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April 28, 2005

What Dreams May Come

1998.USA.Ward

1.5 / 4.0

I passed up the chance to see Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come when it came out in theatres because, at the time, I disliked Robin Williams and thought the trailer looked like the stuff of weepy, overwrought melodrama. However, my views on Williams have since changed, and after seeing Ward’s earlier effort Map of the Human Heart listed alongside Jacques Tati’s Playtime on the programme of Roger Ebert’s latest Overlooked Film Festival, I decided to give the film a chance. My enthusiasm was further bolstered by an article on Ebert’s spiffy new website in which the renowned (though ever more lenient) critic calls Vincent Ward “a true visionary” and What Dreams May Come “a grievously overlooked” film. For a film geek, I was pretty pumped.

The story of What Dreams May Come, once it actually kicks in about halfway through the film, is set mostly in Heaven and follows the adventures of Chris Nielsen (as played by Williams in one of those roles that reached its peak shortly after this film, in the dreadful Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar) as he tries to find his wife (Annabella Sciorra), who has ended up somewhere in Hell. All the smart dead people tell Chris that it’s too dangerous to go traipsing around in the Devil’s half of the afterlife, thus raising the stakes and making it “so” much more heroic when he eventually does anyway. Conveniently, the rest of Nielsen’s family (a son, a daughter who I thought was a son, and a dog) is dead too, so they’re around periodically, giving advice and waxing on about spiritual and philosophical issues. It all creates a fabulous atmosphere of laughable gloom, doom and hope that Williams captures well by making his eyes wide and watery and spouting lines such as “Boy, I screwed up. I'm in dog Heaven,” after finding his dog, and “I found you in hell. Don't you think I could find you in Jersey!” after finding his wife. Thankfully, some of the serious themes addressed by screenwriter Ron Bass are expressed so damn badly (“Sometimes, when you lose, you win.”) that they make the forced, corny lines sound a whole lot better.

In the film’s defence, the special effects are pretty and evocative of many famous works of art. Hieronymous Bosch is an obvious inspiration, for example. And there are many more that anyone interested in painting will have fun picking out. Some of the images are quite beautiful (until Ward violently cuts away from them to one of countless close ups of Robin Williams’ face) and imaginative film copies of classic works. In this respect, What Dreams May Come is to art historians and art history students what Sin City is to comic books nerds.

Perhaps needless to say, I was disappointed with What Dreams May Come. I was keen on liking it, but quickly realized that it was not only far from being the overlooked gem Ebert deemed, but also close to being what my gut reaction had told me to expect, all those years ago. The ending of this film is as manipulative a doozy as you’re likely to find on any given shelf of a video store (and I do mean even if it shares a wall with a Shyamalan flick). And the whole thing tastes strongly of soap. On the whole, the weird tension between Bass’ Hollywood-esque script and Ward’s quasi-arthouse manifestation of it make sure the film fits in neither category (your choice as to which is Heaven and which is Hell) and instead push it into some place in Purgatory where bad films with noble intentions and interesting ideas (like the overall premise of this film) go away until people like Roger Ebert bring them up and naive filmgoers like me get suckered into watching them.

April 05, 2005

Sin City

2005.USA.Rodriguez

2.5 / 4.0

Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s series of Sin City graphic novels is the latest link in an already hefty chain of films that try to overcome a lack of substance with an abundance of style. Although substantially better than Kerry Conran’s awful Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (USA), and international empty but pretty pictures Casshern (Japan) and Immortel (France), Sin City still suffers from fundamental structural problems that no amount of technical excellence or special effects can overcome. It lacks a clear plot, is inhabited by too many characters (for someone other than Robert Altman to contend with), and relies on an irritating amount of narration. Furthermore, the acting varies from excellent (Benicio Del Toro as “Jackie Boy”) through mediocre (Bruce Willis as the stone faced “Hartigan") to embarrassingly bad (Jessica Alba as “Nancy"), and the directing, though adequate, is too concerned with recreating comic book frames than adding to them.

Filmmakers should know that what works in one medium rarely works in another. It’s the reason that many film adaptations of Shakespeare fail to work convincingly on the silver screen, or that many faithful adaptations of popular novels don’t have nearly the same power as the original works. Judging from his El Mariachi days, Robert Rodriguez should know, for example, that films are best when they rely on action and visual exposition over narration and dialogue. In his excellent book “The Technique of Screenplay Writing”, Eugene Vale makes the distinction that film, a medium physically based on motion and progression, should exploit exactly these qualities. He compares the same scene, of a warrior in battle dress, as done in a painting and literature, and points out that a painting shows all of its information at once while a story is better suited to reveal information progressively. According to Vale, a film, like literature, should show its warrior actually fasten the leather straps of his boots, throw his heavy shield over his shoulder and clutch his spear rather than simply the resulting image. In other words, good films make visual the process. In Sin City, Rodriguez resorts too often to narration by his three main characters (Hartigan, Marv and Dwight) in order to give their histories, tell their thoughts, or soften and explain the jump cuts that he uses repeatedly. Although this is done to simulate the reading of a comic, which is made of several hundred frames and cannot convey everything through images, it is not suitable for a film like Sin City, which contains roughly 180,000 frames. The argument could be made that Rodriguez simply doesn’t have enough space, or time, to show everything, but that itself shows flaws in the film’s structure. And, there are also copious action and driving scenes that drag on for far too long and that cannot be justified only because they were in the original material.

In the early days of cinema, a filmed theatre play, or “canned theatre”, was a popular and quick way to bring theatre to a wider audience and one outside of large urban centres. In these productions, the camera would simulate the eyes of a spectator sitting in an expensive seat in the front row of an actual theatre. The result was not cinema as much as a poor, flat replica of a stage production minus the plasticity, unpredictability and immediacy of the actual play. Although Rodriguez’s film is much more than a camera recording of an invisible hand flipping the pages of one of the Frank Miller’s graphic novels, it is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to call it “canned comics”. Like “canned theatre”, Sin City takes many of the elements that work in the form of a comic, and mimics them on celluloid. The Sin City website even has a section that compares frames from the comic with those from the film, as if a perfect similarity was somehow equal to a perfect film. If that was true, a perfect film adaptation of Picasso’s Guernica could be created with a two-hour still frame that uncannily resembled the massive painting.

Another problem that Rodriguez created for himself upon conceiving the idea of a Sin City film was the notion that he could cram a handful of graphic novels, each with its own plot and characters, into a motion picture running slightly more than two hours. For an entirely unfair comparison, imagine some ambitious writer and director taking upon himself the monumental task of creating a film adapted from several Dickens novels, simply because they take place in the same city and period. Is it madness, or is it possible? On the basis of Sin City, it’s the former. History, Eugene Vale and Aristotle suggest that one dramatic work should have one main plot, from which everything else stems and which propels the story. On the other hand, experience shows that this is not always the case, and films have been made that fly in the face of conventional ideas about structure. Regardless, the problem with Sin City is that it doesn’t work and it doesn’t work because it has a weak plot structure and weak characters. Constructed like four consecutive episodes of a television show (though David Lynch managed to make a whole out of some spare TV parts with Mulholland Drive), none of the characters are truly developed and no one plotline strong enough to carry the film. Characters and plots disappear, appear, but never connect in any meaningful way. Attempts are made at thematic unity through motifs (Men defending women, betrayal, corruption, etc.) and the repetition of certain lines of dialogue, but it’s superficial and forced. The main unifying factor, as can be deemed from the title, is The City, but that, like the film, has a style but no heart or soul. Near the end, Rodriguez even resorts to showing various characters from the three main stories together in a bar in a feeble attempt at tying things together. But string don’t hold elephants. Not surprisingly, the film has an incredibly weak ending.

Overall, Sin City is still an enjoyable film. Its ability to recognize and employ the sarcasm that pervades classic Noir and to recreate its mood while balanced between pastiche and homage are high points, for example. As are the technical aspects, and the fact that the film was made outside of the regular Hollywood loop, on video and without actual sets. But it’s impossible to overlook the shortcomings of the narrative. Perhaps if Miller and Rodriguez had hired a screenwriter to write the film, or focused on just one of Miller’s graphic novels, Sin City would have been a better motion picture. And maybe if Rodriguez wasn’t so intent on being faithful to the source material, he would have made a better film. As it stands, whatever Sin City is to fans of Miller and comic books in general, it is not revolutionary cinema, as some have made it out to be. If anything, the film’s “canned comic” brand of adaptation is a step backward. In order to make great films, one must understand the film medium and its strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities. Knowledge of comic books not required.