Saturday, August 16, 2014

Some Kind of Hero

Year 6, Day 228 - 8/16/14 - Movie #1,819

BEFORE: The entertainment news is full of tributes to Robin Williams, and I sort of have mixed feelings.  Not about how funny the man was, that's not really in doubt.  But there's that stigma attached to depression and suicide, wondering if someone failed if they failed to be happy, or if instead they were a victim of circumstance.  Then there's people wondering how someone could be so funny on the outside and tragic on the inside, but it's something we've seen before, time after time, in the stories of John Belushi, Phil Hartman, and yes, Richard Pryor, who carries over from "California Suite".  Very few people get to lead completely charmed lives, and famous people are no different in that regard.  It's how we deal with life's little (and big) tragedies that ends up defining us, and somehow suicide manages to be tragic with a touch of narcissism and self-indulgence, if you follow my thinking.

THE PLOT: A Vietnam vet returns home from a prisoner of war camp and is greeted as a hero, but is quickly forgotten and soon discovers how tough survival is in his own country.

AFTER: I've been working a 70's vibe most of the week due to the Jane Fonda films, and even though this film was released in 1982 (and, I assume, also takes place then?  It's tough to tell.) because it deals with a Vietnam veteran, this still feels like it's on topic.  The main character spends years in a P.O.W. camp, obviously it's an important part of his story, but it could also be an add-on to cover up the fact that the film spent years in development limbo.  Just a theory.

But let's follow the theme I started in the intro - this film is all about dealing with tragedy.  Our (anti-) hero spends years in terrible conditions while held by the Viet Cong, who harass him over and over to sign a confession regarding U.S. war crimes.  He holds out as long as he can, but in an attempt to get medical care for his cellmate and friend, he finally relents.  This eventually comes back to haunt him once he is released, because it causes his veteran's benefits to be suspended. 

But wait, there's more. After initially being told the good news that his wife had a daughter, after an initial romantic meeting with his wife, she reveals that she's moved on with her life.  Also, his mother has suffered a stroke and requires constant medical care.  There's plenty more, I won't reveal all here because the tragedies are revealed to comic effect, and I try not to step on other people's jokes.  Bottom line, the guy needs money desperately, and turns to a life of crime.  

This also puts me in a difficult position tonight - because rooting for this character to succeed means supporting his crimes.  But it's the system that drives him to crime, so is society the real villain here?  That seems like too easy of an answer, plus it lets the sinner off the hook.  There should be no shortcuts in life.  But a complex film should be able to portray a situation with no easy answers as well.  I keep going back and forth on this.

Also starring Margot Kidder (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"), Ronny Cox (last seen in "Total Recall"), Ray Sharkey, Lynne Moody, with cameos from Matt Clark and my buddy, Peter Jason (as Asshole #1 in bar, last seen in "Congo")  

RATING: 4 out of 10 treasury bonds

Friday, August 15, 2014

California Suite

Year 6, Day 227 - 8/15/14 - Movie #1,818

BEFORE: Already I'm wrapping up the Jane Fonda chain - geez, I feel like I just started it.  But I can't dwell on it, I've still got 82 films to go before I close up the book on another year.

THE PLOT:  Misadventures of four groups of guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

AFTER: This is a collection of four stories taking place in different rooms at the same hotel, presumably at the same time.  This is a tricky thing, I think other films have tried it, like "Four Rooms" and "Blame It on the Bellboy", and most recently "The Grand Budapest Hotel", which I would like to see at some point.  Apparently audiences are fascinated by the way that hotels work.

This film is based on a Neil Simon play, and unlike typical one-room plays where the staging seems very simple and obvious, this makes me wonder how they presented a play that takes place in FOUR different rooms simultaneously - or was it done in turn?  Since all hotel rooms tend to look similar, did they just close the curtain and re-open it on what was supposed to then be another room?  Or did they divide the stage into four parts and then light up or darken the appropriate rooms at the proper times?  I don't know...

EDIT: No, I was right the first time.  But in the original Neil Simon play "California Suite", these four stories took place in the SAME hotel room, but at different times.  The story of the first guests would be told, then those guests would check out of the hotel, and story #2 would be told.  In the film, the four stories take place in different rooms, over the same two-day period, more or less.

