Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby starts out exactly as F. Scott Fitzgerld's stupendous, classic book -- "In my younger and more vulnerable years..." Nick Carraway, who is now apparently depressed and alcoholic stares dramatically out the snowy window, and relays his story to his doctor. The story of how he moved to West Egg, just outside NYC, into a tiny cottage squeezed between two huge mansions, one of which was always alive with wild parties and belonged to a man called Gatsby, and what happened there that summer of 1922.

Spoilers ahead, sweetie. If you haven't read the book, you shouldn't be watching this movie. Or reading this review!

The movie, also like the book is (almost) always in Nick's perspective. His doctor encourages him to write everything down, and he narrates as he does throughout the whole film. Often, ruining a moment he should be only witnessing by jumping in and whacking us over the head with the subtlety that we would apparently never understand without his helpful insight. If you beat someone to death with subtlety, is it still subtle? Tobey Maguire plays Nick, and reminded me very little of his Peter Parker, and when he wasn't smashing his "insights" over our heads, or (over) dramatically quoting the book word for word, I liked him. Still, he was too involved in the story, not a simple observer who reserves judgment. Somehow he was inserted too much into the story, but simultaneously removed, as his entire relationship with Jordan was completely cut.

Nick trying to work. He didn't spend ALL summer observing other people's drama.

Gatsby is the main guy here, obviously. Rich, mysterious, personable Jay Gatsby. Hopeful to a fault. And Leonardo DiCaprio is just as good as he should be in the role. Let me just go ahead and point out that everything in this movie is overdone, most obviously the acting, and if I can, I blame the director, not the actors. That being said, there are some very good things about DiCaprio's Gatsby, and some not-so-good things. The way he said his catchphrase, "old sport" for instance, feels unnatural. It's either because that's how the director wanted it, to emphasize that Gatsby wasn't naturally that way, or, DiCaprio just couldn't pull it off. You guessed it; I've decided to lean towards the former. In general, DiCaprio's performance is very good; he does especially well with Gatsby's mysteriousness, and the desperate way he pursues his dream. His Gatsby is also obviously a man who has worked hard to make himself appear to be someone he naturally isn't.

The mysterious Gatsby.

Now Daisy Buchanan, that beautiful, conflicted girl whose voice is probably the most perfectly described in history. I knew from the moment I saw who was playing her that if anyone could do her justice, it was her; Carey Mulligan. Not only does she fit the part physically, but her voice seems to naturally be exactly what Fitzgerald heard as he wrote those lines about murmuring, music and money. One thing I didn't consider though was the character, and after the movie was over, I realized that Mulligan's Daisy was too likable. I shouldn't be surprised, it's very hard to make Carey Mulligan dislikable, and I doubt that Luhrmann wanted to make her so -- who'd want to watch a romance between two dislikable people? At times she sounded like she was trying too hard to get the voice right, and she didn't murmur enough for me, but otherwise she was exquisite, and I still maintain that she is the perfect choice for Daisy. Luhrmann just didn't know how to use her correctly.

Beautiful Daisy.

Her husband Tom Buchanan is the main character I have the least complaints about. He is undeniably a dislikable character, and played wonderfully well by Joel Edgerton. He lends a kind of tenderness to the character that I saw in the book, and was very pleased when it not only showed in the movie, but wasn't overdone -- I credit it solely to the actor. And of course his violent, racist, and other dislikable traits were there, and done very well. The only thing concerning his character that I missed was when Nick runs into him on the street at the end and shakes his hand. I thought it was an important scene that helps give the story its conclusion, and completes the character arc of both Tom and Daisy. But hey, what do I know, right?

Tom. "One of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax."

At first I thought Tom's mistress Myrtle Wilson was strangely cast as the young, cute, sweetly voiced Isla Fisher, but she impressed when she got the chance, which was basically just her introductory scene, but still. She may not have been like I imagined her, but she got the job done admirably. Same goes for her husband George Wilson played by Jason Clarke, except his appearance was considerably more like I imagined him. I would have been happy to see both of the characters get more development, and I think it would have been good for the movie.

