“The Godfather” (1972) starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, & Robert Duvall

Don Corleone: …a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.

The Godfather is “Don” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando- age 47), the head of the Corleone mafia family in New York. Brando wanted to make his character “look like a bulldog,” so he stuffed his cheeks w/ cotton for his audition. For the filming, he wore a mouthpiece made by a dentist. On the day of his daughter Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding, he is meeting w/ several members of his (Italian-American) community on his estate on Staten Island. There is a saying that the Don’s adopted son/lawyer, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall- age 40 and wearing a bad hairpiece), says: “no Sicilian can refuse a favor at his daughter’s wedding day.” Michael (Al Pacino- not yet famous at age 31), the Don’s youngest son/decorated WWII Marine, is also present w/ his blonde/WASP girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton- only 25). Pacino and Keaton started dating during filming and were a couple for 5 years. Michael seems thoughtful and introverted, as well as uninterested in the family business. Don Corleone is an influential man w/ connections to businessmen, politicians, judges, and celebs. He can be kind/generous to those who give him respect, but ruthless against those who don’t. When a dangerous rival wants to sell drugs, and needs the Don’s agreement, he says no way! His oldest son Sonny (James Caan) seems to disagree. What follows is a clash between the Don’s “old-school” values and the ways of the new generation.

Don Corleone [to Sollozzo]: I said that I would see you because I had heard that you were a serious man, to be treated with respect. But I must say no to you and let me give you my reasons. It’s true I have a lot of friends in politics, but they wouldn’t be so friendly if they knew my business was drugs instead of gambling which they consider a harmless vice. But drugs, that’s a dirty business.

I saw some scenes (over the years) of this iconic movie; however, I don’t recall seeing it fully until this past week! Director Francis Ford Coppola (only 33) had received some notice for one earlier movie; he was young and untested like much of the cast. He wasn’t enthusiastic about making this movie (at first); he thought the book by Mario Puzo was too sensational. I learned that he feared being fired by the studio for the first 2 weeks of filming! The unique (dark) lighting chosen by cinematographer Gordon Willis also made the execs worried, until they were convinced that this showed the shady ways of the Corleones. Willis earned the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” w/ the choices that he used; it turned out well (of course). Brando (due to heavy prosthetic makeup) is usually lit from above. Michael is brightly-lit in the first act of the film (before the Don is shot). Then the lighting scheme changes; we see half of his face in shadow. Once he has transitioned to the head of the family, dark shadows appear over his eyes. Caan (playing a loud/hot-headed man) is usually more well-lit than Duvall (who is calm, soft-spoken and tactful in his speech). Did you know that Caan improvised the part where Sonny throws the FBI photographer’s camera to the ground? Kay’s face usually looks bright; Keaton was lit from the side. However, I wasn’t a fan of the wigs (or hairdos) they chose for Kay. She is dressed in shades of red for most of the movie (a red/white spotted dress at the wedding, a maroon dress at the hotel dinner, and a bright red hat and coat when she goes to the estate).

Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

There is much to admire here, but the most important thing is that we really care for these characters and go on a fascinating journey. As Roger Ebert commented (after the 25th anniversary): “In this closed world, The Godfather is the good guy. He is the hero that we root for.” I was esp. impressed by Brando when the Don becomes injured/weak; as for the tough-guy moments (we know he can do those well). Pacino (youthful/handsome) gives a nuanced performance (which may be a surprise to younger viewers); it’s almost all in the eyes (as we find w/ the finest of screen actors). We don’t see the angry/volatile side of Pacino (Coppola’s first choice for the role) until the final act when he yells at Kay. I learned that the studios wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neill for the role of Michael- LOL! Martin Sheen (w/ long hair and a mustache) auditioned for the role also; you can see some clips of screen tests on YouTube. All the supporting cast (incl. those who came from open calls, such as Abe Vigoda) suit their roles well. Look out for two veterans from the Golden Age of Hollywood- Richard Conte (the smooth-talking Don Barzini) and Sterling Hayden (the racist/crooked cop- Chief McCluskey). Both Conte and Hayden are in fine shape; they were known for noir films (I got into this genre over quarantine life). Fredo (John Cazale) doesn’t have a big role here, but I learned that he will feature more in The Godfather: Part II. He received much acclaim (from his peers and critics), died rather young, and was engaged to Meryl Streep.

