Foreign Objects

Foreign ObjectsLike Jell-o in their underwear, most Americans don’t like having to read while watching a movie. And then there are the folks who use that excuse to hide their illiteracy. Either way it’s a shame because just like Jell-o in your underwear once you try watching a subtitled movie you’ll wish you’d been doing it all along. Each Wednesday Rob Hunter takes a look at a movie produced somewhere other than the US, from France to Russia to Italy… with many, many stops in Asian countries along the way.

Updated Every: Thursday

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Dave is a comedy about an everyday guy (Kevin Kline) whose resemblance to the US president finds him tasked with playing the role of the leader of the free world while the real man recovers from an illness. He’s meant to be nothing more than a placeholder, but his discovery of class distinctions both tragic and comical instead leads him to use the position and power to do good deeds for the country and for the real president’s estranged wife. It’s a wonderful film (and Ivan Reitman’s last great one too) that itself, like many other movies, owes a debt of sorts to Mark Twain’s classic The Prince and the Pauper. Twain’s literary influence extends well beyond North America’s borders to include direct adaptations like the 1968 Bollywood film Raja Aur Runk and thematic ones like this year’s South Korean box-office hit, Masquerade. It’s 1616, and King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun) is facing internal threats during his 8th year of reign. Fearing for his life he orders his men to find him a double to be his public face. They find one in Ha-seon (also Lee Byung-hun), a comical performer, and it’s just in time too as Gwanghae quickly falls ill under suspicious circumstances. Ha-seon discovers the life of a king is a ridiculous one filled with executions, official decrees and royal bum-wipers, and he decides that maybe he can do more with his new role than simply act it out…

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Nikkatsu fanny check

The Nikkatsu Corporation is Japan’s oldest major film studio, but even though they closed up shop in 1993 their legacy lives on with the careers of the directors and actors they shepherded towards success. They’re like Roger Corman in that way having provided opportunities to talents that have gone on towards bigger and better success. They shared one other trait with the king of the B-movies… a recognition that T&A sells tickets. Starting in the early 70s, Nikkatsu began producing romantic pornography, aka Roman Pornos, and the profits soon followed. The films are a mix of sex, nudity, violence and nuttiness, and while they ranged from dramas to comedies the focus never veered very far from the obscene. Sadly, the sexy times only lasted until 1988, but now Impulse Pictures has taken on the enviable task of re-releasing these classics to DVD so new generations can enjoy the fornicating, fingering, showering (of all kinds) and pig porking fun.

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The difference between friends and lovers is usually penetration, but even that isn’t a hard line distinction. Intimacy goes beyond sex, especially when it comes to the closest of friends, but no matter how open people are with each other there are always truths they keep hidden. Truths, and lies. Ludo (Jean Dujardin) makes his rounds through a packed bar, drinking, snorting and leering along the way, before heading outside at the first hint of dawn. He hops onto his scooter and heads home through the quiet streets of Paris. And is promptly slammed into by a large truck. Max (Francois Cluzet) and his wife Veronique (Valerie Bonneton), Vincent (Benoit Magimel) and his wife Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), Marie (Marion Cotillard) and Eric (Gilles Lellouche) all had vacation plans that included Ludo, but they decide it would be best if they went on without him instead of hanging around his hospital bed. The group of friends head to Max’s beach-side villa in the South of France for good times and fun in the sun, but soon the lies they’ve been telling themselves and each other come pouring out as freely as the wine.

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The Brazilian city of Racife is like any other urban locale. It’s a big, bustling mix of upper and lower class residents, there’s a sense that anything could happen here and the place is never truly quiet. Plagued by a series of petty crimes the residents of a particular block decide to take a street security team up on their offer to protect the area at night. Each business and household chips in a monthly fee, and they sleep easy knowing their valuable are safe. At least, that’s the plan. But as the new security guards patrol the block at night tensions begin to increase. As the residents go about their days working, playing and screwing an unease begins to settle over the area. Mistrust between employers and their lower class employees builds. And the noises, constantly, fill the air.

