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

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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

The Three Musketeers (2011)


The Three Musketeers

Resident Evil goes to 17th Century France

(2011) Adventure (Summit) Logan Lerman, Milla Jovovich, Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson, Luke Evans, Mads Mikkelsen, Christoph Waltz, Orlando Bloom, Juno Temple, Gabriella Wilde, Freddie Fox, James Corden, Til Schweiger, Helen George. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sometimes, when all else fails, you can rely on the classics. Even if all else around you is crap, the classics can always be relied upon to be entertaining. At least that’s the common perception.

It is the 17th century and France is in turmoil. The teenage Louis XIII (Fox) is controlled essentially by the manipulative Cardinal Richelieu (Waltz) and the King’s own Musketeers have been rendered less potent. The three greatest Musketeers – Athos (Macfadyen), Porthos (Stevenson) and Aramis (Evans) are bored and frustrated at sitting on the sideline. Athos is in a particular funk after being betrayed by his lover Milady de Winter (Jovovich) when they had stolen the plans for an airship from Leonardo Da Vinci’s vault in Venice. After retrieving the plans, she’d drugged their wine and handed the plans over to Lord Buckingham (Bloom) of England.

A year has passed since then and a young Gascoigne named D’Artagnan (Lerman), the son of a former Musketeer, has journeyed to Paris to become a Musketeer himself. Along the way he fell afoul of Rochefort (Mikkelsen), captain of the Cardinal’s guard and supposedly the best swordsman in Europe who rather than duel the hot headed youngster just shoots him. His life is spared by Milady, who is also journeying to Paris.

In Paris D’Artagnan affronts all three of the Musketeers, challenging to duels at different times which all three of them unknowingly accept. However, his first duel is interrupted by the arrival of the Cardinal’s guard who wish to arrest the four of them for dueling in the streets. However the four fight alongside, winning the day despite a vast numerical disadvantage. This is witnessed by Constance (Wilde), handmaiden to the Queen (Temple). Despite D’Artagnan’s best efforts at flirting with Constance, he is rebuffed.

The three realize that D’Artagnan is an able ally and meant to be one of them, so they bring him to their home where their manservant Planchet  (Corden) waits on them cheerfully despite the constant complaining. They wind up being summoned to the palace where the King and Queen, impressed by their victory, reward them which infuriates the Cardinal who wanted them punished.

In the meantime, the nefarious Richelieu has hatched a scheme in which love letters in Buckingham’s own hand are planted in the Queen’s boudoir. Milady also steels a diamond necklace given to her as a gift by the King. Richelieu prevails upon the King to throw a ball after the King discovers the letters, and ask the Queen to wear the gift for him. If she doesn’t have them, it will mean the Queen’s having an affair and she would have to be executed and England declared war upon.

It is up to the Musketeers to retrieve the necklace from Buckingham’s own vault and to bring the culprits to justice, but it’s a nearly impossible task. Can the Musketeers avert a catastrophic war that would drag nearly the entire continent into it?

This isn’t your mom and dad’s version of The Three Musketeers (and there have been more than forty of them). For one thing, while it’s been a long time since I read the Alexandre Dumas classic, I’m pretty sure I don’t remember airships in it. Or Gatling guns. Or Matrix-style bullet dodging.

There is much more CGI than this kind of movie really needs to have. I can understand CG attempts to make the sets look more opulent, or more like 17th century France, but Da Vinci-esque airships, hidden vaults and storage rooms? It seems kind of unnecessary to me.

Unnecessary in that this is one of the best adventure tales ever written and despite all the different versions of it, it still stands up today. The best version is the 1948 film with Gene Kelly (of all people!) as D’Artagnan, but my all-time fave is the 1973 version with Michael York as D’Artagnan. It was produced by the Salkinds who would go on to make Superman: The Movie and other classics of 70s cinema.

