Finally, nine months into '07 and 70+ films later, I've witnessed a crop of great movies:
David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" is a subtle genre piece that shuffles along in hushed dialogue and somber tones. Of course, there's his flair for brutal violence (2 throat slashings and a pretty harsh knife fight) and chameleon-like reversals of fortune amongst the lead characters, but "Eastern Promises" is something different from his previous genre foray, "A History of Violence". While that film certainly reveled in its graphic novel source material, "Eastern Promises" stays fairly straight and plays out Steve Knight's script in orthodox yet intriguing ways. Part of the pleasure with all of Cronenberg's films (but especially his post 1999 work) is the cold, calculated manner in which one interacts with his films. Even though this isn't "Videodrome" or "The Brood", his films tend to stir up tense emotions and one finds themselves carefully studying each and every frame for some deception. In "Eastern Promises", honestly, very few things of startling drama happen. The plot shifts in slow, methodical ways and though these shifts aren't shattering, they continually shed light on an earlier line of dialogue or small gesture which illuminates the shadings of its characters depth. Mortenson's character, especially, goes through an interesting metamorphisis as "Eastern Promises" winds down. And that's probably the most shattering realization of them all. The punch of a Cronenberg film is how cleverly he peels away the surface of the film's drama to reveal something entirely different. It worked wonderfully in "A History of Violence" and it works in "Eastern Promises" as well. This is another strong addition to his body of work.
The Hunting Party
Richard Shepard's "The Hunting Party" is one of those rare cinematic events that I yearn for each time I enter a movie theater. Picture this: you see a trailer for a movie a couple months ago and one of its stars (in this case, the extraordinary Terrence Howard) is a magnetic draw for you. So, the movie opens and very little advance word of mouth has preceeded it, much less have you read any reviews so there's no hyperbole surrounding things. Then you actually see the movie and it's such an energetic, lively, and thrilling experience that your minor expectations are dramatically achieved. Well, my friends, "The Hunting Party" is all that.
Reminiscient of David O' Russell's "Three Kings", "The Hunting Party" is a wildly irreverent trip through a not-so-long-ago part of international warfare known as the Bosnian War. Simon Hunt (Richard Gere, elevating each performance as he grays in life) and Ducky (Howard) are two war-time correspondants charged with covering the war. Their history together, full of being thrown in the middle of hot spots all over the world, consists of bullet dodging and international acclaim. Then, Hunt self destructs during a live interview one day and folds away into the background while Ducky earns his promotion out of the war zones and into the posh lifestyle of filming Senate debates and Presdential campaigns. Six years after the war, Ducky returns to Serbia with his new boss (a consistently humorous James Brolin) and the network's son, played with charm by Jesse Eisenberg. From out of nowhere comes Hunt, full of raging ideas that he knows where to locate the war criminal known as The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes). Ducky, who's always unable to resist Hunt's insatiable appetite for the dangerous, joins him on his quest with network son in tow. From there, "The Hunting Party" tramples on genre, zig-zagging between political essay, thriller, comedy and melodrama without an ounce of pretension. Director Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay based on an Esquire article, knows no boundaries and not only does each genre work, but he hits natural notes in casting, dialogue delivery and character interaction. It's amazing to watch the small details that Gere and Howard insinuate into their performances, such as their parlance of "fuck" (used liberally in this movie, which propogated several walk-outs during my screening) and the way Howard plays a guitar in the backseat. Also, like Russell in "Three Kings", Shepard uses a dark period in international history to blend comedy and drama in realistic and unflinching ways. Everything in this film works. It's funny when it wants to be funny and it's a bit touching in the revelation of some character's motivations. Its declaration in the opening credits that "only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true" presents its tongue-in-cheek attitude right away, but it also a film that grounds itself in phenominal performances and a sobering narrative that doesn't let us ignore the atrocities caused during this forgotten war fought on another continent. And for those of us wondering, Shepard's playful, Godardian-like style tells us during the end credits which parts of the story where exaggerated and which parts were true. "The Huting Party" is one of the very best films of the year.
Andrea Arnold's "Red Road" was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and its no surprise her digitized/modernized update of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is as equally fascinating. Kate Dickie is Jackie, a Glasgow surveillance worker whose overnight work includes the monotonous monitoring of the city's many Closed Circuit Television cameras. Initially watching for crimes, her interest denigrates into people watching, such as a nice older man with a sick dog and a cleaning lady in one of the highrise buildings. But then, her focus becomes transfixed on a man she spots in a dark field fucking a woman. His image dredges back old wounds and she embarks on a mission to confirm or deny her thoughts on who this person really is. It all sounds rather sinister, and Arnold's film is a revelation of intense control and slow-burn tension. Realized and created under a Lars vonTrier Dogma pretense that 3 different directors will coordinate three different films, "Red Road" certainly isn't a film stunt. It's emotions and narrative drive are real, and it also burrows deep into something complex as Jackie carries out her exacting plan for..... something. Go into this film cold, and it'll surprise you. Great stuff.
The second film of 3 released this year on American shores, Johnny To's "Triad Election" carries on his manic attention to style and yakuza violence. Much more subdued, though, is this tale of two men each vying for the hallowed "chairman" seat of the yakuza Society. At times, To's linear story gets lost in his sumptuous visual palette and detailed framing (which continues towards spaghetti western more and more) but there's plenty to enjoy in "Triad Election". I've been shouting to the heavens about To since stumbling across his 2005 masterpiece, "Throwdown", and I'm glad he's finally getting some proper recognition outside of Hong Kong.
Full reviews of theatrical releases can be read at Talking Moviezzz