Worst part: The supporting character’s involvement.
As overwhelming and trivial as it seems, there is a fine line between stardom and fatigue. Our biggest actors, musicians etc. are, more often than not, treated like otherworldly beings. Nowadays, we move on to the next big thing even before the current ‘it’ person has faded away. However, more often than you think, A-list actors step away from the spotlight to venture into more meaningful pursuits.
Carey Mulligan & Bill Nighy.
As it happens, many A-listers and noticeable character actors perfect their skills in stage productions. In this case, giving the West End a fiery boost, Carey Mulligan (Drive, The Great Gatsby) and Bill Nighy (Love Actually, the Pirates of the Caribbean series) put their best feet forward for one of theatre history’s most transcendent productions. In fact, Nighy, one of Britain’s most popular and energetic talents, tackled this material in the 1990s. Skylight, a 1995 play created by acclaimed playwright David Hare, picks up and shakes cultural, political, and social issues in front of baffled critics and theatre-goers. The play, developed specifically to address concerns about life, love, and living situations, is a touching and prescient examination of first-world issues. This may be a derogatory statement – but the play relies on its talking points being as flippant as possible. Here’s another first-world issue – this iteration has moved Skylight from its Royal National Theatre roots to Wyndham’s Theatre’s comforting abode. Ironically, separating the simpletons and socialites, the theatre hurriedly divides itself into multiple sectors. In fact, the Return Tickets line, stretching on for an eternity, signified the production’s searing critical and commercial aura.
Skylight’s shining stars.
The theatre, a maze-like structure shifting from one floor to another, turns from a romantic, impressionistic creation into a frustrating deathtrap. My search for the bar and toilet facilities bared resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s manic sprint through the Shining mansion. However, despite this, the Wyndham’s relaxed and vibrant atmosphere overcomes said problems peppered throughout its layout. Sitting down in a bright-red seat, I looked down nervously as the show slinked toward its commencement time. With celebrities including Oscar Isaac and Lupita Nyong’o waltzing into the venue, the show positioned itself as one of this year’s most alluring West End treasures. Fortunately, this version’s execution lives up to its immaculate reputation. The story, taking place over the course of 24 hours, takes the high road above most ‘bottle’ stories. Avoiding life-or-death situations, this quaint journey comes off like a breath of fresh air. We enter the life of lower-middle class school teacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan), as her day transitions from okay, to bad, to horrific, to embarrassing. At the start of her day, rage-quitting youngster Edward (Matthew Beard) comes over to complain about his irrational father. As is the case, his father Tom (Nighy) is Kyra’s former lover and long-lost best friend. Shockingly, a few hours later, Tom interrupts her day to explain his three-year absence. Waiting until his wife’s death had healed over, Tom comes back to face the music. This award-winning play, touching on taboo subjects and satirical jabs, pokes fun at everything and everyone within a 15 kilometre radius.
“You care for them. You offer them an environment where they feel they can grow. But also you make bloody sure you challenge them.” (Kyra (Carey Mulligan), Skylight)
Matthew Beard & Mulligan.
Touching upon illustrious restaurateur and writer Terence Conran’s existence, Skylight is as glorious, resonant, and meaningful as a ray of sunshine. Taking down London’s high-horse attitude and major societal shifts, the comedy stems from well-known cultural titbits about Wimbledon, East Ham, and the neighbourhoods in between. Despite these lively jaunts, the narrative leaps from enjoyable to sickening, and vice-versa, within milliseconds. With betrayal, sex, and life’s pursuits getting in the way, the romantic angle takes several extraordinary twists and turns within this small space. As Kyra and Tom’s reunion reaches breaking point, the characters, and actors playing them, jump in and out of nail-biting moments. With the conversation interrupting their daily routines, Hare’s scintillating style pushes and prods up until the sweet denouement. If anything, this story becomes a note-worthy battle devoid of violence, scope, or chaotic moments. So, what separates this version from everything else? Cloud it be the intimate dramatic angles? The sincere and touching characters arcs? Or the big-name actors involved? Short answer: all of the above. Mulligan’s frightening turn is worth the admission cost. Wielding a large knife and idealistic viewpoints throughout several sequences, Mulligan’s style breaths life into her downtrodden character. As the voice of reason and hope, her character bounces off the walls. In addition, Nighy unleashes several never-before-seen shades in this heartfelt role. With his momentous presence leading the way, Nighy’s idiosyncrasies lend gravitas to an otherwise over-the-top role.
