Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Ghost Writer" displays more style than substance


directed by Roman Polanski
starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, with a cameo by Eli Wallach
based on the novel by Robert Harris

“Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski’s latest, is a little like the classic gag of a beautifully gift-wrapped box that, when opened, reveals another, smaller box, and within that, yet another box, and so on until the last box turns out to be empty. Polanski’s technique is as impeccable and his worldview as jaded as ever, but the story ultimately leaves you wondering: is that all there is? The film is like “Chinatown” without the thing that made “Chinatown” matter—the knockout punch to our collective moral gut.

That’s not to say it fails to engage the viewer along the way. It starts out promisingly enough, with the mysterious death of a man hired to ghost-write the biography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). He’s soon replaced by another (Ewan McGregor), who agrees to finish the job for a tidy sum, notwithstanding abundant warning signals that something about this project stinks. The new “ghost” finds himself holed up at a New England beach house - all sleek, expensively sterile contemporary lines - with a closely guarded manuscript and the intermittent company of Lang, his razor-edged wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and a small entourage of ultra-discreet assistants (including one played by that queen of slinky self-possession, Kim Cattrall). Tensions rise as Lang is indicted by the International Criminal Court for collaborating with the CIA to kidnap and torture suspected terrorists, forcing him to stay in the U.S. to avoid extradition, while the ghost writer begins to investigate certain clues, left behind by his predecessor, to the Langs’ chequered past.

The movie’s political topicality turns out not to be one of its more interesting features, as it remains largely collateral to broader themes involving the structure of power and ownership of narrative. Somewhat more interesting is the ironic consonance between Lang’s very public, international fall from grace, and Polanski’s own, which many critics haven’t been able to resist dissecting in light of the latter’s recent arrest. But “Ghost Writer” operates first and foremost as a carefully crafted mystery.

And it had the potential to be a first-rate one. Polanski ratchets up the suspense with a masterful hand and sustains the mood of vague unease beautifully through brooding, expansive shots of the gray, wind- and rain-swept landscape that passes for a Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket-type retreat and a reliably atmospheric score by Alexandre Desplat, set off by flashes of dry, Polanski-style humor. But the final twist underwhelms and the ending fizzles, even though (or perhaps because) it’s altered from the book—most likely for the sole purpose of setting up a last, sweeping shot that’s clearly designed to erode any lingering faith in the inevitability of justice. It’s a powerful image, but its impact doesn’t feel truly earned—not least because it requires considerable suspension of disbelief as to how McGregor’s character would be likely to act.

Or maybe not. One of the most disappointing or fascinating aspects of “Ghost Writer,” depending on one’s viewpoint, is the total opacity of its ostensible protagonist. That’s undoubtedly deliberate, as, too, perhaps, is McGregor’s flat, affectless performance. His is, after all, a character without a name, back story, or visible human ties of any kind, a literal ghost. Yet I couldn’t help wondering why one would cast an actor as charismatic as Ewan McGregor to play such a blank. (Particularly disheartening are his interactions with Cattrall’s character, which seem scripted to generate some kind of flirtatious spark but instead flop limply like cold noodles.)

Fortunately, the rest of the cast supplies all the energy that McGregor lacks. Brosnan’s an intriguing study as the disgraced ex-PM, more reminiscent of Ronald Reagan—if Reagan had been prone to fits of rage underneath all his geniality—than Tony Blair, while the redoubtable Tom Wilkinson casts an extra shade of menace as the scholar who seems to have closer ties to Lang than he’s willing to admit. The standout, however, is Williams, who’s simply marvelous as the embittered, acerbic, tightly wound Ruth. Perpetually wary and fearful that her influence over her husband may be waning, she seethes with anger, jealousy, and frustrated ambition, and nothing escapes her poisonously sharp tongue or even sharper eyes. Whether intentionally or not, she emerges as the film’s most indelible figure: no ghost she, but arguably the true writer of the narrative presented here.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Few Words on Season 9 of "American Idol"

What can I say? I've been watching this season, somewhat desultorily, since Hollywood Week, but haven't felt in the least like blogging any of it. Either the "Idol" talent pool is just especially underwhelming this year, or I've finally outgrown the show. Or maybe both. As a show, "Idol" is really showing its age. Even the addition of Ellen, who's perfectly adequate, if not exactly inspired, as a judge, hasn't been able to inject much new life into this lumbering old warhorse. Besides, four judges is too many; I've started fast-forwarding through their comments, esp. since they keep giving conflicting advice. Plus Simon looks bored, Kara still bugs (it's more her manner than the substance of her comments), and mentors like Miley Cyrus add nothing to the musical cred of the show.

That's not to say there's no talent to be found - there is, though it shows mostly in flashes and glimmers - but far too few of this year's contestants have it all together as performers, which has made them something of a chore to slog through, more so than usual. Or maybe I just miss David Cook and Kris Allen.

Anyway, here are my general thoughts on this year's field:

IN A CLASS OF HER OWN: Crystal Bowersox. Unlike the other contestants, she sounds like a professional artist already, one who's already found her niche and what works for her. It works for me, too. Her one flaw, so far, is a certain lack of originality. But hey, this is "American Idol" we're talking about.

MOST LIKE ADAM LAMBERT: Siobhan Magnus. Great pipes, arguably the best of this lot, but too fond of wailing...and it's difficult to pinpoint what her musical identity would be, esp. as a recording artist.

SOLID BUT NOT TERRIBLY INTERESTING: "Big Mike" Lynch, Lee "I sound kind of like David Cook but don't have one-tenth of his stage presence or charisma" Dewyze, Casey "Cougarbait" James

BROOKE WHITE VERSION 2.0: Didi Benami. I rather like her, mind - she's got the kind of tone and vibe I dig in my personal listening preferences. But she has really got to become more comfortable and consistent as a performer to go the distance.

DAVID ARCHULETA, VERSION 2.0: Aaron Kelly, though he's a pale shadow of Archuleta vocally. I think he should have waited a couple of years before trying out for "Idol."

HIT OR MISS: Paige Miles. There's something about her I like, and she has a good voice. But she's still very amateurish and has had some awful performances, tonight being one of them. Would not be surprised if she goes home tomorrow.

WTF IS SHE STILL DOING HERE?: Katie Stevens. Is like a lesser, WAY lesser Kat McPhee or Diana Degarmo, both of whom could sing circles around her. She *so* did not deserve to outlast the quirky silver-haired girl (Lily?) and the curly-haired blond chick (Katelyn?).

YAWN: Everyone else

I AM STILL MAD ABOUT: Alex Lambert not making top 12. That kid was as green as they come, but musically he had more potential than half the contestants still in the mix.

And that's all I got. I'll probably continue to watch, and if any of this group does something to change the above opinions, then I may resume weekly recaps. But until then - I just don't feel compelled to blog the show regularly. The bloom is off the rose.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Oscars Recap

Ah, my little “Hurt Locker” – I knew you had it in you. But I didn’t know how much! Picture, director, and editing, sure, I was expecting that—but who’da thunk you’d take screenplay and both sound awards as well? Your mini-sweep cost me my Oscars pool this year! I can’t begrudge you that, however; I’m too happy for you.

Otherwise, I can’t say the Oscars left me feeling much of anything except numb. For a history-making night, the ceremony felt fairly staid and blah. And long—very long, clocking in at 3 1/2 hours. I don’t think it was just because there were ten Best Pic nominees this year rather than five. After all, there weren’t nearly as many “whoopee, let’s look at this genre over the years!” montages as last year, there was no Irving Thalberg award, and I don’t remember anyone’s acceptance speech going deep into O/T. But somehow the night just dragged on and on, although it wasn’t without its share of bright moments—and weird ones.


Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female director (yessss!) to win Best Director. And Picture to boot! “The Hurt Locker” may not have been my favorite film of the year, but there’s no question it was a tremendously effective and well-crafted piece of cinema that deserved its accolades. (Though “Strange Days” remains my favorite Bigelow movie.)

Co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin – score! I loved Hugh Jackman’s song-and-dance-oriented patter last year (his musical opening was better than Neil Patrick Harris’, much as I heart NPH), but I’m all for mixing it up from one year to the next. This year the producers decided to give us something old and something new—and it worked, even if it felt at times like a very belated ad for “It’s Complicated.” The duo had an easy, engaging rapport, and launched some funny zingers, though Martin had the edge in delivery and timing. After all, the man’s a practiced stand-up comedian, and was one of the better hosts of Oscars past. It was great to see him back on this stage.

The tribute to John Hughes: Thoughtfully edited and appropriately nostalgia-inducing, even if it was a little depressing to see how ungracefully some of the Brat Pack have aged.

