Friday, November 30, 2012

Anna Karenina

How could Director Joe Wright be so wrong?  That’s what I was feeling while watching Anna Karenina. 
Mind you, Joe Wright is my favorite English director with his Pride & Prejudice and Hanna being two of my all-time favorite films and the Dunkirk scene in Atonement being the most amazing continuous camera-shot since the dawn of cinema. 

 But, here…  Say it isn’t so, Joe!
Let me step back and repeat my belief that a film has to stand on its own, meaning the viewer shouldn’t have to know anything about the book from which it’s drawn or what critics say the filmmaker was attempting to do before seeing it.  Being true to its style or setup and being entertaining to its audience are the only issues of importance. 

And, since the average film viewer sees only 6 films a year, it’s my intent to point them in the right directions.
Well, then, let's start with the good things about Anna Karenina.
Wright and Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, aided by Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran, all of whom worked on Atonement, have created lush, sometimes breathtaking images of the late 19th century Russian milieu.  

Jude Law as Anna’s husband Karenin, Matthew MacFayden (Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice) as Anna’s buffoon brother Oblonsky, Kelly MacDonald as Oblonsky’s wife Dolly and Alicia Vikander as Kitty, the young woman spurned by Anna’s lover Count Vronsky, all turned in superb performances.

Now, the bad…

All the world may be a stage, but portraying a film on a stage, though amusing at times, just didn’t work; mainly, because the setup was violated by moving back and forth from the stage to real out-of-doors sets.  Another problem is that theatrical acting is different from film acting and using one style in the other doesn’t ring true.

And, so, the worst…
Anna Karenina is a story of passion.  And, though I’ve always been a huge fan of Keira Knightly, since I first saw her in Bend It Like Beckham, here she was as passionless and cold as Napoleon found the Russian winter.  The above-mentioned actors acted; she just said words.  However, I can’t totally blame her because she was supposed to be swept off her feet by Count Vronsky, played by the totally miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who gets minus points for sex-appeal.  I mean, really?  Perhaps she needed glasses.

Because she starts out on such a bland note with such a bland lover, Knightly’s performance is always in question, even when it warms up later in the film.  Sorry to say, we couldn’t wait until she stepped in front of a train.  And some viewers didn’t.  This is the first film I’ve seen this year where I saw people leave during the screening.  When a baby cried on screen, my viewing companion leaned over and whispered, “That’s how I feel.”  Ouch!

 If you love period pieces, then, you may enjoy much of this production, however I can only give Anna Karenina a 2 out of 5.  But, please see Joe Wright’s above-mentioned films and watch for his signature one continuous camera-shot scenes.  Everyone's entitled to a misstep.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Life of Pi

Director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a marvel of filmmaking and beauty.


Pi Patel, played admirably by Suraj Sharma, is a young Indian boy, who survives the sinking of a ship in which all aboard, including his family, perished.  The only other survivor of the wreck is a Bengal tiger being transported by Pi’s zookeeper father and, together, they share the same lifeboat and an extraordinary adventure as they fight for survival against the sea and each other.

The adult Patel relates the story to a young writer played by Rafe Spall as a tale that will make him believe in God.  What the story will make anyone believe in is the magnificence of nature from the mirror of the phosphorescent sea to the fires of the luminescent sky, all breathtakingly captured by cinematographer Claudio Miranda.   
Ang Lee is noted for his ingenuity, as evidenced by the wire-fighting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: here, it is the incredibly “real” creation of the magnificent, computer animated tiger, the meekrats, the whale, the flying fish and the floating island. 

I urge you to see this fantastic work of art and take in its beauty.  Those who can’t accept it will make do, as have some critics, with the false story Patel relates for those who can’t accept magic.

I give Life of Pi a 4+ out of 5.



Hitchcock is an enjoyable movie about Alfred Hitchcock’s struggle to make the ultimate horror film, Psycho.

Despite the popularity of his earlier films, including the, then, recent success of  North By Northwest, Hitchcock had to fight against the management of Paramount Pictures, the critics and the censors to get Psycho greenlighted. He, finally, had to mortgage his own home to get the funding to produce it. 
This is the story of great tenacity to create something totally different than what, to that time, had been imagined or allowed.  I remember taking a date to see it the week it opened and she actually went to the floor and hid under her seat at least twice during the screening.  And, she wasn’t alone.  There was absolute pandemonium in the theater!

 Backed by the superb Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife Alma, Anthony Hopkins turns in a stellar performance as the great director.  I found myself trying in vain to picture the real Hitchcock in my mind because Hopkins embodied him so completely.  Scarlett Johannson was, also, better than the real-life Janet Leigh.

