Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

Movie Review ~ The Danish Girl

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A fictitious love story inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I gotta say, I feel like the best way to enjoy The Danish Girl is to read nothing about it before and nothing about it after.  Reading nothing beforehand will help keep the story at the heart of the movie a secret for that much longer, allowing the rich performances to reveal themselves slowly.  Looking deeper into the real life events that led to the construction of the piece is bound to be disappointing as you learn how many liberties were taken with characters that have gained your trust over the previous two hours.

It was only after I’d seen The Danish Girl that I discovered the movie, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s novel was a mostly fictitious retelling of the lives of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).  Artists in 1920’s Denmark, the movie presents the two as a lovely young couple that support their individual work and have an open honesty that allows them to speak truths both private and painful.  A more successful artist than his wife, Einar keeps painting the same landscape over and over again while Gerda struggles with finding her own voice through her canvas.

What begins as a silly bit of harmless dress-up uncovers a secret desire Einar has harbored that will change the path not only of his life and his marriage, but the path of many men and women in the decades that followed.  Einar spends time transitioning between himself and his female alter-ego, Lili Elbe, first behind closed doors and then in public until the line between the male side and female side is blurred and the choice to live one life becomes a necessity for survival.

An Oscar winner for his stellar work in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, Redmayne takes a similar immersive approach in his portrayal of Einar/Lili.  There’s no holding back when taking on a role with a certain set of requirements and Redmayne meets all of these challenges with believable grace and dignity.  Redmayne presents Einar/Lili not as a stereotype or freak of nature but of a human being struggling with a duality of identity that there is no precedent for.  It’s become cliché to call a performance brave but that’s simply what it is.

He’s matched step-by-step with Vikander’s layered performance as a wife supportive at the outset but who begins to have doubts as her marriage takes on a new direction and the question of what it means to be female is floated between the couple.  Some of her own value as a woman is examined and Vikander takes us through each one of these stages of transformation with a realistic hand.

Director Tom Hooper (reunited with his Les Miserables star Redmayne) is a bit too focused on the production design (which, by the way, is gorgeous from the intricate set design to the period perfect costumes) and less concerned with the narrative motion of the piece.  It’s teeters into a languid stage near its middle section when it should be ramping up its pace.

Then we get to the overall validity of the story being told and, I’m sorry to say, as important as the piece is it’s just not honest and the way the movie presents itself as truth is disappointing considering it’s a story about authenticity.  Taken as fact, the movie greatly misses the mark.  Taken as a work of fiction, The Danish Girl is a strongly acted work of revisionist history.  Here’s hoping that one day down the line a more fact-based retelling is attempted.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (August)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta
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.

August

Traditionally, August is the month when the wind-down begins.  It never has any of the big tent pole pictures featured earlier in the summer and it can be a time when studios try to burn off some troubled pictures or try to skillfully position a sleeper hit. This August for sure had its share of high and low points, much like the summer that it capped off.  I was still in frolic mode so didn’t get to as many reviews as I had wanted but sitting here now, in still sunny September, it’s time to review the movies I missed!

                                                Movie Review ~ Shaun the Sheep Movie
shaun_the_sheep_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he bargained for. A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City and it’s up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home.
Stars: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate
Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak
Rated: PG
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I’m not saying that the U.S. doesn’t churn out a fine slate of family friendly films…but there’s a certain aura around the British imports that seem to work time and time again.  Like Paddington earlier this year, Shaun the Sheep Movie was an unexpected delight, 85 minutes of smart comedy that’s deep enough for adults to not need a lobotomy to enjoy and zany enough to keep the attention of young tykes.  Remarkable when you consider there’s not any dialogue in the movie aside from some rumbles and grumbles from human and animal characters, it’s a big screen adventure adapted from a popular television show.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprisingly entertained and quite impressed by the stop-motion animation.  The film didn’t have great marketing so it slipped by most people but if it’s at your bargain movie theater, pack those kids up in your minivan and get to it…or treat yourself to a solo show.

 

                                                            Movie Review ~ Dark Places
dark_placesThe Facts
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Synopsis: Libby Day was only seven years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Twenty-five years later, she agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night.
Stars: Charlize Theron, Drea de Matteo, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Tye Sheridan, Shannon Kook
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: With the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl and seeing how fast the movie rights were snapped up, it’s only natural that her other two other books would take a similar path.  Dark Places is the first of these to hit theaters (Sharp Objects is arriving as a television movie) and it shows one of two things, either the third time was the charm for Flynn or something was lost in translation.  Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book but I’m inclined to think that it’s the fault of the screenwriter because there are so many hazardous movie mistakes only a Hollywood writer could make.  Though the mystery of a decades old killing spree coming back to haunt the sole survivor is initially intriguing, it quickly dissolves into a sticky mess that makes less sense the more secrets are revealed.  It also doesn’t help that it’s badly miscast, with the usually impressive Charlize Theron relying on her ever-present trucker hat to do most of the acting for her…or maybe to hide her embarrassment at being looped into this turkey.  Though it boasts a cast that typically gets the job done, no one quite seems to know what they’re doing…as if they hadn’t read the book before undertaking their scenes.  The only worthwhile performance is Christina Hendricks as Theron’s murdered mom, bringing some dignity to a role that, as written, doesn’t earn it.

 

                                                           Movie Review ~ Fantastic Four
fantastic_four_ver3The Facts
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Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey
Director: Josh Trank
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Well, what can I saw bout the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said (loudly) already?  Is it a lousy movie? Yeah, probably. Could it have been better? After two attempts to bring these characters to the big screen I’m not sure we’ll ever get a decent adaptation. What went so wrong? If you believe the outspoken director, it was studio interference that took his movie from a rich origin story to an overstuffed thundercloud of action movie clichés and fairly terrible special effects.  If you are to believe the studio, it was that director Josh Trank (who debuted with the surprise hit Chronicle) disconnected from the material, a development that was costing time and money.  Watching the film with this knowledge you can see the moment that something went awry.  Because the thing is, the first 20-30 minutes of Fantastic Four is quite good, sensitive even.  It’s a slow start and, let’s face it, audiences these days don’t want a slow start.  They want their action and they want it now. The studio was happy to oblige and when it becomes a standard summer superhero movie my interest took a nosedive and it became a waiting game of the good guys defeating the bad guys so I could go home.  I think the colossal outcry from fans and critics was a little on the dramatic side, even for a superhero film, but it’s not wholly unwarranted.

 

                                                           Movie Review ~ Ricki and the Flash
ricki_and_the_flashThe Facts
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Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 102 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: So we’ve all long agreed to the fact that Meryl Streep can do no wrong.  You can love her for it or hate her for it, but she never fails to impressive me with each new role she takes on.  From starring in The Iron Lady to taking a supporting role (cameo, really) in The Homesman, Streep seems to take a role if it speaks to her, no matter the size or commitment.  It’s not hard to see why she was attracted to the rough rocker Ricki with her tattoos and braided hair, here was another opportunity for Streep to strip away the classical actress aura and go barefoot into the wild.  She’s ably aided by Diablo Cody’s middling script, Jonathan Demme’s careful direction, and a supporting cast that don’t just play second fiddle to Streep’s lead guitar. I think there’s one too many musical numbers allowed to play longer than they should and Cody’s dialogue doesn’t have the snap that it used to.  The whole thing is worth it though for a stellar scene between Streep and Audra McDonald, the new wife of Streep’s ex-husband.  A sparring match spoken with calm and some care, the two women have an electricity between them that the film needed more of.  It falls apart swiftly in its second half, but it’s not a totally out of tune affair.

 

                                             Movie Review ~ The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
man_from_uncle_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.
Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: I never watched the television series on which this cool-as-can-be spy movie was based on but I’m pretty sure there weren’t the same amount of homoerotic jokes during the weekly adventures of Solo and Kuryakin.  While I feel that director Guy Ritchie relied a bit too heavily on his similar experience at the helm of two Sherlock Holmes films, he brings his A game to this big screen adaption, sparing no expense when it came to production design.  And that’s a good thing because though it’s never truly predictable, the plot is pretty thin.  So it’s up to Ritchie and his cast to sell the film and they are more than up for the challenge.  Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as the smooth Solo and he’s well matched with Armie Hammer’s (Mirror Mirror) simmering Kuryakin.  The two trade barbs rich with double entendre while protecting Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) from falling into the hands of a sinister villainess (the scene stealing Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gastby).  The film looks and sounds amazing, here’s hoping costume designer Joanna Johnston gets an Oscar nomination for her impeccable suits and stunning dresses.

 

                                                         Movie Review ~ End of the Tour
end_of_the_tourThe Facts
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Synopsis: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I never thought I’d say the words “potential Oscar nominee Jason Segel” in a work of non-fiction…but then again I didn’t think two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was possible either and look what happened there.  Yes, Segel’s work as tormented writer David Foster Wallace is worthy of acclaim as the actor digs deep within and bypasses his comedic instincts to find the truth of the man behind the epic novel Infinite Jest.  Jesse Eisenberg (who also pops up in American Ultra) turns in strong work as well, though he’s really just a prop for Segel to react off of.  Their five day road trip interview for Rolling Stone is the basis for the movie and it leads the men and the audience into interesting territory.  It’s a movie you watch once, appreciate, then file away as something you can recommend to people and feel like you’ve done them a favor.  One thing that must be said…Eisenberg needs to learn how to smoke a cigarette.  Here and in American Ultra he looks a child does when they are mimicking their parent.  Many things about Eisenberg annoy me and this is just another thing to add to the list.

                                             Movie Review ~ The Diary of a Teenage Girl
diary_of_a_teenage_girl_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig
Director: Marielle Heller
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s nice to go into a movie with only a basic logline and a list of the actors featured.  I didn’t know what to expect from The Diary of a Teenage Girl but whatever I thought, the movie surprised me in the best ways.  The story of a young girl’s sexual awakening in San Francisco is gloriously set in the mid ‘70s, an era of freedom and discovery.  While some may be off put by the relationship between an older man and an underage girl (star-in-the-making Bel Powley is older than she looks, thankfully), they’d be missing the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based.  It’s a frank flick that frequently finds its actors in the buff but doesn’t feel gratuitous because these characters are coming into themselves, marveling at a new experience they never knew existed.  I appreciated that the film pulled no punches in showing nudity and discussing sexual situations and director Marielle Heller shows respect for all people involved.  It’s a bold film with animated sequences, a killer soundtrack, and splendid performances.

The dog days of summer brought three other notable releases to theaters, though I’m guessing by the poor box office returns of two of them that the studios (and actors) wish the films had just quietly gone away.

I hadn’t heard a thing about American Ultra until two weeks before it was due to arrive, strange considering it starred Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.  The two aren’t serious box office draws but they do have a fanbase that might have helped build more buzz for the stoner comedy.  Not that it would have made the film any better because at its best it was a mildly diverting mix of comedy and gratuitous violence and at its worst it was a merely the thing you watched because you’d seen everything else at the theater and wanted some time in the air conditioning.  It’s bad when you don’t know what the movie is about, but it’s worse when it feels like the filmmakers don’t have a clue either.

I’ve gone on record as no fan of director Noah Baumbach and very on the fence for actress Greta Gerwig so I wasn’t at all looking forward to their latest collaboration, Mistress America.  Once again, the universe has a way of loving to see me humbled and I emerged from the screening not only in a damn fine mood but the desire to see it again.  That rarely happens with any movie, let alone a Baumbach/Gerwig joint so that should tell you something about the quality of this movie that is firmly in a New York state of mind.  Sure, it has its share of problems but they don’t ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment the film brings.

Finally, there’s the sad, sad case of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s latest attempt to be a serious dramatic actor.  While I think it’s Efron’s best dramatic performance to date and didn’t totally hate the film, audiences sure did and it became the third biggest box office failure of all time…pretty stunning considering how many other bad movies have been released and made at least a few million during its opening weekend.  I think the film got a bum rap and just was released at the wrong time, but it should hopefully send a message to Efron that he needs to spend some time figuring out exactly where his place is in Hollywood because he is, like his character here, totally lost.

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT!  THE SUMMER OF 2015!

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE & JULY

The Silver Bullet ~ The Danish Girl

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Synopsis: The remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

Release Date: November 27, 2015

Thoughts: Could Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) be the first actor in two decades to win back-to-back Oscars? Based solely on the trailer for The Danish Girl, it may just happen. I know, it’s bold to make that serious of a suggestion so early into the awards season and only going off a 2 ½ minute trailer…but this looks like a seriously majestic performance from the young actor. Based on the true story of one of the first male-to-female gender confirmation surgeries, it’s directed by Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) and co-stars Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina, herself getting awards buzz), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall). With transgender people figuring so prominently into the mainstream media in the last few years, this long in development film feels timely and valuable.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ex Machina

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Synopsis: A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.

Release Date: April 10, 2015

Thoughts: As we move ever forward with technology the realities of human-like artificial intelligence are coming into a sharp focus. Recent films like The Machine and Autómata have brought renewed cinematic attention to the leveraging of our resources in creating the perfect machine…machines that might just turn out to harm us. Not that the man vs. machine plot is anything new but Ex Machina looks to turn the tables on some tired conventions by pondering who the real enemy is. Featuring the trio of intriguing stars Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Domhnall Gleeson (Anna Karenina), and Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) and scripted/directed by Alex Garland (Sunshine), the dynamite first trailer for the stylish sci-fi shows nice promise for a genre in need of a jolt.

The Silver Bullet ~ Seventh Son

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Synopsis: Young Thomas is apprenticed to the local Spook to learn to fight evil spirits. His first great challenge comes when the powerful Mother Malkin escapes her confinement while the Spook is away.

Release Date: February 6, 2015

Thoughts: In this day and age where movies are saturating the cinemas week after week, I’ve taken to not paying much attention when a film gets its release date moved in order to steer clear of getting lost in the wake of another. Still, with a film like Seventh Son it’s hard to ignore the smell of turkey from this wizards and witches saga based on the novel The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney. Some chalk up its long delay to the dissolution of a partnership between Warner Brothers and the production company Legendary Studios but I think it’s because the film looks positively goofy. I can’t for the life of me understand why Jeff Bridges (Iron Man) and Julianne Moore (Non-Stop) consented to this; though both actors have made some off-the-wall choices in between more celebrated works as of late. The day of reckoning for all will come in early February; I hope we have other things to distract us that weekend.

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.