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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007


Girls in bikinis kicking butt – sounds like nothing more than sexist male fantasy fodder, right? No matter the scholarly interpretation and arguments over empowerment, it’s hard to see the feminism in fisticuffs between scantily clad babes…especially when the narrative emphasizes the eroticism, and exploits their camera ready ‘assets’ in a very up close and personal manner. So would it surprise you that D.O.A.: Dead or Alive, based on the lusty adolescent console title of the same name, is readily one of the more estrogen-ccentric films in a long time? It’s a movie geared to make the supposedly weaker sex a smarter, savvier and far more substantive opponent – both in and out of the competitive ring. While its sci-fi subtext may be laughable at best, and its characters cut out of bitmap believability, it remains a gloriously goofy romp as choice chick flick.


In fact, DOA is actually the gender equity version of August 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up! , a mindless exercise in violence with enough style and sass to get an audience over its superficial stutters. This is not a movie interested in three dimensional development, narrative coherence, or sentimental subtlety. Instead, it’s a C cup full of nonstop action, a collection of incredibly effective fistfights and sword standoffs played out against a wonderfully cartoonish and creative backdrop. Hong Kong director Corey Yuen, who made his name stateside delivering Jason Statham through The Transporter and Jet Li in The Enforcer, uses the same over the top, in your face approach that defined those films to make these superhero supermodels more deadly than Charlie’s so-called Angels, and a heck of a lot more fun.

Our story begins when Princess Kasumi, leader of her Japanese clan, decides to ignore royal protocol and go after her missing brother. By doing so, she becomes an outcast, leading loyal guard Ayane to automatically switch allegiances and become a court bounty hunter. Her prey? The MIA princess. Meanwhile, professional wrestler Tina Armstrong takes on a boatload of pirates aiming to shanghai her yacht. At the same time, master thief Christie Allen is questioned by the Hong Kong police over some missing bank money. All four eventually find themselves invited to the D.O.A. (Dead or Alive) Competition, hosted by reclusive and eccentric businessman Donovan. The set up is simple – a single elimination tournament where the loser is sent home, and the eventual winner winds up with $10 million. With Helena, the daughter of the invitational’s original founder present, and a collection of competitors from around the globe, everything is in place for another compelling contest – not that this is Donovan’s real intent…not by a long shot. 


The first thing you notice about D.O.A. is Yuen’s decision to tweak the color palette. This is a pastel and primary battle royale, an assortment of tints and hues manipulated and manufactured to skirt the boundless border between believability and full fledged fantasy. All the water present is a crystalline blue, matching the azure elegance of the endless sky. Grass is greener than finely polished jade, and sunsets radiant a deep, dynamic orange. Clearly, this director is trying to emulate the millions of possibilities inherent in a complex computer program, but such a strategy also underlies D.O.A. ’s sense of seriousness. Since it is larger than life, the rules of reality really don’t apply, and that goes for every other facet of this film – its set design, its face offs, and its concept of characterization.


The main actresses here are all amazingly capable, with recent Emmy winner Jamie Pressly full of piss and vinegar as a desperate to prove herself grappler, and Sin City’s Devon Aoki as a sword wielding ninja doll. Equally impressive are Prison Break’s Holly Valance as a bodacious burglar and Shark’s Sarah Douglas as the untested Helena. All the gals get a little F/X help to realize their many moves (there is wire fu, real life martial arts, and a smattering of CGI to make it all come to life), but in general, they are very believable as smart, smokin’ hot extreme fighters. Yuen does go a little overboard on the slo-mo shots of torsos and tushies, but this is clearly in connection to the movie’s target audience. Guys like brawling, but they really LOVE a little T&A on the side.


