Four stars for Anna Karenina, less for Hitchcock, Killing Them Softly and Back to 1942
Classic literature and classic film deliver the top stories this week, along with a disaster in China, violent American gangsters and some European films here for only a short time.
Here’s the list:
Anna Karenina: 4 stars
Killing Them Softly: 2 ½
Back to 1942: 3
4 from EUFF 2012: 4, 4, 3 and 2
ANNA KARENINA: Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and infidelity has been filmed over 25 times and this must be the most beautiful of them all. Gorgeous costumes and settings project out to us in brilliant cinematography. Attractive lovers Anna and Count Vronsky dance in a sexy swirl at the society ball. One of literature’s prime women’s stories is brought brilliantly to life through clever stagecraft and then rolled to a tragic conclusion. Not without problems, but with enough energy and success to make this one of the must-see films right now and a likely award candidate very soon.
Keira Knightley is Anna, married to a dull cabinet minister (Jude Law) in 1874 Russia and drawn away by Vronsky, a self-assured young cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It’s a scandal, especially when she becomes pregnant by him. Society shuns her. She gets sick and jealous and turns to morphine.
A parallel love story between a gentleman farmer and one of Vronsky’s rejects turns out much better. Some film versions don’t include it, but it’s here because this film is very true to the novel. That’s both good and not so good. Emotional anguish as punishment for adultery is a harder sell these days. The tragic conclusion comes on to fast. Director Joe Wright and scripter Tom Stoppard should have done more to prepare us and justify it. They do dazzle us with the stagecraft. The film starts as a play in a theatre, moves out to other settings but keeps coming back, even putting a horse race on stage, with live horses.
Knightley easily shows us Anna’s moods, demure and shy early; angry and despairing towards the end. Vronsky, however looks too young; Taylor-Johnson doesn’t project the authority the role requires. (The Ridge, International Village and Colossus Langley) 4 out of 5
HITCHCOCK: I saw Psycho in one of those triple-bill, flea-pit theatres Toronto used to have. It was Friday night. The place was full of teenagers making noise and tripping each other in the aisles. Until that film came on. Then they got absolutely quiet and remained hooked to the end. Hitchcock, which tells the story of how it was made, does not impart much of that film’s power. It’s a safe, standard bit of Hollywood history, fascinating to movie buffs (unless they already know more from the book it’s based on) but not essential to most people.
Anthony Hopkins doesn’t much look like the stocky director in the still pictures the studio has supplied but on screen he captures his manner and even his appearance pretty well. Scarlett Johansson is adequate as his star Janet Leigh and Helen Mirren is supportive but feisty as his wife Alma Reville, who we learn feared Psycho would be “low budget horror movie claptrap.” Hitchcock himself agonized: “What if it’s another Vertigo.”
But he raised the money himself, defied the censors and crafted a suspense classic. Among the intriguing details is the fact that his wife directed a bit of the film. Less interesting is the main story: her near drift into an affair with a screenwriter which stirred up Alfred’s hypocritical ire. After all, Alma rarely complained about his attraction to his blonde leading ladies. What doesn’t work is the recurring entry of Ed Gein, the twisted killer who inspired the novel and then the film. He arrives in dreams and visions, aka arty affectations. (Fifth Avenue, International Village) 3 out of 5
KILLING THEM SOFTLY: I worry about Andrew Dominik, who adapted an old novel and directed this gangster film, and Brad Pitt who produced and stars in it. It’s not only ultra-violent but also the most cynical work I’ve seen in some time. This is the kind of film that has Ketty Lester on the soundtrack cooing “Love letters straight from your heart” while Ray Liotta’s brain is blasted out by a shotgun.
Other graphic killings happen while Obama is on TV contending that Americans are united as one people. To be fair, John McCain and earlier George Bush are also nattering on in the background about the financial meltdown.
It’s 2008, and Dominik and Pitt see a parallel between the economic crisis at the time and the troubles of the low-lifes and criminals they depict. Two of the lowest rob a mob-sponsored poker game and must be disciplined. Richard Jenkins brings the orders and Sam Shepard plays an enforcer (briefly). He hands the job over to his assistant (Pitt), who because he’s not fond of doing what he calls a “double,” brings in a freelancer, James Gandolfini. Yes, the erstwhile Tony Soprano, now a fat slob, abusive and more occupied with the local hookers than the job. Pitt has to finish it.
