Video Verdict: ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ‘Pain & Gain,’ ‘Kon-Tiki’

Carey Mulligan, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio star in “The Great Gatsby.”

Carey Mulligan, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio star in “The Great Gatsby.”

This week’s major home video releases include a thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson and a new adaptation of one of the world’s best-loved novels.

The Great Gatsby

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and on demand

Adapting a literary classic to the screen is a dicey practice because, no matter how well it’s done, the film will always be compared to the source material. Since movies and novels are different mediums, change – both structural and otherwise – is a necessity, and that guarantees frustration among at least a portion of the audience. Because of this, it’s often best to judge literary movies as independent works that are neither diminished by nor enriched by one’s familiarity with their inspiration. For example, if one watches director Baz Luhrmann’s rendition of “The Great Gatsby” expecting it to be as seminal as the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, he or she will be sadly disappointed. If, however, the project is judged as an unencumbered cinematic work, it’s easy to warm to the material.

Luhrmann, in typical fashion, has crafted a film that is visually fascinating and thematically powerful. His “Great Gatsby” is a towering affair that uses melodrama, high-octane music and an impressive cast to present a vivid picture of the roaring s’20s and a compelling tale of obsessive love and class oppression.

The story is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an alcoholic and failed writer who examines his past while receiving treatment in a sanatorium. As Nick recalls living in New York during the 1920s, his doctor encourages him to write about the experience. This allows Luhrmann to drag viewers into the story and give them an intimate look at Nick’s unusual journey.

Realizing that his chances of becoming a professional writer are nil, Nick becomes a bond salesman and rents a humble home on Long Island. Unbeknownst to him, he has moved in next door to one of the best known figures in New York, a powerful and mysterious businessman named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby is known for throwing lavish parties every weekend and allowing anyone who shows up to take part. In fact, when Nick receives an invitation, he discovers he may be the first person ever to receive such a summons.

He and Gatsby become friends, and the millionaire reveals that he would like a re-introduction to Nick’s wealthy cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The two had a relationship when younger, but Daisy chose her philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton) over Gatsby, leaving the man heartsick.

Luhrmann lays these details over an exceedingly rich canvass that captures the opulence of the Roaring Twenties. He also moves his camera stylishly, adding visual urgency to the often-manic story.

Maguire, DiCaprio, Mulligan and Edgerton are also strong, and they imbue their characters with a touch of soap-opera kitsch. This choice could have easily backfired and turned “Gatsby” into an unintentional joke, but Luhrmann gets the tone right. The characters are more melodramatic than authentic, but this gives them a sense of enormity without stripping them of humanity.

Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” may not be as masterful as Fitzgerald’s novel, but it is a fine cinematic work.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and seven featurettes about the making of the film.

Pain & Gain

2 stars
Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use
Paramount
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

There’s a subgenre of movie relying almost entirely on comedic depictions of dangerous criminals, and sometimes these films are fantastic. For instance, the 2011 Richard Linklater dramedy, “Bernie,” is deeply entertaining despite the fact that it asks viewers to invest in the exploits of a cold, calculating killer. With “Pain & Gain,” director Michael Bay (“Transformers,” “Bad Boys”) shoots for a similar tone, but doesn’t succeed.

Based on a true story, “Pain & Gain” centers on Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer who becomes jealous of a wealthy client. So, he recruits two bodybuilding pals (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) and hatches a plan to kidnap the client (Tony Shalhoub) and steal his assets. Although nobody is supposed to be hurt, the mark identifies Daniel, complicating the job. Bay then walks his fitness-minded kidnappers through a series of events that grow increasingly confounded and increasingly dark.

Bay presumably thinks this is funny stuff, and there is something comical about weightlifters planning crimes between workouts. It’s also true that the characters waltz through a series of goofy antics. However, the tone of the movie shifts when their exploits switch from hapless to sociopathic.

Bay and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also make the oddball choice of including voiceovers from most of the major characters. A good voiceover can help a filmmaker establish personality and point of view, but the technique is used so haphazardly in “Pain & Gain” that it becomes confusing.

The Blu-ray and DVD releases have no extras.

