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Viggo Mortensen, Burger’s year end wrap-up

by Mark Burger

The first time Viggo Mortensen worked with director David Cronenberg, the result was A History of Violence (2005), one of the most critically acclaimed films of its year.

The two reteamed this year for Eastern Promises – and last week the film received three Golden Globe nominations, including one for best picture and one for Mortensen as best actor in a drama.

Mortensen’s tightly coiled turn as Nikolai, a Russian mobster in London, is yet another triumph for the actor, who made his big-screen debut in the Oscar-winning Witness (1985) and has appeared in such diverse films as The Indian Runner, Crimson Tide, The Prophecy, GI Jane, A Walk on the Moon, A Perfect Murder and Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Replacing Stuart Townsend in the pivotal role of the heroic Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy cemented Mortensen’s star status.

In a teleconference to promote the DVD release of Eastern Promises (see review on page 49), Mortensen spoke warmly about his two collaborations with Cronenberg.

“He never loses his sense of play,” says Mortensen. “He simultaneously takes his work and the storytelling extremely seriously, and does not take himself at all seriously. He’s not heavy-handed as an artist or a person. He’s able to – better than anyone I’ve seen – create a very relaxed, productive atmosphere on the set.”

Mortensen recently completed Western Appaloosa, directed by Ed Harris and co-starring Jeremy Irons. All three men have worked with Cronenberg.

“Speaking both with Ed and Jeremy… everybody has only the highest praise for him, and I don’t think it’s an accident that actors generally do their best work – or close to it, for him. He’s smart enough and secure as a person, and as an artist, that he never feels it’s a threat for ideas, for [accidents] to come from the crew, from the cast… It’s all useful, and what isn’t useful he has no problem saying so.”

To prepare for his role as Nikolai, Mortensen learned the script in both English and Russian, researched the Russian underworld (which is how he and Cronenberg came up with the idea for Nikolai’s many body tattoos, each one denoting his criminal past), and learned fighting techniques for a much-talked-about scene in which a nude Nikolai is viciously attacked in a steam room by two thugs.

Much like the events in the film, Nikolai’s inner personality comes into sharper focus slowly and methodically. His relationship with his boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his boss’ son (Vincent Cassel) prove more complex than they initially appeared, as is his burgeoning relationship with a London midwife (Naomi Watts) whom he crosses paths with. The more enigmatic aspects of the story, and of the characters, make for a more thought-provoking film, according to Mortensen.

“That’s one sign that it was a good story, well told – the fact that you even have questions [at the end],” he explains. “Most movies, even halfway decent movies, you don’t walk away with as many questions. And on a second viewing, you don’t have more questions, you have less and you see flaws.

“With Eastern Promises, I think each time you see it, you see more and you have more questions. What’s good about this movie, in the same sense as History of Violence was good and satisfying on an artistic level, is that at the end of the story you feel that it will continue.”

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As the year 2007 winds down, the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) has announced its annual awards for the best of the year.

Like a lot of other critics’ groups, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men won best picture and was, in fact, the only multiple winner this year – with a total of four SEFCA awards.

Daniel Day-Lewis was voted best actor for There Will Be Blood (runner-up: George Clooney, Michael Clayton). Julie Christie won best actress for Away from Her (runner-up: Ellen Page, Juno). Best supporting actor was Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men (runner-up: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Amy Ryan won best supporting actress for Gone Baby Gone, beating runner-up Cate Blanchett (for I’m Not There) by a single vote.

For No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen won awards for both best director (runner-up: Joe Wright, Atonement) and best adapted screenplay (runner-up: Christopher Hampton, Atonement). Diablo Cody won best original screenplay for Juno (runner-up: Tamara Jenkins, The Savages). Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was selected best foreign-language film (runner-up: La Vie en Rose). Best documentary was No End in Sight (runner-up: Michael Moore’s Sicko). Ratatouille won best animated feature (runner-up: The Simpsons Movie). The Wyatt Award, named for the late film critic Gene Wyatt and designated for the film that best exemplifies Southern culture, went to the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (runner-up: Black Snake Moan).

Here’s the rundown of the top 10 films selected by the members of SEFCA (including me):

1. No Country for Old Men

2. There Will Be Blood

3. Atonement

4. Juno

5. Michael Clayton

6. Zodiac

7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

8. Gone Baby Gone

9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

10. Into the Wild

Just for the record, here are my picks for the 10 best films of 2007:

1. Zodiac

2. No Country for Old Men

3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

4. Michael Clayton

5. There Will Be Blood

6. Things We Lost in the Fire

7. Talk to Me

8. The Hoax

9. Operation Homecoming

10. Starting Out in the Evening

And, of course, there are my 10 worst films of 2007:

1. August Rush

2. Freedom Writers

3. Sydney White

4. Captivity

5. War

6. License to Wed

7. I Know Who Killed Me

8. Georgia Rule

9. Norbit

10. Resident Evil: Extinction

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2007, Mark Burger

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