May 04 2010

DVDs for 05/04/10 – California Dreamin’, Tokyo Sonata and The Ultimate Samurai

California Dreamin’ (E1) – Director Cristian Nemescu was a rising star of what has been branded the Romanian New Wave when he and his sound editor were killed in a car wreck near the end of post-production of his first feature. As a tribute to Nemescu, the producer released California Dreamin’ as is. The director would likely have tightened the film up some but his dryly hilarious presentation of skewed cultural identity and appropriation, his blithely scathing portrait of bureaucratic impotence and ingrained corruption in post-Ceauşescu Romania (circa 1999), and the way he appreciates his characters even as he mercilessly satirizes their schemes and scams fills the film with a generosity of spirit and a richness of detail. Even at a leisurely two-and-a-half hours, there is plenty happening on screen.

Americans confront the new Romania in "California Dreamin'"

“Everyone has their reasons,” was the motto of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In Nemescu’s miserable little Romanian village, everyone has their agenda. NATO peacekeeping mission commander Captain Jones (Armand Assante in a gruff growl) wants to get his shipment of military equipment to Kosovo. Station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who runs his railroad position like a gangster and pillages every shipment that rolls through, blows off the government orders and sidelines them in a petty show of power and insolence (his reasons are slowly revealed in the flashbacks to World War II). His teenage daughter just wants to get out of the village and sees the arrival of the Americans as, if not her ticket out, at least a diversion for a while. The factory workers just want to stage their strike for maximum effect and find themselves stymied by Doiaru and overshadowed by the Americans. And the Mayor sees the captive audience as an unprecedented opportunity to promote his town and its absurd effort to transform into a high-concept tourist destination (complete with a copy of the Eiffel Tower and a Texas-themed hotel).

The story is built around a real-life incident but the rest is pure fiction, part goofy village comedy, part geopolitical allegory, part satire. The Mayor wants to promote his town out of its economic stasis while Doiaru is happy to sabotage the town’s only industry for his own gain. Local government is ineffectual, business is run like a criminal syndicate and the townsfolk resigned to the culture of corruption that has kept things stuck in the same mire despite the fall of Communism. And then the Americans roll through, rousing them to some kind of hope just by their presence. The image of America, as the title suggests, stands for a lot, and the fact that none of the soldiers meet expectations doesn’t deter their fantasy of American rescue. Meanwhile Assante’s Jones plays the reluctant diplomat, attempting to reason with Doiaru, negotiate terms of passage, deal, bribe, everything short of threaten him. (Assante plays him like a soldier unused to diplomacy and spending all his energy to not get physical; his slow stillness isn’t zen, it’s paralyzing restraint.) But there’s nothing logical in Doiaru’s scheme; even as he fumes over his daughter’s growing relationship with Jones’ handsome young junior officer (Jamie Elman), he refuses to pass the train through. It’s not business, it’s strictly personal and his obstinance gives this petty tyrant a human dimension and the film another layer of cultural collision.

Under the sardonic humor and skewed satire of ineffectual diplomatic rituals and bureaucratic musical chairs is a fascinating portrait in frustration and desperation, but Nemescu saves the most cutting satire for the Americans. The partnership between the desperate Mayor and the stymied American Captain becomes a disaster of failed communication, broken promises and unfortunate expectations, and ultimately a vivid allegory for American foreign policy as seen by the rest of the world. Everyone has their agenda indeed and the Americans are only focused on one. What happens when they leave isn’t their worry.

The film won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and received a limited theatrical run in the U.S., but for most viewers the DVD release will be their first chance to see this film and it’s worth the stopover. In English and Romanian with English subtitles. Note that the English subtitles run under ever piece of dialogue, even the English, which is a bit distracting.

Tokyo Sonata (E1) – Japanese horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa applies his offbeat approach to the uniquely Japanese brand of dysfunctional family comedy in this droll satire. This approach skips over the overt eccentricities favored by American movies for a portrait of disconnection as family members splinter off in their hidden secrets and separate lives: a father downsized out of a corporate job secretly working as a janitor, a grown son lost in indecision, a grade school boy secretly pursuing his musical passion and a housewife mother quietly slipping into misery. Kurosawa presents the disconnection with tender affection. Winner of Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes Film Festival. Includes a making-of featurette and cast and director interviews among the supplements. Japanese with English subtitles.

Miyamoto Musashi: The Ultimate Samurai (AnimEigo) – Miyamoto Musashi is hardly a household name in the U.S. but in Japan he’s a legendary hero, a famous samurai whose story was immortalized in a bestselling novel that has been turned into countless movie and TV adaptations. This box set collects the five-film cycle from director Uchida Tomu that chronicles the odyssey of the peasant soldier who became a legendary samurai, with Nakamura Kin’nosuke as the rough, almost feral 17th century peasant who undergoes an education in the first film and is rechristened Miyamoto Musashi in the second film. I confess that’s as far as I got in this series. Stuart Galbraith IV, the very informed expert on Japanese cinema who provides the commentary, argues that Uchida Tomu is a major Japanese director overlooked in this country because almost none of his films have been released. The first film, Miyamoto Musashi (1961) is a handsome widescreen production that favors simple imagery and a slow dramatic pace that allows the characters to etch themselves into the fabric of the film, but it lacks the dynamism and energy of the Samurai trilogy of the fifties starring Toshiro Mifune (the most internationally famous adaptation of the story) and the fight scenes in this version are scrappy and scruffy. I suppose it’s an illustration of his wild, animalistic side (tamed in subsequent films), but it doesn’t explain how he manages to hold off and kill so many trained soldiers. The set is completed by Miyamoto Musashi II: Duel at Hannya Hill (1962), Miyamoto Musashi III: Birth of the Nito-ryu Style (1963), Miyamoto Musashi IV: Duel at Ichijyo-ji Temple (1964) and Miyamoto Musashi V: Duel at Ganryu Island (1965). Five films in a box set of five thinpak cases, with commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV in the first film and notes on the history and culture, cast and crew, and historical figures on each disc.

I review Rock ‘N’ Roll High School: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (Shout! Factory) on my blog here.

Barry Miller and Robby Benson are boys from two poles of the Jewish community in 1944 New York who become devoted friends in The Chosen (Hen’s Tooth), a lovely 1981 film from Jeremy Paul Kagan. I review it for MSN here.

Art and Copy (BBC) is Doug Pray’s documentary on the evolution of contemporary American advertising. I review it for MSN here.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro (Lionsgate) delves into family melodrama with the visual grace of a master director and the narrative clumsiness of an amateur screenwriter. I review it for MSN here.

Director Rob Marshall helped usher in the movie musical revival with the Oscar-winning Chicago. Nine (Sony) may help usher it back out. Seriously, this is one of the most embarrassingly pretentious American films of the last decade. I review it for MSN here.

The 1957 hick pic No Time For Sergeants (Warner) stars Andy Griffith as a hayseed holy fool, a naïve, generous, trusting backwoods boy with drawl that coats every line in cornpone and honey. He’s the utterly oblivious target of insults and schemes and yet untouched in his innocence and idiocy, which is apparently a real knee slapper in some circles. The role basically made Griffith a star when he first created it for a live TV production, but the bigger, longer movie version hasn’t aged well. I review it for MSN here.

Also new this week: Leap Year (Universal) with Amy Adams, Tooth Fairy (Fox) with Dwayne Johnson, the documentaries Mine (Film Movement) and Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (Passion River) and Suburbia: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory).

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

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