Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eastern Promises

Now this is more like it after watching the woeful 10 Items or Less over the weekend. Eastern Promises is a lean, mean, tense, taut, bleak, brooding film with nothing but terrific performances from the cast to cinematographer (lots of hazy, grey tones) set in the Russian crime world via London. Eastern Promises is another wonderful film from Cronenberg that sees him firmly entrenched as one of the best directors making movies at the moment.

A 14-year-old girl shows up in a pharmacy, bleeding all over her legs, dress and the concrete floor. She’s giving birth and has dark secrets of miserable Ukrainian woe written in Russian in a diary a midwife takes from her bag that night in the hospital. Naomi Watts plays Anna, the midwife who has Russian blood in her veins. Anna is drawn to this world to figure out A/ What does the diary say? and B/ Who wants the baby to this departed teenage girl?

Anna meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a tattooed driver who seems so in control of all that is around him that every move he makes is calculated by the extreme life hinted at by his persona. Nikolai develops a soft spot for Anna. It may be the way she looks in a pair of tight jeans as she rides a vintage motorcycle (she looks damn good) or maybe he’s warmed by the events that have led her to this spot in London. She’s obviously in over her head and Nikolai is either someone looking out for her or someone who will cause her and her family grave harm.

One thing that I’m always just blown away with when I’m watching a recent Cronenberg film is the patience and the control he has in storytelling, pacing and performance. From the very first second Eastern Promises begins, we see a director in complete control of what he is filming. Love him or hate him—Cronenberg is a stylish and interesting director who delivers powerful films that are about as well crafted a movie you will see.

Eastern Promises is so full of tension and atmosphere you can cut the apprehension with a knife—literally! A word of warning to the faint of heart, like many Cronenberg films, he is not afraid of delivering some serious doses of violence. This is both a subtle film of nuance and a film with blasts of complete brutality and that’s one thing that makes it so interesting. Anything can happen at any moment. Mortensen is involved in one of the more savage and memorable fight scenes I’ve seen in years. I don’t want to spoil it but it involves knives and nudity. My respect for him grows with each smart and challenging role he takes on.

The rest of the cast is perfect as well from Watts as the midwife, Sinead Cusack as her mom, Jerzy Skolimowski as her droll, opinionated uncle and Vincent Cassel/Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Russian bad guys. I particularly enjoyed the small role of character actor Mina E. Mina with his shaved head, trimmed mustache and stone faced demeanor. I love it when a small role like his, with only a few lines of dialogue is used in such a way that it makes it just as memorable to me as a major character.

I can’t think of one thing about Eastern Promises that I would change. Nothing. In some ways, this film is connected with his 2005 film A History of Violence. Both have many similar themes, a closely related style and Mortensen as a lead character. I’m hoping his next film will make it a trilogy because if it is as good as those two we will be in for a treat in a couple of years. Eastern Promises is highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hiatus/10 Items or Less

As you can see or may have noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus. Of course I’m still watching films but just too busy to sit down and write reviews. Even a short, 500 word review is too taxing (late summer sunlight depression has zapped my will to be creative) for me recently. So, here’s a gigantic 323 word review for probably the worst film I’ve seen all year.

10 Items or Less is terrible. It is a phony, undeveloped, humorless and highly unbelievable story of a supposedly famous actor (Morgan Freeman) spending a day with a regular person (Paz Vega) and the bond the pair have despite their differences. Okay, not all that original but I rented it from Netflix so I’ll give it a try.

The film ends up being only 70 minutes long! If I was in NY or LA or some large metropolis that charges $10 for movies and the film ends after 70 minutes I’d be extremely angry. Especially since the film is complete garbage that has no chemistry, a terrible script with all kinds of silly full-of-itself scenes and bad dialogue. Actually, the 70 minute length might have been the filmmakers treating us to a gift: so we don’t have to sit through any more of their dreck!

One thing that really irritated me about this that I couldn’t stop thinking about was the fact Freeman’s character is supposed to be a hotshot, big time actor who wears $100 designer t-shirts and is wowed by an afternoon trip to Target. He can’t imagine the amazing quality buys the store has for the consumer (how much Target paid for this two minute advertisement we’ll never know). I find the fact he’s agog over Target kind of shocking since he’s wearing Wrangler jeans. Come on, anyone wearing Wrangler jeans can’t be so awed by a friggin’ Target store. Absurd. Maybe I’m nitpicking but I could not stop thinking about his Wranglers and how phony the film was because of it.

There is nothing redeeming or worthwhile about 10 Items or Less. It takes two fine actors—Freeman and Vega—and puts them into a going nowhere scenario and then just lets them flounder in a bad idea/bad script world for 70 minutes. At least it wasn’t a whopping 90 minutes so we saved ourselves 20 minutes of misery.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

This was a no-brainer for me to enjoy: early video game footage + quirky subculture with lots of obsessed nerds + bad guy v. good guy storyline = great documentary! King of Kong takes its place among the last few years of oddball docs that digs into some little niche and uncovers a gem of a story. King of Kong is suspenseful, funny and will have you on the edge of your seat as Donkey Kong records are attempted and debated. Seriously.

Billy Mitchell is the man when it comes to video game legend. He’s held the Donkey Kong (and Donkey Kong, Jr.!) record since 1982. It’s considered unassailable in the classic video game universe—yes, such a world exists out there. Mitchell is still living off his ’82 glory and has spun it into a hot sauce business and influences a group of kiss-ups who help him maintain his status as “The Greatest Donkey Kong” player EVER.

Enter Steve Wiebe; an ex-Boeing employee in Redmond, Washington. Wiebe, who for some unexplainable reason after he was laid off, buys an old machine and attempts to climb the Mt. Everest of classic arcade gaming: to not only break Mitchell’s 25 year old record but to break 1,000,000 points in Donkey Kong!

I love the old games of my youth. King of Kong references or shows many games in this—Q-Bert, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Joust, Robotron, Pac-Man, Centipede, Moon Patrol, Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Gorf, Defender, Tron, Missile Command, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Asteroids, Paperboy and probably a few others. If this is your sort of thing, I’m right there with you as I love seeing the simple, whimsical, charming as all get out video games from that era.

This is such a great little film that is successful because it enters a previously unseen world—classic arcade game hard-core types who LIVE for these games—but creates real suspense in what will happen to the likeable Wiebe as he attempts his quest for the record. Mitchell, with his silly beard and hair, is an incredible egomaniac that will have you slack jawed at his arrogance. Mitchell is a complete and utter ass so it’s easy to get caught up in rooting against him. It’s a classic battle of good vs. evil via Donkey Kong. Recommended!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

August movies

I've been watching a lot of westerns recently. I count three in August; one of which got a very rare score of "5!". I also rewatched Once with a couple of friends in Seattle over the labor day weekend. We all loved it. Rescue Dawn, Talk to Me and Superbad are my favorite new films this past month--kind of a motley list with those three. Most frustrating was Sunshine. It was going so so well until it all fell apart with a TERRIBLE last 15 minutes. Why Danny Boyle destroyed his film like that certainly has me baffled. Anyone else pissed off at that ending?

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006, USA)----2
Casey's Shadow (1978, USA)----2.5
Rescue Dawn (2007, USA/Germany?)----4
Ride the High Country (1962, USA)----4
Talk To Me (2007, USA)----4
Eagle Vs. Shark (2006, New Zealand)----3
Steamboy (2004, Japan)----3.5
Carson City (1952, USA)----3
Sunshine (2007, England)----3
Oklahoma Heisman (2006, USA)----3
The Greatest Game of All (2006, USA)----3.5
Jonestown (2006, USA)----4.5
Apocalypto (2006, USA)----3.5
El Dorado (1967, USA)----5!
No Reservations (2007, USA)----3
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, USA)----4
The Sand Pebbles (1966, USA)----3
Superbad (2007, USA)----4
Bon Voyage (2005, France)----3
Once (2007, Ireland)----4.5