Film review – The Great Gatsby (2013)

31 May 2013
The Great Gatsby: Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to transform F Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal 1925 American novel into a crowd-pleasing spectacle film is admirable if not always successful. It is an unnecessarily faithful adaptation that puts on screen Fitzgerald’s critique of American society in the 1920s expressed though the misadventures of wide-eyed bonds salesman and failed writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and his larger-than-life neighbour Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose famed extravagance only exists in order for him to win back a former love – or at least the ideal of that former love – Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).

The production and costume design by Luhrmann’s long-term creative partner Catherine Martin are astonishing, not just reproducing period detail, but evoking the film’s themes and character detail. Gatsby’s house bursts with energy and yet is cavernous and empty, while the bleak industrial wasteland between West Egg and New York creates a brutal contrast between the working class and the partygoers, as well as revealing the bleak reality of what lies between the comforts of home and the glamour of the big city. The costumes are attractive and detailed; yet contain important character details from Nick’s awkward bowties and tightly fitted suits suggesting his perpetual status as an uncomfortable outsider, to a terrific scene where Gatsby must declare his emotions and his soaking wet white suit leaves him looking transparent. Later Gatsby attempts to impress Daisy by throwing his collection of expensive shirts down upon her, literally overwhelming her with not just his material possessions, but the material possession designed to most literally conceal his class, background and insecurities.

The use of CGI technology wonderfully complements Martin’s design to create the space of the film, and in turn to visually represent many of the themes in the film (and novel). Wild zooms across the bay between the Gatsby’s home and the Buchanans’s home emphasises the gulf between new money and old money, as well as how close yet how far Gatsby is to the ideal of Daisy. Using the 3D to depict Gatsby’s hand reach out into the depths of the screen towards the green light across the water is one of the moments where Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety works. A similar moment is Gatsby’s grand entrance with its rushing zoom into his face while fireworks explode in the background. It is contrived and bordering on self-parody, introducing the extent that the myth of Gatsby is a construct fashioned out of cheap thrills.

Where The Great Gatsby is most let down is its approach to the extravagant party scenes during the first half of the film. The hedonistic world of drinking, wealth and general excess is all on screen in Martin’s design, but the constant moving camera and rapid editing prevent the eye from ever fully soaking in the spectacle. Any sense of excitement that builds during many of these important sequences is frustratingly kept simmering just below the surface due to the film’s refusal to ever let a moment play out in any tangible way.

However, it is tempting to ponder if the scenes of anti-spectacle are deliberate attempts to mimic Nick’s bewilderment and over stimulus while also keeping the audience at arms length to suggest the hollowness and lack of substance behind the American dream at its most decadent and insincere. This would be the most forgiving conclusion and it does fit in with the themes of the film and novel, however, it is difficult to ignore that the same problems afflicted Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! Furthermore, it is possible to deliver engaging visual cinema that does not become what it is commenting on, as demonstrated in the film adaption of The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) where the film remained thrilling without becoming the violent spectacle that it critiqued. 

Curiously a lot of the problems with the spectacle scenes in The Great Gatsby are the constant intrusion of story information when the narrative should have been taking a backseat. This adaption remains remarkably close to the novel in terms of key plot points, which is not necessarily a good thing as condensing, altering and omitting aspects of a novel are important steps in novel to film adaption. This must be done not just to transpose literary storytelling techniques into visual storytelling techniques, but for the practical factor that adaptations too close to the source material run the risk of becoming overly long, as is the case here.

It does not help that the film introduces the concept that Nick’s first person narration is the result of him first speaking to a sanatorium doctor (played by Jack Thompson) and then writing down his memories and recollections. Not only does this lose the immediacy of the story by presenting it all as a flashback, but it draws out the film’s running time with unnecessary over-explanation. It seems as if this was done to make the film as broadly accessible as possible. However, the presence of a narrator in a film does not need to be justified and there are too many times where the narration spells out aspects of character that were already ascertained visually by the excellent performances by the cast.

The second part of the film, where the narrative becomes more melancholic and reflective, is comparatively more subdued stylistically. The colour palette becomes darker, the camera movement settles down and the shots are less busy. Luhrmann’s love of melodrama seeps into the second half of the film, achieving moments of pathos that audiences have not seen from him since Romeo + Juliet (1996). In this regard The Great Gatsby works better than Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) where the film’s bold theatrical style felt increasingly inappropriate as the story developed into its far more interior and tragic terrain.

Annoyingly The Great Gatsby seems determined to continually undermine audience good will. All the themes from the novel concerning the decline of the American dream, social hypocrisy and class divisions are present in the film and very blatantly expressed through Gatsby’s foolish and tragic pursuit of Daisy’s affections. Luhrmann’s bold and unsubtle approach to film style ensures that these themes are on the surface and as widely digestible as possible. Yet sometimes that blatant thematic signposting does become overwhelming, such as the excessive cuts back to the Doctor TJ Eckleburg billboard, which features giant eyes in glasses to remind us that everything is under scrutiny. And while The Great Gatsby is never as bad as a film like Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012) in terms of simplistic song placements that literally describe what is happing on screen, the scene where ‘Love is the Drug’ is used to accompany a pill-taking scene is distracting and clumsy, especially considering how well other pieces of music are used.

