Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Better Late... Favorite Films of 2007 - Pt. I

Why Now?
In an era when the average American makes fewer than five trips to the cinema in a calendar year, even those of us whose personal statics are some seven, ten times that number or more are unlikely to have seen every film that would interest us released in a twelve-month span. We'll never see everything or even "everything", not even on home video, not even in revival houses. As our interests change and develop, as tastes bloom and wither, we'll still be catching up with 2007, 2006, 1977, 1947, 1907 until the timer runs out and we spin off into the zoetrope blur of eternity. While the rest of the Internet-verse is prepping their 2008 Best Ofs, Favorites, and Annual Excuse for Lists, Exploding Kinetoscope, counterproductive as always, proudly presents its Favorite Films of 2007.

Taking this moment to list what I found to be standout features of 2007 affords a measure of perspective, a chance for films to gestate in the imagination, to rise or drop in personal esteem. It would seem likely that any viewer who absorbed three times as many 2007 releases in 2008 (according to my records, that's about right) would have found some cinematic pearls washed onto the beach of the subsequent year, but apart from sliding some titles up and down the list I don't believe my Ten Fave selections have changed since January. As far as I'm concerned, rankings in a year like 2007 are meaningless, until we get to number one.

There is very little on either of these lists (an impending "Ten Favorites" and the below 11-20 unruly children) that is not a major American studio release with multi-million dollar advertising budgets. Very few titles unassociated with pop genre filmmaking, and/or with modern auteur-heroes behind the camera, writers and/or directors who have previously turned my head. The lists are half composed of those things everyone saw, and for the most part, enjoyed. I don't know what to make of that. While it says something about the state of film distribution that most of us probably squander our fewer-than-five theater trips on a pool of the same seven blockbusters, the truth is I'm simply not partial to documentary, realistic drama that doesn't have crime, rayguns or weirdness in it, or the noodlings of independently financed first-timers telling stories about their grandmothers. Still, there are multiple indies, docos and imports below. Most of them just have monsters, drugs or murders in them.

The Règle of the Jeu

The lists are restricted to films I first had reasonable opportunity to see in 2007. That means 2007 American wide releases, and limited releases that included Los Angeles. Foreign films, independent films that did not have theatrical releases, and festival debuts are considered partly on U.S. release date and partly by my own cruel whim. The lists are of feature films as categorized only by length, without division between narrative, non-narrative, fiction, documentary, animation or country of origin.

Short Stacks: Nearly Great Films On Icarus Wings

The runners-up party is ofttimes more interesting than the winner's circle (can one "win" at making art? Hmm). This is a round-up of ten films severely hobbled, either stumbling somewhere up the mountain or turning back halfway, voluntarily. Plus a few with no hairs seriously out of place, edged out because of the arbitrary tradition of Top Ten lists. All are worthy of time and attention, and it is not as if my ten favorites are flawless precious gems. Some deserve defense, some are in sore need of cutting-down, some should be better celebrated. These near bulls-eyes, almost-theres and lovable fuck-ups are in no particular order.

River of Crime!: Zodiac (dir. Fincher, scr. James Vanderbilt)
Here's an unfortunate case. David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt document the frustrations and myriad dead-ends of the Zodiac killer investigation as a parable of how data flows through the world, a raw force indifferent to interpretation, and what happens as players are inevitably swept up in the path of the unwinnable game. Citizens of late '60s Northern California are murdered and terrorized without clear motivation. The unidentified criminal taunts the police and media and ducks out of sight at will, never to be apprehended. The screenplay is constructed with narrative gaps leapfrogging over dramatizations of major biographical events in characters' lives, over years, to land back in their company as the Zodiac case develops. It is a nearly an experiment in narratology: here are the unrefined events of Story. This happened, and this happened, and this happened. How far can narrative organization be pruned? Is plot-making a natural function of the audience's brain? The tone of chilly detachment appears to use little but the bare-bones facts of the case, a sort of late '60s Forensic Failure Files, a post-mortem examination on events with no clear mortem, a connect-the-dots puzzle with fuzzy, hypothetical dots. And therein is a gaping, problematic hole in Zodiac.

