What I Peeped: Day Two

April 5, 2008 at 5:36 am 1 comment

Boom!

Following in the footsteps of The Death of Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, California Dreamin’ is the latest award-gobbler from current It-country, Romania. Like those films it concerns an Eastern European nation held together by little more than duct tape and pipe cleaner. The story finds a group of American marines on a NATO mission who, thanks to a combination of bureaucratic fuckuppery and general pettiness, get held up for several days at a remote checkpoint and its adjacent small town. Adding to the state of dissaray is this tragic factoid: director Cristian Nemescu, all of 27 at the time, died in a car accident only two weeks after shooting. So what you’re seeing is close to a first draft – the film stitched together as he had intended it at that point, without his chance to go through and, you know, trim things up. The length? 155 minutes.

But let’s suppose that’s not enough disarray for you. What if, while watching this impossibly flabby film about an impoverished nation, just about everything that could possibly go wrong with a screening went wrong? Doesn’t that just amplify the experience? First and foremost: the print must’ve been truant because what wound up being projected was not just a DVD, but a screener – as in one of the 2nd or 3rd generation dupes sent out to us critics before the fest begins. That means it was hazy, heavily pixilated, featured impossibly low sound, stuck and paused multiple times, with one major halt, and generally looked like total ass. Sitting through it proved real cinephilic dedication – spiritually akin to plowing through a banged-up, faded 16mm print of some super-rare French New Wave film while perched on wooden folding chairs.

As for the film itself, it’s worth the sit, even if it’s the kind of deeply flawed film whose potential brilliance is always just out of reach. The set-up is particular worthy of judicious cutting, not the least because the tone fluctuates between absurdist comedy and stark miserablism – as though 4 Months, 3 Week and 2 Days had been haphazardly spliced into 12:08 East of Bucharest. (Two of the latter’s stars, Ion Sapardu and Teodor Corban, pop up here as well.) Around the time the blustery mayor (Sapardu) decides to re-celebrate the town’s centennial, to show off to their accidental visitors (led by an appropriately stick-up-butt Armand Assante), however, the absurdist side happily wins over. The mid-section is pretty strong and barbed, featuring one of the funniest instances of coitus interruptus in the history of aborted bonking itself. But the film rushes into a finale that splits between sharp and overwrought. Of course, who’s to say what it would have looked like had Nemescu not had more than a fortnight to paste it together? Throw it on the pile with Marilyn Monroe’s Something Got to Give and Miles Davis’ rap album of forever unrealized art.

In any case, hopefully this screening was an isolated incident – hey, it was the first big day – as both my follow-ups went swimmingly. The Indian drama Dharmahhh, projected film! – concerns a Brahmin priest (Pankaj Kapur) who finds his strict rituals and regressive social mores put to the test upon the discovery of an orphaned baby boy. Just when you’re thinking this is going to turn into Three Men and a Baby for religious fundamentalists, the kid’s estranged mother returns, dragging him off kicking and screaming. While tensions erupt between extremes on both Muslim and Hindu sides, Kapur instead focuses on assuaging his own inner pain, participating in one demanding rite after another until it’s clear that he’s only disappearing into his own misery. It’s here that Dharm comes closest to any narrative film that I can think of, shy of maybe Luis Buñuel, to saying that religion is actually harmful and an obstacle to any kind of real peace, inner or outer. Sadly, it winds up ending on a note of ham-handed fuzziness that can’t help but feel like a fantasy. Ah well.

That is one depressed-looking kid

The Other Boy, from Germany, is the least ambitious of all these and also, perhaps not coincidentally, the one that succeeds the most at what it tries to do. A glum boy accidentally-sorta-not-really kills the bullying son of his parents’ friends. Fearing the worst, said parents frantically dispose of the body and try to keep their alibis straight, even as circumstances drive out of control. But not too out of control. Director Volker Einrauch wisely saves the kind of vengeance-related silliness you see in the likes of Reservation Road till the very end, and then almost makes it work. Till then it’s a pretty tight concoction, kind of like a less tut-tutting version of Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video, and most trenchant when exploring the way the parents wind up just as childish, if not moreso, than their spawn. The film’s best observation finds the boy’s parents, increasingly worried their son will break down and confess, becoming just as bullying as the one into which he fired two bullets. Finally, everything clicks into place just fine.

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Entry filed under: Reviews.

Picks, Pans, All That – Day Two: Friday, April 4 Picks, Pans, All That – Day Three: Saturday, April 5

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