**1/2 - Pass or Wait for DVD
If Baz Luhrmann were a rock musician, he would be a member of Spinal Tap, that fictional band whose amplifiers famously went up to 11. As a filmmaker, he always amps his films to 11 whether they deserve to be at that decibel or not. That is the trouble at the heart of his big, brassy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the secretive millionaire determined to win back the woman (Carey Mulligan) he once loved and lost.
Set on Long Island in the summer of 1922, the story unfolds, as in the book, through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a struggling bond trader who has come east to make his fortune. He rents a cottage next door to Gatsby’s mansion where every weekend large parties are attended by hundreds of New York’s glitterati.
Only later do we learn that the parties have a purpose and Gatsby has his eyes on reclaiming the love of his life, Nick’s rich cousin, Daisy, now married to wealthy, arrogant Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Tom, in turn, has a mistress on the side named Myrtle (Isla Fisher) who is unhappily married to a local gas station owner.
Luhrmann is a showman before anything else. His movies are not so much representations of real life as they are self-conscious theatrical performances, more like an opera. Gatsby's cast appears to be posturing rather than performing.
Everything about the film is extreme. Characters can’t just drive to town. They have to race as if competing in the Indy 500 and pedestrians beware. Characters can’t just throw a party. It must be a choreographed music video. That approach works in a way for Gatsby’s massive funhouse parties but even a quiet celebration in Tom & Myrtle’s flat is filmed in the same hyperbolic way: a drunken bacchanal so loud that the entire neighborhood ends up watching from their windows and jazz musicians accompanying the noise from nearby balconies. Luhrmann is incapable of settling down, foresaking the gyrations of his camera and abandoned his A.D.D speed cutting to just let a quiet scene play out on its own.
Gatsby’s entrance is so over the top (he holds up a champagne glass while fireworks go off in the background and the climax of “Rhapsody In Blue” plays on the soundtrack) that the moment crosses over into camp. The audience I saw it with couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
There is so much CGI that halfway through I began to think of Gatsby as less a movie and more like one of those Classics Illustrated comic books come to life. None of it felt real. It was all artifice. And since none of it felt real, none of the characters come across as real people we can care about.
Most of the cast struggle to break through the movie’s oversaturated surface. Carey Mulligan is a major disappointment as Daisy. She looks perfect but ill at ease in the role. She speaks her lines without ever making them sound like something a human being would say. She appears to be reading rather than acting. We never see why Gatsby would devote his life to winning back this vapid Daisy.
Tobey Maguire is fine as Nick but too old for the role. Isla Fisher makes a tempting Myrtle but she has only one extended scene early on before she disappears from the narrative till the end. Elizabeth Debicki makes a hip Jordan Baker but her screen time is also brief and the narrative soon forgets about her after she has served her dramatic purpose.
Only two actors succeed in rising above the noisy fray. DiCaprio makes a fine Gatsby, the hopeless romantic who fails to see the impossibility of his quest. And Joel Edgerton scores as Tom, a brute of a man with just enough of a veneer of good manners to hide his true self. Whatever virtues the film has rests squarely on their two shoulders.
There are scenes where Luhrmann does turns the movie’s volume down to 7 or 8 and shows us what kind of film Gatsby could have been if he had stopped imposing his own visual style and just let the material speak for itself. The tea at Nick’s home where Gatsby and Daisy are reunited works because Luhrmann discards his box of visual trickery and just lets the actors act. They prove totally up to the challenge. The same is true of the big hotel confrontation between Gatsby and Tom. It is the highlight of the film and it is all due to the actors and not Luhrmann’s filmmaking pyrotechnics.
In the end, the new Gatsby plays out like a music video: all glitz and no substance, a dazzling surface with no discernible humanity underneath. There is no inkling as to why this great story continues to entrance us almost 90 years after its publication. It is as memorable as last week’s celebrity scandal, and just as forgettable.
Why This Song of The Day?
Vacation by The Go-Go's
Because my mind is stuck on summer right now. Because this is one of the first music videos I loved.
