“Anna Karenina” (2012) starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, & Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Vronsky: I love you!

Anna: Why?

Vronsky: You can’t ask why about love!

In 1874, in Imperial Russia, the aristocratic Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to save the marriage of her brother Stiva- AKA Prince Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen)- who recently affair w/ the governess. My fellow Austen fans know that Knightley and Macfadyen previously starred together in Pride & Prejudice (2005), also directed by Joe Wright. Anna has a loveless marriage w/ her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law); they have a young son- Serhoza. Anna meets a cavalry officer, Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), at the train station; they have a strong attraction to each other right away. She learns that Vronsky will propose to Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander- in one of her early roles), the younger sister of her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Anna convinces Dolly not to divorce Stiva; Kitty invites her to stay for a ball. The diamond necklace that Anna wears is an exclusive piece created by Chanel. Anna and Vronsky dance at the ball and call attention to themselves. They begin a love affair that will lead to tragedy for Anna.

Karenin: I consider jealously to be insulting to you and degrading to me. I have no right to inquire into your feelings. They concern only your conscience.

Wright adopted an experimental (some said ambitious) approach to this story; the majority of the film was shot on a theater built in Shepperton. The skating rink, train station, and stables were dressed on top of the theater. Doors open onto Russian landscapes; some actors walk from one set to another under the stage. Toy trains and doll houses were used for some shots. Levin (Domhnall Gleeson- in one of his early roles) is allowed to venture out of the theater b/c Wright wanted to stress the fact that Levin is the only authentic character. The soundtrack makes use of a Russian folk song that was also adapted by Tchaikovsky in his Fourth Symphony (written in the same time as Tolstoy’s novel). The song that the (presumably gypsy) Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee) hums and sings near the end is a Bengali lullaby (a language spoken in Bangladesh and the West Bengal region of India). Wow, I was NOT expecting that!

Countess Nordston: Would you die for love, Konstantin Dmitrich?

Levin: I would. But not for my neighbor’s wife.

[pause]

Levin: An impure love is not love, to me. To admire another man’s wife is a pleasant thing, but sensual desire indulged for its own sake is greed, a kind of gluttony, and a misuse of something sacred which is given to us so that we may choose the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness. Otherwise we might as well be cattle.

Countess Nordston: Ah, an idealist!

[laughter erupts]

I just saw this (1st time) last week and was a BIT disappointed (though I didn’t have high hopes for it). I’d heard/read reviews from several viewers who either hated it or were meh (unimpressed). As one viewer commented: “It looks like a perfume ad.” One podcaster said that Wright goes more for “style and beauty than substance.” I thought he did a great job w/ Atonement and liked the freshness he brought to Pride and Prejudice. Macfadyen is the ONLY actor who looks like he’s having fun w/ the role. Macdonald is naturally good in everything, but I think she is under-used here. There is almost no chemistry between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson (who has some distracting hair). I learned that he is British (I assumed he was American b/c I first saw him on Nocturnal Animals). Several fans of the book were esp. disappointed w/ Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal, b/c Vronsky is supposed to be more of a “deeper” man. Law does a fine job (though he looks unglamorous); some of his fans may be shocked to see his (natural) hairline. The younger couple (Gleeson and Vikander) do a good job also; I liked the sweet scene w/ the letter blocks. Levin’s scenes out working the land were done well. These actors teamed up for Ex Machina, a hit movie that was also critically-acclaimed.

There are other versions of this story to check out, if you’re interested; I have seen two other adaptations. The 1997 movie (starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean) has the romantic chemistry lacking here, but some viewers felt Marceau was a bit TOO restrained. I always like seeing Alfred Molina; he plays Levin. The 2000 mini-series (starring Helen McCrory and Kevin McKidd) has intelligence and maturity (which some book readers felt Knightley lacked). Sadly, McCrory recently passed away from cancer. I liked how Karenin (Stephen Dillane) and Levin (Douglass Henshall) were portrayed in that show.

[1] I’m not saying all films have to be constructed in a conventional manner, but when the form overtakes the substance something has gone wrong.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky is a piece of serious miscasting. Instead of looking like a great lover and sure temptation for wavering Anna, he looks like some feeble dandy with his foppish shock of dyed curly blonde hair which makes him look quite ridiculous.

Keira Knightley does the best she can, despite looking most of the time like she’s attending a fashion shoot.

