The Great Gatsby

Emotions survive beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour

The Great Gatsby; Pic source: Wikipedia

I must confess that I picked up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby after I got to know that the Australian filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann is adapting it for the big screen. I had not seen the earlier cinematic adaptations and knew nothing about the story. Gatsby was as much a mystery to me as he is to the other characters in the book. I made his acquantaince when I was in his adopted city, New York. I started reading the book at an airport with snow falling outside; the beauty and the sadness of the story enveloped me over the course of a seven-hour flight. By the time I reached the destination, I was in love with the book, the characters and the idea of the film.

I wondered if Luhrmann, known for his opulent and indulgent productions, be able to do justice to the story? When the initial reviews came in, I was most intrigued by this headline in The Playlist: “The Great Gatsby is a decadently empty tale of empty decadence and impossible love”. After watching the film, I can say that it’s partly true and partly not. The Great Gatsby is certainly a tale of empty decadence and impossible love… that’s what Fitzgerald tried to say in 1925, and that’s what Luhrmann has successfully managed to capture in the film. His excesses are breathtakingly beautiful and at times vulgar… we are mesmerized as well as disgusted, just like Nick Carraway, the narrator, the wall-flower in this story – he silently observes, gets seduced by the world of the rich and famous and then leaves disillusioned. The director largely stays true to the book and the theme of impossible love. That’s where I disagree with The Playlist, The Great Gatsby is not a decadently empty tale; beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour, the emotions survive. Luhrmann manages to give you both hope and despair and you’re able to empathise with and hope for Gatsby attaining his dream.

When I read the book, Fitzgerald’s characters appeared as real in 2013 as they were in the 1920s where the story is set. I had met Daisys and Toms and Jordans and Nicks in my life… but not some one like Jay Gatsby. The film manages to portray the characters in the same manner and the actors are able to draw the emotions just like the book. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect for the role of Jay Gatsby and he delivers… he is vulnerable in some scenes and in some he shows the enthusiasm and nervousness of a boy on his first day at school. Watch out for the scene where he waits to meet Daisy after many years and the one where he tells Nick that you can relive the past… you know he is in denial and you are Nick at that time. Tobey Maguire is good as a young, aspiring writer and I wish they had done away with the whole writing a book thing with him as a narrative tool. Joel Edgerton is perfect as Tom Buchanan, an arrogant, rich bully while newcomer, Elizabeth Debicki appears cool, calm and confident as Jordan Baker, a golf player and socialite. I actually find Jordan’s character quite interesting as like Nick, she observes the lives of Tom, Daisy and Jay but remains aloof. She says something very simple that defines who she is and says a lot about the story, “I love large parties, they are so intimate; at small parties there isn’t any privacy”. Daisy is perhaps one of the most interesting female lead characters ever written; she is in love, she is emotionally torn but she is also a particular type of person that we discover slowly. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (screenplay) have tried to balance the flippant socialite side of her with how Gatsby sees her. Carey Mulligan gives a fine performance as Daisy and looks the part with her diamond tiaras and chandelier dresses. Among the supporting cast, the most interesting part belongs to Amitabh Bachchan who plays a Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim. While the character gets limited screen time, it is an important part and Bachchan manages to carry it off with élan. Myrtle Wilson’s important character in the book gets less prominence in the film but is performed well by Isla Fisher. Jason Clarke plays her husband, George Wilson, the always drunk garage owner; once again it is an under-leveraged character, maybe because of the already long duration of the film (143 minutes).

I’d like to give a special mention for the technicians who worked on this ambitious film project, which in true Luhrmann style is also an over-the-top art project. Oscar winner, Catherine Martin who is also Luhrmann’s wife, takes credit for the opulent sets and costumes for which she collaborated with Brooks Brothers (Gatsby), Tiffany’s and Prada (Daisy). Simon Duggan’s cinematography is good for most parts but the fast (read really fast) camera movements make it a little unsettling for the viewers, especially in 3D. It took me some time to get used to the the film just like it did with the high frame rate cinematography used in The Hobbit. Once my eyes settled and the camera slowed down to rest on the characters, I enjoyed the use of 3D to give depth to the scenes. Another distraction that the makers could have avoided is the highly-stylized appearance of words from Nick’s journal, typewriter and narrative on the screen.