Anyway, the main problem here is that the four stories are not connected in any way, which makes the whole thing feel rather disjointed.  Jeez, even "Cloud Atlas" found small ways to tie its stories together, and they were happening decades or centuries apart!  Even something small, like having a person from one story sitting in the hotel bar next to a person from another story might have been helpful.  

Instead we get four stories that advance toward their endings in large chunks at a time, which is awkward at best, especially when some things happen during the day and other things happen at night - as a result we spend so much time away from one set of characters it's easy to forget where we left off with them.  Yeah, maybe they're asleep for a few hours, or doing something really boring, but still there's no cohesiveness in this stop-and-go approach.

Another problem is that some stories are based on incredibly clever banter - the kind that very sophisticated married couples would have, and then the others basically feature physical comedy, like trying to hide the body of a sleeping person, or a bunch of slapstick injuries during a tennis game.  Going from high comedy conversations to low-grade slapstick was pretty jarring - it's the comedy equivalent of "the bends". 

So, as a result, I'm not sure how these stories were meant to fit together, or if they even work together at all.  Just because they happen within close proximity of each other doesn't seem like enough.  They don't all play off a similar theme, unless it's something along the lines of "adding insult to injury".  But that seems like a stretch.

It's very meta that Maggie Smith won an Oscar for playing an actress who was nominated for an Oscar, and is seen attending the Academy Awards ceremony.  I wonder if that has ever happened before, or since.  (Ah, she's the only woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for playing a fictional Oscar nominee.  Cate Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a real Oscar winner, Katherine Hepburn, in "The Aviator".)

I guess I need to take this more as a snapshot of the 1970's.  Perhaps at the time it seemed really novel for divorced people to get along and discuss their teenage daughter's situation, for a man to have secret relationships with other men, or for black people to play tennis.  But apart from all that, it just feels very dated somehow.

Also starring Alan Alda (last seen in "Everyone Says I Love You"), Michael Caine (last seen in "Get Carter"), Maggie Smith (last seen in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"), Bill Cosby (last seen in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"), Richard Pryor (last seen in "Superman III"), Walter Matthau (last seen in "The Fortune Cookie"), Elaine May, Gloria Gifford, Sheila Frazier, with cameos from Dana Plato, James Coburn (last seen in "Payback"), Army Archerd.

RATING: 3 out of 10 desk clerks

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Year 6, Day 226 - 8/14/14 - Movie #1,817

BEFORE: Continuing with my tribute to TCM's Tribute to Jane Fonda. 

THE PLOT:  A small-town detective searching for a missing man has only one lead: a connection with a New York prostitute.

AFTER: This also represents the third film in a row for which Jane Fonda was Oscar-nominated - she won for both this one and "Coming Home". 

It's a murder mystery that manages to get by for most of the film without any suspects at all, largely due to the investigator running into one dead end after another - something tells me that this may more closely resemble actual detective work than your typical film, however.  Sometimes in a Hollywood crime film the pieces come together just a bit too well.  The real world is probably more messy and complicated.

The other thing that slows the detective down is getting involved with the call girl who might have been the last person to see the missing man, who might also have received some obscene letters from him.  Which seems a little weird, that the man is both missing, and possibly also stalking someone at the same time.  I don't know, perhaps people in the 1970's might have dropped off the grid once they got a taste of the NY underground sex scene?

There's more to it, of course, but the main focus of the film is the relationship between the P.I. and the call girl.  She's also an amateur actress, and she doesn't seem to need the money, so the implication is that she's got one foot in the sex-trade world just for the thrill, or because it's her subsitute for a real relationship.  Through her therapy sessions, we learn a bit about the troubled psyche of a sex worker, who might be on the cusp of having her first real non-paid-for relationship.

Paranoia, self-doubt, feelings of emptiness or numbness, it's all in line with the emotions one might expect from someone who's suffered years of abuse.  After years in a degrading job, one might expect to suffer fears over one's own self-worth.  Yet at the same time, the character comes off as someone who can easily control and manipulate men, so it's a complex situation.

Also starring Donald Sutherland (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Roy Scheider (last seen in "Naked Lunch"), Charles Cioffi, Dorothy Tristan, with cameos from Jean Stapleton, Candy Darling, Veronica Hamel, Sylvester Stallone (somewhere in a disco, last seen in "Cliffhanger"). 

