The Great Gatsby * * 1/2

Genre: Drama

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writers: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: The Great Gatsby follows Fitzgerald-like, would-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he moves to New York City and takes up residence next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits.

Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as one of the most important American novels of the 20th Century, and largely considered unfilmable, with previous attempts not really hitting the mark. Unfortunately, despite being a very beautiful movie, Baz Luhrmann’s attempt is also a misfire, falling into a rare category of film where its parts are greater than its sum total.

If you’re looking for a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby delivers in spadefuls in its first reels. In true Baz Luhrmann tradition, the party sequence is visually dazzling, and the use of 3D makes the entire experience feel even more surreal. The beautiful costumes (designed by the houses of Prada and Brooks Brothers), gorgeous jewellery (by none other than Tiffany & Co) and excellent set design and art direction makes the viewing experience an opulent, decadent and highly enjoyable one, reminiscent of the visual excess of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

However, once the visual novelty wears out, there is very little to keep the viewer vested. Although the performances are mostly adequate (save Tobey Maguire’s terribly, terribly bland portrayal as Nick Carraway), none of the characters will be easy for audiences to identify with as they are essentially all flawed beings. Leonardo DiCaprio performs admirably as Gatsby, despite being forced (mystifyingly) to punctuate almost every sentence with “old sport”, and Carey Mulligan impresses in her small number of scenes, but many of the peripheral characters are nothing more than window dressing.

The pacing of the film is also very uneven, with parts of the movie being glacially deliberate and extremely out of step with the more exuberant sequences. The Great Gatsby would have benefited immeasurably with a more judicious edit and tighter running time. Luhrmann is respectful of the source novel, even quoting passages verbatim, but at times this just makes the film feel like an inferior knockoff of Luhrmann’s own Romeo + Juliet.

And, perhaps most surprisingly for a Baz Luhrmann film, even the visuals outlive their welcome. The 3D which was used to great effect in the first hour seems to have been forgotten in the second hour, and other than some terribly amateurish floating narrative text peppering the flashback sequences, there’s really nothing that makes 3D viewing experience significantly improved from the 2D one.

Baz Luhrmann should be given credit for attempting a project as difficult as The Great Gatsby, and there certainly are glimpses of genius in the way he approached the source material. However, this is a film that’s mired by a large number of small imperfections, frustratingly close to greatness yet falling short. It functions well as counter-programming to the summer blockbuster season, but isn’t exactly the breath of fresh air I was hoping to get from the film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Star Trek: Into Darkness * * * 1/2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving their world in a state of crisis. With a personal score to settle, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

Review: With the series reboot in 2009, Star Trek is no longer a movie franchise that solely appeals to a niche “Trekkie” audience. J. J. Abrams had made Star Trek cool and mainstream, and many people will walk into Star Trek: Into Darkness, four years later, with raised expectations (myself included). The good news is that Into Darkness manages to outdo its predecessor(s), raising the bar yet again for the Star Trek franchise. Into Darkness has something for fans of many genres – sci-fi, action, even drama, and although it has once again taken liberties with the “established” Star Trek canon, there’s very little to complain about otherwise.

A caveat: now that it’s the second movie post reboot, audiences will need to have watched the first movie in order to make sense of the interpersonal relationships aboard the starship Enterprise, as there is very little exposition in the film to cast more light on the Enterprise crew list. That does free up the narrative of Into Darkness, and instead of cast introductions, the film kicks off straight in the deep of a really fun, slightly implausible action sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The original cast are back for the sequel, and as a whole the performances are more than adequate, with even the usually subpar Chris Pine having a few memorable moments. However, all performances pale to Benedict Cumberbatch’s tour de force turn as the central villain of the movie, and a mid-movie reveal will leave Trekkies gasping for breath (either in horror or in appreciation of the way Abrams has paid homage to the Trek films of yore). The intensity of Cumberbatch’s performance is astounding, and manages to outdo Eric Bana’s banal villain (pun unintended) in the first film many times over.

Into Darkness is yet another post-processed 3D film, which means that there’s really very little reason to view it in 3D. Save for a couple of scenes which displays reasonable three dimensionality, there’s no significant value-add shelling out the extra money for a 3D screening.

The screenplay has almost everything in it save the kitchen sink, deftly switching from action to comedy to character drama, and managing to pull off most of it with aplomb. The only flaw is in the film’s final reel, which feels like an unnecessary addition after what was ostensibly a climactic finale. The film thus ends on a whisper instead of a bang, but even this irregularity doesn’t detract too much from the enjoyment of the movie as a whole. And that’s essentially the reason why Into Darkness is a successful film – it manages to consistently entertain, and yet boasts a depth that is not commonly seen in summer blockbusters.

Unfortunately, with directorial duties for Star Wars looming, it is unlikely that J. J. Abrams will be behind the camera for the next Star Trek installment. However, he has laid such excellent groundwork for the franchise to continue, that it would take a large amount of ineptitude for the next director to screw it up.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Iron Man 3 * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Shane Black, Drew Pearce

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall

Running Length: 131 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ Iron Man 3 pits brash-but-brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) against an enemy whose reach knows no bounds. When Stark finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible. This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle.

With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him. As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?

Review: Now that Iron Man is a firmly established franchise together with the Avengers, it’s hard to feel any surprise about this third installment of Iron Man. Whilst no one can be accused of dialing in their performances (which are in fact quite good given the genre), there’s this overall sense of not really trying too hard with this film. The requisite action sequences are in place, as well as Robert Downey Jr’s by-now trademark wisecracking take on Tony Stark/Iron Man, but the change of directors to Shane Black brings nothing new to the table. Not that change is a necessity, but since this should be the swansong for the Iron Man franchise, I had truly expected the trilogy to end on a higher note.

This is essentially the darkest Iron Man film to date, focusing on the more intimate aspects of the Iron Man universe – Stark’s inability to cope with the events that unfolded in The Avengers, his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his personal vendetta against the terrorist figure known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Robert Downey Jr. actually spends a fair amount of time outside the suit, and apart from a lengthy, overly cheesy and somewhat unnecessary “buddy movie” sequence with a young boy, his performance as a superhero is impressive and only a distant second from Christian Bale’s incomparable turn as the Dark Knight. Ben Kingsley is the most seasoned actor amongst the cast, and despite a limited number of scenes, easily steals the limelight from everyone else, Downey Jr. included.

Action set pieces are on the whole quite well done, especially the scene involving Air Force One, but my personal opinion is that the climactic showdown in the final reel is a letdown. Having a whole bunch of Iron Man suits fighting the villain’s henchmen makes it look like a scaled down version of Transformers, and honestly the entire denouement fails to make much sense on most levels. The finale also attempts to inject some emotionality to the proceedings but it’s not a very successful attempt (as compared to, for example, the final sequence in The Dark Knight Rises).

This is the first Iron Man film to be in 3D, but like many conversions to 3D, it is not necessary to watch the film in the third dimension. There’s very little depth to the picture, and 3D actually makes the image muddy and causes a lot of strain to the eyes. Having caught the film once each in 3D and 2D, I can safely say the viewing experience is far better in 2D.

Iron Man 3 is a perfectly fine start to the summer blockbuster season for 2013, and only the fussiest moviegoers will walk out of the cinema not feeling entertained. It is unlikely we will see Iron Man as a standalone feature moving forward, but Tony Stark’s appearance in related franchises (next up in Avengers 2) should leave fans satiated.

P.S There is a post credits sequence which is quite amusing but inconsequential – whether it’s worth sitting through the ten minute credits crawl is of course, a personal choice.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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