Joe Wright threw audiences a curve with his last feature, the contemporary spy drama Hanna, which came on the heels of two literary period pieces (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) that had him pegged as the 21st-century David Lean, maker of elegant and visually sumputous erudite dramas. His fourth film, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, might signal, on the surface, a return to the form of those first two films. But don’t be fooled by the Russian literary trappings: This movie is just as much of a shock to the system as Hanna was, for entirely different reasons.
Anna Karenina opens on a proscenium with antique oil footlights lining the front of the stage, and it quickly becomes clear that Wright means to use this as the basis of his structure: Highlighting the theatricality of the dramatic events of the story by creating a surreal theater around it. It’s a difficult device to pull off, and it’s going to be a divisive one as well, if only because there’s really no greater purpose for sets to be moving around the actors, or for stage doors to suddenly open onto picturesque exteriors of the Russian countryside.
But what Wright has actually made here is a musical without songs. There is choreography, there are even some scenes that come inches away from breaking into song, but no actual musical numbers. What the film does retain from the musical is the notion that one can use the artificiality of something like a sudden musical number, or characters watching events unfold from the rafters of a theater, to heighten the emotion and drama. Indeed, there are times, after one has finally settled into the multiple intertwined storylines of Tolstoy’s novel, that the theatrical trappings melt into the background and simply help focus the attention on the action. And even when those devices are front and center, Wright is a filmmaker of such consummate technical skill that it’s just a wonder to see what he might pull off next. There’s a lengthy waltz section in which loves and allegiances between characters shift and morph in the midst of a mesmerizing set of dances, with people not involved directly in the scene sometimes freezing, sometimes disappearing completely—it’s the sort of pure cinematic moment that I could just live in over and over again. It’s far from perfect, maybe even deeply flawed, but I can’t help but recommend Anna Karenina simply as utterly satisfying eye candy.
David O. Russell’s follow-up to The Fighter was one of the big hits at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and debuts this week in a limited fashion before coming to more theaters next week before the holiday. Bradley Cooper stars as a man once again living with his slightly nutty family after spending some time dealing with more clinical sanity issues of his own, having been institutionalized for a number of months. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman with her own issues, and the two begin to forge a relationship as they also try to heal their respective illnesses. Making a movie about mental illness that is funny without crassly making fun isn’t an easy task, but Russell has long shown a skill for making comedy out of unlikely material, from the Gulf War in Three Kings to philosophy in I ♥ Huckabees.
With the release of Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi next week, the Freer takes the opportunity to look back at the career of this versatile director. Most of the films in the brief, four-movie retrospective come from the earlier Taiwan-based portion of his career from 1992 to ’94, including his debut feature, Pushing Hands, and the hit follow-up, The Wedding Banquet. But kicking things off tomorrow is his 2007 return to Chinese cinema after winning the Academy Award in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain. In Lust, Caution, the director adapts an Eileen Chang novella, a sexy spy thriller about Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II. One of Lee’s most visually sumptuous films, the movie was hampered in distribution somewhat due to a US critical response that was more tepid than the film’s warm reception in Europe and China, along with an NC-17 rating for the explicit nature of some of its sexual scenes.
National Geographic tasked photographer James Balog with the job of revealing the retreat of glaciers. Jeff Orlowski’s film documented that process by placing cameras at multiple glacier sites around the world, where the glaciers would be photographed at regular intervals over long periods of time. The results of these time-lapse portraits of massive glaciers practically disappearing from the frame, utterly changing the landscape in a matter of months, are the most striking and immediate representations of climate change imaginable. Orlowski’s film concentrates on the mechanics of the project itself, and then puts the films on display, which transform years into seconds.
Director Yaron Zilberman collects a formidable ensemble for his sophomore effort with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Wallace Shawn playing the four members of a longstanding, world-famous string quartet. Approaching a quarter of a century together, they’re rocked by the news that one of their members has some severe health issues; it releases a flood of emotions, some of them long repressed, among the members of the group. While some reviews have found the melodrama of the piece to be a little over the top, it’s rare to get the chance to see this many actors of this caliber working with one another on just the sort of character drama that’s designed to highlight their skills.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln
With Steven Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln biopic expanding to more local theaters this week, it’s an excellent opportunity to compare it to one of the earliest visions of Lincoln on screen in D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic, which stars Walter Huston as the President. Griffith’s film, one of the few pictures with sound he ever made, is a much larger overview than Spielberg’s detailed look at the last few months of Lincoln’s life. Starting with his early, pre-political days and then working its way all the way through his presidency and assassination, the film covers a remarkably large period of time in just over an hour and a half.
Special Features: Not a lot, but reportedly the restoration of the film is so spectacular you won’t even miss the extras. The disc does include Griffith and Huston doing an introduction to Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, which the two filmed on while working on Lincoln.