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Like a cat and a laser pointer.
The Great Gatsby is classic Baz Luhrman. Like most of his other films, it’s a big messy thing that sweeps you up in its ambition and only occasionally lets you drop. Mirroring the story of its enigmatic central character, the movie is big on imagination but small on coping with things not working out as planned. It’s impossible that this was intentional, but I feel like it’s an insightful observation to make about a resonant coincidence.
More than the book, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a melodrama through and through. Occasionally this induces cringes as some scenes are just too maudlin (in some ways, the book is also an ode to maudlin) or too cheesy to withstand the instinctive rejection of melodrama in and of itself. The movie frequently overplays its hand, resulting in gimmickry that feels cheap rather than the ornate that it’s going for.
Instead of trying to derive some topical, modern-friendly message from what is essentially Rich White People Have Problems: The Movie, Gatsby commits utterly to the somewhat off-history context Luhrmann has crafted for it. This makes it essentially a fairy tale, and it follows through with the conventions until it all begins to fall apart and twist into a tragedy that is almost certainly Shakespeare-inspired. That goes for the book as well, but where the book is tidy and concise, the movie is bombastic and draped over the audience like a cigarette model with too-long legs.
Sometimes you just want her to move.
Gatsby’s ridiculous castle.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, seemingly ageless) is a wannabe writer who moves to New York City to join all the excitement of the stock trade. He’s related to Old Money but is not essentially “of” it, so he lives in a little cottage right next door to the Jamie Foxx of 1920′s mansions. Across the bay, his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives with her boorish husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, chewing the movie like Doublemint). Always the outsider and observer, Nick gets caught up in the petty intrigues and social abandon of New Yorkers in the 1920′s. He meets professional lady golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and together they are pulled into the grand plan of Nick’s reclusive owner.
Five years ago, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) met and fell in love with Daisy Fay only to disappear after the war (WWI) which left her to marry Tom. Now he’s come back to win her heart again. All the pomp and circumstance he can muster with what seem to be inexhaustible fortunes go toward this project. As he takes up an affair with Daisy, Nick continues to play the chronicler and watch the drama unfold. It’s a tricky proposition for a modern story, actually. I wouldn’t have been surprised if an adaptation of the book dropped Nick’s perspective and made Gatsby more protagonist and less subject. The Great Gatsby is a very faithful adaptation to the book, underneath all the visual stuff, and therefore keeps Nick in the watcher role, providing plenty of opportunities for unnecessary voice over (I think it’s definitely a crutch too often in this movie) and the book-end device where he’s in a Sanitarium writing this all out as a book. Plenty of magical typing across the screen ensues and it is all bad.
Leo is a good reason to see any movie.
Anyway, back to Gatsby’s plan.
There’s something romantic about it and if you can forget about the contemporary cynicism at the excesses of rich white folks, it’s enjoyable in much the same way as the The Count of Monte Cristo. In fact, I always loved the grandness at the heart of Gatsby’s plans and his efforts to realize them. In the movie, this is given huge emphasis and is brought to life by Luhrmann’s particular flair for pageantry, anachronistic music, and beautiful images that are almost slaps.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a treasure and his performance in this is filled with the kind of nuanced, quieter moments that he’s so good at. It’s interesting to note that he and Luhrmann go back to Romeo+Juliet. Gatbsy is the first time DiCaprio has leveraged his boyish looks rather than tried to make us forget them. His Gatsby his full of childlike wonder and imagination and the same stubborn insistence on his own reality as you’d expect from a headstrony boy. While Nick tells us that Gatsby is the greatest because he’s so hopeful, we see a desperate and naive boy who doesn’t get his way and has a hard time dealing with it. I think DiCaprio’s performance tells us that this is intentional, that it’s actually thematically relevant that what we get from Gatsby and what Nick gets are somewhat different things.
Because Nick, too, is boyish and naive.
Like in the book, Gatsby is the most interesting thing about the movie. The mystery surrounding his life story, his wealth, and his motives all swirl around throughout the movie and provide the stronger substructure on which is laid those draping legs, that persistent and pretentious melodrama. Less interesting are Nick or Jordan, the latter being my favorite character in the book and here underused in spite of a great performance from Debicki. However, Carey Mulligan can basically make any character sympathetic and her line readings for Daisy keep her compelling even as the plot assassinates the character, making her more foolish and more frivolous over time. In the book, Daisy feels like the “beautiful fool” she describes early on and never much more. In the film, you get major depth and pathos from Mulligan, enough to garner real sympathy for Daisy and understanding (if not approval) of the choices she makes. Her delivery of the “beautiful fool” line is haunting and it gives the line significance in the movie that I don’t remember it having in the book (where it felt like a witticism in a book full of them). Even Edgerton can’t rescue Tom from being a total cad, but he walks away with just about every scene he’s in and manages to infuse the most repulsive character in the movie with something like human emotions during the movie’s double-climax.
Speaking of that climax, The Great Gatsby is too long. I understand the necessity of the two climaxes (the hotel scene and the accident), but there are two long breaths taken before the end where not only is the whole movie explained back to us by crappy VO, but the whole thing just grinds to a frustrating halt. The first happens before Gatsby dies, the other afterward as Nick goes ballistic and we get to learn all about how he ended up in the Sanitarium writing his book. Even though the book provides an ending, it seems like Luhrmann had trouble wrapping up the movie. Everything after Gatsby’s death especially feels like a movie that can’t quite figure out how to end. With a more concise, abrupt climax, The Great Gatsby would have went out with at least a whimper. As is, it goes out with a self-referential and tedious sigh.
New York is practically a character in the movie.
In spite of its structural clumsiness and narrative shortcomings, The Great Gatsby is a movie that deserves just about every aesthetic accolade you could give it. It’s impeccably designed, self-consciously mythologizing New York in a way that somehow feels fresh and exciting. I mean, it’s the most mythologized and romanticized city in the United States and Luhrmann makes that feel special anyway. That’s really something.
There’s also that The Great Gatsby is probably the best use of 3D in a live-action film since Avatar.
Though The Great Gatsby is a fairly shallow film overall, and it could be easily said that its visual flair is just more superficiality to disguise its lack of depth, I think it’s more fair to attribute credit to the sensory effect of a movie that is honestly and obviously trying to achieve such an effect. There are parts of Gatsby where wonder is invoked in the audience, where real beauty stands out in a world that is primarily about artifice, and where you can’t help but admire the vision that semi-obnoxiously coats everything else in it.
The Valley of Ashes is sort of a non-starter.
The one half-hearted attempt Gatsby makes at saying something about the poor is in its depiction of the coal-mined wasteland between Long Island (where the characters live and conduct most of the affairs that make up the movie) and the citadel of New York. This is where the poor, broken down people live. Some hand-waving is given to that the Valley exists to support the partying New Rich that populate the movie, but it doesn’t stick.
Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher play a married couple, the Wilsons, operating a gas station. Myrtle Wilson is Tom’s mistress and a secret thrust upon Nick even though Daisy is a relative. It seems like helping Gatbsy with Daisy is a way for him to balance the scales in terms of secrets and betrayals, but Nick is never able to fully realize his own motivations and the movie too quickly flits back to pageantry or melodrama to bother much with introspection. Nick’s ennui after Gatsby’s death doesn’t really feel like the end-road of his role in all this. He’s too much on Gatsby’s side and not enough on the side of getting away from all these lies, schemes, and secrets. The last secret he keeps is that it was Daisy who killed Myrtle. Maybe Gatsby’s last wish, that no one know it was Daisy, is the element that’s supposed to solidify him as a grand romantic hero. It doesn’t stick, in spite of Nick’s assessment of his character, because it’s still about Gatsby’s master plan and eliminating all obstacles to it.
It’s actually hard to consistently talk about the themes and characterization because while they are present and noticeable, they remain shadows of a story more interested in what these characters do than why. This is also why I called it a bit of a fairy tale. In fairy tales, things happen according to fairy tale logic and people can extract whatever metaphors and meanings they desire. Or they can take the whole thing literally and accept what the narrator or other “authority” in the story tells them about what they just saw. The Great Gatsby plays with the idea that Nick is an unreliable narrator, but there’s no commitment to actually exploring this. The fairy tale is not interested in interpretations, it only wants to set up and pay off.
Rare scene where The Great Gatsby breaks from its self-serious, maudlin tone and lets itself be awkward and funny.
All in all, The Great Gatsby has too much going for it to be a failure. Though even Luhrmann’s failures are interesting, to be honest. This is one of those movies where the flaws are easily overlooked if you can conceptualize it as a fairy tale and enjoy the sensory ride. Because of the great performances and visual beauty, The Great Gatsby can be enjoyed even if you note the flaws. It’s not expressly a dumb movie, even though it is shallow, and pretentious is often better than careless. I can imagine a version of The Great Gatsby that I would prefer more (as an adaptation of the book) but that doesn’t take away from Luhrmann’s silk and neon romp through his fantasized approach.
I have a strong instinct to criticize this movie on the grounds that it doesn’t acknowledge its social context whatsoever, and embraces the problematic aspects with abandon. I’ve restrained that instinct and reserved what little discussion I can offer about this.
I think a lot of people are going to dismiss or rail against this movie in light of contemporary attitudes toward wealth, excess, and even romance. In some sense, for example, Gatsby’s romanticism borders on creepy. He’s possessive and obsessive and all that fun stuff. Unsurprisingly, the Twilight crowd already seems to be eating this up. Likewise, the MTV Cribs dimension of culture will look at the opulence of Jay Gatsby in much the same way as Tony Montana is remembered. And Tony Montana was satirical, even. That Gatsby is a bootlegger and criminal? Even better. The pop culture impact of Gatsby, if it has much of one, will be depressing.
Can’t really imagine anyone else playing the guy.
All that said, it seems unfair to go at this movie on that level. Why should the adaptation of a book that’s almost 100 years old be reformulated to acknowledge the way some of its cultural contexts have changed over time? It’s a difficult question to answer. I can imagine good arguments going either way. I could even imagine criticizing a movie for not being more responsible with itself under different circumstances. The Great Gatsby is a trivial movie in many ways and perhaps that’s why I don’t care that it isn’t going for irony when Tom talks about the “Colored Empires” (though Daisy does make jokes about this) or when Gatsby is throwing his ridiculous parties on the bones of a working underclass. If it was less trivial, its story more affecting and profound, then we might rightfully expect some reflection of current social responsibility. But the book doesn’t exactly dwell on or explore those issues and it didn’t need to. It’s an interesting question to ask, whether these Rich White People Have Problems narratives are valid in spite of the cynicism they deserve.
It’s something I’ll probably wrestle with as the discussion of the movie rolls out among my friends and other writers. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Which is really the hero?
I think Iron Man 3 is only slightly less ballsy than The Avengers. It’s another of Marvel’s growing crop of “they really fucking made this? they really fucking made this!” movies. This is not to say that it doesn’t have problems or that it’s going to be a crowd-pleaser the way The Avengers was. You really can’t fault Marvel for a lack of boldness, though. If nothing else Iron Man 3 is really trying (and I think succeeding) in shaking things up and turning expectations upside down. It also wants to be a serious psychological exploration of character and on this front, credit goes to the allowances given to Shane Black to really make this movie his.
A lot of peoples’ enjoyment of this movie is going to rest on whether or not they get its broader context. Even broader than that it’s a Marvel movie. Or a superhero movie, for that matter. It doesn’t always feel like one, after all.
Because this is a Shane Black movie through and through (Christmas setting, introspective voice-over, snappy dialogue, funny and realized henchmen, monologuing Bond villain, etc), it will definitely help calibrate the reception of its sprawling tone and loose arrangement of Jungian psychological metaphor if you know your Shane Black. Even people who only ever saw the seminal Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will feel something familiar about Iron Man 3 that goes beyond the inclusion of Robert Downey Jr.
Marvel knows we’re living in what I called the post-Avengers world. Both in the film, where things are somewhat darker and more personal (seems this is being extended to other Phase 2 films given Thor 2‘s trailer), and outside of it. They are not trying to emulate the gangbusters approach they (and Joss Whedon) took to The Avengers. Rather, this is about scaling things back and dealing with the aftermath of a world-shattering event. This just feels right. I don’t know how else you could describe it.
But lets get back to the movie.
SPOILERS ACTIVATE! Read the rest of this entry »
This is a ridiculous, misanthropic film.
Michael Bay is a well-known fan of the Coen brothers. He frequently casts Coen regulars (John Turturro and Frances McDormand for example) and sometimes seems to flirt with some of their human-hating dark humor from time to time. Even in kids’ movies like Transformers. In Pain & Gain, Bay returns to the world of R rated high saturation ridiculousness that he left behind for ten years to do progressively worse giant robot movies. This is the world where Bay belongs, however. This means that Pain & Gain is here to remind us what the guy can do with obnoxious, somehow nuanced, vulgarity when he feels like it. Read the rest of this entry »
Ryan Gosling doesn’t star in this movie, he haunts it.
I actually saw The Place Beyond the Pines before the last two movies I reviewed (Evil Dead and Oblivion) but it’s taken me a lot longer to conjure a review. This is partly because I wanted to like this one more than I did. It’s also because, whether it works for you or not, The Place Beyond the Pines is one you have to sit with for a while. It’s thematically dense and takes itself very seriously. It mostly succeeds in expressing its themes effectively and leaving the audience with the semi-melancholy feeling that pervades it. That said, the structure undermines the movie and it seems like they should have presented it for what it is rather than hiding its generational scope behind the promise of its leads doing impressive dramatic work, which they do
Overall, The Place Beyond the Pines is hampered by the conceits that don’t work. On a deeper level, though, it’s a movie that should connect strongly on the strength of its essential theme: what sons inherit from their fathers, good and bad. I think that The Place Beyond the Pines is probably a more enjoyable experience if you know about the plot and a pretty major character death before actually seeing it. Without this knowledge, the feeling is that Pines is trying to be surprising and it ends up feeling frustrating instead. Because of this, I won’t caution you to avoid spoilers on this movie unless you are just fundamentally against them on principle. With this opening scrawl, I’ve respected that as usual but I will be including spoilers in the main text of the review. Read the rest of this entry »
Easily one of the more gorgeous science fiction films in recent memory.
Oblivion is best understood as an entry level movie. It’s being criticized heavily for its “thoughtless” borrowing from just about every classic science fiction film of the last fifty years, but I would submit that this borrowing is meant both as a love letter to the genre and as a way for imagery, ideas, and references to be introduced to a fresh audience of younger people without any sure experience of many of those classics. Some of the references are to movies that were chasing after the Big Speculative Ideas. Oblivion is happy to pin them up in its road-map of the science fiction genre, but is more blue collar in its thematic approach. It is far more self contained and clever in itself than interested in cosmic or grandiose questions or ideas.
I mean, it’s a movie with an ending sequence that blends imagery and concepts from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Independance Day… at the same time. This is far more awesome than it sounds.
Oblivion may seem shallow at first glance, but I think there’s a methodology behind it that I can support. Because of its lavish presentation and clever structuring of reveals and payoffs, it is not boring even if you have seen the movies that it so expansively tributes.
I am going to have to spoil this movie in order to talk about it. It’s one of those where knowing too much may be detrimental overall, so you shouldn’t read this review if you haven’t seen it. That said, you may find it predictable or derivative as you watch it if you’ve seen some of the movies it riffs on. Use your spoilers judgment, kids!
The cast is mostly blah.
There is an ironic amount of over-praising being bestowed upon Evil Dead, a remake that I think is actually the appropriate sort. The praise is being generated over the movie’s apparently terrifying effect on audiences. I am here to tell you that Evil Dead is not scary. It’s gory, yes, and some scenes are a bit unsettling, but it’s not worth the youtube reaction videos. The irony comes from two places. First, there’s that The Cabin in the Woods came out less than two years ago. That movie is the last time you saw the familiar “bunch of kids go to a cabin, hilarity ensues” formula. That movie used the formula as a vehicle to eviscerate the over-reliance on the formula in the horror genre. That movie suggested, with supreme wit, that horror needs to get more creative and/or more convicted with its tropes and subtext. Evil Dead is like if someone shrugged and said “so what?” and went right ahead not only making a remake of an influential horror classic (that has been riffed on and copied continuously, right up til The Cabin the Woods did it to make its point) as if no call to better horror had ever taken place or taken off. The second piece of irony is that there are definitely praiseworthy elements in Evil Dead, just not the stuff it is generally being praised for. Read the rest of this entry »
The natural evolution of Jesse Ventura.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a weird sort of sequel. It liberally ignores the “canon” of its predecessor in many superficial ways, drops characters and icons we saw in the previous film without explanation, and often feels more grounded and as if it takes place in an entirely different world than the first one (which was much more science fictional). The result is something that I can only compare to two different versions of the same comic book character(s). John M. Chu proves he can do more than direct dance movies or follow Justin Beiber around, showing a flair for action and humor that lends itself well to this movie, but he also feels like a guy coming into an X-Men run two years after the last notable one.
This movie also has an interesting production history. There were several rumors going around when it was delayed (it was supposed to come out last year). The most popular rumor was that it had been delayed to bump up the presence of Channing Tatum and his character Duke. 2012 was the make year for Tatum and it makes a lot of sense that the studio would look at this fact and say “our movie needs more of this year’s it-guy”. I don’t know how much they added, but the official report was that the delay was really about a post-conversion to 3D. And here I thought these fuckers had realized what a bad idea that usually is. Fortunately in G.I. Joe 2, the 3D is actually pretty good and often cleverly used to punctuate the action choreography.
Anyway, as to whether or not this movie is any good… you’ll have to ask yourself whether you liked the first one or not. It’s definitely different, as this sequel is more grounded and less ridiculous (for the most part) than Rise of the Cobra. That being said, it’s still a cartoon action movie coasting on a somewhat thin coating of charm and violence. The first movie was more violent and more crazy than this one, and if that’s why you liked it (if you did) then you will maybe be disappointed by Retaliation. Of course, if you didn’t like the first one because of those elements, Retaliation will certainly seem like the better of the two. Read the rest of this entry »
Yeah, I don’t think people knew what they were getting themselves into with this one.
First of all, Spring Breakers is genius. This is the first but hopefully not last holy fucking shit movie of 2013. It is going to hugely divide people because many will expect something sillier, more trite, and way less weird. There have been comparisons to Malick’s films, and these are somewhat apt. Harmony Korine is known for being something of a cinematic anarchist, but I’ve never seen his other films (I will now, though). With Spring Breakers, it is basically like he wants to say “fuck you” to Michael Bay and Terence Malick while also caressing them lovingly.
With it’s haunting, repetitive refrains, the Skrillex score, and constantly rotating shots of naked chicks, blunt smoke, and all the candied, metallic surfaces of a dystopia happening just around the corner, it seems like Spring Breakers may be trying to say something to and about contemporary youth culture. This is supposed to be Korine’s schtick, the well-known Kids being one of the more commonly seen of his films. I’m not sure that Korine specifically wants to say anything, though. This feels like the work of an observer, first and foremost, someone who revels in the chaos and insanity more than needing to hold it up to say “hey look, America… this is you!”.
That said, there is something uniquely American about this film. I think a lot of viewers will be turned off by that, unable to comprehend the hedonism and recklessness of the culture on display. It is a film to make our elders shift in their seats and look around uncomfortably, as if everyone under the age of thirty might snort coke off a pair of tits, flash a submachine gun, or crack a metal grin at any moment. This is a movie I barely understand in a generational sense, and I’m only twenty-six. Fuck man, it makes me nervous about young people.
And I think that’s exactly what Korine wants. Read the rest of this entry »
The eye halo effect works a lot better when it’s the glowy CG. The contacts they use for most shots don’t look nearly as good.
I’ve never reviewed a Twilight film so my readers have never been confronted with my thoughts on Stephanie Meyer and the various controversies, conundrums, and kerfuffles revolving around her and her work. It may be of interest to note that I’ve seen all the Twilight movies and I don’t even hate them. I watched The Vampire Diaries on the CW until recently (blame my SO for this, though, I never much liked it). The point here is that I’m not one of those guys who just baseline dismisses this stuff. I don’t seek it out, either, and I saw the Twilight films through the obligations of friendship, which sometimes put us in the path of things we’d just as soon avoid.
In the case of The Host, there were two reasons I wanted to see this movie on my own, not needing the persuasion of girlfriends platonic or otherwise to coax me. The first is that it’s Andrew Niccol (Gattaca and In Time) who is one of my favorite filmmakers. The second is Saorise Ronan who is one of the best young actresses out there and who is being rightly praised for carrying The Host almost completely on her shoulders. If the film is at all watchable, and I don’t know that it is, it’s because of her.
The Host essentially serves two masters. The first is Niccol’s penchant for glossy dystopia as a metaphor for contemporary issues. The second is Meyer’s penchant for schlocky romantic entanglements that are like if Shakespeare was reincarnated as a twelve year old Puritan who couldn’t write. Unfortunately for the movie, and for its viewers, there is far more commitment to the latter than to the former and the result is a CW pilot that is barely science fiction and mostly unearned
Read the rest of this entry »
No, my hair isn’t like this as a statement.
The Last Exorcism was a really surprising and good movie. It was a character study, had effective suspense, and it yielded one of the nicest cinema surprises in a horror film in recent memory. The Frankenstein Theory has none of these accolades. There is no discernible sense of character, the suspense is basically dumb and feels like a limp attempt at Blair Witch retread, and its only surprise is just how lamely it fails to fulfill the promise of its own subject. The Frankenstein Theory‘s only real promise comes in its premise and smarter filmmakers would have realized that this promise had to be kept at some point but never was. In a post The Cabin in the Woods genre scene, this shit will not suffice.
Happily, the endorsement of “From the Makers of The Last Exorcism” means absolutely nothing in this movie. It has a completely different writer and director, meaning that Daniel Stamm, Huck Botko, and Andrew Gurland (the real “makers” of that film) are not choking on their sophomore outing. This film comes to us from Andrew Weiner (actually a pretty good director) and co-writer Vlady Pildysh. It follows the gimmicky model of Paranormal Activity, eschewing the self-awareness and nuance of Exorcism utterly.
This is not to say that The Frankenstein Theory has no redeeming qualities. It has a few. It’s more important for a movie that coasts on a gimmick to be called out as a charlatan, however, at the outset. People will go into this having inklings and hopes that will never be satisfied. You’ll want to see the movie where they go and find the real Frankenstein and talk to it, maybe holding some dark and doomed palaver even if only just before the end.
This is not that movie. Read the rest of this entry »