Trailer or Spoiler? First Look at Prisoners

Prisoners, poster, Hugh Jackman, kinopoisk

poster via kinopoisk.ru

Hugh Jackman stars in Incendies director Denis Villanueve‘s new film, Prisoners, due out later this fall. It’s been a long time coming too.  Originally Mark Wahlberg was to star under the direction of Bryan Singer. Jackman was first attached with Olympus Has Fallen‘s Antoine Fuqua directing, but both left the project. Leonardo DiCaprio was attached, but he eventually dropped out as well. After several years in development hell, Jackman returned. Ever since filming finally began in January of this year, I’ve been hearing good things. There are already whispers in the wind of “awards worthy” with reference to Jackman’s performance.

Also starring Terrence Howard, Maria Bello (in a role that was originally rumored for Jessica Chastain), Viola Davis, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano, Prisoners casts Jackman as a blue-collar Boston father (despite the fact that it was filmed in Georgia. Pffft) on the trail of the man he believes responsible for kidnapping his young daughter and her friend.Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective assigned to the case.

Ultimately, the film seeks to ask, to what lengths would an ordinary person be prepared to go for their children?

The first trailer has just landed on line and while I was anxious to get first look, after watching it, I think we can all guess the answer. I have to wonder what’s left to discover and why should I buy a ticket? Take a look:

YouTube video via JoBlo Movie Network

Is it me or does this give way too much away? We get the setup, then we’re told what the crime is. We see how tied the hands of the criminal justice system are and we watch as Hugh Jackman starts to go all vigilante. We see Paul Dano, who may or may not be the kidnapper bound and gagged in Jackman’s bathroom, we see his mother defend him, then we see the beginning of a confrontation with whoever will more than likely turn out to be the actual kidnapper. Wam Bam, two minutes and thirty seconds and we’ve seen the whole thing.

It has been argued that there are but a handful of basic plots. I’ve continually espoused the tenet that there is nothing new under the sun and it’s all in the delivery, but there’s nothing in this trailer that tells me I’m going to see anything new, other than this time it’s Hugh Jackman’s turn to go all Charles Bronson.

Am I just jaded? Should I be giving Villanueve, here making his English-language debut, the benefit of the doubt? (side bar: Villanueve has two movies coming out this year, and if their current release dates hold, within eight days of each other and both starring Jake Gyllenhaal.) It seems to me that with a cast this good, Warner Brothers shouldn’t need to show us all of their cards to stir up interest.  This is just supposed to be a first tease for a movie that doesn’t open until September. How much more are we going to see between now and then? Is it possible there is a helluva twist that we can’t see coming? JMHO, but when a trailer gives so much away all at once, it signals a lack of confidence in the finished product. I predict a LOT of advance screenings in a lot of cities.

There is a fine line to be walked between generating interest in the product and just plain giving too much away too soon. Internet-connected fans are more movie savvy than any generation before them and while they are ravenous for news and “inside” intel, their affections are fickle. I’ve talked quite a bit recently about how social media is changing the face of movie marketing, but there have been quite a few examples of blitzkrieg-like campaigns that started out looking like marketing genius, only to have the masses revolt when the hype is not to be believed. Prometheus anyone? How about the recent resurrection of “Arrested Development”?

What do you think? Does this trailer for Prisoners fill you with anticipation? Are you anxious to see the movie or has this trailer spoiled the whole thing for you?

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The Master: Charisma to Spare, but What of Substance?

The Master: Charisma to Spare, but What of Substance?.

via The Master: Charisma to Spare, but What of Substance?.

I finally saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master today. It’s Anderson’s first film since 2008’s There Will Be Blood in which he directed Daniel Day Lewis to an Oscar for Best Actor. The Master was a sensation even before it opened the Venice Film Festival and had a gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival since Harvey and The Weinstein Company had staged sneak peeks all over the country at old movie palaces, selling out in every city, creating internet buzz for what is essentially an independent, art-house film. When it opened in New York and LA, it set per screen box office records. What I had heard about the film before going in was largely positive. Audiences at TIFF gave the film standing ovations, even as they left the theater scratching their heads. What I was reading was that a lot of people have had trouble processing the film and felt that they needed a second viewing before they could articulate their thoughts.

Personally, I think those people are overthinking it.

One of the most anticipated films of the year, The Master is a 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as “the Master”, played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose faith-based organization (“The Cause”) begins to catch on in America, and a young drifter who becomes his right-hand man. The drifter is played by Joaquin Phoenix.