Ben Stiller: I don’t care much for him in movies, but I generally enjoy his Oscars schtick, whether it’s clowning around in a green body suit, doing a wicked Joaquin Phoenix impersonation, or appearing in full Na’vi get-up and coming as close as anyone in the room dared to mocking James Cameron. (Still wish I could see the skit with Brüno that was reportedly excised to avoid offending the notoriously thin-skinned director. I mean really, what is this, lèse majesté? Give me a break.)

Sandra Bullock’s acceptance of Best Actress: while I still don’t think she deserved to win, her speech showed exactly why everyone, including me, loves her. It was classy, deadpan-funny (“my lover Meryl Streep”), endearingly self-deprecating (“did I just wear you all down?”), and full of controlled emotion. Plus she looked gorgeous and at least a decade younger than her 45 years. She and Bigelow must drink from the same fountain – they need to bottle that stuff and sell it: Bigelow and Bullock's Better than Botox Formula. I'd buy some.

Jeff Bridges’s acceptance of Best Actor: Loved seeing him embrace his long-earned moment of glory, and remind us all that the Dude abides.


Weird pacing. So much of the show felt interminable and then the last 5-10 minutes were an awkward gallop to the big finish.

Swapping out actual performances of the nominated scores and songs for a dance number with no distinguishing features. I love dance and I understand that it doesn’t need to be directly representational or have a narrative to be, um, “interpretive,” but this just didn’t work for me.

The introduction of each nominee for Best Actor/Actress by a colleague in the industry: This was a modification of last year’s main innovation, in which the previous years’ nominees each presented one of the current nominees. I liked that this year they at least gave presentation duties to someone who could speak from personal experience with the nominee, but I’m still not a fan of the format. It just feels canned – though some were less so than others – and sucks up waaaay too much time, especially when you’re already past the three-hour mark. Let’s just go back to clips, please?

Having Barbara Streisand present Best Director – practically telegraphing that History was About to be Made. I mean, really, what would they have done if Bigelow hadn’t won? If I hadn’t wanted her to win so much, I would almost have enjoyed watching Babs deflate as she discovered the time had not yet come.


Zoe Saldana’s dress, or more specifically the bottom half of it. To quote one fashion commentator, “I loved Saldana's bodice and greatly wished it did not turn into an intergalactic cancan skirt down below.” Indeed. On the flip side, for above-the-waist mishaps, the runner-up booby prize (literally) has to go to Charlize Theron and her giant rose satin nipples.


Didn’t think I’d forget the lady swathed in purple who Kanye’d the winner of the best documentary short, did you? That was hands-down the most bizarre moment of the evening. Turns out the woman was in fact official co-winners with the director (the dude she interrupted) - she'd been a producer on the film but had quit over a year ago, due to “creative differences” with him. There was even a lawsuit that settled, leaving her name in the credits, but didn’t put the bad blood to rest. Evidently. Best part: She's claiming that she was late to the stage because the director's mother had stuck out a cane to block her while the director rushed up to accept the award. He denies this, of course. But did you ever hear anything so crazy?

The tribute to horror: Since when are “Twilight” and “Edward Scissorhands” considered horror movies? I did love Baldwin and Martin’s spoof of “Paranormal Activity,” though.

What on earth was Sean Penn saying when he presented Best Actress? I didn’t understand a word.


Mo’Nique thanking her attorneys. As a lawyer in a roomful of lawyers, I can say we were all tickled by that shoutout.

Costume designer Sandy “I already have two of these” Powell effectively saying “thanks, but no thanks” to the Academy for her third Oscar (this one for “The Young Victoria”). To be fair, she seemed to be calling them out for their fetish with period costume and saying they should recognize less obviously Oscar-baity work. But then there was that punchline: “So this is for you [the overlooked], but I’m going to take it home tonight.” Oh, snap!

All in all, not one of the worst Oscars shows, but not one of the best, either. Happy about most of the outcomes, not happy that there was so little else that stood out about the ceremony except its length. Still, what would the Oscars be without a heaping dose of self-indulgence? Sometimes you gotta respect tradition.

Till next year – au revoir, Os-car!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Oscars Predictions

It’s Oscars Day minus three, and the Academy has to be feeling pretty pleased with itself. Despite an initially skeptical response to the decision to nominate ten films for Best Picture, its gamble seems to have paid off and injected new interest in the race. Vying for Hollywood’s highest honor is a nice mix of indie and mainstream fare that includes not only the highest-grossing movie of the year, if not of all time, but a couple of cult faves (Tarantino, Coen Brothers), a crowd-pleasing “sports miracle” pic, a war movie made by a female director, a social consciousness-raising film made by a black director, a low-budget sci-fi blockbuster, and the first Pixar film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Not to mention a showdown/throwdown between a pair of high-profile exes – the brilliant and beautiful Kathryn Bigelow and the brilliant and bigheaded James Cameron.

There’s no doubt this is one of the most diverse lineups in years. The real question is whether the extra nominees are just window dressing or whether expanding the field will actually make a difference in the ultimate outcome. The short answer is it could make a difference, but I’m betting it won’t.

Here’s how it could: In order to avoid a nominee winning with just 11% of the vote, the powers that be changed the voting system for Best Picture to something closer to an instant runoff voting system. Rather than picking just one movie, Academy members were asked to rank the ten in their order of preference. So in the first round of vote-counting, the movie with the least first-place votes will be eliminated, and the ballots that ranked this movie first will be redistributed, each reshuffled ballot going to the movie that it ranked second. Then the same thing is done with the movie with the next-least number of first-place votes; and again and again until one movie has more than 50% of the votes. This means that a movie that gets a lot of second-place votes could theoretically do better than one that had more first place votes. Still, my gut tells me that in the end the race will boil down to two frontrunners (see below), which makes it...not so very different from Oscars races in years past. We’ll see soon enough.

The other major awards are, alas, much less interesting this year—in particular, it looks like all four acting Oscars are sewn up—though one can always hope for a surprise or two. Nevertheless, I’m fairly confident making the following predictions:

Best Picture

NOMINEES: Avatar; The Blind Side; District 9; An Education; The Hurt Locker; Inglourious Basterds; Precious; A Serious Man; Up; Up in the Air

WILL WIN: The Hurt Locker, by a nose, over Avatar. Remember it’s neither critics nor ordinary joes that vote for the Oscars, but the industry. The Hurt Locker has won both the Producers Guild and Directors Guild awards—pretty good signs of its support within Hollywood. But the ten nominees and new counting system still have the potential to skew the vote in unexpected ways.

SHOULD WIN: There’s a part of me that’s rooting for District 9 (which has no chance of winning), but for overall craft and quality, The Hurt Locker deserves the trophy. Caveat: I haven’t seen Precious.

Best Director

NOMINEES: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker; James Cameron, Avatar; Lee Daniels, Precious; Jason Reitman, Up in the Air; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

WILL WIN: Bigelow. No woman has ever won Best Director before, and you can just feel the Academy itching to give it to her. The more so for showing she can direct a “man’s movie” with the best of ’em. It’s bullshit, but it’s definitely a factor.

SHOULD WIN: Bigelow, for the same reason I think her film should win best picture, though Cameron does deserve props for pioneering what could be a groundbreaking development in cinema. (Not sure I like what it might bode for the future of cinema, but I also think the breathless extrapolations of a world in which 2-D and human actors are rendered obsolete, etc., are rather premature.)

Best Actor

NOMINEES: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart; George Clooney, Up in the Air; Colin Firth, A Single Man; Morgan Freeman, Invictus; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

WILL WIN: Bridges has had this one in the bag since December, even before the nominations were announced. It’s as much a recognition of his career as of this particular role.

SHOULD WIN: It’s a particularly strong field this year (though I’d swap Freeman for Matt Damon’s wonderfully goofy performance in “The Informant!”), but I would give the award to Firth. He gives the best, most delicate portrayal of what I only half-jokingly dub “English grief” since Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener. The subtle nuances and shadings of Firth’s performance are incredible.

Best Actress

NOMINEES: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side; Helen Mirren, The Last Station; Carey Mulligan, An Education; Gabourey Sidibe, Precious; Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

WILL WIN: Bullock – it’s her year, and she’s just so damn likable that once again you can feel Hollywood wanting to give her her own little golden guy. There is a tiny chance Streep will steal it from her, and an even tinier chance that they’ll split the vote and someone else will sneak in, but if you’ve got money riding on this, I’d put it on Miss Congenality.

SHOULD WIN: Again, I haven’t seen Precious, but among the other four nominees I would pick Mulligan. There’s something so fresh, and yet so true, about her portrayal of that old trope—a young girl on the edge of womanhood—that it really stood out for me.

Best Supporting Actor

NOMINEES: Matt Damon, Invictus; Woody Harrelson, The Messenger; Christopher Plummer, The Last Station; Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

WILL WIN: Waltz, easily. I believe he’s won every single award for supporting actor this season.