RATING: 5 out of 10 fetishes

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The China Syndrome

Year 6, Day 225 - 8/13/14 - Movie #1,816

BEFORE: Jane Fonda carries over from "Coming Home" - TCM aired a tribute to her about two weeks ago, I was able to get tonight's film and tomorrow's film added to the chain, since I already had two Fonda films coming up, why not make it four?  There is some flexibility in the schedule for just such an occasion.  And as an extra bonus, tonight's film rhymes with last night's!  Love it when that happens.

THE PLOT:  A reporter finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant.

AFTER:  I went out last night for drinks and $2 tacos with a bunch of ex-co-workers, and we were all set to swap our usual war stories and reminiscences of working for difficult bosses, when a game of pub trivia broke out.  I'm always down for trivia, but this was 5 rounds of questions asked by the world's slowest MC, and he wasn't very fast scoring the answer sheets either, so we all ended up staying at the bar later than we intended.  When I got home I still had to watch my movie, but I figured a film about a nuclear (or NUKE-u-lar, as one lead character says throughout the whole film) disaster would sober me up quickly.

 I think time has taken its toll on this film, something tells me that as a thriller, this film was much scarier in 1979 than it is today.  Largely that's because people didn't understand nuclear energy then (umm, I still don't) or the kind of threat that it posed.  It seems like the worst thing that can happen (and I'm paraphrasing here) is that radioactive material can meltdown and somehow drill through the floor, all the way to China.  Hey, that actually sounds pretty cool, I might like to see that.

Of course, by now we know that's not how it would work, right?  We've had Chernobyl, and that Fukushima meltdown in Japan, and radioactive material went UP, not down. Anyway, if something could melt through the floor and go through the earth, wouldn't gravity stop it somewhere in the middle of the Earth, rather than send it to break ground in China?  Because at some point mid-way, it's going UP rather than down...

But let's take it as a given that a meltdown would be BAD, regardless of the exact consequences.  Does the film depict the bad thing happening, or almost happening, in a scary way?  Well, no.  Turns out it's not that scary to show men in a control room TALKING about a potential meltdown, rather than SHOWING the meltdown almost happening.  Oh, you want action?  How about those men flipping switches, and tapping on meters?  Don't forget making frantic phone calls...  My point is, this film violates the "Show, don't tell" rule. 

Oh, there are plenty of shots of random machinery making a lot of whirring noises, and at a couple of points the camera shakes REALLY bad to let us know that bad things are afoot - bad things that we never see.  If this film had been made 20 years later, we'd see SPFX of glowing control rods, and radiation that's somehow visible, and tons of water turning to steam.  Stuff that's visually interesting, whereas still shots of whirring machinery and paper coming out of a dot-matrix printer just...isn't. 

Besides, I'm not really clear on the exact nature of the "disaster" scene in this film.  We're told there's  a problem, then we're told that there wasn't (though this could be a bunch of BS from the plant's spokesmen), then the threat of another problem surfaces - though apparently it's not a specific problem, just the general problem that safety records might have been falsified during the plant's construction.  Agreed, that seems to present an increased risk of future problems, but as far as I can tell, does not constitute a problem in and of itself.

We had this thing back in the 1970's, it was called the "energy crisis" - there were long lines at gas stations, blackouts such, and people started to wonder how long the world's oil and coal were going to last, and started thinking about nuclear power, and also alternate sources like solar power and wind power.  If only people had taken those solutions more seriously at that time, we might be in a better place now.  But no, nearly everybody kept using gas and oil because it was easier - you just drive your car down to the station (and wait in a two-hour line) to get more!  Maybe if you didn't spend so much time idling in the line for gas, you wouldn't need so much gas...

There's a lot that humans should be ashamed of - what's fresh in my mind right now is slavery and our treatment of war veterans, but obviously that comes from the previous two movies.  Here's something else to be ashamed of - we've let a few people in power kill that search for alternate energy, so that they can keep on making money from oil.  They've also managed to scuttle development so that we're all convinced that nuclear, solar and wind power are not viable.  OK, so nuclear radiation's dangerous, I'll concede that - but every day millions of joules of FREE energy are hitting our planet in the form of sunlight, and the vast majority of that is being wasted, making our cars too hot and making tan people tanner.  So maybe solar panels aren't perfect - can't we just make them better?  We've always been the country of invention and innovation, why have we just given up on the way we produce energy?  There are millions of people who could benefit from cleaner, cheaper energy, and a few hundred who are getting rich from us sticking with oil - now that's shameful.

Also starring Jack Lemmon (last seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), Michael Douglas (last seen in "Falling Down"), Wilford Brimley, James Karen, James Hampton, Richard Herd.

RATING: 4 out of 10 color bars

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Coming Home

Year 6, Day 224 - 8/12/14 - Movie #1,815

BEFORE: This would have been a great opportunity to link to "Nebraska", but that's still on PPV too, and I'm not paying $5 for that film either.  Instead, Bruce Dern carries over from "Django Unchained" and serves as the link to the Jane Fonda chain.

THE PLOT: A woman whose husband is fighting in Vietnam falls in love with another man who suffered a paralyzing combat injury there.

AFTER: I'm also missing out on the opportunity to schedule a film on Veterans' Day this year, because I'm planning to watch just 300 films in 2014, and I should be done with that before then.  I could have programmed this for Armed Forces Day, which is in May, but I was deep in the Hitchcock chain then.  (I think I came close with "Foreign Correspondent", that will have to do.)  So it's my time to honor America's Vets today. 

I realize that I lead something of a hedonistic lifestyle - not that I take drugs or have illicit sex, but I try to enjoy the finer things (as I define that) like beer floats, BBQ, comic books and so on.  Every once in a while I, like most Americans, should stop and appreciate the fact that people fought to preserve the lifestyle I enjoy, and the freedoms that make it possible.  Many died, many were injured, and many still bear the scars, physical and mental.

The Vietnam War took place in a much different time, I realize, but the problems that Vietnam vets faced upon returning home were in many ways the same as any other veterans. However, in some ways they were much worse - there was the shame of losing the war, the trouble re-adjusting to civilian life, the feeling of being abandoned and ignored by the U.S. government.  Sad to say that the recent news about appalling conditions, long wait times and general run-around at V.A. hospitals demonstrates that perhaps not much has changed after all.  (Blame THAT guy - General Run-Around)

So I'm going to ignore the feeling that this film was crafted by someone with an agenda, or an axe to grind.  Just because that was a motivating factor, it doesn't mean that the agenda wasn't valid, or the axe didn't NEED grinding.  This film may be forever tied to its time period, but that doesn't make it any less important.

In some ways, it's just a simple love triangle, with Vietnam and a VA hospital just serving as a backdrop.  But where "Django Unchained" was all flash and little substance, this one nails the compulsory points of a love triangle.  In that I mean that the two lead males are a study in contrasts - from the very first shot, one is jogging and the other is lying in a hospital bed.  One's on active duty, the other has been discharged due to injury.  One is optimistic and looking forward to his tour in Vietnam (yep) and the other is depressed and cynical. 

This is important because if the two characters were similar, we wouldn't really get it when the wife of the active soldier develops feelings for the wounded one.  Another key difference - one is far away, the other one is nearby.  This doesn't make the wife fickle, it all goes to support what she feels she can get emotionally from one that she couldn't get from the other.  This is seen on a physical level too - the sex scenes with the two men couldn't have been more different.  I'll spare you the exact details, but I don't blame Sally for her choice. 

I guess you can say I've been on the losing end of a love triangle, and it sucks.  I can't really say there were any winners in the situation, except that all three parties were eventually able to move on and lead (presumably) productive lives.  But when you learn your partner has been unfaithful, and that it was with the ONE person in the world that would annoy you the most, it's just the most awful sinking feeling.  You might as well just end the relationship right there, because even if you can put things back together, it's never going to be the same.

My one quibble with the film comes with the ending.  The fate of one character is left somewhat ambiguous - which leaves the resolution of the love triangle in doubt.  Perhaps there was a feeling that some viewers would root for the injured veteran, and others would root for the wronged husband, so an ending was concocted that could be read two ways, leaving it for the viewers to decide.  That's a bit of a cop-out, unfortunately, and I think at some point it needed to be clarified.

Also starring Jane Fonda (last seen in "Julia"), Jon Voight (last seen in "U Turn"), Robert Carradine (also carrying over from "Django Unchained"), Penelope Milford, Robert Ginty, David Clennon (last seen in "Sweet Dreams"), with cameos from Jonathan Banks (last seen in "Identity Thief"), Marc McClure, and ventriloquist Willie Tyler (!)

