Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015): A Nostalgia Soufflé

In spite of being born towards the end of the 80s, I recall several “Margareta Nistor movies”, her trademark dubbing scarring my youth alongside the zombies of Return of the Living Dead. It’s funny, particularly because her often inflection-less voice made the humor of the movie much harder to understand at the time. Then again, maybe that had more to do with me being less than a decade old myself and thinking I might be immune to the undead.
Chuck-Norris-vs-CommunismAt its heart, CNvsC is a film about the passion of movies. During communist Romania, in the especially dire last ten years of Ceausescu’s reign, an illicit business venture involving the dubbing, copying and distributing of Western cinema spawned and spread like wildfire in what became a cultural landmark of the times. Rocky, Missing in Action, Once Upon a Time in America, Bloodsport, Dirty Dancing are just some of the many movies featured. Using current day interviews with both the protagonists of the movement (foremost Mrs. Nistor as the “localization” specialist, Mr. Zamfir as the ambivalent VHS peddler) and Romanian personalities, as well as laborious reenactments of key events, director Calugareanu portrays the dichotomous fear/love relationship of treading the anti-establishment line. At its best, the film is humorous and playful, insightful with a dark edge in exploring the oppressive machinations behind the scenes. While hyperbolizing, it sets itself up as a thoroughly enjoyable ode to a movement that played a part in empowering the Romanian people.

But the causation is forced and based on weak evidence. The urge to make such a powerful claim and even the attempts of dramatizing certain events play against what CNvsC is really strong at: highlighting the cultural impact and the adventurous affairs surrounding a seemingly banal act of translation. What it fails to do is look beyond the immediate effects of the whole process and the romance of movies as an escape from the everyday. Questions like how the exposure to a fairly homogeneous body of films affected Romanians’ world-view, especially given that most of the films were not quite paragons of Western film-making, is not tackled. Nor is the matter of how the practice of what essentially is piracy contributed to a certain cultural acceptance of digital duplication in decades to come, as seen across the Eastern block. At the screening, Nistor mentioned that she had met her counter-parts from Estonia or Russia, who were different to her only in that they were all men.

So, while on the one hand the documentary works as a look into a pretty special phenomenon, it is frustrating that it avoids going deeper into either the social ramifications, or further exploring the more personal experiences of the likes of Mrs. Nistor to let the local interpretations take hold of an otherwise too descriptive approach – aimed to a more universal audience, with little knowledge of Romanian oddities.

***

Originally posted on imdb.

An Honest Liar (2014): The Skeptic Inside

There truly is something mystical about An Honest Liar, that allows it to transcend its flawed structure and be relevant in spite of it. At its core, the ambition of the film is to establish and walk the line between what constitutes an illusion and what rises to the rank of deception. To achieve this, it takes a good, long look at the life of James Randi, renowned magician and skeptic of things in the paranormal.
randiGoing beyond its overarching ambition, An Honest Liar builds on three parts – Randi’s life as an artist, his challenges as a skeptic and his (intertwined) personal travail. The first is as interesting as magic can be, without ever revealing the secret behind tricks – I’m sorry, illusions. But the pace really picks up as the case for skepsis takes shape, trying to untie the blatant lies and manipulation from the willing suspension of critical thought and disbelief. The question of what really constitutes the truth, as expressed through the power of belief, both religious and – ironically – scientific, gets a fair, balanced and creative tackle. Ultimately, Randi’s personal life and some surprising insights into the act of deception lying close to its core, becomes a bit of a meta-analysis of the previous two parts.

The problem is that this last segment mostly fails, because it appears very tangential to Randi’s quest and shifts the focus on fairly mundane personal matters that are contorted somewhat to fit the wider arch.

Yet, it came easy to me to go beyond it.

Just because the directors’ reach exceeded their grasp does not mean that the film doesn’t work artistically, as an expression and an experience of boundary blurring between truth and lies. It achieves this by dragging you into taking a stand by the end, in a narratively artificial yet intellectually testing personal battle for Randi, after seventy minutes of case building and creating an emotional connection with the subject. In that, it is fun and relevant, stressing the strength of belief over fact, over truth and the challenges that lie in dealing with it.

****

Messi (2014): Mediocre Documentary About a Legendary Player

With Barcelona on the brink, achieving the seemingly impossible feat of losing four of their last five matches, after what had been an almost perfect season since their defeat against Sevilla in October 2015, I took time out to rehash some of that Lionel Messi magic. The documentary about the player seemed like a healthy place to withdraw to.

That’s because Messi’s Barcelona has the capacity to transform one’s beliefs regarding football. With the Argentine at its centre, Rijkard’s, Guardiola’s, Villanova’s and Enrique’s teams have won all they could, but Barcelona stood out through the way in which it scintillated when Messi was playing his best. Which was most of the time, really.

