The Theory of Everything


Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin' around.

Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Lucy Chappell, Charlotte Hope, Christian McKay, Abigail Cruttenden, Maxine Peake, Simon Chandler, Georg Nikoloff, Enzo Cilenti, Frank Leboeuf, Adam Godley, Guy Oliver-Watts, Alice Orr-Ewing, Nicola Victoria Buck. Directed by James Marsh

There is no doubt that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest minds of our generation. He has redefined our thinking on how the universe works and the nature of time itself. There are many who believe he is in the same league as Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton when it comes to his effect on modern physics.

It is also well-known that he has had physical obstacles that most of us could never begin to cope with. Diagnosed with a version of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig disease) at age 21, he was given just two years to live. In those two years he lost all motor control and eventually even his ability to speak. Still, he remains alive today – more than 50 years after his initial diagnosis.

Young Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) was a geeky, awkward, gangly sort of young man at Cambridge with plans to get his doctorate in cosmology and go on to come up with one simple, elegant equation that explains everything. In the meantime he does the same sorts of things that geeky, awkward, gangly sorts of young men have done in college for a very long time.

That is hang out with his friends, sleep in, go out drinking from time to time and have a spectacular lack of success with girls. That is, until he meets Jane Wilde (Jones) who is studying Iberian poetry. He is quite captivated with her. They are in many way polar opposites – he is drawn to science, she to the liberal arts. He is not traditionally handsome, she is a beauty by any standards. And he is a dedicated atheist, she a devout Christian member of the Church of England.

But he is warm and funny as well. His imagination takes him beyond the stars and into the way stars live and die. Even as a doctoral candidate his genius is recognized by his mentor Professor Dennis Sciama (Thewlis) as well as noted mathematician Roger Penrose (McKay). However his bright future is severely shaken by the news that he has a motor neuron disease and is only expected to live for two years, maybe a bit more. Needless to say he enters a deep depression.

But he and Jane have fallen deeply in love and have plans to marry. Certainly Stephen would understand if Jane would walk away from what can only be pain and heartache but ever-plucky like a good English rose, she refuses. Whatever happens will happen to them both and if their time together should be short, they will make the most of what they have.

But she wasn’t expecting to sign on for the long haul. Stephen, whose man parts are unaffected by the disease, fathers three children. As his condition deteriorates, she is caring for two and then a third squalling baby as well as for a husband who can’t do anything for himself. Desperate and overworked, she seeks solace from her mother (Watson) who advises her to join the Church chorus.

It turns out to be a splendid idea. The choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Cox) becomes quite taken by the Hawkings’ situation and offers to help out as much as he can do. He turns out to be a godsend and he and Stephen get along famously. Hellyer-Jones, recently widowed, has begun to develop feelings for Jane and she for him. At his request, he steps back from a situation that is getting tricky.

The new therapist who helps Stephen learn to use an alphabet board (this is before he got the computerized voice that he is now famous for), a vivacious redhead named Elaine Mason (Peake) who came highly recommended develops a bond with Stephen that Jane doesn’t seem to have with him anymore. What will happen to this fairytale love story?

The operative words for this movie are the last two of the previous sentence. This is not a documentary about black holes and singularities, although some of the pioneering science that Hawking is responsible for is explained somewhat simply for most of us who simply don’t have the ability to understand the details of his work. Rather, this is a love story about two people who overcome frightening odds and share triumphs and tragedies.

Redmayne is a wonder here. Folks who are following the buzz for the upcoming Oscar nominations to be announced late next month are probably aware that many veteran industry observers feel that Redmayne is a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and Jones is a serious contender for a Best Actress nomination as well. The buzz isn’t wrong. Redmayne is phenomenal, undertaking a very physical performance, literally shriveling up before our eyes going from a fairly healthy if not physically fit young man to one who is barely able to walk until he is a shell of a man, hunched over in his wheelchair and unable to support himself even in a sitting position. Redmayne spent time with dancers and ALS patients in order to get the movements and body language right. He also captures Hawkings’ delightful sense of humor.

Jones has a difficult role to play albeit one that is much less physically taxing. Hers is much more emotionally challenging, playing a woman who is being beaten down by the difficulties of her role not of wife and mother but also of nurse. Often times she feels taken for granted, cleaning up after the messes that her family makes and unable to take the time to pursue her own dreams. Jane is clearly frustrated and overwhelmed and Jones successfully conveys that to audiences. Our sympathy is with her as well as with her husband as her sacrifice takes on special resonance for those of us who are disabled who have a partner who has to shoulder more than her burden (or his).

