May 10, 2013There comes a point late in Baz Lurhman's "The Great Gatsby" when its human element finally supersedes its presentational one. Without giving away spoilers, it happens after a tragedy and we are reminded, through poignant narration, there is inherent good in people and love remains the most powerful of emotions. The film's closing message is strong, and had the rest of it been as attentive and immersive as its conclusion, "Gatsby" might have made for an all-around powerful experience.Unfortunately, it's merely just an okay one. An energetic opening and gripping final act bookend a rather dry middle section, which makes up the bulk of the picture. And because the film's efficacy shows itself too late in the game, it's not completely worth our time and investment. We find ourselves checking out of the story as the movie lets its style and exuberance run rampant, which consequently overshadow its underlying themes and people, which should really come first.And yet, the film's style isn't something to be taken lightly. Like Lurhman's other works ("Romeo + Juliet," "Moulin Rouge"), the surface of "Gatsby" is dazzling, fetching and wonderfully cinematic. But the director succumbs to what many people probably feared he would when choosing to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic American story: he gets carried away with the gloss and loses sight of the substance. What should have been a humanistic story turns into a collection of superficial sensations that aren't enough to cover a nearly two and a half hour runtime. True, there's always something to look at and hear, but not always something to feel or listen to, and that's a problem.It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the movie goes wrong. After all, its cosmetic elements-cinematography, production design, art direction, special effects-all work splendidly together to induce us in the 1922 era and chaos, and the anachronistic music by Jay Z is surprisingly fitting and lends the film a unique signature, but the problem is there's just too much of it. Ironically, the movie fails for the same reason the story's narrator walks away from New York City feeling alone, empty and disgusted by the people with whom he's formed relationships: there's too much flavor and not enough soul.The narrator is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an opportunistic lad in his late 20s who, like many men his age, is well aware of America's economic boom after World War I. A Yale graduate and war veteran, Carraway is eager to grab a piece of the pie and joins the rat race of selling stocks and bonds at a Wall Street firm. He vows to learn everything there is to know about marketing and investing by shutting himself in a dilapidated house on Long Island in the town of West Egg, where his habitat sits in the looming and overbearing shadow of his next door neighbor's humungous mansion.The mansion belongs to one Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious and elusive eccentric known around town for his wild and expensive parties, which he throws on a routine basis, although he never formally invites anybody. Word-of-mouth simply spreads and attracts hundreds of wealthy, high-class socialites to his palatial abode, where they get drunk on alcohol and debauchery. Shortly after moving in, much to his surprise, Nick receives an actual written invitation to Gatsby's next shindig.But there's an ulterior motive to Gatsby's offer. Nick is the cousin of Daisy Buchanan (Carrie Mulligan), a somewhat self-centered woman who was once the love of Gatsby's life. She lives across the bay and is now married, rather unhappily, to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a brutish adulterer who's perfectly happy to keep a mistress named Myrtle (Isla Fisher) but will not hear of his own wife having an affair. Perhaps it's because of her own misery that Daisy sets Nick up with her good friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a professional golfer and free-loader who's often more concerned with gossip than anything else. She and Tom lure Nick into a life of hedonism and selfishness, the first time being when Tom takes him to a party at Myrtle's in the "valley of ashes," an industrial park in between Long Island and New York City that contains the human and environmental by-products of the American Dream. Overlooking the gray and poverty-stricken town is a run-down billboard of a man with glasses that was, at one time, an advertisement for an oculist but which now serves as the eyes of God, or so many believe.Gatsby has known for a long time that Daisy lives across from him and confesses his extravagant lifestyle and parties were all part of an elaborate attempt to woo her back. Through Nick, Gatsby arranges to meet with her and the two quickly rekindle their affair, which intertwines all the characters as they're tested against the highs and lows of love, loyalty and moral values. Not everyone will survive.More of the plot, I won't reveal, but odds are you're familiar with it already because the source material is often considered one of the great American novels. And like the novel, underneath its expensive production, "The Great Gatsby" is a tragic love story and cautionary tale with a lasting effect. Its messages and themes may be flagrant, but that doesn't make them any less powerful. And while the cast and filmmakers are more than qualified to deliver on them, they take too long and there are too many moments of grandiose, long-winded dialogue. I remember Fitzgerald's work, which is less than 200 pages, being terse and to the point. Lurhman's interpretation, however, is anything but.Take, for instance, the sequence when Gatsby arranges his meeting with Daisy at Nick's house. He hires gardeners and decorators to make everything look perfect. The humor and drama that could have been conveyed in just a few minutes of screen time is stretched out over several, so much that we grow weary and begin to lose interest. This is one of many scenes like this, and although the actors are charming and convincing, the pace at which the film traverses its story begins to take its toll, while the design elements are excessive.The question isn't whether Lurhman's "The Great Gatsby" is a loyal adaptation of Fitzgerald's time-honored piece, but whether it's a standalone good movie, one that's entertaining, introspective, interesting and thoughtful. For the most part, I would say that it's not. The movie is just too big, loud and lavish for its own good, and just like they do for the characters, these qualities prove to be its downfall. I doubt that was Lurhman's ironic intention. In the end, we're supposed to empathize with the characters feeling unfulfilled, not actually feel that way ourselves.
