Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Romantic Parody: THEY CAME TOGETHER


David Wain, the writer-director behind Role Models and Wanderlust, could’ve made a great romantic comedy. Instead, with They Came Together, he decided to kick a good genre while it’s down. He’s lucky it’s pretty funny, or at least funny enough. The movie, which he wrote with frequent collaborator Michael Showalter, hunts down and obliterates every rom-com convention it can find, turning unspoken genre mechanics into literal lines of dialogue. Cliché perched on the precipice of preposterous is tipped over, embracing the ridiculous in a breezy parodic style. We may not have had a great rom-com in many years, but this mercilessly satiric one is intent on purposely resuscitating each and every musty old convention, turning them inside out, and finding the inherent absurdities within.

In theory, it’s a funny idea. And so it is, at least some of the time. For all the conceptual cleverness, it plays too often like a movie that’s mad you might like You’ve Got Mail. At least the parody film is a genre as moribund as the rom-com, so it comes across as good-natured ribbing from a similarly impoverished cultural place. Does They Came Together single-handedly revive two imperiled genres? Not quite. But it’s a great start that Wain’s film is the kind of sneakily appealing cerebral/stupid comedy that had me smiling even when I was not quite sure if it was working. It’s appealing, with loopily silly concepts and charm for days.

It helps that the leads are Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, two of the most delightful people in TV and movies today. With winning smiles and easygoing casual rapport, it’s always pleasant to spend time watching them interact. They could pull off a real rom-com, even a terrible one, on charm alone. So here, as they play a cutesy entrepreneur and a sneakily softhearted corporate drone, they break past the deliberately bland anonymity of their clichéd characters. Even though the movie is a relentless send-up of twee Hollywood True Love falsehoods, stretching those conventions to absurdity and beyond, I still found myself wanting to see them get together in the end. Go figure.

As they go through all the predictable Meet Cute bickering, falling-in-love montages, dramatic misunderstandings, tearful breakups, and last-minute chases to reconciliation, they speak the subtext in flatly stupid dialogue. But they deliver it as if it’s sparkling repartee. When Rudd plays a hilariously phony basketball game with his diverse group of friends, the advice they offer him makes clear they’re stand-ins for thematic points. One buddy says, “Marriage is great! That’s the point I represent.” Poehler’s presented as the typical klutz, prone to falling down flights of stairs, and a flighty romantic, eagerly flying into a montage of trying on clothes that lasts so long Rudd leaves the scene. Later, a makeout session is so exaggeratedly passionate they walk around the room, lips locked, knocking over everything in their path.

Square clichés are played so very straight, even as they’re knocked askew. The couple bonds over the blandest of generalizations. They’re shocked by the fact they both enjoy “fiction books” and have grandmas. As if those are rare loves in the average person’s life. Friends and family (in a huge ensemble that includes Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, and more) only exist as reflections of the leads’ needs and fears. So far, so typical, but it’s imbued with an off-kilter energy that builds up the artificiality of the genre’s worst tendencies.

That’s why weirdness, slowly taking over entire sequences, creeps in around the edges: a framing device in which a dinner party is essentially held hostage by the couple relaying their self-centered story to a pair of friends; a bit of horseplay that ends in a man falling out a window; a moment in which a pompous boss poops his Halloween costume and desperately tries to hide the evidence; a scene that finds Poehler and Rudd angrily storming away from each other in the same direction, following each other for blocks. Wain takes simple, obvious scenes and stretches them so far past the breaking point it’d be hard not to admire the effort. Look at the endless loop of a conversation Rudd has with a bartender as it starts simple, grows stupid, and then continues, repeating itself until it's one of the funniest scenes of the year.