As for the movie’s men, none make much of an impression, although Eric Roberts salt and pepper feathered look gives him a 10 years younger make-over. His performance is pitched somewhere between Christopher Walken and an actual psychotic beach bum. It’s pure Method madness at its most unhinged. As the dorky geek who gives the narrative its nutty professorship, Reba’s Steve Howey is feeb lite. Try as he might, he appears more anxious to pound brewskis than hack code. Other members of the male persuasion are either unimportant, or irritating (especially Brian White as a motor mouthed moron named Zack whose pin head is festooned with a sad spike of green hair). Still, none of these individual failings really matter. Yuen knows that action films rarely rely on compelling, complex personalities to make their point. Instead, it’s all about the fireworks, and D.O.A. delivers a couple dozen Fourth of July’s worth.


Indeed, this is a movie that cuts to the adrenaline pumped production number every couple of minutes, letting dialogue barely sink in before another example of hand to hand Hellsapoppin’ arrives. The choreography and filmmaking during these sequences are just stunning. Yuen obviously knows how to balance the needs of the purist with current pop culture dynamics. He tosses together quick cutting, amazing mise-en-scene, explosion compositions, and just a tinge of movie magic to turn a couple of pretty people beating the snot out of each other into some manner of metaphysical meltdown. It makes one wonder how long he can keep up such a satisfying pace. The answer is 80 plus minutes, apparently. From Princess Kasumi’s escape for the last act face off between good and evil, D.O.A. never settles down. It’s just one amazing stunt statement after another.


There will be complaints that the plot makes no sense – not the contest, but the undercover bio-engineering that’s going on behind the scenes – and some will argue that, no matter their prowess, Yuen and the producers are exploiting attractiveness and sexuality for the sake of some elusive commercial conceit (the film did not do well at the box office, that is, when it could find its way there after its 2006 making). Fans of the games were glad to see the obvious references, as well as the sneaky segment where our heroines forget about fighting and play a friendly game of beach volleyball (wink). The added content on the DVD itself sheds little light on the film’s numerous issues. We get a decent Behind the Scenes featurette, but it mostly focuses on the fighting onscreen, not during post-production. The lack of further context speaks volumes about the studio’s overall faith in this film.


And that’s a shame. If marketed correctly, embracing its genial junk food frenzy instead of trying to overcompensate for it, D.O.A. could have been a sleeper hit. It had the perfect focus group strategizing, and with a little help from the female sect (who would definitely appreciate these gals’ knuckle crunching self determination), this eventual flop could have been viewed as a lot of fun. Instead, it is criticized for everything its not, and castigated for concepts it barely embraces. When it comes right down to it, Corey Yuen has indeed delivered a kind of kung fu interpretation of a Penthouse Forum letter, but there is more than just softcore slumming here. Even if you wouldn’t be caught ‘dead or alive’ watching such a film, you should give D.O.A. a try. It’s nothing more than a big, dopey delight.


 


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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


Family films may have finally found their saving grace – and her name is Amanda Bynes. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features. With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. It’s her first foray into quasi-adult fare, and it will gauge how much staying power she truly has.


By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based ever so slightly on the famed fairytale (the film’s title should provide the necessary hint) and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and expands it beyond its tacky TV movie boundaries. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins passed on this project. Still, the simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Greek life lunacy. It’s all very Revenge of the Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, but in a current cultural shift that actually embraces the dork dynamic, the last act standoff is more heartfelt than hilarious.


No, the majority of the comedy comes from Bynes’ ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the varied Vortex’s resident rejects reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. But our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous terrain with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of sudden experience. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook. It’s indeed a rare cinematic condition.


Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar stance. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. She is primed for a finale fall. As the rightly named Tyler Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven ‘dorks’, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.


In fact, it’s fair to compare Sydney White favorably to the college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. Granted, a few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative frequently follows traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.


What we have here then is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.


As a result, Sydney White is one of those fascinating films that taunt your aesthetic while it simultaneously delights your fun zone. It doesn’t strive for deep meaning, or tempt fate by fully falling into the updated Brothers Grimm mode (the Snow White storyline is barely recognizable most of the time). Instead, it provides proof that Amanda Bynes will be the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the Summer musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


 


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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


The War in Iraq is destined to leave yet another battle-weary scar on a nation finally recuperating from the one it received three decades before. Both sides can argue their rosy Red pros and basic Blue cons, but when all is said and done, all conflict is about people, not positions. They are the ones who pay the price, not the politicians. So what does it say about Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, his post-Crash comeuppance to everyone who thought his 2005 racial roundelay didn’t deserve the Oscar, that our brave fighting men are actually the bad guys here. Not unsympathetic bureaucrats, career minded Congressmen, or bomb building extremists, but the boys and girls wearing the stars and stripes. Granted, this laconic whodunit is based on actual events, but one still has to wonder if this is the right story to tell, given the current climate in the country.


When he goes AWOL after returning home from Iraq, the parents of Private Mike Deerfield get a fateful phone call. Father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military policeman himself, immediately heads over to his boy’s base to see if he can aid the investigation. However, his worst nightmares are realized when a badly burned, and crudely cut up, body is found along a deserted roadside. It is his son, the obvious victim of foul play. Promising his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that he will get to the bottom of the crime, Hank contacts local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Unappreciated by the male members of the bureau, and battling against stonewalling Army brass, she initially gives up on the case. But when inconsistent statements and some illegally obtained video footage suggest something far more sinister, she decides to help Hank. Together they will try and figure out why Mike became the target of such a senseless slaughter.


Wearing its holier than thou attitude on its blood-soaked sleeves, In the Valley of Elah is the most underhanded, backdoor anti-war film ever attempted. It takes a standard murder mystery, wraps it up in a torn and tattered flag, and flies the entire narrative upside down and a little lower than half mast. As a thriller, it’s a swing on a country porch. As a diatribe, it’s like listening to a well-intentioned teen explain politics. There is literally nothing wrong with Haggis’ approach, or his appreciation of the toll the Iraq War is taking on everyone involved – family, friends, and those in the line of fire. And he does make his characters complex enough to sustain such a subtle, slowpoke storytelling stratagem. But by the end of its overlong running time, when the final loose thread has been neatly knitted back into place, one can’t help but think that there was a better way to make this material work. Sometimes, a scream is preferable to a whisper.


Yet Haggis is content to keep his voice down. There are moments when this movie appears to be barely moving, when our director is purposefully stalling for significance. For example, when Tommy Lee Jones checks into a local motel, we witness his entire bed making routine. Similarly, we catch almost all of his character’s morning hygiene ritual, with an accidental shaving cut accentuated for future plotpoint portents. Indeed, a great deal of In the Valley of Elah wastes time laying cinematic booby traps. The aforementioned facial laceration will end up bleeding on a list of heretofore unknown subjects, while an inappropriate racial epithet will turn into an invitation for background information. Haggis wants to hide his symbolism as much as celebrate it, and with the cinematography’s dour, faded color scheme and vague visual palette, he creates the perfect vista for such an approach. Unfortunately, this film is so restrained that it frequently feels inert.


Granted, one doesn’t come into a tale like this expecting the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but Haggis’s halting style can be very aggravating at times. At one point, Sarandon phones Jones to tell him that a package from their dead son has just arrived. Immediately, he warns her not to open it, and after a brief back and forth she acquiesces. But then the subject is never mentioned again, with almost an hour going by before the envelope makes a last minute reappearance. As a dramatic device, it may have some significance, but we are smack dab in the middle of a murder investigation – a crime that may have some connection to the soldiers Mike served with. And you’re NOT going to investigate a mysterious parcel sent from the front lines which, perhaps, holds a key to solving the case? Right, that makes perfect sense.


Haggis’s politics are also problematic here. Thematically, In the Valley of Elah ascribes to the theory that war turns the innocent into bloodthirsty butchers, and in the case of the Iraq conflict, it has the potential to turn the best and brightest into unstable, antisocial psychopaths. There are several senseless sequences of foreboding offered, as when a scared military wife warns the police that her husband has started acting weird (he goes berserk and drowns the family dog). Yet instead of taking it seriously, the other officers in the station make goofy animal noises as Charlize Theron tries to comfort her. The whole chauvinistic take on the lawmen of Tennessee is equally odd, since the justification being forwarded is that, as ex-military men, it’s part of their noble nature. Indeed, time and time again, Haggis argues that everybody’s favorite iconic Uncle is really the Son of Sam. In his world, being all you can be means eventually turning into Ted Bundy.


If one thing saves this overly stoic statement, it’s the overall level of proficiency in the performances. Jones, Theron, and Sarandon all own Oscars, and they legitimately deserve said accolades. While he’s nothing more than a hospital corner’s curmudgeon at the beginning, Hank Deerfield is modified nicely over the course of the narrative, thanks in part to Jones’ desire to dimensionalize this despondent dad. Sarandon gets two excellent scenes (a morgue visit, and a late night phone call) and she makes the most of them. Oddly enough, Theron’s efforts may be the most intriguing. Dressed down, but never out (it’s hard to make this classic beauty look bad, unless you’re stopping off at the special effects tent), she comes across as jaded and unstrung, a woman waking everyday to a series of traumas that have as much to do with her career as crime. Her single-motherhood is hyped to no real end, but the connection with her kid makes for some intriguing and enlightening nuance.


Yet it’s these types of tangents that ultimately derail In the Valley of Elah. It seems like, every time a clue is unearthed, it requires a lengthy rationale and off topic backstory to certify it. Papa Deerfield swipes his son’s cellphone from the barracks, and within its damaged memory is a series of cryptic video clips. Of course, we get to witness almost all of these overlong ‘flashbacks’ in technologically deficient detail. As the picture pixelates, jumping and jerking to mimic handheld, in battle ‘realism’, we wait for the denouement. Sadly, Haggis hampers his own vindications by employing such a strange, scattered approach. Yet each video has an explanation, and we are constantly thrown off the case itself, to explore these occasionally unnecessary facets. It’s like the title analogy (Jones tells Theron’s little boy the story of David and Goliath): we are supposed to see the allusion between small town cop and the big, bad US military, but because the movie avoids such bravado confrontation, the link appears hallow.


Maybe the message will save In the Valley of Elah. Polls indicate that most Americans are sick of Iraq and its jumbled, no-endgame policies. As such, Haggis plays right into their worst, most horrifying fears. He shows an army incapable of achieving its objective while excusing the off-base criminality of its soldiers as simply “blowing off steam”. The grunts themselves are strip club settled and pimply, like hyperactive kids in an oversized candy store. When we learn what happened, both at home and abroad, we’re not shocked as much as saddened. The US has always suspected that its ‘unnecessary’ wars lead to unseen post-traumatic consequences. As a filmmaker, that’s all Haggis has to offer. Relying on it may be politically, or philosophically right, but it doesn’t necessarily serve a murder mystery thriller. Perhaps that’s why In the Valley of Elah seems so subdued. When questioning the heroism (not the heart) of the men who serve our nation, it’s best to speak softly. You don’t want to rile the resolved.


 


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Friday, Sep 21, 2007


While turkeys and the resulting leftovers are still two months away, your premium pay cable channels think the weekend of 22 September is theatrical Thanksgiving. They’re dishing out a depressing collection of half-baked entrees, with nary a satisfying side dish or desert in sight. An obvious reaction to the rising importance of awards season and its continuing collection of proposed available Academy taste tempters, the main movie channels have decided to acquiesce to averageness – at least for now. While one film definitely stands out among the others, the overall pickings are less than rib sticking, and will definitely leave you hungry for more. It will be interesting to see where this kind of counterprogramming eventually goes. If the substandard showcases continue, there’ll be a mass exodus from the idiot box before long. Hopefully, some of this Spring’s bigger titles will find their way into the Saturday premiere collection. Without them, it could be a rather regressive Fall, even with offerings like this one:


Premiere Pick
Stranger than Fiction


They say that every actor wants to be a rock star, and visa versa. Truer still is the notion that every comedian wants to tackle serious subject matter now and again – even if it means the end of their solid slapstick spoils. The latest former funnyman going the quasi-dramatis route is Will Farrell, and he appears to be following in the footsteps of one James “Jim” Carrey to get there. This Truman Show like effort, in which Farrell’s IRS agent Harold Crick begins to hear a disembodied voice narrate his life like it’s a novel, flummoxed fans of his SNL style silliness, while providing diehards attracted to his big screen fare (Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory) with a reason for pause. Overall, the novelty of the narrative helps us past some of the more pat and cloying circumstances, and the supporting cast (including Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman) help round out a remarkable company of characters. Still, the question becomes – do the devoted want to see their jester putting on the realism, or the ridiculousness?  (22 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Black Dahlia


Brian DePalma, once a Hollywood heavyweight with his Hitchcock homage style, has fallen on some substantial hard times as of late. This LA Confidential retread, a routine reading of James Ellroy’s novel about the mysterious murder of a Hollywood starlet, is ample proof why. Instead of focusing on the compelling real life case, he goes off on tangents so surreal that even diehards couldn’t figure out his motives. The result was one of 2006’s biggest blunders. (22 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

You, Me and Dupree


If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create one of several reasons why Judd Apatow had to step in and save big screen comedy. (22 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Mission: Impossible III


Tom Cruise tempted filmic fate one too many times with the further adventures of Ethan Hunt and his IMF gang. The only individual who actually benefited from this non-charming third time though was director JJ Abrams. While the movie may have been a less than spectacular blockbuster, it gave the man behind Lost enough cinematic stature to take over the Star Trek franchise. Talk about failing upward. (22 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Death Becomes Her


15 years ago, audiences were agog at the brand new CGI stylings of Robert Zemeckis’ brazen black comedy, a film fashioned to take on the superficiality of stardom and the overemphasis on anti-aging. Though the physical effects were also impressive, it was the concept of combining the real with the motherboard rendered that truly impressed audiences. Even the critical community, who found numerous flaws in both the storyline and the casting, couldn’t deny the visuals’ visceral power. After all, you had Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep systematically destroying each other in a baffling biological battle royale. Oddly enough, the last decade and a half have only amplified Zemeckis’ message. And with the prevalent plastic surgery that’s now part of the cultural dynamic, the plot’s focus on an “anything for looks” ideal is even more potent. Why this one time blockbuster has ended up on the independent oriented Sundance Channel is something to take up with their staff. But as an example of how the cutting edge can remain razor sharp, this is a timeless wonder. (23 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sleep With Me


There’s a gimmick at the core of this 1994 off the radar entry – six separate writers collaborated to create the overall narrative drive. Such cinematic stunts usually don’t work, and for many, the results here were only average. Yet there are ardent defenders of this romantic drama. Be on the lookout for Quentin Tarantino as a boorish party guest who lets rip with a tirade on the obvious homoerotic overtones in Top Gun. (24 September, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Memories of Murder


South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, got his first big exposure in the West with this sly, subtle serial killer procedural. Apparently, Asian law enforcement is ill-prepared for dealing with such systematic slaughter, and Bong infuses his film with some darkly humorous material, almost always at his bumbling policemen’s expense. While not as universally appealing as his follow-up, the monster on a rampage The Host, this is still an intriguing insight into crime in another culture. (24 September, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Pumpkin


