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.
by Steve Habrat
After becoming the first woman ever to receive a Best Director Oscar for the 2009 teeth-rattler The Hurt Locker, the world anxiously awaited to see what director Kathryn Bigelow would produce next. It turned out that the next project she would tackle was Zero Dark Thirty, another War on Terror thriller that follows America’s efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. Sparking controversy over the filmmaker’s access to classified information and its depiction of torture, Zero Dark Thirty could possibly be one of the most important American films of recent memory simply because it supposedly spills the facts that every single American is dying to know. While the debate still rages over whether the film is accurate, I can confirm that Zero Dark Thirty puts the viewer through the ringer, touching upon every single emotion that was collectively felt as a country from September 11th, 2001 through May 2nd, 2011. It begins with horror and confusion, opting to plunge the audience into the darkness of that terrifying day in September while frantic phone calls blare over the speakers and then instantly morphing into rage, then fatigue, then desperation, then hopelessness, and finally surreal relief. Despite how strong the picture is, Bigelow doesn’t drill into white-knuckle intensity as frequently as she did in 2009, leaving The Hurt Locker the true victor of the two films.
Zero Dark Thirty picks up in 2003 and introduces us to Maya (Played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who is sent to work hand-in-hand with fellow officer Dan (Played by Jason Clarke) in Pakistan. Together, Maya and Dan torture and interrogate terrorist financer Ammar (Played by Reda Kateb) about the Saudi Group and the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After a series of brutal interrogations, Maya and Dan finally trick Ammar into revealing more information about al-Qaeda and the name of bin Laden’s most trusted carrier: Abu Ahmed. With this new information and a blessing from station chief Joseph Bradley (Played by Kyle Chandler), Maya and Dan begin trying to locate Abu Ahmed but conflicting stories and information from other prisoners continuously prevent them from finding him. As the years pass and multiple dead ends are hit, the CIA’s determination to end the War on Terror begins to fade but Maya remains dedicated to smoking out Abu Ahmed and tracking down bin Laden any way she can.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline information overload. It is certainly hypnotic in its intimate moments of plan and debate and pinning in its suspense but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal always seem to find a way to remain politically neutral. They acknowledge the shift in approaches between George Bush and Barack Obama but they always leave you, the viewer, to form your own opinions on their approaches to this complex war. The film presents a horrifically brutal interrogation that will have your stomach tied in knots only to immediately cut to a bloody al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which leaves multiple Americans dead. It is this staggering balance that will have the blood boiling and stirring up some lengthy conversations long after Bigelow closes the curtains on this manhunt, which to me is the mark of a really great motion picture. You can’t help but ask yourself or those you see the movie with, was torturing these men really the right answer? Was water boarding really necessary? Did humiliating them really get us any farther? Does torture really make us any better than the ones we are fighting? Bigelow leaves it up to you decide and she knows that these questions get under our skin.
The one who watches over this moral firestorm is Chastain’s Maya, a quiet yet self-assured CIA officer who will stop at nothing to take down the ultimate target. She is the iron lady standing tall next to a 100% guarantee that bin Laden is hiding in this mysterious compound in a room full of men who cower behind a soft 60%. She is simply magnetic the way sticks to her guns, chasing down every lead, and terrifying as she sharpens her torture skills, coldly detached when she warns one prisoner, “if you lie to me, I will hurt you.” Is she Oscar worthy? You bet she is. While Zero Dark Thirty verges on a one-woman show, the guys hold up okay too. Chastain finds a groove with Clarke, her disheveled partner who takes cigarette and ice cream cone breaks from the business-as-usual torture/interrogation. The casual manner that he approaches these situations does send a chill down your spine. He is constantly trying to escape Chastain’s engulfing shadow but he proves he can be one tough cookie when he needs to be. Chandler continues to prove he is the dark horse with a testy performance as Joseph Bradley, the station chief who dares cross Chastain’s ball of fury. I still cannot believe that he has not fully broken out yet but hopefully Zero Dark Thirty will help him become a household name. James Gandolfini drops by to play CIA director Leon Panetta, who is consistently impressed by the firecracker that is Maya. Chris Pratt (Parks & Recreation) and Joel Edgerton are also on board as Navy Seal Justin and Red Squadron Team Leader Patrick. Both are given minor roles but Pratt brings the funnies and Edgerton brings the macho toughness you expect.