Kon-Tiki

2 stars
Rated PG-13 for a disturbing violent sequence
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

The seafaring adventure “Kon-Tiki” was a nominee for best foreign language film in the most recent Oscar race, and it offers a unique look at a historic, 1947 ocean crossing. Based on the true exploits of explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), the movie follows a group of Norwegian adventurers as they attempt to travel 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean on a crude, balsa raft. The goal of the 100-day journey is to prove Heyerdahl’s much-disputed theory about South Americans settling Polynesia in pre-Columbian times, but it quickly becomes a man-versus-nature marathon.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do a remarkable job capturing the many dangers of the sea in a visually dramatic manner. During the course of the journey, Heyerdahl and his small crew encounter everything from storms to schooling sharks, and the camera makes these events look as beautiful as they are dangerous.

Despite the inherent drama, “Kon-Tiki” is not as emotionally charged as one might hope. The problem is that Rønning and Sandberg spend only a short time setting up the journey. This leaves viewers and characters sadly disconnected. For instance, we hear about Heyerdahl’s children but don’t see the man interacting with them. Likewise, Heyerdahl’s wife (Agnes Kittelsen) is given just enough screen time to complain about the danger her husband puts himself in. If their relationship were further established, the stakes would seem higher. For the members of Heyerdahl’s crew, it’s even worse. Although the men play a key role in the journey, viewers learn little about them. As a result, “Kon-Tiki” looks spectacular but feels dull.

As foreign films go, the project is unusual because viewers can watch a dub-free English version. Rønning and Sandberg shot alternate takes of all key sequences, meaning English-language viewers can watch without subtitles and without sacrificing the subtleties of the vocal performances. Although this is a rare treat, it doesn’t mend the movie’s significant structural flaws.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include two shorts about the making of the film.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Elementary” – The First Season: This CBS drama offers a modernized look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Jonny Lee Miller stars as Sherlock, a recovering drug addict who moves to New York and becomes a consultant to the Police Department. Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Lui) keeps him on the straight and narrow.

“To Be or Not to Be”: Freshly restored release of director Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II-era dark comedy. The plot centers on husband-and-wife thespians (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) tangled in a plot to nab a German spy. Robert Stack also stars.

“Disney’s Super Buddies”: Superheroes are more popular than ever, and the “Buddies” franchise is getting in on the action. In this feature-length film, Disney’s youthful golden retrievers discover rings that grant amazing powers. Then, they use their abilities to fight an alien invader.

“Grey’s Anatomy” – Complete Ninth Season: A new season of this long-running medical drama launches on ABC this September, and the 24 episodes in this set can bring fans up to speed. Season nine focuses on the aftermath of a deadly airplane crash.

“Peeples”: This comedy, released with the backing of Tyler Perry, is coming to DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 10, but it’s available on demand this week. Craig Robinson stars as a man who crashes an exclusive family reunion to ask for the hand of his true love (Kerry Washington). Written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism.

“The Walking Dead” – The Complete Third Season: AMC’s zombie franchise has become one of cable’s biggest hits, and this collection includes the 16 most-recent episodes.

“Sons of Anarchy” – Season Five: Thirteen episodes of the FX drama focused on members of an outlaw motorcycle club. Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Mark Boone Junior and Kim Coates star.

“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s”: Documentary focused on behind-the-scenes dealings at Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. Written and directed by Matthew Miele.

“After the End”: Documentary film in which director Andrew Morgan deals with the sudden death of his father by travelling the country and talking to others who have experienced loss.

“Lucky Express – India’s Forgotten Train Kids”: Film focused on the many destitute children who eke out a living (often through criminal activity) near India’s massive train network. Directed by Anna Fischer.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Video Verdict: ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ‘Pain & Gain,’ ‘Kon-Tiki’

  1. The movie was just great, it had a great story and depicted the Roaring 20’s wonderfully. Great Gatsby veterans might not prefer this version over Robert’s back in the 70’s but it’s really entertaining and worth watching. The only problem I had was some of the soundtrack, and by some, I mean Jay-Z. You read right, Jay-Z. I would of preffered jazz to depict the 20’s alot better but the soundtrack didn’t kill the movie so there’s nothing to worry about it.

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