Tag Archives: reviews

Nebraska

28 Jan

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SYNOPSIS: Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) takes the helm for this black and white road trip drama starring Bruce Dern as a tempestuous Missouri father who’s convinced he’s won a million dollar magazine sweepstakes, and Will Forte as the son who grudgingly agrees to drive him to Nebraska to claim his winnings.

CAST

Bruce Dern – Woody Grant

Will Forte – David Grant

Bob Odenkirk – Ross Grant

Stacy Keach – Ed Pegram

June Squibb – Kate Grant

Devin Ratray – Cole

Mary Louise Wilson – Mrs. Grant

Rance Howard – Uncle Ray

REVIEW:  Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne, tells an American tale, of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, as an old timer who believes he has won a million dollars from a magazine sweepstakes. The story is filmed in black and white, and takes on a journey through the bleak Midwest. Grant is stubborn and willing to walk from his home in Omaha to Nebraska to claim his winnings. His son  David begrudgingly agrees to drive Woody, and an journey of family discovery and Woody’s past unfolds. Bruce Dern’s portrayal alone is enough to see the film, the icing on the cake is the bleak journey of discovery and family secrets we are taken on. The “Grapes of Wrath Setting” adds to the determination of Woody as he slowly but surely gets to his destination of Lincoln, Nebraska. This is a post modern depression tale of middle America as it is today, you might say an up to date American Gothic. This is wonderful cinema and aside from Dern’s tour de force acting, the rest of the cast is a delight as well.

June Squibb plays Kate Grant, the exasperated wife of Woody. She is at her wits end with Woody’s antics and wants him in a home so someone else can watch him. Her portrayal is humorous, real and at times a bit saucy. You can’t help but love her for being outspoken.

Will Forte portrays David Grant, Woody’s youngest son, who reluctantly agrees he should take his father to Lincoln knowing the letter was a scam. David and his father learn to get along during the journey, they drink together, and David even put’s up with his father’s demands. David is determined to either make his dad face reality about the million or see him through to the end of his dream.

Stacy Keach plays Ed Pegram, Woody’s ex-partner in a car mechanic shop in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne Nebraska. Ed is convinced Woody is rich and wants to $10,000 in reparations from all the business that was lost over the years from Woody’s drinking and screw ups.

Rance Howard plays Ray, Woody’s brother and the two hardly say two words together, apparently they have nothing to talk about. Their moments together are comical and paint an unflattering family portrait.

As David and Woody visit the town of Hawthorne, Woody spills the beans about the million, he has been drinking and boasts a little about the letter. When word gets out Woody is rich, although not really the whole town treats him like a celebrity.

The following day, Ross, Woody’s other son portrayed by Bob Odenkirk and Woody’s wife Kate arrive in Haawthorne. They all try to cope with dad being the town celebrity as Woody just can’t wait to go to Nebraska and claim his fortune.

The film has won many accolades since its’ release, including The American Film Institute calling it one of the top ten films of the year and Bruce Dern has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.

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Blue Jasmine

2 Aug

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CAST

Alec Baldwin-Hal

Cate Blanchett-Jasmine

Louis C. K.-Al

Bobby Cannavale-Chili

Andrew Dice Clay-Augie

Sally Hawkins-Ginger

Peter Sarsgaard-Dwight

Michael Stuhlbarg-Dr. Flicker

Review: Written and Directed by Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine is Allen’s modern telling of Streetcar named Desire.  It is the story of a fallen Manhattan socialite, Jasmine (Blanchett) who moves in with her sister Ginger(Hawkins) after she loses all her money and social standing  because of her investment broker husband  Hal’s  (Baldwin) dirty investment dealings.

Jasmine’s state is post nervous breakdown and when she arrives in San Francisco she is a fish out of water. On the plane ride from NY to California she is talking to herself and the poor lady sitting next to her politely listens. Jasmine arrives at her sister’s home in Frisco’s mission district she asks a stranger  “Where am I exactly.”   This where the story begins and we realize Jasmine is over the edge and hides it by drinking vodka and downing xanax. Blanchette’s performance is masterful as Jasmine clutches to whatever dignity she has left.

