All Body Glitter and No Gold – Review of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

the-great-gatsby-movie-posterAnyone who hasn’t read The Great Gatsby may find it a lovely, lovely movie. They may have enjoyed its lavish party setpieces, the glorious settings, the indulgent cinematography. And well they might – had it not been an adaptation and an original story, then I probably would have enjoyed it more. But no one ever comes to this blog for a fence-sitting opinion, so here is mine: for the first hour of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it was like I had a glitter-covered toddler jumping up and down in my lap screaming “LOOK AT MEEEEE”. And then the toddler went into a coma and no amount of overwrought drama could wake it up.
I taught the Great Gatsby to matrics and undergrads for three years. I have probably read it from start to finish about six times. I could likely sit down right now and write a ten thousand word mini-thesis on the themes of Gatsby, none of which seem to have made it into the movie. The Great Gatsby is about failure. It is about the failure of the American dream to provide for all, it is about a man who turns to crime to impress a woman, it is about racism (barely even glimpsed in the movie), it is about failed marriages and cowardice. It even suggests the failure of God. It is ruthless social commentary. It is not a great love story, it is not about overcoming all odds. Gatsby is not an underdog, and Daisy is not worth the attention she gets from him. It is not about the parties, or the fun, or the beautiful, beautiful shirts.

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And yet, Baz Luhrmann not only turns in a piss-poor understanding of the greater ideas of the novel, but he also fails to elicit any kind of spectacular performance from any of his actors. Di Caprio recently gave an outstanding performance for Django Unchained, after all. As the eponymous Gatsby, he was luke-warm. And this should have been the role that finally, finally, got him the Oscar he so deserves. The only characters that came across well as their book counterparts was the thuggish Tom and the wilting idiot Daisy, who everyone should despise for being so fickle and so careless. Already the internet is gushing with the Pinterest-friendly idea of the great love of Gatsby and Daisy, but how could any love predicated almost purely on a five-year old memory be one for the ages? Daisy goes back to her awful, philandering husband and leaves Gatsby’s life to ruin – thankfully the movie left in the whole idea of her carelessness, and Gatsby’s sad departure.

There are some other details worth nitpicking – the soundtrack that delayed the movie by five months. Why have such an incredibly anachronistic soundtrack when every other detail about the time period is so meticulous? It was the time of jazz, not hip hop. Goldfish could have done a better soundtrack that would have suited the time and the tone perfectly. And the mental asylum? There is no suggestion that Nick’s life is ruined afterwards, not that much. Instead, he returns to the Midwest bruised by New York, and simply recounts what happened rather than writing a novel. It was such a clumsy framing device that should have been done away with entirely.

This is a serious novel filled with complex themes and characters that was turned into a gaudy, overly dramatic pageant of itself, and that broke my heart. In the hands of a mature director, this could have been the adaptation I have been waiting for for so long. Baz Luhrmann makes a fine art director, but he fails to get across important themes with any sense of weight or pacing: the drama is on the level of The Bold and the Beautiful. Had this been directed by David Fincher of Fight Club fame, or Sophia Coppola (Lost in Translation) or perhaps Jane Campion of The Piano, we might have had a movie that encompassed the themes that have made Gatsby still echo nearly a hundred years later.

Instead, all I got was this tub of stripper glitter.

What the rest had to say: 

Rotten Tomatoes: 52% Critics’ Rating

MetaCritic – 54% 

“Luhrmann’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste” – The New Yorker 

As Shallow as Spilt Champagne – The Daily Mail

George RR Martin Loved it – Not A Blog 

Movie Review: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

Django-Unchained-Poster-JacksonArguably, one cannot make a film about slavery without making a comment on it, and neither can one star a black man in a white-directed, white-produced movie without commenting on race. While many may not see Tarantino as a serious director (and for excellent reasons: I refer you to my esteemed blogger-comrade Rémy) I do feel that his movies make a comment on the subject matter, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

Django Unchained is, at heart, a vengeance tale set within the Western style of movie-making with a big, fat budget of $100 million. It riffs on blaxploitation movies, slavery, violence against women, black-on-black crime, ownership, love and revenge. It has time to segue into phrenology, that terrible pseudo-science, as well as German folklore. Don’t get me wrong: the plot of Django is very straightforward. Man loses his wife under terrible circumstances, and makes deals to get her back. Like Inglorious Basterds, like Kill Bill, it is revenge. Glorious, varied and endless revenge. And don’t get me wrong: the vengeance is as gratifying as it is visceral. We want to see Django’s enemies destroyed, for they are very, very bad men. At no point in this movie are white slavers ever given an ounce of sympathy. They are given only our scorn, and our glee at their punishment. Like Inglorious Basterds, we like to see the bad guys punished, as so few were at the time.

Is Django Unchained controversial? Yes. Should it be? No. In my opinion, Tarantino says some fascinating things about slavery, but none of them are pro-slavery. He shows the violence visited upon black bodies without hesitation. It was a terrible, horrific time to be black. That anyone should be shocked by violence in a slavery setting is ludicrous. Women were whipped on the smallest pretense.

Django-Unchained-character-postersRaped to pass the time, or produce more slaves. The hot box, the horsewhipping by the preacher – these are not fantastical scenes. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of American slave history will recognise the bit, the collar, the whips, the terrible items of imprisonment and torture. If Tarantino really wanted to make a movie about just vengeance, he could have done it without the background information that was seeded throughout. Bills of sale, forced marches, familial separations, the induction of black slaves into liking/loving their masters through incessant torture and grooming. Why go to all that effort to not make a movie about slavery, in some way?

