Press screenings for the New York Film Festival began last week, meaning my life is now busy as all get-out. Still, the past few days were made bearable by the fact that I managed to see one great film (Assassination of Jesse James), as well as a couple (Chuck, Kingdom) that were so bad, they were ridicule-worthy.
Regardless of its air of self-seriousness, The Orphanage is nonsense of the first order. Juan Antonio Bayona’s directorial debut, arriving at this year’s New York Film Festival with the “produced by” imprint of last year’s fest fave Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), is little more than a nonsensical, frequently ludicrous version of The Others, a ghost story in which character motivation is haphazard and scares as scarce as narrative logic. Decades after leaving an orphanage to live with foster parents, Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the now-abandoned institution with a husband (Fernando Cayo) and her own foster son (Roger Príncep’s Simón) – who, for unknown plot reasons, has HIV – to establish a center for handicapped kids. Once ensconced in the creepy building, bump-in-the-night weirdness commences, from a strange old lady lurking around the property to Simon playing treasure-hunt games with imaginary (or are they?) friends and then, eventually, vanishing. A kid in a sack mask haunts Laura at a party, trying to compel her to solve a long-buried crime involving Laura’s former foster care pals, their caretaker, and a John Merrick-looking deformed child. That the primary mystery lacks mysteriousness drains The Orphanage of suspense, which is largely replaced by a sense of parodic ridiculousness epitomized by baffling Peter Pan allusions that are introduced early and then revisited at the tale’s hokey epilogue. Still, for sheer silliness, nothing tops a scene in which Laura’s hubby valiantly gives mouth-to-mouth to a female car accident victim – and then director Bayona, in a money shot which is meant to be haunting but in fact is only hilarious, quickly cuts to reveal that the woman’s smashed visage no longer features a mouth.
It’s unclear what specific act Russian gangster Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is threatening when, after meeting with the uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) of a woman (Naomi Watts) causing his employer trouble, he jabs two fingers into his neck and then points at the man. The gesture’s insinuation of hostility, however, is terrifyingly clear, as is its connection to Eastern Promises’ more general characterization of Nikolai and his ruthless cohorts as vampires. “I am already dead,” says Nikolai during an initiation ceremony in which his heavily tattooed frame is bared, the various ink drawings recounting a cold-blooded existence as dutiful mob lackey, though his status as a man with no emotional or moral pulse is inescapable even when he’s decked out in a long black overcoat and matching shades. Moreover, with his heavily scarred physique, he’s also the director’s latest piece of “new flesh,” an example of the body transmogrified to reflect the inner soul, and the film is – in typical Cronenberg fashion – a portrait of said vessel’s vulnerability to assault and invasion, peaking with a tour de force sequence featuring a completely nude Nikolai fending off would-be assassins in a bathhouse.
To discuss Eastern Promises as another of Cronenberg’s body-horror shows is to somewhat obscure the fact that, as with 2005’s A History of Violence, the film is firstly an underworld thriller emblazoned with an intense performance by Mortensen. But the urge to confront it on thematic terms is also driven by the fact that its subtextual currents are more compelling than the actual narrative itself, which never wholly coheres into something satisfyingly suspenseful. The nominal protagonist, midwife Anna (Watts), finds herself uncomfortably involved with Nikolai, his kingpin boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and Semyon’s cocksure son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) after a 14-year-old prostitute at her hospital dies while giving birth. The dead girl’s horrific diary leads Anna – against her mother and uncle’s advice to drop the entire affair – to Semyon’s luxuriant restaurant and his vory v zakone gang dealings. Her journey is our entrée into this seedy milieu, and yet once there, she ceases to serve a valuable purpose in Steven Knight’s script, which proceeds to clunkily consign her to the sidelines in favor of focusing on venomous goons.
Anna may be a dull and poorly handled device, but at least she’s given a hint of perversion via her attempts to protect the orphaned baby, which mask her real desire to keep it as replacement for her own miscarried child. More aggravating is Knight’s failure to conceal his late-inning twist involving Nikolai’s identity, which saps any surprise from the climactic revelations. Still, there’s verve to Cronenberg’s transformation of superficially straightforward pulp material into a personal work about foreign (Russian and Turkish) intruders in the English body politic. Throats are cut, backs are slashed, and fingers are severed, all incidents staged with a grisly bluntness that – in a manner similar to his prior film – aims to question and challenge viewers’ vicarious identification with murderous men like Nikolai. Courtesy of Cronenberg’s masterfully composed, sharply angular compositions, the turmoil beneath the tranquil surface is palpable, most forcefully in the person of Kirill, whose demand that Nikolai bed a whore while he watches is simply the first of many times his suppressed homoeroticism bubbles to the fore.
Cronenberg doesn’t significantly elaborate upon so much as revisit A History of Violence’s preoccupation with family dynamics, and though his depiction of Semyon and Kirill’s relationship is fraught with friction, the characters periodically come across as caricatures of vodka-and-borscht-loving Ruskies. Alternately, his interest in masculine codes of honor finds expression in menacingly electric ways, such that every act of brutality – and every friendly and tense exchange between surrogate brothers/lovers Nikolai and Kirill – is colored by rigid, unspoken mores. Mortensen is the director’s ace in the hole, his tough-guy quips regularly veering toward cartoonishness, but his performance’s remote, mechanical emptiness proving so focused and precise that it often obscures the story’s more mundane machinations. The film is fascinated by the vicious ugliness within, whether it be with regards to our bodies (Anna’s miscarriage), our thoughts (Anna’s uncle’s racism), our families, or our societies. It’s Nikolai’s cold, fierce inner void, however, that ultimately proves Eastern Promises’ most chilling wellspring of violence.
