The All-New 100 Films in a Year Challenge

As I said in my introduction to the blog’s new era, reports of 100 Films in a Year’s death may have been grossly exaggerated — because while 100 Films in a Year as it was is no more, in its place I have…

The All-New 100 Films in a Year Challenge!

Just like its title, this new version is similar but different. My original challenge was wholly straightforward: watch 100 films I’d never seen before every year. The only thing approaching complexity or contention was whether alternate cuts (e.g. director’s cuts) counted as a “film I’d never seen before” or not. But this brand-new version of the challenge… well, it’s going to require some explaining.

Before I do, let’s recap why this came about. As regular readers are likely aware by now, I’ve been thinking about modifying my eponymous goal for a few years, primarily because simply “watching 100 new films in a year” stopped being an actual challenge and became my de facto state. It’s almost a decade since I failed in that goal, and over the last few years my average has been closer to 200 films in a year. So, why not just double the target? Or pick another number? Maybe I would’ve just done that, were it not for a few slip-ups (i.e. months where I fell short of my minimum target) and lifestyle changes in recent years. Obviously a challenge should be challenging, not a guaranteed walk in the park, but “just watch more films” didn’t seem the right way to push myself.

That’s what ultimately led to this new challenge — or, you might argue, array of challenges. You see, rather than just watching any old 100 films, now there are a selection of categories, and films will need to fulfil criteria to qualify. Whereas the old challenge merely motivated me to watch more films, this new version is designed to encourage me to watch certain kinds of films. Plus, with some additional rules for each category, it will spread that viewing throughout the year, rather than seeing me engage in a headlong rush to #100 as quickly as I can (which has happened the past few years).

So, you could argue this is eight separate challenges that together add up to 100 films, rather than a ‘true’ 100 films challenge — whatever that might mean. And you can argue that, if you want — I don’t care. This is a personal project, not some athletic endeavour subject to outside scrutiny, and this is how I’m choosing to do it. Of course, if for some reason you wanted to join in, you’re more than welcome. Feel free to use my rules. Feel free to tweak them to suit your own goals. Feel free to ignore them entirely and come up with your own criteria. Feel free to think “you know what, I really need to play more video games” and set yourself 100 Games in a Year as a challenge. Heck, that’s how this all began: I ‘ripped off’ the Read 50 Books in a Year challenge.


As I said, there are now eight groups making up my 100-film challenge. I’ll outline them in a moment, but first there’s one general rule: a film can only count once. Sounds kinda obvious, I guess, but my categories are not so niche as to be mutually exclusive — I could watch a Blindspot pick from the 1970s on DVD and technically it could count across three categories. But if I did that, well, the final tally wouldn’t actually get to 100, which would be self defeating. When a film fulfils the criteria for multiple groups (as some surely will, especially early on), it’s up to me to allocate which category it counts towards — although there are some sub-rules that will help dictate that. (My challenge is watching films, but yours may be trying to understand why I make these things so unnecessarily complicated…)

Without further ado, the categories are…

New Films

Well, that immediately requires clarification, doesn’t it? Because in the old challenge all 100 films were “new”, as in “new to me”. Now, however, I mean “new” as in “new (to the UK)”. And the UK clarification is needed because we so often get foreign films ‘late’, especially awards-y films that play US dates the year before but aren’t released here until January, February, March… even as late as June or July sometimes. So, this category is 12 films that were released in the UK for the first time during 2022. To some people that might seem like no challenge whatsoever — and it’s not that much of a challenge to me, to be honest, because I normally far exceed it. But, on the whole, my viewing skews older (when there’s the whole of film history to explore, why just watch brand-new stuff?), so I feel it’s a worthwhile category to include. Plus, part of the point of this is to spread the challenge throughout the year. To ensure that, this category is limited to one qualifying film per month — so even if I watched two (or more) new films in a single month, only the first would count towards the challenge. However, it can rollover if necessary — for example, if I watched no new films in January, I could count two in February. That might seem to undermine the concept of spreading these throughout the year, but, without it, it would be possible for me to fail the entire year on January 31st, which would suck.

