“EASTERN PROMISES” (2007) Review

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”EASTERN PROMISES” (2007) Movie Review

Two years ago, I saw the crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg called, ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. Viggo Mortensen had starred in the movie, portraying a happily-married café owner, whose Good Samaritan actions against two thugs led to his disclosure as a former mob enforcer. Both Cronenberg and Mortensen reunited to collaborate on another crime thriller called, ”EASTERN PROMISES”

Based upon a screenplay written by Steve Knight, ”EASTERN PROMISES” began with a gangland murder and the death of a 14 year-old Russian-born prostitute while giving birth to an infant girl. The two incidents would resonate over the lives of a London hospital midwife of Russian descent named Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a Russian mob boss and restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his wastrel son Krill (Vincent Cassel) and the mob boss’ enigmatic chauffeur, Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen).

The plot is a little too complex for me to explain in this review. Needless to say that it centered around the mob boss’ attempt to recover the dead prostitute’s diary, which found itself in the hands of the hospital midwife. However, I would suggest that one see the movie. No one will be disappointed. I know I found it very interesting. Yes, it has violence, but not as much that was found in ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. But the amount of blood shown in the film – especially in the gangland slaying and the prostitute’s death – seemed to like a metaphor of the story’s theme . . . and the connection between the major characters.

On the surface, ”EASTERN PROMISES” seemed like a typical crime thriller centered around a Russian crime family in London. But the plot – like three of the major characters – turned out to be something quite different than what appears to be on the surface. What seemed like a gang war, turned out to be a lurid family secret that brings down the Russian mobster. As I had earlier pointed out, this theme is also apparent in three of the four major characters:

*Krill –who seemed like a crude and murderous monster on the surface and proves to be more benign

*Semyon – a talented cook and mob boss, whose grandfatherly demeanor hides a darker and more ruthless personality

*Nikolai – the enigmatic chauffeur, whose practical and cynical nature makes him unsuited to merely be the family’s driver. As in the case of Semyon and Krill, he turns out to be someone very different.

And it is through the eyes of the London midwife, Anna that the audience becomes acquainted with the exotic (at least in American and British eyes) world of Russian émigrés mingled with the violence and degeneracy of the Vory v Zakone (Russian Mafia). Thanks to Cronenberg’s direction, the world of the Vory v Zakone seemed so exotic and something never seen before. In fact, it seemed so insular that the usual British atmosphere of London almost seemed miles away, despite the presence of Scotland Yard. One sequence that came to mind is the hand-to-hand fight between Nikolai and two Chechen assassins seeking revenge for the gangland murder in the movie’s opening scene. The sight of a nude Mortensen viciously defending his life against two burly assassins inside a London bathhouse is one that I will never forget. And I suspect that it will become an unforgettable in the minds of moviegoers for years to come.

I was also impressed by the performances in the movie. Despite having the least interesting character, Watts managed – with her usual competency – infused pathos and spirit in the London midwife. And Mueller-Stahl did an excellent job of portraying a brutal and ruthless man who manages to hide these traits under a veneer of warmth and civility. But I feel that Cassel deserves an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the pathetic Krill, who tries to hide his weaknesses (or what he conceives as weakness) with a crude and extroverted persona.

Finally, there is Viggo Mortensen, whose portrayal of the enigmatic Nikolai might finally allow the critics to truly appreciate his skills as an actor. Instead of using words or openly expressed emotions, Mortensen manages to reveal his character to the audience through subtle words (in a Russian accent that surprisingly works), body language, costume and especially in his eyes. What makes Mortensen so remarkable as a film actor is that he has no need for big speeches (which he had attempted in ”LORD OF THE RINGS: Return of the King”) or outbursts of emotions to convey to express his characters’ personalities. This certainly seemed true in the scene in which Nikolai has sex with one of the prostitutes, in the whorehouse owned by Krill’s father. Nikolai does not simply have sex with the woman. He IS FORCED to do so . . . on the orders of Krill, who wants Nikolai to prove that he is not a homosexual. The audience was well aware that the prostitute felt violated and exploited. But Mortensen managed to convey through his eyes, Nikolai also felt violated, exploited . . . and disgusted at Krill’s desire to watch him have sex with the prostitute. Good performance by Mortensen.