Toni Morrison’s epigraph for Beloved reads:  ‘the sixty million and more’ who had no monument, no museum, not even a bench to mark their loss and pain in America when the book was published in 1987. While the number is still not certain, it still runs into the millions. America, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, has numerous museums dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust, but almost for the slaves who died on their land, building their country. It has been left up to authors and directors to make some kind of memorial for them. Which brings me back round to my point: Tarantino might be a bit insufferable at times, but at no point did Django Unchained pretend to be anything other than an unforgiving look at an unforgivable time. After all, there were enough scenes of horror that could only have been enabled by slavery: tearing a black man apart with dogs, whipping a woman for dropping eggs, threatening to shoot a black man for riding a horse, branding women with hot pokers. The scene with the proto-KKK (the Regulators) was hilarious, pointing out the cowardice and childishness of that movement, which continues to be ridiculous today. The evangelical overseer with his whip and corpulence was a point of ridicule rather than awe.

DjangoUnchainedOfficialPosterPTI want to look at Django himself. Hollywood still has ridiculous hang-ups about avengers and ass-kicking, and who should get to star in such movies. There’s Die Hard numbers 1-10, and Crank, any movie with Liam Neeson in it, the Bourne series and about 70 James Bond films (ugh). There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris (UGH), Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Renner, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jnr, Jude Law, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Chris Evans. All men as white as the driven snow in movies by Tippex-white directors. Hollywood doesn’t mind when black directors choose black actors, but it has been a very long time since we’ve seen a black man take his own vengeance in a big, serious movie that wasn’t being sold as something like Bad Boys. Look at the number of the movies with white heroes with black sidekicks. (I won’t even talk about horror movies.) The movies starring black men as action heroes nearly all star Will Smith. And more Will Smith. Even Morgan Freeman is always in a supporting role as a magical negro. Now with Django, we have a black hero who is unrepentant in his role, who can be as brilliant and heroic and sexy as the next action hero. At no point is he ever made fun of, and when people try they end up coming off worse (“The D is silent.”). If you think this is an exaggeration, try come up with a serious, big-budget movie with a famous white director starring a black action hero that isn’t Will Smith or Samuel L Jackson. (Oh, wait, and Eddie Murphy, who went on to be The Nutty Professor.)

Right, moving on to production values (see, I know when to tone it down!), the soundtrack is outstanding, and very fairly priced on iTunes – particularly worth noting is Rick Ross’ 100 Black Coffins and Too Old to Die Young by Brother Dege. And there’s some extra dialogue that didn’t make it into the movie for your consideration. The settings were luscious, showcasing  the American South in all its natural glory and slavery-built opulence. Add to this incredible prop detail (notably the different slave collars that popped up in the background and on Django twice) makes this a stunning movie just to look at and listen to.

Two performances stand out in particular for me: Leonardo Di Caprio’s portray of Monsieur Calvin Candie, and Samuel L Jackson as Christopher. While Jamie Fox was outstanding and Christoph Waltz can do no wrong, Candie and Stephen took over the movie on

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their terms, with commanding performances. Stephen interests me as a skewed portrayal of the male equivalent of the Mammy character, a character which appears so often without interrogation (like in The Help, that awful movie that pretends to be more important than it actually is). It is difficult to determine how much of it is happiness in slavery, but we are left with questions: can someone can beaten into loving someone? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Is this what happens when one raises someone else’s children because they aren’t allowed to raise their own? Why does he seem to genuinely care about Candie? Does he hate all black people, or is it just in front of Candie? Or just Django? Again, why have such a complex character if this is just a shoot-em-up?

Django-Unchained-29And then there’s classy, greasy, sister-kissing Candie, who has the manners and heart of a Southern gentleman: he has harps playing while he signs over the life of another and uses phrenology to explain the supposedly inherent servitude of slaves with the skull of the black man who raised him, Ben. (It is deeply disturbing that they had the flesh melted off so that they could keep the skull, denying him dignity even in death.) Did he get Christopher to believe in phrenology? He has Lolita-dressed maids flitting about, a detail that plays in nicely to his understanding of the purpose of black women. But to see Leonardo play a very, very bad man was such a pleasure. He took what could have been a cringe-worthy, two-bit cartoon villain and filled him with charming, terrifying menace. That little hammer was given all the weight of a sledgehammer, all the threat of a cannon. An excellent change from his usual roles (not that he has ever turned in a poor performance.)

If you’re a Tarantino fan, you’ll enjoy this, even if it isn’t his best work. It is a bit overwrought at times, and Tarantino really, really needs to stop appearing in his own movies. I don’t know if its a Stan Lee kind of attempt to seem relevant but it smashes the fourth wall to pieces for those of us who knows what he looks like (and really wish we didn’t.) I wish Kerry Washington had had a bigger role – she is talented, and deserved more lines (though she does screaming well). She is a bit wasted here in this ultra-manly movie, but if we’re lucky she’ll appear in Kill Bill 3.

But for Django’s properly bad-ass reckoning, for Candie as the worst man you’ll see on screen this year, for Christopher and his classic “you’ll have to burn the sheets!” monologue,  this movie is still very much worth your time. And go see it on the big screen – you’ll be glad you did.