Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Director David Cronenberg re-teams with A History of Violence star Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, a stylistically similar view of the Russian mafia in London that teems with authenticity. Cronenberg´s trademarks – deliberate pacing, not-so subtle exploration of violence – are on full display here, leaving the film as a love-it-or-hate-it experience; fans of the director (myself included) will eat it up as Cronenberg continues to deliver at, perhaps, the apex of his career.
Naomi Watts is Anna Khitrova, midwife at London´s Trafalgar Hospital who delivers a baby girl a minute after the unknown mother is pronounced deceased. In an attempt to discover the identity of the mother – and find a home for the baby – Anna looks through her diary for some information. It´s in Russian, and when her uncle Stepan refuses to translate it, she takes it to restaurant owner Seymon – who is also, unbeknownst to Anna, a ruthless Mafioso patriarch whose rabid son Kiril (Vincent Cassel) is mentioned extensively in the diary. Mortensen stars as Nikolai, who works as a driver for Semyon and Kiril, and is tasked with some morally questionable duties while rising through their ranks. What could have become a straight thriller is instead more interested in character and detail; it´s a testament to Cronenberg´s abilities that he manages to paint this world so vividly while still telling a compelling story.
Highlight of the film is a bathhouse fight scene featuring a gratuitously nude Mortensen; this is the scene that´ll have ‘em talking, as Cronenberg contrasts harsh realism with action-movie standards – you´ll likely hear some chuckles throughout the audience, most viewers not knowing how to react. After this stunner, however, the film meanders somewhat to an anticlimactic (though effective) finale. Mortensen completely disappears into the role of Nikolai; he´s almost unrecognizable at times (though he bears a striking resemblance to Ed Harris here) in one of the few instances of a Hollywood star not serving distraction when donning a foreign accent. Watts is given less to work with but remains credible as Anna; Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is wonderful as her “old-school” working-class Russian uncle Stepan. Screenplay is by Steven Knight, who offers a similarly gritty view of the criminal London underbelly as he did in Stephen Frears´ underrated Dirty Pretty Things.
For two-thirds of its running time, Francis Lawrence´s I Am Legend packs one hell of a punch: just Will Smith and his dog walking around deserted, post-apocalyptic New York City streets by day while hiding from the grotesque vampire/zombies (all that remains from the world´s population after a viral outbreak) that come out at night. As with 1971´s The Omega Man and 1964´s Last Man on Earth (all based on the same Richard Matheson novel), the deserted city landscapes make for absolutely stunning visuals; they´re far more impressive than the computer-generated creature effects here, which often distract with their too-fluid, almost cartoonish motions (though I´m sure some amount of cgi was used in creating a deserted NYC, I´m assured most of it was accomplished without).
Robert Neville (Smith) was a scientist before the outbreak, and he now devotes his time attempting to cure the disease, experimenting on mice and even some creatures he manages to capture. He explores the empty New York streets with his German Shepherd Sam, hunting deer that now roam Central Park or raiding abandoned houses and stores, carrying on discussions with mannequins while attempting to avoid going (completely) crazy. Smith is good in a change of pace from his usual work – he´s tasked with the job of carrying most of the film by himself, and accomplishes it quite well. But, not unlike Wilson in Cast Away, his dog Sam (played by ‘Abby´) is a major character here, and one of the best animal performers I´ve ever seen: she lends the film a true emotional resonance, and not just through the manipulations of the screenplay. The first hour of I Am Legend is classic stuff – and then and then Neville tosses himself into certain death, only to have the film interject a preposterous Deus Ex Machina. But OK – the rest of the film is good enough, I can forgive this. Then comes the jarring introduction of overtly Christian themes, and I´m sorry Mr. Lawrence, you have sunk your film in the eyes of the intelligent viewer (not that I have anything against Christian themes, but they clearly don´t belong in this movie and are forcefully fed to us). Even with the total miscalculations during the final reels, this is at least an equal to the previous adaptations of Richard Matheson´s novel – perhaps very slightly better than both – all of which lure us in with the terrific premise before managing to underwhelm by the end. Still recommended for the indiscriminating viewer.
Also opening: the Czech comedy Svatba na bitevním poli (showtimes), from director Dušan Klein and starring Bolek Polívka, Josef Somr, Zlata Adamovská, Jan Budař, Jiří Langmajer. Screening in Czech without subtitles.