Sin Cityis a comic book for grownups—specifically for grownups who appreciate film noir.

Film noir, as a genre, lacks a specific definition. Landmark noir films are characterized by a prevalent darkness, both visual and spiritual. The "heroes" find themselves in difficult situations, where they have to rebel against the system to achieve their goals; thus noir often focuses on criminals driven by necessity or do-gooders reluctantly employing desperate, violent, illegal methods. Authority figures are typically portrayed as corrupt. Most have a femme fatale—an exaggeratedly sensual woman who spells trouble for the conflicted protagonist. Villains often make an impression by exhibiting an air of amusement as they inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Innocent people are rarely involved, but when they are, they suffer greatly.

We're left with an abiding sense that film noir characters live in a godless world, alone to mete out their own messy justice. We wouldn't want to live in a noir world, but as an exercise in storytelling about what the world looks like to those without faith, it has its merits. For a thorough exploration of noir's history as a style and a genre, read this summary by Eddie Muller (GreenCine).

Chinatown is considered a masterpiece of film noir, and so is Blade Runner—the supreme work of sci-fi noir—but American film noir had its beginnings from the '30s to the '50s. Classics include Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon.

Sin City takes noir a step farther. It takes the conventions of the genre and exaggerates them to the edge of lunacy. A colleague of mine described it as "camp noir." Director Robert Rodriguez, creator of El Mariachi and the Spy Kids franchises, uses startling, stark animation with live footage, and achieves a different result entirely from last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or, for that matter, the original live-action/computer-animation blend of Tron.

The film, like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, delivers three relentlessly violent, sordid stories straight from the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a policeman with a bad heart who promises to protect a young stripper (Jessica Alba.) Micky Rourke plays Marv, a beleaguered loner on a mission of vengeance after the death of his lover (Jaime King). Clive Owen plays Dwight, who's in love with a blonde (Brittany Murphy), but works to defend women of Sin City's red-light district (Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel) from a corrupt policeman (Benicio Del Toro).

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The problem with Sin City is not its genre. The problem is the way that it exaggerates the conventions—brutality, morally misguided heroes, monstrous villains, and sensuality. People aren't likely to come away talking about the ethical dilemmas of the heroes; they'll be buzzing about the sensationalized blood, guts, and sexuality. The film ends up appealing to a viewer's baser appetites, which contributes to ensuring that our own world is, ultimately, a little darker.

"There is one crucial way in which Sin City, the film, is not like Sin City, the comics," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "Each of the original stories was meant to be digested on its own, but the film strings several of them together, and the cumulative effect of sitting through so many grim, morbid, hyperviolent tales is numbing to the soul."

Chattaway describes this collection of stories as "an exercise in male fears and fantasies," and says that the theme of the stories seems to be "a deep distrust of authority, whether of the political or ecclesiastical kind."

He also compares this film to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and finds Tarantino's work to be superior. "Tarantino, perhaps despite himself, turns his pulp source materials into genuine works of art that pose interesting moral and spiritual questions, but Rodriguez, more often than not, is content to toss off films that look cool but offer nothing of any lasting spiritual benefit."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a hard-boiled fever dream of highly stylized brutality, morbid humor and sexual imagery which—though intentionally over-the-top—pushes the envelope of even its restrictive R rating."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) does not disguise his disgust with Rodriguez's film. "I'm compelled to note, first, that the way each 'hero' goes about doing 'the right thing' is beyond flawed. It's demented. So as not to prolong my own agony (or yours) by continuing to dwell on the sordid details of Sin City, I'll condense my conclusion to 10 words Bruce Willis says onscreen: 'There's wrong, and then there's wrong, and then there's this.'"

You won't get a rave from Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) either. "[The film] has no overall purpose, other than pushing the envelope just for the sake of 'art.' It didn't need to be made, and no one needs to see it. A mature adult who lives right and who has absolutely no imbalances or secret sins could probably watch it with a minimum of personal side-effects. Anyone else REALLY needs to stay as far away from this kind of material as possible."

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Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) gives Sin a more positive spin. "An exercise in style that threatens to supplant substance, the movie is visually stunning and demands viewing. If nothing else, it reminds us that our spiritual journeys are relational, not propositional (a matter of following or reciting a formula). The characters live out their beliefs, showing that even in Sin City, love, in the form of self-sacrifice, can be found."