Robert Graysmith, on whose book Zodiac is based, is the gaping hole. Graysmith is, in his two books on the murders and in extensive media appearances ever since, a self-promoter, poor writer, and irresponsible journalist. The standards of documentation in the true crime book market are exceedingly low. This deficiency combined with the author's depiction of himself as integral to the investigation, thus providing his book with insider-cache and a clear everyman protagonist, has made Graysmith's Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked the staple bookshelf-fillers on the subject. Graysmith's canny and immoral slight-of-hand leaves most readers -- and indeed most viewers of Zodiac -- with the impression that the writer was indispensable or at least deeply involved with the investigation. In fact, none of Graysmith's amateur sleuthing amounted to any solid leads, furthered no aspect of the investigation, and he arguably hindered it by pestering Detective Dave Toschi and directing public attention to suspects later cleared of any involvement. By way of random example, the Zodiac ciphers were solved by high school teacher Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye Harden. Both book and film blow through this fact to spend more time with Graysmith's fruitless fumbling with the coded letters, the real detective work shrugged off with an air of "oh yeah, and then someone else actually figured it out." The film toys with the crime picture cliché tale of the Investigator Driven to Obsessive Madness, mainly by sketching Graysmith's self-immolating Zodiac fixation in shorthand, but it's still the same old song, and the reality is less colorful. So too, the unarticulated notion that Zodiac, as Alan Moore said of Jack the Ripper, is less an individual who may be identified to "solve" a crime than a superposition from which we may proceed outward to innumerable outcomes for all the players, for society, for the world: Zodiac hints at the thesis, but its final statement seems to largely support Graysmith's specious theory (which forms the bulk of Zodiac Unmasked) that Chester Leigh Allen was the culprit. Fincher's film certainly allows for other possibilities, but goes far out of its way to underline Allen and imply that this most obvious villain slipped through the cracks. The reality is that the DNA on the Zodiac envelopes was tested in 2002. It did not match Allen. You know, just like his fingerprints and handwriting. Did you not know that? You wouldn't, not from Zodiac. Allen was not, in all likelihood, the Zodiac.

Sleepy-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith slurs the embarrassing, aggrandizing boast that he is good at puzzles. Real Life Graysmith is no such thing, spending chapter after chapter chasing non-leads to silent movie theaters (?), lying about dates, reconfiguring geography. The fact is, Robert Graysmith had nothing to do with the Zodiac case. The truth is, he shoehorned himself into Zodiac history after the fact, and continues blabbing about how integral he was to the investigation until his noise drowns out all useful signal, and now the tale of his self-invented heroism is the subject of a major motion picture. In increasing bizarre delusion, Greysmith's recent books tout the author as "the man who solved the Zodiac murders," and he now claims to have been a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. This is not Ed Wood or Amedeus playing fast and loose with biographical fact to weave a fiction that is "true" at it's core. It would not have been outside Fincher's project to tell this story, of the crafty, opportunist cartoonist worming his way into the legend of a murderer. Or of the deluded fictionalized Graysmith as he writes about himself, who seems so assured that his nonsensical, invented theories are solid clues that the police are failing to properly follow up on. Instead, Zodiac preserves not just a list of facts that don't add up to a solution, it also preserves the outright lies of Robert Graysmith, mythologizing the con man in the process. Pity no one involved had the smarts to differentiate.

