however allegorically, can’t wholly shrug off such an association. For those who aren’t interested in those affairs, however, it still has a tense story and powerful character drama. Either way you look at it, High Noon is a rich, well-made, rewarding picture.

5 out of 5

High Noon is on Film4 this afternoon at 2:55pm.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

2014 #127
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

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 Spirit (2008)

2014 #89
Frank Miller | 98 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG-13

The SpiritComic book creator Frank Miller brings what he learnt co-directing Sin City to this adaptation of Will Eisner’s classic newspaper strip. Turns out, that’s not much.

Miller aims for a pulpy but satirical tone, a stylistic choice many misunderstood. Sadly, even when spotted, the execution doesn’t coalesce. Gabriel Macht is a limp lead; famous co-stars overact; visually it’s a Sin City rip-off… Castle’s Stana Katic as an eager rookie is the best thing in it (that might just be me…)

There’s the seed of a fantastic idea in Miller’s vision of The Spirit, but it germinates as an amateurish wannabe.

2 out of 5

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is released on DVD and Blu-ray today.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.


* The Spirit was trimmed by 25 seconds to get a 12A for UK cinemas. The Blu-ray release is branded as an “Extended Cut” but is merely the uncut original, and is rated 15. This was the version shown on TV. ^