Sin City 2

Besides being nuttier than a fruit cake, Frank Miller has established a reputation for penning some of the most brutal yet silly comics around. He hit it big in 1986 with his four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, and has more-or-less been riding off its success since then. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a pretty unremarkable and loosely adapted take on Miller’s comic of the same name, published in 1993. As one might expect, the Sin City franchise has struggled to maintain relevancy in this post-Avengers world.

Rodriguez’s wildly over-the-top action sequences and Tarrantino-esque, blood-squirty fight scenes are here in abundance, but frankly, that’s kind of the problem. The film literally can’t go five minutes without someone being beaten, shot, or otherwise maimed, and it really strikes me as a production that is afraid to take a deep breath and pace itself, lest it lose the attention of the audience. When there isn’t any fighting going on, you can bet the Rodriguez is busy flashing Eva Green’s boobs up on screen, which of course isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I’m left wondering what the point of it all is. I’m tempted to posit that Rodriguez and Miller don’t think very highly of their audience; ‘distraction’ really seems to be the operative word here, as the semi-monochrome palate, breakneck pacing, and even Miss Green’s ample assets are strategically used to shift the audience’s attention away from the sub-par story.

As far as the acting is concerned, performances are serviceable but bland. Mickey Rourke seems like he’s having fun as tough-guy Marv, though, and Powers Booth returns as the wonderfully fun-to-hate Senator Roark. I particularly enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s depiction of Johnny, a charming drifter looking to try his luck in Sin City’s speakeasies. In some ways, he reminded me of his character Brendan Frye in the 2005 film Brick, which is still one of my personal favorites.

The thing about the Sin City franchise is that it is, and has always been, a thing for children, and I mean that in the same way that the 300 franchise is for children as well. At its core, its a mindless, juvenile celebration of fantasy ultra-violence that seeks to corner the “eighteen to twenty-five year old male” demographic with the promise of blood and tits. That being said, in the end it succeeds pretty well at what it sets out to do. No, the plot isn’t great, and while I can’t say the prospect of watching people get punched in the face for an hour and a half really thrills me, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For holds the interest well enough.

I’d like to bring up Sin City’s trademark visual style again briefly, because while it’s certainly a gimmick, at least it’s unique. Personally, I’m of the opinion that a film needs at least one special idea of its own—a unique selling point, if you will—even if it’s just a monochrome palate. The important thing is that when I see that black and white fight scene with vibrant spurts of crimson blood flying across the screen, I know that I’m watching a Sin City movie, which is more than I can say for a lot of films.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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A lot of people were surprised back in 2012 when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller decided to bring the goofy premise of the 1987 television series 21 Jump Street to the big screen. Somehow, the duo managed to make the relatively obscure series a household name, due in large part to the hitherto unknown and charming chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. A clever script and some fairly consistent humor buoyed the film’s popularity and set the stage for this year’s sequel that absolutely no one was asking for. Nevertheless, 22 Jump Street, thankfully seems to have more ambition than simply riding along on the success of the original.

Fresh from the Earth-shaking and unprecedented success of The Lego Movie, directing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take on this project with admirable enthusiasm, really endeavoring to make a sequel that deserves to exist alongside its predecessor. Tatum and Hill, of course, return as officers Jenko and Schmidt, giving the film its vitality. I know this is a bit of a bold claim, but after giving it some thought I’m just not sure that the Jump Street franchise could really work with anyone else. The way in which Tatum and Hill play off one another is utterly unique, and, try as I might, I just can’t come up with another action/comedy duo why might be able to bring something comparable to the table.

The main boast that 22 Jump Street has over other similar comedy sequels is its self-awareness. “Meta” really is the name of the game, with the running gag being the the “department” spending twice as much money on the investigation and expecting to get twice the results. Indeed, in a cameo appearance by Nick Offerman, Deputy Chief Hardy orders Jenko and Schmidt “just do exactly what you did last time. Everyone’s happy.”

While the self-awareness thing is refreshing up to a point, it’s easy to overdo it to the point where it starts to become eye-rollingly obnoxious. 22 Jump Street starts to straddle that line after a while, but, as i mentioned earlier, the fun and excitement of watching Tatum and Hill play off one another mostly works to keep things interesting. All things considered, the film isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, and the fourth-wall-breaking antics of the two leads are really the only things that elevate the film above your average, cash-in, committee-designed sequel. That’s not to say that it isn’t a funny a movie, or even a good comedy, because it is; but the fact of the matter is that while it certainly doesn’t stoop to the level of being written-off as a blatantly unnecessary sequel, it just isn’t as fun or creative as 21 Jump Street.

