The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

An adaptation of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitgerald, a Midwesterner becomes fascinated with his nouveau riche neighbor, who obsesses over his lost love.

I had a fear that watching this movie before having a solid memory of the original novel will taint my mind’s eye of the original story. I read the original novel in high school but don’t have a distinct memory of it. So before watching the movie, I reread the original novel. So on with the review…

The film starts off blasting at full volume and ramps it up to maximum for its entire first act. Fortunately, Luhrmann does takes a step back and tones down for the latter two-thirds and lets his actors do their magic. The film is well-casted. The actors are playing Fitgerald’s character descriptions exactly to a tee.

Leonardo DiCaprio chooses to play Gatsby as a hopeless romantic with a big dream. He’s able to find a lot of depth to the character without going to darkness and projects the necessary charm. A darker approach to playing Gatsby that would be equally legitimate and interesting. For all the times he has tried to cover his baby-faced looks with facial hair, Leonardo DiCaprio plays young here. In my favorite sequence where Gatsby reunites with Daisy, DiCaprio feels and acts like a young trepid boy who hasn’t imagined a life beyond his grand vision. The lack of an alternate choice in Gatsby’s eyes is such a stark contrast to when he’s playing host in his parties. Give him an Oscar, he’s earned it so many times now.

Carey Mulligan plays to my image of Daisy from the novel, the light empty way Daisy carries herself and particularly the way she speaks. Mulligan’s Daisy says things just to say them but does not necessarily believes the meaning in her words. Joel Edgerton plays a convincing jerk as Tom Buchanan, and it’s played in a way where we can see Tom’s side of things as well.

Tobey Maguire has a natural kindness to him that makes his Nick Carraway a believable third wheel and keeper of everybody’s secrets. The narrations start a bit awkwardly, but they get better as they go on. I didn’t like that Luhrmann cut off the opening paragraph from the novel. Luhrmann could have helped the actors a lot more by giving them more space to breathe out the scenes. He’s directed them to speaking very quickly and constantly overlapping each other. That said, the best dramatic parts of the novel are retained. The actors are what ultimately save the film from spiraling out of control.

There’s been a common complaint about the use of modern hip hop music in the film. Let me say that the hip hop music did not bother me. Why? Luhrmann isn’t concerned of the story’s historical context or presenting the class conditions that the original novel was addressing, but rather re-energizing this classic story with a post-modern sensibility. There’s no way to take Luhrmann’s world completely seriously as a real-life depiction of America in the 1920’s. The world presented in the film has a texture akin to a Jay-Z hip hop music video that happens to have a Great Gatsby theme running through it. If you think about it for a minute, life did not move as quickly back then as this film depicts. Nobody conversed or drived their automobiles at light speed. A sports convertible back in the day wouldn’t have roared like the Batmobile.

Luhrmann is not operating in terms of reality, but hyperreality. He’s punctuating the story purely in terms of emotional states. It’s as if the director is pondering, “How does Nick Carraway feel the moment he meets Jay Gatsby? How can I make that feel like a nuclear explosion?” “What now would equally communicate the materialistic excess in 1920’s New York? Gangster rap!” So in that light, I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Ultimately, the film remains Luhrmann’s interpretation of Fitgerald’s novel, not a definitive film interpretation of its literary source. Being aware of Luhrmann’s stamp is important to truly enjoying this film. Perhaps the novel is such a classic, a definitive film version of The Great Gatsby probably is not possible. Similar to a Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film adaptation where the literary source is open to a director’s individual interpretation and is passed on from author to author. Fitzgerald’s novel is tight and well-written enough that it can allow multiple filmic interpretations.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. For my purposes, I’m glad that I reread the book first. I may have to check out the Robert Redford version now.

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The Hunter by Daniel Nettheim

The Hunter by Daniel Nettheim

NOTE: It’s been a month and a half or so since I’ve seen a new movie. The production is still going and I’m learning a lot but it is my intention to keep up with this blog. A new idea occurred to me that I can start a new category of shorter reviews where I’ll just write bullet points. So in cases where I’m on a job, I will do this but otherwise my primary intention is to write a long review.  So here we go…

Plot summary: Martin, a mercenary, is sent from Europe by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness on a hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger.

