In Media Resonates

An extraordinary girl…about to change the world.

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Believe

2014, NBC

Created by Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Friedman

Sometimes even the mighty must fall.  Such is the case for Alfonso Cuarón who, fresh off an Academy Award win for his celebrated Gravity, made a surprising venture into television with NBC’s Believe.  Produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, Believe's behind-the-scenes pedigree suggested it could be the next big thing.  Instead the finished product, while showing some intriguing potential, is a lackluster misstep for both Cuarón and Abrams, a misstep that led to cancellation before the full first season had aired.

Believe follows Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), a young girl born with supernatural abilities.  Milton Winter (Delroy Lindo) is the head of an underground operation dedicated to protecting Bo and others like her from Orchestra, an operation run by the sinister Roman Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan).  Winter leads his team in a prison break, freeing William Tate (Jake McLaughlin), a man with a surprising connection to Bo, to act as an unlikely guardian to the girl as Orchestra’s reach begins to extend further and further.

The most frustrating thing about Believe is that it bills its young lead as “extraordinary,” but the series itself is unfortunately rather ordinary.  For all the technical wizardry, the impressive cast (which also includes a cruelly underutilized Jamie Chung), and the wealth of behind-the-scenes talent, Believe almost always feels like it is simply going through the motions.   Perhaps the most surprising thing about the series is how underwhelming each episode feels.  The writers want us to believe (no pun intended) the intense rivalry between Winter and Skouras, but we are given barely enough information to understand that dynamic, let alone care.  Similarly we are expected to accept Milton’s proteges’ blind allegiance to him without any real background.

The one truly bright light in this otherwise dull series is its lead.  Cuarón has proven with both A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban his knack for pulling strong performances from young actors and that holds true here.  Sequoyah is a natural, stealing every moment she appears.  Her onscreen relationship with McLaughlin displays an easy chemistry that makes their banter a delight to watch.  If only there was a better series to support such a fun dynamic.

Believe isn’t terrible, but that is sadly the highest compliment one can award the series.  It is a pity that so much creativity couldn’t bring together a more creative product.  Audiences deserve better.  Cuarón and Abrams are certainly capable of it.  Maybe Believe's abrupt cancellation will challenge them to work a bit harder next time.

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Their past. Our future.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014

Director - Bryan Singer

Screenplay - Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman (story), and Matthew Vaughn (story), from the comic by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

"We’ve been given a second chance to define who we are," says Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), the man that audiences have come to know as the metal-bending mutant Magneto.  He’s speaking, of course, of the film’s central plot, a time travel yarn that sees the X-Men from an apocalyptic future sending one of their own back in time to try to prevent their dismal fate, but he might as well be talking about the franchise itself.

The X-Men have walked a rocky road since debuting to acclaim and surprise box-office success in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men.  What followed was Singer’s even better sequel (and one of the best superhero films of all time) X2: X-Men United.  Here is where the missteps begin.  The loss of Bryan Singer and obvious studio politics resulted in the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, followed by the unnecessary (and frankly quite abysmal) X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  The franchise barely had a pulse at this point, but then something happened that no one expected: Matthew Vaughn breathed new life into the X-Verse with the stylish and refreshing X-Men: First Class (see my review here) while James Mangold took Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in an interesting new direction with last summer’s The Wolverine.  Order had temporarily been restored to the franchise, but its future still remained uncertain.

Enter Bryan Singer, returning to the film series he established fourteen years earlier and, like Wolverine’s time-traveling consciousness in Days of Future Past, aiming to right the wrongs of the past while forging a bright new future for the franchise.

And boy does he succeed.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is an ambitious epic that combines not one, but two ensemble casts (uniting familiar faces from both the original trilogy and First Class), bringing to life two wildly different time periods while telling a story that is at once deeply personal and operatic.

We open in 2023.  The world has been ravaged by mutant hunting robots called Sentinels, the remaining X-Men now a battle-worn troupe dwindling in numbers as they try to fend off inevitable extinction.  They have a plan though: Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) will use her abilities to phase Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973, where he must reunite a younger Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) to stop the assassination of scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), an act that directly results in the creation of the Sentinel program.

