Talking Movies

October 31, 2019

From the Archives: Eastern Promises

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to uncover the mystery surrounding a Russian teenager who died in childbirth. Her quest to translate the girl’s diary leads her into conflict with restaurant owner and crime-lord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his menacing foot-soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Viggo Mortenson and director David Cronenberg follow their collaboration on A History of Violence with another film about a mysterious man connected to vicious criminals. Viggo Mortensen gives a tremendously committed lead performance. Most of his dialogue is in Russian and with his dark glasses, erect bearing, measured walk and slicked back hair he remains an enigmatic presence throughout. Cronenberg is very smart in avoiding the usual clichés about hitmen having a crisis of conscience. It’s impossible to guess the motivations of Viggo’s Nikolai and the film is all the more intriguing for it. It is also graphically violent, Cronenberg did after all give us the infamous exploding head scene in 1981’s Scanners. It’s hard not to think of Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho. Hitchcock, he claimed, served up such a big steak of violence early on with the shower scene that he was able to terrify the audience with just sizzle for the rest of the film because they feared another rare slice of gore. Cronenberg opens his film with a repulsively gruesome throat-slitting. This lends an air of tension to every scene with Mafioso that follows.

But Cronenberg doesn’t just use sizzle in Eastern Promises, we get a steak too, in what will become an infamous scene. A very naked Viggo has to defend himself at the Finsbury Public Baths against two men armed with linoleum knives in a fight twice as gruelling as that of The Bourne Ultimatum. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain with its notoriously lengthy murder scene springs to mind here as there is a tour de force tracking shot by Cronenberg that ends in a violent act guaranteed to have audiences moaning. It’s worth noting here that the film is also surprisingly funny. Steven Knight, co-creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (seriously!), also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, another acclaimed picture of immigrants being exploited in London, but before that he was a comedy writer. The humour here is all the more potent for being so incongruous in the milieu of the Vory V Zakone criminal fraternity.

The acting is uniformly superb except for Vincent Cassell’s one note psychopath, the heir apparent Kirill. Naomi Watts excels opposite Viggo as the depressed midwife Anna driven to seek justice for the dead 14 year old victim of sex trafficking. She and her ordinary English mother (Sinead Cusack) and grouchy Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) are painfully powerless against the dangerous people she drags them into contact with in this dangerous quest, and we fear for them, especially against Armin Mueller-Stahl’s deceptively avuncular crime lord Semyon. This is an important film of great humanity but its graphic violence makes it hard to recommend wholeheartedly.

4/5

May 12, 2018

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI: Part II

The IFI presented a season of post-Watergate conspiracy cinema in June 2011, and now it’s having another conspiracy cinema season with a more European flavour. It’s rather appropriate that this German-flavoured season comes just as the GDPR comes into effect, as the GDR experience of surveillance and paranoia (that isn’t actually paranoia because they really are watching you) informs both the regulation and the season. These films reflect a time of political violence internationally by guerrilla groups and government militias, a feeling that anyone could be assassinated at any time, and the continual intrusion into private lives of shadowy forces.

 

Z

Saturday 12th May 2018
16.00

Costa-Gavras’ third feature made his international reputation, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1970; and more importantly making it onto Barry Norman’s 100 Best Films of the Century. It was inspired by the killing of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 and was a defiant artistic gesture against the Generals in Athens. “Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is intentional” it proclaims in its credits.

127 MINS, FRANCE, 1969, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL

Sunday 13th May 2018
16.00

A right-wing paramilitary group plots to kill French President General De Gaulle in response to his belated granting of Algerian independence. There is only one man for the job, Edward Fox as the professional assassin known as The Jackal. Learning of the conspiracy, police inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale before Moonraker) is given emergency powers to conduct his investigation and a game of cat and mouse ensues, with Cyril Cusack playing a memorable part. High Noon director Fred Zinnemann’s amps up the tension in this suspenseful adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel, which was itself inspired by an actual 1962 attempt on De Gaulle’s life.