Baldwin’s Hal is cold calculating, manipulative and charming. He gives Jasmine the dream life of jewels, furs, a Park Avenue address, a beach house in the Hamptons she has all the superficial trappings and spoils a woman can want. Hal is a philanderer, lives off the spoils of other people’s money and doesn’t care who he brings down to get it. He charms his way all the way into ruination ala Bernie Madoff.

The Stanley Kowalskis’ in this scenario are Jasmin’s sister’s ex-husband Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay, he nails it, and Chili, Ginger’s new boyfriend played by Bobby Cannavale.

The story is told in flashbacks as Jasmin relives the past in her rantings, as much as she tries to reconcile what she has become each passing day she is haunted by her past. Blanchett’s mood swings are so real as she navigates from sober then drunk to passive on the pills. You are pulled along for the ride and her performance  is the best I ever have seen her do. Allen is known for writing great parts for woman and this role is no exception.

This is Allen’s strongest movie since Match Point and proves once again what a prolific film maker he is. The movie never uses humor as gag  style comedy, the moments of humor scattered throughout come organically from the situations Jasmine finds herself in and the self delusion that goes along with it. You hope throughout that Jasmine’s can turn her life around.

There are moments when you realize that Jasmine’s breakdown has an underlying feeling of betrayal, is she betraying herself, is she hiding a secret, was it Hal’s betrayal and philandering that put her over the edge. Allen who loves Ingmar Bergman’s films, gives this story a  tragic Bergamanesque take on the human condition in the way the film deconstructs inch after fragile inch of Jasmine’s character. Blanchett reveals enough of Jasmine’s demons to root for her to change. Jasmine is in such deep denial that when she castigates her sister for having such losers as a husband and boyfriend, you can’t help but think that she is actually talking about her own situation.

The way Allen writes each character none of them fall into charactures or exaggerations, he pulls great performances out of all his cast members.

This is one of Allen’s finest films and it is apparent Allen is still at the peak of his story telling powers. Blanchett is a tour-de-force and shows us why we like to go to the movies in the first place. I am sure she will see a best actress nod for this one.

 

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The Lone Ranger

7 Jul

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Cast

Johnny Depp-Tonto

Armie Hammer-John Reid, a k a the Lone Ranger

Tom Wilkinson-Latham Cole

William Fichtner-Butch Cavendish

Barry Pepper-Capt. Fuller

James Badge Dale-Dan Reid

Ruth Wilson-Rebecca Reid

Helena Bonham Carter-Red Harrington

Saginaw Grant-Chief Big Bear

Review: Being a confirmed baby boomer I remember the legend of The Lone Ranger and Tonto, with a mighty hi-ho silver away and the William Tell overture bringing nostalgic memories of television shows past. Before the The Lone Ranger was part of the television landscape his stories came on the heels of the great depression, and at the time was a popular adventure radio broadcast. The series in both cases were rife with cowboy and Indian stereotypes, despicable villains and reflected a time that many people today would consider politically incorrect. The question then remains how do you bring the archaic to modern audiences in a way that can be appreciated by today’s young demographic and please those of us who grew up with the legend? Perhaps the answer comes in the form of one Johnny Depp, in his role of Tonto, an aging Indian, with a dead crow on his head, telling a child at a western carnival side show the true origin of The Lone Ranger. The carnival is in San Francisco in the year 1933, not coincidently I presume, the year the radio show was first broadcast.

As the boy wonders into the tent to see western history come alive, he wanders passed the stuffed bears and animals and comes to a statue of a native American, the plaque on the front of the window reads The Noble Savage in his native habitat. Underneath the wrinkly prosthetics is Johnny Depp as Tonto, not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s old man in the film, Little Big Man. The boy hangs on Tonto’s every word as the story begins in flashback.

