The Great Gatsby (2013)

Not all that glitters is gold

  • Director: Baz Luhrmann
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
  • Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
  • Music By: Craig Armstrong
  • Cinematography: Simon Duggan
  • Running Time: 143 Minutes
  • Premiered: May 10, 2013
  • DVD Release: August 27, 2013

Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor. (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald is most remembered for the 180 page novel The Great Gatsby. This slender novel has become an over hyped piece of literature that accumulated some heavy cultural significance.  In the 88 years since publication, Gatsby has become a High School literature class staple and a permanent piece of pop culture. However, this story about the hedonistic Jazz Age has become grossly romanticized.  This story about unrequited love and the illusion of wealth does not live up to its monumental reputation.  The book is well-written, but it is also remarkable thin and is not Fitzgerald’s greatest work. Gatsby was last adapted for the big screen in 1974. If you are familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, or Australia, then the over the top epic melodrama of Gatsby should be unsurprising.

This adaptation of Fitzgerald’s vaunted novel opens with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing his memoir in an Asylum. Through this unnecessary framing device, the movie shows how Carraway is whisked into the alluring world of the nouveau rich. Soon obsession, madness, and tragedy overcome the superficial lives of the main characters. This is Luhrmann’s first foray into portraying an American story in an American setting. The glorious excess of 1920s New York is brought to life via the wonders of CGI and the cityscape is a little too stylized to be believable. Gatsby and Carraway go careening around New York in a fast moving roadster to the lovely sounds of modern Hip Hop superimposed over ragtime. Luhrmann has created a cartoonish America that no individual has ever visited.

I wished Luhrmann had taken a more subtle approach. Instead, he made a film that celebrates everything the novel derides. It is loud, flashy, expensive, and shallow. All the party scenes progress in a whirl of booze and lust. Everything feels slightly over directed, none of scenes flow together smoothly. Each scene is perfectly orchestrated, but a couple scenes feel forced. However, Luhrmann’s respect for the novel is quite evident. A lot of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel and a lot of the miniscule details are brilliantly given life. But the over-the-top cinematography and soundtrack overpowers the narrative at several crucial points. I always enjoy Luhrmann’s movies, but his lavish theatrics are not appropriate for every narrative. Subtlety is underrated and underused.

Narrative wise, everything in the movie is passed via a strong set of rose colored romantic glasses. Which is partly true to the novel. Gatsby is greatly romanticized in Nick’s imagination and Gatsby is in love with an overly idealized version of Daisy. At the heart of the narrative is the question: is the tale of Daisy and Gatsby a love story? Fitzgerald was not quite sure if he wrote a tragedy or a romance, but Luhrmann, DiCaprio and Mulligan try their best to make a doomed love affair seem romantic. So the movie is chop full of melodramatic sighing, stolen looks, and romance tinged reminiscences.

Mulligan is vocally perfect for Daisy Buchanan, she has the flirtatious looks and naïve worldliness down pat.  In the book, Gatsby puts Daisy up on an impossibly high and idealized pedestal. The film almost does the same thing by making her a tad too likeable. Daisy is infatuated with money and never had any intention of leaving her husband, Tom Buchanan. Gatsby never looks beyond her charming mask to see the fickle, sardonic, amoral, and shallow personality beneath. While Daisy is capable of affection, she is not able to sustain any feelings of loyalty or caring. To her, Gatsby’s affection was merely a pleasant distraction. Her indifference to Gatsby’s feelings provide the emotional punch at the climax of the story. In the film, Daisy is too charming and genuinely receptive to Gatsby’s romantic advances. Which works for this particular adaptation but is not quite true to the novel.

DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby is the highlight of the film. He manages to create the illusion of sophistication and money through the simplest effects of all: voice and body language. On paper, Gatsby is a mysterious character who is almost more a projection of Carraway’s imagination than an actual person. Since the characterization of Gatsby is so thin in the book, he is almost unplayable. But DiCaprio manages to keep Gatsby from coming across as fully one dimensional. He makes the lonely millionaire seem authentically real. All Gatsby desires is Daisy’s love an approval. Everything he accomplished was done with the sole intention of amassing enough wealth to tempt Daisy away from her Buchanan. As such DiCaprio adds an extra layer of nervous emotion to Gatsby to help flesh him out. He manages to be smarmy, mysterious, and open at the same time. He is the perfect foil for Mulligan’s flighty Daisy.

Maguire does a credible job as Nick Carraway. In the book, Nick is meant to be the more grounded foil to Gatsby. Gatsby is loyal and basically good-hearted, Buchanan is a cold-hearted aristocratic bully, and Carraway is sober and reflective. On one hand, Nick is deeply attracted to the hedonistic and fast-paced New York party lifestyle. And on the other, he finds the entire lifestyle shallow and unfulfilling. This conflict is depicted via his relationship with Jordan Baker. Nick is attracted to her sophistication and vivacity but is disgusted with her casual dishonesty and lack of consideration. However, this conflict is never fully realized on screen because Luhrmann decided to focus on the “love story” between Gatsby and Daisy. Overall, this is a decent adaptation and I definitely enjoyed certain elements. I just wish it was less romanticized.

Stardust

We all just want an adventure

  • Director: Matthew Vaughn
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Strong
  • Screenplay: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
  • Based on the Novel By: Neil Gaiman
  • Music By: Ilan Eshkeri
  • Cinematography: Ben Davis
  • Running Time: 127 Minutes
  • Premiered: August 10, 2007 (US Release)
  • DVD Release: December 17, 2014

Synopsis: In a countryside town bordering on a magical land, a young man makes a promise to his beloved that he’ll retrieve a fallen star by venturing into the magical realm. (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: Stardust is a fairytale about a fallen star who crash lands in a magical kingdom. The star, who manifests as a beautiful woman named Yvaine and not a lump of rock, is soon pursued by a myriad of desperate seekers. All but one desire the magical powers contained in her still beating heart. This surreal fairy tale is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 1997 four-book DC comic mini-series, which was later turned into a novel. The movie is directed by Matthew Vaughan, who is best known for directing X-Men: First Class. This wacky fairytale has everything from an outrageous witch, a cross-dressing pirate, murderous princes, to a motivated hero.

In this world, England is separated from the kingdom of Stormhold by a decrepit wall. In the village of Wall there lives a love struck lad named Tristan, called Tristran in the novelization. He is in love with the vain Victoria and is terrified of losing her to the odious Humphrey. After seeing a shooting star, Victoria sends Tristan off to steal the star in order to win her heart. There is just one problem: vilagers are not allowed to cross the wall. However, due to the wickedness running through Stormhold, the wall is crumbling. But the guard on the English side of the wall keeps Tristan out. Our plucky hero’s dad then uncovers a magical candle and Tristan is transported to the site of the star’s crash landing. Upon discovering that the star is actually a woman, Tristan puts a magical leash on Yvaine and attempts to forcibly drag her back to Victoria. And then the story really takes off at a wild pace.

Charlie Cox plays Tristan, his first leading role. Cox is believable as a love struck village lad who decides to undertake a daring quest. He strikes the right note of a likable romantic who happens to fall into a mythical land full of wicked beings. Claire Danes plays the fallen star Yvaine. She is an opinionated and sassy starlet who just wants to go home. Danes and Cox have a great onscreen chemistry and play off of each other extremely well. Danes is a tad stiff in some scenes, but it does not detracts from her character. Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic as the main villain, the decaying Lamia.  She really comes across as a deranged and youth obsessed witch, her performance is probably the best in the film. Mark Strong does a credible job as the wicked Prince Septimus. The ghosts of the Princes of Stormhold provide most of the comic relief in the film. The most confusing character is the narrator, voiced by Ian McKellan. While the narrator does a credible job opening and closing the film, he is really not required. The narration gives the film a storybook quality, but is not needed for any real purpose.

Gaiman is a huge fan of William Shakespeare and references the Bard’s plays several times. For instance, Lamia and her sisters greatly resemble the witches depicted in Macbeth. Peter O’Toole has a brief cameo as a dying Lear type King and Robert De Niro plays a pirate named Captain Shakespeare. The pirates are my favorite secondary characters in the film, there are deliciously over-the-top and specialize in the ridiculous. Plus they have a fight scene choreographed to the Can-Can. All these characters manage to sidetrack Tristan and his mission is soon superseded by trying to outrun everyone who wants to eat Yvaine’s heart. The story also contains a nice exploration of the differences between love and lust, and the emptiness of a life consumed with trying to forever young.

The movie is not boring and the narrative sweeps you along. However, parts of the story suffer from scene cluttering. There are a couple shots where too many characters are in play at the same time. This can be a little disconcerting, but the narrative eventually finds its footing again. Also, the film is filled with sweeping gorgeous shots of the magical Stormhold. The cinematography zooms along from a tiny quintessential English village to an imposing castle in a mythical realm. Vaughn creates a breathtaking world and the cinematography is wonderful. It is not on the scale of Lord of the Rings, but it is gorgeous none-the-less. It looks like a different but eerily similar world.

Stardust has no problem poking fun at itself and the strangeness of the fantasy genre. The film contains a lot of wickedly sarcastic dialogue and has a great sense of fun. Because this is a grown up fantasy, there is a lot of killing and attempted murders. But it is all done in a self-aware and over-the-top manner.  The film will never be part of a huge fantasy franchise, but it is undeniably enjoyable. The actors do a great job and the world building is gorgeous. Stardust will not appeal to everyone and some critics consider it to be a discount Princess Bride. In a sense, the critics are right. Both Stardust and The Princess Bride are slightly satirical takes on the fantasy adventure genre. But both films are enjoyable in their own right and really should not be seriously compared. Overall, Stardust is an enjoyable stand-alone fantasy romp.

The Adjustment Bureau

Are we just puppets?

  • Director: George Nolfi
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly
  • Screenplay: George Nolfi
  • Based on Novella by: Philip Dick
  • Music By: Thomas Newman
  • Cinematography: John Toll
  • Running Time: 106 Minutes
  • Premiered: March 4, 2011
  • DVD Release: June 21, 2011

Synopsis: The affair between a politician and a ballerina is affected by mysterious forces keeping the lovers apart. (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: The Adjustment Bureau is similar to The Matrix and Inception in that it also explores the concept of free will and predestination. Based off a Philip Dick short story, the movie explores the effect of life adjustment. These legions of adjusters who manipulate events in order to make sure everything goes according to plan. Of course the narrative never really explains whose plan the adjusters are following, they just work off the book of predetermined life courses. The film is not a deep exploration about time and decisions, instead it is a romantic tinged exploration of fate versus choice.

While The Adjustment Bureau is not a serious film it has an intriguing plot, exploring why some people are unlucky in love. In this case, out lovelorn hero is a politician named David Norris.  Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a congressional candidate who is increasingly averse to his chose profession.  One fateful evening David finds his career in jeopardy because of some salacious phots acquired by the New York Post. That same evening, David walks into a men’s restroom at the Waldorf Astoria and encounters Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Elise’s devil-may-care attitude intrigues David, but security chases her out and he fears that she is gone forever. This sets up the main climax because Elise and David were never meant to meet, even though they find themselves drawn to one another.

David then sets out to find Elise but finds his attempts hampered by mysterious forces. These forces turn out to be men wearing suits and fedoras who constantly duck into/out of random doors. These adjusters are Harry and Richardson (Anthony Mackie and John Slattery). They for the Adjustment Bureau and go around making corrections to lives that have gone askew.  Such as David and Elise meeting. Mitchell tries to convince David that pursuing Elise will ruin her life. However, the heart wants what the heart wants and David blithely ignores the warning. This causes David and Elise to start exploring the rectilinear world of Manhattan and the path of crisscrossing wormholes, which are not subjected to the laws of time/space.

This is where the film really let the ball drop. Harry and Richardson are these all-knowing beings who have knowledge about future events and are tasked with putting people back on the path designed by the Chairman. So Harry and Richardson spend all their time trying to keep David and Elise apart. These guys have supernatural powers, they can access a series of doors that permit them to travel around Manhattan in seconds. However, these abilities are not explained and what they can/cannot do is never totally clear. This makes their involvement overly convoluted and confusing. Instead of coming across as an ominous presence, the adjusters seem more like convenient plot devices. Whenever David and Elise are close to finding happiness, in swoops the adjusters to change the script. I would have liked a more detailed exploration of the mythos behind the adjusters.

Unlike The Matrix and Inception, Bureau misses the mark focuses on romance over suspense. Damon and Blunt own every scene they are in, their characters really pop off the screen. This is by far Damon’s most romantic role and he does a great job portraying a lovelorn guy. Blunt is charming as the free-spirited Elise. They have great onscreen chemistry and sell the whole star-crossed lovers scenario. Anthony Mackie and John Slattery are shortchanged and do not have much to do onscreen. The narrative would have been stronger if the romantic arc was relegated to a subplot. Instead, the film should have explored the tension between David and the adjustors. Most of the plot resolution occurs too early and does fulfill the suspense hinted at in the beginning of the film. At the end of the film, I still had questions about the adjustors. Are they humans or angels? Why was Norris singled out from every other adult male on Earth? Do the adjustors monitor the entire world or just Manhattan? Why is the Chairman so interested in David and Elise? Also, the narrative barely explores the theological differences between free will and predestination.

Perhaps the best character in the film is Manhattan. The city is gorgeously represented and the cinematography makes the city sparkle. The screenplay was well-written and the main characters were well developed. I hope Blunt and Damon do another romantic type film, they were the highlight of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film. It just needed more depth in order to be amazing instead of adequate.

 

 

Pride & Prejudice: Book vs Movie

The book is better

  • Director: Joe Wright
  • Rating: PG
  • Starring: Keira Knightly, Matthew Macfadyen, Donald Sutherland,
  • Screenplay: Deborah Moggach & Emma Thompson
  • Based on the Novel by: Jane Austen
  • Music By: Dario Marianelli
  • Cinematography: Roman Osin
  • Running Time: 129 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 23, 2005
  • DVD Release Date: February 28, 2006
  • Pride and Prejudice, The Modern Library Classics, 2000, 9780679783268

Synopsis: Sparks fly when spirited Elizabeth Bennet meets single, rich, and proud Mr. Darcy. But Mr. Darcy reluctantly finds himself falling in love with a woman beneath his class. Can each overcome their own pride and prejudice? (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: Jane Austen’s books are firmly established as the epitome of romantic narratives. Originally published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice is a novel of manners and deals with the issues of upbringing, morality, education, and marriage amongst the landed gentry of Regency Britain. While the narrative is set during the end of the 19th Century, the novel manages to hold generations of reader in a thrall. The book is one of the most popular English language novels, it has sold over 20 million copies. Even today the novel consistently ranks in list of “most loved books” and “best books”. Due to this continual popularity, Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for cinema numerous times, both as straight adaptions and modern updated versions.

Pride and Prejudice is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five unmarried daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.  The story begins right after the eligible and wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley rents the large estate in the area. Bingley brings his two sisters and his status-obsessed friend, Mr. Darcy, along with him. Austen uses these characters to explore five different types of relationships: Mr. Bingley and the idealistic Jane, the prideful Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth, the flighty Lydia and the conniving Wickham, the obsequious Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and the hysterical Mrs. Bennet and the caustic Mr. Bennet. All these relationships illustrate what a marriage should and should not look like.

Austen’s major theme is the importance of environment and upbringing on people’s character and morality. In this world, social standing and wealth are not necessarily advantageous. The theme is realized through Austen’s examination of the ineffectiveness of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s parenting. Lydia’s lack of morality is firmly laid at the feet of her parents. Kitty’s character only improves after Lydia leaves and she is forced to spend time in her other sisters’ superior company. Also, Darcy was raised to always act in a principled and honorable manner, but he comes across as proud and overbearing.  Charlotte Lucas’ behavior is motivated by economical and societal pressures. Her parents will not be around forever and an unmarried woman is a burden on the family’s resources.

I grew up watching the 1995 A&E mini-series adaption starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. The mini-series is a direct adaption of the novel, nearly all the dialogue come straight from the book. In 2005, director Joe Wright decided to bring Pride and Prejudice to the big screen. The last straight movie adaption was the 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier.  The 2005 version was adapted by Deborah Moggach and Emma Thompson did some un-credited edits on the dialogue. This resulted in the most abridged cinematic version ever produced.

Wright made several drastic changes that I vehemently dislike. This version is set in the late 18th century, when the novel takes place in the 19th century. While the clothing is more impressive in the 18th century, there was no need to change the time period. What aggravates me the most is the stark societal differences between the Bennet family and Darcy. In the book, the Bennet family is landed gentry with an entailed estate. They were not destitute. But in the movie the clothing, furnishing, and mannerisms of the Bennett clan border upon the peasant class. There was one scene where a pig runs through the kitchen, this would never occur in an aristocratic family’s household.  Also, Lady Catherine de Bourgh drops by in the dead of night and is greeted by the Bennet family in their sleepwear. Neither of these events would have occurred in 18th or 19th century Britain. The societal differences are so stark it is miraculous that Darcy married Elizabeth. Austen probably would have cringed at the first proposal scene where Darcy was a doe-eyed stuttering school boy.

Darcy was not the only character whose personality was re-written for the film. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship is quite affectionate, in the book they were quite antagonistic. Mr. Bingley is comes across as a bumbling fool without a single original thought. Mr. Darcy would never befriend such an empty-headed individual. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s role in the movie was expanded to the detriment of the narrative. Perhaps the gravest mistake was the portrayal of Elizabeth. This version of Elizabeth is pouty, rude, defiant, and flighty. There is a scene where Elizabeth and Darcy are out strolling in their nightclothes, which would never have happened during this time period. Furthermore, Elizabeth become slightly estranged from Jane and continually keeps secrets from her sisters. She also openly mocks her family, something the original Elizabeth would have never done. Overall, Elizabeth comes across as bold/impatient and resembles the book version of Lydia. This radical change completely ruins the point of the narrative.

The movie also puts all the characters in unbelievable situations. Mr. Bingley would never have visited Jane in her room while she was recovering, especially if a proper chaperone was not present. If Jane had been dressed and Elizabeth was in the room, then it might have verged on okay. But it is not even remotely acceptable that Bingley would visit Jane while she was in bed and in nightclothes. Also, Elizabeth would have never worn her hair down during while visiting Netherfield Park. In the book Elizabeth is aware of social rules and strives to uphold them at all times. Wearing her hair down out in public qualifies as “conceited independence”.

Lastly, Matthew Mcfayden spoke quickly and in a monotone the entire time. The absolute worst scene is where he declares his love to Elizabeth with a fake stutter. There is no emotion in his voice and the effect is about a romantic as mowing the lawn.  Wright justifies his changes because he wanted to focus on the “romance” between Darcy and Elizabeth. But this version only made the romance entirely unbelievable and radically downplayed the one event that caused Elizabeth to fall-in-love with Darcy. Wickham was barely mentioned and this really hurt the narrative. Watch the 1995 mini-series or read the book, avoid this version.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

A walk down memory lane

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates
  • Screenplay: Woody Allen
  • Music By: Dario Marianelli
  • Cinematography: Darius Khondji
  • Running Time: 94 Minutes
  • Premiered: June 10, 2011
  • DVD Release Date: December 20, 2011

Synopsis: While on a trip to Paris with his fiancée’s family, a nostalgic screenwriter finds himself mysteriously going back to the 1920s every day at midnight. (From IMDb)

Review: Nostalgia is a strong emotion. It paints memories in sepia colored tones and fills people with romantic whimsy. People can experience nostalgia both for their own past and events they have never experienced. Sometimes people feel detached and out-of-place, as if they were meant to live in a different time period. Woody Allen explores this concept in his excellent film Midnight in Paris. This is Allen’s 41st film and is one of his better ones in recent years. My exposure to Allen has been limited, I have seen Match Point, Small Time Crooks, and the horrible Scoop. After watching Scoop I decided to forgo all future Allen films. That is until a friend of my saw Midnight in Paris and said it was a film I needed to watch. I was hesitant but went and loved the screenplay. It is charming, sophisticated, and dripping with literary references. Allen is far from being one of my favorite directors but he did a fabulous job with this movie. Midnight in Paris is one of the few films I can re-watch multiple times and still enjoy it as much as I did the first time.

Midnight in Paris is marketed as a romantic comedy. However, it is more than that and calling it a straight up romance is a disservice to the story. It is more an exploration of the human longing to belong and the illusion people have that a life different from theirs would be much better. In this film a family goes to Paris on business. Part of the family is an engaged couple, Gil and Inez, who are planning to marry in the fall. Gil and Inez are supposedly in love, but Gil might be slightly more in love with Paris in the spring. He is disillusioned with life and looking for some meaning. Gil has made a career out of screenwriting for Hollywood studios but still harbors a dream of being a successful novelist along the lines of his literary idols. Inez wants to live in an upper-class American suburb in Malibu and he wants to live in a small Loft apartment in Paris. He wants to wander around Paris and retrace the steps of Hemingway. Inez just wants to go shopping and moon after an old college crush. One night, Gil wanders off by himself and, as the bell rings midnight, finds himself transported back to the 1920s.

This film is almost like looking into the daydreams of literature majors. It includes “cameos” from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Picasso, and others. Allen must have had a blast writing this screenplay, his dialogue is sharp and satisfying. The narrative contains jokes about everyone from Hemingway to Luis Bunuel. But Allen also takes the time to ponder the role of the artist and the importance of not undervaluing the present in favor of the past. After all, it is impossible to live in the past since time always moves forward, never backwards. Midnight in Paris is seductively shot by Darius Khondji. The movie opens with a three minute montage of Paris’ famous landmarks, though the montage lasts longer than strictly necessary. Khondji portrays the modern time in sharp focus with somewhat harsh lighting. As if the modern time has lost all the magic of the past. Everything is loud, almost crass and the people are unrefined. While the scenes set in the 1920s are depicted in sepia tones and soft focus, a tad hazy around the edges. Just like in a dream or a rosy painted memory. Everything feels slightly too good to be true yet comforting at the same time. The dichotomy between the two time periods is wonderful and helps to make the movie seem more like a dream inside of reality. Khondji did a fabulous job making the past come to life and implore the audience to pay attention, Paris is a place where magic can happen.

All of the characters are believable and relatable. Gil is essentially a more charming version of Allen himself. Wilson displays remarkable range, definitely a more nuanced performance than he has given before. Sometimes he even sounds like Allen during a few flustered moments, of which the screenplay offers plenty. Though Wilson is a stronger actor than Allen and really keeps the movie anchored. Rachel McAdams portrays the self-serving Inez, Gil’s shopping obsessed fiancée. She seems to view Gil as more a milestone than a partner, someone who could be easily replaced. She spends most of her time in Paris avoiding Gil and hanging out with her old college crush, Paul. Inez is the antithesis to Gil, very focused on the future and disregarding the past. McAdams does a good job playing the “bad girl”, though Inez has nothing on Regina George from Mean Girls.

Tom Hiddleston is perfect as F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is the perfect combinations of artist angst, anxiety, suaveness and a slight streak of obsession. Corey Stoll is Ernest Hemingway, he steals every scene he is in. I wish he had been in more scenes. Stoll makes Hemingway come across as a tortured force of nature. Adrian Brody puts in a hilarious cameo as Salvador Dali. He is both bizarre and profound at the same time. For not having a lot of screen time he certainly leaves a strong impression. Another treasure is Kathy Bates’ performance as Gertrude Stein. Bates portrays stein as an American, practical, no-nonsense, kind, patient, and possessing a keen eye for talent. She is just like the Stein Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast, he memoir from his time living in Paris. Bates portrays Stein with the authority that cemented her in history as an icon.

Besides Owen Wilson, the most enchanting performance is from Marion Cotillard. She portrays Adriana, an aspiring fashion designer who has a history of becoming a muse to a string of artists. Her connection with Gil is both instantaneous and undeniable but numerous barriers keep any kind of romantic relationship from budding. Cotillard possess an understated charisma that is perfect for this role. Adriana is almost ethereal, slightly unformed and hazy around the edges. She is the perfect counterpart to Gil: in love with the past, enormous with Paris, and willing to walk around and enjoy the small moments. Gil’s relationship with Adriana is sweet and romantic. Wilson as Gil injects the right amount of wide-eyed ingenuousness along with a dash of Allen’s famous nebbish. Their relationship is innocent and enchanting, just how the beginning of a relationship is supposed to look like. Meanwhile, Gil’s relationship with Inez seems more brittle by the moment. As Gil spends more time in the past, he neglects his modern relationships. Thus seeming to confirm his contention that the past is greater than the present.

During the last fourth of the film Allen eventually makes his point: the alluring danger of overwhelming nostalgia. Gil’s obsession with the past is preventing him from living a satisfying life in the present. And this means trouble for the future. After all, how can the future come about if you are constantly stuck in the past? Allen’s point is that all periods of time have their allure but they also have their downsides. One time period may seem more desirable but this idea is formed without taking into the account the uglier side of the past. Midnight in Paris does in excellent job weaving together deep thoughts and a sophisticated comedy, a trait that has been noticeably missing in Allen’s recent works. This is a lovely film and a great tribute to the literary geniuses of the 1920s.

 

Jane Eyre (2011)

Magneto before Xavier

  • Director: Cary Fukunaga
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jaime Bell, Judie Dench
  • Screenplay: Moira Buffini
  • Music By: Dario Marianelli
  • Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
  • Running Time: 120 Minutes
  • Premiered: March 11, 2011
  • DVD Release Date: August 16, 2011

Synopsis: After surviving a tumultuous childhood, Jane Eyre ventures out into the world to become a governess.  At first she happily embraces her position at Thornfield Hall, and then she meets the mysterious and abrupt master of the house, Mr. Rochester. Over time, Jane and Rochester form a close friendship and Jane eventually falls in love him. Jane seems to have finally found the happiness that constantly eludes her. But everything is not as it seems.  Will Mr. Rochester’s secret destroy Jane’s happiness forever?

Review: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is an enduring classic and one of my favorite novels. Bronte and her sisters spent their early life at the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. For the rest of her life Charlotte emphasized that the schools poor conditions negatively affected her health and physical development. Both Maria and Elizabeth Brontë died from tuberculosis; they probably caught the disease while at school. This background is needed to understand the bleak depiction of Jane Eyre’s life. Charlotte based Jane Eyre off of her own life experiences, which is why the story evokes a strong emotional response.

Jane Eyre has been adapted for the big screen several times. Some adaptions are more faithful than others. I have never understood why screenwriters feel the need to add superfluous details to a classic piece of literature. Also, most directors seem to have an overwhelming desire to turn Jane Eyre into an overwrought gothic tragedy. Thankfully, the 2011 adaption is mostly faithful to the novel and decidedly un-gothic.

First of all, this adaption is probably the most artistic one ever made. The film has an artsy edge, which is perfectly fine. Adriano Goldman, the cinematographer, does a fantastic job making the wild moors look majestic and imposing. I also thought that Dario Marianelli’s score added the right amount of longing, tenderness, and abandon to the story. Combined together, the cinematography and music emphasized the story and themes. Sometimes these elements overwhelm the narrative, thankfully, this did not occur.

Secondly, I thought the female lead was well cast. Mia Wasikowska does a great job playing the reserved and slightly naïve Jane. She is a relatively new actress, but shows the potential for greatness. The severe hairstyle and drab clothing helped Wasikowska bring Jane alive on screen. She managed to come across as independent and not a slave to self-pity. Also, her portrayal did not paint Jane as a selfless saint, which some depictions tend to veer towards. I thought Wasikowska injected the right amount of backbone and shy reserve into her depiction. Jane is supposed to be a strong female with her own opinions and desires. Yet, Jane is also a product of her upbringing and is shy and reserving due to her past treatment. Wasikowska managed to bring both aspects of Jane’s character alive on screen. This is a good thing since she had to play off of Michael Fassbender’s imposing Rochester.

Thirdly, Michael Fassbender does a wonderful job depicting Mr. Rochester. His Rochester is a cynical, commanding man with a slightly crooked smile. One can easily imagine a sheltered young woman falling in love with his worldly character. Rochester is not an easy role to play. He is nearly impossible as he is supposed to be mysterious, commanding, dashing, cynical, wild, tender, yearning, and redeemable all at the same time. Very few actors have the skill needed to give such a nuanced performance. Some actors tend to emphasize either the commanding or mysterious aspect and let the other qualities slide. Fassbender does a notable turn and keeps the character from falling into a caricature. I thought Fassbender had the right amount of charisma, nuance, and swagger to counter Wasikowska’s naïvely independent Jane.  Wasikowska and Fassbender had strong on screen chemistry and were believable. I hope Fassbender has the opportunity to make other period dramas in between all the superhero movies. He is a talented actor and deserves complicated roles.

Finally, the plot closely followed the narrative form the novel. For the sake of time, a lot of Jane’s childhood story is told in condensed flashbacks. At key points in the movie the story depicts Jane’s humiliation and abandonment at the hands of her aunt and her time at the brutal boarding school. This serves to emphasize Jane’s lack of understanding of the world of men and how she came to fulfill the governess position at Thornfield Hall. Thankfully the flashbacks do not detract from the main narrative. However, the flashback style does make it appear that Jane is extremely haunted by her childhood. This is a slight departure from the book where Jane accepts her childhood and moves on. However, this is merely a small foible and does not change the mood or narrative of the story. It merely makes Jane appear more damaged and fragile than Brontë intended.

I thought Cary Fukunaga, the director, did a great job bringing Jane Eyre to life. The adaption was well done and mostly faithful to the novel. It is one of the better literary adaptions in recent years. Out of all the movie interpretations of this novel, this one is probably my favorite. If you want a scene-by-scene adaption, I suggest the equally fantastic 2006 BBC miniseries starring Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester.

Australia (2008)

Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Director: Baz Luhrmann
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, Brandon Walters
  • Screenplay: Stuart Beattie, Baz Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood, & Richard Flanagan
  • Music By: David Hirschfelder
  • Cinematography: Mandy Walker
  • Running Time: 165 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 26, 2008 (US Release)
  • DVD Release: March 3, 2009

Synopsis: Set in northern Australia before World War II, an English aristocrat inherits a sprawling ranch. In order to protect her property from a takeover plot, she reluctantly partners with a rough stock-man. As the pair drive 2,000 head of cattle over unforgiving landscape, they also have to contend with the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by Japanese forces firsthand.

