Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Last Station

Michael Hoffman, 2009 (8.6*)
Normally films about authors are tedious and uneventful, but The Last Station, due to superb acting and a very interesting, intimate screenplay, manages to remain engrossing until it's dying breath. It follows the last days of the author Leo Tolstoy, forever beloved in Russia due to War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Oscar®-nominee Christopher Plummer turns in his finest performance in a long career as the elderly author, well beyond his years of creative fiction and now more interested in creating a new world movement of pre-Communist 'Tolstoyans', who denounce private property, the superstition of religions, and even the pleasures of the flesh. Instead they strive to create peaceful communes where individuals are allowed freedom without attachment to personal wealth, material concerns, or nationalistic endeavors.

Helen Mirren, also an Oscar® nominee, is her usual perfect self playing his suffering wife, who fears that his new found asceticism may cause him to rewrite his will and give the rights of his creations to the public domain, thus robbing his widow and his children of their inheritance.

Thrown into this family dispute at Tolstoy's country estate, called Polyana, is James McAvoy (Atonement) as a new secretary for Tolstoy (Valentin Bulgakov) appointed by Paul Giamatti (as Chertkov), who heads the organization of Tolstoyans, but who is under 'house arrest' by the czar's agents, so he sends Valentin there as his eyes and ears, instructing him to write down everything and report even insignificant details to him.

Valentin, whose is really the subject of this film, is sent to live in a nearby commune of Tolstoyans, where he is thrust into a romance with the agressive Masha, sensually played by Kerry Condon, who initiates him into the new philosophy of 'free love', in spite of the Tolstoyans denouncement of sexual activity. Valentin becomes torn between his love for Masha and his adherence to the master's new philosophy, which Tolstoy himself admits he doesn't really follow, reveling in memories of a promiscuous sex life, even writing the details so his wife can read about his exploits.

For me, this was an enlightening expose of Tolstoy's private life. I found his prose difficult at best, finishing War and Peace only after two aborted attempts, and decades apart. The film claims he's the most celebrated author in the world, but for my money, Charles Dickens and James Conrad are infinitely more interesting and rewarding. However, I found Tolstoy's personal philosophy very appealing, and this film, in spite of some soapy dramatics, more rewarding for me than any of the films of his novels.

Ironically, even with 10 best picture nominees, this one was slighted, with nominations only for Mirren and Plummer. Mirren proabably should've have won her second Oscar®, and Plummer his first, but who can figure out Hollywood voters? (No one will ever convince me Sandra Bullock is in the same league as Mirren). This was easily one of the best five films of the year, in fact, second for me only to the winning Hurt Locker. It may be a little 'soapy' for some, but Tolstoy's novels were even more sentimental and melodramatic; this was less so for me, more compact and to the point.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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