THE GREAT GATSBY
Gatsby In Hell
Flames of Incompetence Devour Baz Luhrmann
Baz Luhrmann’s bastardization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a travesty in the most demeaning sense of the word. The film represents a sin against cinema and literature of cataclysmic proportions. Toxic, rather than intoxicating, the movie breaks a fundamental rule of modern dramatic delivery by using a presentational [rather than representational] style that sends its audience into an exasperating spiral. The movie never so much as dips its slimy toe into the more sophisticated representational mode of storytelling that audiences should and do expect from a drama, no matter how fetishized it might be. All flash and artifice, there isn’t a cubic centimeter of narrative space for the story to breathe, much less resonate. Nuance and subtext are slapped away in favor of a vulgar approach to exposition. Characters don’t express themselves; they defile all that they touch or desire.
This isn’t about Baz Luhrmann not staying true to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work of American literature — no one in their right mind would expect such a demanding use of editorial restraint from the notorious Baz Luhrmann, a director famous for his ostentatious use of costume, spectacle, and a kitchen-sink ear for music. This is about a filmmaker so blind to narrative integrity that his taste level sinks before your eyes. There isn’t a mistake of dialogue, composition, musical scoring, direction, lighting, costume, or plotting that Luhrmann doesn’t make. Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” provides a textbook laundry list of everything to avoid when adapting a novel, any novel.
I suppose, in his defense, that Luhrmann tried to make his picture so different from Jack Clayton’s far superior 1974 movie that he tied himself in knots attempting to subvert it. The result is an ugly and obtuse mess — so many pretty colors, and yet none with a strand of dramatic truth.
Luhrmann’s script — co-written with his mainstay collaborator Craig Pierce — turns character traits into intolerable distractions. Gatsby’s affinity for calling men “old sport,” turns into a drinking game made worse by DiCaprio’s bizarre enunciation that turns the phrase into “old spore.” As humorous as it might sound to hear Gatsby repetitively refer to acquaintances as some form of ancient bacterium, the joke backfires horribly.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives an unwatchable performance thanks to Luhrmann’s misdirection, which turns every other character in the story into a faceless bauble of disposable quality. Even if rising-star Garrett Hedlund (“On the Road”) had been more appropriately cast in the role of Gatsby, and Michelle Williams more suitably as Daisy, the talented actors would doubtlessly still have been just as hamstrung to give effective portrayals under Luhrmann’s ill-suited direction.
Anyone who as read Fitzgerald's book, or watched Jack Clayton’s film version (starring Robert Redford), will be staggered by Luhrmann’s kneejerk tendency to alter the story in ways that diminsh key elements. Luhrmann gives away the farm relating to Gatsby’s mysterious past. The joys of discovering and guessing at Gatsby’s carefully guarded secrets are squandered in manufactured flashback sequences not in the book. Moreover, DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby lets all of his insecurities and lies show at precisely the moment when Fitzgerald’s character would tighten up. The character is presented here more as an unskilled con man than as someone who devised and executed a calculated if flawed way to obtain the woman he loves. Luhrmann's faulty instincts fumble every significant plot element he touches. A violently intimate scene in the book — in which a key male character publicly breaks his mistresse's nose — is transmogrified into a slap shown in a throwaway long-shot. No aftermath of the troubling event follows, as it does in the book.
One emblematic faux pas that Luhrmann makes is evidenced in the way he furnishes Gatsby’s mansion. Every nook and cranny is covered in museum-quality pieces of art or antiques. In Clayton’s film version Gatsby leaves the public spaces of his mansion in a blank state, ostensibly to allow for Daisy’s womanly touch when he is able to make his romantic dream of possessing her a reality. The comparison shows exactly how leaving certain narrative aspects open allows an audience to engage with, and interpret the story at hand.
Perhaps Luhrmann’s greatest crime against “The Great Gatsby” is that he has suffocated Gatsby’s romantic quest. Baz Luhrmann has not told a story; he has smashed it to smithereens.
Rated PG-13. 143 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Star Trek’s Eternal Mission Continues
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is a lot of movie. It gets personalities and dialogue right, but lets gigantic plot problems slide around like ocean-bound rubber duckies on an oil slick. The tremendous effort that the screenwriters, filmmakers, and actors put into harmonizing the film’s gently cheesy tone with Gene Rodenberry's original 1966 television series is spot-on. Like its cinematic prequel, the humor walks a fine line between dry wit and camp — between old-fashioned and hip. Crisscrossing subplots however, get messy.
