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.

Trainwreck (2015, Judd Apatow)

Oh, this was funny. Amy Schumer writes for a horrid magazine run by Tilda Swinton (coworkers: Randall Park, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer), dates body-obsessed guy (wrestler John Cena), writes article on athletic surgeon Bill Hader and they like each other, but the life lesson taught by her dying dad Colin Quinn is that monogamy isn’t realistic. Written by Schumer, who is now a permanent comedy star.

Schumer: “I’ve always been crazy about movies. I can’t help it. In our house we would watch a movie until it didn’t work anymore. We would just kill movies over and over again.”

One Touch of Venus (1948, William A. Seiter)

Kind of a bad comedy, but it had its good points: Ava Gardner seemed awfully sexy for a late-40’s movie, and she and Olga San Juan had distractingly prominent breasts. Mostly though, we’ve got Robert Walker (a regular joe with brief attacks of Jerry Lewis Eyes) and crew unable to sell the zaniness of the script.

Walker (The Clock, Strangers on a Train) is a department-store drone with flat-faced friend Joe (singer Dick Haymes) and jealous girlfriend Olga, who awakens the Venus statue (Ava, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) beloved of Walker’s boss Tom Conway (psychologist of The Seventh Victim). Ava’s fine as Venus, and the other bright spot in the cast is sarcastic Eve Arden (Mildred Pierce, Anatomy of a Murder and Grease), who seems too smart for this movie. Features three or four of the kind of instantly-forgettable slow, dreamy songs that threatened to put me to sleep – or maybe they did, since I had to ask Katy after the romantic ending if Eve ended up with anybody (the boss, of course).

Written by Frank Tashlin (in the few years between his cartoon-directing career and his live-action-directing careers) and Harry Kurnitz (I Love You Again, Witness for the Prosecution). Seiter is a TCM regular (Roberta, You Were Never Lovelier, A Lady Takes a Chance) even though we can’t recall his name. Remade a couple times, most memorably as Mannequin with Kim Cattrall.

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.

Jupiter Ascending (2015, Wachowskis)

After this and Like Someone In Love and Zero Theorem and Maps to the Stars, I feel like I’m watching a marathon of poorly-reviewed latest films by current (and former) favorite directors. Might as well follow these up with Burying the Ex, Amelia, Mood Indigo, Twixt, Sin City 2, Noah, Tomorrowland, Big Eyes, Queen of the Desert, Knight of Cups, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Blackhat, Restless, The Hobbit, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Oz the Great and Powerful, Tusk, Tricked, and everything Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made since Tokyo Sonata… then get totally depressed and stop watching movies forever.

I paused after the first few minutes to grab some food, wrote myself a note that the movie would have to try hard to overcome such a boring narrated backstory introduction. And it does try hard, with visuals and action scenes as crazed as the Wachowskis could muster, but it’s also absolutely overstuffed with British-accented galactic royalty speaking endlessly about a plot nobody could care less about, and line readings ranging from stilted to flamboyantly awful (it’s funny that Eddie Redmayne won an oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking the same year he deserves some sort of worst-performance award for this). The self-seriousness and plot overload was a letdown after the campy fun of Speed Racer a month earlier, but at least the action scenes were fun.

What’s happening: Mila Kunis has a shitty job, a selfish family, and is the reincarnation of the galactic queen, whose three kids are fighting over her destiny. There’s evil Eddie, and two others who act nicer but are basically also evil: Douglas Booth (Noah) and Tuppence Middleton (the DJ in Sense8). Ronin Wolfman Tater Channing tenaciously protects her (at one point holding onto the outside of an interstellar-travelling spaceship, which outdoes that stunt in the new Mission Impossible). Sean Bean helps Tater. Doona Bae and some others are crop-circle-creating bounty-hunters.

Matt Singer: “It’s hard to believe that a movie that contains this much exposition could also be this confusing, but it does and it is. Something went horribly wrong here.” And on our heroine, who is constantly being rescued: “Imagine a Matrix where Neo was repeatedly told he was destined for great things and then never learned kung fu or fought Agent Smith, and you begin to see the primary problem.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw with giant mouse ears:

Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)

Akiko (Rin Takanashi of new psycho-murder movie Killers) is sent to visit old man Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) at behest of her boss/pimp (Denden, a cop in Uzumaki), skipping a meeting with her visiting grandmother. She tries to avoid her “fiancé” (Ryo Kase of the Outrage movies), who confronts and torments her and accuses her (correctly) of lying, then he tries to kiss up to Takashi, who he assumes to be Akiko’s grandfather. Later he realizes the truth and shit gets real.

