Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Film Review - BLUE RUIN

Upon first glance, Dwight would hardly seem a particular capable agent of revenge. Paunchy, pale and scraggly, wide melancholy eyes staring off towards some unknown horizon, he’s a shambling wreck of a man devoid of home or comfort, scrounging for food in carnival dumpsters and sleeping in his beat up blue Pontiac. He looks more like an aimless, broken drifter destined to die alone under his favorite pier, forgotten, than to cut a bloody swath across Virginia on a single-minded quest for brutal retribution. But, then, appearances can be deceiving.

Dwight, played with haunted fragility by Macon Blair, is our guide through Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier’s gripping and refreshing neo-noir character drama that presents one of the most unlikely eye-for-an-eye thriller yarns in quite some time. Originally pitched as “No Country for Old Men with an idiot at the helm,” this is actually a far more complicated and emotionally moving vision; an absorbing portrait of what happens when a very normal, unexceptional human being (no Anton Chigurh-like supernatural efficiency here) is driven by trauma into an inescapable violent existence. The results are messy, tragic, laced with pitch black humor and sadly poetic.

When we first encounter our lead, he’s stuck in a morose, solitary holding pattern, waiting for… something. That something, we soon learn, is the impending release of the criminal who murdered his parents. Following the ex-con and his family to a roadside dive, Dwight sneaks into the joint’s bathroom and, trembling with anxiety, knife firmly in hand, prepares to strike.

And thus kicks off Saulnier’s sad, stark, gore-spattered odyssey; a stunning work of tone and atmosphere, that stares directly into the heart of vengeance and discovers only emptiness, loneliness and despair. Visibly inspired by the Coen brothers, the writer-director, who previously helmed the 2007 festival hit Murder Party, has crafted a deceptively simple, stripped down meditation of a film that encourages us to dive headlong into the scarred psyche of its protagonist. This is an observant, personal story of unfortunate self-destruction, which nevertheless also manages the difficult task of driving the viewer uncomfortably close to the edge of their seat during several brilliantly-constructed sequences of unbearable suspense.

Because Dwight is a beginner at this sort of thing, Saulnier skillfully milks endless tension from each and every deadly encounter he wanders into. After all, lacking any professional training or hands on experience, he’s prone to clumsy mistakes and misjudgments, such a sensational moment where a late night stake-out in an enemy’s house is thrown totally out of whack by a light getting turned on. Or, even more impressive, the slowly unfolding disaster that occurs during an interrogation at gunpoint wherein a dangerous captive (Kevin Kolack), newly freed from our hero’s trunk, quickly proves just how much cannier he is than his nervous rifle-wielding abductor. Tossing aside his handbook of standard tropes, the director shows a bold willingness to mine invention from every one of his standard genre set-ups, packing this lean, 90-minute exercise with countless small surprises that are exponentially magnified by the intimacy of the scope.

It’s also crucial to emphasize just how beautiful Blue Ruin is to look at. The helmer, who has spent over a decade working as a cinematographer, shows a sharp eye for gorgeously-framed, evocative shots. Working with resources far more modest than several of this year’s most visually exciting low-budget films – Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive and Enemy, to name a few – Saulnier works wonders with precious little, imbuing his Virginia locations with shabby mythic grandeur, and fills the screen with cool and arresting blue imagery. You could freeze frame at almost any time during this picture and be blown away by the compositions.

As wonderfully constructed as Blue Ruin is, however, all would be for naught without the right talent in the central role. This is largely a one-man show, and Blair is a true discovery; a shlumpy, self-conscious everyman (think Michael Shannon’s sad-sack little brother) whose innocent puppy dog eyes mask a soul darkened by unspeakable horror. Speaking in short bursts – if at all – Blair holds our attention throughout, drawing our unreserved sympathies and inspiring silent screams of warning when Dwight stumbles into a bad situation. He’s a heartbreaking, pitiful creature hiding behind a wall of mournful isolation so impenetrable even his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and old friend Teddy (Devin Ratray) can no longer connect with him on a human level. And, thanks to the actor’s immense efforts, he’s also a true, unforgettable original.

Given the profound strength of this material, it’s kind of shocking we haven’t seen a similar crime thriller tale told in this fashion before. Perhaps, though, that’s the genius of the picture; its clever premise is communicated so plainly and expertly it all just feels natural, obscuring the brilliance of the masterminds pulling the strings. Poignant and intense, Blue Ruin heralds the arrival of two bold new creative voices and, unlike Dwight, hits the mark with every ringing pull of the trigger.

4 out of 5

*Blue Ruin is available on VOD and DVD/Blu-ray now!

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Sin City: The Dame to Kill For doubtlessly seemed like a good idea on paper. Given the pedigree of its cast, source material and the favorable reputation of its predecessor, which was such an eye-popping blast when it bowed in 2005, how could it not? What a difference nine years makes. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s return to the grimy, sweaty, gore-streaked streets now feels flat, predictable and kinda sad. The results never approach Immortals or The Spirit levels of unwatchable wretchedness, to be fair, but the picture lacks sizzle and shock, and never strives to raise the bar for this brand of stylized green screen filmmaking. It’s trying to replicate the past, rather than aspiring to surpass it. 

