This Is The End (2013) – Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen

Seth Rogen;Jay Baruchel;Jonah Hill

I think there are a lot of us who can imagine, in a parallel universe, being best friends with Seth Rogen.  The guy is undeniably likable.  There’s an almost Tom Hanks quality to his charisma; he’s not the most glamorous or classically handsome celebrity, but he gives an immediate impression of being genuine, down-to-earth, fun, and funny.  It’s easy to picture hunkering down on the couch with him and hanging out.

Seth’s face is the first thing we see at the opening of This Is The End — a close-up of him standing in the airport, looking slightly awkward — and there couldn’t be a more appealing way to start the film. We settle back, already sold, ready for a couple hours of bro-ing out with Seth and his buddies.  And, for the most part, the film doesn’t disappoint.

After smoking weed and playing video games on Seth’s couch for most of the day, Seth and Jay (Baruchel), who is visiting Los Angeles for the weekend, make their way to James Franco’s mansion (“Who is he, Pablo Escobar?” Jay demands, looking up the enormous building).  The party going on there is populated by celebrities: Emma Watson, Rihanna, Craig Robinson, Mindy Kaling, a coked out and chauvinistic Michael Cera, a cloying and brown-nosing Jonah Hill.  A good time is had by all (except for Jay, who spends most of the party sulking) until an enormous earthquake shakes the city, blue rays of light start pulling people into the sky, and the rest of the partygoers fall into a sinkhole in James’s lawn.  Soon only Seth, Jay, James, Jonah, Craig, and Danny McBride remain, barricaded into James’s house.

It’s an absurd premise, and the majority of the film is just that: absurd and tasteless, and wonderfully so.  The six friends blunder through every horrifying situation they encounter, flustered and hilariously incompetent.  But when they aren’t being ravished by demons, performing DIY exorcisms, being robbed at axe-point by Emma Watson, or fleeing cannibals, the characters mostly just sit around talking — and it’s really the dialogue that makes the film.  For all the tongue-in-cheek humor and crude comments, the dynamics between the characters are surprisingly apt. Danny grates on James’s (and eventually everyone’s) nerves; James, Jonah, and Jay all compete for Seth’s best-friendship (he is, unsurprisingly, best-liked member of the group); Jay and Seth deal with the increasingly obvious fact that they are growing apart. Somehow, the characters manage to be both absurd caricatures and believable, real people, and it’s bizarrely compelling.

At the beginning of the film, as he stands in the airport, Seth is accosted by a reporter.  “Seth Rogen!” the man crows, thrusting his camera into Seth’s face. “You always play, like, the same guy in every movie.  When are you gonna do some real acting?”  It’s a fair criticism to make; Seth and his usual roster of co-stars (sometimes referred to as the “Jew-Tang Clan”) aren’t known for their versatility.  And in some ways, This Is The End is a response to that criticism: it’s the ultimate Jew-Tang Clan movie, with the actors literally playing themselves.  There’s little “real acting” to be seen.

Do we care?  It seems not.  Maybe the reason we watch these Jew-Tang Clan movies isn’t to experience “real acting,” but to spend time with likable, familiar characters.  And a little crossover into horror and sci-fi doesn’t hurt.  This Is The End certainly isn’t the most sophisticated movie of the year, and there are points when it descends to a low level of humor that lost me a little (is it too gender-normative to call it “boy humor”? A lot of penis jokes, a lot of vomit).  But it’s a fun ride, and they manage to squeeze in some self-aware comments on celebrity lifestyle and even raise a few existential, religious questions.  For example: “Who f-cking saw that coming, that there actually is a God?”

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The Bling Ring (2013) – Sofia Coppola

The-Bling-Ring-640x376It’s a pity that Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers came out in the same year: it’s difficult not to compare the two, and the comparison does The Bling Ring no favors.  Based on actual events, the film follows a group of teenagers in their repeated robberies of the homes of many Hollywood stars, including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Audrina Patridge.  Like Korine’s film, The Bling Ring is a beautifully shot account of adolescent recklessness, with a palate of candy pinks and neon yellows — but uneven performances and a flat storyline leave it ultimately lacking in resonance.

Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) serves as our lens character, arriving as a new student at Indian Hills High School.  After being gawked at and harassed (inexplicably — is this really what high school is like?) by his fellow students, he meets Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), and they quickly become friends. It is Rebecca that encourages Marc to join her in stealing from unlocked cars, friends’ homes, and eventually the homes of celebrities.  Rebecca is obsessed with the celebrity lifestyle.  She tells Marc that she plans to go to the Fashion Institute of Design — “it’s where all the Hills girls went.”   There are a couple truly gorgeous shots of her staring into the mirror as she applies Paris Hilton’s lipstick or Lindsay Lohan’s perfume, entranced by her own reflection.

Marc is likable from the moment he opens his mouth.  He’s reminiscent of so many boys you knew in high school — self-conscious, a little naïve, good-natured and earnest, but troubled.  It’s completely believable that he would get pulled into Rebecca’s kleptomania, motivated by loneliness and a desire to be glamorous or special.  Chang’s performance, on the other hand, is as flat as Broussard’s is nuanced.  Her appeal lies exclusively in her physical beauty; otherwise she is cool, her lines stilted, her voice monotone.  Rebecca is supposed to be the mastermind behind these burglaries — the ringleader — and yet she has no charisma whatsoever.

Rebecca and Marc are soon joined by some of Rebecca’s friends: Chloe (Claire Julien), Nicki (Emma Watson), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Watson gives a particularly fine performance as Nicki: skinny, strung-out, and narcissistic, telling the press that she “might want to lead a country someday, for all I know.”  The five of them fall into the habit of regularly stealing from celebrities, in scenes that are breathtaking in their decadence but tediously formulaic, with a lot of giggling, shrieking, and preening until Marc says, “Guys, we gotta get out of here” and they scamper away.

What this film does most effectively is take a snapshot of the absurdity of Hollywood life.  Sam and Nicki are home-schooled by Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann) in the religious-science philosophy of the Agape Church, an education that involves popping Adderalls and making inspiration boards about Angelina Jolie.  All five of the teenagers are constantly partying, comparing clothes, dropping names, checking their phones. The teenagers’ materialism is striking, and so is the materialism of the robbed celebrities (Marc, Rebecca, & co. are able to rob Paris Hilton five times before she notices that anything is missing).

But Coppola hints that this shallowness and materialism is more widespread than we think.  Marc receives 800 Facebook friend requests after his arrest, suggesting to him that “America has a sick fascination with a Bonnie and Clyde type of thing.”  How much can we remove ourselves from these teenagers’ outlandish actions?  Aren’t we all similarly materialistic and shallow, even just by virtue of watching this film and indulging in a spectacle of decadent materialism?

These ideas are never fully fleshed out.  Coppola focuses instead on the robbery scenes, which quickly grow old, while the more interesting aspects of the story — the characters and their backgrounds, the presence of social media in their crimes, the general materialism of the millennial generation — we merely get glimpses of. Perhaps the reason The Bling Ring is so disappointing is that it’s so close to being a fabulous movie.  Unfortunately, it ends up being more like a fabulous fashion show.

Three New York Stories: Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Manhattan

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Joe Buck ain’t a for-real cowboy, but he is one helluva stud!  Blond, baby-faced, and sporting a toothy grin, Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his dishwashing job in Texas, grabs his transistor radio and cowboy hat, and takes off for New York City in pursuit of a bright future in hustling.  “There’s a lot of rich women back there,” he tells a fellow dishwasher before he departs.  “Begging for it. Paying for it too.”

So begins Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), which follows Buck in his pursuit of a new life for himself.  Unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite according to plan.  Rather than being the utopia that Buck imagines, New York turns out to be hostile and unforgiving.  The work he seeks is hard to come by, and sundry instances of bad luck — including being scammed by Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled conman he meets in a bar — soon leave Buck jobless, homeless, and alone.

This is a lonely film; it captures the sensation of loneliness with terrifying acuity.  There are many affecting shots of Buck walking the streets, surrounded by swarms of anonymous people, listening to his transistor radio for company.  When he and Ratso run into each other again, Buck quickly forgets his anger and an unlikely friendship develops between the two of them, forged by that desperate need for companionship.