If you choose to catch a showing of 22 Jump Street, your degree of enjoyment will likely depend on your tolerance for the goofy yet heartwarming mishaps of Hollywood’s favorite man-children. At the end of the day, I’d say it’s probably worth the price of admission and it’s hands-down one of the best comedies to be released this year.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Sometimes it’s fruitful to take a step back from the flash and sparkle of modern, CG-laden movies in order to see an old concept from a fresh perspective. “Fresh,” in this context, refers to a French short film from 1962 entitled La Jetée. In stark contrast to the whiz-bang excitement of this summer’s recent time travel film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, this week’s Short Film Sunday candidate takes a more thoughtful, quietly intensive path.

Shot in black and white and mainly consisting of a compilation of still images, La Jetée is a micro-budget production that nonetheless captures the imagination with it’s melancholy imagery and genuinely unnerving presentation. The story follows an unnamed man who has been chosen to undergo experimental time travel tests wherein his consciousness is sent back through time in order to forestall the imminent apocalypse via nuclear holocaust.

Clocking in at a modest twenty-eight minutes, the film shifts from the grim, bombed-out ruins of Paris to the relative peace of the nonspecific pre-war era, in which our protagonist engages in a romantic relationship with a woman he remembers from his childhood, much to the displeasure of his captors. Still, director Chris Marker manages to craft a compelling love story between the woman and the time traveler in such a short time, much more so than many other feature-length movies. And the relationship between the two is still only a single facet of this thematically dense and beautifully realized work. The shocking bleakness of the ending, for instance, may help to explain why this film has survived so long in the collective psyche of critics and the movie-watching public alike.

While originally in French, La Jetée is available online with both English subtitles and a English language dub, both of excellent quality.

The English dub can be found here: http://alaskapirate.com/lajetee/

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Days of Future Past is probably one of those concepts that you’re not supposed to think too much about. The writers certainly didn’t, as the whole time manipulation is played pretty fast and loose and exists mainly to let us play around with the First Class era X-Men again. That’s all well and good, especially since First Class is now the qualitative benchmark for all future X-Men films, but beneath the garish flash and sparkle of this newest installment, it doesn’t seem to be doing much more than running in place, so to speak.

Based on a X-Men comic book arc of the same name, Days of Future Past is written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Bryan Singer, also responsible for The Usual Suspects (1995). Though the story is kind of a mess—I’ll get to that in a moment—Singer admittedly has an eye for action and the fight scenes, sporadic as they are, are at least visually interesting and make the most of each of the mutant’s various skill sets. The film, splitting between two distinct time periods, proves to be pretty well paced and keeps the audience engaged between the lengthy interludes and expository dialogue.

The film stars and ensemble cast including Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult reprising their roles from X-Men: First Class as well as old franchise veterans Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Jackman, as per usual, is generally entertaining to watch and is able to straddle the line between hulking action hero and comic relief with ease. Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to be strangely distant in this performance, as though she could think of a hundred other places she’d rather be. Likewise, it always seems strange to me that McKellen and Stewart have such small roles in the X-Men franchise and are rarely, if ever, given anything interesting to do. With living legends like those two involved in the production, it seems counterintuitive that they’ve got nothing more then minor cameos.

Luckily, the film is more or less able to stand on it’s action and occasional moments of suspense alone, rather than ask the audience to invest in the mechanics of the plot. The standard school of thought with these kinds of shenanigans seems to be something along the lines of “they’re going back in time. Just deal with it, man.” Days of Future Past decidedly follows that pattern and asks the audience to suspend their disbelief to a rather disquieting degree. On top of that, the actual plot that takes place in 1973 seems to be full of half-baked betrayals and motivations that mostly come off as laughable.

There’s a whole sequence involving Magneto threatening to kill the President of the United States and instilling a mutant-led new world order, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why he decided that this was necessary. If anything, it seems like such a course of action would essentially ensure that the mutants would be hunted down and killed in the future as opposed to Professor Xavier’s plan to convince the world that the mutants a such a kind, peace-loving bunch and are in no way a credible threat to the rest of the world. It seems to me like so many of the plot points just weren’t throughout through and Magneto goes berserk, apropos of nothing, simply because the story necessitates a villain.

Likewise, the time traveling aspect is a complete contrivance, though the rules governing that kind of thing tend to be a bit more liquid. Still though, surely the instant that Kitty Pryde sent Wolverine back through time, that alternate time line would cease to exist since he would ultimately be successful on his mission. Instead, we see an extended period of time in which the last surviving mutants must fend off waves of assailants while Pryde must maintain her focus in order to keep Wolverine’s consciousness rooted in the past. Of course this is just an excuse to build dramatic tension and show off some of the more exotic mutant’s fight scenes, but a little internal logic would be nice. Be that as it may, I think now I’m beginning to strive to find reason where there’s simply none to be found.

