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 God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Based on H.G. Wells' classic 1898 novel this War is set in a contemporary world where the threat of terrorism looms around every corner. But not even the brains at Homeland Security can prepare the human race for this kind of an attack. After a series of mysterious and powerful lightning storms strike all over the world giant three-legged war machines long buried beneath the earth rise up and start incinerating everything--and everyone--in sight. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) a divorced New Jersey dockworker horrifyingly witnesses the first strike in this catastrophic alien invasion. He is suddenly faced with protecting his estranged children--teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning)--after they are left with him for the weekend. Traveling across the ravaged countryside Ray takes them on a journey to reunite them with their mother and gets caught up in a desperate tide of refugees fleeing from a seemingly inexorable and merciless enemy. But are they really unstoppable? Ha! We'll see who has the last laugh you nasty old susceptible aliens.
As I watched Tom Cruise run and hide from the invading aliens I didn't once think about Scientology antidepressant drugs or Katie Holmes. Not once. That's because no matter what kind of personal issues Cruise has going on at the moment he is a consummate actor drawing you into his on-screen world without missing a beat. As deadbeat dad Ray Cruise aptly exhibits an apathy to his prodigy only to then turn into a courageous American hero fighting to protect the ones he loves without one clichéd speech or false moment. Quite a feat. Of course he also has a lot of support from his co-stars especially Dakota Fanning as his daughter in keeping things genuine. While either playing terrified with fervent screams or deadly still from shock the young actress' tearstained face gives the whole horrific experience a very human quality. Man imagine what's she's going to do once she's an adult. Chatwin (The Chumscrubber) also does a fine job as the rebellious teen whose growing need to join the fight has his dad torn up inside. Tim Robbins makes a memorable appearance as a refugee on the verge of madness holed up in a bombed-out basement and ready to single-handedly take the aliens down. And finally as a nice touch we hear Morgan Freeman's deep resonate voice open and close the film with very poignant passages from H.G. Wells' literary masterpiece.
Spielberg's back--and what a relief! A War of the Worlds update is just what he needed to rejuvenate himself especially after his latest slate of tepid movies (i.e. The Terminal A.I.). I mean it has been a long time since we've seen the passionate Spielberg--the special-effects driven director who challenges himself to make the most visually stunning movies ever (Jurassic Park Raiders of the Lost Ark) or the finely tuned director who can create the most incredibly intimate movies against a historical backdrop (Saving Private Ryan Schindler's List). And nothing on this earth inspires Spielberg more than aliens especially now that he has grown older and wiser since his kindler gentler E.T. days. Keeping to Wells' original source material and paying homage to both Orson Welles' infamous 1938 radio play (both are set in New Jersey) and the original 1953 film (a marvel of special effects for its time) War is an absolute seat-gripping wonder to behold. From the beginning of the Tripod war machines' reigning terror disintegrating poor souls with their heat rays or snatching them up in the air with their tentacle extensions (to use for a very gruesome task indeed) it's shockingly realistic. The only small drawback is showing the actual aliens especially in this sophisticated day and age of Alien and Independence Day. It just isn't necessary and adds very little to the already mounting tension. But it's a small quibble. This War will give you nightmares for weeks.
Princess Diaries 2 picks up about five years after the first movie as Mia (Anne Hathaway)--no longer a 16-year-old ugly duckling but now a self-possessed college grad--is ready to assume her role as princess of Genovia. Bringing her quirky American sensibilities with her she moves into the Royal Palace with her beautiful wise grandmother Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews)--but soon discovers she'll be ruling the little European country famous for its pears sooner than she thought when the Queen announces her retirement. It's all a tad overwhelming but the capper is that according to Genovian law in order to take the crown she also has to be married--with Genovian parliament giving her only 30 days to find a prospective groom. What you say? An arranged marriage? That's just so politically incorrect. Suddenly Mia is wading through a parade of suitors who'd all like to be her king when all she wants to do is marry for love. Of course there are also factions plotting against her in the form of Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) a blowhard royal who wants his nephew and native Genovian the hunky Lord Nicholas Devereux (Chris Pine) to take the throne. Ah but is Lord Nicholas really as greedy for the crown as his uncle? Maybe so--until he sees how beautiful kind and ultimately capable Mia is at ruling Genovia. This could get interesting--but it doesn't not really.
Hathaway continues to exude that same fresh quality as Mia with the ever-expressive face and affinity for physical comedy. She is certainly appealing to watch on-screen yet somewhere in all that cheerful perkiness one wonders if Hathaway is just itching to be a bad girl--to really get down and dirty to play say an ice pick-wielding femme fatale or even a prostitute with a heart of gold. But alas the young actress has pigeonholed herself into these sugary-sweet roles--and it might be difficult to break out the mold once the real acting bug bites her. Julie Andrews should give Hathaway some advice--she's been there playing the Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapps of the world. The talented British actress has never really shed that wholesome image not entirely (even her raucous semi-nude appearance in her husband Blake Edwards' S.O.B. didn't quite do it) and in Princess Diaries 2 she once again plays a woman with spunk who's very classy but also terribly proper. Oh well guess it really isn't a bad way to be. As an extra bonus Andrews also sings in the film--which to all of us fans who've followed her battle with throat problems is a true delight (even if the musical number she sings in is rather gag-producing). The rest of the PD2 cast could have been plucked from anywhere save for Heather Matarazzo who happily reprises her role as Mia's quippy best friend Lilly Moscovitz.
Director Garry Marshall is a giant sap. Most of his films while usually comedic in some fashion or another have tended towards the maudlin including The Other Sister about a mentally disabled girl who finds love (sniffle); Beaches about a woman whose best friend dies (sob!); and this year's tear-jerker Raising Helen about a jet setter who has to stop her life to raise her dead sister's kids (oh stop it already). Now it's Princess Diaries 2 a follow-up to the original syrupy feel-good comedy. To his credit Marshall is a master at the genre--and doesn't make any excuses if the eyes roll at all the sentimentality. The first Princess Diaries worked well because it was about an ordinary girl who is transformed into a fairy tale princess. With PD2 Marshall has taken the basic romantic comedy structure of a girl meeting a boy who don't get along at first but realize they love each other in the end and applied it to the princess-turned-ruler idea. The film flows smoothly even if you can tell what's going to happen every step of the way--and how refreshing it is to have a film aimed at adolescent girls that doesn't have a mean-girl clique anywhere in the vicinity. Speaking of vicinities where the heck is Genovia anyway? You can never quite tell what sort of mythical European country it's suppose to be with accents ranging from French to British to very American--but it's still awfully pretty to look at.