Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981): Pleading Death

Sane people can have the desire to die, it’s an indisputable fact. In arguing why, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” tries to balance a dispute so personal, that it seems bound to fail. And yet, it does not. Based on Brian Clark’s original television play of 1972 (starring Ian McShane, how random), it was first adapted to a stage play before coming to its 1981 incarnation. The movie was directed by John Badham, better know for Saturday Night Fever (1979) and the Matthew Broderick wannabe Black Mirror episode of a movie, War Games (1983).

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We are faced with a story featuring a sculptor who is left paralyzed after a wrecking car accident. His status renders him incapable of being the person he once was and found in the impossibility to reconcile his former self with his current condition, Ken Harrison decides to die.

His quest is, most obviously, a difficult one. The doctors do not support him in his decision and in this debate – doctor::patient – it is where the film conjures the most solid arguments in its plea. Going beyond the usual ethical components of this choice, the film manages to assert a very personal position to the main protagonist, which therefore makes the whole experience one of anguish on a very personal level. And this is where it makes its point: there is no universal justification for death and the world has no right to interfere in the sphere of anyone’s consciousness. Perhaps it is at times overly dramatic and it treats the subject with tantalizing care, but in the end, I felt the film balanced all the facts concerned in a convincing and compelling way, vividly portraying the painful demise of a strong mind in face of the cruelty of destiny. It might seem to take a stance on every man’s right to choose his fate, but in the matter at hand (whether death by will is right or wrong) it emits no absolute messages.

Beyond everything, Richard Dreyfuss (the reason for straying to the obscure 80’s) sustains an authentic feeling of intellectual pain in his convincing performance. And it is only in pain and suffering that we can look into ourselves to understand how much we are willing to bear and what makes us be. Perhaps I don’t agree suicide is the best solution, but then again I am on the other side of the river, where things seem filthy green, rather than nothing at all. Easy for me to talk. We are so alone in death and pain, that nobody can truly claim to understand us.

P.S. It’s also got a high 1:75 on my recently conceived cult status meter. So, in the least, it makes you spew some thoughts out.

****

Originally published on imdb (14.07.2007)

Today’s Special (2009): 1001 Recipes for Clichés

A sub-genre that has come into its own during the last decade or so is related to movies about food. Today’s Special was a bit of an avantgardist piece, followed by the likes of Chef (2014), The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) and Burnt (2015), to count a few off the top of my head. It’s most closely related to the Helen Mirren flick with Journey in the title, but actually fails to get a grip on itself for long enough to rise to even the average standards imposed there. So yes, I was disappointed.

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The story – stop me if anything sounds familiar – involves an Indian sous-chef, Samir, who is passed up on a promotion due to his excessive rigor, which arguably killed the improvisational magic required of a chef. So Samir decides to quit and contemplates traveling to Europe, to widen his repertoire. Before leaving, a quick visit to the parents, in particular his father, is in order. Surprisingly, or not, the family own the most run down Indian restaurant imaginable and the father is deeply disappointed by Samir’s life choices. His mother, meanwhile, is busy sending  him wife profiles from a dating website specializing in Indian couples. As the father suffers a bit of a heart attack, Samir is thrust into taking care of a dying business which is turned around by a previous chance encounter with Akbar, a taxi driver – chef – all around exceptional person. So Akbar comes in with his infinite wisdom of how cooking should come from here (the head) – here (the heart) – here (the stomache) and a little bit from here (well…). And Samir, who seems clueless as to cooking any Indian food, learns to reconnect with his roots. The platitudes and cliches just keep rolling, but I wouldn’t want to spoil all of them for you.

While I hate this kind of stereotyping, with “the spiritual Easterner” at the top of my list, it’s not even the film’s greatest fault. The first problem is that the important characters are unlikable. The second is that Samir’s lack of initiative is incomprehensible in the context. There’s no way any chef that half loves his job could have taken over a restaurant like the one portrayed here and remain so passive to how it looked, how it was run. The third is that the (happy) resolution put forward comes about without the lead having much merit in it at all. The implicit fourth is that the story elements don’t feel like they fall into place, but rather are forced to make up this journey of personal rediscovery. And lastly, there aren’t even any glorious shots of mouth watering food to take your mind off all the other incoherences.

Perhaps some of my complaints pertain to how I can’t accept the feel-good recipe. But there are a bunch of similar movies out there that do a good job in putting together a happy-go-lucky story which makes sense. Or at least convince you to suspend your disbelief. There are a few moments when Today’s Special manages to entertain, but they are too thinly spread. And, perhaps paradoxically, I did enjoy Aasif Mandvi’s dry portrayal of a run-down Samir, with the small caveat that it wasn’t fit in carrying the movie.

There must be stuff to like about David Kaplan’s second (and as of now last) feature length movie, yet I utterly failed to enjoy it. Sure, it digests easily, but there’s gotta be more to it than that.

*

Pozitia Copilului (2013): People at its Heart

Upon its release, I happened to catch a screening of the film (English title: Child’s Pose) attended by the director and some of the actors, followed by a short Q&A. This sort of effort is part of a greater plan to bring appraised Romanian films closer to the Romanian audience, while also creating an association with the people responsible for their success, more often than not “against the odds”.

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The story is set around a pampered man-child who ends up committing  a bit of involuntary vehicular manslaughter and his mother who works towards sorting out his predicament. What sets Netzer’s film apart from some of the other recent Romanian works of cinema is its sardonic humor which works best when it’s aimed at the characters and not at some of the pervasive practices of society. I’ve personally always felt that personal stories, meaning character stories, always came in second to some grand piece of social commentary, usually on the communist background of the country, in most of the acclaimed Romanian cinema of the 21st century. Not to say that such commentary lacks relevance, but there’s just more to modern life than its dark red heritage.

Of course, Pozitia Copilului is deeply rooted in antics which one could call symptomatic of Romania and as a means of characterization, the backdrop is justifiable. Occasionally though, when certain aspects come across a bit too hard pressed, they do a disservice to the otherwise excellent balance of a difficult story. This in no way undermines the beautifully detailed portrait of the film’s main character, a highly controlling, bossy, arrogant, mean-spirited mother. Her faults go quite a way to being redeemed by the passionate dedication with which she tries to protect her son, if one were to count such moral trade-offs. The ambivalence is so finely portrayed by Luminita Gheorghiu that both the moments of involuntary humor and the moments of pure drama work just as well.

It’s ironic that Mrs. Gheorghiu also played in “Moartea Domnului Lazarescu”, a film I found to be close at heart with “Pozitia Copilului”, in that it relies heavily on a complex central character and its critique is subtle, yet scathing. I’d go so far as to say that these kind of films, while still dominated by a type of post-modernist bleakness, can lead a shift of focus to the greater importance of characters as individuals in Romanian movies, not only as symbol stand-ins.

****

Originally published on imdb.