This movie appeals to many people across the decades all around the world. One critic said: “It’s a simple story about a king and his three sons.” I’m sure it was rare to see a well-developed story of immigrants and first-gen Americans (w/ dark hair and olive/tan skin tones), even in the early 1970s. Having a Italian-American director must’ve been a great asset; it was Coppola’s idea to incorporate a real Italian-speaking wedding band, non-actors (incl. members of his own family), scenes which reflect everyday life (w/ kids running around, cooking, domestic disputes, etc.) There is the gorgeous/romantic sequence shot in Sicily where (some critics say) Michael finds true love (Appolonia) and happiness for the first time. When I saw the chaste courtship scenes between Michael and Appolonia (and her extended family) , I was reminded of the stories of my own family (parents, aunties, and uncles) who grew up in Bangladesh. This is a must-see film you can’t refuse!

“Citizen Kane” (1941) starring/directed by Orson Welles

Radio’s Most Dynamic Artist . . The Man At Whose Voice A Nation Trembled . . . Now the screen’s most exciting NEW star! ORSON WELLES in the picture Hollywood said he’d never make! – A tag line from the film

Following the death of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles- just 26 y.o.), reporters scramble to uncover the meaning of his final word: “Rosebud.” The film begins with a news reel (which comes directly from RKO Pictures) detailing Kane’s life for the masses. Then, we see flashbacks from Kane’s life- his simple boyhood, life as an idealistic young newspaper publisher, attempt at politics in mid-life, and two (failed) marriages. As the reporters investigate more, we see a man’s rise to fame and fall from the top of his world. Kane (who died alone surrounded by statues and other treasures from all over the world) is based on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Kane [in old age]: You know, Mr. Thatcher, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.

Young Charles Foster Kane (8 y.o.) comes into a LOT of money; his mother/owner of a boarding house, Mary (Agnes Moorehead), decides he should be sent away from Colorado to the East. He will be raised by his new guardian, a humorless banker named Mr. Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris). Charles’ father (Harry Shannon) is reluctant to give up his son; though he’s an alcoholic w/ potential for violence, the boy seems to love him. When Mary is signing away the boy, there is the (then innovative) use of the “deep focus lens.” While the mother acts cold (calling him “Charles), his father takes a warmer tone (calling him “Charlie”). Upon reaching 25, Kane (handsome/energetic) comes into ALL his inheritance; he impulsively buys a newspaper (The New York Inquirer) against the wishes of Thatcher. His closest pal Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) becomes the theater critic; being from “old money,” Jed can scoff at high society. Kane’s general manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), is loyal/helpful until the end. When Kane writes up his “declaration of principles,” his face is almost obscured in shadow; this is a hint of things to come. Jed looks almost directly at the camera, saying that paper will be worth something one day.

Mr. Bernstein: Old age. It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.

Kane’s first wife, Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), is the sophisticated niece of the president; they meet (offscreen) in Europe and have a whirlwind romance. Emily starts to resent the long hours Kane spends at the newspaper; their politics are also different. In a series of clever/concise scenes at the breakfast table, we see the deterioration of their relationship (from flirty/loving to silent/cold). One night, outside a pharmacy, Kane meets a 22 y.o. aspiring opera singer- Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). It turns out that he can maker her laugh; Susan also doesn’t know who Kane is (being a naive girl new to the city). After Kane enters politics, his affair w/ Susan is uncovered by a private detective working for his rival. When given the choice between Emily (who was loyal to him for 15 yrs) and Susan, Kane chooses Susan (thus loses his political career).

Kane: Mr. Carter, here’s a three-column headline in the Chronicle. Why hasn’t the Inquirer a three-column headline?

Carter: The news wasn’t big enough.

Kane: Mr. Carter, if the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.

Mr. Bernstein: That’s right, Mr. Kane.

They get married and he even builds an opera house where Susan can perform; it turns out she’s a terrible singer (no matter how hard she practices). Kane and Jed have a falling out; Jed is drunk and gives his true opinion re: Susan’s “talent.” Their break-up scene where we are looking up at the characters was achieved by Greg Toland (cinematographer) cutting holes in the floor of the studio. Later on, there is break-up w/ Susan, after she gets tired of living a lonely/unfulfilled life in his huge California estate Xanadu (named for the “pleasure palace of Kubla Khan” in the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Jed [to Kane]: You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.

Once you see this film (or rewatch it a few times), you realize how influential it was to later films! It is very well made and ahead of it’s time, as I realized seeing it recently. Watching this film on TV, a young Scorsese began to notice editing techniques and camera moves (incl. the use of the “wide angle lens”). In previous American films, the camera didn’t move, Scorsese noted. As NYT film critic A.O. Scott commented: “Most of the scenes are shot a low angle, so we feel as if we’re sitting in an orchestra seat watching a play. It is also un-mistakenly cinematic… deep focus asymmetrical compositions and bold contrasts in light and shadow to get at themes not explicitly stated in the film’s script. Welles slows time down w/ subjective dream-like sequences and speeds it up w/ witty and inspired montages.”

