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Eastern Promises DVD Review

Eastern Promises movie poster Eastern Promises

Theatrical Release: August 29, 2007 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: David Cronenberg / Writer: Steven Knight

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai Luzhin), Naomi Watts (Anna Khitrova), Vincent Cassel (Kirill), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Mina E. Mina (Azim), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan), Donald Sumpter (Yuri), Aleksander Mikic (Soyka), Tatiana Maslany (Tatiana's Voice), Tereza Srbova (Kirilenko), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse (Tatiana)

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In Eastern Promises, Russian-English midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) encounters new life and death on the same night. The site of each is a 14-year-old Russian girl known only as Tatiana.
The efforts to identify this deceased teenage mother and save her newborn daughter from foster care lead Anna into an underbelly of present-day London.

The community where, with the help of Tatiana's diary, Anna hopes to track down the girl's family initially seems to be divided into classes of tough gangsters and honest, hard-working immigrants. Both seem somehow exotic to Anna, who lives comfortably with her English mother (Sinead Cusack) and judgmental Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski). A hospital worker with a break-up and a stillbirth recently behind her, Anna is both Anglicized and ordinary, two things that none of the folks at the key Trans-Siberian restaurant can claim to be.

Appearances can be deceiving, though, and there's as much of a dark side to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the kindly restaurateur who lets Anna sample his delicious borscht and volunteers to translate the Russian-penned diary, as there is to his vulgar son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and the slick, tattooed driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) cries over the baby whose fate is in question in "Eastern Promises." With tattoos by his knuckles, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) the "driver" gives Anna a ride home.

Our attentions remain mostly with the sympathetic Anna and the complicated Nikolai. She finds herself immersed in a world she doesn't belong. With calmness and reason, he reports to the wayward Kirill while trying to please the more quietly powerful Semyon. Together, the two threads give us an inside and outside look at an organized crime family that's different in location and style from the ones usually depicted on film.

Eastern Promises is the eighteenth and latest feature directed by David Cronenberg. An eccentric filmmaker who became known for trippy reality-bending horror and sci-fi works like The Fly and Videodrome, Cronenberg has spent much of his sporadic 40-year career on unusual material that keeps him off cinema's mainstream radar. That seemed to change with 2005's A History of Violence, which while deemed unusual, was acclaimed and honored by critics plus fairly well-attended too.

While Promises hasn't drawn as many moviegoers, it has earned some of the year's best reviews and appears to be standing tall into Oscar season. Viggo Mortensen, who also served as leading man in Cronenberg's Violence, has already been considered for Best Actor in five different awards shows, winning two of the three conducted. Last week, his performance was responsible for one of the three Golden Globe nominations bestowed upon Eastern Promises along with Howard Shore's score and, most importantly, the film as a whole (one of seven in contention for the Best Picture - Drama prize).

Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is just a warm old Russian man with a restaurant that serves tasty borscht... or is he? Nikolai waits by Anna's newly-repaired motorcycle.

Mortensen truly does throw himself into this role, his Russian accent utterly convincing and his mannerisms believable. His juicy character is the most interesting in the piece and has new layers revealed throughout. Depth is also granted to the unaligned father and son with whom he runs.
Though given as much screen time as anyone, Naomi Watts' protagonist is rather passive, serving primarily as our eyes and grounding the intrigue.

Though the story by Steven Knight (Amazing Grace, Dirty Pretty Things) held my attention verily and I could appreciate the technique on display, Eastern Promises didn't do too much for me overall. I haven't seen or had interest in much of Cronenberg's odd body of work, but Promises doesn't put me in any real hurry to do that. The twists are largely foreseeable, the brief bursts of graphic violence seem wildly indulgent, and the depicted worlds never compel as they should. What dramatic value there is relies too heavily on quiet moments and Shore's score. And the film doesn't add up to all that it can, closing with an unsatisfyingly predictable conclusion.

Eastern Promises is sure to at least receive some nominations for the forthcoming Oscars and that feels appropriate, not because it is a great movie, but because it is a great example of the type of movie that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences likes to honor each winter. There's a foreign flavor, a socially relevant backdrop, and a never-dismissible shock quotient. If The Departed, a Mafia movie about deception and allegiances, could win Best Picture with only one of those three things, then Eastern seems to be on the right path to similar kudos. But, like other arthouse fare, that doesn't necessarily make it more than an acquired taste.

Buy Eastern Promises (Widescreen Edition) on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: December 23, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $12.98 (Reduced from $29.98)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase with side snaps
Also available in Reformatted Fullscreen DVD
and on Blu-ray

VIDEO and AUDIO

Universal is releasing Eastern Promises in separate Widescreen and Fullscreen editions. I reviewed the former, which exhibits the film in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio and naturally is enhanced for 16x9 displays. I noticed no problem with the visuals, which were a bit grainier than a major studio effort but quite likely the result of a deliberate choice.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is more remarkable, though not necessarily in a good way. The convincing Eastern European accents heard are thick enough that you'll have to occasionally consult the subtitle tracks, of which there are six. There are two for each English, French, and Spanish, because the fairly regular foreign dialogue is translated into these languages via a player-generated track. If you're unsure of a line, you'll either have to let it pass or be willing to do some subtitle jockeying. In any event, the track itself can't be faulted for its characters' lingual baggage, but it's not too otherwise striking aside from Howard Shore's prominent, flaring and now Golden Globe-nominated score.

Director David Cronenberg talks with both his mouth and his hands in "Secrets and Stories." The Russian prison tattoos most prominent on Viggo Mortensen's character are the subject of the featurette "Marked for Life." The Eastern Promises DVD's static main menu certainly isn't the most evocative.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Only two bonus features are found here, both of which are fairly short. "Secrets and Stories" (10:30) serves as a general making-of featurette,
with a common mix of cast/crew interview sound bites, production footage, and film clips. It covers the film's themes, inspirations, casting and performances in a succinct but compelling manner.

The other, "Marked for Life" (6:40) focuses on the tattoos that are seen and noted in the film. It addresses the research that guided them, their meaning to Russian criminals who have done prison time, and how they were achieved. The piece closes with an interesting anecdote from Viggo Mortensen, whose devotion to research is remarked upon in both bonuses.

Upon inserting the disc, skippable previews play for fellow Universal/Focus indies Atonement, Lust, Caution, Reservation Road, and Canvas, followed by a promo for HD DVD. These aren't available from the menus.

Menus and packaging are both a basic affair. The former are static screens of characters pasted in front of backdrops, with loud stringy score accompanying the main and bonus features pages. The only insert inside the side-snapped keepcase is a booklet touting HD DVD.

Shaded, smoking Nikolai and the coarse Kirill (Vincent Cassel) give off a gangster look having just disposed of a foe. Nikolai shows off his tattooed body, the calling card of a Russian criminal, to a group looking to give him some new body art. If you think this is revealing, it's nothing compared to what the studio calls Viggo Mortensen's "now infamous steam room fight scene"!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You can expect to hear more about Eastern Promises in the two months ahead of us, but if you missed it in theaters, you won't have to wait for the movie awards season buzz to die down to see it. Familiarity with the major contenders in this year's Oscars is one of the best reasons to check out this film, which is involving if not particularly emotionally affecting. Sneaking to stores on the week of Christmas, Universal's DVD is timely and not too shabby in its feature presentation. Those looking to own the film, however, may be disappointed by the paucity of bonus features which fail to provide us with reasonable goodies like a Cronenberg commentary and deleted scenes.

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Reviewed December 21, 2007.



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