Archive for the ‘Eastern Promises’ Category

367 – Eastern Promises

January 20, 2008

Any time a new movie is shot in black and white, people use adjectives like “stark” and “realistic” to describe it. Sometimes they’ll combine the two: “stark realism” and so forth. The style is supposed to be evocative of grittier, dirtier times (can anyone imagine a colorized Grapes of Wrath?), times when people kept on keepin’ on as best they could while dealing with the harsh realities of daily life.

The black and white cinematography in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises compares and contrasts the everyday lives of middle-class Londoners with the raw, terror-fueled violence of expatriate Russian gangsters. Additionally, as in other, earlier movies, the truly bloody moments are made all the scarier because of the lack of color; everything feels realer while still seeming authentic. (Not an easy feat; for ultrarealism that seems insincere, try reality television.)

A midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) helps deliver a baby to an unidentified young girl who dies during childbirth; Anna, being a Good Samaritan, decides to try to discover the girl’s family, so that the newborn can live with them instead of slipping away into the red-tape-ridden foster-care system. Aided by a diary found in the girl’s handbag, Anna winds up at a Russian restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who promises to help Anna in her quest by translating the diary from Russian to English.

Meanwhile, a lower-level employee of Semyon named Nikolai (a sensational Viggo Mortensen) is slowly moving his way up the ladder of Semyon’s empire, which is of course not wholly invested in restauranting. Nikolai is one of those marvelously inscrutable figures who knows far more than what he says, which is precious little, in constrast – there’s that word again – with Semyon’s own son, Kirill (an equally wonderful Vincent Cassel), who is boisterous, petulant, and covetous. The film manages to make its audience question Nikolai’s intentions and loyalties; is he merely in this murderous racket for his own gain?

Steven Knight’s screenplay is tight, coarse, and even a bit gruesome; it’s definitely not for the weak of stomach or heart. (A dead man’s fingers are removed in a very early scene, for one thing, and there’s an extended fight scene involving a nude Mortensen in a steam bath.) As with any other suspense thriller worth its salt, there are plenty of plausible twists and turns – but none can be easily foreseen, and they aren’t simply strung together as red herrings designed to just continually shock the audience, which is the sort of thing a younger Cronenberg might have attempted.

All four leads are terrific; Watts is an improvement over Maria Bello, who costarred with Mortensen in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (maybe he’s got something for cute young blonde actresses). But this isn’t one of those innocent-young-heroine-saves the day movies, either. You know the ones. The girl with seemingly no talents, smarts, or powers somehow defeats a tough, organized opponent using only her womanly wiles and spunkiness. No, not here. Anna is intelligent and resourceful, yes, but the real conflict isn’t between her and the evil Russian mafia, it’s a conflict within the crime family itself. The dichotomy between Nikolai, the outsider becoming the boss’s favorite, and Kirill, the son at war with his own inner demons, is richly detailed with a modicum of dialog (mostly Kirill’s). Cassel and Mortensen are so wonderful together, you almost think that their characters ARE brothers instead of one being naturally superior (by birthright) to the other.

Cronenberg’s come a long way since making slasher pics in Canada (this is, in fact, the first of his movies that was filmed entirely outside of Canada); it’s as if he woke up a few years ago and decided he wasn’t going to make any gross-out pics like The Fly, Rabid, Scanners, or Dead Ringers. Coupled with A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is raw, energetic, and stunningly filmed.

***1/2

Summer Movie Preview, Part IV

May 31, 2007

Oh, what the hey, here are some more previews of summer releases. Remember to grab snacks in the lobby, tip your ushers well, and don’t spit if anyone’s watching.

The Invasion (August 17): It’s sort of, but not quite, a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Nicole Kidman plays a shrink who finds out about an alien epidemic and that her son’s somehow connected. Spooky. The movie’s had its share of offscreen troubles, with major rewrites, including a new ending, and maybe that unsettled leadup will be detrimental. Still, it’s Nicole Kidman, whom I like in just about anything. (Am I the only one who liked The Interpreter?) Oh, and Daniel Craig is in it, too. Sounds like a hoot.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday (August 24): Eh, no. I remember watching Bean when it was in theaters ten years ago and openly hooting and booing at the screen. (I may even have thrown something.) I thought it was awful. Oddly enough, though, I’ve enjoyed the Bean shorts I’ve seen. So there you go. This time, Bean (Rowan Atkinson) wins a trip to France, having taken on the USA last time around, and naturally hilarity ensues. Expect a lot of slapstick, certainly, but I wouldn’t expect it to be funny.

The Last Legion (August 24): Did you like 300? That, too, was sort of a historical epic. In this one, a soldier galvanizes a band of legionnaires (watch out for their disease!) to save the Roman emperor. The movie stars Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley and features many manly men. I predict much grunting and sweating.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (August 31): Novel concept here (no, really). It’s set in a strange place where suicides go after they die. Sounds uplifting, right? It’s apparently not as gross or gruesome as the title might imply, focusing instead on relationships. Oh, and there’s a romance. So it’s more than a little offbeat, perhaps too offbeat for mainstream theaters.

Balls of Fury (August 31): Do you like balls in your face? The creators of Reno 911 hope you do. Oh, this one is about ping-pong, you perverts. Or table tennis, whatever. Men who whack little balls and the women who love them. Sounds like it wants to be this year’s Dodgeball. Jumprope: Hanging by a Thread is sure to come next summer.

Death Sentence (August 31): Okay, you can tell we’re long past the Epic Movies of the summer when we get to a loose remake of 1974’s Death Wish. Kevin Bacon plays a guy who systematically kills all the members of a gang that murdered his son. The director of Saw is behind this one, so perhaps we’ll see inventive means of slaughterin’ miscreants. Vigilantism never goes out of style. Still, I don’t believe this one will be all that powerful.

Shoot ‘Em Up (September 7): What the hell kind of title is this? Sounds more like a crappy 1960s spaghetti western to me. But look who’s in it – Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci, and Paul Giamatti. Ok, you had me at Clive Owen. He’s one of those nebulous-morals guys who is good with a gun; Bellucci plays a pregnant prostitute who has a breastfeeding fetish, and Giamatti is the bad guy. Sounds kind of turgid from here. Probably worth seeing for Owen.

Eastern Promises (September 14): Another strange title, but we have us a good director behind it – David Cronenberg. And he has Viggo Mortensen, as a mysterious stranger in London who crosses paths with a saintly midwife, played by Naomi Watts. So can we expect a surprise hit, like A History of Violence? Maybe, if only because Watts is a better actress than Maria Bello. Probably no sex on the stairs with Watts dressed as a cheerleader, though.

The Brave One (September 14): Oh, man, another revenge movie. Jodie Foster is a New York radio talker who seeks revenge for an attack that killed her fiance – and then isn’t sure she’s made the right choice after she’s gone all vigilante on the city. A little late for that, Ms. Foster. Well, for her sake I hope the movie is well received, although we might have reached our revenge quote by September. And it’s too early in the year for a typical Oscar hopeful.