Movie Reviews (such as they are)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

California Dreamin’ (endless)

Please ignore the utterly horrendous poster for this film. Why, why, why?

Some might say that the "endless" in parentheses in the title California Dreamin’ (endless) is simply a mistranslation that should read "unfinished". While this may not be the case, it's a debate not without merit, given that director Cristian Nemescu was killed in a car accident before he was able to complete this, his debut feature.

It's a shame that we won't get to see his talent grow, as surely it would have done, but it is wonderful news indeed for all lovers of cinema that someone somewhere saw fit to release this movie as it stood at the time of Nemescu's death.

Set in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo/Yugoslavia conflict, in a village in the middle of nowhere-ville, Romania, the story centres around Doiaru, the man who runs the railway station. He has lived in the village his whole life and, among other things, is something of a smalltime gangster, keeping the villagers poor while lining his own pockets (though you wouldn't guess it to look at him).

One day, news arrives that a train carrying US Marines and the equipment they need for a job in Serbia must pass through. They must be given permission to proceed unhindered. "Not in my town," thinks Doiaru. "The law's the law, and I must see their papers." Of course, they have no papers. And so starts a long wait for the correct documentation...

This synopsis is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg here. Black-and-white flashbacks to World War II introduce us to an unnamed boy and his family. Cuts between various governmental/ministerial offices tell a tale of total disorganization and unwillingness to cooperate at every level. Social uprising. Family relationships. The clashing of cultures...

This is a rich tapestry. In some ways you could consider it a Romanian Short Cuts or something of that ilk. It takes a while to get going: it may be that half an hour has passed before you really start to grasp what is happening and who is who. But once the film eventually lets you in, as though you have to earn the right, it then hits you with an almost omnipresent air of looming disaster. The tension is palpable. And then once in a while you get some light relief, and you laugh out loud. An early example of the latter is the Pavlov's dog-style response of the Marines as the local military band unexpectedly begins playing the "Star-Spangled Banner" as a welcome gesture.

At 155 minutes, this is not a short film, and maybe Nemescu would have tightened it up had he lived to complete it. But that may have done away with some of the beautiful pacing of the film. The large amount of translating between people who don't speak each other's language might have been some of the first to hit the cutting-room floor, perhaps. But it all adds to the chaos of the situation. Perhaps it would have been trimmed to appear like fewer days passing; but those of us familiar with both cuts of the original Wicker Man know that this can be unsatisfactory. We need to be with these people as long as it takes, to sense their impatience, to feel their frustration.

The cast here are, to my eyes at least, almost entirely unknown, with the obvious exception of Armand Assante. Many of the non-speaking parts would appear to be "non-actors", too, which adds to the sense of realism. As does the verité style adopted for the photography: focus shifts and wobbly cam aplenty. Personally, I adore this style of shooting, so it was great for me.

There is really very little I can say in criticism of this film, especially given that it is, essentially, a work in progress. Yes, it could be shorter, but there may be a cost. I think I need to see it again. And maybe even again after that. It could be that it's already one of my top 20 movies of all time. It left me feeling something I almost never feel at a film anymore, unfortunately, and yet it didn't seem to be manipulating me. I was moved. As the final scene cut to the credits, I felt an incredible sadness, melancholy. Maybe it's the real tragedy of the film-maker, but I'm pretty sure not. I think, actually, it had a real truth to it.

If you have read this to the end, I hope it's piqued your interest enough to hunt down this film. Watch it now so you can say, in five years' time, when everyone is talking about it, "I knew this was going to become a classic when I saw it way back when."

I give California Dreamin’ (endless) a huge 90 points out of 100, which is the highest score yet awarded to any film fully reviewed on this blog.

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Friday, July 18, 2008


I like comic books as much as the next guy who used to work in a comic-book store, and I have enjoyed some comic-book movies in my time. The movie 300 is based on a graphic novel (read: comic book for grown-ups) by the legendary Frank Miller (responsible for reviving the comic-book fortunes of Batman and Daredevil among others), which in turn was based on an old movie called 300 Spartans, which in turn was based on a 2,500-year-old battle between the Ancient Greeks and the Persians. So, we're talking historical re-enactment or re-telling.

First up, 300 is so full of close-ups that it was obviously designed with Blu-ray Disc in mind. And on that level the faux reality looks quite amazing.

But. And it's a big but.

The script is fucking appalling. Also, the acting is by and large very bad (none of the actors are good enough to single out by name here), and the direction (of the actors at least) would appear to be average. What is good, though -- indeed, very good -- is the fight choreography.

And that's about all.

And another thing: the CGI blood spatters were soooo ripped off of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi (2003)... Grr. And the CGI wolf was really bad.

I wasn't disappointed as such, because I expected nothing. This is not a patch on Sin City, also based on a Miller graphic novel. I'll give 300 52 points out of 100.

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