They Came Together invites likable strangeness under its umbrella of tropes, and then plays it relatively safe. On the one hand, there’s a great eagerness to how knowing the movie is, gently elbowing the audience in the ribs, saying, “see what we did there?” On the other hand, who isn’t aware of the standard rom-com structure and pitfalls, especially of the 20-year-old Ryan/Hanks variety from which this script takes its most obvious cues? That’s beside the point. This isn’t an expose of cliché. It starts off mocking the subgenre, but the bite fades into affection. That’s just fine. The leads are too likable and the formula so sturdily deployed, even as it’s undercut, to be a critique of the rom-com. It’s to 90’s romances what Wain’s cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer was to 80’s summer camp movies. That is to say, Wain is awfully good at creating sly and goofy spoof revivals of types of movies no one is making anymore.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cave People: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW


A good horror movie could be made out of the catacombs beneath Paris, but As Above, So Below is not that movie. It descends into the real underground cemetery where, since 1810 or so, there really are orderly piles of human remains from the 6 million bodies placed there when the burial grounds closer to the surface got too crowded. I can say from first hand experience that it is creepy down there, dark, quiet, and filled with stacks of skulls and femurs of long-dead Parisians. The emergency exit sign is merely a green arrow pointing backwards from whence you came. There’s plenty of real eeriness to be found, so the movie’s intention to add a dusting of supernatural disorientation seems foolproof. But, boy, was I wrong. Director John Erick Dowdle, from a screenplay co-written with his brother Drew, has found a great location and in it stages almost nothing worth caring about.

The threadbare plot involves nothing characters and skimpy scares. It’s a found footage contraption that follows a young urban archeologist (Perdita Weeks) who wants to finish her late father’s search for Nicolas Flamel’s legendary Philosopher’s Stone, the exact same MacGuffin put to good use in the first Harry Potter. Suspecting it is located hundreds of feet below Flamel’s grave, she gets a cameraman (Edwin Hodge), an ex-colleague (Ben Feldman), and a trio of twentysomething French kids (François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar) who love to explore the tunnels and caves just beyond the catacombs open to the public. We go below the city with the group, wobbling our way down narrow passageways, past tour guides, past thrill seekers, past cultists, until they’re well and truly lost. Along the way, they see weird visions and hear things that shouldn’t be. A phone rings. A baby cries. A piano sits half buried in a wall. Creepy.

It’s unfortunate that the whole scavenger hunt is visually unpleasant, with some of the queasiest shaky cam I’ve ever seen. At least that makes it marginally more believable than usual that the characters themselves are grabbing the shots on the fly. It’s entirely incomprehensible the further it goes. I have no clue what happened most of the time. They go in circles, fall down holes, splash through shallow water, find mildly unsettling befuddlement, and repeat it all over again. What do they find? How do the survivors escape? It’s hard to say. The scarier things get for the characters, the wilder the camerawork. The most effective scene is the most still, a claustrophobic moment with a pile of bones filling half the screen and a wall dominating the other, while a character stuck between them hyperventilates.

At some points, though, what’s appearing on the screen is practically experimental, building what is ostensibly a dumb narrative film out of blurry moving colors, flashing lights, half-glimpsed human figures, sudden jolts, shouts, and sound design that sounds like a cave in at the Foley studio. It is often said that the art of restraint makes for the best horror, when audiences can fill in gaps and summon up the dread of what might be around the next dark corner. And it is true that not seeing something scary or catching only a glimpse can be powerfully unsettling. But here when a character screams, “Did you see that?!”, the only possible answer is, “No.” I was never scared, only slightly nauseated by all the wobbling camerawork.

It’s a totally empty genre exercise that has absolutely nothing going on thematically or in its characterizations. There’s only the faintest glimmer of local color to the Parisian locales and supporting cast. Why bother going to Paris if you’re going to bury it under the ugliest, cheapest filming style? And most of the time, you can’t even tell they’re supposed to be in the catacombs. They’re panicking their way through anonymous dark rooms. Worst of all, it’s just not scary. The blank characters continually descend through a maze of bones and limestone as the movie whips itself into a nonsensical visual mess that fails to connect with the genuine claustrophobic creepiness that actually exists in its chosen location. Unlike Dowdle's minor elevator-set horror fun in Devil, his previous film, As Above, So Below totally squanders its close-quarters potential.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Crime Time: LIFE OF CRIME


A neat little thriller dressed up in 70’s clothing, Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime is a humble charmer coasting on genre pleasures. After a summer of big digital things crashing into other big digital things and muscled men standing around slugging it out while feeling bad about it, how nice to settle into a small scale heist that twists with a sense of humor. Here the women are strong, the men are stupid clever, and the dupes are below average. Even when blindfolded and kidnapped, bored Detroit housewife Jennifer Aniston is still in more control of the situation than you’d think, while the men who caught her spin their wheels, befuddled by how sideways a simple extortion has gone.

