Not the best fantasy English-language debut by a Cannes jury prize winning European filmmaker starring John C. Reilly I’ve seen in theaters this week. Hard to believe this was even worse than Reality. No atmosphere or rhythm, just a series of things happening to no apparent purpose. The colors and costumes looked nice, anyway.

I guess there are three nearby kingdoms. King John C. Reilly dies slaying a sea monster to cast a spell so Queen Salma Hayek can have a baby, but her substitute chef also has a baby and they grow up to be albino twins Christian and Jonah Lees, who send messages via water flowing out of a tree root. Second there’s King Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) who loves having sex with ladies and wants all the ladies to have sex with him. He likes the singing voice of Shirley Henderson so her sister Hayley Carmichael semi-competently fools him, then is thrown from his window and turned into young and beautiful Stacy Martin (Young Joe in Nymphomaniac) by a witch in the woods, after which she marries the king. And King Toby Jones is obsessed with his giant pet flea so absentmindedly allows his daughter Bebe Cave to marry a dangerous ogre.

Shot by Peter Suschitzky (Cosmopolis, Lisztomania) and edited by tossing rough-cut scenes in the air and picking them up in any order.

M. D’Angelo:

One tale will be abandoned for so long that its return is like suddenly remembering last night’s dream in the middle of the day. Guy Maddin employed that device masterfully in The Forbidden Room (which premiered at Sundance earlier this year), but he did so by burying dozens of stories inside others, like Russian dolls. Here, Garrone just randomly cuts to someone else every so often, killing the momentum every time.

The CLF in Cinema Scope:

Thanks to very good CGI and a diligent DP, the film looks pleasant if you’re into Middle Ages fetishism, dragons, albino twins, abusive ogres, and that sort of thing. The way Garrone elaborates the source material is pedantic in its refusal to give a moral dimension to the stories (something missing from the original). What is the point of drawing on archetypical forms of storytelling if their transposition fails to meaningfully relate to the present time? Like many films these days, the only good question Tale of Tales raises is: Why was this film made?

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.

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.