Anna Karenina (Joe Wright 2012)
I felt an inexplicable urge to watch Joe Wright's Anna Karenina again recently. I'm not sure what I was expecting from it, as I hadn't really cared for it in 2012 and little of Wright's subsequent work had given me cause for reevaluation. It’s an enormously frustrating picture because I can admire much of what Wright is trying to do within the framework of his theatrical conceit, and there are times when he pulls off a virtuoso camera move or a complex piece of choreography that deserve applause. Ultimately, however, that’s all Anna Karenina amounts to. It’s a series of bold maneouvres and ambitious ideas that never coheres, and for a film determined to flow from one scene to the next – with scene transitions happening on the fly – it feels so disjointed. It was always likely to be a shallow and truncated adaptation, but Wright and Tom Stoppard never seem to have a grasp on the balance or pacing of the story, and both the primary and secondary narratives end up feeling underdeveloped. One of the key problems lies in the casting. The decision to cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky looks even more laughable now than it did then, and although she makes a fair stab at it, I think the title role was too much for Keira Knightley. The film’s real success stories lie in the supporting roles. Jude Law is marvelous as the dignified, wounded Karenin, and Alicia Vikander grabs her opportunity to light up the film every time she appears as Kitty. A star was obviously being born. I'd like to see her Anna Karenina some day.
Getting Straight (Richard Rush, 1970)
is talk, talk, talk. The characters in Richard Rush’s film are constantly arguing, debating, monologuing and cracking wise. It might have all become too cacophonous to bear if it wasn’t for two key factors. First of all, the protagonist Harry Bailey – a sardonic Vietnam vet returning to college to secure his master’s degree – is played by prime-form Elliott Gould, who keeps us engaged no matter how arrogant, pompous and misogynistic his character can be. The second factor that keeps us hooked into the picture is Rush’s incredibly vibrant direction. Working with Laszlo Kovacs, he finds imaginative ways to frame every scene through his blocking, his use of architecture and, above all, through some spectacular rack focus work. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many focus pulls in a single film; there must be a dozen in some of these shots. Emerging from the burnout, disillusionment and fog of the end of the ‘60s, Getting Straight is a fascinating time capsule. I’m not sure if it all really works, and I found a lot of it unconvincing (especially Harry’s climactic explosion over The Great Gatsby) but it’s impossible to look away from this movie, and the ending has the same potent ‘burn it all down’ quality that characterises so many films of this era. Getting Straight made over $13 million and was the 21st highest-grossing film of 1970, which is a remarkable thing to consider from today's point of view.
Man Trouble (Bob Rafelson, 1992)
Hopes must have been sky-high for a film that reunited the director, screenwriter and star of Five Easy Pieces, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Man Trouble is a confounding mess. It’s not just the fact that it’s a bad movie, but it feels like three or four bad movies are happening at once. On one level the film is an attempt at an old-fashioned screwball romance, but stodgy pace and the lack of chemistry between Jack Nicholson and Ellen Barkin kill its chances of ever getting off the ground. Barkin appears to have been directed to flip into hysterics at the slightest provocation, while Nicholson operates on autopilot. To be fair, the actors might just have been confused by the way their character dynamics seem to transform from one scene to the next, with the film adopting a different style and tone every ten minutes. I know I was confused. There’s a subplot about a serial axe murderer that doesn’t go anywhere, and an equally baffling detour in which Barkin’s sister Beverly D'Angelo is kidnapped and held in a psychiatric hospital because some powerful men want a tell-all transcript she’s writing, or something. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a running gag about a horny dog that keeps trying to shag people. Man Trouble has a cracking cast - Harry Dean Stanton, Michael McKean, Saul Rubinek and Veronica Cartwright all make appearances – but nobody seems entirely sure what their role is supposed to be. A bewildering misfire.
Movie Crazy (Clyde Bruckman, 1932)
This was Harold Lloyd’s first foray into talking pictures, and despite some occasional stiffness, it’s generally a very smooth transition. The film pokes fun at our bespectacled hero’s inappropriateness as a big screen leading man. He is a dreamer hoping to break into pictures, who gets his opportunity when a mix-up over his headshot leads to him being invited to the studio for a screen test. Lloyd does have some fun with sound effects – notably in the way the audio speeds up as his various screen tests are run through – but Movie Crazy succeeds primarily because its best gags are inventive visual sequences that you could easily imagine him constructing in the silent era. He creates slapstick havoc when he stumbles into a production as soon as he arrives in Hollywood, and in the film’s comic highlight he accidentally wears a magician’s jacket to a party, looking increasingly bewildered as he pulls rabbits and doves from its hidden pockets. Movie Crazy offers an amusing dual role to Constance Cummings, who toys with Harold’s emotions as both an actress and the character she’s playing in a film; Harold isn’t aware that they’re the same woman, and he fears he’s cheating on one with the other. But what really distinguishes the film is the elegant style that Lloyd and director Clyde Bruckman (a frequent collaborator with both Lloyd and Buster Keaton) bring to the film. Rather than being constrained by the newfangled recording techniques, they keep the camera mobile, incorporating a series of impressive tracking shots, notably the one that builds up to the spectacular climactic fight on the deck of a ship.
Wife (Mikio Naruse, 1953)
The stark title could stand for a number of Mikio Naruse films, but in its opening scenes, Wife gives equal weight to the inner thoughts of both partners in a failing marriage. Mihoko (Mieko Takamine) and Toichi (Ken Uehara) have been married ten years and whatever spark their relationship once had has long faded. Neither party seems able to address this directly, however, and instead they both sit in silent resentment, stewing in their private emotions. The actors find small, telling details in their interactions that accentuate their mutual dissatisfaction, and when Toichi is driven into the arms of a co-worker she is young, cultured and modern – she represents a sharp contrast with his wife. Naruse surrounds the central couple with vividly sketched and equally poignant portraits of marital discord – one woman despairs of her unemployed and often drunk husband; another is devastated by her husband’s relationship with a prostitute – and he brilliantly weaves in and out of these narratives to create a tapestry of sadness, frustration and lost hopes. Wife is structured to open and close with scenes that echo each other, emphasising the hopeless situation that these characters find themselves in. Mihoko might have won the victory over her young rival, in a beautifully acted confrontation, but she has only condemned herself to many more years in a loveless union that won’t make anybody happy.