Film review monthly: May 2013

31 May

As always I write these assuming you’ve seen the movies I’m writing about. All kinds of stuff gets spoiled.

In the House
This was an interesting concept, but it didn’t quite hit the way it could have. I thought it was going to take a turn into creepy thriller territory, but that didn’t really happen. I enjoyed it I guess, but I was hoping for more. Fabrice Luchini was the star, he was OK. I recognized him from last year’s Potiche. Now, I didn’t see Potiche. However, I did see the trailer like eight times. Landmark Cinemas was pushing that one hard. Kristin Scott Thomas was good. Kind of disorienting to see American/British actors in foreign-language films. I wish I had a French friend so I could ask if her performance was convincing.

A lot of the action takes place in a high school, and there were two noteworthy things there. One was the shameless use of the “talking teacher interrupted by the bell and all the students hurriedly pack up their stuff and leave as the teacher flails to get them to listen to what he’s saying” trope. This situation is beyond unrealistic. It’s one of those things that exists in the reality of the movies but not real life. I’ve never experienced it once in my many many years of schooling. There was also a creative shot/scene/something of photos of the school’s students, broken into a Brady Bunch-style grid. I thought that was great.

The Great Gatsby
I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. I think that’s because I went with the idea that the movie wouldn’t match the book and would be different from the book and I should just accept it for what it was. It wasn’t perfect and it had a lot of flaws, but the parts of it that landed were better than I had hoped for.

Making Gatsby into a movie is different than adapting almost any other book. It might be the only case where the majority of people seeing the movie have actually read the source material.* Most screenwriters don’t have to worry about being faithful to the book or changing the book etc., because no one reads books so no one seeing the movie will notice or care. The way Baz Luhrmann dealt with that was to use a lot of actual text from the book in the movie. I thought that was a great idea. However. The way that idea was executed was embarrassingly terrible. Having Tobey Maguire just read excerpts from the book as voiceover would have been fine. Inventing the whole sanatorium/Nick Carraway writing the book angle was dumb and unnecessary. Again, embarrassingly terrible is my feeling about it. It’s a movie. You can just have a voiceover narration with no explanation. There’s nothing wrong with that. Also, there was some condensing/editing of the text. They chopped off the end of the first sentence of the book. I was dumbfounded. That’s like the most famous opening sentence around. That really took me out of it. Someone should publish a concordance or something so I can watch the movie with the book on hand when it’s available on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix/whatever people will be using to watch movies at home in six months.

*I guess The Lord of the Rings might also fit the category.

I didn’t like the 3D. I don’t like 3D in general. It can work in an Avatar situation, where the whole movie is unambiguously computer-generated. In a movie like Gatsby it feels artificial. Every 3D thing has a metallic kind of sheen on it. Yuck. I will say that going in I was looking forward to Leonardo DiCaprio throwing shirts into the audience. They even staged that scene so he was throwing the shirts off a balcony. It was cool, I guess. Didn’t really live up to expectations. Plus the obviously computer-generated parts seemed really out of place. I’m thinking of Nick’s house in particular, which looked like something out of a fairy tale. Ridiculous.

The parts that worked for me were the really exuberant, over-the-top Jazz Age things. The best example was the scene where Tom and Nick go into the city and have a party at the apartment with Myrtle et al. The slow-mo, the music, the champagne. Just great. I think you have to let go of your inner literary snob and allow yourself to be sucked in, but that’s on you, not the movie. The climactic scene at the Plaza was similarly well done. Some of the other visuals were also on point. The Valley of Ashes in particular was compelling. Gatsby’s parties were also high points. As was the scene at Nick’s where Gatsby meets Daisy. The abundance of flowers was an unexpected little visual grenade that I enjoyed. OH. AND. The shot of of the black guys with the white chauffeur on the bridge. Bumping Jay-Z. That image is straight from the book and it was totally unexpected and jarring and just a beautiful moment.

I want to talk about the shot that introduces Gatsby. The shot where he turns around to face the camera in slow motion, smiling, as “Rhapsody in Blue” blasts in the background. It was right on the border between awesome and ludicrous. It made me laugh out loud. I’ll need to see it again before I decide whether it was good or not, but I’m glad it was there.

