Nights and Weekends (2008)

Greta Gerwig came out of the 2000s (and the so-called “Mumblecore” era) as something of an ‘It’ girl, at least for a moment, and parlayed that into both mainstream acting success and now as a director with her two most recent films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). However, she did have a co-directing credit on one of her collaborations with Joe Swanberg in that initial period, and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about the collaboration, even if it hardly takes my weddings and romance-themed week on the blog in very much happier directions.


Joe Swanberg has made a huge number of films, many of which (like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), also starring Gerwig, or 2011’s Art History with Josephine Decker) have a sort of improvised, raw feel to them — perhaps the result of the budgets or the shooting style, but it’s a kind of style I feel an affinity towards, because it seems to be coming from a different direction from most mainstream cinema. Still, he’s in the business of telling stories, and it’s key here that his co-star Greta Gerwig is credited as co-director and co-writer, because this feels as much about her (probably more so, honestly) than it does about his character. Both bare themselves literally (hardly unusual for Swanberg, who often delves into on-screen sexuality, whether as director or as performer), but there’s something intense about the way Gerwig presents on screen that helps you move through her emotions, far more than Swanberg, who as an actor doesn’t seem quite as upfront. That said, they both have some great scenes together that are always just held that moment (or minute, or eternity) longer than you expect, meaning they move beyond the usual relationship moments to present something more ambiguous and messy and complex. I don’t love it all, but there’s a core of something that I like very much.

Nights and Weekends film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographers Matthias Grunsky and Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Le Cinema Club streaming), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

Love Jones (1997)

I guess there are elements here that seem dated (no one having cellphones, spoken word clubs, some of the fashion) but they’re part of a rich texture that evokes an era and a place and a group of people — which is to say, Chicago in the late-1990s. Twenty years on and this film is excellent at giving a sense of this group of friends and acquaintances, and what it’s like to be around them. As the film progresses, so from out of the group emerge the two protagonists, Darius and Nina (played by Larenz Tate and Nia Long), who fall in love, sort of, then actually, then not so much. It creates a bewitching atmosphere, never needy and boisterous (like, say, the more overtly comedic The Best Man a couple years later), and never reliant on the ubiquitous 1990s tropes of black filmmaking (drugs, violence, ghettoes). As the star of both those films Nia Long should have been everywhere (maybe she was; her career is a blindspot for me and I need to remedy that), and this director should have defined romance in film for the following decade, but that didn’t happen and who knows why. This is great.

Love Jones film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Theodore Witcher; Cinematographer Ernest Holzman; Starring Larenz Tate, Nia Long; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg makes films like this one, self-contained little scenarios based entirely around his actors’ improvisations. By comparison, the previous year’s Drinking Buddies was a big budget blowout (even if it contained remnants of his cinematic style), but this is closer to his roots I feel. Swanberg plays Jeff, a husband to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), whose settled domestic life with their infant son is disrupted by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who stays in their basement while she gets over some situation or other. It’s an intimate little family drama played out over the holiday season, though that’s never really a big part of the film. Mostly it’s about these people interacting with one another, as Kelly is at first wary of Jenny’s youth and lifestyle, before finding some common ground and allowing Jenny to coax her into redefining certain aspects of her relationship with Jeff. Even recounting this plot makes it sound somehow more melodramatic than it ends up being, and undoubtedly not all audiences will connect with this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, but it feels like something more natural, reflecting something of real lived experience. Hearing Lynskey’s native New Zealand accent is also somehow reassuring, and reminds me of the vibrant improvised film scene when I was growing up in that country. I hope to continue seeing films like this from Swanberg; it marks a refreshing change of pace from the usual diet of slicker cinematic releases.

Happy Christmas film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg; Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015.

