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The Great Gatsby (2013)
Fitzgerald Can't Be Ruined
It's hard to give a numerical rating to this film, because Fitzgerald deserves a 10 and everything else about the film is almost irrelevant. The screenplay preserves much of the dialogue. I haven't read the book in decades, but I did read it twice, and it all came back to me while watching this film.
The movie is not "over-the-top" as some have claimed. The party scenes are extravagant, but they provide an effective contrast to the later scenes that are dark and scathing in their social criticism. The costumes were meticulous, beautiful and seemed period-authentic. I didn't like the hip-hop songs, but they were brief. Most of the music is supplied by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra.
I have two complaints about the film: The painted backgrounds are a bit too obvious (as they are in most movies) and the acting was a bit of a letdown. DiCaprio is brilliant in some scenes and seems a bit confused in others. Maguire overdoes his facial expressions. Mulligan is convincing in her sad scenes, but it's hard to believe her as a woman who inspires desperate love. I couldn't understand why the Jewish gangster is portrayed by someone South Asian. In the end though, I didn't care about these quibbles.
A Must for Zeppelin Fans
They can still rock.
I was skeptical of the idea of a reunion concert, but this more than met my expectations for the DVD. I wish I'd been at the concert--my last chance. I was too young to drive to the arena in the 70s; now I'll never see them live. This DVD is going to be as good as it gets and it's good, better than good. Robert Plant's signing is slightly different but just as interesting, Jimmy Page is still passionate and technically amazing, John Paul Jones is still the consummate professional and Jason Bonham is a lot of fun to watch and listen to.
The concert was supposed to be a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun but it's obvious it also had other meanings to the band members. There's a moment during a break when Page leans over to ruffle the non-existent hair on Jason Bonham's head and I couldn't help thinking that maybe this concert extinguishes any lingering bad karma over John Bonham's death. All I know is that I fell in love with Led Zeppelin all over again this past year, with the attention they've been getting making me listen to and appreciate their music again, with a more seasoned ear and an appreciation of how unique they were and their lasting impact.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
The Empty Rich and Their Cluttered Life
This movie was planned to be a documentary about the biggest house in America, but after the crash of 2008 occurred shortly after filming began, the director turned it into a story of the economic collapse. We're familiar with the stories of the many ordinary people who lost their jobs in 2008-09; this film is a story of people who despite being very rich--at least on paper--were also victims although perhaps mostly of their own bad judgment. I expected to hate the Siegels, but I did not. Although they're not people with whom I would want to spend personal time, they come across as merely shallow, immature and maybe even naive people who became addicted to money and spending and suffered the consequences.
The film shows laughable yet slightly shocking scenes of people who equate stuff with happiness and excess with success. "Versailles" is never finished (the house plays a bit part in the movie) but the home they live in is ridiculous in its own way: It's luxurious, but also filthy. Unhousebroken dogs poop all over the place, every room is cluttered, stuff spills out of closets, one daughter is obese and it's obvious the hired help can't keep up.
The movie takes time to give personal histories of both Mr. and Mrs. Siegel and it's easy to see how they turned out the way they did: Mr. Siegel's parents were gamblers, and although they lost their money in Las Vegas and their son became rich, the movie shows how really he is a gambler and big spender as well. Mrs. Siegel is not merely a "trophy wife" although her sexist husband sees her that way; she has an engineering degree and made money as a model before her marriage. Despite her shopping addiction, disorganization and extremely poor housekeeping skills, it's clear she's a savvy survivor who has a tendency to get what she wants. The movie also features some interviews with other family members including two teenage daughters. Their comments are extremely honest, both about their parents and about wealth. The heartbreaking interview, however, is with the Filipina nanny. In her brief tale, she gives a glimpse into Third World poverty that shows how lucky the Siegels really are.
From what I've read the Siegels are back on their feet; like most rich people, they did not suffer in the way that most of us have suffered. Yet it is clear that they did suffer. The film is not judgmental and I have to give the Siegels credit for allowing the filmmaker to film intimate details of their life, giving us a glimpse into the lives of people who are addicted to money and spending. In the end you'll have to judge for yourself if you envy or pity the Siegels. My own take was that their view of life is so foreign to mine that what they would call happiness I would only call boredom.