Rewatches

In arguably the biggest change of all, rewatches now count… but only 12 of them. Mirroring the “new films” requirement, this is also limited to one per month. I’m not intending to run my Rewatchathon anymore, primarily because of this, but I’d like to think I’ll still rewatch more than 12 films a year. We’ll see — maybe I’ll end up bringing it back.

Blindspot

This continues as-is: 12 specific films, chosen ‘scientifically’ from best-of lists and the like, designed to be paced one per month. Because they’re specific films, if I did decide to get ahead of myself then they could count ‘early’, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that and I don’t intend to start now. As usual, there’ll be a dedicated post sometime soon with my 12 picks.

What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?

After a couple of years ‘off’ (or, if you prefer, combined with Blindspot, because they’re essentially the same thing), WDYMYHS is back. The change is, whereas Blindspot is made up of “great movies” (according to other people), WDYMYHS will revolve around a theme of some kind. This year that link will be my birth year: 12 specific films from 1986 that I’m surprised I haven’t seen. Again, my 12 picks will be named in a dedicated post soon.

Decades

At least one film from every decade that feature films have existed, i.e. since the 1910s. That makes it another group of 12 — what are the odds?! It’s almost like I’m doing this deliberately… I can watch as many of these as I like within any given month, so we’ll see how long it takes me to tick them all off — recent decades will come quickly and easily, but some of the older ones might require a specific effort.

DVDs

I’ve spent years lamenting the fact that I don’t watch enough of my DVDs. Thanks to a couple of decades spent collecting, I own over 1,000 of the things, many never played, and they don’t often make it into my viewing nowadays, largely because they’re not HD. (I suspect that, statistically, I’m more likely to spend money upgrading a DVD to Blu-ray than I am to actually watch a DVD.) So, to force me to dig into that particular back catalogue, I’m making it a goal to watch at least one per month, as per the “new films” rules. And no ‘cheating’: if I don’t want to watch something from my DVD copy (because I want to get it in HD, or even UHD), that’s absolutely fine… but I can’t get it in HD and then still count that towards the DVD goal. I have to actually watch the DVD for it to count.

Genre

Like WDYMYHS, here I’m going to pick a specific genre or movement (preferably one that’s either highly specific or that I’m less au fait with, not something broad or well-worn like, say, “action”) and aim for at least one per month, i.e. 12 more films. However, this is a free-for-all: whereas WDYMYHS is 12 pre-chosen titles, this can be anything that falls within the genre; and I won’t limit myself to counting just one per month. Maybe I’ll have a marathon and complete it in one go! Maybe I’ll still spread it thin! At least having the choice provides an opportunity for some variety, right? This year’s genre will be that old favourite, film noir. I’ve had noir ‘viewing projects’ before, but there are plenty of key texts that still elude me, so maybe 2022 will right that. Or maybe I’ll just end up getting all 12 from Indicator’s 24-film Columbia Noir series. Frankly, either is good by me.

Series Progression

That’s perhaps the vaguest title of all, but let me explain (that’s the whole point of this post, after all). I have multiple different film series on the go at any one time — so many that, a couple of years ago, I started keeping a list, the Letterboxd version of which is here. Some of those series I continue to merrily work my way through; some I half-forget I have underway. So, the point of this category is to compel me to continue, across another 12 films. I could watch 12 from one series; I could watch one each from 12 different series. I could marathon them all across a weekend; I could watch them one a month throughout the year. Whatever — just so long as I keep going with series I’ve already started. (If I start a new series, either by accident or choice, the first film can’t count, but any future films can.)

I know I said there were eight categories, but if you’ve been doing the maths so far you’ll have realised we’re only at 96 films. So there must be a ninth category, right? Well, yes and no. Let me introduce you to…

Wildcards

The final four films are ‘wildcards’ that I can attach to any of the eight categories. They still have a couple of rules, though. Firstly, wildcards can only be used once the category’s own requirements are met. What that means is, I could use a wildcard to (for example) count a second new film in January, but I couldn’t use one for a DVD viewing until I’ve watched 12 DVDs. Lastly, only one wildcard per category — so I couldn’t (for example) watch five new films in January and count them all. Make sense? If not, let me remind you that you don’t really need to worry about any of this — it’s only me who has to work it out.