Visually it’s stunning, shot in 70mm. The last film shot in that format was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet from 1996. (A film I adore by the way. You can finally get it on dvd and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly, although you have truly missed out by not seeing it in all of its Technicolor splendor on the big screen.) The cinematography, by Mihai Malaimare, Jr., is beautiful when it uses natural landscapes and the continued use of flowing water but it is the meticulous attention to period detail that sticks out for me. In the photography and lighting as well as the costumes and the production design.

Several observers have noticed parallels between the story of the Master and his Cause, and the founding of Scientology by L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson and his people deny that this is some sort of Scientology allegory. It’s also not the first time Anderson has delved into the subject of charismatic pseudo-religious leaders and the effects on their followers, after Magnolia, which ironically, reignited the career of one of the most famous Scientologists, Tom Cruise. So it’s even more ironic that Cruise is reportedly unhappy with The Master. Scientologist #1 has “issues” with the film, according to the New York Post, after having recently screened the finished product. Whether that’s true or not is anyone’s guess at this point since The Post doesn’t actually go into any detail. It could just be a publicity stunt. Both the Anderson and Cruise camps have since denied that Cruise has any problem with the film.

Personally, I don’t think that there can be any doubt that this film is based on Scientology, although I don’t know enough about the particulars of that organization to know what if anything is literal. Anderson has stated that his main influence was John Huston’s government-sponsored documentary from 1946, Let There Be Light, about returning WWII vets with PTSD. The camera films them from their induction through to their eventual ‘cure’ and final departure back into mainstream America. Once completed the government banned it for 30 years. There is a scene in the beginning of The Master that would seem to have been lifted from this film.

I think both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix gave exceptional, understated performances. There is not a single scene in the film in which one or the other, if not both, is on screen. Their final scene together is, as it should be, the most powerful. It consists of closeups on the two men’s faces and it had me holding my breath, watching the oh-so-subtle changes taking place. Phoenix’s characterization is almost entirely physical. He conveys nearly everything we need to know about his character from the way he walks, carries himself, even the way he holds his mouth when he speaks.

Both he and Hoffman will both, almost certainly, be nominated for Best Actor Oscars (thus canceling out both. In another bit of irony, that will probably leave the way clear for Daniel Day Lewis once more.) Jeremy Renner was originally cast, but they lost him when the financing took years to put together. Luckily, Phoenix had just gotten off of the Crazy Train and was available. As much as I liked Phoenix, I’m curious about what Renner’s take on the character of Freddie Quell would have been.

Amy Adams, who plays “the Master’s” fertile third wife (she’s first seen with a toddler on her lap and is pregnant through most of the film), delivers another fine performance and is the backbone of the film. She plays perky so well that it is easy to underestimate her. A few scenes with closeups of her steely blue eyes and one begins to wonder just who “The Master” of the title actually is.

The performances are all amazing. but ultimately? There’s no “there” there.

The Master is two hours and sixteen minutes of people moving along a timeline, but to what end? I think that’s the point. There is no end, because our journeys are never ending. One of the chief tenets of “The Cause” and not coincidentally of Scientology, is that we’ve all been here before, we’ll be here again.

The bottom line is that I think The Master will probably be nominated for Best Picture because the Academy won’t understand it, so they’ll think it must be art and they should recognize it. It won’t win, however, for the same reason: It’s art and they won’t understand it.

Broken City – Can Mark Wahlberg Fix it?

Reblogged from Stilettos, Stoli and Scribbles

Unless it’s an awards contender “opening wide”, my motto is “Beware the films of January”. There are always exceptions of course, but typically I have low expectations for any movie that I’ve gone to see during the first month of any year. One could argue that there are four weekends in January, just as there are in the other eleven months of the year, and they need movies too. But it is precisely because of those awards contenders that January has become the Island of Misfit Movies. It’s almost as if there is a pact among studios that none of them open anything that can compete to take away the “nominations box-office bump” that those prestigious films have earned. (Funnily enough, as I write this, Oscar nominated Jessica Chastain is in theaters in a low-budget horror film, Mama, that took in $33 million this weekend. Number 2 was the film for which she’s nominated, Zero Dark Thirty at around $32 million.)

All of the above is why I’ve chosen to write about a film called Broken City, a crime drama from director Allen Hughes (one half of the Hughes Brothers responsible for Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli, but not the half attached to Motor City that was to have starred Gerard Butler), and not one of the critically acclaimed awards contenders, because it is such a nice surprise. There’s more here than the trailer and clips, and especially the release date, would suggest. A LOT more, and I’ve been following this thing since filming began in November of 2011.

