Snyder Gears up for 300 Prequel

Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes in 300
Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes in 300

SuperHeroHype have been talking to Zack Snyder (300, WATCHMEN) and it seems that he’ll be directing the prequel to 300, entitled XERXES, in the near future. Apparently Frank Miller (SIN CITY, THE SPIRIT) is working on writing the film and once Snyder releases his upcoming LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS and finishes next years SUCKER PUNCH he says, “There’s a really good chance that will be the thing we do [next]”.
Additionally, the original 300 may be re-released in 3D following the decision to convert SUCKER PUNCH to said format. Warner Bros. converted a ten minute portion of 300 into 3D to show him its potential for SUCKER PUNCH and it was enough to make him, and the studio, seriously consider a 3D re-release of 300. The original 300 was visually stunning and a lot of fun so a prequel created by the main two minds behind the original should be something to look forward to. Though the decision to convert 300 into 3D smells a little more like a re-hash for cash than anything else.
Snyder’s LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is out on the 24th of September later this year and SUCKER PUNCH the 25th of March, 2011. What do you think, does the prospect of a 300 prequel sound exciting  and is 300 worth a re-release in 3D?

Sense of Wonder: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller – The Hard-Boiled Hitmen of Sin City

With the back-to-back home video releases of  THE SPIRIT and SIN CITY, now seems like an opportune moment to take a brief look at the cinefantastique of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Although neither artist is a specialist in science fiction, fantasy, or horror films in quite the same way as someone like George Lucas, their work does impinge on the genre in interesting ways. Sometimes this is a matter of style (creating imaginary, graphic novel-inspired worlds in SIN CITY and 300); sometimes it is a matter of content (the overt sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror elements of THE SPIRIT, ROBOCOP 2, the SPY KIDS movies, THE FACULTY, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and GRINDHOUSE). Although both men display a vision most heavily imbued with action-packed machismo, they have, separately or together, had a big influence on genre films culminating in their collaboration on 2005’s SIN CITY (which currently has a couple of sequels in pre-production).
Frank Miller, of course, is primarily a graphic novelist rather than a filmmaker. His greatest claim to fame in this regard is The Dark Knight Returns, an impressive piece of work that revitalized the Caped Crusader and paved the way for the feature films, beginning with BATMAN in 1989. Although Hollywood did not have the nerve to adapt Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns directly to the screen, its influence is in the dark tone (the opposite of the campy ’60s TV series), and there is even a brief hat tip in the form of a reference to Corto Maltese (an area of political unrest in the graphic novel, triggering a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR).
Frank Miller’s influence is even more strongly felt in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS, which borrows elements from both The Dark Knight Returns and especially Miller’s Batman: Year One. At one point, there was a plan to adapt the latter graphic novel, with Miller supplying the screenplay and with Darren Aranofsky (who helmed the excellent art house science-fiction film PI) attached to direct. As its title implies, Miller’s graphic novel tells the the story of Batman’s first year in action. Although the final screenplay for BATMAN BEGINS is not officially based on Batman: Year One, numerous similarities abound:

  • Jim Gordon, apparently the only honest cop left in Gotham, forms and alliance with the Batman, even though officially the police think that Batman is a vigilante they want to arrest.
  • Besides helping out Gordon, Batman also passes incriminating evidence about Gotham’s corrupt fat-cats to someone in the district attorney’s office.
  • Trapped in a building surrounded by the police, Batman escapes by using a transmitter that emits a sound that attracts a massive swarm of bats.
  • Batman doesn’t call his vehicle the Batmobile, and it looks more like a tank than a car.
  • The story ends with the Gordon-Batman alliance forged and ready to take on a threat from the Joker.