The nifty plotting is lifted wholesale from the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch, keeping his ear for breezily laconic pulp dialogue and fine sense of darkly comic thriller plotting. The kidnappers are Ordell (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes). If those characters sound familiar, it’s because they were also key criminal elements in Tarantino’s 1997 Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown, where Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro played them. That film is a great crime picture full of tremendous performances and Tarantino’s finest filmmaking to date. Of course Life of Crime isn’t nearly as good as Jackie Brown. That it manages to be its own agreeable thing with faint pleasing echoes of that earlier film instead of a flat out impersonating prequel is a nice surprise. Schechter doesn’t push too hard, keeping the proceedings sharp and quick.

It’s fun to watch Aniston struggle to outsmart the men holding her captive as they try to get money out of her rich husband (Tim Robbins), especially once it becomes clear he won’t pay up. He’s out of town with his mistress (Isla Fisher). Getting a threatening call from a stranger promising to make it so he never sees his wife again is sort of a blessing. That throws everyone in a loop. Aniston tries to keep herself alive. Fisher lounges around in a bikini, trying to keep her man from paying up. Bey and Hawke try to keep Aniston cooped up with a slobby neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Junior) while they rethink their plans. It’s one quickly paced complication after another as the gears turn and a wry bumbling crime drama tips towards dark farce without tipping all the way over.

Period detail is abundant and charming, quite intentionally drawing a connection between this and small crime pictures of the era. The source material was first published in 1978, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a Walter Matthau circa Charley Varrick or Karen Black circa The Outfit appearing in a contemporaneous adaptation, were such a thing to have happened. This is undeniably a modern film harkening back to an older way of doing these kinds of pictures, but the feeling is a pleasant approximation. The direction is a throwback to a crisp and clear style. The cinematography by Eric Alan Edwards is simple and grainy. The crime plotting is character driven and cleverly executed, a nice balance. It knows a Leonard story isn’t about what happens, but how it happens and who has what to say about it.

The ensemble is perfectly calibrated for a well-balanced blend of danger and dopey grins. (I haven’t even mentioned a hilarious subplot featuring Will Forte as Aniston’s panicked lover who has to decide whether to report her missing and reveal their affair or ignore it and hope nothing too bad happens to her.) The performers play well together, crackling their competing goals against each other as plots diverge, and stumbling blocks send everyone angling for their best possible outcome. Crosses, double-crosses, and strange bedfellows are the name of the game. It’s an enjoyable Leonard adaptation, one of the few that get his tricky tone and twisty stories right, and, in its humble way, probably the best since the brief 90’s heyday of its kind.

Locked In: STARRED UP


Starred Up is a tough sentimental father-son reunion story set entirely in a prison. It’s an unusual fit, the caged brutality grabbing peculiar tenderness while leeching menace into its softer spots. In terms of other contemporary prison-set entertainment, it’s not nearly as softhearted and diverse as Orange is the New Black or as hardnosed and pained as A Prophet. It carefully occupies a tricky middle ground, balancing between a desire to hang back and observe a prison’s inner workings and a plot-driven need to push emotional buttons with currents of conflicts. It’s a surprisingly effective mix.