What ensues is a head-spinning series of events that, in lesser hands could have resulted in a convoluted mess, but under Singer’s direction from a precise script by Simon Kinberg, the narrative ricochets expertly from future to past (save perhaps an early scene of awkward exposition, a necessary evil designed for series newcomers).

Days of Future Past features many fantastic performances, which - in a cast that also includes the likes of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry - isn’t exactly surprising, but the film hinges on the conflict between the younger versions of Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique; McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence imbuing the trio’s complicated history with the necessary emotional resonance.

It is in Xavier that the heart of the film truly resides and, much as Fassbender dominated First Class, McAvoy really shines here.  In Days of Future Past we find Xavier in startling circumstances.  Hopeless, depressed, and drug-addled, he is a far cry from the sage leader embodied by Patrick Stewart in the original trilogy.  Ultimately the film rests on his shoulders, his journey toward acceptance of his ability, but also his disability, as he builds the strength to move forward and truly bring the X-Men together.  This idea is really driven home in a stunning mid-film scene which finds the younger and older Xavier face to face.  In moments like these the film truly sings.  Stewart and McAvoy nail it and the results are chill-inducing.

There are of course stunningly rendered action sequences and power displays (Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is a scene-stealing delight and Fan BingBing’s Blink gives the future battles a dynamic flare with her unique portal throwing ability), but as has always been the case with best X-Men films, action takes a backseat to character which gives all the fighting an appropriate sense of payoff because we actually care about the people involved.

At its best the X-Men franchise soars because of its weighty themes of prejudice and, in a film that opens in a futuristic holocaust where mutant bodies are being dumped unceremoniously into mass graves, that motif could hardly be more profound.  Couple that with bold ideas of fate and consequence and you have Days of Future Past, the grandest X-Men film so far, and maybe even the best.

"Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn’t mean they can’t be saved," says Xavier, a statement that speaks just as much to the film as to the franchise itself, a series that has risen from the ashes, ready to explore an exciting future of new found possibility.

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Man is the Cruelest Animal.

True Detective

2014-Present, HBO

Created by Nic Pizzolatto

These days it is perhaps redundant to say that we are living in the golden age of television, but it is hard to deny that, since the early 2000s, there has been a noticeable shift in the content being produced for the small screen.  The content is getting smarter.  The writing sharper. The acting better.  Performers seem to be flocking from film to television because, let’s face it, some of the best character work is being done right in your living room these days.  All of this is true in spades with HBO’s freshman drama True Detective, which exploded onto the television scene in January.

The series follows Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), detectives in the Louisiana State Police Criminal Investigations Division.  The unlikely pairing is investigating a serial killer in a case that had presumably been solved many years earlier.  What ensues is a thrilling, often unsettling, adventure over the season’s taut eight episode run.

Skillfully directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre), True Detective is not only an engrossing mystery, but truly a sight to behold, each frame its own atmospheric work of art.  Fukunaga demonstrates true mastery in his trade, effortlessly balancing horror, intrigue, and action into a crime series that is groundbreaking in its execution (a six minute long camera shot, following Cohle through a shootout in a housing project, will leave you floored).

What really sells True Detective, though, are the knockout performances from its stars. McConaughey and Harrelson are, quite simply, perfect and watching their journey from partners to friends to enemies to unlikely allies is all the more interesting because not only is the audience experiencing an engrossing story; we are witnessing two phenomenal actors at the top of their game.

Set up as an anthology series, the loss of its stars will be deeply felt when season two comes around and creator Nic Pizzolatto certainly has his work cut out for him in crafting a second season to match his stunning freshman debut (early rumors suggest he is courting Brad Pitt for a role).  Whatever happens in the future, this first installment of True Detective remains a welcome addition to the television landscape, an experience you won’t seen forget.

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Return of the King.

Godzilla, 2014

Director - Gareth Edwards

Screenplay - Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham (story), based on the character Godzilla by Toho

I’ve never seen a Godzilla movie. I may have caught, years ago on basic cable, a few moments of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version, moments that did nothing to suggest that the film was anything other than the dud Godzilla fans have lamented for years.  It seemed that Emmerich’s forgettable entry in the franchise sparked monster movie fatigue in American audiences.  Only recently have films like Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim come roaring back into cinemas, paving the way for the king of the monsters to make his big screen comeback.

And what a grand comeback it is.