RATING: 6 out of 10 Rolling Stones songs

Monday, August 11, 2014

Django Unchained

Year 6, Day 223 - 8/11/14 - Movie #1,814

BEFORE: Perhaps you were expecting "The Wolf of Wall Street" next?  That would have made sense, what with the DiCaprio connection, and the bond trading & shady deals that were alluded to in "The Great Gatsby" - but I'm afraid the premium channels haven't aired that film yet, and I'm certainly not going to pay $4.99 on top of what I already pay a certain cable company each month.  I'm moving on, I'll have to do a follow-up with that film later on.  I've come to the end of the DiCaprio chain (for now) and the films for the rest of the year are already programmed.  Thematically, I realize I risk being all over the place, but my options are becoming more and more limited as the list grows smaller - the list seems to be stuck at 155 for now, it's been that way for over a week.

THE PLOT:  With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

AFTER: This is a LONG film, about 2 hours and 45 minutes, and you know my first thought was, "Does it really need to BE this long?"  Any longer and Tarantino probably would have had to cut it into two films, like he did with "Kill Bill".  But the film's not really presented in two halves - it's sort of in two parts, but one's just an hour long and the other's an hour and 45 min.  Hardly ideal for splitting - plus, then you'd have one film that was all exposition and build-up, and a second film that was all conflict and resolution.  Nope, one long film it is, and needs to be.

But if I can pontificate about Tarantino's films for just a second, I have to wonder, "Where did they start to run off the rails?"  If I look at his early films like "True Romance" (written by QT) and "Reservoir Dogs", they had this thing called a story arc - meaning that there was action, sure, but he built up TO it.  Even if you take what I think was his best film, "Pulp Fiction", there's a lot of exposition in that film.  People TALK to each other, people discuss things - sure, often everyone has a gun in their hand during those discussions, but everything is not just a simple shootout.  Tarantino became famous for using the "Mexican Standoff" - three people with guns all pointed at each other - and that's a tense situation, something that needs to be worked out, and it might end in gunfire (OK, it will probably end in gunfire) but it might not.

By contrast, I'm now presented with "Django Unchained", which seems to be operating under the guidelines of "shoot first, ask questions later".  Or, more precisely, it's "shoot first, then produce the paperwork later that proves the person I just shot was a wanted man".   How did we get from there to here?  How did Tarantino go from "Reservoir Dogs", with like two shootouts (I think, it's been a while) to "Django Unchained", which has about 47 of them?  (estimated figure, I lost count) 

I think I know, and it's a process that filmmakers really need to be aware of.  Think about "Pulp Fiction" - what were the scenes that truly made an impact?  OK, the dance scene, but let's table that for a second.  Other than the famous "drug overdose" scene, the parts that were truly memorable were when people got shot.  The guy in the car getting shot.  The guy in the apartment getting shot.  The very prominent lead character getting shot (even though he appears OK later in a scene that takes place earlier...).  It's probably very tempting for a director to take note of the scenes in his film that got the biggest crowd reaction, and make his next film with that in mind. 

Eventually that leads to films like "Kill Bill" (Vol. 1-2) - which features a series of martial arts battles, each of which ends with someone getting killed in a new and interesting fashion.  Or the climax scene of "Inglourious Basterds", which may have set a new record for number of Nazis killed on screen in interesting ways.  And that's how you get "Django Unchained", which falls into bloodbath territory a number of times, but most prominently for like the last 45 minutes of the film.  Don't get too attached to the great characters in this film, because most likely they won't be left standing by the end.

Was the American South a brutal place in the late 1850's?  Of course it was.  Was slavery an abominable practice, with indignity upon indignity heaped upon Negro slaves in countless ways?  Of course.  I'm not sure that all of that, however, justifies the amount of violence seen in this film.  In its own way it represents wish-fulfillment, just like we WISH that a ragtag bunch of Allied soldiers could have stuck it to the Natzies - we WISH that a free black man like Django could have gone rogue and taken out a bunch of plantation owners.  But that, in itself, doesn't make it right. 

I'm torn tonight, because I know the first job of a film is to entertain - and being on Django's side, which is the side for righteousness and justice and against slavery and mistreatment means that a lot of people will find this entertaining and possibly even fulfilling.  But the other side of me chimes in and says, "Umm, as much as we might hate slavery today, it was technically legal, albeit inhumane, in the South in the year 1858."  And that's where I start to have a problem, where what's legal and what's right turn out to be two different things. 