My students always get this wide-eyed look of wonder or horror when I start telling them about my childhood and how there were only 4 TV channels to watch for most of it (ABC,CBS, NBC, PBS). There was the odd independent station here and there but usually no more than 6 or 7 channel options at the most. Why else did the dial only go up to 13?
And in the afternoon after school there was only one show on for kids, Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club. My gray hair may make you think so but I actually am not old enough to have caught MMC during its original 1955-1959 run. However, Disney was savvy enough to re-air it once a decade to catch the next generation. I watched it in the mid-1970s when it proved just as big then as two decades earlier.
Each day of the week on MMC had its own theme so viewers always knew what to expect. Monday was Fun With Music Day. Tuesday was Guest Star Day. Wednesday was Anything Can Happen Day. Thursday Was Circus Day. And Friday was Talent Roundup Day. Every episode was a kaleidoscope of performances, songs, sketches, cartoons, news, and serials like Spin & Marty and The Hardy Boys.
That is the model I plan to follow here, although don’t expect any unique theme songs or snappy dance numbers for each day. Monday will be Time Travel Day: a look at movies, books, and things that deal with Time. On Tuesdays, I’ll discuss Books & Writing. Wednesday will be History Day, some of it personal, some of it famous, some of it not so much. Thursdays will be Serial Day with future series like The Movies That Changed My Life, Favorite Movie Theaters, and others. Friday, I’ll be discussing Current Film and there will be episodes of my online review show co-hosted with my son Ben.
Other pages will continue like Films In Depth (this week I’ll be discussing Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder (2013)). There will be Favorite Movie Moments, I’ll be posting more of my past writing, and much much more.
Thanks again to everyone for the positive feedback and suggestions. Like everything else in life, I am learning as I go. I hope you will continue coming along for the ride.
TWO FAVORITE MOVIE MOMENTS
The marshal (Kris Kristofferson) and his lady (Isabelle Huppert) share a romantic waltz in the vastly underrated Heaven’s Gate (1980).
And the moment that inspired it: Marshal Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his lady fair (Cathy Downs) waltzing in John Ford’s classic western My Darling Clementine (1946).
Why This Song of The Day?
Eight Days A Week by The Beatles
Because I've been working very hard 8 days a week. Because that's how I've been feeling lately. Because The Beatles are my all time favorite group.
That's right! This blog is now one week old. Thank you to everyone who dropped in and took a look this week. I assure you that the next weeks will be less Gatsby centered. This will become clearer on Monday. Next week:
Blame It on the Mouseketeers
Baz Luhrmann's THE GREAT GATSBY
Film In Depth looks at Terrence Malick's TO THE WONDER
My Greatest Movie Weekend Part II
What's new today? FILM IN DEPTH makes it debut with a detailed analysis of the 1974 THE GREAT GATSBY. Please check it out and then share your own thoughts about the film.
Thank you for all the emails commenting on the site. Suggestions are very welcomed.
Thank you to the friends and relatives who I have not heard from in awhile. Thanks for writing and making my week.
Have a great weekend! Go see Baz Luhrmann's GREAT GATSBY in 3-D and let me know what you think. I'll share my thoughts on the film on Tuesday.
Why This Song of the Day?
Grow Old Along With Me by Mary Chapin Carpenter
Because it was written by John Lennon. Because it nicely captures the undying nature of love. Because it is the perfect anniversary song.
In the spring of 1974 when I was 11 years old, my family was in the middle of moving from Weirton to Charleston, WV where my father had gotten a new job. When spring break came, we drove down for the weekend to look for a house. I had no idea I was going to end up seeing 3 films in 3 days and all 3 would change my life and start me down the road toward film as a career.
We arrived in Charleston, the state capital, on Friday afternoon. Dad had to attend a meeting so Mom, sister Pam, and I were on our own. Pam wanted to see THE GREAT GATSBY with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Her high school English class was reading the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic and this was one way of learning the story without reading the book. We drove to the Village Theater in nearby Kanawha City. Tomorrow, I’ll analyze GATSBY from a scholarly perspective. Today, I just want to discuss the emotional ways the movie affected me.
