Arrival

arrival

Arrival (2016, directed by Denis Villenueve) is the thinking person’s Independence Day.

Don’t get me wrong: while I wasn’t much of an ID fan, I did love the Aliens franchise, where the baddie ET’s were blown to bits in thrilling action sequences, and Sigourney Weaver’s bad-ass performance made me pump my fist in the air with a heartfelt “You go, girl!”

Amy Adams’ character, Louise Banks, is a heroine of a different nature. The quiet, unassuming linguistics professor is chosen to help communicate with the aliens who’ve parked their egg-shaped ships in twelve different locations across the globe. Louise is swept away to Montana, the location of the American alien ship, to work with the military, as well as with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Forest Whittaker is the no-nonsense Colonel Weber, who’s running the show. The directive from his superiors: find out what they want.

Louise and Ian are suited up and brought to the ship to meet the aliens, who look like a cross between squid and branch-like walking fingers. Their language sounds like whale song, and Louise knows that a written or visual language would be more appropriate to communicate with them. In a breakthrough, they witness the aliens secrete an inky substance from one of their tentacles which forms a lovely circular symbol that acts as writing. Building on this, they spend a few months accruing a vocabulary that lets them talk with the creatures on a basic level.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t patient enough to let this important work continue; global tensions are rising, people are getting nervous, and China and Russia are getting antagonistic toward their alien visitors, threatening to attack them. Weber urges Louise to ask them the vital question: what is your purpose on earth?

This is where the film takes a twisty, philosophical turn, even as the tension rises. There’s a wondrous, heartbreaking secret at the core of this movie, one which I won’t reveal here, of course. It’s all a bit mind-blowing and has to do with a personal experience of Louise’s that encompasses both joy and grief, and ties in with the aliens’ perception of time, which is circular (like their visual language) rather than our linear experience of it.

I know, I know–huh? But believe me, it works, and the final act unfolds in a beautiful sequence that is moving and impressive. This is a film about the nature of time and how we communicate; it’s also about choosing love in the face of grief, joy over fear. This is my kind of science fiction, encompassing the human heart as well as spanning the literal universe.

 

 

Bright Star

 

fanny reading Johns letter

 

Bright Star (2009, directed by Jane Campion) recounts the romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), his landlady’s daughter, in 1818.

I’m not a big poetry fan, but I do love biopics of writers and poets; I also like to indulge in a good love story now and then. True to the Romantic spirit of the times, this one soared to spiritual heights, a love that seized them both to an almost painful degree. Perhaps it was so painful because it was platonic; Keats was a poor poet with no income who could not hope to marry Fanny. They both observed the propriety and mores of the time, not indulging in physical passion, but subverting it into something almost holy.

At first, the two don’t seem a likely pair. Fanny is a typical girl of the time, who enjoys fashion (she’s quite serious about designing and making her own outfits, embellishing them with over-the top flounces and ruffles) and flirtatious banter; Keats is the stereotypical Romantic poet, a bit rumpled and daydreamy. Fanny knows nothing at all of poetry, but something about him transfixes her, and she wants to understand it. He offers to teach her about poetry, and they spend more and more time together, which isn’t too difficult since they share the same building, each living in one half of it. As they fall in love and and become consumed with one another, Fanny’s preoccupation with fashion falls away (her outfits become simple and pretty), and Keats spends less time with his writing partner, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). though his poetry begins to blaze with his love. Brown is at first jealous, and it causes some discord between the two men. Brown is a bit of a cad, impregnating one of Fanny’s servants, but there’s a genuine regard, perhaps even love for Keats, beneath the irreverence and sarcasm.

fanny and John

 

It’s clear to all that Fanny and John are deeply in love, but everyone also knows he’s not fit to marry. Naturally this doesn’t affect the lovers one bit, but I was surprised that Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) does very little to discourage the relationship. She simply watches in mute sadness as Fanny whiles away the hours mooning for her love and obsessively reading his love letters when he leaves for the summer; Mrs. Brawne even notices but ignores a puncture wound on her daughter’s wrist. She’s remarkably calm about the whole thing, but perhaps she’s worried that forbidding the relationship would only send her daughter over the edge.

