Sunday, August 31, 2014

Movie Review: "Sin City" by David Pretty

Films like Bryan Singer's "X-Men" movies and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" really captured the spirit of their original source material but it wasn't until the advent of 2005's "Sin City" when the visual style of the comic book was truly honored. Miller'... read more While Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man managed to capture some essence of their original source material it wasn't until Sin City in 2005 when the visual style comic books was properly honored. 

Inspired by film noir, E.C.-era pulp horror comics and Mickey Spillane-style detective fiction, Frank Miller's original series of graphic novels featured characters of opposing moral extremes moving inexorably towards an ultra-violent confrontation with one another. At the end of these little morality plays the bad guys usually get their comeuppance but our (anti) heroes often become the victim of cruel circumstance and are undone by what amounts to a modern Greek tragedy. 

As such, there isn't much in the way of subtlety in Sin City. Indeed, Miller's villains are more likely to be crazed pedophile cannibal rapists than someone who's "misguided". This, presumably, is to ensure that the audience will harbor no sympathy, moral ambiguity or conflict of conscience when the bad guys get their just deserts. Trust me, it's not a co-incidence that everything here is in black and white.

The first time I re-watched the film I chose to view the 142-minute "recut, unrated, extended" edition which separates each story into its own continuity. This time out I went back to the original theatrical presentation which I like a lot better since the shuffled plot reminds me a lot of Pulp Fiction

The first major tale, "That Yellow Bastard", features Bruce Willis as an avenging cop with the appropriately hard-boiled name of Hartigan. Ignoring the threats of career suicide (one day close to retirement, naturally!) he ventilates a creepy child molester (Nick Stahl) who just so happens to be the son of the powerful and unhinged Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Hartigan is framed for "Junior's" vile crimes and thrown in prison for eight years. Despite their best efforts to torture a confession out of him, he remains resolute.

The girl he saved, "skinny little" Nancy Callahan, is grateful for his sacrifice, but Hartigan tells her to forget about him. He knows that Roark won't hesitate to rub them both out if it looks as if they're planning to expose "Junior's" bizarre proclivities. Contrary to Hartigan's orders, Nancy sends a letter to her incarcerated savior every week like clockwork, which keeps him from going off the deep end.

But when her letters suddenly dry up, Hartigan fears for the worst. In order earn a quick release from prison he confesses to all of Junior's vile crimes and then goes in search of Nancy (Jessica Alba), who's now a nineteen year old exotic dancer. To their horror, "Junior" also resurfaces, a twisted, jaundiced, maniacal wreck who seeks to punish the two for crossing him.

As you might expect, the final showdown between Hartigan and the titular "Bastard" is pretty freakin' brutal, peppered with Miller's trademark laconic dialogue, sadistic twists and (literally) black and white moralizing. The stark contrasting art that characterizes the original graphic novel is reproduced perfectly here using high definition digital cameras, green screen "back lots", monochromatic imagery and the strategic application of subtle color accents. 

The film is very reverent to Miller's original works. Clearly director Robert Rodriguez used panels directly from the comic as storyboards, a technique that Zak Snyder also used to tremendous effect in 300. Honestly, any film-maker could have produced a memorable and mind-altering piece of cinema if they'd only had the foresight to exploit this seemingly-simple but long-ignored resource. I'm not sure how much technical work Miller did on the film, but his co-directing credit is well-deserved, if only for the film's rich visual style.

Hartigan's segment bookends two other complete stories, leaving us mired in a niggling cliffhanger. The next major tale, "The Hard Goodbye", is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is Mickey Rourke's welcome return to the spotlight after a shamefully-long exile. If he hadn't been available to play "Marv", Rodriguez and Miller would have been forced to assemble an actor out of spare parts from Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn and Humphrey Bogart. 

Barely recognizable under a hatchet-face of scarred makeup, Rourke plays a character who, in ancient times would have been "right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face...or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators". Unfortunately, in modern times, Marv is little more then a broken-down goon with mental issues. 

After sharing a magical night with an impossibly-beautiful prostitute named Goldie (Jamie King), Marv wakes up to find her dead. Convinced that she was murdered, he goes on a homicidal quest to find out who killed this "angel", the one woman who ever showed him any affection. Driven by a relentless sense of purpose for the first time in his life, Marv uncovers evidence of church corruption, tangles with a silent, bookish-looking cannibal / assassin / serial killer (!) and then has one of the best "atonement" scenes in cinema history. 

Now, some might consider the third major segment, "The Big Fat Kill", to be the runt of the litter but I love it mainly because it features a completely bat-shit nuts Benicio Del Toro at his most uber-greasy. We also get an assertive performance by Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute, a sweet, vulnerable and greatly-missed Brittany Murphy as the embattled waitress Shellie and Rosario, Dawson as Gail, a "warrior woman" prostitute who's not to be trifled with. Lead protagonist Clive Owen manages to hold everything together with a nice smoldering performance, even if his American accent wears a bit thin at times.