Dreamcatcher (2015)

The British documentarian Kim Longinotto is clearly used to making films with relatively few resources, which is somewhat apt, given her subjects are so often those (primarily women) who are systematically excluded by structures of control and discourse. (Even her archival compilation earlier this year Love Is All touches on these themes, while otherwise seeming rather unlike the rest of her output.) Still, for all this, her latest work Dreamcatcher is never anything less than immaculately crafted, and follows the story of a woman called Brenda, who runs an outreach programme named the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The programme focuses on helping women working the streets of her area of Chicago, a life that Brenda grew up in, and it’s her story and those of the women she meets that form the backbone of the documentary. In a sense, it’s not really about prostitution though, but about the ways in which a climate of abuse and poverty can narrow life choices to such a point that hope can seem elusive, and it’s alleviating that particular problem which the Foundation focuses on (Brenda’s paid day job is working in a women’s prison). Brenda is not only seen driving around the streets of Chicago by night, but also working with troubled kids at a local high school, at her prison job, and at home — which is where we really see the struggle it can sometimes be for her to maintain her fearless public persona (sometimes just through small humanising moments like her looking for the right wig to wear that day). Despite the treacly sentiment that the poster’s tagline suggests, both the filmmaker and Brenda steer clear of judgmentalism or preaching (there’s very little reference to religion, for example), and thanks to this focus on Brenda and some of the more articulate women she works with and helps, the film steers clear of the kind of doomy pessimism you might expect given some of the heartwrenching stories of childhood abuse and neglect that are recounted. There’s certainly plenty of such material to give one pause, but it’s the focus on doing small things to help improve her community that makes the documentary well worth catching.

Dreamcatcher film posterCREDITS
Director Kim Longinotto; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 8 March 2015.

Drinking Buddies (2013)

I like beer, it must be said, and I like the new wave of craft breweries in the States (and here in the UK) that have sprung up over the last decade. It’s almost certainly to this film’s benefit that it doesn’t spend too much time actually talking about beer (aside from a few establishing shots of brewing taking place, there’s no in-depth discussions of hops, malts or mouthfeel), but the characters certainly do drink plenty of it. You might posit that it’s because of the relationship dramas occurring in their lives, but really it’s probably because, well, you know, beer is nice.

Given the central characters work at a craft brewery (or a microbrewery, as it once might have been called), the film sets itself very much in a gentrifying inner-city world where men wear beards and trucker caps, where young people hang out in bars which have a studiedly old-fashioned vibe, go hiking in the wilderness, play music from vinyl records, and, of course, drink beer just so long as it’s not mass-produced lager. In this respect, the poster is somewhat misleading, since you’d hardly recognise one of the film’s leads, Luke (played by Jake Johnson, second from right in the poster), who sports a slightly unkempt thick beard throughout the film.

The film’s real central character, though, is Kate (Olivia Wilde), who works in a marketing capacity at the brewery. She and Luke flirt throughout their working day, but each has a stable (if rather more straight-laced) partner that they live with. Kate is with the humourless Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is engaged to the serious-minded Jill (Anna Kendrick). After the two couples have returned from a holiday together at a rural cabin owned by Kate’s partner Chris, the latter break up, leading Luke to start wondering if he has deeper feelings towards Kate. One suspects at this early point that the film is heading towards partner-swapping territory, given that Chris and Jill also seem to hit it off quite well. However, nothing is quite so programmatic, and it ends up being quite a bit more subtle than the set-up initially suggests.

Of course, this kind of small indie interpersonal drama is hardly the stuff to break any cinematic moulds. Stylistically, it sets itself apart from earlier films in the same vein (like Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs) thanks to some expert lensing courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson, with cleanly-framed images taking their cue from the metallic sterility of the brewery and the modernism of Chris’s swanky apartment. Yet the key to any such enterprise is the quality of the ensemble cast, and in this case the four actors gel together really very well. Kendrick and Livingston are rather less showy in their smaller roles, given that their characters are written to be somewhat pedestrian, but Johnson nicely conveys his character’s charming goofiness with a very subtly combative edge. Best of all is Wilde, who holds the film together with a low-key improvisational acuity, avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘strong, free-spirited single woman’ clichés. On the part of the whole cast, it has to be said there’s a lot of drunk acting required, and none of this comes across as forced or embarrassing in the way these things sometimes can; there’s also thankfully no sententious moralising either.

What results is a very focused little drama that feels like it’s dealing with people I know (or have been) in recognisable situations. It’s very careful not to push the revelations too hard or wring them out for melodramatic purposes, finding an ending that feels organic to the characters without closing off anything too neatly. And that kind of thing is, for me, always refreshing to watch. Somewhat like beer is to drink, so I’m going to stop now and think about that for a while instead.

Drinking Buddies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg; Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Wednesday 6 November 2013.