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Francis (André Dussollier) is a French mystery writer looking for a place to work on his new novel. He sets his sights on a small island off the coast of Venice, but when he falls for Judith (Carole Bouquet) the real estate agent he tells her he’ll only take the house if she agrees to move in with him. Many months later the two are married, and while she boats back and forth to Venice each day for work he spends the solitary afternoons struggling with writer’s block. Things take a darker turn when his adult daughter, Alice (Mélanie Thierry), arrives with her own daughter for a visit then promptly disappears. Worried, he hires a retired private eye and ex-lover of Judith’s named Anna Maria (Andriani Asti) to help find her. His actions take a toll on his relationship, and he hires Anna Maria’s ex-convict son, Jérémie (Mauro Conte), to spy on Judith and confirm his suspicions of infidelity. There’s also an aristocratic, drug-dealing teenager and a gay, dog-killing vigilante. Got all that? Good. Now go ahead and forget it all, because pretty much none of it matters to the filmmakers behind Unforgivable so it really shouldn’t matter to you.

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Little Ye-eun is dying. The child has a weak heart on the edge of failure, and if she doesn’t get a transplant soon it will be too late. Her mother, Yeon-hee (Kim Yun-jin), is desperate and willing to go outside the usual channels to find her daughter a heart. An opportunity arises from a shady source, but when Yeon-hee is introduced to the still-living man whose heart she’s meant to have she decides that taking advantage of his situation is going too far. And then her daughter gets even sicker. Hwi-do (Park Hae-il) is a wannabe thug always looking for the angle that will net him a payday. He constantly harasses his estranged mother for money, but shortly after she cuts him off for good with a final payout she has a stroke and ends up in a coma on life support. Knowing the woman’s prognosis is poor, Yeon-hee offers money to Hwi-do if he’ll pull the plug so the heart can go to little Ye-eun. What should be a simple (if not morbid) transaction soon spirals out of control when Hwi-do decides he wants his mother to live and Yeon-hee decides she’s done waiting.

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It’s not often that you find cinematic art in a prison shower scene. Well, let’s rephrase. Non-exploitative prison shower scenes are rarely things of beauty. (Much better.) This film’s opening is an exception though as a single man fends off multiple attackers in an absolutely brutal and bloody brawl. The violent action is captured through painful-looking fight choreography and camerawork that utilizes slow motion to great effect. Bones are broken, blood is spilled and the scene ends leaving viewers as drained as the only man left standing. That man, Eugene Wang (Nick Cheung), is released from prison after a twenty year sentence for the rape and murder of a young woman, and his first stop is to grab some ice cream and eyeball some cute women at a busy intersection. He spots a teenager named Zoe (Janice Man) at a music university who looks almost identical to the woman he was convicted of killing, and soon he’s living in a small shack near her home, watching her through a telescope and plastering his wall with her picture. When a burned, beaten and disfigured corpse is discovered nearby Inspector Lam (Simon Yam) is tasked with the case. He has his own issues including an emotionally distant daughter and a wife who reportedly killed herself a few years prior, and as he focuses in on the dead body he discovers a link to the other killing two decades earlier.

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South Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk has been a critically acclaimed filmmaker for almost as long as he’s been a controversial one. From his debut in 1996 with Crocodile to 2008’s Dream he made fifteen films of varying quality and similar themes usually populated by violent loners searching for love and acceptance in the worst ways possible. Their journeys often included both inward and outward-facing acts of brutality, and they rarely spared the fairer sex from the abuse. It’s that last bit that led to Kim being labeled on more than one occasion as an unrepentant misogynist. For a director averaging more than a film a year his subsequent three year absence from cinema following Dream left many people, both fans and detractors, wondering as to the reason. Had he quit the movies due to their poor reception in his home country? Had he finally run out of rage, emotion or ideas? Had he moved to Hollywood to pursue a gig on the next Hunger Games sequel? It turns out to be none of the above. Kim returned to theaters this year with a documentary of sorts called Arirang. (He also returned to Cannes and left with the Un Certain Regard award.) Written, directed, produced, edited, lit, shot and catered by Kim, and featuring nobody but Kim, the film acts as an explanation of his sabbatical and a look into his mind, heart and occasionally tortured soul. Exactly how much of it is the truth though may be up for debate…

