Monday, August 25, 2014

Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

"Frank Miller's Sin City" was one of the most original and exciting developments in computer-generated filmmaking.  Robert Rodriguez's used digital soundstages to recreate the exaggerated noir of Frank Miller's sleazy black and white world, making a movie that was part live-action and part invented hyper-stylized imagery.  The writing might was little more than a poser's facade basing its tortured similes upon cliches of old Hollywood crime films and pulp fiction.  It was no more true to the genre than the "Calvin and Hobbes"' Tracer Bullet stories.  However, despite its flaws, I'd say "Sin City" is one of the rare example of a movie that benefited from style over substance.

It took nine years, but finally Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have teamed up again to create a sequel to their 2005 hit*.  They've used the same blueprints to build a structure just like the first one.  Once again "Sin City" is a  compendium of three interlinked stories set in the dark crime-soaked alleys of Basin City, all translated directly from the comics.  The pieces occur either before or a few months after the events of the original, each event taking place at random throughout the timetime.   The faces are the same, Mickey Rourke's massive skull-crusher, Marv, Powers Booth's monstrous devil, Senator Roark, and the stories have the same dreary tone.  Yet on its second helping this hardboiled meal clearly has lost some of its flavor.

"A Dame to Kill For" is a sequel through-and-through, attempting the very same idea as the original to weaker effect.  Yeah, the black and white are still starkly contrasted, but the stories feel rehashed and inferior.   Only one of the new chapters properly feels like it is worthy of "Sin City 1", and one of the yarns is so bad as to embarrass even the long-dead corpse of Humphrey Bogart.  (Unsurprisingly it is a new work created by Miller specifically for this movie, so it is strewn with his latter day dementia.)  Rodriguez and Miller's obsession with stupid violence leads the movie is repeat virtually the same action scene - a raid upon a rich villain's heavily-armed mansion - three times, twice with Marv as a sidekick.  There is a lacking in imagery, as the only item in the movie that seems to inspire Rodriguez's camera is Eva Green's white naked body in black water.  Despite nine years to prepare for this repeat, there seems to just not have been enough sleaze in the Sin City universe to justify a second outing.

The best story in "Sin City 2" is a tale featuring newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the hotshot gambler, Johnny, winning too much from the wrong people.  Gorden-Levitt is perfect for the role, spouting the psuedo-Raymond Chandler narration as required.  He gives probably the best performance in the whole movie.  Johnny is a character who seems to have the magical power to never lose a hand of cards:  if his opponent has four kings, he'll have four aces.  The problem starts when the person he's dominating at the table is Senator Roark, the one man you do not want to humiliate in all of Sin City.  It is a dark little story lacking any single murder fantasies or slaughter fests of which the rest of the movie is so fond.  Most effectively it has the grisliest ending, a wretched conclusion of moral victory against impossible indestructible evil.

Of course, exactly ten minutes later Rodriguez and Miller ruin this, by having Marv and his newest friend shoot that evil in the face.  The movie might be able to keep the tones of its color pallet consistent, but it definitely cannot hold onto a single emotional theme.

Gordon-Levitt has gone from Robin to Two-Face.
The next story is a prequel for the Dwight character, now with his original face (Clive Owen is out, Josh Brolin is in).  His story is the centerpiece of the movie, seemingly taking up most of the running time.  The titular 'Dame to Kill For' is Ava (Green), a manipulative vamp, whose every line seems to be a comedy impression of a 1940s starlet, specifically Joan Crawford.  And just like Crawford, she is an evil bitch out to ruin the lives of everybody around her, leading Dwight right into her trap.

Eva Green seems to be the highlight of the critical reaction to this movie, and her performance is magnetic, if highly unsubtle.  You really won't be watching her face anyway.  Ava spends most of her time on screen completely naked - Green clearly does not have the shyness of some her female co-stars - driving the men around her into sex-fueled rages.  Comparisons are inevitable to the actress' role in "300: Rise of an Empire", a movie otherwise completely forgettable if not for Eva Green.  It does say a lot that Green's dancing naked in a zero gravity black pool completely bare is an image I will not forget soon, she is definitely a kind actress for all of us single twenty-year-old blog writers.  Though nobody is leering as hard as Robert Rodriguez.  My favorite single artistic choice in all of "Sin City 2000". is leaving Green's eyes their natural green, making for small lights of absolute joyful evil in the middle of the colorless world of Sin City.

This episode begins well-enough.  Dwight is clearly running on the edge even before Ava enters his life.  He pushes his Mustang to full speed on suicidal drives.  He is all too willing to jump right back into Ava's arms, which he already knows is far more dangerous than any high speed swerve.  The story takes its inevitable twists, but unlike a speeding muscle car, covers ground at a painful pace.  Figures are introduced, such as a hulking manservant, Manute (played by Dennis Haysbert who replaces the late-Michael Clark Duncan) who exist only for more fisticuffs.  Worse by the halfway point of the story, the endless steam of noir-ish narration, pitiful attempts at metaphor, sensationalized violence, and even Eva Green's Joan Crawford impression grows tiresome.