Fans of the original series that launched multiple TV versions and [now] 12 films are rewarded with a returning cast of actors from the current J.J. Abrams relaunch, who resemble younger versions of the iconic actors. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner ought to be gratified. It might seem counter-intuitive to imagine Chris Pine as a younger William Shatner, but the talented actor makes it plausible, even recognizable. The same rule applies to Zachary Quinto’s earnest incarnation of Dr. Spock. Eyebrows and pointy-ears aside, Quinto has Spock’s delivery and manner down to, well, a science.
The film’s first act sets a high mark of suspense, spectacle, and character interaction that gradually fades as the movie grinds into its truncated finish. Spock gets beamed inside a boiling volcano on an alien planet called Nibiru; his mission is to set off a device that will freeze the interior of the lava-spilling mountain, thus saving the planet’s not-so-friendly inhabitants. Spock’s red heat-and-flame resistant suit is a nice touch of costume-design.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel and look like inside an active volcano, you’ll get a pretty good idea watching it on a 3DIMAX screen. Not that the 3D is better than marginal, but the special effects are convincing. A tacky exception occurs in a later scene looking through the front windows of the U.S.S. Enterprise at what are clearly painted models of three crewmembers. How this ridiculous clip avoided the cutting room floor is anyone’s guess.
In his imitable the-good-of-the-many-yada-yada way, Spock is at peace with the personal sacrifice it seems he must make for the sake of the endangered aliens. No amount of shouting by Kirk at Spock via radio transmission about his “life” can dissuade the ever-logical Vulcan from seeing his mission through. The ongoing struggle between Kirk’s emotionalism and Spock’s strict adherence to rationality is a chestnut that somehow never gets old. The ever-deepening friendship between Kirk and Spock serves as the movie’s strongest hook.
Kirk’s handling of the Spock/volcano incident isn’t up to snuff for a Starfleet commander, especially one who took over responsibility for the ship from his by-the-book dad Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). James Tiberius Kirk still has much to learn. Several ethics lessons come into thematic play for audiences looking for more than just chases sequences though space. Transforming the U.S.S. Enterprise into a weapon of war comes under some microscopic analysis.
On Earth, a meeting of Starfleet muckety-mucks which includes Kirk, his dad, and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) comes under a devastating assault by John Harrison (Benedict Cumberpatch), an ex-Starfleet officer gone bad — real bad. The nefarious Harrison has a secret that he takes with him when he retreats to the Klingon home terrorist, the planet Kronos. For his part, Peter Weller — with his steely alien blue eyes and imposing presence — briefly steals the movie, exposing a series of flaws in the script relating to his character’s subplot and that of Marcus’s daughter Carol (Alice Eve). After smuggling herself onboard the Enterprise, Eve’s character stands around looking for something to do.
Betrayals and reversals follow involving the Klingon-connected Harrison. Explosive action sequences featuring epic battles between the Enterprise and a mammoth warship don’t make as much sense onscreen as they must have on paper. Nonetheless, watching the U.S.S. Enterprise hit warp-drive and vanish into the vastness of space on an IMAX screen is something every kid that sees this movie will remember for the rest of his or her life. The “Star Trek” franchise has its weaknesses, but it’s still the best thing going in the sci-fi genre.
Rated PG-13. 123 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
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KISS OF THE DAMNED
Xan Cassavetes Sinks Her Teeth In
Vampires are by definition a retro construct. Living forever means always looking back. The future is merely a continuing cycle of corruption and death. Flesh-and-blood is the only reliable thing around. In cinema, vampire stories have served a multitude of purposes. Everything from the transmission of venereal diseases to racial and nationalistic bigotry has provided allegorical connections in a horror genre never without a sexual component.
Xan Cassavetes [daughter to the Godfather of independent cinema] pays stylish homage to vampire films of the past 40 years with a blood-soaked predator thriller based on romantic obsession — BDSM comes gratis. Aesthetic elements from Italian giallo horror films, Hammer movies, and American vampire flicks are on moist display.
Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume - “The Princess of Montpensier”) lives in a remote Connecticut mansion where she hides from the sun. The home’s absent but charitable matriarch Xenia is a Broadway diva who never does matinees. Xenia oversees a global community of well-to-do vampires whose world-weary ennui is offset by their appreciation for the finer, if quirkier, things in life.
Djuna refers to her “skin disease” after meeting Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) for the first time at a video store; it isn’t 2013. Luis Bunuel’s “Viridiana” Paolo is in town on a sabbatical to write his next big script. Needless to say, Paolo is easily distracted by Djuna’s off-kilter allure. She generously gives him fair warning before putting the bite on. She goes so far as to make him chain her to the bed during sex, but Paolo is an adventurous type. Bite him, she does.