Of course, substantial differences exist between Miller’s version of Batman and what emerged on screen in the various films, but there is no doubt that his work lit the fuse that ignited the on-screen explosion.
Frank Miller’s first hands-on film work was writing a draft of the screenplay for the disappointing ROBOCOP 2, in which he also has a cameo as a chemist. The experience was apparently not a happy one, which is why, fifteen years later, Robert Rodriguez had to go to extreme lengths to convince Miller to film SIN CITY. Rodriguez invited Miller to help film a test scene (based on Miller’s “The Customer Is Always Right” from “The Babe Wore Red”), which became the SIN CITY’s wrap-around sequence (with Josh Hartnett as a hit man who bumps off a blond in a red dress). Rodriguez paid for the shoot, cut and scored the footage, which earned the go-ahead from Miller to make the feature. Rodriguez then invited Miller to co-direct the film, in order to make sure that the result would accurately reflect his vision.
Robert Rodriguez had first gained attention in 1992 by writing and directing EL MARIACHI, a low-budget action film with a simple story augmented with lots of exaggerated filming technique (such as speeding up the action for comic effect). After following up with a sequel-remake DESPERADO, Roriguez tried his hand at horror by directing FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996), which was scripted by Quentin Tarantino. Two years later came the science-fiction-horror film THE FACULTY, scripted by Kevin Williamson.
As with his action efforts, Robert Rodriguez’s science fiction and horror efforts were characterized by impressive displays of visual style, and he embraced the genre elements enthusiastically, without any embarrassment or any sense of guilt about needing to “elevate” the material. He was more than happy to deliver the horror unapologetically, even if that meant spraying buckets of blood and goo across the screen.
Unfortunately, this also meant that Robert Rodriguez’s films came across as slick but superficial, and despite their eagerness to please, they were never quite so thrilling that you could completely overlook their shortcomings. Sure, they were fun, but they weren’t that much fun.
Perhaps Robert Rodriguez’s style was just a bit too over-the-top – to the point that it became more cartoony than cool. This may also explain the blockbuster success of his SPY KIDS movies (his biggest hits to date) – the feel of a live-action cartoon perfectly suited material aimed at kids.

Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

After a return to DESPERADO territory with ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, an entertaining but somewhat convoluted attempt to fashion an epic action film along the lines of a Sergio Leone Western, Robert Rodriguez collaborated with Frank Miller on the film version of SIN CITY, sharing directorial credit. Somehow the collaboration brought out the best in each artist; Rodriguez’s penchant for in-your-face action and outrageous stylization was perfectly suited to Miller’s source material. As I wrote in my review of the film:

…the real triumph of SIN CITY […] is that it creates a valid cinematic style (whatever its source and inspiration) that works on film because it tells the violent and often wildly incredible stories in a way that makes the tough-guy clichés, hard-boiled voice-overs, blond bombshells, excessive shoot-outs, and enormous bloodletting seem entirely appropriate, even if you don’t have a particular taste for graphic violence on screen.

SIN CITY may be the apex of cinematic achievement for both Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Typically, their work – either alone or together – evinces a penchant for tough-guy heroics, but too often this is rendered in cartoony terms, with good-looking movie stars blazing away with guns just because it looks cool. The real macho ethos is not about how many bullets you can fire; it’s about navigating a corrupt world with some kind of personal integrity intact, doing the right thing or the honorable thing – or as close as you can come – at great personal expense, not because the world or the law or the government is watching you but because you must stay true to yourself, your own personal code of honor.
This is a very appealing worldview, but it is a bit sophomoric as well; it really only makes sense if social institutions are ineffectual and/or morally corroded. SIN CITY does the perfect job of creating a world in which the personal integrity of lone men is the last bastion against an overwhelming tide of corruption. As long as you are willing to take a trip into its world, the actions make total sense.

Gabriel Macht as the Spirit
Gabriel Macht as the Spirit

In retrospect, you may suspect that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller actually enjoy the world of SIN CITY precisely because it justifies the use of lone-wolf tactics and violent action; fortunately, this is not enough to undermine the film’s effectiveness, but the issue raises its ugly head in Miller’s recent solo outing, THE SPIRIT, which echoes SIN CITY’s visual style without ever achieving its level of conviction.
In THE SPIRIT, Frank Miller expects his audience to assume that a masked hero is necessary to fight crime; there is some lip service paid to justifying this, but it’s the flimsiest of excuses used to justify having a Good Guy beat up a Bad Guy just because it’s supposed to be way cool. The Spirit frequently soliloquizes about his love for his City, but he doesn’t seem much interested in effecting real change – which would put him out of a job.
Compare this with the far more sophisticated THE DARK KNIGHT, which also mixes superhero fantasy with hard-boiled thematic elements. In that film, Batman’s existence is justified because official law enforcement is ham-strung by institutional corruption, allowing criminality to run rampant. However, Bruce Wayne is anticipating the day he can put aside the cape and cowl, which seems to be coming when new District Attorney Harvey Dent steps in and takes on organized crime and institutional corruption.
Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer of THE DARKN KNIGHT, is not going to give his masked avenger a permanent license to act as a vigilante just because it’s the easy way out dramatically; he understands that for Batman to be truly heroic, he must be working to make himself obsolete, so that conventional law enforcement can take over and run a city that is a fit place for citizens to live in peace.
Neither Frank Miller nor Robert Rodriguez has offered anything like this in one of their films. They are too in love with pulp for its own sake, with the thrill of the kill, the crash of a car, the snap of a bone, and the flame of a dame. At their best they are smart enough to know that these lowest common denominator elements can grab an audience by the guts and make them watch, enthralled by the dark spectacle on screen. At less than their best (GRINDHOUSE, 300, THE SPIRIT), they simply pander to their own worst instincts (as Miller proudly says in “Miller on Miller,” a bonus feature on the SPIRIT DVD, “I’ve been led by my dick.”), and they end up delivering a lot of POW! without any real punch.
Hopefully, their SIN CITY sequels will pack enough punch to return them to their heavyweight contender status. They struck black gold once. Why not again?
Timed with the home video release of SIN CITY and THE SPIRIT, we have posted these reviews:

Addtionally, in our achives, you can find reviews for:

Sin City Trailer

SIN CITY is out on a new 2-Disc Blu-ray set this week. This was one of those uber-cool projects that actually lived up to its hype. There had been previous films with digitally created environments (SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW), but SIN CITY really used its technique to create something memorable. It wasn’t just Frank Miller’s graphic novels brought to life; it was a mad dream of of a city, a crystallization of every film noir vision of mean streets hiding dangers in every shadow. Frank Miller tried his hand at this kind of thing a second time with THE SPIRIT (which came out on home video last week), but the results fell flat, suggesting the importance of Robert Rodriguez’s contribution to SIN CITY. Check out the trailer for a brief trip down memory lane.

Sin City (2005) – Retrospective Film Review

A Ground-Breaking Piece of Film-Noir Fantasy

Jessica Alba in That Yellow Bastard
Jessica Alba in "That Yellow Bastard"

This is a small milestone in the history of cinema: a $45-million film shot, on co-director Robert Rodriguez’s sound-stage in Austin, Texas, using actors in front of green screen to combine the cast with CGI backdrops, thus creating an artificial environment that simulates the feel of the Frank Miller graphic novels on which the stories are based.
The result is a hard-boiled, noirish film that revels in a pulp-fiction type storytelling that’s crude but powerful — and very effective. It’s not a total success: its trio of tales are a bit too similar to each other — variations on a theme, without quite enough variation — but that’s not enough to prevent the film from being a hypnotic exercise in style that succeeds on its own unique terms. Filmed mostly in black-and-white (with specific objects shown in color), the film creates a distinctively memorable look that conveys the essence of comic book art better than anything previously seen in films like CREEPSHOW or DICK TRACY.
There has probably been too much written about the film’s graphic novel origins and about how special effects were used to translate that look onto film. To some extent this is the fault of Rodriguez, who emphasized his faithful approach to the material in interviews given before the films release, going so far as to tell the Los Angeles Times: “I didn’t want to take SIN CITY and make it into a movie. I didn’t want to adapt it or squeeze it down. I wanted to take cinema and make it a moving graphic novel…. [Miller’s] book was bolder and more visionary than anything anyone was trying to do in cinema. I said, ‘We could reinvent cinema just by re-shooting what you did page for page.’”
There have even been too many comparisons to the previous year’s lamentable SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, because both movies were shot on high-definition digital cameras and used CGI to create background settings. This kind of commentary misses the real triumph of SIN CITY, which is that it creates a valid cinematic style (whatever its source and inspiration) that works on film because it tells the violent and often wildly incredible stories in a way that makes the tough-guy clichés, hard-boiled voice-overs, blond bombshells, excessive shoot-outs, and enormous bloodletting seem entirely appropriate, even if you don’t have a particular taste for graphic violence on screen.
And unlike SKY CAPTAIN, which felt embalmed, SIN CITY zips along with amazing vitality. How the backgrounds were created is immaterial to our appreciation of the finished product, because the film does not feel computer generated. The special effects are only “special” in the sense that they used different techniques (besides building real sets); in terms of the film, they’re integrated like any other shot, just part and parcel of a clear cinematic vision.
In his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote, “Down these mean streets a man must go.” SIN CITY presents an old-fashioned fantasy world, like Chandler’s, where the seedy and sometimes ugly appearance of the protagonist hides the fact that beneath the cynical sneer lurks the soul of a white knight who will risk and sacrifice everything; however, the streets of Basin City (the town’s official name) are meaner than anything Chandler ever described. Considering the gore quotient, a more apt comparison would be to the violent mystery-thrillers penned by Mickey Spillane. SIN CITY is a den of corruption, where the powerful protect the wicked, and where lone men are forced to dispense a grim and ugly version of justice on their own, because the official rule of law is no more than a charade, and the only way to fight the bad guys is to “play it their way, only worse (to paraphrase Spillane’s private eye, Mike Hammer).
This sense of doing the right thing, in spite of incredible odds, lends SIN CITY a solid foundation lacking in most films directed by Robert Rodriguez (e.g., ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO). So it’s nice to see that co-director Frank Miller’s source material helped Rodriguez (always an entertaining stylist) put his visual firepower in the service of something that is more than just empty flash. You wouldn’t want to call SIN CITY sophisticated, exactly, but like all good popular entertainment it knows how to manipulate the lowest-common-denominator elements to good effect. The film may not have the intricacy of a string quartet, but it rocks like a supercharged three-chord head-banger anthem that doesn’t need subtle harmonies and modulations to make its point.
The tone may be too hard-edged and brutal for some, and the familiar clichés may not appeal to everyone. However, like many great science-fiction and fantasy films (ranging from METROPOLIS to BLADE RUNNER), Frank Miller’s SIN CITY immerses the viewer in a strange, new world. Open-minded viewers, looking for something brilliant and amazing, should enjoy the trip.