The story centers around the building of the Trans-Continental railway through the old west. There are corrupt officials, Tom Wilkinson as Latham Cole, bad guys such as the Butch Cavendish gang, warring Indian tribes, Cavalry officers, explosions, love interest, Ruth Wilson as Rebecca Reid, golden hearted prostitutes on the side of good, Helen Bohnham Carter as Red Harrington, Tonto as a crazy Indian excommunicated from his tribe who becomes a crazy mentor to John Reid a.k.a. he Lone Ranger.

Gore Verbinski directed from a script by, Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. The film mixes witty verbiage, cliché’ bashing, the William Tell Overture beautifully interpolated into the score at appropriate times, spot gags and plenty of eye candy. The film pays homage to such directors as John Ford in its use of Monument Valley for location shooting, Buster Keaton’s the General and of course to the mythos behind The Ranger’s physics defying horse Silver.

The film comes across as extremely entertaining but is in truth a mixed bag. With all the attempt to give the past versions of the myth a modern twist neither is really served. There were times that the film’s homage worked so well you can’t help but smile and say yes, but alas those moments are brief and the amount of well edited bloodshed mixed with witty banter distracts rather than invites.

In the end the film is a worthy attempt, and with all the Pirates Of the Caribbean movie sequels it is nice to watch Depp having the time of his life playing yet another eccentric outcast. So if the old question was “Who was that masked man?” the new question as written into the script is, “What’s with the mask?”

FYI: There is a scene of a child being hit across the face, it is well edited but still may be intense for younger children, be warned

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The Man of Steel

14 Jun

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CAST

Henry Cavill-Clark Kent/Kal-El

Amy Adams-Lois Lane

Michael Shannon-General Zod

Diane Lane-Martha Kent

Russell Crowe-Jor-El

Antje Traue-Faora-Ul

Harry Lennix-General Swanwick

Richard Schiff-Dr. Emil Hamilton

Christopher Meloni-Col. Nathan Hardy

Kevin Costner-Jonathan Kent

Ayelet Zurer-Lara Lor-Van

Laurence Fishburne-Perry White

Cooper Timberline-Clark Kent at 9

Dylan Sprayberry-Clark Kent at 13

REVIEW:  75 years ago Jerome Siegel and Jerry Schuster creatively introduced to the world, the  now legendary American icon, Superman. It has been said that Superman’s enduring popularity has do with the fact that the mythos behind the hero is the ultimate 20th century immigration story.  A stranger arrives in America’s heartland, is adopted by a farmer and his wife, and spends his young life coming to terms with his heritage vs. the culture of his new home.  Stranger makes good, becomes America’s darling and protector and vows to uphold truth, justice and the American way. Underlying Zack Snyder’s direction of this too much CGI’d Krypton, Superman’s home world, loud explosions, and over the top villain Zod, there is an inkling of the myth behind the hero.

In the telling of Superman’s origin Russell Crowe makes a fine Jor-el, Superman’s Kryptonian world, dad. That said, Zack Snyder removes the clean-cut Jor-el from the comic books and makes Crowe look like a warrior from say 300, Snyder’s CGI laden warrior film. Crowe becomes a guiding light in spirit, through-out the film and even has an encounter with Lois Lane.

Henry Cavill is perfectly cast as Kal-el/Superman/Clark Kent. He is the perfect embodiment of the character and gives Kal-el depth as he struggles with who he is. He is searching to understand his place in the world as we all do from time to time. He understands he has powers and he learns through Jonathan Kent, his earth dad played by Kevin Costner, to control his powers for the good of mankind.

Superman’s nemesis, General Zod, played perfectly by Michael Shannon, comes to earth to turn the planet into a new Krypton.  The interplay between Zod and Superman moves the story along as Kal-el must choose between saving all that he loves or sacrificing himself to save earth.

The good news is that the simple immigration tale that is at the core of the myth, though scattered in spurts throughout the film, remains somewhat intact. The bad news is the CGI effects and overuse of the hand held, stedicam , make a quarter of the film shaky and at times I felt like I was on a roller coaster.