Inevitably, John becomes ill and is sent to Italy by his friends. On the night before he leaves, there’s a touching scene where they hold each other; Fanny states that she “would do anything for him,” hinting that she’d make love with him, but his gallantry is complete, as he refers to his “conscience”. Perhaps he can only see her as a Muse, rather than as a physical woman, but their love remains pure and sweet. Not long after, Brown returns and tells them that Keats has died (at age 25). Fanny walks the heath in mourning, reciting his verse over and over.

Campion’s film is spare, understated, yet bursting with the paroxysms of violent love. Snippets of Keats’ immortal lines are interspersed throughout but you never feel bludgeoned by inscrutable poetry; over the credits Ben Wishaw recites the Ode to a Nightingale, and you really don’t mind so much.

One of Keats’ lines states that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” and this movie is certainly a thing of beauty and a joy to watch.

 

 

 

The Revenant

revenant

*(Some spoilers.)

The Revenant (2015, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), is a semi-biographical film based on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in 1823, trying to make a living trapping and selling animal furs. He and his Pawnee son are guides for a group of soldiers when their camp is attacked by Indians. They escape down the river in their boat, but soon abandon it to hide the pelts and get back to their fort on foot.

On their journey, Glass is attacked by a mother Grizzly bear and is nearly mauled to death. It’s the most harrowing and horrifying movie scene I’ve ever witnessed, I think; the viewer cannot look away for at least five straight minutes while this behemoth tears chunks out of Glass’s flesh. It almost strains credulity that a person could survive such injuries.

Yet he does, and his companions sew him up as best they can and try to haul him across the unforgiving wilderness in winter. His son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) whispers his love and encouragement into his ear, much as the father did with the son years ago when the family was attacked by soldiers. The boy’s mother was killed and the boy was injured, leading to their nomadic life and their fierce devotion to one another.

It’s soon clear that carrying Glass through the wild, snowy mountains is impossible; assuming Glass is near death, the group’s commander, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleason) decides to leave him behind with Hawk and two other soldiers, to bury him properly when the time comes.

fitzgerald
Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald

The problem is, Glass isn’t dying fast enough for John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy in a typically fantastic performance). This man has proven to be a greedy, self-centered pain in the ass along the entire journey, and it’s no surprise he tries to speed things along by stuffing Glass’s mouth with a kerchief. Hawk intervenes, however, and Fitzgerald kills Glass’s son right before his horrified eyes. The murderous soldier hides the body and convinces his companion, young Bridger (Will Poulton) to abandon Glass.

So begins the incredible journey of survival and revenge for the rest of the film, a film that takes its time in the telling, with beautiful cinematography and a spare, haunting score.

Glass must survive his injuries, the elements, and roving bands of Indians and Frenchman along the way. He finds a kindred spirit in a Sioux man (Arthur Redcloud) heading south after his own family has been slaughtered. He allows Glass to travel with him and builds a healing hut when his wounds threaten to kill him. A scene of the two of them resting on their journey and catching snowflakes on their tongues helps to restore faith in humanity (in a story where there is little reason to do so); amid such violence and hopelessness, they can still find small joys.

If I had any complaint, it would be that the film could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s hardly a complaint. Scenes like the snowflake scene, dream sequences, and long, quiet takes of the landscape lend the movie its beauty and poignancy.

Impressive on every level, The Revenant deserved its cascade of award nominations and wins, including the Oscar nomination for Best Picture, DiCaprio’s win for Best Actor, Inarritu for Best Director, and Emmanuel Lubezki for Best Cinematography. If you have a few hours to spare, it’s worth your while to sink into this enthralling movie experience.

revenant montage

 

The Dark Tower

dark tower movie

Over the past year or so, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. There are eight books in all, and I’m about in the middle of the fifth book, Wolves of the Calla.

