Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Linda Cardellini, Mark Ruffalo, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Claudia Kim

Director: Joss Whedon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s the thing that I like most about a good smörgåsbord – there’s something for everyone. Hot food, cold food, deserts, salads…it’s all at your fingertips and you can have as much or as little as you like. When presented with so many options, the whole experience can be somewhat overwhelming…but once you’ve had the chance to survey the selections and try out some choice cuts, you usually wind up walking away feeling a sense of fulfillment.

If any movie of 2015 (or any film in recent memory, actually) can be likened to a smörgåsbord it most certainly is this hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s The Avengers. Offering bigger thrills and higher stakes, it’s a gargantuan film that redefines the term blockbuster. Still, I have to be honest and say that while it’s an all-together overpowering outing from the get-go, it took me a good twenty minutes to acclimate myself to writer/director Joss Whedon’s awe-inspiring sequel.

Starting up in the middle of the kind of go-big-or-go-home battle usually reserved for the latter half of other would-be blockbusters (the first of five jumbo battle royales featured in the 2.5 hour film), there’s no time wasted in re-introducing our friendly group of superheroes. Most of the crusaders have solidly led the way in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) while others have turned in noble supporting turns (Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine) in the same movies. Grouped together on screen, as The Avengers proved so impressively well, they can defeat schemes of world domination while rattling off Whedon’s quip-heavy banter.

Whedon knows his way around a clever turn of phrase but there’s a limit to how much witty repartee can be tossed at the audience before it begins to feel a little too astute for its own good. There seems to be an overly earnest need to kick things off on the right foot by giving us the greatest hits of Tony Stark, the master of delivering a one-liner, while storming the eastern European castle featured in the beginning battle. It’s just all a little much for this reviewer…but luckily Whedon and crew achieve a nice balance of fun and furious action in a plot that has a lot going on but never feels overstuffed.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron works in pieces as a stand-alone film, it will really pay off for the wise viewer that has already seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Several familiar faces from these films pop up and, as was the case in the The Avengers, it’s nice to see how many cross over characters play a part in the action without it all feeling like a ComicCon version of The Love Boat.

What’s the plot you ask? Best to let you find that out yourself so as not to spoil some of Whedon’s more elaborate set-ups. What I can relay is that it involves a villainous bit of Stark created Artificial Intelligence named Ultron spectacularly voiced by James Spader (Mannequin) managing to inject humanity with a devious sarcasm into this completely CGI role – it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving voice to the destructive machine with such flair. Ultron has big plans for The Avengers and the world as a whole from the moment he comes online with the help of a familiar piece of sought-after power. Aided by a pair of powerful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen…both featured in last summer’s Godzilla) and a host of bad robots, Ultron keeps the hits coming right up until the grandest of grand finales of any large-scale action film I can recall. The only way it could have been bigger is if the theater set off fireworks at the end.

Returning to the fray are Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Paul Bettany (Mortdecai), and Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) and it’s worth noting that everyone seems happy to have their moment in the sun and then let their colleagues have their time to shine too.

Marvel is just on an unstoppable roll now and with the next Captain America film due in 2016, the next Thor film due in 2017, and the two part Avengers finale arriving in the two years after that there’s a whole lot more ground to cover. Let’s not forget the other Marvel films on the big and small screen that will surely play a part in future development deals.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon’s swan song in the director’s chair and he’s followed up an adrenaline blast of a first film with a layered and just as entertaining sequel that pushes ideas and characters forward. Make sure to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound (the 3D is optional…I wouldn’t think it’s a requirement) to truly max out your Avengers experience.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to The Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Release Date:  May 1, 2015

Thoughts:  Summer 2014 isn’t quite a distant memory yet (though with the paltry offerings it very well should be) but audiences are already looking toward the treasures that 2015 has to offer.  First on most every “must-see” list is this sequel to the super-duper big time hit of 2012 Marvel’s The Avengers which sees the whole gang in front of behind the camera reunited to drum up some more box office gold for Walt Disney and Marvel Studios.  Like The Dark Knight, I wonder if the bar has been raised so far that the sequel won’t be able to reach the same heights…but never count dependable writer/director Joss Whedon out because it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.  The countdown to May 2015 has officially begun with this nifty little tease at what deadly force The Avengers are about to face…I know I’ll have that dang Pinocchio tune in my head for days now.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The world’s most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

Director: Gareth Edwards

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Boy, do I love a good blockbuster. Personally, I don’t lump the superhero films featuring men who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and hulky iron men teaming up with American captains quite into the same category as the epic scale movies that remind me of all those summer films I so eagerly anticipated back in the 90s. Give me a Jurassic Park over another Marvel film any day of the week, not that the Marvel films aren’t enjoyable in their own right.

