Sunday, October 14, 2007

Promises, Weddings and a Black Book

Eastern Promises (2007, Director David Cronenberg, Writer Steven Knight )

Russian Prison Tattoos, Mafia, Crime, Prostitution -- all in London. But one can't look at London and ignore soccer, especially the Russian factor in the English game today.

Follow the game. The film starts with a barber, Azim, forcing his son (Ekrem) to slit the throat of a Russian mobster. A little while later, we see Ekrem excited to get tickets for the Chelsea game. At this point, it appears that Ekrem may be a supporter for Chelsea. But that belief is dispelled when later in film, he goes to a Chelsea game cheering for Arsenal. One is clearly asking for trouble supporting Arsenal in Chelsea's stadium. Even a police officer tells the drunk Ekrem to quieten down. He does not listen and continues to voice his love for Arsenal. While he is relieving himself, his throat is slit by two men who are avenging their Russian comrade, killed at the film's start by Ekrem. These scenes may seem pointless but they are not, especially when penned by someone who understands London as well as Steven Knight, the same writer who brilliantly uncovered the messy layers of London in Dirty Pretty Things

The rivalry between Chelsea and Arsenal is well documented. But that hatred took on a new turn when the Russian, Roman Abramovich, bought Chelsea in 2003 and splashed millions to make Chelsea rival Arsenal as London's and even England's best soccer team. The gates were opened. Over the years, more Russian billionares started buying up shares in English soccer teams and investing in property. And last year, reports of a Russian spy being poisoned while in London for a soccer game made headlines. English Soccer, Russia and the mafia?

In Eastern Promises, the soccer rivalry is mirrored with the mafia power play. Ekrem and his father are both Turkish while they do business with the Russian mafia. A few scenes indicate that Azim is not thrilled at doing business with the Russians but he is forced to do so. Azim's son, Ekrem, is killed while on Chelsea's turf, a Russian owned property. The climatic knife fight takes place in a Turkish bath house in Finsbury. Finsbury is in North London, home of Arsenal. So Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the Russian, is forced to defend himself on his opponent's turf. It seems appropriate really. The gang wars take place on a soccer territory.

While I really admired the soccer tie-in, I can't help question the worthiness of this movie. Even though all the acting performances are very good, the film appears to offer nothing interesting. It shows a simplistic story about a few Russian individuals; it is not making any general statements about Russian mafia in London. A few examples of prostitution driven by poverty across the Eastern-Western borders are shown (Import Export, Iska's Journey made similar references but in more depth). But the film moves about in a cold and calculated manner. The screenplay is driven forward by too many coincidences, no natural flow, just contrived meetings resulting in subsequent events taking place. And then there is the knife scene in the end. What really is the point of it? Now, if one follows the soccer angle, it makes sense that the scene took place in a Turkish bath house in North London. But the scene appears against the flow of the rest of the movie.

Rating: 8/10

After the Wedding (2006, Director Susanne Bier): Rating 8/10

An interesting film shot in a Dogma 95 filming style. The film opens in India where Jacob (an exiled Dane) is working in an orphanage. But the orphanage is in financial trouble and on the verge of shutting down. In order to save the place, he has to fly to Denmark to meet a potential financial sponsor. Over there, an unexpected series of events engulf Jacob. Susanne Bier piles on the drama with multiple layers of complicated scenarios. While there are plenty of engaging moments, at a running time of 2 hours, the film drags on longer than it should.

Black Book (2006, Director Paul Verhoeven): Rating 6/10

I was looking forward to this film but I was shocked to find it so sub-standard. Even though the story might be inspired by true incidents, it has gone through a Hollywood style production process -- stereo-typical characters, dramatic explosive scenes and contrived escape/revenge sequences. Some scenes really defy belief. For example, an evil character escapes Amsterdam via road. How to catch such a man? Easy, just get in a car and head out onto the road. Since there is apparently only one road that leaves Amsterdam, one is bound to run into the villain! And another scene: a Nazi informer is shot in plain view a block from a Nazi headquarters. The killing is loud with many bullets fired. But all that noise does not draw the Nazis. But in other sequences, a slight pin drop alerts a full Nazi army into action.

A director's film vs a studio film with a director:

Fellini once commented that film producers were not interested "in making a Fellini film" but instead wanted "to make a film with Fellini". In that sense, both Eastern Promises and Black Book are studio films made with reputable directors and not a true Cronenberg or Verhoeven film! Even though both films contain some signature scenes of the directors, they are clearly cleaned up for a larger multiplex audience. There is some promise offered by either movie but I didn't find them engaging enough to warrant too much attention once the final credits rolled.

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