I’ll be tracking my progress with the Challenge in my monthly review posts, and possibly on a dedicated page too.

Also, while it’s no longer the ‘official’ goal of the blog, I suspect I’ll end up still counting my overall viewing, and likely post year-end stats and whatnot about it next January. I’ve been doing that count for almost my entire adult life, so it’s a well-established habit at this point. Not to mention that, actually, I enjoy it — but now primarily for my own interest, rather than as the raison d’être of this blog.

Film Noir Review Roundup

I’ve made a conscious effort to watch more film noirs this year, and today’s roundup contains a few results of that:

  • The Narrow Margin (1952)
  • Accomplice (1946)
  • Shockproof (1949)


    The Narrow Margin
    (1952)

    2018 #2
    Richard Fleischer | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Narrow Margin

    Recognised as a classic noir, The Narrow Margin follows a detective (Charles McGraw) who must protect a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) as she travels by train from Chicago to LA to give vital evidence. As the ‘tec finds himself getting involved with an attractive fellow passenger (Jacqueline White), the assassins on his trail mistake her for their actual target…

    What unfurls is an exciting plot with some solid twists and some great dialogue (enough that it earnt a Best Writing Oscar nomination, in fact), all told in a snappy running time that ensures the film powers forward like, well, a locomotive. Director Richard Fleischer makes very effective use of handheld camerawork and the train setting to create a confined, claustrophobic atmosphere that emphasises the tension and peril of the characters. It all blends into a very fine thriller.

    4 out of 5

    Accomplice
    (1946)

    2018 #16
    Walter Colmes | 66 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

    Accomplice

    Described by Paul Duncan’s Pocket Essential Film Noir as “hardboiled fun”, and by the few other people online who’ve seen it with phrases like “one of the worst assembled detective movies I’ve had the occasion to watch in a long time”, Accomplice graces my eyeballs before many no doubt finer examples of film noir by virtue of the fact it was available to stream on Amazon Prime and I thought I’d catch it while it was there.

    Adapted by Frank Gruber from his novel Simon Lash, Private Detective, it sees private detective Simon Lash (Richard Arlen) being hired to track down a missing bank executive by his concerned wife (Veda Ann Borg), but the bank insists he’s merely on vacation. As Lash digs deeper, he begins to suspect the wife may have other motives — as does, well, everyone else.

    Running little more than an hour, Accomplice’s plot races past, giving you no time to stop and consider it. Maybe that’s for the best. Conversely, it makes it feel like it doesn’t hang together, even if it actually does. But it rushes along at a scene level, too: Lash seems to figure things out as quickly as it takes the actors to say their lines. It’d be Sherlockian, if you actually believed he had the necessary information and wherewithal to make the deductions.

    There is some fun to be had in a speedy car chase and the film’s occasionally kooky location choices, like the climax being set at a castle in the middle of the desert that’s pitching itself as some kind of hotel for mid-getaway crooks (I think that was the owner’s business plan, anyway). There are other surprising flashes of entertainment, though some of them were likely unintentional, but Accomplice is not really a good film.

    2 out of 5

    Shockproof
    (1949)

    2018 #68
    Douglas Sirk | 76 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Shockproof

    When you hear “film noir” you don’t immediately think of director Douglas Sirk (nor vice versa), better known for his colourful ’50s melodramas. Well, according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s list of most-cited noir films, he helmed three, of which this is the second. The plot has plenty of noir elements, but the film actually feels more like a romantic melodrama. It’s quite an effective mix.

    So, the noir: it’s about a female murder parolee (Patricia Knight) and her parole officer (Cornel Wilde), who begins to fall in love with her. But is she still attached to the crook she took the fall for (John Baragrey)? Is she just pulling the wool over the eyes of the parole officer? That’s kind of a love triangle, hence we’re back in melodrama territory. But the advantage of it being billed as a noir rather than a romantic drama is you’re not sure where it will go. Will she fall for the good honest parole officer with his sweet younger brother and blind mother? Or will she be tempted back to the criminal love of her life? Or will it have a more tragic ending altogether?

