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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


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The oft heard question “What would you do if you had [insert number here] days left to live?” is not a hard one for most people to answer. Most would spend it with their loved ones waiting for death to take hold of them. The surprisingly simplistic answer of such a difficult question, and the ease from which it comes, says a lot about humanity. Despite our obsession with materialistic things, most of us know what’s truly important in life. That’s the driving force behind the new apocalyptic dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Although hardly a revelatory study on human behavior, the film is nothing less than sincere, even when it’s a bit too jokey for its own good.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World wastes no time in setting up its grim story. As it begins, Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell) are sitting on the side of the road in their car as the radio gives them some bad news. A 70-mile wide asteroid is heading to Earth and all attempts to stop it have failed. Humankind has three weeks left to live. Linda then hops out of the car and runs away, leaving Dodge all alone. He then goes about the next week of his life lonely and depressed until he runs into his British neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who wishes for nothing more than to see her family. Unfortunately, they still live overseas and all planes have been grounded. Dodge knows someone who can help her out, however, and promises to reunite her with her family if she will accompany him as he searches for his long lost high school love, Olivia, before the world ends.

If Seeking a Friend for the End of the World had to be described in as concise a way as possible, it would be as a film with moments of profound beauty accompanied by an uneasy dose of emotion evaporating comedy. Its early moments are too farcical for its own good, laying a dishonest groundwork for a film that eventually reveals hidden layers of meaning as it goes on. With cameos by notable over-the-top comedians like Rob Corddry and Amy Schumer, the movie plays too much to its silly side while the characters face a grim and unavoidable situation. Despite an initial appreciation for these scenes, they don’t hold up upon reflection because what follows is a devastating, gut wrenching finale.

That in no way, of course, diminishes the impact of said finale. The ending is simultaneously terrifying and utterly beautiful. It manages to both make you smile and make you cry and the very last shot, which I dare not give away, will stick with you. It couldn’t have ended a better way. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be the most emotionally affecting movie to be released so far this year and that’s in spite of its larger deficiencies, like some awkward bonding scenes involving riots and a suicide assisted assassination.

Much of the credit can be given to Steve Carell, who once again proves his dramatic talent. His character is a very sad man, someone who waited his entire life for happiness to find him and now that he’s out of time, he recognizes he waited too long. Carell brilliantly realizes this man. He doesn’t whine over what could have been (and any mention of it is solely for expository purposes rather than a superficial attempt to win the audience’s affection); he just shows it on his face. Even when making a joke, even when he’s trying to feign happiness, his look gives him away. Sadness pervades him. Carell continues to impress in whatever role he’s in, be it comedy or drama, and though I doubt he’ll be recognized for it, he gives what is sure to be one of the best performances of the year.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, like so many movies, has tons of potential to be great, but squanders it. The fact that the ending of the movie still works as well as it does shows that with a little extra care, with some more reasonable early film decisions and a maybe a few cuts here and there, it could have been something special. But this is one of those rare movies you won’t look back on and remember disappointment. You won’t dwell on its problems. You’ll remember how the ending made you feel (and it’s bound to make you feel something) and the ensuing effect it had on you. While I can’t justifiably make the argument that the film is anything more than simply good, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World hits so many right notes that, in retrospect, its problems don’t seem so large at all.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World receives 3.5/5


Never Let Me Go

It seems that 2010 is the year of underwhelming films. So many movies with so much potential have come out and struggled to reach the top. Special people with real talent have come together and delivered quality, but few have been worthy of consideration on a best of the year list. Last week’s The Town was one of those movies. Never Let Me Go is another. A handful of great performers team up with a prized director in what is yet again a good, but all the same disappointing, film.

In the early 1960’s, medical science had a breakthrough that expanded the life expectancy of humans to over 100 years. Unfortunately, it required harvesting the organs of people genetically engineered specifically for that purpose, which, consequently, killed them in the process. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are three of those people. They were friends as children, but now they’re all grown up and Tommy and Ruth have begun a romantic relationship while Kathy remains alone. Perhaps because of this, Kathy decides to become a “carer,” a person who comforts donors as they go through their period of giving away their organs. The trio has now grown apart, having not seen each other in 10 years, but Kathy soon finds out that Ruth has been called upon to donate, which brings them together again.

Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go feels like it was adapted literally page by page. Although I haven’t read it, I say this because novels tend to move a bit slower, taking more time to flesh out its details. What the movie does is skip over the details while keeping the sluggish pace.

And its slow pacing is a problem because there's a general lack of connection to the characters. Although it’s emotionally complex, it’s also curiously flat. The characters go through a range of feelings—happiness, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, rage and regret—but there’s a detachment between them and the audience. We don't feel what they do. Their world feels faked and the ending doesn’t work because of a disregard for character building. So little time was spent crafting a believable connection between the two end characters (whom shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers) that I cared little about what happened to them. I was always aware I was watching a movie.

Although Never Let Me Go stumbles in its character development, it is thematically rich and offers up plenty to think about and discuss. It may tackle similar territory as something like Repo Men or Repo! The Genetic Opera, but this movie isn’t simply about blood and violence. It asks what makes one person more valuable than another. It wonders if cloned organisms can be considered actual living things or merely soulless tools with which to slaughter and use at our behest. It even shows the benefit of one person sacrificing their life to save another, an allegory for a number of things, including war.

There’s a certain scariness to Never Let Me Go, similar to what I imagine it would be like to be on death row. These characters know their fate is sealed. They know one day they will be summoned to die and, once summoned, it's like a ticking clock counting down to the end. It’s an unsettling thought, one I would never want to live with. I suppose that’s where the movie impresses the most. It’s dramatically lacking, but it still keeps you hooked because it deftly explores morality and mortality, knowing full well that death is too often caused by the hands of others.

Never Let Me Go receives 3.5/5