The Great Gatsby (A)
U.S.-Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 2013, Warner Bros
Baz Luhrmann's often dazzling, sometimes excessive, frequently fascinating film of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age masterpiece The Great Gatsby is one of the best movies of 2013. Predictably crammed with cinematic excess, and done in Luhrmann's (Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom) high style, it's a stunningly imaginative, sometimes madly enjoyable show. At it's best, it makes a classic of literature come alive again on the screen in startling, voluptuously entertaining new and old ways.
To be honest, some of it is over the top, self-indulgent and no doubt annoying to literary purists (and some impurists) -- but not so much that it cancels out, or even seriously diminishes the many pleasures that this Gatsby and its superb source, marvelous cast and first-rate technical people have to offer.
Though Luhrmann's stamp is all over the movie, it's still a quite faithful version of the book (more so than the three previous Hollywood versions): a literary adaptation that preserves much of the original text, but is also encased in a dreamy, show-bizzy musical romp and an ultra-romantic Roaring Twenties movie-movie style that keeps going off in wild stylistic riffs.
There's something admittedly kitschy and pop-operatic about Luhrmann's style here, even when the music isn't playing (which isn't often). It's as if Verdi, while composing one of his Shakespearean operas, had also been able to include a lot of Shakespeare's original spoken text and dialogue as well, and threw in "O Sole Mio" for good measure. In this Gatsby though, the arias are usually Fitzgerald's prose poems, spoken (very effectively, with a kind of morose reverie and regret) by Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. So we get the novel's jewel-like words and phrases writhing across the screen in dancing subtitles, a tribute to Fitzgerald's gorgeously alive prose.
If ever a novel seemed perfectly matched to the movies, it's The Great Gatsby. Even as you read it, the lustrous, glamorous images burn into your memory. and the characters whirl and dance in your mind while they flirt and kibitz and drink gobs of expensive liquor -- gyrating and Charlestoning their frantic way through parties and assignations on the lawns and beaches and vast mansions of the fictional Long Island domains of East Egg and West Egg.
Romance and sin and drama and glossy decor and beautiful people and huge, mind-boggling wealth and other cinematic mainstays are there, and so are some great, provocative literary themes and characters. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is about the glamour and evil of money -- as many movies were, especially in the Jazz Age -- and it's also about the glory and anguish of romance -- as many movies are still, although usually they have happy endings and
The central characters are not just rich, but super-rich or famous: Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance of poignant splendor), pretty fragile belle-of-the-ball Daisy Fay Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), her wealthy, brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and her semi-androgynous golf pro crony Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) -- as well as the more modestly moneyed "poor boy" Wall Street bond-seller Nick Carraway (Maguire) who acts as the tale's ironic, grieving, poetic observer and narrator. (Only in a story as plush and rich, yet openly critical as The Great Gatsby could a bond-seller from a well-to-do family be regarded as a poor boy.) And there are the others, even poorer than Nick: Isla Fisher as Tom's crass juicy mistress Myrtle Wilson and Jason Clarke as Myrtle's hapless and haggard husband, gas station owner and car guy George.
Both book and movie are about affluent, selfish American hedonists like Tom and Daisy, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money," "careless" spoilers who live in posh East Egg, Long Island, and who seduce (and maybe diminish or destroy) people like Gatsby, the one-time Western plains poor boy who's risen to the New York City heights, and who foolishly wants to be like them, and to win at their games.
The story is narrated (in both novel and movie) by the character often described as Fitzgerald's literary surrogate, Nick Carraway, who has moved into a cottage next door to the estate of society titan Gatsby -- and who becomes Gatsby's friend and confidante after Jay learns that Nick is the second cousin of the great love of Gatsby's life: pretty Daisy of Louisville, Kentucky, whom Jay met and fell in love with before he went off to World War I. (Daisy, a character both real and deeply fallible, is at least partly modeled after Scott's own radiant, emotionally disturbed wife Zelda -- a novelist herself.)
In movie as in book, flashbacks (or revelations told to Nick) keep carrying us back into the past Gatsby wants so desperately to recapture, the nights of love and courtship in Louisville with Daisy -- and the film revels in this fluidity of time. Then, after we learn of that devastating meeting and parting of Gatsby and Daisy -- one of those intense romantic conjunctions that we never forget and never get over -- we also learn the rest: how the lovers lost touch during the war and Daisy married rich all-American footballer/tennis/polo player and racist libertine Tom Buchanan (whose wealth is inherited and whose infidelities are legion), and moved into a mansion in the old money East Egg area on Long Island, just across the lake from what has now become Gatsby's estate (and Nick's cottage) in the new money West Egg area -- far away, but close enough so Gatsby can see and tantalize himself with the haunting view off his pier of a flashing green light on the Buchanan estate, and Nick can tantalize himself with watching Gatsby watching it. In the rest of the story -- which has one of the great American plots, besides being written so beautifully it stuns you -- Gatsby woos Daisy again, and they all face the consequences.
Luhrmann's movie is, as we said, faithful to its source. And where it deviates -- as in having Nick writing the novel as therapy in an asylum where he's being treated by a psychiatrist named Perkins (played by Aussie movie legend Jack Thompson) for, among other things "morbid alcoholism' -- it has fairly good reasons and sometimes interesting results. That includes, amazingly, the use of a score with contemporary hip-hop music by executive producer Jay Z.
This is Luhrmann's Gatsby (yet Fitzgerald's also). But the novel's original qualities shine though as well. It becomes not only a beautiful movie and the best film adaptation of the several made so far, but for me, an instant classic.
To the Wonder (A-)
U.S.: Terrence Malick, 2012, Magnolia Home Entertainment
To the Wonder is one of those pictures that either knocks you out or irritates you -- or maybe does a little of both. At its best, it's a cinematic poem, another film of wonders by Terrence Malick, the writer-director of those American masterpieces Badlands and Days of Heaven. At its worst, it's, well, it's a little full of itself.
