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

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A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

(2007) True Life Drama (Paramount Vantage) Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Will Patton, Sajid Hasan, Denis O’Hare, Aly Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Perrine Moran, Jeffry Kaplow, Ahmed Jamal, Demetri Goritsas, Mohammed Azfal, Ahmed Jamal, Imran Patel, Veronique Darleguy, Gary Wilmes, Jean-Jacques Scaerou, Jillian Armenante. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

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On January 23, 2002, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal investigating ties between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Al Qaeda was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan by a group of Muslim extremists. His wife was five months pregnant with their son at the time.

The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is today a fairly well-known occurrence by most Americans. His wife, Mariane (Jolie) would write a biography of her husband which described their life together and the harrowing last days of his life, before he was beheaded by his captors on February 1 despite her many pleas for clemency and denials of the terrorist assertions that Pearl was a CIA spy (to this day there have been no links shown between Pearl and any intelligence agency).

The movie made from her book mostly shows Pearl through flashback in almost idyllic tones. Most of the film’s plot revolves around Mariane’s ordeal as she tries to remain as composed as possible considering the extraordinary circumstances as well as the efforts by the United States Diplomatic Security Services, exemplified by Special Agent Randall Bennett (Patton), the Department of Justice and the Pakistani Capital City Police, exemplified by Officer Mir Zubair Mahmood (Khan) to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

Throughout she is supported by close friends like Asra Nomani (Panjabi) and colleagues of her husband such as his WSJ editor John Bussey (O’Hare) and Steve LeVine (Wilmes), ultimately this is an ordeal Mariane must go through alone. That she went through it with such grace and dignity is a credit to the triumph of humanity over depravity.

Jolie delivered a performance that may be the crowning achievement of her career in this film. It was certainly Oscar-worthy, although the movie’s June release date and box office failure likely were the causes of her not receiving a nomination for Best Actress. She plays Mariane with a good deal of emotional control, although the scene in which she is informed of her husband’s death is absolutely devastating. There is also a sense of her concern early in the film as she has some friends over for dinner, but the place setting for her husband who was on his way to an interview remains empty; her glances in the direction of the empty chair are subtle yet telling.

Both Jolie and Futterman resemble their real-life counterparts somewhat eerily (particularly in Futterman’s case). In fact, I would have liked to have seen Futterman as Pearl a bit more in the storyline; after all, Mariane Pearl wrote the book about her husband and not about herself. However, the focus of the movie is entirely on Mariane and Daniel is almost an afterthought in many ways except in flashbacks which show an almost idyllic lifestyle between the two. Oddly, these flashbacks seem a little overly manipulative and overly idealized. Daniel Pearl is in many ways not present in the film that is ostensibly about his wife but is in reality more about his death. In my mind, that does a disservice to not only the good man that he was but also the work that he did.

That said, I found it troubling that the casting of Jolie was groused about by some critics who said that they found her celebrity distracting when viewing her performance. Personally, I think film critics who can’t get past the celebrity of an actor are probably not in the right profession. Every actor brings something of their own personality and experiences into the performance of their roles; if you are judging a performance by what TMZ is saying about an actor, you aren’t doing your job. But I digress.

Winterbottom adopts an almost documentary style in telling his story, although the flashbacks tend to put paid to the documentary feel of the film. After watching the film, I did feel that I wished I knew more about Pearl the man; those who feel similarly can get more of a sense of who he was should probably see the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi which tells Pearl’s story with some background on his life in addition to the story of his kidnapping and execution.

At the end of the day, what happened to Daniel Pearl was barbarous and undeserved. However, it also must be said that he was more than just the last days of his life – he was a loving husband, a dutiful son, a proud Jew, a skilled writer, an insightful journalist and a thrilled father-to-be. Looking at his life as a tragedy tells only half the story. However, one cannot deny that Mariane Pearl makes for an interesting film subject as well and Jolie’s performance is truly inspiring. I can’t help feeling however that the film would have benefited from more of her husband’s presence, rather than being just a memory. He was and remains more than that to her.

WHY RENT THIS: A magnificent performance by Jolie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Manipulative and focuses less on the late journalist than it does on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some horrific violence herein as well as some sexuality and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A featurette on the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists which rose out of this incident as well as a Public Service Announcement for the Pearl Foundation.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $18.9M on a $16M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The conclusion of Our Film Library!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


We can be heroes.

We can be heroes.