The mechanics of the story are clear-cut. The arrival of Djuna’s bad-apple sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) threatens to derail Djuna’s and Paolo’s romantic plans to travel away to Italy together, if not bring down the whole vampire community that Xenia has protected though exotic means. Synthetic plasma is a mainstay. Another unexpected entrance — by Paolo’s overanxious agent Ben (Michael Rapaport) — gives cause for some tempestuous excitement.
Clothes come off. Fangs are bared. Bodily fluids spill in a vampire movie that is as much about tone and style as it is about the seductions and bloody attacks that take place. Cassavetes fabricates plot references to films such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “All About Eve” for knowing film buffs to revel in.
A line between desire and execution is blurred to suspenseful effect, as when Djuna envisions acting out her barely tamed inner nature on an unsuspecting would-be victim. Cassavetes’s solid command of fluid cinematic language creates visual bubbles that infuse a dreamlike quality. “Kiss of the Damned” is a dark sex fantasy after all. The beard of blood that drenches down from a female vampire’s mouth is at once a humiliation and a messy acknowledgement of man’s animal nature. Decadence and debauchery are equal parts death and creation in a cool little vampire movie that makes the “Twilight” franchise look like kid stuff.
Rated R. 97 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
A refreshing addition to the contract killer biopic genre, Ariel Vromen’s Friedkinesque dramatization of Richard Kuklinski’s rise and fall, via three decades of heinous crimes, is a doozy. Informed by Jim Thebaut’s HBO documentary series “The Iceman Interviews” — witness the “The Iceman’s” recreated bookend interviews — the film’s accomplishment rests squarely on Michael Shannon’s keen portrayal of Kuklinski as a pathologically divided individual. One-half devoted family man and one-half ruthless assassin; Richard Kuklinski occurs as a gift-wrapped bipolar subject for true-crime cinema. A qualified novice director and co-writer, Ariel Vromen tracks the film’s stylistic period references across generational shifts while keeping focus on Shannon’s Jekyll-and-Hyde nature. Essential details of costume and production design fall neatly into place.
During the late ‘50s Kuklinski works a barroom pool table not far from his day (and night) job pirating pornographic tapes. He’s a pool shark with no patience for sore losers. An offended dupe who puts up a fuss after being defeated, gets his throat cut from ear to ear as he prepares to drive away in his car. For Kuklinski, the kill is a quick, quiet, and efficient way to reconcile his well-defended ego. He’s a walking definition of “paranoid personality disorder.”
An uncomfortable visit by the Gambino-connected Mafia kingpin Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to Kuklinski’s porn lab makes a lasting impression on DeMeo. When one of his lackeys tries to pistol-whip Kuklinski, the hulking brute fights back and stands his ground in the face of probable death in the guise of the pistol pointed at his face. Fear evidently is not in his constitution. DeMeo takes note. The next day DeMeo gives Kuklinski a chance to earn his trust by knocking off a bum in broad daylight. DeMeo insures Kuklinski’s loyalty by holding on to the pistol with the “Polack’s” fingerprints forever stuck on it.
Having charmed Deborah (wonderfully played the underrated Winona Ryder), a self-effacing waitress at a New Jersey diner, Richard Kuklinski sets up house with his adoring wife. Whether or not Deborah believes him when he tells her he dubs voices for “Disney” cartoons is beside the point. Kuklinski plays the gentleman around her. She knows better than to ask questions. Years pass before Deborah gets a glimpse of her devoted husband’s other side.
A dramatically layered car-chase, with Deborah and the couple’s two daughters in the back seat, reveals Richard’s hair-trigger temper after he distractedly runs into a car in traffic. The suspense-laden episode unmasks cracks in the couple’s marriage, fissures that Richard Kuklinski soon fills in with enormous amounts of cash when he goes into a thriving partnership with Mr. Freezy (played by an unrecognizable Chris Evans). Freezy is a fellow contract killer with his own arsenal of tricks for offing people and disposing of corpses. He conceals his activities by operating an ice cream truck whose freezer makes for a convenient hold to deposit fresh kills. Freezy introduces Kuklinski to using powered cyanide as a covert method for delivering death, and to his preferred practice of freezing bodies for several years before disposing of them as though they were wrapped-up leftovers. Scenes of chainsaw-enabled dismemberment are graphic, and yet kept in check by the film’s dramatic tone, lighting, and tightly edited compositions.