I want to equate Django with Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name", who did whatever he felt was right at any time, possessing his own set of morals that generally seemed to center around messing with people who messed with him.  (And I'm trying real HARD to be the shepherd...)  But I just can't.  This film goes way too far with the bloodshed.  It didn't have to be this way, every scene didn't have to be a showcase for how many people can be shot, or a new interesting way that someone can get blowed up.  What happened to exposition?  Character development?  Plot points?   Redemption?

I just miss the Tarantino who made "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" - whatever happened to THAT guy?  Think about this, Quentin - there were two films recently made about slavery, set in the same time period - "Django Unchained" and "12 Years a Slave".  One of them won the Best Picture Oscar, and the other one didn't.  Why is that?  I get that you're a fan of exploitation movies, so you've done your homages to blaxploitation, Nazi-ploitation, martial arts movies, and grindhouse films.  Now, how about just trying to make a great movie?

Also starring Jamie Foxx (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"), Christoph Waltz (last seen in "Water for Elephants"), Kerry Washington (last seen in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"), Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), Walton Goggins (last seen in "Lincoln"), Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson (last seen in "Tin Cup"), with cameos from Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern (last seen in "Family Plot"), M.C. Gainey, Jonah Hill (last seen in "The Watch"), Robert Carradine, Rex Linn (last seen in "Cliffhanger") and Quentin Tarantino himself.

RATING: 5 out of 10 sticks of dynamite

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Year 6, Day 222 - 8/10/14 - Movie #1,813

BEFORE: Sticking with DiCaprio, but finally a film that was released last year, so I feel like I'm getting more current.  A large portion of the list is now made up of the films of 2013, so it's time I started chipping away at those.  Plus, I could use a trip out to the Hamptons after the horrible vacations witnessed earlier in the week.

THE PLOT:  A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor.

AFTER:  Every once in a while, I like to give back - and it's time to start on that summer reading list, kids, because September's just around the corner.  So don't read the Cliff's Notes, teens, because your teachers are on to that scam.  They know what the synopsis says, and they're prepared to ask you questions beyond that - things that are ONLY in the book and not in Cliff's Notes. (That Cliff guy got me in trouble more than once when I was back in high-school...)  Sometimes I liked to read the front cover of a book, and then the summary on the back cover, and wondered if I could get away with telling my teacher I read the book "from cover to cover".  

Hmm, perhaps I should back up a bit.  Before there was a Wikipedia, we used to have these things called "Cliff's Notes" - you would go to the bookstore and buy this little pamphlet for 3 or 4 dollars, and it told you all the themes and symbolism in a novel's plot, so you wouldn't have to read it.  You wouldn't be able to ace any test on the book, but perhaps you'd get an acceptable score.  Of course, you could also go and watch the movie version of a book, but then you'd be taking a chance that Hollywood retained all of the significant dialogue and the idioms that your English teacher wanted to make sure was penetrating your noggin.  A longshot, at best.

These days, all you have to do is make a couple mouse clicks to visit Wikipedia, where you'll discover that "The Great Gatsby" explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval and excess, creating a portrait of the American Jazz Age, aka The Roaring Twenties that has been described as a cautionary tale concerning the American Dream. (Oh, how I wish I could do high school over - I mean, I did well, but with the internet's help, I'd totally kill it...)   

If you want to go for bonus points with your teacher, I'm here to help: the two male leads in "Gatsby" both represent author F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the same way that when you have a dream, you play all of the characters.  The difference in Gatsby and Nick Carroway shows how conflicted Fitzgerald felt about his times, and being a successful author - he could have been as rich as Gatsby, but inside he felt like Nick's simple everyman. He idolized the rich, but never completely felt like he was part of their world.  Fitzgerald hailed from Minnesota and attended Yale, just as Carraway did.  And he fell in love with a young woman while serving in the military, just as Gatsby did.  So Daisy Buchanan represents Zelda Sayre (later Fitzgerald), who would not marry the author until he was successful - and Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who represented everything he wanted, but she led him towards a lifestyle that he hated.  

And this tells us everything we need to know about Jay Gatsby - he would have done anything to be successful, because only success could bring him into Daisy's world and make him worthy of her.  But since there are questions about HOW he became successful (Did he buy drugstores?  Inherit money?  Or was bootlegging involved?) we then have to wonder if he cheated his way to the top, and therefore not worthy, a idol with feet of clay.  And even though he throws lavish parties, always smiles and calls everyone "old sport", is it possible that inside he's filled with self-loathing, disgusted by not only who he's become but how he got there?  

