Movie Reviews - 2000s postsMonday September 07, 2015
Movie Review: The Cat's Meow (2001)
Peter Bogdanovich has always been fascinated with early Hollywood (cf., “Nickelodeon”), so the scandal-laden death of film pioneer Thomas Ince while he was aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a 1924 trip down the coast, which included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parson (Jennifer Tilly) and Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), well, that’s the cat’s meow.
The result is a fairly straightforward picture, with touches of melodrama in the end.
I first saw the movie shortly after it was released, but 14 years later had pretty much forgotten whodunit. Didn’t Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros leave Ince’s death up in the air?
No, they didn’t.
Orson Welles, piker
Almost everyone boards Hearst’s Oneida with an agenda that relates to Hearst:
- Ince, credited with creating the “cowboy picture,” but with career floundering, wants to strike a deal with Hearst.
- Chaplin wants to woo Davies away from Hearst.
- Parsons wants greater Hearst distribution for her entertainment column.
The rest, mostly girls, just want to have fun.
So what happens? Ince witnesses Chaplin wooing Davies and uses this intel to get closer to Hearst. He keeps feeding him information (innuendo, love letters) until Hearst’s volcanic, cuckolded anger erupts. Except Hearst mistakes Ince—wearing Charlie’s hat, and talking softly with Marion in a stairwell—for Charlie, and shoots him in the head. Ince, in other words, creates the circumstances for his own death.
In the messy aftermath, the murder is covered up, Chaplin and Davies part company, and Parsons, a witness, lands a lifetime contract with Hearst’s newspapers and becomes one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
How true is all this? Unknown. It’s gossip and guesswork. Apparently Bogdanovich first heard about it from that great raconteur Orson Welles, and in telling Welles’ tale, Bogdanovich actually gets to outdo his idol. In “Citizen Kane,” Welles suggested Hearst was a megalomaniac, warmonger, tyrant, bad friend, and a poor little boy who just wanted his sled—but he stopped short of murderer.
What I never understood while watching? Why these people were on that boat. Why did Hearst invite Chaplin? To spy on him? If so, why in the early going does he seem oblivious? Why invite Ince if he doesn’t want to do business with him? Or did Marion choose the guest list?
Dunst makes a great, bubbly Marion, and Izzard is a good Chaplin, if a bit thick-limbed and graceless. (Chaplin would’ve been all over that Charleston number.) The standout is Edward Hermann’s Hearst: the giant undone by the Little Tramp, and then, post-tragedy, remade by will, wealth and power.
(I’m curious: Did Hearst’s newspapers hound Chaplin after this? Were they part of the “Get Charlie out of the good ol’ USA” line in the late 1940s? Anyone know?)
Another standout is Joanna Lumley as the cold-eyed romance writer and Valentino screenwriter Elinor Glyn, who I knew nothing about before this movie. (Apparently she popularized the concept of It, as in “The It Girl.”) So much of our history just goes. We need to remind ourselves how our archetypes (cowboys, Valentinos) were created and monetized. In the long run, that’s a more valuable exercise than figuring out who killed Thomas Ince. Ince is long dead, but we still have Valentinos. And men are still being elected president of the United States by pretending to be cowboys.
Movie Review: Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (2008)
Here’s a quote from “Cinemas of the World” by James Chapman that I’ve always found helpful in explaining the world:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
I expected more of that, or at least some of that, from the documentary “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.” Instead, Felix Moeller’s look at Veit Harlan, the Frank Capra of Nazi filmmakers who directed one of the most notorious anti-Semitic films of the era, a period drama called “Jew Süss” (1940), focuses almost exclusively on how Harlan’s family has dealt with its tarnished legacy.
His son Thomas led a fascinating life, although we get only glimpses of it here. He became a playwright, a poet, a filmmaker. In the 1960s, in Italy, he unearthed thousands of Nazi crimes, which helped with thousands of prosecutions. He became, in effect, a Nazi hunter. He also publicly condemned his father. “Once you’ve seen that the fruit of your work turns into a murder weapon, it is difficult to just say, ‘Well, I’m a filmmaker and I will carry on making films,’” he says. “That was the end for me.”
