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Posts Tagged ‘Baz Luhrman’

Would it be a truism or merely trite to suggest that one of the worst ways possible to make someone appreciate a book is to force them to study it? I suspect many people would agree; many friends of mine were undoubtedly put off To Kill A Mockingbird for life after studying it at GCSE. In my own case, though, I don’t know – while it took me over a decade to go back to Pride and Prejudice after being obliged to read it at A level, I’ve always enjoyed Chaucer and was always able to appreciate the remarkable quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To this day I can still bang on at tedious length about the themes and imagery of this novel, and the prospect of seeing what Baz Luhrmann could do with (or possibly to) the story was an intriguing one.

gatsby

Set in New York in the early 20s, this is a tale of obsession, excess, and corruption amongst the monied folk of the city. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is new to the area, and really the only people he knows socially are his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). One other person he is aware of, however, is the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the immensely wealthy host of lavish parties at the mansion next door to Nick’s house. When Gatsby becomes aware of Nick, things change for everyone: Gatsby and Daisy have what is delicately known as a Past, and he is desperate to resume their relationship…

Baz Luhrmann isn’t exactly what you’d call a prolific film-maker – this is only his second project since 2001’s Moulin Rouge (one of the very first films I ever rambled on about on t’Internet). However, while Luhrmann may not make many films, the ones he does turn out are super-concentrated stuff: visuals, sound, editing and performances are all usually cranked up to startling levels of intensity. For this reason I find his films to be a bit of a change of pace, and occasionally an indigestible one: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more work making music videos and commercials, because his style is perfect for this sort of short form. Two hours plus of crash zooms, colour saturation, musical iconoclasm and restless camera pans, on the other hand, just leave me feeling somewhat embattled.

Possibly out of a sense of responsibility to Fitzgerald’s thoughtful text, Luhrmann manages to restrain himself at least some of the time on this occasion, but one is still left with an almost irresistible sense that in the making of this film, the interplay of sound and visuals was always the prime consideration, with the actual script being of only secondary importance. This is not to say that there aren’t some startlingly effective moments scattered throughout the film, but they feel like they’ve been inserted into the story from outside rather than naturally arising from within it. The Great Gatsby is a restrained, mostly internalised story, and Luhrmann has had to work quite hard to find ways to insert his idiosyncratic visual energy into it.

Which is not to say he’s taken particularly great liberties with the story: in fact, his additions to it seem atypically restrained. There’s a framing device in which Nick, now morbidly alcoholic, is recounting the events of the story as a form of therapy, but this is really it so far as I can remember. More conspicuous is the way in which the story has been subtly trimmed and reshaped so it now focuses almost entirely on the Gatsby-Daisy romance. DiCaprio, admittedly, does not make an appearance for quite a long while, but the mystery of his character is at the centre of the story nevertheless. And once he departs from the plot, Luhrmann wraps up the film with almost indecent haste, jettisoning some of the book’s most poignant moments in the process. The main consequence of this is that the character of Jordan is much reduced in significance, and her relationship with Nick almost totally excised. As a result Nick seems even more of a passive onlooker, and Maguire struggles to make the character particularly endearing.

This is not to say that the acting in this film is sub-par: Joel Edgerton is very good, as is DiCaprio – most of the time at least. Certainly, nobody is what you’d call actively bad. The problem is that at least some of the time, everyone is being obliterated by the art direction and sound design, which swamp the subtleties and paradoxes of the story and reduce it to a succession of lavish, frenetic tableaux. The human story and emotions just aren’t there when you need them to be, and the result is a film which is polished and intricate, but ultimately hollow. Given that two of the key themes of The Great Gatsby are the contrast between appearance and reality, and the perils of superficiality, for Luhrmann to have made such a superficial adaptation of it is actually quite ironic: whether this is the sort of irony F Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated is another matter.

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From the earliest days of the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 20th 2001

When exactly did Hollywood decide the Middle Ages were so filthy? I blame Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once upon a time we had lovely shiny knights in primary colours, but now every excursion to medieval times seems to take place in a sea of mud with everyone either caked in the stuff or covered in rust. Well, maybe John Boorman’s Excalibur is an honourable exception, but you see my point. It certainly applies to Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, an enjoyably frivolous movie with a bizarre new take on the genre.

It’s the story of a peasant named William Thatcher (the audibly Australian Heath Ledger). When their noble boss dies of dysentery, he and his fellow commoners hit upon a cunning plan – Ledger enters jousting tournaments (supposedly the most popular leisure activity of the age) using the deceased’s armour, and they all split the prize money. There is of course the drawback that only the nobility are allowed to compete, but fortunately they encounter a down-on-his-luck scribe (Paul Bettany) willing to forge Ledger’s aristocratic credentials. This is supposed to be Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame, so listen out for a grinding, rotating sort of noise if you live anywhere near his grave. Ledger is, inevitably, rather successful, and as the tale progresses he meets a beautiful princess (the audibly American Shannyn Sossamon, who can’t act, but is so easy on the eye she doesn’t have to bother) and a suitably wicked villain who wears black all the time (Rufus Sewell).

