Taking a ‘Great American Novel’ and adapting it for the big screen is never an easy feat, and director Baz Luhrmann, best known for Moulin Rouge and Romeo & Juliet, certainly leaves his mark on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic ‘The Great Gatsby’. Tobey Maguire portrays Nick Carraway, an optimistic bonds salesman who moves to West Egg, Long Island, across the water from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). The plot revolves around Nick’s millionaire neighbour, who lives a very mysterious lifestyle, and goes by the name of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Carraway attends one of Gatsby’s many extravagant parties, the two quickly become close friends but it soon emerges that Gatsby has an ulterior motive to befriending Nick, and will stop at nothing in his quest for ‘The American Dream’.
Applying his trademark flair and flamboyancy, Luhrmann’s visuals in Gatsby are bold and theatrical but with the distracting 3D effects and use of montage, the party sequences are no more than a frenzied mess. There has been a resurgence of late, of the American 1920s prohibition era, frequently referred to as the ‘roaring twenties’, after the success of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire but where the style there reflects the period, it is polished and understated, whereas here, it is far too busy and over-the-top, as though the film tries much too hard to become a masterpiece aesthetically, rather than an adaptation of a great story. Of course it was expected that this recent interpretation would have its own modern take, adding flicks and tricks, but it would seem that overall, the film has suffered for its art.
In an attempt to recreate the jazz scene of that time, hip-hop is chosen as a modern equivalent, seen as today’s controversial, contemporary black music. Jay Z serves as executive producer on the soundtrack, which features brand new tracks from artists such as Jack White, the xx and Florence & The Machine. Again, despite the admirable concept and a few great moments, the music misfires somehow, not gelling with the underlying feel of the story in the way it should. In saying that, the one stand out track that matches perfectly, particularly with the persona of Daisy Buchanan, is Young & Beautiful by Lana Del Rey, her haunting tones bringing a darkness that compliments the characters and their inner conflicts.
In a film with a self-absorbed directorial vision, concentrating solely on the look, it is difficult for the cast to stand up and be noticed. Only DiCaprio manages it, his screen presence bringing an intensity that the film severely lacks up until his introduction. His turn as the delusional Gatsby is strong, though the repetition of his overused term of affection ‘old sport’ does hinder the enjoyment. Reading the phrase over and over again in the novel establishes it as something the character says a lot but without overemphasising the point, but after hearing it every second sentence in the film, it starts to grate a little. Despite this, his performance is magnetic, and at the height of his characters frustration, we are treated to a flash of brilliance not dissimilar to the ‘skull scene’ in Django Unchained where Leo shows us what he can do, so in control when his character loses it. Where DiCaprio is deep, Maguire is contrastingly shallow. His wide-eyed expression constant and his whining voiceover irritating, reminiscent of his dopey Peter Parker portrayals. The only reason he should be looking so shocked continuously is that people keep giving him acting jobs. Mulligan and Edgerton are a little better, but not much. Mulligan plays Daisy with an enduring innocence, her angelic features and dainty frame help achieve a certain attractive vulnerability that is fun to watch throughout, but I feel she isn’t given enough opportunity to glow. Edgerton’s Tom is passable, but distinctly average, escaping the hard-done-by nice guy roles he is more suited to. Minor supporting roles from Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher are just that, minor, but necessary, both key in the pivotal plot devices.
Luhrmann’s creativity has gone to good use in the past, his work benefiting from his active imagination but with ‘The Great Gatsby’, it is misguided and out of place. The plot of the book is glossed over, substituted with over indulgent cinematography, and the characters aren’t given the depth that they deserve. The novel takes you into Jay Gatsby’s mind, exploring his idealistic, yet compulsive notions of the perfect life. His naive thoughts and supposed fabricated tales of his past are a joy to behold, as he tries endlessly to make this a reality. However this latest effort from a mind just as determined, runs parallel in its result, resembling a dream that’s a relief to wake up from.
The latest addition to Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, ‘Django Unchained’, set in 1850s America, ticks all the boxes and features everything you would expect: strong bloody violence, punchy dialogue and Samuel L Jackson. Here, QT pays tribute to the ‘spaghetti western’ genre and tells the epic story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter, who come together on a journey to rescue Django’s wife from a brutal plantation owner.
A ‘road movie’, a ‘buddy movie’, ‘gangster film’: ‘Django…’ can almost fall into each of these categories but could only have been made by one writer/director. With trademark cinematography, a killer soundtrack and excellent plot tangents (one involving a hilarious scene poking fun at the Ku Klux Klan and getting away with it) this is unmistakably Tarantino. He even has his own minor but explosive cameo as a slave trader, putting his own dodgy slant on the Australian accent, however, he has overstepped the mark with the blood and gore a little, cheapening what is an extremely well made film. The bubbles and splats of guts and brains are out in full force as per and sadly try to overshadow the performances and script.
As the eponymous Django, I feared that Jamie Foxx would get lost alongside the blockbuster names and after my first viewing, I thought he had fell short of the podium with Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson taking gold, silver and bronze respectively. However, after watching again, the character seems to have grown on me and I found myself rooting for him more on my second viewing. Will Smith fortunately turned down the lead role and was later replaced by Foxx who plays the transition from downtrodden slave to cocky, and sometimes arrogant, bounty hunting hero very well. Waltz is effortlessly magnificent as the educated trilingual killer, whispering words of wisdom to Django throughout and for me, he steals the show and fully deserves his Oscar for ‘Best Supporting Actor’. His gain is Leo’s loss, as despite playing the schmaltzy but sadistic Calvin J Candie to perfection, he is second best on this occasion. I thought it would be difficult to take Di Caprio seriously in a villainous role as we are so used to seeing him as the hero but here he shows his versatility and is at times terrifying, particularly where the violence is there but hidden, rather than flaunted. He appears to be an ideal choice. Unusual casting decisions have paid off for QT in the past, such as reviving the career of John Travolta playing Vincent Vega and Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine in ‘Inglourious Basterds’, and this time it is no different. No hesitation is shown in taking an established Hollywood ‘heartthrob’ and giving them a character which nobody would expect them to portray. I should also mention Samuel L Jackson who plays a blinder as the house slave with misguided loyalties. Visually, he is almost unrecognisable but his voice instantly stands out and he enjoys his share of the witty one liners.
This will slot in nicely alongside Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs in an impressive portfolio, although whether it will live up to Tarantino’s high expectations of his own work as ‘the greatest Western of the 21st century’, only time will tell. He has shown again he can take the most serious of subjects and add his own personal touch, whilst keeping the harsh reality of the topic at hand. This film may be remembered for the silly shoot out physics instead of the bouncy conversations exchanged between Schultz and whoever he parleys with. Tarantino can nearly be seen as an overrated director but an underrated writer. A terrific piece of cinema nonetheless.