TRIVIA

After his previous experience with Hollywood, in particular working on the scripts ROBOTCOP 2 and 3, Frank Miller was not interested in having his work filmed. To convince Miller that a satisfactory film version of SIN CITY could be made, Rodriguez invited Miller to help film a test scene (based on Miller’s “The Customer Is Always Right” from “The Babe Wore Red”), which became the film’s opening sequence (with Josh Hartnett as a hit man who bumps off a blond in a red dress). Rodriguez paid for the shoot, cut and scored the footage, which got the go-ahead from Miller to make the feature. Rodriguez then invited Miller to co-direct the film, in order to make sure that the result would accurately reflect his vision. The Directors Guild of America frowns on co-directing credits, so Rodriguez resigned his membership. This decision was not without consequences. Not being a guild member, Rodriguez can direct only independent films; major Hollywood studios only hire DGA members.
Quentin Tarantino “guest directed” one scene, in which Clive Owen and Benecio Del Toro have a macabre conversation in a car (SPOILER: Del Toro’s character is dead, so the conversation must be taking place only in the other character’s mind). Tarantino’s directing fee was $1, his way of paying Rodriquez back for scoring Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL 2 for only $1.

Marv (Mickey Rourke) consults his parold officer.
Marv (Mickey Rourke) consults his parold officer.

There is no screenplay credit because Rodriguez simply transcribed three graphic novels from the SIN CITY series. The three stories are “The Hard Goodbye” (in which Marv, played by Mickey Rourke, tracks down the killers of a prostitute); “The Big Fat Kill” (with Clive Owen as Dwight, helping get some prostitute out of trouble when the kill a corrupt cop); and “That Yellow Bastard” (the story of John Hartigan, played by Bruce Willis in the movie, who sacrifices himself to save a girl from a serial pedophile-murderer). Rather like the first STAR WARS film, the first graphic novel (the story about Marv avenging the death of Goldie) was simply titled SIN CITY when it was originally published, as a stand-alone effort; only later, when Miller turned SIN CITY into a series, did he retroactively title the first one “The Hard Goodbye.”

DVD DETAILS

The original DVD for SIN CITY was a bare-bones presentation with only one bonus feature on the disc; there was not even a trailer. The DVD’s menu mixes images of the film with comic book-style drawings, and the Chapter Search function is amusing. It’s laid out to look like panels of a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer), and the scene selector icon is a splash of red (i.e., blood) whose spray pattern changes slightly as it switches from one scene to the next.
The behind-the-scenes featurette is fun but short — under nine minutes. It’s basically a promotional piece shot before the film was finished (the actors comment on how much they are looking forward to seeng the final product). We get some interesting glimpses of the actors working on the green scene set (the preferred color that allows the special effects experts to add in their computer-generated sets in post-production), and several of the actors related sound bytes about their characters and how they got involved in the film. Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino all speak about the film, but their respetive contributions are not clarified (it’s not even explained that Tarantino directed only one scene).
Ultimately, it is an interesting glimpse behind-the-scenes, but it left one anticipating future “special edition” DVD that would  provide athe in-depth low-down on how the film was made. This eventually arrived, first in the form of a double-disc special edition and eventually on Blu-ray (reviewed here).
Frank Miller’s SIN CITY(2005). Directors: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller. Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino. Based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller. Cast: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Jamie King, Benicio Del Toro, Powers Booth, Rutger Hauer, Elijah Wood.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Sin City – 2-Disc Blu-Ray Review

The SIN CITY Blu-Ray is an easy early candidate for any 2009 discs of the year list.

