Sunday, August 31, 2014

Song of the Day: Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice (1967)

It's funny sometimes how songs that you've loved for a long time can take on entirely new meanings when placed in a different context. You Only Live Twice was the title song from the fifth James Bond film, released in 1967, and it has been my favorite Bond song for as long as I can remember. I love the epic string intro, the vocal and lyric, and the Japanese musical elements that echo the film's settings. I also love the way it was sampled in the great Robbie Williams song "Millennium."

But then came the end of Mad Men season 5, with this song playing over the final montage that closed out the season (which, for my money, has been the show's best season). I can't recall a more perfect choice of music being paired with visuals and thematics. As each of the show's main characters settles into their new status quos, Nancy Sinatra's beautiful voice makes us question whether these are the lives they're living for themselves, or the ones for their dreams. And then there's Don Draper's great ambiguous look before the fade to black. Ever since that moment, this song has been elevated in my mind into one of the best pure pop songs of the 60's.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 18, 2014

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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Great Scenes: The Last of the Mohicans and What Perfect Filmmaking Looks Like

This is the last nine minutes of the 1992 Michael Mann adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, and it's as good an answer as any to the question of why I think film is the greatest art form. At 1:07 of this clip, the music starts, and at 1:24, the last word is spoken. The eight minutes after that is the most exciting, seductive, and breathtaking filmmaking you will ever see. 

Most (though definitely not all) good films have quality story, dialogue, and acting. Those are all important, but not the keys to great cinema. None of those are what sets cinema apart. After all, theater has each of those as well. What great cinema does is control the exact visual and sonic sensation you experience while still letting you experience it on your own terms. Three things combine to do that, and more than anything, they're what come together to create the art of filmmaking: editing, photography, and sound. Never have those three artistic elements been better used in unison than in these eight minutes.

The stunning score creates the tempo and the editing drives it. The location photography transports us to one of the most beautiful settings imaginable (taking place in upstate New York but filmed in North Carolina), but balances that setting with the savagery of the capacity for humans to inflict pain on one another. Everything Michael Mann and his team accomplish here is about absolute precision. The duration of the shots, the angles and distances of the camera, the use of filming death from above and leaps into the abyss from below, the subtle and occasional deployment of slow-motion, the way the driving nature of the music takes a break during the deaths around five and six minutes in before kicking back into full gear for the next action piece… It's all masterly composition in the most literal sense.

Every moment is an exercise in total control over what Mann wants us to see and hear, but what we think and feel comes from us. There's no exposition or explanation in anything that happens, it's all just pure action. It's the film version of shoot first, answer questions never. Mann has a gift of lingering in his direction where he tends to hold shots on characters in transitional moments for longer than other directors, and it allows the audience more of an opportunity to get in the heads of the characters. But these shots are usually devoid of dialogue, which ensures that the character's head is the only place we can go. Mann's films are almost never silent; music is far too important to him as a tool to dictate emotion, pacing, and mood. But his films are never overly talky, either. His characters are always given breathing room for the viewer to feel their situation without being talked to death about it.

Over the last 20 years, Daniel Day Lewis has become more of a star character actor, and retreated from really being a movie star. He disappears into his roles so much that we no longer know what he looks like in "normal" life. I don't know that this is ever what he looked like normally, even in 1992, but it is a wonderful anomaly in his career how much he allowed himself to be a visual star in this film, and how much Mann took advantage. Daniel Day Lewis isn't likely who people think about as a sexy, masculine, lead actor, but that's what he gives in this role. His screen presence is commanding, but not via the voice that he's used so well in his career. His physical presence just soaks up the screen.

Whenever I find myself questioned about why I believe filmmaking is the most potent art form (sometimes even questioned by myself), it's scenes like this that I go back to. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people collaborated to bring these eight minutes into existence, but we got the best out of each of them. It's that ability for the many parts and collaborators to create the greatest of all wholes that ensures filmmaking is the greatest of all arts.

