Five Big Summer Blockbusters — Part One

Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer movie season of big blockbuster hits featuring super-size budgets, big name actors and huge spectacles.  This summer audiences can look forward to super heroes, sequels in 3D, and thundering soundtracks.  Geared toward the younger audience, many of whom are just getting out of school for the summer, this year, the “tent pole” films started almost a month before Memorial Day with “Oblivion” (April 18) and “Iron Man 3” (May 1), to take advantage of those anticipated summer dollars.

Sadly, “Oblivion” had little chance to garner an audience before “Iron Man 3” dominated the screens (a full 10 screens in San Francisco on it’s opening weekend!) and then each weekend featured another huge opening: whiz, bang, dazzle, here’s “The Great Gatsby”, zoom, careen, crash, here’s “Star Trek: Into the Darkness” and if you’re in one of the 75 cities chosen, there’s the 50th Anniversary of  “Cleopatra”, restored and released to the trumpets of triumph after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2013.

3D, or not to 3D; that is the question…  And the answer is as personal as the film you choose to see.  Do you enjoy roller-coaster rides, play video games or crave a more immersive film experience?  Then 3D is a good choice.  With the advances in 3D glasses (and IMAX as well), there is a wonderful experience to be had if the film was crafted with the purpose of screening in 3D.  Do you get headaches easily, seasickness keeps you off small boats and you like your films uncluttered by the bells and whistles that can distract from the story?  Well then…stay away from 3D!   iI you find it’s the only available option, sit in the far back center where you’ll be less distracted by the 3D-effects.

Here’s my experience of two of the summer kick-off films; “Cleopatra” and “The Great Gatsby”.  Part Two will discuss the science fiction/fantasy films; “Star Trek”, “Iron Man” and “Oblivion”.

bilde“Cleopatra” — 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Yes, even “Cleopatra” can be considered a summer blockbuster!  Not only does it feature an astronomical budget of $44 million (equivalent to $330 million by today’s standards), there’s the big stars and of course, the studio was desperate for the audiences to be enthralled with the spectacle in hopes of recouping their losses.

There were at least 20 people at the matinee screening I attended, mainly older couples with a few young gay couples and a smattering of single men and women.  Once the lights dimmed and the music began, there was an uncomfortable wait;  there was no picture screening–just the soundtrack!  But no one left their seats and the film finally began.  Given that it’s a four-hour extravaganza, it’s good that there was a fifteen minute intermission!  Still, many people came and went throughout the screening.   I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the audience returned after the intermission.

The costumes and sets are amazing and the set pieces: war ships in the harbor and Cleopatra’s grand entrance to Rome, are astounding!  Particularly when you know they aren’t “CGI” but were filmed with thousands of extras, all in costume.  There is one amusing gaff:  in an opening scene of Richard Burton surveying the battlefield, one of the “dead” soldiers looks away from the camera and many of the “fallen” are clearly clutching the spears they’ve been “stabbed with” — between their arms and their sides!

Even now, 50 years later, Elizabeth Taylor’s star power can be felt eminating from the screen.  Her costumes are intricate layers of fabric and jewels with headpieces and sashes that look cumbersome and heavy yet she moves with grace.   Even rolling from a rug on her backside, she rises like a queen.  If the battle scenes and political power mongering grow tedious, there is always another grand scene to fascinate.  Roddy McDowell is a delight in his role as simpering, power-mad Octavian and it’s amazing to think of his 50+ years in Hollywood.   Would “Cleopatra” fascinate the youth of today?  I think not.  It’s too long and the acting and fake scenery are dated — but it is nice to have a film with a strong female leader!  Cleopatra may die in the end, but she does so at her own hand  — and with the grace and regal authority she deserves.

Rating: 1 glasse of Greek wine

“The Great Gatsby” — Director: Baz Luhrmann Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton

In a summer of sequels (this is the Summer of “3” : Hangover 3, Iron Man 3, even “Before Midnight” is the third in a series!), comic book movies, and science fiction and fantasy, Baz Luhrmann gifts us with this glittery Art Deco jewel of “The Great Gatsby”.  Here is an opulent tale of obsessive love, outlandish parties and the young man who fascinated them all.  The film opens as the  camera drifts across the water through the falling snow into a room.  It’s a sanitarium where the soul-sick alcoholic, Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, sits looking ragged and distraught.  This is a departure from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel but having Nick narrate the story makes sense —  he’s the one  writing the book about Jay Gatsby.  Starting slowly with this interview scene gives us a chance to get to know Nick.  Tobey Maguire has sad expressive eyes, but he’s not believable as the brilliant young man who falls sway to the money speculation of New York in the 1920’s.  He seems like an outsider which fits the role but brilliant enough to teach himself the stock market?  Boyish, yes, but brilliant?  It’s too much of a stretch.

Another misstep in this otherwise charming retelling of Gatsby’s story, is the introduction of our star, the dewy, delightful Daisy.  Baz Luhrmann has the camera follow Nick through the Buchanan mansion and it’s as if he’s joined a choreographed dance: butlers whisk open doors, waiters march through with gleaming trays, Tom (Joel Edgerton) hurls a football — and then himself — at Nick.  As the doors crash open, long drapes envelope Nick in a sea of white.  The curtains billow in and out, revealing an arm languidly raised and Daisy (Carey Mullligan) dreamily looks coquettishly over the couch.  Nick, drowned out by the soundtrack and obscured by the drapes, describes how everyone in town is pining for her company.   Another figure rises sharply from the couch, briskly straightening her clothes.  In what feels like an erotic glance toward Daisy, Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) lights her cigarette.  Her character is clearly coded as lesbian with her interest in sports, masculine-cut attire and short hair and Nick claims to be afraid of her.  Then the room is once again enveloped in billowing curtains.  Like many scenes in the film, it’s lovely to look at but distances the audience from the characters–in this case, literally.  It’s distracting and feels like a lead-up to a song and dance number that never materializes.  We haven’t met Gatsby yet, and already we’re both distracted and distanced.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a wonderful Gatsby.  The Golden Boy who throws the lavish parties hoping to entice his love to his home, Leonardo DiCaprio plays him with equal parts swagger, charm and boyish neediness.  One moment his relationship with Nick is one of boasting as he dazzles him with his deceit.  In the next moment, he’s sitting like a schoolboy fretting over his hair in Nick’s tiny living room, grief-stricken that Daisy will never come to tea.  Isla Fisher is also a stand-out in her role as Tom Buchanan’s lover.  Her brazen performance is bawdy.  She’s brassy and bossy, but with an underlying desperation.   She looks out the window in despair as Tom drives off;  abandoning her to her illness and her mad husband.  Isla Fischer’s performance gives the tragedy of the story’s ending a deeper resonance.

Much has been made of Baz Luhrmann choice of modern music over some of the scenes, and certainly, the soundtrack is a major part of the film.  “The Great Gatsby” is almost a musical; there are multiple scenes of performers singing and dancing, our leads dance together, and when Gatsby drives his long yellow car, it seems choreographed to the music.   More distracting than the type of music used however, is the volume of the soundtrack in the scenes.  From music drowning out the dialogue, to a party that seems to have had it’s party music on mute, the sound mixing is all over the place.  The costumes are amazing, the sets glamorous and though Tobey Maguire seems an odd choice for Nick, the rest of the acting is top-notch.  “The Great Gatsby” is not only great fun; it also captures that wistful feeling from the book; a bittersweet nostalgia for a another time and another world.

Rating: 3 glasses of champagne

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