The film opens on a teenage inmate (Jack O’Connell) transferred from a UK juvenile facility into a bigger, more dangerous adult prison. He’s been moved – “starred up” is the term for this transfer – because of his violent temper. Sure enough, the first thing we see him do, after a strip search and walk to his new cell, is carefully turn a toothbrush into a shiv and hide it in a light fixture. It’s not long at all before he’s knocking fellow prisoners unconscious and picking fights with guards, who storm into his cell in full riot gear. He still manages to get the better of them, beating them with the legs of a table he’s flipped over, pinning one against a wall with a makeshift weapon. This encounter ends with the boy needing to be talked out of biting a guard, paused mid-chomp.

We soon learn the boy’s now in the same prison as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). His old man is a shifty character, well connected with the prison’s underground politics. The boy’s violent unpredictability is making him a target from administrators and vicious criminal elements alike. A mixture of fatherly frustration, machismo, jealousy, and fear animates the older man’s relationship with his son. There are years of resentment and damage between them, but as they try to reconcile in such an extreme context, there’s real poignancy to their fumbling. The boy is pushed into an anger management group run by a kind psychotherapist (Rupert Friend). It might help. His father wants him to succeed. But it’s hard to tell if the man has his son’s best interests at heart. There’s no trust there, from either side.

Director David Mackenzie creates an enclosed sense of verisimilitude, free of many jokes and tropes more openly exploitative prison films fall back on. Instead, there’s an unflinching tension as the inherent ugly reality of the location becomes the backdrop for a pulpy, nakedly emotional story of a broken pair of men, bound by blood, hesitantly, tentatively, forging an understanding. Shooting in a real decommissioned prison from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser, who once worked as a prison therapist, the film takes on a close feeling of loud noises and clanging ambient echoes as the dangers of a location built on systematic struggles of violence and power become palpable.

But it’s the powerful and convincing performances that truly bring the world to life. The ensemble of rough men speaks in thick accents with sometimes-impenetrable slang vocabularies. (The press notes include a “Prison Speak” glossary.) They’re lively and convincing, uncomfortably intimidating presences surrounding our leads. O’Connell and Mendelsohn bring a forceful history to their roles. I bought them as a long distant father and son pairing, uneasy about their new positions, forced into close quarters by their legal circumstances and into competition by competing places in the prison hierarchy. O’Connell, in a compellingly charismatic wounded smolder, brings a livewire violent possibility to his scenes, which makes his humbled silences and quiet revelations all the more surprising. Mendelsohn delivers another of his dangerously squirrely weirdoes, but there’s a pained compassion here as well.

Because the characters are as convincing as their world, it’s easier to go along with its moments of same-old-same-old prison process and father-son tension. I believed in the reality, this place, and these people, which helps sell the truth of their emotions as the realism gives way to elements both pulpy and sentimental as the story resolves. I’m not generally one to go for prison movies, though A Prophet seemed like something of a masterpiece at the time, and is due a revisit by me. But Starred Up has a good hook and uses it to tell a solid relationship drama in an unusual setting, letting some fresh emotions into what could’ve been only a suffocating cell of cliché.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pride and Prejudices: BELLE


Bracingly sharp, Amma Asante’s Belle is a lovely character study and handsome period piece that navigates its complexities with invigorating intelligence and dexterous empathy. Set in 18th century England and based on a true story, it tells of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mixed-race child of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). She was raised in his absence by his aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), on a gorgeous estate. Freed from a life of slavery by virtue of her father’s station in life, she’s still trapped by the color of her skin.

As she grows older, Dido questions the social order, asking why she’s too high class to dine with the maids, and yet too low to dine with guests. Her inheritance gives her independent wealth, a luxury many women, including her close cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), do not have. Dido does not need to marry for rank or income. She’s lucky, and yet stuck. Women are property no matter the color, not all slaves, but the well-to-do are stuck in a gilded cage of societal rules and expectations.

The film is stimulating as it gracefully turns circles around issues of race, gender, and class. It illuminates a time and place, deftly laying out the reasons for Dido’s circumstances, a rigid social structure that keeps women and people of color oppressed. Her uncle is the highest judge in the land, hearing the case of a slave ship that dumped its human cargo overboard and is now suing their insurers who refuse to compensate for the damages. Through this legal argument, brought into their house by his prospective pupil (Sam Reid), Dido is drawn into larger social awareness of the struggles of people who share her color.

