I’m still trying to figure out why CharredHer managed to carry over the free weekend preview to Monday (I discovered the channels were still on when I turned on the TV set to channel five hundred and something, which I had left there to tape a Cinemax showing of Heaven Can Wait ) but needless to say, good fortune smiled down upon the House of Yesteryear long enough for me to get a gander at two extra films:
Rendition (2007) – An Egyptian national (Omar Metwally) is returning to the U.S. after a recent trip to South Africa only to soon discover that he’s headed for more trouble than just lost luggage; a suicide bombing has taken the life of a CIA analyst in the Middle East and the group judged responsible just happens to have made several calls to the Egyptian’s cell phone. He can’t explain how it happened, so intelligence official Meryl Streep gives her people the green light to have him expedited to another country to work him over for a satisfactory explanation because, as she tells an underling (Jake Gyllenhaal): “The United States doesn’t torture.”
Meanwhile, Metwally’s wife (Reese Witherspoon) enlists the help of an old flame/friend (Peter Sarsgaard) to find her hubby; he works for a “liberal” Senator (Alan Arkin) who’s all for due process but is pragmatically timid about opening up an unknown can of worms and getting on Streep’s bad side. It’s up to Gyllenhaal to save the day (such as it is) when he begins to question the nature of his job watching Witherspoon’s husband being both waterboarded and the recipient of electric shocks.
Rendition is a film that succeeds on the strength of its players; I particularly enjoyed watching Streep play a real ball-busting bureaucrat who uses her Southern accent and charm to disarm her detractors, and Gyllenhaal has a nice way with a line (explaining to the official [Yigal Naor] in charge of Metwally’s interrogation he cracks: “This is my first torture”). Juno’s J.K. Simmons has a small role in this one (as Streep’s lackey) and as evidenced (insert gratuitous and shameless self-promotion plug here) by my recent guest post at Edward Copeland on Film I’ll pretty much watch anything with Alan Arkin. The film really doesn’t succeed as a whole; director Gavin Hood insists on even-handedness (though its liberal sympathies are evident, he doesn’t hesitate to remind the viewer that the rendition program came to us gift-wrapped from the Clinton administration) and this robs the interrogation sequences of their brutality…diluting the anger as well. I’ll give it three stars for a worthwhile if somewhat flawed effort.
Eastern Promises (2007) – Director David Cronenberg’s cult status has risen considerably over the past several years with one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen in A History of Violence (2005) and this follow-up is every bit as good, ending up on many year-end “best of” lists of movie reviewers and critics in 2007. Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova; a midwife who tries to save the life of a pregnant Russian teenager named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) but is only able to spare her newborn child instead. She finds a diary among the girl’s effects and asks her Russian uncle (director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate; when he refuses she takes the journal to a restaurateur named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) for the same purpose…not knowing that he is a major player in the Russian mafia who knew the deceased Tatiana all too well.
I’ve sketched out only the briefest synopsis of this incredible film because I’m hesitant to give away too much to anyone who hasn’t seen it. The major part of the plot has to do with Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his faithful chauffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson, in a performance that nabbed him an Oscar nom); Nikolai is ambitious and wants to move up in Semyon’s organization but at the same he develops a tender affinity for Anna as well. How this mesmerizing thriller managed to get shut out of the Best Picture/Best Director/Best Screenplay races is something I just can’t answer but it’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years, and delightfully manages to pull the rug out from you just when you think you’ve doped out what’s coming next. This one is a must-see. (***1/2)