Tag Archives: Movie Review

Review: Anna Karenina

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We get it. The movie opens with a shot of a proscenium and an orchestra tuning. There is a backstage and lights and seats and set pieces that turn into other sets. It is a performance. That much is clear. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have set up the latest screen adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s lengthy novel of adultery, on a stage. It was a nifty idea.

But unfortunately, that nifty idea just didn’t make sense as an actual film. Despite Wright’s talent for directing Keira Knightley in sprawling period pieces (see Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), Anna Karenina, at a fundamental level, just doesn’t work.

Almost immediately in the film, the theatrical framing  begins to take away from the grandiosity of the story. As soon as the four walls of the stage appear, they make the film seem smaller. The goal may have been intimacy but the result was meekness and, quite frankly, confusion. Why did some of the drama take place on the stage and some not? Where does a field fit in with catwalks and sandbags and trapdoors? Why is there an audience onscreen sometimes and not others? Why do any of this at all?

It appears, eventually, that the world of the stage is the public one. When Anna is, as it were, on display in Russian society, the action takes place in the theater. Her more private moments take place in the traditional sets of a movie, and then slowly, as the film progresses, are forced into the public space. It’s really very intriguing, and it gets at the central theme of the story, but it just doesn’t always work. The audience will likely spend more time trying to figure out exactly why the film is flipping between the stage and the apparent real world than appreciating the artistic value of that switch.

The film’s problems are not solely due to this theatrical framing. Wright’s portrait of Anna is no more sympathetic than Tolstoy’s was, yet this whiny, tiresome brat is hard to take on screen. The central love triangle — between Anna, her husband and her lover Vronsky — lacks the chemistry to make it believable and the urgency to make it engaging. Whether this is the fault of Wright or Tolstoy is hard to tell, but the focus on the lovers verges into boredom, and makes for a third act that really drags.

Even for an avid appreciator of theater, there was a fundamental disconnect between the goal of the framing device and seeing that device. The film, perhaps, deserves an “A” for effort. They had an intriguing idea and they tried so hard. And it must be noted how  beautiful the film is to look at, especially in the way it weaves stage sets and film sets with gorgeous costumes in meticulously composed shots. There was a lot of thought put into the whole thing. Unfortunately in Hollywood, the thought isn’t really what counts.

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Review: The Paperboy

Hello all! You guys should check out my review of Lee Daniels’ new film The Paperboy (aka that movie where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron) appearing in this week’s 34th Street Magazine at Penn! And also look out for coverage of the Philly Film Festival, starting next week!

Much love and seeing double!

Kelly

500 Movies #8: Would Smell Just as Sweet

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. 

8. The Namesake (2006) Mira Nair

“Books are for traveling without moving an inch.” So says the grandfather of Gogol/Nikhil, the young man who must deal with his double name and his double-cultural identity in  The Namesake. If books can take you places movies can too, and this film certainly does, whisking its audience off on an adventure of self-discovery, tracing the steps of a life. Taking us from the streets of Kolkata to the streets of New York the film paints a vast portrait of the life of someone who belongs to two worlds. It tells the story of Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn, surprisingly endearing in this serious role), the son of first generation Indian immigrants, starting from the train accident that convinced his father to leave India, even before his parents met, and moving later into Gogol’s adult life.

The film succeeds in painting a portrait of Gogol’s life, relating him to the audience but also relating his parents to the audience, and their old-fashioned Bengali ways. Almost as much as it is Gogol’s story it is also his parents’, Ashook and Ashima’s; it is the story of their love and the family it created. It is not a one-sided or one character film but rather much more multi-dimensional, grappling with its threads the way its characters grapple with their cultures.

Gogol’s story is moving, but that is not what makes the film significant. Rather it is the way that story is told. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, and even if you’ve never, it is clear that the film has its own distinctive adaptation as it is distinctly cinematic in the way it unfolds. That is the mark of a good adaptation, something that, though it comes from source material, it becomes its own piece of art. And they way Nair paints the cuts of the film onto each other you feel like you could frame it and hang it on your wall. The film is very much the essence of film: moving pictures. Each shot is meticulously composed and tells you all you really need to know. Whether it is the bright colors that cover the streets of Kolkata or the grim gray snows that cover the suburbs of Manhattan, every frame in the movie is doing its part to tell the story.

You get the sense that Nair wanted to make it a silent film, to tell the story in a way that the book could not have, entirely out of image. Long stretches of the film are silent, and the camera pans over whatever the characters see, be it the Taj Mahal or simply their own living room. The cinematography is beautiful, precise, and poignant; it is the crux that the film rests on. The way the images unfold across the screen it is almost like Nair is taking you through the Ganguli family album, slowly flipping page after page until a bigger picture starts to come together.

500 Movies # 7: Do You Believe in Magic?

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

Buster Keaton’s 1924 film, Sherlock, Jr., is one of the most classic of classics. It treated audiences to some of the first special effects in cinema, creating a film full of fantasy but also full of Keaton’s trademark witty and physical humor. The silent film is a film on film, and also a film within a film, a look at how we as an audience view cinema and what that cinema really means.