Another son, Kristian, wearing a trim beard and a severe look, takes the opposite tack. “The image of my father is mine,” he says without heat but with firmness. “And it’s nobody’s business what I think of my father or my mother,”
Caspar calls his father’s work “unforgivable,” while a daughter, Maria Körber, talks about how work-oriented their father was—to the exclusion of all else. She also mentions seeing “Jew Süss” late in life and wondering what the fuss was all about.
So do we, in a sense, since we only get glimpses of the movie here. No one even tells us the plot. We have to look that up for ourselves.
Basically, it’s a Nazi version of “Birth of a Nation.” In the 18th century, a Jewish merchant wiedles his way to power, taxes the people, takes a Christian woman by force, and is eventually executed for the crime. “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson,” one character intones in the end. It was a huge box office success in both Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Overall, Harlan’s movies were seen by more than 100 million people during the war.
That's why it’s startling when we learn that earlier in life Harlan had married a Jewish woman—a cabaret singer named Dora Gerson, whom he divorced in 1924. (She died at Auschwitz.) The phrase “fellow traveler” comes up often to describe his politics. He wanted to make movies and went along with whatever regime was in power. For most of his career, that was the Nationalist Socialist Party.
The Harlans are spread over Europe now. One grandchild, Alice, is French and beautiful; another, Caspar, is Italian and handsome. Harlan’s niece, Christiane, wound up living in England with her husband Stanley Kubrick (yes, that one), while her brother, Jan, produced Kubrick’s last four films: “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Overall, the doc includes too little history and too much handwringing. It’s video footage of what the Harlans think of Veit Harlan, and of being Harlan. The nature of propaganda is hardly explored.
The most telling moment may be when Maria admits that her father didn’t feel particularly guilty about any of it. “He’d always claimed that he’d been forced,” she says, “and that he’d been under such pressure that he couldn’t refuse.” This is then juxtaposed with the ending of “Jew Süss,” in which the Jewish merchant, on trial, says the same thing:
The charges against me are due to the direct orders I received from my duke. I have the duke’s written orders. You can check. I am merely the faithful servant of my master!
It's not only ironic but unoriginal. It was the most tired defense of the era. Or any era.
Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)
Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.
The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:
- Girl meets boy
- Boy is a jerk
- Boy becomes less of a jerk
- Girl becomes more of a jerk
- Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
- Boy gets girl
If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.
A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Everyone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.
But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.
Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.
Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.
War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?
But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.
START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English.
The world doesn''t cooperate.
But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy.
Unfortunately, he''s a jerk.
Fortunately, she's goofy.
But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)
Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game.
Or a SWAT team nightmare.
But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*
Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made? I’ve stated so in the past, but we’ll see how I feel at the end of this review.
The movie is based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. It’s all going fine until he spies an old security guard being roughed up by hoods and comes to his rescue. Why does he save him? Because the old man reminds him ... of course! … of Uncle Ben! How could he forget? Indeed. How could Peter forget the man who raised him but lost his life because Peter was too busy making money as Spider-Man to stop a simple thief? That’s like Adam and Eve forgetting the snake. And that’s the main problem with Spider-Man #50.
Director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, working off a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and famed novelist Michael Chabon, go a slightly different route. Just as their first movie, “Spider-Man,” internalized Spidey’s webs, making them part of his physiology rather than a weekend Peter Parker science project (thwip!), so “Spider-Man 2” internalizes the “No more!” part. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being Spider-Man because he actually loses his powers. He never forgets his Uncle Ben.
Forget him? Shit. He’s haunted by him.
Worst. Party. Ever.
This is the superhero movie, by the way, that most reminds me of the period when I was collecting comic books: roughly 1973 to 1977. It’s Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man. No Spider-Mobile, thank god, but Pete’s got the tenement walk-up, the rent is due, and he’s failing his classes. Everything that can go wrong, does. In the movie, he’s fired as a pizza delivery guy, then forced to take J.J.J.’s crap pay so J.J.J. (J.K. Simmons) can turn the city against him. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing her house, Harry Osborn (James Franco) is obsessed with revenge, and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) is dating a handsome astronaut, who just happens to be J.J.J.’s son, John (Daniel Gillies). You wonder when Pete’s going to break.