I walked in cold knowing nothing about what it was about or anything about its production history. And then it started and I was transported away. It felt as if I had stepped into a time machine and took a trip back to 1925. I was there. The Oscar-winning costumes, the sets, the cinematography, the cars, Nelson Riddle’s Oscar-winning Irving Berlin-based music, it happened all around me. I was staying up all night at Gatsby’s parties. I was having tea on a hot June afternoon when Gatsby and Daisy reunite. I could feel the weather & the heat & the emotions.
I was entranced by Robert Redford as Gatsby; the handsome, debonair millionaire who had gotten rich strictly to win back the woman he lost. Like most young men of the 1970s, I wanted to be Redford which meant I wanted to be Gatsby. Not that I was operating under any illusions. I wanted to be Gatsby but I knew I was really Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston).
I am Nick and Nick is me. If you ever want to see me on screen, you could do no better than Nick: the quiet man in the corner whom everyone wants to take by the arm and pull into their world, share their hopes and dreams and secrets and lies. To be their best friend and tell him their life story. To be the only guy who holds all the facts and angles and can stitch the entire story together. Nick is the only one to see all facets of the GATSBY story and share them with us. That’s me and my identification with the character has only increased with time.
I loved the romantic ideal of Gatsby’s aspirations. I hated Tom Buchanan’s two-faced hypocrisy. I was touched by Wilson’s simple love for Myrtle which goes horribly wrong. I was so much into the film that as the climactic showdown played out between Gatsby and Wilson, I was literally screaming at the top of my lungs, demanding that my mom take me out of the theater. She just hushed me up and the movie played itself out.
I knew I was seeing something deep. I knew Fitzgerald was saying something profound about American wealth and class and the prices we pay for our dreams. As the screen went dark and the lights came up, I found myself suddenly back in 1974 and I really felt I had taken both a physical and emotional journey. I walked out a lot older and wiser than when I’d gone in. I walked out in love with THE GREAT GATSBY.
Back then, a movie wasn’t available for re-viewing in 6 months on Netflix or On Demand. You never knew when you’d see a film again so I did the next best thing.
I checked the book out of the library and read it in a day (my sister gave me the Redford tie-in copy for my 12th birthday. It sits next to my computer now). I bought Bruce Bahrenburg’s book FILMING THE GREAT GATSBY (1974). It was the first book I read detailing how a film was made and it fascinated me as much as the film. I bought the double LP soundtrack at Heck’s (WV’s Wal-Mart) and listened to it over and over and over. I bought a Duesenberg model car which looked pretty close to Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce and played with it till the wheels fell off.
I wrote a fan letter to Redford. He never replied. I started calling my friends “old sport” until David Lashhorn threatened to punch me in the face if I called him that again. I asked my mom to make me a white Gatsby suit. She did and I wore it till I outgrew it. I still have it packed away some place.
When my family vacationed in Boston in the fall of 1976, I insisted we take a side trip to Newport, RI where they filmed GATSBY. We spent a day trekking through the mansions of Rosecliffe and Marble House that were Gatsby’s home.
When movies started coming out on VHS in 1980, my first video rental (from Photomat!) was GATSBY. It was the first time I’d seen the film uninterrupted since 1974. It was just as brilliant as I’d remembered it.
I appreciate that the film is not for everyone. I see as virtues what some see as flaws. But it terms of what it taught me about life and the power of movies, THE GREAT GATSBY remains one the movies that changed my life.
NEXT THURSDAY: MY GREATEST MOVIE WEEKEND: PART II
Why This Song of the Day?
"What'll I Do?" by Irving Berlin
Because this is the version that opens GATSBY. Because I think it is one of the saddest, most romantic songs I've ever heard.
With GATSBY coming out in 3-D on Friday, it seemed appropriate to spend today discussing my experiences with the movie going sensation of the 1970s: Sensurround. Sensurround was meant to take you there. More than 3-D, it was heralded as the sound system that would make you not only see the movie but make you FEEL you were in the movie.
Sensurround was the exclusive property of Universal Pictures and it seemed entirely appropriate for the system to make its huge, rumbling debut with the disaster epic EARTHQUAKE (1974). Pretty much forgotten now, this loud thud of a movie (directed by PEYTON PLACE’s Mark Robson) depicted the utter destruction of Los Angeles and featured an all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston. (The only cast member I really remember now is a then unknown Victoria Principal in a really tight t-shirt).
