Reel Critics: A good 'Gatsby,' if not great

F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel "The Great Gatsby" captured America's roaring 1920s madness with sharp observations of the era. But the love story at the heart of the tale is what makes it a parable for the ages. Director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge!") gives full attention to both aspects of the plot in more than two hours and 20 minutes of running time.

The first hour depicts the debauched parties of the period with overwhelming visual excess. Watching the brassy, trashy spectacle looks like the Jazz Age on psychedelic drugs. But there are enough quiet moments in between the rollercoaster ride to set up the serious romantic moments to come.

Leonardo DiCaprio is outstanding in the title role. He cements his position as a quintessential leading man in the mold of Clark Gable or Errol Flynn. Carey Mulligan is perfect as Daisy, the focused object of his affection. She has the right combination of girl-next-door and upper-class glamour. Tobey Maguire does a fine job narrating the story as Gatsby's best friend and newly acquired wing man.

There's plenty to like and plenty to criticize in this razzle-dazzle production. But the complex and ambiguous plot offers enough real substance behind the glitter to make it a worthwhile trip to the theater.


A real-life Iron Man

In the midst of all the movies about superheroes, supervillains and super-weapons, there is also the legend of a real man named Thor who battled Mother Nature on the open sea.

The exciting "Kon-Tiki" is about real-life adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and how he was inspired to prove his theory that French Polynesia was first populated by South Americans 1,500 years ago.

Heyerdahl, a handsome Norwegian who couldn't swim, managed to obtain funding and a trusting crew of five to build a large balsa wood raft. He insisted on using only materials that would have been available in pre-Columbian times.

Heyerdahl himself made an Oscar-winning documentary about his world-famous 1947 voyage in which the Kon-Tiki crossed 5,000 miles in 101 days. This new film has been modestly dramatized, but this re-enactment is no less amazing. No enhanced special effects, no music, just the sounds of the endless sea to emphasize the enormity of this undertaking.

Heyerdahl is shown to be extremely confident in his fantastical quest, and at times he is portrayed as foolhardy and stubborn.

Yet in spite of the dearth of sailing and navigational skills, brutal storms, sharks, whales, blistering sun and a deteriorating raft, the men endured.

"Kon-Tiki" is real-life adventures by real-life superheroes, with nary a gun or explosion in sight. It's "Life of Pi" without the tiger. Highly recommended for kids of all ages.

JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator. SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a company in Irvine.

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