Mark Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a detective with the NYPD forced to hand in his badge and gun after being involved in the shooting death of a teenager. While the mayor (Russell Crowe) tells Billy he believes his actions were heroic, the city’s Chief of Police (Jeffrey Wright) isn’t buying it and wants his head on a platter and since the city’s residents are outraged over what they consider the violence perpetrated by the NYPD, Billy’s days on the job are done. Flash forward seven years and the former cop is making his living as a low-rent P.I. who can’t get his clients to pay up.

Just before Election Day, Crowe’s Mayor Hostetler, who is still the mayor and running neck and neck with his opponent, the seemingly on-the-nose-named Jack Valliant, contacts Billy and makes him an offer he can’t refuse, to the tune of $50,000. It appears that the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is cheating on him, and he wants pictures and gory details – everything- about the man with whom his wife has betrayed him.

If it were all that simple, we wouldn’t have a movie, so the job is not quite as straightforward as it seems. Billy, who’s not nearly as dumb as he looks, begins to pluck at a thread in a tangled web of political corruption involving the sale of a public housing complex that also happens to be linked to Billy’s past. So instead of just walking away $50,000 richer, which would be the smart thing, but a lot less thrilling, he decides to take on the larger-than-life, even downright creepy, political animal that is Crowe’s Mayor.

Can we talk about Russell Crowe for a minute? Setting aside the fact that he may be a telephone-hurling sociopath, he’s undeniably a great actor. Now that he’s getting a little long in the tooth for typical leading-man roles, I’m hoping he takes on more villains. They are a good fit.

As for Wahlberg, he has a tendency to play characters that take themselves very seriously. (He seems to only have three expressions in his repertoire: angry, confused or a combination of both.) One of the best things about Broken City is that even when Wahlberg takes Billy too seriously, the movie generally doesn’t, even laying a sly finger on the side of its nose* when Billy gets exasperated by the proliferation of plot twists. Crowe’s Mayor could come across as “Snidely Whiplash” bad, but the humor helps to keep him grounded.

Speaking of plot twists, most of them do appear progressively, one thing leading to another. There are no red herrings and there are no dangling threads and each new twist amps up the intrigue. We’re never even sure exactly what happened the fateful night that Billy’s career ended until the final reel. Bits of it are peeled away a corner at a time over the course of the film as it pertains to events in the present.

Is it perfect? Of course not. There’s an undercurrent of homophobia that runs through the movie that feels dated. A big speed bump for me was Natalie Martinez and her character, Natalie. For one thing, the character is in the courtroom at the beginning of the movie when Billy’s case is dismissed for lack of evidence. Seven years later, she hasn’t aged a day. In fact, it’s not clear whether they are “together” at the beginning, if they were, then she was probably jail-bait. Her character seems to exist to give Billy a reason to talk to her parents. Billy is stereotypically jealous with stereotypical results.

In addition to the two leads, the rest of the cast is terrific with excellent actors playing smaller but crucial parts. Catherine Zeta Jones has little to do, but does it with her typical slinky style and élan. In particular, Jeffrey Wright, as the brusque, stand-offish police commissioner whose motives are difficult to get a handle on and especially Barry Pepper as Jack Valliant, whose big scene blew me away.

It’s obvious that Hughes, his screenwriter Brian Tucker and most of all, his cinematographer Ben Seresin, want to invoke the spirit of the late, great Sidney Lumet, who made gritty, noir-esque New York classics like Serpico and Prince of the City in which a tough cop fights corruption and in which the city was itself a character. His is a voice sorely missed. Broken City, doesn’t reach those heights, but who else is even trying? First time screenwriter Tucker may get there one day. All in all, Broken City is better than a movie unceremoniously dumped in mid-January has a need to be. Indeed, it’s better than a lot of films one might find in any other month of the year, as well.

*In The Sting, a sign from one player to another that they were in on the con was an index finger brushed along the side of the nose.

via Broken City – Can Mark Wahlberg Fix it?.

Will The Raven Fly Over Olympus?

Gerard Butler, Kable, Gamer, Lionsgate, The Raven

photo courtesy Lionsgate

Gerard Butler is, according to The Hollywood Reporter, in talks to take the lead of a sci-fi action adventure called The Raven. (Not to be confused with either the Edgar Allan Poe poem or the 2012 movie it supposedly inspired. That film was the cinematic equivalent of a night with a few too many martinis. It was fun at the time then you wake up with a headache and vow to never do it again. Poor John Cusack.)

This new film, to be directed by Peruvian Ricardo de Montreuil, will be based on his own 2010 short of the same name. The short was made for $5000 over the course of a couple of weekends and became a YouTube sensation. The feature version been in development since then. Back in July of 2010 it was announced that Mark Wahlberg would star and produce for Universal Pictures. The last we heard of it, Liam Hemsworth was attached to star, but Wahlberg would stay on to produce.

