Bringing Out the Dead


Bringing Out the Dead

Nicolas Cage performs triage on his career.

(1999) Drama (Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony, Mary Beth Hurt, Cliff Curtis, Nestor Serrano, Aida Turturro, Sonja Sohn, Cynthia Roman, Afemo Omilami. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. OK, that’s true for a lot of people – Scorsese is quite frankly one of the most accomplished directors ever. He knows the streets of New York City like nobody else. Whereas Woody Allen is uptown Manhattan, Scorsese is the lower Bronx. He can take murderers and junkies and make them compelling.

Bringing Out the Dead is about a burned-out New York EMS technician named Frank (Cage), who during the course of a hot, humid weekend, hopes to save a life and somehow find redemption from the ghosts that haunt him, particularly one named Rose, a street urchin who died while under his care.

During the first night, he and his larger-than-life partner (Goodman) haul in a coronary patient barely clinging to life. Frank finds himself drawn to the estranged daughter (Arquette) of the dying man, an oddly vulnerable woman with many complex layers. As the weekend progresses, Frank encounters junkies, drunks, gang bangers, victims, drug dealers, predators and criminals of all sorts.

Frank longs to be put out of his misery and tries his very best to get fired, turning to alcohol as the only way to ease his pain. Over the course of the weekend, he rides with a variety of partners, including the Bible-thumping lady-killer Marcus (Rhames) and on the final night, his psychotic ex-partner (Sizemore). He drifts through the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, struggling to avoid drowning himself.

Scorsese’s visual style carries the movie, using light and shadow to delineate Frank’s fall from grace and his attempt to rise above. Nobody uses motion and color like Scorsese, and he uses it well here.

Unfortunately, Paul Schrader’s script (Schrader and Scorsese previously collaborated on Taxi Driver) is scattershot, ill-plotted and occasionally pointless. I suppose the story is meant to reflect the pointlessness of life in the underbelly of a city where death and despair are constant companions. However, exorcising our demons is not just a matter of forgiveness; it requires faith and good timing too. When Frank encounters Rose for the last time, I found myself screaming at the screen “I get it, I get it already!!!!!!”

Cage was at a point in his career when he made this where he was still respected as an actor although he seems to be the butt of many late night talk show host jokes these days. His eyes here are sad, world-weary and expressive; it wasn’t his best performance ever but it might well make his all-time top ten. He gets to work off of a variety of foils for whom Sizemore and Goodman seem to be the most memorable. Arquette is luminous as Cage’s love interest.

Frank looks at the world through desperate eyes, seeking some kind of miracle in the muck. That he finds saintliness amid the squalor is a testament to his faith. That I watched the movie to its conclusion is a testament of my faith in Scorsese. Sadly, my faith was unrewarded, and I have to tell you that if you need a fix of Scorsese, go rent Casino, Goodfellas or The Departed instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Martin Scorsese – that should be enough. One of Cage’s best all-time performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unsatisfying and often meandering plot line serves to emphasize the story’s points a little too much.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, enough bad language to make anybody blush and a goodly amout of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There are two dispatchers heard in the movie, one male and one female. The male dispatcher’s voice is Scorsese; the female’s is rapper Queen Latifah, who would later go on to fame as an actress in her own right. This is also the last movie to be released on laserdisc.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.8M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a commercial flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Creature

Charlie St. Cloud


Charlie St. Cloud

Zac Efron responds when asked if there are any High School Musical alumni out there.

(Universal) Zac Efron, Amanda Crew, Charlie Tahan, Donal Logue, Ray Liotta, Kim Basinger, Dave Franco, Jesse Wheeler, Matt Ward, Augustus Prew, Miles Chalmers, Desiree Zurowski, Adrian Hough, Jill Teed, Valerie Tian, Grace Sherman, Brenna O’Brien. Directed by Burr Steers

One of the most difficult events we can go through in life is to watch a loved one die before their time. This can only be made worse by having that loved one be a child and feeling responsible for that child’s demise.

Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a golden boy. He’s wicked good-looking and a fantastic sailor, so much so that Stanford has given him a scholarship to be on their sailing team. His mom (Basinger) pulls double shifts at the hospital so that he can achieve his dreams, although I have not a clue how a working class kid can afford a racing sloop; it’s probably best if you try not to think about such things.

Charlie has a very close relationship with his little brother Sam (Tahan) who is devastated that Charlie is going to leave, in a sense just like their dad did. “I’m not dad,” Charlie says a bit crossly when Sam voices that fear. I can imagine that the comparison occurred to Charlie too.

Sam is a huge Red Sox fan and wants to play baseball; Charlie is only too happy to coach him every day. He’s just graduated (and the principal expects Great Things from this young man; to be sure, Charlie answers somewhat immodestly “So do I, sir”) from high school and has the entire summer in their coastal Washington town to teach Sam how to throw a slider.

Of course, being that it’s graduation time, Charlie wants to spend some time with his friends, particularly Sully (Franco) and Green (Wheeler) who have joined the military and are shipping out to the Middle East in a week. However, mom has landed another shift at the hospital, putting Charlie on Sam duty, which interferes with his plans. Thinking that Sam has fallen asleep, he tries to sneak out but Sam catches him and demands to be taken somewhere where he can watch the Red Sox game – apparently quite a few of them are broadcast in Washington.

Sam gives in and perhaps he shouldn’t have. On the way to wherever it is they are going, Sam is rear-ended by a drunk driver who pushes Charlie into oncoming traffic where they are T-boned by a rather big truck. A paramedic (Liotta) brings Charlie back from the dead, but Sam isn’t as lucky.

Charlie is devastated. At Sam’s funeral, he can’t bring himself to leave Sam’s mitt and ball in the casket, so instead, having glimpsed what he thought was Sam leaning against a tombstone, he runs into the woods, only to come up to Sam’s apparition, petulantly whining that Charlie and he had a deal. They do indeed; and at sunset when the town’s yacht club conveniently fires off a cannon to signal that they are fully capable of warding off pirates, they will meet in the woods and play catch.

Fast forward five years. Charlie has put his life on hold and works as a caretaker where his brother lies buried. He has but one friend, an obnoxious Englishman named Alistair (Prew) and yes, he has fulfilled his promise to his brother each and every day, rain or shine, come hell or high water. Mom has moved on to Portland, but Charlie remains in a stasis of his own grief.

That’s when Tess (Crew), an old high school classmate of Charlie’s returns to town, apparently having become a pretty fair sailor herself. She has entered herself in an around the world yacht race, and her coach Tink Weatherbee (Logue) thinks she’s got a good shot. She’s back in town, apparently to just take her boat on a trial run, but really she’s there to run into Charlie and fall in love with him. She does both admirably.

Charlie’s deepening relationship with Tess is putting a serious crimp in his meetings with his brother Sam. Sam is terrified of being deserted by his brother and that he will fade into nothingness if Charlie moves on; However, Charlie doesn’t want to exist in this half-life anymore. Will Charlie choose Tess over Charlie, or will he remain tied to his dead brother, doomed to remain a slave to his own grief?

This is based on a best-selling novel by Ben Sherwood and was originally set in Massachusetts. Quite frankly, the novel screams New England what with prep schools, Red Sox, yachting, old cemeteries and ghosts. Unfortunately, the production (in order to save money) chose to film in British Columbia instead and perhaps realizing that the Pacific Northwest doesn’t look anything like New England, set the action in a small town in Washington state. Unfortunately, many of the New England trappings remain and their presence makes the movie look a little bit ridiculous. For example, rather than having Sam be a Red Sox fan, couldn’t he be a Mariners fan instead?

Quite frankly, even though they were filming in BC I think the movie still should have been set in New England. I might have found the movie a bit more believable (as believable as a movie about a guy who sees his dead brother can be anyway) and more palatable.

The movie took was flayed by critics when it was released; quite frankly, I think most critics dislike any movie that makes you cry. After all, in order to weep you must have a heart that can be broken and most movie critics have cast iron hearts. I will admit that the movie is quite manipulative in that regard, but quite frankly it can be awfully cathartic to have a good cry at the movies.

Efron is pretty solid in the lead; he has to be because he’s in nearly every scene. He has improved by leaps and bounds since his High School Musical days and is quite likable; he might have a long career ahead of him if he doesn’t make bad choices. Tahan is actually quite likable in his role; there are few really good male juvenile actors out there (Josh Hutcherson comes to mind) compared to the female ones, so it’s nice to find one that doesn’t ACT like he’s in child actor 101. His relationship with Charlie seems very natural and close in the way that brothers are, and forms the heart of the movie.

This is a good looking movie with plenty of sunsets, sun-dappled forests, and quaint town shots, as well as beautiful boats knifing through the sea. It doesn’t particularly add much insight to life – I think it’s fair to say that most of us are aware that there comes a time that we all must set aside our grief, no matter how intense and overwhelming it may be, to pick ourselves up and move on which is what the movie’s central theme seems to be. There’s a nice little twist I won’t spoil that elevates the movie past the realm of the mediocre. Had they not made the critical tactical error of setting this in the Northwest, I think I might have been even more charmed by the movie than I was. As it is I can give the movie a recommendation – a surprised one to be sure but a recommendation nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Efron is making satisfying progress as an actor and Tahan handles his role without reverting to typical kid-actor clichés. There’s some beautiful cinematography here.

REASONS TO STAY: There are quite a few logical lapses that had a lot to do with transplanting the story from New England to the Northwest. It’s also a little too over-the-top manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild language concerns and a fairly intense auto accident depicted; certainly should be okay for most teenagers and mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the book was set in Marblehead, Massachusetts, unfortunately it was too cost-prohibitive to film it there so the action was relocated to the Pacific Northwest and filming took place in British Columbia.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I thought this might be best served by seeing it at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pride and Glory

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