The Great Gatsby (2013)

★★★★

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (US); May 16th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire

As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, Jay Gatsby, a very wealthy-yet-mysterious man seeking to rekindle his relationship with the woman he has loved for years, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The story is narrated by war veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who recalls his life living next door to Gatsby whose parties — attended by those from all over the country and overflowing with alcohol, entertainers and fireworks — are products of the Roaring Twenties, where the stock markets on Wall Street were booming and morale was at an all-time high post-World War I.

The Great Gatsby, or more aptly, ‘The Very Good Gatsby’, has Baz Luhrmann’s influence etched all over it, which by no means is a bad thing. Luhrmann, who had previously worked with DiCaprio on Romeo + Juliet, and whose recent directorial credits have included historical epic Australia and the extravagant Moulin Rouge!, certainly knows how to put on show — and more than anything else, The Great Gatsby is a spectacle. Everything from the acting to the set pieces to the costume design to the cinematography is set to full throttle here, as Luhrmann shows no restraint in his direction. And it needs to be this way: the man whose life the film centres on is an over-the-top, charismatic individual and therefore a film without extravagance would not have worked as well. Luhrmann puts the “Great” in The Great Gatsby, because had this film been anything different, it would probably have just been “Gatsby”.

“Jay Gatsby sure is tall.”

At a fairly substantial two hours and 20 minutes (or so) long, The Great Gatsby never really seems to let the pace drop which is a credit to Luhrmann and the writers, as too many lulls in the proceedings would have turned the film into a less-than-dramatic portrayal of a wealthy individual’s life. Personally, I feel that between the half hour and hour mark, there were a few extra-long party scenes which may have benefited from being trimmed down a little, but as I mentioned beforehand this may have taken a snippet of the excessive nature of the film away, a nature which The Great Gatsby relies on to be a success. The difference between, for example, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which, do not get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot) and The Great Gatsby is that just about every scene Luhrmann directs in Gatsby fulfils a necessary purpose in the plot, whereas An Unexpected Journey includes scenes which are, though entertaining, completely unneeded.

Since last working with Baz Luhrmann on Romeo + Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio has moulded himself into one of the best actors in Hollywood at present (the best, for my money) and delivers another convincing, flamboyant performance as Jay Gatsby — a man who, on the exterior seems to have it all and lives the picturesque, glamorous life, whereas on the inside is broken and partially empty without the woman he has missed for five years. The mystique surrounding Gatsby during the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the film is very well executed, as he is a man seldom seen but mentioned very often, and spoke about with passion and awe. Tobey Maguire does a fine job carrying the film throughout the opening half hour or so, however as soon as DiCaprio arrives on the screen the film appears to move up another level (if that is even possible in a Baz Luhrmann offering). DiCaprio exudes importance and slickness as Gatsby and, as someone who has never read the book, completely sold me on the character. Tobey Maguire narrates the film very effectively and his voice never seems to make the film drag at any point. His on-screen acting is solid, much like it normally is, with himself and DiCaprio developing an intriguing dynamic throughout the piece (it is cool to see the two share the big screen together, having been very close friends since the early nineties). Carey Mulligan is elegance personified, balancing the correct amount of strength and frailty between her scenes with Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton — who is part of a very strong supporting cast boasting the likes of Isla Fisher).

“Good day, old spore.” “For the hundredth time it’s ‘sport’ – not ‘spore’!”

Much has been said about the modern soundtrack to the film which contains the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lana Del Ray. Personally, I did not see a problem with it, in fact it gave The Great Gatsby an extra oomph which 1920s music would more than likely have withheld from offering. Although the film is set over ninety years ago, Luhrmann’s narrative provides modernity and the cinematography creates a classic-yet-fresh vibe throughout. The costume design harks back to the Roaring Twenties (I remember them well) without making the characters look outdated, and this is down to the bright colours — that pink suit Gatsby is wearing is a show-stealer — and the intricate details of each piece of clothing. The set design throughout the film is to the highest standard which helps to create that party atmosphere associated with Gatsby — by contrast, the Valley of Ashes (an industrial works situated between New York City and Long Island) has all the grit, sweat and coal required to reinforce that everything must begin from the bottom and work its way up, echoing the life of Gatsby.

Without giving any spoilers away (yes, there will be people who know nothing about with plot — much like myself beforehand), in a film where hope appears to dwindle throughout — and I stress ‘appears’ — the final few scenes were very well delivered in my eyes, with Tobey Maguire’s narration concluding the film in a seamless manner. The very philosophical final few moments essentially provide the basis for what has gone on throughout the film, which, at heart, is much more about desire and soul than extravagance and dazzling lights.

