Thursday, 30 May 2013
"Gatsby? What Gatsby?" In this, just the fourth film adaptation of the great American novel, The Great Gatsby, the answer is less the author's and more the auteur's. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel of 1920s excess and tragic ambition has been lavishly adapted by Australian director, Baz Luhrmann, with an emphasis on the excess, a nod to the tragedy, but somehow missing the book's point amid the champagne and glitter.
It comes as no surprise that Luhrmann and his production/costume designer wife, Catherine Martin, have taken great delight in recreating Roaring '20s New York, and there's no denying the film looks fabulous, despite being unnecessarily shot in 3D. But one gets the sense (unfairly perhaps) that Luhrmann merely read the synopsis for Fitzgerald's book, first published in 1925, and got hung up on the era in which it was set and was not so concerned with what was going on in the book, and even less so with what lies beneath Fitzgerald's prose.
Not that Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, are averse to that wonderful prose; lifting entire passages from the novel and delivered, as in the book but far more successfully there, by narrator and observer Nick Carraway (sacrilegiously here, somewhat, having him tell his story whilst recuperating in a sanitarium). Played by Tobey Maguire, Carraway is a voyeur, on the edges looking in. He is us, the audience. And like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckelburg, the God-like visage from the novel, he witnesses all. Unlike God, Nick's less judgemental and far more sexually ambiguous.
As neighbour to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and cousin to Daisy Buchanan (the beautiful but underused Carey Mulligan), Nick is the facilitator of a clandestine reunion between the two; young lovers before The Great War took the poor but ambitious Gatsby overseas and marriage (to the brutish but monied Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton)) took Daisy's hand if not her heart.
Gatsby's desire is that Daisy leave her husband and that the two will live their lives together as though the past five years never happened; the five years in which Gatsby may or may not have become a war hero, may or may not have attended Oxford, but who certainly accumulated a fortune, although he may or may not (almost certainly may) have done so through illegal means.
His house, on Long Island's West Egg, directly opposite Daisy's on the East, where that metaphorical green light shines in the night, a beacon of light and a promise that was never really made, is Gatsby's Taj Mahal: a grand romantic gesture and ornate symbol of the American dream of rags to riches come garishly to life. It's these visuals from Fitzgerald's book which Luhrmann seizes upon and less so the tragedy of a man who has built his life on a delusion: that money will buy happiness and that the past can indeed be repeated, old sport.
As it is, when tragedy inevitably strikes we don't much care. Despite spending more than two hours in these peoples' company, we've developed very little emotional connection to them. Not that the cast, which also includes small but notable turns by Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke (as the Wilsons), and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, whose elongated figure lends pro-golfer Jordan Baker the necessary athleticism (and a touch of the young Cate Blanchett), are phoning it in. But it's hard not to come across as decorously attired mannequins when the film is more concerned with the look, the surface of things, rather than what lies beneath.
Not that it's all bad. And I suspect one's response to Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby will very much depend on one's relationship to Fitzgerald's book. The less enamoured you are with the novel (and I'll confess, I've been an ardent admirer since first reading it in high school), the more likely you are to swoon over the film (it also helps if you're a fan of Luhrmann's style of filmmaking).
And that's not intended as a backhanded compliment nor literary snobbery for as has often proven to be the case, a great book rarely makes for a great film. And while no text is sacrosanct, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby will always be great.
The greatness of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby may reveal itself over time and with distance (and my opinion of it may very well change), but for now it's an English Lit. term paper which receives a mere passing grade.
Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Icon Film Distribution
Opens May 30
By Guest Reviewer Aaron Smith
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime writer, moves his family into a house in small town USA to research the bizarre hanging murders that happened months before to the previous family that lived there. Although unaware of the horror that took place there, the other members of the Oswalts know all too well about the nature of Ellison’s writing.
Hungry for a hit after tasting success and fame 10 years earlier with a book that resulted in the killer being caught, Ellison finds a box of 8mm home movies in the attic. But as we see in the opening scene, they’re not your usual happy home movies: they’re of the snuff category, documenting the hangings and other disturbing murders dating back to the 1960s.
Rather than turn the films over to the local authorities who originally refuse to assist him in his sleuthing, he secludes himself in his home office to study the horrific, grainy visions for clues. Central to the mystery is the hanged family’s missing little girl. Watching Ellison connect the dots while resorting to alcohol to cope with what he is witnessing is some of the best work I have seen from Ethan Hawke.
Meanwhile a supportive but cautious wife, Tracy (superbly played by Juliet Rylance), struggles to keep her family from falling apart: tween son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) is suffering from recurring night terrors, triggered by accidentally seeing graphic evidence being used as research for one of his father’s previous books; cute and innocent young daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) longs for the friends she left behind before being relocated to the murder house, expressing herself by painting murals on her bedroom wall.
Stakes are higher when there are fully realised characters to be concerned about, so credit to writer-director, Scott Derrickson, co-writer C Robert Cargill, and to a dedicated cast for making me really care about the outcome of the Oswalts. On screen chemistry between all the family members is top notch, while Vincent D’Onofrio in a supporting role as local occult expert, Professor Jonas, adds credibility to the mythology of the killer.
Production values on a $US3 million budget are fantastic with a special mention for the lighting department and cinematographer. Being able to see what’s going on while still retaining a deep darkness adds to the spooky atmosphere and is something which many horror movies fail to achieve.
It’s puzzling why Sinister has taken roughly 9 months after international release to reach Australian theatres, especially after doing such great business and earning mostly favourable reviews. And I strongly recommend seeing it in the cinema. If you are able to take your eyes off the screen you can witness the audience jumping, which is what happened when I saw it in the States.
Who (or what) left the box of films there? Will the desperate true-crime writer realise he has put himself and his family in grave danger before it’s too late? Will the inevitable sequel be titled ‘More Sinster’? Luckily, Sinister satisfyingly delivers on its premise and provides a new kind of horror villain to haunt our dreams.
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Miguel Gomes's film will draw easy comparison with The Artist -- shot in 1:1.37 ratio, in black and white, and virtually silent throughout its African-set second half -- but Tabu is a different cinematic creature entirely.
It's certainly not as light or easily enjoyable as Michel Hazanavicius's Oscar-winner: its pleasures reveal themselves over time and upon reflection, which is fitting for a film concerned with memory and past love.
Tabu, which is split into two parts, opens in modern day Lisbon where Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged do-gooder whose Christmas holiday plans are thrown out when her Polish billet cancels her stay, becomes concerned with her elderly neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral).
A faded glamour puss with a gambling problem, Aurora seems to be losing her grasp on reality; fearing her live-in African carer, Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso), is poisoning her, and always asking after an absconding alligator and talk of Africa.
When Aurora dies, Pilar carries out her request to inform a man named Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), who, much to Pilar's surprise, not only exists but confirms that Aurora did indeed once live in Africa, and owned an alligator.
Upon this revelation, Tabu drifts back to the past, to the early 1960s and colonial Africa: an unnamed country but on the eve of the Portuguese colonial war, where Aurora (now played by Ana Moreira) and Ventura (Carloto Cotta) carry out a clandestine affair whilst Aurora is married and pregnant to another man.
This film's second half, titled Paradise and narrated by the elderly Ventura, removes the dialogue of the characters -- only using their voices when they sing; the young Ventura is a member of a pop band -- but keeps the surrounding sounds: animals, nature and music. Miguel's suggestion that memory is unreliable with minutiae if not the broader strokes.
A favourite at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, it is hard to describe Tabu without doing it a disservice. Even I, while excited to see Tabu, tried to know as little as possible beforehand, and yet it still managed to be completely different to what I was expecting.
I'd suggest you just go in to Tabu open minded and simply go along with it. Its rewards may not be immediate -- and at almost two hours, a little testing -- but Gomes manages to make it nostalgic without being cloying, and like The Artist, much more than its gimmicky design would suggest.
Thursday, 9 May 2013
While not exactly going boldly where no man has gone before, director J.J. Abrams returns to the U.S.S. Enterprise with as much energy and fun as displayed in his 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, making for an entertaining if not quite as equally thrilling sequel with Into Darkness.
After a prologue set on the primitive planet of Nibiru, involving angry natives and a Vulcan in a volcano, Into Darkness returns to Earth where Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and First Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) are immediately demoted for their breaches of the Star Fleet charter. But before you can set your phasers to stun, a terrorist attack in London sees both men recalled to their former posts and sent into deep space to, not retrieve but kill -- another Star Fleet no-no -- the man responsible.
That man is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who's no ordinary man. Nor is he the rogue Star Fleet officer the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise had been led to believe, and it's when the impulsive Kirk is persuaded by the logical Spock not kill Harrison but return him to Earth to face trial that dark secrets are revealed and things go from bad to worse for our spunky space explorers as danger arrives from an unexpected quarter.
Tweaking Star Trek lore and, as one knowledgeable colleague noted, reworking the second of the 12 Star Trek feature films, Into Darkness only slightly extends the characters (re)introduced in the 2009 origins film with the focus very much remaining on the odd couple pairing of Kirk and Spock; Pine and Quinto reprising their undeniable chemistry as mismatched BFF's.
Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), and Scotty (the seemingly even more Scottish, Simon Pegg) have their moments, while Sulu (John Cho) shines in his brief moment in the Captain's Chair (seriously, that seat sees more bums than a proctologist); Anton Yelchin's Chekov, however, is sidelined below deck for the most part.
But stealing the film, of course, is Cumberbatch. The British actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in the modern day re-jigging of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's infamous detective, brings a menacing gravitas to proceedings. Cool and calculating and just plain better at everything, Harrison is the kind of villain who requires both the brawn of Kirk and the brains of Spock just to bring him down to a level playing field. If you're only as good as your opposition, than Cumberbatch's Harrison lifts the game of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew.
It's these characters and the human moments which provide the real spark in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Battle sequences and action set pieces, along with Abrams' fondness for lens flaring, may warp drive us from Point A to Galaxy B (and in unnecessary 3D), but it's the humour and, yes, emotion invested in these people (particularly Kirk, Spock and Harrison) which sustains our interest.
There's already a third Star Trek film slated for a 2016 release (to their credit, Paramount and Abrams don't rush these sequels), and it will be interesting to see if the director relinquishes the reins given his selection to helm the first of the new Star Wars sequels for Disney.
I'm not sure I mind either way. So long as Star Trek 3 is a little bolder intellectually whilst remaining as entertaining as its predecessors, I'll happily ride along on another mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
To paraphrase a line from John Singleton's seminal film of 1991, Boyz n the Hood, "any fool can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children". And that would seem to be the point of The Place Beyond The Pines, director Derek Cianfrance's meditation on fathers and sons, and his first film since the emotionally bruising Blue Valentine (2009).
Telling three overlapping stories, Cianfrance exams how fathers, whether absent or merely distant, impact negatively on their sons' lives. Luke (Ryan Gosling) is the absent variety, although in his defense, the motorcycle stunt rider with a travelling carnival was unaware that his hook-up from the previous year, Romina (Eva Mendes), had fallen pregnant.
Romina seems to have moved on from Luke; she has a new man (Mahershala Ali) who seems happy to provide for her and her son. But Luke decides that he wants to be involved in his son's life, abandoning the carnival and finding work as a mechanic with a seedy local (Ben Mendelsohn). Luke also believes that money spent is as important as time spent, and when fixing cars doesn't bring in the cash, he and his employer decide to rob some banks.
This action ultimately places Luke on a collision course with rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper). Also a new father, Avery is having trouble bonding with his young son, a trait which would seem to run in the family given his hard-to-impress court judge father's reaction to his recent on-the-job heroics.
Avery seems to have changed career paths from studying the law to upholding it, both to avoid following in his father's footsteps whilst simultaneously trying to gain his attention. It's when he decides to tackle corruption within his small Schenectady precinct that he commands his father's attention whilst triggering his own political ambitions.
Cut to 15 years later, and Avery is now the District Attorney caught up in a re-election campaign. His son, AJ (Emory Cohen), now a teenager and currently living with his mum (Rose Byrne), attempts to get his father's attention by acting out. Moved to a new high school, he meets Jason (Dane Dehaan), a loner who, in spite of a loving mother and stepfather, longs for the deceased father he never knew. It is this fraught friendship which inadvertently yet inevitably brings the drama of these characters' lives full circle and to a head.
Films about father-son relationships are nothing new, and no matter how much of Derek Cianfrance's own daddy issues he brings to bear on this material (co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder), there's very little to invest in: for all its serious intent, 'Pines' does not have the emotional impact of Cianfrance's Blue Valentine. My emotional investment in the story pretty much departed not too long after Gosling did; the subsequent two sections (the film is split into three) becoming less and less involving.
I'm not sure that I'm convinced of Cianfrance's basic philosophy either, that absent or distant dads damage their sons. Deadbeat dads, perhaps, but as a boy raised by a single mother, I'd suggest you do not miss what you never had; I certainly didn't. Besides, at some point, you just have to move on and accept responsibility for yourself: so your daddy left you? Suck it up, kid, and build a bridge!
Monday, 6 May 2013
Icon Film Distribution
While many Americans hold strong (however misguided) to that section of the Constitution which affords them the 'right to bear arms', another segment of the population believes just as firmly in the 'pursuit of happiness'.
That demographic would be college students and the most flagrant display of that pursuit is Spring Break - the annual rite of passage which sees thousands of college students descend on Florida for a week or so of Bacchanalian celebrations: booze, drugs and plenty of skin, or in the case of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, boobs.
In the opening shots of Spring Breakers we are assaulted with a barrage of boobs, some in bikinis and some not; if the film had been shot in 3D (a lost opportunity?), you could possibly have lost an eye. The one too many shots of thrusting female crotches are just as immersive, with or without 3D, and depending on your inclinations, for better or worse.
Korine is actually wagging his finger at the hollow hedonism of today's American youth but he's also having his cake and eating it too. Depiction isn't endorsement but he and his cinematographer, Benoit Debie, have no problem lingering over nubile young bodies in various states of undress. "Filthy! But genuinely arousing" they seem to be saying.
Arriving in this orgy of alcohol-fuelled carnal excess are four small town undergrads from middle America who, so desperate to escape their dreary lives, held-up a local restaurant to fund their excursion. The four (three of them blondes, interchangeable with one another, although one is Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame; another is the wife of Korine) feel as though Spring Break has provided them a spiritual awakening and not surprisingly, decide they never want to leave.
That is until one of their hotel room parties is busted-up by the cops and they're thrown in the brink. Bailed out by local gangster, Alien (James Franco), the girls' vacation is about to get a whole lot worse (although not at first), just as the film gets a much needed energy boost by Franco.
A head of cornrows and a metal grill for teeth, Franco's Alien is a gangster rapper of sorts who has more cash than class. And as Selena Gomez (the only non-blonde of the quartet) flees to the safety of home, the remaining three become Alien's coterie; seduced by the abundance of guns, drugs and the possessions that the proceeds of dealing in each can buy.
Living in a sprawling Miami pad, with a pool (with piano) and water views, like Jay Gatsby, Alien's a self made man and epitome of the (corrupted) American dream. Korine even borrows directly from F. Scott Fitzgerald: the 'look at my shit' scene in Alien's house an homage, however ineloquent, to Gatsby's delight in finally being able to show Daisy his wealth; showering her with his wardrobe of silk shirts of every colour.
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, set amid the height of the Roaring '20s, hinted at the fall that was to come. The author knew that the party -- the decadence and largesse -- had to end some time. In a post-GFC world, Korine isn't foreshadowing an economic collapse so much as an intellectual and aesthetic one (even if the sting of his cautionary tale gets lost among the boobs and booze).
These girls and Alien belong to a generation that wants everything instantly: enjoy now, pay later. But a generation which sees Britney Spears as both an artistic icon and a role model can't be headed anywhere good. The future's not bright enough to wear shades but for now, bikinis will do. Spring break forevaaaa!