At its core, "Pain & Gain" is a tragedy, because out of this "true story" two people are viciously murdered for no good reason. And yet the movie is being sold as a bizarre, testosterone-driven comedy, a description that's also valid because when you stand outside the plot and look in, it is indeed funny how anybody could screw up or behave as badly as the characters. It's not funny in the "ha-ha" sense, but more in the "I can't believe anyone could be this stupid" sense. If the filmmakers took the underlying material lightly, it probably wouldn't have worked, but underneath the machismo, action and farce, they look upon it with grave solemnity, and that approach does work.
The film takes place over the course of six months in Miami, beginning in late 1994, when Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder and personal trainer at a reputable gym, comes up with the brilliant idea of kidnapping a rich client and forcing him to sign away all his assets. Daniel is driven by many things: fitness, patriotism and the words of a self-help/motivational speaker named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who preaches, "Be a doer, not a don't-er!"
Daniel listens to Wu's advice without the slightest bit of suspicion, hesitation or irony and concocts the kidnapping scheme with his friend and fellow body builders Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), both of whom are just as thick-headed as Daniel in the morals and common sense departments. Adrian suffers from erectile dysfunction, courtesy of all the steroids he injects into his body, and Paul is an ex-con and now-sober cocaine addict who claims to have found Jesus Christ and let him into his heart. Even though Paul sometimes appears to be a softy, he can still be violently reactionary when he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation.
The man these blockheads plan to steal from is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a self-made millionaire from Colombia, whom the movie paints Victor as an egotist and misogynist but not necessarily someone we want to see suffer. He's one of the film's many narrators who recollects how he got mixed up in the plot, which quickly spirals out of control.
After no less than three failed attempts to kidnap Victor in broad daylight, Daniel, Adrian and Paul eventually snatch him and hold him hostage in a warehouse full of sex toys. Victor may be blindfolded, but he's not stupid, and he quickly identifies his captors, priding himself as a man who can take a beating and endure a lot of pain and suffering. It takes several days for him to crack before he finally signs the papers that relinquish him of his fortune, including his mansion.
The last piece of Daniel's inept plan is to kill Victor, but even that proves to be a trying experience. No staged drunk driving accident, burning or skull crushing seems to do the trick, and so Victor gets away. Nobody believes his story, though, except a retired private detective named Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), who begins to unravel the plot from the beginning, right before things get even more out of hand. Adrian and Paul burn through their cuts so fast-Adrian by marrying a nurse (Rebel Wilson) and buying an expensive house and Paul by succumbing to his coke addiction again-they're desperate to pull off another job.
Where the movie goes from here and just how outlandish the subsequent events become, I leave for you to discover. I don't know how many of them are based on cold hard facts, but here's the thing: it doesn't matter either way, because the movie convinced me they really did, or at least could, happen in the world "Pain & Gain" presents to us. What's astonishing, and perhaps sad, is that nothing that transpired seemed too incredible or farfetched. Whether that's my cynical view of just how dumb real people can be or a credit to director Michael Bay for simply observing his characters and allowing their eccentric behavior to wrap us up in the story, I'm not quite sure, but the movie establishes a certain sense of credibility and goes on to maintain it.
