The Great Gatsby Review

            A Baz Luhrmann film can instantly be recognized by its flamboyant visual style and a storyline that centers on a love story.  Considering Luhrmann would seem to be the right type of director for a The Great Gatsbyadaptation, there was a lot to look forward to with his latest film.  As long as he could find some cushion room for the book’s themes there is exuberance in the text that would make him seem perfect for it.  Well this latest version of The Great Gatsby is unmistakably a Baz Luhrmann.  It might just be Luhrmann at his most over-the-top and this can be quite jarring at first.  However, this film still works.  The book’s themes still shine through and a talented cast and flashy visuals pull the film the rest of the way.

            The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) as he recounts meeting the one “good” person he ever met one summer during the Roaring Twenties while he is being treated at an alcohol abuse center.  He tells the story of Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his attempt to reconnect with his long lost love, Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan).  Baz Luhrmann directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Craig Pearce (a frequent collaborator with Lurhmann).

            This film is all about Baz Luhrmann trying to throw everything at the screen.  The camera never stops moving (with the help from some solid CGI work) and every other scene seems to come with a song from a present day artist.  Both of these elements lead to a pretty jarring introduction (especially the songs which don’t really work until they build Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” into the film’s main musical theme).  However, as the film finishes introducing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world and characters, these elements seem to take a back seat to the drama of the story.  This is when the film finally begins to offer something of worth as the talented cast that Luhrmann has assembled gets to take center stage.

            The cast is the true strength of this film to the point where even actors who haven’t delivered a good performance in years (by that I mean Tobey Maguire) get moments to shine in roles that were quite boring on the page (by that I mean the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway).  Despite Nick Carraway being the first and last person we see on the screen, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Jay Gatsby is the true star of the film, and DiCaprio delivers with one of his best performances yet.  While DiCaprio rarely settles into an acting comfort zone (like other stars of his magnitude such as George Clooney), he struggles in many films to lose his persona.  There are quite a few times where you just can’t forget that you are watching DiCaprio instead of whatever character he is playing.  I think the biggest compliment I can give him with this film is that you do forget that you are watching him.  As for the third lead of the film, Carey Mulligan is a solid if unspectacular Daisy.

            This film also has a deep bench of good supporting work.  Joel Edgerton delivers his best performance yet as he is almost unrecognizable as Tom Buchanan.  Also being quite unrecognizable is Adelaide Clemens in a very small role as Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher)’s sister.  Elizabeth Debicki provides a strong breakthrough performance as Jordan Baker, Nick Carraway’s love interest.  However, the performance I really want to bring attention to is Jason Clarke’s role as George Wilson.  After his work in Zero Dark Thirty, Clarke just seemed like a perfect fit for the role of George and he fully delivers even if he doesn’t get the screentime he deserved.

            A strong second half anchored by its superlative cast is enough to make The Great Gatsby worth it despite some jarring table setting from Baz Luhrmann.


Some thoughts on Lucky Guy

            This is normally a blog for film and television, but I thought I would make a special case for the Tony Award-winning play, Lucky Guy.  The play has deep roots in film.  The play was written by the late Nora Ephron and it stars Tom Hanks.  The following will just be some of my thoughts instead of an actual review.

            First of all, this play was a bit disappointing.  The play tells the story of real-life journalist Mike McAlary, but the play comes across as more of a “greatest hits” instead of an actual story.  So it is unsurprising that Nora Ephron is the only credited writer on the play.  The stuff Ephron writes isn’t bad.  Far from it in fact.  The characters are interesting and this is nothing like anything Ephron has done before.  It’s just that there is a lot of connective tissue missing here and the whole play feels disjointed because of that.  I understand the need to respect Ephron’s work, but a little rewrite could have done wonders for this play.

            That being said this will be Tom Hanks’ greatest chance at a third Oscar if this is ever turned into a film (and I really hope it is as I think the story can translate better on the screen than it did on the stage).  Hanks is playing against type and really excels at it.  It also helps that the second-half of the play deals with him trying to work past his cancer and that he gets a killer monologue towards the end of the play.

            Lucky Guy has a distinctively New York feel so that will need to be kept for the film.  Obviously, that presents a problem with Hanks being known as an LA guy but he did such a great job in the play that I can’t see anyone else doing it in a potential film.  The same applies to Courtney B. Vance who almost steals the show as one of McAlary’s bosses.  A potential film would obviously also need a rewrite for it to be a success.  Who should do that rewrite? I don’t know.  Aaron Sorkin would overpower Nora Ephron’s work.  Tracy Letts is an interesting choice (he did end up beating Hanks for the Tony award this year), but I don’t know if he would be able to capture the New York atmosphere that is so integral to this play.

            Anyway, this is a play with a fantastic cast trying to overcome a script that was a draft or two away from being truly complete.  I don’t know if I would recommend it but there is so much potential in it that I really hope that we see a big screen adaptation of it.

