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’s 1585 and Elizabeth Tudor (Blanchett) is well into her third decade as Queen of England slightly older but just as exquisite—and just as wary of the enemies at her gate. Led by Spain’s Philip II (Jordi Molla) a fundamentalist Catholic movement is sweeping 16th century Europe and they view Elizabeth as a Protestant heretic. Philip and his supporters have rallied round Elizabeth’s exiled Catholic cousin Mary Stuart Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) waiting for their chance to usurp the Virgin Queen’s throne and restore Catholicism in England. The queen’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) keeps the wolves at bay but Elizabeth is in constant danger. She finds some comfort in the company of her favorite lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) as well as the dashing explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) whom Elizabeth sees not only as an intellectual and spirited equal but also as a way to glimpse into the unexplored globe’s infinite freedom—something the Queen can never have. But when an assassination plot goes awry Elizabeth shifts her energies back to her country setting off a chain of events that will change the course of history. Just like the Queen Elizabeth herself Blanchett is also slightly older but wiser and even more poised and beautiful than she was playing the Virgin Queen the first time in the 1998 Elizabeth. That film helped put the actress on the map and gave her her first Oscar nomination—and a second nomination for playing the same character shouldn’t be far behind. Blanchett gives this enigmatic queen such flawed humanity. She’s all at once regal sarcastic knowing jealous and loving—and above all a true queen to her people. Although The Golden Age is clearly Blanchett’s movie the supporting cast is also superb especially Rush whose aging Walshingham isn’t nearly as aggressive as he was in Elizabeth but still formidable and Owen as the charismatic Raleigh who clicks in more ways than one with Blanchett. By God Queen Elizabeth needed a real man and if Raleigh had had any royal lineage she may have married him. Instead she has to pawn him off on Bess--played sweetly but blandly by Cornish (A Good Year)--and live vicariously through them until their union gets the better of her and she banishes them. Elizabeth is a woman after all. Morton too does an admirable job as the doomed Queen Mary heaving breasts and stoic resolve to her ultimate demise. As with his original Oscar-winning Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur clearly loves the splendor and pageantry of the 16th century royal court and serves up another visual treat with The Golden Age. The costumes are once again spectacular as are the sets. The battle between the British navy and the Spanish Armada is particularly stunning especially as a victorious Elizabeth stands on a high bluff wind blowing looking into the horizon at a sea of burning Spanish ships. Highly effective. Kapur isn’t very subtle in his depiction of the bad guys either. King Philip is almost Golum-like walking in a weird way mumbling and constantly rubbing his rosary beads. At any moment you expect him to hiss “My precioussssssss.” Creepy. But where Kapur’s Golden Age fails is in its pacing. While the first Elizabeth was intriguing in the making of a queen Golden Age plods through Elizabeth’s anxieties and insecurities even if Cate Blanchett is riveting in almost every frame. Things only really get going when Elizabeth forgets about being a lonely woman and gets her head in the war game. There’s also the fact that the masses may have had their fill of historical movies about this time period—from HBO’s excellent Elizabeth I (which is in essence the same story) to even Showtime’s The Tudors. Chalk this Golden Age up to bad timing.
The tragic opera tells the story of a disfigured musical genius (Gerald Butler) who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera waging a reign of terror over its occupants [cue the organ music]. Think The Elephant Man meets The Hunchback of Notre Dame--except this particular "monster" has some serious sex appeal. I mean honestly his only "disfigurement" is some scarring on one side of his face which he covers with a rather classy mask. No big whoop. But I digress. When he falls desperately in love with the lovely ingénue Christine (Emmy Rossum) who has lived in the opera house for most of her life the Phantom devotes himself to molding the young soprano into a star exerting a strange sense of control over her as he nurtures her extraordinary talents. But when Christine falls for the dashing Raoul (Patrick Wilson) all hell breaks loose as the Phantom's growing jealousies threatens to tear everyone apart [OK now it's really time to cue the organ music].
