Friday, May 24, 2013

The Great Gatsby

  • Released Internationally on 10/05/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 25/05/13
Preview (as published 01/05/13 in VIDA Magazine)

This cinematic summer, amidst all the inevitable sequels, prequels and reboots, there are a few standalone giants to look forward to. And there’s no prize for guessing which will be the most lavish, colourful and all-round spectacular. Baz Luhrmann is back.

The man behind one of the best films of the millennium so far (Moulin Rouge!) is now bringing his unique brand of vivid craziness to one of the all-time great stories - F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous tale of society and excess. That the story still resonates nearly a century after its publication is a testament to its relevance, and it has already been adapted numerous times before - most famously in 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola, with Robert Redford in the title role.

Luhrmann teamed up with his regular writing partner Craig Pearce, who had also helped him with the highly original adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Another returning collaborator from that huge success is Leonardo DiCaprio, who has of course grown in both age and star stature since then, and who will portray the exuberant Gatsby. The narrator role goes to Tobey Maguire (Spider-man), with Carey Mulligan (Drive, An Education) starring as the lovely Daisy who is swept up into Gatsby’s party world. Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers), Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke (both recently seen in Zero Dark Thirty) also star.

As with every Luhrmann film, music will be a key player, and for this outing the director enlisted a host of stars, led by superstar rapper Jay-Z, to oversee the music. How the music will reflect the 1920s setting remains to be seen, but for the man who brought Fatboy Slim to the can-can shows of Paris that shouldn’t be a problem. The trailers have so far been stunningly beautiful, and I can’t wait to see this on a massive screen.

Review (24/05/13)
3-word review: Quite Great Indeed.

Anyone sitting down to watch this and expecting a somber, reverential adaptation of the classic should know better. This is Baz Luhrmann, so everything needs to be gorgeous, everything needs to be operatic, and everything needs to sparkle. Thankfully, this is a story that works wonderfully with the Baz treatment.

Purists might balk at the hip-hop sounds that are heard in early twentieth-century New York, and conservatives might have reservations about the unabashed portrayal of ridiculous excess which jars substantially in these times of preached austerity. But ultimately the seamless blend of music genres works wonderfully throughout the film, and the depiction of the absurdity of excess wealth helps drive the story’s message home. Because beneath all the sequins and within all the mansions, this is a timeless tale of wealth, and whether it alone is enough to make a man, irrespective of whether it was inherited, earned or dubiously earned. And as with most tales of the rich, it is also a careful analysis of fair-weather friends and the abuses of hospitality that ensue. The tour of Gatsby’s house, as crafted in this adaptation, manages to be both a beautifully whimsical montage whilst still highlighting the disgusting excess of it all. It’s a fine balance, but Luhrmann pulls it off with aplomb.

DiCaprio, who can’t seem to make any bad films, is a joy to behold as the titular bachelor and legendary party host. He dominates every scene he’s in, also thanks to the masters in the wardrobe department. More importantly, he manages to convey the paralysing insecurity and doubt that is central to his character, as well as all the other problems that us non-billionaires secretly hope the rich face. And he manages to drive the story forward thanks to his very convincing interpretation of Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.

Daisy, the main female character and the cause of most of the events in the film, gets a very slightly disappointing turnout from Carey Mulligan, but it was always going to be a tall order to manage to be the woman that can fuel such obsession. To help her along, Luhrmann orchestrates one of the most visually magical character introductions I can remember - an introduction that is then topped a few minutes later when we first meet Gatsby. These two scenes, along with a handful of others throughout the film, are such a perfect marriage of colour, acting, set design, music and imagination, they remind us why we head to dark cinemas and gaze up in amazement.

It’s not all fireworks and champagne, of course, and the filmmakers treat the source matter with respect, including a clever nod to the novel’s first cover, carefully watching over proceedings on the road to ruin. Tobey Maguire’s narrator gives us someone to identify with in all this craziness, and he skillfully guides us through the tale with the benefit of hindsight. His arrival at the party to end all parties is a joy to behold, and it’s great that we have him to cling onto.

Ultimately, it’s an excellent story, very well told. Luhrmann’s unique brand of storytelling charges fiercely on, and I for one hope it never fades. It’s not as overall excellent as Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet, but it’s a huge step up from his more recent Australia, and easily one of the best films of the year so far.



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness


  • Released Internationally on 09/05/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 15/05/13

Preview (as published 01/05/13 in VIDA Magazine)

J.J. Abrams received mountains of praise for his courageous rebooting of the Star Trek franchise a few years ago, and that was probably one of the main reasons why he has been handed an even bigger task - Star Wars Episode VII. Before that announcement was made, however, he had completed his Star Trek sequel, which hopes to build on the success and hype of its predecessor. The one element of the reboot that was slightly lacklustre was Eric Bana as the nemesis, so to raise this outing to the next level they enlisted one of the hottest actors of the moment to portray the foe - Benedict Cumberbatch. The star of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as famous for his voice as for his acting (he will be voicing Smaug the dragon in the remaining Hobbit films, and he stole the show in the famous ‘Tom’ Google+ advert) has dominated all the trailers and posters so far, so it remains to be seen how the young crew of the Enterprise will get the better of him.



Review (14/05/13)

3-word review: For the fans.

