Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Top Movies of 2007: How Can I Stab Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Because the month of January sucks at running, I'm boycotting the sport for the coming weeks, and placing my allegiances squarely with Hollywood, for whom January is a font of delicious goodness, like one of those chocolate fountains you'll see at wedding receptions and the occasional Sweet Sixteen. Below I document my journey through the Best Movies of 2007 in preparation for the Oscars...

Before we begin: a poem, on Eastern Promises...

Shall I stab you in the leg?
Shall I stab you in the head?
Shall I cut you in the arm?
Use a shiv to bring you harm?
Shall I slash you in the neck?
Shall I slash you in the back?
Shall I razorblade your throat?
Throw your body in a moat?
Thank you. (More after the jump.)

EASTERN PROMISES, dir. David Cronenberg

You might remember David Cronenberg's A History of Violence - that 2005 movie best known for hits such as "Viggo Mortensen Graphically Shown Stabbed in the Foot" and "Side of Man's Face Blown Off in Shotgun Blast." Having seen that film, I really shouldn't have been so surprised by the vicious killings which are at the front and center of Promises -- in which the work of Mortensen's London-based, Russian hitman sees him criss-cross into the life of a midwife (Naomi Watts) who delivered a mob-baby orphaned in the delivery room -- nor the brutal and unflinching depiction of those murders. But still, I found myself uniquely unsettled by them.

That the knife is the weapon of choice in Promises -- not the gun of Violence -- chiefly contributes to how directly the moments of violence impact the viewer. Cronenberg has shown a talent for presenting violence in a blunt, "That's the way it is" manner, without wallowing or glorying in the gore. The same largely holds true here (save one shot I found a bit gratuitous) and, with the combat predominantly hand-to-hand in nature, the struggle and the desperation of the Russian mobsters has its personification in a most literal way.

Unfortunately, the script never makes it clear exactly what has been a struggle for these mobsters, despite asserting it in voice-over read for the diary of the orphan's teen-prostitute mother. There is a brief scene recounting the past hardships of the Mortensen character, Nikolai, but they are talked, not shown, and this verbal exposition comes so late in the movie that the viewer is forced to retrace steps to read it into previous scenes, when the movie should instead be extending moments of tension and moving forward toward a climax.

The saving grace of the film, really, would have been a bath-house scene which, unfortunately for Cronenberg, was used to perfection in Borat. The second time around, seeing naked men wrestling around on the ground, just isn't as funny as the first.

And I'm not really sure how all the stabbing in that scene was supposed to help that fact.

TOMORROW: Juno, directed by who knows who, and starring Ellen Page, the delightful Michael Cera, and Jason Bateman.

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