Seen at the Movies: I would call Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City a triumph of style over substance, but the only quality that really triumphs in this frame-by-frame cinematic transcription of Miller’s graphic novels is idiocy. This pseudo-noir glorification of the seediest aspects of pulp fiction is certainly an obsessive movie—Rodriguez, who gets "shot and cut by" as well as co-music, producing, and directing credit, was so intent on recreating the exact look of Miller’s work that he gave the author co-director credit, resigning from the DGA when they nixed the idea. Like Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino is "special guest director" on one sequence here), Sin City skews chronology between three main storylines, letting them join from time to time. The focus is alternately on three hard-boiled denizens (played by Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, and Clive Owen) of the title location, a kind of geographical compendium of crime-fiction clichés. There is no shortage of bad men, fallen women (played by Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, and Brittany Murphy, among others), and horrifically violent actions in Sin City, but the beatings, shootings, gougings, mutilations, and castrations perpetrated by the three protagonists are meant to be perceived as arising from the noblest of motives.
Apart from a bar setting, all of the backgrounds in Sin City are digital, albeit fronted by real actors. The emphasis was so emphatically on reproducing the look of the novels that no production designer or costume designer is credited. Rodriguez and Daniel Leduc share visual effects supervisory credit, and the houses that worked on creating the really quite remarkable CG sets and effects include Troublemaker Digital Studios, Hybride Technologies, Café FX, and The Orphanage. The makeup effects, which transform such actors as Rourke, Benicio Del Toro, and Nick Stahl into uglier, more sinister versions of themselves are by K.N.B. EFX Group. The film is mostly in black and white, only switching to color for key highlights and effects; the fact that the blood and gore on hand is generally white or yellow rather than red doesn’t make it any less sickening to witness.
Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring her husband Daniel Day-Lewis, never finds its dramatic footing, which is especially disappointing since her last film, Personal Velocity, was so lovely. Day-Lewis is Jack, an ailing utopian who shares his remote island getaway with 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle). The property is the site of a failed communal experiment that only Jack and Rose continue to uphold, but Jack’s precarious health leads him to invite a girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons to join them, with disastrous results. The film is hampered by its bafflingly inexpressive attitude toward the creepy central relationship, and by a number of odd tangents and details, from Jack’s emaciating heart condition on down. Shooting in Prince Edward Island, Canada, DP Ellen Kuras does her usual exemplary work, while Mark Ricker’s production design and Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes do a fine job of dramatizing how cut off from the outside world the characters are. Dig Camilla Belle’s flowing-skirt-over-blue-jeans look.
For the past week, the New Directors/New Films series has been unspooling in New York. This year’s festival, jointly sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, includes 25 features from across the globe. Entries so far have included Phil Morrison’s Junebug, a North Carolina-set adaptation of Angus MacLachlan’s play, with excellent work by DP Peter Donahue and production designer David Doernberg; French director Robin Campillo’s They Came Back, a thinking-man’s zombie movie with haunting images shot by Jeanne Lapoirie; and from Australia, Cate Shortland’s Somersault, a rather sour portrait of a runaway teenager and her sexual exploits. This is one case where I felt the cinematography, by Robert Humphreys, really harmed one’s response to the film; I found its cold, metallic tones to be off-putting.
Also running in the festival and opening this week in theatres is Nimród Antal’s Kontroll, a Hungarian film entirely set and shot in the Budapest subway system. The characters in this black comedy include ticket inspectors and other lovable lowlifes who spend much of their time underground. Antal’s style is both bleak and hilarious, and the movie is quite a technical accomplishment for director of photography Gyula Pados, who really mines the grim, surreal potential of the sunless setting, making a virtue of fluorescent lighting.
Speaking of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the last New York Film Festival’s captivating opening-night selection, Agnes Jaoui’s Look at Me opens commercially this week. It’s definitely one of the best movies so far this year; read what I wrote about it here.--John Calhoun
Back on Broadway: English director David Leveaux scores with modernist material like Jumpers and Nine but, after his middling take on Fiddler on the Roof and now a disappointing staging of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie he may want to leave the American canon to other hands. The gloom that descends on the entire production begins as soon as you walk into the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a first look at the set. Tom Pye did extraordinary, even show-saving, work on Fiddler but here he’s tethered to disruptive "concepts." The play is framed by memory, and thus not wholly naturalistic. Just as the characters have to tread lightly around sad Laura Wingfield’s glass collection, however, there have to be limits, which are not observed. Pye’s set is a weird quasi-lightbox, with homely banks of fluorescents above and below, abutted on stage left with a fearsome catwalk of fire escapes that one of the actors is sure to trip on one performance, in the back with towering tenements and ugly exposed lights (credited to Natasha Katz), and on stage right with a strange nullity, from which the sounds of a nearby music club periodically emanate. I recall an episode of The Twilight Zone where humans were put on display in an alien zoo, but I don’t remember it being titled The Glass Menagerie.
Matters don’t improve once the actors turn up. Jessica Lange tries, and doesn’t overwork her hands too much (a bothersome tic with her performances) but she’s too supple to have a severe case of the St. Louis blues, and could easily be fighting off her own gentlemen callers with a stick. Christian Slater, a last-minute replacement for Tom, emcees, rather than inhabits, the part. That leaves the gifted and aptly cast Sarah Paulson to break hearts as sad, shy Laura, but her best efforts are undermined by the casting of the smarmy, narcissistic Josh Lucas as the Gentleman Caller (a natural movie villain, as in Hulk, there’s little that’s sympathetic or empathetic about his grandstanding, look-at-me style) and Leveaux’s insistence that the Wingfields paw each other whenever possible, which says more about his "idea" of familial incest than it does about Williams’ beautifully delineated characters. [And there is some silly staging to contend with, as when the hectoring Amanda walks into a rain shower with a lit candelabrum, with no effect on the candles.]
Still, you’d have to have faculties of stone not to tear up over The Glass Menagerie, even in these diminished circumstances. It seems to turn up on Broadway once every decade and as this is it for now it may be worth the viewing, if only to savor the lushness of its language. [Or, maybe, try to dig up a tape of Paul Newman’s fine 1987 film version, with Joanne Woodward and John Melodic winningly cast as Amanda and Tom.] And there are fleeting compensations: Dan Moses Schreyer supplies an atmospheric score (nicely piped in by sound designer Jon Weston) that attempts to unify the mood, more than Katz’s erratic lighting, which rises and falls to the beat of the dialogue and fails to establish simple things, like whether it’s night or day. [Another "idea," maybe.] Pye’s costumes and David Brian Brown’s hair and wig design are perfunctory, which I mean as a compliment following all the other experimentation on view. [Showman Fabricators constructed the scenery, with PRG handling the lights and audio.] Such a fine play should have been allowed to speak for itself.--Robert Cashill