Song of the Day Archive

The Bangles - Hazy Shade of Winter (1987)
Beck - Loser (1994, sort of)
Blind Faith - Had to Cry Today (1969)
Blur - This Is a Low (1994)
James Brown - Down and Out In New York City (1973)
Jeff Buckley - Last Goodbye (1994)
The Jim Carroll Band - People Who Died (1980)
Neko Case - Man (2013)
Johnny Cash - The Man Who Couldn't Cry (1994)
Cat Power - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (2000)
The Clash - Armagideon Time (1979)
Coldplay - Life In Technicolor (2008)
Counting Crows - Mr. Jones (1994)
Steve Earle - I Feel Alright (1996)
The Faces - Maybe I'm Amazed (1971)
The Faces - Cindy Incidentally (1973)
Peter Gabriel - I Don't Remember (1980)
Green Day - Welcome to Paradise (1994)
Hall & Oates - You Make My Dreams (1981)
John Hiatt - Have a Little Faith In Me (1987)
INXS - The Strangest Party (These Are the Times) (1994)
Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American (2001)
The Kinks - Powerman (1970)
Kiss - Black Diamond (1974)
Fela Kuti - Lady (1972)
Live - Iris (1994)
Paul McCartney - Jenny Wren (2005)
Mickey & Sylvia - Love Is Strange (1956)
Nas - Represent (1994)
The National - This Is the Last Time (2013)
Nine Inch Nails - Hurt (1994)
Nirvana - About a Girl (Unplugged, 1994)
Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy (1994)
Oasis - Columbia (1994)
Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information (1974)
Pearl Jam - Not For You (1994)
Liz Phair - Supernova (1994)
Iggy Pop - Candy (1990)
Portishead - Mysterons (1994)
Prince - 17 Days (1984)
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas - Nowhere to Run (1965)
R.E.M. - What's the Frequency, Kenneth? (1994)
The Rolling Stones - Sweet Virginia (1972)
The Rolling Stones - Saint Of Me (1997)
Sam & Dave - I Thank You (1968)
Gil Scott-Heron - Ain't No New Thing (1972)
Seal - Kiss From a Rose (1994)
Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice (1967)
Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun (1994)
Spoon - Got Nuffin (2010)
Bruce Springsteen - No Surrender (1984)
Rod Stewart - Man of Constant Sorrow (1969)
Stone Temple Pilots - Interstate Love Song (1994)
The Stooges - Down On the Street (1970)
Otis Taylor - Ten Million Slaves (2002)
Timbaland - The Way I Are (2007)
TV On The Radio - Second Song (2011)
Uncle Tupelo - Life Worth Livin' (1990)
Weezer - In the Garage (1994)
Weezer - Tired of Sex (1996)
The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again (1971)
Wilco - I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002)
Peter Wolf - Nothing But the Wheel (2002)
Stevie Wonder - Uptight (Everything's Alright) (1965)

Song of the Day: Peter Wolf - Nothing But the Wheel (2002)

Peter Wolf first came to fame as the singer of the J. Geils Band, but he's reinvented himself over the last 15ish years as a roots-rocking singer songwriter, and it's been a nice development. He reached his post Geils peak with his 2002 album, Sleepless, which is a strong contender for greatest album ever released by a pop artist over 50. This song features great backing vocals by Mick Jagger.

I was lucky enough to see Peter Wolf at a small venue in Ann Arbor, the Ark, just last week, and it was a truly wonderful show. It was one of those shows where the entire history of music just seemed to flow out of the narrative, with country, soul, rock, blues, jazz, and everything else all taking their turns to shine. In-between the songs Wolf told fun stories about his 45 year history in pop music, with Jagger, Merle Haggard, Dylan, Johnny Cash, Neko Case, Shelby Lynn, and several others taking key parts of the narrative. And that's what music ought to be to someone like Wolf- this ever flowing thing that keeps rewriting it's own story.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 17, 2014

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Song of the Day: John Hiatt - Have a Little Faith in Me (1987)

Okay, here's a new thing I'm gonna try: a Song of the Day, every day. Each day, I'll pick something that I've either discovered recently, been listening to recently, is relevant at the moment for some particular reason, or just feel like discussing, and I'll write a few sentences paragraphs about it as well as posting the Youtube video. 

First up, a great artist I've recently gotten into named John Hiatt, who's first album actually came out 40 years ago. He's perhaps best known for other artists covering his songs, such as "Riding With the King," which became the title track of an album by Eric Clapton and B.B. King, or "Thing Called Love," which became a huge hit for Bonnie Raitt in 1989. But his most covered song is actually this one, "Have a Little Faith in Me." It's a great song to represent Hiatt for several reasons, but first and foremost, it's just damn well written. Great melody, lyric, and performance, not too flashy, doesn't try to be cool or commercial… just a guy making the music he loves, in the only way he knows how. It's also from his best album, 1987's Bring the Family, which was recorded with some amazing help--Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, and Jim Keltner on drums. I've been listening to Hiatt a lot lately, so some more of his stuff will probably turn up here in the next few weeks. 

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 16, 2014

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The Great Scenes: City Slickers and the Best & Worst Days of Your Life

I first saw City Slickers when it came out, and I was either 10 or 11-years old. It's probably the first non-children's movie I ever recall seeing in theaters. It's also the first film that ever made me think about life, and actually ask questions about real things. It's possible this revelation could have happened with any film, but I'm lucky it was with such a great one. City Slickers is a silly comedy in a lot of respects, but the film is filled with moments of such startling emotional truth that they stay with you forever. I've found myself constantly going back to the film throughout my life, as each new phase of myself finds new lessons within the movie and new ways to feel about what it has to say. I just re-watched it a few weeks ago, for probably the first time in five years, and more and more as I get older, this is the single scene that resonates with me the most. In terms of filmmaking, it's nothing special. But simply as a written scene, it has some of the best dialogue ever. It's three minutes that, to me, inform on the totality of the male emotional spectrum.

Here's the set-up: Mitch (Billy Crystal), Phil (Daniel Stern), and Ed (Bruno Kirby) are all around 40-years old and experiencing major mid-life crises. Mitch is a pessimist who keeps dwelling on how much he hates every aspect of his life. Phil hates his wife, cheated on her with a twenty-year old that works for him, and is about to go through a messy divorce. Ed is a super-macho adventurer who is constantly testing the limits of his own manliness, and just got married to a model fifteen years younger than him. So to get away from their lives, they go to New Mexico for two weeks to take part in a real cattle drive.

Now watch the scene:

Even though the three main characters are all pretty standard archetypes (one hates being his age, one hates his home life, and one hates just about everything), the way they talk about the best and worst moments of their lives is nothing short of incredible emotional truth. Each answer feels perfectly true to each character, perfectly true to what real life answers men might/would give, and perfectly true to what it feels like to wrestle with the responsibilities of male adulthood.

Each of the Best Day answers the three characters give involves their father. For Mitch, it's a shared bonding experience with his father, for Phil, it's a moment where his father was visibly proud of him, and for Ed, it's a moment where he stood up to his father. Each of these different elements of father/son dynamics speaks to the set of expectations we have on ourselves as we relate to our parents. What special memories do we share with them? When did we most fulfill our expectations for ourselves and their expectations for us? Is fulfilling those expectations important, or is forging off on our own what's actually important to us?

Not only does each answer involve the character's relationships with their dads, but also involves the character's relationship with the passage of time. Phil hates his wife and hates everything about his existence, so his best day is the last time he doesn't remember feeling that way. It was a day before the onset of that feeling existed, when he thought he'd made it. For Mitch, who looks at the pessimistic side of everything, his best day was a day when everything seemed better than it could have been. He saw his first baseball game in color. The grass was so green. It was an occasion where he couldn't figure out how to be pessimistic, maybe the only one of his life. And for Ed, it was the moment he felt like he became an adult. It was, he believes, the most transitional day of his life, and a transition that he's proud of how he handled. It's a moment that's defined his idea of manhood ever since.

Each of their worst days involves the aspect of themselves they're most insecure with. Mitch knows he looks at the worst of everything, so his worst day is a day where the only possible conclusion he could see was breast cancer. It ended up fine, so Ed argues that it was a good day. But that's not how Mitch thinks. Things don't end up good, they just end up slightly less terrible. Because Phil's best day was the day he felt like a grown-up that had made it and his father was proud, his worst day was the proof that none of that could actually bring happiness: "Every day since is a tie," because every day since has been proof that happiness is not a status quo that sustains itself. Phil feels like his whole life is a failure, so how can one day be worse than any other? Better to just count them all. Ed's best and worst day were the same day because it was the moment he left childhood and became an adult. It's a struggle he's been reconciling for his whole life; how to be his age and be a man, but still seek out the childhood that he left behind too prematurely.

Six questions, six answers, six moments of perfect emotional honesty.

I often wonder what the rough drafts of scenes like this looked like. How many different possible answers to these six questions did the screenwriter cycle through and abandon before settling on the perfect six? What was the first version of Mitch's best day? Did all three best days always involve their fathers, or was that a commonality that only manifested in later revisions? Could the screenwriter initially not think of a good second answer for Ed, so he finally went with the "same day" answer that actually works perfectly, or was it always like that?

I also wonder where in the writing process scenes like this emerge. Did this scene just get written naturally as part of the high concept set-up for the movie? Like, of course three middle-age friends on a cattle drive would end up talking about their successes and failures in life? Or was it actually the opposite order of events, that the screenwriter wanted to write a scene like this--three middle-aged men being emotionally naked and discussing the best and worst days of their lives--and constructed a large story around which a conversation like this would seem natural? Does writing a scene like this help create for the writer who these characters were, or were they already fully formed enough that this scene was easy to write?

Great film moments always make me want to discuss them with their creators. Sometimes it's the choice of music to accompany a scene; sometimes it's the pacing or the use of specific camera angles and shot distances; sometimes it's the editing. With this scene, none of those formalistic elements of cinema are used in notable ways, but they didn't need to be. Formalism draws attention to itself, and this scene doesn't deserve to have our brains diverted from what's being said. With this scene, I'd just like to pick the writer's brain and ask him to recount every detail he could possibly remember. No scene in film history has ever provoked me to reflect more on the ups and downs of life.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Get On Up: A Better Music Biopic Than Ray and Walk the Line

Get On Up, the James Brown biopic in theaters now, begins in a way that really surprised me. It starts off with two scenes that take place out of chronology and out of context. The first is in the 1980's, and involves an older, pudgier James Brown terrorizing people with a shotgun because someone used his bathroom. The second takes place at the height of the Vietnam war, when Brown goes overseas to play for the troops and a military officer tries to tell him his set can only go for 25 minutes. Brown does not handle it well. Neither of these scenes end up mattering much to the narrative of the film, and neither is returned to in the ensuing two plus hours. So why start the movie like this? Well, to be frank, James Brown was kind of an asshole, kind of crazy, and a legendary egomaniac that constantly referred to himself in the third person. One of the things that makes Get On Up so great is that it wastes no time showing us this side of Brown, before it even bothers to show us a side of him that we'll like. It's an effort to start things out on an even playing field. The movie knows it's about to spend over two hours making Brown look good and important, and it knows the audience knows that as well. And Brown WAS good and important, of that there is no doubt. But James Brown was also a shit in a lot of ways, and the movie wants you to know that it knows that, so it begins by telling you. It was a good move.

When Ray came out in 2004, it launched the current era of the music biopic, of which it, Walk the Line, and now Get On Up are the three most notable. Ray and Walk the Line were huge hits, and Get On up hasn't garnered nearly as much attention. Ray and Walk the Line starred movie stars that won Oscars for their roles, and Get On Up is unlikely to follow that. All three films are about legendary figures within the history of 20th century pop music, and it's a no-win game to try and argue which is the most important. But Get On Up does the best job of explaining why it's subject is important and also does the best job of making the audience feel it.

As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman is a revelation. He played Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42 last year, and was good in that, but the lingering memory of that film is that it was a Jackie Robinson movie in which Robinson wasn't given much to do. The movie almost used him as a prop, so Boseman didn't have the chance to show what he could do. Here he does, and does he ever. Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix were incredibly lauded for their performances as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash for two things that didn't totally matter in retrospect. With Foxx, it was all about the physical transformation. You actually lost the realization that you weren't watching Ray Charles. And with Phoenix, the big deal is that he did his own singing. "Sure," the film was saying, "Jamie Foxx may have LOOKED like Ray Charles, but Joaquin Phoenix actually SOUNDS like Johnny Cash!" Right, but… who cares? Was Walk the Line a better film because Phoenix sang his own songs? No, actually it wasn't. It ended up being a Johnny Cash movie without ever hearing Johnny Cash's voice, which was kind of a major oversight.

But the real problem with Walk the Line wasn't that it didn't feature Cash's voice, it's that it wasn't about Cash at all. Walk the Line was a love story in which the man just happened to be a star musician/drug addict. It wasn't a movie about why Johnny Cash was important to music, but rather about why June Carter was important to Johnny Cash. And Ray wasn't really about anything except a talented person overcoming blindness and heroin to continue harnessing his talent. Neither film answered the fundamental question of "Why are we making a movie about this person?" (Well, unless the answer to that question is that someone important in Hollywood thought it could make money.)

Get On Up does, in spades. My boss is a huge James Brown fan, and a few days before Get On Up hit theaters I asked him if he was excited for it. "I don't know," he said. "Once I saw it was PG-13, I was kind of out. James Brown did not live a PG-13 life." That's true, he didn't. But it doesn't require the full power of an "R" rating to portray why Brown was a dick. Pg-13 can still get you there. Yes, it's glossed over in parts. The film only shows Brown hitting his wife once, and cheating on her once. We only see him disrespect his band a few times. But really, how much of that stuff do you need to see to get the message that it was habitual? Get On Up gives you every side of Brown, it just doesn't give them all equal share. And that's okay, because it DOES answer the question of why someone made a movie about James Brown. It is impossible to walk away from this film without understanding how and why James Brown changed music forever. It does that in several ways. First of all, the music largely speaks for itself. All of Brown's best songs are here, and the movie doesn't try anything foolish like having someone else sing them. Boseman may be lip-syncing, but good god almighty does he have James Brown's moves. Brown was arguably the greatest showman in pop music history, and Boseman gives it to us. His music broke barriers in every sort of way, from energy, to tempo, to color barriers, to social relevance. We see his music making white people dance, and we see it bringing comfort to the black community on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Much of the film focuses on Brown's long friendship and working relationship with Bobby Byrd, who first helped Brown get started and spent decades as his band leader. There's a great moment in the film, after the two are no longer partners and it's become clear that Byrd is Brown's subordinate, where someone asks Byrd how he deals with it. "One day you just realize that you're not the one meant to be on the front of that stage," Byrd says. Bobby Byrd knew that he was both blessed and cursed to be working with one of the most naturally gifted people to ever record music. It was a constant reminder of what abilities he didn't have himself, but also a constant reminder that few people are ever lucky enough to watch someone that good, day in and day out. I re-watched the great Mozart film, Amadeus, a month or so ago, and the relationship between Mozart and Salieri in that film is sort of the opposite of Brown and Byrd. Amadeus is all about how Salieri simply can't deal with the existence of someone like Mozart, who just naturally has more talent than everyone else. Bobby Byrd could deal with James Brown because he knew he was lucky to deal with him.