While some of my fellow movie watchers expected a more authentic 1920s style jazz, I quite enjoyed the modern interpretation with hip-hop influence in the film’s score, produced by Jay-Z and music arranger, Elliot Wheeler. The songs I quite enjoyed are Lana Del Ray’sYoung and Beautiful”, “Love is Blindness” performed by Jack White and “Back to Black” by Beyoncé and André 3000. I’d also like to mention the excellent job done by the film’s marketing and public relations team; they haven’t left a stone unturned to make it the most talked about and buzziest film this summer.

Unlike the great American novel, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby may not be the great American film but it certainly is an entertaining one with its heart in place. Do watch it if you don’t mind playing along with the director’s over-the-top style and indulgences. 

The Great Gatsby’s famous first edition cover, illustrated by Francis Cugat;
Pic source: Wikipedia

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Life of Pi

In Lee we trust…

Pic source: Wikipedia

When I first started reading Yann Martel’s Booker prize winning novel, Life of Pi, I left it after a few chapters. It was slow and the author spent a lot of time describing the young protagonist’s religious and spiritual discoveries. I re-visited the book after a few years and it was different this time. I was patient initially but then the book started working its magic… Pi’s unbelievable journey became most believable and I connected emotionally with the 13-year old boy and his sole companion on a life-boat, a royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

The book was called un-filmable not only because of the technical challenges but because the way the story plays out; there are large portions where nothing significant happens and how do you keep expressing what a boy is feeling. However, master filmmaker, Ang Lee brought it alive on the big screen and in a way one couldn’t imagine. Life of Pi is not only visually stunning but is a deeply moving film that despite all the technical wizardry is far from the usual holiday blockbusters.

For those not aware of the story, Life of Pi is about a 13-year old Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel aka Pi, from Pondicherry (now Puducherry) who is born a Hindu but is also Muslim and Christian. He believes in God and sees a kind soul in everyone… even wild animals. He loses his family in a ship-wreck and finds himself in a lifeboat with some cargo from his father’s zoo – a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a tiger. The rest of the story is about his amazing journey, survival and faith in God.

David Magee has successfully adapted the novel into a balanced screenplay that does not let the first part of the book slow down the film but still lets us relate to Pi’s belief system. Lee keeps things simple without over-doing the emotions. He does however uses special effects and 3D to create a magical setting that invites you to get lost in the middle of the ocean like Pi. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is stunning – from the opening sequence in the zoo to the calmness of the ocean, this is the best looking film since Martin Scorsese’s Hugo last year. Michael Danna’s background score is beautiful and reminds you a bit about his earlier Indian outings like Monsoon Wedding and Water. Among the actors, Suraj Sharma as Pi has done a fine job for a debutant and shows great promise as an actor. Tabu as Pi’s mother is as graceful as ever but I wish she had a few more scenes. Like her, other actors including Gérard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Irrfan Khan have small roles but all just right. The real star of the film however is Richard Parker, the computer generated tiger. He is so real, so majestic and so beautiful; like Pi, you develop a bond with him and feel disappointed with his indifference.

Life of Pi is not a crowd pleaser but is a cinema lover’s delight, just like Hugo. Some people are not happy with the film’s end but I wonder what else Ang Lee could have done? Those who have read the book may find the end more agreeable than those who haven’t in my opinion. There is a question at the end of the film… ask yourself that, see what answer you get and you’ll know if the film worked for you or not.

