Movie Reviews

By Jim Delmont

The Great Gatsby (PG-13)

Still Great
'Gatsby' survives Luhrmann, becomes musical without the singing

   The general buzz on Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of Scott Fitzgerald’s uber-classic novel, “The Great Gatsby” was that the director of “Moulin Rouge” had smothered Fitzgerald’s carefully wrought, poetically told story in overripe visual trappings and excessive Jazz Age exuberance. He’d delivered a gaudy, riotous, over-the-top film that purists would decry. Well, he did, and they did. Nevertheless, while critics are split about 50/50 on “The Great Gatsby,” audiences overwhelmingly like it, according to online rating services.

   I liked it, too, despite some obvious flaws. Luhrmann is an Australian original, bursting with ideas about expanding cinema (you can see “Gatsby” in 3-D, which makes some of the more garish moments even more garish, but don’t bother). He is in your face with overwhelming CGI-generated visuals, mad parties, decorative explosions (flowers, drapes, color-coded women’s dresses, fantastic landscapes, and absolutely stunning - if retro - visions of New York City in 1922). The lingering view of Times Square is almost by itself worth the ticket price.

   I’m not the first to point out that Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is a musical without the singing. Music it has aplenty, and some are complaining that songs by Jay-Z, Kanye West, Amy Winehouse and Lionel Richie don’t belong in the period – but they work just fine and there are still Gershwin and Cole Porter numbers to savor. Even the huge, sprawling crazy party scenes would be okay, if Luhrmann had just resisted the temptation to add cartoon-like comic touches, such as characters leering at the camera or moving in choreographic set piece flourishes (musical influences again). A party in a mansion bigger than Vanderbilt’s, with lots of shimmy Flapper fashions and champagne seemingly flowing from fountains would be more than enough and could be as drunken and salacious as the director might wish. 
But he does overstep in these big scenes and that takes away from the seriousness of Fitzgerald’s morality tale - one of the great themes of history (especially American history): money can’t buy happiness. Nevertheless, the gaudy, noisy side of “The Great Gatsby” is by and large great fun.

   What hurts the movie is the decision to lay on the actors various and varying accents. Leonardo DiCaprio certainly looks the part of Gatsby, but he speaks in a peculiar, clipped Eastern period accent, not unlike the one he employed as J. Edgar Hoover in “J. Edgar.” But Hoover was the farthest thing from Gatsby and the use of this accent dehumanizes him. Possibly because there are so many Australians in the cast, the accents tend to stumble and get in the way of direct characterizations: as Jordan Baker, Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, Aussie Elizabeth Debicki employs a southern drawl that comes and goes, and she slinks around too much, losing all nuance provided by Fitzgerald for her character; another Aussie, Joel Edgerton, as Tom Buchanan, the film’s villain, offers a Midwestern growl that doesn’t quite enunciate - or suggest Chicago; Aussie Jason Clarke, as Wilson, the auto mechanic whose trashy wife is Buchanan’s mistress, does get it right, though. The big exception to all this erroneous accent making is English actress Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s married lost love, expressing her part in a flawless American accent. She brings the requisite innocence, loveliness and confusion to Daisy, a big improvement on Mia Farrow in the 1974 film version with Robert Redford.

   Another jarring note is the use of a storyline conceit: that the narrator, so important in the novel, is writing from a sanitorium after the fact. Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, the narrator, is word perfect in the part and he is about the only member of the cast not made mad by either idealism or decadence. Having him show his writing to his psychiatrist and in the end signing the book, “By Nick Carraway,” is a disservice to Scott Fitzgerald, who somehow fashioned a perfect fictional book from his 25-year-old mind and sensibility.

