In the hard-boiled narration describing the gnarly nighttime world of Sin City, people are constantly talking about how rough it is and how lethal the people are. They left out one thing: You could also die of boredom here. Or so it seems in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, a sequel to the imaginative 2005 film. With its all-digital black-and-white world and retro-film-noir mood no longer a novelty, the second film comes up short in inspiration and originality.
A batch of characters return from the first installment. One is Marv, the granite-faced strongman who idealizes a stripper named Nancy (Jessica Alba, also returning). Marv is played by Mickey Rourke, whose appearance has been freakishly altered by make-up and digital sculpting.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 (Warner) completes the DC Universe Animated Original adaptation of Frank Miller’s landmark graphic novel, with Peter Weller voicing old man Bat with the cold edge of an angry survivor and Michael Emerson taking on The Joker with a perfectly underplayed glee for chaos.
Like the first half (released in 2012), this adaptation (directed by TV animation veteran Jay Oliva) manages to capture the best and the worst of Frank Miller: along with the savage deconstruction of superhero fantasy is a glib satire of social liberalism as blind hysteria and criminal enabling that makes Ayn Rand look measured. Miller’s heroes, however, are not captains of industry but vigilantes and old soldiers beholden only to justice in a world where the figures of authority are more interested in self-image than public good. Which makes Batman the great libertarian hero: the maverick loner more interested in protecting individuals than institutions and making sure the most savage criminals are duly punished (there is a real streak of Old Testament retribution in Miller’s take). The Miller philosophy is pared down to the bone in the inevitable showdown between Superman (voiced by Mark Valley), the patriotic good soldier dedicated to protecting the country and following the orders of his commander in chief, and Batman, beholden to nothing but his conscience.
While any direct-to-disc animated adaptation is doomed to fall short of Miller’s sensibility, this is as good as we could hope for. Oliva takes some shots right out of Miller’s graphic novel, and though the clean line-drawing animation can’t match the heavy wood-cut slashes that look carved in to the graphic novel, the big, blocky, heavy character designs of Bats and Supes are preserved, as is the gruesomeness of the smiling dead left behind by the Joker. And not only does this have a body count appropriate to the savagery of the world gone wild violence, but it is shockingly cold-blooded. Oliva creates an eerie atmosphere for the last act showdown, which occurs under the gentle fall of nuclear fallout looking like ashy snow, and makes blindly-aggressive Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan look even more like the walking dead than Miller did in the original graphic novel.
Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “Superman vs. Batman: When Heroes Collide” and “The Joker: Laughing in the Face of Death,” the dense 45-minute “From Sketch to Screen: Exploring the Adaptation Process with Jay Oliva,” two bonus episodes from “Batman: The Animated Series” and one from “The Brave and the Bold,” and a sneak peak at the upcoming “Superman Unbound.” The Blu-ray also includes a digital comic excerpt from Miller’s original graphic novel, a bonus DVD, and an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.
The 1932 White Zombie (Kino), from the Halperin brothers (producer Edward and director Victor), effectively and evocatively recreates the misty gothic mood of the Universal horrors of the day on a B-movie . The divinely satanic-looking Bela Lugosi sinks his teeth into his best role since Dracula, a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants. The film drips with atmosphere from the opening credits, accompanied by eerie chanting, and the arrival of our romantic couple (Madge Bellamy and Robert Frazer) in Haiti in the dead to night, where they witness a mysterious midnight burial and coming face to face with Murder Legendre (Lugosi with goatee and searing eyes), who becomes obsessed with the young woman. The supporting roles are stiff and mostly overacted, but Lugosi is mesmerizing and the oppressive atmosphere of fear and almost perpetual night inhabited by the lumbering, hollow-eyed walking dead is remarkably effective. In one scene, as Frazier drowns his sorrows in drink at a Haiti nightclub, the money-saving suggestion of crowds through off-screen sound and shadows cast on the wall becomes a nightmarish scene of a man haunted by the disembodied ghosts of the island. Moments like this make me think of the film as the poverty row answer to Dreyer’s Vampyr, one of the overlooked classics of early American horror and the first true zombie film.
This bargain bin regular is remastered from a fine grain print and presented on Blu-ray and DVD in both digitally remastered and “raw” versions, the former clean and scrubbed of texture, the latter scratch and grainy and full of detail. Also features commentary by film historian Frank Thompson, a six-minute interview with Bela Lugosi from 1932, a gallery of stills, and the trailer from the 1951 re-issue.
“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …
“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”
– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4
Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.
Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the SinCity graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.