Chuck Norris vs Communism – EIFF 2015

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Wonderful documentary about the role of underground VHS screenings in the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

1985, ‘businessman’ Teodor Zamfir begins smuggling copies of American movies into Romania. Popular culture is almost non-existent at the time except for government approved propaganda. Zamfir sees a gap in the market and takes advantage. The techniques he employs are similar to those used by criminals. Smuggling, bribing officials, hiring dealers to deliver the product, and expanding his organisation to meet the demand. Zamfir’s VHS racket puts him in considerable danger and his motives (at least initially) are for financial gain. The film subtly raises questions about the nature of heroism. Is an act any less courageous if it’s done for profit? 

Zamfir used a translator called Irina Nistor who worked for state television and took the job despite the huge risks involved because she loved movies and wanted to see them. Instead of dubbing the actors Nistor simply translates each line after the actor has delivered their dialogue. This seems bloody annoying but for Romanians it becomes part of the show. Those interviewed recall her voice with affection. Indeed director Ilina Calugareanu decided to make the film after recognising Nistor from her distinctive voice at a film festival in London.

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Access to Hollywood movies allowed the Romanian people to see the freedoms available to people in the West.

Calugareanu’s film argues Zamfir’s actions caused a huge cultural shift among the Romanian people without the Communist regime even noticing. The most popular genre proved to be the action movies. Bizarrely it’s fuzzy faced all-American icon Chuck Norris the Romanians take to heart. The classic hero’s journey narrative in action films in which the protagonist overcomes insurmountable odds to defeat the bad guys becomes a revolutionary act in the eyes of the youngsters watching.

Ceausescu was overthrown in December 89’ by which time the Iron Curtain had already began to fall. Poland, then Hungary, then East Berlin, followed by Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia had already broken away from Communist rule. Revolution was in the air across Europe and its doubtful 80s’ action films were responsible in all these cases despite Sylvester Stallone’s heartfelt call for detente in Rocky IV (86). Whether Chuck Norris vs Communism overstates its case I’ve no idea. It is however highly entertaining and the contributors are often very funny.

Nistor was present at the screening and now makes a living as a film critic. Interestingly she mentioned something that happened the week after the revolution which struck me as fascinating. One of the tapes due to be translated was “the Kundera film.” Presumably this would be Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (88) which is set during the Velvet Revolution of 1968 when the Czech’s rose up against their government only for the Russians to send the tanks in. Presumably it wasn’t the right time for such a film, but it’s ironic that one of her first acts post-revolution was to censor a movie.

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Copycat/Stand By For Tape Back Up – EIFF 2015

A recurring theme at EIFF 2015 was nostalgia for the VHS era. No less than four films dealt with this period. Charlie Lyne’s short Copycat deals with a lost horror film which may have influenced Wes Craven’s hit Scream (96). Ross Sutherland’s inventive Stand By For Tape Back-Up uses an old video-tape as a memento-mori. Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris vs Communism revisits the underground video screenings under Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. Cem Kaya’s Remake, Remix, Rip-Off highlighted the Turkish film industry’s habit of reworking American blockbusters into home-grown box-office hits.

COPYCAT (Charlie Lynes) 

8 minute short focusing on horror fan Rolfe Kanefsky’s self-financed 1991 feature There’s Nothing Out There which plays with genre conventions five years before Wes Craven’s Scream. The film did well on the festival circuit but a poorly timed release on Superbowl weekend plus the LA riots meant audiences had other things on their mind. Kanefsky gave his script to a relative of Craven’s before making his film and Copycat makes a case for plagiarism particularly in relation to Randy, the film geek who explains the rules of the horror film to the other characters in Scream. Lyne tells the story using an interview with the filmmaker and his own voiceover, but instead of showing his subject he uses clips from the movies Kanefsky loved as a horror fan. How persuasive it’s argument is I can’t say having never seen There’s Nothing Out There and Kanefsky seems to be happy enough to move on.

STAND BY FOR TAPE BACK UP (Ross Sutherland) 

Lyne also produced this funny and moving gem. Ross Sutherland takes the only VHS tape his late grandfather owned and uses it to perform an act of communion. Clips from shows and movies recorded and partly recorded over inspire personal recollections about his relationship with his grandfather and his own struggles in life. The opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air become a metaphor for entering Heaven, a terrible 90s’ bank advert is rewound and replayed as Sutherland recounts his own wasted years working in a bank which reaches a crescendo of hilarious embittered fury. Any image has the power to move the viewer if there’s emotional attachment and for those in the 30+ age group who can remember seeing these shows back in the day the feeling of nostalgia will be particularly bittersweet. Originally a stage show at the Fringe copyright reasons mean Stand By For Tape Back Up is unlikely to be seen outside the film festival circuit. Sutherland did however indicate he may post it online in some form.

