Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

Good stuff, very low-key and solid storytelling from Cronenberg, probably his least self-consciously arty movie since The Dead Zone. Too bad it's basically getting ignored by the public.
Obviously the best part of the whole movie is the now-infamous naked fight in the bathhouse, it's refreshing to see a famous actor getting thrown around on hard tiles and being able to tell that it's almost certainly really him and not a stuntman on padding. Cronenberg really knows how to get you to feel, viscerally, a fight without relying on the now-trendy shaky handheld camera and a million cuts. That's not to say that I didn't also enjoy the brutal fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum but this one just feels a lot more realistic. More specifically, it fits with Croneneberg's directing style, which has always been much more distanced, observing his characters rather than trying to put the audience into their mindsets, the objective of fight scenes from such directors as Paul Greengrass (to name a good filmmaker) to Michael Bay (to name a bad one).

On the whole this isn't an earthshaking Croneneberg film that is seeking to blow a mental paradigm, like Videodrome or Existenz, or confront you with bizarre imagery, like Crash or Naked Lunch. Instead it's a low-key narrative excursion, well-made but unspectacular. What I do like are the odd details in the corner - especially the implication that Naomi Watts has managed to get what she wants (a baby) through a most curious path, and that Viggo Mortensen, revealed (SPOILER) to be an undercover Russian agent infiltrating the mob, seems at the end of the movie to have been working for his own personal interests all along, settled in as the new London mob boss and answerable to no one. Good stuff.


frankbooth said...

The tiles were probably rubber, but I'm guessing they weren't exactly cushy. And how many actors would roll around naked like that? I'm really looking forward to this part of the making-of special-features doc.

That came out wrong, didn't it? I liked it for the blood, dammit, the manly blood!

I'm getting pretty sick of the ol' shaky-cam myself. There's something to be said for not having to wait for the DVD to slo-mo the fight scenes and see who kicked whom in the what. (Am I the only one who likes Bourne Identity best of the three? Franke Potente's character gave it a humanity the other entries are missing, and I love the scene in the snow with Clive Owen. The apartment fight in Paris is also probably my favorite in the entire series, if only because it was fresh.)

I'm talking about the wrong movie, though. I'm curious to see what you have to say about the ending of EP, particularly


the lack of conventional gangster-flick cathartic mayhem.

Hedwig said...

You're not alone in your preference for Identity: as much as I enjoyed the last installment of the franchise, the first one has a much more personal and compelling plot.

Also, (responding to the SEMI_SPOILER, so beware) what surprised me about the ending of EP is not so much the lack of a catharsis, but the reveal about Nicolai which was, in my opinion, entirely unnecessary and out of the blue.

Jeff McMahon said...

Well it's my blog, so I hereby decree for all time that The Bourne Supremacy is the best of the three. Imagine a series of ornate hand gestures that I'm making in the air to ratify this proclamation. Also I am wearing a fancy proclamation hat.

Seriously though, The Bourne Identity is my least favorite of the three. I don't think Doug Liman makes movies that are about anything except his idea of a good time, by which I mean that he's kind of a hollow filmmaker. I got more emotional impact from Supremacy, plus significantly more interesting filmmaking on top of that.

Re: Eastern Promises, I didn't think the revelation about Nikolai was 'out of the blue', if anything I thought it was too obvious, fro the scene where it was mentioned that the Ukrainian prostitute had been pulled out of the brothel by the cops - by name. I don't think it's 'unnecessary' either because it gets to the notion of identity - who are we and why do we do what we do. Not as complex or ornate as the various secret agents in Naked Lunch, but still.

Yes, the ending of EP is a little anticlimactic, but I guess the big fight scene was enough to compensate.

frankbooth said...

At the risk of being zapped, Time Bandits-style, by the guy in the fancy hat: Jeff, I think you may be taking auteurism a bit too far. If you hadn't been familiar with Liman's other work, or known that Greengrass also made serious-minded films like Bloody Sunday and United 93, would you feel the same way? It's ultimately a moot point, I realize, because we know what we know, and I do the same thing (see the Brad Pitt discussion on CJ's blog.) But still...

Interesting interpretation of the ending. He looked trapped and miserable to me. But that kind of ambiguity is one of the great things about Cronenberg.

I also saw the twist coming. He was asking too many pointed questions in the basement when they were fetching the wine, and also in the sauna just before he was set up. Still not sure how I feel about it overall. I have the feeling D.C. couldn't resist putting a reverse spin on HOV, especially with Viggo in the lead; that is, this time it's a good guy pretending to be a bad one rather than the opposite. The symmetry was too neat to resist.

ps I know you wouldn't zap me. That's the other, evil Jeff.

Jeff McMahon said...

True, we only know what we know, but back in 2002 when The Bourne Identity came out and Doug Liman's body of work only consisted of Swingers and Go, both of which I thought were okay, if overrated, I didn't have anything against the guy, and Bourne Identity still kind of bored me and struck me as a wasted opportunity. And I saw The Bourne Supremacy before I had seen United 93 or Bloody Sunday, so it was a pleasant surprise to see a movie so well-made and emotionally questing.

I thought the end scene of Eastern Promises was a lot like the ending of The Godfather - dark, moody, but our guy is firmly in charge.

Hedwig said...

Hated Mr. and Mrs. Smith that much, huh? I'll cop to enjoying that film, thought I'll grant that Liman's choices don't bode well: his upcoming films are a sci-fi flick called "Jumper" with young Darth in the lead, and the other is a Knight Rider film (they already did that with "Knight Rider 2000". I saw the result. It wasn't pretty.)

Jeff McMahon said...

I think Armond White described Mr & Mrs. Smith pretty well when he wrote in his review something along the lines of 'this is why the terrorists hate us'.

Also, I don't have much respect for a director who makes such a mess of his own movie that it requires the degree of reshooting that M&MS did just to keep it from being incoherent. But it made money, so he gets hired again.

dan said...

i'm surprised how warm and fuzzy everyone is about this one. i had the same reaction that the bathhouse scene was awesome enough to justify the viewing. but beyond that i got a bit annoyed that so much of the rest of the movie was naomi watts reading with a voiceover and marveling at how cool tattoos are. there was some other cool stuff i guess but i got stuck on those.

cjKennedy said...

The bad part about arriving late to a thread is that no one will read what I say, the good part is that I can say whatever I want and I don't have to wear pants.

I liked Mr. & Mrs. Smith damnit! Many of my friends would consider me a film snob but I thought that was good empty fun that put the chemistry of the lovely to look at (if you roll that way) Ms. Jolie and the lovely to look at (if you roll that way) Mr. Pitt.

As for EP, I want to see it again for starters, but also I'm glad a few other people are keying in on some ambiguity with the ending. ***Spoiler*** I'm not convinced the reveal of Nikolai as an agent means he's precisely a good guy.

Jeff McMahon said...

It basically means he works for Putin, is one aspect of what you're saying, I think.

allie said...

I don't think he decided to take over as the new boss really; he was still acting in his undercover capacity. Except now he has the tatts to get him deeper into the crime organization. Or am I wrong? I just don't see how anyone could live in that world and be sort of "grey" -- neither truly good or evil -- unless they were an agent. Otherwise, to deal with that brutality, I would think you'd have to be either in or out.

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