There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In Sin City, there are bad guys and there are…slightly less bad guys. It’s a world where every madonna happens to also be a whore, where the death of one of these dames prompts a guy to go on a killing spree to avenge the loss of his “angel”—a woman another character (a priest, no less) refers to as “that corpse of a slut.” Blood gushes in geysers as limbs are severed and heads—quite a few of them—are removed. But just because the body parts are separated from their people doesn’t mean they’re finished with. A villain might have to chew a gun out of his old hand, for instance. And one serial killer prefers to mount his prey on the wall like a proud hunter’s: “He keeps the heads,” a victim-in-waiting explains. “He eats the rest.”
One cop’s narration notes, “There’s wrong and there’s wrong, and then there’s this.” But immorality doesn’t get any more gleeful than in the hands of Robert Rodriguez. The legendarily low-budget filmmaker brings From Dusk Till Dawn– level vivacity to this $40 million project, though Sin City’s blood-and-guts heart and soul come courtesy of Frank Miller, upon whose graphic novels the movie was based. And not the way Catwoman was based on the DC Comics character: Fans will be pleased to see that Rodriguez essentially used Miller’s pages as storyboards, carefully adapting the text and using all-CGI sets and high-definition digital video to bring the author’s black-and-white drawings to exquisitely noirish life. Rodriguez was so committed to his source, in fact, that he named Miller Sin City’s co-director—and he had to quit the Directors Guild of America to do it.
The result is perhaps the freshest homegrown film since Pulp Fiction. (Fittingly, Quentin Tarantino “guest-directed” one of the sequences, which is one of the movie’s funniest.) Like Tarantino’s breakthrough masterpiece, Sin City doesn’t follow a traditional three-act arc, instead jumping among episodes taken from three of Miller’s novels and one short story. There’s “The Hard Goodbye,” in which a pill-poppin’ brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke) falls in love with Goldie (Jaime King), a gorgeous hooker who, for reasons he can’t comprehend, voluntarily gives him the night of his life—and is stealthily murdered as he’s sleeping next to her. “The Big Fat Kill” is a mass slaughter that’s prompted by a dirty cop (Benicio Del Toro) showing up at the door of his cocktail-waitress ex-girlfriend, Shellie (Brittany Murphy), while her new squeeze, Dwight (Clive Owen), is there. And bookending these stories is “That Yellow Bastard,” a tale of rape, revenge, and unlikely romance that spans eight years and, in one of the movie’s rare instances of bizarre casting, stars Bruce Willis as Hartigan, a remarkably youthful 60-something cop. (Also ill-fitting is Josh Hartnett as an assassin in “The Customer Is Always Right,” the footage that Rodriguez filmed to win Miller’s approval for the job and here uses as an introduction.)
In other words, this movie is all attitude. (And guns. Lots of guns.) The dialogue is ’40s-crime-drama over-the-top, with flowery tough talk—“This is blood for blood and by the gallons. This is the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days!”—punctuated by growly “goddamns” when it’s not interrupted by punches or the clank of a pipe over someone’s head. The look is unlike that of any comic-to-screen piece you’ve ever seen, from Batman to X2 to American Splendor. Color is used only as an accent, with red momentarily flashing above hill-hopping police cruisers, yellow lighting up Goldie’s mane, or swimming-pool blue shining out of the eyes of a brothel’s girl-next-door hooker (Alexis Bledel), making her look more kittenish than human. Blood is never red, but silver or black; Marv’s many bandages glow whiter than white against his skin.
