"The Great Gatsby" (2013)

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Running time: 142 minutes

So I said to my girlfriend as we were walking to the cinema: “I have heard much praise for the novel [The Great Gatsby], with many heralding it as one of the best novels to have ever been written. So I must say that I had better have my mind blown by the narrative of this film, lest all those praising people simply be complimenting a classic novel on the grounds that it is a classic novel!”

OK, so that was a much more eloquent rephrasing of what I actually said, but I said something to that effect! Sadly, my mind remained intact by the end of The Great Gatsby but I would not say that that made it a bad film. If I hated every movie that failed to blow my mind then I would not like very many films! Let’s just say I would call Gatsby “alright”, rather than “great”. The title is a little over-zealous!

Now Showing this week is The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann and based upon the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby tells the tale of Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire), an aspiring writer turned Wall Street worker who lives in a tiny cottage neighbouring a huge mansion owned by the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby has shown an interest in Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and he has asked Carraway to assist him in meeting her. But Carraway is curious as to who Gatsby really is and what his intentions are; all the while dealing with the incredible lifestyle of uptown New York in the 1920’s.

If I had to choose a particular aspect about Gatsby that would be the cause of my not being blown away by the story-line, it would be that none of the twists in the story were very good. I don’t mean to say that they were predictable or silly, quite the opposite in fact, but at almost every major twist in the story I had a reaction akin to: “oh, that’s it? Really?” I found this particularly frustrating in relation to Gatsby himself. A large portion of the tension in the film is based upon wondering just who this Gatsby guy is, where he came from and how he made all his money. Of course it will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the book, but as someone who has not, I expected this particular twist to be shocking or to at least impact, in some way, on my perception of the character. But all that stirred in my brain was “oh, that’s it?”

Furthermore, I occasionally felt that the story contradicted itself, particularly when it came to everyone’s initial clueless-ness of Gatsby. At the beginning, everyone says they’ve never seen him, have no idea what he looks like or who he is, they merely just enjoy the huge parties that go on in his mansion. But later in the film it is established that when Jay Gatsby arrived in New York he was constantly front page news, with photos and everything! Also, in the mansion that everyone is partying in, there are photo frames of him all over the place! This is a minor grievance I admit, but for the continuity of the film’s world it just didn’t work.

Speaking of the film’s world, Gatsby has garnered much criticism over the use of modern music (examples, work from “Jay Z”, “Kanye West”, “Beyonce” etc) rather than 1920’s music in the party scenes. Many argue that it just does not suit the classic source material from which the film is based; but I find myself a little on the fence about the music choices. I loved this approached thematically; it was interesting to see all these young people, decked out in full 1920’s attire, drinking and dancing to the music of today’s youth as it made me realise that while music tastes have changed, the behaviour and vices of young people have not. Using modern music was a very interesting way to bridge the generations in this manner. However, I felt these music choices did not suit the film in a continuity sense for the world of the film. The modern music was mostly diegetic, with the performers singing Jay Z songs and the music being heard muted in other rooms of the parties. So in the context of the film’s world, “Bang Bang” by “will.i.am” was written sometime in the 1920’s. I know that this is something Baz Luhrmann likes to do, but most of his other films don’t take place within established periods in history, with no reference to historical events that are crucial to the story. I did however enjoy the idea that perhaps The Great Gatsby takes place within a different reality where these songs were created many decades earlier than they originally were!

A huge positive for the film is that the acting is top notch. I found Mulligan’s Daisy to be a little overly airy sometimes in a very melodramatic kind of way, but her character is very layered and powerful. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is very charismatic and complex, lending excellently to his mysterious nature. The only complaints I would have about him was that his constant use of the phrase “old sport” (believe me, he says it A LOT) often felt forced and unnatural. Maguire as Carraway was an endearing narrator, I often enjoy seeing him in a role other than Peter Parker/Spiderman as it reaffirms for me that he isn’t a one trick pony. But the highlight of the acting for me was Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. I barely recognised Edgerton as he played the sleazy, hot tempered, self centred jerk Buchanan; all the while with a flawless accent that was not only convincing but could convey such emotional range. Everyone may be talking about Gatsby, but I feel Buchanan should get the most credit.

