Archive for September, 2007

Eastern Promises (***)

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

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David Cronenberg is one of the most distinctive of modern filmmakers in his vision and style, when you see one of his movies, you know it’s his. People often describe him mostly as a horror film director, which is sort of true, but not really. Yes, many of his more memorable movies such as The Brood, Scanners, The Dead Zone and The Fly could all be called “horror movies,” but that would be negating all the other films he’s made in his great career, films like Crash, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ are a lot harder to file under one specific genre. Then, in 2005 the excellent picture A History of Violence was released, and suddenly David Cronenberg was no longer viewed as a “monster movie” director but rather an auteur (even though he always had been).

I’ve gone to great lengths to prove that Cronenberg should not be labeled as a genre director, that he’s too unique and gifted a filmmaker, and yet, his latest film, Eastern Promises, is definitely a genre film. It’s a gangster movie, through and through. It’s a beautifully made gangster film, with strong performances and many great scenes, but after the complex and harrowing History of Violence, it seems unusual that Cronenberg is playing it so straight.

Eastern Promises centers around a Russian crime family residing in London, a midwife, a newborn baby and her 14 year old dead mother. The film opens with a brutal killing, and is quickly followed by another death, the aforementioned 14 year old. She dies during childbirth, and Anna (Naomi Watts), the midwife who delivered the child, wants to know who she was so that the child can live with her family. The only clues are a diary, written in Russian, that was in the young girl’s possession at the time of her death, and a business card for a restaurant. It is at this restaurant where we are introduced to the other main characters in the film. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Semyon, the owner of the restaurant, who tells Anna that he will translate the diary. Also prominent to the story are Semyon’s son, Kirill (played by Vincent Cassel) and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Most of the film revolves around Anna’s desire to uncover the secrets of the diary, and to protect the baby, and Semyon’s desire to prevent this from happening. The subtle power struggle between crime boss Semyon, his son and Nikolai is also a big part of the story. And, one can’t help but notice the buried feelings between Anna and Nikolai. The film deals with moral codes, trust, lies and secrets in a London that we haven’t in a film for a while: it is dark and dreary, a city made of decomposing buildings and long alleyways that hide what needs to be hidden. Cronenberg has fashioned a crime film that does not glamorize the criminal lifestyle nor make it exciting, his approach could be taken as the Anti-Scorsese. An early scene where a character prepares a body to be dumped makes the point that the gangster lifestyle is a bit of a hassle. Of course, the brutality of this lifestyle also comes into play, in a brilliant knife fight scene that will surely go down as one of the best fight sequences in the last ten or so years. Just brutal.

Viggo Mortensen is a terrific actor. He worked with Cronenberg on History of Violence, and of course, he is best known for his work as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films, and his career is proof that movie stars don’t just pop up over night (he’s been working in movies since 1985.) Mortensen’s Nikolai is a great performance, watch the way Mortensen uses his facial expressions, body language, his presence to sell the character. There is a scene, for example, where he flirts with Anna while he leans against a pole like he owns the city. Naomi Watts plays a character who must hold her own against a world that is strange and threatening to her, she must, to protect the baby, to protect her family, to protect herself.

Armin Mueller-Stahl creates a character who is charming, kindly and frightening at pretty much the same time. Pay close attention to the scene where he asks Anna questions that seem friendly, but are in actuality, closer to threats. Vincent Cassel’s angry man-child thug of a son is a spoiled rich kid who wants to please his father, but is also impulsive and stupid. Sinead Cusack as Anna’s mother and Jerzy Skolimowski as her uncle threaten to steal the movie in their scenes together.

Eastern Promises is a good movie, with elements of greatness. I don’t think it ever quite gets there, but it’s definitely worth a look.