Released almost exactly four years ago, the massive impact that SIN CITY had on the way Hollywood makes movies has been somewhat blunted by subsequent efforts utilizing the tools without the talent. SIN CITY was filmed using state-of-the-art digital cameras (the Sony HDC-950) to shoot the actors on a nearly bare green soundstage; then a fully digital backdrop was inserted around the performances. This method had been used previously by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels, but their flat presentation and Lucas’ seemingly inability to coax convincing performances from his actors (nearly everyone save Ewan McGregor appears hopelessly lost, particularly in the first film) won the process few supporters. The hyper-stylized SIN CITY is the first (and thus far, only) time that green-screen filmmaking has produced the cinematic miracle long promised audiences by forward-thinking directors.
SIN CITY actually began as a series of books by Frank Miller, regarded by many as one of the saviors of modern-day graphic novels. Perhaps only Alan Moore can claim to have cast as long a shadow since the early ’80s, but it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (released in 1986, the same year as Moore’s Watchmen) that set off a concussion grenade within the industry, forever changing the nature and method of storytelling within the format. The early Sin City books were written in the early ’90s and were the first to be completely written and inked by Miller in stark black and white, paying tribute to the stories’ film noir inspiration. The books were always close to Miller’s heart, and the author had refused all offers to adapt them into films until Robert Rodriguez invited Miller down to Austin, TX to witness the filming of a test sequence (the footage that would eventually make up “The Customer is Always Right” story.) Miller was blown away by Rodriguez’s approach; preserving nearly all of the author’s dialog and using his panels as strict storyboards. So close would the finished product be to Miller’s original vision that Rodriguez gave Miller co-directing credit on the film (a move that was initially blocked by the DGA, causing Rodriguez to resign in protest.) After the initial shoot, the entire city, including buildings, cars, streets and sky, was painted-in digitally during post-production, rendering a Basin City that is at once highly stylized and unreal, but also a tangible, living place. The resulting film utilized 3 of Frank Miller’s books and a short framing device; the theatrical and extended cuts differ not just in length, but how the stories are interwoven. In chronological order, they are:
The Customer is Always Right
The opening of the film features Josh Hartnett as a hitman who meets his next subject – a beautiful woman standing on a balcony while a cocktail party continues inside. She’s clearly distressed by an un-named worry, and after quietly assuring her that everything will be alright, he unexpectedly shoots her with a silenced pistol. His narration tells us that he’ll “cash her check in the morning”
That Yellow Bastard
Bruce Willis stars as about-to-retire Basin City detective Hartigan, spending his last hours before retirement going after a child murderer and rapist (Nick Stahl), who also happens to be the only son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe.) Hartigan arrives at the docks in time to save 11 year old Nancy, and “disarm” Roark via the removal of both his shooting and raping mechanisms. Hartigan is betrayed at the last minute by his partner (Michael Madsen) and winds up framed as the pedophile/murderer. Fearing for Nancy’s safety, Hartigan remains silent, never protesting his innocence even after 8 years of imprisonment. He retains his sanity with weekly letters from Nancy – until one day the letters stop and a severed finger arrives instead. Thinking that Roark’s men have finally located her, Hartigan confesses to the crimes in order to secure parole and save the now 19 year old Nancy (Jessica Alba) from the very much alive Roark Jr., who has mutated into a bald, gangrenous-yellow colored monster as a side effect of experimental surgery used to restore his manhood.
The Hard Goodbye
After a night of passion with the beautiful Goldie (Jamie King), the hulking Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes to the sound of police sirens and Goldie lying dead beside him, killed silently during the night while he slept. Enraged at the death of the only girl to show him kindness –Marv resembles a cross between a Dick Tracy villain and the Incredible Hulk – he sets out to find her killer. What he finds is a web of corruption leading to Senator Roark’s own brother, the real power behind Basin City, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer, looking disturbingly like Otto Preminger) who protects Goldie’s killer, Kevin (Elijah Wood), at the Roark family farm. It turns out that Kevin has been allowed to both murder and eat the bodies of women for years, and Goldie was murdered after learning of the partnership between Kevin and the Cardinal. Marv becomes even more bent on revenge when he finds that his only friend, parole officer Lucille (the ever-gorgeous Carla Gugino) has been held captive at the farm and forced to watch as Kevin ate her own hand.
The Big Fat Kill
After spending the night with barmaid Shellie (Brittany Murphy), Dwight (Clive Owen) is forced to set her former boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) straight after he barges into her apartment with his cronies (“straight” in this case means holding his head in a urine-filled toilet). Jackie Boy leaves in disgust, ready to start trouble with the prostitutes in Basin City’s Old Town section. After he pulls a gun on the girl’s leader, Gail (Rosario Dawson), the lethal martial arts expert Miho kills Jackie Boy and all his associates with her Katana sword. Things get dicey when Jackie Boy’s ID reveals him to be respected Basin City detective, whose murder at the hands of the Old Town prostitutes would bring a speedy end to the truce that has allowed the girls to run Old Town without police interference. Dwight volunteers to hide the bodies in a tar pit outside of town, but is intercepted along the way by a gang of mercenaries brought in by Basin City’s largest organized crime family who want to use Jackie Boy’s head to break the truce and take over the prostitution racket in Old Town for themselves. An informant among the girls betrays Gail and reveals their location, leading to a violent showdown to determine the course of Old Town for good and all.