    Well, no spoilers, but it definitely takes a turn I wasn’t expecting — the third act spins off in a whole different direction. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but at least it was unusual, a big departure from the earlier part of the film, and it kind of worked because of that. Again, no explicit spoilers, but it comes to a neatly ironic conclusion… before there’s one extra scene, which feels tacked-on and undermines where the film had got to tonally. And that’s exactly what happened: co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote Samuel Fuller’s screenplay and added a cop-out ending that Sirk felt ruined the film.

    Fatal femme

    At least until that point there’s stuff to enjoy. Knight’s performance is the real star: although her true nature seems to have been revealed at the start (she’s a parolee, i.e. a no-good criminal), the film adds more nuances to her than that — primarily, you can’t be sure if what she’s doing is genuine, or if she’s playing the parole officer for her own ends. There’s also an interesting turn from Baragrey: I couldn’t be sure if his acting was a bit flat, or if he was deliberately being cool, cold, calculated, thinking he’s always in control, the smartest guy in the deal. Well, even if it’s the former, it functions well as the latter.

    So, Shockproof (a title that has no relevance whatsoever, incidentally) isn’t a total disaster, with some surprising turns that are to be commended even when they don’t work. It was clearly a compromised production, but an interesting one.

    3 out of 5

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941)

    2016 #142
    John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Maltese Falcon

    Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

    The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

    It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

    4 out of 5

    The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    The Big Sleep (1946)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #11

    The Violence-Screen’s
    All-Time Rocker-Shocker!

    (Yes, that is a real tagline.)

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 114 minutes
    BBFC: A (pre-release, 1945) | A (1946) | PG (1988)

    Original Release: 31st August 1946 (USA)
    UK Release: June 1946 (BBFC)
    First Seen: DVD (maybe), c.2004 (possibly)

    Stars
    Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
    Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, North West Frontier)
    Martha Vickers (The Falcon in Mexico, The Big Bluff)
    Dorothy Malone (The Fast and the Furious (not that one), Basic Instinct (yes, that one))

    Director
    Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

    Screenwriters
    Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back)
    Jules Furthman (The Outlaw, Nightmare Alley)
    William Faulkner (To Have and Have Not, Land of the Pharaohs)

    Based on
    The Big Sleep, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

    The Story
    Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts his daughter, Carmen, owes to a man named Geiger. Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian, suspects Marlowe has actually been hired to find Sean Reagan, the General’s friend who has disappeared. Arriving at Geiger’s home, Marlowe hears a shot, and inside finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged, and a hidden camera with the film gone. So begins a complex web of blackmail and murder. Very complex. Very, very complex.

    Our Hero
    The archetypal downtrodden PI, Philip Marlowe makes up what he lacks in good fortune with a fast mouth and sharp mind. Has bad manners though, which he grieves over on long winter evenings.

    Our Villain
    It’s a mystery, let’s not give it away. The film certainly does its best not to.

    Best Supporting Character
    Lauren Bacall as headstrong Vivian Sternwood, a character who benefitted from the behind-the-scenes situation at the time: Bogie and Bacall’s chemistry in To Have and Have Not led the studio to want more of the same, and her agent was only too keen after the poor reviews of Confidential Agent threatened to sink her career before it had really begun. New sparky dialogue scenes took the place of exposition ones in the final cut, essentially creating the film’s reputation for confusion.

    Memorable Quote
    “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” — Philip Marlowe

    Memorable Scene
    Bogie and Bacall discuss horse racing.
    — “I like to see them work out a little first… You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
    Just horse racing.
    — “I don’t know how far you can go.” “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
    Just horse racing.

    Making of
    Another part in the Bacall situation described above was supposedly played by original author Raymond Chandler. He reportedly observed that Martha Vickers was so good as Carmen that she overshadowed Bacall, and consequently much of Vickers’ material was removed.

    Previously on…
    The Big Sleep is the fourth screen adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, though only the second to star the detective: 1942’s Time to Kill adapted The High Window into the Michael Shayne series, and the same year Farewell My Lovely was filmed as The Falcon Takes Over. The same novel was adapted again in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet (though, famously, retained the novel’s title for its UK release), starring Dick Powell as Marlowe.

    Next time…
    Bogart never played Marlowe again, but multiple film, TV and radio adaptations of Chandler’s novels have followed, with the lead role being occupied by the likes of James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, Danny Glover, James Caan, and Toby Stephens. A remake of The Big Sleep, relocated to ’70s London and directed by Michael “calm down dear” Winner, was Marlowe’s final big screen outing to date.

    Awards
    Not a sausage.

    What the Critics Said
    “one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused. And, to make it more aggravating, the brilliant detective in the case is continuously making shrewd deductions which he stubbornly keeps to himself. What with two interlocking mysteries and a great many characters involved, the complex of blackmail and murder soon becomes a web of utter bafflement. Unfortunately, the cunning script-writers have done little to clear it at the end.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

    Score: 96%

    What the Public Say
    “you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.” — Colin, Riding the High Country

    Verdict

    Famed for having a plot so complicated even author Raymond Chandler doesn’t know who committed at least one of its murders, I’ve always found The Big Sleep very followable if you pay attention… just don’t expect me to be able to explain it after it’s finished. The film’s popularity in spite of its impenetrability confirmed director Howard Hawks’ theory that audiences didn’t care if a plot made sense as long as they had a good time, and he’s kinda right — the joys here are Bogie and Bacall’s verbal sparring, the exposure of LA’s seedy underbelly (albeit in a Production Code-friendly way), and the film’s whole noir-ish atmosphere.

    The Big Sleep is finally released on US Blu-ray on Tuesday 23rd February.

    #12 will be… a Marvellous vampire.

    The Big Knife (1955)

    2015 #8
    Robert Aldrich | 107 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Big KnifeJack Palance is an actor wanting out of his studio contract in this stagey film noir.

    The entire film takes place in his house, with a parade of supporting characters coming and going to variously persuade him to stay, persuade him to quit, or persuade him to do other things (saucy!) It’s not just the limited location that makes it feel stagey, though, but also the style of dialogue and the performances. I’m never quite able to put my finger on it, but there’s a certain way playwrights seem to pen dialogue that just feels like it’s from theatre, and The Big Knife (which is adapted from a stage play) has it.

    Palance is very good, playing against expectations as an actor who sold out his artistry and is now struggling to be brave enough to stand up to the overbearing studio execs, who have an additional hold over him. Rod Steiger is a bit OTT as the studio’s head, Stanley Hoff, but then the character’s meant to be a bit like that. Somewhat heavy-handed pillorying of a real studio boss? Perhaps. Also worth watching is Rear Window’s Wendell Corey as Hoff’s assistant, Smiley Coy. His is a more subtle performance, conveying his opinions and enacting his schemes mostly with looks. I suppose you don’t get much less stagey than that.

    ShoutyPartially driven by a seeming twist that’s obvious from the outset (which, in fairness, the film reveals only 40 minutes in), the story never quite comes alive. Palance and Corey make parts worth watching, but at other times it’s a bit of a slog, not helped by an awful score that chimes in now and then, loudly. Expansive cinematography (so much headroom — was it shot to be cropped for widescreen? Perhaps it was) combats any feeling of claustrophobia the single location and oppressive moral situation might have leant it.

    The Big Knife is not the finest film noir (certainly, if anyone’s looking for familiar genre tropes, you’ll find few here), nor the finest behind-the-sets view of moviemaking, but some sporadically strong performances prevent it being meritless for the patient viewer.

    3 out of 5

    Parker (2013)

    2015 #2
    Taylor Hackford | 119 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    ParkerParker trailed well — funny lines, promising action, solid setup — but doesn’t deliver.

    The funny lines remain funny, but the trailer has them all. The plot’s generic — not necessarily a problem, but here it’s hampered by pointless asides and subplots. The action only delivers once or twice, the best being a mano-a-mano brawl featuring a great climax on a hotel balcony.

    Reportedly Hackford wanted to make this a film noir. You can spot story elements he must have been thinking of, but it doesn’t feel like one, and certainly doesn’t look like one.

    Fitfully adequate, but not even among Statham’s best.

    2 out of 5

    Jason Statham stars in the superior Safe, on 5* tonight at 9pm and reviewed here.

