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.

Two Comedy-Drama Films by Andrew Bujalski: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Support the Girls (2018)

Getting his start amidst the lo-fi low-budget talents of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in American indie cinema, Andrew Bujalski has somewhat carved his own place among filmmakers, progressively moving into territory both more quirky like Computer Chess (2013) or more mainstream with Results (2015). His most recent film (which I touched on in my London Film Festival 2018 round-up) has been his most polished — and somehow also most emotionally resonant — film yet, but he likes to dwell in the sometimes uncomfortable territory between comedic and dramatic registers, wringing laughs from his characters even as their situation seems a little more desperate.


Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Stylistically speaking, this seems like a quite different Andrew Bujalski from the one who made the recent Support the Girls (see below), but the sort of loose, improvisational, almost documentary-like style he uses here is very familiar from a lot of contemporary lo-fi filmmaking around the world. It’s all in that awkward staccato of campus conversation, as our protagonist Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) navigates the attention (or inattention) of a bunch of slightly stand-offish dudes, including a particularly annoying one played by the director. I liked the lead actor’s performance very much, which without being flamboyant (or particularly demonstrative) also made it clear where her personal lines were and her feelings towards her ‘suitors’. I think Bujalski only improved at this kind of observational content, and it’s what threads through his filmmaking.

Funny Ha Ha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, 29 January 2019.


Support the Girls (2018)

I didn’t know who Shayna McHayle was before I watched this film, and it’s her first acting role, but she’s now my new favourite actress. Despite Bujalski’s indie-improv background, this feels like a different arena for him, and yet he brings something of that feeling to this piece. It’s a film ostensibly about one of the bleaker environments gifted to us by American late capitalism (a boob-centric suburban restaurant, or ‘breastaurant’ as it were, a family-friendly place in Texas where the waitresses flaunt their assets), but it does a great job of centring the women in this story, brimming over with generosity and care for the women who effectively run this place. None of the men come off particularly well but that’s perhaps no surprise given the establishment — not all of them are terrible, but there’s a lot of sadness, but then there’s a lot of sadness just generally in the film (even as there are plenty of laughs too).

Regina Hall pulls everyone together as the manager of this joint, who truly cares for and goes out of her way to support her staff, who are all much younger and more easily exploitable by the sleazy men in control, like her boss (played by James Le Gros). This allows for a proper ensemble to form around her, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, and finding a point of real warmth and generosity of spirit. There’s a clear story about unstable working environments and the kind of culture that leads to. Everyone is great in this, even when things seem to be falling apart for everyone, and it also manages to make its points about the precarious working lives women like the ones seen here have to navigate, and the untold amount of BS they have to put up with (for example the series of little vignettes of the dudes in the bar witnessed by McHayle’s Danyelle towards the end of the film which prompts her to a self-destructive moment). This really is a great actors film, and unexpectedly feel-good all things considered.

Support the Girls film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 20 October 2018 (and again at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 July 2019).

Results (2015)

Andrew Bujalski can’t really shake his weird indie beginnings (why would he want to?), and even this film which some commentators have suggested is him going mainstream — by which, in comparison to his last film Computer Chess (2013), means largely more surface sheen to the bright, nicely-framed cinematography, and a more famous roster of cast talent — hasn’t necessarily reduced the overall oddness. Partly it helps to have Kevin Corrigan around, an actor who never fails to radiate weird, awkward vibes whatever he’s doing. He’s Danny, the character seeking the results of the title, a newly-rich, newly-divorced man looking to get in shape, hence contacting Trevor (Guy Pearce)’s fitness centre and being assigned Kat (Cobie Smulders) as a trainer. Pearce and Smulders really put across their characters well, with their can-do upbeat personal training ways, though it’s Trevor who’s particularly filled with the self-help platitudes (particularly in some hilarious YouTube videos we see for his holistic fitness philosophy). Kat has an angrier edge, and rebuffs Danny’s maudlin advances on her. It would be easy to take against the film; Corrigan and Smulders, or Smulders and Pearce are hardly anyone’s idea of perfect romcom pairings. But that’s partly the point: this isn’t trying to be the perfect romcom. It’s deeply awkward at times, and it’s no less weird than Bujalski’s earlier films, but it gets, as they say, results.