What else can I say about ”EASTERN PROMISES”? It is not the best movie I have seen this year. But I feel that it is a fascinating and emotionally complex story that seems different from the usual crime thriller. Unlike ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”, it is not capped by a violence sequence that gives us the last word on the protagonist’s fate. Yet, all the same, I found it very tense and emotional.

“OCEAN’S THIRTEEN” (2007) Review

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“OCEAN’S THIRTEEN” (2007) Review

After the rather disappointing 2004’s ”Ocean’s Twelve”, I really did not expect to even like this third entry into what became a trilogy. I more than liked ”Ocean’s Thirteen”. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only was it better than the second film, I found it just as enjoyable as the first – namely 2001’s ”Ocean’s Eleven”

Directed by Oscar winner, Steven Soderbergh, the movie starts out in a series of flashbacks in which Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), one of Danny Ocean’s associates from the first two films, makes the mistake of building a hotel with one of Las Vegas’ most hated businessmen, Willy Bank (Al Pacino). He gets cut out of the deal and ends up in the hospital after a heart attack. In an attempt to help his old friend Reuben, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) approaches Bank and asks him to restore Reuben’s share of the hotel. In their exchange, Ocean appeals to the code of honor that applies to those people who have shaken Sinatra’s hand – both Reuben and Bank have done so. Bank glibly denies Ocean’s request saying of Reuben, “He’s made the right choice: roll over and die. Let him be.” Ocean and his crew decide to bring down Banks by rigging his new hotel and casino – The Bank – to lose $500 million dollars on the night of its Grand Opening, six months later. When they run out of money, they enlist the help of former nemesis – casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who wants to settle a score against Bank for creating hotel/casinos that have been taking the spotlight from his casinos.

I could go into detail about the movie’s plot, but I rather not. It happens to be a complicated plot. Don’t get me wrong. Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s (”Rounders”) plot is not convoluted. Aside from one or two plot points, I perfectly understood what was going on. But I feel that it is too complicated for me to spell it out in details. Instead, I will simply point out the moments that I truly enjoyed:

-I found the gang’s initial plot to kill Willy Bank and dispose of his body in retaliation for Reuben’s condition rather funny and a great moment of ensemble acting from the cast:

-Another moment I enjoyed was when Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) caught Danny watching an episode of Oprah.

-I loved Linus Caldwell’s (Matt Damon) impersonation of a ”mouthpiece” for an Asian real-estate mogul (Yen in disguise); especially when he is called upon to seduce Bank’s assistant, Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin), using artificial pheromones, which act as an aphrodisiac to maximize her attraction to him. Apparently, Linus needed her to get him inside Willy Bank’s Diamond Room.

-There is a great sequence of scenes featuring a hotel reviewer who is treated as “the V.U.P.” (the always great character actor David Paymer) or “Very Unimportant Person”, when Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) is mistaken as the reviewer. The V.U.P.’s discovery of bed bugs in his room is part-hilarious, part-creepy.

-Don Cheadle as the group’s mechanical genius Basher Tarr gets to shine in a scene in which he impersonates a motorcycle stuntman in order to distract Bank, while Virgil and Turk Malloy (Casey Afflect and Scott Caan)

-Another great moment is when the plot to financially ruin Bank comes together with many of the hotel’s patrons winning large sums of money at most of the gaming tables in the casino. Actually, this entire sequence was done within a montage.

-But my favorite sequences feature featured Virgil Malloy’s (Casey Affleck) efforts to load the casino’s specially designed dice at a factory in Mexico. Virgil is sent there to infiltrate the factory. Instead, he loses sight of his mission when he sees the working conditions at the factory. Instead of fixing the dice, he decides to fix the problem and lead his co-workers in a revolt.

As usual, the cast is great. I especially enjoyed Al Pacino’s performance as the backstabbing casino owner, Willy Bank. He managed to be flamboyant, without going over-the-top. I also enjoyed seeing Ellen Barkin in a memorable role, after all of these years. But I must admit that I especially enjoyed Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, David Paymer, Don Cheadle and Elliot Gould in this film. And Steven Soderbergh did a great job in maintaining the movie’s pace, drawing out memorable performances and especially capturing the flash and glitter of early 21st century Las Vegas. In fact, I think that ”Ocean’s Thirteen” is just as good as the first movie, ”Ocean’s Eleven” . . . and thankfully, a great improvement over the confusing ”Ocean’s Twelve”.

9/10 stars