So you’re probably wondering, how exactly does Bigelow handle the climatic raid on that compound? She handles it like a pro, filming in gritty night vision as the SEALs move stealthily from one floor of the compound to the next. Even though we know how this is all going to turn out, Bigelow still keeps you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath in spots, especially when the SEALs begin to draw the attention of the people living around the compound. Bigelow continues to jolt the viewer with sudden movement, shadows dashing for cover, and even return fire. This is all complimented by children’s cries as bodies fall limp and the women dive onto the bodies of these fallen terrorists and weep, “YOU’VE KILLED HIM!” When it comes to the money shot, with bin Laden staring down the barrel of a gun, it was handled quite differently than I expected. It is all a bit sudden, blurred, and even slightly surreal, something you really need to see for yourself. The wall of emotions that come crashing down after the shots are fired are really something else but they get tangled in the mad dash to get out of the compound as quickly as possible. The sequence is a real nail biter.
Sadly, Zero Dark Thirty has been attacked by the left as a pro torture film and dismissed by the right as simply left-wing propaganda to make President Obama’s administration look heroic. While I can imagine that some of the events that play out on the screen are fabricated for the sake of drama and action, I really wish people would leave their politics at the door when viewing the film. I admire the film because it has the guts to include it all and then leave it up for debate. Bigelow and Boal are practically screaming at you to view it as it as is and form your own decisions about what you see. It should also be noted that Bigelow and Boal dare to slice the tension in spots and actually make us laugh, something that they were not overly enthusiastic to do in the relentlessly serious The Hurt Locker. Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressive and massively essential thriller that is ripe with hard-boiled performances and brooding tension. It is a film that every American should see.
by Steve Habrat
If I have learned one thing at the movies this summer, I have learned that Tom Hardy is one scary man. I think if I were to pass him on the sidewalk, I’d quickly cross the street to avoid him. As if his villainous turn as hulking terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t enough to make this guy one intimidating bastard, wait until you get a load of him in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a Prohibition era thriller about bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Hillcoat’s thriller, which is based on a true story, does find a few common gangster movie qualities blotching the screenplay by Nick Cave. However, Lawless is saved by the explosive performances from this must-see ensemble cast, who all seem to be relishing this material. Still, I really wish I could say that Lawless avoided things we have seen from movies like this in the past but sadly, it gets caught in the same web that many of these films do. The story line does gasp one breath of fresh air by its use of Prohibition as the backdrop for these outlaws. I also admired the setting, far away from the big city bustle and nestled in the hills where Mother Nature isolates the Bondurant boys behind her natural wooded wall. Yet Lawless is sent into the stars by the terrifying turn from Hardy, a role that I can only hope is not forgotten come Awards season.
Welcome to the hills of Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia, a serene and seemingly peaceful place where bootlegging runs rampant. The stars of this bootlegging party are the Bondurant boys, who seem to be on top of the world just out of the clutches of the law. The Bondurant boys are made up of the quiet but threatening Forrest (Played by Tom Hardy), who is also the leader of the group, hothead Howard (Played by Jason Clarke), and runt Jack (Played by Shia LaBeouf). The boys run their illegal business out of their dusty roadside bar but they soon find themselves harassed by flamboyant Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Played by Guy Pearce), a hot shot from Chicago who wants a cut of the profits that the Bondurant boys bring in. After Forrest refuses, Rakes comes down hard on the bootleggers nestled in the hills and slowly begins shutting down their operations in the most brutal ways he can. After a nasty run in with Jack and a murder attempt is made on Forrest, a war is sparked in the Franklin County hills but the Bondurants have no intention of shutting down their business.