(2012) Drama (Summit) Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Jonny Simmons, Nina Dobrev, Nicholas Braun, Julia Garner, Tom Savini, Melanie Lynskey, Mae Whitman, Adam Hagenbuch, Erin Wilhelmi, Reece Thompson, Zane Holtz, Joan Cusack, Landon Pigg, Emily Callaway, Jennifer Enskat. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

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It is somewhat ironic that while as we grow older we look back upon our high school years with more affection than any other era of our lives, while we are living those years they are often the most painful of our lives as well. We are so desperate to fit in, our self-confidence so low that we doubt even the most basic facts about ourselves. We often wonder if we are good enough and throughout our high school years we’re pretty much sure that we are not.

Charlie Kelmeckis (Lerman) is a freshman in high school. His older brother Chris (Holtz) has just graduated from the same school, a football scholarship to Penn State under his belt. His older sister Candace (Dobrev) is a senior who is dating Ponytail Derek (Braun), so named for his hippie-like appearance. Charlie discovers that Derek has been physically abusive with Candace but she tells him that it was a one-time occurrence and swears him to secrecy. His parents (McDermott, Walsh) are fairly clueless to what’s going on with him.

Charlie has a lot of problems. His best friend committed suicide the year before and he still has flashbacks to the death of his Aunt Helen (Lynskey) who died in a car accident on his seventh birthday. He finds himself unable to make friends, although he manages to make a friend of Mr. Anderson (Rudd), a sympathetic English teacher.

Two misfit seniors, Patrick (Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Watson) take him under their wings after a football game and the three become fast friends. Charlie is admitted into their inner circle, attending screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater in Pittsburgh in which Sam gets up on stage and dances provocatively. Charlie also discovers that Patrick is gay and having a relationship with a football hero (Simmons) but keeps that to himself as well.

Things are going well for Charlie overall. While he carries a torch for Sam, she has a boyfriend in college. Still, she gives him a Christmas present of a vintage typewriter, recognizing his skills as a writer and bestows upon him his first kiss – because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him unlike her own.

Charlie gets asked out to the Sadie Hawkins dance by Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) who takes him to her home and kisses him, declaring him to be her boyfriend. The relationship continues, dominated by the strong-willed Mary Elizabeth in which Charlie gets more and more uncomfortable although they have been having sex which he doesn’t mind at all.

However, in a thoughtless moment during a game of Truth or Dare, he is dared to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room and plants one on Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth. That puts him on the outs with his friends and creates a rift with the people he cares about most. Charlie’s past is beginning to catch up with him as his memories begin to resurface and old feelings begin to drag him down like an anchor into the depths. Charlie needs his friends more than ever but without a support system around him, will he be able to make it through to his sophomore year?

This is based on a book Chbosky himself wrote and adapted for the screen, becoming the rare occasion when  an author not only adapts his own work for the screen but directs it as well. The source material has been praised for its accurate portrayal of teenagers and while it is set in the early 1990s, it nonetheless resonates timelessly.

Part of the success of the adaptation comes from an amazing cast. Watson, best known as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films is simply fantastic. Sam is a very vulnerable character who is nonetheless loyal to those she loves. Watson shows that vulnerability without making it Sam’s defining characteristic.  Miller also is wonderful as Patrick. Catty and arch without becoming a gay stereotype, Miller turns Patrick into just a regular kid who happens to be gay. In doing so he does a lot for breaking those stereotypes.

Lerman is the center of the film and he does a terrific job here. While he has had his share of less than stellar performances, here he shows that he can and should be a major star. Charlie is one of the most complex characters that you’ll see in films, and Lerman imbues Charlie with all of that complexity – his angst, his self-doubt, his kindness, his neediness, his pride, his love, his cruelty – Charlie is far from perfect and while he may have more issues than most teenage kids, he certainly can’t be called unusual.

Chbosky wisely shot the film in Pittsburgh where he grew up and as the movie is said to be fairly autobiographical using familiar territory to set his film in works marvelously. Although I’m 30 plus years removed from my high school days, I felt immediate kinship with Charlie and his friends and the film resonated deeply with me, a feat indeed for a film that is clearly meant for younger viewers.

The movie has gotten its share of (deserved) praise and is one of those movies which may not necessarily be one that appeals to older audiences at first glance but the emotions and the feelings here are universal; younger audiences will relate completely to the movie and older audiences will find it resonant as well. It doesn’t hurt that it has an awesome soundtrack – any movie that contains the Smiths’ “Asleep” and David Bowie’s “Heroes” as major thematic songs is bound to be a good one.

WHY RENT THIS: Resonates with older and younger audiences alike. Amazing performances by the young cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overdoses with angst.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly mature thematic elements, depictions of teen drug and alcohol use, teen sexuality and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theater in which the movie filmed the Rocky Horror sequences was the same theater in Pittsburgh that Chbosky used to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when he was a teen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $33.4M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Day 3 of Our Film Library!