Killing Them Softly (2012)

2015 #57
Andrew Dominik | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Killing Them SoftlyAs presidential nominee Barack Obama talks about the American Dream, in a run-down corner of the nation a trio of small-timers plot a robbery, landing them in hot water with some nasty people.

Writer-director Dominik uses news audio about the financial crisis to comment on the plot, an inclusion somewhere between neat dramatic irony and heavy-handed affectation. He gets better mileage from the mundane mechanics and economics of organised crime, but it’s small consolation among flabby storytelling: pointless subplots; flashy camerawork that contains little weight or meaning (ironically); even well written and performed scenes eventually drag, outstaying their welcome.

Disappointing.

2 out of 5

Killing Them Softly is on Film4 tonight at 10:55pm.

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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.

Field of Dreams (1989)

2008 #38
Phil Alden Robinson | 103 mins | TV | PG / PG

Field of DreamsI’ve never made much of an effort to see Field of Dreams, for a couple of reasons. Aside from its famous mantra/catchphrase (“if you build it he will come”), the only things I’d heard were it was mawkishly sentimental and was about Kevin Costner trying to build a baseball pitch for a ghost — which doesn’t sound particularly exciting and is about sport, something I’m not very fond of. Of course, as anyone who’s seen it will know, I was a tad misled on that last point, as the glorified rounders pitch is built in the first 20 minutes. What follows certainly has its fair share of sentimentality, but I wouldn’t call it mawkish.

In fact, it’s almost unremittingly pleasant. The lack of anything hard-hitting is no doubt why some have such a dim view of the film, as “nice” has become synonymous with “not very good” in modern parlance (I blame Primary School teachers desperate to increase vocabulary). Field of Dreams won’t shock you, it likely won’t make you think very hard, and any moral message or meaning it has is positive and reassuring… but what’s so wrong with that? The plot keeps moving, refusing to be bogged down in navel-gazing or star-gazing. The story is also too unusual to be marred by any serious degree of predictability, though some events are of course easily guessed, but the mystery of how the various elements would come together kept my attention throughout. Crucially, it doesn’t labour its sentimentality or batter you round the head with morals or meanings. It’s hardly ambiguous, but nor is it over done.

Field of Dreams may not be astounding filmmaking — it’s not especially complex, radical, thrilling, thought-provoking, intense or revolutionary, nor terribly serious or terribly funny, nor indeed wholly original — but it is nice. And I mean that in a good way.

4 out of 5

Field of Dreams is on ITV today, Saturday 27th September 2014, at 2:35pm.

Goodfellas (1990)

2007 #123
Martin Scorsese | 139 mins | DVD | 18 / R

GoodfellasThese days perhaps even more praised than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas tells the true story of Henry Hill’s 25-year career as a gangster.

It’s certainly a notable achievement on virtually every level, which are too numerous to list here. The use of popular music struck me especially though, creating a sense of time (and never too obviously) while also complementing the visuals in its own right.

In the lead role, Ray Liotta seems to have been underrated, lost behind the top billing of De Niro and the award-winning craziness of Joe Pesci. He carries the film, with a performance that isn’t showy but is perfectly pitched.

I didn’t fall in love with the film as so many seem to have, but I also don’t think there’s really any denying its worthiness for full marks.

5 out of 5

A new, restored Blu-ray of Goodfellas is released in the UK today, 25th May 2015.