“Softly” to him means fast; no whimpering. To us it means bloody. Great cast, sharp direction, possibly intended as a black comedy -- except that they forgot to make it funny. (International Village and suburban theatres) 2 ½ out of 5
BACK TO 1942: We’re getting this film the same day it opens in China, where it’s expected to be huge this season. The director, Feng Xiaogang, is China’s most successful filmmaker and like Aftershock, his masterpiece of two films ago, vividly recreates and re-examines an historical tragedy. This time, it’s a famine in Henan province that killed three million people and put many other millions on the road as refugees. It’s little known and should be recalled but I wonder if the Chinese authorities really understand what’s going on here.
This isn’t just a widescreen spectacle of suffering, of harrowing life and death in the snow, and the cold. Of people dying on the roadside. Of parents forced to smother babies they can’t feed. Women selling themselves for a bushel of grain. Japanese planes dropping bombs. It’s got all that and Feng lays it on thick and leaden like propaganda. It’s quite a relentless onslaught but it then perks up into a study of corruption and official indifference. It takes an American journalist, Theodore H. White, the man who later wrote all those Making of the President books but in 1942 was freelancing for Time magazine, to report the story and shame Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader, to send help.
Much of the aid is taken by the army and corrupt officials and businessmen. Comparisons with modern events are surely intended. The large cast includes well-known Chinese actors Xu Fan, Zhang Guoli and Chen Daoming, with Adrien Brody as White and Tim Robbins, embarrassing, as a priest who blames the famine on the Devil. (International Village, Riverport and Coquitlam). 3 out of 5
EUFF 2012: The European Union Film Festival is on for another week at the Pacific Cinematheque with titles still to go from 16 more countries. You can see details on them all at eufilmfestival.com but let me tell you about three gems and one dud among the four I’ve seen.
THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA, playing Friday night, is a mysterious, enchanting film from Portugal. It played at VIFF two years ago and I’m surprised it hasn’t come back til now. With fado-like melancholy and longing, it spins a fantasy about love, time passing and memory.
A young photographer is called to an estate one rainy night to take the last pictures of a young woman who has just died. Through the viewfinder he sees her opening her eyes and smiling. Back in his darkroom, the photo seems to come alive and then she appears to him as a ghost. Sometimes, the two fly off into the sky together and he muses about “that place of absolute love I’ve heard about.” Traditional farm labor and academics discussing “the cosmic situation” also figure in the film by veteran director Manoel de Oliveira. He was 101 when he made it. 4 out of 5
HOME FOR THE WEEKEND is from Germany where it was more appropriately titled WAS BLEIBT. It means “what remains” which is far more specific and accurate to the content. Two grown brothers visit their parents and eventually own up to their failings. One is separating from his wife; the other is going bankrupt as a dentist. The parents have news too: mom is going off the medicine that’s kept her depression under control for 20 years. Dad is about to embark on a mysterious trip without her. Some of these family-secrets-revealed films are intense and shrill. This one is quiet, sensitive, well-observed, extremely well-acted and very affecting. 4 out of 5
A ONE-WAY TO ANTIBES, from Sweden, plays Sunday. It’s another family drama but takes a side trip. A senior, played by best-actor winner Sven-Bertil Taube finds his ungrateful children are trying to sell his house to get cash for themselves. He coerces his cleaning lady, who has been stealing from him and is ready to do it again, to come on a road trip to find a lover from out of his past. He’s robbed, left for dead at one point and at another has to deliver a eulogy at a funeral for a man he doesn’t know and nobody liked. The film keeps throwing surprises at us and eventually reveals a few of his not-so-pleasant secrets. A lively film with many fun sequences. 3 out of 5
Oddly it is on a double bill with a weak comedy from Luxembourg called HOT HOT HOT. This one is all in English and feels like a cheap sit com entry. A mild-mannered worker at an aquarium is transferred to work at a nudist spa where culture shock, abrasive run ins with the boss and love with a co-worker build his self-respect. It’s sillier than that sounds. 2 out of 5
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