The Great Gatsby was by no means a bad film. I enjoyed watching it, with it’s interesting characters and bright spectacle. My girlfriend, a fan of the original novel, thoroughly enjoyed it as a new adaptation of the classic work; which tells me that providing one has an open mind, the film does not alienate original fans. I just expected more from such a highly regarded story. But then again, it is a highly regarded old story so perhaps the many clever aspects of it have been used often in more recent works that I really enjoyed and seeing the story now makes it seem cliched or unoriginal. If that’s true, then I suppose I can’t be too hard on Gatsby, but I still won’t call it “great”!

See you next time!

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"Star Trek Into Darkness" (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Running time: 132 minutes

So there I was, sitting in my gloriously comfy Gold Class chair. My feet were propped up, I had a nice glass of scotch in my hands and I was watching Star Trek Into Darkness, when suddenly my girlfriend reached across to hold my hand. I looked over to her and she had this wonderful look of awe on her face and she leaned over to me and whispered: “this is so cool!”

That, right there, is the success of J.J. Abrams and his rebooted Star Trek series. J.J. Abrams has made Star Trek “cool”.

Now Showing this week is Star Trek Into Darkness, directed by J.J. Abrams and sequel to his Star Trek reboot film from 2009. The spoiler-free version is that following a terrorist attack, the Federation is in disarray. The perpetrator of the attack, a man known as John Harrison, has fled to Klingon space where he knows the Federation will fear to follow. But the blow to the Federation has pushed Captain Kirk to a lust for vengeance and he has demanded to go after Harrison, and hopefully not start a war with the Klingons in the process….

There is a lot I can’t talk about in this review for the sake of spoilers, but I shall say what I can to try to convince you of just how good this film is. I mentioned earlier that Abrams has made Star Trek “cool”, and he has done that through strong characterisation. The cast of characters aboard the Enterprise all quite rich and interesting, leading to a great ensemble, albeit with some characters being left behind. But the highlight of the cast is of course the characters of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The “bro-mance” between Kirk and Spock is excellent, and is especially heightened in Into Darkness. The seeds sown in Star Trek have grown into some brilliant relationships. Spock is such a fascinating character, as his stone cold logic combined with his human emotions make for some brilliant perspectives on the many ethical dilemmas that occur in Into Darkness. And as for Kirk himself, while he may have learned some humility in Star Trek, his ego certainly hasn’t left him. He believes himself to be infallible, but all it takes is a man like John Harrison to prove him wrong…

Speaking of, Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as John Harrison is phenomenal, and he steals the show. Much mystery has surrounded the identity of Cumberbatch’s villain, and whilst I won’t reveal his true identity here rest assured that Trekkie fans will be pleased with the outcome. Harrison is as formidable as he is mysterious, with intentions and motivations that are both horrifying and touching. And coupled with a deep, commanding voice that will chill your blood, and Harrison is a villain for the ages. To put it simply, the guy has presence! I get the feeling his career is about the skyrocket.

Visually, Into Darkness is a marvel to behold. I know a lot of people complained about the bright, lens-flare look of Star Trek, but I rather enjoyed it. We have a science fiction epic that is colourful, vibrant and riddled with wonderful design choices, something that I welcome back into the fold after so many gritty, dark tales of late. But the visual effects of the film are mind-bogglingly amazing! The details in all the spaceships, cities and planets that are shown in the film are all wonderfully realised, along with the quality of the action sequences themselves being amazingly intense. Combining handi-cam work with special effects, it was some of the best spaceship battles since Joss Whedon’s Serenity!

To wrap up, Star Trek Into Darkness is most definitely worth your time. It took what made the previous reboot work, the strong characterisation, visual effects; and built upon them to create a film that I believe strives ahead of its predecessor. Sure, some characters were left out of the spotlight but with a thrilling narrative, and a villain to be reckoned with, Into Darkness is definitely a contender for the best blockbuster of the year (I personally liked it more than Iron Man 3). There are also some nice original series references in there for the Trekkies (one in particular sadly led me to laugh when I really shouldn’t have!) if you can spot them. Once again, I shall reiterate my point: go see Star Trek Into Darkness.

See you next time!

"Evil Dead" (2013)

Evil Dead (2013)
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Running time: 91 minutes

While I often celebrate how Australia seems to be no longer getting screwed over with movie release dates, such as getting The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness at least a week or sometimes more in advance of their US releases, occasionally a film comes along that is needlessly delayed (I’m looking at you The Hobbit!). But sometimes there are films that are not only needlessly delayed, but also heavily limited in their release as well for no good reason, and such is the case with Evil Dead. After it was released in the US in early April of this year, it was announced that Evil Dead would not be getting a cinematic release in Australia and it would be a DVD release in a few months time. Obviously people complained, as they should, and the distributor said “OK, OK, fine! We will release it, but only in four individual cinemas, each one in a separate city. That ok?” Well, yes distributor, it is for me since I live in one of those cities, but anyone in Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart, or anywhere else has just been denied the chance to see the film without leaving the STATE to do so! Poor form Sony Pictures Australia, poor form indeed.

But I digress!

Now Showing this week is Evil Dead, directed by Fede Alvarez and a remake of the 1981 Sam Raimi horror film of the same name. Cliches begin right from the get-go, with five twenty-something friends (David, Eric, Mia, Olivia and Natalie) travelling to a remote cabin in the woods in order to help one of them (Mia) overcome her addiction to heroin. During this highly stressful time, they discover a hidden room in the basement containing a book bound in human flesh and containing many Satanic images and phrases. After Eric stupidly decides to read the book, he unleashes a primeval force that possesses Mia and begins a rampage to claim the souls of the remaining housemates…..

I suppose the first thing I want to address is “Goddamn this movie is not for the faint of heart!” One of the reasons it was barely distributed was because it had gained an R18+ rating for high impact violence and horror, and they traditionally don’t do well at the box office. Suffice to say, Evil Dead is one of the most graphic pieces of horror violence that I have ever seen, but I personally did not expect any different as it is one of the main selling points of the film. And I must say, director Fede Alvarez has proven himself to be quite adept at shooting an intense slasher flick. His use of claustrophobic camerawork was excellent, with slow scenes choosing to focus on single objects in the frame (say a light bulb or a hand) whilst the action stirred around them. It created a very nerve-wracking atmosphere, and for me that is the most important aspect of making a horror film: the atmosphere.

Which leads me to my next point: the violence. In recent interviews, Alvarez talked about how he chose to do as many of the graphic visual effects as he could live on the set rather than with computer graphics. And it certainly paid off! Every sinew, every cut, scrap and dismemberment was incredibly visceral and cringe worthy; and it truly helped in making the audience experience the (for lack of better word!) horror of the scenario that the main characters have found themselves in. A lot of people don’t get into this kind of graphic film making, and I know I have occasionally been one of those people. When violence like this works to the detriment of what I found to be the purpose of the film (ala all the SAW sequels ruining the “what would you do?” theme!) then I find it pointless and just violence for the sake of violence. In the case of Evil Dead, I find that given the nature of the monster at hand (a demonic force reminiscent of pagan/Satanic kind of literature) then the extreme violent behaviour is a necessary part of the narrative. It also mirrored Mia’s behaviour before the demon possessed her body, when she was suffering withdrawal symptoms from her heroin addiction. Maybe I’m giving the film too much credit, but I got the impression that Evil Dead was trying to show that the primal insanity of the demonic spirit is already within her (and all of us) in some form. If this was the intention, they didn’t succeed in properly making the point, but I appreciated the effort.

The graphic nature of the film is a horror technique that is the complete opposite of the “less is more” ideal. A film like Paranormal Activity will incite fear by alluding the presence of a monster, but always keeping us in the dark of its whereabouts and intentions, always leaving us fearing the next time it will strike. Evil Dead on the other hand goes in the other direction. Evil Dead simply tells us that there is a monster, here it is in all its horrific glory and you (the characters and the audience) are now locked in a room with it! And I find that both techniques work in their own ways. I find the former technique disturbs me more (I slept better after Evil Dead than I did after Paranormal Activity), but the latter is quite effective as well.

I mentioned earlier that I found the film to be cliched. Evil Dead is riddled with cliches: the remote cabin in the woods, the idiot friend who reads words in a book that unleash a spirit, a flood blocks the road so they can’t leave etc. all the horror movie cliches are here. But I realised that I can’t really hold these against the film too much given that this is a remake of the original film that created these cliches! Whilst I would have enjoyed it more if the filmmakers had put their own twist on the film to spice it up a bit in this department, staying true to the source material was hardly a bad thing to do. I just wish they had done more with the characters. Siblings David and Mia have a little history to them that comes into play once the killing starts, but there was some clear back story to be had with the other characters that was just never explored. David and Eric have clearly had a falling out in the past and I have no idea why! When it comes to the characters, Evil Dead was very lazy.

Is Evil Dead “the most terrifying film I ever experienced” as the tagline suggests? No, not by a long shot; but it most certainly is an intense experience that I shall not be soon forgetting. I enjoyed the use of practical effects over CGI, this needs to happen more, and the thrill of the ride made sure that there was fun to be had. Evil Dead won’t make you like slasher movies if you hate them, but if slasher movies are your thing then this film is a definite must. They don’t get much more intense than this!

