The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013). Not nearly as bad as I’d expected from the trailers. The anachronistic use of hip-hop is used sparingly (and for the most part works), and Luhrmann’s success is best stated in the film by Nick Carraway, who, when asked by Gatsby if his preparations for Daisy are right, replies “I think it’s what you want”. I believe that what we have here is The Great Gatsby that Baz Luhrmann wanted. Perhaps this is indeed an “unfilmable” novel. Luhrmann splashes through the big party scenes as if he was born for such work (which may well be true), and he can say that he’s been “true” to the novel … Fitzgerald did give us parties, after all. But, despite what film adaptations give us, The Great Gatsby isn’t about the parties, and what makes the book timeless is the prose, which is more elegant than the parties it describes. Luhrmann does what he can to foreground the prose, at times putting the actual words on the screen, and concocting a framing device that turns Nick Carraway into F. Scott Fitzgerald in far too literal a sense. Yes, Nick is Fitzgerald’s voice, and he carries the same ambiguous love/hate relationship to the rich that the author brings. But The Great Gatsby is more than an extended therapy session for an alcoholic. The cast is variable. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine … his charisma makes the public Gatsby believable, while he nicely plays the moments of uncertainty confronting Gatsby. Tobey Maguire’s job is impossible; he does what he can. Carey Mulligan is OK, but again, Daisy needs to be more than OK. She is a fantasy, not a real person, and Mulligan is too good at playing the real person to make the fantasy believable. The one actor I think was at a disadvantage compared to the 1974 version was Joel Edgerton as Tom. Bruce Dern nailed that role as if he personally had the right bloodlines. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I was wrong. But it doesn’t come close to the experience of reading the novel. For comparison, you could check out one of the earlier film versions of the book. Mia Farrow in 1974 offers a very different Daisy.
Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958). Disappointing cult film that has Robert Mitchum going for it, but not much else. The seemingly accurate portrayal of moonshiners in the South gives it some depth, and Mitchum is his usual laconic best. But the film drags, and the acting is something less than wonderful. I was looking forward to Keely Smith in a dramatic role, but unfortunately, she was pretty wooden. The film meant a lot to Mitchum, who provided the story, produced the movie, wrote the two featured songs, and may have even directed parts of it. But it’s better when you are imagining it than when you actually see it. For a follow up, try The Night of the Hunter, also with Mitchum, which made #31 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list.
The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012). Vinterberg gives us a blend of Kafka and Hitchcock in this story of a man falsely accused of child abuse. There is no mystery about the abuse … it didn’t happen … but the ways in which the accusations close in on the accused are frightening and quite real. Mads Mikkelsen, known here for his villain in Casino Royale and for playing Hannibal Lecter on TV, has the kind of good looks that are striking because they aren’t perfect. Combined with his villainous roles, this makes his kindergarten teacher rather ominous, but once we see how he is unfairly mistreated, Mikkelsen garners great sympathy from the audience. I don’t know if there is much more to The Hunt than Mikkelsen’s performance and the creepy atmosphere, but that is more than enough. For another Mikkelsen film, Casino Royale will do. I haven’t seen it, but Vinterberg’s The Celebration is highly regarded.
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). Tom Hanks does his Oscar thing … for some reason, he wasn’t nominated, perhaps the attempt was too obvious, but he’s fine throughout, and excellent in the final scenes. I’d like to give a special shout out to Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Danielle Albert, who played a doctor in that final scene. She is so good, you want her to be your doctor the next time you end up in the emergency room. Barkhad Abdi deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, playing a Somali pirate. Greengrass gives us an exciting recreation of events, although there are serious questions about how accurate the film is. But the film takes too long to get going, Catherine Keener is wasted (if you’re hoping for some Keener magic, here’s a spoiler: she’s in one scene at the beginning, and it’s not even an interesting scene). Greengrass and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray make nods towards sensitivity regarding the pirates, but ultimately, we get 2+ hours of crazy black men and stoic white men, with the enormous might of the U.S. military saving the day. It’s like a well-made Top Gun, and that’s not a compliment. For a better film by Greengrass, try Bloody Sunday.