December 26, 2005

"Lets all go to the movies..."

Because I'm completely out of things to write about regarding my usual topics, F1 and anime, I figured that tonight I'd blather on about two movies that I've seen in the past week. No, not in the theaters... that'd mean I had the foresight to actually schedule a couple of hours during normal operating hours, and when these films were released I was dealing with the health thing (that culminated with The Incident back in October). No, caught these on DVD, and... well, lets talk about 'em!

First off was Sin City. A little background here; after I left grad school for... financial reasons, I eventually wound up working at the local comic/hobby shop. Back then, Frank Miller (who did the series that brought Batman up to his gritty self, The Dark Knight Returns) had a semi-regular, quasi-independent comic entitled "Sin City." It was a rough, violent story that harkened back to film noir and Mickey Spillaine novels... and it was done in black and white. Not like the daily funnies in your newspaper are black and white, but BLACK and WHITE. Oh, who am I to try and explain it? Go HERE for an example.

Anyway, why am I talking about the comic? Because for many, many years, Frank Miller refused to allow a movie adaptation of Sin City, because he believed it couldn't be done correctly. Enter Robert* Rodriguez, the director of the movie. He made a five-minute long short movie, brought it to Miller, and said "If you like it, we can make the feature film. If you don't, you've got something you can show your friends."

This five-minute short became the opening scene of the movie.

Hey, if Frank Miller likes the film, who am I to disagree? It's almost a perfect adaptation of the visual style Miller uses for his comics... or should I call them graphic novels (minor aside: I, for one, will always call them comics. I don't care if the cool thing is to spiffy 'em up and call 'em graphic novels)? The movie uses tiny, tiny amounts of color (a cigarette lighter's flame, a policecar's gumballs, a bed's silk sheets) to heighten the contrasting black-n-not-quite-white look of the rest of the film (go HERE to see an example of the film's visual style). If nothing else, Sin City should win an Oscar for cinematography.

Which is not to say that the rest of the movie is crepe. I'm happy to say that it's probably the best comic-book-to-film adaptation ever... and that's saying something, considering the rash of good comic adaptations we've had recently (Fantastic 4 and Hulk not withstanding). The acting ranges from acceptable (Jennifer Alba as Nancy, Devin Aoki as Miho... to be fair, Miho doesn't talk, so it's hard to know what she's thinking) to out-frickin'-standing (Mickey Rourke as Marv, easily the best performance of his career). I'm sure most actors would kill to have characters as fully fleshed as the ones handed to the cast of this film.

That's not always a good thing, as it means the actors didn't have a lot of 'wiggle room' to bring their own spin to the characters, but in this case they don't need it. Each character in Sin City already was a PERSON, not just words on a piece of paper, needing an actor to breathe life into them. Still, the cast could have peed this one right down their collective legs if they hadn't've worked at it. They didn't... and a minor classic was created.

Sin City is NOT for everybody. It's violent (though there's no red blood, there's no shortage of gore, trauma, torture, cannibalism, nudity, and the seamy side of life), brutal, and full of black humor. But, boy, whadda ride!

From Basin City, we go to... um... well... a quaint little house in the English countryside.

Arthur Dent wakes up, takes his morning tea, realizes that there's an army of bulldozers outside, lies down in front of them, a friend tells him the planet is about to be destroyed, fills him full of beer, and then the planet is destroyed. Roll title sequence.

Truth be told, I've been avoiding The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. See, I first read the book back in junior high... maybe 25 years ago, more or less. I grew up with the thing; a lot of my sense of the ridiculous came from Douglas Adams' novels (and Monty Python, and Fawlty Towers). I loved the radio adaptation of THGttG, heard here on NPR. I cringed at the BBC tv adaptation.

But as I got older, the book did not age with me. The humor nowadays falls somewhat flat as I read it... because I've lived with the book for TWENTY-FIVE-STINKIN'-YEARS. I've got whole passages of the thing memorized... not because I went out and memorized them intentionally, but because I've read them so many times!

So, of course I was avoiding the movie; how in god's name could they make something that would stack up to this legendary novel that so influenced the way I am these days? The answer?

They couldn't.

Which is not to say it's a bad movie. It's not; it's quite good, actually. It has some very funny bits, it's quite cleverly done in many spots, and is very faithful to the book. It just can't stand up to the force of 25 years of history that's facing it when it comes to me as a viewer.

An example: I'm not usually a nitpicker when it comes to movies. I didn't care a whit that The Lord of the Rings trilogy cut out some important characters (Tom Bombadil, to name one). I actually enjoyed the movies MORE because of that, to be honest... the LotR novels drag under the weight of the immense number of characters in my opinion.

But in Hitchhiker's Guide, the spaceship "Heart of Gold" is described as looking like a "running shoe." In the movie, it's round. Nitpicky? You betcha. BUT IT'S NOT RIGHT.

*sigh* I don't mean to give the impression that I didn't like it. I did. The casting was perfect; Zooey Deschanel, as Tricia "Trillian" McMillan, captured exactly what I saw in my mind when I read the books. Mos Def as Ford Prefect was also an inspired bit of casting.

And I'll even go so far as to say that Martin Freeman, who played Arthur Dent, will replace the mental image I had of Arthur from now on. Finally, Alan Rickman's voice is spot-on for that of Marvin... even though I kept expecting Severus Snape to pop out at any moment.

I'll also point out four "sight gags" in the film that were obviously put there for us long-time fans. Two audio gags first: the theme music for the film is the same as that used for the radio play (imdb.com tells me that it's a tune called "The Journey of the Sorcerer" by The Eagles... that, I didn't know). Also, when Zaphod greets Ford on the Heart of Gold, he calls him "Ix," then corrects himself. Readers of the book know that Ix is Ford's childhood nickname.

Now, the two sight gags that I caught (I'm sure there are more). Most obvious was the appearance of the TV version of Marvin in the queue on the Vogon homeworld. Not so obvious was the car that Ford was attempting to shake hands with during the flashback scene... a Ford Prefect. (Please note: during the movie, Ford's last name is never mentioned. That's because us folks here in the US wouldn't get the joke: the Ford Prefect was only sold in the UK and Europe... see, he's an alien, and he thought the name "Ford Prefect" would let him blend in. To get the same effect here, he'd be named something like "Ford Escort.")

I'm not counting the many times I saw Douglas Adams' face appear as sight gags... nor the appearance of the original Arthur Dent as the 'voice of Magrathea'.

So, um... what I'm trying to say is that, yeah, I liked the movie... but I'm sure I would have LOVED it if I hadn't've read the book so many times.

Go see both movies.

(update: January 8th, 2006, 1019pm)
*for some reason the original version of this post had Director Rodriguez's first name as "Frank." This has been changed, and the website's continuity department has been sacked.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 09:12 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 Reportedly, Robert (ahem) Rodriguez used Miller's comics as his storyboard for the movie. That's actually an interesting choice, and a bit risky. But it means that in a sense Miller himself was the cinematographer, since effectively it was him who planned out the camera shots. Which is probably why it comes out as being so true to Miller's original comics.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 07, 2006 02:19 PM (CJBEv)

2 Ouch... I've been paying too much attention to my baseball teams. "Frank Rodriguez"?!?! What was I thinking?

Posted by: Wonderduck at January 08, 2006 04:14 PM (ywZa8)

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