Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bitches & Money: A recommendation in favor of seeing THE GREAT GATSBY

Hot summer nights, mid July
When you and I were forever wild
The crazy days, city lights
The way you’d play with me like a child

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I am nothing but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will, I know you will

This is the chorus to Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful. One of many great songs on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman’s THE GREAT GATSBY. Co-written by Luhrman and Del Rey, it goes on to suggest the nostalgia and sadness brought forth by the rekindled romance of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Some might say that this song comes from the melancholy and waif like perspective of Daisy but I think the song more reflects Gatsby’s point of view. 

So, THE GREAT GATSBY is required reading in most 11th grade curriculums. Few enjoyed required reading. South Pasadena High School, my alma mater was actually a school heavy with readers from all social standings. There were your Orson Scott Card nerds, there were your young pretty blondes reading those terrible Stephanie Plumb novels. And there was me, trying to convince Mr. Asher that QUANTUM LEAP spin-off novels were perfectly reputable reading materials to write a report about. We had very little room to digest CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE SCARLETT LETTER and god forbid the adventures of a bunch of well to do flappers from a decade that a bunch of 16 year olds were far from comprehending. Let’s get the facts straight. THE GREAT GATSBY is hella boring. The late great Andy Kaufman would actually punish rude audiences by taking out the novel and reading it in it’s entirety until either the end of the show or everybody had left, whichever came first. Not only is this the funniest thing that I’ve ever heard but I also believe it is rather apt. We were also subjected to viewings of several different film adaptations (which is probably the last effort at grabbing our attention from a public school’s viewpoint) and each was more boring than the last. 

But over the years I’ve adopted the philosophy that there is something to every story. A different interpretation to deliver the same themes and story to a more modern audience is not a bad thing. Most hoity toits would consider that as dumbing down or broading the material but I like to think of myself as someone who can detect a genuine effort. I certainly give enough time and thought into such things. Look, I’ve seen LOVE DON’T CO$T A THING. I know when I’m being talked down to. If an amazing 1920's style version of Crazy In Love is what I need to swallow down my medicine then SO BE IT.

And the gimmick of this version is rather simple and appropriate. Baz Luhrman got together with Jay Z to produce this wonderful soundtrack that takes the latest in popular music from several different genres and infuses some of them with a 1920’s moxie. Drinking and partying is a very universal theme. Using the soundtrack to highlight the excess and glamorous lifestyle of the characters was a very fun aside that doesn’t do much to hurt the core narrative, which is as follows. Nick Carraway is in a sanitarium, dictating to a doctor the events and the people that got him there. A simple bondsman who moves into the glitzy Long Island flapper neighborhoods of yore at the bud of an economic boom, and he gets sucked into the scene with little protest. It seems his super rich and super revered neighbor, ubermensh blonde haired and blue eyed white man Jay Gatsby has taken a liking to him. Leonardo DiCaprio probably gets one of the best introductions in film history as Rhapsody In Blue (a track that Gershwin created specifically for one of the climactic sequences in GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH) swells and fireworks go off behind the smiling mug of one of the most handsome men of our age. 

There is a lot of pomp and circumstance in the first act of GATSBY, and that’s because there is a lot of boring exposition that Luhrman smartly jazzes up with sweeping shots of 1925 era New York. The parties are also pretty lavish. Full of glitter and charlestons as far as the stereoscopic camera eye can see. This is the only problem with the glorious soundtrack. There’s too much awesomeness and not enough actual screen partying to fit them all into, so sometimes Florence plus the Machine get burned off elsewhere. Luhrman also knows when to slow it down for the more intimate moments. I didn’t see this film in 3D but the first half of the movie kind of made it very clear that I should have. I wonder if it would have been distracting in the way the Star Wars prequels were when they had people acting in a completely computer generated setting. Anyway, it turns out Nick’s cousin is an old flame of Gatsby’s from before he went off and became a hero of WWI. WW ONE for crying out loud. So he gets Nick to get them to meet again and Del Rey’s song plays about five or six more times in the movie. I’m not complaining, it’s a great song. They even have a more jazzy up tempo version that they play during one of the party scenes. It seems this Gatsby fellow never got over Daisy and thinks that they can continue where they left off. Even though Daisy is in a marriage with Owen Lars. But it’s a loveless marriage so it’s okay. And he’s already cheating on Daisy, which is double okay. It becomes apparent that getting Daisy back has taken far more of Gatsby’s time and efforts than initially thought and he thinks that if Daisy just broke it off with Lars that everything can go back to the way it was.

The movie is 2hrs and 22mins. This is too long. And I think the movie delivered enough for me at the two hour mark that my body felt it was okay to go sleep for the duration. This led to some very comical points to wake up during if you know the story and it’s ending, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say, I wikipedia’d the rest of the movie and sleep was fine. It kind of ends in a melodramatic soap operaish way. The movie before all these dramatics did a really good job at setting an entertaining tone and vibe. They didn't get to all of the themes of the novel, that a lot of people think is about the death of the American dream or some such nonsense. But it’s an engaging love story filled with many good performances. DiCaprio is very charming. As the most successful cast member of GROWING PAINS, I think he's done us proud. And Carey Mulligan who plays Daisy is scary good. Adeline Clemens from that Keanu Reeves indie I saw last week is in it, so that was very exciting. Isla Fisher is great and Tobey Maguire continues to sound like my Aunt Helen. This is the first official team up of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire who are industry best friends and founding members of The Pussy Posse. A 1990’s group of actors that laid more pipe around Los Angeles than the 1994 Northridge Earthquake rehab. Actually this isn’t the first movie they’ve done together. That same group of actors made a movie in 1999 called DON’S PLUM. This movie was meant to be more of a test or experiment or whatever because Leo and Tobey sued the director who tried to release it and it’s officially banned from the US and Canada. Yes, you can buy it in Mexico. Yes, this was Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley’s last acting role. Based on this footage you would probably be safe in assuming or pretending that this is a documentary. 

So GATSBY is a fun time and turned something boring into something watchable and still managed to get some of the original points in there too. It’s also a nice little change of pace in terms of where summer blockbusters are concerned. Big budget effects laden dramas are cool too, dudes. Baz Luhrman had something to bring to the material and that’s more than a lot of adaptations have behind them. I just want Steven Soderbergh to do a Michael Crichton novel now so I can die happy. I give the adequate Gatsby

*** out of *****

- D

Friday, May 3, 2013

IRON MAN THREE: A review filled with spoils

IRON MAN THREE is a super weird film. When Shane Black was first announced as the writer/director, he said he wanted to do a story that was more of a spy thriller and he more or less accomplishes this. The most important thing about the Iron Man franchise is how Tony Stark deals with his problems outside the armor and that is the most successful thing about this movie.

The movie starts out with a flashback to New Year’s Even 1999 that is off-putting for several reasons. The first being it called back Eiffel 65’s Blue and no one needed that. Second, because it brought back Yensin from the first movie for no reason, and it got me all sorts of excited for what sort of mysterious origins would be revealed for The Mandarin, finally getting put on the big screen. More on that later. The most interesting of moments in this flashback, is that it sets up Guy Pierce’s character, Alderaan Gillyweed, Tony’s main rival for the movie. He shows up looking exactly like Edward Nygma from BATMAN FOREVER, and saying the exact same things Edward Nygma said to Bruce Wayne at the beginning of that movie. This was kind of shocking as there is no way this wasn’t on purpose. He wants Tony to partner up with him on this new technology that will manipulate the brain. This is the plight of someone who manages to watch BATMAN FOREVER once a year. Things like this drove him to near insanity. 

Also, in this flashback, we set up that Not Jessica Chastain has done experiments on plants that make them re-grow their plant limbs. Problem is, they keep exploding. At no point does she think of how much money she could make in the novelty item business. Okay, now onto the present! Tony Stark has severe anxiety problems following the events of THE AVENGERS, that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is known as The Battle For New York. Tony had enough problems that now he has to worry about gods and aliens showing up at anytime and threatening the things he loves the most. Mainly Pepper Potts, his one true. Tony is not sure how he can keep her safe in the way he wants to. This is all fine character development for Tony at this point and probably was something Marvel wanted to tap into. The thing is, Shane Black had other ideas.