Myrtle makes her grand entrance as her men have a chat.

Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki plays Jordan Baker the elegant golf star and fellow observer with Nick. I thought she was a good choice for the role and really enjoyed her part, but her character seems to be the one that ended up mostly on the cutting room floor. She's really only used when needed to develop the story, or is there when she's supposed to be because the novel dictated it. And as I mentioned her and Nick's relationship was almost totally missing; it only progressed as far as it needed to, to develop Gatsby's plot, then was left hanging there uselessly, disappointingly.

Lovely. If only she could have played her part to it's potential.

Now I'm probably going to shock you, and say that I thought that Jay-Z's rap score was a very bold and surprisingly fitting move. I liked the way the cool, upbeat modern music blended with the cool, upbeat music of the twenties, it was very sharp. And speaking of sharp, the costumes! I love twenties costumes, and these, mixed with high fashion, "vintage" tends of today were particularly suave, bold and zesty. I fell in love with Jordan's lavender hat, and Gastby's wardrobe was spot-on and immaculate. Neither the score nor the costumes were truly authentic, but they fit in the style of the picture, making it more relevant to modern times, and really helped amplify the spectacle.

And what a spectacle it was. Nick never describes Gatsby's parties in the movie, (though he describes plenty of other obvious things) for one very good reason; he really doesn't need to. The parties are alive with bright colors, music, noise and people, nearly overwhelming the senses... and I didn't even see it in 3D. The problem occurs when the party is over, and a particular sequence is supposed to be mellower, but attempts to make it more upbeat and dazzling only annoy. The party in Tom and Myrtle's apartment got that treatment and was made way wilder than the book's description implied. During that scene I sat wondering what in the world was going on, hoping the rest of the movie wasn't going to be changed like it, and missing Fitzgerald's description of no one being able find each other in the thick cigarette smoke.

People party at Gatsby's place!

During other sequences, the "glitz-y treatment" results in some weird, distracting computer effects, like flash-backs appearing in the clouds, or Nick speaking lines as they appear in the falling snowflakes. It really snaps you out of the experience. So while they're putting text on the screen, they might as well have put some in flashing red that proclaims "THIS PART IS STRAIGHT FROM THE BOOK" because someone was obviously very proud of the fact, (whenever it was a fact) and it's already being screamed out as loudly as subtext can be -- just go the extra step, and it'll even be ironic!

This Gatsby is soaring in glamorous fashion and overflowing with unique style, but the only way it's like the book is that it's literally (word for word) like the book! Practically everything happens, yet almost nothing is right. Where are the intricacies and subtleties, the real life, the laid back humor, and the wonder? Gatsby and Daisy's over-the-top romance take precedence over everything that really resonates and makes you think when it's all over. Just before Gatsby dies, and falls slow-mo into his pool, he whispers, "Daisy" and words appear on the screen one last time -- "You can start crying now." (Okay, not that last part) Gatsby was obsessed with Daisy, but if we know better, we then begin to miss everything that was brushed aside for some pointless tragic romance. And in that last glimpse of his handsome face floating under digital water, there is no realism; no grim epiphany that Gatsby wasted his life chasing that dream that was already behind him, and died carelessly, alone and friendless; nothing more than a briefly dazzling carnival attraction. That's what this movie is too -- a two-hour showcase of digital beauty, fireworks and parties, and romance. A dazzling, hollow shell.

It's hard to live up to such standards as Fiztgerald set, and this movie does get it half exceptionally right, with its near-flawless cast, and breath-taking sets. I also give them the credit of at least attempting to capture the complexities of the novel, but I've come to the conclusion that The Great Gatsby is just an un-filmable book. What would the book be anyway, without "Carraway's" thoughts and observations, and our unlimited access to his mind? But including them in the movies is next to impossible. Nothing has worked yet, but so far Luhrmann has put in the best attempt. When it wasn't bothering me, I enjoyed it, and if the title wasn't The Great Gatsby, I would dismiss it satisfied, as an incredibly dazzling, slightly depressing film.