Superman’s home planet and technology look so overcrowded with detail that I found it a distraction from the story telling. There was too much eye candy to follow and not enough human interaction.

There are many good points to recommend this film as a go-see; on the other hand it had many flaws in the visual style and some of the casting. Laurence Fishburne was poorly cast as Perry White editor of the daily planet. In Superman’s history Perry White never wore a small diamond earring in any ear, but of course the Superman story has been, told and retold, and reborn and reborn again so many times, I guess any new vision would be acceptable.  He does get cantankerous, but no “Great Cesar’s Ghosts” or Jimmy Olsen’s in site.

Amy Adams is miscast as  Lois Lane, traditionally; Lois was a lot more feminist and curvy than Amy Adams’ version of the character. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Lois Lane a little taller and dark haired. If you are trying to draw a whole new generation of young people into the Superman fold, then why not cast say, Jennifer Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), into the role?

The film does have much going for it as a reboot. I suspect this film will rival some of the recent Marvel superhero films that have preceded the Man of Steel. If you are a fan of the mythology as I have been, you will enjoy yourself. There is plenty of Superman pop-culture reference scattered throughout to please the most hardcore of fans.

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Frances Ha

31 May

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Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Mr. Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

Synopsis: Frances (Greta Gerwig) lives in New York, but she doesn’t really have an apartment. Frances is an apprentice for a dance company, but she’s not really a dancer. Frances has a best friend named  Sophie, but they aren’t really speaking anymore. Frances throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles. Frances wants so much more than she has but lives her life with unaccountable joy and lightness. FRANCES HA is a modern comic fable that explores New York, friendship, class, ambition, failure, and redemption.

CAST

Greta Gerwig -Frances

Mickey Sumner-Sophie

Patrick Heusinger-Patch

Adam Driver-Lev

Michael Zegen-Benji

Grace Gummer-Rachel

REVIEW: This delightful, interesting, black and white IFC film, starring the “Queen of Independent” films, Greta Gerwig, tells the tale of a twenty-something woman coming to terms with growing up. Frances is 28 and dreams of being a dancer with the dance company she apprentices with. It becomes apparent what she dreams and what reality is are two different things.  She shares her best friend Sophies’s apartment but as time moves on Sophie faces the real world while Frances is still stuck in her dreams.

There is a bit of Frances in all of us as we have to face adulthood and responsibilities. Frances is the child in us all and she is both reckless and joyous as she naively, almost blindly moves to attain her perceived goals. It is plain to see she is uncomfortable with convention and she knows, even with self-doubt that she must continue after her dreams no matter what other people think. In essence as her friendships grow apart and she builds new ones, they are made with the desperate hope someone will take her at face value. Gerwig gives Frances, humor, an adorable flightiness, charm, insecurity and an enormous amount of likeability. As people she meets see through her, she obviously thinks they are crazy for not taking her offbeat view of life seriously. She almost jokingly is labeled un-dateable, her dance mentor sympathizes with her but understands Frances is not a dancer.  Her adventures through New York City where she lives, are at once humorous and  soul searching. Gerwig gives a remarkable performance.

There is an interesting moment in the film when Frances, on a date, leaves the restaurant she is in, she offered to pay for dinner but the restaurant won’t take her debit card. She leaves the date in the restaurant to find an ATM to pay cash. While running back to the restaurant she trips and falls, when she returns her date notices her arm is bleeding. She was completely unaware of the damage she inflicted on herself.  It seems this moment is a metaphor for how she has lived her life, running from place to place, falling down and not realizing the consequences as she recklessly pursues her dreams.

The film overall has a light touch, and some laugh out loud moments. By the films end you can’t help but feel that Frances is just beginning to get it right. The title of the movie Frances Ha, is also a metaphor for who Frances is, you as an observer can’t take un-dateable Frances seriously, Francis Ha!  No spoilers on how the title becomes relevant. The film is about the search and Frances takes us along for the ride.