Besides its beauty and bluster, Sin City offers up the kind of hoods that you don’t mind getting cozy with. From Marv’s creative quenching of his thirst for blood (a highlight: his face-down dragging of a dirtbag out a car window with his left hand as he steers with his right) to Del Toro’s occasional channeling of his Usual Suspects character (“Some of my best friends…” he mutters under his breath after Shellie suggests she’s been getting multiculturally busy), Sin City’s characters are as funny as they are criminal. And the cast clearly reveled in it: Excluding Hartnett, both bit players such as Murphy and Michael Madsen and more substantial presences such as Owen and Rourke seem invigorated by their contributions to well-written stories too fiercely black to be taken seriously. This is American mythologizing, pure and simple—big as can be and not as dumb as it looks. But if you do start to feel guilty about getting caught up in all the nasty fun, just take Hartigan’s advice to himself as he travels further down his own dark path: “Hate yourself later.”
The underworld portrayed by Schizo, on the other hand, is sleepy enough for a bedtime story. Set in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, this debut by Kazakh writer-director Guka Omarova recalls recent Armenian release Vodka Lemon in its visual and narrative spareness.
The movie’s title is the nickname of Mustafa (Olzhas Nusuppaev), a 15-year-old boy who just got kicked out of school for the erratic behavior that makes others think he’s unbalanced. His mother (Gulnara Jeralieva) takes him to a doctor she can’t afford, who gives him pills but no real diagnosis. Mom only offers that Mustafa does what anyone tells him and “wouldn’t hurt anyone”—which, in any language, means that the boy will be hurtin’ someone in the near future.
But not directly. Mom’s boyfriend, Sakura (Eduard Tabyschev), busies Mustafa by having him recruit fighters for the bare-knuckle-boxing operation he’s involved with. Mustafa is slightly horrified by the scene when one of the fighters dies and no one seems to care. But when Mustapha carries out the dying man’s request to deliver his winnings to his gimpy girlfriend, Zina (Olga Landina), and finds that she not only lives in poverty but is also now left to care for the fighter’s young son (Kanagat Nurtay), he becomes more deeply entrenched in the moneymaking scheme. The boy even talks his drunk old uncle (Bakhytbek Baymukhanbetov) into signing up to get pummeled.
Omarova and co-writer Sergey Bodrov keep the unspooling of their story practically silent and almost oversimple. This reduction, though effective tonally, tends to be problematic narratively: Mustafa’s mother pretty much drops out of the picture after her two early scenes, and it’s unclear whether her son is even still living with her after a while. His visit to the uncle, who was until then a stranger, comes out of nowhere, and the relative’s discovery is left unexplained.
The narrative holes might have been forgivable—even tantalizingly ambiguous—if first-time actor Nusuppaev had created a stronger, more sympathetic character. His Mustafa is infuriatingly blank, however, reacting to nearly every situation with the same spaced-out stare. Granted, that may not be unusual for some 15-year-olds, but besides Mustafa’s sporting sunglasses and smoking cigarettes after he begins pursuing his new lifestyle, there’s nothing to reflect the coming-of-age shift in his personality that Omarova seems to be shooting for. Worse, his attempts to “protect” the 28-year-old Zina are duplicitous, condescending, and mean-spirited: He initially tells her that her boyfriend has left instead of died, then breaks the news days later while the two are dancing and giggling. At another point, he leaves her a bag of cash but doesn’t let her know, instead hiding it and instructing her little boy to tell Zina of the stash after the first snowfall. (Even the kid is smarter than Mustafa, pointing out that it might not snow for a long time.)
Visually, however, Omarova gets a lot of things right. Given Kazakhstan’s barren landscape—most of the scenes take place outside, against browned fields and deserted roads—it’d be difficult to not lend Schizo a sense of desolation. But the director is careful also to focus on details that accentuate the residents’ poverty, such as a broken porch chair that’s held up by a tire on one end. And there’s true grit to the film’s boxing scenes, which have the unprotected fighters drawing blood from each other easily and often. (Press notes indicate that these were real boxers, not actors, who therefore “didn’t know how to pretend.”) If only the passion inside the ring were matched outside of it. Unfortunately, by the time the boss of the boxing operation exclaims, “This Schizo is an idiot!” you may well agree.CP