Sunday, August 24, 2014

Life in Black and White

It's extremely unusual these days for a wide-release movie to be filmed in black and white. (Oh, sure, the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist was [and it was a silent film, to boot], but that was a case of the exception proving the rule.) But just this week I've seen two new releases that are primarily filmed* in B&W, with radically different results. So let's take a look at Sin City 2 and The Giver, which actually have more similarities than you might think at first glance.\

Sin City 2 is the prequel/sequel to 2005's Sin City, which first brought Frank Miller's stark B&W neo-noir graphic novels to the screen. While Miller is listed as a director (along with Quentin Tarentino), the film is primarily Robert Rodriguez's effort. Stunning in its faithfulness to the original source material, audiences flocked to the first Sin City, for nothing like this had been seen.

But nine years have passed. Sin City 2 was stuck in pre-production hell for a while and the finished film suffers as a result. Several roles had to be recast - Brittany Murphy (Shellie) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute) had both passed away, and scheduling conflicts necessitated a few other changes, including substituting Josh Brolin for Clive Owen in the role of Dwight. Sin City 2 is based on four Miller stories - two of which were written for the film - and that may have been a mistake. (Again, the film is both a prequel and a sequel - if you go, just enjoy the ride and don't try to figure out how "B" could happen when "A" happened in the first film.) Sin City 2 feels stitched together; possibly the result of trying to cover too many stories. Then again, I understand the temptation with a cast this strong. Mickey Rourke is back as stone-cold killer Marv and Powers Boothe chews the scenery as the sociopathic senator Roark (no relation, I'm sure). Jessica Alba's Nancy seems tacked on to the story - I much prefer Miho in this film, but I always had a weakness for that character, anyway. The breakout performance here is undoubtedly Eva Green's Ava, the "Dame to Kill For" of the subtitle, although a strong case could also be made for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Visually, Sin City 2 is gorgeous. The stark black and white is shot through with pops of vivid color - red lips, a blue silk coat, emerald eyes, and so on, but some of the most memorable shots involve the black and white - look for Nancy curling up in satin sheets - and cigarette smoke hasn't been this sexy in years. The problem is, even as lush as it is, we've seen this before - and the stories are so-so. Ultra-violent in that Miller style (if you haven't read his "Dark Knight" work, do yourself a favor and seek it out), Sin City 2 is stylish and slick, but ultimately, not all that much to get excited about. I saw it in 3D, which just didn't add a lick to the experience. Rental.

The Giver is also shot primarily in B&W, but for other reasons. In Sin City 2, the B&W is a deliberate attempt to harken back to the noir feel of the graphic novels, while in The Giver it serves a narrative purpose - the people living in the "Communities" can't see color. Well, most of them, anyway. It's a very peaceful society; quite the opposite of Miller's (Ba)sin City, but it's just as corrupt at the core. Based on Lois Lowry's best-selling and Newberry Award -winning young adult dystopian novel, The Giver centers around some very basic questions - is safety worth sacrificing emotion? Is it a sacrifice if you don't know any other option is out there? How much control over your life should be entrust to others? Valuable questions to examine, but the film falls flat. It departs substantially from the novel in a few key places and a dream cast is basically left with not much to do. Seriously - Meryl Streep [18 Oscar nominations with 3 wins for Kramer v. Kramer, Sophie's Choice and The Iron Ladyand Jeff Bridges [six Oscar nominations with 1 win for Crazy Heart] should be an embarrassment of riches. Bridges gets to sink his teeth into his role, Streep doesn't, and Katie Holmes shouldn't view this exactly as her triumphant return to the big screen. On the plus side, The Giver is a good vehicle for Brenton Thwaites (Jonas) who is breaking into American films. His last role was as Prince Phillip in Maleficent, where he didn't have much to do. Here, he gets to show off his chops and Thwaites comes out of this standing tall.  Keep your eye on him. The Giver isn't bad - in fact, there are some very touching bits that I daresay the target audience will cling to and there was one montage about "receiving strength" that nearly had me tear up. It's just not that good, either. Read the book instead. Rental.

*I suppose it's not quite accurate to use the term "filmed" since most movies nowadays aren't shot on film stock anymore, but rather on digital media. Still, the old term dies hard and I'm so glad the term "talkie" never really caught on.

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