[2] Keira Knightley’s version of Anna is not nearly as bad as you would think. She has the sense to restrain herself a little so that the many other elements of the novel shine through. […] This Anna takes Vronsky just because she can, and then ultimately regrets it. We can feel her frustration: she’s young and wants to have fun but she’s tied down to a stuffy older husband. In that sense, it’s quite a modern interpretation, but not hideously so.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky was just miscast. If the novel had been about Anna seducing a schoolboy, he would have been great, but Vronsky is meant to be a dashing man. The styling is atrocious- he looks like a seventies Scandinavian Eurovision entry.

Jude Law as Karenin. A bizarre choice… However, he gives a performance that is probably his best.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Glass Menagerie” (1987) starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, & Karen Allen

Tom [in the opening]: Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you an illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

In Tennessee Williams’ memory play, Tom Wingfield (an aspiring writer working at a shoe warehouse) longs to escape from his stifling apt. in St. Louis, where his genteel/Southern-bred mother, Amanda, worries about the future prospects of his older sister, Laura (who walks w/ a limp and is mentally fragile). While Tom escapes to the movies, Laura has created a world of her own w/ her collection of glass figurines. The original Broadway stage play opened at the Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 1945 and ran for 563 performances. The play has autobiographical elements, featuring characters based on Williams (named Thomas), his mother, and his sister (Rose). Growing up, I saw the 1973 TV version starring Katherine Hepburn (Amanda), Sam Waterston (Tom), Joanna Miles (Laura), and Michael Moriarty (Jim- the gentleman caller) on PBS. All 4 actors received Emmy noms; Miles and Moriarty won. Waterston and Moriarty (who started in the theater) are best known for their roles as ADAs on Law and Order.

Amanda: Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!

Tom: I will rise but I will NOT Shine…

This movie was directed by Paul Newman (who was married to Woodward); they were an iconic pair in front of and behind the camera. The New York Times reviewer wrote (in part): “starts stiffly and gets better as it goes along, with the dinner-party sequence its biggest success; in this highly charged situation, Ms. Woodward’s Amanda indeed seems to flower.” Amanda (Joanne Woodward) is a survivor who has to be practical; she works at a department store and sells magazine subscriptions on the side. Her charming/alcoholic husband (whose portrait hangs in a prominent place in the apt.) abandoned the family long ago (“a telephone man who fell in love with long distance”). Amanda speaks often of the comforts of her youth and the admiration she received as a young woman (“17 gentlemen callers on one afternoon”).

Amanda: You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!

Tom (John Malkovich) chafes under the boring routine of his his life, longing for “adventure.” Is he really going to the movies (even Amanda is suspicious), or is this cover for something Williams couldn’t reveal in the 1940s? As one viewer commented: “Malkovich etches a remarkable portrayal of Tom- defiantly unafraid of the character’s possible gay subtext- that grows in poignancy to a heartbreaking final monologue.” Malkovich had better clothes (and a nice hairpiece) than Waterston, who dressed more like a working-class man.

Amanda becomes obsessed w/ finding “a gentleman caller” for Laura (Karen Allen), who dropped out of business college and has no job. Allen conveys a lot of vulnerability in her characterization. I esp. liked the scenes w/ Tom and Laura; they are very close (though of differing personalities). Under pressure from his mother, Tom invites Jim (James Naughton), a shipping clerk/friend from work, to dinner. In one of his monologues, Tom explains that “the gentleman caller” represents “something that one hopes for.” I really liked how Moriarty played Jim, but I think Naughton did a good job also.

It turns out that Jim is the boy who Laura had a crush on in HS; he was a popular athlete, singer, and actor. Now, he is a confident/positive-thinking young man seeking to improve his position. Jim tries to get Laura to overcome her “inferiority complex” and they dance and even share a kiss. Even though I knew the story, I felt disappointed when Jim (considered the most “normal” character) revealed that he was engaged. Tom goes off to the Merchant Marines, but he always regrets that he couldn’t help Laura (just as Williams couldn’t prevent the lobotomy that was performed on Rose).

[1] Paul Newman shows much respect for Williams’ play (some will say “too much”), but when you deal with first class actors, who cares?

His wife Joanne Woodward displays of the nuances of an over-possessive mother, beyond good and evil; deserted by a man whose picture is still hanging on a wall, she tries to help her children avoid her sad life… […Wearing a horrible grey wig, she still thinks she’s attractive and puts on her coquette act before Jim. A great performance by an actress.