Fans will no doubt be happy their favorite musical has finally made it to the big screen but the musical's original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman have been replaced in the movie version by hot young actors. This is a very wise decision considering the film's rather longwinded nature. In other words even though the Phantom performers keep singing and singing and then sing some more at least they are appealing to watch (and they did do all their own singing). Butler (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) is particularly effective as the Phantom all brooding mysterious and far more intriguing a suitor than pretty boy Raoul played blandly by Wilson (HBO's Angels in America). With her alabaster skin and long luscious locks Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) also does a nice job as Christine. But she is unfortunately limited to only a few range of emotions--either all doe-eyed and somber over her Phantom doe-eyed and gushy over Raoul or just plain doe-eyed. As for the supporting players Minnie Driver nearly steals the show as the Italian soprano diva La Carlotta. As the only breath of fresh air in the musty opera house you definitely crave more of her.
It's taken about 15 years to bring Webber's smash hit to the big screen. Apparently after winning every known theater award for Phantom the legendary producer-composer approached director Joel Schumacher in 1988 to do the movie after being impressed by Schumacher's work on The Lost Boys. Hmmm The Lost Boys to Phantom of the Opera--I'm still trying to tie that one together. Anyway Webber had to postpone production for personal reasons and then Schumacher was busy doing such films as Tigerland and Phone Booth. Finally the time was ripe to make Phantom coming on the heels of the musical movie boom started by Moulin Rouge and Chicago. Schumacher certainly incorporates all the right elements from the young and talented cast to the opulent sets and magnificent costumes. The problem is the material: Phantom really isn't all that compelling of a story. Sure the stage production was and still is a theatrical event especially as the Phantom moves on catwalks all over the theater and the impressive chandelier comes crashing down on the stage. But for the film adaptation there needs to be something more than just grand posturing set pieces and operatic music. Maybe a little more dialogue? A sex scene? Anything?
The vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (Stuart Townsend) wakes from a hundred-year sleep to the rock 'n' roll present day and likes what he sees and hears. Tired of the vampire's solitary life he becomes the frontman for an unknown rock band and transforms it into the latest greatest thing gaining the adulation of millions. He also decides to disregard the unspoken rule that vampires must hide away from the rest of world and writes songs encoded with specifics of the secret life of vampires. As expected Lestat's lyrics draw the attention of both the bloodsuckers who want to destroy him and the human vampire scholars (called the Talamasca) who want to study him. One young Talamascan student Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau) becomes obsessed with Lestat after reading his journal from the 1800s. She learns that Lestat had a brief encounter with Queen Akasha (Aaliyah) the most ancient and dangerous vampire to ever exist and the mother of all who walk the Earth in search of blood. He gets his chance to meet Akasha again when his music awakens her from an ancient slumber. She rises and seeks out Lestat to become her king and join her in ruling the world.
The film truly belongs to Townsend and fans of the Anne Rice's novels will be happy to know he completely embodies the charismatic vampire Lestat. The little-known Irish actor who starred in last year's indie About Adam with Kate Hudson rules the screen whenever he is on it and luckily he's on it quite a lot. He's especially powerful when he is in rock star mode. Although Moreau's Jesse is fairly one dimensional she comes alive in her scenes with Townsend. Let's hope they keep asking him to play Lestat (when and if they make any more films from Rice's vampire novels) and next time give him an actress he can have some real chemistry with. The late R&B singer Aaliyah made her second film appearance in Damned as the queen. Even though she is only in the film a short time she possesses a certain charm as the ancient and evil Queen Akasha and makes a great first impression by destroying a vampire coven. Yet her acting skills are just not up to par with the rest of the cast including the charismatic Vincent Perez as the vampire Marius and Lena Olin as the kind-hearted vampire Maharet.
Damned was set to be released in the fall of last year but word of mouth had the film destined for the video shelf before it even made it to the big screen. Then tragedy struck and as the news of Aaliyah's untimely death echoed throughout the world of entertainment Warner Bros. wisely decided to hold onto it and release it in theaters at a more favorable time knowing there would be an audience who'd want to see the singer's last film. Yet for all the bad press surrounding it Damned actually pleasantly surprises you due largely in part to Townsend's mesmerizing performance. Michael Rymer's direction is not a masterpiece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it has a certain MTV quality about it which makes it appealing. That same quality however also makes it too slick glossing over the meatier parts of Rice's novel making the dialogue and action trite and sometimes downright silly. Come to think of it the 1994 Interview With the Vampire also suffered from the same thing. Maybe translating Rice's words is harder than it looks.