Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Musicals

California Dreamin’ and 30 years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – DVDs of the Week

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-CeauÅŸescu 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.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (Shout! Factory)

If Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t the greatest rock and rebellion film of all time, it is certainly in the running, a pure, cheerfully juvenile blast of blitzkrieg guitar rock, Looney Tunes sight gags, teenage hormones and rebellion against authority because it’s there. They aren’t exactly rebels without a cause, it’s just that their cause is music and fun and the celebration of power punk rockers The Ramones, who in this universe play the rock anthems of the day. At the risk of dating myself, when I discovered the film playing in heavy rotation on HBO, I was in the high school that alternative music culture forgot and had no idea who the Ramones were (or even what punk music really was) but responded to the four-square rock anthems in three chords and double time the way I responded to Chuck Berry: the essence of the rock and roll. That’s what director Allan Arkush responded to as well. Various stories tell of producer Roger Corman’s bright idea to do a “Disco High School” movie (Arkush talked him out of that one) and of his preference to hire Cheap Trick as the featured band (too expensive, it turned out). And who knows, the stories may be true, or just more Corman musings that were never destined to actually go anywhere but make for great copy. What is definitely true is that Arkush wanted to try his hand at a rock and roll movie, an American A Hard Day’s Night with a B-movie budget, a California culture setting and an anything goes comic sensibility. It turned out that the Ramones were on the same page.

Do ya wanna dance? Riff and the Ramones rock the halls

Thirty years later, the Ramones are part of my playlist and the film remains as energetic, endearing and fun as ever, not so much a dated artifact from my g-g-g-generation as a timeless slice of teenage kicks and a cartoon of youthquake rebellion against the killjoys of authority. While the seminal New York power punk band provides the beat, P.J. Soles powers the film as Riff Randell, rock and roller and aspiring songwriter who just wants to spread the gospel of rock music. Mary Woronov is her arch nemesis Miss Togar, the new high school principal whose controlling personality and authoritarian streak makes Nurse Ratched look soft and sweet. Where Soles literally dances her way through the film, swinging and swaying done the halls and barely able to keep still in class, Woronov is a drill sergeant in a skirt and a pinched expression who sends her toadying team of storm trooper hall monitors (imagine Jonah Hill and Seth Rogan in these roles) to tell on anyone who dares have any fun under her watch.

The plot has something to do with Riff trying to get her songs to The Ramones, the handsome but dull football hero Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) trying to get a date and Riff’s best friend, school brain and unappreciated cutey Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), pining for Tom. But that’s just an excuse for director Allan Arkush (with help from co-scenarist and buddy Joe Dante and his gang of screenwriters) to unleash a cascade of sight gags (the great paper airplane sequence, BTW, was done by uncredited guest director Jerry Zucker, who was getting a little experience for his upcoming directorial debut: Airplane!), a fantasy of a benevolent high school black market operator (Clint Howard as Eaglebauer, still his greatest role) headquartered in the smoke-filled restroom stall and a dozen or so Ramones tunes, from music video diversions (Riff’s daydream, which ends up with her smoking dope, getting naked and still remaining within the bounds of PG) to an entire mini-concert movie within a movie. The fact that the shaggy-haired, leather-jacketed mooks have all the screen charisma of walking possums seems beside the point (though it does give the line “Do your parents know you’re Ramones?” an added zing). P.J. Soles doesn’t moon over Joey Ramone because he’s a dreamboat but because he creates the greatest music of her rock-powered world. And because it’s weirdly hilarious watching her go all swoony while staring into his greaser-thug mug. The generational combat turned into destructive triumph is pure fantasy, another part of the whimsy and absurdist gags (watch out for exploding mice) and non-stop playlist of great rock (the soundtrack also includes Chuck Berry, Nick Lowe, Alice Cooper, Devo, The MC5, Fleetwood Man, Brownsville Station’s “Smoking in the Boy’s Room” and more) thrown into a cheap exploitation blast packed with inspiration, creative ambition and a love of moviemaking and rock and roll. “Things sure have changed since we got kicked outta high school.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is hardly some DVD rediscovery. It was given the special edition treatment back in the laserdisc days, with commentary by director Allan Arkush, writer Richard Whitley, and producer Michael Finnel and a substantial audio-only clip from the Ramones concert staged for the production (including numbers not included in the film) and was an early release from Roger Corman’s New Concorde DVD line (with all those supplements intact). A few years later, Corman sold the library to Disney, which turned around with a new DVD release, adding a second commentary track (by Corman and co-star Dey Young) and a retrospective documentary. Shout! Factory carries over all of the supplements and adds in a few more, including a lively new commentary track by director Allan Arkush swapping memories and production stories with stars P.J. Soles and Clint Howard and another commentary by screenwriters Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, an 11-minute interview with Arkush with even more enthusiastic remembrances (“So much of it was based on me and what happened to me in high school.”) and a new featurette with stars P.J. Soles, Dey Young and Vincent Van Patten returning to the high school location to swap stories and memories.

The new Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 30th Anniversary Special Edition DVD arrives this week (May 4) and the Blu-ray edition arrives on May 11. What does it look like on Blu-ray? Just like I imagine it did on first run: a pristine record of a technically imperfect film. Arkush mastered the art of editing in the trailer department of Corman’s New World Pictures and his timing is perfect, as is his sound mixing and editing, but you can see how he had to bend the editing around the footage to hide the budgetary restrictions in places, and there is a little dirt on the negative. Shout! Factory could have cleaned this up, I suppose, but there’s something just so right about seeing the conditions of production so perfectly preserved in the definitive edition. The rest looks great: Dean Cundey shot the film right after finishing Halloween and his cinematography (even rushed through this tight production schedule) is terrific.

Available at Amazon:
California Dreamin’
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (DVD)
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School [Blu-ray]

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