The Brothers Solomon (**)

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

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We saw The Brothers Solomon at a 10:00 o’ clock showing on opening night, and I swear there were eleven other people in the theatre. We sat down and were immediately bombarded with trailers for every dreary PG-13 comedy coming out in the next three months (one, a “Snow White” retelling with Amanda Bynes in the lead I swear is based on an old “Saved by The Bell” episode called “Snow White and the Seven Dorks”). After what seemed like 45 minutes, the film started. Well, what they called the film. This is a really stupid movie, but not entirely in a good way. There are many, many ridiculous and stupid comedies out there I’m proud to say I love, but the good bits in The Brothers Solomon are like tiny islands in a sea of long, drawn out scenes without humor or energy.

If this had been a cast and crew of mostly C list talent, it could have been judged and forgotten about, much like Grandma’s Boy. But, this film was directed by the immensely funny Bob Odenkirk (David Cross’ comic partner on HBO’s wondrous “Mr. Show”) and stars Will Arnett of “Arrested Development” and Will Forte from “Saturday Night Live (who also ‘wrote’ the film). Kristen Wiig (also of “SNL” fame) and Chi McBride lend a hand, as do Lee Majors, another “SNL” alum Bill Hader and Jenna Fischer. These are funny people (well, maybe not Lee Majors so much), so it’s strange that they are so stiff and cardboard here. Arnett and Forte do have a special chemistry, which is sometimes used to great effect, but only sometimes.

I did laugh pretty loud several times in the film’s first hour; Arnett’s attempts to pick up women at a super market, the Solomon Brothers’ trip to the video store to dispute a late fee and Arnett eating a romantic dinner alone in a hall way are probably the funniest moments in the film. Then, somewhere around the 45 minute to one hour mark, it stopped being funny. At all. Before that, at least we had a few moments of hilarity, but man, this film stops dead in its tracks more awkwardly than the climax at the baseball stadium at the end of Anger Management.

I wondered more than once during the film if this is what all comedies will eventually become in the age of YouTube; quick fixes of humor with no focus on plot, situation or character (no offense to YouTube, which I love, but would you pay nine dollars to see what you can see for free?) It comes down to the fact that funny moments in The Brothers Solomon are pummeled to death by the boring, lifeless scenes, which greatly outweigh anything else. Although, Lee Majors saying “Solomon Family on three” is pretty funny.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) (****)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

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Several months ago, I went to some film that I can’t really recall any details of, and there was a preview for the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 western that had starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. “Oh, God,” I muttered to whoever was unlucky enough to have gone to the movies with me that night, “not another remake. Why must Hollywood remake everything? What’s the point? I’m sure it will be terrible.” I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Not only is director James Mangold’s new interpretation one of the best remakes I can remember, but it’s also one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Oh, and yes, as all the reviews are saying, it’s bringing back the Western to its former glory. It also returns to Russell Crowe his former status as “bad ass,” a status which was under great speculation for a few years.

The story concerns Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War and is rapidly losing the respect of his wife (Gretchen Mol) and his eldest son (Logan Lerman). As the film opens, Evans’ barn has been burned down because he hasn’t paid back a local land baron (his youngest son needed medicine) and the baron is planning on stealing his land to make way for the railroad. Meanwhile, feared outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) has just pulled off a daring robbery with his crew of bandits and murderers, including his right-hand man, the simple but vicious Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). Evans and Wade’s paths cross here, and as Evans leads a wounded bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) to town, Wade leaves with Evans’ horses.

Eventually, Wade is caught and Evans is hired by an executive from the railroad (Dallas Roberts) to transport Wade to Yuma, so he can stand trial and be executed for his crimes. Although the film has plenty of action and incredible set pieces (most memorable a rousing escape from a labor camp), the heart of the film is in the relationship between Wade and Evans. In another time, under different circumstances, these two could’ve been friends. Of course, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are two of today’s best leading actors (don’t believe me, rent L.A. Confidential and The Mechanist, and compare them to the performances they give here. These aren’t actors, they’re chameleons). Crowe plays Wade as brilliant and ruthless, a man who follows his own moral and ethical code and also manipulates and deceives others the way some people play the piano. There’s no doubt that Ben Wade is a bad man, but Crowe makes him one of the most likable and watchable bad guys in recent film history. Christian Bale’s part is a little trickier, Evans is a good man, but a lifetime of hardship and bad breaks has turned him harsh and resentful. We feel his anger. With every role Bale takes, he further convinces me that he can play anything.