Christina Ricci continues to polish her creative indie cred with this interesting romcom about a sorority girl who falls for a handicapped man. Life lessons are learned and horizons are broadened. For first time filmmakers Adam Larson Broder and Anthony Abrams, the biggest hurdle wasn’t avoiding cliché or maximizing character. It was getting this little seen gem any notice whatsoever. (29 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It remains a strangely satisfying experiment in terror: writer/director Jack Hill hired former fright master Lon Chaney Jr., turned him into a sympathetic caregiver for a collection of craven creeps, and gave the whole thing a freak show veneer of macabre monochrome. Subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told, no other underlying label ever did a better job of describing a yarn’s intentions. Featuring future human oddity Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, and Mantan Mooreland in a minor cameo role, this arguably bizarre family fright night substituted novelty and wit for nastiness and the wicked. Still, it will be hard for newcomers to forget the truly horrific ending. Paired up with another nightmare novelty from the ‘60s (Die! Die! My Darling), we’ve got one of the better double features offered by Turner Classic Movies late night film fest. Here’s hoping that a post-Halloween Rob Zombie can make an appearance as host. He single handedly resurrected Haig’s career, and his comments would be very telling indeed. (28 September, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The War (Ken Burns)


While SE&L normally ignore TV offerings, the latest from The Civil War’s Ken Burns deserves a mention. This time, the talented documentarian takes on another country-defining conflict – WWII – and the results are reportedly masterful. One thing’s for sure – come Sunday night, the DVD player will be pushed aside for what promises to be seven nights of fact filmmaking at its finest. (23 September, PBS, Check Local Listings)

The End


Back when Burt Reynolds was the reigning box office God, he flexed his fiscal reputation on the occasional obscure effort. This remains one of his best, the story of a dying man who enlists the aid of a manic mental patient to commit suicide. This ballsy black comedy defied expectations in 1978 and stands as proof that there was more to the actor’s persona than Smokey and the Bandit. (24 September, Retroplex, 10PM EST)

At the Earth’s Core


Sometime in the mid ‘70s, American International Pictures decided that Doug McClure was an action star. Go figure. The company created a set of schlocky projects for the former TV talent, and along with The People that Time Forgot and The Land that Time Forgot, this Edgar Rice Burroughs bunk ruled the passion pits. That’s okay – no one really knows why, either. (26 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 12:15AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Sep 20, 2007


The glamorization of crime has as much to do with the mob as it does the movies. Because of its strictures that exist outside the limits of the law, the rights and duties, honors and codes becomes the art design for a million cinematic statements. Part of the relish in something like The Godfather is watching these ritualistic rationales play out, as well as sneaking a peek behind a frequently unseen curtain. But the genre itself is also a mirror, reflecting the level of sameness in, say, a South Central Los Angeles gang and a high ranking Hong Kong triad. It’s all about family, force, and the freedom to indulge in the blurry border between capitalism and corruption. In his latest mean streets masterwork, Eastern Promises venereal horror icon David Cronenberg takes the Russian mafia to task. It’s part of a bigger picture dissection of how obsession makes even the most moral individual turn.


Our story begins when midwife Anna (a wonderful Naomi Watts) stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she’s desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl’s name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur Semyon (a diabolic Armin Mueller-Stahl). When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana’s situation. But since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains suddenly threaten the incognito mobster’s standing. He puts his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, stealing every scene he’s in) and dedicated ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana’s baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for Semyon’s omnipresent power structure.


At first, it feels like Eastern Promises is going to revolve around an unconscionable connection between Anna and Nikolai. They run into each other several times during the opening act, and each time, there’s a growing sense of attraction and mystery between the pair. We keep waiting for the inevitable moment, the situation which allows both characters to remove their outer façade and become real, recognizable people. But Cronenberg isn’t out to explore that particular narrative thread. Indeed, many of the standard crime story motifs that have come to define the cinematic category are completely ignored by this wonderful film, making it an anomaly in an otherwise recognizable realm. Sure, there is blood, and death hangs its shingle over almost every onscreen action, but as a director, this is one artist who is looking for new canvases to compile. Eastern Promises will remain recognizable, but only partially so.


