POSTED ON MAY 15, 2013:
Two period films that abandon routinesBy Joe O'Shansky
Never, ever underestimate the power of DiCaprio. Women want him, men want to be him, and if he's opening something, even a film as apt toward failure as The Great Gatsby has been three times over (this being the fourth iteration of F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved novel), then it's a safe bet that asses will be in seats.
That is what they call star power: when even a literary adaptation in a nation of people who don't really read literature anymore can pull off a $51 million dollar opening weekend based almost exclusively on a name -- whether it's DiCaprio or director Baz Luhrmann (so many women still love Moulin Rouge) -- and succeed despite the fact that The Great Gatsby is really just an okay (albeit gorgeous-looking) mess.
Enter Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, Spiderman) a Midwestern kid who, after a stint in the World War I comes to New York to become a bond salesman on Wall Street. He rents a small house that sits next door to the palatial home of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (The Cap) in New Egg, Long Island and just across the bay from Nick's second cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Shame), with whom Gatsby, unbeknownst to Carraway, shares a deep connection. Daisy is married to philandering millionaire and former football star Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty), who raucously takes on the young Carraway as family.
Gatsby is legendary for the extravagant parties he holds at his opulent castle, loaded with illegal booze, undulating dancers and confetti-strewn debauchery and for which everyone seems to show up uninvited. When Carraway receives an actual invitation he can't help but abandon his studious, nearly monastic routine, curious to see how the better half lives.
When he finally meets the enigmatic and charming Jay Gatsby, a WWI vet who (apparently) inherited his fortune, Carraway learns of Gatsby's past romance with Daisy. Knowing her husband, Tom, to be a macho, jock douchebag who is screwing Myrtle (Isla Fischer, I Heart Huckabees), the wife of a poor Queensborough mechanic, Carraway decides to try and help Gatsby to reunite with his lost love.
Directed and adapted by Baz Luhrmann with co-writer Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet), The Great Gatsby is first and foremost an utter reimagining of Fitzgerald's oft-adapted masterwork. From the opening lattice of JG's golden crest that dives into the landscape of 1920's Manhattan, a glowing skyline that defines the darkness of the boroughs around it, Luhrmann's camera takes on a thoroughly ostentatious dexterity to match the era, looping into the sky in tandem with the biplanes and flying down the sides of skyscrapers merely to land on a character introduction.
Racing across the Queensborough Bridge behind Gatsby's hornet yellow Duesenberg, the angles rocket above its cantilevered spires, revealing the glamorous, digitally anachronistic perspective of the world's most enticing metropolis during its most romanticized decade, while it coyly foregrounds the poverty beyond the bright lights and never-ending buzz of capitalism in the city that never sleeps.
Luhrmann's Gatsby, sumptuously lensed by cinematographer Simon Duggan (I, Robot), recalls the visual pomposity of Les Misérables, though with a more adept, deliberate hand than Tom Hooper was ever capable of. The 3-D is almost a natural progression, one that cements Luhrmann's bombastic vision as much as his equally anachronistic soundtrack. Jay-Z's hip-hop-infused transposition of the musical era (with contributions from Jack White, Lana Del Ray, André 3000 and, of course, Beyoncé) is purposefully jarring -- that jazz-infused version "Crazy In Love" might have Fitzgerald-purist heads exploding. But that, along with Lurhmann's 21st Century images are actually the icing on an utterly grandiose cinematic cake.
Yet The Great Gatsby falters on levels that should crush a gaudy, 143-minute, period extravaganza. Maguire is miscast as Nick Carraway, his google-eyed innocence being completely wrong for the character, particularly since Luhrmann saw fit to tell the entire tale as a flashback while Carraway recovers from depression and alcoholism -- eventually penning his own therapy. Broadness applies to almost all of the performances, though. DiCaprio, once it's revealed he's a lovelorn galoot, plays at straight up comedy as much as Maguire's schoolboy affectations do. Sure, he makes Gatsby suave and debonair and ultimately desperate but, great as DiCaprio can be, he's merely an avatar here -- a charismatic one, but still a shadow of the already intangible source. Carey Mulligan is lovely and adept but equally shallow. Luhrmann, it seems, is much more interested in style than molding actors' performances beyond the obvious.
But a funny thing happens as the tragic consequences of the narrative come to fruition. That broad tone of the performances becomes more genuine, none more so than with Joel Edgerton's turn as Tom. It's a tonal shift that affects the entire film and all of its characters, but Edgerton's arc winds up feeling like the only truly honest performance throughout a gorgeously entertaining pantomime.
It's The Okay Gatsby, as long as you're not a literature literalist. What's amazing is that buried under Luhrmann's vapid posturing, which almost completely subverts the allegory of economic inequality with a lemming-like sympathy for the trials of the rich, lies a truly memorable film.
From Up on Poppy Hill
Japanese animation grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki, under the Studio Ghibli banner, has done as much to internationalize the anime genre as Akira Kurosawa, way back in the '40s, did to internationalize Japanese filmmaking itself -- at least amongst mainstream American audiences. Miyazaki's cleanly distinct, yet traditional artistic style of lovingly rendered landscapes and boldly designed characters (and creatures) perfectly complemented his fantastically mystical stories that first captured attention in the U.S. with 1999's Princess Mononoke.
And those who got hooked by Mononoke found there was a wonderful wealth of work in the master's back catalog. From his blissfully entertaining and weird inversion of Cinderella, Porco Rosso (which finds an ace, WWI French fighter pilot who happens to be a pig seeking a way to return to his human form) to My Neighbor Totoro, a supernatural children's film suffused with the Japanese concept of kami, Miyazaki's signature themes proved inherently spiritual and delightfully imaginative.
Under his tutelage, other directors for Studio Ghibli films have produced a catalog of decidedly provincial gems. With Ghibli's latest, From Up on Poppy Hill, the elder Miyazaki oversees his own son, Gor Miyazaki's, sophomore directorial outing. And the results are perfectly trademark.
Based on the '80s comic by Tetsur Sayama, and co-scripted by Hayao Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill tells the story of Umi (Sarah Bolger, In America) the eldest sister of a practically orphaned family in 1960s Yokohama. Her mother is abroad, studying in America while her father is long deceased after going down with his supply ship during the Korean War.
Living with her sisters under the watch of her grandmother, Umi is a dutiful girl. Taking it upon herself to cook everyone's meals whilst going to school, she raises nautical flags in her backyard, bordering the Port of Yokohama, every morning in the hope that they impart to the passing ships (growing in number due to rising industry and the promise of the 1964 Olympics) of her wish that they be safe in their voyages.
But when Umi meets Shun (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek) a journalism geek and tugboat captain's son, who is using a mimeographed school newspaper to protest the demolition of their school's clubhouse (a sort of den for education nerds), she becomes attracted to Shun's activism. Breaking Umi away from her traditionalist routine, Shun's passion to save the clubhouse inspires nascent passions between them both. Unfortunately, they might be brother and sister. Oh, you crazy Japanese.
Fans of Ghibli's art design and unique storytelling aesthetic won't be disappointed, though the English voice cast, adept as it is (and featuring the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Christina Hendricks, Bruce Dern and Gillian Anderson) seems a little jarring. I always prefer to hear these films in their native tongue, and while Ghibli (in collusion with Disney) always taps fine American talents, the film loses a certain sense of authenticity in translation.
But that's a quibble. From Up on Poppy Hill is a rich film imbued with that distinctly dream-like Miyazakian aesthetic, handed down from father to son, and sure to please fans both old and young.
From Up on Poppy Hill opens at the Circle Cinema this weekend. For tickets, visit www.circlecinema.com.
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