February 1, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Eastern Promises

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Eastern Promises (2007)
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by David Cronenberg

Among those of us who enjoy taking wide and long looks at the arts and culture, there is a certain special satisfaction out of looking at the entire career of a long-time artist, examining the ways their projects both stayed the same and changed from year to year, from one period of history to the next. This is particularly easy to do with filmmakers, in fact, due to the schedule involved; a dedicated one can pump out a great movie every twelve months if they want, giving many directors a total ouevre of 20 or 30 major projects by the time they retire. (This is opposed to a novelist, say, who in general requires much longer time periods to put out truly great full-length books.) It's why movie buffs can get so focused on a particular director or screenwriter, why posters and trailers will often end with "A film by..." -- because within this particular medium, it's relatively easy for a committed artist to put out a dozen films in a dozen years if they want, making a comparison of these films among their fans inevitable.

Eastern Promises

And indeed, after now watching horror master David Cronenberg's latest brilliant, Oscar-nominated film, last year's Eastern Promises with Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen, I'm reminded of what can sometimes be so fun and fascinating about studying a particular filmmaker; and that's examining the ways they might change what they have to say over the course of years and decades, but continue a similar way of saying it, as well as a consistent set of attitudes determining what's being said in the first place. If you want to think of it in a simpler way, just envision the idea of an artist's "phases;" the way that Martin Scorsese, for example, created a series of gritty urban dramas as a young man, then a series of sweeping genre experiments in middle age, and now lately a series of lush, big-budget historical epics in the winter of his career, all while still using similar camera angles and color schemes and even cast and crew from production to production. You can plot a similar arc with Cronenberg, in fact, and this film fits right into the story that has been developing with such other recent films as Spider and A History of Violence; of a man absolutely on top of his form these days, a bold and experimental artist who survived the turmoil and controversies of his youth, just to blossom in middle age into the kind of maestro who people eventually write entire dissertations about.

Eastern Promises

Because let's be honest, this is certainly not the place that Cronenberg's fans thought he'd end up, back in the '70s and early-'80s when he was putting out such disturbing and bloody genre pieces as Rabid, The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome, ostensible "horror" movies that were all so shockingly unique in look and feel, an entire new term called "The New Flesh" had to be coined for it. (The term eventually expanded into one called "body horror;" it now includes such other genre-hopping mavericks as Guillermo del Toro and Clive Barker.) Believe it or not, I myself saw Videodrome on cable not long after it first came out in 1983, when I was fourteen years old, my first-ever exposure to Cronenberg and the movie that made me a lifelong fan; and what I liked about it and other Cronenberg films back then, as was the case with most of his fans back then, was the precise horror elements that made his films so weird and controversial in the first place. There was just something about his films that were so distinctive, the way he combined these arresting visual images with subversive tales of alternative, secret societies, a bubbling and dark world just under or above or next to the "vanilla" one most of us inhabit most of the time.

Eastern Promises

Given how masterful he was at this, it can be understood why some of his fans would object to Cronenberg slowly changing his focus throughout the rest of the '80s, starting with such genre pieces as The Dead Zone and The Fly that expanded the humanity of Cronenberg's plots to a level they had never been at before, then eventually sliding into literal non-genre work, so-called "mainstream" films such as Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers (which I've reviewed here in the past as well), where you don't necessarily have to be a subscriber of Fangoria to be a fan. But really, if you stop and examine all of these films I just mentioned, you'll see that the things Cronenberg wants to get across as an artist are still all consistently there: the concentration on secret worlds that exist all around us, the concentration on body functions and body mutilation, even the things that his critics mention about him like a marked sense of misogyny. Not to mention, from a pure formalist standpoint, you can track similarities from movie to movie when it comes to Cronenberg the visual artist; the concentration on ornamental detail, the lush palette of colors he always chooses, the anachronistic details of any given society or time period that he so likes to hover on while filming.

