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Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is the worst type of movie, the kind that assumes you’ll side with the central protagonist even when that person has done nothing to deserve it. I can’t say I’ve read the novel by Tolstoy the film is based on, or even that I’ve seen the other numerous adaptations of it, but if this movie sticks as closely to the source material as some are saying it does, I’d say I’m not missing much. The film’s problems don’t come from a technical or performance based perspective; its failures all come from the story.

Keira Knightley plays the titular Anna Karenina, a socialite in the 1800’s who is married to Karenin, played by Jude Law, an aristocrat who has devoted his life to Mother Russia. He loves Anna dearly, but she has become unhappy. After a chance meeting with Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an officer in the Russian military, she sparks an immoral relationship. To have an affair as a married woman is disagreeable in a society that teaches marital stability and proper manners, so she finds herself an outcast. Now aware of the challenges she has to face, she struggles with her feelings, her husband and her status as a 19th century floozy.

The first thing that will strike many viewers of Anna Karenina is its lush production design and inventive visuals. The film is treated like a play, where scene transitions consist not of hard cuts like most other movies, but of the sets literally disappearing and being set up in front of you. Many of the backgrounds are clearly artificial—long hallways are little more than a poorly hidden optical illusion—and the steps the characters walk up and down are usually the ones leading to a stage. Occasionally, it even toys with the musical score, similar to how Mel Brooks did in Blazing Saddles (though in a decidedly more artsy way), taking what would otherwise be non-diegetic and placing it directly onscreen with performers walking by the camera with instrument in hand. Its stylistic techniques are occasionally distracting (watching supposedly high class women walk in the cobweb infested stage rafters in their period gowns is quite jarring), but most work in a way that will surprise many, including a beautiful one-take dance scene between Anna and Vronsky where surrounding participants are frozen in time. These moments will either dazzle you or isolate you, depending on your level of cynicism.

If you’re in the former category and managed to be captivated by the film’s visuals, you’ll most likely be put off by an unlikable central character and a story that attempts to skew viewer feelings in the wrong direction. Anna’s husband, Karenin, at least as presented in this movie, is not a bad person. In fact, he’s entirely selfless, having already devoted his life to his country, and he loves Anna with all his heart. When he initially questions Anna about her infidelity, it’s not because he suspects something and it’s not due to jealousy (jealousy is demeaning to him and insulting to her, after all), but rather because those around her have begun talking about her adulterous ways. He doesn’t rush to judgment and even asks forgiveness should he be incorrect in his questioning. Later, when he finally gets confirmation that Anna has indeed been with another man, he doesn’t strike her or even raise his voice. He calmly sits down and asks what he did to deserve this, as if her actions are somehow his fault.

Defenders of the film will argue that the story is about unconstrained passion, a love that can’t be helped, but there’s no grey area regarding Anna’s promiscuity. She is being unfaithful, yet we’re supposed to side with her, the side that neglects the consequences of her actions on those around her. She doesn’t care that she’ll most likely never see her son again. She doesn’t care that she’s emotionally devastating her husband (even as he tries to protect her from a society that will hate her and her cheating ways). She doesn’t care about anything but herself, or at least not as much.

The conundrum a critic faces here is that Anna Karenina is a technically well-made movie, complete with fantastic costumes, wonderful set design and terrific performances. Its unique approach to storytelling is fascinating and works more often than not, but all of these aspects are placed in a story with a character that is damn near impossible to care about. Those technical aspects are certainly worth noting and make up nearly all of this review’s accompanying score, but when it comes down to it, film is about meaning. It’s about telling a gripping story that we can invest ourselves in. On that basis, Anna Karenina is a miserable failure.

Anna Karenina receives 2/5



Disease is a universal fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to be sick and no matter how hard one might try, sickness can’t always be avoided. The thought of a deadly pandemic is scarier than any boogeyman one can think up and it’s here that the latest Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, finds its inspiration. It takes the fear many have felt in recent years thanks to viruses like SARS and the bird flu and uses it in a mostly effective way, depicting a strain of infection that spreads like wildfire throughout the world and kills millions of people. If you aren’t a germaphobe now, you will be after watching this movie.

Contagion is a film that is guaranteed to freak you out mainly because events like this could actually happen, and have. Consider, if you will, the Black Death, which is alone responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths, and it’s only one example of pandemics throughout history. A new virus, unstudied and untested, can have a devastating effect and, though this is a work of fiction, a voice in the back of your head will be sure to remind you that we are at all times only a few steps away from a similar reality. That’s the strength of the film. It sets out to scare and it succeeds.

However, as with any scary movie, there must be strong central characters to care about. Otherwise, the looming threat means little. Unfortunately, Contagion has none. There’s Mitch (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson have just died from the virus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the CDC who is trying to control the panic that seems to be spreading faster than the virus, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the person who is determined to find a cure, even if it means testing on herself, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an Internet blogger trying to uncover a government conspiracy that may or may not be real, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a member of the World Health Organization who is about to find herself in a precarious situation, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is also doing her part to help, and more. There’s even a cameo by Sanjay Gupta.

I don’t mean to suggest these actors aren’t doing their part; the acting is all around fantastic. I only wish to point out how crammed this movie is. Despite good performances, too little time is spent with any random character to create a connection between them and the viewer. Think of it like a news report detailing a shooting (an unfortunate event that occurred just the other day). It’s sad, but it’s a general sadness. What we feel is a different feeling than what we would have felt had we personally known someone harmed in the event. That’s what happens here and we fail to care about any one person. The film jumps back and forth between characters far too much, to the point where some are left missing for large chunks of the picture. Dr. Orantes, for example, is kidnapped relatively early on and forced to help the last of a dying village in Hong Kong. By the time it got back to her after spending extensive time elsewhere, I had forgotten she was even in that predicament.

It’s a poor juggling act—the majority of characters should have been written out of the script in favor of a select few—but Soderbergh does what he can and, as one would expect, Contagion is well shot, if a bit safe. Soderbergh doesn’t break any rules here the way he does in his more experimental low budget films like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience and instead cranks out a conventional thriller, but his usual verve for filmmaking is nevertheless apparent. Most of the film’s problems stem from too much ambition—its attempt to pack so much into such a short amount of time was unwise—but it’s hard to fault ambition. At least Contagion has some, which is a quality lacking in most movies these days.

Contagion receives 3/5


Repo Men

There's something avant-garde about Repo Men. It's not experimental or even particularly unique (Repo! The Genetic Opera tackled the same subject matter back in 2008), but it pushes the boundaries in that it's one of the only movies to gross me out to the point where I wanted to look away from the screen. It's like a disgusting, bloody My Winnipeg.

Set sometime in the near future, when Fast and the Furious X is about to be released, a company called The Union has emerged offering artificial organs to those in need of them. They can easily be bought with credit, yet the payments are so high that most who buy them cannot afford them. After a period of non-payments, a repo man is sent to take the organ back, thus killing the person in the process. Remy (Jude Law) is the best repo man in the business, but after a faulty defibrillator backfires on him, he is forced to sign his own contract on an artificial heart. However, he begins to realize that what he is doing is wrong and refuses to harvest any more organs. Without a job and no money flowing in, he begins to fall behind on his payments and is forced to go on the run with fellow artificial organ owner Beth (Alice Braga) while his former partner Jake (Forest Whitaker) hunts him down.

Repo Men is a movie that, as bloody as it is, seems like it wants to make a point. Similar to how last year's Saw VI made a statement on health care, Repo Men attempts to say something about financial corporations, loans and the debt they're practically forcing upon people, but it doesn't quite come through.

Part of the reason is because the film is as silly as they come. Although it does have a few tonal problems, making strange transitions from comedy to seriousness, the laughs always overpower its otherwise morbid spirit. While the more dramatic scenes, like one where Remy finds himself standing in the middle of a wasteland of dead bodies, don't work, the rest do in a sort of B-movie way. Nobody will sit through this and claim it as quality work, but many will still walk out with a strange appreciation for it.

On the other hand, many will find it revolting and end up hating it. It's a justifiable reaction because Repo Men is beyond violent. With so many scenes featuring repo men cutting into flesh and removing their victim's innards, it can, at times, be hard to find pleasure in it. In fact, I found none in the first act of the movie. Before Remy has his accident, you follow him and Jake around as they mercilessly kill the poor and innocent, never taking into account that their victims could be fathers, sons or brothers. But as the film goes on, the characters take a redemptive path and begin to right their wrongs. Sure, it doesn't quite make up for the assumable thousands of murders before it, but hey, nobody's perfect.

There's nothing to gather from Repo Men. There's no clear message. There's barely a story. There isn't any real reason for it to exist. It's incredibly stupid and the ending is a giant cop out, but I must admit, I had a good deal of fun with it. It may not be for everybody, but for me, it's the biggest guilty pleasure of 2010.

Repo Men receives 3/5


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

If you're a film lover, you were immediately saddened about the untimely passing of Heath Ledger. If you didn't care at first, you almost certainly did after watching The Dark Knight, if for no other reason than for the future of that franchise. He created one of the most terrifying villains to ever grace the screen with the Joker and it really is a shame to know that the next Batman movie will lack his presence. Worse still is that he would have undoubtedly dazzled us with many more movies for years to come. Hollywood is hurting without him. Although most will always think of him as the Joker, he was in the process of filming one more movie when he died, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a quirky little fantasy tale about love and immortality that, unfortunately, never fully comes together.

Christopher Plummer plays Dr. Parnassus, an old man who travels the country performing a stage show with his vertically challenged friend Percy, played by Verne Troyer, his daughter Valentina, played by Lily Cole, and a boy in love with her named Anton, played by Andrew Garfield. The 16th birthday of Valentina is fast approaching and Dr. Parnassus finds himself troubled because in a deal he made a thousand years ago with the Devil, he agreed to give up any newborn once they turned 16. In exchange, he earned immortality and the ability to guide the imaginations of others as they walk through the centerpiece of his show, a mystical mirror. Eventually, the Devil makes another offer to Dr. Parnassus. If he can capture five souls in two days, before Valentina's birthday, he can keep her. To do this, he must attract people into the mirror and he finds help in Tony, played mostly by Heath Ledger, a mysterious man with amnesia, who uses his allure to whisk people into the imagination world.

You may be wondering what I meant when I wrote that Tony was played mostly by Heath Ledger. You see, when Ledger passed away, he had already filmed all of the scenes that took place outside of the mirror in the real world. Filming in the fantasy world was yet to begin, so according to many interviews, including this one from Comic-Con, Terry Gilliam, the writer and director, rewrote an early scene to explain that when somebody ventures into the mirror, that person's face can change figure. Stepping in to complete the movie are notable actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who nobly donated all the money they made on the film to Ledger's daughter. Although it is saddening to see the switch in persons, knowing full well Ledger is not with us anymore, one can't help but admire the imagination it must have taken to overcome this difficulty, being able to finish the movie while still allowing it to make sense narratively.

However, as much as I hate to say it, that's about as imaginative as the film gets. I was more impressed by the way they solved this problem than with the actual product itself. For a movie about a fantasy world where imaginations come to life, Dr. Parnassus is strangely unimaginative. I found myself bored by the visuals which did little to represent the imaginations of the people in the mirror.

Being a fantasy film, that's a big deal. It's not so much about what happens outside of the mirror, but rather what happens inside of it. Even if it were flipped around, however, you could still color me unimpressed. The story was simply uninteresting. I never sensed a genuine threat from the Devil, I felt that the third act personality twist of a certain character was pulled out of thin air, and the whole thing seems muddled, rarely explaining certain aspects of the film that needed explanation.

Now, the performances are good and the actors do what they can to sustain the movie, but when your run time is over two hours long, you need a better script and better visuals. As it stands, Dr. Parnassus has neither. I can feel my stomach turning as I write this because Ledger's life should be honored and his final performance demands to be seen. It's a close call, one that sickens me to no end, but I'm going to have to recommend you skip The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus receives 2.5/5