This Is the End Review

            Every summer there is always that one comedy that becomes a hit (both critically and commercially) and ends up being talked about for months.  Tedwas clearly last year’s version, and The Hangover and Bridesmaids are some other recent examples.  This Is the End was released into theaters last weekend and it has to be considered an immediate contender for this year’s comedy of the summer.  It may not be the box office hit (so far) that the other films that have been mentioned were but it makes up for that by being one of the biggest blasts at the theater in a long time.

            This Is the End follows Jay Brauchel (playing himself) as he returns to Los Angeles to visit his good friend Seth Rogen (playing himself).  Seth brings up the idea of going to James Franco’s house warming party, and despite Jay’s protesting, this is where they find themselves when the apocalypse happens.  Now the surviving band of actors must not only find a way to survive but also figure out what is causing the apocalypse.  The film is directed and written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.

            Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have made a career out of stoner comedies under the producing eye of Judd Apatow.  So while they have always shown potential, they have usually gotten stuck under the shallow and overlong style of Judd Apatow.  Without Apatow being involved, Rogen and Goldberg finally reach that potential with this film.  It’s still just a stoner comedy, but the jokes fly off the screen at an unbelievable rate.  While the film (with a running time just under two hours) could be considered long for a comedy, Rogen and Goldberg actually use that time to include some interesting commentary (the portrayal of celebrities’ roles in present day America is really well done) and character depth.  That wouldn’t have happened if this was an Apatow production.  Rogen and Goldberg also do a surprisingly good directing job too.  The pacing is solid, the suspenseful scenes are suspenseful and the effects are incorporated in stellar fashion.  However, what really steps the direction up is the way they effectively stage all of the cameos.

            While there isn’t any Oscar-worthy acting in this, it was great to see these actors take risks and have almost all of them pay off.  Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride are not afraid to make themselves look bad in this film.  It was shocking to see how much of an anti-hero the film made Jay Baruchel (who is the main character in the film) and it was great to see James Franco allow so much riffing on his real life persona.  It was also great to see Baruchel and Craig Robinson (who plays one of the few characters who is sympathetic throughout the film) actually get substantial roles in a good film.  Both took the most of that opportunity.  In terms of already publicized (heavily within the trailers and elsewhere) cameos, Michael Cera has one of the best as he plays a sex and cocaine crazed version of himself, while one other cameo that hasn’t been revealed will end up as one of the best film moments of the summer even if it is a bit short.

            This Is the End is the most fun you will have in a theater this summer.


Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Review

            HBO’s Summer Documentary is the biggest unsung gem on television.  In a time where most of television takes a break for reality TV, HBO’s endorsement of a genre that barely gets any attention on television is nice to see.  It also helps that most of the additions in this series are well crafted and interesting.  The new season started up this past Monday with Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.  As someone who barely paid attention to the Pussy Riot Scandal, I found this documentary to be an interesting and informative introduction.  While the film’s clear one-sidedness may cause problems when the film decides to take a more ambitious approach, there is still a lot to admire about this documentary.

            Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer follows the creation of Pussy Riot, a band that is trying to protest the Russian government’s relationship with the Orthodox church through loud music displays in public places, through interviews with the three known members and their families.  After the three known members of the band are arrested for playing in one of the most sacred Orthodox churches in the country, the film then begins to follow their trial.  The film also explores what is the best way to handle the relationship between any government and religion through the ways in which Russians are handling their current situation.  The film is directed by Mike Lerner (the Oscar nominated documentarian behind Hell and Back Again) and Maxim Pozdorovkin.

            Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin do a fantastic job of creating a story out of this real life event.  The way they tell a story with a purpose and then create characters (while the people portrayed in this documentary are real there are clear story arcs created for each of the three main girls) throughout the film is quite thrilling.  So much so that it is very easy to ignore a clearly biased perspective.  The only time at which you begin to question this bias is when the filmmakers try to explore the relationship between the Russian government and the Orthodox Church.  While any government should work as a separate entity from the country’s main religion, this film claims there is no separation of Church and State in Russia but provides little to no evidence.  Had the filmmakers provided some more evidence for this, it would have been much easier to go along with their more ambitious goals.

            Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer may not be one of the HBO’s Summer Documentary series’ best entries but it is a strong start to the new season.


Man of Steel Review

            Superman is easily one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history.  Yet there hasn’t been a film that has lived up to his super status yet.  You can like the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films all you want, but most of the love that those films receive is due to nostalgia rather than any sort of cinematic achievement.  Other than the first thirty minutes of Superman (which does a fantastic job of world building while turning Krypton into a 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque dreamscape), Superman films have been filled with highly outdated effects, idiotic plot twists and boring storylines.  Despite the release of Man of Steel we will still be waiting for that great Superman film.  While showing promise early on, Man of Steel turns out to be an overblown action-fest with a dark core that director Zack Snyder seems to be oblivious to.