On the same site, Matthew Hill says the violence "feels like violence for the sake of violence—and just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should." But he adds that the movie is about "people's undying sense that things are not right with the world. That we all, in fact, live in Sin City. And, going further, it's yet another story about our undying sense that we need to be saved from such a place, because we won't be able to do it alone. That we all need a knight in shining armor. That we all need God."

Most mainstream critics are so impressed with the cast, the blend of live action and animation, and the imagination onscreen, they say the pros outweigh the cons. But some of them find themselves dispirited by the relentless darkness.

Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) says, "We have, it is clear, reached the lively dead end of a process that was initiated by a fretful Martin Scorsese and inflamed … by Tarantino: the process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering. Rodriguez is pleased to flash his hipster credentials, proud of the hole where his heart is supposed to be … "

In spite of Latifah, Beauty Shop lacks a cutting edge

Queen Latifah steals the show, as usual, in the new comedy Beauty Shop, which unapologetically mimics the ensemble-comedy dynamics of the recent box office hit Barbershop. She plays Gina, a hairdresser who works at a hip Atlanta salon while her daughter attends music school. When Jorge (Kevin Bacon), her boss, disrespects her one time too many, she bails on the business and opens her own shop with the help of a co-worker (Alicia Silverstone).

Her business is apparently more successful than the comedy.

LaTonya Taylor (Christianity Today Movies) finds "a few big laughs here, but mostly just scattered chuckles." She's more impressed with the "thought-provoking treatment of race and class issues. The overall message is that everyone benefits from honesty with one another, with themselves and with finding a supportive community."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) was disappointed. "Beauty Shop should have been a slam dunk success. It isn't. The problem is that none of these characters make much of an impression and watching their stories play out is as interesting as watching hair dry. The problem seems to be in the script which, although it copies the general framework of Barbershop, is totally missing the energy and edgy humor that made that film successful."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "If the plot for Beauty Shop seems a little thin, that's because it is. And if it feels a little familiar, that's because it's a virtual duplicate of the first two Barbershop movies (minus the political potshots). I'll give the movie's creators … every benefit of the doubt for having good intentions. But positive messages found in this slice of inner-city life are often lost amidst misguided attempts at 'keepin' it real.'"

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) had a good time, calling it "a perfect showcase for the likable Latifah, who also served as one of the producers. The eclectic ensemble cast … not all of them generally known for comedy, makes for interesting watching. Despite some salty language—even from a streetwise youngster—and salon sex chatter, overall Beauty Shop imparts solid messages about loyalty, friendship and parenting."

But Lori Souder (Christian Spotlight) writes, "If you can look past all the taking of the Lord's name in vain, all the references to sex and drugs, the endless comparing of body parts and disrespect to women, you might be able to get a laugh or two out of this movie. Its heart is in the right place, and the story line with Gina is great, but apparently it was thought that the audience would require constant sexual references and trashy language or they would fall asleep."

Mainstream critics says this shop needed to offer more plot and something better than less sitcom-style amusement.

More reviews of recent releases

Millions:Artie Megibben (Joy of Movies) says, "In the hands of a lesser director, this family-friendly movie could have been reduced to your typical, formulaic Disney drivel. Instead, however, director Boyle delivers an Oscar-worthy film that is both stylish and endearing. All of which means that your average filmgoer receives a gift that is indeed heaven-sent: A well-crafted movie that deals with topics they probably haven't grappled with since Vacation Bible School. Death, heaven, greed, charity and of course—that Hollywood unmentionable, God."

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Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Millions is a moving story, full of wonder and hope. It makes some affecting and useful comments on money and virtue, but at the same time utterly removes God from the equation. The religious symbolism in Millions functions purely as mythology, symbolic more of the goodness within Damian's heart than any good in the heavens above."

Melinda and Melinda:Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The value in Mr. Allen's films was once found in a willingness both to take seriously and ridicule varying philosophies and belief systems. Fully understood or not, ideas had consequences. But from the weakly deconstructed setup to an even weaker eat-drink-and-be-merry finale, not much about Melinda communicates a similar intellectual rigor."