I’ve been quite eager to see the movie version that came out last August. I was under the impression that it was based on the first book, The Gunslinger.  The film does center on the relationship between the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) and young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), as he pursues the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) in order to protect the Dark Tower (a structure that holds the universe together). That’s the basic premise of both the film and the book.

The problem, as I see it, is that the filmmakers tried to pull various threads from all of the books and weave them into something coherent in a not-quite two hour movie, as well as adding in things that never happened in the books. The result is a jumbled mess that I suspect would barely make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books. Or rather, because I have read some of the books, it seems like a hurried scramble of elements that could have been handled better; maybe the average movie-goer who hasn’t read the series would have no problem with accepting the plot. Maybe.

Either way, the film follows Jake, a 13 year old from New York City, who’s been having nightmares. Specifically, about a Dark Tower in another world that is of immense importance, a Tower which is under attack. Children are being abducted, children who have a special power called the Shine (some level of psychic power), and are used to send destructive beams toward the Tower. The person orchestrating all this is the sorcerer Walter, aka The Man in Black. He wants the Tower destroyed so that the universe will collapse, letting in chaos and darkness. Jake also dreams of the last Gunslinger, a man who opposes Walter and means to end his life.

Jake manages to find a “portal” or door to Roland’s world (there are many such portals between the worlds), and finds Roland. To his dismay, he realizes that Roland only wants vengeance against Walter, who had killed his father and everyone else he has ever loved. He has no interest in saving the Tower; basically, he’s given up that particular quest. Walter soon learns that Jake has the most “pure” shine ever discovered in a child, and wants him for his mechanism that sends destructive beams toward the Tower. He wants to end it once and for all. The film lurches toward that inevitable meeting between Gunslinger and Man in Black, with Jake in the middle, along with the fate of the universe.

Roland and Jake
Roland and Jake

I have to say that casting McConaughey as Walter was brilliant; the man clearly enjoyed playing the flippant, purely evil Man in Black. Not quite the Devil himself, but a very effective agent of evil, one that’s gotten a little bored with eternity and likes to play around with his victims. Though Stephen King has said that his character Roland was based on Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western films, Elba was a refreshing choice for the stoic, spiritually spent Gunslinger; Taylor did fine as the suffering, idealistic kid who brings Roland around to do the right thing.

Still, the great performances couldn’t save this film for me. The biggest problem was the Tower itself: yes, it holds the universe together, but how, and why? What’s in the Tower? These questions were not answered. It remained an inanimate object that failed to engage our emotions. With the fate of the universe at stake, it has to be more than just a sliver of rock in the middle of nowhere.

As a reader of the books, I caught references to things that held great meaning in the novels: the number 19, the roses at the base of the Tower, the wrecked amusement park, the thirteen orbs, and many other little things that held significance. None of which were explored or explained in the film, which I found frustrating. I get it; there’s no time in a film. So why bother putting them in at all? It’s just a tease to a fan of the books, and makes no sense to anyone else. I feel this story would have been much better served as a mini-series, where the nuances and details of this great epic could be explored more satisfactorily. Very disappointing, to say the least.

 

Strangerland

strangerland

Strangerland (2015, directed by Kim Farrant) is an Australian film starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, and Hugo Weaving.

The story takes place in a small desert town where the Parker family has relocated, after some sort of trouble involving their 15-year old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). Sensual, and, we gather, promiscuous, Lily begins to hang out with the older boys at the skate park. Little brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) is supposed to keep an eye on her, but he resents the task, and tends to wander the town by himself at night. Pharmacist dad Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) seems angry but stoic, and is often at work. Mom Catherine (Nicole Kidman) contemplates her daughter’s wild ways with a sort of fondness, and we understand that she had been the same way in her own youth. Her marriage to Matthew is rocky at this point, as they sleep in separate beds.