Girl Spy Adventure: Black Book (dir. Paul Verhoeven, scr. Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven)
Between the covers of the Black Book are cracking WWII espionage action-adventure stories of the sort best embodied in syrupy-tough American studio films of a bygone period and exhilarating Italian exploitation pictures. Paul Verhoeven, like Roman Polanski with The Pianist before him, fills in the holes missing in the soles and souls of the well-heeled subject. Namely the voices of those Europeans whose nations were savaged by the war and women, who never get anything bad-ass to do in loaded-to-the-gills cliffhanger war stories. It is to the credit of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films that they actively work to hand a third of the swashbuckling duties to Kiera Knightley; it is problematic that to make such adventure palatable she negotiates an imaginary culture of cuddly slob pirates with no interest in murder, pillaging and rape. Black Book shoots up the war adventure with an infusion of grim sickness and unglamorous, complex moral dilemma, personal, public, political.

In great Dutch art tradition, Paul Verhoeven crams his films full of stuff. In his American genre satires of the '80s and '90s the director's vulgar American excesses are a necessary component of the greater project, the dumb/sick-gilded form is the content. In Black Book Verhoeven cannot possibly in good conscience outdo the exploitationeers who have gone before; there are multiple sub-subgenres of Nazisploitation on this planet, for those brave/foolhardy enough to explore the back alleys of the video store. Verhoeven's streak of perversity is more Pasolinian than Ken Russellesque in Black Book, extreme and despairing with the purpose of plumbing the bizarre and appalling recesses of human cruelty in extreme situations. This action suspenser about a Jewish singer who goes undercover for the Dutch resistance and infiltrates the Gestapo twists into a survival and revenge tale, still thrilling even as at its core it is about the economics of war, sex, and power, the seemingly inescapable trap of all human beings to use others as means to an end. For that, it is not so different from 2007's Tim Burton adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, but never falls into the pit of overblown moralizing historical drama; there are no fallen angels or innocents compromised or ogre-Nazis grimacing in dastardly delight. Black Book does not make grand, earnest, embarrassing Statements, but is lean, unflinching, and about the moral bewilderment of every player on every stage at every moment.

Do Your Dirty, Sinful Business: The Simpsons Movie (dir. David Silverman, scr. by like 11 people)
Bombastic, colorful Carnival comedy, built like a floodwall containing every kind of joke known to man, The Simpsons Movie, tries to be all things to all people. The show has always had a heart of warm marshmallow, its decades-spanning satire of American moronitude is barbed with Teflon thorns. And that's not a complaint. The Simpsons is reverent about familial love, positive ethical lessons, and mostly understanding and humanistic. It's always reserved true irreverence and fury for the act of joke-writing itself. The apex of the series felt the shaping hands of three fathers: Matt Groening's caustic/shaggy misanthropy, James L. Brooks' fuzzy empathy for flawed dum-dums, and the MAD Magazine insanity of a writer's room turning on itself with teeth bared. So The Simpsons Movie grafts an environmental apocalypse plot onto a family emotional crisis and moment to moment exists in a deluge of world-class gag writing, the best of which have nothing to do with anything but the insular joke world of Springfield, U.S.A.

The narrative structure of Simpsons episodes beyond season 3 is so meandering that in its finer moments it has been "about" the breakdown of plot logic (as his daughter groped for the moral one week, Homer once groused wisely "it's just a bunch of stuff that happened"); perhaps that is to your liking, perhaps not. My favorite episodes end up thousands of miles from where they began, so if the story doesn't hang together that is acceptable, though some of the character arcs are duds. Lisa in particular has a D-plot that walks her through a kiddie romance; she has been through these paces before, often to greater effect. The twining A stories -- a conversion narrative about Homer's self-centered tendencies, a domestic drama about Marge and Homer's relationship -- are warmed-over as well, but are central story-problems of the series, and merit revisitation once in awhile.

