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.
Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and “serious” of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics by and large tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood who throughout his celebrated directorial career has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography with a few notable exceptions practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre Invictus is the only work that doesn’t deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film Hereafter Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories in true Eastwood fashion can ostensibly be labeled Sad Sadder and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness — and briefly her life — during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant powerful psychic connection a la Rogue from X-Men) they’ve left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played rather impressibly by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls surrounding them with skeptics charlatans users and deadbeats none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics out-of-body experiences and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate but in a non-denominational Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson’s syrupy CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife Eastwood’s visions of the Other Side are vague and eery — dark fuzzy silhouettes of the departed set against a white background. Only Damon’s character George seems capable of drawing meaning from them which is why he’s constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who’ve recently passed on. He’s John Edward only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well but only as the last stop on wearisome circuitous and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that together with George’s hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability it turns out can be a wicked cock-blocker) consume the bulk of Hereafter’s running time. We know the three characters’ paths must inevitably intersect but Morgan’s script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can’t deliver at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood an established master of all things tragic and forlorn struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which in my opinion is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life’s ultimate question Eastwood’s final answer seems to be: Don’t worry about it.
After being cursed by delays The Wolfman Hollywood’s latest spin on the popular werewolf myth finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director Mark Romanek abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman’s problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic evoking a palpable exquisite sense of dread is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star Benicio Del Toro.
The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget “monster movies” from the ‘30s and ‘40s that he loved dearly as a child. It’s fashioned as a loose remake of 1941’s The Wolf Man a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver for example owes its origin to The Wolf Man.
But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key understated performances marked by a muttering often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead.
Playing an American-bred (but English-born we’re told) character in an 1890 setting looking uncomfortable in period attire surrounded by such “proper” British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman.
Things only get worse unfortunately when Del Toro’s character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full the film transitions with increasing ridiculousness from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick replete with grisly shots of torn flesh exposed spines and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused uneasy chuckle which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical.
Of all the Wolfman players only Hopkins seems to get the joke reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it.