He does in bits. He’s web-slinging through the city and suddenly ... no web. He looks over a tall building and feels vertigo. But he still turns into Spidey to save: 1) the city from Otto Octavius’ botched fusion reaction experiment; and 2) Aunt May from a bank-robbing Doc Ock. But the third time? Bupkis. No web, no grip, no nothing. “Why is this happening to me?” he says. His doctor, tapping his noggin, tells him the problem is “up here.”
Later, up there, Pete debates a ghostly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson):
Uncle Ben: You’ve been given a gift, Peter. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter: No, Uncle Ben. I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.
Cut to: a goofy montage of everything going Pete’s way, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
But to get back to his earlier question: Why is this happening to him?
Back in 2004, I assumed it was the weight of all of it: Harry, Aunt May, J.J.J., M.J., Aasif Mandvi. But it’s not. It’s just M.J.
The clue comes early, during a kitchen table conversation with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). “If you keep something as complicated as love stored up,” Octavius tells him, holding hands with his wife, “it can make you sick.” And so it does.
The final straw is a brutal one. J.J.J. hires Pete to photograph a big event for his son. Harry’s there, drinking, being an asshole, and obsessing over “your friend, the bug.” M.J., now a successful model and actress, is there, too, on the balcony, cold and distant, and Pete, at the 11th hour, and against all logic, tries to save the day with 19th-century British poetry. For some reason it doesn’t work. “I don’t know you,” M.J. says. She tells him that John—who will get her drink, thank you—has seen her play five times, Harry twice, Aunt May once. Him? Never. “After all these years,” she says, “he’s nothing to me but an empty seat.” After that, in short order, 1) a drunk, belligerent Harry accuses Pete of stealing his father’s love and letting him die, then 2) slaps him repeatedly (where are those Spidey reflexes when Pete needs them?), before 3) John Jameson announces his engagement to M.J. as everyone cheers. And even that’s not the low point. The low point is when J.J.J. shouts, “Parker, wake up! Shoot the picture!” and a stunned, heartbroken Peter, with the sting of his best friend’s slaps still on his cheeks, is forced to photograph the engagement announcement of the woman he loves to another man.
After a day like that, you’d lose your powers, too.
Nobel prize, Otto
Even so, how stupid is Peter Parker? He only goes after M.J. once she’s gone. And with poetry? My god, that’s dumb. Pete’s dumb, J.J.J. is oblivious, and everyone else is brutal. Seriously. The problem with Peter Parker isn’t the weight of being Spider-Man; it’s that he chooses lousy friends.
Even as just Peter Parker, life’s still screwed up. When he tells Aunt May he’s the one responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, she simply walks away from him without a word. When he saves a kid from a burning building, a fireman deflects his heroics by saying, “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” When the skinny daughter of his Russian landlord brings him milk and cake, their time together is awkward and cringeworthy.
So how does Spidey get his groove back? It begins with Aunt May. She can’t afford the mortgage anymore so she’s moving into an apartment. (BTW: Shouldn’t Uncle Ben have paid off this mortgage, like, years earlier? What was he spending his money on? Booze? Broads? Gambling? Forget Pete’s parents; that’s the retcon story I’d like to see.) As Pete’s helping with the move, or at least standing around like a goober, Aunt May gives this speech about the missing Spider-Man. It’s basically a Gipper speech:
I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride—even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
Hey! Every emotion Pete’s trying to sort through in this movie! What a coincidence.
By the way: Does Aunt May know? That he’s Spider-Man? You almost get a glimmer of recognition earlier when he yells “Hang on!” as she’s clinging to the side of the building while he’s battling Doc Ock.
More than terrified: A look that says, “Wait a minute, I know that voice ...”