Review: Australia is a sweeping epic meant to soar above lesser movies. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Australia is both a love letter to the outback and an exploration of a continent on the brink of war. Luhrmann wanted to make an Australian version of the classic Gone with the Wind. Unlike his previous films, Australia is a seeping romantic epic filled with both intentional and unintentional melodrama. Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet are both punk-rock inspired movie dramas. Which is why Australia’s old-fashioned storytelling stands in stark contrast to the rest of his directorial resumè. I am glad Luhrmann focused more on traditional storytelling, the movie would not have worked with stylized punk overtones.  The film can be divided into two halves: romance and war. The middle portion tries to tie the two halves together.

1939: Hitler has invaded Poland and the armies of the free world need a dependable supply of beef. Meanwhile in England, Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is alarmed that her husband is messing around on his cattle station, Faraway Downs, in remote northern Australia.  Lady Sarah flies to Faraway Downs to confront her husband and finds him dead. She is now the sole owner of a cattle station and is surrounded by hostile “employees”.  However, her passion for British social standards and dress does not endear Lady Sarah to the native populace. Without a foreman, Lady Sarah struggles to keep the station afloat.  Kidman is excellent as Lady Sarah, she is both arrogant, independent, aloof, but also vulnerable and willing to ask for help.

Enter the Drover (Jackman), a rough-hewn free-standing cowboy who rubs Lady Sarah the wrong way. Jackman is great as a lone wolf cowboy, he is both repelled and intrigued by Lady Sarah. Drover is only compelling because of Jackman’s charisma and on screen presence.  The Drover works with experienced Aborigine ranch hands and struggles to protect the Aboriginal boy Nullah (Walters). Nullah provides the narration for the film. The relationship between Drover, Lady Sarah, and Nullah provide the emotional core to the saga. Their relationship matures throughout the narrative and helps to flush out the characters.  Though the Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler parallels were a little too heavy handed. Lady Sarah is no Scarlett O’Hara, Sarah is much less headstrong and more self-sufficient. Also I highly doubt Scarlet would ever deign to participate in a cattle hustle. And Drover is not nearly as suave and sophisticated as Rhett. However, Drover has his own rough charm and is a good foil for Lady Sarah’s sophistication. Hence the conclusion of the “romance” portion.

Of course no “western” style film is complete without a villain, in this case an ambitious cattle rancher named King Carney (Brown). Carney really wants to add Faraway Downs to his expansive cattle empire. Everything depends upon who delivers their cattle to Darwin first. As far as villains go, Carney is pretty one dimensional. His sole goal is to stop Lady Sarah from reaching Darwin and he rather passive aggressive in his approach.  Brown is wasted in the role. David Wenham’ Neil Fletcher is a much more sinister character. He sneaks around and manipulates events to not only stop Lady Sarah but to also dethrone his father-in-law, Carney. This leads to a “domestic” war that is supeceded by the actual war, WWII. It was quite disconcerting to see Faramir terrorizing people. Where did it all go wrong?  The movie would have been stronger if Fletcher was the main villain, there was not enough time to adequately develop both Carney and Fletcher.

A majority of the cattle are supplied via CGI, which explains why they fearlessly stampede toward a high cliff. While this scene is a little hokey, it is the dramatic climax of the film. And it also marks the oddest subplot with Nullah channeling some kind of mystical powers. This addition was unnecessary to the story and struck an odd note. The climactic moments needed a thrilling and old-fashioned action sequence. Only extreme circumstances and a shared experience could allow Lady Sarah and Drover to cross extreme social lines and connect. This kind of event needed to be more climatic than a boy using pseudo-mystical powers and a night of dancing to a disjointed Over the Rainbow.  This out really robs the narrative of a strong emotional punch and downplays the social “crime” Lady Sarah and Drover committed by choosing each other over a social equal.

Cinematography wise, the film is gorgeous. There are plenty of sweeping shots of the Australian Outback and gorgeous vistas. It is a beautiful film to watch. I think Australia would have been a stronger movie if it had a slightly tighter script and a shorter running time. Parts of the film feel rushed and other scene move incredibly fast. However, it is filled with a strong cast who do their best to make their characters come alive. Overall, Australia is a sweeping romantic melodrama that represent a dying breed of film. I really doubt the cinemas will be crowded with another epic anytime soon. Despite its flaws, I love this film and watch it regularly. Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that ordinary people can save the day, not just comic superheroes.