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THE GREAT GATSBY

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B

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated 1925 novel—now a staple of school curricula—has staunchly resisted cinematic transformation over the years. It’s impossible to say anything definite about the apparently lost 1926 silent version, but the 1949 take with Alan Ladd was a drab, tedious affair, and Jack Clayton’s 1974 epic with Robert Redford and Ali McGraw was a total stiff, opulent but inert. A 2000 television version was faithful in terms of plot but otherwise instantly forgettable.

Now comes Baz Luhrmann’s take on the book. It’s wildly overproduced in the director’s characteristically flamboyant style, with whirling camera moves, crowd scenes marked by incessant gyrations and compositions as carefully planned as Eisenstein’s, snatches of dialogue emerging from the screen in written form like magical incantations, and archival footage meshed with distressed new shots, all delivered in shimmering 3D to the accompaniment of an eclectic music score that ranges weirdly from jazz-age standards to anachronistic contemporary pop songs. There’s never enough pizzazz in Luhrmann’s music-video mentality; he’s always searching for one more visual effect to add to the mix. But it’s at least arguable that the eye-popping approach is a suitable modernist take on one of the book’s themes—grotesque excess—although it might actually be a brazen example of it.

Nor is the script, written by Luhrmann in collaboration with Craig Pearce, scrupulous in dealing with the book in other ways. From a purely literal perspective, it introduces a framing device—with Nick Carraway, the narrator, telling the story from a doctor’s office in a sanitarium, and eventually typing it out as though he were Fitzgerald—that’s a silly as it is unnecessary. But more important, it doesn’t bring out the book’s critique of the culture of the twenties, and of the hope-against-hope aspiration that Gatsby represents, which can be understood simply as the American Dream writ large and perverted. Instead it presents him simply as a tormented, doomed lover, swooning over what he’s lost and is trying desperately to recover. It’s an oversimplification of the novel to turn it into what amounts to little more than a tragic romance—a twentieth century version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which Luhrmann also made a film of. But that’s what he does here.

And yet despite the spectacle-for-spectacle’s sake filmmaking philosophy and lack of interpretive depth the picture works on its own terms. It’s easily the best version of Fitzgerald’s tome yet (though admittedly the bar isn’t terribly high), and Luhrmann’s best film since “Strictly Ballroom” (again, not the greatest of compliments). And the major reason for its success is the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. Luhrmann introduces him in a garish, frenzied party scene near the movie’s start in the way a matinee idol would have been in twenties flicks—via a luminous shot in which his slightly smiling face is shown bathed in light, startlingly reminiscent of the first appearance of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in “The Third Man” (whom DiCaprio actually resembles)—and he immediately takes hold of the screen, and the entire film. He’s brilliant, even in Luhrmann’s rather goofy version of the sequence in which Gatsby encounters his long-lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) at Nick’s tea party, where he must play the shy, bumbling suitor. And when Gatsby’s reserve finally cracks and he angrily attacks Daisy’s husband Tom (Buchanan), DiCaprio’s venomous intensity at last gives a hint of the dark underside to the character, which Luhrmann largely ignores.

As to the rest of the cast, they’re a mixed bag. Maguire certainly captures Carraway’s boyish naïvete, though his blandness is wearisomely familiar, and Joel Edgerton’s one-note bullishness as Tom gets equally grating. Daisy is a difficult character to pull off, but Mulligan does a creditable job of capturing her ethereal beauty and childish vulnerability. In her smallish part as Daisy’s ultra-sophisticated chum Jordan, Elizabeth Debicki captures the spirit of the age better than anyone else in the cast. By contrast, Isla Fisher doesn’t quite convince as Tom’s mistress Myrtle, and Jason Clarke is even less persuasive as her jealous husband, whose anger at Gatsby triggers the story’s tragic finale. That couple seems to invite a lurid approach, and Luhrmann is never one to reject that kind of invitation. (To be fair, though, Fitzgerald’s heavy-handed imagery in the last act—like the oculist’s billboard—doesn’t help matters, especially since Luhrmann chooses not only to retain it all but to play it up as exuberantly as he can.) And Amitabh Bachchan certainly cuts a striking figure as Gatsby’s “business partner” Meyer Wolfsheim, though he hardly looks the part.

Physically, of course, the film often looks astounding, with Catherine Martin’s production and costume design, the art direction by Ian Gracie, Damien Drew and Michael Turner, and Beverly Dunn’s set decoration not missing a trick, and Simon Duggan’s virtuoso cinematography, accentuated by the editing of Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine and Jonathan Redmond, casting an intoxicating spell.

In sum, this isn’t a great “Gatsby,” but it’s quite a good one. Unlike the beautiful but empty 1974 version, in which Clayton and Redford effectively embalmed the book, Luhrmann and DiCaprio bring it vividly to life, even if not in quite the fashion Fitzgerald intended.

THE ICEMAN

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B

There’s considerable disagreement over how much is fact and how much fiction in the interviews that confessed contract killer Richard Kuklinski gave during his time in prison—he once claimed, for instance, to have killed Jimmy Hoffa—but Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman,” titled after his nickname, isn’t so much concerned with ferreting out the historical truth as with fashioning a brooding, neo-noir portrait of a psychopath who balances an apparently normal family life with a career as a cold-blooded hit-man. As adapted by Vromen and Morgan Land from James Thebaut’s HBO documentary “The Iceman Tapes” and Anthony Bruno’s book, it’s a story that could have been penned by Jim Thompson about one of those driven, doomed loners who populate the hard-boiled pulps of the forties and fifties.

That puts a great deal of the burden of carrying the movie on the shoulders of the actor who plays Kuklinski, and Vromen is indeed fortunate that it’s the remarkable Michael Shannon doing the heavy lifting. Shannon adds to his growing gallery of very different but always compelling characters here, portraying Kuklinski as a preternaturally calm man with no compunction about killing as an occupation. The only attempt to offer any psychological explanation for his morally blind personality is in a brief sequence where he visits his brother (a cameo by Stephen Dorff) in prison, which suggests that his home life must have been a tortured one; and that inference is certainly supported by the normal suburban structure he tries desperately to create for his own family—and the fact that when it’s threatened in any way, his reaction is explosive, particularly toward his wife. But there’s no serious depth of analysis in that respect.

So one has to take Kuklinski as he’s found at the beginning of the film, a dour employee at a mob-financed film lab where he makes dubs of porno flicks while romancing Deborah (Winona Ryder), a lost soul who falls for his not-so-snappy patter. When crime boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) notices his coolness under pressure and tests him by ordering him to shoot a homeless guy, he suddenly has a new job—as the mobster’s hit-man of choice. Meanwhile Kuklinski has married Deborah, telling her that his income comes from currency-exchange deals. Together they have two daughters and become an ordinary-seeming addition to their middle-class neighborhood.

Kuklinski proves extraordinarily efficient at seeing to DeMeo’s business until his decision to let a young hooker escape after she’s witnessed his killing of small-time hustler named Marty (James Franco) gets him in Dutch with Roy and he’s shunted to the sidelines. But his family’s financial needs lead him to fashion a partnership with another contract killer, Bob (Chris Evans), also known as Mr. Freezy for the ice-cream truck he drives around in (as well as for his habit of putting the corpses of his victims on ice before dismembering and disposing of them). Eventually the two of them will be drawn into the killing of one of DeMeo’s men (John Ventimiglia) by mob higher-up Leonard Marks (Robert Davi); but when the hit goes sour, it leads to another killing and an unhappy encounter with Marks. That’s all part of Kuklinski’s downward spiral, which brings his marriage near collapse after his daughters are targeted by DeMeo for revenge. Even his partnership with Bob goes south. And under increased stress, he makes the mistake that leads to his arrest and conviction.

Though “The Iceman” doesn’t go very deep as a character study, in Shannon’s hands Kuklinski makes a chilling figure who exudes an aura of menace even when he’s being the perfect father or a chummy pal to his old buddies—though he’s always on the verge of violence, even disposing of one of those chums when he proves a nuisance and never hesitating to kill anybody who gets in his way (except that young hooker, of course). The rest of the cast support him well. Liotta breaks no new ground as DeMeo—we’ve seen him in this sort of role many times before—but he gives Roy a hint of honest complexity, especially when he has to deal with his chief lieutenant, Josh (an almost unrecognizable David Schwimmer) for trying to add to his cash store on the side. But Ryder gives a performance that could revive her career as the doting, luckless Deborah, and Evans—also nearly unrecognizable with beard and hippie hair–erases any memory of Steve Rogers as the unflappable Mr. Freezy (who at one point here suggests a trade in murders reminiscent of “Strangers on a Train”). Franco has an especially good cameo as the victim Kuklinski cruelly gives time to pray in the hope that God will intervene on his behalf, but Dorff makes his brief scene count as well, while Davi and Ventimiglia have their moments.

This is obviously a modestly-budgeted movie, but Bobby Bukowski’s gritty cinematography creates an appropriately sordid atmosphere even in the suburban sequences, and the whole has good period atmosphere courtesy of Nathan Amondson’s production design and Donna Zakowska’s costumes. Haim Mazar’s score is unobtrusively effective.

But this is Shannon’s film, and though the material he’s dealing with isn’t of the same quality as “Take Shelter,” he’s equally magnetic. He’d be reason enough to see “The Iceman” even if the rest of the film weren’t as good as it is.