Advance word on the movie was mixed but the Sensurround stories were downright scary. We’d heard tales of people being hit by sound waves so strong that they got knocked right out of their seats. Warnings were posted as you went into the theater. Wow!
It was with much trepidation that I trooped in with my dad to see EARTHQUAKE at the twin screen Plaza East Theater in Charleston WV. As we entered, we saw the first 2 rows of seats had been removed to make way for two humongous horizontal speakers that filled the area between the new front row and the screen. Several of the corner seats in the back had also been removed to make way for two large vertical speakers. We took our seats in the middle of the theater (not too close, not too far) and gripped the arms tightly as the lights went down.
What was EARTHQUAKE like in Sensurround? Well, frankly, it was a normal sounding movie. Until the earthquake hit. Then suddenly the big speakers kicked in. The movie got very loud and the speakers sent out a deafening constant roaring rumble. I wasn’t hit by any sound waves. I didn’t even feel my shirt or clothes shaking. Just a really loud constant roar. Earthquakes tend to last a few minutes but this just went on and on for way too long. It was actually a relief when the quake ended and the regular soundtrack kicked back in.
We didn’t realize how loud Sensurround was until the next week when we returned to see the other movie at the Plaza East, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER. On schedule, a half-hour in, Sensurround kicked in next door and the noise level spilled over into our theater. Some viewers grew irritated but I thought it was funny. Mostly because it kicked in during the scene where Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) and Cato (Bruce Kwouk) were fighting and destroying their apartment. Sensurround seemed oddly appropriate. And I swear at one moment on the screen Peter Sellers looked around confused as if he could hear the roar too.
A friend I met years later in film school told me that when he saw EARTHQUAKE, there was actually dust and plaster floating through the air. He was impressed at how realistic it all was. Until the movie stopped and the manager announced they were cancelling the show because the building was shaking too much.
EARTHQUAKE became the high water mark for Sensurround. The next film to use it, MIDWAY (1976), employed much smaller speakers and barely caused a ripple despite the poster claims that we would “feel we were in combat.”
Universal planned to use it on a big budget remake of KING KONG (imagine Kong roaring in Sensurround) but the project got cancelled when Paramount started their own KONG with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange (in her film debut).
By the time Sensurround was used for the underrated thriller ROLLERCOASTER (1977) the speakers were so small that it made little difference. It just seemed like a normal movie. The movie version of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978) became Sensurround’s last hurrah.
In the end Sensurround struck me (no pun intended) as just a gimmick like 3-D, Cinerama, Imax, Smell-O-Vision, or Illusion-O that missed the point of movies. The best way of making the audience feel they are in the movie is to create stories and characters that make us feel like we are up there living and dying with them. I’ll take that over a big rake of speakers any day.
Why this Song of the Day?
Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Leon Redbone
I saw him sing this song on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in the 1970s & it blew me away. I loved his voice then and I still love it now.
This week is Gatsby week here at The Blog. Strictly because the new GREAT GATSBY movie by Baz Luhrmann finally hits theaters this Friday in all its 3-D glory. The original book by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my all-time favorite novels. The last adaptation in 1974 starring Robert Redford remains one of my all-time favorite films (more on that Thursday). And I have been avidly waiting for this new version to come out since it was first announced. The cast looks spot on and I am a big fan of Luhrmann, one of the true visual geniuses working in today’s cinema.
Having said all that, I’ve been around movies long enough to detect the telltale signs of a bad movie about to be released:
1. The trailers and commercials emphasize the visuals over the story.
This is an age-old movie truism. If the trailer gives you no sense of what the story is about. If the trailer fails to show us any characters interacting with one another or any kind of dialogue whatsoever, the movie is bad.
2. The release date was pushed back from Christmas to May.
It is never a good sign when a movie’s release is postponed. It seemed especially odd when GATSBY was moved last fall. Normally, we would expect a prestige picture like GATSBY to be good for some Academy Award nominations, at least for sets or costumes. By moving it to 2013, Warner Bros took it out of the running for this year’s Oscars. And they would only do that if they thought the film had no chance of garnering any.
