Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

2014 #126
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

4 out of 5

This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

Frankenstein (2004)

aka Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein

2010 #22
Marcus Nispel | 84 mins | DVD | 18

FrankensteinFirst, a little note on that aka: technically — and, I believe, legally — no such title is attached to this project. However, the initial idea was developed by Koontz and, after he left the project, adapted into his Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series of novels. Despite the ‘creative disagreement’ (or whatever they chose to call it) that led him to walk away, the film retains significant similarities to the first book. More on these in a moment.

So, this version of Frankenstein is a made-for-TV movie/series pilot (that’s taken six years to find its way to British TV, apparently — in case you didn’t know, the series wasn’t picked up). According to the blurb on my DVD, it’s a “contemporary retelling of Mary Shelley’s gothic horror classic”. I guess no one in the publicity department actually watched it. In actuality it’s more a sequel to Shelley’s novel: Dr Frankenstein has somehow survived to the modern day and emigrated to New Orleans, where he continues his experiments, while his original monster, now going by the name Deucalion, has tracked him down in the name of justice. Or something. Maybe they should’ve just started from scratch… then again, look how that worked out.

Thanks to Koontz leaving the project midway through its conception, it’s difficult to accurately explain the relationship between the novel and the film. This isn’t an adaptation, certainly, but nor is the novel a mere novelization. Most of the official comment on the novel/film relationship is along the lines of this, taken from the current iteration of the book series’ Wikipedia entry: “Koontz withdrew from the project over creative differences with the network, and the production continued in a different direction with similar characters and a modified plot.” Perhaps this is what Koontz would like viewers/readers to believe: that the novels are his undiluted vision, while the film most certainly is not. Well, don’t believe him.

Watching the film having read the book (a couple of years ago), this feels like a faithful adaptation. It comes with the usual caveats of condensing a c.400-page novel into a sub-90-minute film — certain elements are foreshortened, others tweaked, others abandoned — but in terms of the primary plot, the characters and their actions, it’s all incredibly close to the series’ first novel. I hesitate to say “exactly the same” when I’ve not read it for years, but it wouldn’t surprise me if whole scenes and dialogue exchanges match perfectly.

What this also means is that the film suffers from some of the novel’s flaws, when taken as a standalone work. Dr Frankenstein — now Dr Helios, for what it’s worth — is introduced but remains a background figure, only peripherally connected to this episode’s serial killer plot. In this its intentions as a pilot couldn’t be clearer, and with an ending that’s part cliffhanger, part “the story continues”, it’s as clear as in the novel that this is far from over. Other than there not being a TV series or any sequels, that is. (Though if you want to know what happens, there are already two further novels — and three more planned — that continue the story.)

The film itself isn’t badly produced. Marcus Nispel’s direction seems heavily influenced by Se7en, all dark and grainy and very, very brown. Even the title sequence, with its juddery extreme close-ups and pulsating grungy soundtrack, feels borrowed from Fincher’s masterpiece. The cast are fine: Michael Madsen and Adam Goldberg play the same parts they always play, Parkey Posey leads well enough, and as Deucalion, Vincent Perez is… adequate. Thomas Kretschmann’s Helios is the closest the film comes to an outstanding performance; knowing the events of books two and three, one almost longs for sequels to see Kretschmann’s cooly dominant Helios disintegrate as Everything Goes Wrong.

All things considered, Frankenstein is probably best viewed as a compromised curiosity. It’s certainly not a wholly satisfying experience in itself, but those interested in Koontz’s series may find it a nice way to test the waters without having to plough through a whole novel, while those who have read the novel may find it interesting to see one part of the story committed to film. Or, of course, they may find it irritating that it’s not how they imagined. I fall into that middle category; those with no interest in the books or who hold them too dearly may wish to knock a star off this score.

3 out of 5

Five have the UK TV premiere of Frankenstein tonight at 11:25pm.