Preposterous and Weird
James Bond movies have never been "realistic," but in this installment Bond is invulnerable like a cartoon character. He's Wile E. Coyote; a one-ton weight could drop on him and he would just crawl out from under it. It's preposterous. There are a number of other ridiculosities that sadly are becoming standard for action movies, such as the outrunning of explosions, people shooting up cars yet somehow the driver is unhurt and the gas tank doesn't explode, etc. Suspension of disbelief is ruined within the first 10 minutes.
In addition, there is a creepy plot line about a renegade agent who has a "Psycho" type mother issue relating to "M." I have never seen anything like this in a Bond film and it is just weird. There's some awful dialogue, like they were writing the script as they were filming it. Naomie Harris, the interesting actress from "28 Days Later" is wasted. The movie is saved from being garbage by the enormous amount of money spent on action sequences in exotic locales, and fine acting by Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes. I would add Daniel Craig but in this film he does little more than kill people. There are no romance scenes as in "Casino Royale." Bond comes across as cold and unappealing, not sexy and complicated as in the previous two films with Craig. The more I think about this film the less I like it.
The Paperboy (2012)
Shades of "Deliverance"
This film reminded me quite a bit of "Deliverance." It's about how well-meaning people can end up way over their heads by getting involved with people and subcultures with which they're not familiar. It's less riveting than "Deliverance" but has more sympathy toward its characters.
The plot revolves around a small group of people who join forces for a cause: A woman who wants to free a prisoner she's become enamored of (by mail) and a couple of newspaper reporters who want to dig up the truth about the crime. One of the reporters is seeking justice, the other has a slightly different agenda. The idealistic reporter has a younger brother (Zac Efron) who is an innocent. Innocence, idealism and romanticism come up against opportunism and sociopathy and some of what happens is not too much of a surprise. The end of the movie had a great deal of dramatic potential and could have been more suspenseful in the hands of a more polished director. The movie overall is somewhat lurid, a Southern Gothic, but not as lurid as some critics have claimed. Overall it is a movie with some poignancy.
Jumbled Mess; Mildly Diverting
I'm giving this 7 stars only because there are so few movies that even attempt intelligent dialogue. Sadly, this movie fails as a critique of capitalism (assuming that's what it's supposed to be--it's hard to tell for sure) because it doesn't represent Wall Street accurately. Moreover, it portrays capitalism's critics as loons or rabble. I began to wonder if DeLillo is a nihilist.
Robert Pattinson portrays a character who is, in the words of Tom Wolfe (who wrote a much better, funnier portrayal of foibles of the rich called "Bonfire of the Vanities") a "Master of the Universe." The universe comes crashing down, while he drives around Manhattan, having conversations with employees, a prostitute, and his wife. Some of these conversations are interesting or funny, especially one in which Samantha Morton portrays his "Director of Theory." My main problem with this film is that Wall Street isn't run by intelligent, precocious, gorgeous young creatures like Robert Pattinson's character--it's run by a bunch of crooked middle-aged crass salesmen who are running a boys' club. It was particularly off that so many of the high-ranking employees Pattinson's character deals with are women when in fact women are mostly excluded from the ranks of power on Wall Street.
Another problem I had with this movie is that although it portrays the super-rich as empty and/or vicious, it portrays those who rebel as crazy or ineffective. If this is DeLillo's worldview, it's a wonder he hasn't killed himself yet.
Total Recall (2012)
Fun; Not as Good as Original
Although I recognize the outlines of the plot, this is a very different movie from Paul Verhoeven's 1990 classic. The humor and the wacky scenes are gone. The fast pace and the characters remain. There are far more explosions in this version; sadly they don't add that much to the suspense. Basically, this is a hard story to ruin, so it's still pretty good. In addition, Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel do good work and the movie clearly cost a lot of money, with a lot of attention to detail in the production design.