As slow, somber and pensive as it may seem, In the Valley of Elah tackles its Iraq War subject matter with such sledgehammer clumsiness that it risks giving viewers blunt head trauma. Based on actual 2004 events, Paul Haggis’ directorial follow-up to Crash begins like a preachy version of Hardcore, as retired military policeman Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) searches for his soldier son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) after the kid goes mysteriously AWOL following his return home from an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq. Hank is a brooding man of few words who doesn’t trust many and loves his country fiercely, to the point that – in the first of many jaw-droppingly inane, insensitive, and didactic moments – when he drives by a high school and sees the American flag hanging upside down, he stops to elucidate to the simpleminded Hispanic janitor that this incorrect display of the Stars and Stripes is actually a distress signal. But oh, if he only knew what distress the country was actually in!, screams Haggis’ film, which proceeds to strip away Hank’s rosy-eyed view of his native country via his subsequent homicide investigation once Mike is discovered murdered, burned, and chopped into pieces on the side of a rural road.
As with Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah wrings its hands over the aftershock effects of the war on those waging it, with Hank overcome by the dawning realization that maybe we’re not nobly bringing democracy to Iraq – as claimed by background news soundbites from W. – but, instead, we’re acting like monsters. Heavy, heavy stuff man, or so thinks Haggis, whose film has an air of laughable self-seriousness that’s compounded by its deadly obviousness. Hank’s epiphany is meant to be ours, but the writer/director so ham-fistedly conveys his points (both in terms of dialogue and dramatic situations) that the effect is akin to being lectured to by someone who read a few newspaper articles about an important topic and now figures himself a sage. Haggis’ camerawork is as reserved as Jones’ sturdy performance, yet the air of anguished mourning is pretentiousness incarnate, used to prop up the type of inelegantly conceived “mystery” in which Hank conveniently receives periodic clues from tour-of-duty cell phone video shot by Mike, and in which further superfluous tension is generated by the sexist North Country treatment suffered by his local detective sidekick Sanders (Charlize Theron, once again suppressing her beauty behind mannish clothes and a brunette dye job).
Back from Iraq, psychologically scarred grunts admit they now feel “they should just nuke it and let it all turn back to dust,” while Jason Patric’s military prick stonewalls the official police investigation and Hank’s wife (Susan Sarandon) quietly condemns her hubby for silently encouraging her two (now dead) boys to join the armed forces. It’s a deluge of military and war criticism that Haggis is virtually incapable of conveying without heavy-handed verbal or visual sermonizing. The same holds true for treatment of the titular biblical subtext, which becomes ineptly manifest when Hank tells Sanders’ son the legend of David and Goliath as a bedtime story – and then, upon leaving, arrogantly closes the bedroom door shut, so convinced is he that this simple tale has completely cured the kid of his fear of the dark. For In the Valley of Elah, the Iraq War itself is Goliath, U.S. soldiers are David, and – much to Hank’s sorrow – no longer is success simply guaranteed by fearless opposition to the enemy. Hank mourns the clear-cutness of his favorite fable but the film doesn’t, as it subscribes to simplicity all the way through to Hank’s eventual (and painfully predictable) return to the intro’s high school to hang the American flag upside down. The flag message is apt: Help!
A lousy ending spoils the otherwise lean, efficient 3:10 to Yuma, which charts the efforts of down-on-his-luck cattle rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) to bring notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the titular train, which will transport the criminal to prison. Evans accepts the job because, after a brutal dry spell that’s made his land unprofitable, he needs the money. Yet as Delmer Daves’ Western slowly makes plain, Evans is really driven by a desire to prove himself to his son and wife, especially since the latter is magnetically drawn to the remorseless, self-interested Wade. Evans strives to obtain a bit of Wade’s bold, charismatic manliness, but Wade also sees something in Dan that he covets - namely, goodness, and the reciprocated love of family - thereby giving 3:10 to Yuma its underlying psychological dimension. Daves directs with a bare minimum of wasted shots or conversational blather, keeping his story moving at a brisk pace that helps make up for the general absence of traditional gunfighting action. Still, no amount of climactic train smoke can mask the fact that the finale – though consistent with the previously established Evans-Wade dynamic – is fancifully optimistic gibberish, a happy ending that seems thoroughly divorced from the cool heartlessness spied for most of the film in Ford’s vicious eyes.
I recently sat down with Ryan Reynolds, he of Van Wilder and Blade: Trinity fame, to chat about his newest film, The Nines. As my latest IFC News feature proves, I refused to shy away from the tough questions other journalists are afraid to ask, such as why the former sitcom star appears shirtless in virtually every movie he makes.
Rob Zombie's remake of John Carpenter's classic Halloween is something of a letdown, though it's nice to know that the director - by virtue of his latest making a good chunk of change at the Labor Day box office - will have the opportunity to make more films.
As for the rest of this belated batch of links, there are two reviews for films featured at this year's New York Film Festival (one a rave, the other not), a look at a very good rock doc, and some thoughts on Tony Kaye's quite formidable abortion documentary.