Moral Complexity in “Eastern Promises”

David Cronenberg seems to get off on showing close-up shots of gruesome things like people getting their faces blown off with a shot-gun (re: A History of Violence). In a world where beheadings make the news at least two or three times a year, showing two separate scenes of people getting their throats slit is unnecessary. That’s one aspect of Cronenberg’s style I could do without. If you don’t like that kind of thing, just close your eyes for the few seconds when it happens, because the rest of the movie is excellent and well-worth watching.

Eastern Promises tells the story of a doctor, Naomi Watts, who delivers a baby from a woman who works in a brothel. The mother dies and the doctor tries to track down the baby’s family and subsequently gets tangled up with the Russian Mafia — and those guys don’t fool around. Viggo Mortensen, as one of the Russian henchmen, has sympathy for her and tells her to go home and forget about it. But she doesn’t. And from there on in it’s, Oh, jesus, what the hell’s going to happen now? I was surprised at the emotional and moral complexity of the film. Eastern Promises is a thriller with a conscience, and the best I’ve seen from Cronenberg.

“Away From Her” Will Become a Canadian Classic

Away From Her is a quiet movie about a couple dealing with Alzheimer’s disease — and it’s not depressing or melodramatic. The understated but perfectly nuanced performances from Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, together with Sarah Polley‘s subtle direction, deliver an emotional punch without being overtly manipulative or insulting to the audience’s intelligence. It feels real. It’s one of the best movies to come out of Canada in years.

“Never Cry Wolf” and “The Snow Walker”

Never Cry Wolf and The Snow Walker are based on works by Farley Mowat and should be seen together. If you like one, chances are you’ll like the other. The drama is magnified in both movies by the desolate and beautiful landscape of Canada’s north. In Never Cry Wolf, a scientist spends six months in the bush studying wolves. It’s a quiet, somewhat meditative movie that takes a look at our relationship with the natural world. That relationship can be harmonious, perhaps even sacred; sacred as in having respect for the environment. Or it can be motivated by the usual crap that’s destroying the planet: greed. The Snow Walker, although more action-oriented, has a similar message: respect the land and you’ll survive; don’t and it will kill you. Both movies use stereotypes (stupid white men; wise natives) to present an idealized version of the north. But that’s a minor criticism that’s easy to overlook because the filmmakers succeed so well at transporting us into a world that we would otherwise never know (unless you live up north).

The Snow Walker is a must-see movie for fans of Never Cry Wolf. A bush pilot (Barry Pepper) and an Inuit passenger crash on the tundra and are forced to survive off the land and find their way back to civilization together. That’s it. It’s minimal, but it works. The guy who plays Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf, Charles Martin Smith, returns as the director this time around with a vision of the north that is beautiful and brutal all at once. It may even surpass Never Cry Wolf. The Snow Walker is also reminiscent of Himalaya — the natural landscape overwhelms all aspects of the story and heightens the drama every step of the way. It’s fiction, but it can also work as a documentary; watching a movie like this is the next best thing to being there.

UPDATE (Nov. 22/09): The Snow Walker did not hold up well to a second viewing. I must have been in the mood for it the first time I saw it. I watched it by myself and really go into it. But watching it with someone else, I quickly realized that it’s not a must-see for anyone who likes Never Cry Wolf. It’s more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, a syrupy made-for-TV melodrama, and one that really is not in the same league as Never Cry Wolf. The living off the land and the natural beauty of the landscape is still good, but the acting isn’t the greatest, the music is heavy-handed, and all the back stories are irrelevant. It would have been a more interesting, convincing and dramatic story if they’d kept it simple: minimal music and no back stories, just the pilot and the Inuit girl living off the land. And it’s not even close to being as good as Himalaya.