Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Saw IV

The Saw films are something of an anomaly. They aren’t well made, well acted, or well crafted at all. Yet, year after year they are released and they always make a great deal of money. The films also single-handedly kicked off a new genre of film, torture porn. Without Saw you get no Hostel, no Captivity, and so on.

I think I go to these movies based more on tradition and the fact that, four years ago on Halloween weekend, I walked into the original Saw not expecting much. Saw was made for 1.2 million dollars and grossed over 55 million in the United States. It made sense. I was genuinely intrigued by the creepy film, shot mostly in one room. Using mind tricks as a substitute for excessive gore.

Saw IV falls much into the same realm as the two before it. Parts II and III were tired and uninteresting. And while some of the killings seemed like fresh, new ideas, I always remind myself what I am watching, and that tends to ruin the film for me.

If you’re a fan, you know Jigsaw, the mastermind behind the elaborate mutilations was killed in part III along with his whacko sidekick. Well don’t worry, part IV is much of the Saw same, with plenty of shootings, stabbings, open brains, blood and guts to fulfill your needs (if you’re into that sort of thing).

I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite. Do I enjoy these movies? No. Is one better than the other? No. Do I go to them? Of course. Why? I have no idea. If Saw has just stayed Saw by itself, with no sequels, I think it would be remembered as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But now it has become jumbled with the mess that has followed. But don’t get me wrong, when part V makes its way to the screen next Halloween weekend, I’ll be one of the first in line. Why ruin a perfectly torturous tradition? Saw: A-, Saw II: C, Saw III: D+, Saw IV: D

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Most films cut away after something big happens. A funny line, a dramatic revelation, or even a gun shot can act as a director’s tool to keep the audience on edge. If used well, this can be a startling effect. It is rare, however, to see a film that stays in the moment. A film that is so purposely slow paced that it remains in a scene, through its entirety. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik uses this plot device to fuel his breathtaking film.

If the characters are called in to dinner, plan to be at the table through the whole meal. If a man is trying to seduce a married woman, plan to see the complete seduction unfold before your eyes. That is what makes the film so originally thrilling, Dominik’s interest in the very fine, mundane details surrounding those big climatic moments.

Another device Dominik uses well is plot, mostly because there isn’t one. Jesse James is a film about story, and while the characters do things, they aren’t all reaching for one big feat. There’s no tracking down a pile of money, or planning a huge robbery. The film is set on following Jesse James through his last months, while beginning and ending several friendships.

Brad Pitt exceeds his career-high performance in last year’s Babel, as the iconic criminal, Jesse James. Pitt is remarkable to watch, you’ll forget the tabloid-printed face that you see every day. Pitt exemplifies a historical figure and makes him human. Dominik isn’t trying to get you to like him. He’ll show James for what he is worth. Cracking jokes one minute, and then spinning into an impulsive, mad rage the next, Pitt is convincing every step of the way. He gives James an unpredictability that will keep you guessing in every scene. It is a flawless performance, the best in an underrated career.

Equally as talented is Casey Affleck, who plays the man that became so entranced with James, he eventually killed him. Affleck gives the young Robert Ford a quiver with each word. His cracking voice personifies a uniquely built character. A dinner-table scene in which Ford recounts the similarities between he and James is creepily mesmerizing, all due to Affleck. With Jesse James and last week’s Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has proved that he is the more qualified actor in his family. It would be a sin to forget him come Oscar season.

Dominik’s only other directorial effort was the brilliant indie, Chopper. Made in 2000, Chopper is a startling true story about madman Mark “Chopper” Read, who actually cut off his own ears to get moved to a different ward while in prison. Both Chopper and Jesse James are about violent criminals who are immortalized. Although the films don’t fit an equal setting, they are both great, with Jesse James as an incredible seven-year-later, sophomore effort.

Nothing is forced in the film, every frame is deliberate. Skilled bits of narration taken from Ron Hansen’s book of the same name, and wonderfully fitting score from Nick Cave help to make this a modern day masterpiece.

The film is shot by the masterful Roger Deakins. Earlier this year, Deakins made hallways seem intimidating with In the Valley of Elah. Here he uses extended shots of the vast, wide open plains of the west to leave his stamp of perfection on the film. Deakins highlights Jesse James with subtle, yellow hues. But once snow begins to fall you will shiver in the way he lights a room using cold, blue tones. In a brilliant, five-time Oscar nominated career, Jesse James is his most illustrious film. Deakins can be added to the likes of Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) and the late Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty) as one of the most influential men behind the camera. With Elah, Jesse James and November’s No Country for Old Men, Deakins will have one hell of a hat-trick in 2007, while firmly cementing his role as one of the best living men looking through a lens.