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David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is a successful mystery writer who’s come to the coldest place in France for the reading of his uncle’s will. The 400-mile drive seems at first to have been in vain as his only inheritance is a stuffed dog named Toby, but when a beautiful blonde is discovered dead in the snow, Rousseau finds a more compelling reason to stay in town. Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton) was a local celebrity who dreamed of bigger things but found her greatest success as a frequently nude spokesmodel for a popular cheese company. Her death sparks Rousseau’s curiosity with the hope that it might also help him break through his writer’s block, and as he reads her journals the film flashes back to reveal a woman in flux. Lecoeur modeled the last few years of her life on an infamous blonde bombshell with whom she felt great affinity, and as Rousseau digs deeper he suspects her death may have followed suit. Nobody Else But You is an alternately fun, suspenseful and sad mystery, but it’s interested in more than simply who may or may not have had a hand in Lecoeur’s demise. It’s about the paths we choose and the ones life chooses for us. Who we are and who we want to be are rarely the same thing, and the divide between them is sometimes filled with regret, a loss of identity and naked firemen.

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My mom awoke one pre-dawn morning in 1985 and noticed a sliver of light beneath my older sister’s door. Knowing that none of her three kids were morning people she lightly knocked before turning the knob to find her firstborn laying unconscious on the floor, dark red blood seeping from her wrists and soaking into the carpet. She immediately went to compress the wounds while yelling for my father to call 911. An ambulance arrived, and my sister was rushed to the hospital. I slept through all of it one floor below. The depression that led to my sister’s suicide attempt and that continued to haunt my family for years to come was little more than a frustrating embarrassment for my preteen self heading into the most formative, socially judgmental time of my life. I didn’t understand what she was experiencing and instead saw it as selfish, spiteful behavior on her part. I was an indifferent asshole who alternately blamed her for future family troubles or ignored her wholesale as if I was still asleep to her difficulties. It was valuable time lost that should have been spent being a better brother. Those events have surfaced in my memories now and again over the past two decades, but it took a movie for me to come as close as possible to understanding what she was going through all those years ago. Oslo, August 31st, and in particular its powerfully affecting lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, explores with devastating effect […]

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The romantic comedy is a genre represented most frequently by stale, generic films that follow a paint-by-numbers formula devoid of personality and charm. To be sure, even the best examples follow a well established structure, but they also manage to make their characters endearing and likeable in situations both entertaining and recognizable. That recognition factor is important, so it’s rare to find a rom-com willing to take chances with its setup and subvert expectations along the way. Julio (Julián Villagrán) awakens in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar apartment with a vaguely familiar woman. He sees Julia (Michelle Jenner) walking about clad only in a t-shirt, but whatever magic worked the night before to earn him an invite back to her place is apparently in short supply the morning after. She hurries him along, hustling him on his way, but they’re interrupted by Julia’s nosy neighbor, Angel (Carlos Areces). Angel has a crush on his beautiful neighbor and is immediately jealous of Julio’s presence. Further complicating matters is the arrival of a man named Carlos (Raul Cimas)… Julia’s live-in boyfriend. The remainder of writer/director Nacho Vigalondo‘s film, set mostly in and around the apartment, sees the quartet dodging and weaving with the best of their rom-com brethren. Julio and Julia flirt (and fornicate!) beneath Carlos’ nose while he occupies an odd amalgamated role that’s part cuckold and part catalyst for third act drama. Angel meanwhile becomes a thorn in the cheating lovers’ sides as he threatens to blow their secret […]

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The goal of this column has always been to explore international cinema from all around the globe. To that end I’ve been an inconsistent tour guide as our destinations haven’t been as evenly spread about as they could have been. My own preferences lean towards traditional Asian, Western European and South American cinema which means Foreign Objects explores places like Africa, Eastern Europe or India very rarely. Russia is a huge country with a long-standing film community, but in our 131 installments we’ve only visited there twice… first for the abysmal Philosophy of a Knife and then for the mediocre Alien Girl. Which probably explains why it took so damn long for me to return… Elena is a fifty-something house wife to a well-off retiree named Vladimir. Together just two years, their relationship is more an extension of how they met than a true marriage. She was a nurse, he was a patient, and now her caregiver role continues. She sleeps on a couch, wakes early, keeps the high rise apartment clean and prepares Vladimir’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. Both have grown children from previous marriages, both of them irresponsible in their own ways, but while Vladimir has a soft spot for his daughter he harbors nothing but disdain for Elena’s son. A heart attack sidelines the old man, and with callous forethought he informs Elena that he’s going to change his will to make his daughter sole inheritor. What’s a mother with a son and infant grandson in need […]

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The Wages of Fear is screening at the SF Film Society Cinema from June 8th-14th with a new print from a recent HD digital restoration completed by the Criterion Collection. I once drove a U-Haul truck from New York to Florida, and it was easily one of the most tension-filled, large vehicle-related experiences anyone has ever experienced ever. Part way through Tennessee, as I took a mildly tight on-ramp in a light rain, the truck began to fishtail. If you’ve ever been in a car when this happens you know how frightening it can be, but now imagine that sensation in a large truck with your girlfriend by your side and all of your earthly belongings packed into the back. I recovered control after what felt like several minutes (but was actually less than ten seconds) and calmly exited the freeway in search of a parking lot…at which point my fingers had to be pried away from the steering wheel. Friends who were driving behind us came running over excitedly to let us know that at one point during the event the left-side tires were all off the ground. I think about that experience occasionally, but watching Henri-Georges Clouzet‘s The Wages of Fear recently marked the first time I actually felt those memories again. The film spends its first half introducing a fairly unlikeable group of unemployed immigrants in a small South American town before devoting the second hour to a treacherous 300-mile drive across rough terrain in trucks loaded […]

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The beaches of Normandy were most likely filled with many surprises on D-Day, but one of the most unexpected had to have been US soldiers finding a Korean man surrendering to them while wearing a German uniform. His footnote in history forms the basis of the most expensive Korean film ever made, My Way. Kim Jun-shik is a Korean farmer’s son who even as a young boy is known for his love of running. The late twenties saw Japan invade and retain control of Korea, and when a new Japanese headmaster arrives Jun-shik immediately forms a rivalry with the man’s spoiled son, Tatsuo Hasegawa. The two boys compete through their teen years and carry that battle of wills into WWII when Jun-shik and many other Koreans are conscripted to fight for the Japanese against the Allies. The film follows Jun-shik through a deadly series of explosive adventures and sadistic nightmares that eventually lands him in German fabric firing a machine gun at the encroaching Americans. It’s director Kang Je-kyu’s first film in seven years and sees him return to the genre that gave him his last triumph, Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood. This time he’s moved from the battlefields of the Korean war to the international landscape of World War II, and the result is even more bombastic, brutal and epic. But what Kang gains in scope and graphic detail he loses in nuance, character and honest emotion. The result is a visual feast that leaves the eyes and ears satiated but […]

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Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is a tall, long-limbed beauty who feels trapped and unappreciated in her small town outside Mexico City, so she leaves and follows the bright lights and promises of stardom by entering a pageant. The goal is simple. Represent her community, win, and then watch as her life changes for the better. A single poor decision finds her at a local bar with her girlfriend on the night a group of armed thugs sneak in and mow down most of the party goers. Laura witnesses the assault, and the lead attacker witnesses her. She attempts to report the incident (in a round about way), but she chooses a dirty cop who hands her over to the gang leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez). And just like that her life is no longer her own. Lino forces her to take part in a crime, but he then rewards her by pulling some strings to get her a spot in the pageant. And so it goes. She’s abused, assaulted and used, again and again, with little in the way of effort to fight back or escape her new fate. She’s a victim, a cog in the bloody wheels of criminal progress, and there’s no turning back.

