'Anna' glows

"Anna Karenina," based on the Tolstoy masterpiece that ripples with characters great and small, set in mid 19th- century Russia, is tamed by screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright, producing a surprising and yet evocative film.

Having said that, there's a caveat, a conceit crafted by Stoppard and Wright that some may find off-putting. In effect, they break the covenant entered into by audiences and fimmakers regarding suspension of disbelief. Both accept that what is on the screen, larger than life, is movie magic (no matter how mundane or crudely constructed). Moviemakers are storytellers in the grandest tradition, one that has its roots in the first tale told around a campfire on a spreading savanna. The wish then, as now, is to enter into the tale and believe.

"Anna Karenina" is set, in great part, on a theater stage: The characters move past rigging, across catwalks, with painted backdrops dropping from above and doors swinging open to horse paddocks and fields of snow and meadows of lush flowers. No matter how artfully done, it can seem, however briefly, jarring.

Ideally, to sit in a theater, watching events unfold on an enormous screen, is to leave all behind and enter into another world that beckons and enfolds. This transfer is what makes movies so compelling. Wright and Stoppard risk a great deal with that experience.

As for Tolstoy's massive love story, it continues to resonate, due in large part to its universality, possessing a powerful and deeply human thread that has always stitched together the essence of the human condition.

Anna (Keira Knightly) is a denizen of St. Petersburg society, the glow of youth only recently behind her, her husband, Aleksei (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official. Like the spectacular gowns she wears daily, her life is corseted and restrained, bracketed by the aristocratic code of expectations, framed as elaborate theater.

On board a train bound for Moscow, where she will visit her brother, Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew McFadyen), she meets a young Russian officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She is at first pierced with curiosity and then consumed by an erotic obsession, one that she interprets as love — forbidden, taboo, but no less delicious. Her feelings for Vronsky fashion a complex intersection of carnal need and rationalization, her attraction for the Count rendering her powerless to alter the trajectory of her life — a journey bordering on the delusional that is clearly reckless and ultimately self-destructive, exacting a price she never could have imagined.

In contrast is the halting courtship of Levin and Kitty (Domhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander), grounded and pure, absent the inherent turmoil of Anna and Vronsky. There is a lovely scene in which the two declare their feelings for one another using children's lettered blocks. It's inspired.

Audience reaction to this lush and well-acted production will likely be equivocal. But if you love movies, then give "Anna Karenina" a chance. Much of it glows.

"Killing Them Softly," based on the George V. Higgins 1974 crime novel "Cogan's Trade," is a genre film that will likely attract and repel moviegoers in equal measure.

The movie, essentially, is a series of set pieces, unexpectedly driven by conversations that almost are traditional in their length and tight focus. The dialogue, of course, is about murder and thievery, the patter delivered by bottom-feeding low-lifes, seedy practitioners of a scorched-earth amorality. These are thugs who rob and lie and kill as a way of defining themselves, sociopaths and misogynists who have embedded in their souls the grime of the mean streets.

Some might call this noir-porn, the violence stylized, grim, brutal — bullets in slow motion, passing through a car window into the head of a victim as he sits waiting at a stop sign — delivered with a casual panache.

Raymond Chandler once wrote that in hard-boiled crime fiction, "the scene outranks the plot." That perfectly describes "Killing Them Softly." The plot is paper thin and really exists in service of the loosely connected, nihilistic encounters that will make most filmgoers feel as if their lives are insulated to the point of being monkish when compared to these profane, Darwinian gangsters.

The performances, key to the film, are superb, led by Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins, all the beneficiaries of some smartly written dialogue that is remorselessness, consistently sleazy and dreadfully compelling. As is the film.

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