Red Sparrow


Misogyny? Wellllll….

(2018) Espionage Thriller (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Sergei Polunin, Sasha Frolova, Sebastian  Hulk, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicole O’Neill, Kristof Konrad, Hugh Quarshie, Kinscö Pethö. Directed by Francis Lawrence

While this is set in recent years, Red Sparrow could very easily be mistaken for a Cold War-era spy thriller by John Le Carré or those of his ilk. At the center is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who has had to move on to other career choices when her ballet career is cut brutally short. She is sent by a well-meaning but corrupt relative slash government official to a school for spies, which she disdainfully calls “whore school.” There she’s taught to use her sexuality as a weapon and the rest of her body as well. Her assignment is to make contact with American agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) but whether or not she is following orders remains to be seen.

This doesn’t particularly add anything to the espionage thriller genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, enough so that the studio sent an e-mail pleading with critics to reveal as little about the plot as possible which in this case is justified – the less you know about what actually happens, the better your enjoyment will be of the film.

The surprising thing about the movie is star Jennifer Lawrence. She has been for several years now one of the most reliable and talented actresses in Hollywood, but this one she falls quite a bit short. Her Russian accent is unbelievable and it slips throughout the movie. Lawrence is a lot of things but she is not a ballet dancer; she doesn’t move like one and any woman who has been through the kind of training that lands you a spot on the Bolshoi is going to have a certain elegance and grace in her every movement.

This is pretty much standard spy stuff, although granted with a surfeit of graphic mayhem, torture and yes, rape. I think some women, particularly those who are sensitive to how women are portrayed as sex objects, are going to have some serious problems with this. It’s not quite misogynistic but it’s close. This is one well worth skipping which is a first in J-Law’s otherwise glittering career. I guess she’s just due for a misstep.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of Cold War-era espionage thrillers will love this. Rampling and Irons deliver swell performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s too much rape and torture – there’s too much of everything (it’s too long). J-Law’s Russian accent keeps slipping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is severe violence, torture, rape, sexual content, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tomb Raider

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The Fate of the Furious


Why so angry>

(2017) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju,, Patrick St. Esprit, Janmarco Santiago, Luke Hawx, Corey Maher, Olek Krupa, Alexander  Babara, Eden Estrella. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

There was a big question mark hanging over the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise; with co-star Paul Walker gone, could the series continue to reach the heights it achieved with Furious 7? Well, in terms of box office and spectacle, the answer turned out to be yes. But does it hold up with the best of the films in the franchise?

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is on his honeymoon with his girl Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, doing what most new husbands do on their honeymoon; get involved in a street race. He is also approached by Cypher (Theron), a world class hacker who has something on Dom but we’re not sure what. His wolfish smile, which looks for all the world like he’s displaying his fangs, turns into a world class scowl – see picture above.

During the next mission with his crew, Dom betrays them leaving Hobbs (Johnson) holding the bag, Cypher holding some Russian nuclear codes and the team unable to believe that Dom would turn on them. The world thinks Dom has gone Rogue but Mr. Nobody (Russell) thinks differently, even after Dom and Cypher attack their headquarters in New York City. Dom flees and Cypher uses her special skills to take control over every computer-enabled car in Manhattan, raining down cars on the team like a really bad hailstorm.

Cypher is after a Russian nuclear sub and with her launch codes could hold the world hostage for a tidy amount of cash but Letty, Mr. Nobody and the until-recently-incarcerated Hobbs have other plans, and they’re going to get some reinforcements of the most unexpected kind. Friend and foe will unite to take on this deadly femme fatale.

Now, I’m not going to beat around the bush; the action sequences are absolutely outstanding. The New York sequence is right there as is the climactic scene in which Dom’s crew chase down the submarine over ice – don’t even ask for sense here. Nothing here makes any. What we have is just cars going fast, things going boom and attractive guys and gals at the wheels of cars we couldn’t possibly afford. What better fantasy is there for a red-blooded American?

