Mirren and Plummer Deliver in ‘The Last Station’

2 03 2010

It’s Oscar season, which means that I’m going to try to get to as many nominated films as physically and mentally possible before the March 7 event.

Aside from The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, our look at nominees continues with The Last Station starring Helen Mirren (nominated for Best Actress) and Christopher Plummer (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

Director: Michael Hoffman

Starring: Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti,

Release Date: Jan. 15, 2010

Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy) is arguably one of the greatest writers of all time. War & Peace and Anna Karenina have stood the test of time and proven to be a a vivid representation of Russian life in the 19th century, and his non-fiction works on pacifism are said to have influenced countless historical figures.

He was also the figurehead of a pacifist movement espousing communal property and celibacy, headed by Vladimir Cherktov, and an avid diarist who encouraged everyone around him to write down their life and what they encounter.

This diary movement is one of the most prevalent recurring theme throughout Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station – and one that makes it impossible not to ask why it took 100  years for someone to make a movie of Tolstoy’s last days given the astounding amount of information that must have been written about the time.

But maybe the stars had never aligned in quite so amazing a way in the past 100 years to give us the beauty that Hoffman produced.

Christopher Plummer, he of Captain Von Trapp and (most recently) Dr. Parnassus fame, disappears completely into the role of Tolstoy. Not only does he look spot on like the literary master, but he plays him just as video and writings of Tolstoy say he acted. He hits all the right notes of glee, concern, anger, confusion and love. It’s hard to imagine that this year’s Academy Awards will see him as a nominee for the very first time.

Mirren, on the other hand, has been nominated four times (including her nomination for The Last Station) and won Best Actress in 2002 for her role in The Queen. Still, she deserves every award she’s been up for this season as she’s glorious in her role as Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya. Her performance as a wife living in constant fear that her husband will be corrupted by one of his close friends (Giamatti’s Vladmir Chertkov) into signing the rights to his works over to the Russian people, that her family will reject her due to her rejection of many of the Tolstoyan values, and that her husband would die before she had a chance to see him a final time is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.

Sofya truly loved Tolstoy, even as she disagreed with his ideals and failed to understand his desire to dispose of all of his private property. And it is apparently that he loved her as well, though towards the end of his life her negativity regarding his need to sign away the family’s rights to his books to keep in line with his thoughts on how to better the world forced him to leave the once-loving home the two shared.

One of the most truly beautiful scenes in the entire film is a love scene between Sofya and Leo. After fighting for some time Sofya just wants the man she married back in her life and the way she coaxes him to the forefront of Leo’s mind – putting aside differences and worries – is pure and tender. The two seem to be at peace, and yet once the moment ends we are all thrown into the jarring reality that things and people change over time and no one is the same person they were years ago.

Along with the love story of Leo and Sofya, the audience is treated to a brief romance between two of Tolstoy’s followers, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) and Masha (Kerry Condon). Masha has been at the Tolstoyan compound for some time when Valentin arrives and she immediately catches his eye even as he tries his best to remain the celibate virgin he thinks Tolstoy would appreciate.

Valentin is given the honorable task of being Tolstoy’s personal secretary, where he learns the true story of his famed hero. Sure, Tolstoy the public figure espouses celibacy and chastity, but Tolstoy the real person had no problems with intimacy in his youth. This central dichotomy not only confuses Valentin, it leads him to strike up a friendship with Sofya as she tells him about Tolstoy the man while asking him to keep an eye on the family’s assets.

She also helps him to realize the love that she and Leo once held for each other and that he must strive for that type of love in his own interactions. Here, Masha enters as the temptress who stripped him of his virginity before he realized just what was happening and ultimately the great love Valentin hopes will mirror that of Sofya and Leo at their best.

McAvoy holds his own amongst two great and classic actors. While not a new-comer in the strictest sense, he has the least acting experience of the four main characters and yet his inexperience is unnoticeable. He plays Valentin with a distinct innocence that slowly shatters as he delves deeper into the lives of the Tolstoy’s and surfaces a new, better man for the experience by the end of the film. One can only hope that just as his character mirrors the growth and development of Plummer and Mirren’s characters so to will his career. He has the capabilities to thrive in the profession for many years to come.