“Think we get to keep the car?”

One criticism which I do have is that, on a few occasions, the editing seems a touch off (when Gatsby and Carraway are in the car), but this is more of an annoyance than a significant error. Overall, in regards to such criticism as the film prefers style over substance, I do not believe this to be the case and that the substance is in there, just not always as apparent due to the overload of style. For rather than meaning the style completely overawes the substance, it signals that Luhrmann has done a tremendous job in creating a mysterious and distant Gatsby on the outside, who has bolted up his emotion on the inside — much like Gatsby is looking to rediscover that emotion he has long withheld since losing Daisy, the viewer must find the substance in the film for themselves.

Baz Luhrmann has been vindicated in summoning another Gatsby out of the ashes, as The Great Gatsby is a well-directed mesh of extravagance, emotion and booming life throughout the 1920s, all patched together triumphantly by way off Tobey Maguire’s narration as Nick Carraway, and wonderfully acted at the hands of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Pontypool (2008)

★★★★

Director: Bruce McDonald

Release Date: March 6th, 2009 (Canada); October 16th, 2009 (UK)

Genre: Horror; hriller

Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) drives through blizzard-like conditions to work and on the way has an odd encounter with a woman who repeats muffled sounds over and over. When he reaches his radio broadcasting station, he is joined by the station manager, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and the technical assistant, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) before going about his day-to-day activities. After an average, less-than-noteworthy few hours of news, Grant receives information from the station’s helicopter reporter, Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) that an apparently violent mob has infiltrated the office of one of the town’s doctors. From then on, it becomes apparent to Grant and the others that something is not quite right with the ‘mob’ in question, and the radio employees’ situation quickly becomes one of doubt, fear and worry.

Originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, Pontypool is a completely different take on the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre. Whereas the focus of such films tend to be on gore and exhilarating action, Pontypool certainly is exhilarating, but far more in the psychological sense than in anything to do with flying body parts. The first thing to say about this film is that it is set, for the most part, in one location — the radio station — which benefits the film hugely. Director Bruce McDonald could very well have taken his cameras to various locations and opted for visual scares, but instead he centres the slow building and uneasy atmosphere on dialogue alone. Having the film play out in one location, and through the eyes of the three characters in the radio station, also places the viewer in the station with the characters — as opposed to he/she being repeatedly removed from film due to it jumping all over the place.

“Kevin, I told you not to watch ‘The Red Wedding’.”

Having shot the film in a single location, McDonald is able to fully develop his main characters and show off their every emotion while they receive word about various horrible events taking place elsewhere in the town. Stephen McHattie pulls out an over-the-top, yet thoroughly entertaining performance as a tiring radio presenter who seems to irritate more than anything else. The over-the-top element of McHattie’s performance ensures that the film does not slip completely into a downbeat, hopeless realm and even gives Pontypool a slightly humorous tone at times. His somewhat distant nature at the beginning quickly unravels as the situation dawns on McHattie and his colleagues. Lisa Houle is decent in her portrayal of a considerably controlling station manager. Her character grows as the plot develops, and for her first film role (she is married to McHattie, I wonder how she got this gig?) she puts in a solid effort which is sometimes let down by her less-than-believable attempts at displaying grief. Each of the supporting actors step up to the plate when called to do so meaning there really is no weak link in the cast.

“Let me guess, she watched it too?”

I am not entirely sure what McDonald had in mind when he was making Pontypool, in terms of what he wanted audiences to take from it, but I would love to know. For me, it is clearly a film about how we, as society and as individuals, are so wound up and led on by dialogue — regardless of who or what the source is. The film evokes connotations about how governments rule us and how the influence, and existence, of a global media order thrives on our reaction and acceptance of what they tell us. Throughout the film, our lead characters are relentlessly relayed news and it is their reaction to each snippet of news (one of acceptance over ignorance) that the film is built on — their lack of dismissal means the viewer goes on a journey of weariness, anxiety and fright alongside the radio trio. For all the viewer and characters know, the information they are receiving could be a hoax — again, the ploy by McDonald to keep the focus of the film in one location is essential here — but without seeing what is going on externally, they (and we) end up putting faith in unfounded knowledge. Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

“You all watched it? Brilliant.”