One night Tommy sets out to wander, and his sister follows. They never make it home that night, and it’s the fallout from their disappearance that takes up much of the film.

At first, Matthew believes Lily has simply taken off, as she had done in the past, but Catherine isn’t so sure. They go to the local police, headed by Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving). As a dust storm sweeps through the town, Catherine becomes more frantic. Search parties are sent out, and Rae questions several youths, but no answers come. Catherine discovers Lily’s explicit and disturbing journal, and it comes to light that she had a sexual relationship with Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), a slow-witted Aboriginal young man who helped around the Parker house. Rae happens to be involved with Burtie’s sister, Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), which puts him in a sticky situation.

strangerland mathew and katherine
Fiennes and Kidman

As the days go by with no sign of the children, tempers flare, blame is meted out, and Catherine begins to unravel. The rest of the film is a strange muddle as we witness her breakdown, are shown sweeping shots of the dry, scrubby landscape, the image of a blurred woman walking in the desert (Lily? or Catherine herself? They’re both lost), Lily’s voice voice reciting some of her strange poetry.

Kidman naturally excels at bringing Catherine’s complicated character to life; a woman who mourns not only the loss of her children, but perhaps her former self, as well, a self she relived through her daughter. Fiennes is believable as a man who is angry and feels uncomfortable with his daughter’s sexuality; he has cause, as it’s brought pain and humiliation to his family. But on a deeper level, one of the themes of the movie examines the discomfort we feel with women who find their identity and freedom through their sexuality. Weaving, in Rae, brings a note of stability and reason through all the hysterics, though it’s clear he’s weathered his own storms. It’s nice to see Weaving as a real human being rather than an Elf or computer program.

Strangerland is a grim, disturbing film that doesn’t necessarily bring any closure to the story. Rather, it’s an examination of a marriage on the edge of ruin, of a family falling apart.

 

 

 

The Reader

the reader

The Reader (2008, directed by Stephen Daldry) is a film about secrets, guilt, and shame.

In 1958 West Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a much older woman who helps him when he falls sick in the street. When he recovers, he goes back to her flat to thank her, and they fall into a passionate affair. She has him read books to her before they make love, and they spend the summer this way. Hanna is a ticket collector for a tram, but when she’s told she’s gotten a promotion to the office, she suddenly decides to disappear without a word to anyone, least of all Michael, who is devastated.

 

Eight years later, he’s a law student accompanying his seminar teacher and peers to a trial, which is trying several women who had been former prison guards for the SS. One of the women is Hanna. He watches helplessly as she is accused of letting Jewish prisoners die in a burning church. He comes to realize a secret about Hanna, one that would affect her sentencing. His decision whether or not to come forward with that secret lies at the heart of the film: what is his moral obligation to this woman, a woman he believed he had loved and who then broke his heart; a woman who undoubtedly had, by “following orders”, sent countless Jews to Auschwitz.

reader michael and hanna
Kross and Winslet as Michael and Hanna.

Ralph Fiennes plays the older Michael, who looks back on the past and wonders if he’d done the right thing. His relationship with Hanna, and what happened afterward, had affected his ability to form close relationships in his life, and he’s a bit estranged from his daughter, Julia. His second key decision of the film, as an adult, leads to a scene with a survivor (Lena Olin) that is painfully awkward and icky, illustrating the struggle of collective German guilt over the Holocaust.

The cast was excellent, the film thought-provoking, but ultimately it left a kind of bad taste in my mouth. I can’t seem to put my finger on it; but it seems like two films together: the first half filled with a young man’s sexual awakening amid torrid sex scenes; the second half a somber morality tale wrapped up with the weight of horrendous war crimes. The two don’t mesh well. And the film seems to ask us what we should make of Hanna. Is she a sympathetic character? Was she a “victim of circumstances”? Do we even have the right to ask that question?

The Reader manages to pull in the viewer with great performances, sex, and the lure of secrets, but its weighty issues perhaps deserve a better forum than this.

Blade Runner 2049

bladerunner2

I was 11 years old in 1982 when Blade Runner came out, far too young to see it or to appreciate its cool aesthetic and philosophical musings. When I did finally catch up to it–mostly because this then-young Star Wars fan was looking for some more Harrison Ford–I got Rick Deckard instead of Han Solo (or even Indiana Jones), and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I was probably in my mid-twenties before I realized how brilliant the film was, and I duly filed it away into the “Most awesome movies ever” file of my brain.

After some mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movies, I was a bit wary about sequels to long-beloved films–not Can it be done, but should it be done? After watching the trailer and knowing that Ford probably wouldn’t have signed on if he didn’t think it was worthy, I allowed myself to get a little bit excited.

And was rewarded with a rich, fully-realized film, not just as a sequel, but as a cinematic experience that stands on its own. Although it helps to have seen the first film, the story isn’t a simple re-hashing of the original plot, but builds on it, creating a core mystery concerning the original characters; but really the film belongs to Ryan Gosling, and his character, K/Joe.

K is a Blade Runner (someone who seeks out and destroys rogue Replicants, androids that can barely be distinguished from humans), but unlike Rick Deckard before him, he’s also a Replicant himself. He’s a new-model Replicant–programmed to obey–hunting old-model Replicants, who had the annoying habit of seeking their freedom from slavery.

The film opens with K finding an old model named Sapper (Dave Bautista), who disdains K for killing his own kind. Before K is forced to kill him, Sapper tells him, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Afterward, K discovers a box buried beneath a dead tree, which turns out to contain the remains of a female Replicant who, impossibly but undeniably, had given birth to a child thirty years ago.

This fact has the potential to change everything. K’s superior, “Madam” (Robin Wright), calls it “a bomb going off.” If Replicants have the ability to procreate, then it calls into question mankind’s right to use them for their own purposes. It’s her job to maintain order; she orders K to find the offspring and destroy it.

Thus begins K’s journey, not only of the investigation, but of self-discovery. For along the way, evidence begins to suggest to him that perhaps he is the child. He grapples not only with this stunning possibility; but danger in the form of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the mastermind behind creating the new Replicants. He learns of the child’s existence and wants it as well, not to kill it but to study it and make it possible for all Replicants to procreate. Not for any sense of freedom for his creation, but simply to create more at a faster rate, to enslave more and thus send more offworld, to conquer the stars. He sends Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), his Replicant muscle, to follow K and find the child at whatever cost.

Some have complained that 2049 is overlong and confusing. Perhaps to the average movie-goer, this may be true; but a fan of the original film understands the importance of the tone, ambiance (that synthy soundtrack!), and the underlying themes that make Blade Runner so special. Themes as basic as, What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of memory? But also, What is real? What is love? K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a female artificial intelligence in the form of a hologram, brings these questions into focus.

joe and joi
Joi and K/Joe

Inevitably, Harrison Ford has to make an appearance as Deckard, as a link to the original, but also to tie up some plot points. He does admirably well here, but the movie is totally K/Joe’s. Gosling (who I’d been aware of, but admittedly had never seen any of his other films) is amazing bringing to life K’s arc from obedient, resigned Replicant to questioning, emotional seeker of identity and meaning.

The open-ended conclusion to the film leaves some questions, but overall, this is the kind of movie experience I pretty much live for.

 

 

 

 

 

Fahrenheit 451

F 451

I’ll admit it: I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in years. All I could remember was that in some horrible dystopian future I shudder to contemplate, “firemen” exist, not to put fires out, but to burn books.

Understandably, the story needed an update, considering the enormous impact the digital age has had on our culture. Society is encouraged to “Stay vivid on the Nine”, the Nine being a combination of Twitter and the only TV channel in town, broadcast on the sides of skyscrapers, with cascading emojis and viewers texting comments. Our protagonist, the firefighter Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) has become a kind of action-hero reality star, charging into homes and buildings suspected of harboring books and other unapproved artwork, with unquestioning battle-frenzy and egged on by viewers comments: “I love you Montag!” “You’re a hero!”

