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Post-Traumatic Mystery

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Mortensen is good in a role like this—a man who uses his chiseled, blue-eyed, dimpled handsomeness as a mask to hide his thoughts. It’s hard to know what else he might bring to a part—although when I first saw him, in a small role as a paraplegic in Carlito’s Way, I thought he’d be a major actor. His character here is nowhere near as layered as in A History of Violence, and neither is the movie. It’s engrossing, and Mueller-Stahl’s mix of Old World chivalry and murderousness is scarier than Jason and Freddy combined. But Eastern Promises is finally conventional, even sentimental—or as sentimental as a film in which a knife gets driven through someone’s eyeball into his brain in a gruelingly extended medium close-up can be. There’s nothing comparable to the mirror-image sex scenes between Mortensen and Maria Bello that anchored History—only a lot of Watts trudging back and forth with that damn diary-McGuffin.

The big gore set piece will get people buzzing, though. For his last film, Cronenberg brought something new to the fights: Mortensen didn’t just move faster than his antagonists; he came in way close and butted their heads and smashed their Adam’s apples and mashed their noses into their faces. He does all that here, too, but in a steam bath minus a towel. Cronenberg doesn’t just deliver bravura stabbing and bone-snappings and eye-gougings; he manages to keep the Mortensen-pickle shots to a minimum—and get his “R” rating. We wouldn’t want anything to upset the kids!

3:10 to Yuma, the second adaptation of a fifties Elmore Leonard short story (from back when he wrote oaters), has two things going for it. The first is simply its genre—and the nostalgia many of us feel for Westerns in which heroes struggle to cling to their ideals in a craven society. The second is Russell Crowe, normally an actor who disappears so far into his characters you’d swear his DNA has been altered. As Ben Wade, gang leader and murderer, he gives an ironic performance, but Crowe’s irony is more intense than other actors’ obsession. He turns the idea of having so few emotions—of being beyond caring—into a bloody joke. He upstages everyone with his laughing eyes.

Leonard’s story was basically two men—deputy and outlaw—in a hotel room waiting for a train to prison while the bad guy’s gang amasses in the street below, poised to save him from hanging. It still is, although the film, directed by James Mangold, carts in everyone from the family of the hero (Christian Bale) to an evil rancher (he wants the hero’s farm) to prostitutes to Chinese railroad builders to a Pinkerton man played by Peter Fonda—the onetime counterculture hero channeling, very amusingly, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. The editing is tense and there’s mucho splatter but the climax is unforgivable for reasons I can’t spell out—and owes something to a recent picture I can’t name. As spoilers go, it would be a hanging offense.

What could impel Jodie Foster and director Neil Jordan to whisk us back to the bad old days of Death Wish and Ms. 45? Were their credit cards maxed out? Were their kneecaps about to be broken? In The Brave One, Foster plays a radio host who delivers meditative monologues about our precious but too-ephemeral metropolis, only to find her romantic notions of identity shattered along with her skull when she and her fiancé are mugged by sniggering predators in Central Park. After she recovers (in body if not soul), she can’t seem to leave her apartment without being set upon by rapists and murderers. Lucky the lady has a gun … Homicide detective Terrence Howard—an avid listener of her weird radio spiels—faces an ethical decision: bust her or let her do what the law won’t let him do—blast the scum off the face of the Earth. You probably think I’m oversimplifying—that Foster and Jordan are too thoughtful, artistically ambitious, and politically progressive to make a movie that would have Bernie Goetz rolling his eyes. But Foster’s feminist victimization complex seems to be looping around to meet Nixon and Agnew. Next she’ll be hunting Commies for the FBI.

How lucky people were in the sixties to have something to take their minds off a corrupt administration and an unjust war—to remind us what humans could aspire to and achieve if they just wanted badly enough to humiliate the Commies. In the Shadow of the Moon, directed by David Sington (and “presented” by Apollo enthusiast Ron Howard), recounts the space race with the Soviets that led to one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind—and to many other small steps on the lunar surface before nasa closed the books on the moon. The movie has a lot of talking heads—just about everyone except Neil Armstrong, apparently unwilling to take this particular step. But they’re great heads, still lean, still touched by wonder, and far enough past youthful vanity that Buzz Aldrin can boast of being the second man to walk on the moon but the first to pee on it. In between, we see the liftoffs, the orbits, the “Earth rises” that still put a lump in your throat, and, maybe best of all, the view from just above the cratered landscape as Armstrong and Aldrin search for a boulderless place to plop down. The film goes chronologically—not year by year but stage by stage in the journey, so you get multiple points of view (and camera angles) on everything from the first sight of the home world to bouncing along the white, fine-grained surface with only one-sixth the gravity of Earth’s. I came out giddy, feeling lighter—by about five-sixths—than I did when I went in.

In the Valley of Elah
Directed by Paul Haggis. Warner Independent. R.

Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg. Focus Features. R.

3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold. Lions Gate Films. R.

The Brave One
Directed by Neil Jordan. Warner Bros. R.

In the Shadow of the Moon
Directed by David Sington. ThinkFilm. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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