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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Keira Knightley in ANNA KARENINA and Sean Penn in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

From the very beginning, there is something very different and wonderful about director Joe Wright and wrighter Tom (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) Stoppard's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's lavish, sprawling look behind the curtain at the last vestiges of the imperial Russian upper classes. Rather than simply setting ANNA KARENINA in the late 19th century, Wright (who also did ATONEMENT and PRIDE & PREJUDICE with Keira Knightley, who plays Anna) stages the proceedings as if it were an elaborate play either being put on or perhaps rehearsed.

Which is not to say the film in any way resembles a filed stage play, but very often characters are seen moving backstage between scenes with props and sets being wheeled into place or flown in on ropes. The work still feels very much like a movie, but every once in a while characters enter an almost otherworldly arena of theater before snapping back into film mode. I may not be making myself clear, but when you see it, you'll understand; and I'm guessing you'll find it fascinating.

Anna is a woman married to Karenin (Jude Law), an aristocrat with a strong spiritual core. They seem to get along well, but the husband is a largely passionless creature who loves his wife enough to ignore his transgressions as long as she doesn't embarrass him. But when Anna meets the dashing (and largely broke) Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of KICK ASS fame, sporting a twirly little mustache), she is swept away by pure, unfiltered passion, which eventually either becomes love or is mistaken for love. There is so little to love about Vronsky (at least this version of him), it's tough to tell the difference.

The situation is complicated by Anna having one child with her husband and another with the Count. Since she was still married when she gave birth to her second child, it is considered her husband's by law unless he denounces his wife, thus giving him leverage over her. You can almost feel Anna's guts being crushed when she realizes she might lose both her children.

For pure entertainment's sake, ANNA KARENINA dispenses with much of the story's political tones in favor of the affairs of the heart. Although Stoppard and Wright have a great deal of fun tearing down high society for all its stuffiness and birthing rules of conduct that stifle those with any fire in their hearts. But Anna is not given a pass for her behavior either. She's a woman who puts her personal desires before her own children—a crime punishable being driven from her status in life. There's a sequence in an opera house toward the end of the film that is especially brutal.

Wright hasn't forgotten the little touches either, especially in his supporting cast. I was particularly taken with Kelly Macdonald as one of the only women who stays friends with Anna as long as she can because she wishes she were brave enough to make similar decisions. Actors such as Emily Watson, Olivia Williams and Matthew Macfadyen as Macdonald's philandering husband are all quite good and bring some much-needed punch to this often ruthless story. ANNA KARENINA has a life and flow that keeps things moving with a stunning elegance that goes beyond just nice-looking sets and lovely costumes (although both are on full display). Simply put, Knightley is at her best as an actor under Wright's direction. But in this film, she's devastating—both as a beauty and a performer with tragedy coursing through her veins.

Am I the only one who finds it truly bizarre that the Italian writer-director who gave us the Oscar-nominated IL DIVO has made a movie set largely in Ireland and the US, starring Sean Penn as a reclusive former rock star who looks a lot like The Cure's Robert Smith and speaks with the voice of Tiny Tim? OK, maybe I'm the crazy one. After watching THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, I had a lot of questions. First and foremost, why would Penn agree to be in this movie? Maybe it was the challenge of the getting to the core of the singer known as Cheyenne, apparently a Goth legend at one point (and still dressing like one), but today, he lives in Ireland with his decidedly straight-laced but totally supportive wife, played by Frances McDormand, who ends up being the saving grace of this movie.

The 50-year-old Cheyenne seems to be in something of a rut. Those around him validate his eccentricities; he spends a great deal of his time hanging out with a teenage girl named Mary (Eve Hewson, Bono's daughter) and just generally being afraid of most people, which leads to some horribly awkward conversations.

When he hears that his estranged father has died, Cheyenne heads back to New York to see his family and pay his respects. But upon going through his father's things, he discovers that dad was obsessed with tracking down a still-living Nazi war criminal hiding in America—a man who apparently humiliated his father in some way when he was being held in a camp as a child. To pay tribute to his dad, and with the help of a professional Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch), Cheyenne sets out to find this one-time Nazi, assuming he's still alive. And now the movie is a road-trip film.

As off putting as Cheyenne is as an eccentric human being, the fact that Sean Penn is the man behind the eyeshadow makes his difficult to stop watching. And his choices with Cheyenne—from the voice to the clothes to the freakish mannerisms—are all bold to the point where some of them are just silly. But there's still something there. Not counting his brief scenes in last year's THE TREE OF LIFE (and since GANGSTER SQUAD has been pushed until January), I haven't seen Penn in a starring role since 2010's FAIR GAME, and before that it was his Oscar-winning turn in 2008's MILK. So I feel like every appearance is worthy of at least taking a look at, but that's not me saying you're even going to like it. I'm not stepping out on that rickety limb.

The film has some solid acting work by the likes of Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten(!) and even David Byrne playing one of Cheyenne's old music buddies...named David Byrne. There are more than a few moments of genuine humor in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, but they are too few and far between to make me believe this was meant to be some kind of comedy or farce. In the end, the movie is too much of a mess to be regarded as anything more than a fascinating disaster, but in my book it confirms that Penn is still an essential actor whose performances must be seen to be believed, even when he makes questionable choices like playing this character.

-- Steve Prokopy
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