Those who were around when Hitchcock was alive will enjoy this film the most.   There was a lot of laughter from this segment of the audience, who understood the milieu in which Psycho was created. 
I give Hitchcock a 3+ out of 5 with Mirren and Hopkins getting a 4+ for their performances.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

I saw a t-shirt that read:
I’m bi-polar.
Are you?
I’m not.
I was reminded of that as I watched Silver Linings Notebook, the new film by director David O. Russell.
It was, initially, difficult to take in this story wherein Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a life-long, undiagnosed sufferer of bi-polar disorder until he snapped when he found his wife in the shower with one of her co-workers while the song from their wedding played on his boom box.  (That can rock your world apart.)

But, Cooper’s very good performance of this volatile character with, as he says, no filter on his mouth is balanced by the superb performances of Robert De Niro as his OCD, sport’s-obsessed father, and Jacki Weaver (an unfamiliar actress to me) as his loving mother, who tries to balance out all the progesterone and keep her family together. 
They mellow out the difficulty of watching their son’s refusal to go on his meds, but, when Jennifer Lawrence enters the scene as Tiffany, the young widowed sister of Larry’s best friend, we are treated to an out-of-this-world, extraordinary performance that takes a fine film to stratospheric heights.

No longer the young girl of Winter's Bone  and The Hunger Games, Lawrence is a powerhouse woman of enormous talent. In fact, hers is the best performance by an actress this year, so far.  I’m not sure who is in the cards to go against her by year’s end...perhaps, Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty...but, Jennifer is surely in the lead right now.

Director Russell's and excellent Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi 's extensive use of close-ups would be dangerous with a lesser cast. But, here, it highlights the intensity of the building relationship between Larry and Tiffany and shows off the incredible honesty that Lawrence brings to her role.  Everything about her is real.  Watching her, it’s easy to understand, why You-Know-Who lost the election.  He didn’t understand that even average Americans can be exceptional.
Hats off, also, to the wonderful supporting cast, especially John Ortiz as Larry’s stifled best friend, Anupam Kher as his wise psychiatrist, Dash Mihok as the officer assigned to Pat's case and Chris Tucker as his fellow rehab inmate, who teaches him to relax and have soul.

I give Silver Linings Playbook a 4+ out of 5, but Jennifer Lawrence gets a 5+.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

The Twilight Sage: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is a fitting and exceptionally fine ending to the series.

For a filmmaker, one of the most important things to learn is to honor your audience.

This is, especially, important in a franchise series wherein the characters and the actors who play them become an extended family to the core viewers, perhaps, for many, because they represent the family they wish they were part of.

This film gives great honor to its core audience with all of the original cast involved and being featured to finalize their story in a way to “quench the thirst” of the saga’s fans.  That is different than a film like Godfather 3, which should have been the best of the series, if key actors weren’t so concerned with their pocketbooks instead of honoring their fans.
Now, everyone knows the core audience for the Twilight series is young women, but lest you guys think this is just a “chick flic,” Breaking Dawn 2’s climactic battle bests that of ANY action film this year and ranks as an all-timer in this regard.  The film is worth a second viewing by action fans just for this.  And, the surprise resolution to the battle will blow your mind!

Many of the film’s actors will be, for many years, the stars of the future.  I predict that Taylor Lautner’s career will top Robert Pattinson’s, who will also have a strong career.

And, Ashley Greene will be one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies with a career that might even surpass the current success of Kristen Stewart.
I give The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 a 4+ for the series’ fan base and a 4 for the rest of us.




Sunday, November 11, 2012


Daniel Day-Lewis creates an astounding portrayal of America’s 16th President in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Shot in a colored daguerreotype style by Janusz Kaminski, this must-see film is a cross between drama and docudrama, taking place over the last 4 months of Lincoln’s life, when he fought for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlaws slavery.


While most of us have heard of the Emancipation Proclamation, most (like me) probably don’t know that the Proclamation was an executive order of the President that outlawed slavery only in the 10 Confederate States.  It was the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery everywhere in the Union and it had to be passed before the end of the Civil War for fear it would never be passed once the rebellious states returned to the fold.

Lincoln had to play a dangerous game of holding off the South’s surrender while lobbying for passage, thus allowing the heinous fighting and death to continue in the meantime.

What is most compelling is Lincoln the man, as well as Lincoln the President.

This was a time before Secret Service guards, when one could easily walk right into the White House, when, obviously, the President could be approached so easily by an assassin.

Great filmmaking informs, as well as entertains.  And, that is what Spielberg is able to do here.
The cast is exceptional, with Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens being the standout supporting actor.
Most interesting is the comparison to today and realizing it’s same-old-same-old with fundamentalists still trying to hold up progress.

I give Lincoln a 4+ out of 5.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Skyfall is the darkest in tone of all the James Bond thrillers.

On one hand, that is, also, its downfall.  But, on the other hand, it makes it one of the more interesting of the 25 Bond films.  (I count the original Casino Royale and Never Say Never, which had the best Bond villain, as part of the franchise.) 

