Sin City (2005)

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*. I guess if you’re a fan of the graphic novels by Frank Miller, you’ll like this adaptation. It’s pretty faithful, both to the stories (three of them are selected here, more were to come) and the look.
*. Personally, I find Miller hard to take straight, which is how he insists that you take him. Stuck with a fistful of noir clichés, the only thing he can do is push them to their extreme, upping the ante into caricature: bigger and tougher tough guys, more extreme violence (the movie is especially keen on cutting people apart), more outrageously sexy girls (pretty much the only thing they wear is thongs), and ridiculous dialogue that works well enough in bold caps but which sounds weird and forced coming out of actor’s mouths. I might also add that there’s no wit or cleverness to the dialogue at all. The language is very tired.
*. Is this a movie, a comic book, or a videogame? Around this time the boundaries were blurring. There was a complicated argument over who would get a director’s credit so it was “shot and cut” by Robert Rodriguez. No screenwriter is credited because apparently it was lifted almost entirely from the source, which was also used as a storyboard (Rodriguez even called the film “a panel-by-panel translation”).  It was shot entirely by digital cameras with actors in front of a green screen (there were only a few limited sets). So yes, we’re in a different world here.

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*. As with so many of the films in this period, the look is everything. And it does look impressive: striking and beautiful in an engraved sort of way. But I found a little of it went a long way. After about half an hour all the visual effects started to wear on me, and I settled into the numb feeling of watching a computer screen. This was very unfortunate, as it let me pay more attention to matters other than how it looked.
*. Is it fair to critique this movie with the proviso “Leaving aside how good it looks . . . “? After all, as I just said, the look is everything. Take away that blocky, glowing black-and-white and the stories are stupid and the characters just cut outs. Unless they’re fighting or making out, these people have no way of relating to one another. The actors seem like sports cars with governors installed, crippled from doing anything more than a two-dimensional minimum. Most of them handle it well enough, but Clive Owen hands in an almost grotesque performance, appearing unsure of how to deliver his lines as straight as the directors were presumably instructing him to.
*. As in Proyas’s Dark City, there is no daylight. Of course here it’s hard to figure how they would represent daylight given the technology they were using.
*. The repeated motifs (the male avenger, the sexy women warriors in mannequin poses, decapitation/limbs being lopped off, death by hanging) only seem to highlight the poverty of Miller’s imagination. Noir is famous for its complex plots but here, aside from the mixing up of the different plot lines (a structural matter), there’s nothing at all complicated going on. Which doesn’t mean everything is perfectly clear. The mob that gets mentioned, for example, wouldn’t be given a face until the next movie.

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*. We also have to take the hypermasculinity straight as well. Sex and violence are joined at the hip. The girls of Old Town all look like S&M dominatrixes. Men either beat/kill women or defend women from being beaten/killed. Castration is another recurring motif, whether just threatened or executed. A man’s a man, until you cut his balls off.
*. Really, it’s hard to overstate just how crude all of this is. It is extremely violent, but in a comic book way that means nothing. People are beaten into puddles and torn to pieces, but so what? Then it might have been funny, but it doesn’t want anything to do with humour or (heaven forbid) satire.
*. In short, shorn of its impressive visuals it’s a dull and conventional paean to male aggression and female whorishness. Men are scarred and craggy, women are young and full of curves. Though often labeled a neo-noir there’s little beside the way it is made to distinguish it as in any way “new.” Instead, it’s a conscious throwback. Marv is described as a prehistoric figure, and the model dinosaurs at the tar pits are introduced in such a way as to make them seem still with us.

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*. I think I should add something about the collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (credited as a “special guest director” for filming one scene) and Robert Rodriguez. They’re good friends and have often worked together, but I don’t think they’ve helped each other’s careers. Rodriguez, it seems to me, has done nothing as good as El Mariachi, with the other two instalments of his Mexico Trilogy (including the one with a cameo by Tarantino) being absolutely dreadful. From Dust till Dawn, another collaboration, was terrible. Meanwhile, Tarantino hasn’t done anything I’ve really liked since Jackie Brown.
*. This movie shows no sign of progress for either director. It can be excused as an excercise in fandom because it is a very literal adaptation of Miller’s books, and is excellent in this regard, but I can’t help thinking that Tarantino in particular should be doing something more than this now. I know this isn’t his movie, but I’m reminded of David Thomson’s verdict that his later career shows a “huge loss of ambition.”
*. Perhaps I’m being too hard on this one, but I feel I must. I don’t like the way movies in the twenty-first century were taken over by comic books, and brilliant as it is Sin City broke new ground in this regard. But to what end? The only thing making these comics, or graphic novels, “adult” was their levels of sex and violence. Sin City is still a juvenile fantasy. There are no real people living there but only sexual caricatures. The plot is just a series of standard situations, the dialogue not worth listening to (would it have worked better as a silent with comic-style title cards?).
*. And yet it was wildly praised by critics precisely for its comic-book qualities: bold visuals and crazy, over-the-top action. I appreciate the look, but can’t give it a pass on that alone.

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