Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Where to fight counts for a lot. But there's nothing like having your friends show up with lotsa guns.

No 274 - Sin City
Director - Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino.

This film is so quotey that it was very hard to pick the line that would be used as my title. Other contenders would have been:
  • The Valkyrie at my side is shouting and laughing with the pure, hateful, bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter... and so am I.
  • These are the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They're back! There's no choice left. And I'm ready for war.
  • Recognize my voice, Hartigan? Recognize my voice, you piece-of-shit cop? I look different, but I bet you can recognize my voice!
etc etc.... This is an introduction to my first point for this film, because it is stylised, beautifully beautifully stylised. This is the the antithesis of comic book films such as the new Batman series, a comic book film that revels in the medium it originated from. Shots are recreated exactly as they appear in the comics and offer the the now iconic visual style, which echoes the monochromatic pen and ink style of the comics.
The visual style also helps to make the extreme and frequently horrific violence much more tolerable - either because it is essentially obscured by the black and white framing or because all the blood is bright white or yellow, or very rarely.... actually red. It is Frank Miller's style and whilst it is certainly effective in the comics (the occasional splash of vibrant primary colours which burst through the blocks of black and white) it comes into its own within the subtleties that can be provided on film.
Torches and streetlights illuminate people in full colour, the red and blue lights of police cars gently rippling over the grey pallete of the rest of the film or spurts of crimson blood smear across the character's faces. It is the interaction of coloured light sources which I find truly impressive, rather than the blocks of colour which appear throughout the film (most frequently with That Old Yellow Bastard). Robert Rodriguez spent ages persuading the producers that they should follow the visual style culminating with him creating a test reel of himself and his sister in the same visual style. And luckily his perseverance paid off as without the visual style, the majority of the film would fall flat. The action, the speech, the characters are all so over the top and so ridiculously extreme that they would never work in the real world. By distancing Sin City from actual reality it becomes far easier to suspend disbelief. You accept the comic book universe and the universe's rules. People can leap off buildings or jump 10 foot into the air without repercussions, people can be shot 20 times and continue fighting, the police are generally blind, deaf and wearing armour made of tissue. If this film was set in New York and filmed in a realistic palette, the violence and action would only be made to look even more extreme and ridiculous, to an extent where the audience may struggle accepting it.

Luckily - this film is so stylised that it is completely alien to the real world, and you enter the film forced to accept it on its terms.

The second point is about what the film offers, and about entertainment. This is something that I have argued over and over again with my friend Becky. Is it OK for a film to be utterly vacuous and only entertain on a purely aesthetic level? Becky argued that the lack of character development and the same plot being repeated 3 times (underdog is led to a situation by a girl, underdog avenges girl, underdog has to go and fight the authority - be it police or senators) stops the film from being any good, that a truly good film must offer something more that pretty visuals. I counter argued with my view. And I proudly introduce Captain James Amazing's theory of Cinema:
A film's role is to offer escapism to the viewer. Whilst there are films that show the mundane aspects of everyday life, they are still offering us the mundane aspects of someone else's life, it is still a form of escapism. Sin City is the ultimate example of escapism. It shows an entirely new world with a new code - both in how the physics of reality work as well as the moral codes of the characters. The fact that it offers the same story 3 times, is irrelevant. This film is a complete aesthetic onslaught of beautiful ladies in skimpy clothing and hardened brutes causing explosions. It is mindless violence and gravity defying leaps. It is total nonsense. It is total escapism. And for that reason, I think that Sin City succeeds in being a really great film. It is shallow as hell but that doesn't dent its greatness.

And this leads me nicely to the topic of beautiful ladies in skimpy clothing. Frank Miller loves his beautiful ladies (just look at the casting for his new film, The Spirit) and this is made very very evident in this film.
Let us begin with Jessica Alba (for we should always begin with Jessica Alba, and it makes sense... alphabetically). Nancy Callahan is a feisty table dancer who is in love with Bruce Willis's grizzled former cop. Due to Nancy's job in the film we get marvellous close up shots of Alba in her lovely outfit, I realise that I sound like an utter perve in this paragraph but I kind of think that that is the point of the scenes. Jessica Alba will generally reduce most men into dribbling idiots, and that is fully exploited within the film. Interesting fact.... The script originally stated that Nancy was topless (as she is in the comics) but Jessica Alba's no nudity clause won out on that little matter.
There are many other very attractive female characters in this film - Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King. However I wish to give special attention to Alexis Bledel who plays Becky 'Blue Eyes'. Rather a small role but she is very very pretty. And she appears in one of the films more iconic shots (there are a lot of iconic shots).
The prettiness of the girls are made even more noticeable by the grizzled men, usually under quite a lot of prosthetics. Bruce Willis, Benedicio Del Toro and Mickey Rourke are all amazing as their respective scarred and battered characters. Rourke especially shines as the unstoppable tank that is Marv.
Again, this is further evidence of Rodriguez's genius as he convinced Miller that Rourke was Marv. Miller was apparently unsure until the second he met Rourke when he instantly jotted "Mickey Rourke is Marv" on his napkin.

And it is testament to Robert Rodriguez that he has managed such superb casting and such a high calibre of cast to appear in his aesthetic and essentially shallow comic book pulp movie. The acting cast is top notch and the film has two very talented and credible directors assistant a true comic book legend.
All in all this is a film which balances very experienced and 'cool' film makers with a phenomenal cast and an explosive sense of ridiculous over the top escapism. A true cinematic pleasure. But very possibly a 'boy film'.

2 comments:

EK Biddle Esq said...

My favourite film.
I am so biased towards this film as to be unable to critique or review it at all, I love every nuance of it with a passion.

Lizzie said...

Argh! Stupid blogger just deleted my comment.

Ok, to summarise...I disagree that it is a boy's film, I think for all the reasons you talked about in the second paragraph it appeals to a wider audience. The macho violence which might ordinarily alienate female viewers is negotiated so effectively by the strong artistic commitment of the style.

I am surprised Becky made that argument given she likes bloody High School Musical - I find it hard to think of a more formulaic and repetitive format!

I adore Sin City for all the reasons you've talked about here. I also think its interesting to compare the adaptation of a graphic novel here to that of V for Vendetta. They do the same thing, equally effectively, but in slightly different ways...the small differences are what I find interesting