The Adequate Gatsby

I wanted to like The Great Gatsby. I wanted to like it because I like Baz Luhrmann, or at least I liked him.

The problem is he hasn’t evolved.

Luhrmann’s Gatsby is stylistically rich, glossy, decadent, Tiffany-twisted but it’s hollow; lacking something; empathy? excitement? emotion?

Here, he tries to recreate the aesthetic of Moulin Rouge, but forgets that MR works because it is both a visual triumph and a compelling romance. In contrast, there is little spark between the leads and DiCaprio appears to have more chemistry with Toby Maguire than he does with Carey Mulligan.

Luhrmann also seems to be wholly focused on the wealth element of the story which permeates through his version: excessive opulence. They drive through the Valley of Ashes like the Fast and the Furious and drink enough champagne to sink a yacht. The emotional gravitas of the story and the internal conflicts of the characters are lost somewhere in all the diamond embellished visualization. It feels like Luhrmann thinks that the sheer sumptuous veneer will just detract from that and we won’t be paying attention? Parts of it could have been more spartan, more space, more connection.

I still want to like Luhrmann. I loved the style of Strictly Ballroom, the way he developed it for Romeo and Juliet, the interweaving of contemporary music in Moulin Rouge but here hes just tried to do the same again and its lacking without a sense of its story or characterization to carry it through. Perhaps he try something all together new.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Concludes F Scott Fitzgerald.Image

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The Horror!

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I have only recently discovered the horror genre.                     

Before I didn’t really get alot of exposure to it as my ex boyfirend did not likescary/gory movies. Also, if I’m being honest I was probably quite dismissive of it on the presumption that it lacked artisitic depth.

So now, having realised how wrong I was I have been indulging on some fiendish delights.

Some friends of mine have a vast collection of horror offerings from classic to cult and more or less everything in between. I’ve laughed at the tongue-in-cheek original scream thriller Halloween, been impressed with the synthy noir of early kathryn Bigelow venture Near Dark and been positively terrified of a two second clip of a woman in a white dress in the Kill List Trailer.

The latest thing I’ve seen has been an experiment called VHS Horror which consists of a collection of shorts focusing on the chilling and sinister. Watching this has really affirmed my faith in amateur film-making, proof that you don’t need a budget to create atmosphere and tension. I am also informed that some of the shots were achieved using ingenious methods to account for the lack of expensive equipment. I suggest you check it out.

For me the scariest moment in cinema will always be in Disney’s Snow White when she runs through the forest and trees manipulate and change shape. This is closely followed by the appearance of the witch on top of the house while Dorothy wanders down the yellow brick road.

And for the record I think The Shining is a rubbish film and Kubrick is an overrated director.

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Killing Them (not so) Softly

The first thing you notice about Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (based on the 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s trade’) is it’s dismal and desolate backdrop. this is T.S Eliots Wasteland; a grey, ashen, god forsaken place. Its post recession America at its ugligest where as Brad Pitt’s character aptly remarks “you’re on your own.”  

Enter into the fray two heroin addicted, ex convicted miscreants. you wouldn’t think they could sink any lower but apparently they can as they become pawns in some local crime lord/dry cleaner’s masterplan. Its simple: All they have to do is rob at gunpoint a high value card game (played by other shady, fellon types), steal all the money, take it back to the crime lord/dry cleaner, get their cut and bobs your uncle: they can take enough smack to make the ditch they are living in seem like Beverly Hills.  

But of course things don’t go that smoothy and the pair become caught up in a bloody tale of revenge and laissez faire capitalism. Among it’s key players are card game fraudster Trattman, hit man supremo (and cool customer) Brad Pitt, a washed up and pathetic James Gandolfini and an evasive guy called Dillon.

Firstly, I think its important to mention that this film was a lot shorter than I thought it was going to be. This is odd because at times the pace does seem a little slow. There are a few annoying interludes, such as where one of the aforemention miscreants goes on a drug fulled trip and the shot fades in and out of focus to convey his mindstate – clever at first but goes on far too long! However, I have to conceed that even when particular sceens seem to uneccessarily flesh out dialogue, the script picks itself up again and saves us from losing interest in the plot. Secondly, I must point out that what I think this movie essentially reveals is the power of screen presence- that intangible quality that distingishes a good actor from a movie star. When the charismatic players are on set the action seems more alive. Its not that any of the actors we see initially are particularly bad, its more that when Brad Pitt appears, the film just seems to get better. Likewise, Ray Liotta (once again) gives an enigmatic performance for relitively little screen time.   