Eva Green is definitely the go-to actress if you need a villain.
Unfortunately we are only mostly through the movie at this point.  There is still one more story to go.

Finally the movie concludes with a truly awful Frank Miller-fueled masturbatory nightmare.  Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), the damsel in distress from the original, goes mad from the sacrifice of her protector, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis).  Willis is back for this film, despite his death, returning as a ghost that Nancy mostly ignores.  He adds nothing at all to this movie except as another expense for a Dimension Films accountant to explain.  Nancy's rage leads her to attack Senator Roark, the man who ruined her life in the original film.  Of course, this leads to yet another rampage, this time with the help of Marv (Hartigan is not the only person back from the dead**).

Nancy remains the world's worst stripper, as Jessica Alba still does not do nude scenes***.  She is supposed to transform into a grotesque on the edge of rampage and self-destruction.  Yet applying a scissor to her face to add scars only makes it look like she dressed up like a Tim Burton character for Halloween.  Mickey Rourke's facial transformation is a convincing effect, reflecting his character.  Jessica Alba looks like a preteen circa 2003 who just discovered Hot Topic and the word "gothic".  She could not intimidate a squirrel, let alone the mighty ruler of Sin City.  Worse, apparently this one little girl can undo the ending to the Johnny story.  Where he had to accept the smallest of victories against impossible odds, Nancy can just shoot her problems away.  Why didn't Joseph Gordon-Levitt think of that?

Worst of all, the action is not nearly as compelling as it was so many years ago.  It is repetitive and forced.  The figures will make huge comic book poses, like Wolverine twisting for a two-page spread.  But there is not enough motion, no real speed, and worst of all, no sense at all that the characters are at all in danger.  (That was a flaw the original movie had as well, but it was wise enough to keep the action out of the forefront.)

Sorry, I do not buy any of this.
Unfortunately the two creative minds of the 2005 version both are hardly the men they used to be.  You can never be sure with Frank Miller whether he is actively trying to sabotage his work, has lost himself in some level of ultra-irony so deep that nobody can comprehend the joke, or if he's simply gone insane.  Robert Rodriguez always loved his silly violence, making movies with machine gun guitars and slime vampires, but with last year's catastrophic "Machete Kills", it is clear he has badly forgotten the balance.  "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" at times feels like it stopped caring about playing up its stylized strengths halfway through the production and decided the best solution was to cut people in half with a katana.  The directors ran out of ideas and poured their frustrations onto the screen by shooting more helpless anonymous characters.

What was imaginative and innovative in 2005 cannot work half as well in 2014.  Marv's joy in thrashing enemies and splashing white blood against the inky pavement in the first film had a purpose, now he's just a brawler for hire hanging around the other stories just to add momentum to a movie without any drive.  There is no villain in this movie half as frightening as the cannibals and pedophiles of the original.  The bad guys here are not actually threats, they're punching bags.  The overbearing mood of perpetual decline and corruption is gone, all we have now is a reason to hit gray faces.  "Sin City" was always exploitation of the lowest form, but it used to play the Tarantino trick of taking a low-grade story of prostitutes, pimps, and maniacs and make something compelling and original out of it.  Style can only defeat substance for so long.

* For the sake of simplicity we will mostly ignore Frank Miller's solo-act, 2008's "The Spirit", which used the very same art style and greenscreen process.  Every success "Sin City" had in establishing tone was undone in "The Spirit", a fascinating disaster of a movie.  There is really no explanation for the Looney Tunes slapstick, the bizarre misogyny, and freakish attempts at comedy that happened in that film.  Just plain damn weird.

** Marv was executed during his story in "Sin City" under orders from Senator Roark.  Yet the finale of this film, which has to come after Marv's execution, has Marv still standing there, having apparently pulled himself out of Hell to continue shattering bones with his fists.  Marv's story has to take place after Nancy's, yet when she appears in his story, she has none of the scars on her face she gets in this story.  The continuity is just all over the place, and I cannot be sure if this is a mistake, or if Frank Miller is playing some kind of gag on us.  Either way, Marv is shooting more holes in the plot than the the bad guys.

*** This is a decision that annoys me less as a misogynistic bastard, as one that annoys me for its unprofessionalism.  Sin City is a place where anything can be bought, where filth of all kinds can be devoured by the hungry and the horny.  Yet Nancy, whose job is to be naked, is never once nude.  I can understand and respect Alba's decision:  do you want to appear naked for the entire world to watch?  Yet it makes no sense for this fictional universe, makes no sense for this character, and is out-of-place in this movie, which up until Jessica Alba, had no qualms at all about bare bodies.

A similar complaint could be made as to why you see every inch of Jessica Alba yet none of Josh Brolin's naughty bits.  And sure, I'll ask that same question:  why isn't little Josh Brolin on camera?  Isn't everything here a sexualized fantasy after all?  Does that automatically assume male gaze?

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