Follow by Email

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Party Animal: Film Review by Don Wallace of The Great Gatsby

All unhappy families party alike.
Party Animal
The Great Gatsby is a rave-up.

I have an M.F.A. and I approve this message:

Director Baz Luhrmann had it in his grasp. The Great Gatsby, at last done right for the screen, is the equivalent of capturing lightning in a jar.

It does come close, and you might end up grinning ear-to-ear at some of the stuff in the party-filled second act. I love the music and dancing in the film and, what’s more, think they convey both the period and the personalities in a rare, inventive way.

If I hadn’t seen the recent documentary on Josephine Baker, I might not have recognized how deftly Luhrmann weaves into the story an entire short film about the Harlem Renaissance and black entertainers in white society. And he does it without a single spoken interaction between a black and a white person, underscoring the racism that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters never would’ve questioned.

But Gatsby isn’t about racism. So no matter how acute this part of the film, no matter how exciting Jay-Z’s soundtrack, this can’t be what saves it.

What hurts is that splashy-trashy Luhrmann is done-in not by his forte, going over the top, but by trying to do justice to the words.

Oh, fatal error.

It starts where Fitzgerald ends, with the green light at the end of the pier. (No, Baz, no!) But the second scene is magic. The third, oh dear, oh dear . . . a flashback? The genius of the novel Gatsby–one of the genii–is that there are no flashbacks, old sport.

But the music . . . You’ll see what I mean, because you will see it–if only to hear it. The music and the choreography are modern, not retro, yet in sync with the ’20s.

Carey Mulligan is deeply affecting in the film version of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go, but I was less than enthralled here. Her Southern accent grated; it sounded like something you’d hear in a West End production of The Glass Menagerie. In three of the big scenes she’s first-rate–as is the movie–but for the finale her Daisy Buchanan just misses the important, heartbreaking lie in her character: She didn’t love Gatsby the way he loved her, like a heroine in an epic poem, and so, as Dylan once sang, “She breaks just like a little girl.”

So maybe it’s not her fault, but Luhrmann’s, for how he films this key scene centered on Gatsby’s intransigence–it’s not enough that he have her, he has to have her repudiate the last five years of her life with Tom, to erase it, by lying if necessary. This is a powerful point, the key to Gatsby’s failure, but somehow feels rushed and un-set-up by what came before. We don’t see it coming, despite Leonardo DiCaprio’s best “big” role in a long time.

Instead, Luhrmann weakens DiCaprio’s magical and natural performance with a series of stylized poses intercut like music video freeze-frames. Add in one-too-many “old sports” and the show gets as PowerPointed as a lecture by an associate professor of English literature. In the end, blame a script that doesn’t get granular when it has a chance, in the last third, to finally bring these dreamers closer and closer until they get their noses rubbed in reality.

Instead the story (and camera) hovers. Like a photo-drone. Too bad.

The tea scene at Nick’s cottage is so good. The DJ’d soundtrack and Lana del Rey, Florence + the Machine; songs by Bryan Ferry, Jay-Z and Andre 3000; jazz and orchestral numbers–all are genuinely thrilling. It may be a modern equivalent of Gershwin’s ode to the Jazz Age, Rhapsody in Blue, which it smartly samples. I’ll say it again: This is why you must see Gatsby, to properly hear it.

I would see it again. I will, though I could do without the 3-D glasses. I mean, really, old sport.

Mama's Boy: Film Review by Don Wallace of Pieta from the Honolulu Weekly

Mama’s Boy
Pieta critiques Korean capitalism, but Mom steals the show.

In a way it’s a shame that M.R.C. Greenwood, president of the University of Hawaii, didn’t get a chance to see the new Korean shocker Pieta before the recent unpleasantness up in Manoa. Then she’d have understood where Donna Mercado Kim, state senate president and lately Greenwood’s personal nemesis, was coming from when she called to ask about her son’s law-school application. Greenwood might have better gotten the point, that Kim is a mother first and foremost. And if she’d seen Pieta (or 2009’s Mother, an equally jolting Korean valentine), she would’ve understood that you mess with mamacita at your peril. And maybe she’d still be UH president, instead of a lame duck.

The wrath of Mommy–slow-fermenting, duplicitous, Oedipal–is what drives this most brutal film about filial duty, maternal revenge and directorial irreverence. The story: Gang-do (Jeong-ji Lee) is a debt collector for a loansharking operation specializing in the mom-’n’-pop machine shops that fuel the Asian Tiger economies. You borrow, you miss a payment, the rate jumps 10,000 percent in a week and then Gang-do comes by to cripple you, often using your own machinery, in order to clear your debt through health insurance reimbursements. The expression “give an arm and a leg” is literal here. (Let’s hope Sarah Palin doesn’t hear about it.)

Luminous small-screen newcomer Mi-soo Jo is the chic femme fatale who appears at Gang-do’s side in a slimy alley and follows him home. Gang-do is a throwaway baby, emotionally stunted: no better than a beast (and perhaps worse). Beauty turns out to be his mother, who gave him up and now has come to make amends. Director Ki-duk Kim is cruelly masterful in setting this up, and it’s an impressive feat to keep us watching. But then this is Kim’s 18th film, and he’s tutored a new generation of filmmakers who’ve given K-film its pop-violent sheen since the 1990s.