It’s like she recognizes the voice beneath the mask. You get a glimmer during her Gipper speech, too. I mean, why say all this to Peter Parker, mousy NYU science student? Because of his cowardice at the bank? Is she trying to make him a hero? With this speech? “Peter, be a hero because it sucks.” Either she knows he’s Spider-Man or it’s bad storytelling.
Then we get more “I’m ready, you’re not”/ “No, you’re ready and I’m not” from M.J. and Peter. Seriously, these two. Seriously, M.J. It’s not just going hot and cold with Pete. It’s not just calling Peter “a great big jerk” and not inviting him to the wedding. It’s the idiocy with the kiss. In the first movie, Spider-Man kissed M.J. upside-down in the rain (you remember), so M.J. is trying to figure out who Spider-Man is by kissing guys. Or at least two guys. First, it’s John, her fiancé, and that makes tons of sense. He’s only the son of the man who has made a career making a villain out of Spider-Man. Is she even thinking? Then she tries to kiss Peter at the coffeeshop. Because Spidey and Peter are connected by the photographs? Because Peter “changed” just as Spidey “retired”? Who knows? Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?
But that’s the moment we begin the rest of the movie: As M.J. is puckering up, the car comes crashing through the coffeeshop window, Doc Ock appears and takes M.J., saying, “I’ll peel the flesh off her bones,” snap snap. Then Pete loses his myopia, turns back into Spidey, battles Doc Ock on an elevated train, battles him by the river, and M.J. sees who Spider-Man really is. Wedding with John? Nope. She’s a runaway bride. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” The End.
Can I complain before we get into the end? How much of an idiot Doc Ock is, too? At the coffeeshop, he needs Peter to contact Spider-Man. Yet if not for Pete’s Spidey powers, which Ock doesn’t know about, he would’ve killed him. Twice. Once when he sent the car through the window and the second time when he slammed him into the wall and it fell on top of him. Smart, Otto. Nobel prize, Otto.
And look, I get Sam Raimi’s background as a horror director, and it led to that great scene in the hospital room where Octavius’ arms take out the surgery team. But, dude, what’s up with all the screaming women? It’s half the movie.
SLIDESHOW: The Terrified Women of Spider-Man 2
Ock's wife is our first terror victim.
Then the nurses at the hospital get into the act.
Ah, the old fingernails stand-by.
Ock terrifies the secretary pool ... or excites them. Is it a supervillain outside or the Beatles?
Hey, this one can act! Hire her.
And what’s with all of the gratuitous shots of pretty women? Who does a girl have to fuck to not be in this movie?
But we still get a great ending.
The great ending
The battle sequences throughout the movie are amazing. They stand up 10 years later. Up and down skyscrapers? My god, it’s a comic book brought to life.
But the elevated train sequence elevates things a notch.
Spidey keeps getting knocked off the “el” and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds but Spidey saves them. You almost hear Ock’s “Bah!,” his great unspoken “Bah!,” as, fed up with nickel and diming it, he destroys the train’s controls and leaves it shooting like a bullet through Manhattan. Maskless at this point, Spidey can only save the passengers by exhausting himself, at which point we get our greatest version of the superhero pieta: Spidey, supine, passed over the heads of the passengers and into the safety of the train compartment. “He’s ... just a kid,” a man in a Mets cap says, and that says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is just a kid. Back in 2007, when I wrote a “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes” list for MSNBC, that scene landed at No. 3.
But it gets better.
At the river’s edge, Ock is using the tritium he got from Harry to recreate the botched fusion reaction experiment. He thinks it’ll work this time but it doesn’t. Same deal: small sun, huge gravitational pull. What to do? Spider-Man tries to appeal to the humanity inside Doc Ock by revealing his own: He takes off his mask. For a moment, it works. “Peter Parker,” Ock says, smiling. Then he remembers an earlier line and relays it again with amusement: “Brilliant but lazy.”