Ricardo de Montreuil, The Raven, Gerard Butler

photo via imdb

The short, which you can see below, is about a young man, Chris Black aka The Raven, with telekinetic powers being chased around downtown Los Angeles by assorted police drones and mecha, while a giant police ship hovers above.

At first blush, swapping Liam Hemsworth for Gerard Butler might not make much sense. I can, however, think of a few reasons why the producers would think it could work, aside from the fact that Liam Hemsworth has in no way proven he can carry a movie.

First, we really don’t need another “teens in peril in a dystopian future” movie (see: The Hunger GamesThe Host etc) or even “teens at the mercy of their own powers” movie (see: the Twilight series- if you must, City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, Chronicle).

And second, making the hero older increases the likelihood that The Raven will be R-rated.

Traditionally, those making action movies walk the line between PG-13 and R, trying to stay on the side of the former, the logic being a lower rating means more butts in seats. The problem with that is two-fold. Not only do adults not want to share every cinematic experience with their tweens, but that line has been blurred and obscured so badly, the envelope has been pushed, (use whatever metaphor you like) to the point that the inevitable backlash has begun. Why is the massive amount of violence shown to those under seventeen so more acceptable than sex? How much is too much? (For my own part, I’d like to know who the arbiters of these things really are.  Who makes up the governing body known as the Motion Picture Association of America and what are the hows and whys of their decisions? The head of this august body is former Conn. Senator Christopher Dodd, more than likely chosen for his history of “bringing much-needed attention to children’s and education issues”.)

As usual I digress. My point is that an R-rating increases the probability of some no-holds barred action, sci-fi and otherwise, as well as the possibility of a sweaty, “hurry up before they find us” love scene. (I am ever hopeful.). This would seem to be less of a financial risk with reference to The Raven and the possible casting of Gerard Butler as he is just coming off the (surprise) success of another hard R action movie, Olympus Has Fallen, not to mention his greatest box office success to date, 300, was also rated R, thereby giving him a proven track record.

So if Butler is indeed cast, Michael Gilio, who wrote the script (Justin Marks did an earlier draft) will have to do a little tweaking since it’s thought that cameras will likely roll on the film later this year.

Wahlberg and Steve Levinson, who brought the project to the attention of Universal, will produce alongside Gold Circle’s Paul Brooks.

The premise of The Raven (which will more than likely get a name change before all is said and done) has potential.  This could be a good move on Butler’s part. It’s territory he should be comfortable with and at the same time, there is the possibility of covering new ground. I’m not providing any startling insight when I say that it will all depend on the script.

Butler had to have been as disillusioned as anyone with the box office failure of the last few films prior to OHF. The critical drubbing he’s probably used to, but it’s easier to shrug that off when you’re raking in the dough. As I’ve previously pointed out, love ’em or hate ’em, Butler’s movies usually make money. No actor sets out to make a “bad” movie. Critical response to Olympus Has Fallen was split, but the box office was decisive. (Another thing I’ve talked about before is how tirelessly Butler supports his projects (and how well Olympus Has Fallen made use of social media), and how often his enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be merited. While I’m all for an actor breaking out of their comfort zones (note to Gerard Butler: I will continue to repeat this until it somehow makes its way to you: You really, really need to get a meeting with Matthew McConaughey’s agent. At the very least, there should be some heart-to-hearts on the set of Thunder Run) and he has a project that would seem to have some gravitas on his docket with Dynamo, that one’s not due for a couple of years. So even if The Raven plants him in familiar territory (re: Gamer), if it’s a hit, no one will care.

*****

In other, more disturbing news, the director of that other The Raven, James McTeigue, is set to helm an “action thriller” called Survivor with Clive Owen and….Katherine Heigl. What is this fuckery?  With all due respect to Ms. Heigl, I don’t think she’s in Clive Owen’s league. At all. Are they planning to change it to an “action comedy”? That’s the only way her casting makes sense, but then it doesn’t explain Owen.  See the above with reference to comfort zones, but I’m skeptical about this.  It’s being shopped in Cannes. We’ll see.

The Iceman Finally Cometh

The Iceman, Poster, Michael Shannon

Director Ariel Vromen’s gangster drama, The Iceman, has finally opened here in the US.  It’s the true story of notorious cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinksi, a prolific contract assassin for the mob who was also a devoted family man. By his own reckoning, he killed more than a hundred people, but the title comes from Kuklinski’s nickname. Not only did he reportedly freeze his victims in order to throw off the authorities trying to discern time of death, but he was also said to have ice water in his veins.

