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.
The irresistibly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wide-eyed--accentuate the positive--cheerleader of a school teacher with an attitude that says “I want to be your friend.” She is endlessly Happy Go Lucky and even several encounters with those who don’t share her optimistic outlook can’t seem to knock her down. The film doesn’t have a traditional plotline but rather is a series of recurring scenes from her life. After her bike is stolen she decides to take driving lessons from an increasingly frustrated instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their frequent episodes grow more intense each time as the lessons tend to bring out the pent-up anger of the man trying to teach Poppy how to make a left turn. She also takes Flamenco lessons from a loopy Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez) gets romantically involved in an intense relationship with a social worker (Samuel Roukin) spends time with her best pal and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) who provides a soothing counterpoint to Poppy’s non-stop cheerfulness and tries to deal with problems involving her sisters (Kate O'Flynn and Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman).
Leigh is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking spending months working everything out with his actors in rehearsal and then letting them do the scenes with only an outline of what it will be. In this environment actors have to be top notch and indeed Leigh has elicited a few Oscar-nominated performances in the past including Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies and Imelda Staunton in his last film Vera Drake. Add Sally Hawkins to the top tier of actors in Leigh films. She is in nearly every scene and the film lives or dies on her inherent appeal. We are with this irrepressible life force from the very first moment she hits the screen with her rather garish but colorful outfits and unflappable demeanor. Hawkins is a breath of fresh air a real discovery. Also getting lots of screen time is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who goes ballistic. His slow simmering rage is fascinating to watch as the dynamic of the student/teacher relationship goes into unexpected--and uncomfortable--territory. Fernanez provides most of the film’s comic relief as the demanding flamenco instructor and her scenes with Hawkins are the film’s highlight. Leigh is a director known for exploring the lives of British working class. His unique films focus generally on those poor blokes and birds just trying to get by and live a life of dignity despite England’s class system. As one of his film titles suggests Mike Leigh characters have High Hopes. But Happy Go Lucky is perhaps his lightest and certainly most optimistic film yet. By focusing an entire feature on a central character who exudes happiness and goodwill toward her fellow man he turns a light also on the problems and hang-ups of people who bounce their woes off her in this oddly segmented film. Leigh’s improv filmmaking techniques work well here but seem less structured and disciplined than usual. The film is too long for its own good and many scenes wear out their welcome halfway in. Still it’s good to have a craftsman with the kind of singular voice Leigh has still able to make movies his way because in this instance at least that has produced the gift of Sally Hawkins.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Ian Stone (Mike Vogel) feels like something is going wrong in his life. The clock stops during the hockey game after he tries to score the winning goal and he confesses to his girlfriend Jenny (Christina Cole) that he is losing his mind. Then on his way home he sees a body on a train track and when he tries to help the body comes to life and holds him until a train runs over him. Suddenly Ian wakes up and he's in an office late with an assignment. His co-worker Jenny wonders what's wrong with him. He then goes home to a different girlfriend Media (Jaime Murray) who ends up stabbing him through his stomach and watching him bleed. Ian wakes up again this time in a taxi and he's driving Jenny to her house. Over and over Ian experiences a different life and a different ghastly death with Jenny the only connecting factor. Ian slowly begins to piece together that he's being chased and has to protect Jenny--and for some reason he can't be truly killed. Well not just yet. Vogel is a decent all-American guy who plays a likable character the audience can root for. As Ian the actor is multifaceted turning from a naïve kid to a streetwise punk from a successful exec to a messed-up drug addict from a frightened guy to a hero and so on. Cole’s Jenny is rather one note--it doesn’t seem like the actress has much range. Murray as the femme fatale is delightful and looks a lot like something out of the The Matrix. But ultimately this is Vogel's calling card and should be a nice addition to his resume. Director Dario Piana knows how to heighten the tension as Ian Stone tries to figure out what is happening and along with the script by Brendan Hood they provide enough intrigue to make people care and wonder why the clocks stop in each of Ian’s lives and what significance it plays in each of them. Ian's retains more of his memory the more times he dies and is reborn so to speak and when he starts to figure out the puzzle Deaths of Ian Stone becomes more disturbing. Piana casts the shadowy Harvesters creatures who wander in and out of Ian’s weird predicament as shadows in the window or as whispery figures around a dark corner; they are definitely nightmare-inducing and provide more than a few jumps.
Casino Royale starts at the beginning as James Bond (Craig) takes his first baby steps as a Double O agent. His first assignment is to track down a terrorist cell in Madagascar but he’s a bit of a loose cannon and things quickly go awry. Bond’s superior M (Judi Dench) is soon regretting giving the arrogant Bond the promotion. Nonetheless Agent 007 takes it upon himself to follow a lead to the Bahamas and discovers that all nefarious dealings point to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) a nasty fellow who has money ties to terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre is planning to raise money in a high-stakes poker game at the Le Casino Royale in Montenegro—and Bond gets in to beat him at his own game. Along with a hefty bankroll M also sends the beguiling accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep Bond in check. They are skeptical of each other at first but as the danger escalates it becomes apparent there is a growing attraction—and affection—between them. Natch. Can these two crazy kids make it work immersed in the cutthroat world of international intrigue? Well this is Bond after all—and we know how he ends up. Craig absolutely gets it. Whatever doubts people may have had when Craig was first announced as the new Bond are washed away in the first few minutes of the film. Sure if Casino Royale was anything like the last few Bond movies then maybe the understated Craig wouldn’t have fit in as well. But this is a different Bond. The British actor plays him not as the icon we’ve come to know but as a flawed man warts and all who flies by the seat of his pants isn’t necessarily refined and yes can even fall in love. Craig also raises the acting bar. His brief scenes with the impeccable Dench for example simmer and pop unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Bond film. Danish film star Mikkelsen (Pusher) is quite effective as the main baddie with a particularly gruesome physical malady while the always good Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) shows up as CIA Agent Felix Leiter. The one weak link unfortunately is Green (The Dreamers). She certainly looks the part of a “Bond girl ” but her Vesper is supposed to be whip-smart able to engage in witty banter with 007 and the French actress can’t quite pull it off. Craig needs more of a challenge. Too bad Judi Dench isn’t 30 years younger; she would have been perfect. Casino Royale the first book in the Ian Fleming series is basic Bond 101. Director Martin Campbell--who helmed Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan’s first and probably best foray into the franchise--strips it of all the far-fetched gadgets (save for a few new-fangled PDAs) and over-the-top action sequences leaving just good clean action devoid of any invisible cars armored Russian tanks and the such. Oh wait Bond does use a bulldozer at one point but that comes briefly in the middle of a rather extensive and hair-raising foot chase. It just proves action can be just as riveting without having to completely suspend your disbelief. Casino Royale is also rare in that it shows how Bond became THE James Bond the one we’ve seen in countless movies over the years in the stylish tuxes drinking the martinis driving the Aston-Martins and bedding all the beautiful women. Casino Royale breathes new life into the franchise and one can only hope they can keep up the good work without once again lapsing into the ridiculous.
For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.