Melinda and Melinda

Woody Allen has chosen to give us two mediocre movies wrapped in one with Melinda and Melinda, a forgettable and contrived styling exercise that proves too much of a bad thing isn’t good. 
Spurned on by an academic debate between two playwrights over the meaning of tragedies and comedies in the modern theater, Melinda and Melinda is more a gimmick in search of a sustainable plot than a fully fleshed out film. Incomplete and yet also bursting at the seams with clichés, Melinda and Melinda will only be enjoyable for masochists and Woody Allen fans. (Two groups which are, of course, completely compatible with one another.) 
The film opens on four friends discussing the finer points of contemporary playwriting while eating at a casual Chinese restaurant. Sy (Wallace Shawn) and Max (Larry Pine) write in different genres: Sy makes romantic comedies while Max prefers gritty tragedies. Max believes comedies are escapist and the truer art form is drama, which attempts to grapple with relationships and life in a serious manner. Sy, of course, defends comedy, and the discussion leads to a debate over the nature of the universe as a comedic or tragic stage.
A third friend recounts a story and the two playwrights construct competing narratives to illustrate the strengths of their respective genres. Most of the film is taken up by these two stories, which compete for validity, causing the film to feel fragmented and disjointed rather than cohesive.
In the dramatic story, Melinda (Radha Mitchell) interrupts a dinner party held by her friends Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). The three went to college together, but Melinda has fallen on rough times since, divorcing her surgeon husband, losing custody of her two children, falling for – and murdering – a Parisian photographer, and eventually finding herself in an insane asylum.
This story stresses the interrelationship of its characters – five of the dinner guests are old friends – and explores the wounds Melinda carries. Melinda is a chain-smoking neurotic, but the other characters are also out of control. Although Laurel and Lee seem to have it all, Lee’s alcoholism jeopardizes their marriage while Laurel’s Madison Avenue lifestyle threatens them financially.
In the comedic story, Melinda (again played by Radha Mitchell) interrupts her downstairs neighbors’ dinner party. In this story, an out-of-work actor named Hobie (Will Ferell) and his career-driven, filmmaking wife Susan (Amanda Peet) are hob-snobbing a wealthy financier when Melinda knocks in the door in a drug-induced stupor.
This version of the narrative has Hobie pining for Melinda in secret as his own marriage crumbles. When he’s finally in a position to act on his feelings, she confesses that she’s fallen in love, and the rest of the story unfolds like an episode of your favorite television sitcom.
Neither story is particularly compelling, and the overarching resolution offered by Sy and Max seems too pat to be taken seriously. The tragic story features some truly terrible, clunky dialog, the sort where women say, “Falling in love will work wonders on you, dear.” On the other hand, the comedic story is about as amusing as a Three’s Company marathon, proving that whatever Ferell touches does not necessarily turn to gold.
Melinda and Melinda is a lovely looking film, with some nice directorial shots. No one does New York like Woody Allen. He has a gift for making even run-down alleyways look elegant, and the lofts and apartment are really quite lovely, but I don’t know what it says about the film when a dark bistro upstages its plot and characters. I don’t want Laurel’s dining room to be more interesting than the character herself.
It’s difficult to know what motivated Allen to make this tired sack of clichés. In the final third of the film the horrid ponderousness of the tragic story becomes so laughable that I heard some nervous chuckles in the audience, but the comedic section becomes so predictably boring that the sense of dread was a physical force in the theater, too.
I won’t hazard a guess as to which part of the movie is worst – leaving the decision “in the eye of the beholder,” the film’s major philosophical declaration – but I wish that next time Woody could just clobber us with one bad movie at a time.


Sin City

Sin City feels like a comic book in all the wrong ways. 
Based on a series of graphic novels created by Frank Miller, Sin City is a horrific display of masculine power fantasies. Adolescent in the worst meaning of the word, the film charges through its three violent vignettes with the subtlety of a rape. Laying bare any convenient excuses for its violence, it is a celebration of the nasty, crude underpinning of the comic book genre, where every little boy wants to be Superman, not so he can save the world, but so he can take whatever he wants, when he wants it.
Sin City’s heroes are monsters waiting for the opportunity to unleash their pent-up frustrations, punish their enemies, and take whatever buxom woman happens to be in the vicinity. Sin City doesn’t so much blur the distinctions of good and evil as reveal our juvenile fascination with power, which explains why the characters don’t buy into the conceit that with great power comes great responsibility – for them, power is ultimate justification and might makes right. 
The film is a raging success as a dissertation on the fragile nature of masculinity. Returning over and over again to impotence and castration, Sin City’s foundation is unstable and volatile. The men in the film struggle with the knowledge that power can be taken away; bodies can be rent and dismembered; and women somehow slip away from the tightest grip.
For has-been do-gooder Hartigan (Bruce Willis), an ex-cop, it’s the specter of old age that dogs him, reminding him that he won’t always be the biggest gun in the city. He chides himself about it in his voice-over, telling himself to get it up as he tries to force his gun at a child molester after being shot in the arm. Just get it up, old man, do this one thing… But when he’s actually presented with a young nubile, he flails around, unable to will himself to do the one thing that would prove his manhood.
After a whore deflowers the hideous thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) and is later killed in their nuptial bed, the brute rampages through the city in search of her murderer. Cursed with the knowledge that he will never find that sort of embrace again – never be fully a man – he batters everything in his path. At one point he pummels a mercenary until he is just pulp and bones, but he still can’t exhaust his rage over his lost masculinity.
In a third vignette Dwight (Clive Owen) fights to try to restore order between the whores of Old Town and the city’s police department. Although he tells us in the voice-over that the whores have absolute domain over Old Town, only Dwight is capable of unknotting the mob conspiracy that threatens peace. The only happy heterosexual outcome of the film – possibly because he’s not ugly like Marv or old like Hartigan – Dwight tames the whore princess by teaching her that she’s incapable of protecting herself. 
First, of course, he must best a competitor by beheading him in a symbolic act of castration. The head is then passed over as a sign of potency and turned into the ultimate weapon: A speaking phallus, a grisly magic flute. 
The masculine imaginary is cluttered with these types of images, but Sin City obsessively translates this language into the reality of violence. When a child molester misuses the phallus Hartigan takes it away – literally – and when it is somehow magically reconstructed it is once again up to the old warrior to sever it. Women wielding swords threaten the masculine order by suggesting that the phallus can be usurped, and the world is only corrected when the whores return to their “natural” fallen position beneath Dwight. It isn’t until Marv is given sex freely that he’s able to choke down his rage.  
Combining Miller’s own style with artful direction by the comic book auteur, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino, Sin City is certainly a distinctive film. The film’s stylistic cues are exaggerated film noir, but unlike last year’s Sky Captain there’s something beneath the surface. Unfortunately that something probably should have remained buried beneath the ground.
The comic book renaissance that Miller helped usher in wasn’t as one-dimensional as Sin City. It’s heroes were fully developed characters struggling with their powers, not simple caricatures embodying adolescent desires. And although a lot has been made of the film’s innovative style, something human has been lost in the translation.

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