Going nowhere slowly in The Last Station

Historical dramas, like book-to-film adaptations, are by nature contentious among film critics. Purists will nitpick at every factual inaccuracy while directors often feel liberties must be taken in order for the audience not to feel as if they are watching the History Channel. Fair enough…

But, however and nonetheless, the idea behind making a film about a particular historical figure is surely to highlight his importance and examine the mark he made. It should, at the very least, let the audience get a sense of zeitgeist while being offered the opportunity to explore the nature and depth of the subject. Michael Hoffman’s latest film, The Last Station, however, does none of the above. It traces the last days of one of literature’s greats, Russian author Leo Tolstoy (b. 1828-1910), and what a subject! Yet, Hoffman disappointingly fails to lend the gravitas an icon like Tolstoy both commands and deserves.

The plot focuses on the relationship between Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) during the writer’s last days. While their marriage is based on passion and love, the union is a turbulent one. After 48 years together, Tolstoy is no longer the same wealthy nobleman Sofya had married. Following the publication of what may arguably be two of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) – which Dostoevsky called “flawless as a work of art” – Tolstoy turns his attention to the plight of the poor in Russia. He’s become a ‘pacifist anarchist’ (an oxymoron perhaps?). He turns away from fiction and instead turns to writing papers advocating so-called ‘passive resistance’. Private property is to be relinquished and wealth distributed to the masses, including Tolstoy’s own (much to the chagrin of his wife).

Tolstoy’s beliefs and writings inspired a Hippie-like cult following, who called themselves Tolstoyans, and the sub-plot of the film concerns this group of ardent worshippers, who saw the writer as a kind of Messiah. They don’t believe in indulging the pleasures of the flesh. Sex is strictly forbidden – perhaps it’s not passive enough? Meat and money are also frowned upon. Tolstoy’s greedy lawyer, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), deviously uses this group to encourage the writer to relinquish the copyrights to his books and ‘bequeath’ it to the people. To help him, he dispatches the young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to keep a watchful eye on Sofya.

There is a lack of depth and focus to the film, which gets bogged down in details that contribute nothing to an understanding of the subject. Granted, Tolstoy is not the protagonist of the film. The story is meant to be seen from Bulgakov’s point of view, which explains why we’re forced to endure the developing, and exceedingly dull, romance between Bulgakov and a fellow (female) Tolstoyan in detail. McAvoy’s character in The Last Station is an echo of the blue-eyed, innocent boy he played with so much candour in The Last King of Scotland. This time, however, there is no sparkle to his performance. It could be the fault of the script or the direction – Bulgakov’s contribution to both the plot-development and denouement simply feels redundant.

One of the film’s few redeeming qualities is the performance of the inimitable Helen Mirren, who cannot put a foot wrong. As the hysterical, melodramatic Countess Sofya she once again dazzles, earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress earlier this year. Christopher Plummer was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, although he was never going to rival Jeff Bridges.

The Last Station feels a bit helterskelter and lacks cohesion. It starts off with enough pace, but slows down to the point where I was left wondering when the train would finally dock at the station and I could disembark.

Director & Screenwriter: Michael Hoffman
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti
Awards: Academy Award nominations for Helen Mirren (Best Actress) and Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor)

Rating: 2 out of 5
Ps. I think I shall go for an action blockbuster next to get the pulse racing – Iron Man 2, here I come!
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The Birth of a Parent

Parenthood, especially for first-timers, is a bit like suddenly deciding to pack your life into a backpack and set off for a trek across Antarctica. You know it will be a long, arduous journey. It’s pure madness. And, it’s shit-scary. Being a parent means you have to take complete responsibility for someone else – a life is literally in your hands. Despite the numerous books on parenthood that have been written, there is no real answer to the question “How do I not screw this up?”

These questions are explored by director Sam Mendes in the quirky new comedy-drama, Away We Go. When 34-year old Verona (Maya Rudolph) falls pregnant, she and her boyfriend, Burt (John Krasinski), question whether they can be ‘good’ parents. With Burt’s own parents deciding on the spur of the moment to move to Belgium, the couple don’t have the support structure they had counted on, and so, they decide to find a new home. The two embark on a trip across North America, visiting towns and cities where they have family and friends to find a place that’s suitable for raising a child.

