Beyond the Lights (2014, Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Romance between a cop and a singer. Pop star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of Belle) is following the pop-star routine prescribed by her manager/mother (Minnie Driver), her label, her producers and her mandated rapper boyfriend, then is saved from a suicide attempt by local hero cop Kaz (Nate Parker of Red Hook Summer), who’s got his own problems, what with political aspirations and people shooting at him, but nobody at work seems to mind when he and Noni disappear on a beach getaway where she rediscovers what she liked about singing (via Nina Simone songs).

Mostly it’s a decent-enough positive-message romance flick, but low-budget flicks with mostly black casts don’t play Nebraska often, so it seemed worth rooting for. Four stars from The Dissolve, too: “beneath the shiny surface of music-video imagery and true-loveisms lie some provocative ideas and deep truths about how people relate on a private level vs. a public one.” Writer/director also made Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees. Probably nothing to this, but I just realized Minnie Driver’s character is named Macy Jean, and there are singers named Macy Gray and Jean Grae.

Sawdust & Tinsel (1953, Ingmar Bergman)

“A pity people must live. I feel sorry for them.” What is it with the mid-1950’s and depressing circus movies? This obviously aimed to completely bum out anyone who finds joy or delight at a circus, then if cinemagoers weren’t yet convinced, along came La Strada the following year to make sure we’d forever equate the circus with death and disappointment.

A shitty circus sputters into the town where ringmaster Albert (Åke Grönberg of A Lesson in Love) left behind his wife and kids. He’s now with Anna (Harriet Andersson, star of Monika and Through a Glass Darkly), who doesn’t like him visiting the family, so she sneaks off with the pointy-sideburned actor Frans (Hasse Ekman, a writer/director also in Bergman’s Thirst and Prison), whose theater (run by Winter Light star Gunnar Bjornstrand) has lent the circus costumes while they’re in town. Albert and Anna would both desperately like to leave their horrible circus, and Albert even attempts suicide (similar ending to Smiles of a Summer Night) but in the end, they sadly roll back out of town together.

Anna and the actor:

Anna and the ringmaster:

Near the beginning is one of Bergman’s most intense dream/flashback sequences, in which humiliated clown Frost (Anders Ek, a priest in Cries & Whispers) “rescues” his wife (Gudrun Brost, Hour of the Wolf) who is bathing nude at the beach, putting on a show for an army regiment.

Wonderful quote from Catherine Breillat, which could apply to any great film:

All of the images I am describing, more than forty years later, I can see again with the absolute precision of black and white, the light and the specific, almost incandescent definition. But perhaps I am inventing them, perhaps I was able to understand the film only as it related to me, in a selfish and fragmentary manner. Who cares! … What does it matter if I make up stories — the importance of works is not only in their objectivity but even more so in their elemental power.

John Simon:

Fine as the Swedish filmmaker’s earlier outings were, here, in his thirteenth film, Bergman gazed deeper than ever into the human soul, depicting it with greater artistry. The sparring spouses in his 1949 film Thirst have their Strindbergian fascination, but the empathy in Sawdust and Tinsel is more profound, the suffering more shattering, the Pyrrhic victories (such as the film’s ending) more moving. Stylistically, one of the ways Bergman achieved this was by using a greater number of close-ups of the human face, which would continue to fascinate the filmmaker above all else throughout his career.

Surviving Life: Theory and Practice (2010, Jan Svankmajer)

Stop-motion cut-out animation of psychoanalytic dream-imagery.

Yes there’s a story – a married man attempts to carry on an affair with a woman in his dreams – but it’s the imagery and editing tricks and invention and sidetracks (eggs, fruit, flowers, suit-wearing coworker with dog head, fighting Freud and Jung portraits, reptiles, tongues, doppelgangers) that kept us endlessly entertained. Svankmajer’s features tend to feel overlong with their obsessions and repetitions but this one (though it opens with an extended apology from the director) was completely wonderful.