Strange movie, hard to warm up to, with an unexpected ending. Shot by Takeshi Kitano’s DP. Played at Cannes with Amour, Holy Motors, Cosmopolis and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. Title was meant to be The End, which would’ve been darkly funny if it flashed up right after the final scene.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope:

Like Amir Naderi’s Cut, another recent films made in Japan by an Iranian director, Kiarostami employs a rather schlocky narrative schema as a means of exploring, and exploding, cultural contradictions.

V. Rizov:

The threat of something horrid happening throughout — especially when the prof’s at the wheel, going into reverse while seemingly unaware of little kids behind the vehicle or nodding off at a red light — is finally delivered upon. This is effectively a movie that wonders about a society in which an abusive fiance can “confront,” with barely suppressed violence and much arm-grabbing and yelling, his would-be future wife in a wide open public area and not merit a glance, let alone an intervention.

Love Is Colder Than Death (1969, Rainer Fassbinder)

…or, Death of a Samourai

Opens with bunch of tough guys getting beaten up, one at a time, by pro gangster Bruno. They’re indie thugs being intimidated to join the local criminal syndicate. I can’t tell if asshole/pimp Franz (our round-faced director) eventually joins or why Bruno teams up with him – the movie is short on explanation – but those two and Franz’s girl Joanna (a frequently topless Hanna Schygulla) go on a crime spree.

In the most amusing scene, they stop at a department store, torment a shop girl and steal sunglasses, after which Bruno looks like he’s doing a Le Samourai impression. Bruno likes to brag about past crimes, and they end up killing a lot of people, especially for a movie in which nothing ever seems to be happening. It’s a gangster movie so inevitably it ends in a shootout, though I’m actually confused as to who kills Bruno, or why he was asked to kill Johanna (but doesn’t). Franz’s last word to her is “whore”, and as they drive away and presumably don’t live happily ever after, the scene slowly fading to white.

Fassbinder’s first feature and the filmmaking is bizarre, with long-held shots then abrupt editing. Sometimes the music sounds like a TV theme song, once it seems to overlay opera with some quavering sci-fi noise which the characters are shopping. One long nighttime shot out the side of a car, flying past dull buildings barely visible, gave me flashbacks to The Bridegroom, The Comedienne, and the Pimp (also starring Fassbinder).

Besides the Samourai and the overall mood of a disaffected early Godard piece, a few more cinema references and dedications: Erika Rohmer is the name of a waitress they kill along with their rival gang member The Turk. Bruno was Ulli Lommel, regular Fassbinder star and director of cheap, poorly-reviewed films based on true killings throughout the 2000’s. This won a couple of German Film Awards, and played the Berlin fest alongside The Bed Sitting Room, Greetings and Midnight Cowboy.

M. Koresky:

Other first-time filmmakers might have been discouraged by the response Love Is Colder Than Death received at its Berlin Film Festival premiere in June 1969. Not Fassbinder. Though jeered at onstage by an audience put off by his film’s distant, clammy aesthetic, he clasped his hands and shook them over his head in a gesture of victory.

The Last Ten Minutes vol. 14

The Cobbler (2014, Tom McCarthy)

Just morbidly curious about The Station Agent director’s latest. Did anyone realize while making this that shoe “soles” and human “souls” are homophones? Wonder if that might be useful. Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station) is asking Adam Sandler out, then hey it’s Steve Buscemi! “Pickles preserve you… they give you strength” – I’ve been saying this for years. Wait, Buscemi transformed into Dustin Hoffman, am I getting this right? Sandler is not a good dramatic actor, hasn’t anyone realized? Oh, “walk in another man’s shoes,” I get it now.

Saw IV (2007, Darren Lynn Bousman)

Checking my notes, I believe everyone except maybe Orson Macfadyen was dead at the end of part 3. And here’s Orson, one of many dudes running with guns down dark corridors, while some other dudes die in a trap room. I think Donnie Wahlberg and Orson just died, then a victim turns out to be the mastermind (a la the original Saw) and leaves some dying guys locked up in a factory, and Dead Jigsaw promises more sequels – but not by Bousman, who moved on to New Year’s Day and Repo! The Genetic Opera after this. From the writers of Feast, the Piranha remake-sequel, and possibly the next Halloween.