In this America, life operates under the premise of whatever makes us unhappy must be destroyed. Books make us examine ourselves, question our motives, and shed a light on the darker aspects of ourselves. Eww! The quest for knowledge and meaning is uncomfortable and icky. Better to just pop some eye-drops into the eyes (containing, I assume, some kind of anti-anxiety drug–and the symbolism of blindness is not lost on me here), and watch the Nine. Yay!

Montag basks in this adulation, and is currently being groomed by his superior, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) to replace him. Life is looking pretty good for our hero, until a couple of things happen that cause him to start questioning. First, he meets the enigmatic Clarisse (Sophia Boutella), a snitch for Beatty, and a former “eel” (someone who gathers and hides contraband books). He’s intrigued and attracted. Then he watches as a woman allows herself to be burned along with her books rather than live in a world without them. She utters a word, Omnis, before she dies, though the word is dubbed over when it’s broadcast. He’s horrified, and wants to understand why someone would sacrifice their life for books. What the heck is in them, anyway? And what is Omnis?

montag and clarisse
Montag and Clarisse

He steals a book from the woman’s vast pile (Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground) and adds it to his collection of contraband he’s been keeping in a secret place in his home. He has to hide it from Yuxia, a kind of souped-up Alexa that interacts with (and spies on) the occupants of every home. “What are you doing, Montag?” it intones when he tells it to “go blind”. Creepy.

Captain Beatty tries to stave off his protege’s doubts. He’s been around books long enough to be familiar with some of them (intriguingly, when he’s alone he writes down quotes from books–from memory, so you know he’s read them more than once–onto small slips of paper, then burns them all together). He states that “We are not born equal, but the fire makes us equal.” I found Beatty’s ambiguity, his knowledge of books but his subsequent rejection of them, interesting and hoped to go a little deeper into his psyche. He’s the most realized character in the film, but unfortunately, precious little has been spent on characterization here.

After reading a few passages of Notes From Underground with Clarisse, Montag decides he doesn’t want to burn books anymore, he wants to read them, and to save them. He’s suddenly willing to risk his life on something he barely knows anything about. It didn’t ring true for me; and the whole premise became even more questionable when we find out what Omnis is: all of the world’s literature encapsulated into some DNA and injected into a bird, to be released and to hopefully make its way to Canada, where it can be retrieved and preserved. Huh? If literature is NOT outlawed in other countries, just the US, then what’s the urgency here? Why are “eels” taking it upon themselves to memorize whole books so they won’t be “lost to humanity”, when they presumably exist in some form or another in the rest of the world? I don’t get it. And DNA in birds? Wah?

There’s so much potential in the ideas presented in Fahrenheit 451, but this film did not even scrape the surface. Mostly, the logic simply fell apart, and nothing could hold it up. It’s too bad; I suppose it’s best just to go back to the source, and enjoy Bradbury’s book about censorship, free-thinking, and the dangers of technology dumbing us down.

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Karenina

anna karenina

Ever since I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina years ago, I’ve been a fan of the lavish Imperial Russian romance. Like with any great piece of literature, I’ve found that I come to the story from a different perspective in each succeeding decade of my life. In my twenties, I found Anna and Vronsky’s doomed, passionate love affair extremely romantic, and Levin’s story a bit of a bore. In my thirties, I couldn’t forgive Anna for leaving her cherished son for a mere man, and took more interest in Levin’s philosophical musings. Now, I tend to see it as a fairly balanced view of the many forms of love that we human beings can experience. Anna, tragically, is merely a woman who falls in love under the wrong circumstances, while Levin seems to find the right balance between love and duty.

I’ve read the book quite a few times and have sought out the many movie adaptations (the good, the bad, and the ugly) over the years. I’ve seen the 1947 version with Vivien Leigh and Kieran Moore, the 1985 version with Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, the 1997 version with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, and a 2000 BBC version with Helen McCrory and Kevin Kidd. It seemed to be about the right time for a new version, so I finally watched the 2012 film with Keira Knightly and Aaron Johnson.