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De la Iglesia’s documentary does not do him justice. Set in between highlights reels, flashback reconstructions and dull restaurant conversations, it feels like someone throwing as many ideas and emotions at you as possible, in the hope of playing a percentage game. The problem lies in the film’s lack of focus and depth. Seemingly countless people are interviewed, sourced from Messi’s childhood friends and teachers, the media, through to his current teammates or past coaches – a mixture bordering on the desperate, trying to fill the void of purpose. Yet, the material feels so slight and provides so little insight into who the man really is, that it tells little beyond a linear story. A story most people who follow Messi would know by now – the growth hormones, the challenges faced from living far from home at such an early age, the endless Maradona comparisons.

Nothing ever seems to go beyond the first layer of complexity. Five minutes or so are dedicated to the relationship Messi has to fans of the national team, there’s a cursory mentioning of the tax fraud accusations, and the difficult, injury-plagued 2013-14 season is not brought up at all. As an ode to his footballing genius, there’s something to grab a hold of here, but it barely manages to convey the beauty and poetry of what Messi achieves on a football pitch.

What’s worse is that a much better movie could have come about, even relying on the limited input available. Why, if you have the likes of Pique, Mascherano, Iniesta or the former Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella, would you spend such a huge chunk of your time with flat memories of friends who are apparently no longer a part of Messi’s life? The most watchable moments are those when Menotti or Cruyff discuss the wider importance of Messi to Barcelona, his tactical importance in relation to his technical abilities, but they are few and far between.

Unfortunately, the experience of de la Iglesia’s documentary is too bland to matter and too emotionally manipulative to elicit actual feelings.

*

Originally posted on imdb.

Der Mann, der über Autos sprang (2010): A Soulful Escape

As the movie (English title: The Man Who Jumped Over Cars) was drawing to a close, the question of whether one could really jump over an oncoming car was nagging me. Some brief research highlighted an increase of the average car height throughout recent decades to about 1.5 meters, but one could certainly go for an aggressive sports car, which only measures about 1.2 meters. The world record for high jump stands at 2.5 meters, but that’s a running jump, so can you do it standing still, as the movie suggests?  I mean, just look at that leap:

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OK, I’ve chilled out now.

Putting my metaphorical glasses back on, I’ll admit my interest was piqued when the realization came about that this movie is inspired by Werner Herzog’s hike from Munich to Paris, in 1974, in support of his mentor, Lotte Eisner. Here, our lead Julian is a young man institutionalized for harboring said belief of car jumping, which ends up causing a tragic accident, wherein his best friend is killed. The story kicks off with Julian’s escape from the facility he was being held in, as he aims to walk over 600 km to the house where his friend’s father lives, recovering after a heart attack. The point of walking is to focus all his energy towards the father’s betterment, in the spirit of a ‘holy’ pilgrimage. Along the way, Julian meets up with Ju and Ruth, both in need of a long walk to cleanse their waywardness. All the while, Jan is on their heels, trying to find and return Julian to the asylum.

This constitutes the main theme of the movie, a paradoxical one at that: taking on a selfish/selfless journey, an escape from how the world sees you, how you see the world and how you see yourself. The great thing is that it works really well, as the characters come off stoic and (for the most part) relatable. Julian’s quest for redemption, Ju’s attempt to emote again and Ruth’s struggle to feel self-worthy, alongside Jan, ‘the jailer’, who finds himself in a purgatory of his own making, make for a soulful exploration. The gorgeous backdrop of the German countryside turns what could have otherwise been an average experience into a tactful bout of escapism. Embellished with moments of both sensitive and caricatured humour, the story is packaged tightly until the last fifteen minutes.

This brings me to the two limitations impairing my enjoyment. Firstly, the movie is guilty of romanticizing away the complexity of the story, as it needlessly and unsubtly provides outlines for both characters and themes. Secondly, the ending is drawn out and too sweet for comfort, as the mystery is shattered and the stars realign.

The reason why I would rather not dwell on these things, is because the cinematic journey managed to inspire me. Upon its conclusion, I had become all silly and was thinking about biking for days or heading out to an isolated cabin in the middle of the mountains. Director Baker- Monteys proves to be a good paysagist of the soul, if not quite the storyteller. There, everyone can be a little pretentious!

***

Originally posted on imdb.

Fúsi (2015): On Solitude and Defiance

It was fitting that on watching this film, I was almost alone in the cinema, because isolation and solitude are powerful themes throughout Fúsi (English title: Virgin Mountain). So when you’re out by yourself, in the middle of the day, to watch an obscure Icelandic movie showing at an archaic cinema that now uses a projector rather suited for private use, than public screenings, it all kind of falls into place and reinforces the emotional investment in the whole experience.

