Already showed up in someone’s top-ten-ever list in Sight & Sound. Completely odd and exceptional movie, everyone acting like they’re in another dimension, standing outside the film. Sleek and cool, starring a blank Robert Pattinson as self-destructive billionaire Packer, Sarah Gadon (Mrs. Jung in A Dangerous Method) as his new wife, Paul Giamatti as his stalker, and a bunch of people who get a single scene each.

Starts with business partners talking shop, health (he gets a prolonged rectal exam while talking with an employee), paintings (he has sex with art dealer Juliette Binoche) and relationships in his silent limousine, but things start to go downhill. It becomes clear that Packer has sunk his fortune into a dying currency, rat-wielding economic protesters fill the streets and attack the car, Packer’s wife is breaking up with him, and his favorite hip-hop musician has died – this is in decreasing order of how much these things seem to matter to him.

Packer’s quest to get a haircut in his old neighborhood is nearly complete when a celebrity-pranker (Mathieu Amalric) hits him with a pie – then, probably unrelated to that, he asks to see his bodyguard Torval’s gun, and shoots Torval to death with it. Down to just Packer and his driver, they have dinner with the barber, who cuts half of Packer’s hair before he wanders off again to confront violent stalker Paul Giamatti, trying to talk reason to him.

The movie is wall-to-wall talk, so to summarize all the conversations, as if I remember them, would take pages and pages. Best to just watch it again. Cinema Scope 51 has a good few pages, with input from Cronenberg and Pattinson, and discussion of what makes this faithful adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel uniquely Cronenbergian.

The sweetest end-of-the-world drama. Likeably lopsided Don McKellar (also writer/director) visits his family (opening nostalgia Christmas presents and having a homey diner) claims that he’s comfortable with his plan to spend the (unexplained but universally accepted) apocalypse in six hours alone in his apartment. Don is really super-depressed over the recent death of his wife, ends up helping an increasingly desperate Sandra Oh, who still thinks she can go shopping and catch taxis in the midst of societal breakdown, attempt to reunite with her intense latter-day boyfriend. This is probably David Cronenberg, a gas company manager who completes his goal to personally phone every customer and thank them for their business, before going home to await Sandra, leaving employee Donna in charge.

Sandra has car trouble:

Don and Sandra get grudging help from Don’s playboy car-collector friend Craig, who is rapidly going through a list of sexual conquests – both acts and partners (Lily, a black woman; Don, who refuses; and their high school French teacher, Genevieve Bujold).

Bujold with Callum Rennie:

Cameo by Pontypool director Bruce McDonald (with the bat)

The midnight hour approaches, but the sun is still up – apparently it hasn’t gone down in weeks. Don’s sister Sarah Polley and her boyfriend attend the final countdown celebration in the middle of town. A nerdy guy named Menzies holds a solo piano concert in an otherwise-unused theater. Cronenberg is shot by marauding youth. His employee Donna, a virgin, is Craig’s final visitor. And Sandra, losing her dream of last-second double-suicide with her beloved, ends up in the arms of Don. It seemed like a generic-indie-looking unexceptional drama in the first ten minutes, but totally hooked me and proved amazingly touching by the end. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Cronenberg gets a taste of his own horror-makeup medicine:

Polley party:

Keira Knightley (Atonement) is amazing as a perverse mental patient turned psychoanalyst. The movie is mainly focused on her (sometimes quite inappropriate) relationship with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender of Hunger and Inglorious Basterds), but also about Jung’s relationship with Sigmund Freud (cigar-chomping Viggo Mortensen).

Doesn’t sound like Cronenberg’s usual fare, but his movies have always concerned themselves with sex and the workings of the mind, and Keira proves herself a great Cronenbergian heroine, having fits and jaw-locking facial tics when trying to discuss her past, the mind perverting the body.

Vincent Cassel returns from Eastern Promises in a small role. Sparkling sunlit photography by Cronie regular Peter Suschitzky. Closing titles tell us that Keira’s character Sabina Spielrein returned to her native Germany and was murdered by nazis. Jung has previously been played by Max von Sydow and Freud by Liev Schreiber, Bud Cort, Alec Guinness and… Max von Sydow.