At first, the setting of the film as an ever-changing stage scene felt strange and contrived; and there was an air of quirkiness that didn’t seem right to me, considering the thematic weight of the story. But after a while I got used to it, and the story settled into familiar Anna Karenina territory.

Keira Knightly won my heart as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (no easy feat), and I liked her here as Anna. Though she always seems so young to me (who doesn’t these days?), in truth she’s probably a little older than the age Anna is supposed to be in the book, and I believed in her tortured portrayal as Anna.

When I first heard of the film and cast, I thought Jude Law was playing the dashing Count Vronsky, forgetting he’s now in his forties and too old for the role. Here he’s Anna’s dispassionate, regimented husband, Karenin. He does a fine job showing us Karenin’s distance, as well as his complete puzzlement at Anna’s betrayal.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is perhaps the prettiest Vronsky I’ve ever seen on film, and is probably the closest to what Vronsky is supposed to be: young, dazzling, entitled, with the world as his oyster. Alicia Vikander is luminous as the sweet, innocent Kitty; and Domhnall Gleason (fast becoming one of my favorite character actors) pulls off Levin’s seriousness without turning him into the utter bore I saw in him all those years ago. Mathew MacFadyen plays Anna’s morally challenged brother Steva with apparent glee.

Anna principals

All in all, a young and glittering cast, gorgeous costumes, and a stirring soundtrack won me over despite my initial misgivings. If you’re a passionate Anna Karenina fan, you owe it to yourself to watch this film and give it a chance. It might even be my new favorite, beating out the 1997 version with the Bean. Okay, let’s not get crazy!

1922

1922

Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella 1922 (2017, directed by Zak Hilditch) is a tale of murder, guilt, and retribution.

Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) and his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) live with their 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) in Hemingford Home, Nebraska on their farm, but it’s not a happy home. Arlette has never taken to the farming life and is unhappy, wanting to sell off the 100 acres she received from her father and move to Omaha, where she has dreams of opening a dress shop. Wilf, on the other hand, scorns city life, and feels that a man has two things that gives his life meaning: his land and his son. He covets his wife’s 100 acres, and her desire to sell, divorce him and abscond to the city with Henry puts dark thoughts into his head. He’s come to hate his wife, and works to turn Henry against against her, mostly by suggesting that he’d never see his girl, Shannon (Kaitlyn Bernard) again.

His poisonous whisperings into his son’s ear convinces the boy to help him put an end to Arlette. One night Wilf lies to his wife and tells her he’s changed his mind; she should sell her land and they’d all move to the city. A jubilant Arlette celebrates by drinking, and while she sleeps off the alcohol, they do the deed. Henry holds a canvas bag over her head while Wilf attempts to cut her throat with a knife, but he botches it and it’s far from clean and quick. After a bloody struggle, they dump her body into the empty well behind the house and spend the rest of the night cleaning up the blood.

Wilf promised his son that once Arlette was gone, they could go on and live the life they wanted, but naturally this was not to be. In horrific Stephen King fashion, a tragic series of events unfold leading to Wilf losing everything he holds dear.

Thomas Jane is an actor I’m not familiar with, but he’s a revelation in this movie. His subtle and understated portrayal of the laconic, intense Wilford James was impressive, as was the rest of the supporting cast. The real horror is the psychological implications of murder, but there’s just enough guts and supernatural gore to give you the willies and remind you you’re watching vintage King.

I first came across 1922 in King’s book of novellas, Full Dark No Stars, a couple of years ago, and can’t sing its praises enough. I’ve always felt King is strongest with short fiction, and 1922 is a great example of what he can do with the limits of the short form. This film version perfectly captures the dark heart of the story, of a man turning to evil to hold onto his version of heaven, only to find hell instead.