September 27, 2007

REVIEW: Eastern Promises (B+)

Background: David Cronenberg's last film, A History of Violence, was gripping - an intriguing story and plenty of suspense. And violence, oh the violence. Indeed, he displays a catalog of violence that was way too brutal for me to watch - when I couldn't avoid it. Cronenberg teams up again with Viggo Mortenson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) for Eastern Promises, this time with Naomi Watts (King Kong,The Painted Veil) as the blond love interest. (One interesting note - Watts's next role is in the wildly violent Funny Games.) Both stars prepared intensely for their roles, Watts (pregnant while filming) as a midwife and Mortenson as a Russian gangster, for which he actually spent weeks alone all over Russia. I didn't know much about the story beforehand, but I did mention to the friends I saw it with that it would surely have some hyperviolent scenes. Wow, was that an understatement. A new area of my mind has been scarred, right next to the spot still suffering from A History of Violence.

Synopsis: Midwife Anna (Watts) finds a diary in the belongings of a young Russian girl named Tatiana who suspiciously dies from labor complications. The diary is in Russian. Conveniently, Anna's uncle is Russian and also happens to live with her. With amazing naivete, Anna follows the diary's link to a restaurant conspicuously serving as the franchise office of the local Russian organized crime family, or vory v zakone. The more warnings she is given to let well enough alone, and the more sordid details she learns from her uncle's translation, the more determined she is to learn of Tatiana's background so her surviving infant can be sent home. In the meantime, Nikolai (Mortenson) is the family's driver and boss-in-waiting, hoping to get "made" and earn his "stars." He quietly obeys the orders given him by current boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his incompetent son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), but something tells you Nikolai is more than just a puckered face. We soon learn he is an undercover lawman with a crush on Anna. All of these details emerge amid wickedly violent scenes, and Nikolai is forced to decide between his profession and love life as he rises in the ranks of the vory v zakone.

I Loved:
+ The production design - rainy, noir London and cozy Russian feasts, just like I remember from the old country.
+ Vincent Cassel's disgusting performance - the quintessential impulsive heir, the movie would have suffered without him.

I Liked:
+ The cinematography - there is something about the way Cronenberg frames shots that set them apart from everyone else.
+ The musical score.
+ Learning about the vory v zakone.

I Disliked:
- Naomi Watts - she toned down her trademark crying and shrieking, but it was still more than enough.
- Armin Mueller-Stahl's accent - look, the guy is German, he's always going to be German, and trying to make him sound like he is anything other than German is ridiculous.
- The totally unnecessary diary entry narrations.

I Hated:
- The extremely graphic violence, of course.

Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

Last Word: For me, this was all about the violence. The story is somewhat interesting, but the brutality was a major distraction for me. If you can look past that, you'll probably love Eastern Promises. It's a well-made, taut film with viciously evil characters and a clear hero to root for, but you're left wondering who really had the best motives. Never having seen The Sopranos (yes, I'm serious), I don't know how
Eastern Promises compares to popular crime family dramas, but fans of the show will likely fill theaters to see this. Just expect the violence to be as bad as I'm describing it. Maybe you'll shrug your shoulders and laugh (some people did), or maybe you'll really be affected by it, like I was. I guess I just see it as real - people are actually killed in those ways, and I don't need to see it to know that. My imagination usually does just fine given the chance, but Cronenberg leaves no opportunity here.


  1. re: I Disliked:
    - Naomi Watts - she toned down her trademark crying and shrieking....

    this is a subtle, very delicated and quietly powerful (as per us weekly) performance which the rolling stone review also calls extraordinary.

    crying and shrieking is not her trademark though no one can do it better than her.

    when she did a lot of crying and shrieking in her oscar-nominated role cristina in 21 grams, many people said she was over the top. now when she did a role requiring the subtlety of displaying internal emotions quietly, the same ignorant people said she wasn't used enough. so damn if it is and damn if it is not.

    please quit this bias against the actress whom sean penn and more than 50 film critics around the world calls the best one working today.

  2. Thanks for commenting - this is what I was hoping people would take time to do, especially if you have differing thoughts.

    I don't necessarily have a bias against Naomi Watts, but I do feel like the first thing that comes to mind IS 21 Grams, and The Ring, and King Kong. She's certainly a talented actress, and partly because of her performance, Mulholland Drive remains the most bizarre, dreamlike experience I've had in a theater. Maybe she can just find some middle of the road roles (I Heart Huckabees) where she doesn't have to be emotionally extreme on either end of the scale. Eastern Promises is a step in the right direction, and I did note that it was "toned down."

    Still, her next two roles, Funny Games and The Birds, are going to include a lot of crying and shrieking. I'm just saying...

  3. It has also been my opinion that Getafilm has had not only a bias against Naomi Watts but in women in general.

    Even Academy nominated women have been harshly spoken of many, many times. e.g. Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Julia Roberts ...etc

    I have only heard of one actress Getafilm has spoken of with reverence; Robin Wright Penn. Why only her?
    Just because the other actresses weren't on the 1980 Mens Olympic Hockey Team (Forrest Gump) doesn't make her exempt.

    Let's address the issue. Out with it!

  4. This is unfair. I shouldn't have to list off all the actresses I like, but here's a few: Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, Jennifer Connelly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elizabeth Shue, and Jada Pinkett Smith. I'll admit it's a little interesting that I'm usually critical of female stars, but I stand by my statements. Maybe they make bad character choices, but I think most of the time they (Julianne Moore, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie) get way too much praise for mediocre performances. I think maybe it really started for me when Julia Roberts beat Ellyn Burstyn for Best Actress in 2001. What a joke.


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