   But what saves this “Gatsby” is the novel itself, reverentially and continuously present, as intoned by Carraway. So important to Luhrmann was the actual text that he often writes the words on screen as they are spoken, melting away with the fading sounds. The spell of Fitzgerald’s poetry works its way into your brain and heart and has the audience as still and quiet at the end as that of people at a funeral – and, of course, there is one. The perfect plot, so carefully tuned that you don’t realize how slick it is, saves this movie as surely as DiCaprio’s energy saves Gatsby and the acting of Mulligan and Maguire pull you into the story. About two thirds of the way through, sated as you may be by visual extravagance, the movie jumps to life in the hotel room scene when the Buchanans and Gatsby clear the air. The momentum never drops after that.

   Overall, there is much that is Wellesian in this movie, from the gigantic Gatsby castle, so reminiscent of the one in “Citizen Kane,” to the cheap showgirls, the aggressive swooping and tracking shots  – and even in overlapping conversation and quick audio cuts.

   Luhrmann may have a weakness for the lurid, but Fitzgerald’s final words will move you, as you brush back tears. In the end, “Gatsby” survives Luhrmann and transcends his movie, as it has transcended so many other books. In Fitzgerald’s lifetime, it sold about 30,000 copies. Since 1950, it has sold about 11 million and is today again high on the bestseller lists. See the movie, but read the book first.

Oblivion (PG-13)

Impressive and Beguiling
Cruise's 'Oblivion' offers more cerebral than most sci-fi flicks

  There are echoes in “Oblivion” of many sci fi movies of the past, from “Planet of the Apes” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Solaris” and “Prometheus.” It’s something of a thinking man’s sci fi exercise as things are not what they seem and true reality has to be uncovered (“Dark City,” “The Matrix”). This creates questions in the mind about existential reality, the purpose of human life, the viability of love, the interaction of humans and machines, our place in the universe. But up front, it’s less complicated.

  Tom Cruise is Jack Harper (third time he’s been “Jack” in a movie, a name that suits him perfectly), an astronaut supervising the mining of a post-apocalyptic earth with a shattered moon – results of a war with aliens. Jack and his partner, the cool yet ingratiating Victoria (Brit actress Andrea Riseborough)  live on a wonderfully slick, impressive space platform and report via TV to a good ole gal superior, Sally (Melissa Leo), whose somewhat intimidating presence is projected from a gigantic space ship, the Tet, that orbits the earth. Jack and Victoria help drones hunt down the few remaining “scavs,” alien intruders, prior to their own evacuation to Titan, a moon of Saturn, to which the human race is migrating.

  Sets and visuals are impressive and beguiling – the space platform even has a swimming pool. The tips of famous buildings and bridges can be seen on the devastated earth, buried in the ecological catastrophe that the earth is now (bereft the steady influence of the moon, climate went wild).

  Both Jack and Victoria have had their memories wiped so that if they are captured they won’t reveal anything important, but Jack is troubled by dreams and flashbacks to a life on the pre-war earth decades earlier – especially in a scene with a lovely and loving woman with whom he enjoyed the view from the Empire State Building’s observation deck. This woman, Julia, is played by the much praised newcomer, lovely brunette Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Silence”). This makes “Oblivion” a relationship movie as much as it is a war movie.

  The combat sequences are convincing CGI exercises, my only complaint being that Jack’s white weapons look like plastic toys – they needed a bit of grainy metal in their design. Plot twists reveal that some humans are still on earth – Morgan Freeman turns up as their leader. Jack has neat vehicles, a kind of futuristic motorcycle and a heavily armed, but superbly maneuverable attack helicopter. When the contemplative side of the movie is dragging a bit, Kosinksi throws in some furious action to liven it up. There are other elements in the story, including clones, and a major demand on Jack to save the day – or try to.

    Overall, if you like sci fi as much as I do, you will join the 70% or so of viewers/voters on “Rotten Tomatoes” who have appreciated “Oblivion.” It has an attractive cast, some interesting ideas, impressive set design and special effects and a strong performance from the ageless Cruise, who not so much inhabits roles as overpowers them. He is the very definition of an old-fashioned movie star.