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HD DVD Reviews

HTF HD-DVD Review: Eastern Promises

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#1 of 5 Neil Middlemiss

Neil Middlemiss


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Posted January 02 2008 - 04:12 AM


Eastern Promises

Studio: Universal Studios
Year: 2007
US Rating: Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity.
Film Length: 1hr 40 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/VC-1
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD, English and French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1
Subtitles: Optional English SDH, French, Spanish

US Release Date: December 23, 2007

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“Forget any of this happened. Stay away from people like me.”

I have been enamored with the work of David Cronenberg since I was eleven. I saw his incredible remake of The Fly in 1986 and have had a fascination with his intensely thrilling and curiously gory storytelling ever since. As a teenager still, I remember going to the theater to see Naked Lunch and being captivated and perplexed equally by the unusual story and film. He has a distinct vision, managing to tell very human tales in the throes of often very violent and bloody circumstances. Each of his beguiling films has ordinary and extraordinary people in situations they often don’t understand or learn to understand throughout the film. Even his more peculiar films like eXistenZ portrayed characters finding their way through unusual, violent and dangerous territory that they were only just beginning to understand.

After the team up of Director Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen in last year’s masterful A History of Violence I had extremely high hopes for their latest collaboration and began the movie with much anticipation. I was not disappointed. The film is subtle, patient and powerful, a feat rarely accomplished or even attempted in today’s Hollywood machine. As the credits rolled, I thought about the film I had just seen; a somewhat bleak tale of violence, sadness and how different people see and react to the world they find themselves in. The essence of almost every Cronenberg film I can remember is a story about people dealing with things outside of their normality and beyond their control. They are about how the best and worst can be brought out in each of us, and how we justify those actions to ourselves and to others.

Eastern Promises is paced very much like A History of Violence, with a brooding and deliberate feel and a few shocking and grizzly scenes dotted throughout. The most striking similarity to last year’s hit collaboration is in how men with secrets bury them just beneath the surface but never deep enough that they cannot be seen if you are really looking.

The story has Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a London hospital, trying to locate relatives of a young Russian girl who died shortly after giving birth. Anna finds the girls diary but, despite being born of a Russian father, cannot speak or read the language. Following a clue to a local Russian owned restaurant, Anna meets the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller Stahl), who offers to translate the diary to help Anna locate the family of the dead girl. What Anna does not realize, is that the diary holds secrets about the Russian mob, the Vor V Zarkone, and the restaurant owner is actually the head of that criminal family.

Anna meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), the driver for Semyon’s son, Kirill, outside the restaurant. They quickly spark an interesting and dangerous relationship that yields some surprising emotional drama. With Anna’s life at risk from the secrets contained in that diary that could tear the Vor V Zarkone apart, a web of uneasy maneuvers begins.

Eastern Promises is a simmering and brutal thriller with a cast of outstanding players that bring the seedy and dark underworld of a Russian crime family to life. Viggo Mortenson has taken on another high-quality role in Nikolai and continues to prove his gift for finding complicated, likeable characters to play. In Nikolai, his portrayal is measured, bringing out a calm sinister streak balanced by a caring and good natured side that helps further define Viggo as one of the most interesting actors in American cinema today. The casting of Naomi Watts as Anna is another one of the film’s strengths. Watts exudes an everyday normality amongst the incredible circumstance with utter believability and strength. Watts, who has proven herself time and again with roles in 21 Grams, The Ring and Peters Jackson’s King Kong as having a wealth of talent, is fascinating to watch.

Along with stars Viggo and Naomi, the remaining cast is exemplary, with Armin Mueller Stahl as the boss, Semyon and French actor Vincent Casell as his son, Kirill standing out.

David Cronenberg has again delivered a film that is sad, dramatic and tense by equal turns. This superbly crafted thriller, with many layers of intimacy and emotion, is another chapter in the remarkable careers for all involved. With excellent set design and cinematography, the film also looks incredible and will do well come awards season.

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Universal Studios has done a very nice job on the transfer of Eastern Promises, presenting it in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and in glorious 1080p high definition and encoded VC-1. The image quality is excellent throughout with fine detail, vivid colors and rich blacks and vibrant grays.

The film, set in London, has many overcast and rainy scenes and it is interesting to see just how vivid those rainy and gray days come through on this HD-DVD release. The image has no issues, distortions or unnatural grain that I could find and gets a big thumbs up from me.

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As with A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s latest film is an engrossing tale that unfolds slowly and with a pace that fits the feature perfectly. This also means that you won’t find a constant or routine slip into action sequences, giving the audio fewer chances to demonstrate the power of a Dolby TrueHD track. However, when the violence does kick in, the surrounds come alive and the strength of Howard Shore’s otherwise subdued score is allowed to shine. The expected rainy London weather sounds great in the speakers and subwoofer at times also. The audio options for this release are English Dolby TrueHD and English and French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. This is a great sounding release, with beautifully crisp dialogue and excellent clarity from the ambient soundtrack.

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There is little by way of special features on this release. But what is here, though short, is relatively interesting and presented in high definition.

Secrets and Stories – (10:31) – This look at the film starts off strong, containing conversations with director Cronenberg and star, Viggo Mortenson, but no sooner than it begins, it’s over.

Marked for Life - (6:41) – A quick featurette about the tattoos, what they mean in the sub-culture, the language, stories and symbology, and how they were used in the film.

Final Thoughts

Eastern Promises is the kind of thriller we see little of these days. It isn’t flashy, predictable or high concept; it simply explores violence and the darkness that people are capable of, balanced by the humanity of those who find themselves caught up in that darkness. A wonderful craftsman and auteur like Cronenberg, who has embarked on a new phase of his fascinating career these past couple of years, is able to present great complexity of human life in simple strokes. He gives us moments that can make us wince with their unabashed brutality followed swiftly by moments that enthrall us with more elegant and softer views of humanity’s tragic side. Eastern Promises is a promise you should keep.

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Neil Middlemiss
Kernersville, NC
"Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science" – Edwin Hubble
My DVD Collection

#2 of 5 Sam Posten

Sam Posten

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Posted January 02 2008 - 06:28 AM

Thanks for taking this one up Neil! Sounds like an interesting companion to AHOV, will hopefully find the time for it in the future!

"Sam, you are the biggest nutter we have here."

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#3 of 5 PaulDA



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Posted January 31 2008 - 03:51 PM

Enjoyed watching this just now (though I had to settle for the SD version from the video store--they didn't add this one to the HD DVD section). I'll be adding it to the collection (in HD DVD, of course).

Anyone know if A History of Violence is due out in HDM?
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes time, and it annoys the pig.

#4 of 5 Paul Arnette

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Posted February 01 2008 - 12:59 AM

Originally Posted by PaulDA
Enjoyed watching this just now (though I had to settle for the SD version from the video store--they didn't add this one to the HD DVD section). I'll be adding it to the collection (in HD DVD, of course).

Anyone know if A History of Violence is due out in HDM?

I enjoyed watching this too. My only complaint was that I felt it ended a bit too abruptly. The PQ on this HD DVD was fantastic.

Regarding A History of Violence, it was amongst the rumored list of title New Line was working on for Blu-ray Disc. Apart from that I haven't heard anything.
Universal Blu-ray Discs I will not be buying while they're offered only as Blu-ray + DVD 'flipper' discs:

The Jackal
, Out of Africa, and Traffic.

#5 of 5 Marko Berg

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Posted February 01 2008 - 08:53 AM

Thanks for the review! I watched this in the theatre and will be happy to buy the HD DVD.