Saturday, November 2, 2013

Short Takes: 42, Anna Karenina, and More

Post Tenebras Lux (dir. Carlos Reygadas, 2013)

An affluent family in the Mexican countryside carries on as the forces of good and evil contend around them. It's a dense concept, and Reygadas - who won the Best Director prize at Cannes for this film last year - presents his latest film as an expressionist take on morality. It's a beautifully shot film, taking full advantage of the stunning Mexican landscape (as well as a handful of scenes set in Europe). However, for me at least, it never really came together in an interesting way. If anything, it made me crave a new film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul (an obvious contemporary of Reygadas'). B-

42 (dir. Brian Helgeland, 2013)

The story of Jackie Robinson is tailor-made for an inspirational film: seen by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) as a talent player and an opportunity to make a statement, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) begins in the minors, then is called up in 1947 to become the first black starting player in Major League Baseball history. Helgeland - best known for his scripts for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River - gives the film the standard biopic treatment; even though it (mostly) focuses on that 1947 season, it still comes off as a "greatest hits" telling of his life story. Despite Helgeland's listless direction, the movie is buoyed by some great performances, especially from Boseman, who really digs into Robinson's interior struggle, and Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the extremely bigoted manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. It's a shame the rest of the film doesn't rise to their level. B-

Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Joss Whedon, 2013)

I'll be upfront: Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, if not my absolute favorite, so I was bound to enjoy this adaptation, which Whedon shot at his own home after filming The Avengers. A modern retelling that keeps much of Shakespeare's original dialogue, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) contend with their latent feelings for each other while Claudio (Fran Kranz) courts Hero (Jillian Morgese). The pure joy of the film comes from watching the actors - many of whom have appeared in other Whedon projects - delightfully chew on Shakespeare's words, twisting the iambic pentameter in a modern cadence. Much Ado About Nothing is certainly the most fun I've had watching a movie this year. A

Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright, 2012)

There wasn't really any need for another adaptation of Tolstoy's famous novel Anna Karenina, about a woman (Keira Knightley) in 19th century Russia who finds herself torn between her statesman husband (Jude Law) and an officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Working from a script by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, Wright presents this story in a new way: all of the action takes place on a "stage," allowing for a stylized take on the old tale. What's most remarkable about this take is how it uses this staging to comment on the "performance" of aristocratic society in the 19th century, which offers a freshness that this genre has needed for a while. It's not perfect - Taylor-Johnson doesn't really click in the role of Count Vronsky - but it's inspired. B+

I Heart Huckabees (dir. David O. Russell, 2004)

Six years before his Oscar-winning breakthrough The Fighter, director David O. Russell made this existential comedy, starring Jason Schwartzman as an environmental poet trying to make sense of why he continues to run into a tall African man. At the time, the film was maligned by critics, mostly due to reports of on-set hostility between Russell and Lily Tomlin, as well as the fact that it came out the same year as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (comparisons were inevitable). There's a lot of quirky philosophical humor here, and Mark Wahlberg is a total delight as a man who's torn between two very different ideologies. It's plenty entertaining, but only if you're willing to buy what it's selling. B

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