Dominik does a great thing in the final moments of the film. And although I’ll never reveal the scenes, I am only thankful that he learned to stay in the moment. Staying with the story, even after you think it has finished. A+

Monday, October 29, 2007

Rendition

Our post-9/11 cinema is becoming full of Middle East-set war films. Some have hit (In the Valley of Elah) others have missed (The Kingdom) and plenty more are to come. We’ve got a trend. Good or bad, none of these movies are making a great deal of money at the box office. Are people not interested? Are they not ready? Do they want to see films about a war that hasn’t even ended yet? As escapist art, how long can this trend last?

Based on Rendition, the latest film to fit the bill, this film genre is dead on arrival. Rendition tries (and believe me, it tries) to be a good film, but not even a powerhouse of a cast can save it. The movie must have looked great on paper, getting Oscar-celebrated names like Gyllenhaal, Witherspoon, Streep, and Arkin to fill the poster. But the immensely talented cast isn’t given enough to do, being provided with stiff words and tired actions to fill the dull film.

After conducting business in South Africa, Jeremy (Armis Knight) is taken at an American airport and flown back to a foreign country (the meaning of rendition) to be interrogated (tortured). Streep and others at the CIA think Jeremy may have information about a suicide bombing that has just occurred in a foreign land. Gyllenhaal plays the rookie state department officer who sits in on the questioning (torture) of Jeremy.

Jeremy’s very pregnant wife Isabella (Witherspoon) starts her own investigation, trying to track down her missing husband. She gets closer to the truth with the help of an ex-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) and his connection with a powerful senator (Arkin).

All the while, there is a boring subplot involving a young man who may have been involved with the bombing and his trysts with the daughter of the man officially in charge of doing the questioning (torture) of Jeremy.

The countless torture scenes drive the meaning of the film a little too hard. Rendition makes its point but it doesn’t keep attention.

I learned back in Reservoir Dogs that if you torture someone for long enough, they are going to tell you whatever you want to hear, and it’s no surprise when that happens in this film. Rendition does have a few good points. Gyllenhaal does well at hitting his so-depressed-that-I’m-watching-the-brutalization-so-I-must-drink mark. The film also has a remarkable little twist of an ending, in which I sat, genuinely shocked, aimlessly trying to piece it together in my head. But that is all but ruined when it is completely spoon-fed to you. If the intention of such films is to make audiences think and then realize and then empathize, don’t you suppose we’re capable of figuring it out on our own? C-

Things We Lost In the Fire

Benicio Del Toro is one of the best actors of his generation. Or any generation for that matter. If he had stared in silent films decades ago, he would have been a star. It’s amazing to see how much the camera agrees with his face. His crinkled forehead and his baggy eyes can stress emotion more than any word. From his humorous, star-making turn in The Usual Suspects, to his breathtaking, Oscar-winning role in Traffic, the man is a significantly reliable star.

He’s also the best thing about his new movie, Things We Lost In the Fire, a film from Danish director, Susanne Bier. Although Halle Berry earns top billing, it’s Del Toro that steals the film. Berry plays Audrey, a recently widowed woman who begins to form a friendship with her husband’s best friend, Jerry, who Audrey has hated for years. Jerry lives in the slums of town, trying to feed his heroin addiction. Audrey disapproves when her royal husband Steven (a consistently useful David Duchovny) visits Jerry occasionally, trying to rekindle some of their childhood friendship.

After Steven is shot dead running a family errand, Audrey loses herself to loneliness. With two kids to support, she becomes entangled with the simple things. Cleaning up toys, eating breakfast, every undemanding task becomes a troublesome chore. Audrey asks Jerry to come and shack up in the garage of her lavish home. He tries to stay clean, helps with the kids around the house, and forms relationships all around.

From here on Audrey and Jerry will grow on each other and eventually fall in love. Wrong. Fire avoids most clich├ęs and presents itself as a powerful character study on loss and life. Bier does a great job examining every aspect of the grieving process through Audrey, with some initial denial, several bits of anger (mostly geared toward Jerry), bargaining with Jerry’s company, being depressed over her loss and, thankfully, some harrowing acceptance.

Not since Traffic have Narcotics Anonymous meetings been portrayed with such harsh authenticity. The crowded circles and smoked-filled air present memorable moments of haunting struggle.

The film does suffer a few troublesome flaws. Bier uses an annoying amount of extreme close-ups on her characters. You’ll think you are in optometrist, conducting a few too many eye exams. There is also a distractingly out of place scene in which Audrey tells Jerry that she craves something. Berry stretches a little too hard to reach her Monster’s Ball ferociousness, and the scene plays out as an unbelievable mess.

The film is ultimately saved with every other interaction between Berry and Del Toro. Their first moment on screen together is the highlight of the film, nothing short of incredible, they say very little, their pain is immeasurable. But it is Del Toro commanding a fearless, gut wrenching performance (he sets a new standard for the detox scene) that remains etched into my head.

Things We Lost in the Fire has the good fortune of being scored with themes from the great Gustavo Santaolalla (who, with Babel, proved how effortlessly film and music can harmoniously merge). The music helps to illuminate the film’s tenderness. The flawless delivery of the final lines moved me to tears. I’ll never tell what they are but the words are repeated several times and with each repetition, the entire meaning of the film is beautifully reiterated. A

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Boston has been a popular setting choice in recent cinema. Mystic River and The Departed have taught audiences that Beantown itself can act as a central character. A landscape shot of the city is proving to be more powerful than that of L.A. or New York.

Gone Baby Gone has that wonderful quality. Its opening shots establish the rich, city culture and a rugged authenticity. Director Ben Affleck (you read that right) also co-wrote the screenplay for his new, powerfully engrossing drama. It appears that Affleck has been taking notes while working with all those great directors. He directs his passion piece with an original style, working steady wonders with his camera and leaving the musical score subtle.

Affleck, a Boston native, makes another good decision in casting his younger brother, Casey, in the lead role. C. Affleck has been that great actor in the background, on the sidelines, sneaking in those perfect lines. Who can forget his whining for a double burger in Good Will Hunting, or his constant bickering with Scott Caan in the Ocean films? Here Casey Affleck is a revelation. His star-making performance as Patrick, a young, fearless, private detective, is thrillingly bold. (I imagine much of the same in the upcoming The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

B. Affleck adapts Dennis Lahane’s novel about two PI’s who have been hired by relatives of a young girl who has gone missing. Simple enough, right? The story thickens from there, with plenty of thugs, drug dealers, good cops, and bad cops to fulfill your Friday night desires.

Michelle Monaghan is another actor who has yet to get her dues. Usually overshadowed by bigger names, she shines in the role of C. Affleck’s girlfriend/partner. Monaghan’s Angie brings a much-needed sense of “wake-the-hell-up” to Patrick’s stubborn, always right attitude.

Ed Harris is the police detective assigned to find the girl and Morgan Freeman plays a police captain. Harris is an actor of impeccable range, a scene outside of a hospital should earn him a supporting actor nomination. The man does not know how to give a bad performance. It’s good to see Freeman stretching a little bit. We thankfully get no warming Morgan Freeman narration, which was beginning to seem like a contract clause.

Amy Ryan, best known for her work on HBO’s The Wire, is miraculous as the missing girls’ mother. In a role that is typically given several teary confessions, Ryan does an incredible job avoiding formula, as a woman who is too involved with her party lifestyle to really care about what has happened. She has at least one scene with all the major acting players, and she boldly steals them all, her name should surely top Oscar’s list right now.

The film may suffer one too many twists but it remains a seriously engrossing piece of work. Bound to draw comparisons to those other, better, Boston set movies (especially Mystic, another Lehane novel) Gone Baby Gone is a film of great suspense, jaw-dropping turns and authentic acting. Ben Affleck not only directs the film like a genuine pro, he just may have boosted is younger brother up to A-list status.

There is a great moral dilemma posed at the end of the movie, and although I’ll never tell what it is, I only hope it stirs conversation and thought, long after you leave the theatre. A-

Sunday, October 21, 2007

We Own the Night

Writer/Director James Gray once crafted a fresh, bold film about the bonds of family and the turmoil of crime. Staring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, the film was a great little twist of drama. The Yards was Gray’s last directorial effort. His new film, We Own the Night lacks his previous films’ fearless creativity. The Yards was a well-received, little-seen, piece of independent film heaven. Those who remember it may think they are getting much of the same here. And those who have seen both, will most likely prefer the former.

