Out of the shadows: Femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green).
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Beaten to a pulp: Why the hyper-stylised Sin City is in need of Raymond Chandler

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For imagines what 1940s cinema might have looked like with CGI and no Hays Code - but it falls short of that era’s crackling dialogue, smoky characters and emotional pull.

Sin City: a Dame to Kill For (18)
dirs: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez

Nine years is a long time to elapse between a movie and its sequel but nothing much has changed on the mean streets of Sin City. Gentrification has made no inroads and you’d die of thirst before you stumbled upon a high street coffee shop. The new film, subtitled A Dame to Kill For, is another hybrid of modern technology and retro content. It is a collection of intersecting, noirish stories, using live action with a strong computer-animated component to produce shocking and implausible sights. A quadruple decapitation is performed with a single swish of a sword. A man dives through the windscreen of a speeding car. Bruce Willis is shown to have hair.

The first Sin City was shot in stark, metallic monochrome with isolated accents of colour in each frame. A slash of scarlet lipstick here, the orange glow from an explosion there: the Schindler’s List red-coat effect. That has carried over into the new film, with 3D an unnecessary addition, as it so often is. The strange thing is that the Sin City style has not been mimicked by other film-makers in the interim. That must be because the movies are innovative in ways that can’t easily be extended beyond their own niche. A similar fate has befallen 300, another stylistic high point of recent cinema, which was also adapted from the work of Frank Miller. The Sin City pictures, which began life in Miller’s graphic novels, evoke three pop-culture art forms that approached maturity in the period immediately after the Second World War: comic books, film noir and pulp writing. That cocktail is spiked with explicit violence, an ingredient deemed contraband in the earlier era.

In theory, this should create a trashy equivalent of what Todd Haynes did with Far from Heaven in 2002, a Sirkian melodrama in all but its 21st-century candour. In a similar vein, Sin City: a Dame to Kill For imagines what the cinema of the 1940s might have looked like if there had been CGI and no Hays Code.

When the snowplough-faced Marv (Mickey Rourke) scoops out an enemy’s eye and wears the prize like a ring on his finger, the horror doesn’t have to be kept off-screen. When the private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin) photographs an illicit tryst, the film isn’t restricted to merely insinuating what he sees. The self-harming of the stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba), who slices her own face with shards of glass in a convoluted act of revenge, can be shown in wince-making detail. And when the femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green) slinks around in her pool, there is no call for carefully positioned props to spare her blushes. But for all its apparent explicitness, the film is laughably prim about male nudity. Brolin always seems to know just where to stand so that the shadows protect his modesty but he has kept this information from his female co-stars.

The movie is a more joyless affair than all this suggests. Had you never seen a film noir, nor read any Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane, you would not guess from watching this picture that the genre was known for whiskey-dry wit. Miller and his co-director, Robert Rodriguez, can handle the nihilism but the dialogue is rarely up to snuff: “A city’s like a woman or a casino. Someone’s gotta win.” “Death is just like life. There’s nothing you can do.” These lines don’t appear to be pastiche or homage, let alone the work of someone who has ever seen The Big Sleep.

It would be nice if viewers demanded from these films the sort of knowing spin on familiar material that the Coen brothers attempted in their Dashiell Hammett-inspired thriller Miller’s Crossing, but evidence suggests otherwise. While it’s always unwise to review the audience, it would be dishonest to ignore the rambunctious laughter that greeted much of the violence. The hyper-stylised look allows brutal acts to be shown in full because they bear no relation to reality. But nor does the movie engage with emotion or meaning: its entire purpose is to pursue the aesthetic of excess. In the monochrome, splashes of blood are rendered white, like innocuous waves of milk. Slashes of light filtered through venetian blinds make much of the film look like mating season in a zebra enclosure.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood