Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sin City: where are the cinematic superheroes when you need 'em?

Just saw Sin City, after a nail bitingly tense couple of days worrying that my geek street cred would be threatened because I had waited an unusually long time to see the movie: about 48 hours. Work had prevented me from seeing the Arclight Thursday midnight screening, which I heard was quite the happening.

Let me put it this way, after seeing the film I was no longer regretting that I had not gone to the midnight screening. My high hopes for the film were not fulfilled, and I would say I was somewhat disappointed.

Overall, I thought the movie looked amazing. Miller and Rodriguez were successful in creating this terrifically gritty noir comic book world. The film was predominantly in black and white, but utilized splashes of color along the way to intensity the visual impact. I loved the way that the cars moved and drove, bouncing around the corners of the highways as if they were made out of paper and ink instead of metal and steel. The cinematography was great, the camera moved with grace and originality, revealing images to the audience with the art of a master storyteller. The gore in the film was a bit gratuitous at times, but always stylish; red blood was splattered on the black and white faces in a way that would make Jackson Pollack proud. In other instances the blood in the violent scenes took on a day glo quality, where victims bled white onto their dark bodies. One thing can be said for certain, the film did not lack atmosphere, the world was consistent and complete. Every costume, every shot of rain soaked pavement, pieced together the cinematic world of Sin City.

On paper, the cast list of the film is also impressive. I have never read any of the Sin City novels, so I do not know how authentic the casting was, but for such a talented group of actors and actresses, the results were a bit underwhelming.

I thought Mickey Rourke (as Marv), and Bruce Willis (as Hartigan) gave the two strongest performances in the film. They felt organic in their environments and were able to lend emotional depth into their characters. Clive Owen was passable, though I was more unsure about the M.O. of his character, and thought that he was just able to get by on his screen presence. Benicio Del Torro, Nick Stahl and Elijah Wood, all did competent solid work as the three respective villains. Of all the women in the cast, I thought Brittany Murphey (who I’m normally not a fan of) who portrays a waitress at a bar, did the best job of turning her role into a three dimensional person. More than any of the other women in the film I believed that she conveyed the paradox of strength and vulnerability. Carla Gugino, who played a parole officer, was also quite believable, and smartly handled her noir speak dialogue while comfortably brandishing a gun. Jamie King, who played a prostitute seeking revenge for her twin’s sister’s death, was fine, but not amazing. Rosario Dawson, Alexis Bledel, and Jessica Alba, were not terrible, but at times their performances felt flat and uninspired, and a lot of it felt like a lack of direction on the director’s part. Rodriguez should have gone for stronger transformative performances with these top billed glamorous actresses. The film could have benefited if their performances were more “character-y”, and not just eye candy roles with a few lines.

This brings me to my next point. At the risk of sounding like a neurotic feminist, I have to say I was somewhat disturbed by film’s thematic tones about women. If there was one through line that you could draw through the different stories of the film it was this: disfigured or broken man takes great risk to save beautiful woman, again and again and again. The female characters in this film were placed on pedestals, but still worshipped form above. They were objects to be protected, saved, desired, abused, dismembered and won. The mild exception to this might be Miho, who was solemnly played by Devon Aoki. Miho was a prostitute who used her martial arts skills to eviscerate those who dared to threaten her, or endanger her friends. But even she was a hooker. Rosario Dawson’s character, for all her sass, was still a prostitute. The second story, attempted to empower the old town prostitutes, showing that weren’t at the mercy of simply any man who tried to solicit them, that there were rules, and that they could use their guns and get tough, but they were still hookers!!

I know, I know, I get it. It’s a comic book movie, and this is how Frank Miller wrote his books. Sin City is a world of depravity, where a man kills a man and gives it the same amount of thought that he used to light up his cigarette. A world where most women are stunningly beautiful prostitutes and strippers with hearts of gold. Where 19 year old babes throw themselves at men pushing sixty that they haven’t seen in eight years. This is clearly all fantasy.

In both Merv and Hartigan’s stories, these men go to the end of the earth to save and/or avenge women, who they barely know. But these men had somehow felt legitimized, when for a brief time these women, these virtual strangers, had let these men hold them and call them their own. Somehow if the men can complete their missions, then they regain this legitimization, they can reposess them.

Nothing speaks to this more strongly that Kevin, the cannibalistic serial killer, who dismembers female hookers, devours them, and then puts their heads on the wall as trophies. He has consumed not only their flesh, but their souls, - this is the ultimate ownership. The heads of these women on the wall represent all of the women that Kevin has “had.” Kevin is reinvigorated by his feasting on these women, it gives him strength to go on. In the film, Kevin is made out to be inhuman, monstrous. But his sick behavior, is actually representative, in an exaggerated way, of the way that men relate to women in this film. Women make the men feel good, they make them feel alive, and give them a reason to live and die, in return, the men idolize them as delicate and perfect aesthetic objects. The word angel, is used often in the script to describe them. The women are protected and admired, but in the way of a valuable piece of art on the wall.

The other big issue that was a detriment to the film was the structure that Miller and Rodriguez chose to use. There were three major different story lines, but instead of weaving and intercutting the stories together, they were each presented separately as vignettes of sorts. This film lacked a sense of wholeness and entirety because for the most part it was three “episodes” strung together. This forced the arcs in the stories and the characters to be unnaturally compacted if they were even apparent at all. The events in the film felt more incidental than plot driven, and this more than anything made the film feel like more of a comic book that was shot in live action, than a true movie. This leads me to believe that the adaptation of the books might have been a little too faithful. The excitement of the action and violence could not make up for the lack of story. These characters needed more development, and perhaps more back story to preceed them. The best films are those where we can in some way, empathize or feel connected to one or more of the characters. If you are not invested in the character or story, then there are no stakes in the film, and it does not matter whether or not the protagonists live or die, or accomplish their goals.

Obviously, this film, neither attempts to be, nor should be taken as a moral or societal handbook. My only complaint is that thematically, I find the storyline of strong, beastly male fighting to the death for beautiful perfect goddess, kind of old. For a film that was so original in its style and visual presentation, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t take some of these tropes and turn them on their heads. Badass hookers do not really count for me as different enough. The genre of film noir is one that I am quite fond of because often, nothing is quite what it seems. The great ones like Laura, Double Indemnity, The Third Man, and Out of the past have mysterious plots with twists and turns. The characters in the film may be dirty criminals, but they are still dirty criminals that you become wrapped up in. Their stories envelope you and keep you guessing until the end.

The film Sin City was a lot like one of the female characters in its own story. It looked stunning and had the promise of a swell time, but at the end of the day it needed someone to swoop down and save it from the depravity of mediocrity. Unfortunately for us, no one came to save the day.

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