Continuing my way through a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries this year (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) I’m currently at 33 movies, which exactly on track, but I’ve only covered 23 on the blog. We’ve been narrowing that gap and should be in good shape going into the 6 Weeks of Halloween (which will, no doubt, see at least 6 movies from previously unseen countries). Alrighty, let’s get to it! More 50 From 50: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V]
Norway – Nokas – This movie tells the story of “the greatest bank robbery in Norwegian history” and only that story. There are people in this movie, but the only real character is the bank robbery. From the outside, the way this movie is described makes it sound like the bank robbery scene from Heat stretched out to 90 minutes, but of course, that’s not what’s happening here. This is not a documentary, but the filmmakers employ cinéma vérité to an extreme level, almost like the world’s greatest reenactment. This makes for fascinating viewing, though the ultra-realism is nowhere near as bombastic or exciting as you might expect from descriptions (or general genre tropes).
The robbers had a decent plan and the pieces start to fall into place as events unfold onscreen (rather than through awkward exposition) in an almost real-time fashion. Not everything goes to plan, including, amusingly, the point of ingress at a stubbornly tough window. But other aspects of the plan are clever and effective. The realistic approach also takes advantage of a sorta fog-of-war effect, as viewers and characters alike don’t necessarily know what’s going on in all locations (or even the general layout of some areas). Indeed, there’s an air of mordant humor towards the end of the movie as oblivious pedestrians casually walk through the climactic gunfight as if nothing is happening.
Again, the vérité approach is effective and interesting, but there’s nothing thrilling or exciting about any of this (which is the point). I suppose there is a sort of tension created by the realism though, and it’s effective in a very specific way. A fascinating movie, but it’s not hard to see why it’s difficult to track down a copy (I had to source this through… methods.) If you’re of a certain mindset, this is worth the effort to track down a copy. ***
Switzerland – Mad Heidi – A strange updating of the famous Swiss novel Heidi, with the titular character being a little older and kicking way more ass. Billed as the first “Swissploitation” movie ever created, this has all the hallmarks of a self-conscious effort to be wacky and irreverent, to middling success. Taking a famous Swiss children’s story like Heidi and pitting her against fascists bent on world domination through cheese is a premise that has its charms, and if you are the type of person who can still enjoy cheese puns even after hearing 90 minutes of them, this is the movie for you.
This sort of crass production rides a few lines reasonably well, and if you’re a fan of (literal) cheesy puns, gory violence, and over-the-top performances, you’ll get a kick out of it, but it’s not exactly a new classic, and the self-conscious way in which this is all employed is noticeable and sometimes awkward. In any case, I actually managed to catch this one in the theater (in what turned out to be a Fathom events showing) and the pure luck involved in stumbling onto this meant I had to make the time to get to the one showing. I’m guessing this will be the only foreign film I’ll have the opportunity to see in the theater for this 50 from 50 resolution, and it was a fun time at the theater. (Available to rent in lots of places) **1/2
Bulgaria & Kazakhstan – Bullets of Justice – This is probably the most batshit insane movie I will watch for 50 from 50, which is saying something after having just covered Mad Heidi. During World War III, Americans created hybrid humans/pigs in a project called “Army Bacon.” 25 years later, and these hybrid “Muzzles” have taken over the world and enslaved humanity. Naturally, our hero is part of the resistance, attempting to tear down the Muzzle empire. Or something. It’s all just an excuse of tasteless jokes, full frontal on both men and women, over-the-top gore, gross makeup, and lots of other nonsense. Again, this might be catnip for a very specific audience, and I had some fun with it, but it can’t quite keep momentum even during the blessedly short 76 minute runtime, and it ends with a bit of a copout (though it’s about as good as you could expect from a movie that’s aiming to be this trashy). Not without its charms, but its appeal is limited. Available on Tubi. **
Nigeria – Juju Stories – An anthology film with three segments, all surrounding the nebulous concept of Juju magic. In Love Potion, a young woman uses the eponymous love potion to make a man fall in love with her, with no so great results. A concept we’ve all seen before and it’s a fine telling of the story, but it never really goes for the jugular and it doesn’t quite lean into the sense of irony the best love potion stories can invoke.
The second segment, titled Yam, is certainly the oddest and as a result, most memorable segment. It has something to do with young street urchins picking up money off the roadside… and turning into yams. Having discovered that someone turned into a yam, another person decides to cook and eat the yam, which is the obvious course of action. Naturally, he goes insane. Again, memorable, but probably quite divisive.
The third segment is called Suffer the Witch, and tells the story of a witch and her obsession with friendship and love and their cousin, jealousy. Again, nothing especially new here, but a reasonably well done telling of something you’ve probably seen before.
It’s clear the filmmakers love cinema, and make several cinematic references to filmmakers like Kubrick and Wong Kar Wai, but the script is heavy on exposition and could perhaps use another pass, and the budget is clearly too low to accomplish some of what they’re trying. With the exception of Yam’s unpredictable nature, the stories are pretty standard tellings of well trodden territory, but I enjoyed it well enough. Available on Amazon Prime. **
Iran – This Is Not a Film – Jafar Panahi is one of the famous Iranian directors that film nerds praise to high heaven, and for whatever reason, I have never seen one of his films. This one always appealed to me though, as the story behind the film is the film. Panahi received a 6-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking and conducting interviews with foreign press due to his open support for the opposition party in Iran’s 2009 election. This non-film documents Panahi’s daily routine under house-arrest as he appeals his sentence. It was shot in secret by Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and smuggled into France on a USB stick concealed inside a cake for a last-minute submission to the Cannes film festival (and eventually made its way to other festivals and releases).
We often talk about artists bravely exploring taboo subjects or controversial topics, but the sort of staggering defiance on display in this non-film (a self-described effort) is quite rare. The presence of Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb cleverly exonerates Panahi from the Iranian government’s strictures, even if it’s clear that this film would not be made without Panahi’s direction.
The events of the film range from the mundane and presumably spontaneous (thrill to the sight of Panahi… eating breakfast! Talking on the phone! Watching DVDs!) to the more formal attempts to circumvent the rules, as when Panahi talks us through his most recent rejected screenplay, utilizing masking tape to establish the setting, and reading from the script to describe what’s going on. It’s a doomed effort from the start, but in trying to bring it to life, you get a real feel for Panahi’s restless frustration.
If the film sometimes bogs down into something superficially slow or boring, that’s actually not a problem because there’s so much to think about here, and the film puts you in the shoes of a stifled artist. This sort of suppression and censorship should be a clear warning to those who don’t appreciate our own country’s freedoms, but then, I suspect the people who most need to see this have not and/or will not. If you care about movies, indeed, if you care about artistic expression of any kind, you should watch This is Not a Film. Available on Kanopy. ***1/2
Only five films behind at this point, and I should be able to catch up in the next few weeks. Of course, by then, I will have watched a few more films, but it’ll all work out in the end. Stay tuned, we’ve got a lot of trashy genre fare coming in the next few recaps (which will take us through the 6 Weeks of Halloween)…