Instead of going for gratuity, Cronenberg is out to understand human arrogance. He wants to know what makes one group of people – in this case, displaced Russian hoodlums – think they can flaunt the conventions of civilized society. He does so by contrasting Semyon with his son, offering an older man of unspeakable evil with a young stud who barely has the backbone to handle the small stuff. Obviously doomed from the start, Vincent Cassell turns Kirill into a walking contradiction, a man who loves power but can’t wield it in a way that’s successful or substantive. He lucks into his tainted triumphs, and relies heavily on Nikolai to mop up his messes. Semyon, on the other hand, is cruelty covered in a fine patina of paternity. He’s like everyone’s elderly grandpa - that is, if said relative was a repulsive, irredeemable rapist. It’s to his credit that Cronenberg never lets Mueller-Stahl act on his reputation. Suggestion works much better than having all of it shown.


At the opposite end is Mortensen’s Nickolai. His is a brute that is all outer trappings, from his jet black wardrobe and Secret Service sunglasses to the elaborate tattoos that trace his horrible history of violence. We are given reason to fear this mystifying man, especially after witnessing the offhand way he handles the disposition of a corpse. Even more intriguing, you will never see a gun in Eastern Promises. Every act is tactile, requiring a knife or handy tool to tackle. When Mortensen’s character is confronted in a bath, his full frontal nude body battling with two dagger wielding hitmen, it’s more than just a homoerotic stunt. Cronenberg wants to illustrate that real men don’t need a phallic substitute (read: a firearm) to create unspeakable destruction. All they need is a sharpened blade and a will to survive. As one of the film’s setpiece splatter sequences, Nickolai’s naked clash is a classic.


But it’s also antithetical to the movie’s main point. As with most syndicate activity, insinuation and rumor is far more effective at keeping things under control than direct confrontation and destruction. It’s obvious from the moment Semyon learns of the diary. The contents do indeed worry him, but the sign of weakness amongst the other bosses is far more problematic. Like a massive game of multilevel chess, the slightest miscalculation can mean utter defeat. It’s the reason the understated Don is so mad at his son. He sees recklessness and a streak of irredeemable drunken sloppiness – elements that function in direct contrast to the strategic aims of the syndicate. It’s a model of interconnected complexity that illustrates how difficult these dynasties are to take down. But it also underlies the notion that everyone here is out for their own selfish motives. Even the supposed heroine is far from pristine.


Indeed - don’t be fooled. Naomi Watts’ Anna is no innocent here. She has her own selfish reasons for learning of Tatiana’s family, though the underpinning isn’t apparent at first. Cronenberg only hints at the pain this childless woman experiences especially as someone serving biology day in and day out while her own personal prayers go unanswered. Yet in several close contact conversations with her mother, we begin to see the truth. Without spoiling the situation, it’s clear that circumstances in Anna’s past are coloring her concern, leading all pathways directly back to her own maternal instincts. No one else in the film feels the same way, and it’s shocking the Cronenberg would introduce such a mercenary facet into this narrative. But because we keep expecting certain ‘good vs. evil’ avenues, it’s that much easier of the director to take us down an unexplored backstreet.


As a matter of fact, much of Eastern Promises is a window into a world we know little about. While pageantry and grandeur paint the Russians as much as the Italians (a major confrontation occurs during a ceremonial banquet), Cronenberg stuffs this storyline with all manner of insider details. We learn of the Yakuza-like significance of body art, what stars on one’s knees means, how slander and sexual defamation means more than a random killing, and why the collapse of communism led to such inhuman hostility. It’s intriguing material, made even more emblematic by how this director incorporates it into the subtext. Some hold a significant place in the plot. Others are asides that only come back to resonate later.


Perhaps the best thing about Eastern Promises, however, is its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character “where are they now.” But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person’s slow, controlled deliberation. It’s a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggest definiteness, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he’s working in, it explains crime’s continuing hold on our consciousness.


 


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