In terms of logistics: visually, at a budget of around one and half million dollars, Pontypool looks great and includes some neat gory, non-CG effects. I noted a few paragraphs prior that the film chooses atmosphere over gore for scares, but what is a zombie film without a few zombies and some blood and guts? Pontypool is far from loaded with the aforementioned though, which is a good thing because it certainly would have been easy for McDonald to set the film off in a clichéd zombie-fest direction during the last thirty minutes or so, but his avoidance to do so benefits the overall product greatly. The script is well written and smooth, particularly in the first half of the film where words are the primary purveyor of scares. The lack of drag (not that kind) during the film is a testament to the writers’ ability to keep their writing slick and interesting.

Just like in my Star Trek Into Darkness review, I am going to avoid giving away too much here (I reckon I should just get rid of the whole spoiler thing anyway, it is slightly disrespectful to the film industry I think), however I will say that the ending worked for me. I have no idea what was going on during the post-credits scene though, somebody will need to fill me in on that one.

Pontypool is a unique film in that it successfully combines the zombie genre with psychological horror, offering up a thought-provoking and generally gripping thriller in the process.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

★★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: May 9th, 2013 (UK); May 16th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Science fiction; Action

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana

Following on from Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness follows the exploits of Captain James Kirk (Pine) and his crew on the USS Enterprise as they find themselves in a battle to prevent terror from being unleashed by a powerful fellow Starfleet agent who has recently defected, John Harrison (Cumberbatch). With Spock (Quinto) and Uhura (Saldana) having troubles, a domineering Admiral (Peter Weller) monitoring Kirk’s every move, and the biggest threat to Starfleet to date brooding, a seemingly inexperienced Kirk must regain the control and retain the trust of his crew and journey into dangerous territory in order to put an end to the violence.

I think it is safe to say J.J. Abrams is on a role at the moment. Without getting into his television portfolio (which includes the worldwide TV hit Lost), Abrams’ four directorial outputs have ranged from solid to sensational. Beginning with Mission Impossible III — incidentally, Tom Cruise phoned Abrams while the latter was in the middle of shooting one of the final scenes of Lost season one to offer him the job — Abrams served up an action-packed Cruise-fest which was fairly well received financially and in terms of enjoyment.

“I told you guys I was good at musical chairs.”

Up next was his take on Star Trek, a franchise that Abrams has often said he never showed any interest in as a child whereas all of his friends did. Perhaps that benefited the film, as it romped through the Box Office and reinvigorated moviegoers’ love for it. Working with Steven Spielberg had always been a dream for Abrams, and that dream was realised through making the wonderful Super 8 in 2011, another goldmine of adventure and reminiscence.

And now Star Trek Into Darkness. The first thing to say about Into Darkness is that this is a film created not just for long-time Star Trek fans, but also for new admirers (like me). By simultaneously directing an origin story retaining all that has already happened and establishing a brand new ‘parallel timeline’ in the previous instalment, Abrams has given himself and his audience a whole universe to explore vicariously through the crew of the Enterprise. We are thrust into the action straight away this time around (who has time to wait around?) in a riveting and enjoyable sequence full of danger, awesome visuals and witty dialogue — and these characteristics are maintained throughout the whole two hours and seven minutes.

“Hey Zach, look. JJ is doing the dance again.”

Admittedly, having not been a Star Trek fan (or ‘Trekkie’) before Abrams took the reins I am not well versed in the franchise and nor do I wish to pretend that I am (for fear of getting something wrong, mainly). Therefore I did not know of the significance of the different otherworldly beings that the crew encounter or the varying levels of ship on the Admiral’s desk — but the beauty of Abrams filmmaking here is that I did not need to know these things. All that I had to do was pay attention, sit back and enjoy picture. By no means am I saying that Into Darkness is merely a ‘dumb film’ focusing on big thrills and CGI effects to generate income, rather I’m saying the opposite: it is a smart film because it focuses on thrilling the audience and concocting characters to care about. The majority of thinking required from the viewer was required in the first film of the reboot — which Abrams handled supremely well — and this time around the focus seemed to be all about putting on a show for Star Trek fans old and new. And, of course, to successfully further the story of the Enterprise crew while retaining a degree of loyalty to the past.

“I’m in a glass case of emotion.”

Talking about entertaining audiences, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast impeccably well as the evil John Harrison and is the stand out performer. Even though he is used to playing ‘good guys’ like Sherlock Holmes in the self-titled BBC drama, Cumberbatch thrives in this new role, utilising everything from piercingly devilish facial expressions to a demonic-yet-educated voice level to create a tremendous villain to go up against Starfleet. Chris Pine is just as charismatic as he was in the previous film, though a little more serious and contained at the appropriate moments. Zachary Quinto can do no wrong as Spock who he was born to portray, and the likes of Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg and Karl Urban are all effective in their roles, maximising their screen time to create a connection with the audience (when I say “the audience” I really just mean me as I can only speak for myself).