So, as the curtains fall and the actors take their bows, Skylight casts a wholly visceral shadow over each viewer’s soul. This socially adept production, saying what we’re all thinking, enlists the best minds to communicate intriguing ideas. Throwing utensils and secrets across the room, Mulligan and Nighy never lose their cool. In fact, with star power having such a pulsating effect, who’s to say they can’t attach themselves to the West End? In any case, I hope they think about doing so.
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Release date: January 16th, 2014
Distributor: CBS Films
Running time: 105 minutes
Best part: The memorable soundtrack.
Worst part: The abrupt resolutions.
Movies about music, due to an artist, movement, or genre’s immense popularity, regularly take on lives of their own. Launching cult classics, trends, and modern re-inventions, these movies range from musicals (Dreamgirls), to dramas (Walk the Line, Ray), to comedies (Oh Brother Where Art Thou!). Despite aiding specific movies’ soundtracks, how exactly does music launch certain big-budget efforts into the cultural stratosphere? Tapping into pop-culture’s infatuation with nostalgia and popularity, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one genre’s immersion into the public’s line of sight. Folk music’s long-awaited return to the spotlight is illuminated in this hysterical, insightful, and charming dramedy. Kicked off by chart-topping groups like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford and Sons, and Passenger, folk music’s resurgence has boosted the once-neglected genre’s range, influence, and relevance.
Oscar Isaac & cat.
Despite being a polarising genre, folk brings ageless intricacies and nuances to this kinetic slice-of-life character study. Here, music, love, life, and regret interweave to form an eclectic and meaningful rhythm. Inside Llewyn Davis, bolstered by ingenious performances, poetic directorial flourishes, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack, becomes one of the past decade’s most distinctive dramedies. Touching upon music’s profound social and cultural impact, this movie speaks to the toe-tapping samaritan inside us all. This purposeful narrative chronicles insatiably irritating yet well-meaning simpleton, and former merchant seaman, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). After his musical partner’s catastrophic suicide, Davis struggles to make ends meet. Crashing on friends’ couches or random periods, job prospects run afoul of Davis’ abrasive personality. With downtown club ‘the Gaslight Cafe’ keeping him afloat, burgeoning crowds and unique musicians frustrate Davis. Davis finds a new partner after his friends’ cat escapes from their cluttered apartment. Davis and his feline companion scurry across New York looking for shelter and company. Keeping out of the cold, Davis soon finds sanctuary in his musician friends’ apartment. Briefly staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan), and their other guest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Davis witnesses Jim and Jean become Peter, Paul & Mary-esque Gaslight celebrities. However, Davis, thanks to his irritable agent Mel (the late Jerry Grayson), sleazy Gaslight owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and friend Al Cody (Adam Driver), hatches an ambitious plan to travel to Chicago. Reaching for a ground-breaking opportunity in the windy city, Davis comes across Johnny Five (Garett Headlund) and crippled jazz extraordinaire Roland Turner (John Goodman).
Though writer/producer/director maestros Joel and Ethan Coen need no introduction, I’m going to give them one anyway. The Coens, ever since Blood Simple shocked film-lovers across the world, have drenched themselves in blood, sweat, laughs, existential angst, and Middle America’s most unique musical movements. The dynamic duo’s range, richness, and tenacity are evident in every project. The Coens, leaping from westerns (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), to hardened gangster flicks (Millers Crossing), to sickeningly dark comedies (Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski), to frenetic dramedies (A Serious Man, Fargo), place their hearts, souls, and perspectives into each narrative. Their polarising yet compelling efforts, despite the cloying moments, launch horrifying sequences and ambiguous characterisations into the consciousness. Fusing classic and modern Hollywood cinema conventions, their honest direction and ambitious writing tropes shine throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Giving bluegrass roots a heaving kick-start with Oh Brother Where Art Thou!, the Coens apply their talents and wisdom to the opportunistic folk scene. Fortunately, despite the dour marketing campaign, this slice-of-life drama, from go to woe, is a winning, thought-provoking, and modest examination of the human condition. Pitting man against the cold weather, lacklustre employment prospects, fate, and the future’s ever-looming uncertainty, the Coens inject heart into this comedically callous journey. With slapstick humour and shocking expletives highlighting the first-half’s kinetic formula, the movie kicks off with style, panache, and grace. Moving from one underwhelming destination to another, Davis’ journey is one of heartache, self-discovery, and determination. However, the second half becomes a philosophically powerful yet sombre road-trip-based adventure. Meeting peculiar characters and bizarre revelations, the final third slowly sheds the first two thirds’ malevolent wit and optimistic aura. Ultimately, the Coen’s latest effort discusses our infatuation with varying entertainment mediums. Genres and movements are ably presented as impressive creations crafted by inspiring artists. Here, Davis and co. craft life-changing works out of impulse, burgeoning motivations, and extraordinary ideas.
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” (Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis).
John Goodman & Garrett Headlund.
Refusing to answer its thesis by the half-way mark,Inside Llewyn Davishurriedly delves into pop-culture’s fascination with nostalgia. Davis and co’s mental, spiritual, and emotional angst paints a haunting picture of the past, present, and future. Nostalgia may bring back fond memories, but won’t play a show-stopping track or put a coat around Davis’ shoulders. The Coen’s statements are illuminated by the movie’s awe-inspiring and memorable musical interludes. Describing key moments of this all-encompassing narrative, the soundtrack is crafted out of love, admiration, and care for this immaculate genre. Conceived by the Coens, Isaac, T-Bone Burnett, and Marcus Mumford, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a quirky and enlightening musical minus the genre’s insufferable tropes. From the opening frame, music plays a vital part in emphasising and re-shaping 1960s-America’s social, political, economical, and cultural landscapes. The first track, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, is a distinctive, impactful, and poetic gut-punch. With Isaac’s haunting vocals carving into the soul, the track potently and engagingly examines Davis’ existential and emotional conflicts. Fortunately, the seceding musical numbers elevate the moody and eclectic material. Yet another Coen Brothers classic is humanised by its characters. Davis, though prickly and distinctively sarcastic, is a strangely likeable presence. Slimily weaving into friends’ lives, this irritable and harmful musician follows a dingy path. Isaac, placing egotism and aura aside, is revelatory in this complex role. Mulligan provides another touching and multi-layered performance as the dismissive friend. Throwing expletives and criticisms at our bewildered antihero, Jean is an exasperating and unconscionable character. Suitably, David and Jean deliver twists, turns, and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile, Timberlake builds charisma and range as the blissful nice-guy. Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver deliver the movie’s most enlightening musical number. ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, featuring stirling vocals and electrifying lyrics, provides refreshing relief from this heart-wrenching tale. Once again, Goodman electrifies a small yet significant role. Throwing hysterical insults at Davis, his character revels in life’s most intriguing pursuits and absurdities. His comedic lines (“Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician?”) relieve this dark road-trip story.
With the Coens up for Oscar contention yet again, Inside Llewyn Davis, like its lead character, deserves some much-needed love and care. As a concentrated dose of Coen-Brothers-moviemaking tropes, Coen fans, film buffs, folk aficionados, and average filmgoers will absorb this visceral and confronting dramedy. Laugh-out-loud moments, attention to detail, and tenderness transform this slice-of-life drama into an infectious and award-worthy artistic endeavour. Like the best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ poeticism, narrative, and inherent charm will put a song in everyone’s hearts.
Verdict: An intelligent, hysterical, and enlightening drama.
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (screenplay). F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Release date: May 10th, 2013
Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures, Roadshow Entertainment
Countries: Australia, USA
Running time: 142 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: Luhrmann’s direction.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann is certainly not one for subtlety. Luhrmann, whose credits include Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Australia, is one of the most polarising directors working today. His handling of well-known material has caused controversy in the past, and his latest effort, The Great Gatsby, continues this trend. This cloying and shallow romantic-drama is yet another one of his films that relies entirely on both a glorious aesthetic and marketing power.
This Great Gatsby adaptation has many positive elements. However, there are many directors who could’ve done a much better job with source material of this magnitude. The story, from the mind of legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells a story about the 1920s in its heyday. Ambitious and optimistic writer/stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is enjoying his busy life. Situated in a small cottage (hidden away by the giant mansions surrounding it), Nick is curious about those who live in the surrounding estates, and how they achieved their vast riches. He is then invited to the home of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Their pampered existences are then rocked by the mansion across the bay. The mansion’s inhabitants hold elaborate parties that shake the foundations of their upper-class neighbourhood. After being invited to one of these parties, Nick discovers that he has been chosen to help mysterious and handsome aristocrat, and the mansion’s owner, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). However, Nick soon finds out that Gatsby is much more than meets the eye.