Results film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 24 January 2016.

Computer Chess (2013)

Director Andrew Bujalski comes from the same low-budget New York scene that produced Joe Swanberg, whose most recent film was Drinking Buddies. I greatly enjoyed both films, but it’s fair to say that Bujalski has not gone in the same direction. Where Swanberg’s film was glossy and had stars, Computer Chess is determinedly retro-fashioned, avoiding well-known actors — avoiding in fact that kind of ‘star turn’ that looks so good on an actor’s CV — and utilising contemporaneous video technology in visualising its mid-1980s story of programmers and boffins holed up in a motel’s conference suite competing for the best computer chess simulator. In doing so, it’s easy to forget that this is a film from roughly 30 years later, though it does make it rather easier to imagine it transferring well to the small screen, given its Academy ratio and fuzzy lo-fi imagery. Therefore, it’s just as well that in the UK the film is being distributed by Eureka Video, a niche outlet who should be known to viewers for their fantastic Masters of Cinema range. In any case, the emotional affect is rather similar in both directors’ works, being focused primarily on interpersonal relationships in a way that largely avoids overt melodrama.

The story in Computer Chess, though, is difficult to categorise. It’s an ensemble piece that gives roughly equal weight to several different characters, who are split into teams for the competition, although there’s one independent operating solo, the self-consciously cool — and therefore gratingly egocentric — Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige). Michael holds himself aloof from the other (more overtly geeky) competitors, which is manifested primarily in his having lacked the foresight to book a room at the bland suburban motel where the competition is taking place. Gradually, however, one of the members of the star team, an awkward and shy young man called Peter (Patrick Riester), comes to prominence within the story, as he must try to figure out why his team’s computer is not achieving as well as hoped, receiving little effective help from his teammate Martin (Wiley Wiggins). There’s also even a romantic subplot of sorts for Peter, though it’s engagingly awkward and unforced.

Beyond this description of the plot’s set-up, I find myself grasping for generic descriptions for my tagging of this review. It’s a drama, but there are plenty of laughs in it too. The stakes are so low (for us as viewers) that the pleasure is not in which team wins the competition, so much as how they go about it, and the dramas they run into along the way. Commenting on the competition is the chess grandmaster whom the winning team’s computer will play at the end, and his pomposity becomes a running joke in the film (he is also played by film critic Gerald Peary, suggesting its own form of in-joke). I think the key to what the film is trying to do, though, is in the figure of Michael, who wanders the motel’s corridors by night trying to find somewhere to sleep, and in the process making connections amongst the various teams as well as with other residents of the motel. These latter include a consciousness-raising group seeking spiritual enlightenment in a peculiar touchy-feely swingers-y way, and the meeting between the two groups motivates some drama around the differences in emotional satisfaction as experienced (or rather, avoided) by the introverted programmers. There’s even a sort of hallucinatory moment of colour, like an epiphany, but a jagged one that doesn’t seem to resolve in anything.

It would be easy to suggest that Computer Chess is a bit of 80s nostalgia, but it doesn’t really come across that way. Beyond some of the haircuts and fashions and particularly those vast, chunky computers, there’s not really a focus on fetishising the past as you might get in a nostalgic period film — though one could argue the very technology used to make the film is a form of fetishism. Then again, this clunky period technology resists being used for the kind of 1980s we usually see in modern films (luridly coloured clothing, musical party sequences and the like) — it’s shot in black-and-white, but in a particularly unfocused and washed-out variety suggested the infancy of the technology used to make the film (as of that featured in the film). This is a story about people who happen to be working at a point relatively early in the development of computer programming and of artificial intelligence, making small but seemingly crucial advances on those fronts, but more than that learning to find some joy in their shared hobby, which had for so long been a solitary pursuit of a small number of individuals. The game they are making their computers play may enact the fall of empires, but through this they are almost creating a new one together. It’s charming.

Computer Chess film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.