Final verdict: The Last Station is comprised of some Oscar-worthy appearances by veteran actors and new-comers alike. Not only is the story compelling, but the emotion with which the actors lay their parts is palpable. And the heart of any good film is truly the emotions present. It would be a sin for Mirren not to win this year’s Best Actress award, just as it is a sin that The Last Station was not nominated for Best Picture even after they expanded the pool to 10 films. The film may not seem to be everyone’s cup of tea as they may not care for literary figures on their death beds, but this movie is so much more than the death of Leo Tolstoy. It is an altruistic approach to the most basic of every human emotions – love.

Rating: Really Good

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Family Drama Keeps ‘Addams Family Musical’ Afloat

20 01 2010

Music and Lyrics: Andrew Lippa

Book: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice

Based on: Charles Addams’ comic strip The Addams Family

Starring: Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Krysta Rodriguez, Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello, Kevin Chamberlin

Opens: April 8, 2010 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re all together ooky, and not particular musical – The Addams Family. Duh duh duh duh *snap, snap*

The Broadway-bound The Addams Family Musical, recently closed its curtain at the Oriental Theater in Chicago after a 2-month tryout.

Based on the cartoons by Charles Addams, the musical follows the lives of Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester and Pugsley as they celebrate the coming of age of daughter Wednesday and all the family drama that entails.

The house, while it still may be a museum where people come to see them, has been transported to the middle of Central Park, which provides the rich backdrop of twinkling lights from the city during outdoor scenes and a clever way to get long dead family members involved in the action – they’re buried outside.

Led by the venerable patriarch of modern Broadway – Nathan Lane playing the sultry, tango-loving Gomez – the cast is comprised of seasoned veterans like Bebe Neuwirth (“Cheers,” “Fosse”) as the lithe and dangerously gorgeous Morticia, and fabulous new-comers who seem to have a long career ahead of them like  Krysta Rodriguez, who plays Wednesday. There’s even an appearance by Thing, the disembodied hand from the cartoon.

The drama of the play comes when the newly de-pigtailed Wednesday brings her boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor) and his decidedly un-creepy and kooky parents home for dinner. As can be expected of any 18-year-old in the same position, Wednesday is worried that her family will do something to embarrass her, especially as her family finds joy in the dark and dismal. She begs for one night of normalcy, but with the Addams’ family life is anything but as Pugsly begins to feel left out, Morticia worries her youth is slipping away, Gomez wants his little girl back and Wednesday herself is conflicted with the new emotion of love.

The play opens with a bang as the entire family dances the “Clandango” while Wednesday goes through her transition from girl to woman, but quickly falls flat as it is explained that Wednesday has met Lucas and Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlin) states his desire for the evening – “Let’s Not Talk About Anything Else But Love.”

The Addams Family as television viewers will remember is resurrected for a brief time in the next few numbers as Wednesday deals with her frustrations at the conflicting feelings of love and the macabre by torturing an ecstatic Pugsly, and Gomez can’t keep his hands off his seductive wife. The tempo of the entire play and the emotions of the audience are peaked when the iconic theme song is introduced all to briefly as a way to transition to the dinner party.

Once the Beineke’s are introduced, however, the Addams Family as we know it disappears for some time as the physical interactions between the characters is put on hold for a number of perfectly delivered one-liners by Gomez.

It’s enjoyable to see Wednesday and Lucas sneak around the house – masterfully recreated in a movable, staggering set which adds volumes to the ambiance of the show – as love-struck teenagers, but the meat of the script comes from Gomez’s interactions with Mal Beineke and Morticia’s with his wife, Alice. If Gomez and Morticia have their way, there will be more than one set of lovebirds leaving the house at the end of the night as they try to rekindle the passion in the Beineke’s marriage.

If the play continued as written, it would have been masterful, but those pesky musical numbers which always seemed to fall flat began to pop up once again. The show-stopper, “Full Disclosure,” was hum-worthy as the show went to intermission, but the second act, with the exception of Morticia’s longing “Second Banana” at the beginning, lacks a centerpiece song to hook the audience and Gomez and Morticia’s tango, meant to be a pivotal moment in the play, interrupts the flow of the act and leaves the audience wondering when it will be over.