The pitch for this movie was probably along the lines of ‘Gladiator meets Shakespeare in Love‘ – it has the martial pomposity of the former and the broad humour of the latter. It all takes place in a generic medieval Europe that combines details from Arthurian legend with architecture from the Tudor period, and the end result is about as historically convincing as an episode of The Flintstones. But it doesn’t really need to be as this is no more or less than a fun romp. There are no great surprises or insights but a lot of good jokes and the odd touching moment. There’s rock-solid thesping support from Mark Addy as a squire, Bettany’s performance as Chaucer is witty, and Laura Fraser is good as a female blacksmith who joins the gang. If it has a real flaw, it’s that one joust looks very much like another and the director runs out of original ways to film them quite early on. I enjoyed it a lot, far more than I expected to, as I only wound up going to see it because the cinema wasn’t showing Rush Hour 2.

Not long after, I trundled along to see Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, and the two films have a good deal in common. Like A Knight’s Tale, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, and also like A Knight’s Tale, it features a supposedly historical character in a supporting role. It’s the story of naive young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor in his best role for some time), who in the year 1900 moves to Paris. He befriends a group of Bohemian artists, including Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) – that’ll be another spinning celebrity corpse, then – who want to put on a show at the famous (and titular) Moulin Rouge nightspot, run by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). A misunderstanding during a visit to the club leads to Christian and star attraction Satine (a glacially beautiful Nicole Kidman) falling in love, after she initially mistakes him for a rich Duke who’s considering financing the refurbishment of the club. When the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh, who does a pretty good impression of the late Terry-Thomas) turns up he agrees to stump up the cash provided he gets, ahem, exclusive access to Satine, if you follow my meaning. Will true love triumph?

Moulin Rouge is, and let’s be honest about this, completely insane. This being a Baz Luhrman film, restraint and naturalism were escorted from the cinema before the opening credits rolled. For the first twenty minutes I felt pinned back into my seat by the overwhelming, frenetic audio-visual onslaught – crash zooms, jump-cuts, slo-mo, freeze frames, crane shots, mixes, Luhrman uses them all – but eventually either the film calmed down a bit or I acclimatised to it. Probably the latter, with hindsight, as the story slowly changes from broad farce to tragic melodrama as it goes on, the transition being flawlessly executed. It’s all been art-directed to within an inch of its life, zips along with elan to spare, and in its early stages is often very funny. Most of the jokes are broad, though, and many of the laughs come from deliberate incongruities – when McGregor starts singing the theme to The Sound of Music, or Kylie Minogue’s cameo as the Absinthe fairy (barely credibly, she’s dubbed by metal legend Ozzy Osbourne).

This use of deliberate anachronism is the most striking similarity between A Knight’s Tale and Moulin Rouge. In A Knight’s Tale it takes a number of forms – at the ‘Jousting World Championships’ all the peasants behave like football supporters. Chaucer, as a herald, hypes up his master as if he’s a WWF wrestler. Several contemporary songs feature on the soundtrack. My favourite moment of the movie is a deliriously exuberant sequence at a banquet where everyone starts gettin’ on down to David Bowie’s Golden Years. But in the end it’s just a device to boost the fun quotient in a film that has absolutely no aspirations to be taken seriously.

There are lots of pop songs in Moulin Rouge too, deliberately famous ones – songs by Elton John, by Queen, by Nirvana, and – once again – by Bowie, who should have a good week on the royalties front. We get to see Jim Broadbent in a ginger shock-wig and (one hopes) padded fat-suit doing a full-on song and dance version of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, for example – just take a moment to mull that image over. Admittedly, the musical director appears to have been Darius from Popstars, so weird are some of the arrangements, but these are still familiar, stirring tunes, and, crucially, they’re central to the story’s development. However, the reason for their use, as opposed to a more conventional means of character development, is unclear. Is Luhrman trying to say something about the power of popular song? Is it a strange emotional shorthand? Is it an attempt to draw parallels between the decadence of the Moulin Rouge and that of our own society? Or is it just done purely for laughs and novelty value? It’s really impossible to tell. More importantly, so studiously artificial is the conceit, along with the rest of the setting, that it creates a real distance between audience and story. This is by no means a bad film; it’s visually astonishing, the performances are great, and the music’s often stirring – but it’s very hard to engage with the characters and story on an emotional level. One is left with a whirling, staggering, multicoloured dervish that captivates the senses but doesn’t stir the passions. Like one of its’ characters, Moulin Rouge is beautiful, but with a cold heart. This was probably inevitable, but it’s still a shame.

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