Taken from a 1992 HBO documentary featuring interviews with Kuklinski behind bars (he died prison in 2006) and a true-crime novel by Anthony Bruno, published in 1993, the script by Vromen and Morgan Land takes place over the course of the two most prolific decades of Kuklinski’s “career”. It paints a grisly picture of his “day job” as well as the slow grind on his family.

It’s been a long road to the big screen. Since it was first announced more than two years ago, the production has been through several cast incarnations, with Michael Shannon as the title character being the one constant. Back in 2011 when Nu Image and Millennium were trying to drum up both interest and funding, an extremely creepy test trailer was produced with Shannon and Michael Wincott as Robert Pronge aka Mr. Freezy.  (I debated whether or not to post it. It’s kind of “spoiler-y” since a version of the scene is included in the final cut almost wholly intact. It’s available online if you want to see it)

poster, The Iceman, Ariel Vromen, Michael Shannon

Soon after, the  poster above landed with the names Benicio Del Toro and James Franco appearing alongside Shannon’s. But time waits for no man, and certainly not an in-demand actor, so while production specifics were still being ironed out , Franco was replaced by Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy  and Del Toro was replaced by Ray Liotta as mid-level Gambino crew boss Roy Demeo. Other announced cast included villainous henchman extraordinaire Elias Koteas and Vromen regular Ori Pfeffer who were replaced by David Schwimmer and Danny Abeckaser. Winona Ryder replaced the pregnant Maggie Gyllenhaal as Deborah Kuklinski.  Franco  still wanted to be a part of the film, so when cameras finally rolled, he took the small, but pivotal role of Marty.

Vromen’s first choices may have fallen through, but the cast he ended up with was so good, I have a hard time imagining anyone else in the roles, especially Ray Liotta as Roy Demeo . With all due respect to Benicio Del Toro, if  you need someone to do what Ray Liotta does as well as Ray Liotta does it, you get Ray Liotta.

Ray Liotta, Ariel Vromen, The Iceman

via imdb

It can not come as a surprise to anyone how good Michael Shannon is at portraying The Ice Man’s dual nature. (More than Skyfall, more than American Beauty, Sam Mendes should be remembered for bringing an unknown theater actor to our attention and directing him to an Oscar nomination in Revolutionary Road.) The ultimate Jekyll and Hyde, equal parts callous and merciless sociopath exuding cold-blooded menace then flipping a switch to devoted husband and father, the entire movie turns on Shannon’s mesmerizing performance. Every move, every twitch is fine-tuned so that even in the quietest moments, a barely concealed rage is simmering just below the surface. It boils over at unexpected times and doesn’t when we think it will, thus keeping the audience off balance.

Ariel Vromen, Michael Shannon The Iceman

via imdb

So, the brilliance of Michael Shannon aside, what is an even bigger treat is the strength of the rest of the cast. Winona Ryder, who really needs to work more, is perfection as Kuklinski’s sweetly naïve and increasingly disillusioned wife. Ryder, with her big, trusting brown eyes can pull off guileless. I don’t think I’d have bought it from Gyllenhaal. If you only know Chris Evans from silly rom-coms like What’s Your Number? or comic-book movies like The Fantastic Four and Captain America (okay I like that one too), you will not recognize him beneath the dark glasses, long stringy hair, heavy sideburns and walrus mustache, but also because he’s just that good as a fellow assassin and Richie’s erstwhile business partner, driving around in that ice cream truck. Robert Davi as a high-ranking Gambino goon and David Schwimmer as DeMeo’s friend and #2 henchman were also effective. Danny  Abeckaser, an actor I’d never heard of before, I thought was particularly compelling as Richie’s one loyal friend. (At least he was loyal to the one side of the man that he knew.)

Chris Evans, Ariel Vromen, The Iceman

via imdb

The story begins in 1964 with a first date, as typically awkward as most, between Richie and Deborah. (He tells her he dubs Disney cartoons instead of the truth, that he’s involved with a mob-controlled porn outfit.) Just as innocently as it begins, however, that switch is quickly flipped and we see Richie committing his first (or at least first on-screen) murder, killing the dirtbag stupid enough to disrespect “his girl”. His icy cool soon brings him to the attention of crime boss Demeo who puts his “talents” to good use. He becomes so good at the killing business that eventually he’s able to  move Deborah, now his wife, and his two girls, into an upscale New Jersey suburb.

The movie makes leaps in time, condensing Richie’s “career” in order to keep the momentum going and the focus on the crime. This is not a  psychological character study in the vein of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, yet it’s full of telling psychological details like Richie’s contempt for religion, brilliantly depicted in Shannon’s one scene with James Franco. Kuklinski is shockingly and casually cruel as he watches his victim pray for deliverance.