A certain thread of popular thinking goes that The Simpsons leap to feature film arrives some ten years too late, and that is true, unless one believes it arrives twelve years too late or perhaps fourteen. Variable mileage taken into account, the television program has long been boiled down to a series of stitched-together gags and comic setpieces, as if the writing staff had exhausted all story possibilities besides "The Simpsons go somewhere" and "The Simpsons embark on a new faddish business venture" and "We used this plot before, but... meh, who cares?" It is this writer's opinion that such an (de)evolution lead to moments of true glory in television comedy, sustained until the clothesline of jokes simply wasn't funny. The happy news is that the runner about Bart skateboarding nude is funnier than the whole of season 16.

Kierkegaardian Commandments: The Ten (dir. David Wain, scr. Ken Marino, Wain)

Speaking of the strength and magic of The Joke, here are ten sketches and interstitials supposedly about the Ten Commandments of Judeo-Christian tradition, but which are really an excuse for 96 minutes of absurdist, downright alien humor. I would love to stick up for The Ten at length, and it sits at 39% Fresh on Ye Olde Tomatey-ometer, but the deal pares down to either finding all this silliness hilarious or none of it slightly amusing.

For those that do not Get It, or fear they do not get it, or fear they are missing something esoteric, snide or intellectual (and I've talked to lots of those people), the comic Rosetta Stone for the humor of David Wain and cohorts (Stella, The State, Wet Hot American Summer, SEX aka Weiners and Boobs) is simplicity itself: you're not missing the joke. It's really that dumb. It's very, very simple. The jokes are honestly malapropisms, gibberish, non sequiturs, farts, people falling down, even cutting flubbed takes into scenes without further comment. If there is any second, "higher" level to this stuff it is that smart, hip comic performers are telling stupid jokes to make themselves laugh. If it were not supremely foul-mouthed and Winona Ryder were not vividly (hilariously) miming sexual congress with a ventriloquist dummy, this would be completely accessible to pre-verbal children. If God loves a fool, it is a safe assumption He must have adored The Ten.

Speaking of which...

The Idiot Boys: D-War: Dragon Wars (dir., scr. Shim Hyung-rae)
Ghost Rider (dir., scr. Mark Steven Johnson)
A small segment of the population may be disappointed after seeing D-War: Dragon Wars. The only reason to feel let-down is that the title is potentially misleading. The film actually only features a few sparing moments of dragons proper. Fear not, for the majority of the running time is indeed spent fighting a creature-packed battle regarding dragons, specifically which of two massive serpentine Imoogi will become a dragon (either Buraki or The Good Imoogi... I was personally rooting for The Good Imoogi). The dragons don't fight until the very end of the movie. But the Imoogi Buraki messes up some parking ramps and kills zoo animals with startling frankness for a movie about Imoogis loose in Los Angeles. Plus there are sundry Bulcos, Sharconnes and Dawdlers at the command of the evil Atrox Army. If you don't know, those are different kinds of fantastic reptilian monster things, and the Dawdlers have rocket launchers on their backs, and the leader of the Atrox has the special power of walking through metal, even though he gets hit by cars on more than one occasion (both incidents only minutes apart and theoretically unrelated). I failed to mention that the Imoogis are also fighting over a mystical reincarnated lady from ancient Korea, because they want to eat her and turn into Korean dragons.

If this sounds terribly complicated, don't worry, because Robert Forester playing Antiques Jack, who is like 1000 years old and can morph into other people and knows martial arts, tells a little boy the story in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. He drinks a hot bowl of soup that materializes in his hands between shots while he tells the story. During the soup-slurping and storytelling, at least two characters in D-War respond with blank stares and demand to know "What are you talking about?" If you have to ask, then D-War may not be your bowl of soup. If you are a creature brought any measure of automatic joy by the sight of an Imoogi destroying Los Angeles' Library Tower, and that emotion is only intensified by characters referring to the structure as the "Liberty Building", please let your voice be heard. The world is malnourished by weak nonsense like Transformers. D-War is a dose of the strong stuff.

No effects-spurting blockbuster of 2007 was incorrect in quite the same ways as the tone-deaf, convoluted, Frankenstein beast of Spider-Man 3. Where Sam Raimi's Marvel picture failed to realize that it was too self-serious about silly stuff, and simultaneously disrespectful of the goofy pleasures of superhero books, the antidote is Ghost Rider. Grinning wide, headlights beaming, Ghost Rider does not pussyfoot about, and is proud to be about a guy whose head turns into a flaming skull while he drives around on a Hell-motorcycle and whips monsters with a magic chain. Ghost Rider works double-time to think of a dozen cool, funny, outrageous things to do with that flame-skull, Hell-chopper and chain. Ghost Rider does not make pretense to being Sophisticated Adult Entertainment, or fuss about how Johnny Blaze's superpowers might be written as a fable for homosexual teenagers to relate to, because it is quite busy showing you things like Nicolas Cage trying to do a ramp jump over six twirling helicopter blades. Ghost Rider is for the part of you that wants to see this, and say aloud: "Awesome." If you do not have that part in you anymore, than you are dead inside and may go enjoy Atonement or something.

It is a weak compliment to praise a movie for what it does not do, but unlike every single superhero picture since X-Men (save the special freak-show case of Hellboy), Ghost Rider does not commit the head-scratch-worthy sin of condescending to its source material... to itself? The audience? The source material? How does one put this? This is a strange paradox that modern superhero films have created: they are embarrassed at what they are about. In reflection, I was far more enthusiastic about the film last spring, before summer 2008 changed the rules for comic book movies. Not because of the clench-jawed, The Dark Knight, but because of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Ghost Rider at least captures the eagerness to please and anything-goes mode of juvenile fantasy in pre-Bronze Marvel comics. Until the all-ages joyride of Iron Man, it seemed hopeless that given the business realities and necessity of catering to a broad audience of variable comics savviness, a huge expensive movie could duplicate the sense of a populated, bustling world, drastically altered by superpowers and super-geniuses that makes Marvel Universe stories special. The movies will never nail it on the head -- another key element is the pleasures of long-form continuity, and the impact of The Fantastic Four, mutants and aliens are critical missing components for which there is no substitute -- but Marvel Studios has taken major, heartening steps toward Doing It Right in 2008.

Storytellers Gone Haywire: Beowulf (dir. Robert Zemeckis, scr. Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary)

Robert Zemeckis, who was once blessed with the breeziest knacks for story and comedy in popular cinema, lost his confidence and sense of wonder, and nearly fifteen years ago strayed into dark woods never to be seen again. Maybe the Zemeckis who made Who Framed Roger Rabbit got eaten by a tiger or something. It seems doubtful we will get him back.

Beowulf was a prime opportunity for Zemeckis to reemerge from a decade and a half in a cocoon of Oscar-fishing moribund drama and limpid genre whiffles bloated with too many names and monies and not enough wit or passion. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have provided Beowulf with a beautiful engine, a spry, energized screenplay that begins with the Old English epic fantasy of Scandinavia, and immediately spirals off into, well, Neil Gaiman territory. The Beowulf screenplay is about those themes Gaiman cannot keep from turning over in his hands like a worry stone: the purpose, glories and pitfalls of storytelling, the nature of myth, the lonesome death of the old tale. As in most of the writer's work, when he revisits an ancient story, it is to revitalize it by pointing to the magic it always possessed and never lost, but modern audiences may have forgotten.

With Beowulf, Gaiman and Avary are interested in the source material's blood, thunder, beasts and warped fantastical sense of history and culture, then promptly set about subverting the original, and maybe Beowulf had it coming. The writers turn all the warriors and kings into liars and fakes scrambling for immortality. With every Big Man unable to put up the slightest resistance to the temptations of the flesh, and screwing up their own legacies, the tough guys instead try to preserve a legend of themselves. In a sense, the ultimate gag is that Beowulf itself is a lovely, inspiring, imaginative fraud. As written, here is a funny, literate, potentially moving criticism and meditation on the epic poem, and a sweet-and-sour statement on immortality.

