Sunday, April 14, 2013

ANNA and JOE.... studies in passions.

ANNA KARENINA, Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of 1874 imperial Russia and its brittle societal structure, has once again been made into an arresting and visually stunning motion picture, but there are key differences between the two famed versions of the past and director Joe Wright's unique vision. Greta Garbo's 1935 version mesmerizes the viewer with its shimmering black and white photography and its concentration on one of the greatest faces in cinema history, though Frederic March is a bit stiff as her lover Count Vronsky, and Basil Rathbone is far too villainous as her husband Karenin. Vivien Leigh's 1948 take is beautiful to look at and has better acting, but it also lacks believable passion.

I would like to say that the 2012 ANNA KARENINA corrects all the above lack, but that is not the case. Wright who gave us the beautiful and witty PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and the underrated but brilliant ATONEMENT has once again used actress Kiera Knightley as his muse. She plays the hapless Anna as a somewhat flighty, spoiled flower who seems to fall apart the first time she spots the dashing military man Count Vronsky (played insipidly by kewpie doll Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Both actors are far too young and erratic to be believable, but Knightley grows into her role as her world crashes down around her. Taylor-Johnson simply twirls his mustache or raises a condescending eyebrow. Far more believable are the supporting actors, chief among them Jude Law as the betrayed husband. Law makes Karenin a tower of moral principles but also a man who silently suffers because of his lack of feeling.

There are many aspects of this production that make it worth seeing, however. The sumptuous sets and costumes and the breath-taking musical score won 2012 Oscars, and deservedly so. Director Wright has made a concept movie that almost works. He begins his drama as a stage play and rarely resorts to realism. We see intimate scenes in small tableaux, as in front of a curtain. Or we see balls both from the audience level as a participants, and they are staged both realistically but also as choreographed ballets for emotional effects. It's an interesting take, but imagining Russian aristocrats dancing ballet at a ball is a stretch. The photography is stunningly sharp, revealing every tear drop or pearl drop in detail. There are several moments of clever satire in this approach as we see a bureaucratic office where the clerks stamp their papers in a mock musical comedy assembly line.

And here's the rub. ANNA KARENINA is all so beautiful and clever that it reminds of us of one of those Russian Faberge eggs, so decorative and delicate yet so lacking in dramatic depth. A tragedy needs adults and real drama. These are lovely people who hold our attention but not our hearts.

Any pretense of realism or character development is totally and aptly lacking in GI JOE: RETALIATION, a bombastic, overblown comic video game that continues the sci-fi premise that the GI Joe outfit is our key defensive element...UNTIL they are bombed out of existence by an evil cavil that has kidnapped the president and replaced him with a smiling double, and...and...I'm sorry..I really couldn't follow this plot or the multiple character switches, probably because I was being pelted by so many projectiles in this 3-D disaster. They include missles, shrapnel, swords, tanks, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, and Bruce Willis, to name a few. I do remember that the fine English actor Jonathan Pryce (Tony Winner for MISS SAIGON) plays both the good and evil president. As the latter, he gets to say one of the film's only good lines after he has seemingly detonated most of the world: "Well, at least I don't have to worry about that Climate Control Meeting next month." Unfortunately, that's the highlight of GI JOE: RETALIATION. The first of this franchise starred Channing Tatum, who is fortunate enough to be killed in the first ten minutes of this bomb.

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