I think that the instructions here were to go big and Gray as well as screenwriter Chris Morgan may have taken it too much to heart. This is more in the James Bond territory now than what was once a simple underground street racing movie featuring a bunch of LA guys in wife beaters driving some cool midlife crisis compensators. There are gadgets, CGI and not a whole lot of character development which may be because there are way too many characters here. Too many to keep track of, anyway.

I wasn’t a fan of this franchise initially but starting with the fourth installment I began to get into it. Unfortunately, this is a giant step backwards and while it’s billion dollar worldwide box office guarantees an ninth episode (there will also be a tenth which has already been dated by Universal), I’m not looking forward to it with quite the anticipation of the previous few installments.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are great. You can’t go wrong with a heavyweight cast like this one.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest entry in the franchise since Tokyo Drift. There are too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of violence and action, some sensuality and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were rumors that Diesel and Johnson were having some personal difficulties with one another; after Johnson posted his frustrations online, the two met privately and resolved their differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Cyclotron

Jupiter Ascending


Star-crossed lovers...literally.

Star-crossed lovers…literally.

(2015) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Hogg, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D’Arcy, Jeremy Swift, Vanessa Kirby. Directed by the Wachowskis

The vastness of space seems to lend itself to stories that are epic. After all, a character study seems to lose focus when confronted with the vast nature of the cosmos. That doesn’t mean, however, that science fiction doesn’t have room for well-developed characters.

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is living a life that she probably wouldn’t have chosen for herself. A house cleaner with relatives on her mother’s (Kennedy) side, she was born in mid-Atlantic after her mother fled Russia on the occasion of the murder of her husband (D’Arcy) – an astronomer studying in Russia – by Russian criminals.

She wakes up before dawn and spends most of her time wondering if this is all there is. When a particularly enterprising cousin urges her to sell her eggs for the money she needs to buy a telescope, something that would be a precious legacy from her ad, she goes for it. But for some strange reason, the surgical team wants to kill her. And they would have, too, if not for the intervention of Caine Wise (Tatum).

Wise, a genetically spliced humanoid of both human and canine genes, is a bred warrior who wears gravity boots that allow him to soar in an approximation of flight, although he has to move like a demented speed skater in order to use them properly. He takes Jupiter to the home of Stinger (Bean), likewise a spliced warrior sort and there Jupiter learns the truth; her genes are an exact match for the matriarch of an enormously wealthy and powerful family. They own whole planets that have been seeded with humanoids, using the genetic material once harvested to extend the lives of the very wealthy (like themselves). Three of the matriarch’s children – eldest son Balem (Redmayne) who owns the Earth and seems slightly psychotic, middle son Titus (Booth) who is something of a playboy, and youngest daughter Kalique (Middleton) who is ambitious, are all plotting to gain control of Jupiter with Balem wanting to kill her altogether because she, as the genetic duplicate of his mother, would receive the rights to all of the children’s fortunes.

This is all a bit much for Jupiter and if she feels like a pawn in an enormous game, well, that’s just because she is. However, Jupiter isn’t the frightened weakling the Abrasax family seems to think she is and before long, with Caine by her side and the support of the galactic police force, she may yet see this through. However, the Abrasax heirs with the stakes so high won’t play by any particular set of rules.

The Wachowskis who made their reputation on creating a world familiar and yet not in the Matrix trilogy, have attempted to create a detailed and lush environment on a gigantic planet, with a budget said to be in the $165 million range. There is a whole lot of that on the screen, because the special effects here are as good as any you’ll see this year and likely to get a nomination for next year’s Oscars although they’ll have to compete with the new Star Wars episode in that category. Bummer.

The problem here is that the story is so complicated and there is so much back stabbing and about facing going on that it’s hard to follow along. While you’re attempting to follow along you’re also treated to visuals that are so incredible and detailed that it’s really hard to take it in. This is a movie that’s built for repeated viewings.

