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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Last Station

June 19th, 2010

The Last Station - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The Last Station was one of the final Awards Season contenders to come out this past year. On fact, after a short Oscar qualifying run, it didn't earn a full release till January. Despite earning two Oscar nominations, two Golden Globe nominations, two SAG nominations, and five Independent Spirit Award nominations, its reviews were not exactly award-worthy, while its final box office run was not exactly extraordinary. Now it is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray. Is it an Award-worthy film? Or did it rightly get shut out at the major awards?

The Last Station is set in 1910 Russia at the compound of Leo Tolstoy. By this time, Leo Tolstoy was arguably the most famous man in all of Russia and he'd moved from being a novelist to a spiritual leader. This made him the head of what could legitimately be called a church, but it also made him some enemies. For instance, the state police have put his head acolyte, Vladimir Chertkov, under house arrest. He also alienated others that were closer to home, like his wife, Countess Sofia Tolstaya. Sofia, as a countess, was comfortable with her life, but when Leo decided he should reject material possessions as a way to become spiritually pure, she was not exactly thrilled with his decision. This puts her at odds with his followers, especially Vladimir.

Into this mess walks Valentin Bulgakov, who was recently hired to be Leo Tolstoy's personal secretary by Vladimir Chertkov, but who was also hired by the man to spy on Sofia, whom Vladimir considers an enemy to the movement. He thinks she is working against her husbands interests. When he gets there, he discovers the situation is not quite as he has been lead to believe. After meeting Sofia, she instructs him to spy for her, as she thinks some of his followers, specifically Vladimir, are taking advantage of Leo's old age to sign a new will that would leave her and her children unable to support themselves in the event of his death. He also meets one of Tolstoy's followers, Masha, and begins a relationship with her.

It is important to note that the plot of the movie is secondary to the acting. There is a reason why more than half of the major nominations this film earned were earned by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. And that's not to say the performances by James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, and others are sub-par. The acting throughout this movie is amazing. My only complaint is that the acting is so good that at times it overshadows everything else. The story is a little underwritten and perhaps uneven. Quite frankly, it's sometimes unsympathetic. Leo Tolstoy came across on more than one occasion as a bit of a crackpot and his beliefs are rightfully dismissed. He advocates living in poverty and celibacy, but he is so rich that dressing in peasants' garb hardly distances him from his immense wealth. As for his vow of celibacy, he barely pays lip-service to that. Meanwhile, Vladimir fares even worse and comes across as manipulative or perhaps even a con artist. However, despite this, the performances alone would make this movie worth watching. The script is hardly bad; it is merely weaker than the performances.

On a side note, in the series premiere for 30 Days, Morgan Spurlock spent 30 days living on minimum wage to see how tough it is. One of the points he made was that no matter how hard it was, he knew that in 30 days he would go back to his own life. This made living in poverty more bearable. I was reminded of this while watching the movie. It's easy to take an oath of poverty when at any time you want, you can go back to living like royalty.

I do not have the DVD to review, but it should not be too difficult to figure out what is exclusive and what is not. Both formats have two audio commentary tracks, the first with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, who have as much chemistry in the booth as they do on screen. Absolutely worth checking out. The second has director, Michael Hoffman, pulling solo duty. The first track is better, but we do get more in-depth discussion on the creation of the movie, the filming, etc. Next up are eight minutes of outtakes that include enough curses to truly earn the an R-rating. Strangely,Helen Mirren drops an F-bomb, and then the next line in bleeped. We then get seven deleted scenes with a total running time of 12 minutes. Finally, there is a 19-minute tribute to Christopher Plummer from the AFI Film Fest.

The Blu-ray includes this, and it is BD-Live enabled. The main feature here is the movieIQ trivia track. Since it is attached to the online database, it will be constantly updated, which is an excellent use of the technology, if not very flashy. The technical presentation is fine, but little more than that. This movie cost less than $20 million to make and that could be a mitigating factor here. Regardless, the detail level of the video is adequate, while the colors don't exactly pop off the screen. The sound is somewhat better with clear dialogue, but your surround sound speakers won't get a workout here. The difference in list prices between the DVD and the Blu-ray is just 25%, which is acceptable. But on Amazon the difference in the actual price is completely out of whack.

The Verdict

The Last Station wasn't one of the major players during Awards Season, but it deservedly picked up several nominations for its two stars (and a few others nods as well). Fans of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren will absolutely want to buy this movie, and given the extras on the DVD and the Blu-ray, even if you are not a fan of theirs, it's worth buying over just renting. The Blu-ray doesn't offer a whole lot of exclusive features, so unless you can get it at a discount compared to the list price, the DVD is fine.

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