[2] Under-rated beautifully realized version of a famous play – everything is just right and Karen Allen’s work as the tragic Laura is deeply moving… 

[3] Joanne Woodward shines in a multi-layered, brilliant turn as one of the most interesting characters in modern literature, Amanda Wingfieid. She gives just the right touch to small moments that give the viewer an enlightening peek at the desperate condition of the fading southern belle…

John Malkovich also turns in a terrific performance…

[4] I think John Malkovich did an amazing job as Tom. His monologues at the beginning of every scene were especially well-done. He gave the movie a really dream-like quality.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Object of Beauty” (1991) starring John Malkovich & Andie MacDowell

A romantic comedy about the fine art of thievery. -Tag line

Two Americans living the good life in London find their romantic relationship challenged by a sudden lack of funds. Jake (John Malkovich), a commodities broker, is unable to pay the bills (b/c of a strike that holds up a cocoa shipment). So, he suggests that Tina (Andie MacDowell) file an insurance claim on her little Henry Moore statue. This statue is the only item of value that she owns- her sense of security. One day, the statue suddenly disappears from their posh hotel room! They are begin to doubt each other and the strength of their love.

Tina: You’ve always said when it comes to food, shoes, and sex, price is no object.

Jake: Good shoes are important!

I cam across this on IMDB TV when I was looking for movies w/ John Malkovich (after seeing Dangerous Liaisons). The writer/director is an American, Michael Lindsay Hogg, who worked on music videos, TV (incl. Brideshead Revisited), as well as movies. Tina’s best friend, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), is also American; she was married to Cint Eastwood and is the mother of Scott Eastwood. The hotel’s investigator Victor Swayle (Bill Paterson) goes on a little power trip. Paterson is a veteran character actor who recently appeared as the father in the hit TV show- Fleabag.

Jake: I am on the verge of something very lucrative, so for you to even be talking about dishonoring one of my checks, really puts me in a very sweaty mode.

The statue is taken by the deaf/mute hotel maid- Jenny (Rudi Davies). She knows this is wrong to do, but later explains that the statue “spoke to me.” Jenny (only in her 20s) lives in a tiny flat w/ her teen brother (who is in danger of becoming a criminal). As some viewers noted, Jenny is at the heart of the story and the only likeable character. It’s also rare to see a (working-class) person have a well-developed arc in a movie.

This movie is for those of you who enjoy character development and quirky humor. There is fun chemistry between Malkovich (who loves fashion) and MacDowell (who looks great in all the fashions as a former model); they joke around and seem to have fun together. If you like fashion, you may notice the Armani suits and Manolo Blahnik shoes. Siskel and Ebert both liked this movie (two thumbs up). I really liked the ending- it was sweet and funny!

[1] The film is an underhanded, cynical, satirical poke at American materialism…

[2] The chemistry between the two of them reminds one of William Powell and Myrna Loy. If they had picked up the pace a bit, they would have had a real classic comedy here. This film is highly watchable, though.

[3] My favorite not-to-be-missed extremely funny scene? John Malkovich’s “Jake”, in a moment of depressed exasperation, talking aloud to himself composing his own obituary.

[4] You will enjoy this film much more if you pay attention to the irony of the value placed by different characters upon this Henry Moore sculpture. It is worth nothing to some, only money to others, an emotional commitment to another, and an object of aspiration to one other. All of these perspectives speak to each other, and it is a very interesting conversation.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, & Michelle Pfeiffer

Vicomte de Valmont: I often wonder how you manage to invent yourself.

Marquise de Merteuil: Well, I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So, of course, I had to invent, not only myself, but ways of escape no one has every thought of before. And I’ve succeeded because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.

The novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos was first published in 1782; it was considered so scandalous that when Queen Marie Antoinette commissioned a copy, she had to have it bound in a blank cover. Many of you may already know the plot of the story; it came out just before the French Revolution. In late 18th c. France, the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich in his star-making role) play a dangerous game of seduction. Valmont is someone who measures success by his female conquests. Merteuil challenges him to seduce the young/virginal, Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman in one of her early roles), and provide proof in writing of his success. Cecile is engaged to the man who broke up w/ Merteuil (the first one to do so, allegedly). Valmont’s reward will be to spend one night w/ Merteuil; they were once lovers years back. Valmont wants to seduce the happily-married/devout Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is staying w/ his elderly aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Mildred Natwick in her final role). It turns out that Valmont falls in love w/ Tourvel!

Valmont: You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s is most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought “betrayal” was your favorite word.

Merteuil: No, no…”cruelty.” I always think that has a nobler ring to it

I watched this movie many years ago; I didn’t recall a lot of the details. I re-watched it recently and was blown away- this is must-see for any film fan! You don’t have to be a big fan of period pieces or costume dramas; the funny/clever dialogue will pull you in. As some viewers noted, almost every line has a double entendre; I recommend seeing it twice to take it all in. In the opening, we see the two leads getting dressed in fine clothes and made-up (powdered faces; wigs) by several servants. To save money, some of the costumes were created from sari material- how cool!

Merteuil: One of the reasons I never re-married, despite a bewildering range of offers, was the determination NEVER AGAIN to be ordered about.

Dangerous Liaisons opened in theaters in 1988, a year before Valmont (1989) starring Annette Bening and Colin Firth. According to screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the director of Valmont- Milos Forman- attended several performances of the play in London, then decided to film his own version. Hampton offered to have dinner w/ Forman to discuss the project, but the director never showed up. The competing film convinced the studio, Lorimar, to rush this movie into production, in order to beat Valmont into theaters. Dangerous Liaisons won 3 Oscars, was a critical success, and had moderate box office success. Bening auditioned for the role of Merteuil in this movie also. Pfeiffer was offered the role of Merteuil in Valmont. Alan Rickman made the role of Valmont famous in London and on Broadway. Since the producers wanted to cast a more established actor in the role, Rickman wasn’t considered.

The movie should appeal to everyone. It’s sleazy, elegant, vicious and mean, and it’s about people doing hideous things to each other. If that weren’t enough, it has a tragic end. What more could people ask for? -Malkovich in a 1988 interview

Malkovich (in his first romantic role) shows that men like Valmont get by w/ wit, charm, and style (not physical beauty). In some of the (dimly lit) scenes w/ the long/brown wig, he looks esp. intense and a bit mysterious. There are little character moments where he smirks or does something w/ his body langauge, showing the audience that Valmont is having fun (just like us). Some viewers preferred Firth as Valmont, perhaps b/c he was more handsome and light-hearted. Thurman (only 17 y.o. and standing at 6′ tall) isn’t intimidated to go toe-to-toe w/ much older/experienced actors. I finally realized that Cecile’s mother, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), has a dislike for Valmont b/c they were once lovers (whoa)! Not even the (wooden) acting of a young Keanu Reeves can detract from the viewer enjoying this movie. Some viewers said that he’s supposed to be naive; luckily, he doesn’t have much to do. Fans of Doctor Who will get a kick out of Peter Capaldi (30 y.o.) as Valmont’s loyal servant Azolan; he uses his Scottish accent. The 5 American actors speak using their natural accents; this is rare for a period film.

We filmed in France and I had given birth to Annie 7 weeks before we started preparing for the film. For the first time in my life, I had these great breasts. It’ll never happen again, but for one brief, shining season, I had the most incredible breasts. James Acheson, the costume designer… …I just loved it because they pushed my breasts up and made me have cleavage. I guess I should be saying something more intellectual about the film, but I just remembered how great it felt to have those breasts. -Close in a 1996 interview

It was tough for me to decide, but Close (then 41 y.o.) was the most fascinating of the characters. Close (who didn’t appear in the movies until she was already 35 y.o.) and Malkovich (who comes from the theater like Close) make a strong duo; they have fantastic chemistry together. Close came up w/ her character’s final scene- wow! Director Stephen Frears gave her the line: “her soul was on her face,” Close thought for a minute and stated: “I know how to show that.” The score (which flows perfectly w/ the story) was composed by George Fenton; we also hear the music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. I think the music will really carry the viewer away! Speaking of which, I learned that Malkovich (35 y.o.) and Pfeiffer (30 y.o.) had an affair during the filming; his wife (actress Glenne Headley) filed for divorce soonafter.

[1] The first thing that strikes you is how well the film is lit and shot. The period locations and costumes are visually sumptuous and perfect. Better yet, the acting entirely matches the skill of the direction that takes its method from the theatre – emotions are conveyed by expression and not dialogue. Glenn Close gives her best performance on celluloid as the scheming Madame de Merteuil, amorally hellbent on bending everyone to her will, no matter the method or the cost, and John Malkovitch is her perfect foil as the cynical hedonistic but world-weary Valmont. Michelle Pfeiffer engages our empathy as the tortured and manipulated target of Malkovitch’s desire and Close’s plotting.

[2] Stephen Frears, in his American film debut, creates a lush visage of restrained yet swooning passions, icy stares, and hushed, measured speeches against the backdrop of the Ile-de-France…

The dark comedy that pins two bored aristocrats against each other as they play God with other people’s lives without realizing the devastating consequences that will result from this has been the stuff of legend and allure. Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer all are beyond awards in their exacting and multidimensional portrayals of three very different people caught in a web of deceit. However the star of this adaptation has to be Christopher Hampton who immortalizes Laclos’ vision in a subtle, yet powerful story filled with subtext and restrained cruelty.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Primal Fear” (1996) starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, & Edward Norton

Sooner or later a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real. -Tag line

In Chicago, a 19 y.o. former altar boy, Aaron (Edward Norton- in his breakout role), is charged w/ the brutal murder of an archbishop. A well-known criminal lawyer, Martin Vail (Richard Gere), takes on his case pro bono. The prosecution is lead by Marty’s former colleague/ex-gf- Janet Venable (Laura Linney). Aaron was homeless before he was taken in by the religious leader; he’s shy, humble, and speaks w/ a stammer; this could make him look sympathetic to the jury. Marty is convinced that Aaron is innocent, but then he finds a disturbing video that shows Aaron may have had good reason to want the archbishop dead. One day, Aaron lashes out at Molly (Frances McDormand), the psychologist Marty hired to examine him; another personality (Roy) is revealed! With the trial underway, Martin can’t change Aaron’s (not guilty) plea; he tries to find a way to introduce his client’s mental condition.

[Marty is trying to woo Janet again]

Marty: Come on. Let’s go find a bar you can still smoke in.

Janet: Thanks for the invite, but I don’t like one-night stands all that much.

Martin: We saw each other for months.

Janet: It was a one-night stand, Marty. It just lasted six months.

I heard buzz about this film during the 1997 awards season; I never watched it until last week. The cast here is very strong, w/ everyone putting in a fine performance (incl. the minor players). I was (pleasantly) surprised to see Linney (who has great chemistry w/ Gere) and Andre Braugher (who plays Tommy, the PI/former cop). Maura Tierney plays Naomi, Marty’s legal secretary. John Mahoney plays DA Shaughnessy; he was Marty’s former boss. Look out also for a Jon Seda (ageless) as one of Aaron’s pals. The judge is played by Alfre Woodard. Director Gregory Hoblit is known for his work on legal and police dramas.

Marty: [sitting w/ journo in a bar] Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people’s lives? That was a joke. All right, I’ll tell you. I believe in the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty. I believe in that notion because I choose to believe in the basic goodness of people. I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people. And I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things.

In the first act of the story, we see Marty as confident (bordering on arrogant) and publicity-seeking (followed by a journo doing a profile on him). He thinks his charm will convince Janet to see him again (though she isn’t having it); they flirt w/ and challenge each other. I liked all the scenes w/ Gere and Linney; they conveyed that they had a long relationship (which wasn’t all bad). In the end, we see Marty cut down to size and dejected (Gere’s breathing even changes, one viewer commented); he has been fooled by his manipulative client. Marty wanted so hard to believe in his client.

Marty: [while in Aaron’s solitary confinement room] I speak. You do not speak. Your job is to just sit there and look innocent.

I knew there was some big plot twist, but I thought Aaron and Roy would be two distinct personalities (but it’s Roy only)! Norton’s performance comes off as natural (you can’t see the acting); he gets to let loose in two particularly intense scenes. He worked several years in the theater, so knows how to use his body well (much is done w/ body language here). Norton is 26 y.o. in this movie, but he looks a bit younger (thanks to his haircut, speech, and mannerisms). Over 2,000 young male actors auditioned for the role of Aaron (wow) before Norton was chosen! Gere was so frustrated, so almost quit the movie, as the search continued. Though born in Boston, Norton was raised in the suburban DC area (Columbia, MD). I will check out more of his work; I’ve seen Rounders (w/ Matt Damon) and Birdman (which won some Oscars).