Barely Lethal (2015)

2016 #49
Kyle Newman | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Barely LethalHailee Steinfeld stars as a teenage girl raised from childhood by a top-secret government organisation to be an expert agent, but who has always longed for a more normal experience. When the organisation thinks she’s died on a mission, she uses it as a chance to have that normal life. Researching the high school experience from teen movies, she heads off to a typical US high school… and finds life isn’t quite like the movies. Though it is a bit, but it’s allowed to be so long as you keep referencing the movies you’re riffing off… right? Oh, and of course her old life keeps intruding, in the form of people wanting to kill her ‘n’ all that.

Barely Lethal (that’s a pun on “barely legal” rather than a synonym for “mostly harmless, incidentally) was very poorly reviewed by critics, and I don’t know that audiences gave it that much better a reception, but at this point that works in its favour. You see, its production values are a little cheap and cheerful (despite a recognisable cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba, and Sophie Turner), and sometimes it really falters with an overuse of clichés (is it OK to reference that they’re clichés, or if you point out you’re using a cliché is it still bad because you are still using that cliché?). But if its establishing concept sounds like something you might enjoy, and you go in with suitably lowered expectations, then I think there’s a fair chance you’d find it to be a frequently amusing, occasionally very funny, and sometimes quite sweet high school comedy — with added doses of action comedy for good measure. There’s even one great scene (which is more than many a “very good” film can claim); the kind of scene that, when it happens, is so right it feels like kind of an obvious idea, but I’ve never seen it done before (it kinda requires a premise like this to even work) and is pretty faultlessly executed.

In terms of pure, simple, for-what-it-is enjoyability, there’s part of me that wants to go out on a limb and say Barely Lethal just edges a 4… but the critical part of my brain points to those parts that are clunky, overfamiliar, or underdeveloped. I did think it was mostly undemanding fun, though.

3 out of 5

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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.

Machete (2010)

2014 #114
Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis | 100 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

MacheteMulti-hyphenate Robert Rodriguez takes his Grindhouse fake trailer and expands it into an all-star “Mexploitation” actioner, with mixed results.

When it’s on its game, Machete is the best kind of spoof: innovative, comical, and as thrilling as the cream of the genre it’s targeting. Moments that achieve this are liberally scattered throughout, and to cite them would be to spoil them.

Unfortunately it’s far too long, with an overabundance of characters and conflicts dragging things out. A serious prune could have made this sharp, quick and fun, rather than a mix of highly enjoyable sections with dull longueurs.

The cast at least seem to be having fun, and are certainly in on the joke. Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie, which shows someone completely missed the point — she’s actually pretty good here. The number of “goofs” listed on IMDb suggest plenty of other people didn’t get it either, mind. I suppose any kind of comedy is an acquired taste.

Part of that joke is to be OTT, but sometimes the film goes too far, trying to be crazily fun but instead ending up overcooked. It’s also clear that bits from the fake trailer have been joylessly shoehorned in. It seems fitting for the genre to shoehorn in “cool stuff” that doesn’t make much narrative sense, but occasionally Rodriguez seems to be jumping through hoops Let's hope it's not a gun fightto fleetingly include something that ‘needs’ to be there purely because it was in that trailer.

Machete has enough entertaining moments to ensure enjoyment for many; as to how much the thumb-twidding filler mars the experience, your mileage may vary. For me, it stood in the way a bit too much.

2 out of 5

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