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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Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects is the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh about a young woman’s (played by Ronney Mara) world being turned around when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (played by Jude Law) has unexpected side effects.

Similar to Lian Johnson’s Looper last year, Side Effects is a film that continually mutates its genome and plays its surprises based off the audience’s familiarized expectations of genre convention. I did not know anything about the film going in. In its first act, I thought it was a serious issue-tainment film about the modern practice of prescription medicine. To the end of the first third, it shifted into a new place. By the mid-point, I just stopped trying to guess where it was going to go and decided to just enjoy the ride. I was on the edge of my seat and did not have any grasp of what was to come. Where it ends up is insane and it will divide audiences but I much rather credit the ride more than the final destination.

Rooney Mara plays the pain of depression in a very realistic fashion. At times, it felt like watching a documentary. That’s how real she played it. This performance could have easily fit into a serious drama about having depression if they chose to continue with the first third of the issue-tainment portion.

Jude Law has the heaviest task to do because he balances a lot of the film as it goes through its many tonal shifts. As the psychiatrist character, he is the most reliable character the audience can trust and there is a lot less wiggle room for his character to suddenly change along with the genre shifting or plot twists. He manages them well and does a good job anchoring the film as it gets crazier in the third act.

I haven’t seen Chicago but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ acting in the past has always been distracting to me because she’s constantly preening for the camera. She is too aware of the camera positions and constantly adjusts how much to tilt her head, dilate her pupils or purse her lips for each shot (she’s doing up in the poster! See above). It’s like she’s constantly posing for still-based fashion photography slideshow instead of performing for a time-based forward-motion medium. It doesn’t help the story move forward if you’re constantly asking the audience to ogle over you. Yes, you are pretty, I get it. Kudos to you! I know I am ranting now, but that’s how frustrated it made me.

That aside, she is also playing up a campiness that seems tonally incongruent to the other performances in the film. It’s in her tongue-in-cheek delivery of the dialogue. She’s the odd one out of the entire cast and threatens the overall quality of the movie. Fortunately her part is a supporting one and she manages through the film on wafer thin ice.

Steven Soderbergh says this is his last film. Not that I really ever believe it when any director/celebrity/athlete say they’re retiring anyways. Side Effects is a decent way to go out but I certainly hope this isn’t his last film.

Related Reviews
Behind the Candelabara by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Seven Psychopaths takes its central gag from Adaptation in that it’s about an author struggling trying to write the ideal original story, trying to avoid cliches and climatic gunfights but then at the end the author picks up a gun and shoots his way out of his problems, ironically juxtaposing the exact situations he’s trying to creatively avoid. It simultaneously addresses and pokes fun at the author’s eternal struggle to balance his own personal voice and the necessary components of what makes a story entertaining. So, does Seven Psychopaths bring insight to the craft of storytelling? Not exactly. Is it funny? Yes.

Colin Farrell plays a good straight man and Woody Harrelson makes a hilarious villain. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken both balance the movie’s post-modern aesthetic by adding humanity to the story. With all the post-modern cutaways, witty dialogue and crazy titles stopping the film to identify each psychopath, the movie titters on being self-indulgent but it does not because we believe their characters and care about them. The tone is balanced very well as a result and we are able to both laugh and take things seriously at the same time. Sam Rockwell steals the movie. The humanity he’s able to insert into his character is impressive. Even in his craziness, we understand how his mind works and believe that he is genuinely trying to help his friend. In the hands of a lesser actor, the movie would have collapsed.

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s second feature and it shows. It’s a film where the director is enjoying a bigger cast, bigger budget and more free reign. I don’t have a problem with that. However,  In Bruges is still the superior film. It was a deeper film about guilt and redemption and even had a metaphysical layer that explored the idea of purgatory. I still read it occasionally as a screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is a good piece of fluff and flirts with the suggestion of deeper ideas ironically to get laughs. It’s really good fluff, but fluff nonetheless.