The scene with Kuklinski’s brother, Joey, played by Stephen Dorff, is also illuminating.  The younger Kuklinski is in prison, serving a life sentence for killing a child and in a brief flashback we get a glimpse of the abusive early life that both brothers endured. The story really hinges on Kuklinski’s aversion to hurting women and children. It is the driving force in his relationship with his wife and two daughters and they ultimately become his Achilles heel.

The answer to the question of how Kuklinski managed to fool his family for so long seems to be to be fairly simple, at least as far as his wife Deborah goes. She believed what she wanted to believe.

There is a scene in which Deborah starts to confront “Richie” for his erratic behavior, but as soon as he gets angry with her, violent to the point of smashing household objects in his path, she backs down. The next thing we know, they are embracing and she’s apologizing for having questioned him.  Even before this though, a crucial scene that perfectly outlines the nature of Kuklinski’s relationship with his wife occurs fairly early on.  We see him come home late at night to his tiny apartment and the next thing we know he’s giving a bottle to his infant daughter.  When he finds the real-estate section of the newspaper on the table with a listing circled, we the audience wonder how he’s going to react to the idea that his wife wants a bigger house. Kuklinski takes it in stride and we know he’ll do whatever it takes to get her that house. Deborah says  “You probably think I’m a spoiled brat.” He gives her what passes for a smile and answers, “No, you just like to be taken care of.”  She snuggles closer and tells him in a little girl voice, “I like the way you take care of me.”  As the years go by, it is obvious that he’s taken care of her quite well and she wants to keep it that way.  Ryder and Shannon have terrific chemistry.  I absolutely bought them as a loving couple living their twisted version of the American Dream.

Winona Ryder, Michael Shannon, The Iceman

via imdb

Director Vromen was responsible for 2006’s Danika with Marisa Tomei and Craig Bierko, Rx (2005) also co-written with Morgan Land, as well as a little short by the name of Jewel of the Sahara. (Look it up. I told you all roads lead to G*).  Here, he brings a deft and authentic touch to well-trod material. Along with his production designer (Nathan Amondson) and cinematographer (Bobby Bukowski) they recreate the gritty look and feel of 1960’s and 70’s New Jersey where there must have been a pool hall and XXX theater on every corner. The film has a grainy quality and a muted color palette that brings to mind low-budget crime flicks of that era. Most of those are told from the point of view of the “good guys”, like Across 110th Street or The Seven-Ups, but the period detail is so good, including the wardrobe, the music and especially the cars, that this one would fit right alongside those classics.

It’s not Goodfellas, but it doesn’t aspire to be. It is a tough, lean, mob movie, completely evocative of time and place with a spellbinding performance by Michael Shannon that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

*(I think “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” will eventually be replaced by “All Roads Lead to Gerard Butler”. I can think of 5 or 6 connections here alone)

A Good, But Not Great, Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio, Baz Luhrmann,The Great Gatsby

If you grew up and went to school in the US, then you were, at some point, more likely than not required to read  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby”, the book about which the term “the great American novel” was coined.  This fact allows me to talk about the movie without worry that I’ll be spoiling any of the plot for most of you.

With reference to the movie itself, if “living well is the best revenge”, then Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Jay Gatsby, certainly got his. In the case of Baz Luhrmann’s film, a $51 million plus opening against Marvel’s juggernaut Iron Man 3 is the best revenge against the tepid reaction from most critics.

Luhrmann’s huge, lavish production of The Great Gatsby, which just opened in the US (ahead of its European debut as the opening night film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) this past weekend, was originally scheduled to hit theaters Christmas Day 2012. There was a lot of speculation that the rescheduling meant trouble, as it so often does.  I’m actually glad that Warner Brothers made the decision. While it would have been fun to see Leonardo DiCaprio go up against Leonardo DiCaprio at the box office, The Great Gatsby probably would not have shared much of its audience with Django Unchained. It would, however, have shared it with Les Miserables. (Not to mention awards attention with the likes of Silver Linings Playbook.) Opening it in May, at the start of summer block-buster season, at least gives us a little variety at the multiplex.

The story has been filmed three times before, four if you count a 2000 made-for-cable version, which despite the presence of a notable cast, including Toby Stephens as Jay Gatsby, Mira Sorvino as Daisy and Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway, was even more tepid than the most memorable version from 1973. That one  starred Robert Redford (in his most glorious prime) and a waif-like (even though she was pregnant at the time) Mia Farrow.

I remember that version primarily because it introduced me to the mansions of Newport, which stood in for Jazz age Long Island. Bit of trivia: director Jack Clayton served as associate producer on John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, also the title of an indelible Baz Luhrmann film –  which brings me back around to the current topic of discussion.

