Even in the early days of silent film, moviemakers used camera tricks. They could speed up or slow down the action. And by taping over part of the lens for double-exposures, they could put one performer in two places on screen, or make her disappear altogether. Today, filmmakers have more sophisticated tools, digitized special effects that allow them to put almost anything on screen, which has our film critic Bob Mondello thinking about how movie style affects movie substance.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: OK. Here's a storyline: A celebrated millionaire known for public extravagance lives right on the water in a fabulous mansion. He's smooth but reckless, drives like a maniac, has a powerful enemy and, despite a rep as a playboy, has just one girlfriend, who barely registers on screen. What do you think? Does his story require lavish digital effects, swooping cameras, a rap soundtrack and 3-D? If I tell you his name is Tony Stark, otherwise known as Iron Man, probably yes, right? What if his name is Jay Gatsby?


TOBEY MAGUIRE: (as Nick Carraway) Gatsby. He had an extraordinary sense of hope, but I had the uneasy feeling he was guarding a secret.

MONDELLO: F. Scott Fitzgerald's wistful novel about love and longing on Long Island really unleashes the roar in the roaring '20s in Baz Luhrmann's new film version. It has songs by Beyonce and Jay-Z, was filmed in 3-D, which renders its party confetti spectacular, and features soaring shots of a digitized New York, digitized mansions and even digitized mountains of coal-furnace refuse in a dump Fitzgerald called the Valley of Ashes.

Everything about the film is overstuffed, over-decorated and constantly in motion, including passages of the text that materialize on screen. It's the great American novel as fever dream. And if emotions and character get lost in all the disco-ball glitz, well, how could they not?


CAREY MULLIGAN: (as Daisy Buchanan) Is all this made entirely from your own imagination?

MONDELLO: Now if we want movies to be surprising and not to look and sound like the cookie cutter duplicates we're always complaining blockbusters are, we have to allow directors lots of latitude. Luhrmann is hardly alone in bringing a distinctive personal style to material that doesn't seem a natural fit. Joe Wright recently turned the great Russian novel "Anna Karenina" into a peculiarly stage-bound extravaganza.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dance with me.

MONDELLO: Literally on stage, often behind velvet curtains.


KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) I'm not used to being spoken to like that by a man I met once at a railway station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I daresay that if I'm not to dance with you, then I'm getting out of this operetta and going home.

MONDELLO: Wright's driving idea was that Russian aristocrats were mimicking European royalty, essentially performing for their public. And by making that notion literal, he gave this frequently filmed story a deliriously distinctive feel. More recently, action director Michael Bay took his first shot at an intimate story after a slew of "Transformers" sequels, and what he did was distinctive too.


MARK WAHLBERG: (as Daniel Lugo) I watch a lot of movies, Paul. I know what I'm doing.

MONDELLO: Yeah, not so much. In "Pain and Gain," Bay took what might have been an amusing three-guys-and-a-scam plot and bludgeoned it into submission with every trick in the blockbuster playbook. Sometimes, though, a little well-placed gimmickry is exactly what's needed. At the outset of the upcoming documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which sounds dry as dust, right, director Alex Gibney shows us not stolen documents, but what looks like the Milky Way, a starry firmament of tiny dots that swirl and coalesce, and then swirl away again.

It's a visual motif he uses throughout the film, a representation of the flow of information on the Internet. And though it's completely made-up, it's tremendously effective in suggesting how impossible to control that information is once it's out there on the Web. So, you won't hear me argue for reining in directors. Maybe Michael Bay a little, but not someone like Baz Luhrmann who, in "Gatsby," employs a lot of the same tricks he used successfully in "Moulin Rouge."

And as he told NPR's Scott Simon quite persuasively this past weekend, everything he did was a deliberate, thought-through choice, from the 3-D to the rap songs. For some people, it will doubtless work swimmingly.


MULLIGAN: (as Daisy Buchanan) It's perfect. From your perfect, irresistible imagination.

MONDELLO: And even though I'm less enthusiastic, I also know this won't be the last screen word on Fitzgerald's words. There've been five film Gatsbys already, the first of them silent and black and white. And with film techniques forever changing, maybe someday - maybe with holograms - someone will figure out how to make the great and supposedly unfilmable American novel into the great American film. I'm Bob Mondello.

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