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Monday, 20 May 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY. FILM.

The Great Gatsby is a central myth in the American story, like the Iliad was to the ancient Greeks, or the story of Cuchulainn to the Irish of pre-history.

It brings together those classic American ideas of reinvention of the self, and the American dream. Gatsby is the epitome of this, the poor boy made good, driven on by a dream and a pure desire to better himself.

In the end though, the story of Gatsby is a tragedy, almost Shakespearian. Gatsby is the tragic hero, with a fatal flaw. His flaw is that he is unable to accept that you cannot repeat the past. Gatsby is an absolutist, something that has driven him on to succeed, but which also gets in the way of his happiness.

In this film Gatsby is played by Leo di Caprio, who also worked with Baz Luhrmann, the director, on Romeo and Juliet, more than a decade ago now. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who meets the immensely rich Jay Gatsby while in the Hamptons during the summer of 1922.

Gatsby is a mysterious figure but his story slowly comes out. Five years previously he left his lover, Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin, to go to fight in Europe in the World War. He realised that he wasn't rich enough to marry old-money Daisy, and so after the war set about trying to make enough money to be worthy of her.

Daisy, thinking him dead, marries Tom Buchanan, a brute and an adulterer, but someone even richer than her.

Gatsby succeeds in becoming fabulously rich, and builds an enormous mansion just across the bay from Daisy and her husband's equally grand Big House.

We see that everything that Gatsby does after the war is dedicated to making himself worthy of Daisy, and to winning her back. He throws these elaborate parties every weekend, just in the hope that she will show up to one. He befriends Nick because he knows that he is Daisy's cousin. He succeeds in seeing Daisy, though everything doesn't go according to plan.

The strength of the film for me was exemplified in the way Gatsby's parties were filmed. They look spectacular, Gatsby's orgiastic celebrations are a sensory attack, dancing, music, throngs and throngs of people, decadence, movement, vibrant colours, the whole thing is thrilling, gorgeous, luxurious. 

Then there is the music. Luhrmann uses contemporary sounds to soundtrack the movie, from Jay-Z, Lana del Rey, the XX, Jack White, Florence and the Machine. Emeli Sandé covers Beyoncé's Crazy in Love, while Beyoncé in turns does Amy Whitehouse's Back to Black.

And it fits, there is no disconnect between the nineteen-twenties setting and the twenty-first century music. The suspension of disbelief is easy, we are in an alternative, heightened universe anyway, the music coming from a different century is no problem to accept.

The settings also are striking. East and West Egg, where the characters live, are shown as some kind of paradise with rich, tropical vegetation and the sprawling residences of the super rich. The industrial zone between the Hamptons and New York City is like something from Lord of the Rings, Mordor-like, emphasising the massive gap between the idle rich and the miserable working poor.

And the shots with Gatsby driving his luminous yellow car through the city are futuristic, like the year 2222, not 1922. He weaves in and out of traffic like Blade Runner, or Luke Skywalker.

The visuals are sumptuous, delicious, magical. The impact almost overwhelms the story, and so, in the final act, when there is a lot of dialogue and less action, the movie slows down and begins to drag a little.

It is unavoidable, it looks so fantastic, and has so much energy and colour and vibrancy in the first half, that when the actual story has to be told the simple human interactions cannot match up to the gorgeousness of the previous hour. It is almost too much, too exquisite, and the look of the movie comes close to drowning out the actual narrative.

Yet it is a cinematic experience above all, a visual representation of F.Scott Fitzgerald's words, and is as brilliant and bright as Gatsby's dreams and ambitions. The film is dazzling, and much better than I was expecting.

A.M. HOMES - THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. NOVEL.

This is a very curious book. And also kind of addictive and wonderful.

It is the story of Richard Novak, who lives in LA and who has made money in finance.

We know almost nothing about him at first, he is undescribed, faceless, seemingly anonymous.