The plot flows well, there are some sub dramas and backstory of certain characters but they only exist to serve the main narrative – we are never too concerned with the details. If this film had been directed by Guy Ritchie (and its the sort of thing he would) it was have been much faster paced and there would have been distinct comidic elements. Theres enough material here to have some laughs but Domink doesn’t go there – this isn’t supposed to be funny.

I’ve read reviews that proclaimed this movie to be a ‘bloodbath’ and I don’t think thats fair. yes, there are some cringingly grotesque moments but its honestly just in the service of realism and whats wrong with that? Its certainly not gratuatous or misplaced. The point of this film is its dirty, grimey and real: bloodshed with a hollywood censory vaneer would undermine it.

The essence of this movie is it’s ironic discourse. The absurd hypocrasy that the American dream is still (or ever was) attainable for everyone regardless of social standing is the theme that permeates. the action throughout is laced with various television screens showing Obama and Bush spout the usual verbatim of hope and unity. It seems completely unfeesable when set against this post apocolyptic void. It brings to mind the desolation and degredation of those  left with nothing in the wake of hurricane Katrina. The stark and brutal reality serves as a reminder that gulf in society is massive and you wonder how those at the bottom could ever imagine an egalitarian future. Worth an hour and half of your time.

From Russia with Disappointment: Review – Anna Karenina

The last film I saw was Joe Wright’s recent adaptaion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The narrative centres on anti-heroine Anna, who at the outset is both beautiful and respected. Married to a prominant statesman, she is perfectly intergrated into the heart of pre-revolutionary St Petersberg high society. Her world and subsequently her place within it perilously transform when she meets and emabrks on an affair with Count Vronsky, a wealthy cavalry officer. From here on, Anna’s story spirals downward through an inevitable series of personal and social rejections until she is finally destroyed by her desolation and succumbs to her tragic end.

Wright is no stranger to making unusual choices when it comes to film making. His long, panoramic Dunkirk beach shot in Atonement was a bold move that paid off. Here, he tries realise a similar innovation but it doesn’t have the desired effect. The action, for pretty much its entirety is set within the confines of a classic theatre. Its an interesting approach but it doesn’t serve his story. Anna Karenina is an epic tale and subsequently needs to be set against a vast, epic backdrop. Russia itself is a protagonist in this dynamic and her dramtic landscapes do not translate well into the relative confines of the auditorium. Similarly, the lavish costumes and props are at odds with the set and Wright has not scaled down the aesthetic to achieve compatibility. Ultimately, there is an overidding feeling of claustrophobia; there is too much to look at in this small space and its distracting. The horse race montage maybe technically skillful but its irritating to watch. A scene where peripharal characters move blocks around a table to convey their emotion is tedious and unecessarily frustrating.

Then theres the script. Its not that Tom Stoppard hasn’t developed a coherant screenplay, its just that theres nothing to sink your teeth into. he presents us with all the requisite phases of downfall but it all smacks of going through the motions. Theres nothing under the surface that makes you sit up and take note of whats really going on or indeed affords you that connection with a character so that you have any more than a passing interest in their fate. A good screenwriter will breakdown the veil between the audience and protagonist so that we become involved. Whether we like or dislike the characters is irrelevent as long as we have some level of interaction. Here, its fundementally lost; Karenina’s death is brutal but unremarkable, we remain removed.

Likewise the performances look polished but are devoid of any real substance.Knightley looks pretty and makes a fair go of her dramatic scenes but she’s trying too hard again and the overall effect renders her too stylised to be believable. There are points where she is believable in her paranoid frenzy but in addition, too many moments where she is not. for example, her attachment to her young son comes over as being so completely devoid of any real affection you have to wonder why it was included at all. Taylor-Johnson  is completely out of his depth and the fact that he resembles a hilarious extra from a christmas production of the nutcracker prevents us from taking him seriously on any level in relation to this role. Jude law has moments of aptitude but the script prevents him from making his character any more than two-dimentional. Secondary characters are neither here or there, perfectly acceptable but instantly forgettable.

You have to respect Wright for sheer determination. The assumption is that he did not have the finance to film on a grand scale and so tries to imagine a creative retelling and execute it to the best of his ability. The problem is he misses the point. If he was going to do this he should have gone for a stripped back spartan approach, that focuses on the emotion, plight and pain on the characters. He could have used a minimal set and costume and relied on enigmatic perfomaces from his cast. That can’t be achieved here. For one the script is too shallow and even if it were not, it seems unlikely that the cast would have the gravitas to support it. As it is it should have been a luminous big-budget extravaganza but Wright tries to condense this aesthetic into a space too small to contain it: its brave but it doesn’t work.