Eastern Promises

Since the mid-'90s, then, you could argue that Cronenberg has been on a Hitchcockian quest as a filmmaker; that is, to make a series of movies that straddle the fine line between genre experimentation and big-budget mainstream popularity, films that ultimately are an intimate statement by the artist himself but that also entertainingly reflect the times in which we live. There is M. Butterfly, for example, based on the Sondheim musical; Crash, based on the Ballard novel; eXistenZ, which in 1999 posited a world in which super-powerful gaming computers are made out of biological parts, and players must get elective surgery in order to be able to interface with the consoles and play. And then there was 2005's A History of Violence, a film that changed everything for Cronenberg; his first movie to become a wide crossover hit among multiple types of audiences, his first to receive serious Oscar talk, the first to start getting him legitimately compared to Hitchcock himself, as well as such other famous crossover directors from the past as Billy Wilder.

Eastern Promises

And now we have Eastern Promises, his latest, which people are going even crazier for than the movies already mentioned, which itself has received Oscar nominations for this year's ceremony, and has made lots and lots of top-ten lists for 2007. And it's easy to see why, after you watch the movie itself; it is truly the work of a master at the absolute top of his game, a movie that effortlessly deals with all the issues Cronenberg examines in every movie but without once ever calling attention to themselves. It is ostensibly a crime thriller, but it is so much more -- an examination of Russian society as well, a look at its criminal system, a musing on what it must be like to literally tattoo one's life story on one's body, so that anyone in public can glance at it and see all the sins and crimes you've ever been guilty of. It's not only one of the best-looking movies I've seen in years, but also one that pulls the most out of all its cast members, including a nearly unrecognizable Mortensen channeling the spirit of a dim-witted Russian heavy so flawlessly as to be stunning.

Eastern Promises

And in fact, not withstanding the storyline itself, which is best left as secret as possible before viewing, I can safely say that the most interesting thing about Eastern Promises is the way you can see all the usual "Cronenbergisms" at work here, even with the plot itself as well as its setting being wildly different than anything Cronenberg has taken on before; to cite just one terrific example, the way he is able to transform an old-fashioned Russian expat restaurant in a dark side building in London into a glittering display of opulence and old-world sensibility, in effect creating yet one more fantastical secret world that curiously exists among us in plain sight, just like in all his other movies. It is a real treat for the Cronenberg fan to pay attention to, while not being necessary at all for those who are new to his work, being able to pick apart all the various elements of this film and see how they directly relate to his past projects.

Eastern Promises

I don't want to say much else, to tell you the truth, since this is a much more recent film than I usually review, and I know there's a lot of people who still haven't seen it; as I mentioned, an ignorance of the plot is crucial for enjoying the movie, and if you haven't seen it yet I would encourage you stay away from most traditional reviews of the film until you have. That said, I highly recommend that you see this film, especially in that Mortensen is up for a Best Actor Oscar at this year's awards; it's always a lovely thing, I think, when one has a chance to see award-nominated films on DVD before the awards themselves are given out. Needless to say, it's a must-see for any Cronenberg fan, with it sure not to disappoint despite the radical change in storyline and setting; and as long as you're okay with occasional scenes of extremely graphic violence, I encourage all you Cronenberg newbies to see it as well, and then to start going back to his older work once you're done. He's an infinitely interesting artist, I think, someone I've been following for decades now and have never been disappointed by; I'm very glad to see his career take the direction it recently has, a fully mature artist taking full command of all his facilities. I can't wait to see what he has for us next.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.4
Acting: 9.9
Directing: 9.8
Cinematography: 9.8
Overall: 9.7

Random notes:
--Of the 16 full-length features Cronenberg has now made, this was the first to be filmed entirely outside of Canada.

--Wondering how Mortensen was able to channel the spirit of a Russian peasant criminal so thoroughly? Well, he not only read up on that country's criminal system, not only worked on a Siberian dialect with a professional coach, but also spent several weeks driving alone through the Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ural Mountain areas, without a translator.

Eastern Promises

--And speaking of Mortensen, turns out that his tattoos were so real in design and look, one evening while out eating he shocked a tableful of real Russians next to him into silence. After the experience, he then washed off the tattoos anytime during shooting that he went out at night.

Best viewed: As part of a giant-ass weekend Cronenberg marathon, in actuality a flimsy excuse to show off the new high-definition television you just got for Christmas. Yeah, like you need another excuse!

Next on my queue list: Zodiac, David Fincher's most recent film, concerning the infamous real serial killer in 1970s San Francisco. And don't forget, reviews of The Simpsons Movie, The Naked City and THX 1138 are coming soon as well.

Read even more about Eastern Promises: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:19 PM, February 1, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |