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The Great Gatsby

Like all movies, there are a number of ways to analyze, interpret and criticize director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on the 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby.” More than any other movie in recent memory, it makes a number of unusual decisions with its soundtrack and visual style that seemingly contradict with its time and place. If my screening is any indication, it will be common for the viewing audience to start giggling when a Jay-Z track pops up, given that the film is set in the 1920s, far before his style of music ever emerged onto the public scene. Some will find this decision clumsy and distracting in an otherwise straight forward drama, but others will find the soundtrack appropriate in a movie about the dichotomy between surface-deep lavish lifestyles and the true quest for happiness. I’m in the former category, unfortunately. This baffling decision, along with a number of others, takes a movie that is generally well made and interesting and turns it into something that comes off more like a self-parody.

The movie begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) discussing the experiences he had with his millionaire neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious man living in New York that has rarely been seen, to the point where some claim him to not even exist. Nick quickly finds out he does, however, when one of his famous parties is thrown and he introduces himself. They quickly become friends and though Nick questions the stories that Mr. Gatsby tells him, he finds something oddly appealing about him. He soon realizes that Gatsby knew his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), from many years ago and had fallen in love with her. Although she’s now married to another wealthy man named Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick agrees to set them up. Things aren’t as they seem with Mr. Gatsby, however, and it’s all about to surface.

One thing you can say about director Baz Luhrmann is that he knows what he wants. With each movie he directs, he has a clear vision of how it should be and sets out to make it, with mixed results. In “The Great Gatsby,” he attempts to do what he did with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and modernize it for a new audience. Yet those attempts to make something old new again come with their drawbacks, not the least of which is the setting of the source material. As mentioned before, “The Great Gatsby” relies heavily on modern day music, including Jay-Z, Beyonce, Andre 3000, Fergie and more. Although one’s affinity for this conflict between modern music and classic time period boils down to little more than personal preference and is not necessarily a bad idea given the tone the film is trying to convey, it’s in its usage that the film becomes seriously wounded.

Much of the early footage in “The Great Gatsby” takes place at one of Mr. Gatsby’s extravagant parties, where nearly everyone from all walks of life drop by to have a good time and, expectedly, this is where the soundtrack is most prominent. However, using it like this—as the source music for the party itself—makes the music diegetic, meaning it exists within the world of the film and not as an outside source most scores and soundtracks exist as. One can’t help but wonder how this could possibly happen in a movie with its time period planted firmly in the past. When you begin catching extras or minor characters in the background singing the words, it really becomes tough to swallow.

This isn’t an isolated example, however. This problem of conflicting styles and settings is indicative of the entire film. The bright, exaggerated colors and excessive use of obviously superficial CGI backgrounds sometimes make this thing feel more like an adaptation of a graphic novel than a classic novel. The vertigo shots, slow motion and onscreen text similarly add flair to a story that doesn’t particularly need it. Frankly, the story is interesting enough without these supposed upgrades. Mr. Gatsby, as portrayed by DiCaprio in yet another knockout performance, is a wonderful character, one with a rich past and a terrific personality, yet he has skeletons in his closet. He has secrets that nobody else knows about. If you aren’t familiar with the source material, you may even question whether this man is good or bad due to a terrific balancing act and great display of skilled storytelling. Likewise, its themes, regardless of how closely one might argue it does or does not stick to the novel, are interesting, showing the power to love as a man’s greatest strength and, depending on how one approaches it, his greatest weakness.

This is a good story with good ideas and great performances that is told well. Furthermore, the tone and style of the film do indeed form a cohesive whole, but it left me cold. Its style, despite its cohesion, is misplaced. Sitting through “The Great Gatsby” is a frustrating endeavor because one can’t help but recognize that the final product almost certainly matches the director’s intentions, yet one must remember that the director’s intentions aren’t always of sound reasoning. This is a film that is surely going to be divisive due to this, but given its title, I personally expected something a little better.