Though I wasn’t yet born when 1975 became the summer of the shark (Jaws) and created the blockbuster event film, I do remember seeing Jurassic Park in theaters and I found myself flashing back to Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure as the reboot of Godzilla played out before my eyes. Here is a film that knows its audience, takes its time, and seemingly says “You want your money’s worth…OK…we can do that.” Setting a high bar for every other film to come in summer 2014, Godzilla is that must see entertainment that even people who only venture into a dark theater a few times a year will want to put on their list.

You know you’re in good hands right off the bat with a smart credit sequence that covers a lot of ground, showing newsreel clips from history about the A-Bomb testing and eventually making the suggestion that the bomb was actually used to subdue a threat to humankind rather than making a case for scientific advancement. From there, the film uses a lengthy prologue to its advantage as it hops continents, laying the groundwork for our titular monster to rise again from the ocean depths.

Not too long after an estranged scientist father (Bryan Cranston, Argo, Rock of Ages) and his military son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick Ass 2, Savages) are reunited in Tokyo, the men get swept up in a closely guarded multi-government secret involving, well, here’s the rub…I could tell you what they find is being contained in an abandoned nuclear power plant but that would give away one of the secrets the marketing department over at Warner Brothers has wisely kept out of sight. Let’s just say that it ain’t good for anyone involved. What they find there sets into motion a good old fashioned creature feature as a hunt ensues with edge of your seat thrills and the kind of massive destruction of major West Coast cities that only a fire breathing lizard could be forgiven for.

Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein take a page from Spielberg’s Jaws (even naming of the leads Brody) and keep Godzilla out of sight until almost half the movie has gone (flown, really) by. When he’s finally shown in full, the effect is similar to the first time the shark in Jaws rears up to say hi to Roy Scheider – that of a giddy release that the great beast is actually as satisfyingly menacing as we imagine him to be. Impressively rendered via state of the art visual effects, this 2014 Godzilla is a mash up of many different versions of the beast over the years. Edwards and company did their research and have produced a greatest hits Godzilla, and the overall effect is spot-on.

There’s a lot going on in the film and if the end result is that the flesh and blood characters get a little short shrift, I’m totally OK with it…especially when you have a scenery chewer like Cranston on board. Much like Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm, Cranston proves that he’s no movie star (something he seems to have been making a case for in a series of disastrous supporting roles the last few years) thanks to a hammy, overly emotive performance. When Godzilla’s performance can be described as more subtle, you know you’re on the wrong track. It also doesn’t help he seems to be wearing two of the least convincing wigs in recent memory…the first making it look like he has the same haircut as Juliette Binoche.

The rest of the players seem to be content with playing second fiddle to the lizard. Taylor-Johnson’s cardboard performance oddly works for the film and Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy) does what she can as a woman always either crying or on the verge of tears. As in-the-know scientists, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins) are called on only when needed but lend a head-scratching gravitas. Even with Cranston, Edwards has pulled together a unique cast, one that you wouldn’t instantly think “Monster Movie” if you heard their name.

Don’t get too wrapped up in the human element of the film because this is an old-fashioned yet decidedly modern monster movie through and through…and a damn entertaining one at that. The first half of the film is largely a set-up for the mayhem of the second hour and the wait is both involving and well worth it. By creating a believable back story and letting his star shine, Edwards has done what Roland Emmerich’s soggy 1998 attempt couldn’t…have its lizard cake and eat it too. April showers truly brought May flowers as Godzilla stakes an early claim as the best film of the summer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Godzilla (2014) Trailer #2

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Synopsis: A giant radioactive monsters called Godzilla appears to wreak destruction on mankind.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Even after the impressive teaser trailer for Warner Bros. big (like really big) budget reboot of Godzilla I remained a tad skeptical.  Sure, the preview was edited in such a fashion that kept the title character a mystery until the final shadowy moments but would the movie just be effects-heavy rehash of the famously goofy Godzilla films of the past?  Well, the second trailer has arrived and it stirs a greater excitement in this viewer, suggesting an edge of your seat sci-fi action epic as much about the radioactive beast as it is about the havoc he leaves in his wake.  Roaring onto the screen at the start of a busy 2014 summer season, Godzilla is quickly moving to highly anticipated status in my little black book.