She’s also growing keenly aware of the struggles of her sex, as she and her cousin are of age to be courted. Her cousin draws the attentions of a miserable racist wretch (Tom Felton) with a pushy, gossiping mother (Miranda Richardson), scrabbling to improve their family’s rank through marriage. Her other son (James Norton) is drawn to Dido, who knows not what to do with circumstances she was hardly expecting. Together, the girls have the blessing of belonging to a respected family, but Dido's difficulties are unique and hers alone.

It is in many ways a traditional period piece, with beautiful gowns, ornate sets, a lush orchestral score, and fastidious design, a dash of Austen romance here, a bit of Dickensian social commentary there. But Amma Asante’s writing and direction is uncommonly assured, well written, wonderfully photographed, and briskly paced. It lays out an argument for basic rights for women and people of color by having its historical characters grappling with these questions literally and explicitly throughout the course of the plot. They stand as symbols of the argument – gossiping racists, sniveling misogynists, noble activists, brooding legal scholars – and yet never appear to be merely constructs of a debate come to life.

The writing is in a clever, elevated Merchant-Ivory style, wittier and lively, full of fantastically droll asides, tremendous personality in all the supporting parts (including a small, choice turn for Penelope Wilton) and rich with evocative subtext. And the plot and theme go hand in hand, stirring and resonant social consciousness informed by character every step of the way. And what remarkable characters! All are colorfully brought to life with fine, full performances memorable in personality and conflict. Dido, especially, is imbued with great humanity by Mbatha-Raw, whose performance is wisely situated between privilege and disadvantage, open curiosity and wounded cynicism, hopeful romance and pragmatic resignation.

The movie so vividly and convincingly sketches in a portrait of her world, blessed with wealth and advantage tempered by the prejudice of a power structure that restricts women’s choices and confined the mother she never knew to a life of slavery. The filmmaking is tenderly attuned to the nuances of its lead performance. There’s a remarkable scene in which Dido’s suitor tells her that she’s so lucky he’s willing to overlook the curse of color her mother passed down to her. Her eyes well up with the faintest pained mistiness, and yet her proper smile never quivers or falters.

Assante unfailingly illuminates such breathtaking moments of emotional and psychological nuance. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, which summoned up detailed historical horror with unflinching punishment and cruelty, the better to make us wince and feel it, Belle goes about its effect in a tremendously inviting and empathetic way, making us feel the pointed sting of rejection, the quick gasp of love, the heartache of internalized oppression. In a scene late in the picture where Dido dares sneak out to see a man who may love her for who she is – all of who she is – there’s a trembling insert shot, no more than a split second, of her neck, a nervous tensing. Earlier, we saw them meet in a garden, a late night happenstance that also found another insert shot, a hand on a hip, a sharp intake of breath.

We see this sharp observation and warm compassion in scenes of dialogue between many combinations of characters in this ensemble as people slowly figure out how best to reconcile their notions of right and wrong with the rules of the society at the time, how best to do the right thing. The movie sits closely, attentively with its characters, making them flesh and blood human beings treated with understanding and compassion. In doing so, it casts light not just on history, but on modern tensions and fears, core dehumanizing inequalities that go by different names, but linger, no matter how circumstances may have changed in the meantime. I found the film completely engaging, expressively smart, and deeply moving.

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Be Or Not: IF I STAY


It’s cliché to say that every problem seems like a life-or-death scenario when you’re young. But the truth is, with burgeoning plans for colleges, careers, and relationships, being a teenager is filled with decisions that can have a lasting impact. Teens feel that pressure. It’s the first time people have a good deal of autonomy over the course their lives will take. No wonder it’s a point in life that leads to such angst, and great movies chronicling it. If I Stay is not a great movie about being a teenager, but it captures some of the subjective experience of having the weight of your future on your hesitant steps into something like adulthood.

