A Review of David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”

Haunting Low Wattage Glows in Dank London Night, 24 September 2007
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

An emotionally distraught London midwife (Naomi Watts) finds a mysterious diary on the body of a Russian teenage girl who died in childbirth and slowly sinks deeper into the grimy underbelly of London and uncovers a Russian mob where a lowly driver (Viggo Mortensen) is about to make a stunning play for power. Luckily for the audience, “Eastern Promises” is more in tune with screenwriter Steven Knight’s most recent film (the superb “Dirty Pretty Things”) than it is with director David Cronenberg’s previous endeavor (the criminally overrated “A History of Violence”).

Cronenberg has been honing a disturbingly minimalist directorial style in the later half of his career. It was so low-key the last time around, he actually managed to become the first person to un-direct a film with “A History of Violence.” My theory of un-direction stems from when a director films a piece of work in so minimalist a style, it actually negates any reason for the film to exist. Shockingly, this minimalist technique is put to some good use in “Eastern Promises” as it allows for the emergence of other far superior elements: the elegantly dark and gritty blue-gray cinematography of Peter Suschitzky, the evocative Russian-influenced score from Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, the crafty and tightly focused screenplay from Knight, and most importantly, the amazing performances from the entire cast.

In the lead role of Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen, in tattoos from head to toe, adds new meaning to the idea of an actor throwing himself completely into a “physical role.” He delivers a raw, tense performance that is arguably the greatest of his career.

As Anna, Naomi Watts serves as the heart and soul of the film, giving the audience someone to relate to and root for as the plot grows increasingly dark and grim. Watts has been unfairly dismissed by some as an overly emotive post-modern “scream-queen” due to her roles in films like “Mulholland Drive,” “The Ring,” and “King Kong.” As she has matured as an actress, Watts has grown more subtle and nuanced in her method, and her performance here is richly textured and deeply rewarding as it emerges on the heels of her revelatory work in “The Painted Veil.” She’s the dim glow of hope in this stinking London underworld, and her character haunts the scenes of grotesque violence and criminal power plays that occur when she is off screen.

“Eastern Promises” also deserves credit for the tension it builds as the story unfolds. Cronenberg succumbs to his sadistic natural tendencies at clearly defined intervals throughout the film where shocking spurts of gore and violence rip through the minimalist style like a knife through the heart. This rising and sinking tension culminates in a Turkish sauna knife fight that is the violently dramatic flip-side of the comedic nude wrestling hotel scene in last year’s “Borat.” Like that scene, it exists only to shock, and it will have people buzzing.

Despite the inherent flaws of Cronenberg’s style which always seems to leave a bad taste in your mouth, “Eastern Promises” has just the right amount of star-power, classy production values, and shocking plot twists to be considered one of the best thrillers of 2007.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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A Review of Yoram Lubling’s “Twice Dead”

Twice Remembered

Reviewed By  David H. SchleicherSee all my reviews

Though deeply personal (most of the book deals with correcting history and the memory of the author’s grandfather–a key player in the Treblinka Revolt) and at times impassioned, this is still an academic book. “Twice Dead” is meticulously researched and documented, and its heady philosophical ideas are argued and counter argued in an annotated style that will make it a rather dry read for the casual audience. However, for the student of philosophy or history, it makes for a great read. It is also of special note for those studying the Holocaust because of its foreword by Elie Wiesel, an expert in the field who doesn’t lend his name to things lightly.

“Twice Dead” refers to the idea that many Holocaust victims were murdered twice: once by the Nazis, and a second time by the generations that forgot them. Lubling touches on many subjects: the psychology of Holocaust studies, the ethics of memory, revisionist history, anti-intellectualism, postmodernism, and unreliability of eyewitness accounts, modern Zionism, and the radical Islamic movement. He ends his studies with a chilling visit to Poland and Treblinka visiting the actual spots where his family and countless others were murdered.

While I attended Elon University, I took two courses taught by Yoram Lubling on Martin Buber and Frederick Nietzsche. Reading this book brought back fond memories of the debates and lectures from the intimate classroom setting where Lubling captivated (and I imagine still captivates) his students with his quiet rage and conversational style that provokes as much as it enlightens. Those with vested personal interests in the topics discussed in “Twice Dead” will find much food for thought.

A Review of James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma”

The Train Has Left the Station, 9 September 2007
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

A down-on-his-luck rancher (Christian Bale) attempts to restore some honor to his name, regain the respect of his young sons, and put some money in his pocket by escorting a murderous criminal (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison in James Mangold’s update of the 1950’s Western of the same name based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.

Westerns are a hard sell these days. Unless taking the radical deconstructionist route like the neoclassic “Unforgiven” or the bold avante-garde take of last year’s vastly underrated “The Proposition,” the genre often comes across as stale and unwelcome. The only other film to play it straight recently was Kevin Costner’s “Open Range” in 2003, and that movie was only a moderate success. “3:10 to Yuma” lacks the reverent and epic scope of Costner’s piece, but makes up for it in grittiness and a valiant attempt at psychological complexity.

Unfortunately “3:10 to Yuma” is awash in genre clichés from the robbing of a stagecoach, to the stoic wife/mother at the homestead (Gretchen Mol), to the depiction of Native Americans as mythical phantom threats ready to scalp and kill anyone in their path. Also distracting are the “cameos” that range from a welcome Peter Fonda as a morally questionable bounty hunter to an unwelcome Luke Wilson complete with green teeth as an unnecessary mining posse leader. Likewise the supporting cast is hit or miss with Logan Lerman showing some decent range as Bale’s eldest son while Ben Foster fails miserably at being method as the insane sharp-shooter hellbent on rescuing Crowe from the gallows.

The film’s saving graces are director Mangold’s traditionalist leanings in pacing and Western iconography and the lead performances from Bale and Crowe–two great actors who sometimes resort to scenery-chewing and are shockingly subdued and nuanced here in their multiple physical and mental face-offs. “3:10 to Yuma” culminates in a fantastic finale at the train station that is entertaining enough to forgive the cattle cars of clichés, buy not enough to make the audience wish they would resurrect the genre more often.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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