The Great Gatsby

Come out you Baz Luhrmann; come out and fight me like a man

gatsbyDespite anachronistic and invasive music, Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – considered one of the Great American Novels by many (myself not included) – is more or less scene-by-scene accurate when it comes to story events.  This does not make a movie a “good adaptation,” however.  Two elements makes a good movie adaptation of a book: 1) the understanding that books cannot “become” movies, and that a movie adapted from a written work must stand on its own as a unique piece; and 2) a basic (or preferably advanced) understanding of the thematic material, i.e. what the book is “about.”  This film is more hot-and-cold in that area, though not as overt as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

I won’t hash out the entire plot this time, because you do not need me to.  Leonardo DiCaprio appears as the titular Gatsby, a former soldier living as a wealthy socialite on the East Coast in hopes that his old lover, Daisy Buchanan, will show up at one of his unbelievably lavish parties.  She doesn’t, but her cousin Nick (Toby Maguire) does – am I hashing out the plot? Apologies.  I’ll stop.  The first bit of irony we’re fed is the title, specifically the word “great,” and this is where Luhrmann gets it wrong.  Much of the point of Gatsby is that the most morally corrupt characters are the ones idolized, and that the masses become obsessed with the most superficial garbage (i.e. the incredible parties, the glitz and glamor, the alcohol and whoring, etc.).  Fitzgerald’s inclusion of the word “great” in the title was meant to reflect this irony on the reader, and to invite us to look smugly upon the inhabitants of the novel who just don’t seem to reach the conclusion that the readers do.  In the novel, Nick is much more savvy to this knowledge than Maguire’s character in the film – one major difference includes his placement in a sanitarium, wherein he relates the story’s events to a doctor and eventually writes a manuscript called “Gatsby,” which he eventually changes to the title of the novel after adding “The Great.”  This injects a bit of narrative poison into a film that almost gets it right: Nick, as the narrator (not as a fictional representation of the reader, mind you) is supposed to realize (as he comes much closer to doing in the text) that Gatsby is in fact not great.  No one in this story is.

The other major missing element is that of “Owl Eyes,” a minor but very important character who appears in two scenes of the novel.  The above themes are in some ways conveyed through this character – a bespectacled man encountered by Nick in Gatsby’s library – who expects Gatsby’s books to be nothing but hollow covers (for purposes of giving the illusion of a great library) and is surprised to find that they are all real books.  Owl Eyes comments that Gatsby has mastered something similar to theatre – the elaborate party itself is a fabrication masking an ulterior motive – and suggests that everything in Gatsby’s life is mere illusion.  Thus, the “great” in the title feels similar to a moniker a mediocre magician might possess.  Instead, the film spends lots of time (and real-life money) on the glamorous parties and never stops to remind us how much of a sham they are (nor does it respect us quite enough to allow us to figure it out on our own).  In the end, Nick realizes that the people of the West (the entire main cast) are completely unable to jive with the values of the East, and that Gatsby’s lifestyle – which so closely resembles the exemplary “American Dream” (also a sham, represented by the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock) – is an illusion in and of itself, because Gatsby’s dreams are dead and gone before the story even begins.

The movie does include the billboard featuring the bespectacled eyes of forgotten oculist T.J. Eckleburg, which serve as a sort of uninvolved “observer God” who sees everything but does nothing to intervene or impart advice (much like the Owl Eyes character, who comes with some Lost Generation subtext as well).  The connective tissue between the character and the billboard, however, is never explored, nor is the meaning behind the fact that this billboard watches over the shittiest part of town.  But wait – I said that books cannot be “made into” movies, so some things get left out, right?  Sure, if your biggest concern is time.  But The Great Gatsby is a short novel, and what’s left out here is the most basic understanding of Fitzgerald’s themes.  Look at 2012’s Anna Karenina for an example of a film that (mostly) did a respectable job with its source material while creating a visual adaptation that was, in many positive ways, its own piece of art.

The despicable characters are still despicable, however, which is right in line with the novel.  Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who goes on histrionic rants and says boring non-applicable racist stuff (which seems inserted simply because a period piece can get away with it), does all of the bad things he does in the novel, including getting Gatsby killed, though in the movie it’s spoiled (don’t you dare call it foreshadowed) far too soon.  At the very least, Nick realize that Tom and Daisy are horrible people who rely on their money to save them from every situation.  Bafflingly left out is Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), one of the only likeable (and only in minor ways) characters in the story.  Elizabeth Debicki, who has only appeared in one movie previously, plays Jordan with such confidence and adventurous intrigue that her lack of involvement later in the story is nothing short of infuriating.  While DiCaprio’s performance (especially his completely organic-sounding “old sport” dialogue) is impressive as ever, Debicki is the highlight of the cast.

I’m just waiting for someone to screw up Absalom, Absalom! next.

The Great Gatsby (2013); adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; directed by Baz Luhrmann; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Toby Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carey Mulligan. 

Star Trek Into Darkness

The Waste of Khan

trekdarkStar Trek Into Darkness is exactly what its trailer advertises: a bunch of men doing cool things, and then a shot of a woman in her underwear.  I am less inclined to trust J.J. Abrams with Star Wars, despite his ability to direct large groups of characters (and on that topic, the bigger the group becomes, the thinner each individual character grows, reducing them to stock characters reliant on tropes, as seen here).  He’s also gotten his mitts on the Spielberg family-alien-movie genre (see Super 8), so with 2015’s galaxy-far-far-away installment on the celluloid horizon, Abrams could be thinking, “Star Wars, Star Trek, and E.T. are mine!”  I know sci-fi blockbusters are a slick slope, but leave the megalomania to the cretins at HBO.

The formula plot follows Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew, including Spock (Zachary Quinto), heading to the Klingon homeworld after the so-generically-named-it-must-be-an-alias Jon Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a trusted Starfleet agent, lays waste to Starfleet HQ and kills Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in the process, rendering the events of the first Star Trek film completely null, since the main conflict there was whether or not Kirk could rescue Pike from Eric Bana’s hammy Romulan villain.  Kirk, blinded by the desire for vengeance, accepts a dubious mission from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, aka RoboCop) to torch the area of the Klingon world where Harrison is hiding, which will hopefully destroy him.  Before too long, Harrison is revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh, a reimagining of one of the most famous Star Trek characters.  Here, he still embodies a flawed interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (superman), but he’s been transformed from Ricardo Montalbán’s nuanced, developed, sympathetic ethnic antagonist into a whitewashed anime ninja whose chief concern is making sure to wear long, flowing black leather whenever he has do to anything that requires strenuous movement.  He forms a short-lived alliance with Kirk in order to take care of Weller’s “magnificent bastard” villain, who turns on Kirk to get his hands on Khan.  The rest of the principal cast from the first movie – Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) – all reappear alongside the newcomer Carol Marcus (Kirk’s eventual wife if the old story is to be followed, played here by Alice Eve, complete with a dumb bob haircut that makes her look like a doll), and each gets roughly one short scene to remind us that they’re in the movie and to say their trademarked one-liners (Bones, of course, gets his obligatory “Dammit, man; I’m a doctor, not a __”).  Pegg is great as Scotty, so it’s a wonder that he receives a bit more material here than the rest.  Uhura, portrayed as a tough and confident woman in the first film, bickers with Spock in some truly funny scenes, and gets to fight a few times, although she’s never allowed to look like she knows what she’s doing, and yelps like a child when an enemy shows any resistance.

The best parts of the film occur when Abrams acknowledges the elements of the old series and movies that made the franchise (there’s that ugly “F’ word again) great.  At some points, the film re-imagines the entire Wrath of Khan mythos (Kirk’s temporary death-by-radiation, etc).  There’s also an encounter with Klingons (finally!), setting up a possible third film, which the fatcats in Hollywood will surely greenlight after such a big opening weekend.

Throw logic out the airlock here.  The film’s biggest problem is now Kirk.  Virtually every terrible thing that happens in the story is a direct result of Kirk’s negligence, lack of care for his crew, and refusal to follow the rules of Starfleet.  We are supposed to root for him when he makes controversial decisions that get his engineers sucked into space to suffer unspeakable deaths, and we’re expected to sympathize with him when he is caught.  Why would Abrams make this decision?  Is he trying to harken back to Josh Holloway’s “Sawyer” character on LOST?  There was a reason Sawyer was never in charge, friends.  Kirk is not only reckless and arrogant in this second installment, but he’s also sexist to the point that he briefly turns the Enterprise into a bit of a frat house (encouraging Bones to use pickup lines on Carol, etc).  Other questions arise: how exactly does one become instantly revived from death-by-radiation?  Why is Khan given the most powerful ship in Starfleet, hyped up throughout the film, and then not allowed to actually operate it?  Why is Khan completely invulnerable to Kirk’s attacks, only to later bruise and bleed after being knocked around by Spock?  Why don’t any of the women do anything?  How is the Enterprise able to function after dozens of crewmembers are sucked into space (read: redshirts)?  Who becomes leader of Starfleet after its longtime top Admiral is revealed to be a snake who gets their most powerful ship destroyed?  Why do the alien races all look like humans with weird growths on their faces?  Why are so many scenes, weapons, and uniforms 100% carbon copies of material from the Mass Effect series?  Isn’t there enough to work with in the Star Trek universe?  Where the f- is the colon in the title?  The most gripe-worthy bit is the new Khan, such a one-note antagonist that he makes Voldemort look three-dimensional.  The decision to make him a white Brit is beyond comprehension.  I understand the compulsion to cram every atom of vintage Trek into the new films, especially if there are only (!) two or three, but as Dennis Hopper once said, “Slow it down, man.”  You’re not doing anyone a favor by rushing through characters and events to the degree that the film series resembles a Wikipedia page.

I will concede that I had fun at this movie.  This may be because I saw it with my mother, the only true Trekkie I know, and we had fun predicting what would come next.  If you’re a fan of any kind of adventure film, action, and spectacle, this movie might do it for you.  You’ll just need to fit a nice black patch over your third eye for purposes of ignoring the boys’ club nonsense and gaps in logic.  “Enjoyment” is a word that gets thrown around far too often when describing what makes a piece of media “good.”  Enjoyment is subjective.  It has nothing to do with writing, story, originality, character depth, production quality, or anything else that determines artistic value.  Understand the difference.  Enjoy movies, but think about what you saw.  If thinking makes you unhappy, congratulations!  You are Hollywood’s target audience.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013); written by Damon Lindelof (big surprise!); directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg.

* I considered using the underwear shot as the photo at the top, for the sake of the automatic hits it would generate, which while proving a point, would be ultimately against what I do here, wouldn’t it?

*Hey, I’m working on another indie film.  Please support our Kickstarter here!