The film grew on me as the story progressed and I am sure all of us have met a Frances Halloway at some point or another. Gerwig makes this her own and shares a writing credit with the director.

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Star Trek

16 May

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Synopsis: In this much anticipated sequel to J.J. Abrams Star Trek 2009 reboot , the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving our world in a state of crisis.

With a personal score to settle, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction. As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

CAST

 Chris Pine – James Tiberius Kirk

Zachary Quinto – Spock

John Cho – Hikaru Sulu

Bruce Greenwood – Captain Christopher Pike

Simon Pegg – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott

Zoe Saldana – Nyota Uhura

Karl Urban – Leonard “Bones” McCoy

Anton Yelchin – Pavel Checkov

Benedict Cumberbatch – John Harrison

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OhTpsUKHTtc

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Review:  For the uninitiated among you, there are several elements in the Star Trek Universe, created by Gene Roddenberry, that have stood the test of time, in what must be close to 50 years of its’ existence:

1) The idea the universe is multicultural and must be celebrated, the first interracial kiss in broadcast history, a multi ethnic and species crew of the Enterprise, Klingons, Vulcans, Humans, Romulans etc, etc.

2) The Prime Directive of non-interference in a species natural development.

3) Most important the triad-relationship between Captain, James T. Kirk, Science Officer, Mr. Spock and Doctor, Bones McCoy. Against all odds and adversaries the three remain close friends.

Regarding the last, this triad can be seen in mostly all the Trek Spin-offs, Voyager for example it’s the friendship between Captain, Janeway and head of security, a Vulcan named Tuvok.. In the film versions of the original series we find Kirk, Spock, McCoy have become a close knit family.

J.J. Abrams changed the Trek Universe in 2009 with his Star-Trek reboot. Although he ultimately kept the Trek core values he eradicated several core Federation planets thus starting from scratch. In the end, that film as the new one was a satisfying  reboot for old trekkies as well as a nod the younger audiences Trek must embrace to stay alive. It is accepting change and going with it that has kept Star-Trek one of the most enduring sci-fi franchises this side of Dr. Who.

Into Darkness picks-up where the last one left off and brings us on a thrill ride of in-jokes, surprise appearances from the past, humor and most of all the development of friendship between Kirk and Spock.

Without giving anything away, the film brings us full circle as Kirk battles an enemy within Starfleet  and an old adversary that Kirk in this timeline, meets for the first time.

Once again Pike’s Kirk, Quinto’s Spock, and Urban’s McCoy, are spot on. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is frenetic, hilarious and polar opposites of James Doohan’s Scotty, which was wise, ironic and a miracle worker. When Nichelle Nichols first played Uhura, it was groundbreaking television, she was the first black woman to break the color barrier, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, is not groundbreaking,  so as a twist she has been in a romantic relationship with Spock since Abram’s 2009 Trek Reboot. Unfortunately she is not given much to do here until late in the film when she gets involved in the action. Anton Yelchin’s, Checkov, is wide eyed and enthusiastic with extreme Russian accent intact, and John Cho’s, Sulu is also spot on.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays John Harrison, a terrorist that wants to destroy the federation. He is a great villain and his story holds true to Trek-lore and history. Nuff said.

Star Trek was always a mirror of our times, the use of metaphors and other species to depict the human condition, has always been a necessary component of the Trek Universe. J.J. Abrams has a good handle on this and the film is a nod to the past and a look to the future of the franchise. In today’s world the film debates the issues of genetic engineering, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The film works on many levels and I hope it speaks to a younger audience the way the original series has spoken to me all these years. I look forward to Kirk and crew’s 5 year mission that lies ahead as we come full circle in this the second of Abram’s, Trek incarnations.

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The Great Gatsby

10 May

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Synopsis: Baz Luhrmann directs a lavish version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gasby. Leonardo DiCaprio, plays Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man who spends half a decade building a monument to the woman he loves.

