50 From 50 – Part I

Last week, I introduced 50 From 50, a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies). Now I need to catch up with the movies I’ve already watched this year that qualify. Fair warning, I watched most of these a while ago, so recollections may be a bit sparser than normal. Alright, let’s get to it:

Argentina – Argentina, 1985 – Oscar-nominated courtroom drama about a team of lawyers tasked with prosecuting the heads of Argentina’s former military dictatorship. Sturdy, well crafted drama here that doesn’t play up legal tricks or clever redirects, instead relying on truly devastating testimony from a wide range of victims. There are obviously politics at play outside the courtroom, and the movie does make some overtures towards suspense with threats against the lawyers, but it’s clear that this movie’s heart is with the testimony.

Argentina, 1985

I’m not an expert in Argentina’s politics or history, but the ideas at the movie’s core are pretty universal and the aforementioned testimony would be effective against even the most cynical audiences, even if some of the intrigue and machinations outside the courtroom are a bit overheated. I can see why this was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar (and I liked this better than the eventual winner, All Quiet on the Western Front). Available on Amazon Prime. ***

Germany – Nekromantik – This is one of those movies that would qualify for a Weird Movie of the Week treatment. This was part of Joe Bob’s Vicious Vegas Valentine, and the plot is a doozy: “A street sweeper who cleans up after grisly accidents brings home a full corpse for him and his wife to enjoy sexually, but is dismayed to see that his wife prefers the corpse over him.” A notorious and transgressive film that offers little more than shock value. There is something admirable about the film’s scuzzy dedication to its notoriety and this is the sort of thing that only horror movies try to confront… but none of that makes the experience of watching it any better. Even at just 71 minutes, this feels excruciating. Available on Shudder. *

Hong Kong – Throw Down – Johnny To’s elegiac drama about the unlikely friendship that develops between a former Judo champion, an up and coming Judo competitor, and an aspiring singer. I guess you could technically call this a martial arts movie, and there are several formal and informal Judo fights strewn throughout the movie, but it’s the drama, perseverance, and friendship between three unlikely people that provides the true backbone. It’s a story about getting thrown down, but getting back up again. Both literally, in the case of Judo competitors, and metaphorically, in the case of a singer facing a string of rejections.

Throw Down

To’s more dramatic features often feature this sort of elliptical storytelling method of repeating motifs throughout the film, and it’s deployed quite well here. A trick he no doubt learned from watching Akira Kurosawa movies – Throw Down is dedicated to Kurosawa, and prominently features several references to Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa’s directorial debut, also about a Judo fighter). Funnily enough, the dedication is at the end of the movie “Dedicated to Akira Kurosawa, The Greatest Filmmaker” and is immediately followed by an advertisement for Gillette (who I guess helped finance the movie). As an action filmmaker, To has always seemed more like a chess player (as opposed to the more typical ballet that typically populates Hong Kong action), and he uses that sort of framing and blocking about midway through the film when all of the people who want things (mostly debts) from our three protagonists all converge at a nightclub and lay out their complaints simultaneously. It’s all a bit much, but it’s that sort of giddy filmmaking exercise that makes the movie worthwhile.

I don’t know that it’s To’s best, but it’s definitely one of his more interesting features and the recent Criterion release looks great. It’s the most interesting movie in this post, and worth checking out, even if you’re not into Judo or martial arts movies. Available on Criterion. ***

Italy – 1990: The Bronx Warriors – Enzo Castellari’s “homage” to Escape from New York and The Warriors is a pretty typical example of Italian exploitation schlock. There’s nothing particularly original here, and while it looks decent enough, it’s clearly got a lower production value and worse acting than the films it steals from. I guess the Vic Morrow performance as the world’s most deadly mailman is notable, and there’s a compulsive watchability to the whole exercise that is hard to deny, even if it shouldn’t strictly be called “good”. Not sure I enjoyed it enough to seek out the sequels, but I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to watching them either. Available on Amazon Prime. **

Russia – Major Grom: Plague Doctor – Russian comic book adaptation about a police officer named Igor Grom. A loose cannon that doesn’t play by anyone’s rules but his own (and sometimes not even those), he’s on the trail of a vigilante dressed up in a Plague Doctor costume who is murdering corrupt bureaucrats and greedy businessfolk in spectacular, wrist-mounted flame-thrower fashion. There’s an energy to the proceedings and it’s a pretty easy-going watch but the film is definitely too long and the twists are a little underwhelming. It’s diverting and entertaining enough, but it’s not really breaking any new ground or executing better than tons of other movies that do the same sort of thing. Available on Netflix. **

Stay tuned, for I’ve been making some good progress on the challenge (I’m now at 13 movies from 13 different countries) and am almost caught up to where I should be at this time of year. More reviews incoming!

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