The simple fact is that Days of Future Past doesn’t live up the expectations of fans after the success of First Class. Yes, the story doesn’t make much sense. Yes, the time traveling is kind of half-assed. But ultimately I’d say that X-Men: Days of Future Past captures the attention well enough while it lasts, though fails to move the stale franchise in any new, significant direction.

Rating: 3 out of 5

DOR


I’ve been kicking around the idea for a kind of director profile segment for a while now, and with 2013’s Oscar nominated American Hustle still being talked about, I decided that there’s no time like the present. For our first “Director Spotlight,” I’d like to talk about David O. Russell, who manages to attract no shortage of controversy both in his personal life and on the job. Despite the negative details that tend to surround his life and work, one can’t deny that Russell is one of the most talented filmmakers working in Hollywood today.

Biographical Information

Russell was born in 1958 in New York City to Bernard and Maria Russell. In 1992, Russell married Janet Grillo, with whom he had one child. Russell and Grillo separated in 2007, and Russell became involved with his current parter, Holly Davis—with whom he also has one child-shortly thereafter. In 2012, Russell became the subject of controversy when he was accused of sexually assaulting his teenaged niece, though the charges were later dropped.

In 2002, Russell became a board member of the Ghetto Film School, located in The Bronx, New York. Russell used his Hollywood clout, by no means ineffectual after the critical and commercial success of Three Kings in 1999, to bring fellow filmmakers and funds to the school. The objective of the school is to support young black and Latino filmmakers in a historically underprivileged community, and, with Russell’s support, the school has grown in scope and size over the last few years and currently remains in operation.

To date, Russell has directed eight feature films, including Spanking the Monkey (1994), Flirting With Disaster (1996), Three Kings (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), the unreleased film Nailed, The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013).

Filmmaking Techniques

Beginning with the filming of Three Kings, David O. Russell has developed a sort of characteristic, visual shorthand that is at once difficult to pull off and refreshingly unique. Russell employed several handheld cameras and Steadicam shots in order to give the film a more realistic, journalistic feel. Likewise, he shot a majority of the film on Ektachrome transparency stock which was then cross-processed in color-negative chemicals, giving the film “the odd color of the newspaper images of the Gulf War.” Apparently, such a technique makes the actual, physical film notoriously difficult and unreliable to develop—so much so that many labs refused to provide insurance in the event that the transparency stock failed to develop properly.

In the case of Russell’s 2010 film, The Fighter, a similar technique was used. According to Russell, “the crew used actual cameras from that era. They were sort of a Beta camera that gives a very certain look, and we actually hired the director from HBO and his crew who had done those (Micky Ward’s) fights to replicate them shot-for-shot.”

Russell has a characteristically individualistic technique when it comes to filming action scenes as well. According to Wikipedia, all of the explosions in the film were shot on a single camera, as opposed to the typical action movie technique of shooting an explosion with at least three different cameras. When asked why he chose to film in this manner, Russell responded, “To me, that’s more real. The car’s blowing up on this guy and we just park the camera. Of course the producer says ‘We gotta run three cameras!’ but if I cut it three ways, then it just looks like an action picture.”

George Clooney and the Three Kings Controversy

Prior to the filming of Russell’s 1999 picture Three Kings, Warner Bros. had some serious reservations about financing an auteur project for $45 million. Likewise, the studio worried that the film’s political overtones would offend American sensibilities and also pushed for the erasure of some of the film’s more violent scenes. Warner Bros. proceeded to condense the shooting schedule from the original eighty days into only sixty-nine days. In addition, the budget for the film was cut drastically from $45 million to $35 million. Accordingly, Russell no doubt felt the pressure of the new budget and schedule changes weighing down on his directorial shoulders.

As filming progressed, Russell become increasingly susceptible to emotional outbursts and, according to Clooney, Russell began physically and verbally harassing the crew. Clooney, like the consummate gentleman that we’ve been led to believe that he is, took it upon himself to defend the crew members against Russell’s tirades, reportedly attempting to placate him by saying “David, it’s a big day, but you can’t shove, push, or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.”

