THE GREAT GATSBY (2013/IN THEATERS) Ever since Strictly Ballroom, I have been madly in love with Baz Luhrmann. So I admit that I have been completely excited about his version of The Great Gatsby since it first made headlines in 2011. And as the announcements came–Gatsby to be filmed in 3D! Leo as Gatsby! Carey Mulligan as Daisy!—I just got more excited. So all those negative reviews by “leading critics” did not deter me a bit. I was in line for the first available 3D showing last Friday and have already returned to see the movie again (BTW: it plays even better the second time around). Of course it goes without saying that the production is over the top (remember Moulin Rouge?) and the camera movement can be initially very distracting, but once the storyline kicks in–when DiCaprio as Gatsby makes his big appearance– the movie takes off and sucks you in right to the end. Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce (his frequent collaborator), endeavors to bring us the “essence” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of self invention and hopeless longing in a period of amazing excess—the roaring 20s. Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin has done an incredible job with the sets and costumes—they are dazzling. I hope she is rewarded with an Oscar nod. And the mix of hip-hop music along with classical favorites (Rhapsody in Blue, for example) really worked for me. As for the acting, DiCaprio truly holds the film in his gorgeous blue eyes, while Tobey Maguire is just fine as insider/outsider narrator Nick Carraway. Carey Mulligan, showcasing non-stop gorgeous costumes and headpieces, shows Daisy Buchanan for what she is—intrigued, but more than willing to take the easy way out. Other cast members are good as well, particularly newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. While some have complained that the glitz overwhelms the characters, I didn’t feel this at all. But perhaps that’s just my ongoing love affair with Mr. Luhrmann. I say…see it and reach your own conclusion.
BTW: Luhrmann talked more about his ten year effort to make this film at Cannes just today. Catch the press conference here.
MUD (2012/In Theaters)
Mud is the third movie written and directed by Jeff Nichols. As with his last feature, the criminally overlooked Take Shelter, I am reluctant to say too much about the details of Mud’s plot here. Nichols makes movies that are authentic and surprising, best enjoyed with no expectations. This one takes place in a small town in Arkansas, where lives are divided between the parking lots and seedy motels of Town and the simplicity and freedom of the River. Two boys, portrayed with incredible depth and nuance by Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland (the latter looking like he walked right out of Stand By Me and into this film, Fugazi t-shirt notwithstanding), discover a mysterious stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and decide to help him in his quest. The adventures that unfold are a window into their families, friendships, homes, youth, and waning innocence.
Again Nichols’ film is gorgeous, favoring dawn and twilight, nature and water. As in Take Shelter, he somehow uses simple, quiet lives to convey more suspense and emotion than any blockbuster thriller or mile-a-minute action flick I’ve seen; in part because his characters are so real and the performances so strong. In addition to the two outstanding young leads, Nichols regulars Ray McKinnon and Michael Shannon (whose broad range continues to astound), and Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, and Reese Witherspoon are all excellent. And I won’t ever associate McConaughey with tepid romantic comedies again after this (and Magic Mike, of course). Mud, both the man and the film, is a study in balance: simultaneously ominous and endearing, simple and complex, small and grand. See it.
THE 15th ANNUAL ROGER EBERT’S FILM FESTIVAL (Days 4-5)
Champaign, IL / April 17-21, 2013
Ebertfest Day 4 started at a fever pitch—I mean, where do we go from a (now interwebz famous) 11am dance party led by actess/artist Tilda Swinton?