Saw V (2008, David Hackl)

How does Dead Jigsaw continue to star in these movies? Prequel? A couple’s hands are being sawed up while Scott Patterson (a Scott Bakula type from the last sequel) plays a tape and dudes with guns walk through dark corridors to the same copy-and-paste drumbeat music and metallic sound effects as the last movie’s last ten minutes. Bland-looking Costas Mandylor escapes a trap room while Bakula Type gets crushed inside and a Matt Walsh type triggers a full-movie flashback, lucky for me. Hackl worked on all of Bousman’s Saw sequels and did production design on Lexx.

You’re Next (2011, Adam Wingard)

I hated Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die but heard last year’s The Guest was good, so catching up with the one that came in between. Soap star Sharni Vinson is looking all beat up, stumbling around till someone shoots her with a crossbow. Enter a couple of assailants, killed with knife and blender. Sharni’s boyfriend AJ Bowen was in on the home invasion plot, arranged to have his family killed so he’d inherit, but the girlfriend’s not buying his boring story, haha then she’s shot by the cops.

Cabin Fever 3: Patient Zero (2014, Kaare Andrews)

Skinless girlfight, hurting each other in ways this underlit beach scene can’t quite afford to explain. Then one guy has a gun and it’s boring, and Dr. Sean Samwise Astin kills that guy just slowly enough to give him a dying monologue, and I think maybe Samwise escapes with the virus. Good work interweaving explanatory scenes through the closing credits to make viewers stay through ’em. The director made “V” in The ABCs of Death, which was also boring, and the writer did a Hitcher remake and a When a Stranger Calls remake.

Man With The Iron Fists 2 (2015, Roel Reine)

Came across this while searching for Iron Sky, had no idea there was a sequel to that middling action film. It sure enough stars RZA and his iron fists, but instead of Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, this one’s got a lotta Thai actors, poor CG effects, and more than one guy screaming “noooooooo!” Climactic fight has RZA fighting a bad guy with iron legs. The director made a couple Death Race sequels and a Scorpion King sequel.

Iron Sky (2012, Timo Vuorensola)

Blonde woman stops a nazi from blowing up the earth, electrocuting him in an absurd way then stabbing his head with a shoe. Meanwhile a buncha Star Wars stuff is happening outside, after which a woman in a feather suit accurately says “well that was disappointing” and the Star Spangled Banner plays ironically as world leaders tussle, then LOL nuclear war. Damn, missed Udo Kier. Glad to see there will be a sequel featuring him and Tom Green.

Renaissance (2006, Christian Volckman)

That Sin City cartoon with Daniel Craig. Wow, it’s a disaster – nice frames, but the motion and editing and acting (cheers, Romola Garai of Amazing Grace) are slow and weird. Very few shades of gray, mostly pure black and white. Trying to figure out what went wrong, so I forgot to pay attention to plot. Two of the writers did a Jean Reno thing called 22 Bullets. Volckman doesn’t have lots of credits, has forgotten to make any more movies since this one.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame (2010, Tsui Hark)

Been a long while since I watched a Tsui Hark movie. Pretty fun, with a cool title character played by the great Andy Lau, an enemy of the state given freedom by Empress Carina Lau (Mimi in 2046) to investigate why officials are spontaneously combusting into super fake-looking fire sfx. He teams up with court-appointed Jing’er (Bingbing Li of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a badass with her CGI whip) and albino Pei (Chao Deng) and the cave-dwelling, millipede-eating Donkey Wang to investigate, eventually discovers someone has a convoluted plan to crush the Empress during her coronation by toppling a massive statue. That someone is one-armed master builder Shatuo, an old ally of Dee who I would’ve known was the villain if I’d recognized him as Tony Leung Ka Fai (aka Tony 2 of Ashes of Time).

Politics: “A confession under torture is useless. Don’t you know that it’s torture which alienates people from the Empress and makes them turn against her?” I liked that Dee carried his pet birds with him on assignment, but it turns out that was only so the movie could have more things to set on fire. Speaking of the fake fire, there’s also an amazingly fake fight against CG deer.

Won a bunch of Hong Kong Film Awards but couldn’t beat Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere at the Venice Film Festival. IMDB’s summary calls it an “incredible true story,” haha.