Forget that the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's sweeping romance novel comes from the man who brought us the slick-but-stuffy Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Every frame of director Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a wonder to behold overflowing with visual spectacle and roaring performances. Keira Knightley Jude Law Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the rest of the cast fit perfectly in the high drama epic but it's really Wright's playground. Following Hanna an artful spin on the action movie Wright returns to the period drama but injects it with dazzling daring choices. A book like Anna Karenina could once fit in reality but its larger-than-life legacy precedes it. Wright acknowledges that from frame one approaching the film like a grand ballet or opera where grand gestures broad emotions and overt theatrics are commonplace. That vision clicks transforming Anna Karenina into an exhilarating moviegoing experience.
The storyline of Anna Karenina isn't far off from a daytime soap: It's 1874 and Anna (Knightley) is floating through existence as the wife of influential government player Karenin (Law). But when her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) summons her to Moscow to save his marriage Anna's entire world is shaken up. She meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) a cavalry hunk who finds himself smitten with the taken lady. She's in the same boat: The two strike up a flirtatious relationship that evolves into one of sexual passion. A scandalous affair would incite trouble in the preset day but in the 19th century it's the ultimate crime. Quickly Anna's life comes crumbling down.
The intertwining melodrama of Anna Karenina earned the novel its classic status but Wright uses the material as a launching pad for imagination rather than a tome to translate to screen. Many of the scenes are staged in a theater creating an instant awareness of the production. Sets shift and are reconstructed into new rooms; actors costume change in the span of single shots; action sequences like a thrilling horse race are conducted on stage with special effects you might see on Broadway. Wright works this sort of stylization in the other direction too; a character could walk an empty stage open a door and suddenly be on a snow-covered hill. Anna Karenina isn't the first film to use the effect but in Wright's hands it's exhilarating.
The movie is Wright's third collaboration with Knightley and easily their most successful. Knightley never struggles to stay on the same page as the heightened material whether she's nailing a dance sequence or breaking down in a flood of tears. Casting an ensemble around Knightley is no easy task but Taylor-Johnson gives his best work yet as the debonair love interest and Macfadyen steals the show with moments of physical comedy.
We have expectations of the texture and structure of period romances. Anna Karenina defies them. Masterpiece Theater it is not.
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
A guy who usually doesn't have luck with the ladies Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) has finally found the perfect girl. Egged on by his buddy Vaughn (Rainn Wilson) Matt pursues the mousy and innocent-looking Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman) after the two meet on a subway. But Jenny has a few secrets--and what Matt doesn't know in this case can hurt him. See Jenny is really G-Girl a superhero and although it's a side most superheroes don't show G-Girl is a bit possessive and essentially has a borderline personality. So when Matt wants to dump her so he can go out with his quiet and cute co-worker Hannah (Anna Faris) Jenny er G-Girl goes ballistic. She unleashes her superpowers on Matt and unsuspecting Hannah doing things like throwing a shark through his window while they're making out tossing his car around immature things like that. What Matt doesn't do is obey the cardinal rule: Never break up with a girl when she's holding a knife--or when she can throw you through a wall by blowing on you. This should be Luke Wilson's moment to shine and he seizes it. He's had little chance to break away from his goofier-looking and more popular brother Owen and has never carried a movie as much as this one. It's perhaps his meatiest role in which he gets to show a restrained comedic side as well as a dramatic angry and perplexed side. Although it's a typical romantic comedy plot the storyline allows for more reach because of the absurd nature of the jealousy by G-Girl’s arch nemesis Professor Bedlam played perfectly by Brit comic Eddie Izzard as well as the persistently bad advice from Matt’s friend Vaughn played by scene-stealer Rainn Wilson (TV's The Office). Rainn is a definitely a talent to watch out for. Unfortunately Thurman is the biggest disappointment. She's exciting only when she rekindles her Kill Bill persona but is mostly outshined by the cute and fun Anna Faris who's so naively brilliant in the Scary Movie spoofs. Expectations would have to be high if you have director Ivan Reitman on board the guy behind such classic comedies as Animal House Ghostbusters and Dave. Perhaps that's why it's so disappointing--and so very familiar. The comic moments are retreads from the past. Sure we've seen the odd moments where mortals make it with super-human characters--Superman II Bewitched I Dream of Jeannie--and every once in a while the character with super powers gets a bit peeved and goes off the deep end. The best contribution Reitman makes is to keep the over-the-top comedic aspects in check. He doesn’t have the actors play it for laughs. But if you look at past history female superhero movies don't seem to do well at the box office (Elektra and Catwoman anyone?) maybe because guys don't like to take dates to see movies about women who will kick their butts. And guys will be cringing in their seats BIG time when Jenny is trying to analyze the real meaning of the color of a rose that she just got. "Red means that you're in love with the girl. Of course I'm not trying to pressure you." Ugh! Just take the flower.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.