Film Review: The Great Gatsby (old sport)

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 29th May 2013.

I must profess to not having read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby recently, but I’m pretty sure that I have just seen the pop up book. Just like Leonardo DiCaprio’s mysterious Jay Gatsby knows how to throw a wild party, Baz Luhrmann certainly knows how to film one. Within minutes of the opening credits, we’re back to the hyper reality already established in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge:  beautiful people, rapid edits, loud out-of-era music, rapid edits, champagne and partygoers jumping into swimming pools. Did I mention the rapid edits? Granted, they aren’t as headache inducing as in Moulin Rouge but there were moments where all I wanted was to take in this visual feast. Luhrmann clearly has an eye for beauty and detail, so why does he insist on ensuring that the lens doesn’t stay on anything long enough to enjoy it?

Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway arrives in New York City following his service in World War I and rents a house in West Egg, Long Island, right next to the Gatsby Mansion. Gatsby? Who Gatsby? What Gatsby? Throughout the first third of the film, DiCaprio’s enigmatic millionaire is consistently referred to as a mystery man. Although the host of elaborate parties, no-one knows what Gatsby looks like. Once Nick is invited to a party and becomes Gatsby’s “old sport”, this subplot is thrown out with several visual references to framed pictures of the “great” one adorning his mansion walls. The climax of the film also relies on a positive identification that shouldn’t have been possible.

Gatsby had a relationship with Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) before he was sent to war. Unfortunately Daisy is now unhappily married to the womanising Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). To win back his old flame, Gatsby has purchased the mansion across the bay from the Buchanan’s residence in East Egg, as you do. Luhrmann gleefully utilises CGI sweeping shots over the water to remind us of the futility of their love. Either that, or Baz wants to subtly hammer home the fact that The Great Gatsby is shot in 3D. To reunite with his former love, Gatsby throws lavish parties in the hope that she will somehow attend. He also uses Carroway’s familial connections to arrange a reunion. I’m not entirely sure how Gatsby knew that Nick was related to Daisy, but who cares, THE GREAT GATSBY IS SHOT IN 3D.

All of the lead performances are solid. DiCaprio has the charisma to overcome a script that has him say “old sport” too many times. Maguire is appealing despite a weak bookend subplot which undermines his character and does nothing to drive the plot forwards. Mulligan is radiant as Daisy, and Edgerton is appropriately nasty as the moustache twirling villain. Poor Isla Fisher and the talented Jason Clarke are sidelined in small supporting roles. Keep an eye out also for some of our most highly regarded actors in thankless tiny character parts. You can play the “Where’s Wally? The Great Gatsby edition” by looking out for Vince Colosimo, Steve Bisley, Max Cullen and Jack Thompson.

The Great Gatsby is a case of style over substance. Luhrmann’s Gatsby hyper world is certainly an exciting place to visit but he has failed to capture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic on film. Instead he’s created the theme park ride of the book.

Published in: on May 28, 2013 at 19:28  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Sunday 17th March 2013.

What happens when you take a well known filmmaker with a distinct visual style and a back catalogue of cult and popular hits, and run them through the Disney corporate movie machine? There are two answers to this question: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and now Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.

Burton’s 2010 blockbuster was a bland CGI heavy 3D mess that dispensed with character in favour of spectacle. Unfortunately, Oz suffers the same fate. Responsible for three of my favourite films of all time, the Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi’s trademark fast paced style and wry humour is crushed by the Disney steamroller leaving behind a pretty screensaver and little else.

With the rights to The Wizard of Oz, including all of the elements introduced in the 1939 MGM film which did not originate in L. Frank Baum’s book, held by Warner Bros., art director Robert Stromberg was forced to redesign the Land of Oz for this unofficial prequel. Thus, there are no ruby slippers, the yellow brick road in Munchkinland has a different swirl and even the Wicked Witch’s green skin tone is slightly (but legally) different.

These limitations, coupled with a reliance on CGI, results in landscapes which appear to have been lifted straight from last year’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, another ho-hum green screen adventure.

As the titular Oz, James Franco is out of his depth. Smiling is not the same as emoting and I wonder what the earlier casting choices of Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jnr. would have brought to the film. Oz is a complex character who treats people badly at the beginning of the film, but then begins to see the value of friendship and love. Unfortunately, all of this character development is undermined by the audience’s knowledge that he will bugger off in the balloon at the first opportunity in the next film.

Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are serviceable as witchy sisters Evanora and Theodora. Michelle Williams fares better as Glinda, a role that requires her to do little else but look pretty and speak in a breathy style. Zach Braff appears in the beginning as Oz’s offsider Frank and then voices the CGI monkey bellhop Finley. A little Zach Braff goes a long way so don’t be surprised if you feel like reaching out and trying to strangle the 3D monkey by the end of the film.

The theme of duality which worked well in the MGM original makes little to no sense in this prequel. Beginning in black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi’s film then transitions to colour, 2:35:1 widescreen and stereo sound upon arrival in Oz. Several actors make cameos in the black and white segment, and then reappear as different characters in Oz. There seems to be no explanation for this. No-one is clicking their heels and going back to Kansas at the end of the film.

Remarkably, Raimi cannibalises from his own work, with a graveyard sequence and mechanical line of soldiers distracting the enemy ripped directly from Army of Darkness.

In 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, Raimi showed he was capable of finding his mojo again after a creative disappointment with Spider-Man 3. Let’s just hope he does something truly great and powerful after the disappointment that is Oz the Great and Powerful.