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Cyril is looking for his dad. The boy was dropped off at a state-run foster home by his father and told it was just a temporary thing while the man got his act together financially. But the days became weeks, and now when Cyril tries calling he gets a recording that the line has been disconnected. He runs away from the home eventually making his way back to where he used to live. But his father is long gone. The Kid With a Bike offers up a sad story, but it avoids melodrama through honest writing, beautiful acting and Cyril’s sheer force of will. The boy refuses to accept his abandonment at face value and pursues the truth regardless of the walls erected in his way. It’s alternately heartbreaking and hopeful, and it’s never less than engaging. Most surprising for a simple drama, the movie is easily one of the year’s most suspenseful as Cyril’s fate and future hang precariously in the balance.

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Delicacy begins with a subtle nod to When a Man Loves a Woman‘s opening as a young man named Francois watches a beautiful woman enter and sit down. As the waiter approaches her Francois makes a mental prediction as to her order, and if he gets it right he promises himself that he’ll work up the courage to approach and talk to her. He does, and soon the two are embracing outside. They were simply re-enacting their meeting, playing the roles of strangers on the cusp of a romance, but in reality they’re already deeply in love. Their parents occasionally pester them for grandchildren, but Francois (Pio Marmai) and Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) put plans for a baby on hold “for when they’re talked out.” They’re happy and content and looking forward to a full future. But when he’s struck and killed by a car, Nathalie is forced to continue on without him. Or at least try to. She blocks out friendly attempts to help her, throws his belongings into the trash and rushes back to work sooner than expected. Her career becomes her sole focus, and a few years later she’s heading up large projects at work and still romantically unattached despite the best efforts of her impassioned but somewhat smarmy boss. And then the giant Swede walks through the door.

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Last week’s installment of Foreign Objects took a look at the third film in Dario Argento’s so-called “animal trilogy,” Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Why start with the third film and not the first? No reason. But today we’re continuing with the theme and covering the second film, The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Don’t worry about continuity though as the three movies are in no way related. A burglary at a local genetics institute catches the eye ear of a blind retiree, and when people associated with the incident start dropping dead he teams up with a reporter to try to crack the case. The duo discovers an elaborate chain of events surrounding the lab’s recent discovery of a genetic marker that may indicate criminal tendencies and a drug that may cure it. Is someone killing to protect the discovery… or are they killing to hide the fact that they’re a killer?

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I’ve spoken before about the highs of Dario Argento’s early career and how it sits in direct contrast to the abysmally depressing filmmaker he’s become in the last two decades. But his filmography doesn’t have a timeline clearly separating the good from the bad. His best work remains the five features he made from 1975 to 1985 with everything before and after that period being a major mixed bag. And that includes 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. A rock drummer finds himself stalked by a masked killer out to frame him and make his life miserable, but who’s doing it and why? And more importantly, how will it affect the sales of his upcoming album?

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There are few things in life as devastating and traumatic as having to watch your child confront a life-threatening illness. I assume so anyway. My own kids were booted out of the house at the age of seven in the hopes that they would go make something of themselves, so they may have already kicked the bucket for all I know. But from what I understand a deathly ill child is an all around terrible experience. Romeo and Juliette learn this first hand after they meet, make sweet love, give birth to their son Adam nine months later, and soon begin to take serious notice of his behavior. He’s vomiting more than would be considered normal, his head has a constant tilt, and one side of his face seems slightly swollen. Upon their first meeting they joked incredulously about their names commenting that they’re most likely doomed to a terrible fate, but their child’s health is not a tragedy they had considered. Now the two twenty-somethings who signed up for little beyond a casual but loving relationship find themselves in the trenches of a fight for their son’s life. But unlike most films on the subject Declaration of War is uninterested in a melodramatic or treacly narrative. This is a film about hope, optimism and the unwavering love of a parent for their child. This is war.

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published: 12.23.2014
B+
published: 12.22.2014
C-
published: 12.19.2014
A-


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