SHOULD WIN: I haven’t seen The Messenger or The Lovely Bones, but I have no problem with Waltz’s inevitable victory. He was sensational. That said, there’s a secret corner of my heart that’s rooting for Plummer – I find it hard to believe this is his first Oscar nomination ever.

Best Supporting Actress

NOMINEES: Penélope Cruz, Nine: Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart; Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air; Mo’Nique, Precious;

WILL WIN: Like Waltz, Mo’Nique has been cleaning up at all the precursor awards, and she’s the best chance Precious has for an Oscar.

SHOULD WIN: I haven’t seen Precious or Nine, so I’m reserving my opinion on this one. Of the three I have seen, Farmiga’s performance is the most mature and fine-tuned, though even she couldn’t sell me on certain aspects of her character.

Best Original Screenplay

NOMINEES: The Hurt Locker; Inglourious Basterds; The Messenger; A Serious Man; Up

WILL WIN: Inglourious Basterds is most likely, given the uniform admiration for Tarantino as a writer (though I personally think he’s a better director than writer).

SHOULD WIN: I surprised myself with this pick, but I’d vote for A Serious Man . It does a better job than any movie in recent memory of conveying the absurdity of human existence—and does it in a way that all you can do is laugh. Classic Coen brothers. (Caveat: haven’t seen The Messenger.)

Best Adapted Screenplay

NOMINEES: District 9; An Education; In the Loop; Precious; Up in the Air

WILL WIN: Up in the Air - this is its best (and, frankly, only) shot at Oscar.

SHOULD WIN: I haven’t seen Precious or In the Loop, while the other three screenplays are all interesting but imperfect. If I had to choose, I’d give the nod to District 9, by a hair, for turning the concept of the alien invasion movie on its head – even if the climax falls into more standard-action movie mode.

And there ya have it. Stay tuned to see whether Cameron gets to reanoint himself “King of the World,” or whether The Hurt Locker really becomes the Little Movie That Could, or whether Inglourious Basterds scores the upset of all upsets. Not to mention whether Avatar cleans up Cinematography and Art Direction as well as the expected techie awards, and whether Oscar finally has the balls to go edgy rather than sentimental for Best Foreign Film. No matter what the outcome might be, here’s hoping it’ll be a good show—and the best. Oscars. Evah.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Black Hearts Under a "White Ribbon"


Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte
directed by Michael Haneke
Winner of the Palme d'Or; nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar

Although I’ve seen only two films by Michael Haneke, there’s one point I feel confident making to those who haven’t seen any: do not go into his films—including his latest, “The White Ribbon”—expecting either closure or catharsis. You won’t get either. What you will get is a fascinating, deeply disquieting study of the capacity of ostensibly civilized humans to inflict shocking cruelty on one another, and to pass this unholy legacy on to their children.

“The White Ribbon” takes place in a deceptively pastoral German village, circa 1913-14. Like Haneke’s last film, “Caché,” it’s structured around a mystery—a series of disturbing incidents that gradually escalate in nastiness—but is less a whodunit than a psychological portrait of the kind of society that could engender such violence. Whereas “Caché” focused on the effect of the incidents on their targets, to the point that the identity of the perpetrator became virtually irrelevant, there’s a very strong indication throughout “The White Ribbon” as to who’s behind at least some of the crimes, though the film does leave just enough ambiguity to entertain other possibilities. Such speculation, however, is beside the point, as the real question here isn’t who or even why, but rather how. How could it come to this? And projecting forward, what could come next? One need only look at history for the answer: as Haneke himself has made clear in interviews, “The White Ribbon” posits that the seeds of the fascism, and worse, that overtook Germany in the 1930s and ’40s lay in the culture embodied in the pre-WWI community of “The White Ribbon.” Whether or not he proves his point is open to debate. But even if he doesn’t, the result is a film that’s at once unnervingly creepy and even more unnervingly beautiful.

Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of “The White Ribbon” is the contrast between the pristine quality of the black-and-white cinematography—the exquisite clarity with which it highlights a child’s cheekbone, a church choir, a bucolic harvest celebration, or a new snowfall—and the corrosive evil that lies underneath all these emblems of purity. Haneke seems to trace the roots of the evil to a rigidly patriarchal social order and repressive Protestantism that produced an authoritarian, almost tyrannical culture of oppression and abuse, warping its children for generations to come. It may be 1913, yet there’s something curiously pre-modern about this village, and quasi-allegorical about its major figures—fittingly, most of the adults are known only by their titles: the Doctor, the Pastor, the Baron, the Schoolmaster, etc. The overall effect is more than a little reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman; the pastor alone could have stepped right out of, say, “Fanny and Alexander.” At the same time, there is a sense, punctuated by the “incidents,” that the moral authority that he and his peers represent is on the edge of a precipice.

This tension creates an atmosphere of nameless, unrelenting dread that never relaxes its grip. In fact, it’s drawn out so long (warning: the movie clocks in at nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes) that after a while you may feel worn out constantly anticipating horrible shit to happen. And horrible shit does happen, though mostly offscreen: the viewer is repeatedly forced into the uncomfortable perspective of an eavesdropper, lingering just outside a door or window that’s partly or wholly closed, catching a glimpse only before or after the act. Contributing to this recurring ellipsis is the fact that the story is recounted by the schoolmaster looking back at a distance of twenty years; he himself admits at the outset that he has only a partial, imperfect understanding of what actually happened. Still, unreliable narrator though he is, we can’t help implicitly trusting him, as in his account, at least, he comes across as one of the few sympathetic characters in this village of the damned. His courtship of a girl from a neighboring village offers one of the few sources of warmth and humor in the film. Yet even the girl has a guarded, too easily-frightened air that hints that she, too, is affected by the shadow that darkens everyone else.

For all its meticulous craftsmanship, “The White Ribbon” obviously isn’t an easy film to watch, much less enjoy. It’s heavy and dark, very deliberately paced, and might fairly, if somewhat paradoxically, be accused of being both overly simplistic and overly obscure. Some may argue that it fails to offer any particularly profound or persuasive insight into the moral questions it purports to address. But whatever the final verdict, it's set up to stir viewers first to ponder and then to discuss what it says about humanity. And that, in itself, is a rarity.

Also saw:


directed by Michael Hoffman
starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon

Even in his last, waning years, Leo Tolstoy was a rock star. That, at least, was the most vivid takeaway I got from “The Last Station,” a lazily enjoyable period-ish film about the great Russian author (Christopher Plummer), though equally about his tempestuous wife, Sofya Andreyevna (Helen Mirren). Like any rock star, the Tolstoy we see here has attained near-iconic status, with eager journalists and even more eager disciples practically perched on his doorstep, and other familiar trappings of celebrity, including a turbulent marriage and an ongoing tug-of-war between his wife and his acolyte-in-chief, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The latter pair of antagonists have locked horns over who will inherit the rights to his written works, and we see their struggle through the eyes of Tolstoy’s new secretary, the idealistic Valentin (James McAvoy), whom both Sofya and Chertkov attempt to coopt as an ally within the Tolstoy household. Valentin’s sympathies are soon torn between, on the one hand, his devotion to the brand of “Tolstoyism” represented by Chertkov, who speaks a shade too smoothly about wanting to preserve Tolstoy for “the people,” and, on the other, the force embodied in Sofya—the force of tradition, sure, but more importantly, of love and blood-loyalty. He gets particularly confused when he falls for a fellow Tolstoy follower (Kerry Condon) who doesn’t have much use for some of the tenets of Tolstoyism, like celibacy. (To be sure, Tolstoy himself is far from a model Tolstoyite, as he himself admits with appealing candor.)

“The Last Station” is rather pedestrian and predictable, but it has its charms—chiefly the performances, though it also gave me a tangible yearning for a samovar and an estate in the Russian countryside. It’s also funnier and lighter of touch than you might expect; McAvoy does a variation on his usual arc from wet-behind-the-ears naif to wiser, emotionally chastened man, but he does it well, while the always-reliable Giamatti is tartly amusing as the schemer who at some level seems to believe his own spiel. Still, the main attraction here is undeniably the virtuosic (and Oscar-nominated) duet of Plummer and Mirren as the couple who can live neither with nor without each other. Not sure why Mirren’s been billed as lead and Plummer supporting, unless it was done purely for Oscars purposes, but the two are so well matched that they come across as an eminently believable married couple. What’s most remarkable is their ability to convey, in the interstices of all Sofya’s dramatic posturing and Lev Nikolayevich’s harumphing, a genuine, unfeigned tenderness born of decades of intimacy. If “The Last Station” sometimes feels like a course in Love 101 for the inexperienced Valentin, at least it leaves no doubt he’s learning from the masters.