Furthermore, even though he appears devoted to Daisy and the idea of getting back together with her, is this a realistic goal, or even a good idea?  She's moved on, gotten married, has a daughter (though I think we never see the daughter in the film), can he offer her a better life than the one that she has, or is his presence in her life going to ultimately just be destructive?  This is something of a conundrum, because Daisy's husband, Tom, has a mistress, so it seems at first that he's unworthy as well - but can this really justify Daisy's affair with Gatsby?  Do two wrongs make a right, or just a pair of wrongs in the end?  

Should Gatsby even be pining for a woman who may just break his heart all over again - hope is great, but sometimes hope is misplaced.  People aren't perfect, therefore Gatsby isn't perfect - he's misguided and mistakenly optimistic.  Daisy isn't perfect either, she's shallow, selfish, cowardly and deceptive, so why should Gatsby expect her to make the "right" choice and choose him?

All that should keep your English teacher happy, now let's move on to this particular filmed version. (I would like to watch the Robert Redford version as well, and I kind of figured that TCM would run it sometime in the past year, but they haven't.  I'll have to follow up with that version later, just like I'll have to also catch the Nicholson version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice".  The 2013 "Gatsby" doesn't skimp on anything - music, special effects, giant parties that look like Busby Berkeley finally got the money and space to do everything he ever imagined.  And all of that fits perfectly with the reported excess of the times, and the themes of indulgence and decadence.  

You can do all this now with digital technology - make Gatsby's mansion as big as it needs to be, beyond what's humanly reasonable.  You can also restore the Manhattan skyline to the way it looked in 1922 - I appreciate all that, however:

NITPICK POINT: I'm not even going to harp on how the film is set in 1922, and "Rhapsody in Blue" wasn't composed until 1924, or how people are seen dancing the Charleston, which didn't take off until 1926.  You might as well take issue with the fact that characters are seen driving a 1929 car, or listening to a model of radio from 1936.  But I have to call foul on including modern music from Jay-Z,, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse.  Sure, I get that this makes the kids interested and puts asses in the seats, but I think this turns off as many people as it turns on, and just comes across as mysteriously anachronistic.  It's the same reason why I've avoided the film "Moulin Rouge", from the same director.  It just pulled me out of the reality I was trying to watch.

NITPICK POINT #2: If Nick and Daisy are cousins, why didn't he know about her prior relationship with Gatsby? Were they cousins that had fallen out of touch?  You'd think if she almost married Gatsby 5 years ago, he would have at least heard about it, or gotten an invitation to the wedding that almost happened, or something.  

NITPICK POINT #3: So there's just 1 gas station between outer Long Island and Manhattan?  That must have been a very busy gas station at the time.  Of course, this is Fitzgerald relying on coincidence to facilitate his story.  He never really says WHERE on Long Island West Egg is - we can assume it's really the Hamptons, but it could just as easily be on the North Shore.  Also, I love how someone in the Theater District in Manhattan got into a cab and said this destination: "Long Island, please."  Are you kidding me?  First off, Long Island is HUGE.  Secondly, where on Long Island?  Hauppage, Patchogue, Shirley, Port Jefferson?  Doesn't matter, because a taxi driver from Manhattan won't drive out to any of those places TODAY, so he certainly wouldn't have done it in the 1920's.  With those cars, it would have taken a week to get there! 

NITPICK POINT #4: The framing device of showing Nick Carraway in rehab, where he writes the novel that becomes "The Great Gatsby" - I've warned you about this before, Hollywood, but you didn't listen, so now I have to start taking points off for this.  Once again: There is nothing, NOTHING more boring than watching writers write - doesn't matter if it's long-hand, or (worse) on a manual typewriter.  It's not a process I want to see on film, which should be all about action, people DOING things rather than writing about them.  And it's even worse when the story that the writer is writing turns out to be the exact one I've just seen on film - just show THAT story, there's no need to show someone typing it up, that's a given!  (Anyway, it's contradictory, since Nick Carraway did not write "The Great Gatsby", F. Scott Fitzgerald, wait, I forgot Carraway essentially was Fitzgerald.  Never mind - but my complaint still stands!)  

Also starring Tobey Maguire (last seen in "Seabiscuit"), Carey Mulligan (last seen in "Shame"), Joel Edgerton (last seen in "Zero Dark Thirty"), Isla Fisher (last heard in "Rango"), Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Thompson

RATING: 5 out of 10 flappers