Anna-Karenina-PosterAnna Karenina

There is no rule that says a movie has to be realistic, and none that says it can’t be as theatrical as a stage play. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard — himself well known for reflexive, deconstructive stageplays such as The Real Thing and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — here present the classic Leo Tolstoy novel on a theater set, an ever-changing opera house to which the action returns again and again.

Technically, there are also exteriors and other interiors. And certainly, the elaborate backdrops and well-dressed extras mean this choice wasn’t made to save money. I liked it as a cinematic experiment. I’m not sure it does much for the story, except the amazing scene where Anna, disgraced in society for carrying out an affair, decides not to hide her face. She dresses to the nines and strolls into the opera house, where she immediately becomes the center of attention. After some stinging social rebukes and feeling angry eyes, her facade of nonchalance crumbles. She is not as strong as she thought.

And maybe this is the essential nature of the character. I never got more than a few pages into the Tolstoy. Certainly, given that I did not understand why she does what she does at the very end of the film, this movie version of the story is probably a failure on that most basic level.

I don’t blame Keira Knightley for not making the internal life of the character plain to the audience, I mostly blame Stoppard, who gives her some terribly clunky lines — lots of talk of “her demon” without explaining what that is. Does she blame her mood swings on this “demon”? Is it like Socrates’ ‘daimon’ – his conscience? Or is it ‘the imp of the perverse’ that leads her into a doomed romance? I don’t blame Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for getting out while he still can.

The other characters are similarly opaque, even the bland lovers Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Only Jude Law’s Karenin, the comical Oblonsky (Matthew McFayden) and his suffering wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) felt well-rounded.

I despised the aristocratic assumptions of this film, for which I guess Tolstoy is probably to blame. The lower classes are there to symbolically be crushed, or to offer salvation to the nobles for living a life of disconnected privilege. The story, as told in swirling dances, is too rushed and crammed to encompass more levels of the Russian society. Or perhaps it would all fall apart if we weigh Anna’s first-world problems against servitude and famines.

With all the choreography of cast and set dec, this movie is really a backdoor musical. It’s a fun experiment, and it is sumptuously-produced. For that reason, I enjoyed watching it. I think this approach might be better suited to stories everyone already knows too well, like Star Wars or Spiderman. The story of Anna Karenina, crossing, as it does, many years and many characters, seems to deserve more of an epic romance treatment. Your Dr. Zhivago or your English Patient. But until some mogul with a soft spot for Tolstoy coughs up the dough for that version, this is a worthwhile substitute.

Killing Them Softly

More like director Andrew Dominic’s Australian crime drama Chopper than his cult western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly disappointed several people in my surprisingly-large mid-week audience. But not I. I kinda loved this film, which is a stylish crime story told in florid dialogue and harsh, lurid camerawork.

The story of a card game getting shut down is paralleled none-too-subtlely with the 2008 banking crisis, which shut down the Wall Street casino for a few months. Trying to go one-to-one with figures in that recent history and the characters in this movie seems to me to be a fools game. (What, is Ray Liotta’s character Lehman Brothers?) But the larger thematic point is a good one, and elevates what might have been a run-of-the-mill potboiler plot onto a higher intellectual level.

The filmmaking also elevates this tale. I loved the tense scene where the card game gets knocked over. I loved the drug-hazed narrative of Ben Mendelson’s Russell. I loved the Weegee-esque frontal lighting in the scene where the Ray Liotta character gets beat up. (This was the first scene where patrons left my theater. And the second…) The slow-motion assassination of the same character, which uses raindrops and shattered glass to trace the paths of bullets.

From the opening abrupt sound edits, this movie proclaims itself as ‘not for everyone’. I would not recommend it without knowing a person’s taste in movies. But I personally enjoyed the hell out of it.

My complaints, besides the over-use of radio news reports to horn in the political backdrop, was in Scoot McNairy’s choice of voice for his character, which seemed a bit of a put-on; and some terrible ADR in the scene in the car with Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt. Pitt was my favorite of the cast, but they were all excellent. A special spotlight for James Gandolfini, whose character has a great story-arc of utter uselessness and self-destruction.

Pitt’s presence in Dominic’s commercially-dubious movies gets them funded. I hope they continue to collaborate. While their films may never appeal to the mainstream, the fruit of two great artists working together makes for a tasty harvest.

MORE: NYTimes interactive piece on the sound design