The Blind Spot #3 – “Shallow Grave”

I think it happened when I was on my way home having just watched “Trance”. Wow, was that almost 2 months ago? Time flies when you’re running a blog… Anyhow, I was just trying to remember some of the older Danny Boyle movies in order to put “Trance” in context, because that’s just what my mind does at times to keep things nice and segregated up there. And then… What am I missing? Surely I’ve seen most if not all of his work, because Danny Boyle is in fact one of my favorite directors currently in business. But only a couple of minutes later when I got home and popped my laptop open, a quick IMDB survey revealed everything to me – “Shallow grave”… How could I have not seen it before?

Sure, apart from that, two other films also have also slipped under my radar (“Millions” and “A life less ordinary”), but his grand debut… shame on me. Quick, Robin! To the Lovefilm-o-mobile…

Now that I have corrected this heinous aberration, I can yet again walk the streets with my head held high. Not that anyone cares, but I shall do it anyway. So, for those of you who, like me, have spent your lives completely oblivious to the fact that Danny Boyle did something before “Trainspotting”, “Shallow grave” should be a fantastic treat.

It’s a story about a trio of friends (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor) who share a flat in Edinburgh and are on the lookout for a fourth flatmate. After an extensive and hilarious search that involved some mildly condescending comedy they finally bag a suitable fit. What’s not to like about him? He promised to be quiet and is loaded with cash, apparently, so welcome aboard. Nothing lasts forever though and shortly thereafter, the new tenant kicks the bucket and is found by our trio lying on his bed all naked with his junk hanging out. While I’m here, I should point out that it appears that Danny Boyle’s obsession with full frontal nudity in his films can be traced right down to the debut. And it almost never involves sexual context (maybe with the exception of “Trance”) and even if it does, it’s always almost awkwardly placed as if Boyle wanted to have the movie acknowledged as an adult feature, but not quite.

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As if he would think: ‘What? Is my film getting a PG-13? Not on my watch! I’m making movies for adults, not adolescents. Quickly, let’s put a scene with a penis in it. That ought to teach them… PG-13 my ass now!’ Diabolical laugh then ensues…

Yep, I know it sounds weird, but genitalia in Danny Boyle’s movies always get you by surprise…

Right, back to the story… The dearly departed tenant leaves behind a suitcase full of cash, which leaves the trio with a dilemma: should we call in the guy’s death and have the police  confiscate the money, or maybe we should keep the money, dismember the body and bury it in the forest and continue to live as millionaires… Yeah, I think everybody knows how that dilemma is going to be solved, especially in a Danny Boyle universe…

Even though “Shallow grave” was shot on a shoestring budget and it looks cheap through and through, it is in all actuality a great film to watch. Clearly, the Danny Boyle’s storytelling genius was already well developed and at large. The story is paced fantastically and the characters evolve perfectly suited for the horrors of the film’s climax. Ewan McGregor was a delight to watch and his subsequent bromance with Boyle that lasted for a while is completely understandable as this youngster had a true natural talent. What caught my attention though, was Eccleston’s character – David, who slowly loses his senses as a result of the trauma disposing of a body must have clearly been. It was kind of reminiscent of Di Caprio’s character in “The Beach” in a way, which led me to believe Boyle’s fascination with insanity and trauma can be considered a theme of his career.

Speaking of themes in Danny Boyle’s film making career, I think am now able to divide his body of work into two chapters. The thing that separates the two is the lens flare. I mean seriously, go and watch “Trance” or “Slumdog” and you’ll know what I mean, because at some point in his career Boyle fell in love with working against the light and playing with it to a point of using lens imperfections for artistic effects. I think right around “Sunshine” (or even “The Beach” to a small extent) Boyle really made extensive use of what was to become his signature photography. Before that, “Shallow Grave”, “Trainspotting” , “The Beach” and even “28 days later” are all way more modest. In fact, they actually share a lot in storytelling and style, but when it comes to details, I think it’s safe to say that Boyle’s early work could be collectively called ‘the held-back period’. While all Boyle’s movies have a common theme of human instability and innate brutality, there came a point in Boyle’s career where the gloves came off and he started to investigate human weaknesses in a way more visceral, graphic way.  So, what in the world happened between “28 days later” and “Sunshine” that kicked Danny’s film making into another level? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that, but I surely will try and come up with something.

I can only say that “Shallow grave” allowed be to look at Danny Boyle a bit differently. It’s a fantastic piece of cinema and up till now I can’t believe I haven’t seen it for such a long time. It is not his greatest achievement – obviously, as one’s big screen debut is almost always not the opus magnum that would define him for generations to come. It did however, define Boyle’s style and set the wheels in motions, so that we could admire his latest work as mature films for mature audience with mature expectations.

“The Great Gatsby” – the word I’m looking for is ‘kitsch’, old sport…

Who would have thought that having one’s laptop taken away for a week would cripple one’s ability to blog? Nevertheless, after this measly week with only one post I’m back to my regular writing regime; long story short – I can feel normal again. At this point I should probably stop and think about the gravity of a problem I might have just uncovered, because it would appear that my computer is so damn crucial to my existence. I guess this will be an addiction I will have to embrace, because in this day and age, a good chunk of one’s life takes place in front of a screen. Scary, right? Not for a nerd, it’s not… But I digress; the point is that I’m back and have got some ideas for posts already, so I shall just resume churning them out at a steady pace.

And what better way to break out of a rut, if not to review a recent big screen experience? For God knows how many months I have been teased and attacked by marketing campaigns for the long-awaited Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”; I couldn’t be way off mark if I said that the first posters with Leo DiCaprio holding a glass of champagne popped up in cinemas nearly a year ago. It was supposed to be a jaw-dropping experience filmed in native 3D that would take the novel into a whole new dimension and so on and so forth… Now, every single time I hear so much waffle and attempted self-praise about any film, I get a bit skeptical  because everybody knows that a good piece of cinema can defend itself. Moreover, a recent example of “Star Trek Into Darkness” (I know I shouldn’t be comparing sci-fi to “Gatsby” but hey, I don’t care) can testify to the fact that playing your cards close to the chest can only benefit and empower the picture.

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I think we can all agree and call Baz Luhrmann an auteur; his work has a certain discernible style and he wears mixing periods and eras (musically and stylistically) as a badge of honor  I try to see him as a film-making equivalent of a modern painter who would draw a red square and smear some brown paint on it, give it a pretentious name and have people believe his work has a meaning. Therefore, I find it impossible to be indifferent to his films – you can either love him or hate him, and for sake of clarity I should admit here that my relationship with his work is more of the hating variety. I didn’t like “Romeo and Juliet” at all, “Moulin Rouge” bored me to death and I didn’t even bother with “Australia”. The question remains: what the hell was I thinking going to see “The Great Gatsby”?

Literature classics like “The Great Gatsby” can be nicely described by a collective hunting term of ‘easy game’ for the film making meat grinder. You can really bastardize a timeless work of literature in so many ways and still come out on top, because it’s not the film that is ultimately responsible for the commercial success, but its literary predecessor, and Luhrmann is no stranger to that phenomenon. After all, his modern 90’s MTV-esque take on the Shakespeare canon was really well received, regardless of what I think about it. But I do think it was crap, it’s just that simple (“Romeo and Juliet”, not “The Great Gatsby”, but I’ll get there in a minute). My point is that Luhrmann knew exactly how much he can screw with the book before it becomes too much. But was it enough for the film to stand on its own two feet?

Right, so if you somehow slept through high school or something of that variety and you don’t know what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is all about, here’s a quick plot synopsis. A young aspiring writer-turned-bond-salesman Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) rents a house in Long Island next door to a mansion owned by a mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio). Nobody really knows anything about that fellow and he clearly keeps to himself. Well, not quite because Gatsby is known for throwing lavish parties that attract all the NY celebrities, artists, politicians and mobsters. Anyways, Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (beautiful as always Carey Mulligan) lives in the neighborhood  directly on the opposite side of the bay. She’s married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a womanizing arrogant prick of a husband who spends way too much time bedding strangers and boozing at extravagant house parties, but I guess it’s the 1920’s, so everything’s OK. Nick spends his days in Long Island mostly on sipping tea with Daisy and her hubby, playing polo or golf, reading books, and looking at the mansion next door hoping to see its enigmatic owner. One day he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s weekend orgies parties, where he ends up meeting Gatsby himself, who asks Nick for a favor of setting him up to meet Daisy. And it goes from there…

Once again, if you didn’t read the book or failed to see any of the numerous adaptations, then watching “The Great Gatsby” by Baz Luhrmann can sort you out in that regard. However, reading the book would take just as long as watching the movie, so if you really hate Luhrmann’s film making, just read “The Great Gatsby” instead.

I was actually pleasantly surprised with what “The Great Gatsby” had to offer. Make no mistake, it’s not a very good film at all, but it’s a very good Baz Luhrmann film, if that makes any sense. It is nowhere near as heavy-handed as “Romeo and Juliet” or “Moulin Rouge” in the plastic eclectic style, but it is still clearly visible, whose film this is. In it, the excesses of 1920’s are shown with great detail with a strong thread of modern hip-hop mixed in that sets the stylistic tone of the movie. While I don’t really understand the premise of the musical choices, the fact that Luhrmann was just being himself there didn’t really bother me that much. I could probably go and throw a fit about how Jay-Z and Beyoncé don’t belong in the jazzy 20’s and it looks like a cheap scheme to win over the young audience, but the apparent parallel drawn between those times and the modern bling and excesses of the hip-hop culture makes this mish-mash work in a weird way.

Though, I wouldn’t be myself if I failed to point out that as a whole the film feels cheap. The noisy parties, colorful interiors, lavish outfits and top-notch choreography will never suffice to make a good movie. In fact, “The Great Gatsby” feels more like a 50’s movie filmed entirely on stage with its color palette, over-the-top acting and recitation of the lines from the novel. That is exactly what the film can be boiled down to once you strip it off the bling – it’s a bunch of actors walking around reading lines with theatrical emotional investment. As much as I would like to say that the acting was top class, it’s only true for Leonardo Di Caprio and to some extent for Tobey Maguire, who breathed some life into their respective roles, whereas the rest of the cast was just wood dressed in shiny outfits. And I know Carey Mulligan can act like a champ (“Drive”, “Never Let Me Go”), so I think I have to point the finger towards the director, who seemed completely out of depth when it came to actual directing (a sad realization indeed).

All in all, “The Great Gatsby” was maybe kind of OK and it is a subjective verdict biased heavily by my admiration towards Di Caprio’s acting. Other than that, the film looks like an excuse for the director to play with the 3D workshop, which is redundant, by the way. I saw it in 2D and I think I could spot the sequences where the 3D was supposed to shine and I can only say that it’s out of place. The 3D aspect seems to be just a marketing ploy as it brings nothing to the table; it’s just a couple of gimmicks with snowflakes and perspective that is irrelevant to the film and ends up more of a distraction. Moreover, the entirety of CGI employed in the film looks a bit out of date and has cheap written all over it. The only things that really save the movie are the parties, choreography, Di Caprio’s acting and the story. But then again, if you take the story away, there’s not much “The Great Gatsby” as to show for, so in the long run you’re better off reading the book, old sport…