SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. A buddy hipped me to Frank Miller's comics a few years before Miller and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids) teamed up to adapt some of his Basin City stories for Sin City (2005). At the time, the movie was kind of a fanboy's dream. Rodriguez was one of my 1990s American cinema renaissance heroes, having parlayed Mexican shoot 'em ups into a successful Hollywood career. Miller's work, with themes as absent as gray areas in the visuals, resonated with me at the time. Something about rugged individualism underneath scathing misanthropy; about bad guys doing the right thing in a wicked world; about women as tough as they are stunningly sexy. Rodriguez was able to use his technical knowledge and industry clout to bring Miller's ideas to stylized, ultra-violent life on the big screen, complete with an impressively star-heavy cast. It left me wanting more, but now that I've gotten it, something's different.
It's been eight years, and where I once saw the Sin City yarns as bracing and fantastical, now I see fascistic, chauvinistic solipsism. Where I once saw the direct translation of a comic book's visual style into cinema as clever and innovative, I now see a worn-out trick.
Like the first outing, A Dame to Kill For is composed of loosely related episodes. Marv (Mickey Rourke) is back, opening the festivities by killing a bunch of frat boys who've been burning winos for fun. Nancy (Jessica Alba) also returns, haunted by the ghost of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and plotting revenge against evil-incarnate Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Some new players also appear, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a customarily fine turn as a tough gambler whose good luck may be running out, Eva Green as a black widow who rarely wears clothes, and Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven as a pair of cops drawn into her web.
There is fun to be had here, and the cast seems to have a good time, but the movie drags through its talky stretches, relying heavily on voiceover when images could establish character and mood just fine. More than anything, though, it is imbued with an air of adolescent fantasy-fulfillment. I'm sure Sin City is, too; it's been a while since I revisited it. But now it seems cold, awkwardly calculated, and overly familiar. R. 103m.
IF I STAY. I expected to dislike this as much as I assumed I'd love A Dame to Kill For. A teenage love story with an out-of-body experience as its central conceit? Come on. And set in Portland against an indie-rock backdrop? On paper, it sounds like a hipster Frankenstein made in a lab to take money from tweens and annoy the shit out of people like me. Just shows what happens when we assume.
While If I Stay may be most frustrating for what it almost accomplishes, it still features a powerful lead performance by Chloe Grace Moretz, a cozy, lived-in aesthetic and enough emotional honesty to stay compelling more or less throughout.
Mia (Moretz) is a high school junior, a talented cellist and the child of reformed rocker kids. She becomes the object of affection of that apocryphal teen boy type: Adam (Jamie Blackley) is thin, tall, dark, handsome, troubled, confident, sweet and a prodigious songwriter. His band, though poorly named and suspiciously polished-sounding, is on the rise. Mia has applied to Julliard and waits to hear back. The couple's imminent separation is putting a strain on their relationship when Mia, her brother and her parents are in a head-on collision on a snowy back road.
Most of the story is told in flashback, with Mia wandering spectrally through the accident scene and the hospital where she's treated. The device is clumsy, but Moretz is a powerful presence on screen, enough so for me to let my cynicism go. And that's what's going on with If I Stay: In spite of some fundamental missteps, it is well made and likeable. The autumnal Pacific Northwest is so effectively evoked that you can almost smell wood smoke and feel dead leaves underfoot. The feelings of family, of first love, of loss are concisely and often beautifully rendered. If it weren't for some of the well-worn tropes and the unfortunate narration, something really could have been accomplished here. Instead of lamenting the lack of a great movie, though, I'll celebrate the presence of a surprisingly good one. PG13. 107m.
— John J. Bennett
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. Haunted catacombs under the streets of Paris and shaky footage of attractive archaeologists trapped in claustrophobic tunnels. R. 93m.
CALVARY. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest in the sights of a killer who's chosen him to pay for the sins of his fellow priests. R. 100m.
THE NOVEMBER MAN. If you miss '90s Bond, here's Pierce Brosnan in spy mode again, this time as an old pro going head to head with a protégé. R. 108m.
BOYHOOD. Richard Linklater's coming-of-age story gets real — filmed over 12 years with the same cast, it follows a boy (Ellar Coltrane) through his rocky formative years. With Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. R. 165m.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Stunning visual effects, intense battles and a story with an emotional authenticity generally unseen in summer blockbusters. PG13. 130m.
THE EXPENDABLES 3. Lats, abs, 'toids, and 'ceps re-form the gang for the third installment of the old-timers' action spectacle. This time, they bring in some (relatively) young blood, and old- and new-school don't exactly see eye to eye. PG13. 126m.
THE GIVER. A young man's experience of the placid dystopia in which he lives is rocked by the knowledge of how it came to be. Faithful to the original book, with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. PG13. 97m.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Unlikely heroes (including a tree, a raccoon, and Andy from Parks and Rec) guard the galaxy from boredom in this clever, edgy and dazzling sci-fi blockbuster. PG13. 121m.
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY. A fish-out-of-water story pits a family of Indian restaurateurs new to provincial France against a more traditional and established restaurant owner (Helen Mirren). Warm, sincere, nostalgic filmmaking. PG. 122m.
INTO THE STORM. Richard Armitage stars in this popcorn cruncher with plenty of compelling visual effects and just enough plot and tension to keep you entertained. PG13. 89m.
LET'S BE COPS. Two dolts impersonate cops to get free stuff and become popular. Poor timing for the studio, as cops are decidedly unpopular in parts of the nation right now. R. 103m.
LUCY. Director Luc Besson muddles an interesting idea with half-baked plotting, wasting Scarlett Johansson as a woman dosed with a drug that allows her to access the other 90 percent of her brain. R. 90m.
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. Oh. Look. Another Woody Allen romcom. This one wins worst poster design of the year. PG13. 100m.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. Hollywood unwisely reinvents the origin story and the world's most fearsome fighting team is duller than ever. PG13.
WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL. Underdogs. Inspirational locker room speeches. Social commentary. Life lessons. Football. PG. 115m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Grant Scott-Goforth