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Knight at the Movies: The Great Gatsby; Scatter My Ashes; notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic novel The Great Gatsby has been a staple of high school English lit classes for decades. And though scores of folks have no doubt been moved by Fitzgerald's story of the fragile Southern belle Daisy—married to the wealthy brute Tom Buchanan—and her obsession for her onetime lover, the elusive mega rich Jay Gatsby, the movies have not had much luck capturing the novel's potent delicacy.

It's been more than 30 years since an attempt has been made. That would be the 1974, in the appropriately lavish though leaden version co-starring Robert Redford as a nearly somnambulant Gatsby and Mia Farrow as an ethereal but not-quite-of-this-Earth Daisy.

Gorgeous and vapid, director Jack Clayton's movie looked pretty and sounded right (Francis Ford Coppola did the adaptation) but never really caught fire emotionally and seemed to drown in its own good taste.

That criticism is unlikely to ever be lobbed at Baz Luhrmann's frenzied new version of the novel, a movie that taps into the director's excesses for both better (the 3-D really does look sensational for once) and for worse (the madcap, nonstop parties at Gatsby's Long Island estate wear out their welcome faster than the tempo of one of Jay-Z's rap songs on the soundtrack). It really is Luhrmann's frenetic, twitchy Moulin Rouge all over again, albeit this time it's set in the 1920s. When Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) comments that one of Gatsby's over-the-top bashes is "like an amusement park," he's describing the movie, too.

The effect of all those extras gyrating like mad, diving in Gatsby's pool, drinking all that bootleg whiskey and groping each other indiscriminately is of such bacchanalian proportions that it requires an act of will to sit there passively as the senses are not merely assaulted but pummeled into submission. It's akin to watching a play staged on a carousel. Ironically, when the movie finally slows down for the romance between Daisy and Gatsby, it starts to come to life.

Leonardo DiCaprio retains just enough of his baby-faced innocence, combined with a somber gravitas, to make his lovelorn, desperate Gatsby that much more tragic. I wish that Carey Mulligan, who has a lovely entrance, was a better physical match up for him. Mulligan doesn't have either the breathtaking beauty or the elusive qualities of Fitzgerald's creation, and it's hard to believe this Daisy would ignite the imagination of both Gatsby and Joel Edgerton as a very brutish Buchanan, the conservative WASP who has claimed her thanks to his vast fortune. Maguire—as Daisy's poor cousin, who watches on the sidelines—is his usual sad-sack self, forced to narrate the film in Luhrmann's negligible, invented framing device.

Perhaps Fitzgerald's novel—with its lyrical dexterity that makes one put the book down to momentarily ponder its gorgeous, insightful descriptions—will never get the film adaptation that it deserves. Luhrmann's movie, valiant attempt that it is, never gets past his ultimately uncomfortable, hybrid conception of mixing old and new. This Great Gatsby has moments of spectacular beauty, some bewitching visuals and even its share of scenes with actors getting at the heart of the material—but on the whole it never hangs together, hamstrung by the director's crazy-quilt, rather ill-conceived approach that can't make up its mind about how to look or feel. In short, the movie is Daisy incarnate.

We've had a plethora of documentaries on fashion designers and the fabulous folks who cover their creations—and now there's Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf's, a movie that focuses exclusively on Manhattan's one-of-a-kind department store that showcases its high-end wares. The film, which Matthew Miele directs, is a feast for fashionistas and not—unlike the myriad of fashion-themed flicks that have come before it—the high-wattage personalities often eclipse the electrifying clothes, shoes and accessories they're all so mad for.

The unique Bergdorf-Goodman emporium is a New York institution that, for more than a century, has prided itself on its outré clientele and outrageously expensive offerings. The film can't help but pick up the theme of conspicuous consumption that's the given mindset of both store employees and its customers. (This ain't a place for bargains, folks.).No criticism by outsiders (heaven forbid) of the obscene amounts spent in the store is allowed to sully this portrait of this couture department store. Instead, the day-to-day behind-the-scenes on the various floors of the oh-so-tasteful store and in the justly famed windows beckoning tourists and, one presumes, dreamers alike are explored in the movie's zippy 90 minutes.

In between a quick overview of the history of the store, we meet various department heads—all stylishly dressed, of course—as they go about the business of sizing new potential designers, imparting a few secrets to staying on top as a personal shopper and, most delightfully, revealing the insanely meticulous detail that goes into crafting the store windows. Dishy and fun (it's revealed that Yoko Ono, on one Christmas Eve, stocked up on more than 70 fur coats for family members), Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf's is close to hagiography—but who cares when faced with such an entertaining valentine as this.

Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf's opens Friday, May 17, exclusively playing in Chicago at AMC, 600 N. Michigan Ave.

Film notes:

—Julie Dash, who has the distinction of being the first female African-American director of a feature film, 1991's Daughters of the Dust, will be the guest at a screening of the movie (featuring a new 35mm print) on Tuesday, May 21 at 7 p.m. at the Logan Center Performance Hall at the University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis Ave., Cobb Hall 306. The film, a revelatory historical drama, will be preceded by Dash's 1977 short film The Diary of An African Nun (also screened in a restored version). The event is part of a celebratory screening series titled "L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema," which focuses on the works of pioneering African-American filmmakers. Jacqueline Stewart will provide the introduction.

—The Chicago-based Wachowski siblings (Andy and Lana, who recently transitioned to female) co-directed the sprawling sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, which spans eons of time, countries and cultures in an attempt to prove we're all connected. Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon, as well as Ben Whishaw and James D'Arcy as gay lovers whose romance provides the connecting device (via their love letters) between all the disparate elements, the movie is now on Blu-ray and DVD. Based on a best-seller, the three-hour film didn't connect with mainstream audiences but will hopefully do so in this feature-packed home release. It's a gorgeous, thought-provoking movie that rewards long after it's over.

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