Recent Movie Round-Up 11/29/2012

In today’s rendition of Recent Movie Round-Up, we have mini-reviews for a Leo Tolstoy adaptation, a bipolar romantic comedy, a character study about a recovering drug addict, and Michael Caine shooting people. Because that’s automatically awesome by default.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)
A lavish period romance that manages to bring style and substance into a unifying whole. Unfortunately, it’s so stylized and so in love with its own boldly original imagery that it ends up being emotionally hollow. I’m mostly a fan of Wright’s work. I was bored when I first saw Pride and Prejudice, but that was mostly because I saw it when I wasn’t even in high school yet. Meanwhile, I loved both Atonement and Hanna, each were two favorites in their respective years of release. I even enjoyed most of The Soloist, his most critically divisive film.

Wright returns to period romance with Keira Knightley for the third time in his career as a filmmaker. This adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel nails the subtext perfectly using a wildly clever conceit for its visual aesthetic. Almost everything is filmed almost as if it was on a stage in an opera house, and I really mean just about everything. With the exception of some real outdoors shots, most of the scenes in this film look purposefully fake and stagey to accent both the inherent melodrama of the story and its take on class and reputation. The two most perfect examples of this visual dynamic-ness involve transitions. In one shot, Anna Karenina will be walking from one room to another. But instead of showing her go down a series of hallways to reach it, the walls are taken apart around her and stagehands bring in new walls and props for the next room. Another brilliant touch is when another character decides to exit a fancy party and take a stroll down the poor district, but instead of actually leaving the building (Which, in itself, already looks like an opera house stage), he climbs the stairs and reaches an area resembling the rafters of a theater stage, with ropes, rickety wooden walkways, and everything. But instead of stagehands, there’s just poor people wandering about in its backstage “alleyways”.

Aside from the incredibly original, gorgeous style of the film, we also have some terrific performances from Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and other supporting cast members. Aaron Johnson is pretty good in it too, but I simply can not take him seriously as an actor for some weird reason, most likely due to his most major role so far being Kick-Ass.

But despite the strong direction, visuals, performances, and musical score, it just didn’t connect on the emotional level that it should have. Instead of feeling the gravity of Karenina’s intense love affair, because the framing device both makes the world feel smaller than it actually is and distracts from the central story, I never had an emotional attachment to the events that transpired.

But still, I enjoyed it. For a period romance, it’s surprisingly energetic and entertaining, due to its visual splendor and great performances. It gets the job done, but doesn’t quite soar to the realms of greatness the same way the original novel, or even Wright’s other films Atonement and Hanna achieved.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russel, 2012)
Oh boy, this is a tough one. On a surface level, Silver Linings Playbook is pretty damn enjoyable. It doesn’t bring much to the table for the romantic comedy genre, even when it’s also trying to be a dignified portrait of individuals with serious mental illness and other psychological problems. And when it is focusing on the relationship between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters, the movie shines thanks in part to their dynamic chemistry. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t infuse that great chemistry with a worthwhile story, which devolves into two of the most major Hollywood formula cliches humanly possible: “The Big Game” and a dance competition that essentially replaces any real character catharsis that the movie has going for it.

Thankfully, I still enjoyed myself for the majority of the runtime thanks to the aforementioned chemistry. But it’s also worth noting that Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are excellent as well. In fact, between this and the flawed but interesting Red Lights, this has been a good year for De Niro, who reminds us why he’s one of the most legendary actors. Of course, he’s not Taxi Driver good again, but it’s certainly much better than, say, New Year’s Eve.

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011)
Character studies don’t get more nuanced, sympathetic, observant, and elegant than Oslo, August 31st. This is a gripping portrait of a recovering drug addict who goes through an emotional odyssey within the span of a 24 hour period. The film is quiet and observational, never deliberately manipulating us down one emotional path, but leaving it open towards many. We can pity and despair for Anders, or we can even be outright contemptful of his actions and watch in abject horror as he spirals downward.

Thankfully, this nuanced approach works even further thanks to a terrific, three-dimensional performance from Anders Danielsen Lie, who brings the on-screen Anders to life and gives him a variety of layers. He accents his patheticness while still allowing us to understand that he’s really going through emotional turmoil. Without him at the center, the film would probably fail. With him, it’s a gorgeously heart-breaking experience with a killer, bleak ending. And at 90 minutes, it’s perfectly paced.

Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
Your typical, generic vigilante thriller elevated by the mere presence of Michael Caine. Also contains good performances from Emily Mortimer and that guy who played Filch in the Harry Potter movies whose name escapes me (Sorry, Filch). Situations feel somewhat contrived, but at least the dialogue is, for the most part, pretty well done, and Daniel Barber gives the characters enough time to breathe. Plus, the main “action sequences” are held and drawn out much longer, allowing for some tension instead of slam-bang action we’ve seen a million times in thrillers of this ilk. Did I mention Michael Caine? That guy’s awesome, y’know…

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