by Steve Habrat
It has been nearly five long years since we heard from the flamboyant Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man behind such eye-popping spectacles like the contemporary kids-with-guns retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romero + Juliet, the gonzo jukebox musical Moulin Rogue!, and the historical romance Australia. Well, folks, Mr. Luhrmann has returned to a theater near you in grand fashion with the 3D epic The Great Gatsby, a heavily anticipated big budget sugar rush that is based on the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hype around The Great Gatsby has been building since last fall, when the shimmering and sparkling trailers crashed into theaters and promised a Christmas release for the Leonardo DiCaprio period piece. At the last second, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Christmas release date and pushed the film back to summer 2013 and honestly, the summer movie season is a much better fit for this slick and hip adaptation. With absolutely nothing held back, Luhrmann gives The Great Gatsby a hip-hop makeover, showers it in confetti, fires off a seemingly never-ending amount of fireworks behind it, hands it a Four Loko, and then tosses it to an audience of teenagers raised on MTV, Jay-Z, and smartphones. The result is a gyrating eye-candy romance that will absolutely appall your English teacher and have your girlfriend swooning. It is style over substance every single step of the way, allowing it to feel right at home in a sea of fizzy summer blockbusters.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of Yale graduate Nick Carraway (played by Toby Maguire), an aspiring stockbroker and writer who rents a home in West Egg, Long Island, during the summer of 1922. After settling in to his new home, Nick reconnects with his wealthy and beautiful cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan) and her cigar-chomping husband Tom (played by Joel Edgerton), who attended Yale with Nick. Daisy and Tom quickly begin trying to set Nick up with vampy party-girl golfer Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who seems to only show minor interest in Nick. Life seems to be going great for the young and naïve Nick, but he finds himself strangely drawn to his wealthy next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an enigmatic recluse who throws massive parties for the New York City elite yet remains unseen by his drunken guests. One day, Nick receives a personal invitation to one of Gatsby’s wild blowouts, something that is highly unusual for Mr. Gatsby. While wandering through the party, Nick comes face to face with Gatsby and the two form a fast friendship. As the two men bond, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy, who he met five years earlier and shared a brief but intense romance. Nick agrees to aid Gatsby in reconnecting with Daisy but in the process, he begins to uncover all the mystery that surrounds Jay Gatsby.
For the first hour of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann brings new meaning to the phrase “go big or go home.” He zooms between the East and West Egg like a ten-year-old boy who had way too many Snickers candy bars and Pepsi. When he gets bored doing this, he sends his camera flying into a rapidly growing New York City, dancing from skyscraper to skyscraper while Maguire looks up, down, and all around in astonishment. Then there are the party scenes, which are sure to get your heads bobbing and feet tapping. A non-stop stream of confetti is spit out at the audience while hundreds of extras shimmy, shake, and stumble to blaring hip-hop provided by Jay-Z and Kanye West. It is all shown to you in glorious 3D, which will have you fighting the urge to leap from your seat and join the fun. Somewhere in between the spraying champagne and fireworks, there are a few attempts to develop these characters that we are supposed to be invested in, but Luhrmann seems way too wrapped up in throwing the party of the year to pay much attention to them. When it finally winds down, he decides to get serious in extended montages of Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy loosing themselves in an endless summer of high price indulgence. It’s visually intoxicating and it certainly looks romantic, but it is also incredibly exhausting.
While the visuals will have you drooling, don’t forget to stop and admire the fine performances from the powerhouse cast. The style threatens to overshadow each and every one of them but they certainly hold their own when facing a mountain of CGI. DiCaprio owns the picture the second he emerges from the glittery shadows and early on, he hams it up in skinny pink suits that looks like they were provided by Gucci. His Gatsby is almost a caricature of the 1920s gentleman; grinning while referring to nearly every single person he meets as “old sport.” You could make a drinking game out of how many times he says “old sport,” although I doubt many people would be still standing by the end. As far as his burning passion is concerned, there certainly is fire in those eyes for Daisy. He attempts to impress her by dazzling her with wealth and promises of doing everything in the world together. When he needs to be tragic, he can certainly switch it on, especially in the last act of the movie. You never doubt that DiCaprio is thrilled to be reunited with his Romero + Juliet director and it is clear he is putting in 110%. A job well done, Mr. DiCaprio!
Then there is Mr. Maguire, who narrates through a raspy and fatigued tone that sounds like he was up all night chugging a bottle of whiskey with Gatsby (Someone grab him an Advil!). He is good with the role he is given but he never holds our attention like DiCaprio does. He simply sits on the sidelines, making observations about all the wild party animals around him. Mulligan is a breathy sunbeam as Daisy, who is caught between two warring millionaires pulling her in two separate directions. Mulligan is naturally talented, but her character never receives the development that it truly deserves which is an absolute waste. Edgerton gives DiCaprio a run for his money as the scowling Tom, who is constantly chomping down on a fat stogie and chasing every pretty girl he lays eyes on. He shares a war of words and wealth with DiCaprio in one of the film’s most intense sequences. Debicki is slinky and sexy as the gossiping golfer Jordan, who loves a big party because they are more intimate than a smaller gathering. Also keep an eye out for small but sharp appearances from Jason Clarke as gas station attendant George Wilson, who becomes a ball of fury in the last act of the film, and Ilsa Fisher as his unfaith sexpot wife, Myrtle, who jets off with Tom to seedy hotel rooms in New York City.
The real problem with Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is that it is all about panache. There is obsessive detail in the sets, the CGI is mindblowing, and the musical playlist will have audience members rushing home to purchase the soundtrack off iTunes, but this compromises substance. Sure, the idea of love lost and love found again is enticing but it just becomes a whiskey-fueled game of tug of war that conveniently ends with tragedy. To make it worse, it feels tacked on with a heavy sigh from the filmmakers, who clearly would rather be hanging out with scantily clad flappers lip-synching to Beyoncé. But, what else would you expect from someone like Luhrmann? Overall, it may be the nightmare of English teachers everywhere and it definitely rings hollow, but The Great Gatsby is a giddy parade of excess led by a cast and crew clearly having the time of their lives, all while Warner Bros. flits the bill. You’ll certainly get your money’s worth of visuals, but you won’t be moved in the slightest.
Django Unchained (2012)
After what felt like an eternity (just slightly under four months, actually), Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD. If you didn’t see my Top 10 Films of 2012 list, then you didn’t know that this ultra-violent and ultra-entertaining spaghetti western was my pick for the best film of last year. Funny, action packed, stunningly well-written, and unflinching, Django Unchained also features some of the best performances from last year (wait until you see Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio). The Blu-ray isn’t particularly bursting with features, however, there is a documentary called Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained, a look at the costume designs from Sharen Davis, and a feature called Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained. If you’re a fan of cinema or a Tarantino nut, you might want to high tail it over to Best Buy to pick up their special edition that comes in some nifty packaging that will look mighty cool next to your Tarantino XX collection. So, if you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Django Unchained, click here, and if you’re curious why I picked it as the best film of 2012, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.