The Last Station, director Michael Hoffman's melodrama about the last months in the life of Leo Tolstoy, begins with fog and sleep. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) lives with his family in a compound at Yasnaya Polyana, taking walks and writing and being seen to by his wife and the adherents to his "movement", people dedicated to his ideas of pacifism, vegetarianism, sexual abstinence and communal property who have gathered in a forest camp not far away. His wife, Sophia (Helen Mirren) wars openly with the head of his movement Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who she claims in his efforts to convince Tolstoy to sign the rights to his works over to the Russian people is trying to steal the wealth that is owed to her upon her husbands imminent death. Observing all of this is Tolstoy's new steward, Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a naive adherent who is torn between his love of the man and concern for his wife.
Hoffman's script, which is based on the novel by Jay Parini, quite often veers itself into confused territory, building up a complex tangle of threads and opaque motivations that ultimately don't resolve themselves in any satisfying way. The scope of the film is grand, and its story should reverberate just as Tolstoy, whose beliefs foreshadowed in some ways both the Bolsheviks' and those of pacifists like Ghandi. It unfortunately doesn't, it's un-unpickable, building up with much gusto confrontations that are constantly ravelling off into nothingness. The three-way relationship between the Church, the faithful Sophia and the unbelieving Tolstoy, for example, is referenced often. In the last section of the film a mute priest in a magnificent hat even shows up, but the script never expands on this beyond awkwardly inserting it into the story as an attempt at enriching it or providing some semblance of historical accuracy. There are a ton of details in the film, but not enough attention is paid to most of them and as a result the film feels cluttered, overburdened, energetic but unfortunately pointless.
At its heart is the love story between Sophia and Tolstoy, and that story, as baffling and cramped as it is, is the reason to watch the film. Mirren and Plummer are, unsurprisingly, the best things in the film. Plummer's Tolstoy is vague, at once confused and resolute, apprehensive and full of joy and certainty. Mirren's Sophia is in full panic, in a righteous lather, forced to watch and expected to be mute as her husband gives away his time, his possessions and his money to people who are unquestionably devoted to him but also clearly in possession of their own agendas. They're great performances, all the more so given the vast gulf between the real importance of the couple's place in history and the script's ability to support that, both Sophia and Tolstoy seem willed into the film by Mirren and Plummer alone, both making the best they can out of what meagre material is there. Giammati and McAvoy, both talented actors, are unable to do the same and Giamatti's Chertkov seems neither a revolutionary nor a thief (and not both at once, either) but rather a cipher, a stand-in for a whole package of unresolved anxieties and aborted historical impulses. The scope of this thing never boils down to anything, it hitches along, getting by on the strength of Plummer and Mirren and not much else. It's interesting and pretty, but ultimately unrewarding. 4.5/10
Trying to level any serious criticism at director Michael Lembeck's Tooth Fairy is like four hardened grizzled WW II vets hand-cranking one of those rotating anti-aircraft guns with four different barrels pointing at a bunch of screaming Japanese Zeros around so they can blast an orange kitten out of a tree. Except the kitten is kind of an asshole and it's 1956 so we're not actually at war with Japan anymore, so you know... maybe it's not the worst idea in the world.
Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson plays Derek "the Tooth Fairy" Johnson, the beloved bruising left-winger on the local minor hockey team. He started as a skill player, a dangler, an offensive prospect that had his dreams dashed by a shoulder injury, and he's now happy to play a couple of minutes a night, hammer the opponents' star player, and spend the rest of the game in his custom recliner in the penalty box. He's a cartoon pragmatist, dispensing hard truths about the impossibility of dreams coming true to young hockey players wanting to be just like him.
As a result, he is summoned to Fairyland, and sentenced by head fairy Lily (Julie Andrews) to two weeks' duty as a Tooth Fairy, a real-deal winged creeper with a bat-belt full of spy gadgets and a lanky, awkward case worker with fairy aspirations of his own (Stephen Merchant, co-creator with Ricky Gervais of The Office). Lessons are learned, a whole bunch of obvious groaner gags are hatched, and everything, eventually, from a guitarist kid's fear of failure to a single mom's love to a future hockey star's cockiness and on and on is resolved in a Really Pleasant Way.
It's a kids movie, pure and simple, endlessly saccharine and full of pratfalls, Healthy Moral Lessons and magic fairy dust. It's also incredibly dull, and a massive waste of what's actually a great cast - Merchant is consistently funny and Billy Crystal is in vintage form as Fairyland's gadgetmaster Q equivalent, and Johnson is as charming as ever. Six year old kids will probably laugh their six year old heads off, but the dullness of the script, the predictability of the gags and the moral convenience and simplicity of the story is going to bore anybody not actually invested in the "ok wait is there actually a tooth fairy or not, dad" debate.
You want this film to be better, just because it could have been. It's stuffed full of legitimate talent and it remarkably doesn't feel like a cynical cash-in, it just feels diluted. It is going to accomplish its ostensibly stated goal, entertaining children, but outside of a few laughs here and there it's not going to do much for anyone else. 4/10
Austrian director Michael Haneke's icily beautiful The White Ribbon is a film very close to the perfection of a certain cinematic type. It lingers, it unfolds slowly and resolutely and unfolds further still when you start to try and unpack it after the fact - the film gets better in retrospect. Set in a small Protestant village in northern Germany in 1913, the film's various narrative threads interweave elegantly, obscurely, dreadfully until eventually, the bottom drops out underneath them all.