That's how Beowulf is written. It has then been realized/entombed in a shockingly expensive, hideously ugly computer motion capture process by Mr. Zemeckis, for reasons he has yet to articulate in any way that makes sense. Whatever the baffling motivation, Zemeckis has gone to enormous effort, crammed Beowulf with camera moves, long takes, and choreography impossible to capture with anything but a virtual camera, but all the digital fandancing is neither the most elegant nor visually articulate way wield the weapon of motion picture storytelling. There are moments in the finished Beowulf, especially (maybe only) in IMAX 3D, which achieve the scorching terror-beauty of hallucinatory state. I mean that literally. The movie looks tactile/disembodied, real/fake, awkward/elegant in ways that sort of look like the ickiest disorientation of an acid trip. The greasy, wooden skin-jackets of men, horses, dragons seemingly infested of some malicious animating demon. The impossibly deep focus that mimics neither human eye nor kino-eye. The upside that keeps you from freaking out is that you know it's a movie. The downside is that it has nothing to do with the work of telling the story, and is partly a byproduct of technological failure.

Creature Feature: The Mist (dir., scr. Frank Darabont)

Frank Darabont believes the capacity for hope in bleak circumstances, even when pushed beyond all rational limit, is the finest of human qualities. I find myself at philosophical loggerheads with that sentiment specifically, and with Darabont's squishy brand of sentimentalism in general. It taints his better storytelling impulses. It is his Great Theme, and he tends it like a hothouse flower through all his films. Even in The Mist.

Among regular adaptors of Stephen King's writing for the screen, Darabont is an exceptional case; he respects the source material, tries not to futz around with the mechanical parts that make the stories light up and go, and takes it seriously. Those qualities alone are a rarity at this late date, more than thirty years since the first King adaptation, Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976). Darabont understands what makes King's books tick and readers respond. The keys to the car aren't the jump scares, gross-outs, the creepies and psychos -- though those things are fun -- but the characters. Stephen King loves to write about people. Loves to write whole lazy, boring, silly, mean, lovable towns and states and nations full of characters. He gives them names, histories, bad habits, personal traumas and pet colloquialisms. And yes, then he usually sics a terrible beast upon them. Darabont has demonstrated, in all his adaptations, an affection for King's sprawling world, for the deep-worming into lives and motivations of his characters, for the epic grandeur with which King paints everyday horrors. Frank Darabont understands the broad strokes of Stephen King.

Where Darabont misses, is when he takes it too seriously. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) are too-handsome, solemn films, sacrificing any semblance of King's sweat-stained, sailor-vocabulary prose. As to whether the filmmaker comprehends or can pay service to King's greater vision and deeper concerns, Darabont is 0 for 3, though The Mist is hit and miss. The Mist, novella and film, is a focused, ant-farm look at one of King's favorite topics. What happens to the heart and soul when the niceties of society are stripped away, when civilized behavior must be forsaken in the name of survival, when the safety net snaps? He is fascinated with the speed and fury at which we can be reduced to efficient, primal drives, both the good and the not-so-good. This, Darabont grasps in basic, and delivers The Mist as a swift, tooth-cracking punch of a movie, a tense monster attack siege drama about the hundred ways we turn into animals when the tentacles hit the fan . But his pet themes, which are not King's, twist the novella into something else via subtle rewrites that have the appearance of innocently streamlining the story and providing closure to the novella's open ending. Darabont's omission of plot points and new finale ultimately invert the power and pain of the original. Rather than an observational horror story about how people behave under duress, we're left with a sick joke sermon about what happens when we commit the sin of giving up hope (which we are apparently not to do even in the face of apocalypse, and driven to the brink of madness).