What Bobby Byrd realized, that James Brown was the one meant to be at the front of that stage, is what Get On Up spends two hours showing us. One of Brown's many nicknames was Mr. Dynamite, and Get On Up doesn't merely tell us that, but shows us why. We hear how great Brown's music is, but we also see how powerfully he delivered it to the people. Both aspects are crucial to understanding Brown. And yet, Get On Up still has the audacity to leave us with parts of Brown that we don't understand. The director, Tate Taylor, who played it so safe with The Help, actually treads murky waters here. The film ends on notes that suggest Brown didn't even really understand himself. Ultimately, that's a key element of what makes a great biopic--complexity. We need to see people fail to fully appreciate when they succeed. Get On Up gives us so much of Brown's failings, such that the movie is really bookended with him at his worst. The movie gives us that bitter taste at both the beginning and the end because it knows we can take it. And the reason the movie knows we can take the worst of James Brown is because it so effectively shows us why the best of James Brown was worth it.

Life Itself: The Year's Best Documentary

I wrote a long piece last year about Roger Ebert the day after he died, about how he affected my life, about why he was such a beloved film critic, and why he mattered to people. After watching the new documentary about him, Life Itself, I realized I didn't even know the half of it.

Life Itself was directed by Steve James, who also made Hoop Dreams, which is undoubtedly one of the ten most beloved documentaries ever. But no one loved Hoop Dreams more than Roger Ebert, and he championed it ceaselessly. That film gained a life partially on the back of his efforts. A lot of people know Hoop Dreams for it's notorious Oscar snub in the 1994 documentary race, and the reason people know that is likely because of how much noise Ebert made over it. That's something that I realized happened a lot over the course of this documentary: Ebert championing things to the extent that he gave them life. Several directors are in the film, most notably Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. They all talk about how one of their first big breaks was when Roger wrote a glowing review of one of their early films. Time has obviously shown Roger was right. Herzog and Scorsese are two of the best directors of their generation. Scorsese specifically tells a story about how Roger saved his life. In the early 80's, when Scorsese's cocaine addiction was at its peak, he was mostly out of work, incapable of getting funding for the movies he wanted to make, worried that there simply wasn't an audience for his art, and not caring about the consequences of his drug addiction. It was at that time that Ebert (and Siskel) organized a tribute to Scorsese at the then-fledgling Toronto International Film Festival, and it helped Scorsese turn his life around. Ebert had a way of doing that--making great artists feel like their art truly mattered to people.

And that's kind of the point with Roger. The reason he could make great artists feel like their work mattered to people is because he brought their work TO the people. A term that often gets thrown around about critics in general (of any discipline) is "tastemaker." It's a term that describes the ability of certain influential people to help define the tastes of large audiences. There is possibly no one in history that term applies to more than Roger. Ebert was not an academic critic. He didn't write to scholarly audiences studying film for PHDs (so they could go on to teach future PHD students). Ebert firmly believed that film had the capacity--more so than any other artistic discipline--to make a difference in people's lives, and the best way for that to happen was to make sure that the people were being informed on what films to see. Ebert helped bring smart cinema--art films--into the general public. He didn't write in exclusionary ways. Some might say he dumbed himself down, and I'm sure that's true in certain respects. But I think the better description would be to say that he smarted up his audience. We were all smarter for having Roger's taste and knowledge permeate our lives.

Life Itself does many things, and foremost what it does is call to question the meaning of film, art, and life. What are we here for? What gives our lives meaning? Ebert is frank in saying that the role of film critic for The Sun Times was not something he sought out, it fell ass-backwards into his lap. But within a year, he was the only major American film critic calling Bonnie and Clyde a masterpiece, while Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was calling it a blight on American cinema. It's not just that we know who was right 45 years later; we knew who was right later that year, when Bonnie and Cyde connected with young movie-goers like few films ever had. Ebert wrote that the film took place in the 1930's, but that's merely because it had to take place sometime. "It was made now, and it's about us," he famously wrote. That was in 1967, when America desperately needed anti-heroes. But those sentiments are still true. Life Itself is a film about someone who lived publicly from 1967-2013, when he died. But it came out now, and it's about us.

