Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hoffman's THE LAST STATION, from Parini's novel of Tolstoy, opens limited run


A lot of traveling goes on in THE LAST STATION -- via choo-choo train, horseback and sometimes mere feet -- yet the characters never seem to get where they want to go. (Well, we are in Russia, after all.) Unfortunately the movie has the same problem.

Adapted (from the generally well-regarded novel by Jay Parini, unread by me) and directed by Michael

Hoffman (shown left), it tells the story of Leo Tolstoy's last days, as relatives and "disciples" fight over the right to his body of work (and eventually his body itself), watched over at all times by the press, ever eager to have another nibble of celebrity news to feed its slavering constituency. Sounds like fun, at the very least. And though Hoffman sets things up fairly well, the plodding and repetitious series of incidents he shows us, not to mention the lumbering dialog -- journeyman at best and often lacking the specificity and urgency of real life despite the efforts of a very good cast -- render this entire enterprise, well, stationary.


In his day, the deservedly famous Russian writer attracted the kind of attention most recently lavished upon Michael Jackson. The press screening I attended some months back took place soon after Mr. Jackson's demise, so the comparison of these two celebrities -- their work and their lives -- along with the concomitant devaluation of culture that has taken place over the last century came to mind rather strongly. Back to the movie in question: That good cast mentioned above includes Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy (above left), who proves a pretty good match, looks-wise, for the real guy (above right). Helen Mirren (below) plays his wife Sofya, and Ms Mirren can emote with the best of them. Unfortu-
nately emoting is just about all that is called upon from the actress here, and it grows tiresome after a time.

The young lovers -- what historical movie is complete without these? -- are essayed by James McAvoy (below right) and Kerry Condon (below left) and the two provide some energy to the proceedings as they spar and elide in the "commune for believers" that has sprung up near Tolstoy's estate. Ms Condon seems somewhat modern for the time, but perhaps that is the point, as her character is meant to express the change from serfdom to liberation. Paul Giamatti is here, as well, as the great man's leading (and somewhat avaricious) disciple, though he, too, begins to blend with the wallpaper after a time. Blending is not anything we have seen Mr. Giammati do previously, but like the rest of this distinguished cast, he is wasted by Mr. Hoffman's endeavor.

The cinematography (by Sebastian Edschmid of Adam Resurrected) is appropriate and lush, particularly when it captures a lovely vista (below) or a colorful prop-and-costume-heavy setting (further below). But the screenplay simply stinks, spelling everything out in CAPS until the point is made and made again. Thank you, Mr. Hoffman. We get it. What results, despite all the emoting on display, is simply flat. One of -- perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived deserves better.

The Last Station opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 4, for one week only, to qualify for Academy Award consideration -- wishful thinking if ever I encountered it, although heavy-duty emoting often impresses Academy members. The film will reopen in both cities on January 15 for its regular theatrical run.

5 comments:

CriticNYC said...

Very true review, but Tolstoy "perhaps the greatest writer ever"? umm... er... Shakespeare not in your library?

However your point that a big opportunity was wasted is right on. What is hard to decide is exactly why it is all so flat. You have expressed it pretty well but briefly. Perhaps the director was simply overwhelmed by the reputation of Tolstoy and thought a giant film would automatically result from a giant subject. But then, didn't Shakespeare in Love's director suffer from the same problem, but somehow manage to pull it off?

Pity you didn't expand more on this puzzle, it would be interesting to hear more. Talk about a failure can be more interesting than praise for a success!

James van Maanen, said...

Hey, CriticNYC -- nice to hear from you again. And since we both saw The Last Station at the same screening, I know you at least somewhat agree with my take on it. I suspect the flatness arises from a writer whose attempts at creating "conversation" between characters does not spring from the way conversation usually happens. Much of what is in the movie sounds pre-thought-out and therefore sounds a little flat. The actors' enthusiasm can make up for some of this -- but not all of it. Real conversation usually takes an odd turn now and again but it this movie it doesn't. It just plods along the path created by the writer.

And yes, talk about a failure can be more interesting than the same thing regarding a success. But I just didn't have enough time to elaborate!

CriticNYC said...

Well, didn't mean to suggest that you didn't express its failings perfectly. It just provokes the age old question, how come you (and I as it happens, as you say) saw these things and the director and anyone he consulted did not? Obviously all such perceptions are subjective and are liable to vary widely with the viewer's background, emotional makeup, knowledge, reason for seeing the film, etc, but I am wondering if one can enumerate general factors which account for difference in radically different views of the same movie, since a movie like a book does not vary itself.

A recent example of great variation in response was achieved by Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which you have unfortunately not reviewed yet, it seems, which as far as I was concerned showed higher level artistry at work throughout in
entertaining and fascinating fashion and inspired the admirable A.O Scott at the Times to write an exceptionally tolerant and happy review of its high jinks, but which many commentators on the resulting thread rejected out of hand as an uninspiring train wreck derailed by various insults to their intelligence.

What gives when what is to some of us clearly and objectively speaking a delightful cinematic romp by a master of the art is chewed and spat out by others who love film just as much, and seem to be quite knowledgeable?

Obviously preconceptions count and if not met the work may offend on that basis alone. But there seems to be more to it than that. One factor that should be considered I believe is the degree of suspension of disbelief that the viewer permits him or herself. It may be that film critics owe to their endless exposure to new material a certain inability to suspend disbelief and to help the film along in the same way as the more naive viewer. I am thinking of this in the same way as someone familiar with the real New Orleans may object to Werner's not very faithful rendering of it. In almost every film there are various bits which are unrealistic, but if it is good in some transcending way we dont worry about them, but purposely ignore them. Some wont forgive them, though, and reject the film as the commenters on the Scott review thread do.

Anyhow it is pretty clear to me that the mental frame in which the audience member watches a film must differ radically from that which the director uses in reviewing and editing his story. It is hard enough as writer to edit oneself well. Reading through the account of a director of his film and how he put it together as in the case of Levity just shown on PBS this Saturday shows how much in love with the actors and the script a director can be even though the result is a soggy failure in a fundamental way (story development and motivations) according to our own (once again highly objective!) view.

Sorry to dance around the topic but I just have this feeling that there is an objective view of any film, like there is of music. I mean, I once knew a guy in Saudi Arabia who was a keen amateur pianist who nevertheless could not stand the music of one composer - Beethoven. Now we know that that is a purely subjective dislike which has nothing to do with Beethoven's objective merits, don't we?

Same with films I am pretty sure. The key thing to ascertain is what creates bias and prejudice - prejudgment - in reviewing film and how one can avoid it.

I just don't think it can all be put aside on the theory that all criticism and reviewing of a film is in the end subjective.

For example, I am just working my way reluctantly through an utterly silly and overreaching effort called Flirt. On the cover is the line from Stephen Holden of the Times: "Smart, sexy, jauntily romantic".

CriticNYC said...

(cont)

There is no way in which this can possibly be a valid review of this film, which consists of a large cast of pretty boys and girls, half of them Japanese, who insist on shooting themselves or each with revolvers for no apparent reason.

My question to you is, is reviewing an art or a science? I fondly believe it can be a science.

James van Maanen, said...

If reviewing is a science, then it would necessarily have to leave out anything subjective -- which is what, to a good percent, reviewing is all about. We look to trust those reviewers whose views, subjective as they are, we share. Whew: your very long but very interesting take on all this deserves attention. But my schedule today is three films, one after another. And then two reviews to write and post. I fear I will not make even that, let alone answering these comments in the way they deserve. So... later.