It’s a teen weepie that features a high school girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) dealing with her first real boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). She’s a brilliant cellist and wants to go to Julliard. He wants to stay with his skinny-jeans-wearing garage band in Portland and hope to get signed to a record label. Will they break up or try a long distance relationship? It’s a small problem shot in typical glossy teen melodrama style. I’ll admit it’s not very interesting from the outside, but the movie does a good job of communicating the subjective enormity of the question.

What elevates this standard teen romance is a very real injection of life and death. She’s in a car crash. It’s bad. She’s rushed to the hospital, along with her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and little brother (Jakob Davies). She’s in a coma. Prognosis is iffy. We see the previous 18 months of her life, the romance, the college worries, fun times with parents, dates, concerts, practices, school, hanging out with friends, and more. Intercut with those moments are shots of her hooked up to tubes in the ICU, heart monitors beeping while tearful bedside visitors – grandparents (Stacy Keach and Gabrielle Rose), friends (Liana Liberato and Lauren Lee Smith) – wait and worry. All the while, and here’s the movie’s biggest and corniest symbolic flourish, the girl’s spirit walks around the hospital, watching her family, remembering her past, and trying to decide whether she’ll stay or go, whether she’ll wake up or die.

Despite bouncing between her normal teen past and comatose present, all this is presented in a fairly conventional and linear fashion, little time for artsy expressiveness. Imagine what a Terrence Malick or Apichatpong Weerasethakul would do with this material, and then forget it. This is a movie more interested in tenderly evocative prose rather than cinematic poetry. Documentarian R.J. Cutler makes his fiction film debut here and brings to it a good eye, fine pace, and delicate touch. He pulls emotional triggers without seeming to be excessively manipulative about it. Major weepy potential is softly played, sad without belaboring the point. The slick widescreen photography by John de Borman is beautifully blocked in a way that doesn’t call attention to its casual beauty, while the editing finds minor trembles of emotional stream of consciousness in standard plotting that gains power through its juxtapositions.

On its own, the girl’s life would be a minor, but likeable, pokey drama. It’s pleasant to spend time with her great parents. They’re cool, former punk rockers. They’re understanding, judiciously permissive and always ready with smart advice well spoken. There are also some minor pleasures to be found in a teen romance that plucks at some of the right heartstrings. Adapting Gayle Forman’s novel, screenwriter Shauna Cross, who also wrote the wonderful roller derby comedy Whip It, has a good feel for detail. It’s genuine in its approach to quiet fumbling, biting of the lower lip, sudden moves. Worries about separating over a long distance possibility are shortsighted and nicely observed. A first love scene is neatly edited with a series of dissolves, set to an acoustic cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo,” as the girl compares caressing the boy’s body to playing the cello. It’s sweet.

Juxtaposing average teen movie worries with a ghostly bedside vigil brings a mournful weight to it. Sure, these are ordinary teen concerns, not overly original or especially interesting on their own. But through the risk that these last few months might end up being her last, there’s an underlying urgency. When I read in the news about a car accident that leaves an entire family broken apart, dead or dying, it makes me feel sick. The normal details of their lives are suddenly imbued with a melancholy. If someone survives such a crisis, how can one go on living with so much suddenly gone? That If I Stay captures even a glimmer of that response is to its credit. I didn’t need Moretz wandering hospital halls to provide it.

But this is an affecting, heartfelt little drama that slowly overcomes its shaggier artificial impulses to find a strong emotional core, admirably underplaying big moments when it could go histrionic. The climax turns on two small scenes. The first finds Stacy Keach delivering a teary monologue in what is one of the most vulnerable performances of his career. The second is a flashback campfire sing-along jam session to Smashing Pumpkins in which all the characters spend what will be their final happiest moments together. Both are played quietly, all the more effective for it. Commercial concessions, like an overreliance on voiceover that tramples over potentially powerful silences, only smooth over rough edges. It’s a good movie, with fine performances and solid resonances. But imagining longer silences, more artful editing, I could see a great film in there somewhere.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