Los Angeles, and its natural environment, are also key elements in the novel. There is a sink-hole in the ground that is expanding and threatening to envelop Richard's house. Also there is tar soaking through walls and into buildings. Then forest fires start, and threaten to burn down the whole city. Things are unstable, crumbling.

This is mirrored in the character of the protagonist, Richard. His world too is unstable. He has tried to gain a measure of control over everything by sticking to a routine, hardly leaving his house, shutting himself off from new experiences, keeping to a strict diet.

Yet one day he experiences a bout of intense, full-body pain that throws him into agony and forces him to go to the hospital. His health issue makes him reassess his life, and prods him back out into the world again, to meet people and take chances again.

And he goes from one extreme to another. From the life of a quasi-hermit to someone who performs acts of great bravery, who becomes friends with famous people, who attracts all kinds of eccentrics. "You're like a freak magnet," one of the other characters says to him at one stage.

Like The Place Beyond the Pines, this is another story of fathers and sons. Richard's key trauma is his lack of a relationship with his son, Ben. Richard's regret at not being there for Ben when he was growing up is the central reason for the existential crisis that he goes through, and their reconnection is the key to Richard's reawakening.

The book is curious for a number of reasons. For one thing, the novel is peopled with characters, famous, eccentric, colourful, though we hardly know what any of them look like. They are kind of faceless. The reader has to do the work of imagining a physical presence for each of them.

And the narrative just proceeds along relentlessly, from one strange and slightly surreal encounter to the next bizarre happening, all told as if we were listening to the news, totally deadpan. It is all so underplayed, and yet so intriguing and entertaining, that it takes a while to get used to the style.

Once you do, it is a story that draws you in, slowly but steadily. It also succeeds in making you want the best for all the characters, they are all flawed and ambivalent, but also completely likeable.

The novel is funny, horrifying, intriguing, perplexing, addictive. It may not save your life, but it will make it briefly better.


Monday, 13 May 2013

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. FILM


This is fun, but nothing more.

Star Trek, on a character level, has always been about the conflict between gut and logic.

Gut, of course, is Captain Kirk. He acts on instinct, acts according to how he feels, is at times irrational and hasty, gets himself and his crew into trouble.

Logic is, naturally, Spock. He has taught himself not to feel, and bases his decisions on simple probability and rationality.

The journey of the Enterprise also contains the journeys of the two main characters, Kirk learning how to control his impulses, Spock learning how to feel.

And this film is no different. In the beginning of the film, precisely because he has acted without thinking, Kirk is relieved of his duties. And Spock, who thinks without feeling, alienates his now girlfriend, Uhura, and Kirk too, who has just saved his life.

Each episode of the old series, and each new film, explore these themes, and the growth of each of the main characters towards something more than their natures.

This film is no different. The problem is that we have seen this before. And in fact we have seen most of this before. There is nothing new here. The new generation Scotty, Bones and Chekov are barely more than impersonations of their original manifestations. The supporting cast have become caricatures of who they are representing.

The whole thing has the feeling of a cartoon or comic-book. There are so many life-threatening situations, so little damage. Time and again the characters are on the verge of death or serious injury, and emerge unscathed.

There is no depth to the story. We meet an old Star Trek villain, Khan, who is homicidal and cunning. He has a destructive plan, our heroes are out to foil him. There are scrapes, explosions, betrayals, battles, holes in the hull, problems with the warp drive. The Enterprise comes close to total collapse a number of times. Par for the course.

There are some spectacular set-pieces, and another scene of Kirk falling headlong through space while trying to steer himself in a certain direction, as in the first film. But that's the least you can expect from a movie that cost hundreds of millions to make.

Fundamentally, there is nothing new here. It is a slick rehash of elements that even I, who only has a passing interest in the franchise, have seen many times before.

As I said, it is fun, but the film lacks any of the greater significance that the previous Star Trek films seemed able to achieve.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. FILM


Fathers and sons. This is the theme of this film directed by Derek Cianfrance.

