'The Last Station' has too much baggage

Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer have been nominated for Oscars for their portrayals of Sofya and Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station."

No doubt, they are two of the most accomplished actors working today, their talent astonishing. And they clearly relish their roles as the aging Tolstoys who were partners for more than 40 years as Leo wrote massive books such as "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace."

"The Last Station" is set in Vasnaya Polyana, their country estate, the year is 1910, and the literary lion is in the last year of his life. He is in perpetual disagreement with Sofya over his work: she insists that he will the rights to his novels to her and their children (they had 13); however, Tolstoy is persuaded by a group of followers, also known as Tolstoyans, led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to leave his work to the people of Russian.

Tolstoy yearns for peace, wanting only to live and work in a milieu of quiet. Sofya, in contrast, is all about drama and manipulation and over-the-top emotional scenes that eventually cause Tolstoy to escape by train to a station in southern Russia that, as it turns out, becomes his last station.

Had the film begun with act three, where Tolstoy lies on his deathbed in a strange house, absent Sofya, and had the narrative been revealed in brief flashbacks, "The Last Station" might have been somewhat interesting. As is, the story plods along, is even tedious, and even the performances of Plummer and Mirren and Giamatti can't redeem it.

Essentially, the film is a family drama with enough emotional baggage to fill the foyer of a large hotel. It only holds interest because the principals were the rock stars of their time, gossiped about, hounded by the press, men in small hats and dark suits perched outside the estate and the last station like so many crows on a long fence, waiting for a morsel of news or the titan's last breath. The paparazzi of their time.

"The Last Station" is, indeed, lovely to look at, saturated with verdant and bucolic scenes of people seated at long tables taking afternoon tea with stretches of white birch and lush grass all around. Visually it adds to the production but, alas, little to the story.

Oscars 2010

Unless you're a cinephile and count yourself among that relatively small group of film wonks who see most, if not all, of the movies released from January through December of any given year, then the Oscars is essentially a potpourri of high-glitz entertainment.

It's a variety show of sorts, framed by a prologue of beautiful people slow-walking the red carpet, dressed to the nines, who stop and wave to cheering fans and photographers and pause for inane questions by reporters and offer up the names of designers. These are the glitterati, also known, hyperbolically, as "stars" whose lives and careers are more closely monitored than some patients in intensive care.

This year's Oscars will be hosted by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Martin unscripted? Fine. But Baldwin? We'll see.

It's always interesting to make a few predictions accompanied by a rationale or two, so here goes.

Best Picture: Note that the Academy has expanded the field to 10 nominated pictures. They are an interesting selection from the blockbuster "Avatar," the highest grossing movie ever (heading toward $2.8 billion worldwide) to Disney-Pixar's animated "Up." Between these two extraordinary films are "The Blind Side," "District 9," "An Education," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious," "A Serious Man" and "Up in the Air."

The sentimental favorite: "The Hurt Locker." If the criteria for best picture are inspired and compelling filmmaking, then "The Hurt Locker" deserves the gold. Of course, James Cameron ("Titanic"), the high risk-high gain director of "Avatar," has made a quantum leap in creativity and green-screen, CGI, 3-D technology. But then, "Avatar" is more a cultural event, an experience, than a film that tells an original story. We'll see. As an aside, some may not know that "The Hurt Locker" director, Kathryn Bigelow, was married to Cameron and now finds herself standing beside him with a small but powerful film of her own.

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, for "The Hurt Locker." She's won almost every pre-Oscar award. It's possible that Cameron will once again have a chance to stand before the Kodak Theater audience and shout, "I'm the king of the world." His banker, of course, would agree. Upset of the evening: Lee Daniels, for his raw and gritty film, "Precious."

Best Actor: Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart." It's the Academy's chance to recognize this accomplished actor who has delivered countless fine performances over a 40-year career. Outside chance: George Clooney for "Up in the Air." No one does Clooney better than Clooney.

Best Actress: Meryl Streep in "Julie and Julia." No question, this was the finest performance by an actress in 2009. She was astonishing, displaying her chameleon-like ability to transform herself and disappear into a character.

Best Supporting Actor: The incomparable Stanley Tucci for his quiet and subtle work in "The Lovely Bones." Tucci has made a career — and what a career it's been — playing supporting roles. Better-than-even chance: Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds," for his menacing portrayal of a Nazi officer.

Best Supporting Actress: This is a toss-up between the wonderful Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air" and Mo'nique, whose portrayal as the abusive mother in "Precious" was astonishing. And the Oscar will go to Mo'nique.

Best Animated Feature: "Up." No Contest.

Best Documentary: A tossup between "The Cove," a chilling example of effective documentary filmmaking, and "Food Inc.," an unsettling film that will make you look at your next McNugget in a completely new way. To what food group does a McNugget belong?

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