Krasinksi (who’s best known for his role as Jim in the US version of the TV series The Office) and Rudolph (also better known on the small screen as a regular on Saturday Night Live), are a breath of fresh air. Their comic timing is impeccable (it could also be that Mendes’ direction is just really good) and their individual performances as part of the kooky couple are compelling. Mendes is experienced in deconstructing everyday relationships in suburban America in film – both American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008) addressed this theme, but in a more cynical manner.

Away We Go
, on the other hand, is fun while lending the necessary gravity to make the story seem real. Moreover, the script allows the characters the freedom to transgress the norm of portraying pregnancy in film using extremes: if the scene of Katherine Heigl giving birth in Knocked Up didn’t leave women (and men) retching, nothing bar Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome (it’s a real disease) will. Away We Go is a more honest, more genuine account of the tumultuous emotional experience of pregnancy for both women and their partners.

At one point, Verona asks Burt, “Are we fuck-ups? … We don’t even have the basic stuff figured out … like how to live.” But, the point is: no one does. As they travel from city to city, Burt and Verona realise that everyone makes mistakes and that all parents fear they’ll irreparably fuck up their children without ever intending to. To use a boring, but apt cliché, parenthood, like life, is a journey – one in which the future is unclear and the decisions you make today can reverberate for years to come. But, you can only try and do your best. As Verona tells Burt, “All we can do is be good for this one baby.” Verona tells Burt towards the end of the film. “We don’t have control over anything else.”

Postscript – Great as it was, the film still didn’t make me want to have children.

Director:
Sam Mendes
Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Rating: 4 out of 5

No bounty here

RANT OF THE WEEK

Pursuing a thriving and respected career in film following a role in a sitcom as wildly successful as FRIENDS is damn near impossible. Just ask David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox. Out of the cast of FRIENDS, one of the six pals managed to make a semi-decent job of transitioning from the small to the big screen: Jennifer Aniston.

The problem with Aniston, however, is that it’s difficult to say whether she really been successful or not. Despite a long line of nowhere films, she’s made a decent romantic comedy or two, such as The Break-Up with Vince Vaughn in 2006. Aniston’s also shown that she has some real acting talent in films like Friends With Money (2006) and The Good Girl (2002). However, roles such as the latter two have been (shamefully) few and far between for Aniston. Whether this is because they don’t get offered to her or whether she opts for commercial refuse herself is another matter. What I would like to ask, with reference to her latest romcom, The Bounty Hunter, is: “Really, Jen?”

The reason for this question is that, just as her previous film in this genre, Management (2009), The Bounty Hunter is neither funny nor romantic. While most of the gaga that Hollywood calls comedy these days belongs in a toilet, Tinseltown has shown, with films like It’s Complicated (2010) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003), that it can still have an audience in stitches with real humour and a little love thrown in the mix.

Not so with The Bounty Hunter. Firstly, the plot is thinner than wax paper. An ex-cop-turned-bounty-hunter called Milo (seriously?), played by Gerard Butler, lands the job of ‘bringing in’ his ex-wife, Nicole Hurley (Aniston) – perhaps Nicole’s last name could be an unintended reference to another actress, who has an unfortunate lack of talent? Nicole has missed a court appearance following her arrest on something ridiculous like clipping a police horse – she’s too busy being a serious journalist to honour her bail conditions, you see. Now, of course, it’s up to Milo to find and arrest her, a thought he relishes in. However, Nicole finds herself being chased by some bad guys with worse skin after uncovering a murder. Milo gets drawn into the mess, and everybody starts chasing everybody else yak, yak, yak … Bored yet?

Because, I was. Incredibly bored, that is. As good-looking as they both are, Butler and Aniston have no onscreen chemistry. Milo never seems quite angry and vengeful enough in his pursuit to see Nicole in jail and she doesn’t really look like she hates him all that much. They never seem all that attracted to one another either. It’s all just a little too wishy-washy to be believable.

The Bounty Hunter is not even good date-movie material. The only thing worthwhile in the whole film was the scene in which Milo inspects his ripped abdominals in the mirror. Gerard Butler is completely yummy and just for that, I’ll give the film a bonus point. However, a five-second glance at Butler’s upper body is not worth R45 a ticket. I’d rather rent The Break-Up on DVD for the fourth time and spend the rest of the money on half-price Easter eggs at Woolies.

Director: Andy Tennant (Fool’s Gold, Hitch)Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler
Rating: 2 out of 5