Lovely, Still


All love is young love.

All love is young love.

(2008) Romance (Monterey Media) Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Banks, Adam Scott, Sean Tillmann, Kali Cook, Christopher Why, M. Michele Phillips, Christine Dixon, Mary Douglass, Scott Beehner, Todd Fink, Leo Fitzpatrick, Jules Blight, Candice Rose. Directed by Nicholas Fackler

Old age can sometimes mean loneliness. Husbands or wives pass away. Relationships, for whatever reason, end. We find ourselves with a whole lot of time and nobody to share it with. This is particularly difficult during the holidays.

Robert Malone (Landau) is in that kind of spot. He works in a grocery store, as much to fill his time as to support himself.  He is a lonely man who as Christmas approaches wraps up Christmas gifts for himself. His boss Mike (Scott) may well be his only friend.

One day he comes home to find his new neighbor Mary (Burstyn) in his living room – apparently he’d left his door open when he left for work. Far from being angry or upset, he is intrigued by the woman and feels doors opening in his heart that have been shut for a very long time.

Despite the misgivings of Mary’s daughter Alex (Banks) Robert and Mary begin dating and it is almost fairy-tale sweet. Robert is happier than he’s been since he can remember. As Christmas approaches he is eager to spend it with someone for the first time.

But it isn’t all holly and ivy. Robert is having odd dreams that are maddeningly indistinct but seem to have some sort of intense meaning to him. But what do they mean? And what do they have to do with Mary?

This is Fackler’s first feature film and all alliteration aside, it’s a pretty good one for a first go. He gets the benefit of two Oscar winners who give him a good performance in roles that are pretty decently written and allow the actors to let their natural charisma and charm show through. Burstyn is particularly charming but Landau inhabits his role nicely.

This is the kind of movie that can easily cross the line from charm to schmaltz and it does so several times, but not often enough to really be a problem. However, the problem here is that it takes a nice twist ending and telegraphs it a bit too broadly so that anybody can see it coming and does it in a way that’s really unnecessary. By resisting temptation to hit you over the head with clues about what’s coming they might have had a really excellent film.

As it is it’s decent enough, mainly due to the performances of all four of the leads. This is one of those sad cases where the filmmakers underestimated the ability of their audience to follow along and be intuitive to the direction of the plot. It’s necessary to respect your audience to go where you’re headed rather than lead them by the nose to where you want them to be. The former makes for a satisfied, grateful audience. The other just pisses ’em off.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet and touching performances by Landau and Burstyn. Nice twist.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit predictable in places and the twist, which is a good one, is telegraphed a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: While there are a few mildly bad words here and there, mostly it is the adult themes of aging and romance that might be too much for younger kids to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly filmed in Nebraska and the score written by members of the acclaimed Omaha indie rock group Bright Eyes.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are interviews with the four main cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233,083 on an unreported production budget; it is unlikely the movie made much if any profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Notting Hill

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Young @ Heart


A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line

(2007) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Joe Benoit, Helen Boston, Fred Knittle, Jeanne Hatch, Louise Canady, Jean Florio, Steve Martin, Eileen Hall, Donald Jones, Stan Goldman, Elaine Fligman, Brock Lynch, Ed Rehor, Bob Salvini, Norma Landry, Bob Cilman, Stephen Walker. Directed by Stephen Walker and Ruth George

Every day we grow older. Days pile upon days and become weeks, months, years. We grow older. We lose that youthful glow, the spring in our step becomes creaky and our hair turns silver, white or disappears entirely. Our skin becomes blotchy. Our aches and pains become the central reality of our lives. We watch those we grew up with one by one pass away. Our children have children; our grandchildren have children.

It is reality that we move toward old age throughout life, some more gracefully than others. Those that arrive there have a dilemma; to stay active, to keep their minds and bodies occupied, or to sit down, eat their pudding and wait for the night they go to sleep and don’t wake up the next morning.

There is a chorus based in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Walter Salvo Rest House, a housing project for the elderly. Members must be at least 70 years of age and the average age is above 80. You would think a chorus of this age would choose musical selections that fit their age group.

