Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cronenberg, Viggo Deliver on "Promises"; Taymor Soars "Across the Universe"


directed by David Cronenberg
starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl

The one absolute that applies to David Cronenberg’s films is that they are not for the squeamish. Throughout his career, Cronenberg’s demonstrated a pervasive fascination with the vulnerability of the human body to mutilation, deformation, and decay that's earned him the nickname “Baron of Blood.” His latest effort, “Eastern Promises,” is no exception to the trend, even if its scenes of violence are relatively few and discrete. (Discrete, but in no way discreet – they're heavily telegraphed, yet shocking in their impact.) However, like last year’s “A History of Violence,” it reflects a shift in focus from the physical to the psychological effects of that violence - though both are still present and, as always in the Cronenberg universe, inextricably intertwined.

Set in the seedy underbelly of contemporary London, “Eastern Promises” loses no time plunging the viewer into the noisome, blood-soaked world of the Russian mafia before introducing an uninitiated outsider, Anna (Naomi Watts), a hospital midwife who helps deliver a baby girl from a teenage Russian prostitute named Tatiana. Anna, who's half Russian herself, attempts to trace the infant’s family after Tatiana dies from a hemorrhage. Guided by the girl’s diary, she finds her way to a restaurant run by one Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a courtly elderly gentleman who also happens to be the head of the London branch of a notorious Russian crime syndicate, the vory v zakone.

Anna, who has personal reasons for her interest in the baby’s fate, soon gets in far too deep for comfort or safety. As she presses on, despite the warnings of her family, her encounters with the vory v zakone, along with the film’s narrative perspective, become increasingly mediated through the mysterious figure of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), chauffeur and clean-up man for Semyon’s troubled son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Ultimately, the movie’s most urgent question becomes not the fate of Anna or the baby, but that of Nikolai.

That’s all to the good, for “Eastern Promises” is at bottom a relatively ordinary film galvanized by an extraordinary performance and a handful of stunningly filmed scenes. That’s not to belittle the script, constructed with admirable economy by Steven Wright (who previously delved more deeply into the perilous existence of illegal immigrants in London in “Dirty Pretty Things”) and splashed with a gritty realism that makes it more plausible than the literally cartoonish arc of “A History of Violence” and tempers the outsized nightmarishness of Cronenberg’s directorial style, which heightens the story’s not-so-subtle allegorical dimensions. But it’s Viggo’s authoritative embodiment of Nikolai that unites the film’s realistic and archetypal qualities into a continuous and convincing whole.

There’s been a fair amount of attention to Viggo’s painstaking research into the language, accent, cadences, carriage, and demeanor of real-life Russian gangsters in order to get in character. Not being Russian or having any knowledge of either the Russian language or Russian underworld, I have no idea how to rate the authenticity of his portrayal. But what I can say is that he disappears so entirely into the role that all I saw was Nikolai, never a part being played by Viggo Mortensen. At the same time, Nikolai is unquestionably the part Viggo was born to play. There’s always been something vaguely and rather sexily menacing about him—or maybe not so much menacing as redoubtable, and, at the same time, complicated. Even as the returning king in “The Lord of the Rings,” he managed to imbue the most straightforwardly heroic character of his career with more inner conflicts than Tolkien himself ever contemplated. And his best characters, like Tom Stall in “History of Violence” and the officer who puts Demi Moore through the wringer in Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” (by far the most interesting part of an otherwise uninteresting movie), have been composed of layer upon layer of contradictions and complications, carefully packed under a seemingly impenetrable facade.

Here, in his trench coat, dark sunglasses, and fearsome tattoos, he cuts a powerful figure evocative of the Terminator, but one whose motives and loyalties gradually blur into a big question mark. Is he serving as guardian angel to Anna, protector of the unstable Kirill, instrument of the vory v zakone, or an independent with his own secret agenda? As in “HoV,” the narrative eventually supplies an answer to the mystery that comes as something of a disappointment—in large part because Viggo’s depiction of the character as an unsolvable enigma has been such an intriguing Rorschach test for the viewer. As Nikolai, he moves seamlessly from the unflappable, almost suave poise and ironic amusement underlying his interactions with Anna to the tightly coiled, (literally) stripped-down physicality of a gripping, intensely visceral fight scene in a bathhouse that’s already stirred a lot of excited media chatter.

The rest of the cast provides fine support, from Mueller-Stahl as the ruthless Semyon, whose grandfatherly veneer hardly masks the coldness of his eyes, to Watts, whose haggard yet luminous face registers with wonderful clarity the moment at which Anna shifts from naive curiosity about Semyon’s attentiveness to wary, dawning comprehension that a darker game lies afoot. Cassel, too, is excellent as Kirill, a perpetual drunkard and loose cannon who uses brutality as a (mostly unsuccessful) means of exorcising his insecurities and staving off a repressed identity crisis. Yet the story, while serviceable, is ultimately not quite as interesting as their characters. In fact, the film ends up being less a study of malevolent social forces, though it’s certainly that, than a moral parable with a surprisingly sentimental streak. To the extent Cronenberg ends on an ambiguous note, it’s fitting that our last view rests with Nikolai, in seeming repose, his expression and intentions unreadable. Anna and the dead Tatiana may be the soul of “Eastern Promises,” but Nikolai is its body and its animating spirit.


Also saw:


directed by Julie Taymor
starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, others

A Beatles musical? Why not? That seems to be the raison d’être for Julie Taymor’s most recent cinematic confection, and it turns out not to be a bad reason. Not everyone will enjoy “Across the Universe,” but it offers a very engaging viewing experience for those willing to open their hearts and minds to the idea of 30-some of our most iconic rock songs as the narrative glue for a transatlantic Vietnam-era romance.

Taymor’s film bears no relation to the Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil show currently playing in Vegas, though in its own way it, too, is fundamentally all about love. There is a plot here, of sorts: Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young dockworker from Liverpool (of course), journeys across the Atlantic to find his American father and stays after befriending Max (Joe Anderson), a well-heeled, rebellious (but as far as I can tell, not murderous) WASP, and Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max drops out of college and persuades Jude, who’s fallen in love with Lucy, to move with him to New York. There they sublet from sexy Sadie (Dana Fuchs), an aspiring lounge singer, Jude starts to develop his budding talent as a graphic artist, and their happy bohemian household expands to include Jojo (Martin Luther), a guitarist fleeing the Detroit riots, an unhappily closeted teenager named Prudence (T.V. Carpio, whose plaintive “I wanna hold your hand” will make you regard that song in a wholly different way), and Lucy, who begins to return Jude’s feelings. Troubles arise when Max is drafted and Lucy becomes a passionate SDS activist, leading to an eventual drift, rift, and parting with Jude. But never fear, all you romantics, for it just might be that all you need is love to work it out.

As a saga, “Across the Universe” is rather slight, and takes a while to pick up momentum. Once it does, though, it sweeps you effortlessly into its orbit, helped considerably by the strength of the song arrangements (which were done by Taymor’s husband, composer Elliot Goldenthal) and the solid vocal and musical skills of the cast. In fact, I can identify the precise moment at which the film began to work emotionally for me: it’s when Lucy, gazing wistfully across the room at Jude, delivers a beautifully melancholy rendition of “If I Fell” in an unexpectedly rich and sweet voice. That’s when I, too, fell, and kept falling.

Oh sure, the movie could have stood to lose a few numbers, like the pedestrian interpretation of “With a Little Help From My Friends” as party time for Max and his college buddies, or Jude’s labored attempt to turn the ironic detachment of “Revolution #1” into an angry tirade against Lucy’s endless postering and picketing. And there’s a trippy digression in the middle that seems to serve little purpose other than to showcase the theatrical flair of Taymor, Bono, and Eddie Izzard. But for every minor misstep there’s a genuinely inspired stroke, like Taymor’s witty spin on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a U.S. Army recruitment chant, or her reimagining of “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a visually dazzling commentary on the carnage of war, or the dreamy aquatic “Because” that somehow transcends being merely a glorified music video. In the end, if you love the Beatles, you should feel like celebrating. Because that’s what this film is—a celebration, not a disquisition.



Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I love the Beatles at least as much as anyone I know, so I'm glad to hear you liked "Across the Universe" ... I'm not sure it's gonna play wide enough to reach out here in the stix, but if it does, I'll definitely give it a chance

4:44 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

Do see "Across the Universe," if you get a chance. It's uneven, but it has a kind of goofy dreaminess that's easy on the eyes (and ears) and just may get under your skin. It did mine.

4:10 AM  

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