The plot centers on Keaton’s amateur detective/film projector operator protagonist. Everything is going okay for our hero, until his love’s father loses his watch. It turns out it was stolen by a villain, but Keaton is framed. Kicked out of her house he heads back to work, where, uncannily, the movie he is projecting carries the exact same plot, only with slightly more glitz and glamour. When he falls asleep in the projection room, he dreams he and his acquaintances are apart of the movie he is watching, and that is where the magic and fantasy begins to happen.

The film has the ability to evoke wonder and amazement in even a modern audience because it relies not on the special effects it pioneered but on the idea that all movies are inherently magical. And in a way, every movie is magical, no matter how real its subject matter. The larger-than-life images that cover the screen, the stories that speak to the audience, the images that fly across our line of sight, it’s all magic, even if there are no wizards or wands involved. Keaton understands this and when his character becomes a part of a movie, the magic of the movies becomes the key to the story.

In this dream film, the fourth wall is literally absent from buildings, so the audience can see what’s going on inside and outside at the same time. One moment, a man is standing in a doorway, and another moment, Keaton jumps right through him. A game of pool is played and the 13-ball is never, ever hit. Doors are mirrors and mirrors are doors. Yes, Keaton’s ghost emerges from his body and picks up a ghost hat, an impressive feat for 1924, but that is simply a part of the greater fantasy. Keaton almost doesn’t need the special effects; the magic of the film is carried on the backs of slide of hand and old-fashioned stunts.

In the end, the frame story that makes up most of Sherlock, Jr. isn’t that important. The title is deceiving; the movie isn’t about a mystery, but about movies themselves. When Keaton finally wakes up he looks not to himself for what to do, but to the movie that is still magically flickering across the giant screen. He wants to preserve that magic, to keep it going in his real world. But in the real world, you can’t just kiss and then cut to a scene years later. And he finally learns that life isn’t really like the movies. It’s just not quite as magical.

500 Movies #6: He Dance, He Dance!

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

6. Billy Elliot (2000) Stephen Daldry

Billy Elliot is the story of a little boy in Britain during the 1984 strike against the Thatcher closing of the coal mines who wants to be a ballet dancer. What could have been a really cheesy and sappy story about breaking barriers and exceeding expectations is actually a deep and sappy story about the same. Director Stephen Daldry’s most recent film was last year’s Oscar nominee, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close another piece of sappy fare. I didn’t see it (as an avid fan of the book I was against the film, in my opinion it was not a story that lends itself to adaptation) but I can see the the seedlings of it in Billy Elliot.

One of the most striking things about the movie was how much it wasn’t really for children. Yes the main character is a young boy, but the film is laced with profanity and sexuality.  The movie has been made into a blockbuster Broadway musical for the whole family, but this is definitely apart from that. Never was there a twelve-year old with a mouth like Billy’s…or actually there probably are a lot they just don’t talk like that in front of me. But he is not sugarcoated, the way that child characters can be in movies actually made for children. They do everything right, and if they have a flaw, it’s just the one. I watched one episode of ABC family’s soapy The Secret Life of the American Teenager and was most struck by the fact that the only vice these teens participated in was sex. No drinking, no drugs, and not even any swearing (the amount the show had to use the term “having sex” was silly). Billy and his best friend Michael, a boy struggling with his sexuality, are fully formed characters. They swear and they talk about sex and they dress up in girls clothes because they can.

And the conflict with Billy and his father about the ballet isn’t as cliched as one might expect. It’s not just that Mr. Elliot is a man’s man, he’s also a recently single dad who is involved in an increasingly violent strike and not making money and doesn’t really know how to raise a boy on his own. He’s not just angry that Billy has secretly been taking ballet lessons, he is downright dumbfounded. Why would his son like ballet? What is someone supposed to do about it? Who is my son? As he comes to terms with these questions and begins to understand Billy for the first time, the film really shines. It’s not just about a boy who does ballet, it’s about parents and children understanding each other.

In terms of the gender and sexuality question, the film does a marvelous job handling it. Billy memorably says that he’s not gay just because he likes ballet. His best friend Michael, who is gay, is able to reach out to the Billy as the only other person defying gender norms in their tiny community. It’s a nuanced look at the question, and it’s telling us this happened all the way back in the 80s. All in all the film is a heartwarming sap that isn’t as much of a guilty pleasure as you might expect. And goodness gracious, the dancing is amazing.

Billy Elliot is now 176/717 movies on my flick chart. 

500 Movies #5: Who Watches?

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

5. Watchmen (2009) Zack Snyder 

A few weeks ago I found a copy of Watchmen, the graphic novel, in some old stuff. I decided to read it because, hey, I never had, I was bored, and I was trying to add comic books to my pop culture repertoire. It’s not that I didn’t like them, but as a young girl growing up in the midwest suburbia with no brothers, I never really came across them. I was really wowed by what I found in Watchmen. It had an intriguing story with amazing art. I was engrossed in the world it created. When I finished, I immediately added Zack Snyder’s adaptation to my watch-list, despite my vague recollections from 2009 that it had not been entirely successful.