At the very least, Sin City can't be accused of being milquetoast. Despite its limited color palette, the film is a full-blooded neo-noir romp that's proud to wear its time-honored cliche's on its blood-spattered sleeve. Although some may balk at the broad performances, stylized action sequences and dialogue best uttered through clenched teeth, this is a genuine cinematic love letter to a bonafide piece of comic book literature. 

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Movie Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy" by David Pretty


Abducted by space pirates as a boy, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) grows up to become the notorious, self-named interstellar thief Star Lord. After Quill obliviously pilfers a valuable and mysterious orb he soon discovers that it's coveted by a powerful alien zealot named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who plans to exploit the doomsday weapon concealed within. In order to "Guard the Galaxy", Star Lord is forced to team up with a motley band of misfits including a deadly turncoat assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a monosyllabic Ent called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a vengeful mountainoid known as Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and a trash-talking, technically-skilled humanoid raccoon by the name of Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper).


If you're looking for an introspective character study and a free-form, Ulysses-style plot then you might want to look elsewhere. However if your inner child isn't completely on life support then come on in, grab some popcorn, sit right down and prepare to get rawked.

  • At some point in time I'm gonna hafta re-watch the film if only because the screen went all blurry and water inexplicably started shooting out of my eyes during the intro. Kudos to screenwriters James Gunn and Nicole Perlman for trying to inject some emotional heft into what could have been just another big, dumb summer action flick. 
  • Perlman and Gunn  also deserve praise for getting all of these disparate and volatile characters together in a manner that actually feels somewhat organic and plausible.
  • Every one of the Guardians comes complete with a few interesting revelations and all of them experience some semblance of growth. Ultimately they learn the value of trusting people and having friends, which is a pretty positive message to pass on to all the l'il Ravagers out there. 
  • One more feather in the cap of the writing team: the dialogue is sharp and fun but still well within the boundaries of light, PG-style, comic-book banter. 
  • I still can't believe that Marvel Studios hired James freakin' Gunn to direct this thing. For those of you not in the know, James was a writer / actor / producer at Troma Entertainment, which is notorious for cranking out low-budget schlock that's deliberately engineered to offend as many people as possible. His first directorial effort was the gross-out horror comedy Slither, which was criminally under-seen and under-appreciated back in 2006. Despite being armed with a budget that's about ten times higher then he's used to, Gunn still brings many of the same cock-eyed sensibilities to the table. Hell, he even retained several of his go-to actors including Lloyd Kaufman, Nathan Fillion and Mikaela Hoover. Gotta love a director that shows such undying loyalty to his friends!
  • Nothing in Slither really tagged Gunn as an action director but the inflated budget really seems to have unleashed his kinetic creativity. From the kick-ass opening clash between Quill and Korath (Djimon Hounsou) to Rocket and Groot's tag-team prison distraction to Gamora's frantic scraps with her psycho half-sis Nebula (Karen Gillan), the film is pure hyperactive visual eye candy. 
  • I also need to give a big shout-out to editors Craig Wood, Fred Raskin and Hughes Winborne for making sure that this galaxy-spanning epic doesn't feel epic. More importantly, it's a minor miracle that the film's narrative thread remains relatively intact in spite of film's chaotic finale. Even with all the different theaters of battle, personal skirmishes and hyperactive cuts, Gunn and his editing team never resort to lazy, Transformers-style microscopic close-ups and overt bombast.
  • Speaking of spectacle, supervising art director Ray Chan and production designer Charles Wood deserve ample praise for their imaginative and varied world-building. Between the interiors of Quill's ship and Ronan's vessel, Kyln prison, the Knowhere mines and a slew of other environments, everything looks distinct, highly-detailed and convincingly functional. Also major props for dispensing with the usual boring, monochromatic color palette and making Xandar as garishly-colorful as its gloriously-cheesy sci-fi name suggests. 
  • As the tremendously-effective trailers illustrate, the film's contemporary soundtrack is used to great effect. Every single feel-good pop and R&B classic is precisely selected to punch up the action sequences, take the piss out of Reservoir Dogs-style slow-mo hero shots and / or clobber unsuspecting viewers right square in the feels. As soon as you learn the origin of Quill's "Awesome Mixed Tape - Volume One" the film instantly becomes an emotional minefield. You have to respect any director who takes great pains to weave music directly into the very fabric of the film's identity. The selections are so iconic that the orchestral score by composer Tyler Bates is almost invisible in comparison, which, arguably, isn't such a bad thing. His aural contributions serve to heighten the film's emotional impact without being particularly intrusive.
