Foreign Film February: Welcome to the Sticks (2008)

welcome to the sticks

I’ve been a bit slack in my foreign language movie-watching over the last week, but I wanted to end the month with something fun. Welcome to the Sticks was written, directed and stars Danny Boon, but he’s not the lead.

That role goes to Kad Merad who plays a postal worker who is desperate to get transferred somewhere on the southern coast of France. Instead, he is transferred to a small town in the far north of the country.

The north of France is to the French like the deep south is to many Americans. He fears that it will be incredibly cold, that the people will speak with terrible accents and everyone will be rude and backward and rather stupid.

It turns out that the climate is pleasant and the people are quite nice. The trouble is he left his wife and young son back in the south. When he visits them on the weekend she is so ready for him to be miserable up there he doesn’t know how to tell her he likes it. This causes a lot of sitcom or romantic comedy-style shenanigans.

There is also some business over Danny Boon’s characters’ love life and a lot of other very silly stuff. It is very breezy and very goofy and it makes me laugh. A lot. I’ve seen it before, we own it on DVD actually. I’ll no doubt see it again.

It probably won’t work for everyone and there is a lot that gets lost in translation. A lot of the gags have to do with the difference in language. In the north, they speak a dialect of French and there are a lot of jokes about the Southerner not understanding anyone or misunderstanding certain words.

I speak a little French but not enough to watch a French film without subtitles. Jokes about how two completely different words sound a lot alike are difficult to translate so I expect a lot of the humor here doesn’t work that well for non-French speakers. I was helped out by the fact that my wife is a French speaker and she helped get the jokes across. Also, her laugh is infectious.

But there are also loads of other jokes that don’t need translating. I’m surprised an American studio hasn’t adapted it for the USA. It would work well with someone from the coast of some New England state moving to Alabama.

Foreign Film February: Five Shaolin Masters (1979)

five shaolin masters poster

I’ve watched enough Shaw Brothers kungfu flicks at this point to recognize that their plots are all mostly the same. There is usually a good clan and an evil clan. The evil clan picks a fight for one reason or another which leads to lots of drama and even more fight scenes and it all ends in a climactic big final battle. There is sometimes a love interest, usually a training montage, and often the Master is killed. There are variations on this, but more or less that’s what happens in all of them.

Sometimes they are funny or really goofy, and sometimes they are deadly serious. Mostly the scenes between fights is utterly pointless, but the best ones at least keep them interesting. But the real reason to watch is the fight sequences. When they are good, there is nothing better, when they aren’t so good they are at least entertaining.

Five Shaolin Master’s fights are just ok. The story is worse.

Some Qing soldiers burn down the Shaolin Temple. Five dudes survive and vow their revenge. They work out a series of secret codes to tell each other apart. This makes sense once they start enlisting other people who are sick of the Qing soldier’s evil deeds. They also learn that there is a traitor in their midst and suss him out.

Our heroes are no match for the Qing fighters and get their collective arses handed to them. They regroup, train heavily for several months, and come back for a final showdown. It is all mostly dull with the fight scenes being merely adequate. The final, big battle is pretty fun with eyes getting snatched, testicles being destroyed, and lots of jumping and flying about.

But other than that this one is utterly skippable.

Foreign Film February: One On Top Of The Other (1969)

one on top of the other poster

While I obviously like horror films, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a super fan of the genre. I’m no horror hound who goes to see every horror film as soon as it is released. I’m not exactly a snob about it either, as there are plenty of really terrible horror films that I love. But for most of my life horror wasn’t necessarily something I set out to watch on a regular basis. I watched new horror films that were getting good reviews, and I tried to watch the classics, but weeks or even months would go by sometimes between my viewing of that genre.

Then sometime in the last few years, I started watching horror movies on Friday nights and that became the Friday Night Horror Movie and now I am seeking horror films on a regular basis. More than ever before I’m actually seeking out new horror films to watch. That’s allowed me to not only watch some of the classics that have been on my list for a while, but to find new films, or to dig deeper into certain directors’ catalogs.

Lucio Fulci is one of the godfathers of Italian horror. I’ve now seen 18 of his films. I wouldn’t consider any of them masterpieces. Some of them aren’t very good at all. They mostly slide into that good, but not great category, with bonus points being given to the great practical effects he uses for the large amounts of gore he likes to add to his films.

One On Top Of The Other is more of a crime film than a horror one. It feels like his attempt to remake Vertigo as a film noir with a copious amount of sleaze and a terrifically wonky jazz score.