The Great Gatsby receives 2/5


Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, regardless of its quality, was going to be greeted with multiple awards nominations. It had a great cast headlined by the underappreciated Jessica Chastain, a director perhaps most famous for her Oscar win for 2008’s The Hurt Locker and it’s about a recent true story, a pivotal moment in our nation’s history when we took out the man who harmed us on 9/11, Osama Bin Laden. Awards voters and movie critics eat things like that up, but like many of this year’s movies, Zero Dark Thirty fails to resonate. It’s too long to thrill, too dry to grab attention and it’s practically emotionless, aside from one final scene that doesn’t fit in with what is essentially a clinical procedural of the events that led to Bin Laden’s death. From the first torture scene where a tiny bit of information is gathered to the final confrontation, Zero Dark Thirty is strict in its structure. The events as played out in the film are still fascinating as we watch that tiny bit of information snowball into something bigger and bigger, but it doesn’t hit any profound sentiment like The Hurt Locker did, or even take sides on the bigger issues as a whole. It simply moves along, showing you how the events (likely) played out and then it ends and you’re no better or worse for it.

Still, as far as emotionally empty and narratively bland procedurals go, Zero Dark Thirty is as good as they come and, in a way, the fact that it doesn’t take sides on key issues like torture works to its advantage. Although I’ve heard arguments from both sides, some even going so far as to say the film actually promotes torture (a somewhat reasonable conclusion to make given that the excessive and humiliating torture that poor man receives at the beginning of the movie eventually leads to a successful mission of killing Bin Laden), it’s fairly neutral. For example, it doesn’t treat torture as something evil or good, but rather simply as something that was used by our government to extract information. It shows it because it happened, not because it’s trying to make a statement on it.

But then again, that’s why Zero Dark Thirty comes off so much like a procedural. It rarely, if ever, has anything to say regarding, well, anything. It doesn’t touch on the fear that gripped our nation after the attacks. It ignores the high running emotions that led us to war in the first place. It doesn’t talk about the effects this dangerous search had on those running it. Although I’m sure the plans were carried out with a high degree of professionalism in the real world, emotional ambiguity doesn’t make for a very good movie. The Hurt Locker, for instance, was about the effects of war on the soldiers who fight it. It was about their trauma, their fear and even their familiarity with it, to the point where some felt more comfortable with a gun overseas than in a time of peace on their homeland. Zero Dark Thirty has none of that.

If it’s about anything, it’s about obsession, the need to right the wrong. Chastain, playing Maya, the woman in relentless pursuit of the man who spilled innocent American blood, is fantastic in the role and manages to pull off some tense dialogue driven scenes that ramp up her character’s emotions, even if ours remain distant. Where Zero Dark Thirty works, though, despite Chastain’s excellent performance, isn’t in the character arcs, but rather in the narrative trajectory that begins with that aforementioned interrogation of a low level Al Qaeda subordinate and ends with a spellbinding interpretation of the Navy SEALs operation that took Bin Laden out.

Regardless of its procedural approach, it works because it’s not exploitative. It doesn’t show behind-the-scenes “what ifs” of what Bin Laden may have been doing. Similarly, not once does the film feel like a piece of propaganda the way this year’s Act of Valor did. It’s not trying to get anyone to join the armed forces or even make you feel a certain way. It’s simply showing you something that happened and you take it as it is. The strength of such conviction is evident, but then again, so is the weakness. For a movie that dramatizes the death of an undeniably evil man who killed innocent people, leading to one of the very few times everybody in America stood together as one, there needed to be more of an audience connection. The emotion, both onscreen and within ourselves, should have resonated, but instead you leave the movie with an empty feeling, knowing full well the movie you saw was good, but wanting something more. Zero Dark Thirty is bound to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and though I will certainly defend it as a good movie, I’ll argue against that inevitable decision.

Zero Dark Thirty receives 3.5/5


The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The titular character in Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a wondrous kid, the type any parent would be happy and proud to have. He’s generous, kind, funny and lovable and he always sees the positive in things. Early in the movie, when he fails miserably at soccer, his coach asks him why he’s smiling, to which he glowingly replies, “I can only get better.” He’s an ideal kid for any parent and it’s impossible not to love him. If only the same could be said for his movie. While certainly not bad, it fails to grab the viewer in a meaningful way. Its wish for tears brings only the occasional goose bump and its humorous moments are only funny in a “how cute” kind of way. It’s enough to get it by, but the film clearly has higher emotional aspirations and it doesn’t ever fully reach them.

The film begins with Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) at an adoption agency. They’re in the process of telling a strange and miraculous story to an adoption agent, but it begins with a sad notion. After trying for years, they were told that they would never have children, a thought that crushed them. One night, they decided to write out on little cards what their ideal child would be like. They hoped for a child with a big heart who was honest, artistic and funny—not burp and fart funny, but actually funny—among other things. They took those wishes, placed them in a box and buried the box in their backyard garden. That night, a storm hit and a child popped into existence with all the characteristics they wrote out on those cards. They didn’t quite know what to do at first, but after he revealed his name was Timothy (CJ Adams), the only boy name they had picked out, they realized something special had happened. They quickly took him in, but strangely, he had leaves poking out of his legs. They didn’t know it at the time, but those leaves had a strong significance and they were eventually going to find it out what that significance was.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a silly premise given a silly execution and a heavy handed ending. It goes nowhere you don’t expect it to and it hits each emotional beat as surely as a jump scene in a horror movie, but its central character’s likability cannot be denied and it elevates its dramatically rote story from tolerable to entertaining, even if only mildly so. Its only surprises come from an uneven tone that sometimes feels more like one of those jumpy horror movies than a family friendly adoption tale. The beginning in particular, if not for the slow, soothing music could easily be mistaken for one. When the storm hits, the camera heads outside where it’s shown that something is pushing its way through the soil. Back inside, the door is open, making enough noise to make Jim check it out. He closes the door and grabs a drink at the fridge before heading back to bed, at which Timothy promptly runs in front of the camera, a shadow in an already darkened interior, the only thing missing being the startling musical cue. Coupled with the fact that the house is isolated from any neighboring town or person, it almost felt like I was watching The Strangers 2 than a Disney movie.

Its creepy factor extends from these horror elements, though, into at least one strangely sensual and increasingly awkward scene where Timothy paints a portrait of Cindy’s boss. Before he begins, he walks up to her and slowly takes her glasses off before letting down her hair with a softness that would have led up to a sex scene in another movie. It’s an uncomfortable moment and it blows my mind that nobody involved in this film’s production spoke up about it.

So I suppose the question is: why am I recommending it? Because the moments mentioned are only brief departures from what is otherwise a feel good charmer. It has some plot turns that don’t work, including the death of Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh), who is shown in one scene prior, which is certainly not enough to make an impact, and it thinks it’s more profound than it really is, but the performances are good and it will make you smile more than it will make you cringe. The world these characters inhabit isn’t perfect, but it’s also not violent and its goodness outshines the rampant negativity we’re used to in our own world. If nothing else, The Odd Life of Timothy Green allows you to live in a happy place for two hours and for that alone, it’s worth seeing.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green receives 3/5


The Thing

The Thing is a franchise that continually defies expectations. The 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, escaped the usual silliness of man-from-space pictures of the time period with strong central characters and a couple of impressive horror set pieces. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on the story, simply titled The Thing, that managed to be one of only a select few remakes in movie history that improved on the original in almost every way. What it may have lacked in characterization, it made up for with unrelenting terror. It was a masterful display of suspense and it still holds up today. Then in 2002, Carpenter’s film got a terrific video game sequel that surprised gamers everywhere by breaking the trend of poor licensed video games. Now in 2011, we get a prequel to Carpenter’s film, also titled The Thing, that any person would rightfully expect to be lousy, but it’s not. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but it works and does so in a different way, separating itself from Carpenter’s version while still retaining its style. This is a franchise that can do no wrong.

The film takes place days before the events of 1982’s The Thing at a nearby Norwegian camp in Antarctica where a team of scientists have just found an alien spacecraft and a specimen frozen in the ice. To help unearth and examine it, they enlist the help of American paleontologist, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who soon realizes that the cells of the creature aren’t dying and are able to fuse themselves with the cells of other living creatures, replicating them perfectly. After it escapes, it’s a game of wits as nobody in the compound can trust anybody else. Any of them could be the thing.

The idea of not knowing who is a person and who is a thing was the driving the force behind Carpenter’s movie and the same is true here, though to a lesser degree. Although technically a prequel, it feels like a remake of the remake, following in its footsteps to a tee, including the lock-up of suspicious characters in a cabin outside and a variation on the blood test scene to check who is a monster and who isn’t, but it’s done well, building a good amount of tension and excellently playing off the fears of paranoia and claustrophobia. These early moments are undoubtedly its high points.

Eventually, however, it succumbs to monster movie madness and becomes nothing more than a gross-out creature feature. It becomes more jumpy and more effects oriented and thus, less effective. The tension is replaced by loud, overblown spectacle and the characters spend less time worrying about who is a thing and more time running from them, but it never gets boring. Because the movie has spent its early moments focusing on the characters, the sense of peril remains. You’ve come to care about them and even though the mystery is gone and the suspense is fading, its outcome remains as emotionally important as ever, despite the fact that, thanks to its prequel status, it had already been decided.

Where The Thing falters the most is in its climactic moments where it gets a bit too Hollywood and shows us too much. To go further would be critically irresponsible, but it ends up raising more questions than it answers, which is baffling given that it won’t ever have the chance to answer them (short of shooting a sequel separate from the Carpenter movie). Still, as far as these things go, this is pretty good. Creature features are generally silly, redundant and ineffective. The Thing proves not all creature features are created equal.

The Thing receives 4/5



In my review for The Fighter, I began with a simple thought: “If you’ve seen one sports story, you’ve seen them all.” At that point, it seemed true. Though still a good movie, The Fighter was nevertheless overrated. It was predictable and formulaic to a fault, despite some solid performances. It was just like every other sports drama I had seen. But now it appears I’ll be eating those words because Warrior stands apart from the crowd. It’s a unique film in an overabundant genre and it gets nearly everything right. It’s so good, I'm a little tempted to go back and bump all my recent scores down a point because nothing so far this year has come close to matching it. It may be getting the same score as Kung Fu Panda 2 and the last Harry Potter, but make no mistake, Warrior is superior in nearly every way.

The film begins with Tommy (Tom Hardy) sitting on the steps of his father, Paddy’s (Nick Nolte), house. They haven’t seen each other in 14 years, but there’s a reason for that. Paddy was a drunk and it tore the family apart. Tommy has never been able to forgive his father for his past mistakes, despite the fact that he has been sober for over two and a half years, but he is seeking his help anyway. He needs a trainer so he can fight in “Sparta,” a mixed martial arts tournament that is handing over five million dollars to its winner. Meanwhile, his brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), with whom he also has bad relations, is having financial problems and cannot pay his mortgage. If he can’t come up with the money soon, the bank is going to take his home. Being a former UFC fighter (and a family man), he can’t let that happen and also enters into the tournament, unaware that he could end up facing Tommy.

Warrior is as gripping a sports drama as any that has come out in recent memory. A big part of that is due to its refusal to follow the typical path sports dramas usually take. Because the two estranged brothers are pitted against each other (a story point that shouldn’t be considered a spoiler given the all too revealing trailers), it gives the film more depth. Their fight is not one of glory or fame and the money is merely a means to an end, to solve whatever problems and battle whatever demons they might be facing. Their fight is one of emotion, an emotion that has been building for many years and for many reasons. This is not a feel good movie where there’s a clear team or person to root for like in Remember the Titans or The Express (or, for that matter, most other similar movies). In Warrior, you are presented with conflicting emotions because both fighters have noble motives, one to protect his family from bankruptcy and the other I’ve deliberately kept mysterious to avoid spoilers. You come to feel for each of them and wish for both to be victorious, but it’s an outcome that is simply impossible.

All of this works because of the actors. Hardy and Edgerton both show the desperation their characters are going through, though one is more an inner turmoil, ashamed of something he has done and wishing to make it right. Their performances bring their characters to life and though they talk a lot about forgiving others, it’s in their mannerisms that you can tell what they really need to do is forgive themselves. The real standout, however, is Nick Nolte in a comeback role for the ages. In recent years, he has done little more than voice work in garbage like Zookeeper and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and it’s nice to actually see him in a role that doesn’t require him to hide behind CGI animals. His character is trying to turn things around and wants nothing more than to reconnect with the sons he regretfully neglected so many years ago and his performance is heartbreaking. While this movie deserves a number of nods come awards season, if Nolte isn’t nominated for an Oscar, it should be considered a crime against cinema.

I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts. To me, it’s nothing more than senseless, barbaric violence. It’s a sport that if done in the street will land you in jail, but surround yourself with a cage and suddenly it becomes acceptable. I simply do not understand the fascination of watching two men beat the living daylights out of each other for sport, but that’s what’s so great about Warrior. It’s not about the sport. It’s about the characters. It’s about the drama. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about family. It’s about everything but mixed martial arts. In this movie, MMA is merely a tool used to create deeper meaning, a metaphor for the struggles the characters are going through. You may hate the sport as much as I do, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this film. It’s not what you expect—it’s not cheesy like The Blind Side or emotionally manipulative like, well, any other sports drama—it’s raw and real. It’s as gripping as movies get.

Warrior receives 5/5