by Jeremy Hart
Sin City (Dimension Films)
Man, this is weird. As somebody who spent at least half his life so far as a comic book geek, I've yearned literally for years to see that one brilliant comic adaptation where the writers, directors, producers, and actors all get it just right. Now, with the long-awaited movie version of Frank Miller's Sin City, I've finally got my wish. This movie, in terms of being faithful to the comic, is freakin' perfect -- absolutely, slavishly, fanboyishly spot-on in every single conceivable way. I've been a big fan of Miller's work for years, and I honestly have never, ever, ever seen anything that can compare to this in terms of following the comic that's being adapted.
The dialogue was the same (as far as I could tell, anyway; that aspect of it I couldn't remember all that well), the action sequences were scripted perfectly; hell, even the casting was wonderful and surprising -- I never would've guessed that Mickey Rourke, of all people, would make the perfect Marv (Bruce Willis as Hartigan, though, was a no-brainer). Elijah Wood was wonderfully creepy as Kevin, Nick Stahl as Junior gave me goosebumps, and both Clive Owen and Carla Gugino did great in roles that, truth be told, I never much cared for anyway, although I couldn't really say why. The only casting choices that gave me any problems were Benicio Del Toro as Jackie Boy, because the prosthetic nose that I think he was wearing looked really bizarre, and Jessica Alba as Nancy, because, well, she's just one of those younger-than-young actresses about whom any thought of "sexiness" makes me feel like a pedophile. Gah.
Beyond all that, though, what was most incredible about the film's faithfulness to the original comics was in the scenes themselves. They were literally identical, in many cases, to the comic book pages, right down to the camera angles, the lighting, and the positioning of the characters. Watching this film, I felt a strange shiver run down my spine every time I realized that what I was seeing on the screen was an exact replica of the black-and-white (and occasionally red and yellow) frames of Miller's various stories. It was really and truly like watching a comic book.
And maybe that was the problem. Because, I'm sad to say it, despite all of the above brilliance, the movie just wasn't that good. I'm likely to be tarred and feathered by other comic afficionados for this, but it's true. Sin City was a note-by-note perfect recreation of Miller's art, yes, but the reality is that comic books and film are two very different mediums. Sometimes what works well on paper just seems somehow "wrong" up there on the screen -- take Miller's trademark violence, for example. In the comics, it's okay to watch Marv drive down the street grinding some poor shmuck's face into the pavement, because, hey, it's a damn comic book, right? It's not real, and we know it's not real. There are no pretensions to verité in the comic Sin City, and while that's also the case with the film, well... The stop-action bloodletting never bothered me when I read the various stories, but seeing it acted out in brutal, graphic, real-life motion up there on the screen made my stomach do flip-flops.
It took the surreal not-quite-reality-and-we-know-it gangster fantasy world of Miller's Basin City, where every cop is obviously corrupt, every damsel's beautiful and dangerous, and every "good" guy (there aren't many real heroes in Miller's world) is hard as nails and more than happy to go out in a blaze of glory, guns blazing...and shifted it into the real world, whether or not the filmmakers intended to. And in the real world, severed limbs and hatchets in the face generally aren't something you take lightly; not even your average Hong Kong action flick goes as far as this movie does, and that may be why. Some of it was profoundly disturbing, at least to me. I remember thinking that the gore was so up-front disgusting that it resembled the horrific battlefield trauma from the classic Vietnam flick Hamburger Hill, except that in this case the violence was just spectacle; it didn't mean anything. That feels wrong, somehow. Am I being a big wuss? Maybe, but I watched the movie with a friend who spent most of her youth working at various haunted houses, surrounded by fake gore, along with her teenaged Gamecube-playing son, and I heard them both recoiling in disgust just as often as I did myself. In a comic, you kind of have to show the action, right there on the page -- in the movies, though, you can be a lot more effective if you don't. (If you don't believe me, go back and watch X-Files re-runs for a good example of how to show only as little as you have to for things to make sense, yet still remain incredibly affecting.)
The real problem with Sin City as a movie, though, has nothing to do with the actual visual style, but with the comics themselves. You see, they're not all one big story, but a slew of little stories, several of which share the same characters (Gail, Nancy, and Klump and Schlub, for four). There's no distinct "plot" for the movie to follow, and what plots do exist aren't even intertwined like they are in, say, some of Mike Nichols' movies (well, okay, except that Hartigan and Nancy kind of bookend the whole thing). They just hit one after the other -- bam, bam, bam -- with no explanation, apology, or even chronology (some acknowledgement of the jump between the end of Part 1 of Hartigan and Nancy's story and the beginning of Marv's would've been nice, for starters). There's not even an attempt, as with that other Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collab, Four Rooms, to distinctly separate out the stories, making it clear that they just happen to be taking place in the same general locale around the same time; here they all look like they're meant to tie together in the end, somehow, and yet they don't. My friend's son hadn't read the comics, so he had no clue what was going on and was very confused by the end, shaking his head and saying, "I don't get it." And really, how the hell was he supposed to?