The film is narrated by a school teacher (Ernst Jacobi as the elder, Christian Friedel as the younger) reflecting on the time he spent as a youth in the village of Eichwald. Picturesque and seemingly idyllic, the village is shaken when the town's doctor is thrown from his horse after riding into a wire strung across his path by dun dun dunnnn... persons unknown. Is it the weird group of extremely polite creepazoid kids? Is it the humiliated midwife? The resentful libertine Baroness? As the schoolteacher attempts to woo a young nanny working for the Baron, a series of strange events unfold, small mysteries playing out: a barn is burnt, the son of the Baron is kidnapped and abused, the Pastor's bird is killed, the handicapped son of the midwife goes missing. The mysteries pile on top of each other, each small and unexplained, dour omens. The schoolteacher is witness and participant, observing without knowing a revelation of the dark, anxious and cruel character of the village.
While Haneke and the cinematographer and frequent collaborator Christian Berger do an astounding job of very very slowly ratcheting up the tension in the film, it eventually becomes clear that they're not particularly interested in the MacGuffin details of any of the small, petty cruelties the film documents. Instead, it becomes cruelly clear that the film, as Haneke himself has said, is about the origins of terror, a story about the lashings-out of a town in the repressive grip of the state, the church and above all else a moral code mandating repression, self-control and the keeping-up of appearances. Haneke's film with its worm-holes of petty violence, cruelly and sexual abuse mining their way through a very crisp, fastidiously maintained faÃ§ade of order and control is his own architecturally constructed, logically designed statement on the specific human flaws that led a generation later to the rise of Nazism.
Haneke's film is the rarest of things, a bit of very clever sleight of hand that doesn't leave its audience resentful or surly at having been misled, as the point of the film, its sub-textual ending-place is much much more interesting and a much better bargain than the film seems to be offering for the vast part of its textual bulk. This is something that Haneke does (but not always well - in his English-language film Funny Games he tries a similar trick and in that film it's incredibly irritating) and when it works, like it does in The White Ribbon or in his previous film CachÃ©, we're given works that are the literal antithesis of so much disposable generic fare, one that offers unexpected insights and rewards careful attention, and offer more the deeper into them one digs.
Thankfully, Haneke is a skilled enough craftsman that his film doesn't wait until its conclusion to offer up its rewards. It's not a lecture, or a lesson, it's anything but hard to sit through. It's arrestingly beautiful, shot originally in colour and desaturated in post, classically composed and beautifully lit. The performances match the script - minimal, ascetic and austere - and from this very careful control the film spins out slowly a very real, insidious, creeping dread and human anxiety, a Hitchcockian unease and suspense. It's smart without pretense, complex without disappearing into itself, slowly paced without boring. It's masterful, a dark pleasure to watch and even more so to unpack in the hours and days after seeing it, and if it's not the best film of the year, it's very very close. 9/10
Youth in Revolt stars Michael Cera as Nick Twisp, the nebbish-gone-wild hero of Miguel Arteta's adaptation of C.D. Payne's cult-favourite novel of the same name. Trying and failing to win the attention of the sexually sophisticated Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), Nick is visited by the realization that he needs to create an alter-ego, an edgy bad-boy named Francois Dillinger. Francois has blue eyes and a moustache, he smokes, he trashes Nick's record collection and coaches him through a spree of arson, property destruction and sexual triumph.
The film, like Payne's book, is slightly… off, in a very good way, three quarters heart-warming, smart character study and one quarter aggressive comic nihilism. There's an edge here, a very very pleasant one. It's left-field humour and frankness about boners makes the film feels like the work of people who are interested in the film as a funny film rather than as a vehicle. It's old-fashioned, a little punk, a little tiny bit jagged and very funny. The cast is outstanding, including performances by Jean Smart, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi, Zach Galifianakis and newcomer Adhir Kalyan as Nick's partner-in-crime, Vijay. Arteta has filled the film, whose script is dense and literary, with more than enough visual humour and style to keep the film from getting too bogged down in its own witty verbosity.
Arteta (who rose to deserved indie prominence with the excellent Star Maps and Chuck & Buck) has found in Cera a really rare comic actor at a really rare moment; a genuine talent on the verge of deserved super-stardom. Cera absolutely mastered (at 15 or 16 seemingly) the smart-funny anxious and awkward comedy of sweaty palms and gawkish, aware nerd-hood, starring as cousin-loving Michael in "Arrested Development" and Evan in his breakout hit Superbad. He's doing similar things in the very funny Youth in Revolt but what matters, what's exciting, is that Cera seems willing to modulate his image (an image that's worth literally millions of dollars) by taking roles in films like Arteta's not-exactly-totally-run-of-the-mill teen sex flick and this past summer's very neat, very brave Paper Heart. His role in Youth in Revolt belies both a self-awareness and a willingness to take risks, to poke and twist his safe "Paulie from Juno" image. Which is why he's still funny, despite the occasional disaster (Year One, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist). It's suggestive of longevity and legitimate wit, and as somebody who wholeheartedly loves funny people in funny films, it's exciting.
My score: 8/10