Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Review: Frank Miller's Sin City (2005)

Big-screen adaptations of comic books or graphic novels tend to fall into two categories: Either they hue to the spirit, if not the letter, of the printed original (Spider-Man, Superman, Hellboy) or they bear only a passing resemblance to their source material (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine). But now we have a third category, in which the individual panels of the graphic novel are repurposed as literal storyboards. And this category currently has only one occupant: Frank Miller's Sin City.

Sin City is based on three of Miller's black-and-white (with occasional splashes of color, usually blood red) graphic novels (with a short story thrown in for good measure) set in the nightmarish, film-nourish, thankfully fictitious Basin City, where it's always nighttime; the men are hard, corrupt or both; the women are in perpetual danger and out of their clothing with equal regularly; and the liquor and blood flow freely. In one story, thuggish Marv (Mickey Rourke, acting his backside off through heavy facial prosthetics) hunts down the men responsible for the death of Goldie (Jaime King), a prostitute who brought tenderness to Marv's harsh existence, only to die for her trouble. In the second, superman-of-mystery Dwight (Clive Owen) gets caught in a war between corrupt cops led by smarmy Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and remarkably well-armed streetwalkers headed up by gun-toting Gail (Rosario Dawson). In the third, retirement-age cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis, looking way too spry for retirement) does time for raping a teenage girl named Nancy; of course, he didn't do it--he actually saved her life from the evil son of an evil politician (Powers Boothe), and Nancy writes to Hartigan behind bars--but when he gets out of prison, he has find the now-adult Nancy (Jessica Alba) to save her from the clutches of the appropriately hued Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl).

The three stories share overlapping characters and juggled timelines, which get arranged in a framework that owes a lot to Pulp Fiction. (Quentin Tarantino even pops by to "guest direct" a scene between Owen and Del Toro.) The stories also share an abundance of stylized violence, all of which is held at a cartoonish distance because it's all in black and white (a method Tarantino used for the gory House of Blue Leaves fight sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1). Except for the blood. The blood color changes depending on the character doing the bleeding--white for one guy, yellow for another (guess who?), and good old-fashioned red for the more heroic sorts.

Co-directors Robert Rodriguez (who shot and edited the movie digitally) and Miller have done a meticulous job of recreating this brutal world, transferring the look, the sound, the morally murky atmosphere of Miller's work to your local Cineplex with such attention to detail that it's almost like watching the characters from the pages of the original Sin City comics get up and walk around. They achieve this through glorious art direction (all of the sets are computer-generated, much like last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and spot-on casting (many of the actors are dead ringers for their comic-book counterparts, and those that don't). Sin City is easily the most accurately rendered comic-to-movie adaptation in cinematic history--which is, unfortunately, both its blessing and its curse.

Just as in Miller's original comic-book stories, the various shootings, slicings, electrocutions and pummelings--all of which carry over from the graphic novels, as do the seemingly endless voiceover narrations, most of which haven't had a single syllable edited out of them--are so exaggerated, so drastically over-the-top, that it's difficult to take any of it seriously. Or it would be, if so much of that violence weren't directed at women.

The women of Sin City get punched. Shot. Whipped. Bitten. Decapitated. Consumed for dinner. Mostly while wearing revealing outfits, if not outright naked. And many of them work in the sex industry. Nancy is an exotic dancer who works under her own name (don't most strippers use stage names?). Shelly (Brittany Murphy) waits tables in the bar where Nancy dances. And there are a lot of hookers, like Gail, Goldie, Becky (Alexis Bledel) and Miho (Devon Aoki), a ninja hooker with shuriken shaped like swastikas. Even Marv's parole officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino), is topless when we meet her. I'd say the women of Sin City are objectified, but I'm pretty sure most inanimate objects are treated with more respect.

Granted, Miller's graphic novels are a running homage to film noir, and most prime examples of that genre--from The Maltese Falcon to Out of the Past--are overstuffed with femme fatales. Also, the male aggressors in Sin City do get more than their fair share of payback--all of them die in gruesome, painful ways, and more than one gets castrated.