The film opens in 1999 with an explosion and subsequent (supposed) radiation leak at a power plant in Japan.  American scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) experiences the accident first hand, losing his wife (an underused Juliette Binoche) to the catastrophe.  This sparks an uncertainty and fervent desire in Brody to get to the bottom of the accident’s true origins.  It is a conspiracy theory that, when the movie jumps ahead fifteen years, has estranged Brody from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordinance officer in the United States Navy.

Unexpected circumstances reunite the father and son in Japan, as inexplicable seismic events occur, lending credence to Brody’s theories.  It is revealed that the power plant meltdown was just one of many events linked to the awakening of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), ancient creatures that feed on radiation.  Even more troubling is the existence of an even older beast, one that Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) calls “Godzilla,” a creature that now seems to be hunting the MUTOs.  Humanity must now prepare for this clash of titans that, as Brody warns, “is going to send us back to the stone age!”

The beauty of this new incarnation of Godzilla is that it plays its cards close to its vest.  Director Gareth Edwards smartly takes a cue from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Ridley Scott’s Alien, giving the audiences only hints and glimpses of the titular beast throughout, thus building an appropriate tenseness leading up to Godzilla’s truly epic full reveal.  Holding fast to its mysterious tone, Edwards carefully peels back layer upon layer of revelation in preparation of a monster mash that is all the more satisfying because we haven’t been overstimulated with computer-generated chaos throughout the film.

The only true downside of the film is that Edwards has pulled together an extraordinary cast, most of which is given very little to do (particularly the female characters).  The real star of Godzilla, of course, is the beast himself and the film will likely stand out as a rare blockbuster that is willing to hold off on cheap thrills in order to create a stunning climax that is likely to rival anything you will see in theaters this summer.  Though I have never before seen a Godzilla film, it is hard to imagine a more triumphant comeback for the king of monsters.  May his reign be long and bountiful.

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Get a clue.

Veronica Mars

2004-2007, UPN, The CW

Created by Rob Thomas

Teen dramas often inspire a certain stigma amongst the general public.  Though there are plenty of examples to prove the naysayers right, a handful of series rise above the rest and prove themselves just as intelligent and engaging as any adult-driven fare.  Leading the pack is Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ darkly sarcastic, neo-noir series that just happens to be set in a high school.  More detective mystery than teen soap, Veronica Mars emerged onto the television scene with its quick-witted originality, cementing itself as a pop-culture cult sensation while Kristen Bell’s effervescent performance as the title role rocketed her to stardom.

"If you go here, your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires.  Neptune, California, a town without a middle class," Veronica narrates in the pilot episode.  The fictional town and its school provides an excellent backdrop for the series’ startlingly on-point depiction of class warfare, race relations, and more.  Veronica, of course, rests in the center of it all, helping her father (Enrico Colantoni), a private investigator, solve cases while running her own investigations at Neptune High.

Veronica Mars is strongest in its freshman year, a season-long arc that follows the mysterious circumstances of the murder of Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane (a then unknown Amanda Seyfried).  Thomas layers the plot-lines and clues masterfully, all while introducing the audience to a diverse cast of characters that bring the vibrant Neptune, CA to life.  The series remains strong throughout its second season as well, when a fatal school-bus crash takes center stage during Veronica’s senior year.  Like many a teen tale before it, Veronica Mars struggles when it sends its leads off to college during its third (and unfortunately final) year, but through thick and thin manages to resonate thanks to engaging relationships developed across all three seasons.

Bell and Colantoni bring to life a father-daughter relationship that feels real and heartfelt, never letting it drift into saccharine territory.  Veronica’s friendship with Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) is another consistent high point of the series, as is - love it or hate it - Veronica’s star-crossed romance with Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) thanks to the electric chemistry between the two actors.

Even a lackluster third season, and premature cancellation, couldn’t stop this little series that could, as Thomas’ recent Kickstarter campaign to fund a Veronica Mars movie was a huge success.  Set to premiere in 2014, the film promises to reintroduce fans to the world of Neptune while hopefully providing some closure to the open-ended third season finale.

There has never been a better time to catch-up on (or revisit) Veronica’s adventures.  Take a trip to Neptune; you’re sure to love Ms. Mars.


May the odds be ever in your favor.

The Hunger Games, 2012

Director - Gary Ross

Screenplay - Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray, from the novel by Suzanne Collins

Every so often a young adult novel comes along and cements itself within the pop culture lexicon.  Sequels follow, movie studios come calling, and sometimes before the final book has even been released audiences are watching the tales play out before them on the silver screen.  Therefore then it was no surprise when Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular The Hunger Games made its way into movie theaters in March, 2012.  Star-studded and relatively faithful to its source material (Collins co-penned the script), the film remains an enjoyable, often exciting, yet mostly tame adaptation.

By now most of the world knows the story.  As punishment for a past rebellion the nation of Panem holds a yearly tournament, the titular Hunger Games, in which each of Panem’s districts must offer two tributes - chosen by lottery - to participate in a fight to the death while the populace watches.  When her younger sister’s name is called, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place and, after intensive training and preparation, the games begin.

One aspect that never falters in an otherwise uneven film is the casting.  Jennifer Lawrence does an admirable job bringing Katniss to life.  When she screams out the fateful words - I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE! - it is raw and real and completely sells the character’s desperate motivation.  As Katniss’ fellow tribute Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is appropriately wide-eyed and charming, and he and Lawrence share an easy chemistry when they aren’t being victimized by awkward screenwriting.

A-list talent shines in supporting roles, notably Elizabeth Banks.  Nearly unrecognizable, she all but steals the film as cheery chaperone Effie Trinket.  Joining her in the high-calibre ensemble are the likes of Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, a pitch-perfect Lenny Kravitz, and an oddly restrained Woody Harrelson.

"They just want a good show.  That’s all they want," Liam Hemsworth’s Gale stresses to Katniss before she leaves for the Games.  While she succeeds in doing just that, the film itself is a mixed bag.  The great performers are often held back by stilted dialogue.  Interesting expansions to the source text (audiences get nifty behind the scenes glimpses of the mechanics of the arena) seem to come at the expense of some of the novel’s important themes.

There are effective, emotional, and even epic moments, which makes the film’s unevenness all the more frustrating.  Director Gary Ross can never seem to settle on a tone, resulting in a finished product that suffices narratively, but lacks tonal cohesiveness.  In its most successful moments the film generally has its actors to thank rather than its director who can’t seem to decide what kind of movie he is trying to make.  Ross quietly stepped down from directing the sequel (Francis Lawrence will take the helm) and his departure might be just what the doctor ordered.

The Hunger Games is an alright film, the end result leaving much to be desired.  Stronger direction and a tighter script would have done wonders for the haphazard adaptation that manages to get by thanks to a committed cast.  Only time will tell if Catching Fire can learn from past mistakes to fully realize Collins’ layered world.


Spies don’t get fired, they get burned.

Burn Notice

2007-2013, USA

Created by Matt Nix

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy…When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.  You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who’s still talking to you. A trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, an old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI, family too…if you’re desperate. Bottom line: until you figure out who burned you, you’re not going anywhere.

So narrates Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) at the beginning of nearly every episode Burn Notice, a vibrant series that recently concluded its seven season run on USA.  Westen had been a hot-shot CIA agent who, with no warning, is burned by the very organization he has devoted his life to serving.  Stuck in Miami for the foreseeable future, with no clues as to what brought about this burn notice, Michael decides to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while using his agency-honed skills to help people in need along the way.

The set-up is simple enough, but under Burn Notice's relatively procedural format lurks a complex web of intrigue dressed up in designer sunglasses and sun-drenched beaches.  Though the series occasionally becomes lost in its own mythology, its fast-paced cutting and dry sarcasm keep Burn Notice afloat during rougher patches while allowing it, most frequently, to soar.

The true magic of Burn Notice rests in its cast.  Donovan inhabits the role of Michael with ease, bringing an intensity, but also a humor to the character, setting the tone for a series that often walks a fine line between drama and comedy.  His snarky narrations, a sort of ‘spycraft 101,’ make him the audience’s window into the world of espionage and Donovan, from beginning to end, makes it a window well worth looking through.

