George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ swells. Fireworks explode. A man with his back to the camera slowly turns, revealing himself to be Leonardo DiCaprio – aka Jay Gatsby. From this point onward, Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby soars to unthinkable heights, chronicling the rise and fall of a didactic millionaire.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the American classic Gatsby probably never heard the faintest whisperings of hip-hop and R&B music in the jazz and swing tunes of his day. He passed on in 1940, with his best-known novel having only sold 20,000 copies in its first year of publication. 73 years later, not only is Gatsby ranked among the best novels of all time, but it has also inspired numerous film and television adaptations, theatrical works, an opera, and even video games. Luhrmann’s version is unquestionably the most colorful, incorporating the director’s ultra-kinetic visuals and the aforementioned modern music. Many critics have sharply hounded Luhrmann for these striking stylistic choices, but I would be lying if I said these choices bothered me. The hyper-realism we have come to associate with his work is only present in the film’s first half, where it’s warranted. Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire’s) narration would have seemed out of place had Gatsby’s parties not been as stylized or ostentatious as they are. Nick meets others besides his next-door neighbor Gatsby in his first months as a resident of West Egg, a fictional area of Long Island, NY that his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) classify as ‘new money.’ Tom and Daisy enjoy their extravagant lives in East Egg, having come from ‘old money,’ and this is a part of why Tom takes a disliking to Gatsby, the man whose frequent and unbelievably lavish parties have all of New York City abuzz. The other part of Tom’s disliking comes when he realizes that Gatsby is planning to whisk his wife away right under his nose.
These themes of rivalry and reliving the past are focused on admirably for a director so often maligned for his tendency to put style over substance. And it’s surprising to me that these criticisms have bled over into the response to this film, as its second half is as tense and dramatically suspenseful as any other great recent drama I’ve seen. Luhrmann has succeeded in updating a classic for a new era. He did not ignore the things everyone wants to see in a Great Gatsby adaptation, but at the same time, he has not abandoned his personal flare and style that has served him well visually in the past. In many ways, this project was the right one at the right time for him, and in my view, he knocked it out of the park, thanks in no small part to his style and his cast. DiCaprio is Gatsby, and it would be a shame for the Academy to forget him at awards season. Mulligan, Edgerton and Maguire are all perfectly cast and play their parts extremely well, but the newfound star in all this is Elizabeth Debicki in the role of Jordan Baker. I don’t have much else to say, except that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a great ride that thankfully doesn’t end with a thud. The spirit of Fitzgerald’s book is there, and so is the style that was necessary to get people excited about Mr. ‘Valor Extraordinary’ again.
(The Great Gatsby is now in wide release)
– George Napper
It’s 1:30 AM. I’ve just watched Upstream Color for the first time. I am enormously perplexed and confused, yet extremely intrigued. None of my outstanding questions can be answered of my own mental volition, so I decide to do some research. I do an internet search for ‘upstream color explanation’. I find a plethora of amazing and helpful insights from people much more perceptive than myself. I decide that even though it’s very late, I need to watch the film again. This time, I don’t come out perplexed at all. I end up simply loving Shane Carruth’s brilliant cerebral exercise.
UC tells the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who gets kidnapped, drugged, and brainwashed into what at first glance seems like some sort of cult. Things escalate quickly from the occult to the bizarrely natural, as worms begin to invade Kris’ body when it is full of food after she’s been released from a forced fast. Kris remembers none of what happened after she is essentially deprogrammed. Many aspects of her life fall apart around her because of her time basically ‘off the grid’ and she even loses her job and thousands of dollars in equity because she signed them away to ‘The Thief,’ the man who kidnapped her. She later meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), a man who seems similarly beaten down by life although he can’t quite explain why, and they fall for each other. The core of their relationship is very dysfunctional, and the thoughtful, evocative tone of the film’s storytelling allows the audience to project their own relationships and experiences onto these characters without wither of them becoming dull or uninteresting. At the same time this story is happening, we’re also seeing scenes from the life of ‘The Sampler’ (a towering, mostly silent performance from Andrew Sensenig), a man whose job it is to take care of pigs and to record natural sounds and mix them into music. We don’t quite know why he’s important at first, but as Carruth’s story unfolds and the innovative concept is completely unraveled, it wouldn’t be hard to make a case that he’s essentially a Godlike figure.
The great thing about Upstream Color is that it reveals its secrets on its own time. It doesn’t feel the need to come to a thrilling climax where absolutely everything is explained in one fell swoop. It will uncover itself as you unravel it in your own mind. And while you could say that it’s a major flaw when a movie doesn’t fully bring its audience along on first viewing, UC is so interesting and has so many layers and themes to it that I imagine you would have to try hard to get bored in any way upon a second viewing. This is a fascinating film that provides its audience with an ambitious and high-IQ narrative that has the potential to plant itself in a viewer’s mind like a parasite that won’t go away.
(Upstream Color is available on iTunes and Amazon and is now in limited release nationwide)
– George Napper
If Seth Rogen has seen It’s A Disaster, he’s probably taken a few notes. Although I don’t anticipate his upcoming This is the End to be as intelligent or Woody Allen-esque as Todd Berger’s new comedy, I do give Rogen the benefit of the doubt by mentioning that he admires his contemporaries. He’s shown that time and time again – working with the polarizing Jody Hill in Observe and Report, working with Michelle Williams and auteur Sarah Polley in Take This Waltz, and signing on with Judd Apatow for Knocked Up and Funny People, which are more cerebral and witty than most people give them credit for. But this review isn’t about him. It’s about Todd Berger, and how he might have just shown him up.
Disaster begins when David Cross as Glen and Julia Stiles as Tracy arrive at a couples’ brunch hosted by Erinn Hayes as Emma and her husband, Blaise Miller as Pete. Everybody knows each other except for Glen, who Lexi (played by Rachel Boston) immediately latches on to, although we later learn that it may be due to her drug bender the previous evening. Lexi and her husband Buck (Kevin M. Brennan) are the most comically exciting people at this party, despite America Ferrera’s hilarious portrayal of Hedy, a scientist who is going through a major psychological break, and Jeff Grace’s deadpan Shane, Hedy’s fiancée and a clear comic book junkie. Emma and Pete inadvertently announce their impending divorce before their neighbor Hal (Todd Berger himself) stops by in a hazmat suit to inform them of their impending doom. If anyone steps outside, they’d be killed nearly instantly by chemicals present in the air of the United States due to the chemical warfare that began while the couples in question were all sitting down to eat. That doesn’t sound funny and it isn’t, but what I found outrageously funny were these characters.
Berger has crafted whimsical characters that somehow stay about 20% grounded in reality, thanks in large part to the balance of tone in the film. Different couples are going through different yet un-separate issues, like Emma and Pete’s relationship and how it improves and impacts the rest of the group. I could never predict where this film was going to go despite the fact I knew the world was going to end. This is what I mean when I talk about Seth Rogen. I’m wary of most studio comedies, and while I do admit that Rogen has innate talent, his upcoming film will most likely be fairly predictable, no matter how funny it is. Edgar Wright’s The World’s End has the potential to blow both of these films out of the water, but for now, Todd Berger has given Wright and Rogen a run for their money.
(It’s A Disaster is now available for rental and purchase on iTunes and Amazon)
– George Napper
Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley excel in their roles as Crystal and Leo, two criminals in love and on the run in the new film ‘Sun Don’t Shine’.
