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“The Last Station,” Big Laughs and a Little Anger at Palm Springs Fest Opener

"The Last Station," Big Laughs and a Little Anger at Palm Springs Fest Opener

After the major hoopla over Mariah Carey earlier this week causing a sensation on the Internet and the traditional media during her appearance at its annual Awards Gala on Tuesday night, the Palm Springs International Film Festival settled into the familiar trappings of “festival” with the Opening Night Gala, “The Last Station” by Michael Hoffman. Helen Mirren, who also received PSIFF honors Tuesday night, stars alongside Christopher Plummer in the Sony Classics release about the tumultuous final years of maverick Russian novelist and social reformer, Leo Tolstoy.

Director of Programming Helen du Toit introduced Hoffman as well as co-star Paul Giamatti ahead of the screening. Fellow co-star James McAvoy – who brilliantly plays Tolstoy’s private secretery, Valentin Bulgakov, apparently was marooned on the tarmack aboard a flight from Heathrow because of a snow storm in the U.K., so he was unable to make it to sunny Palm Springs.

“I read the book again [after some years] and I saw immediately what the movie could be,” Hoffman said on stage at the Palm Springs High School Auditorium referencing the novel of the same name by Jay Parini. “It’s about the relationships in our lives and those who keep us going…” Hoffman mentioned to laughs that Christopher Plummer, who portrays Tolstoy, initially seemed intimidated taking on the character.

“Chris said to me, ‘how can I play an icon?’ and I told him, ‘because, Chris, you are an icon…'”

Afterward at the Gala Party at the nearby Palm Springs Art Museum, one Palm Springs Film Society member – the group that organizes the annual festival – told me that the film was perfect for the local audience. “It’s smart but accessible – not too arty like some years [in the past],” she said.

“The Last Station” director Michael Hoffman with Palm Springs International Film Festival Director Darryl Macdonald at the festival’s Opening Night Gala Thursday night. Image courtesy of PSIFF.

So all in all, a good official opening for the festival, but organizers were still reeling with glee over the Mariah Carey acceptance speech earlier in the week, which brought unpredented media attention to the festival.

“The success of the festival and awards gala would have been unimaginable just a few years ago,” said Palm Springs International Film Society Chairman Harold Matzner who also praised his board. “Tuesday’s awards were covered – maybe not as much as the Oscars – but lile the Golden Globes,” he continued to laughs. “Mariah Carey added a billion impressions for us. That would’ve been like $40 million worth of advertising. I guess we should wait a week before drinking the local water…,” he said to more laughs, referencing the pop superstar’s champagne-laced acceptance speech days earlier.

Aside from the levity of the Awards Gala, organizers were also clearly seething in the wake of the sudden withdraw of two Chinese films, “City of Life and Death” and “Quick, Quick, Slow” because the festival had programmed a pro-Dalai Lama film, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom.”

Festival Director Darryl Macdonald said Thursday evening that he had been contacted by Chinese officials who asked him to remove the film. “The request later turned into demands,” he said. “But we were determined to maintain our artistic autonomy.” Added Chairman Harold Matzner. “Even if it had been 50 films, we would’ve [taken out] 50 films…”

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