Eastern Promises

Another compelling Cronenberg genre exercise. With a great script by Jeff Knight that takes us into the dark heart of the Russian mafia in London, it’s worth the ticket price alone for a fight scene that is among the most intense I’ve ever seen. The rest of the movie’s not bad either, with strong central performances from Viggo Mortenson (as a a chauffer who knows too much) and Naomi Watts (as a midwife who ditto). Vincent Cassel, as the screw-up son of the local mob boss, is sadly out of his accent, although he does manage to show another wrinkle to the psycho character he’s played so often. Howard Shore’s score evokes Russian folk music, classical romanticism and a little bit of Lord of the Rings. (Viggo stars in the movie, after all.)

By not reaching too far outside the confines of its story, Eastern Promises manages to resonate all the more. If it has a moral, it is the repeated line from the diary of a dead prostitute. Her father met his end in a mining accident, thus was ‘buried before he died’. Various characters experience living deaths in Eastern Promises. This is no accident. It seems to be human nature to be drawn towards them.

The Darjeeling Limited

Reportedly writer/director Wes Anderson loathes the adjective ‘quirky.’ I wonder how he feels about the word ‘precious,’ which (New York Times critic and my nemesis) A.O. Scott dubbed his entire oeuvre, from Bottle Rocket to Life Aquatic to Darjeeling. Scott means it as a complement, but it’s a rather back-handed complement, because it encapsulates the worst quality of Wes’ recent movies, their inability to see the forest for the groundcover.

I don’t mind Wes being quirky, because he clearly has an emotional agenda behind it. General audiences seem to prefer undiluted quirk. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a bomb. I didn’t like it on first viewing either, but I’ve come to see it for what it is, a profoundly sad movie about loss. The Darjeeling Limited is also about loss, three brothers still dealing with the death of a father more than a year later. But general audiences might be warmer, since it is one step back towards The Royal Tennenbaums. On the other hand, it’s still a big middle finger to popular taste, and unrepentantly fetishistic when it comes to clothing and luggage.

There is a short film that goes along with it, “The Hotel Chevalier,” available free on iTunes. It goes some way towards explaining some of the odder moments of The Darjeeling Limited, including the climax of the train car tableaux montage that is wonderful but entirely extraneous to the plot. It also has a way of tilting the movie’s balance between the three brothers towards Jason Schwartzman’s Francis.

Although I saw the movie before Owen Wilson’s reported suicide attempt, I can see how his character will also receive extra scrutiny now, especially since the “motorcycle accident” that marred his face was at the very least subconsciously intentional. I have been in the habit of giving Owen Wilson some retroactive screenwriting credit for the earlier and funnier Wes movies, but now I even see his uncredited influence in the recent sad ones.

Even with the handicap of spotlights on the other two leads, it is Adrian Brody who steals the show in Darjeeling. His performance is what lights the emotional incense of the film and keeps it burning. Only he is able to bring depth to Wes’ fastidious, two-dimentional frames. He transcends preciousness. He transcends quirkiness. He feels sadness and decides life is worth living anyway. Pray Owen does too.

3:10 to Yuma

Good but not great. The movie has two great leads played by two of the great contemporary actors, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Unfortunately, Bale is so convincing as a down-trodden rancher and Crowe so believable as a heartless bandit that when the former shows guts and the latter shows heart, I just couldn’t buy it. Writer/director James Mangold directs a script he didn’t write this time, although apparently he inserted Crowe’s character’s propensity for Bible versing. That was almost enough for me to buy the transformation that occurs at the sight of a crucifix, but not quite.

3:10 to Yuma, for all its smarts, is actually a summer popcorn movie. It aspires to be more, and the great musical score by Marco Beltrami almost convinces you it is. But don’t examine it too closely, because behind some great action sequences and fine acting moments there’s only tumbleweeds, blowing down empty streets.