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.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Michael Hoffman, 2009 (8.6*)
Sunday, June 27, 2010
George Cukor, 1939, bw (8.0*)
This pleasant bit of fluff is one of the first, most archetypal of the all-talk films, where the characters don’t do a lot actually, they just talk about their lives, a style later copied by The Big Chill, Diner, Metropolitan, and My Dinner With Andre. This group of women congregate at a dude ranch out west, and discuss their philandering husbands, new romances, and other 'women's issues'.
What made this film was the expert direction of master George Cukor (My Fair Lady) and the cast: Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Bary Boland, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Hedda Hopper (as a columnist, naturally; she always plays herself). The dialogue and script are witty, never dull, and though hard to classify as comedy or drama, or to give it’s flimsy stories much weight, it’s still a sparkling film to watch today, and likely the first to feature an all-female cast - no doubt it's a film of a stage play, it has that look as a film.
In a year considered one of Hollywood’s best, this film stood above the more celebrated, along with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Rains Came.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Deepa Mehta, India-Canada, 2005 (9.5*)
In India during the late 1930's , Young Chuyia is married at just eight, and her husband dies of disease, making her a Hindu widow, who basically have no cultural rights as they are considered "half dead" rather than still alive. They are committed to a small communal ashram which survives by begging. Life within the ashram is harsh for such a young girl, who keeps expecting her mother to come take her home. She's just gone from having a husband and parents to having no one but strange women around her.
She is befriended there by a beautiful prostitute, Kalyani, played by the gorgeous Lisa Ray, who has the grace of a young Audrey Hepburn. On a daily visit to the river, they meet Narayan, a handsome young lawyer, played by matinee idol John Abraham (photo left), who is struck by Kalyani's grace and beauty. Traditions threaten to interfere with their lives however, even though Naraman is modern, a follower of Gandhi, trying to help get beyond the caste system and other societal prejudices and treat all as equals on the eve of India's independence.
The film is stolen by young Serala as Chuyia, in her first film - she is captivating onscreen and you never feel that she is acting at all, just being a little girl overwhelmed by her childhood freedom ending far too soon, and chained to a culture's unbending traditional ties. Mehta frames every shot with a photographer's eye for beauty in lighting and color. Beyond the story, the artistic quality of this film will interest all serious cinephiles; one soon realizes that Mehta is one of the best directors around, certainly one of the best female directors of all time. Features beautiful music by double Oscar®-winner A.R. Rahman, not as pop as his Slumdog compositions and better-suited for the film's action here.
Note: This third film in Mehta's "trilogy", which began with Fire and Earth, caused quite a bit of controversy in India upon release; traditionalist Hindu organizations tried to get the film banned.
A small circle of friends in Lahore (which will become Pakistani) that surround the beautiful Hindu nanny Shanta, perfectly played by Nandita Das, represent all the major religious factions of India, and they are worried how the upcoming splitting of India into two countries will affect the major sub-cultures. Each side accuses the other of being the more violent historically, and you can feel the tensions rise as the event draws closer.
Events eventually culminate that will leave you emotionally shocked, and I'm sure this film generated much discussion. Banned in Pakistan, and with major censorship in India, especially for a sex scene which was still allowed to show a lot for that nation which generally bans onscreen kissing.
Part of a trilogy by Mehta, begun by Fire (96, also banned for its Lesbian theme), followed by the even more artistic Water (review to follow), about Hindu widows. She has a terrific photographer's eye, as well as a sensitivity to the effects of a society and its customs on the daily lives of individuals.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
Coline Serreau, 2001, France (9.1*)Serreau, brilliantly weaves a complex tale of crime, friendship, romance, and revenge using one of the most engaging scripts (which she wrote) in recent memory. To say this is also an archetypal women's lib film is an understatement. A middle-class married couple on their way to a dinner witness the beating of a prostitute on the streets and don't help her. The wife, perfectly played by Catherine Frot, investigates out of guilt and begins to unravel the story of the young woman from her beginning in a male-dominant culture to her present life in Paris.
Serreau never lets the viewer tire as the film flawlessly shifts gears in a complex spiral until we not only get the complete background story but are propelled forward into a totally unexpected future involving all the main characters she introduces. This is one of the few films I've wanted to stand up and applaud when done, or at least give Serreau an imaginary high five for superb craftmanship throughout.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Todd Haynes, 2007 (8.8*)
Done in the rambling style of a 60's Fellini film (notably 8 1/2) by director Todd Haynes and given the name of an unreleased song from Dylan's "Basement Tapes", this is an inventive and non-formulaic fantasy, not a docudrama, but an inventive art film that improvises on the various mythic personae (7 here, played by 6 different actors) of Bob Dylan, some self-created, such as an 11 yr old black "Woody Guthrie" based on Dylan's own tale give to NY journalists, and character "Billy" from the Pat Garrett/Billy the Kidd songs.
Cate Blanchett deservedly won 9 int'l acting awards (but curiously not the Oscar® or BAFTA) for her dead-on portrayal of the 'electric era' Dylan often at odds with his folk-purist fans, capturing his personality without trying to impersonate him; as always, she is simply brilliant. Christian Bale is also effective as the early folk singer making his mark in Greenwich Village, and as the later 'newborn evangelist'. Heath Ledger plays an actor made famous by playing Dylan in a mid-60s biopic, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is subtle and stunning as his troubled artist wife. Along with Ledger's, perhaps the most incongruous story line is the western "Billy", played by Richard Gere, seeking solitude in a mythic 1800's town and location (Riddle County); this storyline is not about Dylan but his musical characters, and his own occasional retreat into reclusivity to escape the media and fan limelight.
Often shot in 60's style black and white, often jumping from one character/story to another, sometimes feeling improvised, these variations in style actually help the film stay lively and interesting, as well as constantly surprising the most jaded of film fans. Only those expecting a straight narrative will be disappointed, and this should interest both Dylan fans and those who simply respect his amazing achievements, of giving a voice to the most important era of the postwar generations: the emerging movements for both civil rights and ending the Vietnam war. In fact, Dylan gave voice to both 'beatnik' and 'hippie' generations, when non-conformity and exercise of freedom became the battle cries of youth disenfranchised with the military-industrial war machine controlling the world's governments.
This deservedly WON a Rolling Stone magazine poll for non-documentary music biopics (over Ray and The Doors); even had Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" not given the name to both the magazine and the rock group, it still would likely have won this poll as it's the most ambitious and inventive rock film since Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, which is itself parodied in one scene with Cate's "Jude" character cavorting in the grass with the Beatles on the set of that film. This is a film that almost immediately begs for a re-watch, and will certainly be on every list of must see rock movies.