The Last Station

This film chronicles the sad and strange last years of Leo Tolstoy. Living on his country estate, Tolstoy becomes obsessed with the idea that his work belonged to the “people”, and he arranged to leave the copyrights to the state. He was aided and abetted in this endeavor by his adoring followers, the Tolstoyans, who of course see a lucrative future for themselves managing the revenue of said copyrights. Tolstoy’s wife, not unreasonably, sees the copyrights as financial support for herself and her children once the great man is gone Ferocious marital rows ensue (as usual, some of the most bizarre incidents are the best documented) and Leo eventually flees into the night. Things do not go well.

The story is interesting, and Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are about as great as you’d expect them to be as the Tolstoys. Paul Giamatti as the sinister Tolstoyan is entertaingly smarmy, and James McAvoy as Tolstoy’s private secretary is not too annoying.  But it’s hard not to see the whole movie through the prism of the Russian Revolution. Given the date (1910) we know, as the participants could not, that the whole issue of the copyright was soon to become moot. When Leo says that, in 50 years, aristocrats won’t be sitting around in country estates being waited on by peasants, he’s right, but not in the way he thinks. And that sad historical perspective makes the movie somewhat less satisfying than it might otherwise have been.

Valentine’s Day

I saw this film on the plane coming back from Boston, and I’m not really recommending it. It’s a standard-issue “chick flick” romantic movie, with interlocking stories in the manner of the British film of a few years ago, “Love Actually.”  I note it only for its sociological dimensions. The film presents an America that is more culturally diverse, and more tolerant, than we actually are — it’s America not as it is, but as we would like it to be.

[Spoiler Alert]

In this film, a gay male athlete comes out, and is immediately and publicly supported by a local TV sports guy, who happens to be black.Would this happen today?  Probably not.  But maybe, in 20 years, this little scene will look just as noncontroversial as Ang Lee’s sweet little film on gay marriage looks today.

It’s Complicated

This movie about a divorced woman (Meryl Streep) with a successful career imitating Martha Stewart, trying to juggle a new relationship (Steve Martin) alongside a fling with her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) is something of a disappointment.  It’s not nearly as funny as the trailer would indicate — in fact, the trailer includes pretty much all the movie’s funny lines.  Many of the scenes early in the movie, between Streep and her screechy women friends, Streep and her impossibly precious children, or Streep and her ex-husband’s harpy trophy wife, are amazingly bad.  And do we really need so many scenes of Streep apologizing for her aging body?  It’s not as though Baldwin is such a great physical specimen these days.

The movie takes a turn for the better about half-way through, when Streep and Martin decide to get stoned before attending her son’s graduation party.  They arrive at the party acting like teenagers — to the horror, of course, of their children. The movie then proceeds to unravel and resolve the tangled romantic relationships in a satisfying way, saying some interesting, but not particularly profound, things about relationships along the way.

The movie is an enjoyable piece of fluff — just don’t expect too much.  It’s not that complicated.

The Young Victoria

The story of the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign may not pack the s*xual punch of Henry VIII’s amorous adventures , but this carefully-made period piece deserves a wider audience.

In 1817, the English monarchy faced a dynastic crisis when Charlotte, Princess of Wales, died in childbirth along with her newborn baby.  The four younger sons of George III, all involved in common law relationships with unsuitable women, rushed to find nubile German princesses to wed, bed, and hopefully impregnate.  Three children were conceived, and the dynastic succession fell to Victoria.

Victoria’s father died when she was a toddler, so she was raised by her mother, her meddlesome Uncle Leopold (Princess Charlotte’s widower, and later King of the Belgium), and her mother’s officious advisors.  When Victoria acceded to the throne, at barely 18, it was commonly assumed that she could be easily manipulated. Leopold wanted her to marry his nephew, Prince Albert, whom he assumed to be equally pliable. They were all wrong. Victoria and Albert, rather improbably, found a common interest. and a substantial life’s work, in remaking the role of the British monarch.   

When Victoria became Queen, the popularity of Britain’s monarchy, after years of dissipated Hanoverians, was at a low ebb. There was no particular reason why this daughter of a German family, with a German-speaking mother and a German-speaking husband, would became the most durable symbol of the British Empire.  But Victoria and Albert’s embrace of middle-class domestic values restored the monarchy’s popularity, and ensured its survival into the 20th Century.  (Whether it should continue to survive into the 21st is of course another question.)

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend are fine as V&A, and most of their interactions are well supported by the historical record (these guys wrote a lot of letters, and Victoria kept a diary). It really is true, for example, that for reasons of protocol Victoria had to propose marriage to Albert. I also liked Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first PM. A man of the old school, Melbourne looks genuinely befuddled when Victoria asks him about the condition of the working classes, which had certainly never troubled George III.

Sharp-eyed credit readers will note the name of Sarah Ferguson as executive producer

The Blind Side

Truly terrible. I was expecting a hokey, feel-good story about a black street kid who becomes a successful professional football player, not this intellectually dishonest travesty.

The movie is supposedly about Michael Oher, but he barely has 10 lines in the movie — Peter Lupus territory.  The rest of the family doesn’t get much screen time either. Only Kathy Bates, as Michael’s private tutor, gets a few good lines, but she doesn’t appear until pretty late in the film. The movie is basically a star turn for Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne Tuohey, an upper-middle class white woman who finds Michael going to sleep in the school gym and offers him a spare bed. I generally like Bullock, but not in this movie.

The Tuoheys are depicted as Christian, and send their children to Christian schools, but we see no indication of how their faith informs their lives except for periodic statements to the effect that, “We’re Christians — we have to do the right thing.”  Do people actually talk that way?

Leigh Anne warns everyone not to condescend to Michael, but talks to him herself as though he were a 10-year old.  She says that Michael isn’t stupid, but she is actually expressing her surprise that, given his dismal grades, he can read. And, although she self-righteously scolds her friends as racist for suggesting that Michael, as a black boy, might have inappropriate designs on her teenage daughter, she herself tells a black man who asks a bunch of inappropriate questions that she’s got a gun and knows how to use it — a rationale for gun ownership that would be right at home in Birth of the Nation.

About 3/4 of the way through the film, we see Michael, on the cusp of entering the University of Mississippi on a football scholarship, being interviewed by an NCAA investigator, who is concerned that the Tuoheys interest in Michael was less about Christian charity and more about developing a promising football prospect.  The movie clearly intends us to see this investigator as a meddling bureaucrat.  But she starts rattling off facts about the Tuohey family that the movie “forgot” to mention — that’s when you realize that the NCAA’s concern might be legitimate.  And that you’ve been had.

Perhaps tellingly, the real-life Michael Oher has said he’s in no hurry to see the movie.

Whatever the Tuoheys’ original motivation, clearly a positive relationship has developed between Michael and the family.  And the voice-over conclusion (always the sign of poor screenwriting) is nevertheless surely correct to point out that making the NFL requires not just physical talent, but the kind of focus and determination that thrives in a supportive family environment.  There’s a story there that should be told.  But this movie is not it.