movie reviews December 2012

jack and dianeKilling them softlyanna kareninaThe FlatPlaying for KeepshitchcockThe hobbit: an unexpected journeyJack ReacherThis is 40The Guilt TripLes MisÉrables

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Les Misérables
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It took French writer Victor Hugo nearly 20 years to complete his most celebrated work, Les Misérables. That might explain why some editions run around 1,000 pages and why some literature students dread having to spend roughly that amount of time to get through his text.

At the same time, Hugo created unforgettable characters and vivid situations that make his thick volume worth trudging through or adapting. This explains why people still dig through his tale of misery and gloom, and why people can still adapt the story without it feeling like a dull slog through musty old material.

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), for the most part, balances Hugo's gritty, if romantic tale, with the larger-than-life demands of an adaptation of the 1985 stage musical. Thanks to solid casting and some clever technical touches, there's a sense of spontaneity that's often missing from onscreen musicals.

For those who are unfamiliar with Hugo's 19th century tale, Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a prisoner who has rotted in prison for nearly 20 years simply because he's stolen a loaf of bread. Jean's release isn't much to celebrate because he's unable to find work, and throughout the countryside, his fellow peasants won't even let him spend the night at an inn. 

When Jean tries to steal from a priest who’s the only person who shows the convict any kindness, the clergyman forgives him and lets him on his way. Jean then realizes he can’t live the way he used to and winds up becoming the mayor of a small town after he figures out a way to save their economy.

Most people would probably let Jean go on with his life, but he violated his parole in doing so. The fanatical Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is eager to put Jean back behind bars even though his crimes and even the parole violation have long been forgotten. Javert’s single-mindedness seems even more troubling because Jean winds up caring for Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen and as an adult by Amanda Seyfried). It’s easy to wonder what can be gained by Javert’s draconian vision of justice.

Part of the reason Les Misérables takes up so much space in print and on hard drives is that it is a rather complicated story. While Javert’s pursuit of Jean Valjean is simple enough, Hugo and Hooper also include several subplots including ones involving Cosette’s tragic mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and her potential suitor Marius (Eddie Redmayne). The musical also portrays the greedy innkeeper Thénardier and his wife (the terrific Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) as comic foils. For those who’ve never seen the play, read the book or seen a previous adaptation, there’s a lot of new information to take in.

Plot points that are often presented in previous movies are often only sung about here. That means if you aren’t listening closely, you’ll miss out on vital information you’ll need to understand what follows. Having read part of Hugo’s novel and having seen or heard about half a dozen other version of the tale, including an impressive 1937 radio production that Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in when he was only 22, I had no trouble keeping up. While Hopper’s production is sweeping and panoramic, it can be challenging for a neophyte.

On the plus side, Hooper consistently gives the story an immediacy that some previous adaptations have lacked. When battles happen or crises occur (and there are plenty of them), he manages to make the film look convincing and urgent. One way he’s achieved this is by wiring the actors for sound whenever the sing. In most musicals the performers lip sync to a vocal track that they or a more accomplished singer has recorded beforehand.

With Les Misérables, however, all the vocals were recorded as the actors were performing their scenes. By doing this, Hooper has ensured that actors give performances instead of simply mouthing the words. You’ll hear a sour note or a pause for a breath, but it makes believing Jackman or Hathaway’s performances easier. No, I don’t want a soundtrack full of this, but the movie is much more compelling.

Hooper also shoots the actors in long takes, concentrating on nothing but the song. In the case of Hathaway’s heartbreaking performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” this was a wise move. It allows viewers to share her agony and to admire what Hathaway can do by simply singing to the camera. She’s only in the film for a short time, but the movie belongs to her at that point.

She and Jackman are both trained stage musical performers, so asking them to sing is about like asking them to breathe. Crowe is suitably monomaniacal, but his adequate singing voice pales next to that of his more assured costars.

It may have been ego on Hugo’s part when he declared, “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books like this.” Time and this adaptation again prove that Hugo’s statement was more than a simple boast. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12-26-12)

Haiku
Les Misérables

Hugo and Hooper
prove that misery sure does
love some company.


The Guilt Trip
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen) has a mother, the kind of mom many guys have experienced — the love-you-until-you’re-crazy mother. Barbara Streisand is Joyce Brewster, the mother, in a role Streisand engulfs like a mother pressing the face of her long-lost child to her bosom, which is about the only thing Joyce doesn’t do to (or for) Andy.