Credit must also be given to Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson for creating distinct, plausible characters, especially in the face of such a wild and twisted plot. These types of roles could have easily gone over the top, but the actors stay grounded and convince us people like Daniel, Adrian and Paul could really exist, and even though the closing credits confirm they really do, that's not the point. The question is, do we believe what they do in the context of the movie? The answer is yes, and that's no easy task.
A movie like "Pain & Gain" might draw comparisons to "Fargo," which many would place at the top of the list as far as dark, tragic comedies about murder-kidnapping schemes that go terribly wrong. It would not be an unfair comparison, and not just because the two have similar content and trajectories, but because both remind us there are extreme, ugly sides to human nature that we'd like to pretend don't exist even though, deep down, we know they do. Those sides can often be grotesque and unimaginable, but that doesn't mean they're not also fascinating. "Pain & Gain" isn't up to the level of "Fargo," but it draws us in and holds our attention. We can't help but watch (and laugh at) it as the characters constantly trip over themselves. Maybe that makes us blameworthy too.
"Oblivion" is a science fiction thriller that's more a compilation of other movies than an individual, fully realized one. In fact, the qualities it shares with other sci-fi adventures like "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Planet of the Apes," "The Terminator" films, and "The Matrix" almost seem deliberate, as if the filmmakers are proclaiming, "We know you like these other movies, so we're going to give you a little bit of each all in one." This doesn't necessarily make "Oblivion" bad, but it doesn't make it original, either. One of the reasons it could be interpreted as good is because all the films it borrows from pioneered the genre in some way, and if this movie had come out 30 years ago, it too would have been a trailblazer. In 2013, though, it's merely average.
That's not to say "Oblivion" isn't entirely watchable, or that it's a great looking movie with top-notch special effects and production design. And you have to give credit to director Joseph Kosinski and his screenplay co-writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt for spreading the story out and not immediately giving us the answers we're craving. For most of the movie, we wonder where it's taking us (in a good way). It's only after we find out that we're sort of bummed it didn't go further and offer more.
The story takes place in 2077 on a post-nuclear war Earth. Sixty years earlier, a race of alien creatures called Scavengers, or "Scavs," attacked the planet and destroyed our moon, which immediately caused earthquakes and other disasters, forcing the human race to resort to "nukes" to defend itself. Humans ended up winning the war, but it was a Pyrrhic victory at best, as it left Earth in a state of, well, oblivion, and now it's a dry, ashen and mostly uninhabitable clump of mass fraught with radiation poisoning, with almost all signs of a past civilization buried underground.
There are supposedly only two people left on the planet as the rest of humanity lives on a tetrahedral space station called Tet, preparing to move to new colony on Titan, Saturn's moon. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a technician who repairs the drones that protect large extraction machines, which are collecting and storing Earth's remaining resources. He lives with his communication officer/lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), in one of those prototypical, futuristic habitats that's drab and white all over, which sits high in the sky atop a scaffold (I'm assume to avoid the radiation down below). Every day, Jack flies around in a shuttle to monitor the drones, and in just two weeks, he and Victoria are scheduled to complete their mission and join the others.
I should mention that neither Jack nor Victoria have any memories of anything beyond five years ago, following a mandatory memory wipe, but every night, he dreams of a beautiful woman atop the Empire State Building ("I know you, but I've never met you," he says). One day, during what seems like a routine mission, Jack locates a missing drone in an old library. While investigating, a book of poems by Macaulay catches his eye and he's seen by the Scavs, but for the first time, he doesn't get the impression they're trying to kill him, but rather catch him.
Shortly after, a spaceship carrying other humans crashes in a remote area and one of the passengers is the same woman from Jack's dreams, Julia (Olga Kurylenko). He rescues her and, against Victoria's orders, accompanies her back to the wreckage site to get her ship's radio transmission, where they're captured by a gang of black cape-wearing desert dwellers who could be mistaken for characters in "The Road Warrior." Without giving too much away, the leader of the group, Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), tells Jack that his people lied to him, which we more or less gathered for ourselves.
What they lied about and what Jack discovers form the crux of "Oblivion," whose story and intelligence eventually, and unfortunately, get overshadowed by routine shoot-outs and chase scenes. It would have been much more interesting if the movie chose to really hone in on its science and history, including exactly what happened that caused the war and where the tetrahedron came from, but it merely skims the surface. Rather than expand upon or put an original twist on the themes and ideas it pulls from other sci-fi movies, it simply uses them as a platform on which to stage impressive special effects and not-so-impressive action sequences. As a movie, it's cinematic and holds our attention; but as science fiction, it's not bold enough to go anywhere we haven't already been.
