Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Anna Karenina: Art for Entertainment's Sake

I suspect that Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is wildly unsatisfying from a literary adaptation standpoint, historical standpoint, and film grammar standpoint but if there is one thing about the movie, it is alive.

In spite of its pedigree – adapted from one of history’s most celebrated novels, bolstered by Oscar nominated performers and filmmakers, lavished with extravagant set design and virtuoso camerawork – the film's primary interest is entertainment. And this is a good thing. It’s precisely that desire that made Wright's Pride and Prejudice such a resounding success. Anna Karenina isn't nearly as successful, it's too busy for starters, but for all it's failings, it does share Pride & Prejudice's defining trait: this is a period piece that feels immediate.

Anna Karenina transports you not only to a different time but a different world. The characters don't necessarily move or behave like humans and the world they inhabit is barely recognizable. That’s because the movie is filmed almost exclusively on sound stages and much of the time that’s made readily apparent by revealing the different facades or miniatures. The filmmakers have gone on record that this decision was made partly out of economic necessity but surely they are reaching for a subtextual significance as well. I’m not sure how rewarding it would be too spend too much time analyzing the film but on a fundamental level, the affectation does serve as a nice illustration of the pretense and theatricality required for high society. During the love / lust sections of the movie, the artifice takes less prominence and the true emotions take center stage. At the end of the day though, it all feels more Moulin Rouge than Dogville.

But I don’t want to undermine how incredibly entertaining this picture is to watch. And the fact that it takes such a boldly stylistic approach gives the film a real personality and inspires plenty of conversation points post-viewing. Joe Wright is one of my favorite working filmmakers and with the possible exception of The Soloist, his films never fail to be emotionally stirring and technically captivating.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Skyfall: Changing of the Guard

I didn’t find Skyfall quite as exuberantly thrilling as Casino Royale or as captivatingly vexing as Quantum of Solace but it is a more than worthy addition to the Daniel Craig Bond series. One of the most exciting things about these last three films is the filmmakers’ insistence to give each film a theme (or multiple themes). The films aren’t about ticking off the requisite Bond series traits checklist (although they do that, too). They each grapple with a theme. Whether it was gender in Casino Royale or ‘bonds’ of friendship in Quantum of Solace, all three of the Daniel Craig Bonds give the audience something to chew on.

The central theme in Skyfall is the struggle between youth and old age. While the film doesn’t come down hard in either direction, there’s a sense that we must adapt to the times but we must not discard the past either. Bond is visibly older, his hair cropped short to show his receding hairline and the skin around his eyes increasingly craggy. When Bond grows out stubble he doesn’t look like a model on the pages of GQ, he looks like an older man who has lost the will to groom. Similarly, when MI6 gets moved to a new location, their underground digs look ramshackle and weak rather than resembling a hip Silicon Valley office with its exposed brick and open plan seating.

In the battle between youth and wisdom, the subject of technology becomes a major part of the conversation. With the age of technology replacing the need for human-to-human immediacy, the relevancy of spies is questioned. When MI6 headquarters is compromised, it’s not through an invasion of armed attackers, it’s through a computer virus. Of course it’s nothing novel. Live Free or Die Hard explored a similar question while also using a beloved franchise to frame the argument.

There is a sense that anyone can learn how to use a computer. The casting of Ben Whishaw as Q is simultaneously a stroke of genius and also 17 years late. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem’s villain sure doesn’t seem like a computer genius which gave me the feeling like he had an unidentified band of computer hackers that we never see – a subject avoided by the film: perhaps the anonymous computer hackers don’t even know who they’re working for? In this day and age it does feel more realistic that a super villain would have access to a legion of computer hackers than to an army of muscle-bound henchman marching headfirst into death.

Skyfall seemingly wants to have it both ways. It begins by showing the likeliness of human error and then illustrates the precision and alacrity capable with remote computer technology but ultimately concludes with a proud stamp celebrating James Bond’s endurance in its 50th anniversary at the cinema.

As much as the film wrestles with the issue of aging and finds multiple touch points, it doesn’t make a firm decision either way. It seems to be suggesting the answer is a balance of both – most perfectly captured in the barbs traded by Q and Bond in the National Gallery Museum. “Youth doesn’t guarantee innovation,” being my favorite. But I couldn’t help but feel the end of the film restores a regressive viewpoint with the reprisal of female secretary Moneypenny and a gender rebalancing that reverts the progressive element introduced in 1995’s Goldeneye. This image is perhaps more symbolic than literal – Judi Dench’s M is characterized as harder nosed than Ralph Fiennes’ MP Gareth Mallory after all. But then he’s still the one jumping over desks and jumping in the line of fire while M’s call to action is setting light bulb-based booby-traps and later admitting her embarrassment over her poor gun performance.