Once my shock over the film’s first five minutes had subsided, I found I could stomach the twists and turns, and even admire, albeit with a shudder, Kim’s vision. Conscience and sympathies newly awakened by the appearance of his mother, Gang-do begins to rue his career. He softens, which incurs the ire of his scary three-piece-suited boss. We anticipate a showdown and then, just as the story is beginning to feel like a bloody Christmas Carol, Mom gets down.

Helping to put this over are two leads giving breakout performances. Jeong-jin Lee as Gang-do impresses the most as a lankier Lee Marvin, with a similar blank expressiveness and barely controlled menace. Obviously he’s grown up since his 2004 TV series, Love Story in Harvard. In fact, the plot samples that defining Lee Marvin teeth-grinder, Point Blank. Psy he’s not.

In the last analysis, the film has a lot more than blood on its mind. On his rounds, Gang-do is taking us on a surreptitious tour of the underbelly of East-Asian capitalism. We’re seeing what causes events like the recent Bangladesh factory collapse and Apple’s Chinese employee suicides; only these are the maimings that we never hear about.

In keeping with the theater of cruelty motif, we also experience the flipside of our worship of street-eating and food-discovery programs like Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Yes, Pieta is a locavore’s nightmare: Snout-to-tail doesn’t begin to describe the coolly ruthless food-prep scenes. Admirers of food stalls and traditional cuisine may squirm at the implication that a good chef is, by skillset and psyche, a good torturer.

If you’re squeamish, this may not be the film for you. But if someone you love wants to test his or her blood pressure, you can always buy a ticket for Lore at the adjacent theater at Kahala 8. It’s got a more uplifting, and bankable, emotional impact (über-Aryan German refugee family roaming after WWII saved by Jewish camp survivor) and has earned very good notices.

Pieta succeeds in living up to its name because it embodies a character of utter repulsiveness and yet, as the title hints, engenders pity.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Flesh or Famine: Don Wallace film review of Renoir and Therese Desqueyroux

Flesh or Famine
Renoir is a feast, Tatou as Therese a cleanse

Like the tasting menu of a fine restaurant, there are a lot of subtle pairings at the Doris Duke’s annual Francophile festival this week, including Francois Truffaut’s 1962 Jules and Jim and Ilmar Raag’s 2012 A Lady in Paris. Both feature the great Jeanne Moreau, one at the very beginning and the other near the close of an iconic career, and if you pick your screenings right (hint: May 12 and 15) you can even see them back to back. (For complete listings and showtimes of all films, visit [])

Another spicy pairing is of the headliner, Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir, which moves to the Kahala 8 May 10 (and features, as you might expect, the heroic painter of fleshy, naked, pink ladies), and the closing-night entrée, Renoir’s son Jean’s rousing French Can-Can, the one with all the high-kicking chorines of the Moulin Rouge. Both films go down well with a glass of champagne, which the Doris Duke offers, but not the Kahala 8.

But Renoir actually makes an equally complementary match with a chillier, rigorously unsentimental version of Francois Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux, a study of a depressive would-be 1920s murderess. Yessir, these are two movies that couldn’t be more different in sensibility and subject. Yet both begin with the most familiar, and comforting, image in French cinema: a girl on a bicycle on a country road.

What’s to become of the girl? That’s the question, isn’t it? And it gets us every time.

In the case of Thérèse, she’s the daughter of a rich owner of a forest in the southwest of France, a region of flat, sandy pine barrens. At age twelve she hears of her fate: to be married to Bernard, the older brother of her best friend. His family owns the adjacent forest. It’s a joining of estates and Thérèse goes along with it, mostly to quiet the “disordered voices” in her head. In another age, the local doctor might’ve given her a Paxil, or she could’ve scored some Ecstasy at the rave. Instead, she grows strange and distant. Even after a baby arrives, she shows little interest in anything except the bottle of arsenic.

Like Thérèse, the movie refuses to engage. It spurns storytelling conventions; there’s tension, sure, but it comes from the conflict between rigid society and the one woman who can’t or won’t conform. Only murder offers a way out of the psychic bind. What follows is Yeats’ “negative capability”–and a work of art as flat as any canvas in a frame.

Renoir is the complete opposite: The very old painter, hobbled and in pain, brushes tied to his hands, demands a diet of fresh young pink things: “Flesh!” he cries. “Skin!” Set in the unspoiled SoCal-like beauty of the South of France during World War I, the film is a three-way between Renoir, his latest model, Andrée, a strawberry blonde (the luminous Christa Theret) restless to climb above her station, and Jean Renoir, only 21, wounded in the war and home to rehabilitate. Andrée inspires père Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and rehabs Jean (Vincent Rottiers) with her personality as well as her body. She gets Jean to thinking of what he might become other than the second son (he already is fascinated by primitive moving filmstrips and buys odd reels of movies from the traveling junkman).

With Andrée as his muse and lead actress, in real life Jean went on to make such classics as Grand Illusion, French Can-Can and The River. Then, just as his father did with his models, he discarded her when she went the way of all flesh.

In the end, both Andrée and Thérèse yearn to break out of a patriarchy. Which one succeeds I’ll leave for you to decide.

from the Honolulu Weekly: