Friday, 29 August 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City. Just another Saturday night. After the events of the first film, the surviving characters are still around and trying to get by in the worst city imaginable. Marv is still destroying people for fun, Nancy's still dancing but craves revenge for John Hartigan, Gail still runs Old Town, and Dwight has magically transformed into Josh Brolin. There's also a new character, Johnny, a cocky young gambler who arrive in Sin City looking for the big action but ends up having a long, bad night. There's also Ava Lord, the eponymous dame to kill for...

Sin City was one of my favourite films growing up. A visual style previously unseen in cinema and a fantastic mix of comedy, drama, grit, and excessive violence. It went down gang busters at the cinema and plans were put in place for a sequel based on the second book in Frank Miller's series: A Dame to Kill For. Those plans were made... Then put on pause... Then put on indefinite hiatus. Then, Robert Rodriguez started making Machete films. Then, all of a sudden, Sin City 2 was resurrected and everyone from the original signed back on (except Clive Owen, but we'll get to that) and the world rejoiced, I rejoiced! Finally, the film I wanted to see 8 years ago was coming my way, and now finally it's here. It's a terrible shame that this sequel didn't come out closer to the original for various reasons: It would have hit a cinema audience in the right mind set just after the release of the original, it wouldn't have been as hyped and dragged out, the cast and crew would have been in a familiar mind set instead of trying to recreate something they've forgotten, and the film might have been better. Maybe.

Sin City 2 is just a horrendous mess, and I say this after a long, carefully considered period of reflection. It's a cluster fuck. All of the charm and wit and originality of the first film is gone and has been replaced with something else entirely. Sin City 2 feels like an exploitation film when it has no right to be. You get the feeling Robert Rodriguez has made one too many Machete films and now his mindset is warped. He's only encouraged by his co-director and script author, Frank Miller, who created half the stories in the film especially for the film and didn't take out any of his critically-acclaimed yarns. Miller has clearly tried to re-create his former glory but couldn't do it. Stick to the good stuff, Frank. Above all the many faults of this film, the thing that really stuck in my craw is the editing and the post-production. Now, I'm aware that my memories of the original Sin City may been hazy and overblown, but I'm almost certain the special effects in the first film were better employed and look far less fake than they did here. I understand it's an extremely stylised film, but when everything fits together, it can look great. It doesn't here. Things stick out, look out of place, and most criminally look fake. There are also changes in the visual style that play against the established style from the first film. There are entire people in colour now, instead of highlighted features, and it doesn't ring true. It's extremely jarring, and makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience.

But let's not forget about our actors. Jeez, where to start... OK, so Mickey Rourke's Marv was spot on, but that character's hardly a stretch of his acting abilities. Eva Green is also pretty good as the femme fatale of the piece, Ava Lord, and that's not just because she's naked for 90% of her on-screen time. Seriously, that's not an exaggeration. JGL is a great actor, but he never seems to get out of second gear as Jonny, but his second hear is better than most other actors' fifth gear. Also, Powers Boothe is brilliantly evil as Senator Rourke. Apart from that, you struggle to look at anyone else's performance with any cause for celebration. The lustre surrounding Jessica Alba has definitely disappeared. She plays a broken version of her character from the original, Nancy, but there's no passion there and she really just phones it in. Then there's Josh Brolin... I like Josh Brolin, but he's no Clive Owen. Bruce Willis makes fleeting appearances as Hartigan in a different wig to the one he wore in the first film. Dennis Haysbert is no Michael Clarke Duncan (RIP) and Christopher Lloyd plays the Christopher Lloyd character. Also, Lady Gaga is no actress.

Here's the other big problem with the film: The script. The dramatic voice over monologues that were a signature of the first film have become parodies of themselves in the second film. The opening act, "Just Another Saturday Night", was not a fitting way to open the film and was clearly only used because it was a yarn short enough to act as the intro. "The Long Bad Night" yarn was solid but predictable and repetitive. The "A Dame to Kill For" yarn overtook the entire film by taking up half the run time, and featured two of the most unnecessary characters in a film I can remember, ever. The "Nancy's Last Dance" yarn was diabolical; poor writing and poor acting and poor everything and ended abruptly, which as it turned out was the end of the film as well. The dialogue was hammy and gave up any pretence of drama about two drafts ago. Frank Miller was given far too loose a leash and has not left Rodriguez much to work with (although what was there, Rodriguez overhyped too). There are so many driving scenes in this film too, and they don't look as good as they did in the first. My theory: They could afford too make the driving scenes look good in the original because there weren't many of them. They put more in the second, and the budget got stretched, and the effects suffered.

Overall, this film is not quite a disaster, but it's not good, and is absolutely not a suitable sequel to one of my favourite film of the 2000s. Everything's just a mess, with too many creative influences having too many different ideas as to what made the original work as well as it did. The stories aren't as good, the returning characters (for the most part) can't relive their former glory, the new characters aren't as well crafted as the originals, the replacement actors for pre-existing characters aren't as good as the original actors. If Sin City is Batman Returns, then Sin City 2 is Batman and Robin. Congratulations Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, you took your sweet time but you've successfully killed what could have been a lively, entertaining franchise after just two films. Maybe they should have gotten Tarantino to guest direct a scene in this one too.

Rating: *1/2

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Peter "Star Lord" Quill is an intergalactic thief, taking jobs from anyone with enough money. When he steals a mysterious orb, though, things start to go awry. He attracts the attention of Gamora, an assassin sent by Ronan the Accuser to retrieve the orb, as well as Rocket and Groot, bounty hunters who also happen to be a raccoon and a tree respectively. When they all end up in prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer, who's hell bent on revenge on Ronan, the man who killed his family. When they realise that the orb is worth 4 billion units, they form an alliance to get out of prison and sell the orb. However, when they meet the buyer and realise what the orb truly is, their consciences force them to protect the orb and get it into safe hands, and definitely away from Ronan...

This is where things get interesting. We've seen Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and all the sequels, all the characters are well established and came from Marvel's most iconic characters and most well-established material. Now we reach the point of expansion, the point where Phase 2 starts moving towards Phase 3, the point where we need some new blood in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Enter: The Guardians of the Galaxy. Finally, the MCU enters space, and the possibilities become endless. I mean, we've been to Asgard with Thor and Loki, but now the entire galaxy has become our oyster, and we've been left with a thief, an assassin, a tree, a raccoon and a destroyer to protect us. Shameful admission time: I've never seen Star Wars. However, if that particular space opera is anything like this one, I'm willing to give it a go, because this was good. Like, really good.

There's something refreshing about Guardians in the context of the MCU: It feels like a fresh start. The only two characters that had been established prior to this film were The Collector and Thanos, and even then both of those were only previously seen in post-credits scenes, and no-one was even sure it was Thanos at the end of Avengers Assemble (it was, but now he's here for real). There were no carried over story lines, no crossed over characters... This is where we begin, again. Saying that, it was a bold move to start adapting lesser known material. But then, it was a bold move to self-finance and create Iron Man in the first place, and to then create an entire universe, so this seems like a natural progression of Marvel's calculated risks. Phase 3 has lined up adaptations of characters completely new to the MCU: Ant Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther maybe? So, Guardians seems like a great way to begin introducing new characters, as it has a simple plot, it's a great origin story, and the calculated risk of picking an odd director paid off again. James Gunn, creator of the best anti-superhero film ever in Super, now as created a great anti-superhero superhero film. With me? They're not great people, if anything they're all awful, but collectively they work together and kind of fit together as well. Collectively, they're one good person, but separately they're pretty despicable.

Chris Pratt steps away from Parks and Recreation and becomes the leading man he was meant to be as Peter Quill. He's charming, he has a lot of female fans, he's funny and ties this entire film together. Finally, he's been given a chance to shine and he's taken it. He's ably assisted by Zoe Saldana as Gamora, who acts as Quill's female equal. Saldana's an action movie veteran now, having proven her fighting chops in Colombiana and her acting chops in Avatar (it might be a bad film, but she was one of few good points in it). Along side them, the CGI raccoon and tree and pretty good, very life like, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel fit well. Dave Bautista... He does well as a muscle-bound destroyer hell bent on revenge... But he's given a strange vocabulary to fit into his dialogue and it seems extremely unfitting of the character. But then maybe that's part of the fun? I just found it distracting. Although his quirk of taking everything literally was greatly amusing. The support cast was fantastic as well, everyone having unique characters, even the background players had some personality!

In general the entire film was funny, I'd say this is the funniest Marvel film by a long way, and that is to the credit of James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Gunn hasn't toned down his writing style (much) and his humour definitely carries over. There's a ton of funny lines in this one, on top of the serious melodrama and explosions. Gunn definitely got the balance right, though, after a few darker Marvel films during Phase Two, we all needed a pick me up, and this was definitely it. I'll admit I missed Nathan Fillion's blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Captain Mal, and I thought the obligatory post-credits scene was hilarious. I won't spoil it, but all I'll say is that as funny as the post-credits was, it didn't lead to anything. We're staring down the barrel of Avengers 2, a film which should be the biggest film Marvel have produced ever, and yet we know absolutely nothing going into it. It seems as if they've got their eyes fixed further down the road, finally introducing Josh Brolin as Thanos, the biggest big bad they have at their disposal. Unless they're planning a swerve in Avengers 2 and keeping him as a surprise alongside Ultron, it seems they've forgotten the merits to short term planning as well as long term planning. The soundtrack was awesome though,

Overall, this film is entertaining, but I think we've been spoilt by Marvel films past. On their own warped scale of epicness, Guardians ends up being rather tame, and the villain is evil but not absolutely unbeatable. Of course, now we know (spoilers) that this movie's villain is merely a representative of a higher power, but there should still be some threat, something which doesn't come here until very late on in the film. The film is well constructed, don't get me wrong, but there's an awful lot going on with an awful lot of characters to the point where it feels like there's a case of too many cooks. It's a shame, because I was super hyped for this one, and perhaps I over hyped it in my own head, but it's just not the great film I hoped it would be. It's really good... It's just not great. Onto Avengers 2 we go, MCU...

Rating: ****