Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Round Two for Oscar

The famous opening of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina might be an apt description for the pair of movies I will cover today:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It occurred to me that the movies I described in the prior post are bookend movies: one is about some at the end of a career and life (Crazy Heart), the other about someone at the beginning of a career and life (An Education). It wasn't planned that way--to see two paired movies, it just happened.

Likewise, the next two movies can be paired--the family pair, hence the Tolstoy quote. And, fittingly, the first movie is about Tolstoy: The Last Station.

I recall reading a Tolstoy biography many years ago--at the time, I thought him an odd person. In addition to writing some marvelous novels, he had very distinct ideas about wealth, property ownership, human relationships including sexuality. He married a woman 16 years his junior; since he had lived a somewhat dissolute youth, he thought it necessary to unburden himself to her on their wedding eve--he presented her with a diary of his sexual exploits. Needless to say, she was stunned, but they married anyway. She could not, though, claim to have not been forewarned.

The Last Station is about this peculiar marriage in the last days of Tolstoy's life. The movie is not one of the "ten best" nominated, but the two stars--Helen Mirren as Countess Tolstoy, and Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy--have both been nominated. The acting of both is a joy to behold, but Helen Mirren's work is a tour de force. She alternately rages, cajoles, curses, and charms. Tolstoy eventually can't stand the tumult of his life, and departs in the dead of night. The movie title derives from his final destination. Along the journey, by train, he falls ill and upon leaving the train, he and his party set up in a small train station. The world press gathers to await his death.

Interwoven with Tolstoy's story is that of a young secretary, played with the right of blushing, stammering, sneezing naivete by James McAvoy. He is under Tolstoy's thrall, but as he witnessed the dysfunctional relationship between Tolstoy and his wife, he begins to see the man behind the myth.

The second family that is a subject of a "ten best" nominee is the Tuohy family depicted in the movie The Blind Side. This movie, while certainly the feel-good movie of the season, has some probing questions about the nature of family and family responsibility. It depicts the high school and early college years of football phenom Michael Oher (who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens). Even though the football motif necessarily runs through the movie, it is not a sports movie.

Sandra Bullock, as Leigh Anne Tuohy, does a good job of the mother who opens her arms and her family to include a child in need. For that role, she has earned her nomination as best actress.

There were some squirm moments for me--why must this outstanding young athlete, who is black, be rescued by a white family? Why are almost all the healthy role models that young Michael encounters white, and why are all the unhealthy ones black? I know in part the answer is that it is based on reality--a true story. True, there is a scene in which a not so subtly racist white needles young Michael.

But, I will not dwell on these issues--the story is one of true triumph. It is also one with a message that we really all are responsible for the children we encounter--whether they are black and we are white should not be a barrier to responding to the need.

So, two movies, two families. The Tolstoys totally dysfunctional, the Tuohys totally loving. How ironic that the unhappy family is Tolstoy's--but then, maybe the old man knew exactly what he was talking about. See both movies--they are worth your time.


Anvilcloud said...

Roger Ebert thinks Bullock will win the Oscar.

Anonymous said...

I am thoroughly enjoying these commentaries. We have seen few of the nominees this year, so if I am going to win a pool, I need this! :)

Helen Mirren is so amazing, it would be difficult to imagine anyone outdoing one of her performances. The Queen, Calendar Girls, Gosford Park...loved them all! I'll add this one to my list of Must Sees.

jeanmac said...

Saw Up in the Air and was surprised with the ending.