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.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.