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Fúsi, a 43 year old man-child, but without the usual derogatory connotations of the term, is a tinkerer who lives with his mother, reenacts WW2 battles with his neighbour and works at a hapless job, where he is constantly bullied. Yet, what looks like a bleak and joyless existence, washes over Fúsi like a warm shower on a winter’s day. His outlook on life is inhabited by a neutral positivity informed mostly through how naive and passive Fúsi seems most of the time. And all this is tested once he meets a woman who appears to take an interest in him, enabling him to be the nurturer he is at heart.

This story really knows how to hit a nerve for anyone who has ever felt alone, or love-stricken or stranded. It is a vicious portrayal of the world, which is only redeeming because Fúsi is the kind of character that takes it all in his stride. Otherwise, it gently treads the line of tragedy, but never crosses it. And surely, Fúsi is an idealized altruist with autistic tendencies, but he’s still someone you can identify with, because you recognize the gestures, the emotions and the triggers within and around him.

However, the film does tend to be stereotypically simplistic in its bleakness. Whether it is the abuse Fúsi faces, his run in with the law, the relationship with his mother, these occasionally serve nothing more than to amplify traits in the character, respectively “the world”, which are all too apparent to begin with. Not to mention that his romantic conception of what is acceptable really pushes the suspension of disbelief to places it should never be pushed. Yet, it is in the romance that the film manages to stay true to itself and believable, hyperbolic gestures aside. Because, hey, we’ve all been there and sometimes it does play out in your mind the way it all unfolds here. Or thereabouts.

So there it is, an Icelandic experience of philosophical proportions, that is quite certain to leave you ruminating at its conclusion. And empathizing, which is always a good muscle to engage.

***

Originally posted on imdb.

Er ist wieder da (2015): An Exercise in Challenging the Norm

I was traveling in Berlin a year ago when I first saw someone reading the eponymous book on which this movie is based. It stuck somewhere, so as my travels brought me back to Berlin and posters were advertising Er ist wieder da (English title: Look Who’s Back), I had to give it a go. The movie is being released this week on DVD/Blu-ray, so it’s as good a time as any to revisit my thoughts of the day.

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The challenge, as with previous comedic movies themed around Hitler or the Nazi regime, is treading the line of reasonable taste and still being challenging enough to gain some relevance. One of the best known spoofs of the times, The Producers, uses it as a pivot to tell an engaging story about several memorable characters, so that works well. But here, there’s little to pivot from, as Hitler, in realistic attire and demeanor, narrates his experience of present day Germany. So the twist, in part, is to make it a mockumentary in the spirit of Borat (2006), see how people react to Hitler walking the streets and delivering his calculated critiques of the political system, the media – life in general. When it’s not doing this, the film provides a decent dose of slapstick and irony in what amounts to a buddy comedy, while alternating between scripted and non-scripted parts. Distinguishing one from the other is not really the key to enjoyment; the key lies in accepting this faithful representation of Hitler as a grotesquely humorous caricature of the symbolic power he holds over modern history in its most extreme moments. It was a bit harder than I thought it would be at the beginning, but one settles in well, after a while.

Narratively, not much really happens, other than the fact that the protagonist pops up in Berlin and gets acquainted to what the world is like nowadays. To help him in this, a few support characters act as guides; none believe him to be “the real thing”, but rather a comedian or a satirist. So, in a sense, it’s not really a very ambitious film, because the degree to which it engages with the moral dimension of the situation is limited. But it is ambitious in that it tries to keep a straight face even through the more ghastly, touch-and-go moments one would relate to a Hitler movie. It is at its best when it does this, but then the occasional piece of slapstick hits you in the face are you’re back into the reality of a mildly amusing film that people have only heard of because it is polemic.

An important part in the whole thing coming together reasonably well is thanks to Oliver Masucci, who offers a strong performance to keep the “pots” in balance. Perhaps one could critique this in particular: the implication is that any piece of fiction told in the first person will make the viewer empathize with the character, hence humanizing the historical figure. But the historical figure itself is merely a representation of the man and Er ist wieder da tries to contextualize this – make away with what you know and imagine this were pre-1933. As mentioned, it doesn’t go very deep with it and it would be quite problematic to do so. It’s just a thought experiment which concludes in a slightly open and ambiguous fashion. Perhaps fittingly, with the high profile tolerance we’re seeing now to a certain flavour of hate speech.

To address the real questions though: did I laugh? Yes, I did. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. The film managed to create an amusing environment which plays off the character of Hitler, without making it the other way around (all the time). As for the big picture, I might not agree that the world is, collectively, where it was seventy years ago, in spite of the troubles we are currently facing. Or that we would make the same mistakes all over again. But that’s another story of me visiting Berlin.

***

Originally posted on imdb.