A wealthy doctor has a sick wife and a pretty girlfriend. The wife dies and he gets a large insurance settlement. An anonymous tip leads him to a strip club where one of the dancers bears an incredible resemblance to his recently deceased wife. The police have been following him due to the insurance money and when they discover the doppelganger, well, things start to get hairy for our hero.

There are a lot of cool twists and turns in the story and it all looks and sounds good. But Fulci seems more interested in watching the women take off their clothes and get sexy with various men than he is in paying attention to the story. This is too bad because there is a pretty great film hidden underneath all the sleaze.

Foreign Film February: Fist of Fury (1972)

fist of fury poster

Over the last couple of years, I’ve really gotten into kung fu movies. That’s something I loved when I was a kid but had completely gotten away from as an adult. Somewhere during the pandemic, I started watching old Shaw Brothers’ films and that has rekindled my love of the genre.

While the Shaw Brothers made a lot of movies filled with kung fu action, sword fights, crazy costumes, and ridiculous storylines, they never did make a movie with Bruce Lee. I’ve not actually watched a lot of movies with Bruce Lee. I did, however, recently purchase a boxed set of Bruce Lee movies from the Criterion Collection, so maybe I’ll remedy my deficiency soon. The other day I watched Fist of Fury, which I sadly found to be not that great.

Lee plays Chen Zhen, the best kung fu student at his school. When his mentor and the master of the school dies, Chen thinks it must have been murder. He blames the gang of Japanese dudes that have been harassing his school for weeks. The rest of the school urges Chen for restraint, as their master always preached that kung fu was not to be used for revenge.

But Chen cannot restrain himself. He goes to the Japanese dojo and kicks some serious ass. The action scenes are pretty good, but they are far from the best I’ve seen in a kung fu movie. But they are definitely worth watching. But everything around the fights is utterly dull. Kung fu flicks aren’t exactly known for their great drama, but the best ones are at least interesting, or funny, or something. This one is utterly forgettable. You really are just biding your time until Bruce Lee takes his shirt off and gets down to business.

Foreign Film February: A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)

a virgin among the living dead poster

Jesús Franco was a prolific Spanish filmmaker who dabbled in a lot of genres (including hardcore pornography) but is mostly known as a horror director. He’s one of those guys whose name I’ve heard for years, but that I’d never gotten around to watching.

A Virgin Among the Living Dead is what you might call an erotic horror film with a gothic setting, a dreamlike plot, beautiful visuals, and, yet, lots of naked flesh. It is also pretty good.

It focuses on Christine (Christina von Blanc) a young woman whose mother died when she was very young. As a child, her father sent her away to boarding schools where she stayed, even through holidays, so that she doesn’t even really know who her father is. But when she’s notified that he has died she returns to his home in a small village.

Almost immediately we know things are strange because when she arrives in the village and informs some townspeople that she will be staying at her father’s manor, she’s told that no one has lived there for some time. But Christie just knows she has other family members living there. When she arrives she is greeted by her relatives, an odd bunch one and all (including the director himself as a drooling, sniveling mute).

As the title implies, and you’ll probably figure out pretty quickly, these relatives aren’t exactly what they at first seem to be. They might be the living dead, or they might be some manifestation of her deranged psyche. It all gets pretty weird and pretty confusing, but Franco imbues it with enough beautiful imagery that you won’t mind, at least I didn’t.

It isn’t quite good, but it is definitely not boring and it for sure made me want to watch some more films from the director.

Foreign Film February: Tampopo (1985)

tampopo poster

When I was a teenager, or maybe in college my brother asked me if I had seen Tampopo. I’d said I’d heard of it, probably seen it while flipping channels, but hadn’t watched it. He said it was really weird, but kind of awesome. He admitted that the plot – about a little restaurant that made noodles, something really foreign sounding to us Oklahoma boys – sounded goofy on paper, but that it was really funny and cool. I made a mental note to watch it and then never did. Until this last week.

It is funny how those things go. Why do I remember my brother telling me about a silly noodle movie from decades ago? Why does it seem like I’d told similar stories several times lately? I seem to be watching a lot of movies that made an impression on me as a teenager lately. Don’t ask me why.