Numerous altercations between Clooney and Russell followed. On one occasion, which would later prove to be the most physical encounter between the two, a fight started when an extra was having trouble throwing Ice Cube’s character, Sergeant Elgin, to the ground. As the story goes, Russell became frustrated after multiple takes and, in what some seem to remember as a blatant physical assault while others seem to recall an instructional exercise in how to properly toss someone to the ground, Russell proceeded to violently throw the extra down. Clooney stepped in once more, recalling that “we were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra.” Apparently, Clooney and Russell began shouting at one another before the encounter devolved into fisticuffs. Russell reportedly head-butted Clooney, while Clooney, in turn, grabbed and fastened his grip on Russell’s throat.

At that point, it was reported that Second Assistant Director Paul Bernard, driven to his wit’s end by the incessant fighting between Clooney and Russell, simply set down his camera and walked off set, effectively quitting then and there.

Later, after filming had concluded and both men had entered into an uneasy truce, Clooney reported that he felt no ill-will towards Russell and that “We made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it’s a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I’m trying to do.

Nailed

Russell’s 2008 project, Nailed, started out as a political comedy co-written by Russell and Kristen Gore. The story centers on the fictional Alice Eckle, who is accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun, inexplicably causing her libido to sky-rocket. Uninsured, Eckle travels to Washington in a desperate gamble to fight for the rights of the bizarrely injured. In Washington, Eckle meets a corrupt congressman (because aren’t they all?) who takes advantage of her crusading and wildly out of control sex drive, all while she entered into her own tentative career in politics.

The film, which was interrupted four times during it’s initial filming, eventually fell victim to the mighty, iron fist of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee (or IATSE) who shut down the production because the crew was not being paid for their work. Jessica Biel was slated to play Eckle while Jake Gyllenhaal was portraying the antagonistic congressman.

It is unclear if Russell will ever chose to finish the project, though it is highly unlikely that the film will be released, at least for the foreseeable future.

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This week, I’d like to delve into the work of one of Hollywood’s most polarizing filmmakers, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn’s filmography consists of a number of heavily stylized action/thriller films, including the Pusher trilogy, Drive, and the relatively recent Only God Forgives. This week’s Netflix feature, Bronson, is one of my personal Refn films and is a perfect example of how a little imagination can elevate a simple concept from simply ‘good’ to decidedly outstanding.

British actor Tom Hardy gives perhaps the best performance of his career as the titular inmate, Charles Bronson. The film focuses on the sensationalized, though still mostly accurate, life and subsequent incarceration of Charles Bronson as he copes with his brief stints of freedom, institutionalization, and turbulent love life. Bronson’s desire for notoriety is the impetus for his violent behavior, and his real-life brutality and savagery is offset in the film by some truly ingenious narration and surreal, dark humor.

At once a crime thriller, biopic, and dark comedy, Bronson is a film that is best seen for oneself. Endlessly imaginative and expertly written by Brock Norman Brock and co-written by Refn himself, the story is broken up between plot points and hugely entertaining asides in the form of Hardy’s minstrel-esque soliloquies. Bronson’s character really gives the impression that he lives solely for the sake of making a name for himself; it give him a purpose, without which he would be completely lost. The key is that Hardy’s portrayal is eminently believable and infectiously charismatic, even at his most brutal and sadistic, culminating in one of the most compelling anti-heroes around. As with many Refn film, the reason some may love Bronson is that same reason that some may despise it. Stylized in the the typical Refn fashion, the film is nothing if not a visual treat, and Hardy’s flawless performance is guaranteed to captivate.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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This week, I’d like to discuss a film that’s particularly close to me as it sort of represents the beginning of my critical career: Submarine. I remember watching Submarine a number of years ago and thinking for the first time that film is an astounding medium. In short, Submarine was the movie that made me realize that movies are cool.

Submarine is the directorial debut for British comedic talent Richard Ayoade, also responsible for The Watch, as well as this year’s highly anticipated film, The Double. Ayoade’s strength lies in his ability to be funny and insightful without feeling to the need to drench his work in cynicism- a lesson which many coming-of-age dramas baldy need to learn. Though Submarine doesn’t reinvent the genre by any means, it delivers an honest and profoundly believable story revolving around a sympathetic, incorrigible protagonist.

Ayoade’s directorial style is a little reminiscent of a more sober sort of Wes Anderson production, complete with bright colors and childlike set pieces and situations. The key, however, is that the style never eclipses the substance and Ayoade pulls it off remarkably well. The story follows black sheep Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he navigates the treacherous waters of love and familial relationships. Though seemingly distant, Oliver has a big heart and puts it upon himself to hold his precious little world together in any way he can. Though Oliver’s exploits sometimes seem fantastical, the action and plot are eminently relatable thanks to Ayoade’s expertly crafted dialogue. It’s likely that many members of the audience might see glimpses of themselves in Oliver’s angst and gradual maturation, facilitating a moving yet witty and energetic story.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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