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.

Grindhouse (2007)

2010 #105
Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino | 191 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Infamously, on its release in America the much-hyped Rodriguez/Tarantino double bill was an almighty flop, so much so that it wasn’t properly released in its full form outside the US. Which is a bit ironic, if you think about it, because the US is the market least likely to respond to something a little bit experimental.

A grindhouse, for those still unacquainted with the concept, was a second-run cinema in the pre-home video days that generally showed trashy films from poor-quality much-screened prints. It should come as little surprise that this is the kind of film and viewing experience Tarantino enjoys, and so he and best chum Rodriguez set about recreating the style for a wider audience. Which was probably why it flopped — it was, almost by definition, not a mass audience-aimed style of cinema.

What this means for Grindhouse is a double-bill of exploitation movies, more-or-less with a horror bent, with grainy, dirty, decrepit prints that are missing shots, scenes, and even whole reels, and complete with trailers for similar films and ads for local restaurants. Clearly, it sets itself up to be as much about the experience of viewing the work of RR and QT in this context as it is the films themselves. So, to take the viewing programme in order…

It opens with one of the several fake trailers — except in this case the trailer is no longer fake, as Rodriguez has since gone on to turn Machete into a genuine feature (out next month over here). It sets the tone well: cheesy dialogue, stagey acting, an emphasis on gory violence over any other element, and plenty of utterly ludicrous moments. Plus breasts, naturally. Entirely random explosionChances are, if you don’t find this opening salvo entertaining in some way the rest of the film is going to prove a struggle.

And then the film launches into its first feature: Robert Rodriguez’s zombie horror Planet Terror. In short, this is a completely entertaining pitch-perfect 90-minute proof-of-concept. Rodriguez packs every scene with at least one element you should expect from this style of cinema: graphic blood-spurting violence, horrific mutations, vicious zombies, over-the-top logic-light gunfights, entirely random explosions, clichéd dialogue, stock characters, extended shots of the female form… Have I missed anything? If I have, it’s probably there too.

Rodriguez’s skill lies in making this both homage and hilarious. You don’t need to have much experience of this kind of cheap horror/exploitation movie to see how well he’s hit on the stereotypical plot, characters and sequences. His direction hits the nail on the head too, discarding his usual style for angles and cuts that feel thoroughly genuine. But he also recreates it in a way that’s amusing; not so much in a “look how stupid they are” way, but by levying elements in a way that is consistently entertaining. In particular, he uses the self-imposed print damage to excellent effect — the sex scene literally burns out from over-play, for instance, while the “Missing Reel” card elicits a laugh by jumping the plot forward so ridiculously, as well as skipping a whole chunk of exposition.

A gun. For a leg.It probably works better in context than described on the page, but Rodriguez has marshalled every disparate element to create a cohesive whole that’s exciting and funny. At this point, Grindhouse is firmly headed for a full five-star conceptual success.

Following “The End” card, there’s a handful of trailers before the second part of the double-bill. From directors Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween remake), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), they showcase different archetypes within the overall grindhouse style. Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. is all Nazis, cheap werewolf costumes and (naturally) boobs — very video nasty. Wright’s Don’t takes on British ’70s horror with a nightmare-filled country mansion and a deliberately repetitive trailer (“don’t go in there”, “don’t see it alone”, etc). Also, for a British viewer, its sub-two-minute running time is packed to bursting with recognisable faces, some you’d expect (Mark Gatiss, Nick Frost) and others you wouldn’t (Katie Melua!) Finally, Roth’s Thanksgiving is a teeny slasher in the Halloween mode, A cheerleader giving thanksthough Roth can’t resist adding his own especially twisted brand of humour (I shan’t describe the final shot here).

While the trailers won’t necessarily convince you to see the films featured (good thing they don’t exist then), they perfectly capture the feel of various horror styles from the intended era, and — with the various “coming attractions” slides — sell the grindhouse experience.

And then we have the second film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. And here the concept falls apart.

