The films of Fred Astaire might represent the largest absence in my movie-watching history. Oh sure, I’ve seen films with Fred Astaire in them, most notably 1959’s On The Beach, but nothing from his prime, when he was paired with Ginger Rogers. This 1936 feature seems to be the one that is the most highly regarded in the Astaire/Rogers oeuvre, so I figured it was an appropriate place to start. And I wasn’t disappointed, and in certain areas it exceeded my expectations. I expected stunning dance sequences with expert choreography and displays of talent, but I wasn’t really anticipating all the material that would surround them. In the manner of these things, the actual mechanics of the plot are a little flimsy, really only serving to bridge the gaps between the dance numbers, but the writing is sharp and there are a number of memorable supporting characters. The natural chemistry between Astaire and Rogers is there too, with their quirky personalities meshing together wonderfully.
Still, it’s the dance numbers that leave behind the most lasting impression, even though in the grand scheme of the film, they take up a relatively small amount of screen time. Especially in an age when musicals typically use rapid-fire editing to mask the performers’ lack of talent, seeing the one-shot performances in Swing Time is a real delight. The number where Astaire dances around in blackface is a blunt reminder that the film comes from a different time, but that only distracts a little from what is still a classic display of physicality. There aren’t many moments in the film that pass by without earning a smile, and true to form the film ends literally with all the characters laughing with each other. In these more cynical times, a completely jovial experience like Swing Time is worth taking the time to appreciate. 8/10.
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, after years of making films in his home country, has recently ventured out to shoot his films in new locations. First there was 2010’s Certified Copy, made in Italy and about a man and a woman who may or may not be a couple, and now there is Like Someone In Love, made in Japan and about the triangular relationship between a prostitute, her elderly client, and her fiancé. Although my knowledge of Kiarostami’s extensive filmography is embarrassingly limited (having only previously seen Close-Up and Certified Copy), he seems particularly interested in examining traditional human roles, and then subverting expectations. The characters of Like Someone In Love feel more straightforward than the central couple in Certified Copy, but they also feel more natural and less like artificial constructions to be manipulated by the whims of the filmmakers.
The college student from outside Tokyo who has to turn to prostitution to get by. The old man who hires the prostitute not for sex, but for companionship. The jealous fiancé who didn’t finish school but who runs his own car repair shop, and who may be too young and hot-headed to be insisting on marriage. How these characters interact with each other could almost be called suspenseful, if it weren’t for Kiarostami’s typically laconic and unobtrusive style. Much of the action, if you can call it that, takes place in cars, a Kiarostami trademark, as the characters drive from one destination to another and the viewer learns more about their backgrounds and their relationships with each other. It all builds to a final violent moment that somehow manages to be both satisfyingly climactic and frustratingly abrupt at the same time. It’s the kind of ending that many will find exasperating (similar to John Sayles’ Limbo), but it works as a belated release to an extended period of bottled-up tension. And it’s the kind of ending that still has me thinking about it days after. The year is still very young, but this is the first standout film I’ve seen from 2013, and one whose intricacies will still be revealing themselves for a good long while. 8/10.
Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel scored deserved Oscar nominations for Best Production and Costume Design and won for the latter. To give credit where credit is due, the production and costume design is truly exceptional. A shame then that the film has so little else going for it. Wright is not a stranger to adaptations of classic literature, having previously worked with Keira Knightley on Pride & Prejudice, and so you would expect a confident directorial touch with this latest effort. Instead, what you get is an over-confident directorial touch. In a bizarre and frankly consistently distracting decision, Wright stages the film as a stage play, with characters moving on and offstage and interacting in front of artificial scenery. While this concept does lend itself occasionally to moments of real visual wonder and invention, more often than not it just comes across as Wright showing off.
His direction thankfully does settle down a little in the second half, but this only magnifies the weaknesses of the story presentation. I haven’t read the original novel, but at over 800 pages I’m assuming it contains a substantial amount of extra detail that couldn’t be transferred over to the film. I’m also assuming that Anna Karenina as a character is far more complex and sympathetic in the novel, because in the film she is incredibly irritating, and that seems to me like a critical flaw. Instead of sympathizing with Anna as she rebels against society and has her illicit affair, you end up wanting to strangle her for gleefully flaunting her affair with no remorse or pity for her husband (Jude Law in the film’s most effective performance) and then moaning and complaining when society reacts negatively towards her. There actually is a point late in the film when Anna’s young lover Count Vronsky accuses her of being unbearable, and you sympathize with his frustration. It’s not necessarily Knightley’s fault though; once again it all comes back to Wright, and his failure to really judge any aspect of the production correctly. There was potential here for a standout adaptation, but Wright’s ego kills it. 4/10.