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Haunts of the very rich: Leonardo Dicaprio is The Great Gatsby

by Mark Burger

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be considered the quintessential Great American Novel, but thus far its literary allure has eluded filmmakers. Previous screen adaptations in 1925 (Warner Baxter as Gatsby), 1949 (Alan Ladd) and 1974 (Robert Redford) were met with varying degrees of disappointment.

Now, filmmaker and premier stylist Baz Luhrmann has unveiled his Great Gatsby , with an ideally cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role of the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as his lost love Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as wide-eyed Nick Carraway, the narrator of the tale.

Luhrmann brings his customary flash and panache to the proceedings, but like William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001) this approach tends to trample the story and its more subtle nuances underfoot. As a result, some characters are diminished, ignored or otherwise flattened by the presentation. It is likely Luhrmann’s intent, as it was in the aforementioned films, to present the material in a manner more enticing to “modern” audiences, but it often comes at the expense of the very things that made the original material resonant.

With characterization is a secondary consideration, the film is primarily concerned — and consumed — with its opulent (and admittedly eye-catching) production design and a flashy, hip-hop attitude that feels someone anachronistic amidst the Roaring Twenties’ surroundings but is right up Luhrmann’s alley. Such extravagance rings somewhat hollow, although it does reflect as did Fitzgerald’s novel the emptiness of the characters’ lives.

Nick relates the story of Gatsby and Daisy from the confines of a mental institution where he has been committed, although it’s unclear why the events he’s witnessed and experienced would reduce him to such a state of mental collapse. Jumping back and forth from Nick’s recollections serves primarily to interrupt the film’s momentum periodically.

DiCaprio is, however, quite convincing as the lovelorn Gatsby, and Mulligan certainly looks the part of a 1920s flapper as the fickle, feckless Daisy. Saddled with narration chores, Maguire does what he can in the part, and its fun seeing him and DiCaprio sharing the screen since This Boy’s Life 20 years ago.

Maguire’s Nick is the first of many characters who struggles against the sheer physical enormity surrounding him, although he fares better than Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s nasty husband Tom), Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke and Elizabeth Debicki, who struggle to find their places in a grand-scale film that, in the end, isn’t no much exhausting as wearying.

Ken Loach strikes a blow for the underdog in The Angels’ Crest

Director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have brewed a tangy, crowdpleasing concoction with The Angels’ , which finds the director in a lighter mood than usual but still embracing the gritty humanism of his best work.

Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is one of Loach’s more likable misfits, determined to turn his fortunes around after his girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly) has their baby. Sentenced to community service, Robbieand his new friends — themselves miscreants — hatch a scheme so bizarre that it just might work, one that involves a rare whisky brewed at a distillery in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a wee bit illegal, of course, but if they pull off this kooky caper, they could find themselves on easy street.

As is his custom, and using the parlance of the locale, Loach delights in taking the piss out of the Establishment, and he’s got a talented, appealing cast on hand including Gary Maitland, Jasmine Riggins, William Ruane, Roger Allam and John Henshaw. The Angels’ Share is one of those little gems that’s well worth seeking out and savoring.

Tennis, anyone? Venus & Serena documents the Williams sisters

The self-explanatory documentary Venus and Serena , offers an entertaining look at the lives and careers of siblings and pro athlets Venus and Serena Williams, who emerged from the humblest of beginnings (in Compton, Cal.) to become the premier tennis superstars of their time — and perhaps of all time.

There are extensive interviews with with Venus and Serena, their friends, family members, and a host of admirers (Bill Clinton, Chris Rock and John McEnroe among them), and directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major have plenty of archival footage at their disposal, including early interviews with the Williams sisters when they were only children, unaware of the glory that awaited them.

As the film bounces back and forth through the sisters’ history, however, it loses some of its proverbial dramatic traction. A more straightforward, linear, “beginning-to-end” approach might be more conventional, but it probably would have worked more effectively. Still, Venus & Serena offers an in-depth portrait of two remarkable women who have, against steep odds, accomplished remarkable things — and still are.

Venus & Serena is scheduled to open Friday at the Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema in Greensboro. #1

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