To get it out of the way right here at the beginning, I’m a great admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, and I have returned to it a handful of times over the years since my first reading. So it might be that I’m naturally inclined to be critical of any attempt to adapt the novel to film. Though it admittedly didn’t inspire much initial confidence in me to hear that Baz Luhrmann was going to be in charge of a big-budget 3d production. To be fair to Luhrmann, from his filmography I’ve only seen Moulin Rouge!, which is in the running for the most grating film I’ve ever sat through, and about a third of Australia, which I think I fell asleep during and never bothered to finish. That’s probably not enough exposure to accurately gauge a filmmaker’s general approach, but from everything I’ve seen Luhrmann seems like a classic “window dressing” director. He knows how to provide a knockout first impression for people just passing by, but he has no idea how to get anyone to buy anything in the store. That may have been a solid enough approach on his previous films, but because here he’s adapting Fitzgerald, you know there is plenty of material in the store worth selling. Sure enough, the end result here is initial flash at the beginning and complete indifference heading out the door.
The film does follow the pattern of the novel fairly close, but it’s tough to make the case that it’s a successful adaptation when everything about the production, from the busy, 3D cinematography and the over-reliance on CGI visuals to the anachronistic Jay-Z soundtrack, is signaling to you that the approach is at odds with the message. Fitzgerald’s novel was a condemnation on the Jazz Age lifestyle, initially intoxicating but ultimately empty, but you get the sense that Luhrmann loves it. He loves the parties, he loves the music, he loves the shallow romance of the time, and that’s something that feels apparent in every frame of his film. Buried under it all are a couple noteworthy performances (DiCaprio is an effective Gatsby, and Elizabeth Debicki makes the most of her limited screentime as Jordan Baker), but they have to wade through a lot of muck for their actions to ring true. Right when the film was first announced, I worried Luhrmann would drown Fitzgerald’s text in a sea of needlessly extravagant excess, and for the most part that’s what ended up happening. 4/10.
It’s been nine years since Shane Carruth’s mind-bending debut feature Primer, but it’s clear right at the beginning of his sophomore effort that his penchant for oblique storytelling has not been lost. The film opens with a mysterious man, referred to in the credits simply as Thief, breeding worms and packaging them into swallowable capsules. These worms for some reason have the power to put anyone who ingests them into a deep trance, which is what happens to Kris (in a captivating performance by Amy Seimetz). With Kris under his spell, Thief instructs her to empty her bank account. As if this weren’t enough, she also eventually finds herself at the mercy of an ominous pig farmer. A short time later, Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth), who has gone through a similar experience himself, and the two start a relationship while attempting to find answers concerning what exactly happened to them and what connects them together.
With Primer, there was no question that what you were watching was the creation of an intelligent mind and interesting new artistic voice, but whether it was because of the budget or inexperience, the actual filmmaking didn’t match the ambition in the script (at least that’s how I remember it from the one time I watched it; I might have to give it another try). Apart from following the bizarrely original narrative, one of the real pleasures of Upstream Color is seeing just how much of a leap forward Carruth has made since his last film in terms of his eye for cinematic visuals. It seems like there are quite a few new filmmakers nowadays whose approaches have been compared favorably to Terrence Malick, and you can now add Carruth to the list. Like Malick, Carruth employs a fragmented style of storytelling that is more about tone than linear progression, but he has no qualms about completely shifting gears at certain points. The first third establishes a very uneasy and disquieting atmosphere, best exemplified by one sequence of almost Cronenberg-ian body horror, before becoming something of a cross between existential science fiction and off-kilter romance the rest of the way through.
What it all means is open to interpretation, but I’ll try to take a stab at expressing what I took away from it. There is something unsettling about the idea that you’re not in control of your life, that someone somewhere could be watching over you and pulling the strings. The film starts out about that unsettling feeling, but then ends up being something of an affirmation of individual free will, that we have the power to control our own destinies in life. That’s my very simplistic initial interpretation, but I’m not going to pretend that’s the be-all and end-all to my thoughts; the film encourages more viewings, and one of the higher compliments I can give is that I will gladly be returning to it. I can’t say that I completely understand everything the film is striving for at the moment, but I can say that there haven’t been many other films this year that have captured my attention as much as this one has. 9/10.
Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Palme d’Or and Oscar winning film from 1953 also holds the distinction of being the first Japanese color film to be released outside of Japan. Martin Scorcese has called it “one of the ten most beautiful color films ever made,” and right from the beginning it’s easy to see why he would make that kind of statement. The film takes full advantage of the Eastmancolor film stock, with not a scene that going by that doesn’t feature settings and costumes of extravagant color (the film also won the Oscar for Best Costume Design). It certainly gives the film its own striking and distinctive look, a far cry from the works of the Japanese masters Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, all of whom were filming in black-and-white during this time period.
There is more to the film than just the eye-catching use of color, but one of the minor disappointments of the film is that its narrative is a fairly ordinary one. It revolves around the warrior Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) and his obsession with the married Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô, instantly recognizable from her roles in Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Floating Weeds. When asked to choose a reward for showing bravery to the Emperor during a period of rebellion, Morito asks for Lady Kesa, and while the Emperor is unable to fulfill the request directly, he does devise scenarios to draw the two of them together. This sets up a chain of events that inevitably leads to tragedy. Not exactly an original concept, but the film adds a small wrinkle with the ambiguous motivations of Lady Kesa. For one, it’s not entirely clear for most of the film if she is at all receptive to Morito’s advances, which is a changeup from the usual way these kind of films play out, with the star-crossed lovers rebelling against the society rules of the time. Here, Lady Kesa finds herself in something of a no-win scenario; she doesn’t reciprocate Morito’s advances, but there is almost nothing she can do to stop him from taking drastic actions. All of this is handled solidly, with strong acting and direction, but for a Best Foreign Film winner it feels surprisingly ordinary. It’s remembered best for its color cinematography, and that’s what will more than likely end up sticking with me. 7/10.