Criterion Sunday 514: Ride with the Devil (1999)

I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Like any Baz Luhrmann film, this is a splashy, flashy exercise in surface textures, style and costume, set design and special effects, but like the best of his works it matches these stylistic traits to characters who are constantly telling stories about themselves as a way of ingratiating themselves into the world around them. Yet if it’s a story about adapting, it’s not clear that this adaptation is particularly necessary, and when it tries to visualise some of the novel’s grand metaphors (ones so grand they are writ large on vast billboards or flash brightly and insistently), it can get a bit clunky. Some things are best left on the page and in the reader’s imagination.

I suppose that’s part of my fundamental problem with Luhrmann’s style: that it wants to revel in the grand artifice of its visuals, while also criticising the existence they depict as being ultimately hollow and self-defeating. Yet it’s a tension that results in some real coups de théâtre, making his films both invigorating and infuriating in equal measure, not to mention a bit wearying.

Gatsby is narrated by Nick (played by Tobey Maguire), here looking back at the novel’s events from a distance of time and, perhaps ominously, from a sanatorium, where he is recovering from alcohol abuse and depression. Maguire’s Nick is a gormless observer, waving goofily at the protagonists when he’s not wearing a perplexed expression. Given the framing device, we can at least be thankful he refrains from playing drunk; Luhrmann’s visuals do more than enough to suggest the quality of a fever dream, all hyperstylised parties and superimposed period colour. (Having said that, the early scenes do flash past in a blur, edited as if a trailer rather than the film proper, though this too is not unusual for Luhrmann.)

At the centre of the film is of course Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby, and he does very well at this perplexing character, as much a self-created nouveau riche trying to inveigle himself into the world of old money, as he is a cipher and cynosure of Nick’s narrator. It’s appropriate then for Gatsby to be embodied by such a quintessential silver screen heartthrob as DiCaprio, rapturously filmed by Luhrmann’s camera (never more so than when first properly introduced in the film, framed against a background of fireworks). Gatsby is the lightning rod for Nick’s anxieties about American class, and the impossibility of the ‘American Dream’, thus requiring him to hold in balance forces that pull his character in various contradictory directions. Even more blank is Daisy Buchanan (played perfectly, airily by Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin who has married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), scion of an old money family. If Gatsby is a reconstruction of Nick’s imagination, then Daisy is at one further remove, so insubstantial a presence as to not exist when she’s not being coveted by the male characters.

143 minutes is a long time to be in this world (too long, no doubt), and if the film does slow down for the second half, it can still seem somewhat bludgeoning in its impact. I’ve mentioned those overwhelming visual metaphors, which are accompanied by myriad references to God and judgement in the script, to the extent that the filmmakers seem to be pushing beyond mere heavy-handedness into something more viscerally affecting. The viewer’s tolerance for this is probably down to how well you respond to Luhrmann’s style. There are car racing scenes taken straight from the Fast & Furious franchise, and a heady indulgence of the rush of nostalgia that at its best recalls Raúl Ruiz’s take on Proust (the similarly stylised Le Temps retrouvé, Time Regained, 1999). Yet the most affecting scenes for me may be the smaller ones, such as the vulgarity of Gatsby’s showering Daisy with his shirts (reminiscent of nothing in recent cinema so much as James Franco’s materialistic hollering in Spring Breakers about all his possessions), or the ridiculous expanse of flowers that close in on Gatsby and Daisy when they eventually meet.

The film succeeds at what it wants to do, and though I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again, it’s one I enjoyed thinking and talking about afterwards. A lot of this may be down to the source text, but there was enough in Luhrmann’s vision to capture the attention and even, at times, the imagination.


CREDITS
Director Baz Luhrmann; Writers Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Simon Duggan; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington (2D), London, Sunday 19 May 2013.