3/27/10

The Last Station Rich in Ideas, Weak in Direction


Ideals take a romp in the proverbial hay!


The Last Station
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Egoli Tossell Films, R, 112 mins.

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What if someone created a movement from your ideals and principles? Would you be pure enough and devoted enough to join? This is the central conundrum of The Last Station, a film that looks at the final days on earth of Russian author Lev Tolstoy.

The narrative is based on Jay Parini’s historical novel and is a work of imagination that should not be confused with a Tolstoy biography. This much is true. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) was, in his lifetime, a beloved figure around which a movement crystallized. In his late life, in fact, he was more famous as a social philosopher and humanist than as the author of War and Peace. Follower embraced Tolstoyan ideals that were a mix of pacifism, social leveling, and aestheticism--a Russian analog to British Fabianism. For movement leaders such as Vladimirr Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and devotees such as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), Tolstoy was a secular Christ. There’s a lovely scene early on when the young Bulgakov first meets Tolstoy and is moved to tears when he learns his beloved master has actually read his work.

The film’s drama centers on Tolstoy’s inability to control his own image. He is pulled in various directions by sycophants—including his own daughter Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff)--by the scheming Chertkov, by his own passions, and especially by his aristocratic wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), who is more interested in her future inheritance than in the health of the “movement.” What’s an aesthete with a healthy appetite for sex supposed to do? The plot is a cat-and-mouse game to the bitter end between Chertkov and Sofya, with Tolstoy caught in the middle and Valentin charged with spying for both sides. Valentin’s not very good at it, because he’s wrestling with his own earthly temptation: the seductive Masha (Kerry Condon).

This film is great fun for its acting. Plummer plays Tolstoy with precisely the right amount of tension between ice and fire, and McAvoy superbly plays monkey-in-the-middle to Plummer and Giamatti. The latter is superb as Chertkov, a waxed moustache-twirling plotter who is equal parts puritanical and demonic. What is more important, Tolstoy the person or Tolstoy as a movement icon? Kudos to Giamatti for suggesting but never quite tipping his hand. Oddly, the weak link in the ensemble is Helen Mirren. Many of her scenes are over-the-top. Perhaps those histrionics are written into the script, but more machinations and less screaming would have made Sofya more convincing.

As much as we enjoyed the acting, The Last Station would probably be more powerful as a play than as a movie. The filmic possibilities were wasted by director Michael Hoffman. We do not see Mother Russia at her pre-revolutionary worst; in fact, we can’t recall ever seeing such clean peasants or prim communards. None are more so than the delicious Kerry Condon, who can split multiple cords of wood and keep her makeup intact. Views of the countryside similarly looked more like pastoral tableaux than real-life farming. Hoffman made curious choices throughout the movie. No one attempts a Russian accent, which was probably wise, but it might have been a good idea to get everyone in the same chapter if not on the same page. McAvoy is Scottish, Condon is Irish, Mirren is English, Plummer is Canadian, and Giamatti is American. Put them together and it’s more like the lobby of the United Nations than the verdant fields of Russia.

Still, it is a real joy to see fine actors ply their craft, accents and clumsy direction be damned. The film is very rich in ideas. Is a utopian vision that stifles human nature a contradiction in terms? Do principles liberate, or imprison? Can the mind ever be truly free of the body? What would we sacrifice to be true to our own values? The Last Station is no masterpiece, but it’s definitely worth seeing. And Christopher Plummer was born to play Tolstoy. If anyone gets around to making a biopic, Plummer should be the first person called.

3/23/10

Censure Vote in Order for Randy Neugebauer


Randy Neugebauer: The one-man ad for the degradation of American politics.

Imagine, if you can, that a House liberal such as Barney Frank got so enraged by a Supreme Court decision that he screamed “Fascist” in reference to Justices Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Anton Scalia. How long would it take before Fox News, the Republican National Committee, and every Teabagger, televangelist, and right-wing political action group in the country would be screaming for Frank’s head on a platter? Yet these are the same groups that have applauded Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) and his March 21 outburst on the House floor when he called his colleague Bart Stupak a “baby killer.”

Stupak’s “murderous” act was to change his vote on the health care bill, which conspiracy nuts and crazy people seem to think will promote abortion. (And of course we all know there’s no abortion whatsoever under the current health care system!) Congressional rules call for decorum and courtesy in debate. There is simply no end run on this one—Randy Neugebauer’s comments were inflammatory, impolitic, abusive, undisciplined, and ill-informed. Worse, there were of a sufficiently derogatory nature that Stupak might have had a libel suit if Neugebauer had made these remarks in public without the protection of Congressional immunity.

There is only one appropriate measure: Representative Neugebauer should be censured by his House colleagues for his remarks. For those who may not know, a censure is considerably less than expulsion or impeachment. It’s a formal reprimand that is, in reality, little more than a hand slap, though it does have profound implications for future committee assignments and often jeopardizes a member’s chance of reelection. Since Neugebauer represents a particularly conservative district in Texas, it’s unlikely his reelection is in doubt, but it would provide Democrats with a highly symbolic weapon in their own reelection bids. Republicans are already vulnerable to being tarred as the party that says “no” to the future—add a dose of Newt Gingrich-style meanness to this and the GOP’s big November dreams may fade as fast as the red flush on Randy Neugebauer’s neck.

3/21/10

Unwanted CD Should Be Desired by All





THE UNWANTED
Music from the Atlantic Fringe
Compass 4526

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The Unwanted is an intriguing collaboration between Irish singer Cathy Jordan (Dervish), Sligo fiddler S√©amus O’Dowd (Dervish), and Californian Rick Epping. Music scholars long ago unearthed the Celtic roots of what was once mislabeled “cowboy” music, so it makes perfect sense to open this recording with “Out on the Western Plains,” complete with its “Ti yi yippee yippee yay, Hey-aye” lyrics. Why not? After all, the most-famous version of that song came from an Irishman (Rory Gallagher in 1975) who borrowed it from a black man who was never a cowboy (Leadbelly). The Atlantic is no musical barrier today, it wasn’t back in 1975, and it never was! All of this is to say that there’s nothing odd about mixing Irish fiddle with harmonica, or turning a concertina-driven tune such as “Shove the Pig’s Foot” into something you’d hear at an Irish pub session. If you need more evidence of how The Unwanted obliterate borders, check out the way Jordan mashes her Irish lilt into an Appalachian-style catch on “Sweet Becky at the Loom,” and the way that Old West swing and Blue Ridge bluegrass collide on “Sadly Grows the Rose.” Heck, there’s even a cover of “The Dusty Diamantina,” which is about Australia and just about as far from Atlantic shores as one can get. It’s great fun to hear these three great musicians branching out. O’Dowd made his mark as a fiddler, but he plays a mean harmonica and slide guitar as well. Epping—a veteran who has played bluegrass with Bill Monroe, Texas blues with Mance Lipscomb, and Irish tunes with Joe Cooley—contributes dry-as-dust vocals, concertina, banjo, and jaw harp. And what accolade can add about Cathy Jordan’s voice that hasn’t already been uttered on numerous occasions? Let’s just say that she’s earned every one of them. This record makes great historical sense, but it’s also an offbeat delight stamped with uniqueness and variety.


Check out this Yourtube clip.