Willem Dafoe carries the entire film with a quiet natural performance. You simply believe him as a hunter/mercenary, particular in the physical way how he moves in the wilderness, handles the tools and weapons. He brings the heart to an otherwise cold story with all its philosophical cerebral themes.

This is an existential loner movie. It presents a lone man against nature as an overwhelming void that the hero must face, come out of it and find some meaning to life. The story asks this of it’s protagonist and also the audience. And for that, The Hunter gives back as much as the viewer is willing to invest into it. The film’s themes cover a variety of things including corporate greed, man vs. nature, man’s purpose in the empty universe and what is humanity. Yes it’s a thinking man’s movie. So for any viewers who may not want to put in so much work, it could be a tame experience.

I merely focused on the the human story about the protagonist regaining his humanity, which gripped me. I regretted that I did not invest enough into The Hunter on the first viewing to get the satisfaction from its philosophical themes. For that, I plan to watch it again.

Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh

Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh

Lucy (played by Emily Browning) is a a young university student who does a variety of odd jobs to support her education. She volunteers as a test subject in a lab, a waitress in a cafe, a copy girl in an office, and sits in a high class bar offering herself as an escort. One day, she’s interviewed by Carol (played by Rachael Blake), and ends up doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to be in a drug-induced sleep in bed alongside paying customers. Things ensue.

I saw the trailer for this film on Apple Trailers and read that it played in Cannes. The trailer has all these film critic quotes paying it compliments so I decided to check it out.

The film asks the audience to be afraid for Lucy, that somehow sleeping side these men will somehow rob her innocence. Admittedly I was afraid for her the first two times, only because she is a girl who’s voluntarily put to sleep while these customers are brought in to do anything they want to her except intercourse. After all, it’s only a verbal agreement. Nothing is stopping them from putting it in. By the third time, I was not afraid for her any longer. The first two sleeping sessions should have built up to the third, but it did not.  My chivalry and sense of danger had dissipated and I needed more from the story to care about this girl in this horrible situation. Then I realized, she’s not innocent at all if it’s her third time. And I found this problematic with the movie.

We are given hints of Lucy’s backstory is several scenes. It’s not given with exposition but they are so few and far between it leaves way too many gaps for the audience to construct a real sense of pathos for Lucy. It creates more questions. What’s Lucy’s major? What’s her dream? Why is she financially independent? This is a case of a director being too subtle for her own good. It was as if Julia Leigh was aware of giving exposition in a story and wanted to leave the appropriate amount of empty space for the audience to imagine her past, but ended up leaving too much.

Emily Browning’s role in Sucker Punch and this film reminds me of how the young Natalie Portman used to have a penchant for Lolita-like roles. Part of Browning’s acting presence in Sleeping Beauty is her titillating the audience with her youthful physicality. I was very aware of that in this film because at times I was titillated and other times watching her made me uncomfortable. She had to bear all for this performance and it’s too bad because nothing was said with the nudity. It’s not her fault, she’s a competent actress who is doing what her director is telling her to do. It begs the question, what was Julia Leigh’s objective with this story?

The cinematography attempts an empty creepy tension through its wide still shots, it succeeds part of the time depending on what’s going on, but part of the time it is quite bland. There’s some nice art direction in these locations. To the film’s credit, the wide shots manage to build up to one very effective close-up when an old customer enters with Carol, sits on the bedside next to a sleeping Lucy and tells this very psychotic story straight into the camera. I was creeped out by the old man so much I could not follow the details of what his story was about. What scared me was the prospect of what he was about to do once he was alone with Lucy. But overall, swinging from titillating to creepy to bland, there was nothing consistent enough to  grip me.

Nudity can be powerful in a story when used correctly in the right context, examples such as Monica Bellucci in Irreversible, Tang Wei in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution or even Elena Anaya in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. I thought about what Julia Leigh wanted to say with the nudity. At one point, it seemed to be the lifeless clinical nudity akin to how Stanley Kubrick used nudity in Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange. Is the director using nudity as a symbol of women selling their souls for money through her almost-prostitution-like job? And then I snapped myself out of that notion. “No no no…” I told myself, “You’re not getting away with this.” That’s what Sleeping Beauty was trying to be, but not what it achieved.