Andy loves his mother, knowing full well it’s the kind of relationship that will at times not necessarily test that love but can, for sure, reinforce Andy’s reasoning as to why he lives in California and mom lives in New Jersey.

Yet, Andy returns home to start his cross-country journey to pitch his organic cleaning solution to national retailers. A revelation from mom as to the origin of his first name, coupled with the realization his mom hasn’t dated anyone since his father died, gives cause for Andy to reluctantly invite mom along for a 8-day, 3,000 mile junket captured in the film, The Guilt Trip. He has his motive, mom will eventually discover it in yet another of the film’s lessons of love.

Screenwriter Dan Fogelman, who also is credited for Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) has crafted a funny, realistic script with dialogue that rings genuine as Rogen and Streisand let their characters’ personalities flourish in an easily recognizable relationship captured and heightened in believable situations that are neither contrived or solely created for comedy effect.

Rogen, given quality scripts like The Guilt Trip, may eventually be considered one of Hollywood’s premier comedians. His inventive, low-key, naturally self-conscious delivery lets people react comfortably to his humorous touches. Streisand, who sometimes can be off-putting and irritating in her screen performances, has a role that lets all her strengths as an actor in conveying worry, anxiety, fear, concern, joy, relief, discovery, desire and devotion come through. Viewing the film, it seems inconceivable that anyone else could have played Joyce Brewster to such good consequence, delivering a kind of gleeful pain-in-the-butt love.

As a road-trip movie, The Guilt Trip is a steady drive of son/mom realism as the two discover things inwardly and outwardly, refreshingly as if in tandem to re-seal an everlasting bond. Mom has a thing about frogs and M&Ms; Andy — like all sons — doesn’t like his mother to talk about sex or his penis. Mom worries about Andy’s love life and seeks out one of Andy’s old girlfriends. Even when the film throws in cheap motels, a voyeuristic desk clerk, a stripper with car mechanic savvy, a food-eating contest and a cowboy Casanova it all appears possible and not out line to the real world.

Making it seem that if good comedy springs from love, The Guilt Trip proves it. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/21/12)


This is 40
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Judd Apatow comes up with a lot of great ideas and has a formidable eye for talent in others. He noticed Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig in minor roles in his other films and launched them to stardom. Curiously, despite all of his success he can’t seem to figure out how to edit himself.

This Is 40, his follow-up to his hit Knocked Up, is loaded with sidesplitting sequences and moments of honesty that are often missing from conventional romantic comedies. It’s also loaded with long, dull passages and sequences that obviously haven’t been thought through. It doesn’t help that Apatow goes through 2 hours and 14 minutes with material that really doesn’t entertain or illuminate.


As the title implies, the new story features Pete (KC’s Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Apatow’s talented and funny wife Leslie Mann) coming to terms with the fact that both are approaching round numbered birthdays. Debbie is so traumatized by the fact that she simply won’t admit she’s 40 and lies on her health forms. Even her birthday cake has a phony age.

Pete isn’t taking his own middle age well, either. His indie record label is failing, and his decision to release a new album by 60-something rocker Graham Parker (delightfully playing himself) might be great for the future of music, but about the only person willing to pay for Parker’s new music is Pete.

Pete hasn’t got the guts to tell Debbie that the label’s in trouble or that he’s loaning money to his ne’er do well father (Albert Brooks). While neither of these steps will help a successful marriage, Debbie is constantly embracing self-improvement regimens that upset the rest of the family. The couple’s older daughter Sadie (Maud Apatow, the director and the leading lady’s daughter) is going through puberty, which adds to the stress level.

Apatow may set his films in Los Angeles and populate them with people in the entertainment industry, but his characters do go through realistic issues with money and aging. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Debbie when Pete is foolish enough to tell her he’s been using Viagra. Despite how comely her appearance, the news is understandably crushing. Who wants to be told that their partner needs chemical help in order to love them?

Much of the bickering is genuinely funny. Brooks makes an art of whining and plays clueless like a master. Apatow also gets a lot of mileage from a subplot involving Debbie’s struggling clothing shop. Somebody has embezzled $12,000, and it might be her top employee (Megan Fox). Fox, who has been a wooden bore in most of her previous work, is a riot here. Perhaps there aren’t that many filmmakers who have Apatow’s instincts for utilizing her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s paired with Charlyne Yi as her bumbling coworker.