The 2013 incarnation of The Great Gatsby  is a grand spectacle. It’s flashy, trashy, twirling, swirling, raging and raucous (yet sweetly sentimental), gin and champagne soaked decadence. And it’s in 3D!

Leonardo DiCaprio,Tobey Maguire, Baz Luhrmann, The Great Gatsby

As Fitzgerald’s omnipresent Greek chorus-like narrator, Nick Carraway says in wide-eyed wonder, “It’s like an amusement park.” He’s describing but one of Jay Gatsby’s parties, but it also describes the movie itself.

Anyone who’s ever seen a Baz Luhrmann film should know going in what to expect. Starting with what is still one of my favorite movies of the 1990’s, Strictly Ballroom, with a finale that includes an inspired paso doble (before “Dancing with the Stars” made it ubiquitous), continuing through his modern take on Shakespeare, the multicultural Romeo + Juliet set in Verona Beach, Florida, the aforementioned musical Moulin Rouge (which Gatsby most closely resembles if for no other reason the anachronistic soundtrack) with John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Latrec singing Nat King Cole of all things, and the hyper-romantic Australia, meant to evoke the grand passions of Casablanca, the director’s filmmaking style is pure rococo. It’s ornate, highly-stylized and always over the top. The watch-word is excess. You either enjoy it or you don’t, but one really shouldn’t expect anything different just because he’s turned his hand to, arguably, the greatest example of 20th century American literature.

The story, of course, concerns the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Everyone knows he’s rich, but where did the money come from? The origin of Gatsby’s fortune  is the chief subject of gossip among the rich and fabulous New Yorkers who frequent his many equally fabulous parties. Nick Carraway (not rich and not fabulous) admires Gatsby, whom he regards as a fellow self-made man, unlike his  beautiful cousin Daisy Buchanan’s husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), an arrogant brute, the scion of a wealthy family who plays polo and cheats on his wife. On the outside looking in, Nick (Tobey Maguire) finds himself drawn into their gossamer web when Gatsby learns his new neighbor’s connection to the woman of his dreams and asks him to arrange an assignation with Daisy (Carey Mulligan), his long lost love (and obsession) who embodies his most cherished aspirations.

The problem with Luhrmann’s version is the same as the problem with any version of this book. More than the plot or the characters themselves, it’s Fitzgerald’s writing that makes the material “great”. You can’t film Fitzgerald’s words.

Not that the director doesn’t try. Among the differences between novel and film (and there are many and that’s okay. They are two separate mediums), the chief conceit here is that not only is Nick Carraway narrating the story for “us” (either reader or watcher), Luhrmann has seen fit to frame the narration with a wholly made-up scenario in which alcoholic Carraway is in a sanitarium and writing the story as well as telling it to his psychiatrist. Typed letters float up on the screen to form words, whole passages are written on the screen. It’s unnecessary, as well as not a little insulting to his actors.

When he allows his cast to just act, they reward him, and us, handsomely. Leonardo DiCaprio, who worked with Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet (and was to follow that up with a version of Alexander the Great which was scuttled after Oliver Stone’s version tanked), is a sympathetic and romantic Jay Gatsby, his boyish good looks and charm used to great effect. His continued use of the term “old sport” as an endearment starts to grate the more that we hear it as the movie goes on, because we’re also learning more about the character and we realize what an affectation it is.  If his accent seems to slip in and out, I think it’s a conscious choice on the part of the actor. It slips when he’s frustrated, especially after he’s revealed his past to Nick. His accent is a manifestation of the mask that he wears. Nick sees him as the epitomy of hopefulness and that attitude is clear in everything Gatsby says and does, even in his nervous disappearing act during the “tea-party” he has Nick arrange for Daisy.

I became a Carey Mulligan fan after I saw her in Shame. She’s an actress who hides a lot of gravitas and substance beneath a tiny, almost child-like exterior. While her Daisy may lack the debutante’s froth, she does convey the requisite vapid selfishness. And she wears the costumes beautifully. She looks right at home in the height of flapper fashion. (Gatsby remarks to Nick “she looks like she belongs on the cover of Vogue” and fittingly, Mulligan is on the May 2013 cover in Gatsby-era finery.)

Joel Edgerton is perfect as the well-heeled, narrow-minded bully, Tom Buchanan. His mustache, I must say, goes a long way toward conveying the menace he embodies.  Isla Fisher is wonderful as Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s blowsy mistress from the other side of the tracks. (Her LonG Island accent is hilarious.) She’s as Technicolor as Daisy is pastel. I would have liked to have seen more of her.  Jason Clarke is Myrtle’s husband George, more tragic than mean-spirited. Clarke, Fisher and Edgerton are all Aussies and (with the exception of Edgerton) must have taken the small parts in order to work with a fellow countryman. Luhrmann filmed his opus in Sydney as well.