I came away impressed with the cast. I knew Mr. DiCaprio would be great. There will never be a better choice to play Gatsby than the 2013 version of Leonardo DiCaprio. I don’t know if I can explain it in words. You just have to see him on screen doing it. He’s probably the number one thing this movie has going for it, which is good, because a bad casting choice there would have sunk the whole thing. Tobey Maguire acquitted himself well. I’ve never really been a fan of his, but he had a good handle on Nick. He has a face whose default expression is a kind of boyish wonder, which really suited the role. Joel Edgerton was perfect as Tom. I’d never heard of him before, but kudos. And I have some nice things to say about Carey Mulligan. Credit where credit was due. I went in already angry with her for being in the movie. I thought, “How in the world could you make a Great Gatsby movie and not cast Michelle Williams as Daisy?” It seemed to me like a fatal error. While I think we’d all admit that Ms. Williams would have been the best choice for Daisy (or any film role, really), Ms. Mulligan was great. Daisy’s a hard role. There’s not a lot of dialog to work with, just a lot of expressions and reacting. Her introduction shot was also really creative. The fingers hanging over the back of the couch. Loved it.

She already has the haircut for Christ's sake

She already has the haircut for Christ’s sake

Let’s discuss music. Lots of music. It played an important role in things. More so than in most movies. I’m kind of conflicted about it. Sitting in the theater, here in 2013, I thought having hip-hop in the soundtrack was a great idea. The movie is set in 1922. Jazz music composed in 1922 was as transgressive then as rap is now. Probably more so, even. Now, though, it just sounds quaint. It’s impossible to capture the excitement etc. of the parties and what have you with period music. The places where Mr. Luhrmann inserted rap songs were well-selected. They punched in the right places. Now, I do think that kind of in-the-now modernism will ultimately hurt the movie’s reputation. In twenty or thirty years, the soundtrack will sound dated and it will really take away from the movie. Imagine if the 1974 Gatsby adaptation had used funk songs or something. That just sounds ridiculous. Although I haven’t seen that version and by all accounts it was boring and stilted and pretty blah. Maybe that would have at least made it memorable. We’ll see what happens with this version. I also felt odd about the “Rhapsody in Blue” use. I know this is nitpicky, but it was composed two years after the movie takes place. It seemed like a “period” selection, and it was technically incorrect in that sense. I would have liked either all pre-1922 and post-2002 songs, or a wider variety of music from different time periods. I liked the Lana Del Rey song. I like her in general. I can’t believe they didn’t use “National Anthem” instead. That would have been just a perfect song for this movie. Perfect.

Listen to the lyrics and tell me it doesn’t match this movie as well as any song not written specifically for the movie possibly could

Costumes and cars: both great. Glad they stuck with the famous pink Gatsby suit. I also especially liked Nick’s tweeds. Everyone was generally attired in an interesting and appealing way. The big yellow Duesenberg was cool. Not really accurate to the book, but who cares. I thought they did a good job picking and choosing which of the little details to copy straight from the book. One interesting note: a careful viewing of the credits reveals that the cars were from the garage of hack comedian and historical car enthusiast Jay Leno.

One sentence review: Go see The Great Gatsby and have fun and don’t care if it doesn’t fit your personal vision of what a Gatsby movie should be.

Stories We Tell
This seemed like a pretty experimental kind of movie. A documentary by Sarah Polley about her family. And her biological father, and how his identity was and wasn’t a secret for her whole childhood. The structure and narrative format were both interesting. Ms. Polley did a good job building drama and judiciously doling out plot points.

It was also an interesting commentary about how we tell stories, and where individual people fit into the larger stories of our lives. It was funny/odd/kind of heartbreaking to watch Ms. Polley’s biological father telling her that he thought the whole thing was his story to tell and his alone, when the movie made it pretty clear that that wasn’t the case. Ms. Polley’s a good director. Take this Waltz was one of the more interesting movies of last year, and she seemed pretty assured in controlling the flow here. I would think a documentary is a much different moviemaking process than a fiction narrative, but I was impressed. The way she used old home movie footage and pictures and reënactments was creative. I’m not usually a reënactment fan. Their proliferation has been the death knell of the History Channel and American Experience. You have to be really really careful if you’re going to put them in your documentary. I’ll give them a hesitant approval in Stories We Tell. That’s as high a praise as I’ll ever give.