In the wake of Watchmen’s disappointing box office and lukewarm critical reaction, SIN CITY seems even better now than when first released. Watchmen director Zack Snyder first employed SIN CITY’s distinctive filming style on another Frank Miller book, 300. The resulting film certainly retained the visual scheme from the book, but the adaptation was so slavish to Miller’s vision that Snyder never had room to develop his own. Watchmen had nearly the same problem; with performances and visuals feeling so locked-in that the entire production had the feel of a play that had been too-often rehearsed and arrived stale on opening night. But Rodriguez seems to be invigorated by the process that has strangled so many others. Rodriguez’ style, even filtered through Miller’s book, is assured, with carefully chosen angles and what must be a trusting relationship with actors, with no one turning in the ‘phoned-in’ performances of the type that too often wash up on the comic-adaptation shores. Miller’s bleak world-view will be familiar to his readers, and Rodriguez miraculously retains the book’s feel of corruption dripping from all levels of organized society. Each of the three main stories casts its villains from among Basin City’s 3 leadership castes: organized crime, politics, and the church. Miller’s heroes have learned through experience not to trust in any of them, as they have watched with their own eyes as they both figuratively and literally feed off the denizens of ‘Sin City’.
Those touting Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler as a comeback clearly weren’t paying much attention when SIN CITY was released in 2005. In terms of pure marquee value, Rourke’s name is just a minor one in a cast top heavy with major stars (including Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, and Benicio del Toro) solid younger talent (Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Jessica Alba) and experienced pros (Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer), but it’s his Marv that becomes the unlikely heart of the film. Covered under multiple layers of latex appliances (and for a large middle section, literally dozens of facial bandages) Rourke nonetheless burrows down and finds a soul to Marv that wasn’t always evident on the page.
Rourke is matched by possibly the biggest name in the Rodriguez/Tarantino stock company, Bruce Willis. His narration beautifully sets the hard-boiled tone right from the opening moments and his weathered face grounds a portion of the film in a gritty reality. Willis is becoming geometrically more interesting to watch as he ages; the ticks and quirks that he used to fall back on even in serious roles are falling away, revealing the sort of character actor face that Anthony Mann would have sold his soul to get in front of the camera. Willis was born to walk Frank Miller’s black and white, noir-infused universe and lends Hartigan’s story a weight and purpose that is extraordinary.
Both actors lift their respective stories – “That Yellow Bastard” and “The Hard Goodbye” – beyond the realm of simple revenge tails, and into something that at least seems more meaningful. Only Michael Madsen disappoints in a minor role as Hartigan’s duplicitous partner, leading us to assume that Tom Sizemore was somehow unavailable (we’re actually thinking of starting a Facebook group devoted to digitally inserting a Sizemore performance over each of Madsen’s existing ones.)
The film’s weak link is the third tale, “The Big Fat Kill”; Owen is fine but neither he nor his character have the inherent gravity that comes with age and experience, and without the undeniably powerful revenge hook that powers the other stories, he’s stuck swinging away in the weakest link of a still-strong chain. Dawson never looked better, and her cadre of working girls look resplendent in fishnets and lace, but there’s an odd lack of focus on what should be the mail plotline – the mob takeover of Old Town – and far too much time is wasted on Dwight’s imagined chat with Jackie Boy’s corpse in the front seat of his car (not surprisingly, this is the sequence that was “guest directed” by Quentin Tarantino).
As the dodgy link in the chain, Rodriguez should have gotten “Kill” out of the way in a hot hurry, but instead chose to wrap the strongest, “Bastard,” around the other two (the story pauses after Hartigan is shot by his partner just after saving young Nancy and resumes after “Kill.”) As in Miller’s books, the characters and stories interact with each other to a limited degree – we see Marv sitting at the bar during Hartigan’s visit to Kadie’s bar, where Dwight’s girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) works – and “Bastard” does have a natural break when Hartigan is sent to prison.
Fortunately, anyone who finds the ordering of the stories problematic will be thrilled to hear that, like the previous special edition DVD, the new Blu-Ray edition of SIN CITY presents each story individually (though unlike the previous DVD, you can play all stories straight through) in extended cuts, bringing the running time to 147min (versus the 126min theatrical edit). Once you watch the original theatrical edit, we find watching the individual extended stories to be constantly rewarding, filling out the superb “Bastard” and “Goodbye” with welcome character grace notes and making them feel more like separate features than merely smaller parts of a whole.
Howeverthis does leave “Customer” a bit out in the cold, as it only exists to start and end the film – presented on its own, it doesn’t make much sense. This also brings up one small gripe with the set. Though the 147-min running time sounds great, remember that each of the four sections is presented with a separate set of closing credits. This totals close to half of the 20min of “new” footage, and, since the technical crews ought to have been the same, it is rather nonsensical.
The 1080p Blu-Ray image is quite simply one of the best we’ve ever seen. With the unusual nature of the photography, we were frankly prepared for anything, as this sort of high-contrast photography can be a nightmare to get under control unless someone who knows what they’re doing is paying careful attention. Because SIN CITY was shot on digital video cameras, this Blu-Ray should be a direct hard-drive transfer (in much the same way as the Pixar movies are) and that’s exactly how it looks. During “Bastard,” the added detail reveals the scruff on Willis’ chin and the lines on his face so vividly as to almost appear to be 3D. It’s a reference-quality disc that ought to win over just about anyone. And though the DTS-HD mix is somewhat over the head of our equipment, it was certainly good enough to make us wish we didn’t have neighbors. The Blu-Ray replicates nearly all the special features from the previous DVD edition, adding two HD exclusives:
Disc 1: Restored Theatrical Version