There is a scene that resonated especially with me as a person with a degenerative condition. Stephen is having more and more difficulty walking and one afternoon Jane brings in a wheelchair. There isn’t any dialogue but it can only be an admission that the disease is winning for him and she allows him to process the situation on his own. “This is only temporary,” he says tearfully in a slurred voice. “Of course it is,” she says comforting him. With a wheelchair likely in my own future, I could relate to his sentiment.

Friends of mine have criticized the movie as being boring and perhaps from a certain point of view it is. My wife would most likely call the movie quiet, an adjective she uses a little differently than most of us. Perhaps the expectations of those going in is for something a little bit more science-y and this is not that movie. It is, as I mentioned before, a love story. One that possesses no loud crescendos, no cosmic triumphs but just sheer will power to make things work and a complete faith that two people have in each other to get them through a severely challenging situation.

It is an inspiring story but I don’t think it is meant to be in the rah-rah sense. Rather, this is just two people getting on with it. The ending to the movie is neither happy nor sad but it is the stuff of everyday life, even if both of the parties in the relationship happen to be extraordinary.

REASONS TO GO: Award-worthy performances by Redmayne and Jones. Some sequences inspire wonder. Is more of a love story than a physics textbook.
REASONS TO STAY: Some sequences are a little dry. Easily offended religious sorts may take umbrage at Hawking’s frankly stated atheism.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took screenwriter Anthony McCarten three years to convince Jane Hawking to allow a film version of her book to be made; it took another seven years for him to get the movie made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Horrible Bosses 2

New Releases for the Week of November 21, 2014


The Hunger Games  Mockingjay - Part ITHE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I

(Summit) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Katness Everdeen has become a force to be reckoned with and Panem is in full revolt. Treacherous President Snow isn’t going to stand by and lose his control and he fights back, hard and soon the rebellion is in full flight. Katness is needed to be a symbol of courage and hope, but she herself is not sure she can do it. With Peta under control of the President and her friends and family in danger, she must find a way to summon up that strength or risk seeing everyone and everything she loves perish..

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material)

Food Chains

(Screen Media) Eva Longoria, Forest Whitaker, Eve Ensler, Barry Estabrook. The plight of courageous tomato pickers in Florida and elsewhere is examined here. The workers are asking for a penny per pound increase in their payment. Courageously standing up for themselves against corporate growers, the mainly Latino workforce started the Fair Food Program and themselves approached such buyers as Wal*Mart and McDonald’s. The bigger picture becomes the living conditions of the workers vs. the profits of corporate growers.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall
Rating: NR

The Theory of Everything

(Focus) Eddie Redmayne, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Felicity Jones. Stephen Hawking is a promising student at Cambridge when he is stricken with a devastating disease. Given two years to live, he defies the odds and continues his education, marries the love of his life and makes discoveries that have changed the way we look at the universe.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, B-roll video and a greeting from the film’s stars here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive material)

New Releases for the Week of May 23, 2014


X-Men: Days of Future PastX-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

(20th Century Fox) Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult. Directed by Bryan Singer

The original X-Men, living in a future devastated by mutant-hunting Sentinels who have begun hunting all life down, must send Wolverine back into the past to fight alongside their younger selves and convince a young and bitter Professor X to bring the X-Men together. He, however, is not so willing no matter what the cost. Singer returns to the franchise he originated.

See the trailer, promos, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language)

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

(Lionsgate) Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, James Earl Jones, Melissa Leo. A Brooklyn man, notorious for his ill temperament, goes to see a doctor about a raging headache. When she tells him that he has a brain aneurysm, he demands to know how long he has. He finally bullies her into telling him – 90 minutes. He sets out to make amends with those he has wronged in his life in the short time he has left. She, filled with remorse, sets out to find him and bring him to the hospital before the angriest man in Brooklyn becomes the angriest corpse in Brooklyn.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content)

Belle

(Fox Searchlight) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a British Royal Navy Admiral in the 19th century. Raised by her aristocratic great-Uncle, she exists in a strange half-life of the privileged class but due to the color of her skin unable to participate fully or take advantage completely of her circumstances. Her passion, dignity and spirit inspire her great-Uncle to be one of the catalyzing forces in ending slavery in England.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images)

Blended

(Warner Brothers) Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Nealon, Joel McHale. Two single parents are set up on a blind date by his boss and her roommate who are dating. Date ends in disaster. Boss and roommate break up. African safari that they were going to go on is up for grabs. Single parents grab the spots. Single parents take their kids. Single parents hate each other. Laughs (hopefully) ensue.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and suggestive content, and language)

Chef

(Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman. Frustrated at having his culinary inspiration curtailed by a control freak owner, a classically-trained chef quits the fine dining establishment in a move viewed by some of his friends as career suicide. Without prospects, he sinks everything he has into buying a food truck. Taking along his ex-wife and best friend for the ride, he takes to this new trend in great food and re-discovers his passion not just for cooking but for life.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language, including some suggestive references)

The Double

(Magnolia) Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor. A drone in a retro-futuristic industrial setting, Simon James is a mousy sort who pines away for a co-worker but does nothing to pursue her. A hard worker, his accomplishments are overlooked and indeed few even know his name. Then one day, the company hires a new worker – James Simon, who looks exactly like Simon. To his horror, the outgoing and charismatic James begins to take over Simon’s life; even the girl of his dreams falls for the man who looks exactly like him. One of my films from this year’s Florida Film Festival, look for my review this Sunday.