Elizabeth Debecki, who plays Jordan Baker, is an Australian actress with just one feature to her credit before The Great Gatsby, but she clearly holds her own with the veterans of the cast and blows Tobey Maguire, with whom she has the majority of her scenes, right out of the Duesenberg.

Let’s talk about Tobey Maguire. I’m at a loss to explain his appeal, if indeed he has any. I wasn’t especially impressed by his Spider-Man, and after finally catching up with Andrew Garfield’s incarnation, I’m even less so. His Nick Carraway makes even the stoic Sam Waterston’s look like King Lear.  He’s a cipher, a non-entity, either as a participant to the proceedings or as a witness (never entirely “within or without”). I suppose one could presume he got the job because of his life-long friendship with DiCaprio. Who knows?

Speaking of Leo, despite his self-possessed star turn, the real star of the movie is the production design. I predict there will be Academy nominations for Catherine Martin for both the production and the costumes, as well as Ian Gracie for art direction and Beverly Dunn for set design. Flawless down to the last bugle bead.

Did I mention the movie is in 3D? Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not exactly a proponent of this bit of technological wizardry. I could not imagine why a movie without explosions and battles and the usual reasons for stuff to fly at one’s face would need to succumb to the temptation. If the choice had been mine, I would have opted to purchase a ticket for a 2D showing, but I saw an advance preview and it was shown to us in 3D.  While I have no doubt that it would be nearly as lush in the conventional format, the enhanced version wowed me from the opening frame, which was snow falling in front of a frost-rimed window with Tobey Maguire visible behind it. It looked like a snow globe. Luhrmann and his cinematographer, Simon Duggan, use 3-D in a way I’ve not seen it used, to show depth of field. A scene in which Nick, Jordan, Tom, Daisy and Jay are all in the Buchanan sitting room with the curtains blowing, looks like the center of a pop-up story book.

Elizabeth Debicki, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, The Great Gatsby

It’s gorgeous, but it does serve to keep the audience, for the most part, at arms-length, preventing a lot of real emotional connection.

Which is not to say that the movie isn’t filled with sensual delights, like the orgiastic raves Gatsby throws night after night in an attempt to lure Daisy to his nest. One can almost smell the boat-load of flowers that fill Nick’s charming little cottage and taste the mountains of pretty confections that Gatsby has provided for that simple tea party. It is an ode to excess.

Those are the things that work.

It’s the story’s complex, almost delicate moral underpinnings that get short shrift.  Hedonism is easier and much more fun to depict than the main theme of the novel which is less romantic. “The Great Gatsby” is a highly symbolic meditation on the disintegration of the American dream. Set in an era of unprecedented prosperity and material excess gives it a relevance for today’s audiences. Fitzgerald’s novel is set in the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, characterized by cynicism, greed and a reckless, empty pursuit of fun, which, while epitomized by the opulent parties that Gatsby throws every Saturday night, should seem familiar.

Gatsby instilled Daisy with a kind of idealized perfection that she neither deserved nor possessed and his dream is ruined by the unworthiness of its object, just as the American Dream was ruined by the empty pursuit of money and pleasure.

Luhrmann spent so much time getting all the details of the decadence right, he forgot that we weren’t supposed to enjoy it so much that we miss the lesson.

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind…”

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Poster, The Great Gatsby

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind…”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Poor neglected blog. It’s been weeks and weeks since I’ve been here.

I could lie to you and say that I’ve been toiling elsewhere, spreading myself too thin, with nothing left for you, but we’ve been together for a long time and you deserve better. I blame my absence on a profound sense of ennui.

It’s not for lack of material. I’ve seen some wonderful movies over the past few weeks that I truly want to tell you about (and I will).

Tonight, I’m seeing a preview of Baz Luhrmann’s 3D extravaganza, The Great Gatsby and I can feel my mojo returning just thinking about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of 1920s excess filtered through Luhrmann’s lush and opulent sensibility.

Here is a sampling of images from the film to prime the pump so to speak…

The Great Gatsby, set design The Great Gatsby, set design Joel Edgerton - Tom Buchanan Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, The Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan,The Great Gatsby Set Design, The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby The Great Gatsby, set design Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, The Great Gatsby Jason Clarke, The Great Gatsby Elizabeth Debicki, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, The Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan,The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Tobey Maguire, The Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, dir. Baz Luhrmann,The Great Gatsby Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, The Great Gatsby Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker,The Great Gatsby Set Design, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway,  Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, The Great Gatsby Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway,  Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, The Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

To Be Continued!