Tampopo is really weird and absolutely delightful. The main story is about a couple of truck drivers who stop off at a run-down noodle shop owned by a pretty divorcee, with a young son. They decide to help the poor lady out and enlist some friends – a noodle connoisseur, an interior decorator, etc – to make her noodle shop the best dang noodle shop in Japan. This part of the film is very sweet and silly and wonderful. One of the drivers is sweet on the woman and they innocently flirt. The men spend much of their time trying to help her learn to cook the very best bath of noodles ever and that gets really fun.

Interspersed through all this is a series of vignettes about food and love often intersect. There is a husband who demands a woman rise from her deathbed to cook him one last meal, a lowly office worker who shows up his superiors with his vast knowledge of French cuisine, and an etiquette class that teaches its Japanese students how to properly eat spaghetti. The longest, strangest, and funniest is one involving a couple who use food in a variety of sexual ways. The vignettes are interesting and very silly, but I mostly enjoyed the film for its main story.

But the whole thing adds up to a big dish of delightful.

Foreign Film February: Nostalghia (1983)

nostalghia

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed seven films in his all-too-short career. I’ve now seen all seven and everyone is brilliant, several are masterpieces (I still haven’t seen the Steamroller and the Violin the short film he made in school). His films are known for their beauty, spirituality, and long takes. Nostalghia has all that in spades. It also has a pretty confusing plot, but don’t let that bother you, for this is, as Martin Scorsese will tell you, cinema.

The story is about a Russian man who visits Italy in order to research an 18th Century Russian composer who also visited Italy and committed suicide upon his return to his homeland. That much I understood. The rest of it was pretty much lost on me. Reading the synopsis on Wikipedia just now I honestly had no idea that what they say happens in the plot actually occurred. Not that this mattered in any way, it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the film.

The film uses dream sequences and memories to create a fantastic tableau of images. Tarkovsky is famous for holding an image on the screen for a long time allowing us to truly digest everything we’re seeing on the screen. Here he uses subtle changes in lighting to shift our focus. There is one scene set in a bedroom. We see a man lying on a bed in the middle of the room, it is raining outside, and there is a bathroom in the corner. The camera holds the shot. Our focus shifts from the window to the bed. The man seems to disappear. Rain now seems to be puddling on the floor. A dog appears at the bathroom door. For several minutes we stare at this bedroom. Nothing happens, and yet we are mesmerized. Or at least I am.

Tarkovsky does this over and over. He is like a great painter and film is his canvas.

He uses rain, puddles, and water to great effect. Water drips from ceilings. Characters wander in cave-like structures filled with water. Reflections abound. The setting here often looks a great deal like The Zone in my favorite of Tarkovsky’s films, Stalker. It is very earthy. Organic.

I’ll need another viewing or two (or three) to get a real grasp on the story and what Tarvkosky is trying to say, but with this initial viewing, I was just mesmerized by the pictures he painted.

Foreign Film February: Biutiful (2010)

biutiful

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a decent man living a bad life. He’s a low-level criminal living in a shabby apartment in Barcelona. He manages a group of street vendors who sell knock-off Gucci bags and other fake products. He’s also in charge of some Chinese illegals who make those goods. He’s exploiting humans for profit, but he also seems to care, at least a little. When he realizes the Chinese immigrants are cold, sleeping together in a rundown basement he procures them some heaters (the cheapest he can buy, a decision that will haunt him later in the film). He seems to love his young children deeply. He tries to be kind to his ex-wife who sometimes works as a prostitute, and is bipolar, but his tolerance has limits.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu keeps things close to the streets. This isn’t your tourist brochure of Barcelona. The city is dirty, corrupt, full of violence, and a struggle just to survive. Uxbal is a decent man, and Bardem’s portrayal of him is sympathetic, but he also makes a living off the backs of the downtrodden. The film gives him cancer, and a short time to live which makes him even more sympathetic. The plot is really about him trying to put his life in order.

It is also mostly a bore. It drags on for over two hours and the movie never gives us enough reason to stick with it for that long. I’ve enjoyed some of Iñárritu’s films, but this one is a misfire. Barden gives a great performance, his face is so full of hurt and resignation, but otherwise, I found it a bit of a slog.

Foreign Film February: Scandal (1950)

scandal

Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite film directors of all time. I’ve not seen all of his films, in fact, I’ve only seen about half of them (17 of 32 if you are counting) but out of all I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a bad one. All of them have been good, and many have been truly great. Scandal is my least favorite of the films that I’ve seen. It isn’t a bad film by any means, but when compared to his masterpieces it just doesn’t hold up.

