Monday, February 25, 2008

David Cronenberg, "Eastern Promises" (2007).

I'll freely admit to being an almost obsessive fan of film. When I first bought my digital camera, I did so because I couldn't afford the developing technology of digital video. I fully intended to eventually buy a video camera and start making my own little movies. But I figured that in the meantime I could learn about lighting and composition by taking still images. Well... I've gotten a bit sidetracked with exhibiting photos, yet I would like to think that one day I will follow through on my original plan. Until then I'm going to continue my habit of seeking out the best films on DVD, and appreciating them at home and at my leisure.

Many of my friends are aware of just how much energy I put into selecting what I watch. Fairly often they will ask me for recommendations. Once in awhile someone will ask me about my favorite director(s). While there are a bunch of filmmakers I respect, there are very few that I will consistently trust to make quality work every time they attempt it. I guess it's just so easy to fall into the trap of striving for mainstream Hollywood success. There have been many directors whose work I respected that ended up selling out and making flicks that appeal to the lowest common denominator. So when I assess my absolute favorites, I try to decide whose films I would plan to see regardless of the content, and without prejudice. One of the few names that comes to mind immediately is David Cronenberg.

I first became aware of Cronenberg as an auteur when the Carnegie Museum of Art had a retrospective of his films. I saw The Fly (1986) , Naked Lunch (1991), Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988), and The Dead Zone (1983) during that series. I was absolutely hooked, and since then I have watched almost everything he has ever released. In my experience there is very little in his oeuvre that isn't challenging, fascinating and memorable. Even titles that weren't entirely successful (like eXistenZ-1999, and Scanners-1981) held my interest. So I have made a commitment to continue seeing his work until I am fundamentally disappointed with something. I thought that maybe History of Violence (2005) might be the movie that failed to meet my expectations. But despite the fact that Cronenberg's usual themes were largely absent (there was no body modification, intense mental illness, and/or darkly surreal settings), I still found it wholly entertaining.

Given his amazing track record, I resolved to watch Eastern Promises (Cronenberg's latest film) despite the fact that it was said to be his most mainstream and "accessible" effort yet. Why should I let film snobbery rob me of a potentially entertaining viewing experience? Indeed EP is as close to a straightforward crime thriller as Cronenberg is likely to deliver. And that isn't a genre that I am particularly interested in. Still there is just enough in the look of the film to distinguish it as special. The grittiness in the environments I am used to seeing in Cronenberg films is present. There are certainly a couple of "Cronenberg-esque" segments of unflinchingly brutal violence. Finally, the performances by Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Viggo Mortensen are excellent. As usual Cronenberg brings us into a fascinating underground subculture that we are lucky in our ordinary lives never to be exposed to. In this case it's the Russian Mafia in London.

Watts plays a midwife who finds a diary on the person of a young mother who has just died. She has the document translated and is pulled into a criminal world that is distinguished by savagery and exploitation. Mortensen portrays a cold and calculating mobster who is strenuously seeking acceptance into the upper ranks of a human trafficking operation. His body is covered with tattoos that tell the history of his wrongdoings. Apparently Russian prisoners receive these markings while incarcerated in order to distinguish themselves in circles of thieves. They communicate where an individual has done time, as well as his status and resume. Mortensen himself traveled to Russia to visit his character's "birthplace", and research this phenomena in order to present an authenticity in his role.

Eastern Promises moves along at a brisk pace, but manages to convey enough characterization with subtle hints that allow us to care for the plights of the characters. With its approximately 90-minute running time, the story is briskly told and easily maintains one's attention. What makes it stand out most amongst Cronenberg's other films (along with its accessibility) is its remarkably hopeful undertones. Despite the darkness implicit in the subject matter, there is a lot of humanity in Eastern Promises. While some of the director's disciples may resent the absence of the relentlessly bleak mood he has become known for, Cronenberg is sure to expand his fan-base with this movie. That can't be all bad, can it? I guess it depends on what comes next.

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