Sunday, January 31, 2010

FILM: The Last Station

I really didn't know much about Tolstoy before seeing this historically-based film, but The Last Station certainly presents an intriguing character. Born into wealth and aristocracy (he was a count), and a celebrated author in his own lifetime, he was also a man of strong convictions about a utopian communal society, and a whole following of "Tolstoyans" grew up around him. This charming film is propelled by the conflict between his ideals and his actual life, a conflict which is illuminated and exacerbated by two other very strong figures in his life. His wife the Countess Sofya (powerfully portrayed by Helen Mirren), the love of his life and mother of his numerous children, as well as his sometime literary assistant and fulltime financial manager, is concerned with preserving a decent inheritance for her children, and is thus at odds with Tolstoy's best disciple Vladimir Chertkov, who convinces Tolstoy to divest his estate as well as his valuable copyrights to the people, as a grand Tolstoyan statement. Helen Mirren gives a brilliant performance as the passionate drama-queen countess, fierce and powerful with moments of vulnerability. And Christopher Plummer is marvelous as the larger-than-life author, with a huge passion for life, he is a presence of Shakespearean proportions. James McAvoy is charming as Valentin, the very young, idealistic man who becomes Tolstoy's personal secretary, and through whose eyes we become acquainted with this world, as both Chertkov (villainously played by Paul Giamatti) and the Countess attempt to use him to achieve their crossed purposes. There's a great moment where we realize how Tolstoy the idol has diverged from Tolstoy the man, when he and Valentin are taking a walk through the woods (beautiful classic Russian birch woods!), and Tolstoy is reminiscing about a woman he had a romantic affair with in his younger days. Valentin (who is a virgin, and is celebate as is part of the Tolstoyan philosophy) is a bit embarrassed, and apologizes for bringing up shameful memories. "Shameful!" Tolstoy exclaims with a huge, roaring laugh, "oh no, not at all. My boy, I'm afraid I'm not a very good Tolstoyan." In the end, the film really makes you think about how a great man's following can morph into something different than the man himself, and also how a man can become divided between who he is and who he thinks he ought to be. That makes the film sound more heady than it really is. Those are just the thoughts I was lead to in the aftermath, but the film itself was a compelling story of some very human characters.

Monday, January 18, 2010

FILM: It's Complicated

Writer/director Nancy Meyers delivers another winner with It's Complicated, a charming, thoughtful, very funny romantic comedy about divorce, exes with benefits, unfinished business, and moving on. (Not to mention, a romance for people more, ahem, our age.) And Meryl Streep is, as usual, totally outstanding, lighting up the screen, and making us forget for a couple of hours every other amazing character she's ever brought to life. She plays Jane, mother of three mostly grown kids, and ex-wife of Jake (charmingly played by Alec Baldwin) who left her for a younger woman whom he's now married to. As we know from the trailers, an affair ensues between Jane and Jake, just as an intriguing architect (Steve Martin) comes into her life. Though the style of the comedy is pure classic with tropes out of the traditional playbook, they're beautifully executed, the story is fresh, and the laughs are real and plentiful. And along the way, the story gently offers a little food for thought about whether the good parts of a former marriage might be rekindled when the conditions that brought on the bad parts (job stress, parenting stress) may have gone away. And speaking of food, though Jane bears no resemblance to Julia Child, she runs a charming bakery in Santa Barbara, is a great cook, and has a remarkably beautiful home that she might have bought from Julia Child, making one wonder why she'd ever want to remodel and expand it (except that it was "their" home and she's just now ready to make it into "her" home). This film is not just rom-com soufflé, it's the main course too.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I was captivated by Christopher Moore's Fool, wonderfully read by Euan Morton, from this opening sentence:
"This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . . If that's the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!"
What followed from there was not only eight and a half hours of the finest British humor, but an incredibly clever Shakespearean parody and pastiche. Fool takes the story of Shakespeare's King Lear and turns it inside out, as seen from the point of view of Pocket, the king's fool. Kind of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but much much funnier and much much more engaging. Not only does he work the Fool's story seamlessly into the existing story of King Lear, but he manages to weave an entirely new tale, full of politics, intrigue, a bit of magic (and yes, lots of shagging and bawdiness) into it. It was amazing, because if you know the story of Lear, you know how part of it is going to have to go, and yet you still don't know how it's going to get there, or even how it finally turns out. And it was so much fun to get there. The story is jam-packed with Shakespearean allusions, quotes, jokes, and even a few characters (like Macbeth's witches) shamelessly imported from other plays into this story. And the story would completely stand on its own, both for humor and intrigue, even if you didn't know much Shakespeare at all. What a rollicking great romp!

Monday, January 11, 2010

STAGE: Palestine, New Mexico

We greatly enjoyed Culture Clash's previous work in Chavez Ravine, so we were intrigued to see their new play Palestine, New Mexico at the Mark Taper Forum. It was a powerful and intriguing dramatic work, with Culture Clash's unique quirky point of view brought to bear this time on world politics. The story all takes place on a tribal reservation in New Mexico, where an army captain has come from Afghanistan to talk to the chief about the death of his son, but the tribe is not at all eager to receive her. But this story, like onions and ogres, has many layers, and as they are dramatically peeled back through the captain's encounters with various members of the tribe, the medicine man, the widow of the dead soldier, and finally the chief, the story we finally learn about how the soldier died, what he was trying to do in Afghanistan when he died, and how it connects to a secret history of his family and his tribe, it is ultimately astonishing and thought-provoking. Ultimately we are left to ponder some fascinating parallels between rival tribes and rival families, in America, in Afghanistan, and in the Middle East, as we see the remarkable "culture clash" of New Mexico's rocky cliffs and mountains flashing to Afghanistan's mountainous terrain, and a Native American soldier's casket being lead by someone singing the Jewish mourner's kaddish. Once again, an evening of powerful and provocative drama at the Taper.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

FILM: Avatar

Avatar is not the sort of film we typically go for, but we'd been hearing such buzz from so many people that we had to check it out. I have to admit I was a bit cynical going in, but was utterly captivated by the beauty of this imagined world. Such great imagination went into creating the exotic flora and fauna of Pandora, and the way of life of the Na'vi. Sure, it was clearly drawn from our own conceptions of Native American beliefs about the connected spirit in all of nature, but I thought it was very cool the sci-fi spin they put on it with a natural neural network of trees all connected at the roots, and the creatures who bond by entangling their organic fiber-optic cable ports. And sure, the story was clearly drawn from Pocahantas and Dances With Wolves and the like, but the thing about classic stories is that they hold up to retelling and recasting in creative ways. (Westside Story was derivative from Romeo and Juliet, but no less creative for it.) Granted, the story was short on real character development, with the characters being more allegorical ideas (the bad-ass macho military man, the greedy industrialist, the pure-hearted scientists, and the even purer-hearted native peoples) than real people. But damn, it was stunningly beautiful, and the story swept along, totally predictable yet totally spell-binding, like a mythic tide. I was as delighted as the next guy to see the epic forces of nature and the eco-in-tune people kick the butt of the evil military-industrial complex. The movie did not feel long at all to me, and I kept my 3D glasses on through the credits, hoping for a few more glimpses of that amazing planet.

As to the 3D thing, at first I found it slightly distracting, but I was pleased that it wasn't overly gimmicky, no projectiles hurtling straight into the camera or flying creatures hovering right in front of my face. And I think my brain adapted to it, because I realized by the end I was no longer conscious of it, and it felt pretty natural. But I think part of what made it work so well was the fantastic nature of the film. One friend of ours wondered whether this point in 3D technology might be a "game-changer" for movies in general, but I'm not so sure. Many films don't have to convince us of their reality in the same way that a sci-fi-fantasy film like Avatar does. Would Nine or A Single Man have been enhanced by high-quality 3D? I'm not so sure. But for Avatar, it was breathtaking.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

FILM: The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria presents an engaging story about Queen Victoria's early years, as a teenager and then as a young queen. For me, this was all new, as what I knew of Queen Victoria was mostly the length of her reign, her eponymous era and its morality, and the image of the corpulent old lady in the veil. It was fascinating to see her as the heir presumptive to the British crown, resisting attempts at control by her mother and her mother's lover, and warily keeping her head above the manipulation of others, including various royal uncles hoping to marry her off to various royal cousins. One of scene of Victoria playing chess with Prince Albert (then a suitor) provides a central metaphor for the film, as both of them are pawns in a larger game being played by the royal courts of Europe. (Albert's uncle, the King of the Belgians, desperately wants Albert to win Victoria, to cement an alliance between Britain and Belgium.) "You think I should find a husband to play the game for me?" she asks. "Not for you," he replies, "with you." It's charming to see the two of them develop genuine affection and admiration for one another, both of them willful and not particularly inclined to cave to the wills of their would-be manipulators. And of course the court politics is always a good soap opera. The film is not particularly a love story, a court intrigue, or a historic biography, but like real life, it's a melange of all of that. (On the historical side, I gather that it sticks fairly well to the facts, except for a fictional bullet wound.) And that keeps it all the more interesting to see how this unique couple works out their unique relationship issues (like what is a bright and passionate man to do when his only official job is "consort" to a strongly independent queen?). Emily Blunt presents a young Victoria both strong and self-controlled, and Rupert Friend is perfect as the lovelorn suitor and later the lover struggling to find his place. The cast is full of familiar faces from British stage and screen, including Miranda Richardson (as the controlling and controlled mother), Jim Broadbent (as a drinking and aging King William IV), Paul Bettany (the charming sometime Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne), and Harriet Walter (as the dowager queen). I enjoyed this portrait of an impressive queen and her impressive consort, and have new admiration for them.