  • All of the casting is spot-on. Chris Pratt exudes effortless charisma and in doing so he joins the ranks of other cocksure rogues such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds. Whether he's indignant about his anonymity, demonstrating a new "machine" in a suspect lineup or tangling with a guard over his precious Sony Walkman, Pratt exhibits instinctual sincerity in every scene. Star Lord's unconventional "showdown" with Ronan right at the end of the film is particularly amusing and I'm really glad that Pratt and company had the guts to try something different.
  • Zoe Saldana strikes the perfect balance between sultry and deadly. During the prison sequence she cracks off some pretty snappy line deliveries, displays an almost lethal allergic reaction to Quill's transparent "Mack Daddy" routine, and serves up plenty of convincing face-punchery and sword play.
  • Pro wrestler Dave Bautista consistently surprises as the pissed-off alien land-tank Drax the Destroyer. Clearly inspired by the character's unique racial quirk that prevents him from understanding basic human metaphors, Bautista manages to convey anger, pain and frustration without a hint of pretense. In fact, out of all the Guardians, I think that Drax has the best overall story arc. 
  • We also get two CGI characters who are so likeable and convincing that they help us forget that digital abominations such as Jar Jar Binks ever existed. For a guy who's only statement is firmly rooted in self-identification, Groot certainly has a lot of personality. Charmingly designed and well-voiced by Vin Diesel, this multi-talented, nigh-invulnerable walking tree is the best example of the old adage "speak softly and carry (several) big stick(s)". As the story unfolds, Groot singular mantra starts to become more and more expressive. I absolutely love the scene in which he willfully grows a small flower for a orphan girl on the streets of Knowhere. Even though he's meant to be the cuddly, naive, slightly dim heart and soul of the group, you definitely don't want to piss him off. He will creatively and gleefully put an end to your shit pronto.
  • And then there's Rocket, who could very well be the best fictional character ever created in the history of all things. In stark contrast to Groot's chronic self-awareness, Rocket doesn't even know what a raccoon is, which automatically makes him awesome. Acerbically voiced by Bradley Cooper, this pissed-off rodent is the product of genetic experiments gone horribly awry. In addition to having some of the best lines of the film, Rocket manages to generate a lot of pathos whenever reveals some new tidbit about his dark origins. He also exhibits considerable evolution, going from a selfish asshole at the beginning of the film to defending the people of Xandar at his own peril. Which is more then I can say for S.I.N.O. ("Superman In Name Only") in Zak Snyder's recent exercise in character assassination, I.E. Man of Steel
  • The supporting actors also do a commendable job. Micheal Rooker runs circles around his peers as the increasingly-volatile, knick-knack collecting cosmic redneck (blueneck?) Yondu Udonta. If you're having a problem picturing this then just think "Merle from The Walking Dead meets Angry Smurf". Even without the aid of his remote-controlled flying knitting needle, Rooker is incredibly intimidating. He certainly makes for a much more interesting antagonist then the guy we're really supposed to hate. Karen Gillan (Dr. Who's patently adorable Amy Pond) does a fair job as Nebula, even though most of her performance boils down to sneering, spitting out lines and cat-walking around like a Xanax-deprived supermodel. Finally, Benicio Del Toro is weirdly hypnotic during his brief screen time as the spacey and eccentric interstellar hoarder The Collector.       
  • I could just as easily have cribbed the following complaints right from my Thor: The Dark World and Star Trek reviews. My first point of broken-record bitchery is that the main villain has absolutely no discernible motivation other then the fact that he's completely batshit nuts. As Ronan the Accuser, Lee Pace does a decent enough job conveying irrational hatred, boundless ego and power intoxication, but the script provides precious little insight into why he hates the Xandarians so friggin' much. In the end, Ronan just comes off as a boring, blue-faced, mascara-wearing hooded goon who's weapon of choice hints at overcompensation issues. Now don't get me wrong, if your villain does evil stuff just 'cuz he's nuts, that's perfectly fine. But for the love of Thanos, why not tell us what pushed him over the edge? When your main villain lacks any impetus that you can relate to, then he's nothing more then a contrivance; a meat-headed cardboard target for fists, knives and guns.
  • Although I dig a lot of things about this script, it does succumb to lazy convention from time to time. For example, why do the male and female leads always have to hook up? Why not hold something back, defy expectations and leave yourself a possible story arc for the inevitable sequel?
  • As the film wore on I slowly began to fall prey to that dreaded movie-going malaise known as "viewer fatigue". It's perfectly fine to have three or four firefights, high-speed vehicle chases and punch-ups, but after the fifth or sixth orgy of computer generated mayhem I start to get bored. This is the exact same issue I had with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I liked the Guardians so much that I felt protective of them. The last thing I wanted was to have them buried under an avalanche of artificial spectacle.
Forty minutes into Guardians of the Galaxy I began to entertain the thought that it might very well be Star Wars for this generation. After all, what kid in his right mind wouldn't want a Groot action figure?

Unfortunately, the film's boring, disposable villain and trying-too-hard, sensory-overload onslaught of hyperactive digital effects sucks a lot of charm and appeal out of the proceedings.

Nevertheless, the movie is still a whole lotta fun and I'm really looking forward to a Rocket Raccoon origin story sometime in the future.
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