Eastern Promises


Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

(2007) Thriller (Focus) Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Tatiana Maslany (voice), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Tereza Srbova, Raza Jaffrey, Aleksander Mikic, Mina E. Mina, Josef Altin, Shannon-Fleur Roux, Mia Soteriou, Alice Henley, Christina Catalina, Elisa Lasowski. Directed by David Cronenberg

Over the years we have been treated to many fine films about the Italian mob. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola have given us insight to that criminal element, giving us anti-heroes we could root for in a certain sense. We were shown how fiercely loyal these men were to family, and while they were also ruthless killers we nonetheless found ourselves able to identify with them.

But that was another era and another mob. These days it is said the most ruthless and vicious criminals in the world are Russian and while there are those who might argue the point, I think most would agree they are at least in the running.

When a young woman in labor comes into a London hospital, midwife Anna (Watts) thinks nothing of it at first; she’s not the first woman to come in with complications. But she dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby and a diary with a restaurant business card in it. There is no other identification on her and the woman spoke little English, being of an Eastern European background that is similar to Anna’s, a second generation immigrant to the UK.

The restaurant puts her in touch with its genial owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who promises to find relatives of the baby that she can turn it over to. However, all isn’t as it seems; turns out the restaurant is the front for Semyon’s criminal organization and the young girl’s diary, which is in Russian and is being translated by Anna’s Uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) incriminates Semyon and his reckless son Kirill (Cassel). Semyon orders Kirill and Semyon’s driver and cleaner of messes Nikolai (Mortensen) to claim the diary and silence by whatever means those that have come in contact with the baby.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. The late Roger Ebert had the right of it when he said that this isn’t a movie about how, but about why – and you won’t see the “why” coming (although some snarky critics claimed that they could – personally I don’t believe ’em). What you SHOULD know is that Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, may have given the performance of his career here. His research into the role is impeccable and he is so thoroughly believable as the tattooed mobster that you probably won’t recognize him at first.

Mortensen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, gives this very complex and layered character a lot of nuances, from the ironic cock of his head to the ghost of a smile that sometimes wafts over his face. When the time comes for violence however, Nikolai is more than equal to the task – a fight scene in a bath house (in which Mortensen is completely naked) is one of the most well-choreographed scenes of that nature ever filmed. By itself it’s worth the rental fee.

Watts, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to Mortensen’s performance. A very capable actress herself (as she showed in last year’s The Impossible) for whatever reason her character is vapid and somewhat colorless; perhaps it is simply by comparison to Mortensen’s character who is thoroughly intense and interesting, but her performance here is utterly forgettable. I have to chalk it up to the writing since as I said earlier Watts is an accomplished actress in her own right.

We also get some fine performances from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel. Both have primarily made their careers in Europe, although Mueller-Stahl has an Oscar nomination to his credit and has done his share of American movies. Cassel, mostly known to U.S. audiences for his part in the abortion of a sequel to The Crow is one of the biggest stars in France and he shows why here.

The movie goes through some sections in which the plot gets a bit muddy, particularly in the middle third. The ending is a bit strange as well, although given that this is a David Cronenberg film that shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. What I love about this movie is that it is so matter-of-fact about the Vory V Zakone (Russian for thief-in-law, roughly the equivalent of a made man) and their violence that sometimes crosses the line into sadism. These are men for whom these acts are a daily part of life and there is a certain amount of fatalism that is very Russian. While this isn’t up to the standards of The Godfather (which is a very high standard indeed) this certainly may be taken as the film that does for the Russian mob what Coppola’s classic did for the Mafia.

WHY RENT THIS: Reinforces the banality of evil. Magnificent Oscar-nominated performance by Mortensen and Cassel and Mueller-Stahl offer tremendous support.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Watts doesn’t quite hold up next to Mortensen. Jumbled in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence in the film, as is not unusual with Cronenberg’s films, is graphic and disturbing. There is also a good deal of foul language, sexuality and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shot entirely in England, this is the first film Cronenberg has made completely outside of North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the tattoos and the significance of the figures therein. Some of the material is covered in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $56.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie was just shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Epic

The International


The International

When someone tells Clive Owen to go play in traffic, he's man enough to do it.

(Columbia) Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Brian F. O’Byrne, Ulrich Thomsen, James Rebhorn, Jack McGee, Michel Voletti. Directed by Tom Twyker

Given what is happening in the world economy today, most of us have come to the conclusion that bankers have shuffled off what morality they may have had and are operating strictly on a greed motivation factor. Still, even given their reprehensible behavior nobody is ordering contract killings…at least so far as we know.