Night is about two brothers, the popular, nightclub manager Bobby (Phoenix) and the stern, all business cop, Joseph (Wahlberg). Bobby dapples with drugs, gets the girls, runs a 24/7 party lifestyle and rarely manages to see his family. He spends more time at the home of the old, Russian owner of his nightclub, than he does at his brother’s promotional dinner.

The brothers have nothing in common and don’t get along. Their veteran cop dad (Robert Duvall) continually takes Joseph’s side and constantly judges Bobby. After Joseph busts Bobby’s club, it’s all melodrama from there. For those of you who are interested, I won’t reveal the many obvious “surprises” that Gray has in store.
Night tries to be a good movie and in some scenes, it succeeds. But overall, it’s a confusing, contradicting thriller. Phoenix and Wahlberg are both in the top of their acting game right now, but they aren’t given much to do here. Wahlberg’s Joseph is too much like his last screen role in The Departed. But where he shinned in that movie with his perfect timing and scene stealing moments, his character in Night falls flat. Phoenix makes the best of his many scenes, but he isn’t given proper words to fill the emotion. (I hope his talents are used to their limits in the upcoming Reservation Road.)

But on the other side of the spectrum you have a great Duvall, in an angry, gruff performance. This isn’t a Duvall we get to see often and he does good things with it. Eva Mendes, as Bobby’s loyal girlfriend, is wonderful as well. She tackles this throwaway role with great complexity. Mendes’ sexuality has carried her for most of her career, but here, she’s not only using her allure as a weapon, but she manages to stray away from formula, acting as Bobby’s true lover, not a typical two-timer. Night is by far her best role to date.

Great lines (“Better to be judged by 12, than carried by 6”) are outnumbered with basic, boring ones. Original, thrilling direction, (a simply miraculous car chase/shootout in the pouring rain), are forgotten among the multiple party scenes and the in-your-face soundtrack (Okay, I get it, it’s the ‘80s). Other moments, including a wire-tapped drug deal and a shootout in very tall grass, are just too normal. Gray wants to make a good film, and at times it even appears to be, but haven’t we seen this all before? C+

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Clayton

Remember when Redford and Hoffman rolled back and fourth in their chairs, phones attached to their necks, working that newsroom? When Peter Finch was as mad as hell? When Jack found out about Chinatown? When Hackman chased trains with his car? When three desperate men needed a bigger boat? When Pachino yelled Attica, De Niro had a Mohawk and Brando made offers you couldn’t refuse? Those brilliant films of the ‘70s formulated suspense. They were the prototype of the smart, adult, thriller. Michael Clayton, a brilliant spectacle of a film, is the ultimate throwback to the ‘70s.

Clayton, is a perfect film. Powerful direction, an enthralling narrative, a fresh screenplay with endless amounts of addictive dialogue, rapid cinematography and some of the most remarkable acting of the year.

George Clooney, shedding that Danny Ocean bravado, plays the title character. He works as a “fixer” for a top New York law firm. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he assures a desperate client, “I’m a janitor.” He cleans up the messes that are caused, or will cause the firm any harm.

When the lead litigator of a 3 billion class-action law suit, strips naked in a deposition and runs bare-assed in a snowy parking lot, Clayton is sent to sterilize the mess. Star lawyer Arthur Edens (a miraculous Tom Wilkinson) is off his meds and appears to be losing his grasp on reality. But beneath his constant rambling, he may be on to something. He’s spent the last six years defending U-North, a company that manufactures a weed killer, which Edens has discovered has been the result of hundreds of deaths on American farms.

Clayton’s job is to keep his old pal quiet and medicated. Their arguments are battles of stalemate intelligence, each with their own seemingly logical perspectives on the situation. Wilkinson, an actor of consistent excellence, presents Edens as a tortured but compassionate soul. A lot rests on Wilkinson’s shoulders for the film to work and he exceeds with whimsical intensity.

The convoluted plot doesn’t nearly end there. Tinda Swinton plays a U-North consultant who takes matters into her own hands, hiring a couple of 21st century goons to tail Edens. Her Karen Crowder rehearses simple speeches to herself, sets out her power suits on her bed and wears her pearl necklace with a villainous glow. Here, Swinton is a revelation. An independent film Goddess, Swinton brings her subtle, controlled beauty to a role of fear and moral anxiety. You’ve never seen someone really sweat until she’s panicked in a bathroom stall.