 

The Amazing Spiderman

New Spidey works…

Pic source: Wikipedia

The masked vigilante is back… with similar story elements and emotions that we have seen earlier. However, director Marc Webb’s reboot of the successful Spiderman franchise does not fail to impress. Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, The Amazing Spiderman re-tells the story of a teenager becoming a superhero in an engaging manner. Apart from the director, credit goes to the film’s lead actor, Andrew Garfield for making us forget the old Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and becoming a good Spidey. Garfield is extremely good with emotions (as we have seen in his earlier film, Never Let Me Go) and he makes it is easier for the audience to empathise with Peter Parker. Whether it is the nervousness in front of the girl he likes or the frustration related to his long-lost parents or the guilt related to a dear one’s death; the actor makes it all convincing. Looking at his earlier work, I was not sure if he’d be good with action but he does well; and the dash of humour is refreshing as he teases and plays with his enemies.

Along with the same basic story about Peter Parker’s journey from a reclusive student to a responsible hero; The Amazing Spiderman gets its villain also in the same fashion as earlier films. A science experiment to help humanity goes wrong and we get a new villain called The Lizard, played by Rhys Ifans. The Lizard does what the usual villains in Spidey films do but he is not that menacing as the Green Goblin was in the old Spiderman. The action sequences are also less in the film and you are left asking for more. Some of the sequences are very well shot and you are given Spidey’s perspective as he jumps from heights. While the film is shot in 3D, it doesn’t add to the film, apart from the scenes where depth is required, which are good.

Another big change in the film is Peter Parker’s love interest; instead of Mary Jane, we get to meet Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. Like Garfied, Stone also does full justice to her role and makes you forget Kirsten Dunst who played Mary Jane in earlier films. Gwen is intelligent, strong headed and fearless; casting Stone was perhaps the best decision for the makers.

Indian actor, Irrfan Khan’s much talked about role in the film as Dr. Ratha is nothing more than a cameo. While Dr. Ratha’s character is important to the story, there is surprisingly less attention paid to him. One does not know what happens to him after a point in the film but I don’t think anyone cares except for the Indian audience.

Overall, The Amazing Spiderman is an enjoyable film but is surely not the best superhero film we have seen this summer. Definitely watch it for a good time at the movies, but do not expect a lot; I guess that is left to the sequel. In true Marvel style, a teaser to the next film is left in the middle of the end-credits; so do not leave the theatre immediately after the film ends.

Viewing recommendations:

Spidey fans in the UK can enjoy the film at Odeon which has more IMAX screens in the country than any other cinema chain. For more information on ticket and viewing options check the The Amazing Spiderman 3D at Odeon web page. In India, choose a good theatre for 3D; PVR in my experience is better and have got lighter 3D glasses and if you have an IMAX screen in your city, go for it.

Brave

Not the best from Pixar

Pic source: Wikipedia

Brave is the first fairy tale style film from Pixar and the first film from the animation studio to have a female lead character. The film’s trailers looked great and I was curious about the adventures of the red-haired Scottish princess. However, I left the theatre disappointed. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, Brave is the weakest Pixar film I have seen (seen all except Cars & Cars 2); the animation is nice and there are great visuals, but the real problem with Brave is its weak script (screenplay: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi). The story is new but does not seem fresh; it is predictable and does not pack a punch.

Set in a Scottish kingdom, Brave tells the story of Princess Merida (voice: Kelly Macdonald) who wants to be the mistress of her own fate. The headstrong princess is an accomplished archer and is a daddy’s girl (Billy Connolly as King Fergus); her mother, Queen Elinor’s (Emma Thompson) attempts to teach her the ways of the royalty amuse as well as irritate her. The mother-daughter relationship and Merida’s acts of defiance are the best part of the film; one can relate to her as she struggles to be understood by her parents. Merida is likeable but somehow there is not enough done to make the audience connect with her emotionally. The resolution to the big problem she faces seems rather simple and yes, there is the usual ‘moral of the story’ that makes the film a bit preachy in parts.

Coming to the animation, one cannot really question Pixar in this department. There are beautiful forest sequences and the aerial views are breathtaking; water is shown beautifully and appears real. However, the use of 3D does not add to the film’s rich visuals, the way it was done in Dreamworks’ Scottish inspired outing, How to Train Your Dragon. I wish Merida had more spunk like Princess Fiona (Shrek); there were more surprises in the story with a better climax; and more pop culture references (like Madagascar 3) to keep the adults engaged.

It is summer time and Brave is a good option for kids but unlike other Pixar gems, this one does not really shine for adults.

Madagascar 3 Europe’s Most Wanted

This one’s not to be missed…

Pic source: Wikipedia

Our favourite animals are back and as the film’s title, ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ suggests they are shaking up things in Europe this time. For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows the adventures of four zoo animals from New York who accidentally get shipped to Madagascar in the first film; crash land in Africa while trying to get back to NYC in the second one and make an impressive journey through Europe in the latest film.

Madagascar 3 starts in Africa where Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) once again decide to get back home – the Central Park Zoo. They go to Monte Carlo to join the Penguins who can fly them in their specially assembled aircraft (if you’re not following what the Penguins are doing in Monte Carlo and where did the aircraft come from, do watch the earlier films). All doesn’t go as planned and the large group of animals is chased by a maniacal animal control officer, Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). Their plane crashes again and they take shelter in a train carrying circus animals. Here we are introduced to Stefano the sea-lion (Martin Short), Gia the jaguar (Jessica Chastain) and Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston), amongst others. The film has a lot of excitement and moves at a fast pace (editing: Nick Fletcher); there are thrilling chase sequences and a lot of other action, with Europe’s iconic landmarks in the background. While the love angle between Melman and Gloria moves forward, the real mush comes from the love at first sight story between King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Sonya the bear (Frank Welker). Their romance is one of the highlights in the film, which also has an elaborate circus sequence inspired by Cirque du Soleil.

Apart from the fantastic animation (Dreamworks) and great use of 3D, Madagascar 3 has some great writing (Eric Darnell & Noah Baumbach). There are the usual character driven lines that make you laugh, especially Marty, King Julien and the Penguins; but the real winning moments are subtle and at times not so subtle references to the European culture. For example, we are informed about the French working culture that requires work for only two weeks a year! Then there is Frances McDormand’s rendition of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ (No, I have no regrets) that has special significance for the French – it was sung by Édith Piaf in 1960 as a dedication to the French Foreign Legion (seems master composer Hans Zimmer loves the song; he included it in the Inception soundtrack too). I was also surprised with a smart reference to the Rita Hayworth poster from Shawshank Redemption. So many interesting tidbits make the film more engaging and enjoyable for the adults while the children enjoy the animated action.

Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon, Madagascar 3 is a must watch film this summer in 3D.

I am also looking forward to Ice Age: Continental Drift in 3D that releases on July 13. Folks in the UK can enjoy the film at Odeon which has more IMAX screens in the country than any other cinema chain. You can find more information on ticket and viewing options on Ice Age Continental Drift 3D at Odeon web page. In India, Mumbaikars can enjoy it at IMAX Big Cinema in Wadala and in Delhi I am going to try PVR Director’s Cut soon.

Hugo

Movies, Magic & Dreams

Hugo; Source: Wikipedia

Movies – it’s like seeing your dreams in middle of the day. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a love letter from the master filmmaker to cinema. The film reminded me of why I love the movies so much and even after the end credits rolled, the magic stayed with me. A few weeks ago, Jahan Bakshi wrote a beautiful post on ‘The Joy of Crying at the Movies’ and I could not agree more… this weekend when I watched Hugo, after almost giving up on the chance of it releasing in India, I re-discovered the joy of getting lost in someone else’s dream, someone else’s vision. That is what cinema is – magic!

Hugo is based on a historical fiction book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by American author, Brian Selznick (adapted for screen by John Logan). It follows the adventures of a young orphan boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives between the walls of a railway station in Paris. Hugo likes to fix things and maintains the clocks in the station, something his alcoholic uncle is supposed to do. His purpose is to fix an automaton, a robot like mechanical man that can write, in the hope of finding a message from his father (Jude Law), a master clockmaker who died in a museum fire. He is joined in this adventure by a young girl, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is the goddaughter of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a toy shop owner at the station. While trying to retrieve a message from his father, Hugo finds another purpose – to fix a man who has lost his raison d’être in life. There are many other fascinating characters in Hugo’s world, including the station inspector, Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen); the florist, Lisette (Emily Mortimer); the café owner, Madame Emile (Frances de la Tour); the bookshop owner, Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee); newsstand owner, Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths); Papa Georges’ wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory); film historian and author, René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Macmillan, the station inspector’s Doberman (Blackie).

Hugo is technically perfect and has the best 3D I have ever seen. Unlike other films where 3D is a gimmick to raise ticket prices, the technology is used well to aid the narrative in this film. Martin Scorsese takes you inside Hugo’s world and you can’t help but admire each frame. From the depths of the clock tower to the intricate clockwork of the automaton, to the soot from a burnt notebook, everything looks and feels spectacular in 3D. Cinematography by Robert Richardson is simply magical and takes you to the Paris of 1930s with music by Howard Shore and art direction by a team of master craftsmen.

Grand in scale and imagination, Hugo is a very personal film that showcases the passion of a filmmaker as well as the characters in his film. The film moves slowly and lets you soak into the ambience created. Despite its leisurely pace, I can assure you that you wouldn’t want the film to end and would catch yourself admiring the work on-screen with a smile plastered on your face.

Watch Hugo in 3D on the big screen, the way it is intended to be seen and you’ll experience the real magic of cinema.

Hats off Monsieur Scorsese!

Avatar

 

James Cameron does it again, but…

Pic: 20th Century Fox

James Cameron’sAvatar’ was probably the most awaited film of 2009 with all those special effects to bring alive the master director’s vision. A lot has been said about the 300-500 million dollars spent, the new language developed and the special stereoscopic cameras used to film it. The same hype probably works against the film and you feel a little disappointed while the end-credits roll. I am not saying that it is a bad film; Avatar is a good film and is a visual treat; it’s just that the expectations were beyond imagination.

Avatar is a simple film, mounted on a huge canvas to tell the age old story of good versus bad. While the theme is old, it is very relevant to us today as we face the global warming crisis that threatens our very existence. The film is set sometime in the future when there is nothing green left on our ‘dying’ planet. However, the human greed has extended to a moon called Pandora, 4.3 light years from Earth. The aliens (humans in this case) are after a precious mineral called Unobtainium and want the indigenous population of blue coloured species called Na’vi to co-operate, by hook or by crook (read forcibly). The story is about the clash between the Na’vis who worship nature and the aliens who after destroying their own planet, are after theirs.

Cameron successfully manages to create a bond between his audience and the Na’vis who are referred to as the ‘hostiles’ or ‘blue monkeys’ by the invading aliens. He encourages you to look and feel, the life at Pandora through the eyes of the Na’vis and you take in the awesome flora and fauna that seem to be inspired by the legendary Garden of Eden. This is where the director wins; all the technology and the imagination create a new world and experience to remember.

The film essentially belongs to the technicians and the director; kudos to the actors who deliver extremely believable performances. What does not work well in Avatar’s favour is the predictability of the story and its length (162 minutes). Also, the special effects may seem quite regular if seen in 2D (a plus on Jurassic Park maybe) and there are not enough 3D cinemas around the world. I am not too sure if people will go back to the theatre again and again like they did for James Cameron’s last outing, Titanic. Avatar is no Titanic, and may not achieve that success but it is a film that deserves to be watched.

Go watch it, but only in 3D.

My Rating: * * * * Four stars on five (Three for the film and one extra for the special effects)

Shrey Khetarpal