143 MINS, UK-FRANCE, 1973, DIGITAL

THE FLIGHT

Wednesday 16th May 2018
18.15

Dr Schmidt (Armin Mueller-Stahl) has had it. He’s had with the GDR, he’s had it with the Stasis, he’s had it with the bureaucracy that pretends to be running a functioning Communist state by its own lights but sets the price of grain based on the market prices reported from Kansas. So he seeks the help of an underground faction to escape to the west. Incredibly Roland Gräf’s film was actually made in East Germany,  bankrolled by the state-owned DEFA studios. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 1978 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, it was the last film Mueller-Stahl made before, in a touch of life imitating art, he bolted from East Germany to West Germany in 1980.

94 MINS, EAST GERMANY, 1977, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION

Saturday 19th May 2018
16.00

Director Elio Petri surfed the same zeitgeist as Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist with this stylish black comedy of endemic police corruption in Italy. Gian Maria Volontè plays a respected police inspector who murders his mistress and then, oh joy, handles the investigation of the murder himself. Like a more satirical riff on Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window he begins to drop ever-more obvious clues that he dun it, but nobody wants to know… This won the 1917 Best Foreign Film Oscar, but more importantly it boasts a terrific Ennio Morricone score.

115 MINS, ITALY, 1970, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

THE PARALLAX VIEW

Sunday 20th May 2018
16.00

Alan J Pakula’s 1974 thriller sees Warren Beatty’s journalist investigating the possibility that powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation was behind a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, and then murdered all the witnesses to the truth. Production was affected by a writer’s strike, and it shows, but there is a notable use of sound, as well as a scene where Gordon Willis allegedly cast a huge shadow over Beatty’s hammy breakdown to stop him embarrassing himself. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

102 MINS, USA, 1974, 35MM

STATE OF SIEGE

Wednesday 23rd May 2018
18.30

Costa-Gavras again, this time his follow up to Z in 1972 in which he drew attention to US meddling in the internal politics of their near neighbours. Yves Montand is Philip Michael Santore, a CIA agent advising an unnamed Latin American government on the best method of dealing with terrorists. Enhanced interrogation the euphemism is now. Kidnapped by the very leftist guerrillas he’s been training the state to subdue he gets a taste of his own medicine, as he’s used as collateral in a prisoner swap. Media hysteria ensues, and Costa-Gavras critiques the brutality of Kissinger’s realpolitik, propping up right-wing dictatorships to prevent the emergence of left-wing dictatorships.

120 MINS, FRANCE-ITALY, 1972, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHERINA BLUM

Saturday 26th May 2018
16.00

Released just a year after Willy Brandt was forced to resign as Chancellor, following the explosive revelation that one of his closest advisers was a Stasi agent; undercover for 20 years!; this spoke to West German fears of being completely destroyed by unwitting association. Angela Winkler is Katherina Blum, a maid who sleeps with an attractive man. And also a suspected terrorist, and so she finds herself accused in private and public of being a terrorist too. Not based on BILD, for legal reasons, this was an indictment of media rush to judgement, aided and abetted by out of control forces of law and order.

106 MINS, WEST GERMANY, 1975, BLU-RAY

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

Sunday 27th May 2018
16.00

Sydney Pollack shamelessly muscled in on Alan J Pakula territory with this post-Watergate slice of paranoia. Robert Redford is an unimportant CIA researcher Joe Turner who goes to lunch one day and is thankful that he did and had a long lunch because when he finally returns he finds everybody else in the office got shot. Kidnap a cute hostage (Faye Dunaway), fend off a European assassin (Max Von Sydow), unravel international global conspiracy that he’d accidentally stumbled on? All in a day’s work for a CIA desk jockey. Okay, maybe more than just a day, but still not bad for one unused to the field.

117 MINS, USA, 1975, BLU-RAY

KNIFE IN THE HEAD

Wednesday 30th May 2018
18.30

Angela Winkler again, this time playing the estranged wife of Bruno Ganz; who is Hoffman, another victim of wilful state character assassination. Hoffman is looking for his estranged wife when he gets caught in the suppression of a left-wing rally. He wakes up in hospital, partially paralysed and with severe memory loss. The police accuse him of killing one of their number, the left-wingers hail him as a victim of police brutality, he hasn’t a clue what happened. His attempts to figure out the truth lead to clashes with the authorities, and a grand metaphor for a country haunted by its violent past.

108 MINS, WEST GERMANY, 1978, 35MM

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