Fresno (Jamie Babbit) – EIFF 2015

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Natasha Lyonne reunites with the director of cult favourite But I’m a Cheerleader for another comic look at suburban American life. Lyonne plays Martha, a housekeeper in a Holiday Inn style hotel who gets her troubled sister a job working alongside her. Shannon (Judy Greer) is just out of court appointed-rehab for sex addiction after being caught in flagrante with the headmaster of the school she taught at by some pupils. This has earned her a place on the sex offenders list and a lifetime ban from teaching. Shannon causes chaos in the quietly ordered life of Martha who stayed in Fresno to care for their now deceased parents and now lives alone. She takes self-defence classes at a local gym where she mooches over an ex-girlfriend and ignores the advances of her martial arts instructor (Aubrey Plaza). Martha’s life probably needs shaking up and a crisis is provided by Shannon’s ill-fated sexual encounter with a mulleted lothario sets up a farcical plot which sees the sisters trying to dispose of a dead body.

Some people may find Karey Dornetto’s screenplay pushes the limits of acceptability with jokes around certain subjects but she’s not making light of them. Instead she’s highlighting Shannon’s irresponsibility and complete lack of regard for others. Greer, whose distinctive voice may be familiar to fans of animated show Archer on which she plays the deranged secretary Cheryl, is fantastic here in a rare lead role. Jamie Babbit and Natasha Lyonne have been doing great work on television; Babbit directing episodes of shows like Arrested Development and Girls and Lyonne on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black but it’s great to see them back on cinema screens. There’s a strong supporting cast too with cameos from Portlandia co-creator Fred Arnisen, Allison Tolman, Molly Shannon, and But I’m a Cheerleader co-star Clea DuVall.

Maggie (Henry Hobson) – EIFF 2015

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Ageing has done nothing to diminish Arnold Schwarzenegger’s screen presence. If anything it’s made him more interesting to watch because finally he seems capable of vulnerability. Back in his 80s’ heyday only the Predator was a physical match for him but now at 65 he seems like a fully rounded human being rather than an unstoppable killing machine. As with his small-town sheriff in the under-appreciated The Last Stand (2013, Kim Jee-woon) Schwarzenegger brings a rough hewn dignity to the role of farmer Wade whose missing daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) turns up in a hospital suffering from an incurable virus. Though the authorities have contained the outbreak those already infected will die. The incubation period is around eight weeks before the virus takes hold so as a kindness they are released into the care of their loved ones until the time comes to quarantine them. This plan seems flawed if not outright insane and perhaps inadvertently cruel as families watch the humanity slowly leave those they care about. Wade is naturally protective of his daughter but aware eventually she will pose a threat to him and his wife (Joely Richardson).

Zombie films have become all too prevalent in the horror genre but Maggie does try to do something different. While George Romero’s zombies in his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) were primarily parodies of human beings, rotting shells with no self-awareness left, only a hunger for human flesh, here they are more like ghosts from a Japanese horror film. There presence haunts the living.  They themselves seem afflicted by a terrible sadness which runs through the film. Maggie is more unsettling than frightening. Really it’s about loss and the destructiveness of being unable to let go. Families wait too long to quarantine their loved ones and become their victims. At one point Wade encounters a zombified father and daughter in the woods, a harbinger of what may happen to him if he refuses to take the required action when the moment comes.

Filmed like a Malick influenced indie rather than a horror movie Maggie makes a decent fist of trying to subvert genre expectations. Hobson goes for mood over shocks and mostly succeeds. A weak ending undercuts the dilemma faced by Wade and lessens the impact but this is an intriguing addiction to the zombie canon. Maybe it’s time for a moratorium altogether though. Like that other overused horror icon the vampire, it’s time they stayed in their coffins for a bit.

Last Days in the Desert – EIFF 2015

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Rodrigo Garcia’s s haunting non-Biblical take on the aftermath of Christ’s forty day exile in the Desert with a wonderful dual performance from Ewan McGregor.

Having lost his way on the journey back to Jerusalem Jesus (Ewan McGregor) meets a family who offer him shelter. The father (Ciarán Hinds) works the barren landscape with his teenage son (Tye Sheridan) trying to make a home in this inhospitable environment. Mother (Ayelet Zurer) is bedridden and dying and wants her son to leave this place for a better life. The boy is torn between obeying his father and his own desire to escape the desert. For the moment he is playing the good son but the distance between them is growing. Jesus recognises within this family the conflict he feels towards God and decides to stay and help them.

All the while The Devil appears to Jesus in his own image mocking him, playing tricks, and asking the difficult questions Jesus is clearly thinking himself. Why such arbitrary cruelty? Is there any purpose to God’s grand design? This Satan is another wounded son, a rebel cast out for disobeying his father’s commands. McGregor’s use of his body and voice mean there are no problems telling them apart. Jesus is pensive and still, while his Devil smiles and spits out one-liners as the two bicker like the leads in a buddy movie. Despite their opposing views a genuine bond develops between them built around God’s absence from their lives. When they finally part ways their last moments together are oddly affecting.

Slow-paced and meditative Last Days in the Desert is a world away from the relentless brutality of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The emphasis on the humanity of Christ means he never becomes the pious unknowable icon as in so many films based on the bible. Its themes of parental abandonment and doubts about God’s reasoning make it feel like a classier version of the B-movie The Prophecy (1994), which in turn played like a dime store reworking of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera-work captures the remoteness and harsh beauty of the desert landscape though filming took place in Southern California rather than Israel. The only real misjudgement comes during an unnecessary final few shots which undercut the subtle, moving drama preceding them.