Polyester (1981, John Waters)

Inspired by Douglas Sirk movies, and inspiration of the song “Frontier Psychiatrist”. An extreme example of the normal person pushed-to-the-brink genre, and starring Divine (not even a normal person). Everything that can possibly go wrong does so all at once – she turns to alcohol as her pornographer husband leaves, daughter is pregnant by her delinquent boyfriend (Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys, writer of Sonic Reducer), son is a foot-fetishist sex criminal, and the family is being protested by the neighbors. Divine’s still got her friend Cuddles, her former housekeeper who recently inherited great wealth, and starts to recover in the company a sexy stranger (Tab Hunter of Track of the Cat) – but it turns out he’s actually dating Divine’s mom, and the romance was a plot to get money. After all this pain (even if it’s over-the-top comedy-pain), Waters allows some lightness (even if it’s murdery lightness). The son is reformed, the delinquent is killed, Cuddles’s chauffeur/fiancee Heinz runs down the mom and Tab, and all (who remain) live happily.

Divine’s superpower is her keen sense of smell, hence the Odorama cards (which we didn’t get, alas). The Ross played it off an average-quality DVD, but it’s a good movie to watch with a crowd. My head exploded when the movie had a profitable highbrow drive-theater showing a Marguerite Duras triple-feature. It also featured the same tasteless lawn jockey that my landlords have. Department of Redundancy Department: an imdb user calls it a “mainstream overground non-underground movie.”

Kandahar (2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

Woman returns to Afghanistan to save her suicidal sister, but has trouble finding passage from Iran to Kandahar. Wiki says it’s partly based on true story, and the lead, Nelofer Pazira, played herself – although here she’s called Nafas. She pretends to be part of a large family crossing the border, but they get robbed along the way. She gets a boy called Khak to take her partway, meets an American doctor with a false beard, then tries to follow a wedding party the rest of the way.

Poetic film, sometimes with unconvincing English dialogue but makes up for that with wonderous scenes like the one with guys on crutches racing to catch artificial legs parachuting from above. Makhmalbaf apparently had no trouble finding extras with missing limbs (neither does Jodorowsky). I have a skewed picture of Makhmalbaf – I’ve seen his appearance in Close-Up, a couple of his early documentaries, and a couple by his daughter Samira but this is the first of Mohsen’s features I’ve watched.


Makhmalbaf and his cinematographer, Ebraham Ghafouri, show this desert land as beautiful but remote and forbidding. Roads are tracks from one flat horizon to another. Nafas bounces along in the back of a truck with other women, the burqua amputating her personality.

The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade)

Third screening of Sundance Week, though the posts have been broken up and delayed. I guess if this blog was my real job, I’d have watched the Sundance movies in advance and posted ’em on the week itself, but it’s not, so here we are in mid-March. And with the delays I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say about this, if anything, except that J MASCIS plays a janitor for some reason. Also it’s a remarkably good movie, with an excellent balance between comedy/amusement and mystery/terror, all with super camerawork. Jesse “Social Network” Eisenberg plays a pathetic drip so well that when his confident double (also Eisenberg) shows up they seem like different actors. The drip is obsessed with meeting neighbor Mia “Stoker” Wasikowska, tries to please boss Wallace Shawn and get noticed by head company man James Fox. The double does all this and more with ease, leading the drip to finally assert himself and destroy the other man by attempting suicide (since their bodies are linked). Feels a bit like The Tenant at the end. Three of Ayoade’s Submarine stars also appear.

Rocks In My Pockets (2014, Signe Baumane)

A good night, with the energetic director in attendance, introducing then discussing her film. It’s an impressive feat too, an animated feature made by a very small team, 2D animation composited onto paper mache backgrounds. Not completely crazy about the movie since it felt like a wearying illustrated audiobook after a while with her relentless narration, but it’s a mostly charming work about her family history of depression and suicide.

Grandma is well educated but runs off with her nationalist entrepeneur boss and bears eight children in a secluded forest, as Latvia is fought over by Russians and nazis and nationalism becomes irrelevant. She raises the kids, tends the animals, carries buckets of water up the hill all day while the entrepeneur works for years on his anti-Russian manifesto, which is burned when discovered by the kids years later. It’s said that grandma would have drowned herself but she kept floating because she didn’t know to put rocks in her pockets. Signe explores her family history while dealing with her own periodic depression, learning about strange and suicidal cousins, before returning to her own feelings and the way she deals with them through art.

The Tenant (1976, Roman Polanski)

Happy SHOCKtober!

It’s hard to tell what I watched in SHOCKtober 2013, since I was running months behind and posting movies out of order, but I think it was six movies, from Mr. Vampire through The Black Cat, plus a Last Ten Minutes full of ridiculous horror sequels. SHOCKtober 2012 consisted of a single movie, The Hole. So 2011 was the last big SHOCKtober, and 2010 even got its own horror top-ten list. Time to bring back the shocks – got a bunch of movies lined up for this month.

Polanski himself plays Trelkovsky, who snags a Paris apartment (with an awfully steep deposit) thanks to the suicide of the former tenant Simone, and is made to feel unwelcome by almost everybody. He visits Simone during her final days in hospital agony and meets her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani of Possession, also Lucy in Herzog’s Nosferatu). Then Trelkovsky attempts to settle in at home (he works as some kind of clerk, shades of Kafka), but everyone is suspicious of him, even the local police, accusing him of rule violations, and Trelkovsky starts to suspect these hostile neighbors drove Simone to jump from her window.

One man and a wardrobe:

French neighbors scheming against Polish Jew, was starting to look like a persecution story, but then Polanski starts believing the neighbors are trying to turn him into Simone when he wakes up with women’s makeup on his face, and another day he’s lost the same tooth she had lost.

At the end, when he has found shelter at Stella’s place then trashes her apartment because he thinks she’s in on the conspiracy, it becomes clearer than Trelkovsky is just nuts. Inevitably, he jumps from the apartment window in front of an imagined audience of mocking neighbors, but the fall doesn’t kill him, and as the police arrive, he lurches back up the stairs and jumps a second time, ending up in a time-loop as he takes Simone’s place in the hospital bed and sees himself and Stella visiting.

Polanski and Adjani pause to watch Enter The Dragon:

Great cast: Melvyn Douglas (40-some years after The Old Dark House) is Mr. Z the landlord. Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) brings a petition (which Trelkovsky refuses to sign) to evict another neighbor. Jeunet regular Rufus (Amelie‘s dad) comes by looking for Simone. Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter) plays the angry building concierge. Unfortunately some actors have been euro-dubbed, and even the cinematography by Sven Nykvist (between Black Moon and Autumn Sonata) looked just-decent on my video copy.



Ebert called it an embarrassment, also explains there was an apartment shortage in Paris at the time. I guess people were bound to be disappointed in any follow-up to Chinatown, but Canby called it “the most successful and most consistently authentic Polanski film in years,” dismissing Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby as “more or less tailored to popular tastes.” Critics mention Trelkovsky’s meek and malleable nature and the film’s pessimism, but I’m still not sure what to make of the Egyptian references. And am I misinterpreting the image, or at one point is his nightstand replaced with a two-dimensional copy?

Nominated at Cannes the same yeas as Taxi Driver, The Marquise of O, Kings of the Road and Mr. Klein. Based on the novel by Roland Topor, who cowrote Fantastic Planet and played Renfield in Herzog’s Nosferatu.

Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)

Little Orphan Anna grew up in the church, is about to become a nun when the higher-ups say they’ve located her only living family, and send her off to meet her aunt. Aunt Wanda, a judge in town, says Anna’s real name is Ida, she is a Jew whose parents were murdered during WWII. The two set out to visit the parents’ grave, which is complicated since they haven’t got one, but fortunately run across their murderers who’ve taken the family home as their own. They take a couple bags of bones (Ida’s parents, Wanda’s son) to the family plot in a now-abandoned cemetery. Wanda tries to convince Ida to give up the nunnery, hooks her up with a cute saxophonist called Lis. Not much dialogue in the movie so we have to draw our own conclusions why Ida sleeps with the boy then sneaks away to return to the convent – but not much imagination is needed to figure why Wanda commits suicide.

4:3 b/w movie, beautifully shot though I sat close enough for the screen to look pixelly in wide shots. Plenty of head room, and a tendency to cram Ida into a lower corner of the screen, reminding me of Josh Brolin in Milk but probably for a different purpose.

The only actor I’m seeing in anything else is Joanna Kulig of Elles, gorgeous young singer of the saxophonist’s band. Pawlikowski made My Summer of Love and won awards for Last Resort with Paddy Considine.

Something I didn’t get that J. Kuehner explains: Wanda reveals “her own past as a prosecutor of ‘enemies of the people’ (historically, former anti-Nazi resistance fighters who were convicted in show trials under the Stalinist regime)”.