The Silver Bullet ~ Godzilla (2014)

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Synopsis: A giant radioactive monster called Godzilla appears to wreak destruction on mankind.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Though he first arrived in 1954 in one of the many campy big rubber monster movies, ever since 1998’s Hollywood-ized version of Godzilla belly flopped at the box office that mean ole monster has been keeping a low profile here in the states, retreating to the deep waters from whence he came with his powerful tail between his legs.  Warner Brothers is giving the big guy another go in 2014 and this first teaser is a nicely compact taste of what audiences can expect from a new millennium Godzilla.

With a story by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel) that led to a script Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) put a shine on, and featuring cast members like Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Bryan Cranston (Argo, Rock of Ages), and Aaron Taylor-Johnson(Savages, Anna Karenina), actors so diverse that you’d think they were in a spoof video on Jimmy Fallon, I’m digging what I’m seeing, finding this to be an effective first glimpse at Godzilla’s next bid for domination.

Movie Review ~ Kick-Ass 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Jim Carrey

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Like I said in my review of the red-band trailer for Kick-Ass 2, I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2010 original which had a premise (everyday kid turns crime fighter with less than spectacular results) that was exploited ad nauseam and was much longer than it needed to be.  While I enjoyed that when the good guys got a beat down they actually bled and that some had vocabularies that would make a sailor blush, the original film just felt played out before the first reel was done.

So a sequel was not high on my wish list in the grand scheme of things.  Ah, but when you have a film that does surprisingly well at the box-office that didn’t cost a lot to make, movie studio execs quickly get those crazy dollar signs instead of pupils and before you know it three years later I found myself taking in a decent if totally unnecessary second chapter in the story of Kick-Ass and his rough and tumble compatriots.

In the years since the first film, two of the three leading actors have turned in some interesting work.  While Dark Shadows wasn’t the hit Chloë Grace Moretz thought she signed up for, her character had a wacky arc that the actress went to the mat with.  Even more surprising, Aaron Taylor-Johnson got the Oliver Stone treatment in Savages before buttoning-up nicely for Anna Karenina last fall.  It was refreshing to see that both actors easily slid back into their roles and try though they might to get something cooking with the development laid out by writer/director Jeff Wadlow, there’s only so much you can do with very few ingredients.

The worst thing about the movie is not the crazy violence (violence so outlandish that star Jim Carrey, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, refused to promote it…after cashing his sizable paycheck, natch) or the funny-in-a-sad-way performance of Christopher Mintz-Plasse (The To Do List…and what’s with the three name names of our leads?) but that it’s not very well made.  This had to have had a larger budget than the original…so why does everything from the sets to the costumes to the special effects look so flimsy and cheap?  There’s a chase scene on top of a van that, while impressively choreographed, appears to be filmed via time travel to 1985.

Another sticking point was that the movie keeps our two leading players apart for so much of the movie.  While Moretz is off working a Mean Girls meets Carrie subplot (bad-timing, because Moretz is starring in October’s Carrie remake), Taylor-Johnson is making new friends in Carrey, Donald Faison, and Lindy Booth as upstart civilian superheroes.  When Moretz and Taylor-Johnson are together the movie finds a pleasantly comic groove but these moments come too little, too late.

All said, Kick-Ass 2 is no gem and not a film worthy of your dog days of summer time or effort.  If you’re a fan of the original, this can wait until you can rent it…all others are advised to pick something else.  (Check my archive if you want a few suggestions!).

The Silver Bullet ~ Kick-Ass 2 (Red Band Trailer)

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Synopsis: The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

Release Date:  August 16, 2013

Thoughts:   OK…I’m going to come clean about something…are you ready?  I didn’t really like the first Kick-Ass when it was released in 2010.  There, I said it and I hope we can still be friends. 

