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Tuesday, December 12

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Sin City
Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, Sin City is the culmination of so many wonderful things. For anyone who loves that dirty feeling you get from watching '40s black-and-white film noirs, knowing that the sleazy subtext is the real star of the show, Sin City is your cup of whiskey-spiked tea. For those who feel they have no upper limit when it comes to the amount of blood, guts, head shots, dismemberment and cannibalism you can stomach, you've probably already seen the film twice. For those who still appreciate a large number of stunning, curvy women playing semi- or totally nude hookers and/or strippers, well, your time has come. For those who embrace actors whose time we thought had passed, or those whose fame is at a peak but are still willing to slum, Sin City is all these things and more. It's an orgy of violence, sex and old-school tough-guy attitude that also marks a substantial and important benchmark for films based on the illustrated word. Whether you love or hate Sin City will not be dependent upon you being able to tolerate its blood-and-guts approach; you have to have a taste for it walking in. Yum yum.

Based on Miller's graphic novels and set in the fictional underworld town of Basin City, Sin City is actually three loosely connected stories, as well as a short introductory tale that sets the tone for this two-hour masterwork. (The good news is that Rodriguez has announced his intention to film the remaining handful of Sin City stories in Miller's series as a follow-up.) Among the key players in Sin City are aging detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis in absolute top form), whose bad ticker threatens to end his life before he can save an 11-year-old girl from being raped and murdered by the son (Nick Stahl) of a U.S. senator (Powers Booth). Hartigan saves the girl, but after being betrayed by his partner (Michael Madsen), he realizes his hell on earth is only just beginning. His life is prolonged by those who despise him the most, so they can torture his body and soul for years to come. When he finally faces the rapist/murderer known as Yellow Bastard, we know that a nightmare has truly been captured on film. Also slinking around in Hartigan's story is stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba), one of many women of pleasure that populate this movie.

Although the lines between good and evil are often non-existent in Sin City, we're fairly certain that Marv (Mickey Rourke in layers of face-altering makeup) is a bad guy, a stone cold killer who meets a woman named Goldie (Jaime King) who makes him feel like a human being for the first time in his miserable life. When she winds up dead in his bed and Marv is framed for the murder, he goes on a tear through the underbelly of Sin City to find out who the real killer is. Along the way, he visits his parole officer (the very naked Carla Gugino), who provides him with medication to stop him from having the occasional hallucination. Eventually, Marv finds himself at a farm occupied by a stealthy madman known only as Kevin (Elijah Wood in a wordless role that will simply terrify you).

The film's third main story involves the potential unbalancing of the underworld of Sin City. In his first truly badass part, Clive Owen plays killer-for-hire Dwight, a recent recipient of a new face but not a new lifestyle. He's involved with waitress Shellie (Brittany Murphy), whose old boyfriend, Rafferty (Benicio Del Toro, also totally unrecognizable under more subtle makeup), is a jealous guy. The men have a showdown in a part of town controlled by a pack of bloodthirsty hookers led by Gail (Rosario Dawson). In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Rafferty and Dwight end up in a car together trying to get away from the police. One of them may or may not be dead in the course of their journey. (This driving sequence, by the way, was helmed by "special guest director" Quentin Tarantino.)

Sin City is an almost entirely black-and-white endeavor, but much like Miller's original works, splashes of color pop up from time to time, such as the color of Yellow Bastard's skin, a red dress, blonde hair, blue eyes and, of course, explosions of red blood. Rodriguez also mixes up the tone of his black and white. Sometimes it's coppery, sometimes the grays are more prominent, but usually it's deep blacks and blinding whites. The effect is exactly what he'd intended: the film looks remarkably like the source drawings. Rodriguez hasn't just taken characters from the graphic novels; he's recreated the exact panels. The action in Sin City is clearly computer generated, as are the backgrounds, but since the entire affair is supposed to have an unreal quality to it, it's easy to forgive. Most of the actors completely embrace the slightly unnatural, pulp fiction-like quality of the dialogue, with its choppy sentences and over-the-top descriptions. The most important thing is that our three narrators (Willis, Rourke and Owen) are all absolutely perfect in their readings and their characters. You almost can't pick a favorite, although seeing Rourke back on his game is something special. And a warning for all you wussies out there: I can't remember the last time a mainstream movie had so much violence in it. Rodriguez gets away with it because of the black-and-white, but it's still pretty over the top. And that's why I love Sin City. Expect this film near the top of my Best of 2005 list.

Fever Pitch
If you have to suffer through a modern-day Hollywood romantic comedy, your best bet is to see one that stars Drew Barrymore. She probably has the best track record of any actress working today, thanks to a pair of extremely likeable films with Adam Sandler (The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates) and the Chicago-based Never Been Kissed. Her latest, Fever Pitch, officially sees Barrymore rip the romantic-comedy crown off the head of Meg Ryan and gives many a love story structure with which they can identify: baseball. Loosely based on Nick Hornby's non-fiction account of his life as an obsessed British soccer fanatic, Fever Pitch transforms Hornby's lovable-loser Arsenal footfall team into the Boston Red Sox, a team that hadn't won the world series since the 1910s and seems to have turned choking into an art form. Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly (There's Something About Mary) clearly share a die-hard enthusiasm for the team, which during the course of shooting this film actually shocked the world by winning the World Series, sending the film's crew into a frenzy trying to rewrite the ending of their movie. Writing team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who also penned the exceptional Robots screenplay) have crafted an endearing, sweet and usually funny movie that manages to avoid most romance clichés while embracing others that still get the job done.

Barrymore plays Lindsey Meeks, a successful businesswoman whose dating life at age 30 has been comprised of arrogant, self-centered successful businessmen. One day, school teacher Ben (Jimmy Fallon) brings a small group of kids for a tour of Lindsey's company, and Ben soon asks Lindsey on a date. At first she is put off by his job (more specifically, his income as compared to hers), but Ben's charm and humor soon win her over, and before she knows it, they're involved. After his disastrously annoying turn in last year's Taxi, I was prepared to endure Fallon here the way I would a glass shards enema. But much to my amazement, every awful thing he did in Taxi is done in reverse in Fever Pitch. Here, he displays a likeability that is hard to escape.

It isn't long before Lindsey finds out why her seemingly perfect catch is still single. Ben's fanaticism for the Red Sox has literally driven away every previous girlfriend. One look at Ben's bedroom (Red Sox sheets, pillows, bobble heads, posters, trading cards, light switch covers, wallpaper) tells you pretty much all there is to know about the man. But the workaholic Lindsey thinks things will work out in the end because she can get projects completed while Ben is at his games. Still, his super-fan mentality and single-mindedness chips away at Lindsey's sanity and destabilizes their otherwise happy relationship. What's great about Fever Pitch is that baseball is obviously a metaphor for any hobby or pastime that always seem to take up time for men. Whether it's golf, or watching sports on the weekends, or going to more than 400 movies in a year, people will recognize the signs even if baseball isn't their bag. Barrymore and Fallon are a wonderfully believable couple. Barrymore seems especially suited to playing characters who endure eccentric men because…well, she was married to Tom Green, right? Act what you know, Drew. It works for you. The Farrellys can't help but inject some of their standard-issue, low-brow humor (there are several scenes featuring someone getting pelted by a ball to the head), but more than any of their other films, Fever Pitch is injected with a sweetness that is undeniable. When you mix Drew Barrymore's cuddliness with the sweaty drunkenness of baseball, how can you lose?

Sahara
So what are the biggest differences between the new action-adventure Sahara and last year's surprise hit National Treasure? To start, Sahara doesn't suck. In addition, it has fun and interesting characters, including a female lead that never once complains or protests or whines. The story is far more plausible (even if the stunts and action are just as improbable), the villains far more menacing, and the film vastly more entertaining and exciting. To reiterate: Sahara good; National Treasure crap.

Without getting too deep into the plot, Sahara is based on the novel by Clive Cussler and features regular Cussler hero Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), a modern-day treasure hunter, who works for Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy, in a bit of inspired casting), an explorer hired by nations to retrieve relics long lost underwater. Pitt and his lifelong sidekick, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), go wherever in the world their services are needed and pull some Indiana Jones-style efforts to find whatever is missing. In his personal time, Pitt has long been searching for a missing Civil War-era, steel-plated gunboat that somehow made its way from America to Africa, where it seemingly disappeared into thin air (if it was really ever there at all). After a successful retrieval mission in Africa, the Admiral allows Pitt and Giordino to take one of his boats to search for clues to the missing warship. In a nearby part of the continent, a World Health Organization team, led by Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), is searching for the source of what appears to be a massive plague. Naturally, the two best-looking people in the film must cross paths. Through the course of the two-hour Sahara, the three adventurers must battle an African warlord, a sinister French businessman (Lambert Wilson) and the ever-present elements to find the source of the disease and maybe find time for a little ship searching.

McConaughey redeems himself completely for any missteps his career has taken to this point. He seems like a natural in the role as the smooth Southern hero, and you can put money on this film being the first of many Dirk Pitt adventures starring McConaughey. The banter between him and Zahn feels authentic, like two old friends would speak. They don't bicker or do other things that annoy audiences. Each can read the other's mind, and Zahn never plays second fiddle. To Giordino, he is Pitt's equal (as he should be). As for Cruz, she's right there with them, never complaining, never a pain in the ass. The film's action sequences are top notch and could not be more thrilling. I also appreciated that it appears that no CGI was used in conjuring the stunts in Sahara. I may be wrong, but it seems that good old-fashioned stunt workers are in play at every turn. The supporting cast of Macy, Wilson and Delroy Lindo as a CIA agent in Africa is also far better than you would expect. Sahara succeeds because nobody is taking themselves too seriously (as in National Displeasure), which is not to say the characters are winking as they gallivant across the desert. There's a method and precision to their laid-back attitude. Consider this the spring movie season's first entry from left field.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland.

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