Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” faces a tough challenge: creating something vibrant and refreshing out of a dusty classic Russian novel without trivialization. It does this magnificently. “Anna Karenina” is a highly imaginative interpretation and a cinematic treat. This is a visualization where the carnal affection of love-at-first-sight between two people dancing is symbolized as they weave across a dance floor against motionless couples around them…. where a torn letter tossed into the air morphs into a snowstorm and one door opens up into the backdrop of another like a stargate transporting the actors through time and space. Or where an ornate hand fan melts into the sound of thumping horse hoofs. Basically, I was riveted from start to finish. Keira Knightley is the titular character, drawn between her duty to husband and family and the torrid love affair of a handsome cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor Johnson). While this rote compromising of situations is involving, I was much more interested in the secondary story of lovelorn Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander)… a strand of Tolstoy’s novel which is less focused upon. In this updated version, their relationship is extremely subtle and touching, serving as a bitter counterpoint to the obsessive relationship between cousin Anna Karenina and Vronsky. Wright has crafted a kinetic film and one that feels superbly connected to the emotions and longueurs of its source novel while opening up the parameters of its antiquated narrative in progressive, thrilling ways. It’s one of the very best films of the year.
Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” is probably the best looking, grubby hit-man film in years, but that’s about it. Major props to newcomer cinematographer Greig Fraser whose profile is seemingly about to blossom with this and his work on “Zero Dark Thirty” After high anticipation from his previous film, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” (which I hold in high esteem as one of the best films of the previous decade), Dominik has abruptly shifted gears both in tone and running time, adapting a George V. Higgins crime novel and setting it squarely in the middle of the 2008 election as both the nation and the crime syndicate are facing unstable futures. After two small time hoods knock over a card game, the organization sends in smooth hit man Brad Pitt to calm the waters. The overall problem with “Killing Them Softly” is the recycled dialogue that dominates most of the film by its ugly, unstable array of underworld characters and, at times, draw the film to a screeching halt. Even James Gandolfini shows up as an out-of-town killer suffering from depression and alcoholism as if he‘s wandered in from the set of The Sopranos. The conversations of fiscal responsibility within the syndicate and endless riffing on sex (not to mention an especially cruel conversation between the film’s only female presence in the form of a hooker) drone on for far too long between characters that are neither self reflexive nor interesting. The final scene, ending in mid-sentence is a pleasantly contrived way to fade to black, but by then its too little too late.
The Loneliest Planet
In “Day Night Day Night”, first time filmmaker Julia Loktev took a rigorous approach to the final hours of a female suicide bomber wandering around New York. Filled with airtight tension and an almost impenetrable over-the-shoulder relentlessness, it was a terrific masterwork by a young artist. Her second film, “The Loneliest Planet” is just as opaque and relentless in its single-minded attention to the journey of not one but two people this time- a couple hiking in the Georgian countryside. Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg are the couple… smitten in love and embarking on a harmless adventure that turns out to harbor psychological terrors that will rear its ugly head about halfway through the film. But unlike “Day Night Day Night”, this latest effort (albeit a different animal together) is drained of tension through its artful but strained moments of extreme long takes, wordless stretches and evocative scenery. The point is well taken, but “The Loneliest Planet” feels like a short film pushed to punishing extremes, made all the more uninteresting through two main characters whose travails are given no emotional anchor.