But that would not be the case here. Under the direction of Bob Cilman, this amazing group of people are performing contemporary songs by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, James Brown, Coldplay and the Talking Heads. The attitude of the chorus is a collective Why not? and they bring such joy and spirit to this music it reminds me of the adage that you’re only as old as you choose to be.

It isn’t always easy; some of the song choices prove to be a little tricky, like “Yes You Can-Can” which at one time has the word “can” sung 71 in a short span. It’s not easy for anyone to get the staccato rhythmic repetitions and at times it’s clear that Cilman gets exasperated as do the singing seniors. Still they soldier on and some of these songs take on an especially poignant meaning.

We get glimpses of their daily lives; some alone and ignored whose lives seem to begin and end with the chorus, which shares it’s name with the movie – Young @ Heart. Others seem more sociable, like Joe Benoit who hangs out with other members of the chorus and never met a pun he didn’t like. Eileen Hall, the eldest of the bunch singing into her 90s, has a brassy demeanor.

But this isn’t all about plucky seniors singing songs that were written when they were well into their 70s; two members of the chorus pass away during the course of the movie, including one just a week before the big concert at a theater in Northampton that the group has been preparing for throughout the movie. For the first, they sing “Forever Young” at a prison concert which is a bit of a rehearsal shortly before the big show.

The second member was to have performed a duet with retired member and close friend Fred Knittle who was on oxygen and was no longer able to tour with the chorus. Knittle comes out on stage and sits down. Once the applause dies down, he starts singing the song he was to have performed with his friend – Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Knittle’s baritone is a little rough but it is a beautiful, soaring voice nonetheless. The emotion behind the song and the release it provokes not only in the audience at the concert but in the viewer of the movie takes one’s breath away. This one moment, not quite four minutes long, made this the best film of 2008 for me (although it premiere on the film festival circuit in 2007, the movie didn’t get a release in the United States until the following year).

The movie was originally a documentary on the BBC and in the manner of Beeb documentaries the narration from filmmaker Stephen Walker could be overbearing, smug and intrusive. He also interrupts the movie to play some mock videos of songs that the chorus was singing including “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads.

What the movie really does well is change your outlook on aging. It’s not a pleasant reality that we’re all going to get old assuming we survive long enough to get there. However, it doesn’t have to be an awful thing. We don’t stop living when we start dying. Sometimes that’s just when we start living. This is definitely a film that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone and everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly powerful and thoroughly charming. A film that might just change your outlook on aging.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Were the videos really necessary? Walker’s voiceovers could have been less intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some of the thematic elements might be a bit too heavy for younger viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mock-video for David Bowie’s “Golden Years” was filmed at Six Flags New England and at the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a five minute clip of the chorus performing in Los Angeles.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.1M on an unknown production budget;  I would guess the movie was a resounding box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Tekken

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Mr. Lazarescu (center) navigates through an uncaring medical system populated by caring paramedics, judgmental nurses and indifferent doctors.

(Tartan) Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita, Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahieu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Florin Zamfirescu, Clara Voda, Adrian Titieni, Mihai Bratila. Directed by Cristi Puiu

Nobody wants to get sick. After all, with illness comes discomfort but worse yet is being marched into the medical system, into hospitals. Some of these journeys leave lasting impressions of caring, competent medical professionals; others are much different.

Dante Remus Lazarescu (Fiscuteanu) is a retired 60-something engineer who is an alcoholic with a headache that hasn’t gone away for four days. He’s nauseous and is throwing up blood. He thinks it’s a symptom of a problem with his ulcer, which was operated on ten years before. The pain finally gets bad enough to the point where he calls for an ambulance.

In post-Communist Romania the ambulance service is spotty at best and Mr. Lazarescu is skeptical as to whether one will arrive at all. There has been a major bus crash and casualties are being driven to several area hospitals. He heads over to a neighboring apartment to borrow some painkillers from Sandu Sterian (Ana) and his wife Mihaela (Dogaru). They are willing to help, but don’t really have the pills that he needs. Alarmed, they call the ambulance once again and finally one arrives, driven by Leo (Spahieu) with a compassionate paramedic named Mioara Avram (Gheorghiu).

She manages to get past the well-meaning interference of the Sterians and the crusty personality of Mr. Lazarescu to discover a worrisome diagnosis – Mr. Lazarescu may have colon cancer.

The ambulance (really more of a converted mini-van) whisks Mr. Lazarescu away to the hospital which is presided over by a tyrannical doctor who is far more interested in lecturing the ill man about his alcohol intake than in treating his illness. In a recurring theme, the hospital staff is overworked to the point of apathy. They send Mr. Lazarescu to a different hospital to get some tests done.

That hospital is overwhelmed by casualties from the bus crash, but Mioara’s persistence, a nurse whose friendship with Mioara leads her to be an advocate for Mr. Lazarescu with a doctor who actually has a thread of decency (and a bit of a crush on the nurse) who gets the tests done. Once the tests are done, it is discovered that Mr. Lazarescu indeed has a tumor (in his liver) that is going to kill him slowly. He also has a blood clot on his brain that is going to kill him quickly if he isn’t operated on.

That immediate surgery is a bit of a problem; the hospital they are in is far too stacked up in the O.R. for the surgery to get done in a timely manner. Instead, they recommend Mr. Lazarescu be taken to a neighboring hospital which didn’t get as many bus crash casualties. As Mr. Lazarescu is transported from place to place his condition begins to deteriorate rapidly. Will he be given the life-saving surgery in time?

Strangely, this movie was marketed in Romania as a comedy and there are certainly some comedic elements to the film, but I found the tone grim, unrelentingly so but not in a way that makes the movie a downer. Director Puiu takes the tact of being a passionless observer, one without opinion or agenda who is merely presenting the facts.

In fact, this was based on an actual incident in Bucharest in which a 50 year old man was transported to five different hospitals before the paramedic dumped him at the side of the road, where the man died. In this movie, you don’t get a sense that Mioara would ever consider such an option; she’s doggedly determined to get the treatment Mr. Lazarescu desperately needs.

Despite the title, this isn’t Mr. Lazarescu’s story. It is the story of the system and the participants thereof. It is an indictment of the system (and is regarded as such by the Romanian press) on one level, which fails Mr. Lazarescu miserably but it also praises those who go above and beyond, trying to procure decent medical care despite the obstacles. Mioara is definitely the heroine here.

Gheorghiu does a tremendous job in the role. Sympathetic, she puts up with all the jibes and put-downs by the supercilious and arrogant staffs of the various hospitals, most of whom are less experienced than she. She does so with stoicism that is sad and heroic at once. Also of note is Fiscuteanu, who would pass away from cancer himself a year after the completion of the movie and plays the mostly unlikable Lazarescu with dignity and just enough pathos to make him sympathetic without going over-the-top.

While some might believe this is channeling “E.R.,” there is a more realistic feeling to this than that television show. In fact, medical professionals in Romania have praised the movie for its realism which comes by it honestly – the admittedly hypochondriac Puiu has a long list of physicians who acted as consultants on the film.

The drawback is that the movie, at a little over two and a half hours, does tend to drag in places. However, all of this can be overlooked considering the relevance to today’s healthcare debate. The Romanian film industry has been quietly putting out some really compelling movies (such as Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days) but this is the best I’ve seen yet. It’s worth seeking out if for no other reason as a cautionary tale to take better care of yourself so that you don’t wind up taking the same journey that Mr. Lazarescu does.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic performances make for an almost documentary-like feel. The subject matter is particularly relevant in today’s U.S. healthcare system debate.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two and a half hours, the movie drags on a bit too long. The tone may be too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language and scenes of hospital carnage as well as some brief nudity. The subject matter may be a trifle overwhelming for younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was intended to be the first of six feature films to be directed by Puiu in a cycle he calls “Stories from the Suburbs of Bucharest.” The second, entitled Aurora is in post-production and is expected to be released in 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Pickings are slim, but there’s a feature on the U.S. Healthcare system that doesn’t compare too favorably with the events depicted in the film.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas