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.
Let's give a big hand to the two newest members of the Mile High Club. Yes total strangers Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) and Emily (Amanda Peet) hook up during an otherwise quiet flight from L.A. to New York City. Heck the two don't say a word until they bump into each other at the baggage claim. "Blah blah it's ruined " Emily moans the second Oliver opens his big mouth. How sweet. How could they not be soul mates? So what if they share nothing in common aside from a mutual attraction? The bashful Oliver's an aspiring Internet entrepreneur eager to marry the perfect woman live in a beautiful house and drive the flashiest car. The outgoing Emily's an actress with less talent than Paris Hilton and a thing for lousy musicians and writers. So why do director Nigel Cole and screenwriter Colin Patrick Lynch insist on making this lousy love match? They even drag this dead-end romance from the late 1990s to today as Oliver bets Emily $50 that he will have the life he desires in just seven years. Predictably absence makes the heart grow fonder and whenever they cross paths--from a day in New York City or a night in L.A.--they fall more in love with each other. Of course there's always something preventing them from making a commitment. Yawn. By the time Oliver and Emily decide it's now or never they've grown so whiny and wearisome you won't care whether they spend the rest of their lives together or apart.
Kutcher promises to slip on his tighty whities and model again for Calvin Klein if A Lot Like Love reigns supreme at the box office. Sorry girls that won't happen. But Kutcher does flash a little flesh when he drops his drawers for Peet. Otherwise he doesn't display much of anything else in his most wretched offering since My Boss's Daughter. If ever Kutcher wanted to prove he can inject a little charisma or personality into an underwritten role A Lot Like Love offers him his greatest opportunity. But he blows it. Or maybe he's not capable of doing anything other than getting so flustered he can barely spit out his words as he does in all his witless comedies. Kutcher's Oliver Martin is as bland as his name and as dull as his line of business. This makes it tough to believe Emily--in the form of the spunky Peet--would even think twice about pursuing a relationship with this drip. Then again the relentlessly grating Emily isn't exactly a prize catch negating Peet's efforts to give A Lot Like Love a little pungency. You have to pity Peet: she so willingly participates in one farcical flop after another--from Whipped to Saving Silverman to The Whole Ten Yards--that she's dangerously close to ruining what was never really a particularly promising career.
Ever cleaned out the back of your car and found a soundtrack CD you forgot you bought? Those CDs always boast great pop songs that you never hear on the radio anymore. But no matter how many times you listen to the songs you can't remember the film that accompanied the soundtrack. That's A Lot Like Love: terrific soundtrack lousy movie. To lazily evoke a sense of time and place director Nigel Cole leans heavily on well-worn hits from the late 1990s and early 2000s by Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind. That would be all well and dandy if Cole at least injected A Lot Like Love with some comic pizzazz. For a film told over the course of seven years A Lot Like Love moves slowly awkwardly and uneventfully. Perhaps Cole left his sense of humor back in England where he directed the screwy Saving Grace and the plucky Calendar Girls. Or maybe he's more comfortable chronicling the misadventures of middle-aged women than the bed-hopping antics of self-involved twentysomethings. He gets so desperate for laughs that he makes Kutcher and Peet spit water at each other during a dinner eaten in silence. But the most grating moment sadly recalls Say Anything's sweet and touching climax: rather than blast Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes from a boom box a guitar-strumming Kutcher instead serenades Peet with an unfunny off-key rendition of Bon Jovi's "I'll be There For You." OK so maybe not every song on the soundtrack deserves another spin.
White Oleander focuses on teen beauty Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) and her equally beautiful mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) an accomplished--if self-centered and manipulative--artist who tends to drag her daughter a budding artist in her own right into her own neuroses. To Astrid however her mother is a goddess--at least until police charge Ingrid with poisoning her lover in a fit of jealousy and she is sentenced to life imprisonment. Astrid is immediately placed into the foster care program and each new home presents a different set of rules for the young girl. There's life with Starr (Robin Wright Penn) an alcoholic-turned-born-again-Christian who becomes violently jealous of Astrid. There's life in a child-welfare institution where Astrid meets Paul (Patrick Fugit) a comic book artist with whom she immediately connects. Then there's life with Claire (Renee Zellweger) a lonely woman who can't have children of her own and whose husband (Noah Wyle) is never home. Claire shows Astrid the kind of genuine love the girl has never experienced but Ingrid haunts them needling and sabotaging her daughter's happiness at every turn. Astrid could simply go off the deep end but instead she becomes more resilient ultimately reaching a place where she can love her mother without letting her destroy her life. Sapville.
The acting talent in Oleander is definitely the movie's saving grace. The actresses make the film's trite dialogue almost palatable. Pfeiffer is amazingly beautiful and strong as Ingrid and she manages to burn the character into our brains even when she's not on the screen. Ingrid's relationship with her daughter is at times hard to watch: Ingrid digs at Astrid to try and control her but all this really does is expose Ingrid's own insecurities and failings as a mother. Pfeiffer relishes these moments and plays them to their full effect. Playing the other two "mothers" in Astrid's life the always good Penn takes the thankless part of Starr and turns it into something memorable while Zellweger's expert turn as Claire has a broken-doll quality that perfectly captures the character's fragility. The real dilemma for the film's producers was finding the right Astrid--an actress who could hold her own at the heart of the story--and whose talent would hold up opposite Pfieffer. Lohman was chosen from a cast of thousands and does a fine job playing Astrid; the camera clearly loves her. Still she needs a little more experience under her belt before she can truly shine. Fugit who was once the newcomer himself in Almost Famous (and did a much better job the first time out) manages to create a believable rapport with Lohman as her boyfriend Paul.
OK this is a gripe to all Hollywood executives: stop using sentimental material to make major motion pictures even if it is from a bestselling book. While Fitch's novel tells a moving story it does not necessarily translate into an inspiring film. Director Peter Kosminsky does his best with Oleander to create a haunting atmosphere and there are times when the material is elevated especially in the scenes between Zellweger and Lohman and those that explore the tragedy that befalls them. Yet ultimately the film plays like an after-school special. This isn't to say an intimate story can't make an interesting movie (The Good Girl and Igby Goes Down are just two examples of what's out there right now) but Oleander fails to engage its audience in any kind of meaningful way.