Cast

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby)

 Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway)

 Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan)

 Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan),

Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson)

Jason Clarke (George Wilson)

Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker)

 Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim)

Review:  Considering Baz Luhrmann’s excesses in his version of Romeo and Juliet, also starring Leonardo DiCapro and his visual excesses on his film Moulin Rouge, we are also visually overwhelmed by all the sites and sounds of this version of Gatsby. The film runs 2 hours and 40 minutes and it is a long time to be bombarded with fireworks, stunning set design and loud music. On the other hand the same can be said for a Cecil B. Demille extravaganza. What Luhrman does do, and brilliantly I  might add, is let us inside the 1920’s world of Gatsby and his obsession for one woman, the excessive parties and fireworks are just a distraction. Luhrmann also has an apparent appreciation for the source material, when the film gets more serious there are certain moments of diologue and proes right out of Fitzgerald’s novel.

The story is told in flashback from the point of view of Gatsby’s friend, Nick Carraway, played by Toby Maguire. Maguire, as an actor, plays naive young men changed by extraordinary circumstances extremely well.  He is seen as a recovering alcoholic in a psychiatric hospital telling his story to his doctor. When Carraway reaches an impass and won’t talk about his dealings with Gatsby, the doctor encourages him to write about it. This is when the story unfolds as Carraway, who is writing a journal, narrates his writings.

DiCaprio is Gatsby, a mysterious, rich, quiet man owns an estate on Long Island. He throws extravagant parties, collects art, fills his house with strangers and music, but no one has seen him. Rumors abound about his background, he killed a man, his family was prominent and he inherited their fortune, he went to Oxford etc. DiCaprio has a boyish charm and a knowing smile that perfectly encapsulates the Gatsby of the novel.

Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s love interest is played by Cary Mulligan, she is both beautiful and complicated. She love’s Gatsby but is married to a bigot and a brutish adulterer, the rich, Tom Buchanan.

Joel Edgerton plays Tom Buchanan’s menacing bigotry and unfaithfulness with a frightening edge. He loves his wife, Daisy, but his brutish ways keeps her at a distance. It is here that the conflicts in their marriage arise.

There are many secrets to Gatsby as well as to Daisy and her relationship with him.  Each piece of the puzzle fits together as new revelations about Gatsby are uncovered or shared with Carraway. The story is fascinating and holds your attention.

The use of 3D was very effective in the story telling, from the beginning titles that literally draw you into Gatsby’s world, to Carraway’s typing prose that at times fill the screen with fonts that fall like snow. The 3D enhances the majesty of Gatsby’s mansion and well as the musical numbers that are reminiscent of Buzby Berkley.

I must say that as good a movie as this is it falls short of being a great movie.  The film, which takes us to a post WWI New York during the roaring 20’s, is visually recreated with style, mood and the design of the time. When you are taken into that world a big piece of the picture is the sounds and music of the time and place. Luhrmann chose to juxtapose jazz sounds with the loud beats of Jay-Z, covers by Beyonce and Andre 3000,.and Fergie. Frankly this is a distraction when you are mentally focused on the 1920’s décor, color and costumes.  For an example of the contrasts at work here, the scene where Carraway meets Gatsby for the first time, there are cross cuts from Carraway’s face, to the fireworks at the party, to Gatsby himself looking out over the Long Island Sound, the music is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the moment is a brilliant use of the language of film. On the other hand as the music swells at a huge Gatsby party, the musician who is reminiscent of the Jazz Great Cab Calloway, sings a hip-hop belter that is so out of place, you are immediately removed from the time and space the film represents.  Luhrmann understands everyone will not like his use of say Fergie singing, so you have to ask is he doing justice to the story or trying to sell us a mix we can find on ITunes, or a Blu-ray DVD version of a long music video?

The movie’s cast of actors more than makes up for the flaws in the musical soundtrack and the story is a classic of modern literature. So for today’s young audience I say, you know what a DVD is, they used to call them books. On the other hand, if this is what it takes to get a young audience to appreciate a novel like Gatsby, then go for it.

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