The true beauty of the play is the script, filled with one-liners based on pop culture and innuendo. Lane’s comedic timing is spot on as he delivers punchlines, and Carolee Carmello, who plays Alice, proves to be a great drunk.

The most classic one-liner from the New Years’ Eve show came from the underutilized Grandmama (Jackie Hoffman) who’s role in the rest of the play seems to be unclear. She had the audience – and the cast – rolling in the aisles as with an delectably inappropriate reference to “Dick…….Clark” and his Rockin’ New Year’s Eve special.

Also notable about the Dec. 31 show, was the unexplained absence of Ms. Neuwirth. Her understudy, Rachel De Benedet, performed wonderfully for being thrown into the spot light at the last second (as Nathan Lane announced at the end of the show as he heaped praise upon her). She hit all of her marks, had a strong voice and a killer pair of legs, and seemed to embody Morticia as she glided across the stage.

There are quite a few kinks to work out of the production before its previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on March 8 and its opening night on April 8 – most notably the music, clarifying character personalities and strengthening the second act – but its outstanding ensemble cast and their relationships is the true reason to see the show.

Final grade: The Addams Family is a very good play, but a bad musical





Bullock, Head shine in ‘The Blind Side’

4 01 2010

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Lilly Collins

Release Date: Nov. 20, 2009

Football movies generally fit into one of four categories: the inspirational, feel-good, underdog story (see Rudy), the desegregation of a team and the players consequential growth and tolerance (see Remember the Titans), a gritty look at the realities which each player on a team faces (see Friday Night Lights) or a reminiscent look of a player taken from us too soon (see The Express). Ignoring the fourth, John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side rolls them all into one.

Quinton Aaron, who plays current Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher as a gentle giant, stars opposite Sandra Bullock, in a turn dramatically different from her usual romcom fare, as Leigh Anne Touhy, the matriarch of the family who took the homeless Oher in during his high school years.

While the film is marketed as Oher’s journey with the Touhy family (with Sean (Tim McGraw), SJ (Jae Head) and Collins (Lilly Collins)), it’s less of a look at how Oher’s life is influence by them or theirs by him, and more of a tribute to the Touhy’s Christian spirit. It’s inspiring to see the trust and faith Leigh Anne and her family have in this young man, who ends up at a prestigious Christian school because of his sports ability even though he may not look like the most athletic man.

As the only African American in an all-white environment, the audience is given a quick glimpse into Oher’s feelings about the situation in a poem he wrote and discarded in high school that was found by a teacher. Other than that, the story is about Oher’s love and protective instincts for his new family, and the Touhy’s love and acceptance of him.

Football could almost be an afterthought at this point as the story is already inspiring and uplifting. However, Oher also turned out to be a phenomenal player at his high school and Ole Miss. He was also a first round draft pick in 2009.

But when he met the Touhy’s, Oher had never played the game. The Touhy’s recognized his protective instincts around the family and helped him to focus those instincts on his quarterback and team.

With a handful of legendary coach cameos, such as Lou Holtz from South Carolina and Nick Saban from Alabama, the recruiting scenes provide a bit of a side dish of comedy to the drama that follows Oher’s frequent trips back to his original home on the “wrong side of the tracks” to find his mother and belongings. Jae Head’s rambunctious enthusiasm as SJ, Oher’s adopted little brother, who manages to elicit bribes from the coaches courting the player, is a breathe of fresh air when the movie begins to get too deep.

While the story could cause some to cry foul that the movie portrays the Touhy family as Oher’s saviors without whom he’d be lost to a life of crime and drugs, and the script allows audiences to only scrape the surface of the emotions of each member of the family, it is done extremely well. You laugh, you cry and you feel inspired to do some good in your own community when watching.

Bullock slips seamlessly into the character of Leigh Anne, with only her tell-tale smirk in a couple of scenes giving away the fact that the actress is better known on the romantic comedy side of the camera lens. The Oscar buzz is not undeserved.

Final Verdict: Very Good





Whip It!

20 10 2009

Director: Drew Barrymore

Starring: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Juliet Lewis & Landon Pigg

Released: Oct. 2, 2009

The story of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is familiar. “Alternative” girl pushed to do something she doesn’t enjoy by her parents finds something she loves but has to hide. Eventually that blows up and the rest of the movie is spent picking up the pieces.