They make a peculiar pair: Buck in his neat, button-down shirts and cowboy boots, Ratso with his greasy hair and limping gait.  Hoffman’s performance as Ratso is the highlight of the film.  He somehow manages to be disgusting and charismatic at the same time — small and filthy, but also genial and conversational, with a grating, nasal voice.

As a character Buck is a little more mysterious.  He’s almost childlike in his cheerfulness and naiveté, but we discover a darker side of him through the fragmented (and, quite frankly, confusing) flashbacks from his life in Texas — that he was raised by his neglectful grandmother, and that he and his girlfriend were raped, causing her to be institutionalized and earning her the moniker “Crazy Annie.”  The reveal of these traumatic events puts a dark spin on Buck’s excitement about moving to New York; he is clearly hoping to leave his past behind, to find an escape.

But if this film does anything, it refutes that idea of an escape, a utopia.  Buck’s moving to New York does nothing but create more problems for him, and once there, Ratso just tries to convince him to leave, insisting that Florida is where life is actually worth living.  There’s a sense that nowhere in the country actually offers a better quality of life than anywhere else; life is painful, and escape is a myth.  Needless to say, Midnight Cowboy provides a bleak outlook.  With the exception of movingly real performances from Hoffman and Voight, the film is hard to love.  The narrative is a little too tortuous and abstract, and the sense of loneliness that pervades the entire film is a little too real — it starts to get under your skin.

taxi driverSimilarly dark but easier to digest is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which features Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who, plagued by insomnia, works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City.  Travis prides himself in being willing to drive “anytime, anywhere,” but during his nocturnal exploits he develops a loathing for the scum he sees walking the streets. His misanthropy is made worse when the one person whom he hopes might be a kindred spirit — Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a young campaign volunteer — turns out to be “just like the rest of them… cold and distant.”  Eventually, driven by depression and frustration, Travis’s thoughts turn violent.

This is a film in which the city is almost a character itself, thanks in no small part to Scorsese’s artful cinematography.  The film opens with a sting of dissonant brass and a burst of white smoke from a manhole, and Travis’s taxi emerges like a boat slogging through hell. Through the lens of Travis’s perspective, all of New York’s worst qualities are accentuated.  The neon signs are lurid, the streets filthy, the pedestrians swarming. Travis writes in his journal about feeling lost and alienated, and we sympathize with him.

When a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) climbs frantically into Travis’s taxi only to be dragged out again by her pimp, Travis feels compelled to rescue her.  Foster is mesmerizing even in the brief amount of screen-time she occupies. Both in looks and in mannerisms she is an uncanny combination of adult and childlike: her clothes are scanty, revealing her undeveloped body, and her demeanor is matter-of-fact but peppered with petulant eye-rolls and smirks.  Iris is the ultimate symbol of what Travis sees as the degeneracy New York — something pure and innocent that’s been sullied — and her appearance in his taxi is just the motivation he needs for his violent plans to take shape.

Despite his extremism, however, Travis is not a villain but an antihero, a man whose radical actions stem from loneliness and delusion.  Indeed, so much of what makes the film so compelling is Travis’s complexity.  There’s something immediately likeable about him — he’s good-looking, candid, and reflective, and his frustration with his surroundings is understandable.  But to like Travis is to follow him down the rabbit hole into a world of terrifying volatility, bordering on madness.  Gripping, unsettling, and bizarrely beautiful, it’s no wonder Taxi Driver has become part of the canon of great American films.

Manhattan

Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of its portrayal of New York: like so many of Allen’s movies, it is a love story to a city.

The film opens with a series of shots of New York — the skyline, the crowded streets, the flashing lights in Times Square — set to Allen’s voiceover as he writes the beginning of a novel.  He describes the city’s many different personalities, including “a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin” — and this description is carried throughout the film, the black and white scenes scored exclusively by Gershwin classics. Out of all the versions of the city, this is the one in which the film takes place: a New York that’s old, beautiful, and seen through the rosy lens of nostalgia.