I said “more interesting,” not more thrilling…although it has plenty of thrills, including an incredible motorcycle chase over tiled roofs in Istanbul, which is worth the price of admission and for which the stunt team deserves copious kudos.   

 It took me a while to figure out why Skyfall wasn't totally living up to my expectations and I think it's because the producers have taken the 50th anniversary of the franchise too much to heart.  The script was painting Bond as too old to be an agent and he failed in his attempt to qualify physically and mentally for service after a spectacular “death” á la Sherlock Holmes’ plummet into Reichenbach Falls.  (That was an interesting, if not intentional, homage and ties into my "Bottom Line" below.)

The point is that Bond is too iconic to ever be too old.  You could sense the audience’s desire to get beyond this and have him get into action.  There are two distinct lulls wherein Director Sam Mendes does not let Bond be Bond. 
What has been happening is that the franchise has been getting (for me) too realistic.  The lovable gimmicks are being thrown out and the humor is being dissipated. 

You could tell how the energy of the audience perked up when the Aston-Martin from Goldfinger appeared and the Bond theme music started to play. Then, we felt comfortable that our boy was truly back.

I don’t mean to be putting this film down.  I just expect the best from a Bond film.

What is appealing is that, after all this time, we learn some of Bond’s early life...where he grew up, what happened to his parents, etc.

Also, Javier Bardem starts off as a truly fascinating villain in his long introductory speech to Bond.  However, he, unfortunately, loses some of the charm within a few moments and turns into a psychopath no different from the typical enemy.

Bottom line, Skyfall seems like a setup for the next film.  And, since I don’t like to give out too many plot points, I won’t tell you why.

I saw Skyfall in IMAX and I’m wondering if that were a mistake.  Seeing Bond films more than once is obligatory for me, so the next viewing I will see it in a regular theater.  I’m wondering if IMAX might be too big for the darkness of this tale.

 I’ve not mentioned some of the excellent supporting cast because, again, I don’t want to ruin any surprises.

 Anyone who is a Bond fan should see this film and, perhaps, those that aren’t might be drawn into the franchise.

 I give Skyfall a 4 out of 5.

Note that I did see Skyfall again on a wide screen and enjoyed it more on the second viewing.  So, my suggestion is to save the money and not see it in IMAX.  I know that goes against the grain, but there you have it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

I was expecting more from Wreck-It Ralph.  I liked the advertised premise of an arcade game known for being the “bad guy,” who wants to become a “good guy” by leaving his game to become a hero in another.

Unfortunately, Wreck-It Ralph does not live up to its possibility.  In fact, if it were not for Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch, who are the voices for Vanellope and Calhoun, respectively, this film would have been a dud.  They, at least, keep the adults awake with needed humor. John C. Reilly’s Ralph talks so much, it’s hard not to dose (which I did).
This is strictly for the under-10 audience.  However, it’s message that it’s okay to be bad as long as you have some tender feelings for someone, is a really weird turnabout for Disney.
I give Wreck-It Ralph a 2+ out of 5 only because of the Sarah and Jane.   

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Director Robert Zemeckis makes well-crafted movies…well-shot, well-edited, well-acted.  And, that can be said for Flight.

Before going any further, I must confess addiction films are one of the four types of movies I, personally, do not like to see.

That being said, what is right about this film is, first of all, Kelly Reilly, who you may have seen in Sherlock Holmes as Watson’s fiancée and wife in the sequel.  Second of all, it’s Reilly’s portrayal of Nicole, the character who has the guts to leave Denzel’s character “Whip” and go into rehab to overcome drug addiction.

The third bit of goodness is John Goodman’s portrayal of Harling Mays, the go-to man for drugs, who injects a bit of fun into this somber affair as he takes over the screen whenever he appears.

Finally, it’s James Badge Dale’s one-scene portrayal of a wry cancer victim, who is dying for a cigarette, that is one of the best gems in this movie.

What’s wrong about this film is, first of all, the casting of Kelly Reilly, who is much too beautiful and well-coifed to be in her character Nicole’s life situation.  Even for a drug addict, and despite her great acting, it was just too unbelievable.


The second problem is Denzel Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker whose arc goes from Functioning Alcoholic to Raging, Out-Of-Control Alcoholic to Recovering Alcoholic all too quickly, suggesting alcoholism is not physically or genetically based, but is purely a psychological condition.  While some, like me, might agree, even I could not accept the fast switches.
Finally, does anyone know of a Hyatt or any large hotel chain that would not have a key-lock on a room refrigerator full of dozens of bottles of high-end liquor?  It's this kind of fakery that highlighted the unbelievalbe character arc and the weakness of the script. 

Flight follows the pack of well-acted films about characters we don’t care about.  Whitaker gets off much too easily. 

My suggestion would be to leave after the fabulous plane crash scene, find a picture of Kelly Reilly on the internet and toast her with a drink of your choice.

I’m giving Flight a 3 out of 5 for those of you who like stories of this ilk.