The difference with “Whip It!,” however, is some witty dialogue, killer performances by the cast (these characters could be who Lewis, Barrymore and Wiig really are when they aren’t acting) and a kick ass sport that is rarely featured in mainstream America – Roller Derby.

Even if you’ve never seen a derby, or understand the main point of the game, the F. you attitude of the derby girls and empowering feeling these women seem to get from hip checking and beating the crap out of each other is awesome and infectious.

Bliss (Ellen Page) doesn’t really know where her life is going at the beginning of the movie.  There are hints that she used to be “normal” with a guarded back story when a popular classmate who seems to have been a former friend asks if she’s “alternative” now. Bliss’ simple answer? “Alternative to what?”

That non-confrontational, simply inquisitive attitude takes Bliss through life. Her mother wants her to be in pageants, she competes in pageants. She dyes her hair blue but doesn’t fight her mom when they go to a professional to re-dye it brown, and so on.

It isn’t until a shopping trip to Austin that Bliss starts to question if there is something else out there for her.

When her mom refuses to buy boots from a head shop, Bliss puts up a whiny front, but doesn’t seem as though she’s going to put her foot down and pay the bill herself. That is, until three women on roller skates come in to drop off flyers for the derby. The look on Bliss’ face is no longer one of inquiry and non-confrontation, instead it’s inquiry and admiration. The roller skating women don’t seem to care what others think of them, and as Bliss pays for her boots, she grabs a flyer to take to her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat).

The first introduction to the sport is through a glimpse of an exhibition game between the Hurl Scouts and the Holy Rollers (themed after the girl scouts and Catholic school girls, respectively). From the minute Iron Maven (Juliet Lewis) and her Rollers sweep Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem’s (Kristen Wiig) Scouts, Bliss is hooked – Mayhem has even invited her to tryouts the next week. The only problem? Bliss is 17 and you have to be 21 to compete.

Bliss disregards the rule and signs up as a 22-year-old, quickly standing out in the crowd as a speed demon on skates. She’s assigned to the floundering Hurl Scouts, a team without a lot of direction led by their coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson, yet another sibling from Luke and Owen’s clan who seems to be in his breakout role after appearing as unimportant characters in his brother’s movies). After a humiliating example of why Razor’s plays will help the Scouts win matches, the ladies decide the should pay attention to him and slowly rise up the ranks of the six team league (all with amazing names, but none as good as the Hurl Scouts) to play Maven and Co. once again in the championship.

Along the way, Bliss finds herself as she identifies with the devil may care attitudes of the women. She stands up for herself against bullying classmates and at work, and has a purpose in life that is more than just doing what her mother wants in pageants. She even finds a boyfriend – the older, guitar-playing Oliver (Landon Pigg, a musician in his first acting role), who’s band is booking gigs on a tour that will take him away from Bliss for a month.

The boyfriend and the best friend butt heads when Bliss leaves a derby with Oliver while Pash gets arrested for underage drinking which leads to Bliss’ two worlds colliding. Her parents find out about her derby days and forbid her from competing, leading to bliss running to Maggie Mayhem for help.

She’s surprised to find, though, that Mayhem has a child of her own and can identify with what how Bliss’ mother is acting. This, along with feeling abandoned by Oliver, who has appeared to have cheated on tour, leads Bliss home, where she falls in line with her mother’s wishes and agrees to participate in an important pageant – which predictably falls on the same night as the championship derby.

The rest of the movie is one cliche after another and the situation works itself out so Bliss can compete in the derby and her parents overcome their desire to shelter her from situations and people who are different from them. They see that Bliss has finally found something she loves, and support her.

Even though the movie is predictable, it’s still visually stunning. The scenes at the derby are amazing, especially when you realize the actress’ did their own stunts. One can imagine some of the bruises the ladies sport in the film were more real than not at times.

The movie also banks on some big name comedic actors, though many of them don’t get the attention the deserve – most notably, Jimmy Fallon in a horribly underutilized role as the derby announcer.

What makes the movie great, though, is the fact that it’s a coming of age story set around a sport we haven’t seen too much of. Bliss isn’t growing into herself by kicking goals or shooting hoops, she’s hip-checking and out-maneuvering women with names like Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Jaba the Slut.