On paper, "Midnight's Children" offers a little bit of something for everyone. It's a mélange of every narrative genre you can think of: drama, romance, comedy, and even fantasy adventure. These are further broken down into stories of coming-of-age, historical fiction and war tragedy.
But in its quest to be so many things, "Midnight's Children" unfortunately ends up not being much at all. With all of its themes, characters and plot developments going on simultaneously, and subsequently fighting for screen time, the movie fails to assign itself a central figure or message with which the audience can identify with and really get behind. Some of the best movies ever made have effortlessly kept track of multiple narrative threads while giving each of them their due weight, but that quality was missing from "Midnight's Children." This is a shame, too, because it's easy to tell this project was a labor of love for it filmmakers, who have no doubt made it with noble and heartfelt intentions, and not necessarily the standard commercial ones.
The screenplay is by Salman Rushdie, based on his award-winning novel. It's not without substance or intrigue and incorporates various tales that interweave light fiction with serious drama, all set against India's long and tumultuous history. Director Deepa Mehta is able to construct the various motifs independently but there never came a point where they connect and come together meaningfully. The film is told in flashback by its hero, Saleem, who tells us, "Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence." This is an excellent statement that reinforces just how much of our lives are affected by outside people and influences, reminding us that we can't possibly control everything that happens to us, even though we'd like to think we can. It's the movie's goal to bring this message to life through the various adventures of the characters, but it never fully manifests or strikes us on the intellectual or emotional levels it was hoping to.
In the film, Saleem recollects his entire life history, from 1917 to 1977. Through his narration and witnessing of the past, the movie relays India's major historical events, including its independence from Great Britain; the division of the country into India and Pakistan and the ensuing India-Pakistan Wars; the birth of Bangladesh; and the nearly two-year period known as "The Emergency," in which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties.
Amidst these major happenings, the movie does what it can to develop its characters. The first is Saleem's grandfather, Dr. Aziz (Rajat Kapoor), who meets his wife as she stands concealed behind a bed sheet because her father wants to protect her honor. They eventually have three daughters, the eldest being Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami), who would become Saleem's mother. Mumtaz's first marriage is to a secretary named Nadir (Zaib Shaikh), who dreams of a unified India between Hindus and Muslims, but their union, which seems to be the only one in the movie based on love, would be short-lived. When Nadir is captured by the Indian army, Mumtaz marries Ahmed Sinai (Roni Roy) and they move from Agra to Bombay.
On the night Mumtaz gives birth to their son, a nurse at the Bombay hospital named Mary (Seema Biswas), driven by her boyfriend's ideals to "Let the rich be poor and the poor be rich," switches the baby with one born of a poor woman and a street performer. The poor one is Saleem, and he falsely enters into a life of privilege. The other baby, Shiva, becomes Saleem's lifelong nemesis and their paths will cross more than once.
One of them is when they both learn they are "Midnight's Children," or babies born immediately or shortly after India gained its independence. The event yields them unprecedented powers, some of the them supernatural, with Saleem's (Satya Bhabha) considered the most powerful because he's able to hear the thoughts of the other children through his nose. Shiva (Siddharth) and Saleem's best friend, a girl named Parvati (Shriya Saran), are the other potent ones and their lives intertwine with India's social and political landscape, in both magical and tragic ways.
As it goes along, the movie becomes rife with new twists and developments, but unfortunately it doesn't know how to keep them organized and relevant. As a result, I grew weary watching it. I can't help but think the movie wanted to mirror "Forrest Gump" with its ambition to place its main character in the center of major historical events, but the difference is that "Gump" gave us a character we felt we knew and deeply cared for. We don't get that same impression with Saleem in "Midnight's Children." Perhaps the movie doesn't give us enough one on one time with him, or allow us to see enough from his particular point of view, but he and the other characters, despite having distinct personalities, always seem at a distance. Even though the movie has a lot going on, I felt removed from it.
