This week: Keira Knightley takes on a classic, but Jennifer Lawrence proves more worthy of leading-lady praise in a decidedly contemporary tale. Also, The Twilight Saga takes its fangs and goes home (at last), and HOLY MOTORS HOLY MOTORS HOLY MOTORS.
Anna Karenina  Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn't need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it's completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law's honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue.
There's nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What's wrong is Wright's bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged — a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a procenium stage, in the auditorium, or "backstage" among riggings. Whenever we move into a "real" location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of "acting"? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright's muse Knightley, and there's no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy — in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well — though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it's a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) (Dennis Harvey)
Brooklyn Castle  Geeks rock — that much we all know in the science- and math-rich Bay Area. That doesn’t lessen the impact of this documentary about Brooklyn I.S. 318’s young chess players, who have won the most junior high chess championships in the country and were the first middle school team to win the US Chess Federation’s national high school championship. With 60-plus percent of the students below the federal poverty level, the players certainly aren’t rolling in privilege, especially during these budget-slashing times. Nonetheless, with the help of caring teachers and an intensive chess class, the school’s players, spanning a spectrum of skills with some surpassing even Einstein’s rating, have managed to bring home state and national championships for the school — and vastly improved their prospects along the way. They range from Rochelle, the shy girl who has the chance to become the first African American female chess master; Alexis, the boy who yearns to get into a good high school and college to care for his immigrant parents; Justus, the sixth-grade chess prodigy who’s already a master and suffers intensely when he loses; and Pobo, the sweet-faced son of Nigerian émigrés who says he probably wouldn’t even be in school if not for chess. Brooklyn Castle is about chess, yes, as director Katie Dellamaggiore takes the time to spell out the rating and tournament point systems, but it’s also just as importantly about the kids, who are smart, strategic, and getting primed to play the game of life. (1:42) (Kimberly Chun)
Holy Motors  Holy moly. Offbeat auteur Leos Carax (1999's Pola X) and frequent star Denis Lavant (1991's Lovers on the Bridge) collaborate on one of the most bizarrely wonderful films of the year, or any year. Oscar (Lavant) spends every day riding around Paris in a white limo driven by Céline (Edith Scob, whose eerie role in 1960's Eyes Without a Face is freely referenced here). After making use of the car's full complement of wigs, theatrical make-up, and costumes, he emerges for "appointments" with unseen "clients," who apparently observe each vignette as it happens. And don't even try to predict what's coming next, or decipher what it all means, beyond an investigation of identity so original you won't believe your eyes. This wickedly humorous trip through motion-capture suits, graveyard photo shoots, teen angst, back-alley gangsters, old age, and more (yep, that's the theme from 1954's Godzilla you hear; oh, and yep, that's pop star Kylie Minogue) is equal parts disturbing and delightful. Movies don't get more original or memorable than this. (1:56) (Cheryl Eddy)
A Royal Affair  At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life — as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled — bearing a male heir — the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch's "eccentricities," but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King's personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel's impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It's a quality costume drama, but not a great one. (2:17) (Dennis Harvey)
Silver Linings Playbook  After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010's The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick's novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he's obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he's been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010's Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010's Winter's Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she's the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she's also the only reason Playbook's dance-competition subplot doesn't feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film's not perfect, but Lawrence's layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2  The final installment of the Twilight franchise picks up shortly after the medical-emergency vampirization of last year's Breaking Dawn - Part 1, giving newly undead Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) just enough time to freshen up after nearly being torn asunder during labor by her hybrid spawn, Renesmee. In a just world, Bella and soul mate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) would get more of a honeymoon period, given how badly Part 1’s actual honeymoon turned out. Alas, there’s just enough time for some soft-focus vampire-on-vampire action (a letdown after all the talk of rowdy undead sex), some catamount hunting, some werewolf posturing, a reunion with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a few seconds of Cullen family bonding, and then those creepy Volturi are back, convinced that the Cullens have committed a vampire capital crime and ready to exact penance. Director Bill Condon (1998's Gods and Monsters, 2004's Kinsey) knows what the Twi-hards want and methodically doles it out, but the overall effect is less sweeping action and shivery romance and more “I have bugs crawling on me — and yet I’m bored.” Some of that isn’t his fault — he bears no responsibility for naming Renesmee, for instance, to say nothing of a January-May subplot that we’re asked to wrap our brains around. But the film maintains such a loose emotional grip, shifting clumsily and robotically from comic interludes to unintentionally comic interludes to soaring-music love scenes to attempted pathos to a snowy battlefield where the only moment of any dramatic value occurs. Weighed down by the responsibility of bringing The Twilight Saga to a close, it limps weakly to its anticlimax, leaving one almost — but not quite — wishing for one more installment, a chance for a more stirring farewell. (1:55) (Lynn Rapoport)