It’s also the perfect next step for Ellen Page, who came off the huge role of Juno with a few lesser-known roles. This puts Page right back in the spotlight as the up and coming actress she truly is. And while comparisons to Juno are inevitable, Page holds her own by melding into Bliss and making you forget that we’ve seen this girl as a pregnant teenager before. The veteran actresses also do a great job of making sure Page isn’t outshined.

Overall, this movie was well worth the exorbitant amount of money any movie theater will make you pay to see it.

Rating: Very good.





(500) Days of Summer

21 08 2009

Director: Mark Webb

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

Released:2009

Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

The tried and true Romantic-comedy formula at play in nearly every Romcom in theaters today is simple, predictable and noticeably not at play in Marc Webb’s feature-length debut, (500) Days of Summer. And the movie makes no qualms about that fact. From it’s promotional materials (one tagline reads: Boy meets Girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.) to the first five minutes of the story, it is not hidden that this movie will grate against the norm of every blockbuster Romcom in the past few years.

First, there’s the (500). The parentheses are included in many promotional pieces (though absent from the poster used here – credit goes to Google images) and in the movie’s official title screen. They represent a ticker. A representation of all the days which Summer – played by the ever off-beat Deschanel in cleverly kooky way (it helps that we haven’t seen her drunk and disorderly outside of a club or had her name plastered across tabloids as a horrible co-star) – and Tom – the perpetually fresh-faced Gordon-Levitt whom is most well-remembered as the boy flapping his arms in 1994’s Angels in the Outfield, a lead in 3rd Rock from the Sun and opposite Heath Ledger in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You – have a relationship.

Such is the first anomaly. This movie is non-linear. Meaning we find out at the beginning of the movie what happens at the end of Summer and Tom’s relationship and then find out in bits and pieces blended together just how in fact they ended up there. However, while the relationship itself is non-linear, the movie does in fact start on day (1) and end on day (500) … or is it a new (1)?

Summer and Tom are not the perfect cookie-cutter little girlfriend and boyfriend. No, these characters have faults – and not the kind of faults that make them into pompous asses, but rather the kind of faults that real people have. Tom’s career path seems lackluster as he wastes away at a greeting card company, while Summer chose to move to L.A. to become the assistant to the greeting card company’s owner because of “boredom.” The stars seem brilliantly aligned when these two souls without a lot of direction find each other, however, as the days in the relationship progresses it’s discovered that these two characters are moving in two opposite paths that seem to converge for a short period of time.

The movie is a seemingly true representation of relationships in today’s day and age. Summer tells Tom that she doesn’t want anything serious at the beginning and avoids labels in the relationship. Tom, on the other hand, is craving a definition but at the same time taking what Summer gives him. He’s thinking soul-mate, she’s thinking short term and throw a bit of sex, angst, confusion and bitterness in the mix and you get any number of the relationships you see in your everyday life.

Aside from the main characters and their relationship (or lack thereof?) the movie is rounded out by an excellent cast of supporters. Chloe Moretz, who appears to have only been in 2005’s The Amityville Horror and a freakish amount of Winnie the Pooh movies, portrays a girl well beyond her years as her character coaches Tom, her older brother, through the break-up (days), and Geoffrey Arend (Garden State, The Ringer) is a convincing comic playing off of Gordon-Levitt’s straight man.

Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt have a lot of chemistry as well. Gordon-Levitt is completely believable as the man pining away for this exotic girl with a mind of her own. And their playful romp through Ikea is delightful and makes you wish you and your partner could do the same.

The movie seems to be one of the last vestiges of times gone by, though we can only hope that they’re on their way back in. In a summer where robots and bad acting seem to be the norm, (500) Days of Summer is a breathe of much needed fresh air. It’s romantic and it’s a comedy, but not a Romcom. It reminds me of John Hughes’ cult classics – Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, etc. It has quirky characters highlighted as everyday people which is unusual today. Not to mention, it has a killer dance sequence that both makes fun of Enchanted’s “How Does She Know” number and pays homage to it at the same time. Plus, it’s entertaining.

Overall, this movie definitely receives a rating of: Good.