Ryna [2005)

I wanted to watch this movie for a long time.

Because of one of my favorite actresses.

Dorotheea Petre.

And this is a hard film to find.

So I want to give a shout out to tubitv.com for having it.

For free!

Yes, great website.

Check it out.

But I digress.

Back to Ryna.

A Romanian film.

Not as good a Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii (The Way I Spent the End of the World [also available to watch for free on Tubi]), but worth a viewing.

Ryna is a hard film.

Set in the middle of nowhere.

Danube Delta (says IMDb).

It’s a sad story.

Feminist.

A good feminist film.

Rape (always lurking).

Directed by Ruxandre Zenide.

Romanian-Swiss.

The style reminds me of the Dogme 95 movement.

Like Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy.

But even more harsh.

An unforgiving lens and a dry, dusty landscape.

Occasional muddy downpours.

Extreme poverty.

Very convincing acting.

Method.

Petre is the only actor who really stands out.

Her performance here is not as good as in Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii, but it is very fine.

There are very few films available with this wonderful actress.

So this one is well worth watching.

 

-PD

Borat [2006)

This may be the funniest film ever made.

🙂

Really!

An erudite film critic shouldn’t admit such, should they?

But I learned long ago that I must have my own voice.

I can scour the Earth for every film to which Jean-Luc Godard made reference in Histories(s) du cinéma, but I still must contend with my own personal predilections.

We like stuff because it resonates with us.

For me, the realization was with the Romanian New Wave…and ’80s American comedies 🙂

The serious, austere, heartrending, bleak works of the Romanian New Wave have not been canonized by Godard.

Godard, the man, will (sadly) pass away.

Which is a terrible thought to me.

Because he has made his best films [sic] in his “later” years.

But the Romanian New Wave was “mine”.

I discovered it by accident.

And I dug a little deeper.

I would say about 90% of Romanian film resonates with me in a powerful way.

Almost as much as French film resonates with me.

But then I had to come to term with ’80s American comedies.

These were the things on which I grew up 🙂

And there is no greater joy in my film-viewing experience than to see a film which elicits hyperventilating belly laughs 🙂

And so, Borat [directed brilliantly by Larry Charles].

If Sacha Baron Cohen never again makes a good film, he’s still a genius in my book…based solely on this one masterpiece.

No, it is not Citizen Kane.

But it is something.

Something closer to Cohen’s hero Peter Sellers.

And to the bent mind of Andy Kaufman.

Borat Sagdiyev is the epitome of awkward…once he is placed within American society.

He is from the “backwards” land of Kazakhstan.

[of course, there is a great deal of exaggeration in this film…because such caricature can be quite funny]

The special thing about Borat (and Cohen, working through Borat) is that HE INSULTS EVERYBODY 🙂

Borat very much prefigures the Trump Presidency.

Not to mention the young Trump supporters fond of Pepe the Frog 😉

The idea is, “Lighten the fuck up!”

Laugh a little.

Laugh at yourself.

And, naughty naughty, laugh at what you’re not SUPPOSED to laugh at.

The forbidden subjects of laughter make us laugh the heartiest.

Our conscience kicks in.

We feel BAD about making light of such and such.

But it is a reflex:  it just simply is fucking funny 🙂

Nothing is going to take the fun out of this world quicker than those who scrub history, those who censor films, those who impose sensitivity training liberally…

Let’s get nitty-gritty.

Ken Davitian is excellent as Borat’s assistant Azamat Bagatov.

Nothing like having to hairdry the balls of your boss 🙂

[not to mention “back pussy”]

Yes, the humor is SO WRONG.

So bad!

But, as I overheard two days ago at the video story, white guys still reminisce fondly about Eddie Murphy standup routines.

Not exactly my bag, but I get it.

[and black guys, hispanic guys…Eddie Murphy was very much a “taboo” comedian]

Which brings us to Lenny Bruce.

I love Lenny Bruce.

Guy was messed up.

But he was brave.

So the point is, crude humor is maybe not the smartest…maybe not the best influence on society…but we need a little of it, it seems.

Maybe it’s because we’re all sinners?

I don’t know.

I don’t want to get too theological.

If I was a better Christian, perhaps I would repudiate Borat.

But I simply cannot do that.

And so I’ll keep it brief:

God works in mysterious ways.

I may be wrong.

But this film helps my heart with a laughter unlike any other.

 

-PD

Comoara [2015)

It’s such a joy to return to Romania.

Not that I’ve ever been there.

Except in films.

But so you understand, no national cinema has moved me quite so much as the Romanian.

[With exception to the French.]

Iran is close.

But oh so far.

Because we don’t see Iranian movies.

Not real ones.

And on Netflix, we don’t see the history of history.

Just a recent interpretation.

And that is so often fool’s gold.

Netflix, like its dire counterpart Hulu, is heavy on Holocaust films.

This would be appropriate.

If the films were any good.

Because the Holocaust is the most important event of the past hundred years.

But the films aren’t any good.

By and large.

However, fear not:  this film does not try to take on what cannot be documented.

[see Histoire(s) du cinéma for the only good Holocaust film ever made]

No, we are after buried treasure.

Indeed, this film is listed as The Treasure on Netflix.

And I commend that streaming service for its ostensible dedication to quality foreign films.

[even if the same company has no concept of history]

If you look at the “classics” section of Netflix, you will find a paucity of titles.

This is problematic.

Last I checked Hulu (before I quit it), their “classics” section was just as bad (if not worse).

But Hulu had, for awhile, a distinct competitive advantage over Netflix (while it lasted).

The Criterion Collection.

Sure, it was not the collection in its entirety, but it was a treasure (pardon the extended metaphor) of classic films…many from countries other than the U.S. and U.K..

As I have reported previously, Hulu began to surreptitiously phase out its lost licensing (apparently) of the Criterion catalog.

Once I realized what had really happened, the damage was done.

I was out of there.

Nothing, I imagined, could be worse than the current laughable joint venture (and anemic selection) of Hulu.

And I was right.

Netflix has been a breath of fresh air.

I had previously seen Netflix’ hopper.

Years ago.

It seemed very light on classic films.

And it still is.

But what Netflix lacks in historical perspective, it makes up for (marginally) with its plentiful “international” category.

And thus we come to this fine Romanian film: Comorara.

It may be incredibly naive for me to postulate thusly, but Romanian cinema is the future.

No national cinema rivals the French.

Yes, Germany has had its share of important films (especially in the silent era and soon thereafter).

But the French-language library of films which has been passed down through the “ages” is nonpareil.

Of that tradition, nothing comes even close (for me) to equaling Jean-Luc Godard’s output.

[though he was, and always will be, gloriously Swiss]

Thus, he stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.

But there are others.

Especially those with whom Godard would have been nothing.

Jacques Becker.  Robert Bresson!  Marcel Carné.  Henri-Georges Clouzot.  Jean Cocteau.  Jean-Pierre Melville.  Jean Renoir!  Jean Rouch.  Jacques Tati.

And then there are those foreigners who worked in French (to varying extents) such as Luis Buñuel and Max Ophüls.

But the French cinema has given us other visionaries contemporaneous to Godard.

Alain Resnais.  Eric Rohmer.  François Truffaut.  These are just a few that come to mind.

And until Netflix (and even the Criterion Collection itself) gets beyond to utter genius of Abbas Kiarostami, we will know little of the Iranian cinema beyond its undisputed master.

[Indeed, Netflix has not even broached the true cinema of Iran by featuring Kiarostami…as far as I know.  It is solely the Criterion Collection which is to thank for exposing people to films like Taste of Cherry and Close-Up.]

But I must give Netflix their due.

They have made available the very fine Romanian film under review.

Yet, before we delve into that…I would like to delineate exactly what makes Romania different as far as being “the future” of cinema (in relation to, say, Iran…for instance).

The simple answer is that there are multiple genius (genius!) directors working in Romania.

They may not (certainly not) get the budgets they deserve, but their output is of the highest, most sublime quality.

And, sadly, Abbas Kiarostami is no longer among the living.

But it bears mentioning the auteurs of Romanian “new wave” cinema.

Cristi Puiu. Cătălin Mitulescu.  Cristian Mungiu.

And the director of Comoara:  Corneliu Porumboiu.

The Treasure must not have been an easy film to make.

Indeed, the very end of the film evinces a directorial sigh of relief (if I am interpreting it correctly).

Let me just say this:  nothing much happens in this film.

Indeed, this might be the type of film which illustrates the different way in which film critics view films (as opposed to most moviegoers).

Not to mince words, my guess is that most people (98%?) would find The Treasure boring.

But I loved it!

The defining characteristic of this film is tension.

But it is not the type of tension which strings us along in a film such as Rear Window.

No.

The tension here is far more mundane in comparison.

And yet, there is real inspiration at work in Porumboiu’s mise-en-scène here.

Toma Cuzin is our brooding “star”.

And he is very, very good.

But his “foil” is the Dudley-Moore-lookalike Adrian Purcărescu.

Cuzin is calm.  And yet, the dreamer…

One might even think “gullible”.

Purcărescu is frazzled.  Cynical.  Either a conman of a saint.  Hard to tell…

But the fellow who pulls it all together is Corneliu Cozmei.

He’s the man with the metal detectors.

Yes, two…

[this is a treasure hunt, after all!]

Cozmei is caught between the personalities of Cuzin and Purcărescu.

And yet he’s not just an innocent bystander (so to speak).

He may be the independent party in this whole treasure hunt, but he’s smack dab in the middle of a very tense situation.

Bogart fans will not be far off if they faintly recall the Sturm und Drang of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

But most of all…it’s just good to be back in Romania.

To see a half-lit, grey day.

To see the funny looking cars.

To notice all the details of a culture I truly love.

-PD

Spring Breakers [2012)

Every American film is a cautionary tale.

David Lynch was the new path forward.

But then something happened.

Jarmusch is good.

But no one on our landscape is important as Harmony Korine.

No one could have made this film but him.

I was mistaken.

I had them wrong all along.

Ashley Benson seemed like the mom.

But she’s just 26.

[Don’t trust entertainment ages.]

I had her for Harmony’s wife the whole time.

Making Faith feel comfortable.

December 18.  Close.

Vanessa Hudgens.

Bingo.  Shares my birthday.

Doesn’t act 27.  But this was four years ago.

Rachel Korine is a real actress.

I can’t find the artist for the shower scene.

Ingres?

It is also Casino Royale.  Eva Green.

But Daniel Craig is behind the camera.

Maybe Rachel is the only one with an honest age.

But I have to give mad props to Selena Gomez for doing this film.

[Did I just say that?]

It’s true.  You have to excuse my thuggee language.

Selena Gomez is brilliant in this film.

Why?  Because she ostensibly survived it.

Is she a great actress?

I don’t know.

Is she even acting at all?

Hard to say.

Hanging with the Korine posse would seemingly drive anyone to tears.

But let’s define.

This milieu…these trappings.  Were/are genius.  Needed to happen.

It’s like Mercury Rev’s second album Boces.

Not something most people will want to revisit often.  [including the band]

Unless you’re bent.

Like me.

So Selena’s an artist.

She’s done one thing in life which will never disappear.

This film.

Chocolate syrup in the squirt gun.

Try it out.  Try it out.

Lots of Pussy Riot.

If you can’t handle the chicken shack, then you’re doomed.

Kinda like me years ago when Uma got stabbed in the heart.

St. Petersburg.

The one in Florida.

Far from Pussy Riot.

A lesser filmmaker (Oliver Stone) would have made Natural Born Killers.

Spring Breakers obliterates that poseur film.

[And Oli’s made a couple great ones.  But that’s not one.]

Let me just add this.

James Franco is all-world in this movie.

It must be seen to be believed.

Come in with no preconceptions.

Because Hollywood makes all actors into crap.

Only a Harmony Korine can save their acting souls.

And there’s only one of him.

So we have Godard.  Korine.  Lynch slumbering.  And the Romanians.

Gotta give some more props to Gucci Mane.

[What?]

That’s some damn good acting.

You wanna know black lives matter?

Even white kids get desperate.

From shitty small towns.

And so the uniquely American version of EXCESS.

It’s cinematic.

All the detritus from the MTV vaults.

So many disposable summers.

Finally put into perspective by a true humanist.  Harmony Korine.

You gotta get real deep to see the layers of meaning from the inside out.

Remember four girls in a pool.

Finally free.

Breathing their own air.

It’s an extreme version.

Of the American dream.

 

-PD

Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. [1967)

Something draws me to Eastern Europe.  I blame Romania.  Thank you Romania!  Yes, there was something about the ambiance which director Cristian Mungiu conjured up in 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile) which has stayed with me for a long time.

Really, it’s a rather mundane part.  Near the top of the film.  The goddess Anamaria Marinca traipses down the hall to find some soap…and cigarettes.  The scene is a college dormitory in communist Romania (pre-December 1989).  Girls in one room chat about beauty products.  There seems to be a good bit of bartering going on.  Marinca is mainly uninterested.  Looking for a certain kind of soap (if I remember correctly).  On the way back to her room she stops off at the room of a foreign student (non-Romanian) who sells cigarettes and gum and stuff.  The whole film she is searching for Kent cigarettes (a few mentions of this brand).  Not surprisingly, there are no Kents to be had in the dorm.  She settles for something else.  Perhaps.  I don’t know.

She stops and admires some kittens which someone has taken in.

It is astonishingly real.  On par with Roberto Rossellini.

Indeed, it might be said that all New Waves (from the nouvelle vague to the Romanian New Wave) have their birth in the neorealist films of Rossellini.

But Mungiu added a new wrinkle.

Marinca.  [The goddess of whom I spoke.]

Marinca is unglamorous.  No one is glamorous in 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile.  We get the impression that it is the waning days of Ceaușescu’s reign.

Times are tough.  The policies of the state haven’t worked out so well.  It bears some resemblance to a prison.  Material items take the place of money (reminiscent of cigarettes as currency in jails).

What I have yet to define in this article is “goddess”.  What do I mean by that?

Well, I’m glad you asked!  Marinca (particularly in this film) is a goddess to me because she represents the opposite of the typical American woman in the year 2015.  Her beauty is her soul.  Her beauty is her loyalty to her roommate and friend Găbița.  Her beauty is her dedication to acting.  She is completely immersed in her unglamorous role…and it is eye-watering.

I have mentioned a similar impression (which further solidified my admiration for Romanian films) I got from watching Dorotheea Petre in The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii).  This masterpiece by director Cătălin Mitulescu preceded Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film by about a year (2006).  I was again struck by another goddess of film (Petre) who, with the help of her auteur, created a character also in direct opposition to the meretricious, vacuous ideal of American womanhood in the 21st century.

And so it is that we finally come to the film under consideration:  Душан Макавејев‘s Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  Dušan Makavejev is Serbian.  Out of deference to his country I have listed his name in Cyrillic script.  Likewise, the title of the film (at the top) is in Serbo-Croatian.  It is a grey area about which I am not completely informed.  Suffice it to say that Croatia seems to generally use Roman letters (as opposed to the Serbian usage of Cyrillic).  It is a bit like the distinction (and writing differences) between Urdu and Hindi [which I have heard described as essentially the same language, but with two different writing systems].

I prefaced this article on Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. with my own backstory concerning Eastern European cinema because it is relevant to my approach going forward.

Before coming to this, my first Yugoslav (1967) film, I opened up the can of worms which is Czech cinema by reviewing Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky).  Jiří Menzel’s sexually-charged film poem from the previous year (1966) was a major revelation for me.  And so it is that Dušan Makavejev’s bittersweet confection shares more than just a communist framing with Menzel’s aforementioned erotic portrait.

Yes, Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. is about our old film-school standbys:  sex and death.  I can never combine those two words (in the context of film) without remembering the ridiculously funny scene of Jim Morrison at UCLA screening his student film in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). 

The fictional Morrison, then, would be trying to hop on a nonfictional bandwagon represented by the likes of Menzel and Makavejev.  Morrison’s time at UCLA (1964-1965) not only coincided with the staggered births of “new waves” around the world (particularly in Europe), but also occurred while Morrison’s father (US Navy Rear Admiral [RADM] George Stephen Morrison) was the commanding officer of a carrier division involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Jim Morrison lived fast.  Entered UCLA in 1964.  Graduated with an undergraduate degree in film in 1965.  Was dead by 1971.  But those years in between…  It’s no wonder Jim had an Oedipal complex (evident in the song “The End” [1966/1967]) when considering his father was involved in false-flagging the U.S. into a suicidal war against communism.  What a disgrace…

No, the real hero in the family was not RADM Morrison, but rather Jim.  He turned on the dream-switches of so many kids.  To put it quite bluntly, he was part of the counterculture in America which caused kids to start giving a fuck about the world and politics and geopolitics and confirmed charades (frauds, shams, etc.) like the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”.  Such a sanitary and slippery word:  incident.

It fits perfectly, in that there was no incident.

But while Morrison the Younger had gone off into Brechtian pop-rock, Serbian director Makavejev was busy making Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  It is equally stunning, for its medium, as “The End”.

Sex needs beauty.  A really luscious film like this needed Ева Рас (Eva Ras).  She is a bit like Jitka Zelenohorská’s character in Closely Watched Trains…mischievous, bewitching…  But there is one great difference between Ras and Zelenohorska:  Ras is a blond.

Though our film is in black and white, it is clear that Ras’ silky hair is rather fair (a detail which would not have escaped Hitchcock).  It must be said, however, that Makavejev did not give in to the easy femme fatale portrayal when it came to filming Ras.  Izabela (Ras) is a complex individual.  The film tells us that she is Hungarian.  She is different…other.  She needs sex.  She is passionate.

All the same, her portrayal by Ras is poetic and tender.  Really, what we are seeing here is a tentative feminism expressed by Makavejev which would become a thundering symphony of women’s liberation in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. 

And it is good.  It is good for men to see these types of films.  We men idolize and reify women in the West, but we don’t often enough stop to really observe the trials of womankind.

In the best spirit of socialism, this film has something for everyone…men, women…ok, maybe not children.

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is really an intense film.  If you have seen (and made it through) Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (a film I, incidentally, once made the mistake of showing at a party), then you’ll be alright.  For those faint of heart (I generally fall into that category), there are a couple of rough moments in this film (in the context of criminology).

In all, I am very proud and happy to have seen my first Serbian movie.  As a resident of San Antonio (and fan of the San Antonio Spurs), I feel it gives me a better glimpse into the life of one of my favorite basketball players Бобан Марјановић (Boban Marjanović).  I highly recommend this film…and Go Spurs Go 🙂

 

-PD

Ostře sledované vlaky [1966)

There is no precursor for this delicious film.

Closely watched trains…

There is no warning.  No real foreshadowing of what awaits Miloš Hrma.

And I, of course, will not give away the game.

But let me tell you about this watershed moment in cinema.

You could say Czech New Wave.  You could also say Czechoslovak New Wave.

In the case of the auteur in question, Jiří Menzel, it is the former.

The movement was already going by this point.

1966.  Almost the midpoint, if we say 1962-1972.

But none of that matters too much.

What matters is this film.

Closely Watched Trains.  Ostře sledované vlaky.

And so we started with Romania.  A new wave.  A current phenomenon.  Briefly in vogue.  And completely deserving of the praise.

And we made a point to look elsewhere.  To Iran.  Because of Kiarostami.

And now we add a much older New Wave.  It is of particular interest to our first location (Romania).

In globetrotting through movies we hit some odd, beautiful destinations.  Nations.

Czechoslovakia.  No more.  Today.  Czech Republic.  Slovakia.  And Ukraine.

But none of this matters much either.

What matters is Miloš Hrma.  The shy boy.

We know.

Intimately.

Not easy.

If the meek shall inherit the earth (Earth?), then it’s a long time in coming.

I am fond.  Quoting Neil Young.

“Vampire Blues”

“Good times are coming/But they sure coming slow”

Indeed.

That is the situation of Václav Neckář’s character Miloš.

He has the delight of love.  Snow in the air.  Smoke from a steam locomotive.  A cloud of fleeting sparks.

Our heart beats rapidly for cute Jitka Bendová.  And we think of football.  We try to ignore the Bond girl essence of her name.

Because she is one of the most poetic faces in cinema.  No Wikipedia page for her.  At least not in English.

But it is this love between Miloš and Máša which gives us hope.

An adieu from the caboose (football, football).

No doubt Wes Anderson plumbed the depths of Closely Watched Trains while searching for his own cinematic language.

In fact, the beginning of this film is very much like the beginning of every Wes Anderson film.

An exposition of characters.

Some with peg-legs.

An old crazy uncle.

A cow with too many udders.

But the most crucial is the hypnotist.

If there is a precursor to Jiří Menzel (and there must be), then it is Renoir.  Renoir meets Eisenstein.  And sex.

Did I fail to mention?

Closely Watched Trains is a sexual tension which can no longer be crystalized.

And thus history served us well by preserving this document of a different age.

It is a naughty film, but not by today’s standards.

It is sex…as directed by Hitchcock.

And for that it is sexier.  More tense.  Taut.

Consider, for instance, the stamps.  Ooh la la.

If you go ga-ga for Gyllenhaal in Secretary, then you must see the breakthrough moment.  In cinema.

Like the first kiss.  May Irwin.  Thomas Edison.  But actually William Heise.  1896.

Big black maria.  Something/Anything?

Yes, in fact.

First, and most importantly, the telegraphist (as played by Jitka Zelenohorská).  Almost like Chantal Goya in Masculin Féminin, but better.  Same year.  1966.  Maybe Menzel got an idea from Godard.  In any case, Zelenohorská gives one for the ages.  Deliciously naughty.

And lest you run off feeling less-than-substantive edification, it is political as anything.  That’s where Eisenstein comes in.  A brief moment of cinematic intercutting.

And the war.  Like Les Carabiniers.  1963.  The Rossellini inspiration via Godard, perhaps?

But really it is a new cinema.  Czech!  Mind-blowing…

Sex is more erotic with a laugh.  Surreal.  Real.  More real than real.

In a stunning final coup Menzel brought us Naďa Urbánková.

One minute you’re thinking about a girl, another you’ve been rounded up by the state security apparatus.

And then they realize you’re nuts.

And they have pity on you.

Release you into the swaying grass.

And like Chaplin you waltz off into the sunset to fulfill your destiny.

What a film!

-PD

Moartea domnului Lăzărescu [2005)

They say the British have a peculiar sense of humor.  [Or humour, rather.]

I am beginning to wonder whether Romania has its own brand of comedy which has yet to be fully appreciated by non-Romanians.

That to which I refer is a bit of writing on the Tartan Video box which encases this film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

The line in question reads, “THE MOST ACCLAIMED COMEDY [sic] OF THE YEAR”.

Think of the saddest film you’ve ever seen.  Dying Young?  Schindler’s List?

Ok.  Now, tack on the above.  [the most acclaimed comedy of the year]

I’m beginning to wonder if someone at Tartan Films has their head screwed on backwards.

But let’s be fair:  Tartan Films released one of the most important films of the century so far (12:08 East of Bucharest).

Whatever the case may be, let me be clear that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is (in my book) by no means a comedy.

When I first saw this film it struck me as that which I still regard it:  a sad, sad film.

However, I must point out that this mini-masterpiece from director Cristi Puiu has aged extremely well (unlike the lead character).

The reason this picture is so good is really the immense contribution of Ioan Fiscuteanu and Luminița Gheorghiu.

The late Mr. Fiscuteanu (God rest his soul) gives one of the finest performances in the history of cinema as the titular Dante Remus Lazarescu.  The symbolism of the names should be noted.  Rings of hell.  Ineffective medical systems at the state level.  Heartless bureaucracy.  Song of the South.  Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.  Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder.  And finally, Jesus wept.  Or Jesu swept.  Arise, Lazarus.

The smell…  Ugh.  Yeah…

This film packs a punch.  It is realism.  If you had a hard day at the office, don’t watch this.  Hard day at the coal mine?  Not recommended viewing.

But if you want to see the golden nugget at the center of humanity’s inextinguishable heart, then watch as Luminița Gheorghiu goes beyond the call of duty as nurse Mioara.  She is a paramedic with gall bladder problems.  She and the driver of the ambulance which carts around Mr. Lazarescu make “less than nothing” (to quote the subtitles).

Yes.  You will see the saddest shit imaginable.  You will see an acting tour de force by Ioan Fiscuteanu as what?  An ordinary man.  Age 63.  Headache.  Stomach ache.  Something is wrong.

And.  You will see the real eyes of compassion.  Not too much.  Not too little.  Luminița Gheorghiu.  The nurse who respectfully disagrees.  The nurse who takes insults all night long.  Just to save one man.  Lazarus.

She.  Has to go smoke a cigarette in the kitchen.  The paramedic.  In Russia, every part of the plane is the smoking section.  That was the quote from the inimitable Genghis Blues.  And so.  Romania.  We are not given a year.  A left-running TV offhandedly mentions Timișoara.  Is it the revolution?

What is the ambulance delay?  An hour response time.  In Bucharest!  Pre-Revolution or post-Revolution?

We don’t know.  I don’t know.

Maybe it is left vague on purpose.

In closing, this is a very (very) important film.  It’s like a slap of cold water in the face.  It ain’t pleasant.  This isn’t a fun movie.

But it is wholly worth seeing.  Lead actor Fiscuteanu would be dead within two years.  But you know what?  He did it.  He succeeded.  This is a timeless testament.  Line up Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman…all of them together (at this time) are shit compared to Fiscuteanu’s performance in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.  Only Hoffman has the chops to challenge.  Dustin, it would have to be even better than Rain Man.  Ready thyself if you want to compete with Ioan Fiscuteanu.  It’s gonna take every pitiful cell in your body.  You can do it.  It might do you in.

-PD

طعم گيلاس‎‎ [1997)

[TASTE OF CHERRY (1997)]

Don’t kill yourself, my friend.

I try to preserve the original language.

From France to Romania and now Iran.

It says Taste of Cherry.  And it is a film beyond perfection.  Directed by Abbas Kiarostami.

[if you are on a laptop or desktop it may appear to have no title…not very Farsi-friendly this WordPress]

Long ago I saw this quiet juggernaut.

If you’ve never seen an art film, you’ll know the genre when you see it.

Perhaps this was my first.

At an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas.

How did I end up there?

More importantly, how did I end up here?

This (the latter) seems to be the vexing question which actor Homayoun Ershadi is asking himself while embodying the suicidal character Mr. Badii.

Never have I seen an actor say so much with such economy of means.

Driving around.  Driving around.

We are suffocated by the expressionless Mr. Badii.

It reaches a head (of sorts) in the quarry.  He’s had enough.

Our protagonist cannot even secure the most essential human contact.  He cannot find even a marginal friend.

We do not know his story.  It would be impossible for anyone to have complete empathy.

He is right.  Your pain is yours alone.

But maybe a miracle is waiting…

Enter Abdolrahman Bagheri.

I have never felt such emotion in a film.

It is real.  As Mr. Bagheri (his name in the film and real life) recounts his own suicide attempt we are brought into a rarefied talent for dialogue which I have only seen in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit.  Hope in the midst of nihilism.  The deepest, darkest desperation pierced by humor…or humanity.

It places Kiarostami (at least in this film) as a forerunner of the Romanian New Wave.  The trappings are similar.

We see the most depressing back alleys of urban sprawl.  Gravel paths not yet claimed entirely from the grasp of the earth.

Earth.

This film is all about earth.  Dirt.  The dust of impressionism.  Concrete.

Rocks being broken up.

A man (Mr. Badii) whose only longing is, seemingly, to be dead.

Earthmovers, earthmovers everywhere…and not a load to spare.

I have never seen a film like this.

Yes, it fits into the art film genre, and yet…it forges ahead…a new path…take the fork to the right, please.

This film is a testament of hope for the Afghan people.

A testament of hope for the Kurds.

A testament of hope for the Azeris.

And, most of all, this eternal masterpiece is a testament to the genius of Iran.

May the future be as beautiful as the colors of the setting sun.

Even if that sun must piece the sadness of cranes and smog in Tehran.

I will look for the sun if you will…my dear friends.

-PD

A fost sau n-a fost? [2006)

It took me a long time.  To come back to Romania.  Country I’ve never visited.  But in film.

I do not know which Romanian film I saw first.  It may have been 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

It may have been The Way I Spent the End of the World.

You can read my praise for those two perfect films here on my site.

But let me just say that I am honored to finally review what I consider the third perfect Romanian film:

12:08 East of Bucharest.

The Romanian title translates directly as “It was or was not?”

Perhaps a little massaging would render the phrase more like “Was it or wasn’t it?”

And so what is this Hamletesque sentence driving at?

That is the question!

The revolution.  The Romanian Revolution.

In a particular town (Vaslui) was there a revolution or wasn’t there?

While this may sound like a rather dry premise, let me assure you that director Corneliu Porumboiu proves himself to be a master on the order of his countrymen Cristian Mungiu and Cătălin Mitulescu.

Porumboiu is helped by the fantastic acting of three stellar performers.

Mircea Andreescu plays the character Emanoil Piscoci.  Andreescu’s comic timing as the awkward Mr. Piscoci is one of the defining elements of this film.

Also indispensable is Ion Sapdaru as Professor Manescu.  Sapdaru’s desperation and body language also make this film the timeless gem that it is.

Though we may not completely sympathize with his brusque character, Teodor Corban does an admirable job portraying the unifying (and polarizing) Virgil Jderescu.

Finally, I cannot leave out the small-but-pithy contribution of the excellent George Guoqingyun.

[we now interrupt this horribly boring review to bring you the point]

The point?

Black humor.  Bleak humor.  Dark humor.

The town…looks as shitty as my town.  My neighborhood.

There aren’t any explosions.  No CGI.

No superheroes.  In fact, there’s not even a pretty girl with whom to fall in love.

That’s reality right there.  Verismo.

As the snow falls on Vaslui I feel the same desperation I feel on a daily basis.

The cracked concrete of the apartment buildings.  The sad roofs.  From above.

The band is a little out of tune.  Desafinado.  I love them.

This film isn’t like the oblivion of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  It doesn’t have a blooming flower of hope in its heart like The Way I Spent the End of the World.

But it shares with those films a country and a particular way of looking at the world.  Show the bad stuff.

The difference here is, “Show the bad stuff…and then laugh a little.”

A little.

It will still make you cry.

No, it’s not a calculated Italian confection.

This is a beautifully sloppy film.

It’s films such as this which make me push on–which make me keep writing.  I keep hoping.

Porumboiu…your crappy world gives me hope in my crappy world.  Thank you.

-PD

Napoleon Dynamite [2004)

If this film makes you cry, then you have problems.  Welcome to my world.  Hopefully this will be the best thing I have ever written.

There are a couple of times.  Laugh out loud.  But those parts which pass by like strange quirks.  The space in between laughs.  That is the pathos of marginalia.

People.  Marginalized.  What the hell am I talking about?

There’s awkward and aw-kward.  It is the latter with which we are concerned.  A whole new level of pariah.

But also mundane.  And not to be forgotten…endearingly strange.

Preston, Idaho.  It’s real.  Really exists.

Napoleon and his brother Kip.  Lots of weird mustaches here.  But Napoleon is just the geeky gawky gangly guy growing up.

As Kip shows, some of us never grow up.  And Uncle Rico…whoa mama.  All regrets and what-ifs.

Grandmother was at the dunes and broke her coccyx.  Tailbone.

Riding the four-wheeler.

Grandma’s got a boyfriend.  Or a girlfriend.  Or something.

This is one time when some Wikipedia contributor has actually done a loving portrait of a film.

Perusing.

Rico is our campervan Beethoven.  A real jerk.  But not without his humorous (humerus?) moments.  Funny bone.

Fortunately LaFawnduh’s cousin is apparently Jamiroquai (they being a band and not a person).

Whoa…aw-kward.  Writing.

Jon Heder approaches the greatness of Peter Sellers in this film.  Heder is our lead…our anti-Bond (James).  Not cool.  Never was cool.  Painfully existing.

Tina Majorino brings an indispensable side ponytail grace to this story.  Such a beautiful girl.  A real person.  This film succeeds by employing a sort of Robert Bresson technique.  It also is the laughing equivalent of the Romanian New Wave.  To wit, Jared Hess made one of the most important American movies of recent decades.  Kudos to Fox Searchlight Pictures for giving this the distribution it deserved.  We know they later picked up Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Nice job Fox Searchlight!

And why do we cry?  Part of it is Efren Ramirez as Pedro.  Down here in San Antonio.  People living for their Spurs.  I know.  Me too.  Small victories seem so big.  El Presidente.  He builds her a cake.  The vacuous Summer.  No!!!  (little hearts beneath the exclamation points)

It’s hot.  Pedro doesn’t have air conditioning.  Napoleon’s top-loading VCR comes in handy after he scores a sweet Kid ‘n’ Play video at the thrift store.  Kip backs over the Tupperware in a failed Ginsu demonstration.  “Dang it!”

Pedro from Juarez.  In Idaho.  That’s like a Martian in Indiana or Iowa.  It’s real.  We all end up someplace.  For some reason.  And the cousins with the sweet low-rider.  The cousins with the hookups.  A short segment about banding together.  People with odds stacked against them helping other people with odds stacked against them.

A very humble project.

And someday Napoleon’s ligers will hang in the MoMA…and his portrait of Trisha (with the deftly-shaded upper lip) will fetch $100 million at Sotheby’s.

And LaFawnduh from Detroit.  Definitely AOL-era.  No cellphones in this movie.  Deb (Majorino) has to go to a payphone to tactfully reprimand Napoleon.  But it was all Rico’s fault.  Uncle Rico.  Hell, Napoleon even got a job moving chickens…for $1 an hour.  And they had big talons!  Just drink the raw eggs and mingle with the farmers.  The old people have good stories.  About Shoshone arrowheads in the creek bed.  White-bread sandwiches.  I don’t understand a word I just said.

It’s that I don’t have any skills.  Nunchuk skills.  Computer hacking skills.  Cage fighting skills.  Rex kwon do skills.

Oops.  Yeah, I dress like Peter Pan.  Forever the butt of a joke.

Napoleon runs like Forrest Gump…with Trisha’s corsage.  But it’s lonelier.  It’s stranger.  Like Peter Sellers doing Camus.  Chaplin and Sartre.  Les Temps modernes.

So when the antihero finally succeeds it elicits an honest firestorm of support.  Lots of people with nothing to live for. A little saint for the hallway.  A prayer has been answered.  They already tore down my high school.  Same name, different building.  I pass it everyday.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Some might say.  I know there’s a place for me somewhere.

It’s not all about tetherball.  It’s the determination.  A solitary game.  A clueless dork.  Thanks be to god.  THis movie.

-PD