‘And things were going so well’: Lackluster box-office may send ‘Sin City’ to morgue

The movie-viewing audience stayed away in droves for the opening weekend of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” How bad was the box-office draw? Well, it pulled in only $900,000 more than “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a nice little movie that will not pack the houses, and is in its third week of release.

This sobering box-office take could dampen enthusiasm for more movies based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels. The brain trust no doubt is grappling for answers as to why this film, written by Miller and co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez and the second in a visually innovative screen adaptation, has fizzled.

There was a downgrade in the critical consensus, which was to be expected, given what the original “Sin City” delivered in style and wallop when it hit the screens nine years ago. What was astounding in 2005 is not going to generate as much of an impression in 2014. While “more of the same” can be a profitable blueprint in many movie series, “Sin City” seemed elevated above that. It set a new tone, and building on that is a tough task.

For the most part “A Dame to Kill For” scores above average. Its animated-live action mix, shot in black and white with selective color, again is a stunning presentation. The breakdowns in the film occur in the stories, character development and mood.

Noticeably absent in “A Dame to Kill For” is the macabre humor. Even some of the minor bad guy roles had their shining moments in the original — such as the sigh of resignation from the thug who gets an arrow through the head, shot by Miho (Devon Aoki). In “A Dame to Kill For,” villains are dispatched by the handful and not one of them stands out like that guy did.

On the plus side, fans of Marv (Mickey Rourke) will be happy because he is the most dominant character in “A Dame to Kill For.” This hulking creature with a hideous face who viciously hands out his own justice is back, offering viewers a look at some of his previous adventures before he put it all on the line in the original “Sin City” to avenge the death of the hooker Goldie (Jaime King).

“A Dame to Kill For” opens with a great sequence in which Marv, sitting in the aftermath of some terrible violence, now has to rely on his medication to help him remember what just happened. A quick review of the bloody action shows that Marv was administering his usual brutal justice, this time to college punks picking on the weak.

Marv then has vital supporting roles in two of the other stories in the film, coming to the aid of friends. Here it is not personal for Marv. He’s just helping his buddies, and enjoying every minute of it.

The rest of the movie has mixed results. Josh Brolin takes over for Clive Owen in the role of Dwight, and Brolin’s version is darker, more brooding, and not as colorful nor resourceful. While doing private detective work — gathering evidence of infidelity on the part of a successful businessman — Dwight gets a call from Ava (Eva Green), a woman who stole his heart and decimated it by dumping him and marrying a wealthy man. Against better judgment, Dwight meets with her and although she claims all she wants from him is forgiveness, he is not buying it. But darn it, he just cannot seem to resist Ava and is lured back into her life, rendered vulnerable by his passions.

Green has earned some critical acclaim for her work as Vanessa Ives in “Penny Dreadful,” and as tempting as it is to say she is dreadful in “A Dame to Kill For,” that is a bit extreme. But Green, who spends most of her screen time out of her clothes, gives a performance that is almost parody as she tries to portray a manipulative femme fatale. Some of her scenes are broadly over the top, and if this was the intention, it falls flat, making it hard to digest that her overt phoniness would work in getting men to do whatever she asks.

Luckily for Dwight, he has Marv, Gail (Rosario Dawson)  and Miho (played here by Jamie Chung) for support and if it were not for them, he never would have survived to have his hilariously dark encounters later with dirty cop Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro).

The other two stories in “A Dame to Kill For” are the weak points in the movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt  plays Johnny, a gambling wizard who takes on the powerful and corrupt Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe reprising his role) in a high-stakes poker game. He learns brutally that Roark is a poor loser. Battered, Johnny vows revenge but the promise of a nasty bit of getting even completely wimps out.

The other story centers around Nancy (Jessica Alba), the bar dancer who took on a new identity as she was a witness as a child to a crime that could bring Sen. Roark down. Nancy is not doing too well now that the police officer Hartigan (Bruce Willis), whom she loved, sacrificed himself so she could live on without fear of Roark tracking her down. She bitterly talks to the ghost of Hartigan, pouts, cuts short her dance routines, drinks and night after night cannot bring herself to shoot Roark even though he is in a neighboring room playing poker. She does wise up and drafts Marv to help her finally go after the sinister politician.

As with the original “Sin City,” each story will have its fans and detractors, but as a whole, “A Dame to Kill For” does not match its predecessor. Most ardent fans of “Sin City” will find things to like about this second entry, but if it weren’t for Marv and Gail, “A Dame to Kill For” would be a much weaker follow-up. As it is, unless it manages to hang in there at the box office and recoups costs in DVD/Blu-Ray releases, the “Sin City” franchise could end up like most of the bad guys in these movies — dead and gone.

In ‘The Expendables 3,’ the new blood dilutes the power

Sequel-itis is sometimes painful to watch. A movie connects with people critically and/or commercially and the green light stays on for more of the same. The horror genre can thrive on this because its fans readily embrace the continuation of the outrageous plot devices — Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger cannot be destroyed and those pesky paranormal entities just remain active — and are more interested in who will get killed first and how hideously.

In the more mainstream movies, keeping a franchise going, especially if it is not a Marvel or DC super hero, presents difficult challenges that often lead to disasters. Sylvester Stallone apparently did not learn anything with the decline of the “Rocky” series. They were pleasant enough movies but obviously were pushing the envelope in credulity. Also, the recent misfires from the “Die Hard” and “Red” films should have served as warnings.

In 2010, Stallone came up with a certified hit in “The Expendables.” The concept of Stallone teaming up with other action stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Dolph Lungren and Jet Li to form a crack unit of mercenaries to bring down bad guys was a winning one, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown into the mix in a nod to the Sly vs. Arnold as action icons of the 1970s-80s going face to face. Its $100-plus million take at the box office made it a no-brainer that the Expendables were not finished.

The second Expendables movie in 2012 added Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Willis to the cast list, and there was an inevitable decline in box-office power, $85 million. Still that was enough to guarantee “The Expendables 3.”

As a co-writer, along with Creighton Rothenberger (“Olympus Has Fallen”), Stallone felt the need to inject more into the story than the usual high-body-count, heavy-weaponry action. So he and Rothenberger went with an “out with the old, in with the new” plot device. Not necessarily a miscalculation, but it was mishandled.

“The Expendables 3″ starts strongly with a sequence in which Stallone as Barney Ross and his group free a former colleague of Barney’s, Doc (Wesley Snipes), from a heavily fortified foreign prison, an operation involving a speeding train, a helicopter and lots of ammo.

The Expendables are mostly here: Christmas (Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), Toll Road (Couture) and Caesar (Terry Crews). Only missing initially is Yin Yang (Li). Now with Doc on board, the Expendables go on another mission that ends disastrously with one of them seriously injured and Barney learning that Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who along with Barney formed the Expendables but went to the dark side and became an arms trader, is alive and thriving. Barney had believed he killed Stonebanks earlier.

Back home and licking his wounds, Barney decides to retire his group despite still under contract with Drummer (Harrison Ford) at the CIA to bring Stonebanks back alive.

So Barney goes on a recruiting tour with his recruiting agent Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) and signs up four young people: Thorn (Glenn Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Smiley (Kellan Lutz) and Luna (Rhonda Rousey, a mixed martial arts competitor who was trending on Twitter over “The Expendables 3″ opening weekend for her involvement with World Wrestling Entertainment’s Summer Slam show). These four up-and-comers are more tech savvy but still have an appreciation and expertise in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.

Unfortunately, Stallone and Rothenberger created characters here who are bland and not only lack chemistry and camaraderie among themselves but do not deliver any punch in providing a real threat to the older Expendables. On the plus side, Barney does reluctantly sign up Galgo (Antonio Banderas), another mercenary past his prime but eager to work. He is the most colorful of the newbies, although his exuberance and verbosity tend to get annoying.

While the idled Expendables sit around glumly, Barney and his new group, with Trench (Schwarzenegger) in tow, manage to capture Stonebanks without a hitch — it is too easy and the potential for things to go awry weighs heavily in the air. There is a void here that only can be filled with the return of Christmas, Gunner and the others.

Like the astronaut movie “Space Cowboys,” “The Expendables 3″ then  becomes a story of the old guys still having enough spark to stand and fight side by side with the next generation.

This movie does have its positive points. The action is well choreographed, and the interplay between the original Expendables is lively. There are bits of inside jokes throughout and the movie even pokes fun at the ludicrous nature of these kinds of action flicks wherein only the good guys can hit their targets.

Aside from Banderas, the new members of the group have no qualities that make them stand out, although Rousey gets to show off her martial arts skills. The show stealer is Gibson. Although his personal image has  blown up in recent years, he seems to have progressed smoothly from an anti-hero as Mad Max, to flawed hero as Martin Riggs in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and now seems comfortable strutting around as a well-dressed but vicious villain (he was seen last year as Voz, an arms dealer in “Machete Kills”).

An “Expendables 4″ has been announced and hard-core fans of the franchise are expressing concerns that Stallone has taken it too far off the tracks. He can recover if he sees the weak points and fixes them.

 

‘The Hundred-Foot Journey embraces food and family

Those wishing to see a relaxing and pleasant film in the middle of the hot and heavy summer movie season should enjoy “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”

With such notables attached to the project as Stephen Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as executive producers, Lasse Hallstrom as director and Helen Mirren in a lead role, the potential for quality is high.