Joining Donovan are Gabrielle Anwar as former IRA agent (and Michael’s ex-girlfriend) Fiona Glenanne, a spunky weapons expert with a knack for blowing things up; Bruce Campbell as Michael’s beer-loving buddy, a one-time Navy SEAL and occasional FBI informant; Coby Bell as Jesse Porter, a fellow spy that Michael accidentally burns; and Sharon Gless in her powerhouse - Emmy-nominated - portrayal of Michael’s mother, the outspoken, chain-smoking Madeline, who might just be the beating heart of Burn Notice.  The ensemble is a tight-knit group that plays off each other with ease and, from simple dialogue scenes to outlandish action sequences, keeps the audience invested.

Through seven seasons of snappy banter, sleek outfits, car chases, and many a molotov cocktail, audiences followed Michael Westen and his unlikely team toward a thrilling, even touching, and ultimately satisfying conclusion built around carefully crafted characters who were worth every second of the wild ride.


Heaven help us.

Saved!, 2004

Director - Brian Dannelly

Screenplay - Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban

High school is a common setting for coming of age stories and budding romances.  The young, hormonal, angst-ridden students provide perfect fodder for over-the-top storytelling.  Too often writers exploit the actions of young adults, sensationalizing their emotions, their fears, their desires.  When approached correctly, however, a good teen tale can be just as compelling as any adult-driven drama and - in the case of director Brian Dannelly’s darkly comic Saved! - provide scathing social satire.

Saved! follows a group of students who attend American Eagle Christian High School.  After her “perfect Christian boyfriend” reveals he is gay, Mary Cummings (Jena Malone) decides that she must go against her religion and have sex with him to restore his heterosexuality.  She does just that…and ends up pregnant.

The film, reportedly inspired by Dannelly’s own experiences at a Christian school, provides an always on-point, often hilarious commentary on everything from religion to homophobia to disability.  Mandy Moore gives a standout performance as Hilary Faye, devout Christian it-girl and Mary’s supposed best friend.  The movie is first and foremost Mary’s story, but Moore has some of the best one-liners.  ”I’m saving myself for marriage, and I’ll use force if necessary,” she deadpans before unloading a clip into the crotch of a paper target at a firing range.

The surrounding cast is also excellent.  Macaulay Caulkin gives one of his best performances as Hilary Faye’s wheelchair bound and self-proclaimed fake Christian brother Roland and Patrick Fugit nails the role of resident teen heartthrob Patrick, the cool new kid and eventual object of Mary’s affection who happens to be - wait for it - the pastor’s son.  Meanwhile Eva Amurri Martino is a commanding presence as Cassandra, American Eagle’s only Jewish student with a flair for rebellion.  Whether smoking on school grounds or pretending to speak in tongues at an assembly, Martino steals every scene in which she appears.  

Saved! is an important film, not only because of the snappy writing and the first-rate cast, but because it deals with real world subjects that, nearly ten years later, still ring true.  Even more heartening is the fact that the film never feels like it is mocking its young adult characters.  Even in its heightened satire Saved! approaches their issues with thoughtful realism, preventing them from morphing into caricatures.  This film might just be one of the best comedies ever.  Cross my heart.


I can be anyone I want to be.

Alias

2001-2006, ABC

Created by J.J. Abrams

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a time when J.J. Abrams wasn’t a household name, but in 2001 - with only a few screenplays and the WB’s Felicity on his resume - Abrams kickstarted his career, and that of a then unknown Jennifer Garner, with Alias.  From 2001 to 2006 Abrams’ spy-fy drama sky-rocketed through plot-twists, startling family revelations, and cliffhangers of the emotional and literal variety.  It was a sometimes rocky road, particularly in the later years, but impeccable performances and relentless ambition made Alias an iconic adventure from start to finish.

Sydney Bristow (Garner) is just your average graduate student…who happens to be a spy.  Working undercover for SD-6, an organization she believes to be a black-ops division of the CIA, Sydney makes the mistake of telling her fiance the truth about what she does for a living.  It is an error that not only results in his death, but leads to the revelation that SD-6 is not part of the CIA.  In fact it is a terrorist cell.  Sydney turns herself over to the actual CIA and soon finds herself a double agent, working to bring down the agency responsible for the murder of her fiance.

It is a complicated premise, one that is brilliantly established in the series’ feature-quality pilot.  There is a lot to digest in Alias.  Abrams rapidly throws a great deal of information at his audience, but - just as Sydney must balance her personal life with her complicated and dangerous professional responsibilities - his direction skillfully establishes the web of familial intrigue and daring espionage to come.