I last watched this in theaters so my memory was fading. The first thing I forget about a movie is the ending. So I know Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is in a post-asylum halfway house remembering his childhood, when his mom was killed by his dad (Gabriel Byrne) and replaced by a new woman he picked up at a bar, but after that gets hazy.

John Neville (Gilliam’s Munchhausen), who plays Spider’s fellow patient, died the day before I watched this:

Miranda and her two Spiders:

Well, both women are Miranda Richardson, and young Ralph (often shown with the ghostly presence of full-grown Ralph following behind, peering through a window or hiding around a corner) takes matters into his own hands, tying his spiderweb-strings to the oven knob and turning on the gas after the new woman has passed out. But the woman who lays dead when the emergency crew arrives is Spider’s own mum, his dad weeping over her, uncomprehending.

My favorite comic-relief scene:

The central mystery of the movie seemed to be “how did a seemingly normal, if quiet and string-obsessed, boy turn into this mumbling, shuffling schizophrenic?” and one presumes it has something to do with his dad killing his mom. But the ending reveals that Spider was unhinged from the start. This is the kind of ending that makes you want to rewatch the movie with the thought that Spider’s POV is unreliable as both child and adult, but I blew it by rewatching having forgotten the twist.

Plastic Bag (2009, Ramin Bahrani)

An American Beauty plastic bag, dancing with me for twenty minutes. Only this bag’s journey is very well filmed and the bag has the voice of Werner Herzog – two innovations that would have greatly helped the last plastic bag movie I saw, The Green Bag. A blatant environmentalism screed, but I really enjoyed it. I thought it’d have the same ending as Children of Men, but it had the same ending as AI: Artificial Intelligence instead.

The Dirk Diggler Story (1988, PT Anderson)

An actual fake doc, but not a polished one. I thought it was rigged to look amateurish until I read online that it was actually edited on two VCRs by young Anderson. Narrated by PT’s father Ernie Anderson, a big-time TV announcer. It’s nice that he was willing to participate in his 18-year-old son’s movie about pornography, homosexuality and drug addiction. The most fun part of the movie is hearing this straightlaced announcer pronounce titles like “White Sandy Bitches” and “Bone To Be Wild”.

Dirk is explicitly bisexual in this one, but otherwise it hits some familiar plot points from Boogie Nights: Dirk’s drug addiction, his ill-advised recording career, his buddy Reed. There’s less nudity in the short, and it ends with an on-set fatal overdose for Dirk. My favorite bit that didn’t make the feature was a group prayer for God to protect us against premature ejaculation.

Horner (Burt’s character) is played by The Colonel in Boogie Nights, the only actor who returned. Well, Michael “Diggler” Stein had a cameo as “stereo customer”. He turned writer/director after that – his last film starred Andy Dick and Coolio.

Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (1933, Luis Buñuel)

A half-hour documentary that has been discussed to death – how much of it is real? Can it be considered surrealist? Etc. Taken at face value as a portrait of an extremely poor mountain community, it’s well made, interesting, and too vibrant (and even humorous) to blend in with your average educational short. I still can’t believe they had a donkey killed by bees, and shot a mountain goat then hurled its body off a cliff, all to make points about the difficulty of life in this place. At least they didn’t kill any people on camera, although the narrator may have exaggerated (or undersold, who knows?) their conditions. Was released in ’33, had a French voiceover added in ’35 then a newsreel-toned English voiceover in ’37 – I saw the French version. I assume the bombastic music was on all three versions.

Senses of Cinema calls it “a documentary that posits the impossibility of the documentary, placing the viewer in the uneasy situation of complicity with a cruel camera probing the miseries of the urdanos for our benefit.”

The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998, Sylvain Chomet)

This 20-minute movie gives me inexpressible joy. It’s a good antidote to the world-weary realism of The Illusionist, back way past the anything-goes surrealism of Triplets of Belleville into a pure comic cartoon world. A starving policeman dresses as a pigeon, barges into a bird-feeding old woman’s house and demands a meal, then does the same all year until she tries to eat him for Christmas dinner. Full of delightful little details (and at least one sad bird death).

The Italian Machine (1976, David Cronenberg)

“Let’s figure it out, Gestapo-style.”
A series of betrayals leading to an obsessed mechanic gaining ownership over a unique motorcycle. Made for TV, so people call each other “meathead” and “turkey”.

Beardy Lionel (Gary McKeehan of The Brood) hears that a collector’s-item motorcycle is in the hands of a collector. This will not stand, so he grabs his buddies (Frank Moore, second-billed in Rabid, and Hardee Lineham who had a cameo in The Dead Zone) and heads over posing as reporters to figure out how to free the bike from the boring rich guy (played by Guy Maddin’s buddy Louis Negin). Lionel sucks at pretending, though, so they’d be screwed if not for Ricardo, a dull cokehead hanger-on at Negin’s house who helps them out. Cronie’s fascination with automotive machinery peaked early with this and Fast Company, then came back with a brief vengeance with Crash.

Our beardy hero first meets Louis Negin:

Bottle Rocket (1992, Wes Anderson)

Cute sketch, with the Wilson brothers and Bob from the Bottle Rocket feature, plus the gun demo scene shot exactly the same way (just in black and white). They’re budding criminals, robbing Luke’s house then a book/video store, taking one guy’s wallet. No Inez, Futureman, Kumar or James Caan.

Something Happened (1987, Roy Andersson)

An AIDS lesson with didactic narration, illustrated with Andersson’s expertly composed setups of depressed-looking white people. One particular pale balding guy is seen a few times. It ends up less depressing than World of Glory, at least. Commissioned as an educational short but cancelled for being too dark

Within The Woods (1978, Sam Raimi)

Ah, the ol’ Indian burial ground. “Don’t worry about it,” says Bruce Campbell, “You’re only cursed by the evil spirits if you violate the graves of the dead. We’re just gonna be eating hot dogs.” Then he immediately violates a grave of the dead. Nice test run for The Evil Dead, with many elements already in place, like the the famous monster’s-pov long running shot, girls being attacked by trees, evil lurking in the cellar, knifing your friend as he walks in the door because you thought he was a demon, and of course, “JOIN US”. Hard to make out the finer points of the film since this was the grossest, fuzziest, lowest-ass-quality bootleg video I’ve ever seen.

Clockwork (1978, Sam Raimi)

Woman at home is stalked by jittery creeper (Scott Spiegel, director of From Dusk Till Dawn 2). He sticks his hands through her crepe-paper bedroom door, stabs her to death, but she stabs him back, also to death. It’s not much in the way of a story, but Raimi already has a good grip on the editing and camera skills for making decent horror. How did 19-year-old Raimi get his lead actress to take her clothes off in his 8mm movie?

Sonata For Hitler (1979, Aleksandr Sokurov)

Music video of stock footage from pre-WWII Germany stuck inside a ragged-edged frame surrounded by numbers and sprocket holes. Halfway through, the music mostly fades away, replaced with foreboding sound effects.

Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (2001, Simonsson & Nilsson)

Drummers break into an apartment, play catchy beats in the kitchen and bathroom, with a slow bedroom number in between, then a destructive romp through the living room. But just as they finish, the inhabitants return. Clever and fun, and just the thing that probably should not have been extended into a two-hour feature.

Whew, a not-too-good late-70’s-looking thriller with hardly any thrills, this wasn’t nearly as good as I’d hoped it’d be. Funny how in a week I went from watching John Cassavetes masterpiece Faces to watching a movie that ends with John Cassavetes exploding.

Boom!!:
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Movie opens in “Mid East 1977.” Kirk Douglas (below) loses his psychic son Robin to evildoer Cassavetes who subjects him to experiments we’re barely shown for reasons we are never told (and JC doesn’t seem to sweat it when Robin is killed at the end). Kirk goes deep undercover to rescue his son, enlisting Carrie‘s Amy Irving (who gets killed by a car in a botched escape) and psychic troubled girl Carrie Snodgress to help him infiltrate the secretly Cassavetes-backed psychic rest home run by Charles Durning (the president in Twilight’s Last Gleaming). Kirk finds his son but Robin has turned evil and they both plummet to their deaths from the roof. Carrie is miffed and explodes John Cassavetes again and again from fifty-six different camera angles.

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A brief timeline of stories featuring psychic kids and exploding bodies:
Carrie (King, 74)
The Fury (John Farris, 76)
Carrie (De Palma, 76)
The Fury (De Palma, 78)
Firestarter (King, 80)
Scanners (Cronenberg, 81)
Firestarter (Mark Lester, 84)

One of those cool De Palma signature perspective shots:
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Cassavetes (you can tell he’s evil by the black-gloved hand in a black arm cast) with Charles Durning:
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Robin (Andrew Stevens, vet of 70+ crappy movies) looks like he’s wolfing out, but really he’s hanging off a rooftop from his father’s arm full of psychic rage:
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Interesting movie, pretty good. Funny how I can rent a movie looking for an entertaining horror one night, and it’s not scary or entertaining so it’s crap. Eight years later I can rent the same movie as an auteurist curiosity and it becomes “interesting movie, pretty good”. Was I right before, or am I right now? Fortunately it’s all opinion and nobody cares, so I can change my mind and justify things all I like.

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Clearly one of Cronie’s body-horror origin stories. Porn star Marilyn Chambers was cast for financial reasons (not political/commentary as often supposed) because producer Ivan “Ghostbustin’-ass” Reitman thought she’d be a bigger funding draw than the unknown Sissy Spacek. Then as shooting was beginning, Spacek’s other movie came out (see shot above). Oopsie.

Chambers capably plays a car accident victim who has a medical procedure (see two quotes below) that somehow lead her to grow a very sexual-looking little bloodsucking rabies-zombie-virus-transmitting armpit-mounted appendage. It’s nuts, but still not nuttier than the ice cream man movie I just watched.

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Nice looking movie, grimy and low-budget but well composed. When the characters have believable behavior, it always helps a horror movie… of course it’s one of the rarest things in the genre.

Chambers stays with a friend, goes out at night finding people to kill/infect. Is finally caught killing the friend (above) and gives herself up to one of her zombie victims in remorse, ending with the “night of the living dead” reminiscent close, an army cleanup crew tossing her body into a garbage truck.

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Senses of Cinema’s A. Allinson, in his barely-decipherable Cronenberg piece, says “Coinciding with the AIDS outbreak, Chambers, walking virus, is an apologetic martyr of “very experimental surgery” going wrong”.

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Film Freak interviews Cronenberg:

FF: “Rabid is home to your first major statement about body-modification–plastic surgery.”
DC: “Yes, and ironically enough what I invented in that movie has recently come to pass in stem cell research. Not that I think of prophecy as my métier, but we invented this neutral tissue that would become whatever tissue it came in contact with and that’s the basis of stem cell research, sort of the universal organic loam–so I have to take a little credit. (laughs) I suppose that there were some intimations even in my earliest work, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, about technology altering the body and there’s some of that in Shivers too. The plague in that film is an artificial one, of course, the result of an experiment gone wrong, and it occurs to me now that it was also meant to replace damaged organs. I hadn’t thought of that in years.”

Reminded me of the Dafoe scene in Existenz:
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No interesting cast/crew stories besides Cronie and Ivan Reitman. The murdered friend turned to cartoon voice acting, and one of the cops tracking Marilyn co-starred in Shivers.

Watched this the same week we went out to Nightmare Before Christmas. Neither movie is kind to Santa.
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Earlier I wrote: “Movie was good. Not holy-wow-mindblowing, but Cronie knows how to shoot a movie, so despite any narrative failings the whole thing was a raw pleasure to watch.”

And it’s not a “failed” narrative, but everyone seems to agree that there isn’t much there. Cronenberg seems to have bought a barebones nothing-special script about the Russian mafia in London (written by nothing-special author Steve Knight of Dirty Pretty Things and Amazing Grace) and given it a few Cronenberg touches (an extreme fight scene, heavy focus on tattoos), then directed the hell out of it. Ever since re-watching Existenz recently I’ve been thinking about how watchable his films are, how I feel a high-quality tension from them that I never think to analyze in terms of camera placement and shot length, but just relish and enjoy. So while it’s no History of Violence in his overall career, it’s not a disappointment either. The guy does not know how to disappoint.

The great acting doesn’t hurt, either. Viggo Mortensen is back from HoV, playing a deep-undercover cop infiltrating the Russian mob. Naomi Watts (remember King Kong?) is an overly concerned hospital midwife trying to find a family member of the young girl who died giving birth so it won’t go up for adoption. Armin Mueller-Stahl (X-Files, 13th Floor) is the mob head and secret father of the baby. In the intense-unstable-closeted role is mobster son Vincent Cassel (Blueberry, La Haine, Brotherhood of the Wolf), and as Naomi’s racist russian uncle is Jerzy Skolimowski, a Polish 60’s filmmaker (who also acted in Before Night Falls and Mars Attacks) currently shooting his first film in 17 years with Isabelle Huppert and Dennis Hopper [edit 2011: this was cancelled and he made Four Nights With Anna instead].