Based upon the novel by Richard C. Morais and adapted for the screen by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” thrives under the guidance of Hallstrom, a proven director with an impressive list of films that includes “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.”

‘Journey” is the story of the Hadam family, which while in the second generation of operating a restaurant in India suffer tragedy and loss during a post-election uprising. The family flees to London but cannot fit in there, and takes to the road looking for a new home.

The leader of the family is Papa (Om Puri), a gentle but stubborn father. One of his sons, Hassan (Manish Dayal), has shown exceptional potential to be a chef of Indian cuisine, so Papa hopes to settle the family somewhere and start anew in the restaurant business.

Fate lands them in the outskirts of the town of Lumiere near the French Alps, where the Hadams are temporarily taken in by young Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). In this town  Papa finds an old closed-down restaurant facility for sale and despite the warnings of his children, purchases the property.

There is a problem, however. This property is located right across the street from a renowned French restaurant owned and operated by the steadfast and disciplined Madame Mallory (Mirren), a perfectionist and one whose eatery serves as a training ground for superb chefs.

Amid the negativity around him, Papa is optimistic his restaurant can draw customers because it will offer Indian rather than French cuisine. Naturally, Madame Mallory does not take kindly the intrusion upon her restaurant monopoly — and her pursuit of attaining a two-star or more Michelin rating, sort of like the Oscars of the restaurant business — thus the butting of heads between her and Papa, two obstinate people, commences, with the mayor (Michel Blanc) caught in the middle — but well fed as each owner plies him with tasty entrees.

The other story focuses on Hassan and Marguerite, where an obvious attraction is stymied because she is employed in Madame Mallory’s restaurant, thus are friendly foes. The relationship is strained more because both are striving to become master chefs, and as Hassan’s talents become more recognized, Marguerite is torn between her affection for the young man and her envy of him.

Hallstrom uses scenes of food preparation — which can whet appetites — to symbolize the intense competition between Mallory and the Hadams. In one clever sequence, the act of chopping up ingredients during food preparation illustrates the urgency of each restaurant to excel and beat the other.

The interplay between the characters is the key to this movie, with Puri and Mirren splendidly portraying two people accustomed to being in charge and getting their way. Yet as they engage in a war of wits, mutual respect, and more, seems inevitable.

Le Bon and Dayal also show chemistry as two young people struggling with their attachment to each other while other factors prevent them from realizing affection for one another.

A beautifully photographed film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” has the right emotional touches, along with humor and psychological insight. It is wonderfully cast, and yes, the food serves as a yummy supporting star.

They’re back! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles primed for action in reboot