It's not that the cringe-inducing elements of Sin City make it impossible to enjoy. There is a lot to admire here, from the look of the CGI "sets" to the acting in front of them. At minimum, Sin City is a quantum leap in terms of visual storytelling, even if what's being told is unremittingly dark.

It's just that this movie would be a lot easier to like if its fantasy world view weren't filtered through the perspective of a particularly regressive, misanthropic 13-year-old boy who reads nothing but '50s men's magazines and watches Kiss Me Deadly over and over again. And not nearly as easy to dismiss.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Review: The Amityville Horror (2005)

I've always wondered why filmmakers bother to remake movies that were perfectly fine in the first place. I mean, did we really need a new version of Psycho? Another Manchurian Candidate? More Planet of the Apes? No, no and no. (And we still have The Pink Panther and King Kong to look forward to.) Why waste time remaking good movies when there are so many bad movies with at least the germ of a good idea at their cores that are more worthy candidates for "re-envisioning"?

The current popularity of horror films, particularly ghost stories, would seem to position The Amityville Horror as a promising candidate for such a revisit. The original Amityville, based on the "nonfiction" best-seller by Jay Anson (the truthfulness of which has been at the very least disputed, if not entirely dismissed as fiction), starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz, a young couple who move their family into a riverside property in Amityville, New York, only to move out 28 days later after experiencing numerous flavors of paranormal nightmare, like plagues of flies, blood flowing out of the walls and possession. Despite hysterical performances by Brolin, Kidder and Rod Steiger and overall lousy reviews, the 1979 version of Amityville made millions of dollars and generated seven follow-ups, most of which related to the original in name and basic concept alone.

Unfortunately, producer Michael Bay (who also produced the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) and director Andrew Douglas squander the opportunity to pump new life into the franchise by going through many of the same motions as the original, only with younger stars and a few bits lifted from more recent thrillers like The Ring and The Grudge (themselves both remakes) thrown in.

Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George take over as George and Kathy, who go looking for a house for themselves and Kathy's three precocious moppets from her previous marriage (her first husband died) and find this lovely riverfront property in Amityville for dirt cheap--maybe because the previous tenants, the Defeos, were murdered in their sleep with a shotgun by Ronald Defeo, who claimed that voices in his head told him to do it. Uh oh.

George and Kathy buy the place anyway, and weird ensues almost immediately. George becomes remarkably short-tempered and just can't seem to get warm no matter what he does, so he essentially moves into the basement to be closer to the furnace. The youngest Lutz, Chelsea, starts talking to a not-so-imaginary friend named Jodie, who isn't a pig with red eyes this time around, but a spectral little girl with flowing black hair (just like Samara from The Ring) who urges Chelsea to jump off the roof. Kathy calls in a priest (Philip Baker Hall) to bless the house, but the house tells him to "GET OUT!" and, very sensibly, he does, leaving the Lutzes to do battle with the evil spirits on their own.

Reynolds does his best to convey George's confusion over his own behavior and gets some nice, creepy moments, like when George makes Kathy's oldest son hold the firewood while he cleaves in half with an axe or when he screws into the woodwork at random. By the end of the movie, though, when Reynolds comes off as little more than a junior Jack Torrance with better abs and more facial hair. Melissa George doesn't fare as much better as Kathy, wearing the same wide-eyed, appalled facial expression most of the time and sporting some of the most frightening eyebrows this side of Mommie Dearest.

Director Douglas keeps things moving at an brisk pace, but that rapid movement also works against this new Amityville. George Lutz's descent into madness/possession isn't so much a steady decline as it is a straight drop--the boxes have barely been unpacked when George starts acting wacky, stripping the movie of any opportunity to build suspense. And no matter how many ominous tracking shots of the house we get (trust me, there are many) or "surprise" appearances by Jodie are thrown at the audience, the atmosphere of dread and foreboding that Douglas and screenwriter Scott Kosar are striving for never takes hold.

By the time Hall gets knocked on his ass by a very unconvincing swarm of computer-generated flies, it's hard to stifle the laughter anymore. I'm pretty sure that wasn't the reaction Bay, Douglas and Kosar were going for.