Ryan Gosling stars in this film, as he did in Cianfrance's previous movie, Blue Valentine. In this film he plays almost the same character, a tough, working class guy who has a tendency to be violent but who is also defined by his very strong paternal instinct.

Gosling's character, Luke, discovers that he has a son by a woman who he met in a small town in New York State, played by Eva Mendes. He decides to turn to a life of crime to be able to contribute to his son's upbringing.

Cue Bradley Cooper. He plays a cop, Avery Cross, who finally catches up with Luke after he robs one bank too many. The police officer has his own run in with authority and later sparks an internal police investigation to save his own skin.


Move forward fifteen years, and the two men's sons, now both seventeen, encounter each other in the small town where their respective fathers had their fateful meeting.

There is the predictable influence of history on this new generation. The sons know nothing about the connection between their parents, but the past inevitably makes itself known. The two younger men have their own entanglement, and things come to a head with the violence, and the threat of worse.

This is a curious film. It is slow, and long, and should really drag, though does somehow manage to maintain interest. The changing of the perspectives helps here, we move from Gosling's character to Cooper, to then looking at the lives of the sons.

For me the differing narratives are what makes the film interesting. Ryan Gosling's character is central for nearly an hour, and then Bradley Cooper's compromised cop takes over, almost seamlessly. There is a development to the story that holds the viewer, and a form of resolution in the last half an hour that succeeds in fitting the narratives together, of making sense.

It is not as profound as it thinks it is, but the movie does have elements that raise it above what could have been an overly sentimental story of family, fathers and sons.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

MARK HADDON. THE RED HOUSE. NOVEL.


Mark Haddon made his name with a book for children, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. He has now written a book for adults.

The novel is set in a house in Wales - the red house of the title - where eight members of an extended family, aunts, parents, children, step-cousins, spend a week's holidays.

Inevitably, with eight people squashed into a remote house in the countryside for seven days, there are conflicts, revelations, epiphanies, growth, life changes, arguments, fallings out and makings up.

In fact it almost feels like a list of issues to be addressed - homosexuality - check, sibling rivalry - check, an extramarital affair - check, mental illness - check, bullying - check.

The setting is also important. These are all urban people, who are unused to being in the country. Most of them, except the teenage Alex, are uncomfortable outside the city. As Richard thinks, "The deep greens of the foliage. You didn't get this in a city, the way the light changed constantly."

Taken out of their comfort zone they all react in different ways. Some reject the nature around them, some embrace it, some try to defeat it.

The setting is the catalyst for the drama. The four adults and four children are squashed together in one house away from everything they know. There is a spark of romance between some of the teenagers, suspicion among the men, incomprehension between the two women, a near death experience.

The style is very distinctive. The writing jumps from person to person, describing each scene almost simultaneously from differing viewpoints. We get a paragraph from Dominic's perspective, then from his son, Alex, then from his daughter Daisy, then we hear from his brother-in-law, Richard. Jump, jump, jump, jump.

It can be disorientating to read this, with the perspective constantly changing. At times it is not clear who we are reading about, and by the time we work it out we are on to some other character. Though the style does manage to create a wholeness, a sense of completeness to the narrative. We see the events through all of the characters' eyes, and so we have the opportunity of being inside the heads of all the important people in the story. It is intense but largely successful.

Overall the novel has some interesting elements, and is enjoyable to read. But I didn't really connect with any person in the story, the issue driven narrative is a bit trite and predictable, at the expense of the characters.

The book is saved from being a kind of literary soap-opera by the strength of the writing and the pace of the narrative. And at least, in the end, while there has been change and development, there are no simplistic solutions, no easy resolution. As Dominic thinks, towards the end of the book, "when Alex grabbed hold of him he thought something would change. Revelation, turning point, but it doesn't happen, it never happens."

They leave, having learned important things about themselves, but with no more answers than they had when they arrived.