From the Russia of Tolstoy, with love
The Last Station
DIRECTOR Michael Hoffman's The Last Station begins with a famous quote from Tolstoy's War and Peace: "Everything I know, I know only because I love." The quote takes on a wistful significance when juxtaposed with the marital mayhem that evidently prevailed between Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer) and Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) during the concluding stages of the author's life.
We first encounter the white-bearded Tolstoy at a time when his literary success has led many of his devotees to consider him a "Christ-like" figure. Some of his followers, known as "Tolstoyans", have set up communes where they seek to live by his publicly espoused philosophy of passive resistance, celibacy and communal property.
Enter Valentin (James McEvoy) as the misty-eyed acolyte who considers getting the gig as Tolstoy's private secretary a means of "perfecting his soul". Such ethereal aspirations are soon compromised, however. Romantic interest comes courtesy of Masha (Kerry Condon), while he finds himself cast as the unwitting pawn in a power grab that has Tolstoy's literary estate as the prize.
Both Plummer and Mirren spark off each other brilliantly as the torrid couple at the heart of proceedings, and thoroughly deserve their current Oscar nominations. Coming across about as Russian as a Waterloo sunset, McEvoy and Condon fare less well.
Sumptuous production values render The Last Station very watchable, but it's devoid of any real dazzle -- with the result that, like many long Russian novels, engagement levels wane in the middle. There is, however, a convincing and touching final crescendo.
The Last Station is now showing
JEAN-PIERRE Jeunet, whose best known work in this part of the world includes Amelie, Delicatessen and er... Alien: Resurrection, has proven time and again that there is no subject in which he doesn't see humour. Jeunet's work will also be visually stylised and revolve around otherworldly outsiders. Micmacs (Micmacs a Tire-Larigot in French, which very roughly means something like "a truck load of trouble") contains all of those ingredients, and a stronger political message than usual.
The child Bazil loses his father to a landmine and his mother to grief-induced madness. The adult Bazil (Dany Boon, one of France's biggest stars) is almost killed by a stray bullet, recuperation from which costs him his job and home. On the streets he is adopted by a variously talented motley crew whose mission in life is to restore and reinvent rubbish.
Although mild-mannered, Bazil hatches a plan to take revenge on the arms companies that shattered his life. The motley family help and the nasty pieces of work who run the arms companies unwittingly collude.
With the stylisation, drained colour, claustrophobic world, use of rapid zoom and that postmodern self-awareness (posters that reflect specific action in the film, the score that is a mix of the scores from the films noir that Bazil loves) it looks and feels very Jeunet, and indeed the strength of the visual means it loses little in translation. If anything, the subtitles distract. But it doesn't quite work as well as some of his other work and is not as broad in appeal as Amelie. The cast is great, but there is too much going on. It's enjoyable but wearying.
MicMacs opens on Friday
IARNROD EIREANN is dysfunctional, the service industry communicates through grunting and we don't mind preying on Americans. These are just some of the things the tourist could learn about Ireland from this new romantic comedy, starring rising redhead Amy Adams.
Adams plays upwardly mobile New Yorker Anna, who discovers that in Ireland during a leap year a woman can propose to her man. She sets off for Dublin and boyfriend Adam Scott but her plane is diverted to Cork, where she meets surly bartender Declan (Matthew Goode with an "Oirish" accent). He agrees to escort her to Dublin, and amid a variety of disasters, an unlikely connection is forged.
If you can suspend your cynicism, Leap Year slowly becomes the sort of lovey-dovey fluff that is sure to go down a treat during awkward first dates overseas. For Irish audiences, however, it has the potential to actively offend. The worlds of high heels and toned calves are muddled with cowpats, tripe and backwards Ireland, a bit like Sex In The City stumbling on to the set of The Quiet Man after one too many cosmos.
What the film does do -- much to the delight of Tourism Ireland, one suspects -- is put our scenic assets on display. The rolling bens of Connemara suddenly give way to the windswept rocky outcrops of the Burren before morphing into Glendalough. This can all happen during a short stroll, too. Bemusing as it is to watch the landscape of your homeland be reduced to a theme park, it could end up filling hotels for a couple of tourist seasons to come. For this, we're letting Leap Year off the hook.
Leap Year opens on Friday
Roughly inspired by the Little Mermaid, Ponyo is the eponymous goldfish (voiced by Noah Cyrus, yes, of those Cyruses) who leaves home in search of adventure. Her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), a former human, now lord of under the sea and a Barry Manilow lookalike, is none too keen on his former species and sends the sea out to find her. A near miss with pollution puts Ponyo's life in the hands of five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, yes of those Jonases), who lives on a cliff with his harassed and slightly irresponsible mother Lisa (Tina Fey) and often absent ship's captain father (Matt Damon).
A bond is formed between boy and goldfish which means that once reclaimed by the sea, she is determined to return to land and become human. She harnesses her father's magic and begins her mission but there is more than an adventure in store.
Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan's most esteemed storytellers. Ponyo bears many of his trademarks, strong characters, environmental issues and especially the animation, unmistakably Japanese, soft but strong and largely hand-drawn so refreshingly different from CGI or performance-capture styles.
The imagination behind it is as free as a child's and that makes for proper magic, it's a fairy story more than a comedy and has a lovely innocence that is so often missing from children's films. Genuinely sweet and engaging.
Ponyo is now showing