  • Cine-Explore – Blu-ray Exclusive
  • Commentary With Robert Rodriguez And Frank Miller
  • Commentary With Robert Rodriguez And Quentin Tarantino
  • Audio Track Featuring A Recording Of The Austin Audience Reaction

Disc 2: Recut, Extended, Unrated Version

  • Kill ‘Em Good Interactive Comic Book — Blu-ray Exclusive
  • Rodriguez Special Features
    – 15-Minute Film School
    – All Green Screen Version
    – The Long Take
    – Sin City: Live In Concert
    – 10-Minute Cooking School
  • How It Went Down: Convincing Frank Miller To Make The Film
  • Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • A Hard Top With A Decent Engine: The Cars Of Sin City
  • Booze, Broads And Guns: The Props Of Sin City
  • Making The Monsters: Special Effects Make-Up
  • Trench Coats & Fishnets: The Costumes Of Sin City
  • Teaser And Theatrical Trailer

As with all of Rodriguez’s commentaries, this one (two, actually) is/are a gas. The guy is practically a one-man filmmaking band, and it’s amazing to hear that he still has enough energy and enthusiasm left for two separate chat tracks. Rodriguez and Tarantino have recorded tracks together before (From Dusk ‘Till Dawn) and listing to these two revving each other’s geek-engines might not be to everyone’s taste, but we always find it an infectious good time – and stay tuned for a surprise guest showing up towards the end. Rodriguez’s track with Miller will be of enormous interest to comic fans, and it’s interesting to hear how they did actually work in congress to make the film (making it a shame that Miller couldn’t get similar help on last year’s The Spirit, a truly gut-wrenching disappointment that, we’re sorry to say, robs many of SIN CITY’s style points.)
The audience reaction track is a fun idea – and once you know the film, there are several beats that you’ll want to hear a crowd react to – but we can’t imagine watching the entire film this way. The major Blu-Ray exclusive, is the “Cine-Explore” feature, which is an easier to handle variant on Universal’s daunting U-Control feature. When running, it activates the Rodriguez-Miller commentary track and highlights whatever BTS footage is available that illustrates what the filmmakers are discussing at any given moment. We were surprised at how well it actually works, and would love to see it used on other extant commentary tracks.
The extras on the second disc are all from the previous DVD and transcend the standard EPK fluff. The green screen version is basically the entire film as is was originally shot, in color and on an all green sound stage (though run through at many, many times normal speed.) There’s likely no place in the world with a less noir-ish atmosphere than a bare, bright green stage, and this helps to really appreciate the technical marvel that SIN CITY represents. The Long Take offers a fascinating peek into the filming of Tarantino’s segment with Owen and del Toro. It’s not our favorite scene, but it’s very interesting to see how the actors work, both with the director and with each other. We’re also continually amazed at the amount of good information Rodriguez packs into his ‘Film School’ shorts.
The second disc’s Blu-Ray exclusive is the “Kill ‘em Good” interactive comic book, which is apparently a game inspired by “The Hard Goodbye.” Our patience with “interactive games” on discs ran out long ago, and we gave it a miss. If any reader feels like jumping in – please give us a report! Unfortunately, the previous 2-disc DVD set came with a fabulous extra that hasn’t been included here: a paperback copy of “The Hard Goodbye” (consider keeping the packaging from the old set and swap out the discs.)
The SIN CITY Blu-Ray is an easy candidate for the 2009 discs of the year list, with an image so eye-popping that you almost forgive that the older supplements haven’t been upgraded to HD. Highly, highly recommended.