    In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

    Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

    2014 #127
    Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

    Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

    As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

    If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

    Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

    The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

    As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

    Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

    Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

    Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

    4 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

    Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

    aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

    2014 #126
    Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
    with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

    Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

    Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

    Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that Movie-Censorship.com list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

    The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

    They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

    I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

    Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

    For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

    Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

    4 out of 5

    This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

    Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

    Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

    Union Station (1950)

    2014 #19
    Rudolph Maté | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

    Union StationOften noted merely for being filmed in Los Angeles’ busy train station, there are some spirited defences of Union Station to be found. For my money, that’s nearer the truth: this isn’t some noir-era single-location-thriller, but a kidnap procedural with a significant role for trains and their locales. The best sequence isn’t even in the station: cops tail a suspect, get noticed, and the ensuing chase reaches a memorably grisly end.

    Also in the mix are morally grey cops (“make it look like an accident”), one-step-ahead villains, and a blind girl in peril. The concoction produces an undervalued classic noir.

    4 out of 5

    In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

    Backfire (1950)

    2014 #43
    Vincent Sherman | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

    BackfireBefore he was the romantic male lead in musicals like Tea for Two, Oklahoma! and Carousel, Gordon MacRae starred as a war veteran out to prove his friend’s innocence in this underrated film noir.

    MacRae is Bob Corey, our hero, whose hospital bed is visited by a woman (Viveca Lindfors) who tells him his army buddy Steve (Edmond O’Brien) has been in a horrible accident. The staff dismiss his story as an hallucination, but when he gets out, Bob and his new love, nurse Julie (Virginia Mayo), set out to find out what’s happened to Steve — who, it turns out, is wanted for murder — and find themselves negotiating a complex web of past events and future dangers….

    Backfire doesn’t seem to be very well regarded on the whole (though, in spite of that, there’s a surprising amount of production detail on Wikipedia). This may be because at times it feels more like an Agatha Christie mystery than a film noir: a pair of clean-cut amateur sleuths bumble their way through a string of clues, learning more and more about the plot thanks to other characters’ flashbacks. I like a good Christie mystery though, so the pairing of styles isn’t a problem for me.

    Friend or foe?Besides, even if the film seems to forgo the usual gritty noir trappings for a pleasant “English murder mystery”-type tale at first, it actually has its fair share of dark elements and noir-ish features, which only increase as it goes on: secretive gangsters, nightclub singers, revenge shootings… Then there’s the photography which, again, transitions from a fairly ‘regular’ (for want of a better word) style early on, to a world of rain-slicked streets and high-contrast lighting.

    The story is reportedly “lifted from other, many times better, films”, which may well be true, but clearly I’ve not seen them. It all builds to a twist that I didn’t see coming, which is always good in my book; plus a final shoot-out featuring something that never seems to happen in films: the villain loses because he runs out of bullets! Along the way, the movie challenges the audience to keep up with which flashback is taking place when and how they’re connected to each other — indeed, the really attentive viewer might be able to use that to correctly guess the ultimate reveal.

    MacRae is perfectly decent as the perfectly decent chap, who somehow manages to be a much better detective than any of the detectives. He’s aided by a sterling supporting cast, from the club singer’s tag-along roommate (Sheila Stephens — later Sheila MacRae) to the ex-army buddy mortician (Dane Clark), from the slightly creepy hotel desk clerk (who isn’t adequately credited) to the wisecracking police chief (Ed Begley).

    That White Heat girl turning it on againIt’s in the latter’s case that the writing gets a chance to shine, too: the chief’s flashback is littered with snappy dialogue that feels kinda like he’s telling you the story himself, not just a matter-of-fact “here’s what happened earlier” objective account. Other flashbacks retain a degree of subjectivity — we only see events the characters could have witnessed, and in some cases the way they witnessed them (like the cleaning lady who only sees customers’ feet, before spying through a keyhole in a shot complete with keyhole matte) — but there’s an idea there, briefly glimpsed in that detective’s flashback, that would’ve made for an even more interesting film.

    As it stands, Backfire isn’t all it could be, but I think it’s good for more than the consensus allows.

    4 out of 5

    Backfire is on TCM (UK) tomorrow, Saturday 15th November 2014, at 1:15pm.