The action is exciting, and Sydney’s aliases are always fun, but the series ultimately succeeds, at its best and worst, because of the characters.  Through some silly plot-lines and network meddling (ABC was always pushing for less mythology and more case-of-the-week episodes) it is the emotional consistency of the characters that keeps the series grounded.  Through thick and thin Alias remains a dysfunctional family drama set-against an international backdrop of sci-fi flavored espionage.  The relationship between Sydney and her father Jack (the always excellent Victor Garber) is Alias' firm backbone.  In a series that, at its core, is about identity, it is important to truly care about the characters, and with a cast that includes Ron Rifkin, Lena Olin, Bradley Cooper, Michael Vartan, and many more talented actors, Alias truly delivers.

Even seven years after its series finale Alias still holds up.  Its tense immediacy and carefully crafted plotting - particularly in its pitch perfect first and second seasons - make it ideal for multiple viewings and attentive analysis.  Like all the best stories, there is nothing quite like Alias, a series that - even at its lowest point - dared to break new ground in television at a time when most major networks were playing it safe.  Truth be told.


Love is blindness.

The Great Gatsby, 2013

Director - Baz Luhrmann

Screenplay - Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Huh?" was the general response when, in 2008, Baz Luhrmann announced his intent to adapt The Great Gatsby for the big screen.  The filmmaker’s kinetic and colorful style, displayed to dazzling effect in Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom, and Romeo + Juliet, seemed perhaps mismatched with what is often considered the greatest American novel.  Many wondered how the director would approach the text.  Would he adorn it with all the bells and whistles audiences have come to expect from his films, or would he aim for a more traditional approach (something he has attempted only once, in the best forgotten would-be epic Australia)?

Five years later the film has burst into cinemas and the result is a mixed bag.  Luhrmann’s films are known for their chaotic visual style, but never has he shown such a lack of control as he does here.  The Great Gatsby is certainly bold and spectacularly gorgeous, but it is also, particularly in the first twenty minutes or so, sloppy.  Some scenes play like rough drafts, interesting ideas that never truly come to fruition.

In many ways, however, Luhrmann proves the perfect director to usher The Great Gatsby into the twenty-first century.  His lavish approach to filmmaking comfortably suits the novel’s decadence.  Just as narrator Nick Carraway (an adequate, but ultimately miscast Tobey Maguire) is transported into the wild world of Jay Gatsby, the audience is similarly ushered into Luhrmann’s vision of it.

A stunning vision it is.  Every frame bleeds beauty, thanks in no small part to Luhrmann’s frequent collaborator (and wife), production designer Catherine Martin.  Though the film itself is structurally haphazard, Martin’s sensational sets and costumes are consistently breathtaking.

Nearly as consistent is the film’s cast, a group of actors who seem to truly understand the material and, generally, Luhrmann’s take on it.  Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fresh, charming take on the character that lives up to Fitzgerald’s literary descriptions.  Carey Mulligan gives an appropriately affected performance as Daisy Buchanan while Joel Edgerton and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki nearly steal the film as Tom Buchanan and Jordan Baker, respectively.  Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke suit their small, but - as those who have read the novel know - integral roles well.

Much debate has transpired over the film’s soundtrack.  Luhrmann’s choice (hardly a surprise, considering his resume) to sprinkle modern music into the The Great Gatsby's 1920's setting is a bold move that doesn't always pay off.  The Jay-Z produced album is phenomenal, so its saddening that the quality of the record doesn't always transfer over to the screen, but - like many aspects of the film - when it's on it's on.  Tracks are often used to gripping effect, particularly in the knockout party sequences and most remarkably in the climactic hit-and-run scene where the fate of every character is ultimately decided. Jack White’s vocals soar and so does the sequence.  Herein lies Luhrmann’s vision for Gatsby at its most focused.

If the entire film exuded such clarity we might have the definitive film version of the novel.  Still, this is probably the closest any director has come to actually capturing the haunting beauty and dazzling decadence of Fitzgerald’s prose onscreen.  Stunning and well-acted, The Great Gatsby is sometimes maddeningly imperfect, but it is never boring, and like Jay Gatsby himself, it is truly a thing to behold.