City Scrapes: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is an exercise in style, but director Robert Rodriguez exhausted that bag of tricks the first time. Back in 2005 the man behind Spy Kids and Machete adapted Frank Miller’s black and white Sin City comics, taking stylized panels of smarmy, hyperviolent cartoonish noir and translating them into CGI images. It’s a striking effect. Actors are buried under Dick Tracy-style makeup then green-screened into pulpy tableaus, staging violence and sex between cops and robbers, thugs and strippers, gamblers and punks. Blood spurts white, but clots red. Eye colors and fire are the only other hues in this grimy, high-contrast nightmare city. It is always night. The streets are always wet. And there’s no such thing as an innocent person.

I grew tired of the affected intensity well before the first film ended, but here we are again. Sin City is a dully artificial place totally removed from anything resembling genuine feeling or fun. It’s grim, gory, exaggerated genre grime. Coming from a claustrophobically phony, clammily adolescent mindset, the movies think bullets are awesome, vigilantes’ perverse overkill is justified, and women are only as good as their aim or their bust. It might be fun to take a peek into such a shamelessly exploitative world, but wallowing in it feels uncomfortable pretty quickly. Worst of all, Rodriguez, working from a screenplay by Miller, doesn’t seem to care too much about the intent of his images beyond the striking surfaces. If it were coming from a genuinely ugly place, it’d be offensive, but more authentic. Instead, it’s just boring, reaching for shock value and finding nothing.

Like the first film, A Dame to Kill For features an episodic series of vignettes about bad people who want to hurt worse people. Gravely voiced narrators talk and talk, overexplaining the events in prose so purple it’s like a parody of hard boiled dialogue written by someone who never actually heard it. Some of the stories, like those involving a stripper (Jessica Alba) and her guardian angel cop (Bruce Willis), a bruiser with a warped moral code (Mickey Rourke), and a band of militant prostitutes (led by Rosario Dawson), carry over from the first film. Others are new, but feel of a piece with the monotonous tone. We meet a cocky cardshark (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who runs afoul of a corrupt senator (Powers Boothe). And in the best story we meet a dopey lug (Josh Brolin) who is roped into the schemes of an alluring femme fatale (Eva Green).

She’s easily the most captivating aspect of the film. Luckily, her story is the lengthy centerpiece, the only plot that runs uninterrupted. Her green eyes match her character’s greed. Her often-naked body is a lure leading men to their deaths for her benefit. Her shamelessness about her selfish predatory nature makes her the most honest person in Sin City, even if it means she’s reliably never telling the truth. Patchy and episodic, the movie flares to life around Green’s fine performance that manages to chew its way out of the artifice around her. Everyone else in the sprawling cast, which also features Dennis Haysbert, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Christopher Lloyd, Lady Gaga, and more, fails to make an impact in the monotonous dirge that is life in the Sin City.

The movie expires well before its end credits, with plotlines arriving at their obvious conclusions in obvious ways. There’s no wit or surprise to any of it. Rodriguez is always making films for his own amusement, playing around with filmmaking tools and B-movie concepts just because he can. When he forgets to let us in on the fun, his movies are passion projects for an audience of one. With these Sin City adaptations, he’s stretched a small interesting visual idea much farther than it could possibly go. We’ve been here before and there’s nothing new to see. This remains a strikingly visualized, but thinly imagined place.

It takes noirs' ugly underbelly, scrapes it down to its most exaggerated nastiness, and then shoots its images full of the whitest white and blackest black. A fine idea, but Rodriguez’s visual imagination has hit a wall, leaving the stereotypical surface ticks of noir – hard lighting, inky shadows, smoldering smokiness – without the room to find meaning behind them. Sin City can only exist as fake genre play, and yet for all the work to make it shine, it’s undercooked and stiflingly stylish, suffocating under its own brutish frames. Film can capture great fictional cities, from Gotham and Metropolis to Dark City and Coruscant, allowing us to live in a metropolis of the imagination. But I’ve spent two whole movies in Sin City now and it still hasn’t come to life.
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