Allen stars as Isaac, a middle-aged divorcé who ends his relationship with his teenage girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in order to begin an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his best friend.  These characters are affluent and educated: Isaac is a television writer and an aspiring novelist, and Mary is a loquacious cultural snob. From this perspective, New York becomes a completely different city from the anonymous, filthy New York featured in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver — the scenes take place in museums, restaurants, and stylish apartments, and the problems the characters face are social, rather than issues of survival.

manhattanAnd certainly, there is something silly, almost farcical, about the film: the characters fumble around, dating each other, cheating on each other. Mary is neurotic and self-conscious, going back and forth between Isaac and his best friend Yale. Isaac is funny and likeable but also something of a buffoon, and he blunders through his interactions with the women in his life (including a hilariously stoic Meryl Streep as his ex-wife, now dating a woman and publishing a book about her marriage with Isaac). Indeed, the most mature character in the film turns out to be Tracy, who — despite Isaac’s repeated insistence that she’s just a kid — is poised and self-assured, calmly saying to Isaac, “I’ve told you before, I think I’m in love with you.”  This role-reversal is one of the film’s most delightful quirks: while the adults of the film act like children, the seventeen-year-old acts like an adult.

In the film’s penultimate scene, Isaac brainstorms ideas for his novel by talking into a tape recorder, and he comes up with the concept of “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these unnecessary problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.”  This is, of course, not unlike the George Gershwin line in the opening scene — a metaficitonal wink at the audience, an acknowledgement of just how unnecessary and silly Isaac’s and Mary’s problems are.  But at the same time there’s a strange poignancy to that line, perhaps because there’s something universally human about focusing on day-to-day drama instead of facing those bigger questions.

That balance of humor and substance is what makes this film so marvelous.  The writing is smart and heartfelt, and while the characters might be deeply flawed, they are undeniably lovable.  And, more than anything, there is that tremendous sense of place — present (and yet completely different) in all three of these films — that is not simply a backdrop for the narrative, but living part of it.

Stoker (2013) – Chan-wook Park

stoker1India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is an unusual heroine.  Sullen and reticent, she’s distant from the people around her but has a fine sense of the details of her surroundings — the gentle cracking of a hard-boiled egg’s shell, the creeping of a spider on the carpet.  When her father dies in a car accident on her eighteenth birthday, leaving India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) alone, a family member formerly unbeknownst to India makes an appearance: her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who also exhibits an ability to “hear what others cannot hear, see what others cannot see.”

Director Chan-wook Park draws us into this finely tuned way of perceiving the world in Stoker, a psychological thriller and warped coming-of-age story.  Visually the film is extraordinary.  There is an almost mathematical beauty to every shot; everything is balanced, mirrored, and rhythmic, and we continually cut back and forth to create links between scenes and images.  The ticking of the metronome matches India’s footsteps as she climbs the stairs, and it keeps time as she makes snow angels on her bed — an image that’s later revisited when Charlie remembers making angels in the sand as a boy.  India opens the pencil case where she keeps her lethally sharp #2s, and we cut to her memory of opening the basement freezer and discovering what Uncle Charlie has hidden there.  Every image has a meaning, circling back with beautiful precision to another image.

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Because of their shared sensibility, there is an immediate energy between India and Charlie — even when it becomes clear that Charlie’s intentions in visiting the Stokers are more ominous than simply mourning his dead brother.  Charlie is handsome, poised, and sinister (a definite homage to Hitchcock’s Uncle Charlie in the 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt), and he becomes a twisted mentor for India in her journey towards self-discovery. “Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be,” India’s voiceover whispers in the opening scene. “Only once you realize this do you become free. And to become adult is to become free.”  There are elements of a coming-of-age story here, but they’re distorted and perverse.  It’s as if we have stepped into a mirror world, where a Philip Glass piano duet between family members can serve as a sexual awakening, and where the “adult” the young hero becomes is something quite different from what one might expect.

