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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007


While we like to consider ourselves clued in, culturally speaking, it is fairly obvious that most of us spend our lives in sheltered consideration of the unique “underworlds” around us. For example, before comics became an edifying talking point, few people recognized the growing ‘funny book’ constituency. Competitive high school speech and debate has grown from insignificant extracurricular activity to one of the top three considerations used by colleges to determine admissions. From ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee to schools for teaching Klingon, there is an entire subterranean subculture out there, divided along particular parameters and existing within its own set of strictures and guidelines. All a documentarian has to do is break down the barriers. If he or she is lucky, they can then tap directly into the friendly fringe zeitgeist.


This is exactly what happened to Seth Gordon. When he discovered that old school arcade games – read: the pre-console titles that swept the adolescent demo back in the early ‘80s – had their own regulatory commission in charge of awarding high scores and certifying player status, he was immediately intrigued. When he stumbled across the story of Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee), an ex-Boeing employee turned school teacher who was battling to secure his status as reigning Donkey Kong champion, he found the catalyst to dig deeper into the dynamic. The result is the marvelous, masterful King of Kong, a film that illustrates one of the universal maximums inherent in competition: for every winner there is a disgruntled loser, and even the friendliest levels of rivalry will be tainted by issues of cheating, cronyism, and unbridled ego.


For those of us long out of the fun zone loop, Gordon sets up the situation. Back in the earliest phase of the Me Decade, just as games like Pac Man and Asteroids were capturing the public consciousness, Life Magazine gathered together a collection of the reigning title champions for a photo op. Among them was Billy Mitchell, a long haired hero with an amazingly high score on Donkey Kong. For decades, the record stood, becoming a bragging right for its holder and, in some ways, a significant section of his overall personal make-up. When we meet Billy in his post-millennial phase, he’s a maxim spouting restaurateur pushing his own brand of hot sauce via a slick, self-styled self-promotion philosophy. He’s an energetic example of a go-getter made good, a man who never backs down from a challenge, be it in life, or on a classic joystick machine.


That is, until Steve Wiebe comes along. Your typical hard luck story, this flummoxed family man is watching his entire life slowly slip away. Jobless, and purposeless, he decides to tackle the Donkey Kong record as a means of outside the box therapy. Perhaps, if he can beat the high score, he can reclaim a direction in life. Before long, Wiebe achieves his aims, and submits the results to the Twin Galaxies organization, an entity started decades before to authenticate video game achievement. Thus begins the battle, as the validity of the score is challenged, and Wiebe learns of the backstabbing, rules violating infighting among the various Galaxy members. Even his own association with a disgruntled nemesis of the organization throws the entire process into question. Before long, Mitchell is made to put up or shut up. His response is remarkable, to say the least.


Whether via luck, fate, or the innate ability to unearth the natural narrative in a situation, Gordon stepped into one of the most hilarious, haunting human dramas to ever be associated with an arcade game. The King of Kong does a sly job of establishing its heroes and villains, painting both Mitchell and Wiebe as admirable and, in some ways, painfully pathetic. We admire and despise them throughout the course of events, wondering how either adult can place so much importance on what is, in essence, a hollow achievement. The obsessive playing of these machines, with their repetitive actions and rote memorization, is not a question of talent as much as will. Both of our main ‘characters’ complain of a lack of respect, but the proof is in the activity, not the public’s perspective. 


Luckily, the ins and outs of Donkey Kong are breezed over to get to the real meat of this story. When Wiebe destroys Mitchell’s record outright, leaving no doubt as to who now warrants respect, the many individuals surrounding Twin Galaxies and their overall lack of transparency and established ethics is just mind blowing. About the only people who come out unscathed are Walter Day, Galaxies’ New Age leader who tries his best to maintain order inside what is, basically, the chaos of individual hubris, and his “record authenticator” Robert Mruczek, who speaks of inscrutable principles and a life spent sitting in front of his TV, screening VHS tapes to verify scores. Everyone else has an obvious agenda, a reason for wanting to keep what they have while striving to be considered fair and friendly. Yet no matter how hard they try to seem just and reasonable, we see through the facade.


Naturally, all this interpersonal angst builds to one of those classic showdowns where, in front of a filmmaker’s camera and away from all the backstage wheeling and dealing, a true determination can be made. In The King of Kong, it happens twice, and the results both times are astonishing. Avoiding spoilers, Wiebe is made to prove his mantle in person. What happens illustrates his desire to reclaim his reputation, as well as other player’s manipulation of the system. When Guinness gets involved, agreeing to use Twin Galaxies’ scores as the benchmark for their book of records, the stakes are raised significantly. And as usual, it brings out the best, and the absolute worst, in human nature - and the accompanying corruptible characteristics.


One of the most astounding aspects of The King of Kong is not the outcome, but the access. There are times when Gordon captures a situation and it is so startling in its naked criticism that you wonder how the participant involved allowed its inclusion. Mitchell gets many of these eye opening moments, and one can’t help but think he was aware of how his reactions would make him appear. It’s either a case of self-assured superiority, or blinkered brazenness. Wiebe walks a fine line as well, especially when his long suffering wife expresses her clueless connection to everything going on in sobbing disbelief. While some of the outside machinations are indeed bizarre (Galaxies’ “officials” arrive, uninvited, at Wiebe’s home and harass his family) and indicative of the perceived stakes of these fanatics, it’s the individual dynamic that speaks the loudest in this stellar documentary.


Which brings us back to the topic of subject matter. The King of Kong is proof that you don’t need Earth shattering events of cosmic import to create a compelling film. Instead, as Gordon proves time and time again, playing bystander to individual’s everyday lives can offer an entire oeuvre’s worth of possibilities. There are dozens of untold stories in this surprisingly effective film, threads that could easily be developed into their own astounding statements (Day’s desire to be a musician, Mitchell’s amazingly devoted parents). But thanks to the perfect blend given the storyline, the careful incorporation of just enough to win us over, The King of Kong doesn’t feel fractured. Instead, it’s flawless. It’s not just proof that fact is more compelling than fiction – it’s an acknowledgement that, buried beneath the standard social fabric is a wealth of untapped material just waiting to be discovered. Audiences will be glad that this director went digging.



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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007


When lists are made of the important post-modern movies, Jaws usually gets its due. It’s heralded for its breakout blockbuster novelty, and illustrative of the Tinsel Town transformation from art into artifice. Fans point to its endearing entertainment value and scholars compliment its wise decision to marginalize the monster – in this case, a wonky and unwieldy mechanical shark – for the sake of some solid suspense. But beyond the commercial and the critical, few have noted its cultural significance. While Star Wars and Halloween get all the obsessive, geek glory, Stephen Spielberg’s expert exercise in flawless filmmaking is the popular kid who can’t catch a break when it comes to lasting social and industry significance – until now.


The Shark is Still Working says it all. It’s a double edged announcement, a title reference back to a seminal statement made during Jaws’ tenuous production. It’s also the name of Erik Hollander’s near definitive documentary on the film. A masterful companion piece to the various supplements surrounding the perfect popcorn hit, it’s the smart and insightful sugar coating on three decades of fascinating fish stories. Unlike DVD extras which give us details into every aspect of the production, or a generalized historical overview, what this filmmaker wants to accomplish is something far more esoteric. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of Jaws creation, Hollander hopes to reveal how a simple silver screen adaptation of a bestselling novel became a lynchpin for a greater artistic appreciation.


Now actively seeking a distribution deal, the story behind The Shark is Still Working is divided into two halves – The Impact and The Legacy. Each section states its purpose with amiability and authority, using interviews with all living participants (including Spielberg and his quintessential cast) and testimonials from talent (Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth) who view Jaws as instrumental in inspiring their passion for film. Interspersed amongst all the accolades and explanations, we meet the devoted, the long time lovers of the movie and its many merchandised variants. Using a first ever Jaws Fest Convention on Martha’s Vineyard as a central staging conceit, Hollander walks us through the initial discussions, the day to day travails, and the lasting import of what many originally feared would be a well meaning fiasco.


