The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Cristi Puiu
viewed: 10/23/06

Strangely marketed as “The Most Acclaimed Comedy of the Year”, this is a Romanian film about a very ill 63-year old man and his passage from emergency room to emergency room as he quickly becomes more and more ill.  Maybe it is a comedy, because as bleak as the story is and as harsh as it could seem, it comes off as some Kafkaesque journey toward death in Eastern Europe.  There certainly is a strong message of social criticism, as the titular Mr. Lazarescu (who unlike Lazarus doesn’t seem to have much chance to revive), is turned away by one hospital and another where despite his deeply fading health he is not given priority.

He is frequently criticized for his drinking and his swollen liver makes it clear that whether its colon cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, he’s doomed.  His health deteriorates faster and faster as he seeks out medical treatment, even with the help of one caring ambulance nurse.  And his treatment that he seems to be getting toward the end is brain surgery.

There is some humanity speckled in this mixture of misanthropic doctors, neighbors, family, and other potential caregivers.  As pessimistic as it is and as it sounds, the tone and style of the film is not unlike the work of Jim Jarmusch to be honest.  There is a simplicity to the camera-work and a real sense of the life and environment of this man in his tenement with his three cats in Bucharest.


Kicking & Screaming

(1995) dir. Noah Baumbach
viewed: 10/21/06

I rented this rather exemplary 1990’s indie flick because I had gained some interest in director/writer Noah Baumbach after seeing The Squid and the Whale (2005) which he wrote and directer and then re-viewing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) which he co-wrote with director Wes Anderson.  I guess, like Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (1996), this was one of that spate of indie films that hit the market after the Quentin Tarantino thing happened.  There were so many of these small, personal films, some of which were better than others, that this was one that I just never got around to seeing.

It’s not half-bad, really.  The subject matter is a little annoying and very “just got out of film-school” in that it’s a year in the life of some college/high school buddies who graduate but fail to move on and end up living out their first post-grad year just hanging around the same places and people that they hung around with before, but with a lot less reason.

There are some very funny parts to it and some of the characters are better than others.  It has some low-budget charm, but the characters all feel very much like that: characters.  And the actors are just spouting amusing dialogue without any real feeling that any of this is anything more than a movie that everyone is playing in.  I think it aspires to more.

I would like to say that Olivia D’abo actually transcends this a bit.  She’s “the girl” that fascinates and drives the protagonist (assumingly the writer/director’s filmic “self”).  But somehow, and I think it’s mostly in her drunken scene toward the end of the film, she sort of feels more real than the others.

That stuff aside, it’s actually a pretty clever film and though the dialgoue has some pretentious qualities, it’s also often funny.  The structural set-up with the flashbacks somehow elevates the film at the end, interestingly ending on a different note by stepping back and showing something hopeful, but no longer real.  It’s not a bad film and might be interesting in some 1990’s retrospective of indie “little” films that came out in that period.  I can easily imagine such a retrospective.

And last comment: Scary as hell how this film is 11 years old and feels like it.  Were the 1990’s really that long ago?

Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Terry Zwigoff
viewed: 10/20/06

Awful.  Just awful.  In fact, it’s hard to believe that anything written by Daniel Clowes of Eightball fame could be so completely devoid of cleverness or wit.

Director Terry Zwigoff who came to fame with the brilliant documentary Crumb (1994) and who had worked with some success with Clowes on the more successful adaptation from his comics of Ghost World (2001) started showing his truly poor colors with Bad Santa (2004) and totally bottoms out here.  This film has the sophistication of The Revenge of the Nerds films or other outsider college comedies of the 1980’s.  It’s insights and critiques have no real depth at all and the entire thing is utterly unfunny, unamusing, and downright awful.

A total piece of crap.

F for Fake

F is for Fake (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Orson Welles
viewed: 10/17/06

It’s kind of sad how few Orson Welles films I have actually seen.  He’s one of those thousand-pound gorillas of cinema and well worth his weight…uh, this moved into some bad puns somehow regarding his obesity in later years.  Not intended.

As a narrator, his voice is second to none.  He exudes erudition and cleverness.

This film, a non-narrative examination of fakery, forgery, and falseness is truly complex and playful, while driving at some rather profound examinations of authorship and the meaning of art.  Focusing for a long stretch on Elmyr de Hory, a notorious and playful art forger with a long and adept (if questionable history) and Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer and also a falsifier of a notorious “autobiography” of Howard Hughes.  These characters both appear as themselves but significantly as questionable sources of information about themselves, mythologizers and liars, but playful as hell about it.

Welles sees himself along these lines and draws his own work into the discourse.  It’s a seemingly rambling investigation, using lots of unusual editing techniques and visual effects that further disconnect it from an appearance of offering a definitive approach to documentary.

The latter third of the film is the weakest, portraying a fictionalized story of Oja Koder, Welles’ longtime female friend, and her purported relationship with Pablo Picasso and some other falsified images.  It does add to the discourse, I guess, because it seems only important if its true.  Otherwise, it’s a somewhat interesting aside.  That is no doubt an aspect of the point of the film.

De Hory frequently asks if his art is less beautiful or important because he had painted it rather than Matisse or Modigliani.  When experts cannot tell the difference, does it matter who the artist is or was?  Doesn’t the piece itself matter?  And Welles’ response to this is the Chartres Cathedral, designed and built by unknown persons, its beauty transcends its authorship and depicts Welles’ most passionate opinion in an otherwise very playful film.


Equinox (1970) movie poster

(1970) dir. Jack Woods, Dennis Muren
viewed: 10/16/06

This was one of those Netflix recommendations, strangely a film that I’d never heard of, a campy, low-budget horror film that earned Criterion treatment.  So, I got it.

It has that pleasing, low-budget quality of films from the 1950’s-1960’s that are earnestly created, cheaply acted and filmed, but full of weird little things that would never show up in any other instance.  In this case, we’ve got stop-motion giant apes and squids and flying devils in true homage to Ray Harryhausen, made on the cheap by a young Dennis Muren, who would go on to greater special effects heights in Star Wars (1977) and many more Industrial Light and Magic projects.  The animation is fun, for sure.  And pretty slick for the low budget.

The other aspect of the story is the discovery of a book that is compared to the “dead sea scrolls” of evil, which launch all these weirdnesses on the countryside.  This seems like a probable influence on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) in many ways.  The devil worship stuff and the flying devil and the lurid, drooling kiss of the devil-sheriff make this more than it is, certainly, which is basically a fun but pretty bad little film.  It assuredly has its value and charms.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Michael Winterbottom
viewed: 10/14/06

Not particularly familiar with the “source” material as it is, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I understand to be a sprawling novel that is often cited as pre-post-modern in the play with its subject, its fractured narrative approach, and its humor.  So, I can’t say much about it, but that I understand that Michael Winterbottom tried to approach the “unadaptable” novel much along the lines of its spirit and sprawling, rambling nature.  He adds to the self-referential qualities of the initial text by turning the film into a self-referential work across several levels: the actors in the movie, the movie within the movie, the characters in the movie as adapted from the novel, and Tristram Shandy himself, narrator.  It’s a stab at a deconstructivist interpretation of a work of similar nature.

Where it really succeeds, I think, is in its humor.  Steve Coogan is brilliantly funny, as are several other of the cast.  There are some very funny sequences and it manages to be clever without being overly clever most of the time.

For some reason, in the back of my mind, I haven’t esteemed Michael Winterbottom as a director, but I am not sure why.  I think, despite his interesting last name, I had him confused with some other English director who made a lot of crap.  Going over Winterbottom’s filmography, I see only two films that I’ve seen: Butterfly Kiss (1995) and
Butterfly Kiss (1995) and 24 Hour Party People (2002), both of which I found pretty interesting.  He also seems to have adapted two Thomas Hardy novels, neither of which I have seen, but I have been converted in recent years to great appreciation for Hardy.

On one level, this movie is primarily a comedy, presented in a goofy, split-personality approach, which is fairly fun as well.  The thing it reminded me the most of though, which sounds more like a criticism, but maybe doesn’t get to the point are Christopher Guest’s series of “mockumentaries” which started out brilliant and have gotten more and more naff and pleased with themselves.  Shandy is a far sight more fun and complex than those films, but there is an aspect of that in it.

Steve Coogan is brilliant.  Did I say that already?

The Departed

The Departed (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 10/13/06 at Century San Francisco Center

After a long week, I decided to try and leave work early and catch a movie.  It had been a long time since I’d made it to the cinema and I was just looking forward to seeing anything, and The Departed was one of the more appealing options.  I’ve always had an appreciation for Scorsese.  In fact, he was one of the first directors that I recognized as I got into film in my teens.  His recent work has seemed as though he’s been shooting for his true epic and I hadn’t seen any since Gangs of New York (2002), which I liked okay, though it was somewhat bloated.

The interesting perk was the only showing that was truly convenient from work was the brand-spanking-new Century San Francisco Center, the upgraded mall that just opened a week prior in downtown San Francisco in the location of the old downtown Emporium.  While racing over to the theater, I escalated up floor after floor of slick new mall-land.  It’s really kind of impressive.  But especially so at the top where the old Emporium dome (still intact — the only thing left from the old store) looms high above an open area quite spectacularly.  Just up one more set of escalators is the 9 screen cinema.

I won’t get into the whole tragedy of San Francisco’s progressive loss of small neighborhood cinemas since I have lived here.  And I am sure that this new one will be an added nail in the coffins of at least a couple.  It’s interestingly close to the Metreon, which is now an AMC theater, I think.  But the whole group of malls are all owned by Westfield.  Whatever.

Ah, the movie.  It’s pretty good, to be honest.  Certainly not in Scorsese’s top tier of work.  It’s pretty doubtful he’ll hit that level again.  But here, he’s made is best film in years, perhaps his best film since Goodfellas (1990) — I give that caveat since I haven’t seen them all.

Jack Nicholson is pretty amazing.  He’s mostly Jack, but he has a few scenes that he really delivers on.  The acting as a whole is pretty good and features lots of notable people.  I’d even say that Leonardo DiCaprio even does a pretty respectable job.  I’ll throw in kudos to both Mark Wahlberg (surprisingly good at times) and Ray Winstone, unsurprisingly and typically amazing.

Acting isn’t totally a compelling reason to draw me to a movie.  This film is an adaptation or re-make of Infernal Affairs (2002), a pretty good Hong Kong cop thriller that I caught on DVD in the time that I wasn’t updating this diary.  The re-make works, re-setting the location to Boston.  Boston is a real essential part of the film as all the characters are as much a part of the city as anything, all products of their world.  I don’t know Boston, and I understand a fair amount of the film was actually shot in New York.  It could be interesting from that perspective, I don’t know.

It’s a genre film with a good scenario, the story of two moles, one from the Boston crime world who is embedded in the Police Force to keep tabs on the cops and their movements and a cop who is enlisted to become a secretive spy in Nicholson’s house of crime, unknown to any but two police officers…in deep, deep cover.  It’s a compelling story and a telling contrast of morals of the criminal who becomes more and more influenced by the decency of the world of the police and the undercover cop who is forced to enact great brutality in the name of the greater good.  This ain’t an analysis.  It’s just an interesting tale.

It’s a genre film, a pretty big one, but a solid one.  It’s very good, but doesn’t necessarily achieve greatness.  It sometimes flirts with it.  Actually, the soundtrack kind of annoyed me.  I know that Scorsese’s use of music is considered to be one of his trademarks and it also has its moments, but here it feels kind of forced and overt.  It’s too much.  But overall, I’d recommend this as a pretty solid film outing.

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Ang Lee
viewed: 10/12/06

Overall, it’s a good drama featuring some good performances and some nice cinematography.  Despite The Hulk (2003), Ang Lee has proven himself to be a competent and commercially successful maker of these types of films in Hollywood.  Yeah and the guys and the supporting cast are good.  To be honest, from many perspectives that is all I really have to say about it.

Pressing myself, I thought a lot about this film’s popular description as “the gay cowboy movie”.  And while the characters are ostensibly “gay cowboys”, I pondered whether or not this movie was or wasn’t a “cowboy” movie, a Western in genre terms.  It’s an interesting question and one that requires a definition of what comprises the Western as a genre.  Typically, it’s an historical and location setting, placed in time usually around the expansion of European civilization into the American West or sometimes into the expansion in Australia that parallels the more typically American experience.  There are several Westerns that push out of the 19th Century, the period in which most of the films of the genre are set, and in pushing into the early 20th Century, the films often speculate on the death of the cowboy’s world.  Some films that I can think of having seen that fall into this area of discussion include John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys (1998).  There is in many ways some self-referential quality to some of these films since they also address the death of the Western as well, which has been progressively become a less and less common or potentially significant genre for evolving contemporary culture where it once was a significant image in even the popular culture of the American Experience.  It is still incredibly iconic and has great historical significance, of course, but I digress.

The point being that often in these later films addressing the changing world of the West, the characters: true cowboys, either outlaws, lawmen, homesteaders, etc., the men and women (typically men) find themselves at a loss in the modernization of civilization and the result of having “tamed” the West, the job that is the meat and potatoes of the more traditional stories of the genre.  These stories that take place in this transitional time tend to analyze this experience, often quite sadly commenting on the loss of this life despite the positive aspects of “civilization”.

Taking this established critique in mind, I pose this on Brokeback Mountain, which takes place starting in 1963 and ends sometime in the late 1970’s, clearly a long shot later than even the most-late-period settings for traditional Westerns.  What is the life for a cowboy in this time period?  Are these characters really cowboys?  Well, they are in the broader definition of the term and the way that it might be applied to people these days who live within certain lifestyles: careers, etc. that still are tied to herding cattle (or sheep in this instance) and/or working the rodeo circuit or so forth.

For these characters, Jack and Ennis, they are the types of guys who would have been in a more traditional Western, in a sense, but are in a modern Western world, where their work and life is on the fringe of society, but is also encroached in the world of Wyoming, still to this day the most underpopulated state in the nation per capita and very much the Western state.  There is still a lot of breeding of livestock and the remnants of that world still exist in some anachronistic but compromised ways.  Jack and Ennis are hired to take care of a large flock of sheep that are meant to feed illegally on government-protected land, having to live out with the sheep and hide from authorities.  So, even in being given a “cowboy” job, they are compromised by the potentially less-manly management of sheep (i.e. not cows — is this important or just a silly question?) and they are also culturally lost in ways.  Ennis is poor and needs the job because he doesn’t really have any other options in the depressed small towns of Wyoming that have been his center of his life.  Jack is still trying to hold onto this lifestyle, a hanger on as a low-level rodeo entrant and someone who is still attracted to this lifestyle.

As the movie moves on, Ennis carries on with his work as a ranch hand, mostly itinerant and not settled from year to year.  He does spend some time in town and working in a factory, a period of suppression and sadness for him, living in squalid settings away from nature that is also a significant portrayal by Lee.  Jack winds up getting a job selling tractors and combines, stuck in a fruitful though stylistically challenged middle-class suburban lifestyle of the mid-1970’s.  He seems beaten down by his choices in life (obviously hiding his homosexuality and his true desire: to live with Ennis on their own ranch, “their own plot of land”).

Additionally, the happiest times for both of them are set against the landscape of the open country.  This is meant to be Wyoming.  I don’t know that it really is.  But that is somewhat beside the point.  The open country is shot beautifully and Jack and Ennis are most in their element there.  The beauty and pure nature of the country is clearly aligned with their love for one another, I am guessing as also pure and natural.  Even more than that, it is the setting in which their characters are the most “at home” and is the place of their own personal freedom.

There is more here to look at but I am running out of steam.  What also does then this say about their homosexuality?  I am positing that their characters’ personal tragedies include their situation in a world where the connection to nature and the lifestyle of a cowboy is completely marginalized and eroding.  It parallels in some ways their “perditious” love (perditious to the world of their story), also marginalized and unsustainable.  Not that they could have done it or to have even known, but what would it have meant for their characters to move to some place like San Francisco in the late 1970’s where their love and lifestyle would have been more accepted and less-challenged.  Of course, a modern city was also no place for them.  They need the landscape and cowboy life as much as anything.

Well, that probably poorly articulated analysis was the most interesting approach that I could take on this movie, this mild cultural phenomenon of its own in 2005, moving the “gay cowboy” movie into the cineplexes of present-day America, even in a small town in Wyoming one might guess, which I could only guess how different it is in those places these days than the story’s setting of the 1960’s – 1970’s.


Domino (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Tony Scott
viewed: 10/10/06

This movie “based on actual events” uses a modifier like “sort of” to tell you the real lack of truth as a bio-pic of Domino Harvey, a girl from a rich Beverly Hills family who ditched that life to become a bounty hunter, “before it became trendy”.  Actually, in terms of adaptation, it seems like one of those classic Hollywood takes on “real” events, packing in more sex and explosions and stuff than who knows how it all really was.  It’s like the ending of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) where Pee-Wee’s story is sold to Hollywood and retold with lots of campy spicing up.

That said, the lack of any real need to emulate any kind of reality actually makes this film kind of fun.  With the weird addition of Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering (of Beverly Hills 90210 fame) both playing themselves and taking the piss out of themselves to quite funny extent, this film has some really odd and funny moments.  The other strange thing is that it actually features some pretty good performances too.  Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez are good as the oddball bounty hunter kings who take Domino under their wings.  And Christopher Walken, a national treasure, has a hilarious scene as a television producer who follows the bounty hunters around.  When he is screaming on the phone about how someone “changed the font” on a poster or something, I just totally cracked up.

That said, Keira Knightley is typically annoying and bad, but not bad enough to really matter.

The thing that is bad, downright awful, horrendous is the cinematography by Daniel Mindel and the direction by Tony Scott.  I guess that he thinks that badly lit, overly jumpy visual representation is the way to make a movie.  It’s a signature style that has annoyed me in the past and annoys me today.  It’s a lot of “style” that is simply clutter and noise.  It deters from the narrative and the acting and everything about this film, but not in what I would assume is an “intentional” way of distancing the viewer by constantly drawing attention to the film’s production.  I think it’s just plain terrible.  Fucking Uwe Boll could probably do a better job.

The script was written by Richard Kelly, the director behind the cult film Donnie Darko (2001) and while the campy, over-the-top Hollywoodization of Harvey’s life struck me as strange and yet fun, there actually were quite a few funny scenes in there.  I hear that his new film, Southland Tales (2006) is supposed to be awful.  Who knows?

In the end, it’s slightly better than I expected though I think that they should take away Tony Scott’s union card.

District B13

District B13 (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Pierre Morel
viewed: 10/08/06

Luc Besson, what happened to you?  Okay, I think I can guess at that one.  After making several interesting and fun action films with some real character, namely La Femme Nikita (1990), The Professional (1994), and one of my personal guilty pleasures The Fifth Element (1997), he had the misfortune of making The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) with his then wife Milla Jovovich (one of the worst actresses in the world) whose cuteness peaked in The Fifth Element and quickly evaporated.  The Messenger was a critical and commercial bomb and I can tell you that it may be one of the worst films of the 1990’s.  And then, he stopped making films and spent most of the past few years either writing or producing stuff.  Few of which I have seen, save The Transporter (2002), which seems to have been somewhat of a template for this film and which is unsurprisingly directed by Pierre Morel, the cinematographer of The Transporter.

The film features slick action with a particularly athletic David Belle as the kid from the barrio who is fighting the criminals.  The idea is kind of a contemporary and less over-the-top version of Escape From New York (1981) in which the bad parts of a major city are walled off, keeping only the criminal element in and essentially withdrawing all city support services and allowing criminality, ruthlessness, and anarchy to reign.

This film is set in the near future (a future soon to be passed, 2010) and is poised as a simple social criticism.  The barrios that are sequestered are full of immigrants and people “of color”.  The story (sorry to ruin it for you) is basically is about a neutron bomb type of device sent into the barrio by the French government to essentially eliminate the entire district.  A cop is duped to go in to trigger it and pal up with the criminalized Belle.  They should have thrown in the Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor” somewhere on the soundtrack…it’s essentially the same idea.

It’s a buddy picture, with slick fighting and action sequences that are devoid of digital effects.  The action is based on physical stunts, like Jackie Chan is famous for (though nowhere as adventurous).  The style of the physical stunts and fighting is called Parkour, a mixture of some Asian martial arts with running.  The best stunts are Belle jumping through little windows and hopping from building to building or simply climbing up walls with faster than probably most people can even move on regular ground.  Belle is pretty much the best thing in the film.

The rest of the story is hokey x 1000.  In some ways, it almost reckons the vacuousness of mid-1980’s action films in terms of its narrative and characterization.  The only thing that modernizes it and elevates it is the slick action and the execution of those scenes.  Too bad.