But for everything Apatow gets right, he bungles something else. A birthday party that goes wrong seems to last forever and only makes viewers annoyed with the characters. Getting older can be unpleasant, but it sure beats the alternative.

One day Apatow may develop an eye for editors. On that moment, he’ll be able to come up with movies that are as funny and insightful as they are long. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/21/12)

Haiku
This Is 40

Apatow needs an
editor who can tell him
what isn’t funny.


Jack Reacher
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s easy to like the idea of a Jack Reacher movie; it takes a little more effort to like the one writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (who penned The Usual Suspects) has made.

Like Philip Marlowe or Dirty Harry Callahan before him, Reacher is a loner who solves crimes because he refuses to bend to conventional wisdom. Decades of life as an Army cop have convinced him to keep a low profile (despite his 6’4” frame). He travels under aliases and prefers justice to the law.


After deferring to superiors for most of his life, he relishes being able to act on his own instincts, which seem wiser that the rules he used to follow. Whereas conventional cops might work hard to bust a criminal, Reacher doesn’t have any room for errors because the crooks he’s busted were all trained killers.

He’s also got a strange conscience. He agrees to help a murder’s defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) only if she personally interviews the families of recent murder victims. Having seen plenty of death in the Army, he doesn’t want anyone else taking the loss of innocent life lightly. But don’t worry action fans, he still takes time to kick a lot of butt.

The fact that he has a photographic memory makes it harder for the bad guys to hide from him. He doesn’t take notes because casual remarks made days or years ago are still fresh in his memory.
McQuarrie and Reacher’s creator British novelist Lee Child have essentially taken private eye clichés and made them darker and creepier. 

Curiously, Reacher’s first big screen adventure isn’t quite as involving as it should be. The plot, taken from Child’s eighth Reacher book One Shot, is predictable and only intermittently entertaining. Cruise has played driven and uncompromising characters before, and in some ways, he’s part of the problem.

McQuarrie deliberately shoots Cruise from odd angles so the short thespian looks imposing facing people down. But because he’s such a familiar presence, it’s a safe bet he’s going to come out of scuffles all right and that he won’t do anything that might upset or shock an audience.

Casting an unknown might have worked better. It would have been more fun to learn how low Reacher might sink in his quest for justice. With Cruise, we already have some idea.

The storyline consist of a Pittsburgh cop named Emerson (David Oyelowo) arresting a former Army sniper for gunning down innocent civilians the way he was trained to go after combatants in Iraq. The suspect asks Reacher, who hates his guts, to investigate. There probably wouldn’t be much of a movie if the case were really open and shut.

McQuarrie churns out lots of great wisecracks, and makes an inspired bit of casting by featuring moonlighting German filmmaker Werner Herzog as the main villain. Herzog’s heavily accented but fluent English makes anything he says sound unnerving. He may not be able to act, but he really doesn’t have to. All he has to do is look at the camera and say his lines, and he’s scarier than anything else on the screen.

If anyone else decides to make a Reacher movie, it would be good to make one that requires his skills to solve. The most rewarding on screen mysteries are the ones where viewers get the chance to match wits the good guys instead of having to settle for whatever weak ideas the filmmakers have. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/21/12)

Haiku
Jack Reacher

Viewers shouldn’t be
able to solve the murder
before Reacher does.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Any time you’re travelling through make-believe worlds, it’s tempting to overstay your welcome. Because his previous journey to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was so rewarding, Peter Jackson can be forgiven if he has trouble determining when to say goodbye. I’m not sure I want him to leave yet, but it would be nice if he could spend his future quests there more wisely.

Admittedly, Jackson has been great to Middle Earth. Due to the fact that he has his own special effects and creature shops, Jackson’s movies are guaranteed to include jaw-dropping sights throughout. Unlike his fellow special effects mogul George Lucas, however, Jackson works well with actors and has the good sense to leave the dialogue to his paramour Fran Walsh and the storylines to Philippa Boyens. This explains why none of his leading men ever compare their beloveds to sand. Heroes in Jackson and Tolkien’s worlds might actually find a mate on this planet

.

That said, Jackson’s opening installment to his new trilogy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit feels overstuffed, even if he could fill several Hobbit holes with An Unexpected Journey. There’s plenty to recommend Jackson’s new take on the children’s classic, but nobody except possibly for some exceptionally greedy Time-Warner shareholders, begged him to make all of the installments in this trilogy three hours long.