J.J. Abrams has made a point of telling the press, at every possible opportunity, how he wanted to make a film that would appeal to all moviegoers, and not just Star Trek fans. Well, I’m no trekkie, and I felt neglected whilst watching this film. I’ve seen a few of the films, I’ve seen a small portion of the countless TV episodes, and I’ve read enough to know the basics. But in this film, although I got to enjoy it as an action and effects film, I felt like an outsider. Without spoiling anything, I can say that a huge character ‘reveal’ makes a very obvious reference to past Trek movies, and the way someone’s name is announced you’d expect the cinema audience to gasp out loud and burst into slow applause. The explanations that follow are sparse, and the ending of the films features other apparent symmetries with earlier films, which of course flew right over my head and I only learnt about later.

I guess it’s also for Cumberbatch fans. The rocketing star is wonderful as the main nemesis here, with his steely presence, impressive physicality and of course his famous voice, all combining to make a villain that you sincerely believe could take on every else in the film. The problem is, he’s hardly given a good ending, and I felt let down by the end of it. The other main new face is the gorgeous new female addition to the crew (Alice Eve), although it does seem like she is there merely to add a feminine touch and to walk around looking stunning, with or without her uniform.

It’s not all bad of course, and as expected in a J.J. Abrams film there’s stellar effects, a few action set pieces that take your breath away, and enough character development to make everyone interesting. The main cast continue their great work from the previous film, with excellent chemistry and a good mix of drama and humour, the latter mostly thanks to Simon Pegg. The musical and visual aura of the Enterprise is also continued in grand style, as is the simmering bromance between Kirk and Spock. It’s exciting and entertaining from start to finish, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who never had an Enterprise or Cumberbatch poster on their wall.





Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen


  • Released Internationally on 21/03/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 08/05/13

Preview (as published 01/05/13 in VIDA Magazine)

It happens every few years or so - Antz/A Bug’s Life, Deep Impact/Armageddon, The Illusionist/The Prestige. This year we will get two similar films portraying enemies taking over the White House. This is the first. The instantly recognizable building is of course mostly know for what it represents, and has been an extra in films for decades - taken over by mutants in X-Men 2, a crime scene in Murder at 1600, and of course being blown to smithereens in Independence Day. This time around, Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) is the president, Morgan Freeman is the speaker, and Gerard Butler (300) is the action hero who will save the day.



Review (07/05/13)

3-word review: Entertaining American clichés.

America has its quirks. I love how they go to great lengths to hype up and worship their institutions, their country, their star spangled banner. No harm in being patriotic, I guess. But then, when the aura surrounding the flag and the president has been cranked up to the max, they all flock to the cinema to see it all blown up or jeopardised. It's all harmless fun, of course, and I'll admit to having a soft spot for these sort of films - all-out action films, with not a single bit of science-fiction in sight. No superheroes, no paranormal phenomena, no fantasy, no aliens. Just good old-fashioned terrorism and disaster, with lots of guns, hostages and wreckage, lots of people saying 'Mr President' in urgent tones, and lots of codes and protocols we the public have never heard of and which probably don't exist anyway.

This is definitely one of those films. It reminded me a lot of Wolfgang Petersen's entertaining Air Force One from over a decade ago. That was fun, and there was nothing too fancy about it - just ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and the president of the USA thrown into the mix. Just like in that film, this one does a decent job of introducing the main players and showing us the president's family life and inner circle, and this of course so that later, when everything is at stake, the human drama will unfold with more depth. There's also a few no-nonsense fist fights, despite the mountains of government technology at hand.

When picking an enemy, the script-writers went with the very safe bet of a North Korean terrorist, and I imagine that this should make the film as uncontroversial and inoffensive as possible, unless of course you're a North Korean terrorist. Aaron Eckhart uses his Dark Knight noble image to look convincing as the supposed leader of the free world, although he does seem to keep the same facial expression for the duration of the film. Gerard Butler is likeable, dependable and occasionally funny as the renegade hero, and the various supporting roles are filled with recognisable faces who add some weight to the proceedings and look and sound like they actually could be in cabinet.

Unfortunately, what they spent on acting talent seems to have been saved on special effects, with some scenes looking below par for this sort of film. But ultimately everything ties up nicely in heroic fashion, and the world gets to live another day, and I walked out feeling as if I had ordered an item off the menu that was familiar, satisfying, but nothing special. Now we just wait to see how White House Down compares.





Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Past Perfect: The Untouchables (1987)

Home movie gems from the past few decades that need some dusting but never get old.


I have a very clear childhood memory of my slightly older brother coming back from some sort of sleepover or football camp, and in hushed tones telling me about the coolest film in the world. I sat in awe as he detailed the violence, the heroics, the scary bits. It was rated 15, and back in the late 80s I was still miles away, but rarely have I yearned so much to watch a film. When, of course, I eventually did, years had passed, and I was expecting an anti-climax. Thankfully, it didn’t materialise, and to this day repeat viewings keep rewarding me with wonderful set pieces, memorable characters, and a team of good guys it’s impossible not to feel proud of. The casting is wonderful, with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery in fine form, and the often forgotten De Niro looking unnaturally large as the menacing Al Capone. Brian De Palma works wonders with light and colour, aided by the period setting, and everything looks so classy since the whole cast is wearing Armani. Plus, Ennio Morricone blessed the film with one of his all-time greatest heroic themes, which would even make the Care Bears look cool. Crime dramas are made quite frequently, but this remains one of the very best.