Toshiro Mifune plays Ichirō Aoye an artist who, as the film begins is out in the countryside painting some mountains. A woman, Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), comes walking up the path carrying her luggage. She says she missed her bus and is staying at a nearby hotel. Ichirō says he is staying at the same hotel and he’ll give her a lift. They climb on his motorcycle and zoom away. Later that day, after they have both showered, he visits her in her room. They are both wearing robes and they hang their towels over her balcony rail. They have a friendly chat and at one point she draws close to him as he points out a nice walking trail she might take. It is at that moment a tabloid newspaper photographer snatches a picture.

The photo is sold to a tabloid rag which puts the photo on the front page and insinuates a secret romance between the two characters. Miyako is a famous singer and the story becomes quite a scandal. While Ichirō and Miyako discuss what to do they meet Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) a shambling, down-on-his-luck lawyer who says he’d like to represent them in a lawsuit against the magazine. Miyako declines but Ichirō is taken in by the man’s earnestness. When he meets Hiruta’s daughter, who is bedridden with TB but retains a cheerful attitude, he agrees to let Hiruta represent him.

Hirutu is a good man, but drowning in debt and is unable to afford good care for his daughter. When a lawyer for the magazine offers him a bribe to throw the case, he reluctantly agrees. The story unfolds in a way that aligns pretty directly with Kurosawa’s usual gentle humanism.

It is a decent story and it is told well. But compared to Kurosawa’s other works it falls short. There is nothing particularly surprising or interesting about how it unfolds, and the direction, while adequate, isn’t particularly special. I kept thinking about High and Low, Kurosawa’s fantastic crime drama from 1963. Much of that story takes place inside the house of the main character. It centers on one room. Kurusawa’s placement of the camera in that film, and the way it moves make that room feel claustrophobic or expansive depending on the mood he’s trying to create. It is a masterclass in direction. I kept hoping for something similar in Scandal, especially in the courtroom scenes, but the setups are all basic. The sort of placement you’d find in any courtroom drama airing on broadcast television. Again, it isn’t bad, it just doesn’t feel like a Kurosawa film.

In the end, it is still worth watching, especially if you are a fan, but this is definitely a lesser Kurosawa.

Foreign Film February: Micmacs (2009)

micmacs

While working at a video store, Bazil (Danny Boon) is hit in the head by a stray bullet. The surgeons decide to leave it inside his skull for removing it might cause brain damage. Leaving it in may eventually cause it to lodge deeper into his brain, killing him, but it is worth the risk. As a boy, Bazil’s father was killed by a land mine.

Once released from the hospital, Danny finds that the video store has replaced him. Homeless, he wanders the streets of Paris until, one day, he is greeted by Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who takes him to his clubhouse located in the bowels of a junkyard. There he introduces him to a group of misfits who scavenge the city for their livelihoods.

One day Bazil realizes that the company that made the bullet that is still lodged in his head sits across the street from the company that made the land mines that killed his father. A plan is hatched to have his revenge on the owners of both companies.

Micmacs was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and it has all of his hallmarks as a filmmaker – it blends fantastic elements into an otherwise normal story, its characters are full of odd-ball quirks, it is adventurous, funny, and romantic. His visual style is all over it as well.

Like a lot of non-French speakers, I suppose, I first came to Jeanuet’s films through Amelie, his beautiful and charming 2001 film starring Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz. I immediately fell in love. I then went back and watched his earlier, darker films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Loved them and became a big fan. But because he is French and the films he’s made since Amelie have not been as popular his films have become increasingly difficult to find and watch over here. They’ve also not been as good.

Micmacs is a good example of what I mean. It has most of the ingredients that usually make for a good Jeanuet film. It is filled with quirky characters and humorous incidents, there is a little action and a little romance, but it never quite gels. The biggest problem comes from how the characters feel like their quirks and not actual people. They are even named after their quirks – Elastic Girl, Calculator, Buster, and so on. They are all interesting and performed well but we don’t get to know them. Jeanuet films are always filled with these types of characters and quirks and after a while, that cuteness wears a little thing.

There is a lot to like about the film. Bazil’s attempts to get revenge are ridiculous in their complexity and wonderfully fun in the way the film pulls them off. The characters might not be fully realized but they are enjoyable to watch. Etc.

If you’ve never seen a Jeunet film then I’d start with Amelie (or Delicatessen if you are not romantic at heart). Then I’d move to the films surrounding Amelie and once those are exhausted, and if you decide you are a fan, I’d move to Micmacs and his later works.