As with Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann adopts a mostly anachronistic approach to the film’s score, using contemporary songs to complement the images on screen. While the contemporary music for Moulin Rouge! was adapted to evoke the film’s time period, the music in The Great Gatsby is used in a way more akin to the way Sophia Coppola used music in Marie Antoinette (2006). It is there to give contemporary audiences the sensation of listening to music from the time period, rather than faithfully replicating the period music, which arguably would not have the same effect on viewers today. So in the case of The Great Gatsby, instead of hearing the provocative and rebellious music of the time – jazz – Luhrmann delivers a soundtrack with a heavy hiphop component. It is debateable if such a technique is necessary; in The Aviator (2004) and the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire (2010 – ongoing) Martin Scorsese very successfully conveys the wild and raucous parties of the 1920s using period music. Nevertheless, it is a stylistic device that Luhrmann has adopted, like Coppola did and like the writers of the television series Deadwood (2004-2006) did when they chose to use modern profanity in the dialogue. And in the case of The Great Gatsby it almost always works, giving a much-needed pulse to the larger party scenes and adding to the layers of melodramatic romance in other key scenes.

Like Marie Antoinette shots of empty rooms filled with debris announce that the party is over. Both are films about insular people thrust into a world of excess that has removed them from reality. Both Gatsby and Marie suffer for love and both are scapegoats for the indulgences of others. And both films are mixed packages directed by bold and stylistic filmmakers whose successes still deserve to outshine their lesser works. The Great Gatsby is so close to being a great film, let down by its own refusal to exist in the moment, either reminding the audience it is told as a flashback or moving too quickly onto something else as if a few moments into the future is always far more important than the present. And like Marie Antoinette time will hopefully be kind to The Great Gatsby, as the disappointment of initial expectation fades and re-evaluations start to emerge, suggesting that perhaps Luhrmann’s plan all along was to make something as unobtainable as Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, and as transparent as the American Dream when depicted as a soaking wet white suit, covering the shivering body of a self-deluding, morally compromised man.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013
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Film review – Django Unchained (2012)

22 January 2013
Django Unchained: Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx)

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx)

The hero of Django Unchained is the freed slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), who working as a bounty hunter gets to exact revenge on white slave owners. However, it is Django’s partner Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who stands out as the alter ego for the film’s writer and director Quentin Tarantino. As an outsider who has come to America to make his fortune in the ‘flesh for cash business’, Schultz is how Tarantino imagines himself in relation to Hollywood. He is playing the game, but stands above it with considerably more intelligence, inventiveness and style. In a recent interview Tarantino states his intent in making Django Unchained is ‘to give black American males a western hero’, which is essentially Schultz’s role in the film. Schultz discovers Django, frees and arms him, and encourages him to become a bounty hunter to avenge the crimes against humanity that have been committed by slave traders and owners.

At a glance there is something potentially condescending about this relationship between creator Tarantino/Schultz and Django. However, there are two significant factors that suggest otherwise. Firstly, there is the way the relationship and characters develop. Schultz very quickly realises that Django is an extraordinary person who only initially requires his assistance. The initial mentor relationship quickly transforms into a partnership, with the men developing a strong bond based on mutual admiration. Their friendship is one of the most sincere and touching aspects of the film. Most interestingly is how well Django takes on the training Schultz gives him, fiercely adopting the role of a despised black slave trader in order to create a convincing ruse. It is Schultz who struggles with the part, allowing his emotions and morality to get in the way. The creations (the film and Django) commit to the vision/mission while the creators (Tarantino and Schultz) turn out to be big softies at heart despite the posturing and bravado.

The second factor to suggest how seriously Tarantino, like Schultz, respects Django as a righteous hero is the two different styles of violence on offer in the film. On the one hand there is Tarantino’s much-loved pulpy violence where blood spurts out of gunshot wounds like a fountain. Similar to Tarantino’s previous film Inglourious Basterds (2009) and his Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004) this is violence as cathartic spectacle. While revenge narratives are often highly problematic in the way they represent certain aspects of society as deserving a violent death, Tarantino creates revenge narratives against characters that nobody in their right mind would sympathise with – Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and now sadistic slave owners in Django Unchained. Even a scene where a group of Ku Klux Klan are presented as almost endearingly goofy, in a wonderful spoof of the outrageously racist pro-Klan silent classic The Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915), the violent fate of such characters is not at all problematic due to what they represent. Watching Django and Schultz kill racist slave owners is fun and the more over-the-top Tarantino is with the violence, the better. This dramatically contrasts to the use of violence to depict the atrocities done against black slaves.

In just a handful of scenes Django Unchained reminds us that it is a film set in one of the darkest and most shameful periods of American history. When depicting the type of daily brutality that black slaves experienced, some scenes based on historical record, some based more on hearsay, Tarantino does not deliver violence as spectacle. Instead he presents violence as vicious, cruel, sadistic, cowardly and devastating. Tarantino conveys the gut-wrenching horror of some of the acts without revelling in the acts, in the way that a contemporary torture-porn horror film might, to create a profound contrast between the styles of violence in the film. One style is gleeful and based on the fantasy of a slave rising up against his tormentors, the other is gruelling and demands the audience recognise and respect the history that the film is engaging with. Tarantino has his cake and devours it.