Number 7!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Ah, space. The final frontier. Four years after the original reboot, J.J. Abrams and co. are back continuing to boldly breathe new life into the beloved franchise. Not exactly going where no one has gone before, but certainly presenting it like we've never seen it before.

So I don't give away anything that might be taken for spoilers, I'll not try and sum up the plot, but just say this: the stakes are high, as are the emotions, and Kirk and his crew set out to make everything right, pitted against the stupendous Benedict Cumberbatch as the terrorist John Harrison. Epic, action-adventure stuff ensues. Big time.

Kirk, Uhura and Spock loose the colored shirts and go full-fledged-leather-and-guns-action-hero-y on us.

The cast, if you can believe it, has actually improved from last time. Not just in additions, like the fore mentioned stupendous Cumberbatch and other newcomer Alice Eve as science officer Carol Marcus, but the returning cast shows improvements as well, and considering how impressive they were at first, that's really something. The actors found their footing in the loved characters very quickly and gave solid, wonderfully nostalgic performances in Star Trek; now, they've really settled in. Now, they own their characters, and have slightly re-molded them to fit perfectly, so the character complements the actor, who in turn complements the character, with heightened results.

I was especially impressed with Spock (Zachary Quinto) in this case. Spock's struggle with emotions is pretty much the only struggle he ever has, and therefore it can easily be overdone and I imagine could get annoying very easily. I have to imagine, because Spock's character this time around is one of those improvements I was talking about. I have never liked him more than I did in this movie, and Quinto's performance was at times, breath-taking.

"Epic Spock" is in a volcano.

The only performance more powerful than his, was that of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the villain. He continues to blow me away everywhere I see him. You would think I would get used to it, but no, he gets me every time. Even scene after scene he only gets more and more impressive. And I can't even begin to describe my excitement at seeing and hearing him being casually mentioned almost everywhere. I feel like a total hipster -- "I was a fan of the Cumberbatch before he landed starring roles..."

"You being all mysterious with your... cheekbones. And turning your coat collar up so you look cool." "I don't do that." "Yes you do." Oh Watson, you have no idea.

Chris Pine has found the right balance between Kirk's heroic, leading side and his more skirt-chasing, rule-breaking side. Kirk will never be a perfect, Captain America type hero, but seriously, who would like him if he was? Pine's Kirk is a great flawed hero, and a great leader for his crew and the franchise, and is another name to my list of great performances in this film. He is also undeniably amazing at getting beat up, and hanging over very long, deadly falls.

See? I love this pic. Also, this whole sequence.

Scotty (Simon Pegg) made up for not being introduced until halfway through the first movie by having a rather big role this time, and adding some seriousness to the character as well... not too much though -- he still gets the funniest bit of the movie, just as he should.

Zoe Saldana's Uhura is now officially one of the boys, er, as close as she can get. Uhura is quite the action star now, and by my reckoning has moved up a couple notches in terms of character importance. I don't want to seem like I'm complaining, because I like her, and she adds wonderfully to the film in every way -- action, humor, emotion...

But, I really wish Bones (Karl Urban) had a big a role as Uhura this time around. When there are so many characters, and only about two hours of film to put them in, it's hard for anyone (except Joss Whedon) to give everyone the time and development they deserve. Unfortunately, Karl Urban and Bones didn't get as much as I thought they deserved. His character was overshadowed by Harrison, Uhura and even Scotty a little, and was limited too much to punch lines for my taste, but maybe I'm a bit too biased; he is my favorite character currently. Still, whenever he was there, he was as good as he could be, and I was happy.

What's he doing here? Being awesome of course.

Chekov (Anton Yelchin) got the same treatment, though I suppose I really shouldn't have expected his character to get any more important. He had his moments, fleeting as they were, and I relished them. The same mostly goes John Cho and Sulu too, though I don't care as much for the character, so I didn't mind as much. He got his moment too, and boy, was it a good one.

I'm actually really surprised I found a nice promo photo of just him!

Well. That's a lot about the characters. In the end, they are absolutely my favorite feature in this movie, even though my two favorite characters never got all the screen time I was hoping they'd receive. Still, I should probably touch on a few more topics before I wrap up.

What would a Star Trek movie be, after all, without some knockout visuals? If you saw the '09 Star Trek you know what to expect, but you'll still probably get blown away by some really stunning moments. Some, they show in the trailer, but they can't show them all early; there's way too many. I was a little afraid going in that it's self-proclaimed "non-stop action" would be too relentless, but it's well-paced at one step below "overwhelmingly fast" with tons of energy distributed evenly throughout, even into the slower moments, just under the surface.

Bones: "I hate this!" Kirk: "I know you do!" Yeah, but we love it.

I may have a complaint now, or at least something that comes close to the category; this movie is a near exact replica of it predecessor. Of course it's not if you look at the details, and of course the plot is way different, but in a broad sense, many things needlessly reflect the last movie, like the opening format, the closing format, and at least one all but re-used moment. Nevertheless, it was a great opening, the ending made me smile, and before I noticed that re-used moment was re-used, it took my breath away. So really, how could I complain? It's the principle of the thing that slightly bothers me, and I can't help but enjoy the product simultaneously.

So I guess you could say J.J. Abrams has done it again (Literally). It took four years, but the wait was absolutely worth it. Star Trek Into Darkness has "summer blockbuster" written all over it; it's thrilling and stunning and smart, laugh-out-loud funny, powerful and moving, all wrapped up together in an explosive package. A dazzling contribution to what will hopefully continue along this path to be a very long-running reboot/parallel universe of a really great franchise.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ender's Game -- Trailer

I stumbled across this film while looking at the cast of Iron Man 3, specifically, Ben Kingsley on Rotten Tomatoes. I was intrigued by the inclusion of Asa Butterfield in the cast list, cast for the second time as the title character in a film that also stars Kingsley -- the other being the impressively acted lead in Hugo. As I scrolled through the rest of the cast, I became more and more impressed and intrigued -- Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and Viola Davis make up the rest of the big names splashed through the cast.

Butterfield and Kingsley in Scorsese's 2011 film, Hugo. Great movie.

The interest continues to grow. I discovered this science fiction adventure is being adapted from a novel written in the 80's. I researched the book, and (along with many more discoveries I won't mention for time's sake) decided the book could be worth a read. I gave me the impression of being the space version of The Hunger Games, but written before The Hunger Games of course.

That impression came from the fact that the story is basically one kid versus the world. Ender is the kid, molded influenced and manipulated since birth by mysterious people who hope he will one day save the earth and humanity from an alien race. Something he doesn't seem to have much of a choice about.

Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield in the movie.

Though I was only mildly interested in the book, I ended up getting my hands on a copy pretty quickly, started reading a day later, and finished it two days after that. I don't want to go too much into what I thought about it, as it could easily be an entire blog post itself, and I don't want to give away any spoilers, but it was a very interesting read. And I enjoyed it, though (since I've already compared it to THG) not as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games. After having read it though, I realize that's not a very fair comparison. So forget that. I'll just say I didn't love it, but I did read and finish it happily, and most importantly, it consumed my thoughts during the read and for several days after.

I suppose it goes without saying now that I'm very interested in seeing the film. The trailer conveniently released the day before I finished reading, so I watched it as soon as I was done, and from the little information I gathered from the one-and-a-half minutes I think that it will at least be as good as the book. I optimistically imagine it will be better, mostly because the story demands creative and amazing visual sequences... and they're looking good.

Have a look.

I knew as soon as I started reading the book that Asa Butterfield was the perfect choice for Ender, and the rest of the cast looks equally great. I'm very interested to see how it's adapted, and if I'm right as I hope I am, and the film is equal to or better than the book, I will happily consider myself a new fan of the franchise. It's scheduled to release on November 1st this year.