There’s a prologue where we learn that the dwarves have lost their homeland and their sizable fortune because a powerful dragon named Smaug has overtaken the dwarves’ castle and their version of Ft. Knox.

To help the dwarves get back what’s rightfully theirs, the inscrutable wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) recruits a quiet, retiring young hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to liberate the gold from the giant, flying fire-breathing lizard.

If the shy Halfling seems ill suited for adventure, Gandalf soon proves to be an odd but not stupid mentor. Bilbo’s small size means he can slip in and out of tight spots. Whereas, Smaug can smell people and dwarves from miles away, he has no idea what a hobbit’s odor is like, potentially helping Bilbo should he ever get close enough to assist in neutralizing the dragon.

If Jackson had focused simply on Bilbo’s party and their attempts to get a proper homeland for the dwarves, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would have been a leaner, more engaging tale. Why he and three other screenwriters felt compelled to take up several minutes with a sort of foreword involving an older Bilbo (Sir Ian Holm, who played him in The Lord of the Rings) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) does nothing more than remind us there are three completed films and two to go.

Also, it’s simply more fun if we aren’t told several times over that Bilbo will eventually get through this stretch of the tale. Frankly, it would be more fun to see Freeman play Bilbo for the entire film. Holm’s great, but it’s more fun to watch Freeman grow from a timid little wimp into a genuine hero by the end of the chapter.

Jackson takes his time setting up the final showdown with Smaug (the wait’s probably going to be a while), so he sets up a lots of battles between the dwarves and whatever orcs, trolls or goblins come their way. Expectedly, Jackson owns these scenes. When the lighting is dim, the new 48 frames per second format seems the most effective. When Bilbo and his party are fighting for their lives in a cave the results are clear and awe inspiring.

When the sun is up, though An Unexpected Journey looks more like a high definition super TV instead of a movie screen. It takes some serious adjustment before the film becomes watchable. Jackson uses shifts in perspective as part of his storytelling palette, so the 3D is helpful. Still, 48 fps may be a solution in search of a problem.

On second thought, perhaps Jackson could have replaced the portions where our eyes are adjusting to the format with a little more, oh, story. Tolkien’s given him a good one, so perhaps Jackson should just stick with it. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/15/12)

Haiku
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The movie needs a
higher story ratio than
a ratio of frames.


Hitchcock
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi, the director of the popular 2008 documentary Anvil, offers a droll and stylistic fusion of fact and fiction. Adapted by John J. McLaughlin from Stephen Rebello's novel-length journalistic study Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the film, with a wink and a nod, uses the story behind the struggle to bring the controversial horror movie to the big screen to explore the great director's marriage to collaborator Alma Reville.

Hot off the success of suspense thriller North by Northwest and his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) decides to adapt for his next project Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho, based loosely on the case of infamous Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. The grisly story proves unpopular with the studio, forcing Hitchcock to independently produce the film by mortgaging the house he owns with wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), an experienced screenwriter and editor, and Hitchcock's sounding board.

Under pressure to produce another hit or lose home and reputation, a petulant Hitchcock bullies the film's crew and cast, including Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), despite her indomitable sunny disposition. He also estranges Alma, who finds some solace with hack screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), which inspires jealousy from Hitchcock, who retreats into fantasy in dark and twisted conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Eventually, with Alma's guidance, the final print of Psycho is finished, and the couple is reconciled in the limelight.

From the opening scene, it's clear that Gervasi's Hitchcock is more lark than serious reflection of filmmaking. With its inside jokes and tongue-in-cheek setups, it's tailor-made for the fandom of the master of suspense. At times, nothing more is required of Hopkins' performance than to greatly resemble the iconic profile. The film is full of campy legerdemain. Biel and Johansson and even the almost unrecognizable Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's assistant, are transformed in makeup and wardrobe — though one and all give astounding performances.

Yet, there are high stakes in the relationship between Hitchcock and Alma. The house, the marriage, and, most important, the creative collaboration are in jeopardy from insecurity and jealousy. As Alma, Mirren shines as the talented woman taken for granted in an era where she can receive very little credit. Hopkins is less caricature in their scenes together, as well as in the scenes he shares with Hitchcock's other leading ladies. A man of large appetites, he guzzles drink, food and his “blondes.” When Hopkins's delivery begins sounding a bit like his other notorious persona Hannibal Lecter, it's not completely out of place. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/8/12)


Playing for Keeps
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With a cast studded with stars, Playing for Keeps seems as if it might be some sort of Hollywood insider joke. Nothing could possibly be this bad — unless on purpose — so perhaps Robbie Fox’s script is a contemporary version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” disguised as an innocuous kids’ sports movie. Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) helmed this offensive hot mess and star Gerard Butler, to what should be his great shame, produced it.

