Monthly Archives: September 2007

Review: Eastern Promises

With 2005’s “A History of Violence”, director David Cronenberg created a huge critical success, his first in years. The film landed on most critics’ top 10 lists and he became a director to watch for a whole new generation of moviegoers. His follow-up “Eastern Promises”, an intense drama about a mystery concerning the Russian Mafia, has been receiving all around praise by most critics and recently won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film deserves the praise and with its recent wide release it is finding itself to be a box office success as well.

The film centers on Nikolai Luzhin, (played by Viggo Mortensen who seems to be a Cronenberg favorite now after his amazing role in “Violence”) a driver moving up the ranks of the Vory V Zakone, one of London’s most infamous organized crime families. The family is fathered by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seemingly kind proprietor of a small Russian restaurant with a brutally unforgiving and cold interior. Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is more outwardly dangerous and evil than his father but has a strong relationship with Nikolai and therefore feels he must train him into the “real” business. But Nikolai’s world begins to deconstruct once he meets midwife Anna (Naomi Watts). Anna has found herself in a dangerous situation. A young teenager dies while giving birth under her care and in an attempt to find the baby’s family through the mother’s diary she gets sucked into the world of the Vory V Zakone. She becomes a major target when she starts asking Nikolai and Semyon too many questions especially when she finds out the secrets of the diary itself. Nikolai must face his feelings between her and his world and find what must be done to ethically preserve everything he’s worked for.

The film definitely has Cronenberg’s signature visceral style. In one scene that lasts about ten minutes Mortensen’s character finds himself completely naked and fighting for his life against two thugs. The scene is not vulgar or awkward but done in a very artistic way that doesn’t offend its audience. A lot of blood is spilt in this film, and Cronenberg does not hold back and in full style he shows everything without going over the edge of taste. In one scene Kirill cuts a man’s throat and instead of just showing the view from behind Vincent Cassel, Cronenberg shows the cut from beginning to end. Still, it doesn’t come across as outwardly disgusting but absolutely necessary. These techniques only make the film (an original story by Stephen Knight) seem more realistic.

Viggo Mortensen’s performance is the reason this film is getting such incredible attention. His character is completely disciplined yet completely dangerous. He doesn’t come across as psychotic, unlike Cassel’s Kirill, but as subdued. There are a few scenes in which Nikolai and Kirill share that show Mortensen’s true talent. As Kirill berates a man, Nikolai just watches with a cool stare that invokes more fear than his partner’s drunken shouting. Like his character in “A History of Violence”, he is not exactly what he seems. Veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl has a similar edge to his character and like Mortensen; he changes from good to bad with ease.

There is really only one downside to “Eastern Promises”: it’s not as strong as its performers. If the film had different actors it wouldn’t have made such an outstanding impression. The film has a strong script and a wonderful vision but just comes off as weaker than its stars. 2005’s “Capote” had a similar problem with relying on the talent of the actors to carry the film. Also like that film’s star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Viggo Mortensen should absolutely receive recognition for his performance later this year during awards season.

While the film isn’t necessarily a conventional film to see in theaters it is a great chance to see something different. “A History of Violence” did not go wide during its release so it is a wonderful opportunity to catch a Cronenberg film, something that doesn’t happen too often. “Eastern Promises” is definitely a film to see. Grade: A-

Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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Trailer: Juno

I remember when this film was first announced, pre-“Superbad” and post-“Thank You For Smoking “and I was very excited. The film is directed by Jason Reitman who directed the latter film with a style that I completely loved. It stars Michael Cera, the beautiful and talented Ellen Page, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Rainn Wilson, and Allison Janney. This is a cast to be excited about, without a doubt. Well… the trailer has only given me hope that this could be one of the best films of the year. It has been collecting amazing buzz since its Toronto Film Festival debut and it comes out this December during awards season. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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DVD Review: The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

One of the best films of 2006 was Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy/historical drama “Pan’s Labyrinth.” That film was slated to win the Oscar for best foreign film and much to the dismay of many Americans (including this film critic), it lost to a fairly unknown German film called “The Lives of Others.” The film is the directorial debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and it is an amazing entrance into the film making world for the young German director.

The film takes place before and right after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Germany and chronicles the relationship between a liberal couple (Georg Dreyman, an author played by Sebastian Koch and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland who is played by Martina Gedeck) and a member of the Stasi or East German secret service agent named Weisler played by the late Ulrich Mühe. Weisler is one of the best agents in the East German secret police, known for his incredible ability to break down “traitors” into telling the truth.

The film opens up with one such interview while Weisler is simultaneously shown teaching a college class of young agents-in-training. One student asks his professor why the tactics are inhumane and Weisler stares at the pupil and then marks the situation in his teacher’s notebook. This guy is very serious and comes off as the obvious villain of the film. At least, that’s what the von Donnersmarck wants us to think.

As the film progresses Weisler is assigned to watch the previously mentioned couple of which his superiors believe are rebels. He taps into their world, hearing everything from their normal conversations, to sex, to their secret meetings. He soon realizes the pain and agony that this couple is going through with the overbearing fear of capture at every corner. Dreyman’s secret plans to let out the word of how terrible the conditions are in addition to Sieland’s involvement with a major East German figure, begin Weisler’s questioning of his beliefs towards his country and his career. The drama throughout the entire film gets more and more intense, especially as the entire plan seems to be in the grasp of the Stasi. Weisler eventually must make an ethical choice and the whole film works out perfectly.

“The Lives of Others” is a film that is impossible to forget. The action rises through much of the film and the major climax hits within the last twenty minutes and at that point the viewer can’t help but be mesmerized. Ulrich Mühe is the standout performer. He doesn’t say a lot in the film but instead acts with his eyes. His character gets lost in this captivating story that he hears through his headphones day and night. Weisler goes from a cold heartless authority to a real and compassionate man. Unfortunately, the actor recently passed on so we will never be able to look forward to a new performance.

This film is a must see, and won the Academy Award for a very good reason. Definitely rent “The Lives of Others” as soon as you possibly can, it is not to be missed by any fan of film. Grade: A

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R.I.P. Luciano Pavarotti

One third, in fact the most famous third, of the Three Tenors has passed away. The Maestro would be very sad. Apparently Pavarotti could kick your ass at table tennis.

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Hotel Chevalier

Along with directing his upcoming film “The Darjeeling Limited”, Wes Anderson has been directed a prequel short entitled “Hotel Chevalier” starring Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman (who also star in the full length feature. Natalie Portman is also reported to be featured nude which has been said about many of her recent movies to much despair (all talk, nothing shown and then said to be on the cutting room floor and then said to be destroyed). This shot is very awesome, due to its beautiful imagery that looks like Anderson meets Godard. I really hope I get to see this, and I really hope that TDL reviews that are coming out of the Venice Film Festival are not a forecast of the film (they hated it).

Here’s an image from the short:

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DVD Review: Cabaret

I’ve always been a big fan of movie adaptations of Broadway musicals especially when the film can stand as a film by itself. “The Producers” was not an example of this, it was just like a filmed version of the show with a few Hollywood stars thrown in for ticket sales. I love “Grease” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” because they still seem like they are Broadway even when they are held as superior on film. 2002’s “Chicago” was a rebirth of the movie musical adaptation, and was held in high regard due to its use of the stage to create musical numbers, not just having the cast burst into song for no reason during lunch. I really didn’t know what I was going into when I rented the 70s classic “Cabaret”, I had just heard that Liza Minnelli was supposed to be fantastic.

The film is not a traditional musical film. Each musical number takes place on the stage of a racy cabaret stage in pre-WWII Germany and that’s all. Liza stars as Sally Bowles, a young performer of said stage who one day wants to become an actress in film. Michael York stars as a man named Ben who has come to Germany to teach English, and finds himself living in the same boarding house as Sally. They quickly become friends and then lovers. York and Minnelli have an odd chemistry, but it is quite believable that these two characters truly love each other, something I attribute to the actors and to the screenwriter who seems to know the pain and suffering of a relationship. No matter how Ben and Sally want to be together, there is a feeling of distance between the two due to their completely different personalities. Liza Minnelli delivers this pain a little stronger than York, who is a great actor but is better at playing a more straight man than an emotional one (when he gets angry, it reminds me of the episode of “Seinfeld” in which Jerry finds out he’s terrible at being mad, emotionally). Liza really does deserve all the praise and awards for this film, especially for her delivery of the titular theme at the end of the film. You can really feel that she is attached to the stage and truly in love.

I watched this DVD about two weeks ago, and the one thing that has been stuck in my head is Joel Grey. His performance of the Emcee is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. I was completely blown away every time he came onto the stage and performed. He stares into the camera and both grabs the audience’s attention and creates a feeling that can’t quite be described. His character is very scary, which is rare for a musical. There is a “flash forward” scene in which Sally thinks about what her life would be like as a mother and Joel Grey’s character just comes of as completely terrifying in it. The make-up and the spot on German accent really blew me away, and I’ve never really felt that about a character in a musical film. While Liza Minnelli is one of the main reasons people watch this film, Joel Grey is the reason why it is a solid musical film that should be celebrated.

The biggest problem I had with the film was its secondary plot. Like I said before, the film takes place in pre-WWII Germany and the rising fear and uneasiness of the Nazi party is a major theme of the film. There were a lot of subplots involving Sally and Ben’s friends who are in love but have issues with their judiasm (he is hiding it from her because he doesn’t want to disprove his manly reputation, even though she is Jewish too). Each scene that tries to address this theme seems out of place and uninteresting against the plot of the cabaret and the love story of Sally and Ben. Towards the end of the film, almost everything is about Nazis when it should be explaining how their relationship is surviving. Each musical scene towards the end metaphorically suggests the political temperature and both the feelings of Sally and Ben but I really didn’t care because I was getting tired of that Nazi subplot.

I really enjoyed the music of the film and I hope to buy the DVD someday because I love it a lot for that music and for the performances. Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey made this film a terrific film, and a wonderful adaptation of a show that I would love to see live (perhaps many of the scenes I didn’t enjoy are not part of the original show). If that subplot hadn’t been so prominent and so boring I would have fully been blown over by this whole film but I wasn’t. I was surprised and impressed by the imitable performances however so I give Cabaret a B+.

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