The plot itself is a little trite — thrilling, but at times predictable and sprinkled with clichés.  Uncle Charlie is first introduced as a graveyard silhouette watching the funeral from a distance (what a trope!), and his shadiness is never in question.  Evelyn is also a weak link in the small cast of characters, Kidman doing her best to bring to life the bland, beautiful widow all too ready to move on from her husband’s death.  Ultimately it is the cinematography and aesthetic that make this film worth watching.  The story may have its moments of weakness, but it’s told so tremendously well that it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen.

Spring Breakers (2012) – Harmony Korine

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There are a lot of ways four college girls might choose to fund a spring break trip.  Scrupulously saving cash, picking up extra jobs on the side, asking their parents for help… or holding up a local restaurant using squirt guns, ski masks, and an El Camino stolen from a professor.  Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez) are four friends who, feeling stifled by their stale college town, are willing to go the extra mile to ensure that they get the spring break they want.  After robbing the Chicken Shack for cash, the girls take a bus down to Florida, where they partake in nonstop drunken revelry.

The partying these girls engage in is truly a spectacle, and director Harmony Korine feasts upon it, taking it all in with gorgeous, languid shots.  Boys pour beer over girls’ bare breasts; teenagers jump up and down, screaming; alcohol rains down and brightly colored plastic paraphernalia abounds.  It’s a world of decadence and reckless abandon, and it’s so gracefully filmed that one can’t help but be mesmerized by it.  The film is a collage of different shots laced together by music and dialog, never completely anchored to one moment, and the effect is both seductive and nightmarish.

Brit, Candy, Cotty and Faith are clearly experienced partygoers, but we know virtually nothing else about them.  Faith is a Christian and more innocent than the other three, but the girls are otherwise devoid of identities and almost indistinguishable from each other.  The location of their school is also never specified, and they have vague southern accents that come and go depending on the scene.  In a sense, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re coming from; they are dipping into an alternate reality where they can leave those things behind.

The girls are also a peculiar combination of childlike and hyper-adult.  They are petite, their faces round, their giggles girlish, and Korine made the notable choice of casting two former Disney Channel stars as Faith and Candy: Gomez of the sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place and Hudgens of the High School Musical trilogy. With Disney, these actresses maintained wholesome, youthful reputations — and now we see them scantily clad, handling weapons, snorting cocaine.  It is a jarring, almost hysterical sight.  As they laugh and scream and party, the four girls come across as children playing at adulthood, drunk on their own autonomy, with no sense of responsibility or consequences.

898236_t607It’s not until the girls are arrested for use of cocaine that they are hit by the repercussions of their actions.  “Why is this happening?” Faith’s voiceover laments.  “We were just having fun, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Serendipitously, the girls are bailed out by a gangster who calls himself Alien (James Franco), and their spring break swings in a new direction. Franco is almost unrecognizable with his cornrows and grills, and he exudes a goofy sincerity that makes him strangely likeable.  He takes an immediate liking to the girls — “I think I just fell in love with y’all” — and welcomes them into his opulent world of drugs and violence.  While Faith is reluctant, the other three are titillated by the change of pace.  They seem to be willing to try anything, viewing this trip as totally isolated from their real lives.

This is an arresting, vivid, and poignant picture of the college-going youth of America.  The narrative is absurd, a caricature, but there is some real truth to it.  Korine is taking a good look at American “spring break” culture: this phenomenon of thousands of college students spilling onto America’s beaches, wreaking havoc, and returning to their schools as if nothing has happened. The film presents a world that feels more like a fever dream than anything else — a world in which young girls can shed their identities, brandish guns and indulge in power fantasies without repercussions.  And while scenes are cut with Alien’s murmuring, “Spring break… spring break… spring break forever,” it’s a significantly transient world; whatever damage these girls do will be left in their wake when they hop on the bus to go home.

The Great Gatsby (2013) – Baz Luhrmann

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“You want to see an auteur?” Baz Luhrmann’s newest film seems to scream. “I’ll show you an auteur!”  This new rendition of The Great Gatsby is all but bursting at the seams with Luhrmann’s characteristic quirks — explosions of glitter, anachronisms, forbidden love, outrageous parties, and a slow tragedy unwinding on a typewriter.  It is almost a caricature. Fans of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet will not be disappointed.