Louis Salinger (Owen) is a hard-bitten Interpol detective who has been investigating the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) for a long time. Every time he gets close to nailing them for ethical or legal violations, witnesses recant, die or disappear. Currently he is working with Manhattan assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) investigating corruption in the Big Apple having to do with the bank. Eleanor’s boss (Rebhorn) sounds the cautionary bell but the two plunge on.

However, it appears to be happening again. Louis’ partner dies of an apparent heart attack that was brought on by what might have been a lethal injection after meeting with a bank insider, who shortly thereafter perishes in a car accident. From then on Salinger is looking for leads, running up against dead ends and generally acting pissed off in various locations around Europe before following a likely bank-employed assassin back to New York. After a shoot out in the Guggenheim finishes off the assassin, Salinger recognizes that he cannot get justice via ordinary means. He will have to resort to extra-legal methods.

The above plot synopsis is really a bit of an injustice to this very complex and engaging movie. German director Twyker has a very good sense of pacing and utilizes the locations nicely, capturing the wealth and power of the IBBC and those who orbit around it. Those who remember his signature film Run, Lola, Run will appreciate The International’s twist and turns as well as its compelling action sequences.

Owen has the hangdog, unkempt and sleepless look of a man caught up in the throes of his own obsessions (which Salinger surely is). Only in the eyes does Owen allow Salinger’s consuming rage to show through. That his performance is so nuanced is a credit to Owen’s abilities as an actor; that his character is so easy to root for despite the fact that he’s a bit of a jerk cement my opinion of Owen as a major movie star coming into his own.

Usually I like Naomi Watts but she seems a bit lost here. While there is no romantic connection for her to play off of Owen with, the chemistry between the two seems nonexistent, like two people who work in the same building and recognize the face enough to exchange nods in the hallway. Surely two people who have been directly in the line of fire as these two are depicted would have at least more of a bond?

This is a bit of a police procedural (I never knew that Interpol agents were not allowed to carry firearms) and a bit more of an action film. The Guggenheim sequence, with Owen and his allies running down the ramps of the iconic museum in a running gun battle with black-suited assassins hired by the bank is as marvelous an action sequence as you’re likely to see. Not only would it do the James Bond series proud, but the way Twyker edits the sequence together would bring the warm fuzzies to the heart of a Hitchcock aficionado as well.

Yeah, the storyline can be confusing upon occasion, particularly in the second act and Thomsen as the head banker Skaarsen is a bit bland, which weakens his position as lead villain a bit. Mueller-Stahl is a terrific character actor who manages to be chilling and charming at the same time, something like finding out a beloved grandfather was once a serial killer.

Even though I give it only a mild recommendation because of some of the tendency to over-plot as well as for some of the gaping holes in logic that result, if I think about it I’d probably give this a higher rating after revisiting it in the future. Tom Twyker is a terrific director working with a terrific actor and movie star in Clive Owen. Something tells me that a few years in the future this movie may wind up being a watershed first encounter between two talents who I believe are destined for big things in this business.

WHY RENT THIS: The behavior of IBBC is appropriate given the recent behavior of major financial institutions contributing to our current financial crisis. The action sequences are breakneck and satisfying. Clive Owen is, in my mind, a big star.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the financial biz stuff is fairly boring. No chemistry between Owen and Watts. The storyline can be confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence coupled with a good deal of bad language. You make the call.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the Guggenheim Museum, in which a major action sequence takes place, was built in an abandoned locomotive warehouse using the original blueprints from the Guggenheim.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Most of the usual featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Red Cliff

Angels and Demons


Angels & Demons

"What's the plot doing way over there?"

(Paramount) Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Victor Alfieri, Elya Basin, Rance Howard . Directed by Ron Howard.

Any institution that is around long enough is bound to acquire opponents, if not enemies. For the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest institution on the planet, those opponents are many. But, as they say, it only takes one.

The Church is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of the pope, considered a progressive and fair-minded pontiff, beloved by his flock. As the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new leader for their church, two very disturbing events occur. The first is the theft of a small but significant amount of anti-matter, a substance manufactured in an experiment partially funded by the Church. The second is the kidnapping of four respected cardinals, all of them considered favorites for the papal election, or as they are known more commonly in the Vatican as the preferati.

The powers of the pope are invested in Patrick McKenna (McGregor), the assistant to the previous pope (or Camerlengo as the position is titled), and he is given further reason for misgiving when he receives a cryptic but menacing note, as well as a live cam feed that indicates that the missing anti-matter is somewhere in the Vatican.

To help in the investigation, Inspector Olivetti (Favino) of the Vatican Police Force recruits an unlikely ally – Robert Langdon (Hanks), the Harvard professor of symbology whose investigations in The DaVinci Code brought down the Opus Dei group and caused much embarrassment for the Church. He arrives in the Vatican along with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) who was working on the anti-matter project and whose father was gruesomely murdered during the theft. She reports that the battery-charged electronic cannister holding the anti-matter would eventually fail when the battery died; when it did, a sizable chunk of Rome would be vaporized.

Langdon determines that the note was written by the Illuminati, an ancient society of scientifically-inclined Catholics who underwent extreme persecution in the days of Galileo. Deciphering the note, he figures out that the plan is to execute the four cardinals, once every hour in four locations sacred to the Illuminati (each having to do with one of the four elements). Langdon must follow a variety of clues to discover where each cardinal is going to meet a grisly end and arrive there before said cardinals get an early opportunity to see God live and in Person.

He is opposed by Commander Richter (Skarsgaard), the head of the Swiss Guard who are kind of the secret service of the Vatican. To let you know how he feels about the situation, he growls in a voice dripping with disdain “What a relief, the symbologist is here” when Langdon arrives at the Vatican. Also conservative Cardinal Strauss (Mueller-Stahl) is suspicious of the openly non-religious Langdon.

This is a very slick-looking thriller that utilizes its Roman locations effectively (although the Vatican locations were all recreated on a set – as you might imagine, the Church refused to allow the filmmakers permission to film there). Howard is one of the best directors working today, and his skills are one of the movie’s outstanding features. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t give you time to think about all the implausibility in the script.

The script is one of the major downfalls of the film. Writers Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp – both of whom have delivered some really well-written scripts in the past – aren’t entirely to blame for this. Dan Brown, author of the novel, is a talented writer of page turners, but sacrifices a lot of common sense for the sake of a good plot turn. Are you telling me that the combined minds of the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Police Force, who guard some of the most important people and treasures in the world, were unable to turn the note upside down to figure out that it was sent by the Illuminati?

The script is also rather talky. Hanks spends a lot of time cogitating and then delivering a pronouncement like an explanation point “Why didn’t I think of it before? The Church of San Whoever, patron saint of Earth Wind and Fire!” It’s not that Hanks does a bad job – he’s quite believable inasmuch as he can be as an academic who isn’t fazed by being shot at and have any number of murder attempts made on him. In some ways he’s more of an action hero than scholar, but Hanks makes sure the scholarly side is well-represented.

The international cast (with actors from Israel, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, China, Russia, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere) are solid. McGregor just about steals the movie as the pious Camerlengo. I like him as an actor more and more in every role I see him as. Zurer is likewise solid in a role that literally has no reason to be there – she’s eye candy, nothing more but she at least makes a credible attempt at being at least physicist-like. Skarsgaard and Mueller-Stahl, veteran character actors both, lend gravitas to their roles.

I’ve really spent a lot of time dwelling on the movie’s faults, and that’s a bit unfair. Granted, they are glaring imperfections, but quite frankly this is a solid summer thriller with plenty of mindless entertainment. The trouble is it kind of bills itself as a smart thriller which is a bit of a disservice. This is the kind of movie that if you think too much about it you’re not going to like it as much. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a pretty good one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nonstop thrill ride that doesn’t pause long enough for you to catch your breath. McGregor is becoming a much more watchable actor than he was in the Star Wars prequels. Breathtaking sets, special effects (particularly one sequence in St. Peter’s Square) and use of Roman locations make this extremely watchable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is full of holes and lapses in logic that detract from the action. While it bills itself as an intellectual thriller, it works better as mindless entertainment. Some egregious factual errors, particularly as to historical context and Catholic  

FAMILY VALUES: Some rather spectacular and gruesome murders occur, some of which may be too intense for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While filming in Rome, the crew and equipment were blocking the passage of a bridal party on the way to a church for their wedding. Upon hearing about the situation, Tom Hanks personally escorted the party through the filming area and prevailed upon crew to move equipment so that the party might pass. The grateful family of the bride invited Hanks and director Howard to stay for the reception but their busy filming schedule prevented it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a feature on CERN, home of the large hadron collider and the world’s largest particle physics factory. The crew were permitted to film on the premesis (although not in sensitive areas) and the achievements of CERN are discussed in some detail.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Soloist