Skip to main content

Is that the best you can do, you pansies?

Sin City
(2005)

(SPOILERS) Sin City is generally seen as one of the more faithful and estimable comic book adaptations. It certainly has its fans, although evidently not as many as Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller thought, since last year’s sequel went belly-up. Perhaps that was down to the nine-year gap between the original and its prequel/sequel (clearly a thing for Miller cash-grab narratives, although one would hardly label his writing tricky), or perhaps it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Sin City gets labelled neo-noir, but that carries with the implication of a development beyond film noir in some shape or form. Rodriguez and Miller take the iconography of noir, but their only “advancement” is lashings of sex and violence (and a touch of fantasy hyperbole). Their movie revels in mining new depths of sadism from the genre in a similar fashion to Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’s sourcing it for comedy yuks.


Sin City didn’t particularly impress me when I saw it at the cinema a decade ago; the stylistic conceit wore off quickly, not that it was much of a wow to begin with. All that remained after that was Miller’s unpleasant leering. I had a not dissimilar similar response to the also heavily stylised 300, but in Sin City’s case the hollow storytelling and ingrained lack of engagement added to the overall disenchantment. If 300’s filmmaking complements the movie (whether you like that movie or not), it would be difficult to contest that approach to Sin City facilitates immersion in the tales being told. Yes, it authentically replicates the pages of the comic book, but is that a good thing, as a piece of cinema? A blended approach can work (Ang Lee’s underrated Hulk), but here there’s nothing behind the green screen. The comic book may be a page-turner, but the movie is locked into the static spectacle dictated by its directors. One can behold it, but it there is no involvement.


Miller presumes, I presume, that Sin City’s title gives him carte blanche to depict a catalogue of sadism and grotesquery on screen. During the course of the movie, we’re witness to a litany of dismemberment, misogyny, homophobia, and rape, all in the name of titillation. To make the bad medicine go down, he and Rodriguez whip up a fascistic veneer, one that might be viewed as overstatement or self-mockery if the picture wasn’t so humourless.


In addition, the characters and stories are relentlessly one-note. Miller’s women are all victims or whores (with a transparent attempt to mollify this by including some kick-ass hooker bitches). Two of the plotlines rely on man-child monsters for motivation, edifyingly distinguished from each other by one preying on children and the other women. ). In both cases, the establishment (church, state, the police) protects the perpetrators. Maybe its rudimentary palate is the point, but if so it didn’t need two hours to get it across.


Miller embraces the trappings of hard-boiled detective fiction, but he imbues it with no vitality. The incessant voiceovers carry no wit or intelligence, and neither does the construction of the storylines. There’s no intrigue here. The noir is phoned-in, a means for Miller to indulge his baser instincts, his hard-boiled masturbation fantasy.


The effect of this is antithetical to expectations. With the wall-to-wall talent (and Josh Hartnett, and Jessica Alba) the last thing one would expect is scenes playing out like an amateur theatre production, but they do. Bruce Willis is perfect for pulp fiction (ahem), but the only aspect of his performance that registers is the rate post-2000 sight of a rug adorning his shiny pate.


Mickey Rourke is as impressive and memorable in his own way as Ron Perlman in Hellboy, but Marv is a much more appealing character in the sequel. Powers Boothe is appropriately despicable. Benicio Del Toro conducts an experiment in being subsumed by prosthetics and accent, but it relies on its effect by knowing it’s Del Toro playing. Nick Stahl is a ridiculous boogieman (the Yellow Bastard) while Elijah Wood plays against type as a silent cannibal (since then he’s attempted to show the dark side of Elijah a few times, to tepid results).


One assumes Rodriguez cast Alba because he has the hots for her. Either that or he appreciated the irony of a stripper who doesn’t strip in a movie where pretty much every other female character appears in some state of disrobement or peripheral attire (one might consider Rodriguez entire career to be ironic, but I think that would be giving him too much credit). Nancy is a significantly sized role, but she’s part of an already weak story before Alba steps into it, which consists of Nick Stahl being loathsomely mustard-coloured and Bruce’s voice over (as Hartigan) fretting and obsessing over her. What is one to make of Miller’s Lolita plot device, in which Hartigan must brave out the attentions of the now-legal girl he saved? Nothing edifying, that’s for sure.


Others fare better. Rosario Dawson is opposite Clive Owen in The Big Fat Kill and is little more than another girls-with-guns number. Ironically, when Sin City does work, it’s usually down to scenes plays out more classically, rather defeating the point of the exercise. Carla Gugino’s breasts are lovingly upheld, but it’s all downhill for her from there. She’s a lesbian so she has to die, and Rodriguez also gives us a taste of his female amputee fantasies (see also Planet Terror).


Does any of the stylisation work? WeIl, the luminous blood is quite effective, but much of the emboldening merely reproduces comic colour flashes or exaggerated action (car chases, leaping great distances) in a manner that doesn’t thrill when put into physical motion. I guess the one upside of this is that Rodriguez approach appears less slapdash and “that’ll do” than usual; it’s supposed to look fake and unreal!


Occasionally, there’s a moment that hones in one what the movie might have been. Stuka is shot through the chest with an arrow but continues to interact with his associates through the rest of the scene; it’s a rate moment of humour clicking (Del Toro’s post-death digressions fail in this regard).


In the years since, few have attempted a full-blown repeat of Sin City’s visual flourish. The Spirit, Miller’s solo directorial outing, mimicked the approach to public indifference and general derision. Now, A Dame to Kill For has tanked. It seems like a late but fitting verdict on a pungent brew of degradation, one arrogant enough to think it could get a free pass appears on blunt stylisation and weak homage alone.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.