Tempting though it might seem, the filmmakers manage to avoid stepping into the trap of exploitation genre. The subject is horrifying, but “The Iceman” is not a horror movie. The film’s character-study aspect takes up most of the narrative space. A terse prison scene between Richard and his incarcerated brother — who raped a 12-year-old girl — affords a wealth of backstory in a resourceful way. The scriptural language is dense but clear.
With so many substantial performances under his belt, it’s not accurate to term Michael Shannon’s exemplary work here as a “breakthrough performance.” It is nonetheless Oscar-worthy. Michael Shannon would have made a much more book-accurate version of Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise. Here, he creates a credible version of a serial killer credited with murdering somewhere between 100 and 250 men, many of whom were never found or identified. The effect is chilling.
Rated R. 93 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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“Oblivion” is not a fun movie to watch. The endless stream of borrowed visual and episodic elements from other sc-fi movies constitute an elephant in the room. A problem of being reminded of other [better] sci-fi movies is that it prompts you to mull over how shoddy the one you’re watching really is.
Co-writer/director Joseph Kosinski based the film on a comic book he wrote with Arvid Nelson. It shows. No audience member would ever imagine that the skeleton that passes for a story was based on a novel. An idea for a story exists, but the movie is little more than an outline for a narrative that got thrown in the oven far too soon.
Tom Cruise is watchable if not convincing as Jack, a generic Omega Man whose job it is to fix-or-repair-daily the fast flying drones that buzz around what’s left of Earth in the year 2077.
Narration informs us that the notoriously unreliable people of Earth waged a “victorious” battle against an army of invading aliens called Scavengers. By the looks of what remains of the planet, it’s safe to say that humans lost both the battle and the war. Needless to say, there isn’t much left of the planet to "salvage." Why anyone would waste resources looking after such a dust heap as we witness here is beyond the imagination. The movie doesn't fill in any blanks.
Considering that Cruise last played “Jack” Reacher, the filmmakers missed a memo that it might have been a good idea to change the character’s name, lest Tom Cruise be made even less specific than he already is. Richard Gere take note, Tom Cruise has officially filled your shoes.
Jack lives in a small but deluxe skyscraper apartment — dubbed “Skytower” — with his “effective” work partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough). A fancy transparent swimming pool is the icing on the cake. Vika spends her time checking in with their mother ship mission commander Sally (Melissa Leo), a patronizing matriarch with a twangy accent — think, a female version of George Bush Jr.
Vika plays housewife while Jack fiddles around on the Earth’s surface with drones that want to kill him as if he were one of the “Scavs” that hide underground in an oppressed community of “Mad Max”-styled survivors. Jack has secrets of his own. He has a little remote cabin where he goes for alone-time to listen to vinyl rock ‘n’ roll records; Led Zeppelin is a favorite. Jack suffers from flashbacks involving another woman. Could it be that he was brainwashed by some one or some thing?
Riseborough’s character is never allowed to take hold. None of the characters, with the exception of Jack, is given much substance to work with. Most squandered is Morgan Freeman as the Scav’s leader Beech. Freeman gets a total of about eight-minutes of screentime, and that’s it. It’s as if the story were being told upside-down. If Freeman’s character were the protagonist, then the movie might have had somewhere to go. As it is, the best thing “Oblivion” has going for it is its production design and Icelandic landscapes.
It’s not like Tom Cruise hasn’t made a great sci-fi movie in his career; “Minority Report” is a masterpiece. “Oblivion,” on the other hand, is just what the title portends.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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To the Wonder
Terrence Malick still hasn’t made a remarkable film since 1978. That was the year he made “Days of Heaven” — not to be confused with “Gates of Heaven.” Although the “Heaven” movies do have something in common: they ruined their respective filmmakers’ careers — Michael Cimino made more of a splash because he took United Artists down with him. Malick went overboard by shooting most of the movie during the gloaming — a 25-minute period at dusk that Malick referred to as the “magic hour.” He then spent three years editing it.
“To the Wonder” is a shorthand cinematic poem told with such slightness that there is nothing for an audience to identify with beyond some vague apologia about God’s ability to put human beings through as much heartbreak as they can endure. It’s an airy cinematic sermon that mumbles for two-hours. Atheists will be bored; believers will scratch their heads. Pretentious film critics will out themselves.
Malick has made an experimental movie that fails because it’s all agenda and no substance. There’s so little character development or narrative cohesion that the viewer feels alienated through the whole experience. The filmmaker’s oh-so-deep philosophical musings, as tinged with religious inflections, are oddly apolitical. Malick’s micro-meta bubble is small and foggy. It’s a fundamental rule of screenwriting to never preach to your audience. Terrence Malick breaks that rule with impunity.
In Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) courts Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a sensuous Ukrainian woman with a ten-year-old daughter named Tatiana. The Eiffel Tower, the gardens at Versailles, and Mont Saint-Michele make for plenty of postcard-perfect compositions via Malick’s handheld camera. Dialogue is sparse, very sparse. Malick flits between indulgent shots of streaming sunlight on suburban landscapes to fill in copious narrative blanks in his script.
The would-be family moves to Neil’s hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma to reside in a cloistered suburban housing community bereft of personality. Neil is giving Marina a relationship trial run. Is she marriage material? Tatiana certainly thinks so. However, Marina’s mood swings make her seem bi-polar in a “Betty Blue” kind of way. Languorous episodes of romantic harmony give way to ugly, if muted, outbursts of anger. A devil’s advocate vantage point could view Malick’s film as an unintended observation on the toxic effect of American suburbia on romantic relationships. But that would be a stretch.
Javier Bardem creeps around the story as Father Quintana, a priest who worries over the limits of his ability to help the impoverished and ailing Americans who live around him. During a sermon, he tells his parish, that a husband “does not find” his wife “lovely.” Rather, “he makes her lovely.”
Neil isn’t really that into Marina. Without explanation he sends she and Tatiana packing. The unreliable protagonist briefly dallies with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old romance from childhood. Like Marina, Jane is needy to a fault.
A romantic reversal occurs. Marina abandons Tatiana to her father’s family and returns to Neil in Oklahoma to start their lives together. Domestic troubles percolate and boil over around moot narrative details. I suppose, if you’re a believer, “To the Wonder” will bring you closer to God in as much as it will push you two-hours closer to your ultimate demise. Personally, I’d rather watch Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) or “Days of Heaven.” There was a time when Terrence Malick made incredible movies. Those days are gone.
Rated R. 112 mins. (D) (One Star – out of five/no halves.Tweet
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Breaking the Chain of Racism
Jackie Robinson is Still in Play
Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s methodically balanced biopic about revered baseball legend Jackie Robinson manages the near-impossible feat of offering all things to all people. Baseball fans, those interested the civil rights struggle, and casual filmgoers will be rewarded with a tale that is equal parts history lesson and pure entertainment. Helgeland (screenwriter on “L.A. Confidential”) gets substantial support from Chadwick Boseman in the lead role as the first African American to be admitted into Major League Baseball in the modern era. Not only do Boseman’s chiseled facial features resemble those of Robinson circa 1947, but also the actor’s expressive athletic comportment on the field evinces the intensity of Jackie Robinson’s nimbleness of mind and body. For his part as the Brooklyn Dodger’s visionary general manager Branch Rickey — who broke an unwritten rule of baseball to sign Robinson in the first place — Harrison Ford delivers a consummate performance of rich character study. It’s the best work of his career.
Although Jackie Robinson’s story has been told many times on film, “42” revitalizes its clearly defined dramatic goals. The thematic message is outlined in Branch Rickey’s principal demand of his new player that Robinson function as an ambassador against racism. Rickey demands that Robinson exhibit “the guts not to fight back” against the constant barrage of threats and catcalls he endures as a black player in an all-white game. It’s a towering demand that few men could imagine living up to if put in a similar predicament.
Episodes of outrageous bigotry follow one after another. Robinson’s own teammates conspire against him during a training period in Havana, Cuba with the Montreal Royals. The filmmakers do a good job of condensing the potentially audience-alienating racist vitriol that Jackie Robinson was subjected to while still making their point. The Phillies’ bigoted loudmouth manager Ben Chapman (well played in a thankless role by Alan Tudyk) hurls every ugly racist epithet he can think of at Robinson during a series of games. The scenes are appropriately unnerving. Jackie Robinson calmly stands ground in the batter’s box — trying to get a hit for his team — while the largely white crowd contributes to an atmosphere of seething hatred.
The film’s replication of a historic publicity photo of Jackie Robinson and Ben Chapman standing side-by-side speaks volumes about the men’s mutual animosity, and Major League Baseball’s estimable effort to move the conversation forward. Robinson conveys passive resistance by picking up a bat for the men to hold so they won’t have to “touch skin.”
By telling a knotty personal story of far reaching public implications in such a straightforward fashion, the filmmakers allow the lore of Jackie Robinson’s wellspring of humanity to resonate against America’s ongoing disease of racism, which relentlessly permeates our daily lives. “42” isn’t about ignoring the condition; it’s about addressing it in a way that models appropriate behavior. Jackie Robinson imparted authority while wearing the number 42. This worthy film explains both how and why.
Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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