Another important characteristic of the film is the frequent use of the word ‘nigger’. Tarantino has been previously accused of using this loaded and destructive word too carelessly, especially in Pulp Fiction (1994), allegedly without fully appreciating the historical context of the word to undermine and oppress an entire racial group. Regardless of whether anybody believes that about Tarantino’s previous films or not, it is difficult to accuse him of misusing the word in Django Unchained where it is directly tied to the calculated way that black people were viewed as sub-human, even to the extent that some of them believed it themselves. And then the film even goes one step further when the character Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is introduced. Fiercely loyal to his white master Calvin J Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Stephen embodies many of the stereotypical traits that have been used throughout cinematic history to ridicule black characters. He is a despised character within the film designed to show the audience how loathsome many representations of black identity have been, from The Birth of a Nation onwards. Jackson also gives an extremely funny performance, calculated to make the audience laugh and then feel uneasy about how willingly they respond to his over-the-top delivery.

Django Unchained may not be one of the great Tarantino films and it loses some of its narrative drive towards the end, partially due to Tarantino’s most unnecessary cameo to date. The complete passivity of its only significant female characters is also disappointing, especially considering how well Tarantino has previously written for women. Nevertheless, the blend of classic film homages, violent spectacle and sparkling dialogue ensures that Tarantino remains one of the most interesting and innovative filmmakers of his generation. The dialogue alone is enough to make even the most jaded audience member feel their heart beat start to speed up. Has any filmmaker since Howard Hawks possessed the ability to set up long verbal exchanges that the audience want to hear go on for even longer? And whether he is atoning for previous sins or demonstrating that he knew what he was doing all along, Tarantino makes a potent and powerful statement about racial stereotype and racist language. He even includes a post-credit gag to suggest the potential for such language to then be successfully appropriated. The end result is what is possibly Tarantino’s most thoughtful and even political film to date.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Inception (2010)

19 July 2010

Inception

Knowing the details of how Inception unravels will not ruin the film for you but going into it as a blank slate is still the most rewarding way to initially experience it. So it is enough to simply say that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in extraction, which is the art of stealing secret information hidden in people’s subconscious. He and his team face their biggest challenge yet when they are tasked with inception – the seemingly impossible act of implanting thoughts into somebody else’s subconscious.

Inception: Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Films depicting different levels of reality that projections of the mind can occupy are now reasonably familiar. The Matrix first introduced the concept to mainstream cinema audiences and this concept has since appeared in films as diverse as eXistenZ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Inception owes something of a debt to all these films, plus Dark City, but it is still a boldly original work that takes the idea in a new direction. Director Christopher Nolan has worked with complex narrative structures before in Memento. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight demonstrated his stylishly cold spin on the film noir aesthetic in his portrayal of the hostile city. All these elements come together perfectly in Inception to make it Nolan’s masterpiece to date.

Part of what makes Inception so remarkable is that it has been made to appeal to the broadest audience possible. The film’s internal logic in the way it depicts how the subconscious operates is carefully thought-out and explained in terms of how different levels of the subconscious can have temporal and spatial effects on the others. These ideas end up facilitating the extraordinary lengthy action sequence that takes up the final act of the film. It is conceptually complex but written so well that you are never confused about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with cinema that leaves you puzzled, perplexed or confused but it is also extremely impressive to experience a film that is mind-bending in such a digestible way. At the same time, at no point does Inception feel dumbed-down or overly explanatory, which was the significant flaw in Nolan’s The Prestige. In 2010 both Toy Story 3 and now Inception have demonstrated that big studio films don’t have to be disposable products only aimed at short attention spans.

Inception: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Inception is cinema at its most rewarding. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals and the emotional rushes throughout the film. It contains a lot more characters of importance than in most films of this nature and yet they are all fully fleshed out and identifiable. Inception is the sort of film that future films will be compared to for its structure, writing, concepts and action. Cinema is rarely this engaging on so many levels and if you have any doubts then they will be gone by the final shot that cuts to the credits at the most perfect moment possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Inception

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Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

16 February 2010

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Revolutionary Road (2008)

22 January 2009
Revolutionary Road

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet)

The key line of dialogue in Revolutionary Road, the new film by director Sam Mendes, is spoken by John Givings, a mentally ill mathematician who features in two keys scenes from the film. When John first meets Frank and April Wheeler and identifies their desire to escape from suburbanite conformity he remarks, “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness but it takes real guts to notice the hopelessness”. This line comes during the first part of this film about 1950s middle class American life. The Wheelers are a young couple who have decided to ditch their dull and bland lives to move to Paris in order to escape from their self imposed comfort zone. The idea is that April Wheeler will work instead of playing the part of reluctant homemaker and Frank Wheeler will attempt to discover what it is he really wants to do in life, rather than waste away in a meaningless office job. However, as their plan to escape to a new life is set in motion fears, anxieties and the trappings of their secure routine lifestyle begin to threaten that plan.

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