The Spirit – DVD Review

Audience indifference quickly exorcised THE SPIRIT from theatres last year, but now it rises from the grave on home video, including a Two-Disc Special Edition DVD. It is not hard to see why the film bombed at the box office: the one thing it has going for it is the digitized neo-noir stylings that render a high-tech version of an old fashioned black-and-white hard-boiled crime thriller. Unfortunately, this impressivetechnique is not put to good use stylistically; it feels contrived and flat, draining the action of intensity instead of amping it up. Nor is it matched by any artistry in the story-telling, which is thin, or in the performances, which are thick with ham. The familiar stereotypes of the genre (tough guy hero, gruff cops, hot dames, femmes fatale) are rendered as nothing more than stereotypes; basically, this is a 13-tear-old boy’s concept of adult entertainment. At times the patter and over-familiarity border on camp, but THE SPIRIT never manages to satirize the trademarks of its genre; it simply feels like a target for future parody.

DVD DETAILS

The two-disc special edition DVD of THE SPIRIT comes loaded with bonus features, including audio commentary, featurettes, an alternate ending, and a digital copy of the film.
Disc Onebegins with trailers for other releases from Lionsgate, including the ridiculous-looking CRANK. THE SPIRIT is presented in a great widescreen transfer that captures the digitally achieved noir imagery (THE SPIRIT’s one true strenght)  in a way that looks fantastic on a widescreen television. There are options for English 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital, plus English and Spansish subtitles.
There are 28 chapter stops, but the chapter menu sucks: the little arrowheads to advance to the next batch of four chapters ore return to the previous batch are so small you might overlook them, and they are situated so that they look like brackets around the Main Menu button.
Special features consist of an audio commentary by director Frank Miller and producer Deborah Del Prete; the featurettes “Green World” and “Miller on Miller”; an alternative storyboard ending with voiceover by actors Gabriel Macht and Samuel L. Jackson; and a theatrical trailer.

Gabriel Macht as the Spirit
Gabriel Macht as the Spirit

The audio commentary between Frank Miller and Deborah Del Prete details the strategy behind the choices made, such as starting the film in the Spirit’s lair, which is filled with cats (whose reputation for having nine lives foreshadows that the Spirit himself is on his second life, having cheated Death). The dialogue between Miller and Del Prete  is reasonably informative, but they seem so enamored of their good intentions that they are blinded to the shortcomings of the results. (Rather like Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s audio commentary for TITAN A.E., Miller and Del Prete talk up relatively minor moments as major plot points.)
The first featurette, “Green World,” sounds as if it will be a documentary on using green screen and digital effects to create the world of Central City, but that turns out to be only part of the focus. Instead, “Green World” is a fairly standard promotional piece, providing background on the title character, with the actors saying how much they wanted to work with Frank Miller and Miller expressing his admiration for Will Eisner, who created the “Spirit” comic strip.
“Miller on Miller” is an interview with Frank Miller tracing the growth of his work, starting with his formative years as a child, making drawings of New York City, which helped him develop skills that he would utilize in his professional comic art for such ground-breaking graphic novels as The Dark Knight Returns. Miler also discusses his influences, ranging from comic book artists (Jack Kirby, R. Crumb, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams) to hard-boiled novelists (Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler). Frank Miller’s fans may already be familiar with much of this material, but the uninitiated will find it a useful primer.
The alternate ending features  some animatic imagery intercut with static storyboard drawings, depicting the Spirit tearing Octopus’s dead body to pieces in order to prevent him from resurrecting – a rather non-sensical maneuver considering that the villian has already been blown to pieces by a grenade. It is no surrpise that the studio would not want to end on this moment of gratuitous carnage – which is in keeping with Miller’s other work but somewhat out of step with the slightly goofy tone of THE SPIRIT.
Disc Two contains the digital copy of the film, which can be loaded onto you PC or Mac. A 4×6 insert provides instructions on how to do this.
THE SPIRIT is a bit of a misfire from a talented artist (put most simply, it’s like SIN CITY but not as good), but for those fans who found the film entertaining, the double-disc DVD offers a solid home video presentation with some worthwhile extras.

300 – Borderland Film Review

Zack Snyder’s film version of the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley may look like the greatest music video ever made; whether or not it is a decent feature film is another question altogether. Snyder makes wonderful use of computer-generated imagery, combined with beautiful live-action photography, to create a unique sepia-toned looked that presumably stands in for the images from the source material. But as a director, Snyder is so enamored of the imagery that he lets it drag the film to a deadly standstill, time after time. For all its calls to glory and brutal bloodshed, 300 never works up a head of steam that comes close to matching GLADIATOR or BRAVEHEART. For a film so desperate to prove its manly muscle, it ends up feeling flaccid and weak, unable to sustain itself, erupting in small spurts here and there until it finally just sputters to a halt. Read More