Again, there's a difference between comics and film. It just doesn't work to take what are essentially four or five totally separate comic series and dump them in together, at least not without doing some work to make 'em fit. It can be done, but it's not easy. For a positive example, I'd offer up the excellent, excellent, excellent adaptation of Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics that came out last year -- it's an adaptation of a similarly minimalist, negative space-style comic with grim, dark characters and lots of violence, spread out across a half-dozen or so little miniseries...and yet, when the film hits the screen, it flows. There's backstory, there's conflict, there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. The writers did a darn good job of taking bits and pieces of several of Mignola's comics, parts that were originally not meant to be placed side-by-side, and they wove them together to form -- gasp! -- an actual, coherent storyline. Holy freakin' crap. And the result, for anybody who hasn't seen it, is a damn fine film. (I always knew, deep down, that Ron Perlman ruled, but this movie confirmed it for me.)
So, maybe that's the catch. Maybe it's good to be faithful to the artist's original "vision" -- and since Frank Miller himself is credited as writer and director, maybe he just couldn't stand to hand over the creative reins, as it were -- but you also have to know what'll actually work. Hellboy, imperfect in its recreation of the comic though it may be, worked; Sin City, even though it got every last detail right, didn't.
I, Robot (20th Century Fox)
Super Size Me (The Con)
In addition to my comic book geekiness in my younger days, I must admit, as well, to being an out-and-out science fiction fanatic for most of my life. It's my mom's fault; she used to read piles and piles of sci-fi and fantasy books when I was a kid, and when she'd finish with 'em, she'd pass them on to me to read. I've haven't read quite as much of it in recent years -- a lot of the new stuff I read started to sound remarkably similar to what I'd read before -- but up through college I would scour the shelves of used book stores all over town, looking for the darkest, bleakest depictions of the future I could find. No shiny, happy utopian futures for me; the darker, the better. Even as a kid, I had a perverse fascination with post-apocalyptic futures (hey, welcome to a Cold War childhood), and that grew deeper as I got older. I think I'd read every cyberpunk novel ever written at one point (including some that really weren't very good), and I loved the "hard science" stuff, too, the kind that felt so well-researched it might just be right around the corner.
I think that love for the grim maybe-future we could all be heading for is partly what made me like both these movies. After all, if you look at 'em, one's about the horrors that have befallen mankind because of our own technology run amok...and the other's, well, about a bunch of rampaging robots. Think I'm stretching? Nope. What Super Size Me and I, Robot are both about are the effects of technology on human existence, and how that technology can turn from a convenience into a threat. In I, Robot the threat's a lot more obvious -- creepily human-looking robots seeded throughout the population but with an ulterior agenda in mind (and by the way, if I'm giving the movie away by saying that, then I'm sorry, but you really ought to go watch something like New York Minute, instead) -- but it's there in Super Size Me, all the same.
Of course, the two movies are a bit different, at least in that one's a fictional action flick and the other's a snarky documentary. First off, I'll admit that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed I, Robot. Will Smith's up-and-down, for me, depending on the day and/or film -- and at how it didn't overplay the "future" angle. I like films that don't whack you over the head with their special effects, but rather incorporate them more subtly into the overall movie, and Robot, despite the fact that the movie's about souped-up blenders gone wild, is up in that category, alongside classics like Blade Runner and Minority Report. Plus, Smith's dialogue isn't as one-liner-y as it could be, even calling back occasionally to the Golden Age of detective novel sleuths -- which makes sense, as the movie's basically a big long mystery. To top it all off, Smith's character is surly and sarcastic in a fairly entertaining way, even managing to offset Bridget Moynahan's ridiculous stiffness. It does a decent job of questioning the nature of humanity, life, and all that other fun stuff, and yet doesn't get too heavy-handed and preachy with it.
Then there's Super Size Me. It takes almost the opposite tack, taking a seemingly silly non-topic like fast food and making it genuinely horrific. Fast-food restaurants have taken food, he argues, and reprocessed it so it's not even really food anymore. And it's utterly terrifying, even when enlivened by Spurlock's fun little graphics and witty candor -- what the food he eats is doing to his body, the damage it's doing, is, to me, even scarier than a bunch of damn robots running amok. 'Cause hey, you can shoot a robot; you can't kill a hamburger. Moral of this story? Both good films, but the real one's a hell of a lot creepier than the sci-fi flick.