I miss posting movie reviews! And I would also like to learn how to be more efficient with my writing. So I thought I’d try to kill two birds with one stone by offering some short reviews of movies I’ve seen, three at a time. If something really warrants a bigger conversation, I might spin it off into future blog posts. But for now, here are the last three movies I’ve seen.
Warren Beatty co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in this epic film detailing the life and career of John Reed, a journalist who became one of the organizers of the Communist Party in America during and after the Russian Revolution. Diane Keaton co-stars as his lover and partner, Louise Bryant, and Jack Nicholson gives a solid supporting performance as the playwright Eugene O’Neill.
This is one of the movies that feels like it’s dangerously close to being lost to history, and if that happens it would be a real shame. The film details the very beginnings of the American bohemian’s flirtation with communist politics, as well as the protracted revolution from Russia’s side of things. It’s fascinating to watch this small community of writers and artists being pulled into the orbit of socialism, and Reed in particular becomes absolutely swallowed by it. Through the course of the film, he goes from being intrepid observer to the beating heart of American communism.
The movie is packed with tremendous performances from Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Scene after scene simply blows you away, with the writing sharp enough to cut through the core of the characters involved. The acting is pitch-perfect, with Keaton especially handling really difficult scenes like they’re no big thing. For a movie that’s over three hours long, it feels like an efficient machine using its own momentum to pull itself along.
For an epic movie, it also feels remarkably grounded. These are exceptional people with passionate minds and big ideals, but they’re meeting in crappy little living rooms or the basements of public buildings. Even when Reed and Bryant go to Russia during the Revolution, the headquarters of the new governments seem stripped bare of any opulence. This makes the movie feel intimate and personal, even as it deals with political upheaval that shaped the world for most of the 20th century.
You have to see this movie. No other American movie details this period of Russia’s history (or the American reaction to it) in quite this way, and the unique perspective is buoyed by the fact that it fires on all cylinders. This is perfect for a Sunday afternoon indoors, with a dinnertime discussion right afterwards.
These Final Hours (2013)
A meteor has slammed into the northern Atlantic, causing tsunamis and a global firestorm that will reach the coast of western Australia in twelve hours. A young man named James (Nathan Phillips) leaves a woman in her beachside home to head inland and meet the end with a party to end all parties, completely smashed out of his mind. “It’s going to hurt,” he says, “and I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to feel a thing.”
Of course things don’t go according to plan. He saves a little girl (Angourie Rice) from being brutalized by two men, and finds himself protecting her for the rest of the world’s existence. Along the way, he learns how to face his life just in time for it (and all life on Earth) to end. This sounds like one of those typical indie “realization” stories about the lonely white male protagonist who wakes up to life when a woman enters his life and he falls in love, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.
It’s particularly well-done, though, and the fact that Rose (James’ young charge) is a pre-teen with no possible chance of sexual tension really helps. Instead of James learning how great or enjoyable life is, he’s actually forced to step outside of his own head for a minute and think about the safety and happiness of someone else. The scene where their time together comes to an end is the best in the entire movie, an understated, quiet moment of connection between two people.
I love pre-apocalyptic movies that focus on the ways people fall apart once the artifice of society is no longer there to keep them together. The great Last Night remains my favorite, but this is a solid contender — moody, quiet, but filled with loud and frightening personalities. The ending provides a fitting close and an indelible final image. This is a perfect movie to watch on a hot summer’s day, just so you can go out and appreciate the world around you once it’s over.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Baz Luhrmann co-wrote and directed this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novels, and it certainly shows. When you see the wild revelries at Gatsby’s estate, you totally understand what drew him to the material — it’s really a chance for him to release his famously overblown aesthetic all over celluloid, and when has Luhrmann been one to turn away from a good time?
There’s also a painfully romantic story beating beneath the excess that Luhrmann has a little more trouble mining. Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) has moved to New York to work on Wall Street, and he quickly falls into the orbit of the upper crust there — through his neighbor, the mysterious and generous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio); and through his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Once he’s pulled into their web it gets increasingly complex, and of course, tragic.
One of the things that makes the novel so great is its florid, poetic writing, and that’s something difficult to translate to film. Luhrmann gives it his best shot, though, by using a framing device that allows Nick to write directly about his time with Gatsby. It hints at the genius of Fitzgerald’s prose, but doesn’t quite get there.
Everyone’s so earnest, though, that it’s clear that they’re doing their best with the material — especially Luhrmann. You get the feeling he really, really wanted this to work. There are dazzling visuals, to be sure, and a lot of the heart-sickness within the characters is put across well, but ultimately Gatsby comes across more as an obsessive stalker than a lovestruck suitor. DiCaprio has become great at playing great men, but there’s something a little hard about him; he can’t bring Gatsby’s vulnerability forward nearly as easily as Fitzgerald does in his novel, and the story suffers for it. If Maguire had played him instead…
Still, even though the movie doesn’t quite capture Fitzgerald’s story, there’s a lot of other things to like about it. Luhrmann certainly has an eye for color and style, and the 20s fashions are pitch-perfect. He does wonders with the setting, depicting a New York that’s more a patchwork of neighborhoods than a cohesive city. The nouveau-riche village of West Egg is separated from old-money East End by a bridge and a valley of ashes, where the waste of the coal that powers the city is dumped. The physical distance emphasizes the emotional and social differences in every group you see so, so well.
Even failures can be worth watching, and Luhrmann’s ode to 20s excess is only a near-miss. I recommend it for those times where you feel you need more excitement in your life and need to remember drama does not equal happiness.