Luhrmann has clearly had a significant amount of exposure to the enviable bourgeoisie lifestyle. The flamboyant director is obsessed with his own eye for both film-making and culture. His style has been the most troubling aspect of all of his big-budget productions. I see him as a cynical film-maker too afraid to trust his audience. Audiences always turn out in droves to embrace the latest Luhrmann production, and I have no idea why. His obvious, excessive, and melodramatic style always overshadows the culturally-important stories he has chosen to tell. His latest film has these same problems, but they aren’t as irritating here as they were in the nigh unwatchable Australia. His interpretation of the ‘Great American Novel’ casts a giant shadow over the original text’s seminal themes and poetic narrative. The story’s most valuable elements are there, but they are either underdeveloped or brought up and cast aside immediately. It is difficult to detect Luhrmann’s intent with his adaptation. The text’s condescending yet intelligent view of the American dream is nowhere near as important to Luhrmann as the material things that he can bring into this story. He is obviously in love with some of Hollywood’s most inspired creations. Here, elements of Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard are alluded to. However, this adaptation only proves that Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to.
The visuals, though fun, quickly suck this story dry and turn it into a husk of its former self. Luhrmann seeks to give every shot its own personality, and then put them sequentially next to similarly elaborate shots. The first half hour contains a colourful miasma of Luhrmann’s many zany ideas. Shots transition suddenly from beautifully clear to nostalgically grainy, the camera sweeps around characters and through settings, and contrasting colours and elaborate costumes (created primarily by Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin) are bashed together to create many wacky compositions. His in-your-face style is confusing at points. It is difficult to tell whether Luhrmann is using his style to embrace the original novel’s satirical edge, or whether he is simply making everything pretty for no significant reason. Thankfully, his style isn’t as jarring and excessive as it has been in the past (good luck trying to sit through Moulin Rouge!) After Gatsby’s impressive introduction, the pacing and flair is drastically toned down. Despite the film’s refreshing focus on character in the following two thirds, the pacing wavers throughout the film’s exhaustive running time. Luhrmann’s love of anachronisms explains one of the film’s best elements. The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack brings life to this otherwise emotionless movie. The magnificent parties and gentlemen’s club scenes contain a pulse that was desperately needed throughout the rest of the film.
“I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love…” (Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Great Gatsby).
The movie’s female characters metaphorically represent the film itself; pretty to look at, but as shallow as a decorative fountain! The characters come alive in the heated dialogue sequences. Luhrmann loves his actors’ stunning faces. Wacky facial expressions, plastered across the screen at every turn, add to the film’s already exuberant style. I will say there are some inspired choices peppered throughout. It is rare to see verbal sparring sessions as lengthy and tense as the ones in this otherwise dull character study. The exciting performances save this film from being a costly disaster. DiCaprio commands the screen with poise and charisma. His commitment to the awe-inspiring titular role lends depth to an already fascinating character. Gatsby is part smooth-talking hero, part desperate fool, and part dangerous capitalist. Maguire is surprisingly charming as the ‘third wheel’ in this ever-twisting story. We first meet Carraway in a sanitarium, recovering from both alcoholism and the events of this story (a useless narrative device that was not in the original text). Carraway’s words are scrawled across the screen in some scenes, while his narration discusses his damaging experiences in others (yet more excessive stylistic choices). Edgerton is enthralling as the old-money, moustache-twirling aristocrat whom refuses to let Daisy go. Edgerton creates a slimy and vindictive portrayal without ever becoming a caricature. Other Aussie actors, including Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Jack Thompson, and Elizabeth Debicki, are effective in underdeveloped roles.
Luhrmann has a keen eye for pretty things, but still hasn’t learned the basics of convincing storytelling. The eye-popping visuals and pumping soundtrack are able to lift scenes that could easily have been dull. Without the movie’s stellar performances, The Great Gatsby would’ve fallen, and become another one of Luhrmann’s impressive failures, faster than you can say “Old sport”.
Verdict: A visually-stunning yet hollow adaptation of the ‘Great American Novel’.