The first moment of Amy Seimetz’s engrossing Sun Don’t Shine isn’t a production company’s logo or a bumper for any studio. That’s partly out of necessity because the film is largely self-financed, but what is there is striking and indicative of a new filmmaker with tons of energy. Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil in a chilling and fantastic breakout role) quickly comes up for air in a fight with her boyfriend, Leo (Kentucker Audley, equally chilling). Their fisticuffs end when she uses her trademark scream to prevent him from hitting her. She later accuses him of following through with the slap, although he did not. If her behavior sounds like someone on the outskirts of insanity, it is. Seimetz (who also stars in Shane Carruth’s forthcoming Upstream Color) has made a film along the lines of Bonnie and Clyde, although Sun Don’t Shine probably won’t garner the same grandiose following. That’s not to say this is a bad film. Quite the contrary, it’s a neat little thriller that spooks emotionally, visually and psychologically. Crystal and Leo are en route to an ‘old friend’ of Leo’s; he has convinced her that this friend will somehow help them dump the body of Crystal’s murdered husband. This couple is truly terrifying because of the way they interact. At times, Crystal begs Leo to stop at a motel so they can consummate their love, and at other times, she accuses him of being more interested in women with “fake t**s and lips”. Leo has secrets and double standards of his own, but they are less psychological… or so it might seem.
Far be it from me to put words in artists’ mouths, but it seems to me that Seimetz wants her audience to question who’s more responsible for the deadly duo’s current predicament. Had it been a comedy, Sun Don’t Shine might have played like Due Date or Identity Thief. But it isn’t and those films don’t deserve any more mention other than to say that Seimetz’s film, like those recent comedies, shows how extremely flawed both of its main characters are and makes both of them accountable for their troubles. It’s also a road movie and a magnificent one at that. Although the cinematography by Jay Keitel is intentionally less high-def than a standard YouTube video and that might annoy some viewers, Keitel pulls off some beautiful shots just using the bare framework of an old sedan. The editing of the film, overseen by Seimetz and David Lowery, is also to be praised. The quick cuts between close-ups and traveling shots with voiceover from Crystal and Leo will probably send an eerie Malickian chill down the spines of astute viewers.
Eerie really is the perfect word to describe this film, right up to the very end. Although the falling action has already taken place, a thematic nod to Crystal’s obsession with mermaids sends the waves of her psychosis all the way out of the screen and into the viewer’s subconscious long after the credits stop rolling. It’ll be hard for me to forget Sun Don’t Shine come awards season when, sadly, the sun may already have set on this film. But if Seimetz continues to show this level of technical expertise and storytelling prowess, who knows? Maybe the sun will someday gleam off the head of an Oscar awarded to her.
(Sun Don’t Shine is now available on the iTunes Store and Amazon.)
– George Napper
Olga Kurylenko has a breakout role in Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’.
Olga Kurylenko is an actress who has been largely off my radar until now. Perhaps it’s because she was in the dismal James Bond effort Quantum of Solace, or maybe it’s because she was drowned out by a sea of charismatic performances in Seven Psychopaths. No matter. She has arrived in Terrence Malick’s new film To the Wonder. She plays Marina, a Parisian woman who meets Neil (Ben Affleck) and moves to his native Oklahoma with her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline).
The two lovers have several problems in their relationship, none of which are explicitly discussed but rather felt by Tatiana and the audience. This is where Malick’s form of storytelling really comes in handy. His near-wordless montages that evoke feelings rather than force them down your throat are cinematic gold when used correctly, and Wonder consistently pulls them off. When Javier Bardem arrives as a priest going through his own crisis of faith, the story picks him out of obscurity to land right in Marina and Neil’s laps. Both characters seek him out for guidance, and it is suggested that their struggles with marriage and faithfulness help him dig deeper into his own spirituality. Bardem’s segments are put together with equal candor and grace, and they help to flesh out a spiritual metaphor that might have been left hanging had the film just concentrated on Kurylenko and Affleck.
All in all, this is a wonderful film (no pun intended) that showcases Malick’s inherent talent with actors (Rachel McAdams has a small but important role), with the camera (Emmanuel Lubezki – I cannot say enough good things about his cinematography), and with storytelling. It may not beat the recent Tree of Life, which is unquestionably his best film yet, but in my eyes, To the Wonder is another masterpiece from a cinematic master.
P.S. WOW what a gorgeous original score from Hanan Townshend!
– George Napper