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Movie Reviews: A Single Man and The Last Station – Art Loves Company

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A Single Man

Tom Ford, an Austin, Texas native, made a stunning directorial debut with A Single Man, directing Colin Firth to an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Ford’s on solid footing when he steps behind the camera. I couldn’t believe that he wrote, directed, and produced this film. His technique, while not flawless, is fanciful, sexy, classy, artsy, but hardly original. And this may be the reason for this film not making the Best Picture list this year. However, Ford might want to trademark the “getting wet” subtle sexual currency he employs to pull the audience dryly into its murky depths. Ford achieves this with streaming metaphors that are mostly underwater, no doubt meant to depict the sexual satiation attended by the large libido of any single gay man.

A Single Man, set in 1961, compresses its action into one day in the life of George (Colin Firth). It is a special day, however, the day the brother of his long-time love Jim calls to tell him that Jim has died. And aside from his premonition, we find George lost in private musings the whole day as he recounts their shared life in flashbacks and the latest innuendo. George suits up Santa Monica-style. His attire and university professor stature provide the “beard” indispensable in an underground, straight-laced American ecosystem circa 1961. Life for George is an architect’s dream minus the wife in apron and the children. The audience gets a titillating look at what it means to be a successful single man in the closet.

The story is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, who has created George in his image, i.e. British upper class, homosexual from early life, attracted to younger men. But these are not your typical trashy voyeuristic novels. Why? Because Isherwood is also well-known for his spirituality, theosophy, and Vedanta translations of sacred texts. His first 15 minutes of fame arrived with novels about the hidden life of seasoned gay men, young boys and Berlin, inspiration for the film Cabaret. A recent biographical film, Chris and Don—A Love Story, is a frank exploration of the shared life of Isherwood and Don Bachardy, whose young age brought Isherwood unwanted notoriety. Thus the air of authenticity in the screenplay adapted from Isherwood’s novels is palpable.

Julianne Moore is Charley, a blond beehive who lives next door. She finds herself in a symbiotic relationship with George. She buzzes, he retreats. Her interest borders on parasitic—she wants to bite him and suck his blood, but he, well, is not interested. I love Charley even if George doesn’t. What’s not to like? She’s stylish, ethereal, and available, a true BFF. This is a tale of two lives, both separate. Enter Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a front-row literature student. He too wants to linger in George’s niche if only for a night. We are never certain what they do together other than share a drink and a naked dunk at the beach in Santa Monica. It’s intriguing though—what comes after the seduction, in the wee hours of the night? Ford leaves that to the imagination. But don’t leave A Single Man to your imagination… see it in person.

The Last Station

If you crave a star-studded cast that delivers great acting, then you will love The Last Station. But if you treasure history over family infighting then you might be sorely disappointed in this film directed by Michael Hoffman, who also wrote the screenplay. I was unfamiliar with the director's earlier films. But it’s safe to say that historical dramas don’t seem to be a part of Hoffman’s timber. He makes a respectable attempt to dramatize the last year of the man who gave the world War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Hoffman utilizes 112 minutes to compress some rather boring aspects of Tolstoy’s last year. While Tolstoy the man is film-worthy, one has to wonder the purpose in writing and directing one about the end of this man’s long life? I don’t get it.

Christopher Plummer has tackled and captured the great Count Leo Tolstoy, an ego larger than Russia itself. The subject: Tolstoy hailed by the literary world one of the greatest novelists of all time—the good news, but the bad news is that he’s canned into a sardine tin called The Last Station. Tolstoy is reduced to the last year of his life with his good wife, one of his daughters, his estate, his commune in the woods and faithful followers. Don’t get me wrong this is a good film. It’s an art house film. But The Last Station is no Dr. Zhivago, rather lots of in-house squabbling where the tall talent of Paul Giamatti is wasted. Giamatti plays Vladimir Chertkov (executive and publicist to Tolstoy). Is he supposed to be one of Tolstoy’s sycophants’ or lovers? Not sure. But Giamatti can play anything from lap dog to top dog, so I enjoyed his performance regardless.

Plummer has been nominated for supporting actor (small odds he’ll win). His Tolstoy supports Helen Mirren’s role as his wife, Countess Tolstoy. The nomination of Helen Mirren for best actress boosts the IQ of this film’s cast. On the other hand, it leaves me wondering why she just didn’t get her own movie. Countess Tolstoy is the strong-headed, deeply in love wife of the author. However, at the end of his life she seems to be more in love with his legacy and trust funds than with him. Tolstoy doesn’t need a crystal ball to detect her 180-degree change so for the second half of the film seeks to distance himself from her. Tolstoy plus entourage take to the road sans wife. He churns his life on a train and at the last station in southern Russia.

There is a lighter side to this film which blooms away from the prying eyes of other commune dwellers. They live vicariously through a newbie communist and one of the sultry settlers. Thus young love and old love are juxtaposed in The Last Station. A virginal ingénue Valentin Bulgakov enters Tolstoy’s life via Vladimir Chertkov. Chertkov (hated by the Countess) puts Valentin into the Utopian commune full of Tolstoy worshipers, where his virtue is quickly put to the test. The premise is not original but real life. While this film cries a lot like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it is still worth checking out.

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