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Innocent, in a sweetly slutty fashion: Jessica Alba in Sin City.

By the Book
By John Rodat

Sin City
Directed by Robert Rodridguez and Frank Miller

Any book loyalist can con-firm that the excitement of hearing that a favorite work is slated for cinematic interpretation is always undercut with the suspicion that they’re just going to screw it up. And if there’s tension for the fan, imagine the dilemma of the author, tempted by the promise of a larger market and Hollywood lucre, but wary of tarnish. It’s a reasonable fear that Sin City creator Frank Miller learned the hard way.

Miller’s influence, as the author- illustrator of the milestone 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, is all over Tim Burton’s Batman, though he’s totally uncredited; and his screenplay for Robocop 2 resulted in a movie so atrocious that he vowed never to allow his stuff to be filmed again. Sin City, based on Miller’s comic series of the same name, got made only through the perseverance of codirector Robert Rodriguez, who courted Miller with a self-funded short film faithful enough to the original that Miller relented and gave the go-ahead. Rodriguez was so dedicated to honoring Miller’s vision that in order to share credit he resigned from the Director’s Guild of America to circumvent the guild’s one-director rule. So, it’s clear that, from the point of view of an author, Rodriguez had the best of intentions. The question is, how far do good intentions get you?

Pretty far, it turns out.

First and foremost, Sin City is a great-looking movie. Filmed entirely with high-definition cameras against a green screen, it’s being touted as one of the first “fully digital” live-action movies; and the techniques go a long way in translating the thuggish noir elements of Miller’s presentation of the underworld of Basin City and its prostitute-run precinct of Oldtown. Better use of black-and-white than Miller’s would be hard to come by in the comic-book world, and Sin City faithfully captures the stark muscular feel of the series, using color sparingly and to great effect—the child- molesting villian Yellow Bastard (a fantastically creepy Nick Stahl) pops out of the screen so well you feel fouled by his slime.

Fans of the comic will note that much of the mise-en-scène is lifted directly from its pages: Shots are composed—character for character, prop for prop—exactly as Miller drew them. Usually, this is a good idea, but there are moments where the fidelity is problematic. So, here’s a tip, filmakers: No matter what the storyboard says, when you give Mickey Rourke a bloodlustily speechifying moment, don’t keep the naked Carla Gugino in the frame—’cause all we’re gonna see is the naked.

Which is too bad, because Rourke does a fine job. Of the three male leads, Rourke best nails the John Garfield-esque noble, doomed loser vibe—a vibe nicely tricked up with superhuman and ultraviolent elements. Nearly unrecognizeable under a mound of prosthetics, Rourke handily outperforms the serviceable Bruce Willis and the strangely unengaging Clive Owen (who seems too ready for his Bondian martini). Fortunately, secondary characters balance these performances: Benicio Del Toro is wonderfully sleazy as a bullying boyfriend; Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer are effective as a corrupt politician and cardinal, repectively; and Elijah Wood turns in a nightmare-inducing performance as a preternaturally placid serial whore-killer—all the more remarkable in that he never speaks a word. (Take that, Frodo.)

Dialog, too, suffers from overreliance on the comic. Characters repeat exposition unnecessarily, and bits of wiseguy jargon fall flat (“Ya got a bum ticker . . .”; “Kill ’em for me, Marv. Kill ’em for me good.”). And some of the actors seem cast solely on style: A shootout scene in which Oldtown’s prostitutes protect their turf is unintentionally funny due to the hotties’ stiffness (“I’m shooting, I’m shooting,” you can almost hear them chirping to themselves). Most damning is the less-than-perfect integration of the three major storylines. There’s a toll on narrative momentum that could be the death of an action flick.

But the respectful animation of Miller’s artwork provides sufficient visual dazzle to redeem these mostly minor faults, and the highly enjoyable performances of Rourke and the other lowlifes make Sin City a gritty hoot in its own right.

Snarky Gone Soft

The Upside of Anger
Directed by Mike Binder

Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is really, really pissed off. And hurt. And scared. And who could blame her? Her husband ran off with his secretary, to Sweden (and didn’t leave a forwarding address for the bills). Terry has four daughters to contend with, all heading toward adulthood and in various stages of rebellion against their mother. And she has to sell off the backyard to their suburban Detroit home, at a time when she can barely get out of bed. So she consoles herself with copious amounts of gin and tonic, along with the beery, cheery companionship of her neighbor, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), who is negotiating the yard sale. Terry’s infrared rage and Denny’s woozy bonhomie are the best things going in The Upside of Anger, a pithy but puffed-up melodrama on middle-age angst.

Written and directed by Mike Binder (auteur of HBO’s Mind of the Married Man), who has a great ear for dialogue, Upside is elevated by its many moments of over-40 clarity. Terry’s daughters—Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), Andy (Erika Christensen) and Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) are confused about their father’s abandonment, and so Terry explains it thus: “He’s a vile, horrible pig, but I’m not going to trash him in front of you girls.” Fortified by Budweiser, the good-natured Denny just rolls along with her rage. A former baseball star, he’s made his peace with being a has-been who makes cheesy celebrity appearances for money while pulling a salary as do-nothing disc jockey. But Denny likes everybody, and therefore everybody likes him, even Terry’s haughty, resentful daughters.

Without too much ado, Terry succumbs to Denny’s amusement value and their rueful, funny relationship more than compensates for all the gauzy conflicts and tiny reconciliations that Terry goes through with her daughters. In one extended sequence of magnificent bitchiness, Allen sweeps through Terry’s bedroom suite in a white silk bathrobe like the evil queen of scorned fury. We’re just waiting for her to freeze Denny like a statue with a single stare (in fact, in one misconceived flash of fantasy, Terry’s anger causes the head of an offending dinner guest to explode). As any ex-jock would, Denny finds Terry’s family to be very female, but that’s what he likes about it, and he wisely realizes that becoming part of this stress-filled but warmly domestic household is his best chance at a second act. This is Costner’s best acting in many years; freed from the demands of ego by his slightly-going-to-seed character, he gets to the heart of Denny’s emotional truths even while letting him slide on his trademark easygoing charm.

The third person in this character-driven ensemble of midlife muddle is Shep (played by the director), Denny’s producer at the radio station. An aging womanizer with a preference for women half his age, Shep is too openly pathetic and funny to truly loathe. And that’s one of the reasons Upside of Anger falls down during the home stretch. As if needing a villain, Shep is turned into the bad guy, diminishing his previous role as the sharply comic antithesis to Terry’s bitterness. And as do many films with a light touch for universally familial topics, Upside has nowhere to go once the protagonists regain their emotional footing—and so Binder pulls out a plot twist that negates almost everything that’s gone before. Even worse, he tries to explain it all with narration from Popeye’s video project, stating “all the fury is real . . . even when it isn’t.” Which is sort of like how this movie feels good even when it isn’t.

—Ann Morrow

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