Can I pause to compliment the casting here? We get the best J.J.J. and the best Aunt May we’ll ever get. Molina is not only our best Spider-Man villain, but, I’d argue, one of the best superhero villains of all time. And that’s tough competition: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But I’d put Molina top 5. He not only terrorizes the city and us, he wins back his humanity. The way he says, “You’re right,” to Peter after Peter repeats Aunt May’s self-sacrificing words to him. It’s lovely to watch an actor think on screen. Molina helps make the movie.
But what really makes the movie is The Shot. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero-making.
From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
That scene, by the way, was No. 1 on my list of the “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes.”
M.J. in the window
So: Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made?
IMDb.com users certainly don’t think so. They give it a 7.4 on a scale of 0-10. That’s 1.6 less than “The Dark Knight,” of which I’m not a huge fan. It’s in the 10-20 category of superhero movies.
All superhero movies have faults. They have to. They’re absurd. Spider bites don’t turn us into spider-men, gamma radiation doesn’t turn us into hulks, men from other planets don’t develop god-like powers because of Earth’s sun. Plus the movies make their own mistakes. The Joker’s machinations are impossibly complex, Hulk has daddy issues, Superman joins the anti-nuke movement.
The faults of “Spider-Man 2” are more numerous than I remembered: Peter is stupid with poetry, M.J. and Harry are both bitter, and who doesn’t find out Peter is Spider-Man? Probably just Aasif Mondvi. But everything else works. Even 10 years later, the battle sequences are stunning.
We even get an ending as ambiguous as “The Graduate.” Remember it? Yes, M.J. is a runaway bride, and yes, she shows up at Peter’s tenement walk-up, and yes, they finally, finally kiss. Then she lets Spidey be Spidey. He hears a siren, he knows what he has to do, and she says, a la M.J. in the ‘60s comic books, “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” So off he goes, web-slinging through the canyons of Manhattan, wahoo. But instead of ending right there, Raimi cuts back to M.J. in the window, worried and filled with doubt. This is the burden she carries now. Because the man she loves risks his life every day.
Or maybe she’s simply anticipating the disaster of “Spider-Man 3.”
Movie Review: Sin City (2005)
It’s a little like Fox News, isn’t it? Grizzled old white dudes and babes. Moral righteousness leading to torture. A mangling of the English language. Prostitution.
I’m looking at you, Greta van Susteren.
I’ll give “Sin City” this: It’s the most comic-booky of movies. Entire shots look like comic panels. There’s a beautiful, hand-drawn simplicity in the look even as there’s confusion about the directors. The movie was “shot and cut” by Robert Rodriguez, but it was “directed” by Rodriguez and Frank Miller, the writer-artist of the “Sin City” graphic novels, while Quentin Tarantino is listed as a “guest director.” Apparently, he did one small, forgettable scene.
For all these hands, not to mention the three-plus storylines, there’s cohesion here. It’s all of a piece. It connects and interconnects. But it’s putrid. It reveals a sick society. Not the one in the movie but the one that watches the movie.
Cool and cruel
“Sin City” worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. Its heroes are cool, with scarred faces and overcoats swirling like capes in the wind, and they speak in the sentence fragments of Mickey Spillane: “Just one hour to go. My last day on the job. Early retirement. Not my idea. Doctor’s orders. Heart condition.”
They’re also cruel. It’s not enough to kill the bad guys; they need to torture them first. I’m reminded of Nathan Zuckerman’s line from Philip Roth’s novel “Zuckerman Unbound.” It’s 1969, and in the wake of MLK and RFK and someone taking a potshot at his old professor through his study window, Zuckerman thinks, “Blowing people apart seemed to have replaced the roundhouse punch in the daydreams of the aggrieved: only annihilation gave satisfaction that lasted.” Now even annihilation isn’t enough. Now you have to tie them to a tree and cut off their arms and legs and summon the dogs.
We get three stories about grizzled, tough men fighting an almost superhuman corruption on behalf of a sexy, female purity.