One of the requirements for a good Three Musketeers movie is not chocolate nougat, but a good D’Artagnan. The successful ones do; even the unsuccessful ones have at least a passable D’Artagnan. This one has the latter. Lerman, who is best known here for Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (in which I described him as bland) is a bit better here, but he still lacks the charisma D’Artagnan needs. Lerman has got the looks though and the long hair…ladies will and do swoon.

I was particularly impressed by Macfadyen who has been a career supporting actor, but he really shows some impressive screen presence here and with the right role could do some real damage as a lead actor on a franchise film. Let’s hope he gets the chance.

The movie has some nice casting touches (Waltz is terrific as Richelieu although we don’t get to see enough of him – when we do we get a good idea of his devious nature) and a few huh moments (Milla Jovovich seems to be channeling her inner Alice from the Resident Evil franchise which wouldn’t be a bad thing but it is distracting when she’s wearing petticoats). All in all the acting is solid and the CGI is seamless. I’m told the 3D effects are nice in places as well, although of late I’ve become as anti-3D as Roger Ebert.

This is a movie that I really wanted to see succeed. Anderson has proven a fine action director on the Resident Evil films and while I agree that there are always new ways to come at the Dumas source material, this way was too full of anachronisms and logical gaps to really fully capture my heart. However, it is entertaining even if it’s attempts at being grand fall a bit short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice special effects and some fine swordplay. Macfadyen makes a fine Athos.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes a lot of liberties with the story. Doesn’t have the wit of the 1973/1974 versions.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of swordplay, a few things blowing up real good and some musket shooting. All in a day’s work for a musketeer.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Waltz has the same birthday (October 4) as Charlton Heston, who also played Cardinal Richelieu in the 1973/1974 versions of the Dumas classic.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a big screen epic extravaganza.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Conviction

New Releases for the Week of October 21, 2011


THE THREE MUSKETEERS

(Summit) Logan Lerman, Milla Jovovich, Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson, Luke Evans, Mads Mikkelsen, Gabriella Wilde, Juno Temple, Orlando Bloom, Christoph Waltz. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

A hot-headed young man joins forces with three rogue Musketeers to take on the evil Cardinal Richelieu, the sensual assassin Milady DeWinter and Lord Buckingham, prime minister of their sworn enemies Great Britain and prevent a cataclysmic war. There have been screen versions of this Alexandre Dumas classic for decades (my favorite being the Alexander and Ilya Salkind version in the 70s) but this is the first to come out in 3D.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure action violence)

Johnny English Reborn

(Universal) Rowan Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike. There is a plot afoot to assassinate a world leader and cause global chaos and only one man can stop it – superspy Johnny English. The trouble is that English is nowhere to be found, and once he finally is located, is woefully out of practice. That’s no matter; what Johnny English does requires no skill or practice whatsoever.

See the trailer and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Spy Spoof

Rating: PG (for mild action violence, rude humor, some language and brief sensuality)

Margin Call

(Roadside Attractions) Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany. On a single day during the height of the 2008 financial meltdown, the key players at a financial firm cope with the implications of a scandal at their own company that might shutter its doors forever. They will need to wrestle with decisions both moral and ethical that will not only weigh their jobs in the balance but also their very souls.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language)

The Mighty Macs

(Freestyle Releasing) Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton, Ellen Burstyn. In 1971, a small Catholic women’s college caught the imagination of the sports world when a hard-edged head coach and a spunky nun helped mold the team into a national championship run that defied the odds. They would become a team for the ages.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: G

Paranormal Activity 3

(Paramount) Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden, Lauren Bittner, Chloe Csengery. This is the prequel to the enormously popular found footage horror series. It depicts, in the 80s, how the supernatural forces that beset Katie and Kristi came into their lives as young girls.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: R (for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use)

The Way

(ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wangingen. An American doctor travels to the Pyrenees to recover the remains of his estranged son, killed in a storm while making a pilgrimage along the Way of St. James. In tribute to his son and also as a means to understand him better, he decides to complete the journey his son wanted to make. This was directed by Estevez and filmed along the actual Camino de Santiago in France and Spain.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Spiritual Drama

Rating: NR