Nowhere but up, surprisingly enough—Saturday’s stellar lineup was an eclectic mix of genres and tones with something for everybody.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012/IN THEATERS) Derek Cianfrance, the writer/director of this film as well as 2010’s Blue Valentine, teams up a second time with Ryan Gosling to bring us a three-part tale of fathers and sons set in Schenectady, New York (of note, the title of the movie is based on the Mohawk translation of Schenectady—who knew?). The film opens with a lengthy tracking shot featuring Gosling as main character Luke Glanton, shot from behind, blond haired and covered in tattoos, heading to his “event” at a traveling carnival where he performs daring motorcycle tricks as part of a trio of other young riders. Luke is clearly good at this—he’s the star– and life seems pretty good. He even receives a short visit from Romina (Eva Mendes), an attractive woman he had known on his last time though town. She doesn’t tell him at first, but he soon learns that he has a young son named Jason, thanks to their hook-up a year earlier. Stunned by this news and by the sight of the baby, Luke quits his job and declares to Romina that he will be part of her life and will do his duty as a father, despite the fact that she already has another relationship with a solid, good man. Looking for work, Luke teams up with a mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, fabulous in the role) who loans him a trailer and talks up the idea of robbing banks together. The two decide to go for it and soon Luke is using his motorcycle riding skills to outrun the cops, saving up the stolen money to give to Jason. But ultimately it can’t last and as the film crosses to its second storyline, we meet Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a new cop whose path crosses with Luke’s during a desperate and ultimately failed escape from the final robbery. Avery is an educated young man, with a law degree and a father who is a prominent judge. He has chosen to be a cop, despite the concern of his young and pretty wife (Rose Byrne) who worries about his safety. Ironically, he also has a young son the same age as Jason. The second part of the movie focuses almost exclusively on Avery as he reaches a decision to either be part of the police corruption he encounters (embodied by Ray Liotta as a bad cop named Deluca) or to rise above it. Avery is no dummy and he seizes the opportunities presented to him. We then move 15 years forward to find that Avery, now divorced, is running for District Attorney. He still lives in Schenectady; his son, AJ, is moving in with him because he’s too much to handle for his poor mother. In a chance encounter at the local high school, AJ meets Jason and the third leg of the story begins. AJ (Emory Cohen) is a troubled kid with a real NYC-style swagger. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is a quiet loner who rides his BMX bike, gets into trouble frequently, and longs to know more about his real father. By the end of the film, he’ll know plenty and so will we.
The movie is ambitious in its story telling and it’s long—2 hours and 20 minutes—but I found it good, on the whole. As other reviewers have noted, the third piece of the trilogy is easily the weakest—in part because the character of AJ is so darned unattractive and the young actor playing him is just not that good (maybe you remember Emory Cohen as Debra Messing’s son in the first season of Smash?). But his counterpart, Dane DeHaan is very good and incidentally, so are the others, including Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes. Cianfrance clearly has a way with actors. For me, it’s Gosling who sets the bar so high—he carries the entire first act brilliantly, blending his Drive character (strong and silent) with his Blue Valentine personae (confused, well-meaning, naïve). As Jason examines a photo of his father late in the film, we are reminded of just how charismatic Luke was and is. Another great performance from Gosling and one that makes this film almost work.
So this is not exactly the post we had planned a couple of weeks ago. Serious Movie Lover is heading to Ebertfest for our fourth (!) time, and while we’re thrilled to get to experience more of Roger Ebert’s carefully selected gems, we can’t help but think it will be very sad to turn around not see him sitting in his comfy recliner in the back of the Virginia Theatre. We feel honored to be able to celebrate Ebert’s life in a town that genuinely revered him.
You can keep up with the fest by following @ebertfest (they have linked to some lovely tributes over the last couple of weeks), and we’re sure there will be a hashtag of some kind? We will totally figure this Twitter thing out as soon as it isn’t cool anymore.
We’ll have a review of the entire experience for you on April 26–and some photos of the newly restored Virginia Theatre! Please forgive us if we’re a little oversentimental. The official schedule:
7 p.m.: “Days Of Heaven”
Followed by: “I Remember”
1 p.m.: “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh”
4 p.m.: “In The Family”
9 p.m.: “Bernie”
1 p.m.: “Oslo, August 31st”
4 p.m.: “The Ballad of Narayama”
8:30 p.m.: “Julia”
11 a.m.: “Blancanieves”
2 p.m.: “Kumar”
5 p.m.: “Escape From Tomorrow”
9 p.m.: “The Spectacular Now”
Noon: “Not Yet Begun To Fight”