While I appreciated the anti-superhero movie for what it was trying to accomplish I felt it wound up just being an excuse for tiny tyke Chloë Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows, Carrie) to spew profanity while our titular hero got the bloody crap kicked out of him.  It was overlong and overstuffed, resulting in a film I just couldn’t warm to.  With the nice take at the box office, a sequel was a foregone conclusion so this summer Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl are back and this time they’re up against old comrade Red Mist.  With a new director and screenwriter on board we’ll have to see if the sequel can make a better impression on me than the original.

Movie Review ~ Anna Karenina (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel.  The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  ‘Tis the season for grand costume dramas adapted from classic literature and the holiday is off to a good start with this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian drama of alienation, deception, and doomed love.  Though Anna Karenina has been seen on screens both big and small since film was invented, this 2012 version is ablaze with passion framed within a highly theatrical landscape that is both inviting and cold.  Think Moulin Rouge! meets Merchant Ivory. 

Now don’t roll your eyes…Moulin Rouge!  has its rabid fans as well as those that wrote off Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical as MTV hyper cut filmmaking but it reintroduced some needed theatricality into film that had been lost for some time.  I consider Anna Karenina a sister film to Moulin Rouge!…meaning that if Moulin is the excitable sibling that can’t sit still, Anna is the lovelorn romantic that dreams of something bigger and better.

Re-teaming for the third time after collaborating on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Wright and star Knightley have brought in playwright Tom Stoppard to lend his distinct voice to the telling of this sad tale.  Stoppard has cleared away some of the muck in Tolstoy’s hefty (but well respected) tome and let previously underplayed storylines come to the forefront with ease.  Though the story is clearly centered on Anna and her affairs of the heart, under Stoppard’s pen we are treated to some beautiful moments from our secondary characters.

Wright has consistently given Knightley her best work (and led her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice) and Anna Karenina is no exception.  I’ve found Knightley to be a hit or miss type of actress – her screeching performance in 2011’s A Dangerous Method almost broke the camel’s back and her work in the little-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn’t do her any favors .   Thankfully, she’s ended 2012 with a searing take on the Russian wife swept away into a sea of deceit spurred on by an unfaltering love.  Though she knows it will lead to no good, she can’t pry her heart out of the trouble it’s getting into.

As the two men in her life, Law and Taylor-Johnson are interesting choices to stoke the fires of her heart.  Law, with a balding pate and stuffy demeanor shows us his struggle more than he actually lets us see behind his cold exterior as Anna’s husband that tries to save her from ruin.  Taylor-Johnson is the young buck who catches her eye and falls just as hard for her without remorse of consequences.  It can be frustrating to see some of the choices our characters make…but our actors make these choices appear unavoidable.

Secondary love stories are usually introduced for comic effect in classic literature but Stoppard has given a nice sheen to Gleeson’s courting of Vikander’s pretty princess.  Though she only has eyes for Taylor-Johnson’s character, a shift in her heart happens on screen that is a wonder to behold – and it’s not just because Taylor-Johnson goes after Knightley instead.  Gleeson and Vikander share one of the best scenes of the year…a wordless exchange where they literally spell out their feelings for each other.

On its own, this Anna Karenina had all the elements to make a perfectly respectable motion picture but Wright takes it several steps further by setting the film in a theatrical environment that adds a magical touch.  Largely set in and around the stage of an ornate theater, Wright lets the camera push through the scenery into a Narnia-like world that exists behind the curtain.  Scenes are shifted in front of your eyes to new locations with striking detail.  Production designer Sarah Greenwood should keep Oscar night free because her lavish sets and ornate design will earn her a nomination without question. 

Even highly theatricalized, the film doesn’t seem gimmicky.  It would have been so easy to take this too far and make the film much too strident in its artifice but it always seems to work like it should.  Sometimes it feels like the concept has been forgotten but soon Wright sweeps you back into the backstage drama that plays out.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates a hypnotic pulse that the film hums along to…a dance sequence is played out with breathless beauty that captivates you fully. 

It’s a film that has been on my mind as the days go by but be aware that, like Shakespeare, there is a period of adjustment you must get through with Anna Karenina. When the film began I wasn’t sure this was going to be something I would enjoy as much as I dd.  The first fifteen minutes or so just spills over the audience and it’s up to you to hunker down and get up to speed.  For those that do, you’ll find a clever and visually stunning film experience that is good fodder for a wintery day at the movies.