Cold and bristly, with tons of blood to get tossed around the furiously exhaustive sets, Lawless sure is one hell of a vicious ride into an untamed world. Prohibition is something that you never hear too much about, so it comes as a major shock to see it done with so much fury. People are harshly stabbed, shot, tarred, feathered, rapped, tortured, and beaten, cutthroat punishments for a cutthroat business I suppose. Despite the horrific violence (trust me, it is horrific), the film itself boasts rich amounts of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme, who makes every scene of the film appropriate to cut out and frame on your wall. While the film has plenty of violence to go around, there are some thick dramatics draped over this lawless world, so thick that you could almost cut it with a dull and rusty blade. There are two delicately delivered romances, one between Forrest and bar waitress Maggie Beauford (Played by Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking that desperately wanted a quiet life but has stumbled into something worse and one between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Played by Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly innocent preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak. Both are delivered with heart-on-the-sleeve compassion, making us root for both love stories to triumph in this world of blood.
Lawless achieves a must-see status due to the performances, especially the one from the hulking Hardy, who portrays Forrest Bondurant as a grunting bear of a man who speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like grinding gravel mixed with thick globs of molasses. While he is technically the good guy, Hardy owns any room he walks into and he leaves you wiping the sweat off of your palms when he leaves. The characters all whisper that Forrest is invincible and you will be left half believing it throughout the runtime. At times, he can be surprisingly funny, especially when Chastain’s Maggie tries to offer some affection his way. When he has his back against the wall, God forbid he reaches in his cardigan pocket and pulls out his dread brass knuckles, which he uses with precise savagery. While Hardy deserves a spot in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, he finds some competition from Pearce, a corrupt lawman with oily hair and dressed in fancy suits. Pearce, who I swear is incapable of delivering a lousy performance, is just as unpredictable as Hardy when it comes to his temper. Vaguely perverted and as slippery as they come, he is a corrupt soul who finds delight in bringing down a wave of misery on all who cross him.
In a way, it is almost a shame that Hardy and Pearce are so good because they actually overshadow the other great performances. LaBeouf, who has recently said that he is done with big studio films, punches in a subtle performance that slowly flares up into an uncontrollable rage. He’s a runt that becomes reckless and you will hate him for it, especially when he has a good thing right in the palm of his hand. That good thing is sweet Bertha, the gentle daughter of a preacher who hides her interest in the business that Jack and his brothers are into. Clarke gets to play the bloodthirsty psycho of the three Bondurant boys. You will cringe when Forrest decides to let him off his leash and you pray that Forrest puts him back on it the second he is unleashed. Chastain is as gorgeous as ever as the delicate Maggie, who has the hots for the closed off Forrest. Along with Wasikowska’s Bertha, they form a calming force that balances out all the violence. Dane DeHaan joins this gangster party as the handicapped Cricket, who helps the Bondurant boys brew the their liquor. Rounding out the supporting players is the superb Gary Oldman, who stops by to blow us all away as Floyd Banner, a mobster who enjoys carrying a Tommy gun around and blasting away right in front of an innocent audience.
As the sense of doom wafts through the trees of Franklin County, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately nippy score that is all twanging guitars, bluegrass chants, and static hums that slowly build as the tension mounts. Lawless certainly suffers from some predictability but I will say that there are a few surprise scenes that really catch you off guard. Still, I am willing to forgive because Hillcoat’s work draws you in close and then refuses to let you walk away cleanly. He shakes you up and he does it in such a tasteful manner. While I can’t say that I liked Lawless as much as Hillcoat’s scorching Australian western The Proposition, I will say that I enjoyed the film a bit more than his previous big screen offering The Road. Overall, Lawless may be brewed from a recipe we have all tried before but this batch has enough burn going down and a unique lingering buzz to have you reaching for a second shot and maybe even a third.