Sydney Pollack, a great Hollywood multi-tasker, delivers his best acting performance to date as Clayton’s ethically-lacking boss. Pollack’s opening scene sets a beautiful tone for not only his character, but the film itself. You’ll love the way he calmly tells a reporter that her deadline has already passed. He brings a surprising bit of comic relief to the heavy-handed film. Try not to laugh when he casually calls a co-worker an asshole.

First time director Tony Gilroy, has already proved his talent with his screenwriting (The Devil’s Advocate, all three Bourne films). Clayton is by far his most intriguing script yet and with some help from a team of powerhouse producers- Clooney, Pollack, Anthony Minghella and Steven Soderbergh- Gilroy directs his complicated film into a modern day masterpiece. The cinematography is tight and smooth, straight from the book of Bourne. The music, from vet James Newton Howard, is crisp and commanding. Gilroy demonstrates how useful editing can be, teasing us just enough in the beginning of the film, only to have it come back full circle and still manage to shock us.

The film’s true wonder is that of Clayton himself. Picture after picture, George Clooney has won people over with his remarkable charm. His Oscar winning role in Syriana was a marvel to experience. Expect much of the same here. Clooney ditches his God-given charisma for a man who has deep-seeded issues and lives in a constant state of strife. A guy who resents what he does, only gets his son on Saturdays, has an unhealthy knack for cards and is in loads of debt because of his junkie brother. He doesn’t smile much and he doesn’t woo you with his smooth talkin’ voice, he speaks every line with his eyes and scruffy demeanor.

Every Oscar winning acting performance has that scene. A scene that put them over the edge of the competition, that got them the gold. From Denzel’s tear, to Sean Penn’s animalistic cries for his daughter, to Halle Berry stripping herself down to desperate passion, and so on. Clooney gets that scene here, and although I’d never tell exactly which moment it is, I only hope that you can distinguish it amongst several breathtaking ones. Gilroy gives Clayton several chances to be memorable and Clooney nails each one. From his first moment on screen, sinking away at a card table, to a significant, and rather inspiring closing credits, Clooney will have you convinced.

In a wondrous climatic moment with Swinton, Clooney proves that Clayton can be a miracle worker. So well in fact that for years to come, people will be putting the scene on a list similar to the one mentioned above. So fun, it’s impossible to forget. A truly outstanding film, which will make adults reminisce about the good ol’ days. When movies did more than just entertain, they thrilled and stirred thought, without you even knowing it. A+

Monday, October 15, 2007

Interview

Steve Buscemi is one of the best actors around. Think about it, I mean the guy is weird lookin’ (I dunno, just weird lookin’). He has an odd sounding voice and is instantly recognizable, and still he has yet to be typecast as the weird looking, odd sounding, very familiar, guy. With each role, he brings his quirky antics along with a strong dose of some serious acting. He uses his aesthetic flaws to build each of his characters and make them, usually, unforgettable. Who can’t remember his comically brilliant arguing in Reservoir Dogs? His casual psycho in Con Air? His constant degrading in The Big Lebowski? His creepily eerie turn in The Sopranos? And so on.

On occasion, Buscemi directs as well. His latest feat, Interview, is an enchanting wonder of a film, laced with his oddball sense of humor. Buscemi is Pierre, a political journalist who has been assigned, for reasons he cannot figure out, to do a personality profile on the “it” actress, Katya. Pierre is pissed. He would rather been in D.C. covering the latest shitstorm that has erupted there. But no, instead he is stuck in a trendy part of New York, waiting for the one-named, no talent “actress” to waltz into the restaurant where they are meeting.

She shows up (finally) and it’s all down hill from there. Katya is offended that Pierre knows nothing about her. He’s never seen one of her films and he doesn’t pick up the tabloids much. The dinner interview only lasts a couple minutes, after a few harsh words are thrown back and fourth.

Instead of wasting time on plot, I’ll just say that Pierre ends up at Katya’s nearby loft where the remainder of the film is spent. From then on, Buscemi does an incredible job of stripping away layer after protective layer that each of the characters has developed over the years. He keeps revealing more and more with each addictive scene.

Pierre asks Katya inane questions, she playfully dismisses them. They drink (a lot), she smokes (a lot), some coke is dabbled with, words fly, tempers swell, they dance, they laugh, they cry and it’s all delightful.

Think Sienna Miller can’t act? Joke’s on you. What Buscemi has done is cast an actress who is represented, in reality, the same way Katya is. Miller, best known for being cheated on by Jude Law, is a good actress. Such has been the case in films like Layer Cake and Factory Girl, but it is here that her breakout will be forever remembered. Miller embodies Katya to the fullest extent. After showing Pierre the different ways to cry for the camera, you’ll completely believe Miller when she later breaks down in a brutal confession. Her raw performance is one of the best by an actress this year.

Interview is a great film to listen to. The conversations are wonderfully scripted by Buscemi, who affirms his capability of writing and directing. I could never tell the most revealing revelations, which Buscemi saves for the end, but I will say that I was genuinely shocked and completely transfixed. A

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Kingdom

Stylish actor-turned-director Peter Berg wants to make a compelling film. He wants to surprise, stun, shock and elaborate on the nature of two vastly different cultures. Instead, Berg gives us just another action-packed, rock‘em sock‘em, American WHOO-RAH of a film. Where four of us can take on 50 plus, gun-toting, masked bad guys and come out with a few scratches, maybe a band-aid on the neck.

Things get ugly pretty quick in Saudi Arabia (the Kingdom) when a compound housing American-oil employees and their families, are sprayed down with bullets during a friendly baseball game. Cars get wrecked and bombs go off as an unseen villain videotapes the whole event from a hotel room, forcing his young grandson to watch.

Against state department orders, four of the FBI’s most elite personnel manage to get access to the Kingdom for five days. Ronald Fleury (a solid Jamie Foxx) is put in charge of the quickie mission. Along with him are a bomb expert (Chris Cooper, having a little fun), an intelligence analyst (Jason Bateman, who successfully manages to bring his effortless comedic timing to this serious role) and a forensics expert (a powerful Jennifer Garner). No 13 Going on 30 here, Garner, in her best screen role to date, is 100 percent badass. And she wants you to know it, if not by her constant cursing, then by an awesome, balls-out rescue scene.

Another mention in the acting needs to go to Ashraf Barhom, who plays a Saudi police chief, put in charge of the American’s safety. Barhom is a marvel to watch, his face taunt with confusion and turmoil. Look out for him, he will surely become a star.

But even with an impressive cast, Berg can’t seem to find a concrete point. The third act has enough action to keep young boys happy. A dizzying car crash, a holdup in an unsafe part of town and some great standoffs in an apartment complex all achieve grade-A thrills. Berg does have some fun with the script (look for his own brief cameo in an FBI briefing scene); his actors throw out constant one-liners and Foxx gets to give a shot-out to his hometown, Terrell, Texas. But I was longing for a purpose, something more. Much of the film is wasted, channeling 9/11, slain journalist Daniel Pearl, CSI and hell, even some Entourage (gray hair and glasses can’t help Jeremy Piven shake Ari Gold).

Berg is a good director. He has his own vision which did wonders for his Friday Night Lights. He uses the same shaky camera work from Lights and it works well here. But that nice, Texan twang that played through Lights, the subtle, comforting, fitting music, is a curse in this picture. Berg uses that exact same score for The Kingdom, in very awkward moments. Instead of feeling sad or remorseful as Berg intends, the music only made me feel inspired and uplifted, like it did in Lights.

Through its flaws, The Kingdom remains a firm piece of entertainment. It can be a little heavy and it relies too much on the convenience of Hollywood. But Berg is trying to assert the claim that Americans have their own definition of what is right and so do the other guys. The final line of the film is a little too cheesy, but it’s the best Berg can do to sum up his point. I could save you the two hours and reveal it, but don’t worry, I’ll never tell. B-

Eastern Promises

Before David Cronenberg’s pulse-pounding, wicked little masterpiece began, the audience was given a few trailers to dissect. One of which was Ang Lee’s new, already-controversial, NC-17 rated, Lust, Caution. When the smooth, enticing preview was over, an older gentleman sitting in front of me said, to the older woman he was with, “Wow, what a bad title for a movie, no one is going to see that.” Having just won top honors at the Venice Film Festival, I smiled at the fact that he couldn’t be more wrong. But hey, how can I blame him? He probably only goes to a few movies a year, saw the advertisements for Eastern Promises and said, “Oh, that’s the guy from those Lord of the Rings movies, I liked those.”

As the trailer for Promises promises, a plethora of fighting, killing, blood, sweat and tears will be presented to you. Not the case. What iconic director Cronenberg has crafted is a controlled movie with explosive elements. It’s filled with excellent storytelling, witty dialogue, gripping acting and yes, a few beautiful bursts of Cronenberg-ian violence.