I'm willing to admit my negative reaction to "Midnight's Children" could be the result of my lack of personal connection to the events themselves. After all, I'm not Indian. But then, I also think the movie assumes it doesn't have to place itself in a context for non-Indian viewers, and if it's not willing to do that, then it should have tried harder to establish a connection between us and Saleem, if only as a hero figure. The lack of both prevented me from seeing "Midnight's Children" as nothing more than a beautiful-looking film with a fair amount of narrative potential-potential it's not able to live up to.
Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep" is a complex, all-star thriller stockpiled with a lot of characters (and subsequently a lot of character actors) that ultimately believes it's more important than it really is. It laboriously segues from one scene to the next, always developing its thick plot while introducing new people into it. A movie like this could be fun and entertaining to follow, but Redford manages to makes his a bit of a bore. As the story progresses, the tension and intrigue lessen because too much time is taken out to bring the audience up to speed after each development (and there are a lot of developments), which brings the momentum to a halt. By the end, we have to remind ourselves we're supposed to care about the outcome.
Perhaps one of the reasons the movie think it's significant is because a handful of characters are former members of the Weather Underground Organization, an activist group that formed in 1969 to overthrow the United States government in response to America's role in the Vietnam War. The Weathermen, as they became known, instigated violence and terrorism domestically as a means to expose and mirror what the government was doing in Southeast Asia at the time.
But the movie only uses the Weathermen aspect to drive the plot, not necessarily to make a relevant statement. We learn about them and their actions through the newsreel footage-some real, some fabricated-that opens the movie, including a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a security guard. This latter event ties into the present day, when one of the Weathermen, Sharon Solaz (Susan Sarandon), who's been on the FBI's most wanted list for over 30 years, intentionally gets herself arrested. Her capture raises a lot of eyebrows, including those of Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), a young, hotshot reporter for a struggling Albany newspaper. Ben and his paper initially miss out on Sharon's arrest story, but he tells his boss (Stanley Tucci) that his former friend at the FBI (Anna Kendrick) might be able to give him a lead on an even bigger national story related to it.
Ben's investigation brings him to Jim Grant (Robert Redford), an attorney and single parent of an 11-year-old daughter named Isabel (Jessie Evancho), whom the movie does a good job of making us believe is Ben's pride and joy. When Jim and Sharon's mutual friend Billy (Stephen Root) discloses to Shepard that Jim refused to take on Sharon's case, Shepard finds this peculiar and thinks something isn't completely right about this guy.
He would be correct, because Jim Grant isn't who he says he is; he's actually Nick Sloan, another Weatherman who's been hiding under his current name for decades because he's wanted in connection with the aforementioned bank robbery killing. When Shepard's story about Grant breaks, Grant leaves Isabel with his brother (Chris Cooper) and begins a cross-country trip in search of Mimi (Julie Christie), his former lover and fellow activist who can prove he had nothing to do with it, except that it would mean turning herself in. As Grant searches for her, Shepard tries to follow him as best he can, delving deeper into Grant's past and attempting to put the entire timeline and puzzle together. He comes to the conclusion that Grant's current actions don't make sense if he was a guilty man.
What Grant's actions are and with whom he makes contact make up the bulk of "The Company You Keep," but rather than list them all out, I'll just say the movie is heavy on dialogue and features many talented and well-known actors in addition to the ones I've already named, including Terrence Howard, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson and Brit Marling. To be fair, Redford utilizes his thespian resources well, but Lem Dobbs' screenplay, based on the novel by Neil Gordon, is so expositional and rife with functional-only dialogue, we can't quite make an emotional connection or vested interest in it. And even though Redford makes for a likable hero, I found him too stoic and detached in the lead role. With his character's freedom and daughter at stake, he never convinced me he was truly afraid of what he might lose, which made it harder to empathize with him.
As it stands, the story within "The Company You Keep" is an interesting one, but the way Redford adapts it to film has it come off as dry and impertinent. Even the thriller tactics he employs-Grant seeing his own "wanted" face on TV in a public setting; the FBI pinpointing his cell phone to his exact location and Grant escaping in just the nick of time; the obligatory decoys and chase sequences-have been done before and have no substantive effect here. In the end, despite all the actors giving their respective characters presence, "The Company You keep" seems for nothing because it doesn't become compelling or suspenseful enough for us to really care about it.