What I missed the most from the original were Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside. I'm not very familiar with Kate Beckinsale's work; I wonder if she is an awful actress all the time or just in this movie. I had thought from photos that she was quite beautiful, but for some reason Sharon Stone was much sexier. Or maybe it's just that Stone is a much better actress. In retrospect the scenes with Stone in the original seem classic. There is nothing memorable about the scenes with Beckinsale, yet strangely she has many more scenes that Stone did in the original. Oh wait, it's because Beckinsale is married to the director. There should be a rule in Hollywood; nobody should be allowed to cast their spouse unless the spouse has won at least one Academy Award.
If you are trying to choose between seeing "The Dark Knight Rises" and this film, I recommend this film. The story is a classic, and the allusions to current events have a meaning and morality that is missing from the Batman movie. In fact, the Batman movie's message, that a billionaire can save humanity and that ordinary people are rabble, was offensive to me. You can tell "Total Recall" was taken from a real science fiction story by a writer who has stood the test of time. Science fiction is a way of talking to us about today through setting the story in tomorrow.
Magic Mike (2012)
A Lot of Fun
First of all, who doesn't like to watch well-built people dance? However, this movie is more than scenes of buff men strutting their stuff, gyrating and taking off their clothes (not that that wouldn't be enough). It's also a character drama.
Alex Pettyfer plays a character ("Adam") who at first seems like a young man who just can't catch a break, and "Magic Mike," (Channing Tatum) takes him under his wing. There's a lesson to be learned.
There's a subplot involving a budding romance between Tatum's character and Adam's sister. There are also many scenes of group sex and general wildness. Sex seems to be one of Soderbergh's favorite themes and he portrays sexuality without any pretense or hang-ups.
Matthew McConaughey does a splendid comic turn as the club's owner/master of ceremonies and there are many comic scenes throughout the movie. I enjoyed this more than the last several Hollywood films I saw this year. The only kind of person I could imagine not enjoying this is a heterosexual guy with homosexual fears.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
The Characters Deserved More
It's a passable entertainment, but it would have been better with less CGI, fewer battle scenes and more character development.
The film uses the basic outline of the original Snow White story and then borrows liberally, from Chronicles of Narnia, Sleeping Beauty, Twilight, Avatar and Lord of the Rings. The film jumps rapidly from one scene to another, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into trying to excite the audience with effects that we've seen before and which therefore are not exciting. The real drama occurs at the end in the showdown between the Queen and Snow White. But isn't real drama ALWAYS about the characters?? Charlize Theron overacts through much of the film; at the end it works because of the high drama at the climax; up until then it's annoying. Kristen Stewart is OK but her character is just a plot foil. Chris Hemsworth is likable and convincing. The dwarfs don't get enough screen time. The only really original aspect of this film is the sympathy it accords the Queen, which was a nice touch. If it hadn't been for that, I would have given it 6 stars.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
Elitist, Politically and Ecologically Offensive, and Dull
The first part of the movie is quite dull; stock British characters say unfunny lines while discussing an absurd project, the creation of a river and salmon preserve in Yemen. Kristin Scott Thomas overacts, Emily Blunt's talent is wasted and only Ewan MacGregor (surprisingly) comes off as believable. The film picks up a bit with the introduction of an Arab sheik character, played by Amr Waked. Amazingly, despite being forced to mouth stock Arab sheik lines, he manages to radiate charisma that is momentarily appealing. The film then moves to Yemen (actually Morocco) where it has trouble figuring out what it is trying to say. The main British characters and the sheik are portrayed as idealists when in actuality they are grandiose, arrogant and ignorant. At almost the last minute the MacGregor character makes a brief, sort of politically correct speech that seems to admit some error but it's too late; the movie has already offended. Westerners and the Arab elite have been portrayed as far superior to the ignorant masses, despite the fact the country belongs to these masses...and let's not forget the fate visited on the poor fish in this story, which by the way was not believable. I read somewhere that the book was a satire; sadly, this movie is a failed rom-com.