See the trailer, a clip and find a link to rent the full movie for streaming here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Fantasy

Rating: R (for language)

Fed Up

(Radius) Michele Simon. Rocco diSpirito, Senator Cory Booker, Jamie Oliver. The epidemic of childhood obesity and adult-onset diabetes has led nutritionists and medical professionals to rethink our concepts of diet and exercise. The food industry with its emphasis on prepared foods, salt, sugar and fats make it nearly impossible for us to eat responsibly. This documentary will open your eyes as to the way you eat and the things you take for granted.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website .

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for thematic elements including smoking images, and brief mild language)

The Immigrant

(Weinstein) Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Angela Sarafyan. At the turn of the 20th century a Polish woman is emigrating to the United States with her sister. When they are separated, she falls prey to a charming but wicked man who forces her into prostitution. Her only salvation may come at the hands of an enigmatic stage magician – who happens to be her tormentor’s cousin.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Mystery

Rating: R (for sexual content, some nudity and language)

The Love Punch

(Ketchup) Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie. Richard and Kate are happily divorced and looking to go into their sunset years blessedly apart from each other. When an unscrupulous businessman screws them out of their pension, the two are forced to team up and get back what they worked their whole lives for.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Caper Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content, language and rude humor)

Manam

(CineGalaxy)  Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, Nagajurna Akkineni, Naga Chaitanya, Samantha Ruth Prabhu.Two souls encounter each other again and again during a hundred year period. Inspired (very) loosely by Back to the Future. This would be Rao’s final film; the veteran Bollywood star passed away shortly after filming wrapped.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

Our Film Library

Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

New Releases for the Week of November 29, 2013


Frozen

FROZEN         

(Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idris Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds. Edie McClurg. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

In a kingdom of eternal winter, an optimistic and brave girl teams up with a rugged mountain man, his loyal reindeer and a bumbling snowman to take on the forces of magic that have locked it there. The trouble is that the evil witch holding the kingdom spellbound is her sister.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Black Nativity

(Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore. A streetwise teenage Baltimore boy is forced to spend the holidays with his strict and devout relatives the Rev. Cobbs and his wife. Unwilling to live by the strict rules imposed by the pastor, he decides that he will return home to his mother, opening himself up for an unexpected Christmas miracle.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Holiday Drama (opens Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)

The Book Thief

(20th Century Fox) Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Roger Allam. During the Second World War a spirited young girl is sent to live with a new family in Nazi Germany. In a place where books are routinely burned and ideas that conflict with official state policy are dangerous, she  finds courage in the immense power of words and books.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material) 

Bullett Raja

(Fox STAR) Saif Ali Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidyut Jamwal, Jimmy Shergill. An ordinary man is pushed to the limit and turns to a life of crime. Now a powerful criminal, he declares war on Indian society in an effort to take down the corruption that forced him to the other side of the law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Good Ol’ Freda

(Magnolia) Freda Kelly, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. As a shy young teen in Liverpool, Freda Kelly was asked to work for a young local band with great aspirations. She became the secretary to the Beatles as well as their friend and confidante. This documentary tells her story set to the music of the Fab Four, offering a whole new perspective on the band that changed popular music – and world culture – forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic material and smoking)

Homefront

(Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth. When a DEA agent’s wife passes away, he leaves the agency to settle down in a small town community to raise his daughter quietly and get past his own grief. Unfortunately the town he chooses is far from quiet or quaint and soon he finds himself in a war that he will have to go all out to win and keep his daughter safe.

See the trailer, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality)

Oldboy

(FilmDistrict) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley. An ad executive and family man is kidnapped and held in a locked room for 20 years. In that time he discovers that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. When he is just as suddenly and as inexplicably released he goes on a quest to discover who imprisoned him and why. The more he discovers however, the more he realizes that his torment is far from over.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)

Philomena

(Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. An elderly woman and a BBC reporter go on a journey to find her son who was conceived out of wedlock and given up for adoption to an American couple. Although she had signed a waiver promising never to look into her son’s whereabouts, she still feels that connection and defies the Catholic Church and convention to reunite with the baby she gave up so many years ago.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)