Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Sin City, finally

First, let me point you to a piece that Liz co-wrote over at Bookslut. It makes several fine points that I'll try not to reiterate too much here.

Having seen the movie twice now, I think my opinion has settled down to "pretty good" and "worth seeing." It didn't light my world on fire, but I certainly would recommend it to someone who hadn't seen it.

Visually, it's stunning. The brief flashes of color are used to great effect. Notice how Goldie is always in color and Wendy is in black and white, except when Marv perceives her as Goldie. Nice touch.

The visuals are the movie's main draw, just as they were in the comics. The stories are noir-on-drugs, heavy voiceover and graphic violence both pumped beyond their normal limits. And that's sort of the problem. There's really no point to either the film or the comics beyond starkly realized pastiche. As Frank noted, "Sin City is the movie that people who didn't like Kill Bill thought Kill Bill was." There's precious little substance to engage the mind beyond the eye-candy.

This wouldn't be so pronounced if the film weren't so damn long. Actually, it's only a hair over two hours, but it feels like more. In order to cram all three stories into a reasonable running time, Rodriguez and Miller rev up the pacing of each story. There aren't any lulls or pauses, just pedal to the metal from start to finish, and it's wearying. By the time Bruce Willis infiltrated the Roark farm, I was saying "enough already." It certainly didn't help that "The Hard Goodbye" and "That Yellow Bastard" are so similar to begin with. The climax of a film shouldn't invoke deja vu on the part of the viewer. I think it was a mistake to inclue "Hard Goodbye" and "Yellow Bastard" in the same film, but if they wanted three different protagonists then the only other story option would have been "Hell and Back," and that's easily Miller's weakest Sin City tale.

The structure of the movie doesn't really make any sense and is pretty distracting. Why put part of "That Yellow Bastard" at the beginning and the rest at the end, only to repeatedly insist that the entire story takes places before the other two? If you're going to tell three chapters out of order, it doesn't lend anything to the movie to do it 2,3,1, and actually is kind of distracting. Also, if you're splitting "That Yellow Bastard" into two parts, why not make the break where Hartigan's in prison? That way we wouldn't have to start eight years ago, jump forward eight years plus however much time passes between "Yellow Bastard" and "Hard Goodbye," then jump back eight years, then jump forward eight years AGAIN. Like I said, it's distracting.

My favorite section of the film is "The Big Fat Kill," since that story is basically a lark and the actors seem to be having fun with it. All stories are so hyper-stylized that they often swerve into ridiculous territory bordering on self-parody, and I'm more inclined to accept a Sin City tale the embraces that fact. The subject matter is positively light-hearted compared to the other Sin City chapters, and the plot chugs along nicely, unburdened by the other two stories' relentlessly dark tone and leaden voiceovers. It's also the only story to try for genuine comedy. Del Toro's Jackie Boy prying the fingers of his severed hand off his gun with his mouth is like something out of a Pekinpah movie, and Clive Owen's tongue-in-cheek deadpan delivery just kills me. "Hi, I'm Shelly's boyfriend and I'm out of my mind."

The acting, overall, is up and down. Michael Madsen is so bad in the opening scene of "Yellow Bastard" that one is inclined to give up on the film altogether. Mickey Rourke is good at Marv, but he didn't blow me away. Brittany Murphy seemed to be acting badly on purpose, whereas Jamie King seemed to just be acting badly. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Jessica Alba, and Bruce Willis does all right. Elijah Wood and Nick Stahl were both really creepy.

Overall I, like Liz, am a little unsure as to what the point is. The movie doesn't seem to be more than an advertisements for the books. And if someone was trying to choose between the two, I'd push for the books, since they're paced a lot better. The movie certainly doesn't make Frank Miller look any saner than I already perceived him to be. It just makes him look even nuttier, with his rather fascistic take on justice and his intense madonna/whore complex suddenly given fluid movement and THX sound.

It's a decent movie, though. Although I probably won't want to see it again for quite some time. It's the sort of movie whose flaws only become more apparent after repeated viewings, while you wonder what drew you to the movie in the first place.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Frank said...

As usual, I agree with everything you have to say, with the exception of your analysis of the basic structural problems. The structure of Sin City is IDENTICAL to that of Pulp Fiction (and I know you're not about to tell me that film's got an inherently flawed construction). Think about it. There's the 2,3,1 sequencing of the main stories, plus a long prologue at the opening which sets up the final part. There's even an opening teaser with a gun-toting couple that's called back at the end (only much more arbitrarily in this film than in Tarantino's). Roger Ebert makes this same observation in the review to which you linked earlier, citing the borrowing of his template as an additional reason Quentin deserved the "guest director" credit.

Also, I don't think your proposals for alternate ways to separate That Yellow Bastard would really have worked. If you're going to break that piece up, it certainly makes the most sense to end with his apparent death. That FEELS like the end of -- an admittedly very short -- story, which tricks the audience into believing we've seen the last of the characters, and makes for a nice surprise when Bruce Willis wakes up (a viewer surprise that parallels the character's shock at still being alive). Also, a death is a much higher note to end a sequence on than a guy sitting in a jail cell. And as far as breaking That Yellow Bastard in half to begin with, think about it this way: the tale concludes with Willis repeating the narration from his first "death," now juxtaposed with a different set of actions and visuals. I'd argue that, in a movie anyway, that kind of recall is a lot subtler and more satisfying when it's referencing a scene we saw two hours ago, rather than seventeen minutes ago.

The movie DOES feel too long, and I totally see the merits of the two-story construction you offer. But I'll also remind you that, as much as I love Chungking Express, everytime that movie ends somebody around me says, "What? That's it?"

I think the main reason the structure doesn't work in Sin City is because, as you indicate, there's just so little variation in tone and pacing. Pulp Fiction, by contrast, offers so much variety that its running time and its non-linear storytelling never come close to wearing you out.

To your question of "Why should this movie exist?" I'll offer two justifications. A) As far as I can tell, this direct a live-action adaptation of a comic book source is unprecedented, and thus, even though they don't quite make it work, Sin City will survive as an important academic discussion piece. B) I think that by collecting so many of Frank Miller's "hang-ups" for comparison, the movie becomes this expressionist nightmare journey of a substantial artist's psyche. But, unlike Spartan, I feel like I can watch Sin City without feeling totally sleazy. (Maybe because it had a little bit more self-awareness and sense of play?) Anyway, surely that exercise has some merit.

2:46 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I wrote that whole "Sin City" review just thinking that "Pulp Fiction" went 3,1,2. You're right, of course.

Between "What, that's it?" and looking at my watch continuously in the third story, I'd pick "What, that's it?" They cut stuff out of all the stories. If they put it back in and actually slowed the whole thing down a little, I still think it would work better.

Watching "Spartan" on cable the other day cracked me up. Especially now that I know who Kristen Bell is. "WHERE'S THE GIRL?"

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Frank said...

Oh my God! You just reminded me. When I went to see Clark and Andy's band on Tuesday, the act afterwards had an electric cellist who looked just like Kristen Bell! THAT'S the girl I should be dating.

12:14 PM  

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