The first thing The Shark is Still Working reminds us of is Stephen Spielberg’s then novice status. Throughout the introductory material, meant to give context for those not born during the director’s neophyte reputation, we witness how chutzpah, matched with blind studio faith, fostered a motion picture masterpiece. The iconic filmmaker speaks frankly about his fears and his production nightmares, stating in open terms how the lessons he learned while making Jaws influence him to this day, and occasionally find him waking in a nightmarish cold sweat. Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider second the apprehension, wondering aloud how a ‘kid’ in his mid ‘20s with limited feature film experience could conceivable make a movie filmed in and around the open ocean. It’s the preparation for a series of war stories, but oddly enough, Hollander barely skirts the history.


Instead, he gives us the basics – the shark worked/didn’t work, a three month shoot gets extended to seven, Spielberg escapes to LA while second unit work finishes the film – and then it’s off to the rhetorical races. We learn how the mechanical monster and its notoriously inconsistent functionality were visualized, how Robert Shaw used his own inherent writing skills to polish the famed “Indianapolis” speech, and how a fake head and the editor’s own pool became a celebrated shock moment onscreen. Beyond the hourly battles against tide, weather, exhaustion, incompetence, and filmic fate, Hollander also explores the industry impact. No one thought the film would eventually redefine the business model, though initial test screenings suggested a modest return. Watching the project move from disaster in the making to cultural benchmark is part of The Shark is Still Working’s archeological fun.


Those of us lucky enough to be teenagers when the movie hit screens in 1975 can attest to this section of the film. From the Time Magazine cover story and numerous tie-in publications, to the numerous lampoon references, to the main movie poster, with its oversized beast about to devour an oblivious, skinny dipping female, Jaws went from book to social staple so quickly that to call it a phenomenon would be a massive understatement. Before his pal George Lucas came along to cement the status of big screen spectacle as the next wave in the artform’s advancement, this funky fish story was a clamorous cause celeb. Via montages and displays, anecdote, and actual news reports, Hollander highlights the initial impact, arguing that a kind of symbolic synchronicity between audience and artist was occurring.


As if to emphasize this bond, Carl Gottlieb’s tell all onset diary The Jaws Log is discussed at length. Considered by present filmmakers like Singer and Smith as a kind of movie insider’s Bible, we see how a quick tie-in tome suddenly stands as a constructive confessional for anyone interested in discovering just how difficult it can be to helm a Hollywood production. We are then introduced to other industry insiders like Greg Nicotero (F/X god) and John Williams (soundtrack composer extraordinaire) and listen as they list the ways – both directly and indirectly – that this movie made their careers. To see such influence being acknowledged and defended is heartwarming, especially after all the hand wringing and kvetching over the lack of logistical prowess. But then The Shark is Still Working takes it all a step further. And it’s at this point where Hollander’s point goes from salient to insurmountable. 


At Jaws Fest 2005, thousands of fans descend on the Martha’s Vineyard locations, each one bearing the amiable alms of a lifetime devoted to the film. Many sport tattoos and other celebratory body art, while a few have taken their fascination to the borders of fanaticism. We meet a man who makes a hobby out of imitating Robert Shaw’s salty sea captain character Quint, and witness as he lives out a life long dream – recreating the now infamous “chalkboard” scene from the film on the actual movie backdrop. It’s a sequence that comes dangerously close to idol insanity. Equally intriguing are the collectors, the people who’ve made it their goal to gather as much of the Jaws memorabilia available as possible. For some, a plastic cup or knock off t-shirt is not enough. For these dedicated individuals, years creating their own detailed models or lavish oil canvases remains the only way they can fully connect to Spielberg’s creation.


As sequels are discussed (and dismissed) and child actors chuckle about their place in history (there’s a monumental convention moment when the various Brody progeny from the films are reunited), the sphere of influence exacted by this film is finally understood. While it may not have a regressive recreationist society surrounding its narrative, people dressing up like Hooper and Chief Brody and reenacting their classic confrontations like a certain set of Jedi wannabes, Jaws is still cinematically significant. It stands as an important moment in motion picture history, the time when directors were finally acknowledged as the true guiding spirits of aesthetic truth. It may have been a bumpy road getting their, but as long as Spielberg was functioning, a cranky fake shark was not a big concern. The fact that, three decades later, it manages to still “work” magnificently is all that matters. 



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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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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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