California Dreamin' (Endless) ****
Directed by Cristian Nemescu
Written by Cristian Nemescu and Catherine Linstrum
Armand Assante as Captain Doug Jones
Jamie Elman as Sg. David LcLaren
Razvan Vasilescu as Doiaru
Maria Dinulescu as Monica
Alexandru Margineanu as Andrei
Ion Sapdaru as The Mayor
Alexandru Dragoi as Rodriquez
It is impossible to start a review of "California Dreamin'" without bringing to mention the tragic causes of its release at this point in time. A mere month after finishing shooting, director Cristian Nemescu was killed in a car accident along with one of his friends, and he had not finished the editing and post-production needed to fully complete his debut. And so the producers released what he had finished of the film, and the version that he was toying around with at the time. There is no doubt that Nemescu was going to trim his film, and make it tighter and neater and maybe even have it flow a little better, certainly by removing some of the subplots that are abundant. And yet, part of me is selfishly glad that the film is the way it is, because in its current state it is an sprawling and epic comedy, which I absolutely adored when I saw it at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, and loved it even more when I gave it another look during its officially United States release. This is an early contender for my favorite movie of the year.
It clear to me that Nemescu had a flair for director, and a strong excitement for the film making process. On the tide of the wave of amazing films stemming from Romania during the last three years-including "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "12:08 East of Bucharest," "Stuff and Dough," and "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," Nemescu is just another example of the talent that has been emerging from there. With their complete lack of non-digetic music, natural lighting, and rather dark senses of humor-to the point where laughing out loud does not even seem appropriate-this surprising wave of Romanian film has really had an odd effect on me, making me excited not only for the next film that I'd see from the country, but also making me want to visit the place myself. And instead of becoming a name to tack alongside the likes of Cristi Puiu or Corneliu Porumboiu, it really saddens me to know that Cristian Nemescu will merely become a footnote in film history, instead of being able to really put the fine touches on the masterpiece that he was on the verge of creating. But so what? I love this film as it is, and it, and Nemescu, will always be something that I regard highly in my quest to introduce people to those films that will pass by unnoticed.
'California Dreamin'" takes place in 1999, during the encounter between the United States and Kosovo. Captain Doug Jones has been assigned to take a team and travel to deliver important military equipment for NATO. It is not dangerous equipment, and the entire trip should take no more than two or three days. Shifting to a small town in Romania, "lost in the fold of a map" as Jones puts it so well, a large crew of characters are introduced. One is the bitter old station master, Doiaru, who is being protested against by the union that complains about his dominent stature in the town. When the train arrives, Doiaru is instructed to let it pass without any problems since they are under special order by the government. But wishing to make trouble, and perhaps even make a statement about the seat of power, he refuses to allow it to pass without the legal transit papers they need to move on. Jones does what he can to get the ball rolling, but its clear that the men will have to stay a few days longer than planned. This captures the interest of several groups of people. One is Monica, the reckless daughter of Doiaru, who, along with the rest of the young female population in the town, welcomes the young American soldiers with horny excitement, much to the dismay of Rodriquez, her ex-boyfriend, and Andrei, who claims to have loved Monica for two years, and finally gets to be close to her when she asks him to be her translator for her conversations with Sg. David LcLaren. And it also captures the attention of the rather bumbling Mayor, who wants to use the American soldiers as a way to make relations with that country, causing him to throw party after party celebrating the towns 100th anniversary, despite the fact that they celebrated that a few months prior. As all of these threads begin to merge over the course of the next five days, it could stand to destroy the small town before the inhabitants even realize it.
One of the biggest surprises that stem from "California Dreamin'" is the immensely layered performance by Armand Assante, a very prominent actor in American cinema who appears in far more films that he should. But it ironically took a film shot by a Romanian to finally shed this new light on me. As Captain Jones, Assante brings a subtle amount of emotion on his face, considering its a character who seems to hide any sense of humor that he may have. A scene where he asks his second in command about what he would do about their current situation ends up being very funny, as Assante brings a large amount of nuance as he is really asking for advice, something that Doug Jones would never admit.
There is also some amazing work by Ion Sapdaru, who I found hilarious in "12:08 East of Bucharest," and here, as the Mayor really crafts a masterful comedic performance. From the lack of any first name-where the townspeople try to stifle a "Hello, Mr. Mayor" whenever he crosses their paths, to a rather blind ineptness at his job, the Mayor somewhat ends up being a satrical look at government, especially when one compares how this small town is run, and how it is blindly led to destruction, compared to the way the larger government handles situations themselves when they need to get a job done.
As far as performers are concerned, I was also very excited about Maria Dinulescu, who played Moncia, the stationmasters daughter. I watched very carefully during a great tracking shot during a party scene, where the camera follows her around the dance floor as she participates in activities of reckless abandonment. Stratigically moving about, she does a turn to get a mug of beer, dances with someone very briefly, and then settle herself down next to one of the American soldiers. It is an absolutely wonderful moment-igniting the plot forward without a single word, acted with the shy innocence of being sixteen, no matter how confident she may seem, and also one where its clear Nemescu has an excitement for film making. There is so much energy coming out of the shot, from both behind the camera and in front of it.
As I mentioned, Nemescu shoots this film with an eye for detail and very careful usage of realism. There is not a single piece of music in the film, aside from whatever is playing within the shot, such as another very funny moment where the Mayor attempts to welcome the Americans with rather awful covers of Elvis songs. The only piece of outside music comes from the end credits, which plays, of course, the classic title song by the Mamas and the Papas, which is enough reason to sit through the end credits. The camera is nearly constantly moving, however small, but as is the case with American action movies which distort the image untill it is impossible to even see, everything really feels in place. Along with the rather dark cinematography, and the sickening colors that adorn every wall and room, its an odd film to find beautiful to look at, but I guess that feeling of beauty is there simply because I know I'm watching something real, and not something doctored to appear beautiful.
And as for the state of the film at the moment. It's unfinished, yes. But its impossible to yearn about what might have been, or what would have been, or what could have been. This is the film that we are left with. So why complain? To me, it felt complete. I loved the sprawling narrative, and the threads that eventually merge in the films highly emotional final fifteen minutes. I really loved these characters, the more over the top ones, such as the Mayor, all the way to the grounded and highly realistic ones, such as the youthful vigor of Monica. As I watched the second time, I scanned certain scenes to see if I would get rid of anything, or condense it, but I had a hard time finding things I would want to sacrifice. So what if its a long film? Why should a film be measured in time if every minute contributes as well as it should. It has so many moments of humor, so many moments of odd tenderness, and so much visible energy and excitement from Nemescu that his death is really something that I find tragic. "California Dreamin'" is a film that I loved very much, a piece of work that, in its present state, is a masterful exercise by a director that didn't get the chance to climb as high as he should. But he left a damn fine work to let people discover in their own time, and one that will be around forever.
You can read my shorter report on the film from when I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival here.