At the movies: "Anna Karenina," "Life of Pi"

When I heard that much of the newest adaptation of “Anna Karenina” was set inside in an old theater, I was like, uh-oh.

But filmmaker Joe Wright and his crew pull it off, giving us a beautifully and elegantly choreographed film.

Despite a few cinematic cliches (fireworks, torn paper becoming snow in the next shot), this 2-hour, 10-minute movie based on a familiar story pulled me in and never let go.

Wright shot most of “Anna Karenina” on a soundstage in a dilapidated theater outside London, making use of the stage, the backstage, the fly space and the house itself.

Stylized yet brilliant, this film has the plus value of a smart screenplay adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard from Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel of the same name.

The comely Brit actress Keira Knightley is perfect as Anna, a prisoner of 19th century strictures, her highly regarded husband, and her passion for Count Vronsky, a young cavalry officer.

Jude Law, who years ago would have played the seductive young count, instead plays the more mature, cuckolded husband who maintains his dignity despite his anger and emotional turmoil over his wife’s betrayal.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I at first thought was too pretty to play Count Vronsky, grows into the role as Anna becomes more demanding of him as the rest of Russian high society shuns her.

“Anna Karenina,” released this year, plays through at least Dec. 27 at the Art Theater in downtown Champaign. There’s plenty of wintry scenes in this movie, making it ideal fare for this time of year.

Warning: Dress warm. I heard a couple of ladies complain that they felt they were inside the movie because they found the theater chilly. I wore a fleece top and was fine.

Life of Pi

I met novelist Yann Martel, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel “Life of Pi,” a decade or so ago when he visited the University of Illinois. So I bought his novel but must admit I almost but didn’t quite finish reading it.

One of my more critical friends hated the wildly popular novel, comparing it to the 1970 bestseller “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” written by Richard Bach.

Both are fables.

So I was not in a big hurry to see the movie “Life of Pi” even though it’s directed by University of Illinois alumni Ang Lee. But a friend and I saw the 3-D version at the Beverly Cinema, and we both enjoyed it.

It’s sort a sea-going survivor’s tale, with a lot of religion mixed in. A mature Pi tells a novelist, who frames the story, or stories, that his will make him believe in God. I kept waiting but that did not happen to me.

Most of the movie revolves around the 16-year-old Pi, a seeker who is marooned for 227 days on a lifeboat in the South Pacific with a 400-pound tiger. It’s a digital tiger but totally believable.

It and the rest of “Life of Pi” is a visual treat, even trippy in some places. If you love the natural world you will love the way it looks in “Life of Pi” though much of it was filmed in a self-generating wave tank — the world’s largest — built in Lee’s home country of Taiwan at a former airport.

Suraj Sharma, an Indian actor and student from New Delhi, makes his debut in “Life of Pi” as the title character.

“We got really lucky with the kid,” Lee told The Telegraph in the UK. “Very difficult shooting. He never melted down, never got sick, never misbehaved, never got injured. He carried the whole thing.”

The Oscar-winning Lee, who returned here triumphantly as a guest at the 2008 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, is shaping up as one of the world’s best directors, one who’s not afraid of taking on challenges.

He told The Telegraph, though, that he had thought long and hard for two months before deciding to take on “Pi.”

“Kid, water, big special effects, animals — and they have to be in a small boat on water,” he said. “It seemed to be a filmmaker’s every nightmare. I thought it was difficult and challenging and I got geared up and decided ‘I’ll be the one to do this’, but once I got into it I thought it was a dumb idea to have picked it up.”

That dumb idea doesn’t seem so dumb now.
 

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