The performances run the gamut. Tatum, who has matured into a pretty decent actor with a great deal of potential ahead after being somewhat wooden at the beginning of his career, helps make this film enjoyable. Caine is often mystified by the behavior of others and while he is quick with the “your majesty” and deference, he also is quite willing to take a chunk out of an entitled jerkwad if the occasion calls for it. Kunis is also quite the capable actress but here she’s a bit frustrating. She is definitely a damsel in distress here, not projecting much strength or wisdom on her own; she has these incredible genes that apparently the galaxy has been searching for but no genetic gifts. While I understand she was raised in the working class as a housekeeper (and why doesn’t she have a Russian accent like the rest of her family?) there should be something else there, don’t you think? This is where the character development thing comes in handy.

Redmayne, who is in the running for an Oscar this weekend, plays this role like he won the part in a reality show. It’s truly mystifying because we’re all aware what a terrific actor he can be, but he speaks in such a murmur it’s often difficult to make out what he’s saying, before erupting into Pacino-like shouts whenever his character gets frustrated. If it’s meant to convey that Belem is psychotic, well, yeah but psychotic in an “I eat spiders” kind of way rather than as a devious, dangerous villain. More like a petulant child. “The Earth is mine,” he says at one point and I half expected him to stomp his feet and shriek “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

Enormous space craft cruise majestically through space and there is that epic quality to the movie that I think is intentional, but there is also kind of a glacial quality that I think is not. Yes, there are some pretty good action sequences (including a chase sequence near the beginning of the film set in Chicago) but the kinetics of those sequences don’t continue throughout the movie; the momentum that is built up by the action just falls to the floor like a dead fish.

I really wanted to like this film. Heck, I really wanted to love this film – I respect the Wachowskis as film makers and have admired their films from the beginning of their career back in Bound and even including Cloud Atlas which didn’t receive a lot of love from critics and audience alike but I thought was one of the top movies of 2012 although in the interest of full disclosure, I was much more a fan of the sequences directed by Tom Tykwer than I was of those directed by the Wachowskis.

This will not make my list of top films this year, although it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s just an intimidating one, full of sound and fury but I’m not quite sure what was signified here. It’s not nothing, though. That I can tell you for sure.

REASONS TO GO: State-of-the-art eye candy. Tatum manages to perform well in a goofy role.
REASONS TO STAY: Head-scratching performance by Oscar-nominated Redmayne. Convoluted story.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence and space battle action, some sexually suggestive content and some partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally supposed to be released on June 20, 2014 but was delayed eight months so that the special effects could get more time and detail in post production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicles of Riddick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime

Cast Away


Cast Away

Tom Hanks gets primitive.

(2000) Drama (DreamWorks/20th Century Fox) Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Chris Noth, Nick Searcy, Garret Davis, Vince Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Geoffrey Blake, Lari White, David Allen Brooks, Paul Sanchez, Peter von Berg, Dmitri S. Boudine, Semion Sudarikov. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The poet said that no man is an island, but that is not so. In fact, every person is an island. We are not Borg either with the thoughts of millions in our heads; we are alone inside our skulls, and though we may share space and intimacy with others, at the end of the day it is ourselves we are alone with, no matter what the situation.

For Chuck Noland (Hanks), an executive and troubleshooter for FedEx, the situation is always chaos, perpetual motion on a stopwatch. He travels the world for FedEx, helping various branches become models of efficiency in processing packages for delivery. After a successful stint in Russia, he returns home to a well-deserved holiday break andan adoring girlfriend (Hunt) to whom he pops the question just as he is getting on a plane to put out another fire halfway around the world.

Life, according to John Lennon, is what happens when you’re making plans. In Noland’s case, life is a terrifying plane crash into a stormy sea. Noland eventually washes ashore on a deserted island, but unlike Gilligan and his crew, there are no huts, no supplies of food and no ingenious professors who can do anything except build a shortwave radio. The island is barren, a great big rock in the South Pacific.

After the initial shock, Noland slowly begins to realize that there will be no quick rescue. In certain Hollywood movies, Noland would be an ex-Army Ranger who can survive on a cantaloupe and a thimble for thirty days; in Cast Away, he has few survival skills other than an insatiable will to live, and a picture of his fiancée to motivate him. Chuck mustreinvent himself on a primitive level in order to survive; he must become food gatherer, fire bringer and water bearer. He must survive heat and storm, loneliness and depression, hunger and thirst. He also must survive a tooth that has been bothering him for months and threatens to get infected. He must learn to carry hope with him like a wallet, and fend off the madness slowly encroaching into his mind.

As time goes by, Noland is able to just get by, but even through his dementia he realizes that if he remains on the island he will eventually die. To avoid that, he begins devising a daring escape, using flotsam from the crash and other debris washed up by the sea.

The great majority of the movie takes place on the island. Most of the movie is just Hanks, without music or very much dialogue. Few actors could pull it off, but Hanks again gives an Oscar-nominated performance (the most recent one on his resume to date) that transcends traditional movie logic. If you described to a studio suit a movie with the situation just described, he would undoubtedly respond with have your people call his people, let’s do lunch and don’t let the door hit you in the drawers on the way out.

In this case, the director, Robert Zemeckis, and the star, Tom Hanks, had a certain amount of stroke (considering the previous time they teamed up they delivered Forrest Gump it isn’t hard to see why) and the two had the presence of mind to seek out DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg’s company, to co-distribute. They also had the might of 20th Century Fox behind them.

The results are an amazing movie, full of splendor, beauty and tension. Hanks is perfect in the role. If it were Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson on this beach, you’d expect them to survive. For Hanks, the modern equivalent of Jimmy Stewart, the boy next door is in real deep kimchee in this situation. The movie works because you believe it. During the escape sequence, when Noland’s companion, Wilson, parts, it is an extremely moving moment. Da Queen had a box of hankies for that one.

The movie takes place in three distinct sequences, and as has been noted elsewhere, constituted a break in filming while Hanks emaciated himself and Zemeckis went on to make What Lies Beneath. Our world is full of noise, frenetic motion, a busy cornucopia of career and personal life. The island is quiet, paced as the waves lapping against the shore. Time dilates into a distant memory here. Even the watch won’t work.

On a different level, however, the movie is about time and how we use it — and how it can be taken away from us. Time is a funny thing; it enslaves us, it is a brutal taskmaster but to a very real extent it defines us as well. It is about survival, what we can manage to accomplish in a desperate situation. It is about the island that is all of us. Some of us are rocky promontories in the Pacific; others are Oahu. Either works.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the first great movies of the 21st Century. Another Oscar-caliber performance from Hanks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle part of the film on the island has no music or dialogue which can be disconcerting for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some disturbing sequences here, particularly the plane crash and the body of the pilot arriving on the island.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Chuck Noland names his volleyball companion Wilson after the sporting goods manufacturer. Tom Hanks is married to Rita Wilson, and played a character named Kip Wilson in “Bosom Buddies.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a Charlie Rose interview with Hanks, as well as feature-length documentaries on real live survival situations (and how survival experts put writer William Broyles through a survival course) and on the island that was used to film the South Pacific sequences – both are extraordinarily interesting. These are, strangely enough, only available on the 2 Disc DVD edition; they are missing from the Blu-Ray edition which does have a trivia track if you’re into such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $429.6M on a $90M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: That Evening Sun

The Last Station


The Last Station

James McAvoy displays obvious beard envy.

(2008) Period Drama (Sony Classics) Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, John Sessions, Patrick Kennedy, Tomas Spencer, Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Hantsch, David Masterson. Directed by Michael Hoffman

Although he has a reputation for writing voluminous novels full of Russian names and places that are enough to cause the heads of most casual readers to spin, Count Leo Tolstoy was in reality one of the world’s greatest writers. His ideas continue to influence world culture to this day, and in his day he was considered to be a living saint – an idea he apparently didn’t dissuade.

Tolstoy (Plummer) is an old man living on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and although he has espoused pacifism and celibacy his whole life (the latter of which he obviously failed to adhere to with 13 children), his life is turmoil and warfare. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren) fully expects the copyrights of his work (and the accompanying residual payments) to go to his family.

However, Tolstoy’s trusted aide Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) has other ideas. He believes that the rights should revert to the Russian people, which would be in line with Tolstoy’s political and social agenda – which to be honest Chertkov is entirely correct. This of course puts him at odds with the Countess who is a formidable woman and opponent in every respect.

Chertkov hires a young man, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), to ostensibly act as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, but is in fact there to spy on Sofya which makes Bulgakov, a Tolstoyan to the core, a little bit uncomfortable. He winds up caught in the middle of the power struggle which the elderly writer seems to be blissfully unaware of.

Bulgakov takes solace in the arms of Masha (Condon), a woman who works on the drab but pastoral Tolstoyan commune neighboring the Count’s estate. Tolstoy’s days are growing numbered and his legacy is at stake. Bulgakov finds himself sympathizing with both sides – but which one ultimately should the Count’s decision fall to?

This is a fictionalized version of the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, a number of the events portrayed here did take place as written, but quite  a bit of artistic license takes place as well. We see Tolstoy not as he actually was, but as we wish he was.

That’s largely due to the tremendous performances by Plummer and Mirren. Mirren gives us a multi-layered performance that portrays Sofya as alternately loving, shrewish, arch, witty, charming, devious and obstinate. To my mind, this is not only the equal of Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance in The Queen but in many ways it’s superior. She was rightly nominated for another statuette for it, although she would lose to Sandra Bullock as Best Actress.

Plummer was also nominated for his performance as Tolstoy (losing to Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor), an honor richly deserved. Plummer seems to be having a great deal of fun with his role. Rather than playing Tolstoy as a ponderous, weighty pontificator who bore the burden of his greatness in his shoulders (which is the temptation), he instead humanizes the man who would go on to influence Gandhi and the peace movement of the 1960s, making him warm and grandfatherly. He dithers over the disposition of his material things, somewhat embarrassed over his own wealth and station.

McAvoy is a fine actor who has yet to really move beyond being a merely competent leading man and becoming a star; he certainly has role models to look to here if he is to move forward. He does a solid job once again, making Bulgakov likable but not memorable. Giamatti is more crotchety and is the center of the story’s conflict, a role he inhabits well. He knows how to make a character unlikable without making him grating, a very fine line that he pulls off here.

The Russia Tolstoy inhabits is changing, moving inexorably from the repressive Tsarist regime to the eventual revolution that would turn it into a communist nation that Tolstoy would have welcomed had he lived long enough to see it – and then rejected as it would become even more repressive than the government it replaced. Even in the idyllic setting of Tolstoy’s beloved home, the sense of oncoming change is ever-present in the film.

There are a lot of grand gestures and thoughts here, few of which are truly realized. We are teased with weighty insights but this film belongs more to the conflict between Sofya and Chertkov. That is the center of the action and perhaps from the standpoint of traditional storytelling that would be the way to go. However, I found the movie worked better when the relationship between Sofya and Tolstoy was at the fore; Bulgakov is more of an observer than a catalyst here, and that makes the character somewhat bland.

To my mind, this is a movie that aims high and doesn’t quite hit the mark completely, something not to be discouraged. The performances of Plummer and Mirren are both well worth seeing, and if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to their efforts, at least the filmmakers had the sense to showcase the performances of these able actors and that alone should be motivation enough to rent this.

WHY RENT THIS: An opportunity to witness two glorious performances that are as different as night and day. A look into the life of a great man who was fully aware he was great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are actual historical figures here, you get the sense they are here to perform certain roles that may or may not jive with their place in history. The script hints at grand thoughts but never really realizes them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality that contains some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The descendants of the family still live near Yasnaya Polyana and the movie was made with their support and approval. One of the count’s descendants, Anastasia Tolstoy, an Oxford graduate, shows up near the end of the film as a mourner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel, as well as a segment from the AFI tribute to Christopher Plummer in which he takes questions from the audience regarding his brilliant career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.6M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bone Collector