My initial reaction to the film was that I was underwhelmed. Here was a story that on the unmoving page had lifted me off my feet at its climax and had set my heart pounding in its battles and cliffhangers. On the screen it was just…slow. In nearly every way. And it wasn’t just Snyder’s excessive use of slo-mo, but the pacing and the general feel of the film. Something that had been incredibly exciting in pictures and bubble text was in a lot of ways dull in full visualization.

Sure the movie was loyal. It was incredibly loyal (well except for one key plot point, but more on that later). The panels of the graphic novel seemed to just have been transplanted to film, and I think that was where the central flaw of it lies. Some things work better in one medium than another. One that jumps to mind is the funeral sequence for the Comedian. In the book and in the movie, it is interlaced with flashbacks from the attendees to moments they shared with Eddie Blake. In the graphic novel, this felt natural, as it often moved into the thoughts of the characters. In the movie, it seemed odd, and slowed the pace down to a great extent. It took over ten minutes in an already long film to get out of that graveyard. Yes the flashback sequences were important, but it was the wrong way to convey them.

One thing I did like was the opening credits sequence, an instance where Snyder deviated from the source material, not in content at all, but in delivery. He put the history of masked heros into a single montage, that conveyed the story of the world perfectly. It was slow, but it was meant to be slow. It was backstory that the audience needed to understand right away. And then they were ready for the film to take off, which it never did.

There was already a motion comic of Watchmen, I didn’t really need another, vastly more expensive one. I appreciate loyalty to such a revered text, but adaptation requires the filmmaker to think about the medium more than the material, something I don’t think Snyder did. I’m cautious about his superman adaptation, Man of Steel, out next summer. The first trailer is puzzling, and I don’t have a sense of the film at all. We’ll see.

Watchmen is now 465/716 movies on my flickchart. 

500 Movies #4: The Iron Teddy Bear

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

4. The Iron Giant (1999) Brad Bird

A lot of the movies on this list are there because I suffer from something I like to call “youngest child syndrome.” It’s a common disease in which children of families with multiple children who are the youngest tend to miss out on things. I never saw some classic children’s movies because of the simple fact that, by the time I was seven or eight, my parents weren’t going out of their way to show me kids’ films. Instead just let me tag along to the adult movies they were watching. And so I never saw The Iron Giant although I had always meant to.

Perhaps that is the reason why I’ve always enjoyed children’s movies and tv, even beyond my own childhood. I mean, I recently just finished watching the Avatar: The Last Airbender spinoff, The Legend of Korra and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is something to be said for entertainment for children that isn’t dumbed down at all. Full, cohesive and mature stories that simply are told from the perspective of children are the best kind. It’s part of the reason that Avatar: The Last Airbender was a huge success on tv and why the live-action movie version failed so miserably. It started to treat the story as less than it was.

And so, it was genuinely refreshing to see such an earnest kids’ film. The story of Hogarth, an outsider in 1954 Maine, was just the story of a little kid who wants a friend. His friend ends up being a 60 foot tall giant with the capacity to destroy the world, but still, you know, cuddly. It’s really wonderful to see how Hogarth uses his experience with the giant to open up to his mother and to make new friends. He just needed somebody who understands him, to make that first step. And then he was able to make more after that.

The Iron Giant himself was in the same predicament. We never really learn where he came from, but its irrelevant anyway. We know what we need to know: that he’s lost and alone and needs a friend. And so these two lost souls meet one fateful night and forge an unlikely friendship. And it’s really beautiful.

The movie also contains some truly sharp commentary. Agent Mansley, the bumbling government agent sent to investigate the strange goings-on in the small Maine town, is the crazed adult villain from the mind of children, but also from the real world. He’s impulsive, has a one-track mind, and would rather use children to achieve his goals instead of trying to understand them. The scene that montages his various attempts to get Hogarth to talk to him is both hilarious and spot on, as he cycles through a cliched list of names adults use to try to prove to children that they’re their friend. Sport. Scout. Buddy. Kiddo. Tiger. Champ. Hogarth wasn’t falling for it.

The movie also deals with incredibly mature themes, including the nuclear age. Set in the height of the Cold War, there are allusions to the old “Duck and Cover” drills as well as anxiety over Sputnik and the Space Race. A lot has been made recently of the nuclear problem in movies, brought to light by the use of a nuclear missile in the recent smash, The Avengers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it dealt with so deftly, or a satire so plain, than in this film. Evil Agent Mansley is determined to destroy the Iron Giant, going so far as to order a nuclear strike on the robot. But he’s in the middle of a town in Maine, not in the ocean or the USSR. The bomb will kill them all, including Mansley, who makes a pathetic attempt to escape. It is only because of the giant himself that they are saved. He sacrifices himself to save his new friends. In this one scene in a children’s cartoon, director Brad Bird tackles the problem of over-reliance on a nuclear solution, and how it will inevitably destroy us all. And in the real world, we may not have an Iron Giant to save us. A children’s movie did all of this. I wish they would make more movies like this, instead of things like Ice Age 4. Really, kids deserve better.

The Iron Giant is now ranked 329/712 movies on my flick chart.