Normally at this point I would give my views on specific parts of the film and write about spoilers, but I really do not think I need to for Star Trek Into Darkness. There was nothing that I significantly disliked about the film and I think all of the main plot points were handled excellently. Moreover, I would genuinely rather not spoil any part of the film because it does not deserve to be spoiled.

I will end by saying that, regardless if you are a Star Trek fan or a science fiction geek or neither of the two, you should see Abrams’ latest offering. Star Trek Into Darkness is a film for all movie lovers who just want to go the cinema and be engrossed in a tremendous spectacle. It is a testament to J.J. Abrams’ ability in filmmaking that myself who, just like Abrams, was never really into Star Trek before, is now a big fan.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

★★★

Director: Shane Black

Release Date: April 25th, 2013 (UK); May 3rd, 2013 (US)

Genre: Superhero

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce

The third instalment in the Iron Man franchise takes place sometime after the events of The Avengers. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr) finds himself suffering from nightmares and panic attacks as a result of his experiences in New York with the Avengers. An increasingly apprehensive ‘Pepper’ Potts (Paltrow), Stark’s girlfriend and CEO of Stark Industries, struggles to maintain Stark’s attention due to his obsession with building countless Iron Man suits. Meanwhile, a series of bombings orchestrated by an uncontrollable and decisive terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has left the world in panic. Stark must find a way juggle his personal life with Pepper, whilst protecting her, with fighting back against the Mandarin and the path of destruction he has left behind.

The very first thing I would like to say about this film is that — despite its shortcomings — it is very entertaining. Shane Black has recaptured the fireworks that Iron Man 2 had lost, providing a fast-paced plot. The huge set pieces such as the plane (shown in the trailer) and the dock sequence are hugely impressive, with engrossing action that never at any point lost my attention. As a matter of fact, the action in this film is equally as good as the action on display in Iron Man. Shane Black obviously not only has an eye for amazing visuals, but also an ear for wit as Iron Man 3 produces the best comedy of the three films — primarily from the on form Downey Jr, displaying his usual acting tendencies. The success of the witty, smart script is most likely a product of Black’s work with Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The cast are also solid, with actors such as the dependable Don Cheadle contributing genuine performances.

“I must be losing my mind.”

Having said all of that, I do not believe that Iron Man 3 quite met the lofty heights of Iron Man. The plot, while fun and entertaining, was not as intriguing, and any intrigue it did have in the first half of the film was lost after a key plot development that I will discuss in the spoilers section of this review. The most disappointing aspect of this film for me though, was the misuse of two of its characters. Rebecca Hall — who plays former love interest of Stark and botanist, Maya Hansen — undergoes more attitude changes than Jack Nicholson in The Shining! Whilst she plays the role absolutely fine, the role itself is flawed and might have benefited from a little more screen time, or, in a perfect world, more development.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I have seen many character twists in numerous different films in my fairly short existence, but I cannot remember being more disappointed than by the development of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3. For an hour or so, the Mandarin is depicted as a merciless, creepy, fearful villain — perhaps the best villain of the Iron Man franchise so far. Then, out of nowhere, we discover he is merely an actor (how ironic) hired by Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian to be the face of a new terrorist plot — shielding Killian from any suspicion and allowing him to develop and undertake a plan to capture Pepper Potts and inject her with his Extremis virus (which regenerates body parts) in order to gain Stark’s attention and force him to fix the faults in the virus — or risk losing Potts. Killian is a decent, sly villain however he is nothing compared to the Mandarin and the potential Shane Black had created with that character in the film’s opening hour. I would have much preferred it if Killian turned out to be a sidekick to the Mandarin and not the actual Mandarin himself.

“I am the Batman.”

Finally, the last few scenes were also slightly problematic to me. We are to understand that after all off the ordeals Stark and Potts have gone through, that Stark is now putting Iron Man on the back-burner (which obviously cannot be true anyway) to rekindle his relationship with Potts. But then, after having the shrapnel removed from his heart and after destroying his Iron Man costumes, Stark visits the location of his former home and collects part of the machinery controlled by JARVIS — perhaps indicating that he is not done with Iron Man. Where the problem lies for me is that if he did plan on recovering such machinery (the same machinery he uses to create Iron Man suits) why did he destroy all of his Iron Man suits in the first place?

SPOILERS FINISHED

Despite its shortcomings, Shane Black succeeds in creating a fun, entertaining and hugely enjoyable third part to the Iron Man franchise which is funniest instalment to date.