Sea of Love (Harold Becker, 1989)

sea-of-love.jpg

A real pleasant surprise of an erotic thriller, Sea of Love boasts a great soundtrack (based around the brilliant song that gives the film its name, which keeps getting creepier, every time it’s played), a perfectly neo-noir ambiance of psychosexual urban paranoia, and a refreshingly nuanced portrayal of female dominance and openness to regularly re-negotiated roles of gender and sexuality that I’ve rarely seen in a mainstream film before or since. Seriously, speaking as a trans girl, seeing Pacino’s protagonist Frank respond to the question “would you ever go for a babe with a dick?” with “it really depends on her personality,” joke or not, was a really nice experience, however fleeting.

What carries this film is the performance – Pacino and Ellen Barkin have onscreen chemistry that is rarely matched in a modern thriller. The uneasy combination of absolute lust, possible love, and deep-rooted suspicion recalls Hitchcock at his finest. (Side-note: I’m still trying to work out if it holds some significance that Barkin’s character’s first name is Helen, whilst Pacino’s surname is Keller, or if it’s just a happy coincidence.) John Goodman as the humorous partner who manages, through the force of his own acting, never to be simply relegated to the role of “comic relief sidekick” helps balance the film and retain interest in the police-procedural element.

Though Sea of Love does lose a star for the rather unsatisfactorily ad hoc revelation/resolution to the serial killer plotline, the choice to end the film with a genuinely pretty touching scene regarding Frank and Helen’s relationship was absolutely the right choice and shows the extent to which the film-makers had their priorities in order. However, Sea of Love, however good, is not Twin Peaks and thus I do slightly resent it turning the murder-mystery plot into quite such a macguffin.

What makes Sea of Love so interesting is the fact that it takes a very formulaic premise – recently divorced detective, who is one bourbon on the rocks away from becoming a full blown alcoholic, falls in love with his prime suspect, big whoop – and holds it up to the magnifying glass. It refuses to let us consistently take Frank’s side: he drinks majorly to excess and, unlike many other noir/thriller protagonists, it affects him. Not just his social life, but his work, too: a number of times, he is shown accidentally breaking character whilst undercover, drink in hand. Also, it is revealed how his plan for catching the killer (putting out a lonely hearts ad matching those of the vics’ and then going on multiple dates a night, collecting fingerprints as he does so) actually potentially hurts many of the women who respond. However, he is not some simple idiot for entering a relationship with a potential serial killer; it seems entirely clear that he sees this as the legitimate personification of his addiction (obsession-compulsion at its most self-destructive) and of his mental state. He would rather potentially die at the hands of Helen than retire – maybe than live at all. At the same time, through Helen, the classic femme fatale figure is explored and given depth few films bother to add.

Seriously, for what could have been yet another run of the mill thriller, Sea of Loveturned out to be something really pretty special. I can’t wait to put it on as a double-bill with Cruising – or maybe even So I Married an Axe Murderer – sometime soon!

****

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2014)

slider-12.jpg

(Originally posted in now-defunct student e-zine FourFrame, under the title “Sin City: a Misogyny to Pass On”)

 

As a comic book fan, I am not without gratitude to Frank Miller. When Batman was starting to dwindle in 1986, it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that spring-boarded a reinvigoration of and new respect for the character that cannot be over-stressed. Sadly, he is also very much known for using comics – and more recently films – as platforms for his own ugly socio-political ideology. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is absolutely no exception.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For sets us in territory immediately familiar to watchers of the first film. Its multiple narrative structure shares characters between stories, in doing so making it difficult to follow for those who hadn’t seen the first film. The twisting chronology in fact made it rather difficult for me, someone who had. Frankly, I’m still not sure that a lot that happens in this sequel is physically possible, even within the limits of the Sin City universe: if Nancy (Jessica Alba)’s revenge narrative in this film is supposed to be set 4 years after the events of the first film, either Marv (Mickey Rourke)’s story from the first one must have spanned over four years or he has mysteriously come back to life after being sent to the electric chair… It usually helps when a film doesn’t distract me with such glaring narrative issues, and yet I had this thought stuck in my head for pretty much the whole 100 minutes. On perhaps a shallower note, I also refuse to acknowledge that back-alley plastic surgery would ever change Josh Brolin into Clive Owen. Plastic surgery has worked many a miracle, but as yet, it does not work magic.

Visually speaking, A Dame to Kill For is objectively impressive and, though I saw it in 2D, the depth of field was rich enough to make seeing it in 3D a worthwhile experience for someone who loves the film’s look. Personally, comic and noir fan as I am, I don’t care for the visuals of the Sin City franchise – the lack of rhyme and reason in terms of what gets colourized cheapens the effect whilst the digital sheen only detracts from the allegedly gritty ambiance: it becomes the rather telling embodiment of style over substance. I said it regarding the first film and I shall say it again now: frame-for-frame similarity with the source material is nothing to be proud of; this is a film, not a comic book, different media require different approaches.

The brief for: A Dame to Kill For was very clearly “like the first one, but more,” and certainly, the film strives to be more of everything: more violent, more sexual, and more black-and-white-film-with-random-things-colourized-for-no-discernible-reason. Whilst it certainly does achieve the third – very distractingly so – the most violent element of this film is its out-and-out misogyny. Granted, the original Sin Citywas hardly ever going to meet the approval of Molly Haskel, but its sexism was largely rooted in its constant “damsel in distress” tropes in the face of hyperbolised male chauvinism, and even the strongest of its female characters are viewed solely through an exaggerated male gaze. A Dame to Kill For moves away from traditionally sexist trivialisation of femininity to an abundant suspicion and hatred of it. Female characters are almost solely connected to images of manipulation and duplicity and, regularly, it seems only the female characters are the ones who will be punished for their dark ambition, regardless of it being a trait shared by literally everyone in the film. The most angering moment for me was in the final story, in which Nancy seems to symbolically shed her femininity in order to “man up” for her revenge plot by cutting her hair and then soon after cutting her face (the disfigurement of women is a common theme in the film). This would be bad enough, but it angers on yet another level as she then uses her new facial scars to manipulate Marv into doing most of the dirty work for her, anyway. In Miller’s mind, even the heroines are to be mistrusted by the heroes.

To give credit where credit’s due, the film is not let down by the performances – in particular the newcomers such as Eva Green and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are as good as one should expect of such fine actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s story (just like Jessica Alba’s) is completely new and takes direct cues from Casino Royale in working out how to make a poker game legitimately tense and atmospheric, though thankfully without the patronising narration explaining the rules. However, the notable absence of certain actors (Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan both died between films, being respectively written out and replaced very capably with Dennis Haysbert) does make it apparent just how long it has been since the first Sin City film came out: nine years ago. I don’t remember anyone crying out for a sequel and, judging from how much it is currently struggling at the box office, it seems nobody was. At the end of the day, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For acts more as documentation for the steady increase of Frank Miller’s ultra-right-wing misogyny than any form of legitimate entertainment and, quite frankly, his article on Occupy Wall Street was more than enough documentation for me. Want to watch a noirish comic book movie? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Watch The Crow. Hell, watch The Shadow. At least the film that almost killed Alec Baldwin’s career understood the difference between showing guts and having guts.

*