After going bust in a real estate deal in Canada, former soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) moves to Virginia to purportedly be near his son, Lewis (Noah Lomax). Between pimping himself out as a wannabe sportscaster and dodging his landlord (Iqbal Theba), this deadbeat dad can only just manage to pick up his son in time for soccer practice, and barely even that. But frustrated by the current coach’s lack of organization and attention to basic skills, Dryer leaves the sidelines and takes over the practice. He impresses the other parents with his coaching acumen and is offered the position, along with a fat envelope of cash for team expenses from a wealthy father (Dennis Quaid), an annoying coked-up backslapper who plays a dangerous game of jealousy with his own wife (Uma Thurman).

From here, events take on an increasingly creepy and sexual overtone. Soccer moms Barb (Judy Greer) and Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) throw themselves at Dryer, who’s unable to express himself in any coherent manner and thus unable to fend them off, even while he pines to be reunited with ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel). If gender roles were reversed, this could only be described as what the Urban Dictionary describes as “rapey.” Actually, on second thought, it’s still “rapey.”

As Dryer, Butler’s comedy stylings are akin to Lucille Ball’s in “I Love Lucy.” He has no control over any situation or himself. He’s frustratingly passive to the point of being absolutely hapless. It’s not attractive to watch and borders on pathological at some points. Thurman and Quaid stick out like sore thumbs. He seems to be employing the method in his keyed-up role, and her flat, plastic face is almost unrecognizable during close-ups. But even worse, for all the faults of the script and the directing, Jessica Biel manages to give a performance in her part. She’s guarded yet vulnerable, realistic by sentimental. Beautifully flushed, she’s extremely convincing of her attraction to this man for just one moment. For that, she deserves some credit. (PG-13) Rating: 0


The Flat
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

All families have skeletons in their closets. Tel Aviv-based documentarian Arnon Goldfinger (The Komediant) has recently discovered a bizarre and disturbing story about his maternal grandparents when he and his mother Hannah discover some old newspapers and a coin hidden in a drawer after his 98-year-old grandmother had died.

As they clean up the apartment, they notice the medal has a Star of David on one side and a swastika on the other. If this weren’t odd enough, the papers come from Nazi Germany and feature horribly anti-Jewish cartoons.

With a friend who’s fluent in German, Goldfinger digs through the text. He discovers that his grandparents were friends with the author, Leopold Itz von Mildenstein. He was not an ordinary ink-stained wretch. As the “von” indicates, he was German gentry. Stranger, he frequently recalls what his friends Kurt and Gerda Tuchler (Goldfinger’s grandparents) in the articles.


He was also Adolf Eichmann’s predecessor and at one time his boss. Eichmann, for those who missed history class, was the mind behind the Final Solution. Goldfinger even includes chilling footage from Eichmann’s 1960s trial in Jerusalem where the war criminal casually drops von MIldenstein’s name.

As Goldfinger keeps digging through his grandparents’ papers, he learns that his grandparents remained friends with von Mildenstein after World War II. It was a relationship that none of their descendants knew about. Goldfinger even finds von Mildenstein’s daughter Edda Milz von Mildenstein, who has a cache of his grandmother’s letters that’s about as big as the one in the Tel Aviv apartment.

Goldfinger only solves some of the riddles he discovers in The Flat, and that’s actually one of the film’s strengths. The only thing that seems clear is that his grandparents were eager to move to Palestine in the 1930s as Hitler was coming to power.

Curiously, von Mildenstein was also something of a Zionist, albeit a rather twisted on with ulterior motives. He apparently wanted to the Jews to leave Germany of their own volition, so that they wouldn’t be executed. Trying to figure out what actually happened is a challenge, but it’s certainly an engaging one.

Both Goldfinger and his mother are bewildered by this relationship, and as they learn both learn more, von Mildenstein seems less like an observer in the horrors of the regime and more like an unrepentant participant. His amiable-seeming daughter seems to be living in denial the way that Goldfinger’s family was just a few months before.

The Flat is engaging throughout because Goldfinger freely discloses his trepidations about his grandparents’ past and revealing to Edda the extent of her dad’s activity. It’s easy to share his qualms because all who were potentially involved in atrocities are dead.

