SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR: 2 ½ STARS

From the perspective of an adult here’s how I would describe the new Robert Rodrigues film: “An exercise in extreme neo-noir aesthetics, the movie resembles a graphic novel sprung to life.”

Here’s how my fourteen-year-old self would express his thoughts on the same film: “WOW. Eva Green is naked. Did I mention she has no clothes?”

Neither description gets it wrong. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is the most heavily stylized movie of the year, maybe the century so far. Rodrigues and co-director Frank Miller (the comic book legend who created the original “Sin City” series in print) have created a dark vision of a shadowland known as Sin City, a corrupt place where crime is a way of life for both citizens and all femmes are fatale.

Four stories interweave. The thread that ties them together is Marv (played by noted Putin booster Mickey Rourke), a massive hulk of a man who aids Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) in his efforts to free his former flame Ava Lord (Eva Green) from her abusive husband. He also helps stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) settle an old score with a corrupt senator (Powers Booth), the same man who savagely beat gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to teach him a lesson about power. 

“Sin City” A Dame to Kill For” feels like it was made by someone with an eye for the aesthetics of noir but the interests of a 14-year-old boy. It’s an exercise in style over substance that will make your corneas tingle, tickle your prurient side and provide an experience that may be memorable (especially if you are a fourteen year boy) but not particularly rewarding.

These unendingly grim crime stories aren’t so much hard-boiled as they are over-baked. Rodrigues and Miller’s outlook is as bleak as the stark black-and-white palette they use to illustrate the movie. “Death is just like life in Sin City,” they say, hammering the point home that the only relief from the ennui many of these characters live with is a bullet to the head. The characters seem to welcome it. “He’ll eat you alive,” a bartender tells Johnny about the senator. “I’m a tough chew,” he replies, playing chicken with his life.    

The directors try to distract from the cynical goings on with hyper-German Expressionist cinematography and the abovementioned Ms. Green’s wardrobe, or lack thereof, but no matter how much style or skin are exposed, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” remains a slickly styled exercise in pointlessness.

The F Word

THE F WORD: 4 STARS

A few years ago the romantic comedy seemed like it was on life support, suffering from a bad case of the Katherine Heigls. The once proud genre had succumbed to predictability with witless stories and characters direct from Central Casting. The term rom com became an anti-selling point to audiences tired of the same old Barrymore Method© rom com design—unlikely couple meets, falls in love, overcomes obstacles, breaks up and… well, I’m not going to give away the ending but if you don’t know it already then either you don’t have a romantic bone in your body or you’ve never seen a Drew Barrymore (or Kristen Bell or Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston) movie.

Then, little by little, filmmakers began to chip away at the formula, making rom coms with a twist. There was a “Warm Bodies,” a zombie rom com and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s one-two punch “500 Days of Summer” and “Don Jon,” among others. Now there’s “The F Word,” a fresh and funny take on romance and the nature of love.

Called “What If” in the United States where the “F Word” title was seen as too salacious, (in the movie the “F” stands for friend), it’s the story of Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a loser in love who meets Chandry (Zoe Kazan), the girl of his dreams, at a party. She’s charming, pretty, funny and has a live-in boyfriend. Like Harry and Sally before them, they must discover if men and women can just be friends.   

Enchanting, whimsical and sweet are words I could use to describe “The F Word,” and the film earns each and every one, but it is also more than that.

Director Michael Dowse doesn’t allow the tone to get sugary and slip into saccharine mode. He’s aided by a smart and funny script by Elan Mastai, but it’s Radcliffe and Kazan that draw us in. The pair has chemistry to burn and their conversations have a ring of truth that doesn’t feel contrived or rom commy.

They’re supported by an able cast, including Megan Park in a star-making turn as Chantry’s promiscuous sister and “Girl’s” alum Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend Allan.

“The F Word” is a persuasive attempt to reclaim the rom com from the Barrymore Method© and bring back the golden years when Harry could still meet Sally without all the annoying Heiglisms in between.

‘If I Stay'

IF I STAY: 3 STARS

In Chloe Grace Moretz ‘s new film “If I Stay,” she plays Mia, a gifted teenage cellist from a family of musicians. When a catastrophic accident throws her into a coma she has an out-of-body experience. The rest of the story is told from the perspective of her memories before the accident and in the present, as she observes, ghostlike, the aftermath of the car crash.

Based on bestselling novel by Gayle Forman “If I Stay” is a romance, a coming-of-age story and a supernatural family drama. That’s a whole lotta genres bumping heads, but director R.J. Cutler does an admirable job at balancing the elements. Using the book as the movie’s backbone, his approach is almost literary, as he treats each component like a chapter in a novel. He turns the pages, introducing each new twist, giving the audience time to adjust. What could have been a muddle is, instead, a living breathing thing, a story unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.   

Juggling genres aside, the movie has a complicated flashback structure. When it’s not reflecting on the past the tale is told through Mia’s eyes, a young girl halfway between life and turning into a ghost. She must piece together the events of her day and decide whether she wants to go on or slip into a permanent sleep. 

At the center of all this is Moretz, an actress who, over the course of a short but eventful career, has made a habit of playing introverted characters with rich lives swirling around them, and here, she delivers what may be her best performance yet. As Mia she is a talented teen just discovering a life beyond the cello that has been her constant companion since she was young. It’s a simple and uncluttered performance with a lot going on behind the eyes.

“If I Stay,” but its nature is melodramatic. It’s a study of life and loss, leaning heavily on the regret of building relationships only to see them disappear in the wink of an eye. Luckily Moretz’s subtle performance prevents the movie from becoming a soap opera of despair.

'When the Game Stands Tall'

WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL: 2 STARS

If you are a football fan, specifically of the American high school game, then “The Streak” is something you’re likely familiar with. From 1992 to 2004, under the guidance of legendary football coach Bob Ladouceur and assistant coach Terry Eidson, the De La Salle High School Spartans from Concord, California won 151 consecutive games, smashing all records for any American sport.

It’s a great story that the film “When the Game Stands Tall” uses as a starting point. We join the Spartans as their record-breaking sprint to the history books comes to an end. During the 2003 post season Coach Ladouceur (a very low key Jim Caviezel) suffered a heart attack and a popular student was senselessly gunned down. The following school year, in September 2004, they lost their first two games in “the biggest upset in high school football history,” according to one commentator. Their biggest problem isn’t the other teams, however, it’s a lack of teamwork. “We got lost. Caught up in the glory.” Can the Coach convince them that it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game that counts?

“When the Game Stands Tall” puts a spin on the usual football flick by adding in faith-based subtext about the power of positivity. It’s not about playing a perfect game, the guys are told, but handing in a “perfect effort.” Coach Lad, who still trains the De La Salle High School Spartans to this day, is an inspirational figure who turns young lads not just into champion football players, but into men.

The underdog aspect of the story doesn’t quite gel. Two defeats don’t exactly make the Spartans the Caltech Beavers who had an impressive run of 207 loses on the gridiron. When the embark on their inevitable climb back up the ladder one announcer calls it “one of the greatest comebacks in football history.” Really? Try telling that to the Caltech Beavers.

The football scenes, however, are effective, exciting and feel genuine. The spirit of the players feels a little over blown as done some of the dialogue. “The only way I’m going off this field is on a stretcher,” says quarterback Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) before winning one for the Gipper… er… I mean Coach Lad.     

For football fans “When the Games Stands Tall” brings a famous story to life. For the rest of us it plays like an after school special with better production value.

Are You Here

ARE YOU HERE: 2 STARS

The second feature from “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner is an odd duck. A comedy about substance abuse and bi polar behavior, it’s not as funny as a movie starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis should be nor is it as insightful as Weiner likely intended. 

Wilson is Steve Dallas, an Annapolis, Maryland weatherman who lives off a diet of marijuana, scotch and anonymous sex. “I eat life out of the big box,” he says, unconvincingly. His best friend is Ben Baker (Galifianakis), a childhood pal “who wasn’t that screwed together to begin with.” He’s bi polar, drug addicted and the heir of a large chunk of money and land from his late father. His plan to create a utopian society on his dad’s old farm doesn’t sit well with his controlling sister Terri (Amy Poehler) who tries to have him declared incompetent. Steve is in the middle of the action, coming between Ben and his sibling while trying to woo Ben’s twenty-five year old free spirited stepmother Angela (Laura Ramsey). Between the strife and family politics the characters look for the answer to one of life’s great questions: Is this it?

Audiences may find themselves asking the same thing, but for very different reasons. For all the movie’s commentary on the vagaries of life, like friendship—“It’s a lot rarer than love,” Says Steve, “because there’s nothing in it for anybody.”—mental illness and the freedom to be who we are, the story doesn’t add much to the conversation on any of those topics. Add to that some annoying characters and a disrespectful attitude toward the film’s women—they are either harridans or contradictory in their behavior—and you’re left with the feeling that if Weiner had turned this into a television series and given the characters time to live and breath he might have been able to develop this into something more interesting.