See you next time!

"Iron Man 3" (2013)

Iron Man 3 (2013)
Directed by: Shane Black
Running time: 130 minutes

It’s official, Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has begun! The scale of what Marvel Studios is attempting to pull off still boggles my mind. They financed and approved five movies to introduce, among other things, four of their famous comic book heroes in an interwoven narrative that culminated (four years later mind!) in the epic masterpiece known as Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. But soon afterwards, Marvel announced that all of that, all SIX of those movies, were just Phase 1 of their ultimate plan: to assemble the Avengers. That’s right, six movies just to introduce us to the main characters of a story that has yet to come. And with (spoilers if you’re silly enough to have not seen The Avengers yet) the reveal that Thanos, the Mad Titan will somehow be involved then we will be in for one hell of a ride!

But I digress. On to the first movie of Phase 2: Iron Man 3

Now Showing this week is Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey Jr. again as Tony Stark. Stark is back to his old ways of advancing his suit technology and struggling to keep a stable relationship with his girlfriend Pepper Potts. He is also suffering a case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) following his heroic (again Avengers spoilers) venture through the wormhole to nuke the incoming Chitauri invasion force. He cannot sleep soundly and suffers panic attacks whenever anyone mentions the New York event to him, the idea that an alien invasion could be imminent at any time is haunting him. But Stark must put his demons aside when a new villain makes his presence known: a man who calls himself the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) has been detonating explosives around the country, and Stark has taken it upon himself to stop him.

I went into Iron Man 3 with a bit of caution as frankly I wasn’t overly keen to see another movie about just one of the Avengers members since they finally came together into one film. It took us so long to get to that point and I want them to keep developing the characters together rather than send us back to individual movies in the lead up to the sequel. But I was very excited to see what seeds would be planted to begin the long line of clues in the lead up to the Avengers doing battle with Thanos (seriously, look him up, it’s going to be awesome!).

Sadly though, the filmmakers of Iron Man 3 seemed to have the opposite view to me. I think if the writers and director had their way, in their fiction The Avengers would never have happened. They seemed to be trying their hardest to not acknowledge it and just tell their own Tony Stark story. Yes they worked into the story that Tony is suffering from PTSD, and people mention “New York” to him on several occasions, but it feels more like an afterthought. Whenever Tony was in peril, or whenever he was terrified that the conflicts he has to face would be too overwhelming, I couldn’t help but think “just give Nick Fury a call and assemble your posse! Sure, Thor is on another world so he’s probably unavailable, but you could at least get Captain America, Hulk and Black Widow down there and just destroy the Mandarin!” I wondered if perhaps Tony doesn’t do this because of his PTSD and that contacting S.H.I.E.L.D would just exacerbate it further; but the movie makes no effort to acknowledge that idea. If perhaps someone just suggested he contact the Avengers and Tony yelled them down with how fragile he is psychologically that he can’t bring himself to do that then I would at least have had some sort of explanation as well as a gorgeous character moment. But unfortunately I am left unsatisfied.

On the bright side though, the story of Iron Man 3 is actually quite good, very interesting throughout with a twist in the story that was unexpected and extremely welcomed! However, like with the last two Iron Man films, the ending seems to fall apart a little. The climax involves a huge feat (I shan’t spoil), but the impressiveness of it is ruined by the thought that there was no reason that Tony couldn’t have done it sooner. Sadly I cannot describe why without ruining the story so I won’t, but viewers of the film will see what I mean.

Positive sides of the story though are that the Mandarin is a formidable villain, and he has some quite awesomely powerful cronies. The script is also very solid, with Tony Stark still wielding his trademark wit. A huge mention goes to the actors in the film, especially for Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, his imposing performance and character development is both impressive and unexpected! Another shout out goes to Guy Pierce as a rival scientist named Aldrich Killian. Where Kingsley shows formidable strength, Pierce shows some wonderful sleazy manipulation!

Bottom line, Iron Man 3 was quite enjoyable and definitely worth a watch. While I am disappointed that The Avengers is considered an afterthought, and with no tiny clues to The Avengers 2 (none that were apparent as yet that is!); Iron Man 3 was still a well written, spectacular adventure. But as I said at the beginning: Phase 2 has only just begun, so we must wait to see how this all plays out. Let’s hope Thor: The Dark World is awesome in October!

See you next time!