After a young woman collapses in a London drug store, she is brought to the emergency room where she dies giving birth to a girl. Anna, a midwife taking care of her, finds the girl’s diary and through her Russian uncle, begins to have it translated. Her cranky uncle will only go so far, declaring that the secrets of the dead should stay buried. Determined to get answers, Anna is led to a Russian restaurant. Once she is invited in, her whole world is spun.

Anna asks Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of the restaurant, to translate the diary for her. But soon, she is in way over her head. Semyon is the head of the Vory V Zakone family, a sect of the Russian mob. Anna is soon introduced to Seymon’s depraved son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his loyal bodyguard Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The film is off and running as Anna discovers that the dead girl was part of a sex trafficking ring run by Semyon and she fears for her life of her family and the life of the still-unclaimed baby in her ward.

As he did with his brillant History of Violence, Cronenberg creates a story about seemingly average people put to extreme circumstances. He isn’t trying to post a vast narrative on the birth of the Russian mob, or Nikolai’s upbringing through brutal, Russian prisons, acquiring dozens of tattoos that tell his life story. No flashbacks here. Cronenberg simply starts a story where he feels necessary, in this case with the birth of a child, and ends it when he feels appropriate.

Much like Violence, the gruesome scenes in Promises are presented in a realistic manner. No slow motion, domineering musical score, or heavy amounts of blood. Cronenberg is interested in the real ways that the Vory dispose of a body, with no fingers in tact. If that’s how it’s done, then that’s how it’s going to be shown. Cronenberg uses his violence as a tool. He gives you just enough to keep you an edge.

Violence contained the best screen acting performances of 2005. Mortensen, Maria Bello and a devilishly wonderfully William Hurt, all gave their career bests. Promises maintains that same trait. Cronenberg is an actor’s director, he gives them the freedom to explore these dark, complicated characters, while keeping them reserved.

Mortensen, in a raw, courageous performance, excels past his Tom Stall from Violence. He gives the violent Nikolai a heart. His firm posture, jet-black hair, thin cheekbones and smooth mannerisms are completely believable. You’ll think Mortensen actually speaks Russian. Try to listen for a slip-up in his flawless accent, you won’t catch one.

In her best performance since 21 Grams, the always engrossing Watts is riveting. As a woman battling her own regrets and misfortunes Watts’ face is often wonderfully dwelled with fear. But she remains strong willed and exquisitely bold while going toe to toe with some remarkably evil people.

You may remember Cassel from Ocean’s 12 as the smartass, sneaky Frenchman. As Kirill, Cassel is a revelation. He dives deep into a haunted young man, longing to be accepted by his father, Kirill is filled with jealousy and rage. Those are daddy’s eyes in there, rooted with deep seeds of evil.

A supporting actor nominee for Shine, expect Mueller-Stahl to snag another nomination as the alluringly horrific Seymon. When he opens his restaurant door for Anna, the first time we see his face I was instantly reminded of Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Right away, you fear him. He hasn’t spoken a word, but you know that this guy is dangerous.

I usually find that sex scenes distract from a film’s plot, but Cronenberg’s sex scenes are almost always essential. As he did with Violence and the potently erotic Crash, Cronenberg uses sex as character development. You won’t fully know two of the character until one of them makes the other have sex with a drugged up young girl.

The naked fighting scene has already become “the scene” of the season. Like the do-or-die standoffs in Violence, this fight forces Nikolai to use the methods that got him through prison, fighting with what you can, innocent bystanders included and never assuming someone is down for good. Female admirers of Mortensen’s will flock to rent the DVD to catch an All the Right Moves-perfect-pause-moment of his… livelihood.

Eastern Promises is a wonderfully paced, subtle film. There is a great little surprise in here somewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll never tell. Just listen. Listen to the clever words and your jaw will drop. People looking for a Russian Departed should head elsewhere, what you’re going to get is a unique story with heavy, reliable acting and an occasional slit throat… or two.

Leaving the theatre a young man walking behind me said, talking into his cell phone, “Hey man, you wanna know what movie NOT to see? Eastern Promises. Totally lame.” Having just won top honors at the Toronto Film Festival, I smiled at the fact that he couldn’t be more wrong. But hey, how can I blame him? He probably only goes to a few movies a year, saw the advertisements for Eastern Promises and said, “Oh, that’s the guy from those Lord of the Rings movies, I liked those.” A