Judge Christopher Kulik had an awful night in Zagreb.
At midnight, there will be more than just fireworks.
The small, relatively young country of Croatia has a film/television industry which has been slowly growing since the turn of the century. Their submission to the Foreign Language category at the 2005 Academy Awards was Ta Divna Splitska Noc, which is translated as A Wonderful Night In Split. However, the film is nowhere near as pleasurable as the title suggests, and it makes me wonder if the writer/director was being sarcastic. Regardless, the film was honored with several positive reviews and even a couple of awards. Now it makes its stateside DVD debut, courtesy of First Run Features.
Split, an ancient port-city, has emerged as one of the most economic towns in the Dalmatian region of Croatia. Evidently, the town has a rich medieval quality, with its labyrinthine streets and alleys in the city centre, suggesting a time when a Roman Emperor named Diocletian ruled. Certainly an ideal area to film a movie. Writer/director Arsen Anton Ostojic creates an atmosphere fueled by drugs, smoke, sex, parties, fireworks, and homeless individuals. His story is split into three separate incidents which occur in the wee hours before the clock strikes twelve o'clock on New Year's Eve.
The first segment has a degenerate lowlife bangin' a lonely war widow, while her son looks on in shock…particularly when the man starts getting violent. We learn the man is a slacker who used to be the father's best friend, when they fought in a battle together while in the military. Turns out his only purpose in visiting at all is to have sex, and the son ensures it won't happen again. The second segment has four sailors on shore leave, in their full dress-white uniforms (even though they are only worn during the summer), determined to get the depressed Franky (rapper Coolio) laid as soon as possible. Enter a 19-year-old junkie who temporarily volunteers to be Franky's sex partner, so she could score some drugs from a hardcore dealer. The final scenario showcases two young lovers and one's determination to lose her virginity before the end of the year.
One thing I must give Ostojic credit for is giving his gritty, hard-edged film a certain style reminiscent of film noir. The best thing about the picture is Marko Pivcevic's stark, black-and-white photography, which establishes a mood from the first second and never lets up. Some of the film's images are remarkably sober, proving to be effective without the aid of CGI or even traditional effects. The low-budget look and mood does more for the film than it deserves, because much of what is underneath the surface is nothing to shout about. I felt the same way about the highly overrated Sin City—great to look at, but otherwise slow, dull, and almost completely devoid of substance. It seemed like Ostojic was lingering too much on nipple-licking and sailors singing the "beer-on-the-wall" song to pad out the film's running time than making a profound statement on Croatian society.
By the time the film was over, the photography and images were overcome by dreary writing and extreme pointlessness. The three stories happening in real time is nothing new, and Ostojic fails to bring anything fresh to the template. Neither his characters nor dialogue are memorable, and once you see the conclusion of the first segment, you can easily guess the outcomes of the other two. This predictability leads to nothing but rambling motions and action which never stimulate the senses. Ostojic seems more concerned with imitating other filmmakers—like Welles and Tarantino—than blaze his own path. Thus A Wonderful Night In Split becomes an unoriginal, uninteresting affair.
The ensemble of unknown Croatian actors never really livens things up. You buy most of them as the scumbags they portray, but there is no resonance built from their one-dimensional dynamics. Marija Skaricic fares best as the young junkie who is desperate for a fix, but her spiral into detox might make some snicker…perhaps almost as much as Jack Black's heroin itch in Tropic Thunder. The moments between her and Coolio should have been tender and life-affirming, but they fall flat on a dramatic and emotional scale. As for the "Gangsta's Paradise" crooner, his acting isn't memorable at all…and it's asking way too much to accept a 45-year-old playing a marginal seaman with dating problems. Plus, being a sailor for eight years myself, I find it hard to believe he would obtain a firearm while being glued to his buddies for much of the night. Is he a master-at-arms or something?
Despite the film's problems, I must credit First Run Features for giving this minor indie effort a respectable treatment on DVD. The monochrome, 1.85:1 anamorphic picture is solid at all corners and sides, with hardly any debris detected. Blacks and whites are saturated beautifully, with light and shadow enriching the image just right. As for audio, we have a DD 2.0 Stereo track in the Croatian language, guided by English subtitles. As for bonus features, all that's provided is a "discussion guide" which can be accessed by slipping the disc in your computer's DVD-ROM drive. It's a PDF file which contains director's notes, information about Croatia, and other stuff, though I was unable to open up the file.
As for the Verdict, I find the film guilty of being more haphazard than rewarding, while First Run is left off the hook for a fine DVD package. Next time, try putting discussion guides on the disc itself rather than a ghost PDF file, you hear?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Discussion Guide
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