Saturday, September 6, 2008

CTJ: The Cinemaddict's Fix

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu: A Review ***

When people lambast critics' picks for "Best Film of the Year," I am usually the one who defends the critics, saying "Well, are you watching films for the same reasons the critics are? Are you watching for entertainment, to appreciate the art of cinema, to grow and develop as a person? Why are you watching? Because a critic may dislike Spider Man 3 for the very reasons you like it. You may like it because it entertains, but a critic might find it to be hollow entertainment, useless for anything but a fleeting moment of sweetness on the tongue, like a tuft of cotton candy that dissolves without leaving a memorable trace behind."

When I watched The Death of Mr. Lazarescu last night I went in with a world of expectations, which is unfortunate considering the filmmaker did not attach these expectations to the film himself. It was trumpeted as the achievement of the year by many critics, and the tagline for the film was "A black comedy with side effects." Based on these things alone, I was quick to pick it up at the library this week when I saw it sitting there on the shelf, a free rental, and a serendipitous one at that since it just came out on DVD recently.

"What is this film?" You ask. It's essentially a film that lampoons the dreadful healthcare system in Romania, although it could easily be a 2-hour diatribe against American healthcare as well. The film's protagonist, Mr. Lazarescu Dante Remus, has a headache and stomach pain, so he calls an ambulance. His neighbors insist that he simply drinks too much, while he is certain that it is more serious than this. At this point, the ambulance comes and, over the remainder of the film, Mr. Lazarescu and an ambulance attendant go from hospital to hospital to hospital, only to be subjected to numerous formalities, indifferent physicians, critical staff members, etc. The cumulative result recalls Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju that, by many viewers' standards, is an exercise in excruciating repetition. While I enjoy The Story of Qiu Ju, it is not something that merits repeated viewings for me, and it is the same with this film.

Overall, I give the film three stars out of five, which places me outside of the general critical consensus about this film. I think it is a solid enough film in its own right, but not the cinematic landmark reviewers have proclaimed it to be. The acting is excellent, as the old man who plays Mr. Lazarescu is certainly adept at being old, dodgy, cagey, and belligerent. He is the sort of wrinkled older fellow who is responsible for existing archetypes of "the old man." The cameras are largely handheld, and they linger for long, luminous periods of time that provide the impression that the viewer is watching events unfold in real time. Unfortunately, when watching paint dry, real time is excruciating. So it is with this film at times.

The film's billing as a "black comedy with side effects" is also misleading, as its black comedic bent is subtle and underscores the events that are happening rather than punctuating them in any concrete, hilarious way. If anything, I was more frustrated with Mr. Lazarescu's predicament than anything else; my funny bone was never truly engaged. More than anything, it was characterized by the sort of lower than low-key sensibilities of Mr. Krzysztof Kieslowski's work (The Three Colors Trilogy, The Decalogue, etc.), which I admire and enjoy. It is distinctly European and, as such, it is foreign to me. Had this film been billed as a comedic interpretation of Kieslowski, I would not have expected what I did. I might have reacted differently. Perhaps I should blame Tartan Films, the movie's distributor, for marketing its product to an American audience in a way that is incongruous with its content. Perhaps I am the Lone Reviewing Ranger who feels this way about the film. Regardless, it is my viewpoint.

When I watched the Coen Brothers' film Fargo, I reacted similarly the first time. It was as if I had not watched a film at all, as if I had merely been staring at a blank wall for two hours, emotionally vacant. The second time I viewed it a few years later and found it much more enjoyable. Will I pick out subtle nuances of brilliance upon a second viewing? I do not know. At this point I do not want to watch it again, although if I were a health care professional like my girlfriend Becki, I would want to own this film. I would probably give it 5 stars. I would fork over the 20 bones to the man at the local retailer and pick it up, as it would certainly be an excellent exercise in meditating on the medical profession.

I will say this in favor of the film: It is great from the perspective of humanism and, not coincidentally I'm sure, so are Kieslowski's films. When I went to KU in 2006-7 I found myself treated as a number. My professors would not and could not engage me as an individual, and perhaps this is why I still have not memorized my student ID number despite the fact that it is comprised of the same number of digits as my phone number, which I memorized in less than five minutes. We do not want to be numbers. We want to be seen and appreciated and valued as individuals. As viewers we are horrified by his treatment, and we see ourselves in him, as we have been cast aside before as well. However, this aspect of the film is not enough for me to praise it indefinitely. In summary, my review could be summarized as "Eh." It's a good enough film, but it's not really for me. Send a copy of it to your Congressman though, as you might single-handedly reform health care here in America. Otherwise, I am content to let Mr. Lazarescu rest in peace.

Europa Europa ****1/2 -- Alfred Hitchcock's films were notorious for setting the mind's wheels in motion concurrent with the projector reels. Europa Europa is the same way. When you watch the main character -- a teenaged German Jew who joins the Hitler Youth under false pretenses to survive WWII -- you enter into his mind. You experience the contradictions, the ethnic betrayal, the potential suspicion, and most of all, the tension that pervades every second of his life. A whole parallel film unfolds in your mind as you watch, which is a powerful thing. I highly recommend this film, and if you like this I suggest you watch Henry Bean's film The Believer, which is also superb.

Hard Candy ***1/2 -- Horror films rely on certain conventions to elicit responses of terror from us, and when someone comes along to disguise those conventions in new ways, it feels new even though we know an old trick is at work. So it is with Hard Candy, a solid little film that confounds convention by inverting the chat-room-predator-stalking-a-teenage-girl cliché that has become increasingly common news fodder in recent years. I am waiting for feminist critics to leap on this one and declare it a proclamation of woman's revenge for centuries of patriarchal oppression. Is that what it is? Perhaps for some. For me it was a squeamish voyage into a totally different kind of voyeurism. If anything, it reminded me of the Japanese fright flick Audition, which is also pretty grizzly. If you want a horror film that will leave your mouth agape, your eyes bloodshot, this one's a good candidate. Guys -- Beware. You might want to wear an athletic supporter (or as the French might say "a Jacque strap!").

Soylent Green ** -- In a word, overrated. This film is championed by many people as classic science fiction, and in the process of extolling its virtues, most fans give away the surprise ending: "Hey Chad, 'Soylent green is made of people!'" I do not consider this writing to be a "spoiler" because these stupid fans spoiled it for me long before I ever saw the film. If you have no idea what soylent green is, or why it's "made of people," don't worry. You're not really missing out. Like many films that depict a bleak or post-apocalyptic future, Soylent Green imagines a world bereft of the pleasures we enjoy so freely now. The only problem with this film is that it fails to generate a coherent worldview that would otherwise serve as a context for the main premise of the film. That premise, it seems, is that food is scarce in the future, so people have to eat "soylent green," a government-issued product that is basically the futuristic equivalent of manna. I will leave a few gaps in the plot in case you actually want to waste your time on it. But I suggest you go see any of the above films instead of bothering with Soylent Green. When the highlight of a film is that it stars the ever-melodramatic Charlton Heston, you can bet that its not worth its salt, er, soylent green.

Belle de Jour ****1/2 -- Men always use food metaphors to describe women -- "Cupcake," "Honey," etc. Belle de Jour may as well be the sole explanation for this, as Catherine Deneuve is completely edible in it. Luis Bunuel, famous for the razor-cutting-the-eye film collaboration with Salvador Dali in Un Chien Andalou, is still surreal here. However, it's a more subtle kind of surrealism. Catherine Deneuve plays a wife who secretly masquerades as a prostitute by day, and yet the film (to my recollection at least) bares no breasts or anything. There's a strangely psychological sort of sexuality at work here, implicit rather than explicit for the most part. Furthermore, this is a foreign film that just sucks you in from the get-go, which is always refreshing. After being forced to watch the works of Antonioni or Fellini at gunpoint, some people cringe in revulsion at the mention of subtitles. But this film is an excellent example of a foreign film where the experience eclipses any prejudice and envelopes the filmgoer in fascination. A very worthwhile film.

Wild at Heart **** -- When you step into the world of David Lynch, you know you're safe from the dangers of Disney-induced sugarcomas (unless you're watching The Straight Story, which is actually quite good as well). Lynch is a master at tearing away the niceties of daily life and exposing what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls "the Real," a concept first articulated by Jacques Lacan and articulated in Zizekian terms as the unmediated realm of psychic drives that exist beneath all of our attempts to disguise them. Wild at Heart goes straight to that primitive place, and it stays there, all the while bringing in elements of The Wizard of Oz and a variety of other overt pop culture references (check Nicolas Cage's Elvis). As with most Lynch films (at least in my opinion), there is a point where the narrative breaks down a bit and the film goes astray. All in all though, this is an impressive piece of work. Definitely not for those who are offended easily, as it is quite graphic. But Lynch's particular brand of genius is undeniable here, and fans of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive will not be disappointed.

8 Women **** -- Delight! That's the word that best describes this affair. This is a film that feels like an adaptation of a stage play and, accordingly, bursts into strange songs without warning, which would normally annoy me to no end. I generally find musicals to be loathsome affairs. In recent memory, a few films have redeemed the musical in my mind. Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, for example, while emotionally harsh and unrelenting, is a fascinating departure from standard musical fare. 8 Women is a more enjoyable foray into the reinvention of the musical, as it is largely a dark comedy that is convinced that it is a nightclub chanteuse. Most women I know freely admit to dancing around and singing at the strangest impulses, and this film plays with this idea. It depicts woman as this beautiful creature who occasionally bursts into song, and who is cunning and conniving in her innermost parts. If you ask me, it's pretty enjoyable representation even though it may emphasize some stereotypes that some people might not particularly like. Catherine Deneuve is still stunning 30-some-years after Belle de Jour, as if she never had to mess with "that aging thing." It's rated R because's it explicit in places, but it's refreshing in its break with musical tradition.

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