Tolstoy deserves better than ‘Last Station’

Posted March 18, 2010, at 6:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

THE LAST STATION, written and directed by Michael Hoffman, 112 minutes, rated R.

For those who already have glanced down at the grade for this film, let’s just acknowledge the elephant in the room and be done with it.

Yes, Helen Mirren was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress as Sofya Tolstaya in Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” and true, Christopher Plummer joined her by receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the Russian novelist Tolstoy himself. So, let’s just offer them a polite round of applause — and then remember that each lost.

There’s a reason.

The film, which Hoffman based on his own script, is a hullabaloo of histrionics, so much so that in one scene, Mirren becomes a human wrecking ball so wild with rage and frustration, she goes on a plate-smashing frenzy that would cause any fan of the “The Antiques Roadshow” to expire in the aisles.

In another scene, she runs pell-mell from their estate, rushes across the grounds shrieking in a white night dress, and heads straight for the pond, in which she eventually finds herself drowning after flopping hard on the deck and twisting into the drink.

Gird your loins, people, because this movie is about those wacky Tolstoys and the movement of Tolstoyanism, which is supposed to be about reducing all religions to their common element of love. In the movement, sex isn’t allowed for the Tolstoyan, but you wouldn’t know it here; many of the characters are doing it, have done it or like to talk about it. A lot. And the mouths on these people? Sometimes, if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were watching “Precious.”

There isn’t a moment in this movie that isn’t enjoyable, but not always in the serious-minded way Hoffman intended. When Tolstoy and Sofya come off an argument, for instance, and start clucking like birds and then crowing like roosters, the intent is meant to reflect a mix of passion and comedy, but be forewarned. You might want to toss a bit of birdseed their way because what’s unfolding onscreen is pure camp.

And don’t even get me started on Paul Giamatti, whose Vladimir Chertkov waxes and twirls his mustache so often, it’s no wonder Sofya hates him, if only because he’s an evil caricature. He’s the villain trying to get Tolstoy to change his will and sign off his rights to his literary works so Vladimir can hand them over to Mother Russia. Since Sofya is having none of that, she bares her teeth, hisses like a she-devil, and rises up against him in what history already tells us is a losing battle.

Other moments do resonate as the drama Hoffman was aiming for. The film is viewed mostly through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy in a fine performance), a 23-year-old virgin who gets caught up in the movement. Chertkov offers him the opportunity to be Tolstoy’s secretary, which makes him cry, but off he goes to live with the Tolstoys with the intent of writing everything down. Why? Because Chertkov wants to undo Sofya by chronicling her madness. Trouble is, Sofya is on to him. Complicating matters more, Valentin meets the saucy Masha (Kerry Condon), who eschews the tenants of Tolstoyanism and hops on poor Valentin the first chance she gets.

Is this the story Tolstoy fans deserved? Hardly. But in its way, there always is something fun about watching a talented cast miss its mark as they shoot for the moon — or, in this case, the next level of enlightenment. There are moments in this movie when you want to shield your eyes, but good luck with that.

Grade: C+

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On DVD and Blu-ray

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON, directed by Chris Weitz, written by Melissa Rosenberg, 130 minutes, rated PG-13.

Chris Weitz’s “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” is custom-made for hormonal ’tween girls just as the “Star Wars” movies were made for sci-fi-loving young boys.

So, let’s give it up to its creators because regardless of how drawn out and dumb this movie is, at least they know what their audience wants: shirtless boys, chaste kisses, and a female character caught between the hotness of two hotties (a werewolf and a vampire) who apparently is willing to throw garlic cloves to the wind to give her soul to the latter.

About the young woman in question: her name is Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her hormones are boiling over as if lit by a satanic hellfire.

We don’t know this because Bella expresses her emotions easily — she’s nearly a mute, poor thing, parting her lips but saying as little as possible — but because when the vampire, Edward (Robert Pattinson), decides he must remove himself from her life in order to protect her from his kind, she literally writhes in pain, screams out in agony and has nightmares that suggests one hell of an epic yearning.

With Edward gone for most of the movie, there to pick up the pieces for Bella is Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her lifelong friend who wants more than a friendship with her. Together, they grow close over motorcycles, mullets, mutual sidelong glances and his newly bulging biceps. But here’s the thing: turns out Jacob has a gene that allows him to morph into a werewolf.

Who knew? He didn’t. And here’s the real issue at hand. Just as with Edward, if the two take the risk of edging toward sexual intimacy, Jacob could potentially harm her if things got out of hand between them. After all, all one has to do is look at the shredded face of one of the wives of Jacob’s werewolf leaders to know how dire having sexy times with a werewolf can be. Just as it could with Edward, it might cost Bella her life, or at the very least, a disfigurement. And who wants that?

Bella does — of course, she does — though not with Jacob. She wants Edward, who appears to her in ghostly flashes during those moments when she nearly harms herself. These moments fuel her desire for him even more. After all, he wouldn’t appear to her if he didn’t love her. So, as the movie unfolds, she becomes more and more determined to have him back in her life so she can strip down and give him her, um, soul.

What unspools from this is another glum film about the perils of teen intimacy that still finds life hinging on abstinence and morality. While those are fine messages to send out to young audiences, the way it’s played here is so brooding, it’s nearly bloodless. That is, of course, until the film’s final moments, when real heat emerges in Italy.

Just what goes down there, we’ll leave for you, but it says a lot for the movie that the two most interesting characters come at the end. Dakota Fanning rules the screen as a dead vampire zealot with a mean stare, a tight golden bun and a hot clip, and Michael Sheen creates all kinds of chaos as the leader of all vampires. Each ooze menace to the point that you think, finally, characters who fill up a room, tear up the scenery and allow fear to creep into your heart. These two actors are so superior to the juiceless love otherwise served up in the movie, you can’t help wishing they had a movie of their own.

Just sayin’.

Grade: C-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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