It's a love story -- about an Oklahoma-born writer named Neil, played by Ben Affleck and somewhat based on Malick, and the two women he loves (Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, and Jane, played by Rachel McAdams), both of whom are based on Malick's wives, and about a melancholy priest named Father Quintana, played with sad, sad eyes by Javier Bardem, in his saint rather than sinner mode.
All in all, it's another strange, poetic, puzzling, stunningly visualized, and defiantly personal piece of spiritual autobiography on celluloid, an ambitious pictorially mesmerizing creation by an artist who makes movies as if the art form had just been invented, and he was free to do anything, try anything, but also by a man who's hip to cinema technology and aware of other arts and literature as well -- and finally, by a man who sees the world (in his films) with something like the newly opened eyes of a child (as a gorgeous, enrapturing place) and comprehends it with a child's relatively fresh, unspoiled heart and soul.
That deliberately unabashed artistry is not all that unusual for Malick. Though he's made only six feature films in his 40-year career -- Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), and now To the Wonder -- Malick's style and point of view, the kind of actors and performances he likes, even where he likes most to place and move the camera (staring from along the earth up at heaven) -- are unique and almost unmistakable. The sets are dressed marvelously by Jack Fisk and the land lit glowingly by Emanuel Lubezki, and, under Malick's guidance, it all has a look both intensely poetic and intensely human.
It's an unusual film, as much classical as experimental. In a way, it's a simple movie romance, about two people who fall in love in and with Paris (where movie couples often fall in love), and then marry and move to Oklahoma (where Malick also once lived) and where the marriage soon undergoes tumult and friction (as movie romances often do).
The original couple -- Affleck's Neil and Kurylenko's Marina -- have their Days of Heaven and then their Badlands, especially when Neil's old flame, McAdams' Jane shows up and Bardem's Father Quintana starts brooding in his (mercifully) almost empty church. Marina is a Ukrainian expatriate with a 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline as Tatiana).
The movie has a soundtrack made up of snatches of classics and semi-classics (Wagner, Berlioz, Haydn, Part), all merging into music of mutual and un-mutual attractions. Marina -- trapped in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, after being brought down from the cathedral heights of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France -- is alienated and friendless. Quiet Neil is increasingly drawn to Jane, Jane to Neil and Father Quintana, sadly celibate, is drawn to Marina. And the camera is drawn to all of them -- especially Marina, around whom it whirls like a drunken lover trying to encircle and capture forever his loved one's special beauty.
To the Wonder, like other Malicks, has little dialogue and a lot of voiceover. Malick's usual method is to write and film the dialogue scenes, and then cut them down (like documentary footage) in his protracted, sometimes years-long editing process.
One can love something, a movie, a person, even if parts of it (or them) don't work so well. That's what I felt here. The sounds in To the Wonder -- especially the voice-over and musical pieces that both Malick and Bresson use so well -- are crucial to the film. But the story is powerfully told through the images as well: those visions of hell, earth and heaven that convey a world of gorgeous nature and passionate people, caught by a Steadicam that keeps tracking and whirling around them. Move. Dance. Love. Tilt up: The sky. The wonder.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (B-)
U.S.: Jon M. Chu, 2013, Paramount
G.I. Joe: Retaliation may sound like another big, rotten box-office smash shooting down the pipes: another ridiculously overly violent action movie, in this case with characters based on Hasbro action figures or toys (and on Marvel Comics versions of them) with another machismo-drenched cast (topped by Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis and Channing Tatum) and another cliché-drenched script. And some of it as bad as your worst fears. But some of it surprises you.
Not at first though. You turn on the player and you think: Is that all there is? Is this what movies have come to? Are most of us now reduced to watching chronicles of the battles waged by the "Real American Hero" G.I. Joe (Willis, in a supporting role as General Joseph Colton), the massive hero Roadblock (Johnson, the star) and, for a while, the two-fisted hero Duke (Tatum, who was the star of the last 2009 G.I. Joe smash), with all three fighting the gang of the insidious Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) and his maniacal minions? Where is Ming the Merciless?
The movie then reveals its secret weapon: a light touch. The plot is familiar, but it's done with some humor. In the story, the G.I. Joe guys are hit with a massacre (of most of their number, apparently including Duke), a frame-up of the ones left, including Roadblock and the adorable Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki), and a plot to conquer and destroy the world, engineered by their old nemesis Cobra (I think) and involving a phony double of the U. S. president (Jonathan Pryce), who bullies a gathering of world leaders and starts yet another countdown to destruction, while the real president (also played by Pryce) languishes in captivity nearby.
That's what it's all about: a lot of bang-bang, but no kiss-kiss. Be that as it may, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is better than most of te recent big-bucks bang-a-thons. Maybe the film partly works because of the cast: Johnson, Pryce, Willis, Tatum, Bracey, Byun hung-Lee as the aptly named Storm Shadow, Walton Goggins as a warden, D.J. Coltrona as Joe's man Flint, Ray Park as the aptly-named Snake Eyes and James Carville as the aptly named campaign adviser James Carville.
Or maybe it was because of the truly spectacular action, which includes one certifiably killer scene: an amazing battle raging and soaring all over Himalayan cliffs and slopes, with Storm Shadow in a body-bag being carried or whooshed downhill by his daredevils -- with bad guys swooping at them to try to stop the escape, and the snow-capped mountains treated like the site of a parkour chase.
Or maybe it was because the people who made Retaliation, director Jon M. Chu, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, just don't seem to be taking themselves or the movie all that seriously. They have fun with the clichés and formulas, which is more than you can say about most of these gun-crazy shows.