Goldfinger says that his own crewmembers disagree about how much the Tuchlers and the von Mildenstein’s are in denial or telling the truth. Because we can’t easily decide this question either, The Flat has a strange staying power that the objects in the apartment didn’t. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/08/12).

Haiku
The Flat

Finding out the past
is frequently not pleasant
or that rewarding.


Anna Karenina
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Leo Tolstoy’s massive 19th century novel Anna Karenina has been filmed so many times that it’s hard to imagine how a movie could convey the oft-told tale in a new and intriguing way. Considering that Greta Garbo played the title role, not once but twice, it’s tempting to wonder why anyone would bother.

British director Joe Wright, who seems to be a sort of guardian angel to thespian Kiera Knightley in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, teams up with her again and expectedly coaxes some fine work from her. Knightley has a rare gift for making viewers willing to follow her characters even as they make catastrophically stupid decisions. Her wiry frame projects a forceful nature that makes one admire her characters’ courage even as they squander their resolve on unworthy causes.


In this case, after pleading with her sister-in-law (Kelly Macdonald) to take back Anna’s philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), Anna discovers temptation of her own. A handsome, but aimless cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) starts returning her glances and much more.

All of this understandably upsets her well-placed bureaucrat of a husband Karenin (Jude Law). His dull lifestyle might seem like a perfect excuse for Anna’s dalliances, but Law’s Karenin is both sympathetic and contemptible in the way he handles the bad news. Law effortlessly balances contempt and heartbreak. Karenin may carry out 19th century sexism by scolding and ostracizing his wife, but none of the rejection can keep him from loving her.

Curiously, the third part of this triangle is problematic. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky comes off as shallow pretty boy. In some ways, this heightens the tragedy to come. A viewer feels pity for her abandoning all that Russian high society has to offer to leap into the arms of a fellow who is incapable of returning her passion and who will probably dump her as easily as he has seduced her.
At the same time, the story might be more involving if we could feel her attraction. In a 1961 TV production, ultimate alpha male Sir Sean Connery played the role, and his commanding presence would certainly make Claire Bloom’s attraction more understandable.

Wright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard try something novel with the setting. All of the court scenes are presented as if they were on a massive stage. At times this device is distracting, but it’s oddly appropriate.

Life in the 19th century Russian court is all one big performance. In some ways, Anna’s primary failing appears not to be cheating on her husband but being unable or unwilling to pull off the façade of a faithful wife. Knightley’s vibrancy contrasts nicely with the stuffy artificiality around her. Her Anna is far from wise, but it’s easier to hold out hope for her than to admire the hypocrites who surround her.

Also, the transitions between scenes happen with lighting speed because Stoppard and Wright don’t have to imagine expensive new settings or mess with establishing shots. Stoppard manages to condense the novel and still hit most of its content. While the sets are impressive, Wright and Stoppard can deliver a credible version of the story without bogging down the film’s running time with otherwise pointless scenes of spectacle.

Wright and Stoppard abandon the deliberately theatrical settings when depicting country landlord Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). While he’s courting a princess who seems above his station, Levin works alongside his tenants and is capable of loving in a way the other characters in the story can’t. Because the beauty in his physical and emotion world seems more real, organic and concrete, it’s easy to believe the princess may see the merit of his affections.

Knightley, Law and Gleeson manage to standout from the obvious technique that surrounds them. If they couldn’t, Anna Karenina would have simply been an exercise in narrative economy and emotional indifference. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/1/12)

Haiku
Anna Karenina

All the world is a
stage in this movie, but the
boyfriend is quite dull.


Killing Them Softly
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Andrew Dominik’s third feature film is graphically violent and earnestly political. When this adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 Boston crime novel Cogan’s Trade is not turning your stomach or making you roll your eyes; however, it’s a smart, engaging commentary on crime during the recession. What saves Killing Them Softly is its storytelling. It rightly holds its dialog and the skilled performers delivering it in high regard.

Small-time crook Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) has a plan for the perfect heist and offers it to Frankie (Scoot McNairy), recently released from prison and desperately unemployed. With his accomplice Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a greasy Australian heroin addict whose only other source of income is stealing and reselling purebred dogs, Frankie will hold up an illegal mob card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who has already confessed to holding up his own game once before. Because of this, the trio is counting on local crime boss Dillon (Sam Shepard) not suspecting anyone other than Trattman.


But as Jackie (Brad Pitt), the squeamish cleaner hired by suited-up syndicate representative (Richard Jenkins) to investigate the robbery, notes, the guys in the bush league always talk. In fact, Russell has already bragged of the stickup to his dognapping partner (Slaine), who, unbeknownst to Russell, works for Dillon. Not wanting to take out his own associates, Jackie hires hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini). However, at recession prices, the washed-up contract killer proves you get what you pay for, and Jackie has yet another situation to fix for the corporate-like organization.

Killing Them Softly is a study in deliberate pacing and elaborate setup. Dominik gives his actors time to establish their characters, and in particular, tell their stories, which he then shows in flashback. It’s an elaborate, painstaking process, which would be extremely attractive to talented actors. This must be why such big names attach themselves to Dominik’s projects. There’s a lot of plot here, but it’s not significant. What matters are motive, character and background.

The novel on which the film is based takes place in 1970’s Boston. The film was shot in New Orleans, but the lack of any identifying landmarks, significant weather or even cohesive accents means it could take place anywhere there’s a depressed economy that’s made abandoned buildings and overgrown lots a common setting. This could be Detroit, Youngtown, Ohio or Buffalo, NY. Still, the year is obviously 2008 with ubiquitous election billboards and bailout banter on talk radio. Corporations aren’t people yet, but they’re getting close.

Unfortunately, the result of a vague, motive-driven film is that it has more intention than delivery. Some of the scenes, and even some of the characters, are established only to not show again except as a footnote in a conversation. It’s as if the movie is gearing up for a blazing climax that never happens or a destination it never reaches. Still, the conversation during the ride is good. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/2/12)


Jack and Diane
reviewed by Dan Larbarger

Because it’s hard to watch a film titled Jack and Diane without thinking of John Mellencamp’s song of the same title, it seems only fitting to paraphrase the tune here:

Little movie, called Jack and Diane.
Must have been sitting too long in the can.
No, it doesn’t have the Mellencamp song.
And it gets everything thing else terribly wrong.

Oh, yeah. The film runs on.
Long after my patience has come and gone.
Oh, yeah. The film runs on.
While lesbian werewolves howl on and on.


No, that’s not a typo, but I have been known to make a few. The new effort from writer-director Bradley Rust Gray involves a pair of teen girls who apparently look like walking lupines under the right circumstances.

In the right hands, this film could have been intriguing in a variety of ways. Joss Whedon could have used the werewolf theme as a metaphor for real-world adolescent issues the way he did in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Roger Corman could have made a tawdry but entertaining exploitation movie along the lines of his women in prison flicks. It’s also tempting to imagine what sort of delights someone like surrealist David Lynch or action queen Kathryn Bigelow could have done with the setup.

Sadly, we’re stuck with Bradley Rust Gray, who eschews all of these potentially worthwhile approaches in favor of relentless tedium. The film starts with a disoriented young woman named Diane (Juno Temple) leaving a bus after being unable to find her ID or her cell phone. It’s hard to tell if she’s dim or if she’s stoned as she wanders in a daze. It’s even more difficult to get interested.

Eventually, she meets up with a butch-looking lass her age named Jack (Riley Keough). The two have beers together while Diane contacts her worried relatives. The two start seeing each other off and on even though Diane’s relatives (Cara Seymour and Australian singer Kylie Minogue) don’t think much of the bluntly spoken Jack.

Oh, and every now and then, we see shots of toilets and their contents and some creepy stop motion animation for the Brothers Quay.

Oh, there are a few shots of people in werewolf makeup. These are fleeting and unimpressive. Gray doesn’t give either Jack or Diane much back-story. In the hands of an inspired filmmaker, this can be a good thing. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight is unforgettable because he has no past, so his current behavior is as unpredictable as it is dangerous.

Here the lack of character development appears to arise from laziness. Neither Jack nor Diane is fleshed out that well and a couple of bits of nudity seem more like acts of filmmaker desperation than eroticism or love. It’s odd that the British Temple, who was great as a white trash Texan in Killer Joe, doesn’t bother to do anything about her accent, so she and Minogue don’t seem related because their drawls are so different.

Unfortunately, the film is unworkable because Keough and Temple have no chemistry. It’s too bad this study of lycanthropy leads to chronic fits of narcolepsy. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 12/2/12)

Haiku
Jack and Diane

At least the old John
Mellencamp song is shorter
than this dull movie.



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com


 

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