At the center of the story is the dead girl’s diary which implicates Armin and Vincent but is written in Russian. Jerzy translates it, so Viggo has to kill him (actually sends him to a hotel, being a cop and all). In the end, presumably Armin is locked up on a rape charge, with Vincent in charge of the family (he gets to live despite almost murdering a baby) and Viggo about to take it down from the inside, Naomi’s family happily together again.

As for Cronenbergian script touches, you’ve got your naked sauna knife fight, your life written on your body in tattoo form, your finger-chopping body-disposal man and three other big bloody scenes. And since, despite all my writing online I still haven’t learned how to analyze and discuss a movie, I can’t put my finger on why (couldn’t be empty boosterism of my favorite directors, could it?), but I feel it’s a quality movie, exquisitely filmed and paced, and thrilling to watch.

Interestingly, in Reverse Shot’s review, Andrew Tracy directly addresses the question I ask above, saying it is boosterism, and that it’s hurtful to the world of film criticism to pretend that Eastern Promises is a good movie. He says “unequivocal praise or panning is the unfortunate rule of these latter days of criticism”, then aggravatingly calls it “a failed film”. I don’t know that anyone considers it a masterpiece, and by the AV Club rating system I’d only give it a B or B+, but I reserve the term “failure” for a D-grade or below. “Failed film” sounds like “if it isn’t great, it’s rubbish”, and a good B+ thriller with some great acting and a few outstanding scenes isn’t rubbish. Rather it’s a movie I’m very glad I saw, instead of going to The Brave One or Shoot ’em Up or Halloween, all recent additions to my endless to-rent list.

Nice one from Reverse Shot:

With the aid of Mortensen’s granitic face and body—which is not simply a given quality but an acted entity—Cronenberg depicts flesh as armour, the shell of a man who lives entirely through his outward gestures. Mortensen’s impeccable overcoat, suit, gloves, and slicked-back hair are further layers of a constructed identity that begins with the skin, which itself is covered with the tattoos relating the story of his life to his underworld masters. The progressive stripping, both literal and metaphorical, of Nikolai throughout the film reveals not the person beneath the artifice, but the meticulously constructed series of artifices which constitute the person himself.

Second half of shorts listing from Cannes 60th anniv. celebration (first half is here):

It’s A Dream by Tsai Ming-liang
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Occupations by a hatchet-wielding Lars Von Trier
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The Gift, more weirdness by Raoul Ruiz
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The Cinema Around The Corner, happy reminiscing by Claude Lelouch
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First Kiss, pretty but obvious, by Gus Van Sant.
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Cinema Erotique, a funny gag by Roman Polanksi with one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s large-faced actors.
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No Translation Needed, almost too bizarre to be considered self-indulgent, first Michael Cimino movie since 1996.
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At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World by and starring David Cronenberg, one of his funniest and most disturbing movies.
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I Travelled 9,000 km To Give It To You by Wong Kar-Wai.
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Where Is My Romeo? – Abbas Kiarostami films women crying at a movie.
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The Last Dating Show, funny joke on dating and racial tension by Bille August.
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Awkward featuring Elia Suleiman as himself.
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Sole Meeting, another gag, by Manoel de Oliveira and starring Michel Piccoli (left) and MdO fave Duarte de Almeida (right).
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8,944 km From Cannes, a very pleasurable musical gag by Walter Salles.
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War In Peace, either perverse or tragic, I don’t know which, by Wim Wenders.
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Zhanxiou Village, supreme childhood pleasure by Chen Kaige.
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Happy Ending, ironically funny ending by Ken Loach.
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Epilogue is an excerpt from a Rene Clair film.
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Not included in the DVD version was World Cinema by Joel & Ethan Coen and reportedly a second Walter Salles segment.

Not included in the program at all was Absurda by David Lynch (reportedly he submitted too late, so his short was shown separately). I saw a download copy… some digital business with crazed sound effects and giant scissors.