Friday, November 23, 2012

Shaking Off the Tryptophane Hangover

...and mining into the stuff I learned in college.  Blasted professors were right, I WOULD use this stuff later in life!

OK, I know I actually promised some turkey yesterday. However, this was before I consumed some turkey myself.  The later part of yesterday for me was lost in a haze of tryptophane and MST3k episodes...which, while centered around some cinematic turkeys, aren't quite the same thing.

So we'll be coming back to that this weekend (in part because the idea I'd had for this is taking a knock to my own weird sense of motivation.)  Until then, we've had one more go at something currently in theaters before I go back to whatever surprises and horrors I can find by fishing at random.

Well...something somewhat in theaters.  One of the advantages of being able to get access to an arthouse theater is access to limited releases.  Of course, this isn't to guarantee everything you see there is going to be top-notch.  Not that this was a bad film, but rather more of a let-down.

I believe Nicolas Cage said it best when he said,
"Good work, Ass-Kick!"

Having the access to check it out, and because my inner English major likes taking on a challenge from time to time, recently got to seeing Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy's rather massive Anna Karenina.  The overall experience is a curious one, really.  Ambitious, and strong in certain areas, but with some shortcomings that somewhat hold the film back from really going above and beyond.

In discussing its strengths, I think one of the first to discuss here would be Wright's decision on how to frame the movie.  Much of the work on the sets is designed to look like a stage production.  By this I don't mean that it simply feels like watching a filmed version of a stage production - the stage itself is a part of the movie, and the camera follows people through the sets as well.  This rule is established early on when we see characters dodging people 'behind the scenes' as they move to the next room.  Rather than feeling like simply a gimmick, the effect is actually quite well executed and really does give an extra bit of immersion to the film.  Further this is added to by the fact that it really seems most prominent in scenes of Russian society.  Sequences outside of the social rules, such as train stations and fields, feel much more natural and carry less of the feeling of a staged drama.  It makes for a curious message about the world the novel takes place in and what this says about the people within it, who must put aside their emotions to adhere to whatever rules and roles society places on them.  The overall effect is probably one of the most commendable elements of this adaptation - it's an ambitious move, and Wright handles it well without it feeling overdone.

...I have to admit I feel kind of bad trimming this one down on you guys.  Even for the 'stage' parts, some of the sets are turned up to 11 in a good way.

The other area where this film carries itself well overall is the casting.  While the acting does partially lend into a grievance I'll go into later, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't still quite impressed with the performances everyone turned in on this film in general.  In the title role, Keira Knightley slips in a couple of moments, but largely holds together in the role of the woman who rolls the dice by acting on her feelings and loses everything as a result.  The curious part is the fact that I honestly feel like her performance is strongest in the later half of the movie, when Anna's life is circling the drain as news of her affair is made public.  I mean, Knightley handles the nicer nuances of Anna's life well enough, but it isn't until she sees everything crumbling before her that she really seems to start bringing an A-game to the role.  In particular, the scenes she has leading up to the book's fateful finale are where she proves she got the role for more than just being a pretty face.  The sense of despair she shows is a far shift from the OK performance she has in the first act.  Thankfully, the rest of the key players also bring the big guns to their performances as well.  As Anna's husband, Aleksei Karenin, Jude Law becomes something of the thankless representative of what Russian society expects - his emotions all kept restrained as he maintains a stoic front, even in the face of his wife's infidelity.  For being the one expected to hold himself at all times, Law still plays the hurt anger Aleksei has to bite back well, and, while we want to side with Anna as the protagonist, it's hard not to feel bad for this man who's as much a victim of the social order as she is. Regarding the other main cast member,  I was rather surprised by seeing Aaron Johnson in the role of the movie's 'other man', Count Vronsky.  As someone who I had still largely remembered for his role as the somewhat luckless would-be superhero Kick-Ass, his turn here was an unexpected, but welcome bid to show he's got range as an actor.  The result, admittedly, is a bit of a mixed bag. To be fair, however, part of that's on the writing in this case.  Johnson does seem like he's trying at points, but because Vronsky is largely just 'the other man' here, it seems like he has the dubious honor of playing a plot device rather than an actual character, and his output unfortunately shows this.  The other two major standouts coming to mind, and the two who bring the most heart to the film, are Domnhall Gleeson and Matthew MacFadyen as working-class man Levin and Anna's brother Oblonsky respectively.  Appropriately, both seem to serve as counterpoints to Anna to degrees - Gleeson's Levin is a man who chooses to eschew social expectations and still pursue love based on what his heart tells him, and after a rough road, does manage to win out.  While his arc is somewhat shaky on the writing, Gleeson's performance is sympathetic and seeing him weather the proverbial storm is the silver lining to the film's ultimately tragic finale.  As the other counter, MacFadyen's Oblonsky manages to walk the line between flawed and likable with ease.  The film begins with his own infidelity, where everyone, Anna included, tries to keep them together.  Alongside his own example showing the societal double-standard, MacFadyen really does make us care about this side character, despite his failings.  The movie doesn't try to make excuses for his actions, or absolve him for doing them, but at the same time, it, nor MacFadyen, try to villify the man.  For two characters whose roles are ultimately more symbolic, they still manage to make the people behind them feel human enough that one can't help but commend the film for realizing we still need to care about these people to further the point.

Seriously, it sounds wrong to say, but misery really DOES seem to be her best friend in this movie as far as performance goes.

Of course, the emotions are also part of the film's stumbling point, much as I hate to say it.  There is certainly some feeling here, as the discussion of the performances above shows, and when it's good, it's quite good.  Of course, there's the 'when it's good' qualifier to keep in mind on this one.   Despite some great performances, there still seems to be a sense of an emotional detachment in the film, particularly revolving around the affair between Anna and Vronsky.  Again, it's not as though their performances are bad, because they both make a game effort of it- In fact, their first interaction together is a dynamic dance between the two that catches the eye of the upper class and is a thrilling scene for the viewer.  Overall though, the script never really seems to give us a sense of the passion that's supposed to be between the two.  Were this one of the other dynamics within the film, I might not come down as hard on it as I do here, but given their relationship is central to the film, and the book it came from, this certainly does hurt.  Honestly, I feel like part of this is due to the script by Tom Stoppard, which feels strange to say here given the man has proven he can write film before this point.  In this case, however, I feel like, were I watching this particular script performed live on a stage, it may resonate more and carry more weight.  As it is in this case, however, while the film does at least make an effort of showing these two are interested in each other, it has a hard time really making us believe it is the act of passions that it should be.  Which, in turn, makes it harder for us to want to have sympathy for Anna's decision to act on her feelings when we're not really feeling them ourselves.  Which is a shame to say since, as stated above, otherwise the film really does carry itself quite well.  This really does seem to be the only prominent stumble the film takes, but sadly, given it's a major piece of the film, it's a hard one to look the other way on.

This dance scene is officially the classiest way in film I have yet seen someone convey the messages: "Even though you're/I'm married, I would hit it.  HARD"

The finished product here is a pretty curious film, and if nothing else, is worth giving a watch for the unique approach Wright and Stoppard take to looking at Tolstoy's classic.  The end product, while not as likely to be acclaimed as Wright's earlier works Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, or as involving as Hanna. Yet it is still an ambitious piece for the man and will be worth remembering as a highlight on his resume.  Though its fault is indeed one that can't be swept aside, it also doesn't simply cancel out the fact that the movie otherwise has many strong points going in its favor.  Rather, the result is a film that could have been great.  While it misses that mark, it's still quite a good attempt in its own right all the same.

...oh don't be like that Jude.  You did well, and no one's blaming you for the slips here. all quasi-intelllectual there.  What the Hell happened?

Anyway, the good news is, as promised, I'm gonna have some cutlets of turkey lined up for next time, which will also herald a new semi-recurring theme here.  Till later this weekend folks!

No comments:

Post a Comment