Thirty years ago, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, two avid fans of adventure comics, put their heads together and created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise of graphic comics, animated series and movies that has thrived for three decades.
A trilogy of live action movies came out in 1990-93, followed 14 years later by “TMNT,” a computer-animated film. Now, for the summer of 2014, a reboot is hitting the screens in a flurry of releases the past few months that has revisited Captain America, the Amazing Spider-Man, Godzilla, X-Men and Planet of the Apes.
Amid the pre-release build-up of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” there have been lively social media debates focusing on red flags that have gone up regarding Michael Bay’s involvement — who serves as a producer, not as director and who has his share of detractors because of the “Transformers” series, despite its massive success  — along with concerns about director Jonathan Liebesman, whose previous efforts — “Wrath of the Titans,” “Battle Los Angeles” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” — have taken their hits from critics and viewers. Then there is the casting of Megan Fox, whose depth as an actress has been questioned, in the pivotal role of April O’Neil.
The good news is that under Liebesman’s direction, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a visually spectacular summer action movie. It follows the usual blueprint of the good-versus-evil story, with the heroes facing overwhelming odds but who are able to summon the courage, skill and resourcefulness to vanquish a foe.
The opening segment gives nod to the early graphic comic version, with those artistic renderings used as a backdrop while Splinter (Danny Woodburn, but voiced  by Tony Shalhoub), the genetically-enhanced and intelligent rat, presents a voice-over, recalling how he raised the four turtles, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello, since they were babies and how he used the ninja principles to instill discipline as well as physical preparation in the turtles.
Still residing incognito in the sewers of New York, the four turtles are eager to battle bad guys despite Splinter’s assessment that they are not ready yet, and sneak off to right wrongs, knowing they probably will endure the wrath of Splinter when they return.
The screenwriting team of Josh Applebaum (“Alias”), Andre Nemec (“Alias”) and Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) has the turtles going up against their usual enemies: the Shredder and his Foot Clan that have a grip on New York City.
Fox’s April O’Neil is a TV reporter for a local news agency who, along with her cameraman/colleague Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) go around the city covering fluff stories (or “froth stories” as Vernon calls them) while April pines to handle hard news stories.  One night she witnesses the thwarting of a Foot Clan burglary on the docks by four mysterious beings, but her story is met with skepticism by her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg). Even after Fox survives a hostage situation that is diffused by the turtles she cannot find anybody to believe her story, not even Vernon.
Doing research on her own, she discovers the secret of the turtles, and her own involvement years earlier, and with nowhere else to go, she takes the information to Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), a scientist colleague of her late father.
Nothing, however, can stop the inevitable battles between the four teenage turtles and the Shredder, with April and Vernon — in the role of the reluctant hero — in the middle of things.
With the standard plot line and the usual chase and fight scenes and constant peril, the writing team needed to inject character into the story. And here is where “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is elevated. The writers captured the essence of the four turtle brothers, each with a unique personality, and the very real interplay one would expect from teenage siblings.
Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), the free spirit, has the showiest scenes via his overt flirting with April. Leonardo (Peter Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville) is the leader of the group, the tactical designer, protective of his brothers and dedicated sensei student. Raphael (Alan Ritchson) is the aggressive one who can be sarcastic. Donatello (Jeremy Howard) is the inventor and technical genius. They all are mentored by Splinter, who passed on what he has learned to his adoptive sons.
 The turtles engage in verbal interplay, even in the midst of mortal danger, that is full of wit and playful digs at each other.
As for the humans, Fox is fine as April in a role that demands more physical than emotional action, leaving open the possibility of deeper character development in the likely sequel or two. Arnett’s character also lacks any true development other than being pulled into incredible situations because of his affection for April.
In the end, it is the bond between the four teenage mutant ninja turtles and the way they feed off each other — when not gnawing on pizza — that in this movie, as well as in other media, makes these characters so astonishingly popular.
Hoffman at his best in intricate “A Most Wanted Man”
John LeCarre’s novels are woven with complexity and require a tenacious attention span. Whenever his stories are adapted for a screen presentation, the challenges are the same for the viewers.
A Most Wanted Man,” aside from being our last chance for a big-screen presentation showcasing the enormous talents of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a complex spy tale for our times, when intelligence agencies face the daunting challenge of keeping tabs not only other governments, but also on rogue groups of people that blend in but are committed to kill for their cause.
Smartly adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell (“Edge of Darkness”) and directed by Anton Corbijn, “A Most Wanted Man” can be classified as an art-house spy thriller. This is not James Bond, with neat high-tech gadgets, eccentric villains, chases, gunplay and exotic locations and women. This is a story that takes place in the trenches.
Much like his earlier “The American” that featured George Clooney, Corbijn presents a somber world where the main characters go about their lives with a gloomy persistence, totally committed to their mission, leaving little time for anything else, including a normal life.
“A Most Wanted Man” focuses on a post-9-11 world where the most dangerous person could be someone standing right next to you. Responding to lessons learned from the 9-11 attacks, in which rivalries and an unwillingness to share information between intelligence entities allowed the terrorists to carry out their attacks, the German government has set up an under-the-radar group led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) that has set up shop in an underground garage in Hamburg with its surveillance gear and hits the streets to track down potential terrorists by building allies and recruiting informants.
Bachmann, a man haunted by an operation in Beirut that went horribly wrong because of that fatal lack of cooperation between agencies, is a driven man who considers grooming a secondary concern. He smokes incessantly and  drinks hard liquor, even on the job. In one of the rare scenes in which he is home, one can sense that place also is secondary among his priorities — his home is in that underground facility, and his colleagues are his family.
Bachmann has been tenaciously tracking Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy, high-profile Muslim who publicly decries the actions of terrorists and  has a network of charities. While most of the funds reach these charities, some of it goes missing and Bachmann suspects it is being diverted to help terrorists obtain weapons.
When a Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), illegally immigrates to Hamburg and it is learned he is the son of Chechen leader who committed atrocities but built up a nice financial next egg to pass on, Bachmann sees an opportunity to catch Abdullah in a sting.
Bachmann and his colleagues — Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), Maximilian (Daniel Brühl), Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Rasheed (Kostja Ullman) — are a 24-hour operation, and their quest includes working Karpov’s legal sponsor Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), owner of the bank where the Karpov fortune is held in an account, to cooperate.
The film, despite its slow pace, remains gripping as Bachmann and company engage in psychological and persuasive tactics to achieve the goal. Meanwhile, Bachmann also must deal with other agencies of high power and influence while forming a tenuous, barely trusting association with Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), working for U.S. intelligence.
In Bachmann, Hoffman leaves us with a memorable portrayal of man who invests so much of himself “to make the world safer” that he has become a person who, without his work, is just a hollow existence.
“A Most Wanted Man” is a nice break from the noisy popcorn movies of the summer. Despite its gloominess it is an entertaining exercise, succeeding in being suspenseful while relying solely on dramatic interplay. It is also a grim reflection on the world today and the toll it can take on those on the front lines of the fight against terrorism.