Nov 142012

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By Joe Bendel. Anna Karenina won the game of Russian birth roulette. Born into privilege, she initially enjoyed all the benefits of her well structured life, but lost everything due to a reckless love affair. Such was the price of offending Russian society at a time when it was trying to act French. Notions of social role-playing have now inspired the hyper-stylization of Joe Wright’s take on Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina, which opens this Friday in New York.

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Everyone is playing their socially expected role you see, so why not set Anna Karenina in a creaky old theater? From time to time, Wright will break away from the stagey confines, particularly when checking in on Levin, the rustic landowner and long suffering friend of Karenina’s ne’er do well brother. Of course, there are also trains – like the one taking the title character to Moscow, where she hopes to provide emergency marriage counseling for said brother and his justly aggrieved wife Dolly. It is sort of a pleasant trip spent in the company of the Countess Vronsky, whose cavalry officer son meets her at the station.

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The mutual attraction between Karenina and Vronsky are immediately evident, only intensifying at an eventful Moscow society ball. Having thrown over the plodding Levin in hopes of landing Vronsky, Dolly’s younger sister Kitty is deeply hurt when the officer ignores her in favor of the married Karenina. Spooked by the prospect of scandal, she hastens back to St. Petersburg and her husband Karenin, a progressive but culturally traditional government official. As everyone should know, Vronsky follows her—and so does scandal.

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There have been enough movie and television treatments to support a lengthy compare and contrast session here. In many ways, Tom Stoppard’s adaptation is quite distinctive, establishing a strong contrast between country simplicity and urban hypocrisy, while finally giving Levin his due. However, Wright’s stylistic conceit is far too distracting, taking viewers out of the story time and time again. The theatrical device is not even particularly original, having been used to greater effect in Manoel de Oliveira’s Satin Slipper, Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, and several Shakespearean films. Frankly, it is a rather baffling aesthetic choice, considering the whole appeal of a novel like Anna Karenina is the big messy sweeping grandeur of it all.

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Nonetheless, there are several outstanding performances in Wright’s film, especially from his lead, Keira Knightley. It is hard to think of anyone else with the same brittle beauty and aristocratic bearing, who can convey burning self-destructive passion and guilt-ridden anguish with comparable power. Yet the real surprise of Wright’s Karenina is Jude Law’s performance as Karenin, the wronged husband. Even though he looks considerably younger than the Karenin as described in the source novel (about twenty years older than his wife), Law creates a deeply sympathetic portrait of a fundamentally decent man, trying to act accordingly, despite the painful embarrassment of the circumstances.

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina."

In contrast, the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky is a head-scratcher. In truth, Wright lets his Vronsky off rather easily. In previous versions, Vronsky is something of a shallow cad, but here he is more or less a dumb kid who fell in love too young, but that creates a host of dramatic problems. Essentially, Anna Karenina is supposed to fall for Vronsky, because he is manlier than her husband, not vice versa. What she sees in this Vronsky is hard to fathom. I got stuff in the fridge that looks older than Taylor-Johnson and I’m not ready to throw it out yet.

Granted, Wright’s visual approach lends itself to some dramatic transition shots, but it never lets the film settle in and put down roots. Watching it makes one wonder what the director had in mind. Perversely, it is like Wright elicited award caliber performances from Knightley and Law, but then deliberately undermined them the postmodern theatricality and a maddening case of miscasting. There is room for some experimentation when tackling Tolstoy, but it should serve the interests of the picture. For instance, Sergei Solovyev’s relatively recent Russian production of Anna Karenina was considerably more expressionistic than traditional costume dramas, while staying true to the novel’s tone and story.

It is a shame Wright had to be so showy, because there is quite a bit of good stuff in Stoppard’s screenplay and the mostly impressive work from the accomplished ensemble cast. Recommended mostly for Knightley and Law’s diehard fans, Wright’s frustrating Anna Karenina opens this Friday (11/16) in New York at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on November 14th, 2012 at 11:14am.

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By Joe Bendel. When the end of the world comes, Manhattan will be the first to go. Some people may think that’s a blessing. By contrast, it would be a fate worse than death to be trapped with the yoga hippies communing upstate in Benjamin Dickinson’s slightly apocalyptic First Winter, which opens in Williamsburg (of course it does) this Friday.

There is only one reason Paul’s yoga groupies should not be considered a cult; that would imply a degree of organization they lack. Basically, he leads yoga sessions in between getting stoned and sleeping with the women of his choice, until the world ends. Caught up in their own little universe, the yoga minions sort of miss the big bang when it happens. They just see a bit of smoke and wonder what happened to their friends who never came back from town.

They try to carry on as usual, but sexual issues threaten to spoil the scene. For some reason, Paul dumps the cute (particularly for this group) Jen in favor of Marie, a comparatively drab old flame, who reappeared after the apocalypse. Oh, and their supplies are dwindling. Will the hippies be able to become self-sufficient? They live on a farm, after all. Or will they die a cold, hungry death?

Frankly, it is really hard to care – and why should we? Nobody seems too broken up about the unfathomable human tragedy that presumably happened around them. You might think the prospect of no more Phish tours or Deepak Chopra books would get them down, but everyone is more concerned about who is in Paul’s bed, including the jealous but drug addled Matt.

Why anyone would be attracted to the pasty white, scraggly-haired bargain basement guru remains a mystery throughout the film. It certainly cannot be explained by his self-absorbed personality. Unfortunately, the narrative does not offer much snap to distract viewers. In fact, the big climax comes and goes without viewers even realizing it at the time. Ordinarily, this would be a major dramatic shortcoming, but for First Winter, an abrupt ending is a happy surprise.

In all truth, the most interesting thing about First Winter is the controversy surrounding a deer the production reportedly shot out of season for the big hunting scene, without a proper license. Featuring shallow characters and a listless pace, First Winter is a hard, unpleasant slog. Jennifer Kim and Haruka Hashimoto bring some charisma to their namesakes, but it is arguably out of place amongst the rest of the dull cast of characters.

A failure on multiple levels, First Winter makes the presentable but not classic The Road seem like a masterpiece in retrospect. Both films are vague about the nature of “the end,” but in the case of John Hillcoat’s adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, it works in context. In contrast, the Brooklyn hipster’s lack of curiosity is a conspicuous strain on viewer credibility. Not recommended in any way, shape, or form, First Winter begins a six day run at Videology this Friday (11/16) in the County of Kings.

LFM GRADE: F

Posted on November 14th, 2012 at 11:13am.

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