Friday, September 21, 2007

Two big fall movies hit the screen

Summary: Two of the season's most anticipated movies open around the nation today, David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" and Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah." Both have Oscar implications -- certainly for Viggo Mortensen and Tommy Lee Jones in the best-actor category -- and both likely will generate lots of talk. And by the way, both have been slightly overrated in cities where they've already bowed.

In "Eastern Promises," director David Cronenberg reunites with Viggo Mortensen with whom he made 2005's "A History of Violence." Working in a minor key, director and actor explore the Russian immigrant subculture of London, with emphasis on the insularity and violence of gangster life.

In other hands, "Eastern Promises" -- from a script by Steve Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things") -- might have been a hard-boiled genre piece, a crime story about power and betrayal. But with Cronenberg at the helm, the movie becomes something more, a disorienting and moody journey through a strange world where rules have been bent beyond the breaking point.

London's Russian mobsters live apart from the mainstream, pursuing their interests with single-minded intent. No mere geographic dislocation can nudge them from the lives they've transported to London, and they're capable of violence so extreme, it practically redefines brutality.

Mortensen plays Nikolai, a gangster who works as a chauffeur to the mob, a branch of the Vory V Zakone crime family. Nikolai is known as "the undertaker" because he specializes in disposing of dead bodies. In an early scene, Nikolai makes quick work of a corpse that has been stored in a freezer. After thawing it with a hair dryer, he proceeds to use a pair of sheers to clip off the fingers. No point making the body easy to identify.

As you probably can tell, "Eastern Promises" includes scenes that probably will cause some viewers to cringe and avert their eyes. It's easy to argue that Cronenberg overdoes the violence -- and, at times, I felt as if he pushed the envelope needlessly far. Whether such images force us to weigh our response to violence or desensitize us to its horrors remains an open question with good arguments to be made on either side of the bloody fence.

The movie's major set piece involves a couple of knife-wielding Chechans who attack Nikolai, a stark naked Mortensen, in a steam bath. Nikolai, whose tattoos serve as an illustrated and coded history of his life, fights back. The editing involves cuts as quick as knife slashes, and you may swear you feel the pain as blades rip through Nikolai's flesh. That the violence tends to be more physically than emotionally felt speaks to Cronenberg's habit of focusing on the torments of the body, the vulnerability of flesh in a predatory environment.

As played by Mortensen, Nikolai remains a mystery. He reveals next to nothing. The upward sweep of his hair exaggerates the sharper angles of an impassive face. Nikolai, of course, is a gangster in a crime drama, but if he's also Cronenberg's on-screen surrogate, he stands for a director who can't quite be reached. Nikolai's smile is more like a memory of smile than a full-fledged grin. Does that smile contain trace elements of warmth or is it more of a condescending smirk?

The story revolves around a baby. Early on, a teen-age Russian girl who was forced into prostitution dies during childbirth. A midwife (Naomi Watts) who works at a North London hospital worries about this orphaned child. Watt's Anna is a second generation Londoner whose father was Russian. She lives with her mother (Sinead Cusack) and her embittered uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski). Her efforts to locate the baby's family bring her into contact with the mob, led by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his wacked-out son (Vincent Cassel). Cassel, as it turns out, makes one of the more memorable, big-screen psychotics yet.

Mueller-Stahl may not have mastered a Russian accent -- he's a German working in English -- but he nails everything else about Semyon. Like many mobsters, Semyon operates a legitimate front, a restaurant that caters to the immigrant crowd. He's soft-spoken, but his rumpled old-world charm can't conceal the viciousness apparent in his gaze. Mueller-Stahl can make his eyes say one thing when the rest of his face is saying another.

The plot, a collection of increasing complexities, sometimes produces predictable results, but it's not the plot that remains with you: It's a feeling for the dimly lit and dangerous world that Cronenberg so ably creates, a sense that its jagged edges might someday reach out and slice into you.

If so, pray that there's a Nikolai nearby, and that, above all, he's on your side.

Director Paul Haggis (the overbearing "Crash") lowers his directorial voice to make "In the Valley of Elah," one of several fall movies dealing with the Iraq War.

Muted and purposefully drab, "Valley" reflects the dispirited mood of a country in which new realities constantly put old bromides to the test. Nowhere are these contractions more apparent than in the character of Hank Deerfield, a former MP and Vietnam War vet played by Tommy Lee Jones. A spit-and-polish guy even in retirement -- he still shines his shoes daily -- Hank travels from Tennessee to New Mexico to investigate the disappearance of a son who just returned from Iraq.

From that point on, the movie becomes a twofold exercise, a character study rooted in the toughness of Jones' performance and a mystery about what happened to Hank's son. Jones doesn't flinch from Hank's ugly side. At one point, Hank's prejudices break through his composed facade, revealing the rage that simmers beneath an ironclad surface. There's something truly frightening about Jones' performance. Although Hank's all-business attitude may have resulted from years of military police work, it doesn't make him any more agreeable. As an actor, Jones does nothing to ingratiate himself with the audience.

In New Mexico, Hank seeks help from a local cop -- a novice investigator played by Charlize Theron. The military wants to conduct its own investigation, making Theron's job all the more difficult.

Susan Sarandon seems largely wasted as Hank's wife, although without her, the movie might have had no emotional weight. She may not be on screen much, but when she is, Sarandon scores big time.

"In the Valley of Elah" can't totally disguise the fact that it's a fairly routine detective procedural -- only with a topical twist. You needn't be a cinema genius to know that the disappearance of Hank's son has something to do with events in Iraq. It's just here that the film may divide pro- and anti-war factions. In this regard, the movie doesn't so much feel like it's revealing truth as taking a ritualized march toward an obligatory conclusion: The hell of war continues even after soldiers return home, only twisted into dangerous new forms.

Even if you don't agree with the movie's overview -- expressed bluntly in Haggis' final shot -- you may find that Haggis has infused a strain of national gloom deep into the movie's bones. "In the Valley of Elah" -- named for the place where David fought Goliath -- seems burdened by a world-weariness it seldom shakes. It's more likely to bring you down than stir you up. I suppose it's a judgment call, but a little more of the latter and a little less of the former might have made for an even worthier effort.

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