Amidst some tremendous action sequences (in particular the Shanghai high-rise fist fight and the chase through the London Underground) the film still feels most vital when director Sam Mendes recalls his American Beauty roots in the moments that feature the tease of uneasy sexual exploration hinted at between Bardem’s villain and Bond or during the film’s inspired conclusion at Bond’s childhood home. Casino Royale established that the new Bond was resolutely a human being with emotions and fears. Quantum of Solace continued this exploration by creating a Bond film that was essentially a revenge picture and now Skyfall crystalizes this pursuit by arguing the importance of human consideration in an increasingly virtual world. To underline this point, it turns the film’s concerns from the national to the personal with Bond returning home to protect his surrogate Mother and Father from intruders. I appreciated the hints of both Straw Dogs and Jane Eyre in this bravura set piece that I’d never have imagined to see in a Bond film before. The sequence is both thrilling and thematically rich. It’s the main reason to see this film.

Is Bond still relevant? Casino Royale proved to audiences in 2006 that he definitely was. But the filmmakers still feel required to address it in 2012. There’s the usual casting rumors floating through Hollywood about the next Bond and while I think Craig is due for at least one more go around, the arc in Skyfall makes a nice case for calling it a day with the tidy character progression illustrated in this trilogy. Casino Royle did, after all, begin with Bond becoming a 00 agent.

Friday, September 21, 2012

It Takes Two: Hope Springs

Last week I saw a profound film with a clearly stated message, a dialogue-driven script and three incredibly natural performances. I'm as surprised as you are that the film was Hope Springs.

The movie is about a couple that has recently celebrated their 31st anniversary but found themselves in an entirely loveless marriage. The wife, Kay (Meryl Streep), signs up her and her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for a weeklong therapy session in Maine. As the film unfolds, we see their bumpy road to recovery. But is it too little too late? A palpable suspense resides throughout.

Frankly sexual and even-handed in its gender battles, Hope Springs is one of the bolder studio films released this year. Yes, there are several scenes that are excruciatingly bad (office banter with Lee Jones' co-worker, Elizabeth Shue playing a world-weary bartender) and the name of the town they visit is Hope Springs (ugh!). But these clunkers are contrasted with scenes of such wisdom and patience that they must be by-products of the filmmakers having to keep the studio happy. Such sacrifices were worth it to afford such starkly realistic scenes elsewhere.

The plot plods along at a casual pace and much of the dialogue is didactic, but the film sticks to its guns throughout. This is no smooth, montage-fueled romcom. This is a labored look at what it takes to sustain a marriage. It's clear that there are no shortcuts.

Anchored by three powerfully affecting performances, many scenes play out like direct-to-viewer counseling. I'd be tempted to prescribe this movie as an early step toward marriage counseling. I'm not sure if a licensed therapist would agree with me – surely the film takes a lot of liberties – but Hollywood can be a powerful medium and it's heartening to see a film like this use its platform to inspire.

If any of the three central performances hit a single false note, the film would fall apart. But each one succeeds magnificently. Jones and Streep both create rich, nuanced characters. Steve Carell has a very difficult role to pull off as their therapist. Not only must he combat the audience expectations of his comedic persona, he also has to serve the role of authority and wisdom while sharing the screen with two of the most celebrated authorities on acting. I imagine he must have been scared out of his mind having to go toe to toe with these acting legends. But he does it with unblinking confidence.

Hope Springs may be about 50+ characters but anyone who puts value in a romantic relationship should see this movie. It doesn't matter if you have been married more than 30 years or if you just started dating, the movie presents a core fundamental that is universal: nothing is perfect, there are two sides to every story and the only way to be happy requires both partners to put in an equal amount of work. Hope Springs doesn't have all the answers. But it believes it has some.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Top 10 of 2011

1. Beginners

2. The Trip

3. Tree of Life

4. Midnight in Paris

5. The Adjustment Bureau

6. The Guard

7. Win Win

8. Shame

9. 50/50

10. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (IMAX)

Honorable Mentions: The Artist, The Dilemma, Hanna, Hugo, In a Better World, Source Code, Weekend