It seems Tarantino can’t let go of his own style. With a handful of exceptions, Death Proof feels less like a well-considered grindhouse homage (which Planet Terror certainly was) and more like a typical Quentin Tarantino Film launched from a grindhouse-ish concept. He can’t even sustain the literal veneer of grindhouseness: after some early print damage, obviously missing scenes, the clearly-labelled “Missing Reel” (which, in one of the film’s few authentic-feeling touches, is a sexy sequence), and — in the best grindhouse-style touch — a shoddily-replaced title card, the picture quality gradually loses its flaws until a climax that seems visually faultless. Perhaps QT’s imagined behind-the-scenes story was that every projectionist got bored of the film by this point so the latter reels survived in pristine condition…

Foot fetishBut it’s not just the increasing lack of dilapidated print quality that prevents Death Proof from selling its concept. The screenplay is clearly a QT work, much more so than most of Kill Bill or even Inglourious Basterds, especially when the girls indulge in long dialogue scenes of the real-world-natter variety. It’s like the opening of Reservoir Dogs, only with girls instead of guys and repeated two or three times throughout the film. One such scene is even shot in a very long single take, the camera constantly roving around the four girls sat round a table. It’s a technically impressive bit of work for any film; as a supposed product of a low-budget horror-thriller flick destined for the grindhouse circuit, it’s beyond improbable. In short, it’s all too well written and directed to convince as grindhouse. Though he does get to indulge in a couple of lingering shots of the female form, in particular his regular foot fetish.

QT almost makes up for all this with the final twenty minutes, featuring some impressive car stunt action. As noted, by this point any pretense of being a grindhouse-style film has been done away with: the image is devoid of all but minor damage, the stunt work — all done for real, I believe — pretty impressive. Whether it conforms to the style statement of the film or not (that’d be a “not”), it does manage to entertain. Tarantino’s decades of studying action-filled trash clearly pay off here as well as they did in Kill Bill, Proof of deathand if he chooses to create some more action-centric pictures in the future it would be no bad thing.

One thing that left me uncertain was the decision to slaughter his main cast halfway through. Firstly, the death-inducing crash is another sequence that’s too well done for such a pretend-cheap film, repeating the impact four times to show the imaginative fate of each victim. Brutal, yes, but one of the few moments that matches Planet Terror for effectiveness. The actual act of removing the three lead characters is audacious, maybe, but mainly so because QT’s spent so long apparently trying to invest us in these characters and their lives. It makes all the dialogue scenes we’ve sat through feel even more pointless, especially those setting up slightly dull romantic-ish subplots.

It also leads to a cameo appearance for a handful of Planet Terror characters, which could be fun but ultimately feels ill-conceived to me. In no other way do these films appear to be set in the same world, or have any other connection — indeed, cast members such as Rose McGowan and Tarantino himself appear in completely different roles in each film. The crossover didn’t feel in the grindhouse spirit to me; it felt in the “Rob and I are buddies and did this for no good reason” spirit. And it certainly took me out of the film. Wouldn't it be cool if I had a gun for a legIn fact, it might’ve played better if the films were the other way round, as it means Death Proof must be set before Planet Terror. I’d approve of this switch not only for chronological reasons, but because seeing one-scene bit-parters turn up in the-same-but-larger roles in the second film seems like it would be more satisfying as a viewer, rather than re-encountering these (in any case, minor) characters the way we do.

A length-based aside: as I mentioned, both films were released separately outside the US, and in both cases were extended. By my calculations, the Grindhouse cut of Planet Terror is just under 15 minutes shorter, while Death Proof is around 20 minutes shorter. More on that when I get round to watching the individual versions.

Grindhouse ends up being every bit a film of two halves, as you might expect a double-bill to be. Up until the end of the trailers, I was loving its commitment to the concept and the fun it was having with it — all credit to Rodriguez for that, as well as the trailer directors of course. But Tarantino’s entry lets the side down by seeming to fail in its execution of the film’s conceit. I’m not convinced it would be any better viewed as a standalone Quentin Tarantino Film, but in context it certainly disappoints.

If QT could’ve produced an effort as successful as his mate’s, Grindhouse would’ve been on course for full marks; not because it’s a Good Film, but because it would have fully realised its potential-filled concept in a thoroughly entertaining way. The finished product is still entertaining, but not thoroughly. It loses a star, but does retain a moderate chance of appearing on my Best Of Year list.

4 out of 5

Grindhouse is out on Blu-ray, exclusive to hmv, from today.
Grindhouse’s constituent parts, Death Proof and Planet Terror, are on TCM tonight from 9pm until 1:30am.