There's a bit in the film when a former editor mentions that Ebert could knock out a great review in 30 minutes, because he was such a natural writer. I've challenged myself to the same standard here; I started typing this at 11:26pm, with the mandate of posting it before midnight. I have no idea if I'm the natural writer that Roger is, but I'd like to believe that I have some ability. But what was so good about Roger's writing was his ability connect with people on fundamental levels, just like this film does.

It's not simply a film about someone who wrote about the movies, it's a film about someone who loved life so much that he felt perpetually compelled to watch every sort of life imaginable. The film even opens with a quote where Roger describes that very phenomenon. He talks about how we are all the stars of our own lives, and our own lives are the only ones we can really experience, but what the movies do is allow us the brief ability to experience other lives. That's a thing of value. It's a thing of great power. And Roger Ebert dedicated his life to making the general public aware of when that power was being harnessed in the best ways.

The film doesn't move chronologically, but thematically. Each segment covers not a time of Roger's life, but an aspect. We see his alcoholism, his fight(s) with cancer, his relationship (and fights) with Gene Siskel, his championing of Cannes and Martin Scorsese, his television career, and his marriage to Chaz. Each part illuminates the power Roger had to see the best in things, to acknowledge the best in things, and to share the best in things with other people. To him, that was what gave life itself meaning. We are all the better for it.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and the Failures of a Certain Kind of Sequel

This clip is the opening scene from the first Sin City film, and what happens at about the 1:50 mark is the entire reason for the movie to have existed. Visually, we'd never seen anything like it before. It wasn't just that it looked like a comic book (literally; the visuals are lifted directly from the comic's panels), but that it looked like a hyper-stylized noir fever dream drawn straight from the subconscious of anyone that believes violence is capable of being romanticized in interesting ways. That's what Sin City was--a genre reduced to nothing but a collection of tropes; a connect-the-dots with no space between the dots.

When Frank Miller first created the Sin City comics in the early 1990's, they were an immediate sensation, both critically and commercially. But over the course of the decade, when Miller produced seven Sin City graphic novels, they were the subject of diminishing returns even though the returns didn't really diminish. The first story, The Hard Goodbye, was an immediate classic. Comics are a visual medium and here was a type of visual storytelling we'd never seen. The sequel, A Dame to Kill For (which the new film is adapted from), was just as good. As a story it was better than the first one, but visually it was the same, so the impact was a wash. Then the next five just were what they were. Only the last one, Hell and Back, was bad. But the other four are forgettable, just like the new film is.

What made both the first Sin City graphic novel AND the first Sin City film so good were the visual uniqueness of it. The story was cool, and I don't just say that because I can't find a more apt adjective. It was the epitome of cool. But cool is fleeting, and it always changes in a millisecond. Miller never changed Sin City at all from that first story. The stories were incredibly nihilistic, which grows wearisome very quickly. The visuals, which were so dazzling initially, lost their power to impress simply because they never changed. The visuals were all atmosphere, and atmosphere can't sustain interest by itself.

There's nothing really wrong with the new Sin City film. It's story isn't particularly weaker than the original, nor it's acting, pacing, or any other aspect. But nine years after the first film, it's visuals have lost the power to impress us, and that was really the entire point of the first film. It's like giving someone their first iPod in 2005, and watching how amazed they are by it, then giving them the exact same iPod again in 2014. They won't be impressed anymore because they'll expect something new. That's why there's nothing impressive about the new Sin City film--it's still that same '05 model.

If you follow entertainment news, you've likely read by now that the new film bombed at the box office this weekend, finishing in 8th place, and earning barely over six million dollars. That isn't just bad, it's abysmal. So why didn't audiences go? Sure, the reviews were bad, but this is the kind of movie that's supposed to be review-proof. People didn't go because you can't see the previews without knowing you're in for the exact same thing you got nine years ago, and what's the point? Sequels are almost always a cash grab, but the ones that actually grab a lot of cash are, for the most part, the ones that figure out what audiences liked in the first movie and then giving them that again. But therein lies the problem with the very nature of a Sin City sequel. What audiences liked about the first film was seeing noir visualized in a way we'd never seen before. Trying to give people that again only ensures its own impossibility.