3. The film didn’t receive a MPAA rating until a month ago.
The first thing companies due once a film is completed is submit it to the MPAA for a rating. Until they do so, the trailers and TV commercials are required to carry the “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” moniker. The GATSBY commercials said just that up until about a month ago. Odd considering the film was supposed to be done in time for last Christmas. That means the filmmakers were still editing it up until a month ago. And that usually means they were still fiddling with it because it did not work.
4. The new commercials emphasize the soundtrack over the story.
It is impressive that the film has songs by Jay-Z, Beyonce, and others. It may be an effort by Warners to try and get this period romance to connect with today’s younger audience. But it still means they are steering us away from the story and giving us no hint of what the movie is about. See #1.
5. It is available on On Demand the same day it opens in theaters.
How does this move mean? It means Warners is giving GATSBY the same release strategy that Dimension Films gave PIRANHA 3DD (2012). It is the move of a company who knows the movie sucks and wants to rake in as much cash as possible as quickly as possible before the word gets out.
Don’t get me wrong. I really want this movie to work. I am as excited to see this as most people last week were to see IRON MAN 3. I will still be in line to see it this weekend wearing my 3-D glasses. But I am pretty certain that it will not be a happy experience. I hope I am wrong.
I’ll let you know what I think on Monday.
Why this Song of the Day?
Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen
Because this song always charges me up to take on the day. Because it always inspires me. Because part of me always wanted to be a singer like Freddie Mercury.
My World & Welcome To It
Hello, Everyone! Thanks for stopping by for the grand opening of my new website. Come on in and make yourself at home. You’re probably wondering about the title of my inaugural column.
Let me tell you a story: back in 1969 there was a short-lived TV sitcom called MY WORLD & WELCOME TO IT. I don’t really remember too much about the series. I remember the opening credit sequence with the dog (they used to have those back then – opening credit sequences, I mean. We still have dogs).
I remember it starred William Windom, one of my favorite character actors. He could play anything from the sweet loveable dad in this show to the mad Commodore Decker in a classic episode of STAR TREK to the racist district attorney in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962).
I remember the series moved back and forth between reality and fantasy, much like the writings of James Thurber that it was based on.
But what I most remember about the series is that it featured Lisa Gerritsen playing Windom’s daughter.
Back then, Gerritsen was sort of the Abigail Breslin…um…I mean the Chloe Grace Moretz of the moment: the teenage actress who seems to be everywhere for a few years and then mysteriously vanishes after they become adults. The thing I remember about her is that she was cute (to my 8 year old eyes) but also that she wore braces (like me). All the time. Throughout the entire series.
Not like Marcia Brady (Maureen McCormick) on THE BRADY BUNCH who had to endure her braces for ONE entire episode before the dentist decided she could magically get by with just a night brace (bye bye braces!).
No, Lisa wore them the whole run of the series. And it helped me to know that if she could wear them, I could wear them. And to heck with the teasing from other kids.
But I digress, something any ex-students of mine reading this are very familiar with. My world and welcome to it.
So why a website? Why right now?
Maybe because for as long as I can remember, I have been in love with:
(Not necessarily in that order)
They have influenced my life and guided my writing and I feel a need to start sharing all of that now. How they shaped both me and the world we live in.
Maybe because I turned 50 last year and I now look more like William Windom than Lance Kerwin (look him up).
Maybe because my close friends are far and wide these days and we rarely all end up in the same room together anymore. Some of them I can still see every day and some I can’t see anymore at all.
When I was young and in college, we all used to hang out in each other’s apartments chatting for hours on all kinds of subjects, taking for granted that life would be like this forever. That’s what I am hoping this website will be. A stopping place for old friends and relatives that I go way back with. And a place for new friends that I haven’t met yet to stop in and say Hi.
Come on in. Sit yourself down. And stay awhile.
Because this is my world. And welcome to it!
Catch an episode of MY WORLD & WELCOME TO IT here:
Why this Song of the Day?
Because I love the sentiment in the song. Because I am a big fan of JUNO (both the character & the movie). Because I still love orange tic tacs.