In the bookending stories, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop with the proverbial day to go before retirement, plus a heart condition, risks it all to save an 11-year-old girl, Nancy, from the clutches of a deranged child molester/torturer, Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), who just happens to be the protected son of U.S. Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Hartigan succeeds, but his partner, Bob (Michael Madsen), has been bought, and shoots him and leaves him for dead. “An old man dies, a little girl lives,” Hartigan thinks. “Fair trade.” Except he’s not dead. More on that later.
In the second story, superstrong Marv (Mickey Rourke), with a face as blunt as the old Spider-Man villain Hammerhead, is enjoying a night with a beautiful blonde named Goldie (Jamie King) on a heart-shaped bed. She’s in color, he’s not. (Most of the women in this thing are in color.) Goldie smells like angels ought to smell. She’s the perfect woman. A goddess. So says Marv in voiceover. Then he wakes up beside her corpse, framed for the murder. The rest of the story is less to clear his name than avenge Goldie’s killer. It was one night with a prostitute but Marv is in love.
He gets intel from his parole officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino), nekkid, va-va-voomy, gay. “She’s a dyke but god knows why,” Marv tells us. “With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.” Right, but she doesn’t want. This attitude permeates the movie.
He gets intel holding a man’s head in the toilet. “It was Connelly!” the dude sputters. “But he won’t talk.” CUT TO: Marv holding a man’s face on the ground as he drives his car around town. To us: “Connelly talks. They all talk.” This attitude permeates the movie.
The villain? A supersilent cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), who eats prostitutes with the movie’s true villain, Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark (Rutger Hauer), the most powerful man in the state. His brother is a U.S. Senator because of him. He owns the cops. And he’s got a taste for flesh. Or souls. “He ate their souls,” Roark says of Kevin. “And I joined him. They were all whores. Nobody cared for them.” Ah, but one man did. He cared for Goldie, and for her twin sister, Wendy, who visits him on death row after Marv tortures and kills Roark, and is then framed for all of Kevin’s crimes. Question: With Roark gone, who’s running things? Or does a corrupt system continue on automatic without a corrupt man pulling the levers?
In the third story, prostitutes, in the midst of a truce with corrupt cops, kill a woman-beater, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Torro), who has wandered into their territory. Oops, he’s a cop. A hero cop. Question: How come nobody knows this? His picture was all over the media and not one person recognized him? Read a newspaper, for Chrissake. The rest of the story concerns the lengths Dwight (Clive Owen) will go to destroy the evidence before the cops find out.
Finally, we return to Hartigan, who is framed for child molestation, spends eight years in solitary where his only solace are the letters of 11-year-old Nancy, then gets out when the letters stop coming. He searches for her. Guess what? Not only is she the superhot dancer at the bar they all attend (Jessica Alba), but this is what the bad guys wanted: for him to lead them to her. Because Roark, Jr. has unfinished business. In an attempt to regrow the balls Hartigan blew off, Roark Jr. has turned hideous and yellow, more Ferengi than human. As a child molester, too, one wonders what he wants with Jessica Alba in full womanhood. Moot point. By the end, to Nancy’s relieved, half-smiling face, Hartigan rips off his balls with his bare hands. Then she and Hartigan get away. But Hartigan knows there is no “away” for Nancy as long as he’s alive. So he tells her some nice words, sends her on her way, and thinks the “Fair trade” line again as he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
Not feeling it
That’s how it goes down in Frank Miller’s world: the grizzled (Hartigan, Marv, Dwight), with ailments (heart condition, hallucinations, plastic surgery), protect the sexy (Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Brittany Murphy) from the sick and powerful (cannibals, child molesters, woman beaters). Viewers get to think themselves heroes while indulging in torture. In this way, it’s a good Bush-era film.
At one point, Dwight thinks up this prose-poem to Miho (Devon Aoki), the sword-wielding protector of prostitutes:
Deadly little Miho.
You won’t feel a thing unless she wants you to.
She twists the blade.
He feels it.
But we don’t. Which is how we can watch crap like this.
In Sin City, the grizzled ...
... protect the sexy ...
... from the sick.
In Sin City, the grizzled ...
... protect the sexy ...
...from the sick.
... sexy ...
It's nicely art-directed anyway.