There are a lot of points in this movie that show a passive aggressive disregard to Marvel’s mandated plot points. One of them being the handling of Happy Hogan. He is played by Jon Faverau, the director of the first two Iron Man movies. In this, Happy is rendered mostly useless and given a figurehead position within Stark Industries to keep him busy. I can’t help but think this is a comment on how Faverau is now seen by Marvel. They put his name on THE AVENGERS and this movie because he had a lot to do with how they were set up but they don’t really need him anymore. They even send him to the Chinese theater to get blowed up and dispatched for the rest of the movie. 

In the first two Iron Man movies, The Ten Rings was set up as this terrorist organization that was using Stark Industries weapons to take over small Middle Eastern territories and gain a strong foothold of power. This was an allusion to The Mandarin, who wears ten magic rings on his fingers of alien origin that each give him a special deadly power. He was set up to be the leader of this organization. A perfect juxtaposition to Tony Stark as two men who’s obsession with technology can make or break the world. Well, The Mandarin finally reveals himself in this movie and he is bombing the hell out of everything with these special bombs that leave no forensic evidence of its physical nature. This is where Happy gets caught up in his paranoid security concerns and almost ends up dying. This is the catalyst that puts Tony on the case. He declares a public challenge to The Mandarin and tells him his address and that if he wants a fight they can have it there. Well, The Mandarin accepts and bombs the shit out of the Stark Mansion and Tony is presumed dead.

Well JARVIS sends Tony, unconscious in armor to Tennessee because that was the last known flight plan Tony had made in an effort to investigate a potential Mandarin attack. It’s this huge chunk of the movie that can at least be described as not ripping off a single thing from any movie ever. Maybe Shane Black’s discarded drafts of LAST ACTION HERO. I don’t know. So Tony’s armor no es working and he befriends a local boy who’s got his own penchant for building things and hides out in the boy’s workshop. Actually, this is also MONSTER SQUAD now that I think about it. This is the ultimate Shane Black movie. Tony starts investigating the Tennessee bombing and the supposed soldier that was supposedly involved but never found. Here’s where Shane Black tries to make Tony a detective but unfortunately the mystery is completely transparent. At this point, the audience is way ahead of Tony in knowing that Guy Peirce’s fireman technology was taken from Not Jessica Chastain and given to The Mandarin to blow things up with. Any further sleuthing at this point is kind of boring, but two fire bad guys show up and shake up things in the small town. This is still cool because I love when Tony has to figure out how to fight super powered beings without his suit. He also gets away with the best line in the movie before he blows a lady up. It’s a shame, because in the comics she is actually Man-Thing’s wife. Poor Man-Thing. 

So with the help of the little boy, Tony manages to track down The Mandarin’s hideout, which is right here in the good ol’ USA in Miami, Florida. The government has also made War Machine into a new guy called Iron Patriot. No mention is given as to why they dressed him up like Captain America and Cap is also never mentioned. Bad form, Marvel Phase Two. Iron Patriot is also looking for The Mandarin but the US government keeps getting fooled by the wild goose chase he’s being sent on and he eventually gets captured. Anyway, in a very BOGUS JOURNEY like fashion, Tony buys a bunch of materials at a hardware store and fashions all these weapons to infiltrate The Mandarin’s hideout. Again, very cool. In fact, it also reminded me of Axel Foley. Now the next thing is probably the movie’s biggest flaw. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the movie for me but is a huge disappointment in terms of the build up the last two movies had and the way Marvel decides to handle one of the biggest villains in the Marvel Universe that they had no idea how to adapt into a movie character.

They reveal that The Mandarin is an actor hired by Peirce to provide the illusion of antagonist to the government so that he can play them against each other when he got Iron Patriot and the President in his pocket. The war on terror would never end and he would make millions with his fire tech that makes people evil and explodey. This I could not jive with. I know that The Mandarin has been portrayed as more of a symbol than an actual character in a bunch of Marvel Comics stuff but they had their own Bane/Joker and they completely played it off as a joke. A joke that wasn’t even funny.  Marvel has still yet to provide actual threatening and interesting arch-rivals beyond Loki and they could have given Tony Stark a pretty cool antagonist. Guess not. And I also find it really hard to believe that Guy Peirce was behind all that mess in the Middle East in the first movie. Again, I know what Shane Black was trying to do but the twist didn’t yield a good enough result to try it. Why was Yensin at that party? I kept thinking that they were gonna have some explanation but it never came. I just don’t think Shane Black wanted to deal with him.

So Pierce kidnaps Pepper (ugh) and is gonna use her as a bargaining chip to make Tony fix the fire virus and make it less unstable. This is really the only point where they could have connected him to being the Mandarin, as this tactic was used in the first movie, but if he knew what happened in the first movie and how Tony used it against them, he probably wouldn’t be making the same mistake again. Guy injects Pepper with Chimera and then sends the newly in his control Iron Patriot to go kidnap the president and blow up Air Force One. This is where the movie kicks into gear though, because Shane Black turns it into Lethal Weapon with Tony and Rhodey. But at this point, I realized that a lot of the cool asides and tricks that Shane Black wanted to do were ruined by Marvel’s marketing department by putting every cool thing that happens into the trailer. They full on break into Guy’s oil rig base with guns blazing like it is freakin’ DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE up in here. This is a good thing. When I first heard of Shane Black’s involvement in this I thought that we were finally gonna get the big budget fantasy story that he’s been working on for ten years at Warner Brothers but could never get made. It’s actually the reverse, he’s telling this story the only way he knows how. Through 90’s action beats that he has perfected over the years. It was kind of a cool surprise. Tony fights the fire army with his armor army and some great action caps the movie.

Tony’s anxieties about Pepper are never really solved. In fact, they kind of would be solved if they left her a fire being that could defend herself but in the end they have her fixed back into a regular person. Tony also goes ahead and decides to take the shrapnel out of his heart that his power chest has been protecting him from. Was this only an option now? Would have come in handy when his blood was being poisoned by the arc reactor in IRON MAN 2. In fact, that movie actually has a resolution to Tony’s eroding sense of self that this movie doesn’t. JUST DO ‘DEMON IN A BOTTLE’ and stop tippy toeing around Tony’s problems, Marvel. It would be great for the characterization of this guy and the new equilibrium would yield plenty of other places to take him. This movie more than any other Marvel movie convinced me that Marvel is not as ‘stick to a plan’ as their press would have you believe. And that’s not a bad thing, but they blew some great opportunities here. At the end of this movie, Tony takes his power heart and tosses it into the ocean because he has decided that the Iron Man was inside of him all along. He destroys all of his armor at the end as a way of saying that he’s going to spend more time with Pepper and less with saving the world, which is driving him nuts. I guess in a world that has already proved there were plenty of alternatives to him in the hero department, Tony has decided to take it easy for awhile. But that isn’t exactly the Tony Stark we have come to know in three other movies. Still, I very much enjoyed it. The Shane Black style was fun and entertaining and made for a great end credits sequence. It was very much it’s own film and since it was filmed pre-AVENGERS success, don’t look for this any time soon. I think the rest of Phase Two is gonna be very referencey and part of a much bigger picture.

Which brings me to the post-credits sequence. There has been a lot of speculation at this point about what it would be. Would it hint towards some particular GUARDIANS of our GALAXY or give us some much needed ANT-MAN like antics? No. But it was still great because during the movie I thought to myself how much their needed to be some sort of result to Tony Stark’s weird fascination with Bruce Banner and having him tell the story of the events of this movie to a completely uninterested Banner was not only great, but hints at great things to come. I give this movie:

***1/2 out of *****

- D