Room 237
I did not like this. At all. Very disappointed. I had pretty high hopes. The concept seems foolproof: A bunch of nuts describing their outlandish theories about The Shining. In practice, it just doesn’t work. This should have been a fifteen-minute short. Each of the aforementioned nuts had about three minutes of interesting things to say. After that it was simply boring. It seemed like the director was just indulging these guys and letting them ramble far past the point where they were saying things that could be worthwhile even for the purpose of mocking. It was like listening to a bunch of stoned teenagers talk about conspiracy theories. Unless you’re also a stoned teenager with a conspiracy theory, it’s just profoundly uninteresting.

Frances Ha
Joke review: Girls: The Movie! In black and white! With Adam Driver even!

OK for real now. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also a lot not to like. The characters and relationships are worthwhile, but the story and setting just felt so unoriginal. Are people outside of Manhattan and certain sections of Brooklyn not worth dramatizing? That’s a definite feeling I get from a lot of entertainment people. It’s growing, and it’s tiresome. Set this movie anywhere else and it would have been a lot more interesting for me. I thought there were three really vibrant segments of this movie. They were in Sacramento, Paris, and Poughkeepsie.* The New York parts were OK, but the best thing about them were things that could have taken place anywhere. Good acting performances/direction for the most part. I like Greta Gerwig and I like Noah Baumbach.

*The Paris sequence was particularly good. Maybe French people would find it as tiresome as I found the New York stuff, but I’ve seen a lot of movies set in Paris and I liked it. It was interesting to watch especially with regard to the French New Wave influence I mentioned earlier. Kind of a cool little nod.

Dana Stevens mentioned the French New Wave influence in her review, and while that seems obvious in places, the story really devolves into boring Hollywood convention. Frances gets her shit together and everything works out for her in the end. Yuck. I wish they had gone for a less hopeful or more ambiguous ending. More about this in the Sacramento discussion below.

There were a lot of interesting character scenes. Frances and Sophie right at the beginning, some of the stuff with Frances/Lev/Benji, the dinner party, the Paris diversion, and the Vassar stuff. I wish they had focused more on that and less on plot things.

I thought the scenes of Frances visiting her parents in Sacramento really popped, although wish it had been less montagey. Maybe it’s because it was one of the relatively few movie stories that I can very directly relate to. Being in your twenties with your life in a state of collapse and going home to visit your parents. It’s an experience that vacillates wildly between tremendously comforting/reassuring and horribly depressing. I thought the movie did a good job capturing that. When Frances was waving wistfully at her parents at the airport, I was thinking the movie would end with Frances moving back for good. Too bad they didn’t do it that way. It seemed lazy and kind of implausible for her to all of a sudden be a budding successful choreographer in New York. I’d rather have seen a Sacramento ending or Frances staying at Vassar in some emotionally ambiguous capacity or doing something unexpected or weird or anything other than what actually happened.

I don’t know. This all might not make much sense. It’s hard to separate a discussion of Frances Ha from a discussion of the larger cultural space that it inhabits. That cultural space is so small and any exploration of it seems so limited and navel-gazing that it’s hard for me to embrace it and take it seriously on its own terms. There was one noteworthy spot when the movie touched on this. Frances was calling herself poor and Benji responded with something like “Don’t call yourself poor. It’s an insult to actual poor people.” THAT was interesting. The conflict between hipsters and the working poor in urban spaces and gentrification etc. is an idea I’d like to see a movie about. I don’t think that’ll ever happen though.

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One Response to “Film review monthly: May 2013”

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  1. Film Review Quarterly: 2013 Q2 | The Pensive Years - July 30, 2013

    […] In the House This is another foreign movie that felt like it should have been better. I was hoping for more fireworks in the last act. […]

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