            Man of Steel follows Kal-El/Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill in this film) as he discovers that he has amazing powers as he grows up.  When a fellow Kryptonian by the name of General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes to Earth revealing his plan to turn Earth into another planet for Kryptonians after Krypton has been destroyed by eliminating all the humans, Kal-El decides it is time to reveal himself to the world as Superman in order to save it.  The film is directed by Zack Snyder and is written by David Goyer.

            With a blank check for effects work and a cast that looked really strong on paper, this film only needed a solid story and some sturdy direction for a good film.  This film got neither.  Instead of telling a complete story, this film decides to deliver us a greatest hits version of Clark Kent’s life instead of a true origin story.  While that might have worked like it did in Batman Begins if Christopher Nolan (who helped out with writing the story but not the screenplay) was directing the film, it doesn’t with Zack Snyder behind the helm.  Zack Snyder puts so much emphasis on action that the relentless action and the odd back-and-forth flow of the story doesn’t allow any room for the film to breathe.  The oddest part about this film though is that the film has a dark core, which Snyder seems to decide doesn’t exist.  Not only do the two fathers in Clark’s life have dark qualities but both of his fathers’ teachings lead directly to Clark doing something that anyone who wasn’t rooting for the guy would call evil.  Yet Snyder directs all of this like your typical happy-go-lucky summer blockbuster.

            The cast is a bit of a mixed bag.  Henry Cavill is just fine as the lead.  Superman just doesn’t allow much range for an actor, but Cavill isn’t any better or worse than his predecessors.  Amy Adams is quite unimpressive for an actress of her status.  She doesn’t have much to do but she doesn’t strike up much chemistry with Cavill either (which was her main purpose).  The big letdown though is Michael Shannon as Zod.  Shannon isn’t bad in this film (actually he delivers one of the better performances), but for such a perfect bit of casting, Shannon doesn’t get as much material as he deserved.  Meanwhile the most impressive part of the cast is the supporting roles.  Russell Crowe and (especially) Kevin Costner knock it out of the park as Clark’s two fathers (despite being the two most poorly written roles in the cast).  Christopher Meloni delivers one of his best performances yet as an army general, and Ayelet Zurer somehow finds something out of nothing as Clark’s real mother, Lara Lor-Van.  With a cast filled with name actors you would think that there would be no room for a newcomer to leave an impression, but Antje Traue is very good and gets to be in the best scenes as Zod’s henchwoman.

            If your still waiting for that defining Superman film look elsewhere than Man of Steel.


The Hangover: Part III Review

            I know at least the first sequel was planned all along, but The Hangover Trilogy has to be one of the weirdest and most unnecessary trilogies in cinematic history.  The Hangover: Part III only further cements this thinking.  The film proves that too much is just way too much and in the process completely forgot what made the first film work so well: the comedy.  Whatever goodwill you have left towards this trilogy will be completely lost by the time the film gets to the credits and actually delivers one of the best post-credits scenes ever.

            The Hangover: Part III follows the aftermath of the previous two films as Chow (Ken Jeong) escapes from a Bankok prison while the “wolfpack” (Zach Galifianakis’ Alan, Bradley Cooper’s Phil and Ed Helms’ Stu) prepare to take Alan to rehab.  However, nobody knows that they are destined to meet again for one final showdown in Las Vegas.  The film (like the first two) is directed by Todd Phillips while Phillips co-writes the screenplay with Craig Mazin (who also co-wrote The Hangover: Part II).

            As a conclusion to the trilogy, this film works quite well.  Phillips and Mazin make sure that there is evidence of a character arc for Alan (who is clearly the lead of this film over his pack members).  Almost all of the loose ends are tied up and there are numerous references and callbacks to the first two films.  Then why doesn’t this film work?  Phillips and Mazin give us too much of a good thing.  Chow and (especially) Alan are funny characters when used in moderation.  They cannot, however, carry an entire film, which is what Phillips and Mazin try to make them do with this film.  With so much time devoted to these two characters, the characters and the film become insufferable.  Yet this is not even the film’s worse sin.  Somehow in the midst of trying to make the Alan-Chow relationship the center of the entire trilogy, Phillips and Mazin forgot to make this film funny.  Sure audiences across America will find places to laugh during this film, but their laughs will ring as hollow as the film’s script.  There’s a few laughs sprinkled throughout, but that is it.

            The awful script leaves a toll on the film’s cast.  The film completely forgets to give big moments to Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms.  For a film series that has put so much emphasis on its “wolfpack”, it’s massively disappointing to see two-thirds of it be ignored.  While Cooper and Helms get little to do, Zach Galifianakis gets too much to do and his quirky style that makes him so likeable in whatever he does becomes intolerable.  Then there is Ken Jeong.  Jeong was funny if hardly a scene-stealer in the first film, but years of playing the exact same character in every single one of his projects and Todd Phillips giving him way too much to do has made him the most annoying actor currently working.  The one actor who is able to survive the film unscathed is John Goodman, who is well cast as the film’s villain.

            The Hangover: Part III is proof that way too much of a good thing can become your worst nightmare.


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