Mickey Rourke in Sin CitySIN CITY

Sin City, which is based on three graphic novels by comic-book legend Frank Miller, might not be Pulp Fiction, but it is most definitely pulp fiction, and dazzlingly entertaining pulp fiction, to boot.

In his Sin City novels, Miller (co-directing here with Robert Rodriguez) imagines a neo-noir world where paranoia, betrayal, and murder are the order of the day, and '40s-style tough-guy vengeance is delivered with astonishing ultra-violence; if you consider Miller's characters to be heartless, it's most likely because some psychopath has quite literally ripped out their hearts. What Miller and Rodriguez are up to in their film version is not so much an adaptation of Miller's output as it is a frame-by-frame reproduction rendered in celluloid. Like Gus Van Sant's criminally unappreciated remake of Psycho, Sin City is a stunt, an experiment; the directors aren't just going for the sense of a graphic novel come to life, they're also - in the film's staging, editing, and cinematography especially - attempting to pull off a graphic-novel texture, and the results are almost wildly successful. Sin City is as tough and unflinching as its creator, yet it's to the filmmakers' immense credit that a great deal of welcome gallows humor sneaks through, as well as something that nearly resembles soul - the movie's main characters have actual blood coursing through their two-dimensional veins.

The film's stylistic tone is established in Sin City's opening scene. We are first treated to the sight of a flawless figure in a blood-red gown, gazing from a rooftop at the night sky and the ravishingly beautiful, black-and-white cityscape below. (The entire film unfolds in black-and-white, with occasional bursts of red, green, blue, and yellow.) A handsome stranger (Josh Hartnett) enters the scene. He speaks to us in voice-over and proceeds, with hard-boiled brio, to sidle up to the woman, compliment her eyes, caress her, and kill her. And although Hartnett might not be the knight-in-chic-trench-coat you might be hoping for - admittedly, I giggled upon hearing his first line reading, but then again, I always do - Sin City has immediately seduced you into its visually resplendent world (even at its bloodiest, the movie is unremittingly gorgeous) and piques your interest in the stories that follow.

In short order, we meet our three "heroes" - the dour, over-the-hill cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the bitter, disfigured bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke), and the sociopathic enforcer Dwight (Clive Own) - and the movie's Pulp Fiction influences become clear: All three tales, which involve horrific crimes such as pedophilia, castration, and cannibalism, dovetail among one another, and Miller and Rodriguez play tricky games with the movie's chronology. This new film doesn't have the sharpness or exquisite banter of Tarantino's iconic 1994 work; it's telling that Sin City's most well-sustained sequence is the one that Tarantino himself shot, in which Owen and a frighteningly (and literally) unhinged Benicio del Toro converse in the front seat of a car. Yet the movie is still a bold, oftentimes brilliant endeavor, and the actors play their stereotypes with zeal.

Among a mesmerizing cast, many of whom perform radical reversals of their typical screen images (Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Alexis Bledel, and Carla Gugino, in particular, must have leapt at the chance to momentarily trash their assumed career trajectories), a few go beyond what even Miller and Rodriguez may have expected: Willis, with his surprisingly touching, hard-won authority; Owen, with his laser-beam stare and dry wit (Sin City's funniest moment is Owen's subversively blasé reading of the exclamation "Yeesh"); Rosario Dawson, recreating the ferocity of her Alexander performance to much greater effect; and best of all, Mickey Rourke, who, despite the John Merrick makeup, finds a deeply sympathetic center to his cold-blooded killer. (It's beyond time for Rourke to receive his due credit as one of our great interpreters of scumbags.) In fact, of the film's huge cast of familiar performers - and I haven't even mentioned contributions from the likes of Michael Clarke Duncan, Jessica Alba, Powers Boothe, Michael Madsen, Nick Stahl, and Rutger Hauer - only Brittany Murphy seems out of touch with the film's style. Playing a beaten, flirtatious waitress, Murphy is the only actor who pushes her role's comic subtext; while everyone else allows the audience to find the inherent humor themselves, Murphy shows you that she knows how funny it all is, and as a result, she's the least enjoyable performer onscreen.

But Brittany Murphy is a minor hindrance. You can easily ignore her overplaying, just as you can shrug off the film's occasional aimlessness (a few scenes go on past the point of our caring), for the chance to luxuriate in the film's breathtaking debauchery and intoxicating pull. Sin City is clever, it's nasty, it's vehemently in your face, and, so far, it's the American movie of the year.


Mena Suvari and Queen Latifah in Beauty ShopBEAUTY SHOP

Queen Latifah has been so atrociously misused in her recent starring vehicles that the sweet, amusingly predictable Beauty Shop would be cause for celebration even if it weren't as enjoyable as it is. The Queen can always be counted on to bring ebullience and intelligence to whatever film she's attached to, but after the crude, forced "zaniness" of Bringing Down the House and (God forbid) Taxi, some of us were wondering if Hollywood would ever find a her a proper leading role. (The last thing audiences need is the second coming of Whoopi Goldberg.) The chance to see her in a relaxed, sunny mood - and looking happier onscreen than she has since Chicago - is more than reason to catch Beauty Shop. Like its Barbershop predecessors (Queen Latifah appeared briefly in Barbershop 2: Back in Business), the film itself is little more than a 100-minute gabfest, in which Latifah's sensible stylist Gina, her sharp-tongued associates, and the customers who frequent Gina's salon engage in biting repartee and deal with sitcom-cute problems. If possible, the movie has even less substance than I'm suggesting, but only a complete grouch could deny the movie's sassy charm, and it's populated by a marvelously strong ensemble. Barring Alicia Silverstone and her abysmal performance as Gina's hayseed co-worker (Silverstone might be doing Forrest Gump as a drag queen), Beauty Shop is a treasure-trove of female talent - including Sheryl Underwood, Andie MacDowell, Mena Suvari, Della Reese, The Cosby Show's Keshia Knight-Pulliam, and the ever-magnificent Alfre Woodard (though her character's Maya Angelou fixation was probably more amusing on paper than it actually winds up being). Yet Beauty Shop is the rare chick flick that allows its men, too, to make an impression - Djimon Hounsou shows what a charming romantic lead he can be, and as Jorge, the fey, pompous salon owner who makes life hell for Gina, Kevin Bacon sashays through the movie with hilarious, world-weary indifference; his eyes might be saying, "The ennui is killing me." Best of the lot is the leading performer herself, effortlessly charismatic and perfectly cadenced; in Beauty Shop, Queen Latifah is - at last - the romantic comedienne we've long been waiting for her to be.

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