Points, however for gratifyingly inside Stephen King nerd-jokes (there are namechecks for King's radio stations WZON and WKIT). Better than a joke, concrete references to tie The Mist's military experiment The Arrowhead Project to Dark Tower mythos, where all prior adaptations have done their damnedest to avoid the subject, even Hearts in Atlantis (2001), though it's source story, "Low Men in Yellow Coats", is nothing but a Dark Tower story.

And man! Skull-face spiders! That stuff hits me where I live.

Dicks, Rest & Motion: Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola, scr. Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg)

Story: two high school boys want to get some beer and pussy, and fail upwards in this most noble mission. Execution: a little too sweet when Messers Jonah Hill (babbling, fat) and Michael Cera (hangdog, scrawny) are charming enough that it could've been far uglier. Gentleness, however, is The Point. A little too meandering, though that is likely another Point, it misses being epic. And the rules of levels of reality seem bent according to the needs of jokes and setpieces, rather than the story and enterprise as a cohesive whole. What I'm getting at is I'm not sure if comic sidetrack episodes like McLovin' and The Cops or Seth's Disease Where He Compulsively Draws Penises at all jibe with the naturalistic, behavior-based milieu. That Superbad is a bit lumpy, awkward and has its heart dripping all over the place is sort of another point.

Truly do I love a teen sex comedy, and every generation deserves to reinvent the genre for their own. The angels alone know what the hell is wrong with adolescent boys, for by the time we emerge from that private Hell we are all too embarrassed to speak aloud what we have seen. Whatever was wrong with them when they wrote Superbad at 15 years old, thank Rogan and Goldberg for sharing this document with the world.

Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg, scr. Steven Knight)
A clutch of lower echelon gangsters examine a corpse they made and of which they must dispose, and Nikolai steps forward and gets down to the business of chopping off the fingers with garden shears. That's what has to be done, that's how you do it, and Nikolai is unflinching and good at it. That is rather the attitude of Eastern Promises, icy, unblinking and possessed of a straightforward grace about the business of telling a crime tale of the Russian mob at work in London, and how they butt up against, infect and are generated by the public life of the city. The filmmaking is classically elegant, tough and sinewed, all cogent metaphors are cool, cutting and clear;Eastern Promises begs comparison with blades, vodka, cold London air. Viggo Mortensen seems to have climbed inside a big raw body that is not his own, decorated it with scars, tattoos and looks out through portals in Nikolai's sunken eyes as if something ancient and dead is longing to hatch a renewed and fresh life.

Nikolai, clean-up man and driver, works his way up the ranks of the Vory v zakone. A well-meaning midwife (Naomi Watts) tries to find a home for a mob-orphaned baby. The psychopathic, repressed son (Vincent Cassel) of the boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl, playing as a wistful, contented bear best left unperturbed) falls out of favor. And Cronenberg strides through these underworld saga corridors where we have walked before, believing that we may have heard this story, but there is pleasure and power in the tale well-told. The director sometimes makes movies with his subtext hanging inside-out, horror films outré because their metaphors are made manifest. Eastern Promises still probes favorite realms of Cronenbergian exploration: the irreparable alteration of the soul when one lives in a constant state of violent excitement, the peculiar shapes taken by psychic ills when they burst through the membrane into physical form. With Promises and his previous film, A History of Violence (2005), Cronenberg and company work in service of the story, a hard-earned lesson of Old Hollywood narrative cinema. It is worth consideration that the most talked-about, vicious and visceral action setpiece of the year is a bathhouse knife fight, in which nude, vulnerable Mortensen faces off against linoleum-cutter armed thugs. In your sternum, you feel the impact of bone on tile, metal through flesh, know the space, fear the worst. If there is a Trick to the craft of this fight scene, it is not staccato disorienting cuts between blurry frenetic shots of who-can-really-say, but restraint. Sustained shots, confident editing, geographic anchors in place, Cronenberg's camera movies like invisible liquid, in which the fighters bob and crunch against each other, the dance of choreography and performance carried along on the tide.