Thursday, January 17, 2008

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises is the latest David Cronenberg film starring Viggo Mortensen. This director/actor combo teamed up previously on 'A History of Violence' and there are many parallels between the two films.

For starters, each movie received very little ad support and media hype before their theatrical release, but did garner excellent critical reviews across the board. Both films received Golden Globe nominations in the Best Movie - Drama category in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Viggo Mortensen received widespread critical acclaim for his work in A History of Violence, but did not receive a Golden Globe or Oscar nomination that year. In 2008, he has received the same acclaim for his role in Eastern Promises, and was finally rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for the Best Actor - Drama category, however he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis who seems poised to take home an Oscar as well. I became a fan of Viggo Mortensen of course after he played Aragorn in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. He has become one of my favorite actors, and I do look forward to checking out whatever films he ends up playing a role in.

So we have two films with the same lead actor and director at the helm, which receive overwhelming critical acclaim and award nominations while flying under the radar of your typical big budget, Hollywood Oscar-hyped drama. They are also both mafia movies. This equation looks great on paper, but in application both films missed the mark for me. In A History of Violence, you had great potential with a storyline focusing on an ex-mafia hit man finding peace and a family life away from the city, only to be discovered by his still corrupt brother and his old stable-mates. Sure, it has the makings of a soap opera story, but it doesn't need to play out like one. In the case of 'Violence, it did unfortunately seem like Agnes Nixon came up with the third act. Though I did not hate 'Violence, it failed to pull a positive emotional response from me due to the unrealistic decisions some characters make, and the role the son plays in the climax of the movie. I found myself mildly frustrated at the end as opposed to satisfied with my movie watching experience.

In Eastern Promises, we have more of the same, though they did get closer to the mark than in 'Violence. The whole cast did very well, and once again, the first 2/3 of this movie are very well done. I must say though, the violence in this film is brutal. They pull no punches, and it's not for the squeamish. I can't help but think about when 'Kill Bill' was first in theaters that people cried foul over how 'gory' it was. When I saw Kill Bill, I in turn could not believe that people actually found the obviously over-the-top, cartoonish violence to be 'gory' when in reality it was just silly. Think back if you need to, the scene where The Bride chops off Sofie's arm, and Sofie is left flailing around on the floor while a tube of fake blood is spewed out from her stump. That's hilarious. In Eastern Promises, there are scenes that I had to turn away from involving necks, eyes and knives. It was uncomfortable to watch at times. This movie would be listed as having 'realistic gore' if I were on the ratings committee. It in fact made me not want to look at the knives on the kitchen counter, and I now scrunch my face up as I type and think about it. Cronenberg you bastard!

In terms of the story I won't reveal much for those who wish to see it, but I will set it up for you. The movie starts with a gruesome barber shop murder(yes, it starts with some gore) and follows that right up with a bleeding, pregnant, 14-year old girl passing out in a pharmacy looking for help. I was pretty shocked from the start, I squirmed in my seat twice within the first 4 minutes. That's rare for me. We then see the girl being wheeled on a gurney in the hospital where Naomi Watts' character is a nurse in the labor ward. The baby is born, but the mother dies and Naomi finds a diary in the mother's purse. In the diary, she finds a card for a restaurant where she goes to see if she can find someone to identify the dead mother(she had no ID and was passed out the whole time). The restaurant is run by a kindly old Ukrainian man who offers to translate the diary for her, and the story unfolds from there. Like in 'Violence, Viggo is a part of a mafia family and he is forced to choose between being a cold hearted killer or be a nice guy stuck in the middle of a violent, twisted situation. That's all I'll say about the story.

The plot is uneven unfortunately. Just like in 'Violence, there are plot devices that are a bit of a stretch for me to suspend my disbelief for. And again, main characters make questionable decisions, and one of the final scenes just makes me shake my head and say 'Why?' Just like 'Violence had its bit of 'cheese' at the end, so to does Eastern Promises.

For both films, I've settled on a 3 out of 5 star rating on Netflix. It seems weird to write this based on what I've written so far, but I do recommend these movies if you're looking to see them. They are worth watching. They just didn't click for me as much as I wanted and expected them to.

Maybe a third team-up for Cronenberg and Mortensen will net a better result as there was improvement in Eastern Promises.


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