Adapted from the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film features Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a young bond salesman who rents a summer cottage in Long Island next to the sumptuous mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  When Carraway is invited to one of Gatsby’s lavish parties, the two become friends and Carraway agrees to help Gatsby in his pursuit of an old flame: Carraway’s own cousin, Daisy Buchanon (Carrie Mulligan), who lives with her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) across the bay.

The story is framed by Carraway’s narration years later, during his stay in a sanitarium for treatment of his depression and alcoholism.  His doctor encourages him to write his memories down as a therapeutic exercise, and it is through these writings that we experience Gatsby’s story. It’s an unnecessary and somewhat clichéd framing device, as Carraway’s voiceover would easily carry the scenes on its own, but the writing aspect does allow Carraway to wax poetic in his narration.  His lines are slow, lyrical, and lovely, often quoting Fitzgerald’s original text directly, and this allows the film to stay remarkably true to the novel — an appropriate choice for an adaptation with such a unique and different aesthetic.

Because the aesthetic is truly powerful.  The colors are oversaturated, the camerawork feverish, the costumes sparkling.  It is gorgeous, dazzling, and at times a little jumbled.  Notably, Gatsby’s parties roar with contemporary music, flappers dancing to Lana Del Rey, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Fergie, and Beyonce.  This is perhaps an attempt to draw a link between the “roaring 20s” and our own era — hip-hop serving as the contemporary equivalent to jazz of the 20s — but if so, the message isn’t entirely clear. The Great Gatsby is completely wrapped up in the era in which it takes place, and thus it is a difficult story to modernize, to separate from the 1920s.  Ultimately, the anachronistic soundtrack comes across as a fun quirk more than anything else.

The characters, on the other hand, are wonderfully sketched.  Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s screenplay teases out the characters’ nuances, revealing their kindness and charisma as well as their tragedy.  Gatsby is handsome and coiffed, composed and constantly repeating the jovial catchphrase “old sport.”  His self-assurance is tenuous, however, and DiCaprio does a fine job of conveying Gatsby’s nervous energy and, at times, apparent unease.  “The way he spoke — no wonder people thought he was lying,” Carraway notices.

careymulligan_2550464bFrom across the bay Gatsby can see a green light pulsing at the end of Daisy’s dock, and he obsesses over it, formulating a detailed plan for how he’ll win her back and reshape his own life.  Daisy in particular, a character usually accused of being vacuous, is given new resonance in the film, exhibiting a jadedness behind her flirty, flighty façade.  She tells Carraway that when her daughter was born, she said to the doctors, “I hope she’ll be a fool.  That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world: a beautiful little fool” — and it seems that throughout the film, Daisy actively chooses to play the part of the fool.  On the day she and Gatsby are finally reunited, he tosses all of his beautiful shirts onto the bed where she sits, and she bursts into tears. “It just makes me sad,” she says.  Carraway’s narration supplements (in a line that is not in the original book), “Five lost years struggled on Daisy’s lips, but all she could manage was…” “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts,” Daisy says.  For some reason she withholds emotionally, instead commenting on his evident wealth.

Tom is inveterately unfaithful to Daisy, and Gatsby’s love for her is fueled primarily by his own desire to recapture the past. (Significantly, the love scenes between Gatsby and Daisy are cut with Lana Del Rey’s poignant crooning, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?”)  For both men she is a prop, an accessory. In the climactic scene in the hotel when he and Tom fight over possession of her, they are all but feeding her lines, informing her of her own feelings.  In the end, what Carraway sees as Daisy’s selfish recklessness is perhaps simply a decision to give in — a surrender in the hopeless battle for control over her own life.

DiCaprio and Mulligan carry the film, but the supporting cast is also strong.  A particularly masterful performance comes from Edgerton as Tom, the brutish polo player, brazenly discussing white supremacy and taking calls from his mistress during dinner.  Cruelly masculine, Tom also has moments of surprising vulnerability and tenderness when faced with the loss of his wife and his mistress.  Maguire is an apt Carraway — perhaps a little goofy, but appropriately naïve, enamored of Gatsby and happy to be taken along for the ride.  He tends to blend into the background, drowned out by the “kaleidoscopic carnival” that is Gatsby’s world.

The tale that Luhrmann tells us here is more dramatically tragic than Fitzgerald’s original novel; the colors are brighter; pacing is faster.  Is this the pained, understated Gatsby you read in high school?  Maybe not.  But once you clear away all the sparkles and spectacle — the Baz-Luhrmann-ness of it — the heart of the story is there, pulsing as steadily as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.  This may never be considered the essential film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, but it is a fun, beautiful, and true adaptation. In an interview with Tribute Entertainment, Luhrmann says of Gatsby, “If it’s a great work, it’s there to be done many times in many different ways.” I can get behind that.

Trance (2013) – Danny Boyle

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Things are not what they seem in Danny Boyle’s new psychological thriller, a daring and spellbinding dive into the realm of the subconscious.  James McAvoy is Simon, an art auctioneer who bands up with a group of criminals to steal a priceless painting from his own auction house.  A blow to the head during the theft renders Simon unconscious, and upon awakening he finds that he has stolen the painting himself and has no recollection of what he’s done with it.  Torturing Simon for the information proves to be fruitless, so the gang’s leader Franck (Vincent Cassel) forces Simon to turn to hypnosis to unlock the memory of the painting’s location.  Enter Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist who discerns Simon’s dangerous situation with uncanny acuity and takes it upon herself to get involved.  “I can help you,” she writes on a notecard so that only Simon can see.

Whether she really can / will help, however, is not readily apparent. Elizabeth is a proficient hypnotherapist, and Simon proves to be particularly susceptible to hypnosis, slipping into trances within minutes.  But as Elizabeth adds more and more caveats to the process of finding the painting, the men begin to wonder about her motives.  We find ourselves wondering too.

The claustrophobic, kaleidoscopic world Boyle creates here is captivating.  The cast is small, the story revolving almost exclusively around Simon, Elizabeth, Franck, and Franck’s two thugs Nate (Danny Sapani) and Riz (Wahab Sheikh), and as the plot races towards its climax it twists tightly inwards rather than expanding outwards.  The characters reveal themselves to have unexpected dimensions and ulterior motives, and their relationships prove to be the crux of unlocking Simon’s memory.

Trance film stillOut of all of the characters, Elizabeth is particularly unusual.  Calm and stoic, she dresses primarily in trousers, blouses, and blazers and keeps her hair pulled back in a simple braid. In a conversation in which a violent ex-boyfriend of hers is mentioned, she says placidly, “To be angry is to be a victim.  I’ve moved on.  That’s the only real victory.”  It’s not altogether clear whether her stoicism is genuine, but regardless, Elizabeth has a real advantage over her fellow male characters due to her seeming ability to keep a cool head and her knowledge of psychotherapy.  Her profession provides her with the tools to render people utterly vulnerable, and she uses that to her advantage, peering into the other characters’ minds while keeping her own thoughts obscure.

Elizabeth becomes more sympathetic as we find out more about her, while Simon becomes less and less likable.  McAvoy breaks out of his typically sweet and sensitive roles here, giving a performance that is guarded, nuanced, and at times explosive.  And indeed, by the end of the film Elizabeth has essentially hijacked the narrative from him; we begin with Simon’s voiceover and follow him as our main character, but by the end he becomes simply a feature of Elizabeth’s story. 

As the film progresses, the line between trance and reality begins to blur.  Boyle’s cinematography enhances this disorientation: the plentiful mirrors and large panes of glass create fragmented and multiplied reflections, and give characters vantage points over one another.  Even in the safety of an apartment, there is a sense of inescapable voyeurism — as if each character is in his/her own private panopticon.

Through this tortuous narrative, Boyle strips his characters down to reveal their greed and perversion as well as their tenderness and vulnerability.  And while the film is dark and real, it isn’t altogether bleak; it’s simply human.  Trance peers into the depths of the mind and does not flinch at what it finds there, and for that it should be commended.