Continuing the established structure, A Dame to Kill For likewise consists of three major stories that dance around each other, connecting only superficially (often through the presence of Mickey Rourke’s invaluable brute Marv), yet all representative of the hopelessly blackened soul of the titular city. We see the return of Dwight (Josh Brolin – replacing Clive Owen), a scummy private eye with a penchant for getting his clock cleaned, this time embroiled in a high stakes game of murder, lust and betrayal with Eva Green’s ice-cold, frequently au naturel Ava. There’s also Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, a deceptively clean-cut gambler planning to topple the sinister Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) in a dangerous poker match, to hell with the consequences. Rounding out the triptych is Nancy the stripper (Jessica Alba – a lightweight weak link, once again), now on a self-destructive path following the killing of Bruce Willis’s savior cop Hartigan, with her sights firmly set on the powerful father of her infamous deceased nemesis, the Yellow Bastard.

One of Sin City’s greatest joys was watching each of its unique and compelling tales flirt with one another while nevertheless working individually as complete visions of urban decay-tinged chaos. By contrast, A Dame to Kill For really drops the ball on the storytelling front, depending too much on knowledge of the previous entry and playing confusingly fast and loose with the timeline. Like 2014’s other questionable too-late green screen sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire (a much more successful endeavor on an entertainment level, despite being fairly disposable), this film acts as a prequel, sequel and side-quel; a choice that totally prevents the movie from standing alone and creates a barrier of disorientation that prevents the viewer from being able to be absorbed into the hard-boiled narrative. This screenwriting messiness is detrimental to the strength of the parts and plays havoc with the flow of the whole, making the 102-minute run-time (20 minutes less that the original) feel waaaay longer than it actually is. A palpable sense of dread kicks in when Alba’s character takes center stage and you realize there’s still more weary ground to cover.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Sin City is the guy who created it in the first place, Frank Miller. A man of nearly unparalleled genius in his comic-book heyday (there’s a damn good reason “The Dark Knight Returns” and his run on “Daredevil” are so staggeringly influential), he’s become a genuinely problematic artistic voice in our current era due to his near self-parodic over-tendency to rely on sadism, tough guy posturing and uncomfortably masturbatory depictions of women. The sadism and posturing is still ever-present, albeit now pretty much hollow and devoid of impact. The misogyny, however, has grown infinitely more troubling, creepy and difficult to see beyond. Sure, back in 2005, we noticed it. Yet it managed to blend into this world’s larger web of gaudy extravagance and ruthless nihilism, creating a grander portrait of winking exploitative seediness run amok. It was undeniably unsavory, but not overly offensive. Such is not the case with A Dame to Kill For, which descends so deeply into the muck that the results operate solely as a grotesque checklist of Miller’s erotic fixations. Women are either “whores” or victims, all dressed like porn stars, and subjected to being endlessly fetishized by the dehumanizing and detached male-gaze of Rodriguez’s camera. In a film climate where there’s a genuine frustrated demand for strong female characters, this sort of leering, pervy B-movie nonsense no longer plays like a cheeky homage to simpler cinematic times; it feels tired, antiquated and pretty gross.

Additionally, it’s more than a little apparent here that Miller, who has sole screenwriting credit, may love the sensibilities of film noir, though doesn’t quite grasp the intricacies offered by it. When the form emerged in American cinema in the thirties, it was usually typified by its dense shades of moral ambiguity, and troubled characters who all too often occupied grey territory, not quite villains and not quite heroes. Sin City doesn't explore these complexities, and makes it all too clear which side of the line its characters are standing. Heck, even ol’ homicidal Marv has a very specific, unbreakable code he lives by, usually serving as defender of the innocent. By ignoring this crucial element of noir, the writer delivers a shallow, over-simplified imitation, rather than a satisfying slice of the real deal.

Despite the fallacies of the material, credit where credit is due, many of the actors show up to play and almost succeed in carrying the picture back from the abyss. Eva Green, fast-turning into a female version of the Rock, redeeming unnecessary franchise sequels through sheer charisma, brings plenty of seething fierceness and manipulative black widow charm to her scheming title character (someone please give this fantastic actress a movie project worthy of her talents). She finds a strong sparring partner in Brolin who, despite lacking Owen’s suaveness, was born to spit out surly noir dialogue. Also stellar, unsurprisingly, is Rourke, who again infuses his iconic role with sad nobility and tragic horror. Gordon-Levitt brings a nice touch of cool period-era rakishness, while Dennis Haysbert, taking over for Michael Clarke Duncan as towering thug Manute, and Boothe make amusingly menacing villains.

Honestly, the failure of Rodriguez and Miller to fashion anything exciting or new from all of their resources really calls into question whether there’s even a place for these types of movies anymore, where actors are placed into synthetic screensaver environments, edited into scenes with one another and surrounded by cartoonish happenings. It’s impossible to be wowed by the technique and with nothing else tangible to hold onto we’re left bored and uninvolved. Like watching a magic trick that has had its secret revealed, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is all routine, zero astonishment.

1.5 out of 5