ON THE ROAD (2012/IN THEATERS) I have been waiting for this film for well over a year—and let me say, it was worth the wait. Based on the landmark 1957 “beat generation” novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, about his days on the road with crazy Neal Cassady, it is said that Kerouac himself wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to make a film of the novel with the two of them as the leads and a camera strapped on the engine of a car. While that idea never panned out, in 1979 Francis Ford Coppola did buy the rights to the book. He worked over the years to bring it to life and among several attempts, tried to cast Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt as Kerouac and Cassady. Ultimately Coppola approached Brazilian director Walter Salles after seeing his fabulous work in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which was also based on a road novel by the young Che Guevara. Salles brought in his screenwriter Jose Rivera and the rest of his team from the earlier work and finally filming began in August 2010 in Montreal, Quebec. Before they were done, Salles and company had filmed in dozens of locations, ranging from San Francisco to Arizona to Louisiana and even to Argentina (when it became too dangerous to shoot in Mexico) bringing the book to gorgeous cinematic life. A strong ensemble cast completes the work, with Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (the Kerouac role) and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) carrying the film and doing a bang-up job of it. Also featured are Kristen Stewart as Marylou, Dean’s 16 year old bride and wild child who is frequently with the two leads (and naked, as the tabloids have already noted); Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg in real life), giving a poignant portrayal of being gay and sensitive in the late 40s and early 50s; Kirsten Dunst as Camille, who plays the long-suffering second wife of Dean (Carolyn Cassady in real life); Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), eccentric but brilliant in his short time on screen; and Amy Adams as Old Bull’s wild woman Jane, shaking the lizards out of a tree in their Louisiana abode. Also appearing are Elisabeth Moss as Galatea Dunkel, left with Old Bull and Jane, and as she says “married for gas money,” as well as brief but wonderful appearances by Terence Howard and Steve Buscemi. Like “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the cinematography of the film is brilliant and allows you to share in that feeling of being on the road. Rhythms of jazz underline the film and there’s plenty of booze, drugs, and sex, in keeping with the book. Also plenty of writing and thinking and talking about the true meaning of life–which is what intrigues young Sal in the first place. I think if you’re a fan of the book, you will not be disappointed by this film. And if you have yet to read it, just hang on for the ride!
TAOS SHORTZ FILM FEST 2013 (March 7-10, 2013, Taos Community Auditory, Taos, New Mexico) Over 88 juried global short films were screened over the course of four days and ten sessions this past week in beautiful Taos, New Mexico. Organized by Anna Cosentine, a serious movie lover for sure!—this year marked the 6th for the Taos Shortz Film Fest. Cosentine shared the credit at Sunday’s Awards Ceremony with Duprelon Tizdale who served as Program Director this year. I was able to catch three of the ten sessions, including Session 1 which was devoted to local Taoseno filmmakers—a terrific and packed event. Awards were given in six categories: Dramatic Fiction, Comedy, Documentary, Animation, Experimental and the Zia Award for the Best New Mexican Film from NM’s own filmmakers. To top it all off, the Peoples’ Choice Award was the cherry on the cake —given this year to a hilarious short entitled “First Date” which is now showing at SXSW in Austin. If you get the chance, be sure to catch it!
Partial List of Winners:
People’s Choice First Date / USA
Animation Abuelas (Grandmothers) / UK
Dramatic Fiction Abgestemplt (Punched) / Austria-Germany
Documentary Unravel (UK/ India)
Experimental Solo Piano NYC (USA)
A personal favorite which had its US Premiere: Ash (Comedy Fiction) / Singapore
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012/ DVD) Ever heard of a musician named Rodriguez? Me neither until I watched this wonderful 90-minute documentary from Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul who apparently has a calling for producing films about musicians. Who knew? This one begins in South Africa with fans of a U.S. singer/songwriter/guitarist named Sixto Rodriguez, a mysterious performer from Detroit who put out two albums in the early 70s. Both were critical hits but neither made the charts. In fact, both of them bombed big-time and Rodriguez “disappeared” like so many others before and after him. Come to find out, bootleg copies of those albums, especially the first one entitled “Cold Fact,” found their way to South Africa and became rallying cries for the young white “hippies” who were ready to over-throw Apartheid. Of course, all those young fans in South Africa assumed that Rodriguez was a huge rock star, equal to Bob Dylan, the Stones and others. Eventually they heard wild stories about the singer dying—setting himself on fire—shooting himself on stage following the rejection of his latest songs.
Finally, in the late 1990s, two Cape Town fans–Stephen ‘Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholmew Strydom–decided to find out what really happened to their hero. This documentary follows their efforts and cleverly makes us pursue the trail along with them, sharing in their discoveries that turned out to be nothing short of fabulous. Even if you find the start of the film a little hard to follow, don’t worry. You’ll be rewarded as you stick with this tale—maybe you already know the ending. I won’t spoil it here. But let’s just say….Mr. Rodriguez might just be performing in your town soon!
P.S. Here’s a Wikipedia fun fact for you film fans. “Initially using 8 mm film to record some scarce, stylized shots for the movie, director Bendjelloul ran out of money for more film to record the final few shots. He resorted to filming the remaining stylized shots on his smartphone using an iPhone app called 8mm Vintage Camera to complete the film.” Cool….