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California Dreamin' [DVD]
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This ambitious, sharp and hilarious satire of petty bureaucracy and cultural misunderstandings is set in a small Romanian town during the 1999 Kosovo confict. A US-manned NATO train bound for the border unexpectedly reaches the end of the line when a stubborn and pedantic tation master applies the brakes over a paperwork technicality. Sensing golden opportunity to proft from the Americans' unexpected presence, he local community go to ridiculous lengths to welcome them, while the stranded troops' hard-bitten and increasingly frustrated captain (Armande Assante) decides to take matters into his own hands…
Witty and Moving --The Guardian
Engaging...Laugh-out-loud funny --Time Out
Impressive...Perceptive and often amusing --Empire
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Meanwhile the friction grows stronger between the American captain and the station master, with NATO and Romanian bureaucracy working frantically and very inefficiently to resolve the impasse. The station master is a very unlikeable but very human character, who has his own very deep and ancient reasons for his behaviour, reasons that are progressively disclosed in some very nice flashbacks in B&W relative to his youth. The tension boils to a climax at the end of the film.
This is a funny - though not hilarious- little movie that works on so many levels. It deals with the perception of the US and of the American way of life in a country so far removed from both, physically and mentally. It deals with troubled family relationships, it deals with burocracy and corruption, but in my opinion what is most impressive is the portrayal of cultural difference and exploitation, and in the end one is left wondering who is really is exploited and who is the exploiter. I heartily reccomend this funny satiric movie.
Interestingly enough, the story is based on a true event, as we can learn from the extras. As a note, the movie is subtitled in English only when there is Romanian speech. When the spoken language is english (about 15% of the screen time) there is no subtitling available.
Essentially the story (set in Romania during the 1999 Kosovo conflict) centres on a situation in which the presence of a stranded train of U.S. marines acts as a catalyst for local mayhem to comically ensue as different factions seek to exploit the imagined opportunities presented. Without giving the plot away, it gradually builds to a climactic regime-change moment which, on a local scale clearly is intended to echo the bigger revolutionary shift in Romania's recent historical orientation from East to West. The story presents the tragicomic aspirational desperation of small-town characters who, although in this case Romanian, could stand in for people anywhere trying to escape the mess and boredom of their existences by grasping opportunistically for whatever 'out' fate presents. Here, it's a misconceived version of the American Dream being grabbed at (hence the title) but the poignancy of their yearning is a universal thing easily related to. And it's beautifully depicted.
The comedy in these characters' struggle mostly derives from a classic combination of miscommunication and driven, base-desires. However, in this case, the messy energy and manner in which this universal condition is expressed seems to be a characteristically Romanian version. That's what I found particularly fresh and enjoyable to engage with. It's a type of intelligent satire expressed with a stylish vitality and sense of fun undercut by a subtle desperation which I don't recall having seen in a mix quite like this elsewhere. I felt it had a distinctive screen-character all it's own and one which is worth the price of admission alone.
The Romanian cast is excellent --particularly the station-master character played by Razvan Vasilescu who gives a masterly, assured performance of real depth. Most of the supporting company of actors are first class too and the depiction of small-town Romania is really well done. Less convincing though are the wartime flashback sequences and the American marines which in both cases felt inauthentic to me. In particular I found the role of Captain Jones played by Armand Assante problematic. He simply didn't come across as the old-school military man he was supposed to be. His performance seems more appropriate to a New York Mafia boss than a military man (surely not an intentional satirical move on the director's part) and I feel he was miscast. In fact none of the Marines (played by American actors) felt real. Presumably this is down to a relatively inexperienced young director working with a foreign cast members. However, these flaws are easy enough to ignore in context, and basically the production is a polished one.
In short, I found this a very enjoyable and fresh film with a distinct, memorable contemporary character of its own which most fans of European cinema are sure to appreciate.
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