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 nautical heist thriller Contraband is a remake of Reykjavik-Rotterdam an Icelandic film from 2008 which admittedly I’ve yet to see. (It’s curiously difficult to find stateside.) Presumably there must have been something about it that was compelling enough to warrant the effort and expense of an American adaptation. Whatever it was it didn’t survive the no doubt complicated process of translating it into a proper Mark Wahlberg vehicle.
Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday once a legendary New Orleans smuggler but now happily law-abiding as a home-security contractor. The same however cannot be said of his punk brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs illegal shipments for a tattooed hoodlum named Tim Riggs (Giovanni Ribisi). When Andy makes the unwise decision to dump his valuable narcotics cargo in advance of a Customs raid earning the dreaded pay-up-or-die ultimatum from his unsavory boss Chris tries in vain to intervene on his behalf only to be rudely rebuffed. Which leaves him with only one option to save Andy’s skin: One Last Job.
The director of Contraband Baltasar Kormakur actually starred in Reykjavik-Rotterdam – a piece of trivia which unfortunately proves far more interesting than anything found in his remake. It seems his familiarity with the material bred banality if not necessarily contempt. His approach is a kind of Bourne-lite: the shaky-cam is restrained enough to minimize audience headaches but the ultimate result is stultifyingly generic.
Essential to any successful Mark Wahlberg film from Boogie Nights to The Fighter has been to surround Wahlberg with more accomplished and versatile actors thereby allowing him to focus on his core competencies of scowling cursing and otherwise radiating his unique brand of low-watt charisma. Kormakur assembled capable-enough performers for Contraband only to saddle them with uniformly bland characters.
Having grown accustomed to Kate Beckinsale as the leather-clad heroine of the Underworld films I found it odd – and a bit disappointing – to see her reduced to the role of the protagonist’s fretful wife. Ribisi’s novel strategy for transcending his miscasting as a clichéd white-trash villain is to adopt a bizarre high-pitched accent presumably Southern in origin but unlike any Southern accent I’ve ever witnessed. Ben Foster plays Wahlberg’s best friend an ex-con and recovering alcoholic who seems doomed to relapse on both fronts if only because he’s being played by Ben Foster. Diego Luna J.K. Simmons Lukas Haas are underutilized in one-note roles.
I confess to be unfamiliar with the vagaries of illicit foreign-goods transport but I have to think it’s more exciting than what unfolds in Contraband. No one expects it to rival the glamour and of say casino robbery but Kormakur depicts smuggling with all the verve and panache of a tax audit. The film’s lone fireworks occur on land during a stop-off in Panama City when Wahlberg’s character is forced by the local crime boss (Luna) in an armored-car hold-up. A heist-within-a-heist if you will. But soon it’s back on the boat where the momentum ceases and the movie sinks.
Green Zone is a story we’ve already heard shot in a manner we’ve already seen and starring Matt Damon in a role he’s already played. Remember those WMDs that were never found in Iraq and later exposed to be the invention of a dubious and poorly-vetted informant? Remember the misguided and hideously botched attempt at establishing democracy after the fall of Saddam and the violent prolonged insurgency that ensued? If you’ve been away from the television for the past hour and somehow managed to forget any of these details Green Zone is here to remind you.
Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller an Army weapons inspector whose frustration over repeatedly coming up empty in his search for Iraqi WMDs leads him on a quest to track down and expose the people responsible for leading him (and us) down that infamously bogus path. Though his hand-to-hand skills are a notch below Jason Bourne’s Miller’s single-mindedness moral certainty and permanent expression of square-jawed defiance — always threatening another “How do you like them apples?” rebuke — in the face of an insidious multi-level government conspiracy are essentially equivalent to those of Damon’s Bourne trilogy soulmate.
And like Bourne his most dangerous adversary isn’t found on the battlefront but rather within the government he once served so proudly. As Miller delves ever deeper into the Case of the Faulty WMD Intelligence Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) the duplicitous arrogant Defense Department bureaucrat in charge of U.S. operations in Iraq summarily relieves him of his post. (Hint: the better dressed a Green Zone character is the more sinister his ambitions.) But Miller remains undeterred and he goes rogue to locate the CIA informant “Magellan ” a formerly high-ranking Iraqi official whose supposed confirmation of Saddam’s nuclear ambitions served as the basis for U.S. invasion.
We know how the story ends. Green Zone’s pervasive overarching sense of deja vu is accentuated by director — and veteran Bourne helmer — Paul Greengrass who employs the trademark hand-held super-shakycam style which was so fresh and inventive in 2004 but now feels stale and predictable. (Admittedly my aversion to Greengrass’ approach was no doubt heightened by a previous night’s viewing of Roman Polanski’s excellent The Ghost Writer a political thriller as subtle and precise and finely tuned as Green Zone is ham-fisted and haphazard — and which also uses the phantom WMD controversy to far greater narrative effect.)
Green Zone culminates in essentially a violent footrace between Miller and the Army Special Forces as they scour a heavily-armed insurgent stronghold to find Magellan with Miller hoping to secure his potentially damning testimony before the Army can silence him for good. The climactic sequence for all I could tell was either shot in Damon’s backyard culled from Bourne trilogy deleted scenes or assembled from scattered YouTube clips. This punishingly chaotic often incoherent and ultimately exhausting approach to storytelling isn’t cinema verite; it’s dementia pugilistica.