Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

To read Scott's Day Three, click here.

Movie Of The Day: Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg)

The Cronenberg-directed A History Of Violence drew on scattered pulp fiction mainstays like secret identities, super-powers, mob justice and cheerleaders–all in service of a story that considered how useful those fantasies are in the real world. Eastern Promises does much the same, telling a London-set story about an obstetric nurse (played by Naomi Watts) who tries to find the family of an orphaned baby, and winds up crossing the path of a Russian crimelord. Eastern Promises is actually a little more Cronenbergian than AHOV, fully displaying all of his usual obsessions with the human body as a vessel to be used and abused. Throats get slit, fingers chopped off, women are forced into joyless sex, and in one striking set piece, a Russian mob soldier played by Viggo Mortensen engages in a fight that gives new meaning to the term "balls out."

But Eastern Promises is also a little more staid than Cronenberg at his best. It's essentially an efficient gangland mini-saga, dressed up in stylish, not always well-fitting Cronenberg clothes. Even a major late-film plot twist barely registers, serving more as a callback to History than something thematically resonant in and of itself. That said, it would be silly to shrug off a well-made genre piece like this, especially when it may have depths that could take a second screening to plumb. (Depths that, frankly, A History Of Violence didn't have, as much as I really like that film.) There's something going on here, related to the idea of the public self versus the private self, and how this dilemma impacts denizens of the underworld. It's just that sometimes Eastern Promises' mobflick plot gears are grinding too hard to hear what's really being said. (B)

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Silent Light (dir. Carlos Reygadas): If I'm going to talk about the nagging artificiality of indie-twee movies like the apparently much-beloved-by-everyone-but-me Juno, it's only fair to note that I have a similar problem with syrup-paced art movies like the latest from the director of Japon and Battle In Heaven. The setting and story of Silent Light are undeniably compelling, and the imagery is beyond stunning. But in following the repercussions of sexual infidelity in a Mexican Mennonite farm family, Reygadas aims for the kind of dreamy pacing that requires characters to maintain silence for uncomfortably long stretches of time before coming out with aphorisms like, "Peace is stronger than love." (Which prompts the other person in the scene to ponder silently for 30 seconds or so before responding, and so on.) I understand that Reygadas isn't going for realism here, but even for a pure-cinema reverie, Silent Light is frustratingly removed from a recognizable world, where people talk like people. (Or heck, where they just talk.) But a lot of my cinephile friends–ones whose opinions I respect–really love this movie, so take my eye-rolling with a dose of mitigation. (C+)

4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (dir. Cristian Mungiu): I realize this is wholly a matter of personal taste, not objective aesthetic judgment, but given a choice between the draggy unreality of Silent Light and the gripping you-are-there drama of this acclaimed Romanian film, I'll take Romany every time. Here, people do talk. And talk, and talk. Just like The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East Of Bucharest, Mungiu's debut feature is first and foremost a performance piece, in which Anamaria Marinca plays a frazzled woman, trying to secure an abortion for her university roommate and getting distracted along the way by tiny details and not-as-idle-as-she'd-like conversations. I understand why people say they prefer their movies not to deal with real life, because we live real life every day. But the best "realistic" films can be startling in the way they depict aspects of real life that we we're too busy living to notice. In 4 Months' case, it's the feeling of being isolated in crisis mode, while everyone else goes about their daily routine. The movie also deals with something that many of us don't have to experience, thankfully: the feeling of doing something you can't tell anyone about, and thus feeling completely at risk. (A-).

You, The Living (dir. Roy Andersson): Compared to Andersson's stunning and at times achingly sad Songs From The Second Floor, his new concoction of deep-focus deadpan gags and episodic whimsy is pretty slight. It's more like a sketch comedy show than a movie: an 88-minute episode of Little Britain, if you will. But though You, The Living has way too many dead spots to be called a successful comedy–even of the surreal, Tati/Buñuel variety–when it's funny, it's deep-belly-laugh funny. And because the humor is bound up in the epic-scaled images and low-key performances, it's almost impossible to describe You, The Living's delights in print. (The movie is also plotless, with only a couple of recurring characters and no clear theme, which doesn't help.) All I can suggest is that you watch this. If it makes you laugh, give Andersson a try. (B).

Into The Wild (dir. Sean Penn): Since he started moonlighting as a director, Sean Penn has generally made hard-edged, challenging films, including one of my favorites, The Pledge, which grapples with the line between faith and obsession in a way that lets no believer or non-believer off the hook. In his adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild, the challenging part has nothing to do with the style–which is about as fluid and accessible as any movie I've seen this year–but with Penn's interpretation of the life and death of nature-lover Christopher McCandless. Penn's version emphasizes (and cheers) McCandless' rejection of American materialism, while simultaneously insisting that the kid went too far when he turned his back on his family–biological and otherwise. Personally, I don't quite buy Penn's take on the events in question–and I'm not sure Krakauer does either, if I recall the book correctly–but the wonderful thing about Penn's Into The Wild is that it dramatizes McCandless' cross-country journey so artfully, and with such specificity, that viewers can take away from it whatever they want. (It's one of the reasons I think the movie is a lock for a Best Picture nomination, and may be the front-runner.) Myself, I learned this lesson: If you're embarking on an adventure that you hope to return from, don't keep going until you're exhausted. Go halfway. (A-).

Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…

It's been reassuring to see Roger Ebert out and about at so many press screenings, even though his mouth remains permanently agape, awaiting more surgery. (It's because of this condition, coupled with my own shyness, that I haven't walked up to him to welcome him back to Toronto. If he can't speak, it seems thoughtless to try to engage him in conversation.) I see other well-known critics every day too, some of whom I'm friendly enough with to say hello to, and most of whom wouldn't know me even if they looked at my press badge. I see David Poland and Jeffrey Wells crossing paths, pointedly not looking at each other. I see The Reeler's S.T. Van Airsdale frequently, hustling up interviews for "Reeler TV." And today I sat next to Jonathan Rosenbaum at Eastern Promises, which made me a little self-conscious, because I know how bothered Rosenbaum can be by callous, dehumanizing screen violence. Every time the audience laughed or "ooo"-ed at something gory in the Cronenberg, I was wondering how he was interpreting the reaction. Myself, I think people laugh at violence in movies for a lot of reasons, not all of which can be blamed on the director. Sometimes people are just dicks. Or sometimes they're laughing in relief, as a way of getting over their own shock. (And sometimes the violence is meant to be funny, which isn't always a bad thing, really.)


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