[Susan is leaving Kane]

Kane: [pleading] Don’t go, Susan. You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

Susan: I see. So it’s YOU who this is being done to. It’s not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me. [laughs] I can’t do this to you? [odd smile] Oh, yes I can.

Is this the best film ever made? I don’t think so, but it’s worth a watch for cinephiles. Citizen Kane is essentially a character study of a man who is rich, powerful, yet probably feels inadequate inside (as he can’t connect to other people). Love is something that Kane wanted all his life, both Jed and Bernstein tell the reporter. Most the the actors are newcomers from The Mercury Theater, Welles’ theater company. Cotten went on to have a fine career; he said he was proud to have appeared in several box office hits. He is perhaps best known as Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Sloane makes a terrific villain in Welles’ film noir The Lady from Shanghai.

“Tombstone” (1993) starring Kurt Russell & Val Kilmer

Doc Holliday: Forgive me if I don’t shake hands. (Isn’t this relatable after quarantine life!? LOL!)

After success cleaning up Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) moves to Tombstone, AZ, looking to get rich. He meets his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), as well as his old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). A band of outlaws- The Cowboys- are causing problems in the area w/ random acts of violence. In time, The Cowboys (who wear red sashes on their waists) come into confrontation with Holliday and the Earps, leading to a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. I had forgotten that there were two (legendary) actors here- Charlton Heston (the elderly rancher Henry Hooker) and Robert Mitchum (the narrator)- wow!

Morgan Earp: Look at all the stars. You look up and you think, “God made all this and He remembered to make a little speck like me.” It’s kind of flattering, really.

There are so many good actors in this movie (and I heard ALL the mustaches were real)- some famous and others more known for character roles. The villains are headed up by Curly Bill (Powers Boothe- who formed part of the ensemble in Deadwood), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn- went to the Univ. of Arizona for several yrs), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), and his lil bro Billy Clanton (Thomas Haden Church- who usually does comedy). Wyatt’s wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler Nicholson) has become addicted to laudanum. Virgil’s (much younger) wife Allie (Paula Malcolmson) is a Irish immigrant; this actress was also in Deadwood (her real accent is Irish). Morgan’s wife Louisa (Lisa Collins) was married to Billy Zane (who plays Mr. Fabian, the actor). Wyatt’s love interest is the independent-minded actress- Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany). The mayor of the town is Mr. Behan (Jon Tenney); this actor has appeared in many cop shows. A chubby Billy Bob Thornton plays a hot-headed (but also cowardly) gambler. 90210 fans will get a kick out of seeing Jason Priestly (a young deputy). Doc Holliday is joined by his lady friend/fellow gambler Kate (Joanna Pacula).

Wyatt Earp: [Vigil has agreed to become Tombstone’s town marshall, upsetting Wyatt] What in the hell are you doin’? I told you we weren’t gettin’ involved!

Virgil Earp: You got us involved when you brought us here.

Wyatt Earp: Now you hold on a minute, Virg!

Virgil Earp: Hold on nothin’! I walk around this town and look these people in the eyes. It’s just like someone’s slappin’ me in the face! These people are afraid to walk down the street, and I’m tryin’ to make money off that like some goddamn vulture! If we’re gonna have a future in this town, it’s gotta have some law and order!

Russell (who has worked in Hollywood since a young boy) said that after original director Kevin Jarre (also the screenwriter) was fired, he directed a majority of the movie. George P. Cosmatos (who was not very comfortable w/ the English language) oversaw the filming, though he has directing credit. The film was nearly cast with Richard Gere as Wyatt Earp and Willem Dafoe as Doc Holliday- LOL! All the actors do a fine job, though Kilmer probably has the best lines. Both Holliday and Ringo are educated men; they even argue in Latin.

Wyatt Earp [to Morgan]: In all that time workin’ those cow towns, I was only ever mixed up in one shootin’, just one! But a man lost his life and I took it! You don’t know how that feels, and believe me boy, you don’t ever want to know. Not ever!

As Wyatt explains to his younger (idealistic) brother Morgan, there is really nothing exciting about killing another person. Wyatt is reluctant to take on a lawman role again; his older brother Virgil is the one who changes his mind. Once his brothers are affected, Wyatt quickly springs into action! This is a fun, action-packed, yet also touching story about brotherly/familial love, friendship, romance, and justice. I esp. liked the various horse riding scenes, which go from playful/romantic to quite tense/dangerous.

[1] Throughout the entire film, his [Kilmer’s] acting and character embellishments are so nuanced and well done that by movies end, we feel his loss in a very personal way. Credit must also go out the the costumers and make-up artists for their contribution to the overall effect of his role. All the way through the film, he looks sickly, pale and world-weary. His mannerisms and intensity of gaze profoundly establish this character as a focal point in this production. …I consider this role as probably the very best for Val Kilmer. It required subtlety and careful restraint and made the viewer believe that we weren’t watching an actor merely regurgitating lines and hitting their foot-marks. I, for one, was entranced by the carefully studied body language and facial expressions…the sweaty desperation of a man who sensed his own mortality but strove to enact his own justice for justices sake. This was just very well done!

[2] …speaking as a woman, this is by no means just a guy’s flick. It’s been one of my favorite films since the day it came out. It’s got everything- drama, romance, action, and an honest to goodness story. There are even interesting themes, like the moral dilemma that Wyatt finds himself in– Is he compelled to help fight the Cowboys even though he’s “retired” and just wants to live out his life in peace? Is there a moral equivalence between killing for justice and killing for retribution? How far can a man go to sacrifice his own integrity and better judgment?

The love story simply served its purpose in helping viewers to better understand the character of Wyatt. Also the friendship between Wyatt and Doc was portrayed tenderly… And okay, as a woman, let me just say that there is no one sexier than Sam Elliot. Man alive, if there ever was a person born to portray a cowboy, that guy is IT. If you’ve never seen a Western, or are not a fan, try this movie. It will make a believer out of you.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Mississippi Burning (1988) starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, & Frances McDormand

1964. When America was at war with itself. – Tag line

Mississippi Burning was very controversial when first released; in this time (after the Trump administration), it resonates stronger than ever. Some younger readers may never have heard of this film; it is fiction, but based on a real case (labeled “Mississippi Burning” by the FBI). The film is inspired by the 1964 murder by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) of three Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) field workers who were registering Black voters in Mississippi: a Black man named James Chaney (age 21) and two white (Jewish) men- Michael Schwerner (age 20) and Andrew Goodman (age 24). Some critics felt that many facts were altered or left out. There is much to admire re: this movie, though to our modern eyes, the lack of a fully-fleshed out Black character may be problematic. Director Spike Lee didn’t like it; he felt the preacher’s son (Aaron) was a “magical Negro” trope. On the other hand, this was Roger Ebert’s choice for the best film of 1988. You know it made a big impact (overseas), b/c it was (unofficially) remade into a Bollywood film, Aakrosh (2010).

Mayor Tilman: You like baseball, do you, Anderson?

Anderson: Yeah, I do. You know, it’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.

When you think about it, 1964 is NOT too far back in time from 1988. Barry Norman (BBC film critic) described the (harrowing) opening of the film as “pure cinema, something no other medium could do so effectively.” Then we shift to the (much lighter) scene w/ the main characters- FBI agents Mr. Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Mr. Ward (Willem Dafoe- just 32). Don Johnson campaigned heavily for the role that went to Dafoe- LOL! Anderson (older/rumpled) studies some papers from a folder and sings a KKK song; Ward (younger/crisply-suited) isn’t amused. Anderson is making fun of the KKK, but Ward says: “I could do w/o the cabaret.” Anderson is a former small-town sheriff; Ward is a former DOJ attorney (“a Kennedy boy,” as Anderson comments). These men don’t know each other well and are mismatched, the viewer knows right away.

When they reach the small town, the agents are met w/ long/angry stares and outright hostility from the locals. Ward makes a (Northern/liberal) mistake; he goes to sit at the “Colored” section of the busy diner (NOT heeding the warning from Anderson, who knows the South). The young Black man sitting beside him becomes nervous and refuses to answer Ward’s questions; all eyes are on them. In the sheriff’s office, they first meet Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif), who isn’t too welcoming. Dourif makes some interesting choices w/ his role; he doesn’t always play it tough (we see that Pell is being influenced by more stronger personalities). Suddenly, Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain) pops out of his office, and starts breezily chatting w/ Anderson. Ward corrects him after Stuckey (the epitome of a fat, uncaring, racist cop) assumes Anderson is in charge of the investigation. In the barbershop, Anderson meets Mayor Tilman (R. Lee Ermey), who is more casually racist. In the motel lodge (later that night), we see the agents drinking and sharing stories. Anderson (matter-of-factly/softly) reveals something about his childhood growing up in the South.

Anderson: Where does it come from? All this hatred?

Anderson: You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old Negro farmer that lived down the road from us, name of Monroe. And he was… well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. My daddy hated that mule, ’cause his friends were always kidding him that they saw Monroe out plowing with his new mule, and Monroe was going to rent another field now he had a mule. One morning, that mule showed up dead. They poisoned the water. After that, there wasn’t any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. One time, we were driving down that road, and we passed Monroe’s place and we saw it was empty. He just packed up and left, I guess, he must of went up North or something. I looked over at my daddy’s face. I knew he done it. He saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and said, “If you ain’t better than a n****r, son, who are you better than?”

Ward: You think that’s an excuse?

Anderson: No it’s not an excuse. It’s just a story about my daddy.

Ward: Where’s that leave you?

Anderson: My old man was just so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.

A shotgun fires from a screeching car into the motel room! Ward decides that more agents are needed ASAP. The young Black man from the diner is picked up my some (hooded) men, beaten, and imprisoned in a large chicken coop in a field of cotton. (FYI: Since this wasn’t the season for cotton, the crew had to decorate the field w/ bits of cotton.) Then we see the same Black man pushed out of a car in the center of town- sending an (obvious) message to the FBI. The local cops and a group of (suited) FBI agents run to check on the injured man; Stuckey declares that his men will handle the matter. Agents have set up their HQ in the movie theater. Later we see them (along w/ buses of fresh-faced sailors) drag a swamp (a real one w/ mud, bugs, and possible alligators) for dead bodies.

…I didn’t do research. All I did was listen to [Hackman]. He had an amazing capacity for not giving away any part of himself (in read-throughs). But the minute we got on the set, little blinds on his eyes flipped up and everything was available. It was mesmerizing. He’s really believable, and it was like a basic acting lesson. -Frances McDormand

Now this isn’t just a typical “macho” movie; at the heart of it is the wife of the deputy- Mrs. Pell (a young Frances McDormand)- who also runs a hair salon (Gilly’s). Anderson first drops in at the salon, making self-deprecating comments about his hair (w/ its receding hairline). This amuses some of the ladies; Mrs. Pell bluntly points out that the FBI wouldn’t be around if the white men weren’t missing (along w/ Chaney). Later, when Ward and Anderson drop by the Pell’s humble home, we see the (not so pleasant) dynamic between the couple. While Ward interviews her husband, Anderson goes to the kitchen and strikes up a convo w/ Mrs. Pell (in a humble manner, using folksy charm). Later that night, we learn more about both characters when Anderson comes by w/ some wildflowers. We see the romantic chemistry growing between Anderson and Mrs. Pell, despite their ages and the situation. She has to lie to cover for her husband; Anderson realizes that she is lying (and they both look disappointed about it). Before he leaves, he gently touches her hair (a bold, yet vulnerable move). In a previous scene, Anderson had made “a power move” on Deputy Pell; he is working late (or maybe getting into some violence w/ his KKK pals).

Mrs. Pell: It’s ugly. This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.

After being hired by Orion Pictures, Parker made several changes from screenwriter Chris Gerolmo’s original draft (which was “a big/violent detective story”). Parker omitted a Mafia hitman and created Agent Monk. The scene in which Frank Bailey brutally beats a news cameraman was based on an actual event. Parker also wrote a sex scene involving Anderson and Mrs. Pell. The scene was omitted (after Hackman suggested to Parker that the relationship between the two characters be more discreet). Though some close-ups were shot, in the final film, the kiss between Hackman and McDormand is in shadow (at a respectful distance). The music (composed by Trevor Jones) is a very crucial part of this movie; it creates a tense (thriller-like) atmosphere in many scenes. In several key scenes, there is the gospel element. The movie was shot in Alabama and Mississippi, so there is authenticity. We see the old buildings, dust, poverty, rural lands, and (above all) local people (some of whom may had sympathies to the Klan). There are many character actors who add flavor to the story: Kevin Dunn (a young/eager FBI agent coordinating the case), Stephen Tobolowsky (a prominent businessman/KKK leader), Michael Rooker (the unapologetic tough guy/KKK member-Frank Bailey), a teen Darius McCrary (Aaron), Frankie Faison (a respected preacher/Aaron’s father), and Badja Djola (the Black FBI interrogator- Agent Monk). Ward (who is no pushover, despite his by-the-book approach) and Anderson (smarter than he looks) come to respect each other, but it happens slowly; they don’t become “buddy cops.”

“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