As with Mangold’s previous film, the excellent Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line, he peppers the film with several memorable supporting performances. Dallas Roberts, who played Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, plays the fussy, proper railroad agent who represents the new order of the West. Alan Tudyk plays Doc Potter, the local veterinarian who doubles as Wade’s personal physician. Peter Fonda is marvelous as the bounty hunter, his throat sounding practically burnt by the sun (and suspiciously Eastwood-ish). Ben Foster, who started out on a silly Disney sitcom in the mid-90s, is slowly becoming a very good actor (you might remember him as the creepiest of the trio of criminals in the Bruce Willis movie Hostage from a few years back). Here, he is a ruthless bastard, and plays it masterfully. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Gretchen Mol (who is both supportive and critical of her husband in her scenes), Logan Lerman, who is also very good as Evans’ eldest and Vinessa Shaw as a bartender who has a few scenes with Wade that suggest his sweeter side. There is also a cameo appearance by a well-known actor who in this film plays a henchman, but I wouldn’t dream of writing who that actor is.

3:10 to Yuma is a rousing action film, a thoughtful study on male bonding and, above all, a great Western. It’s also the best remake since The Departed. Too bad that awful remakes are much more common than great ones.

Shoot ‘Em Up (***)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

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This is a ridiculous movie. Silly, unbelievable, so over-the-top that a new phrase must be coined to take its place. This is the kind of movie that will have you shaking your head about every 30 seconds. That being said, this is a fun movie. Of course, it’s a satire of action movies, but also of macho stereotypes, gun control, political candidates, parenthood and Warner Brothers cartoons. The hero is a carrot-munching, sly wise-acre and the main villain is definitely Fudd-esque. Michael Davis, who directed the sweet and goofy comedy Eight Days a Week about a decade ago, has created a violent, hilarious tribute to action films. Shoot ‘Em Up is everything that the god-awful Smokin’ Aces tried to be.

Clive Owen, the terrific British actor who was robbed an Oscar nomination for last year’s Children of Men, plays Mr. Smith who, as the film, opens is sitting at a bus station in the dead of night eating a carrot (as he will several times during the film). Moments later, a woman runs by screaming, followed by a car full of goons. Smith sits in silence for a second, grumbles to himself and plunges himself headfirst into a plot with an increasingly high body count (all right, Mr. Smith is responsible for a good deal of them).

Basically, Mr. Smith winds up taking care of a baby wanted by several parties, including a presidential candidate (Daniel Pilon) and a cranky hit man named Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti, playing against type beautifully). Turns out the only person Smith can trust is a prostitute called DQ (Monica Bellucci, who seems to be getting better looking with age), wanted by men for her special technique in the bedroom, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the film was the fact that it was willing to go all the way. Many action films that claim to be ridiculous or over the top or extreme cop out,they simply aren’t willing to go the extra mile (like Smokin’ Aces). It’s the ones that refuse to give in, the ones that allow the filmmakers’ vision to take them where they need to go that we remember (I’m thinking of such recent beyond-over-the-top films as Running Scared and Sin City). There is a scene, that takes place in a small hideout as the two leads begin to express their feelings for one another, that combines two standard action movie scenes in a hilarious and ingenious way.

Owen, who is playing a variation of a character he has more or less perfected, so in that way, he is the only person who could have played this role. His casting makes complete sense. Giamatti, on the other hand, is not the first name you would think of to play a threatening hit man, but he makes the role his, by creating an unsettling creature, especially in his interplay with a corpse in the back of his parked car. Bellucci, one of the great beauties of modern day cinema, is not given a lot to do. In the supporting roles, I got a kick of Stephen McHattie as Hammerson, a fire arms manufacturer and gun rights wacko.

I really enjoyed this movie. It’s not great cinema, but it’s a great time at an action movie. It’s probably not for everyone, though. Before you decide whether or not you’d want to see it, ask yourself this question: how do you feel about films featuring men being impaled by carrots?