Late Night (2018)

When discussing Asian-American experiences, there’s a lot about people from Chinese or Japanese backgrounds, but Indian-Americans have also been fairly prominent (see also my review of Meet the Patels a few years ago). This prominence has come not least via high-profile television comedians like Aziz Ansari or Mindy Kaling, the writer and star of TV’s The Mindy Project and most recently this film, also directed by a Canadian of Indian heritage, Nisha Ganatra. Ostensibly the film focuses on Emma Thompson’s star, but really it’s about women like Kaling getting a foot in the door of an industry dominated by white people, usually men.


A broadly likeable film which doesn’t always feel believable. Quite aside from having a woman as a long-running late night talk show host (and Emma Thompson exudes an odd energy, unlike the guys and even the few women currently doing it), mostly it’s because the film repeatedly leans on the idea that the show is broadcast live. I also didn’t believe anyone in the film really knew anything about social media. However, the script delivers quite a few laughs, even when it’s being more broadly sentimental, and it can be quite sharp about some of the politics around diversity in the media (though I’d have liked to see the dream diverse team actually working together at the end, rather than in a montage). What I loved most of all were Emma Thompson’s hair and clothes as late night talkshow host Katherine Newbury (she is a style icon in this film), and her withering backstage grumpiness. It does make a great case, quite in passing, given how easily Katherine fires people, that media workers desperately need unionisation, though.

Late Night film posterCREDITS
Director Nisha Ganatra; Writer Mindy Kaling; Cinematographer Matthew Clark; Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 18 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 258: Tanner ’88 (1988)

A fictionalised account of a Democratic nominee for President contesting the primaries against the likes of Michael Dukakis (who would go on to actually win the Democratic nomination that year, if not the Presidency), Jesse Jackson and even Al Gore and Joe Biden (who are never seen, but their names come up once or twice). Michael Murphy (as Jack Tanner) has a sort of bland appeal that feels so familiar in US Presidential candidates, so he’s a good choice for this man who becomes very slightly radicalised during his campaign — we’re not talking Bulworth (1998) here, but there’s a striking sequence in Detroit where he talks to (presumably very real) local campaigners in what feels the closest to a documentary sequence in the whole mini-series (not a million miles from some of the political discussions in, say, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom in making dramatic the everyday political discussions of ordinary people). Elsewhere there’s behind-the-scenes political plotting, including Tanner’s affair with the deputy manager of a rival’s campaign, his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon)’s college idealism clashing with her more conservative father, whose policies for the most part are in unemotional soundbites, and his hard-nosed campaign manager TJ (Pamela Reed) making calls and crunching numbers in fairly opaque ways, but they certainly come across dramatically. The general sense is to satirise the idea of politicians having any actual beliefs, an early broadside against the kind of media and image-heavy campaigning that has come to dominate the US election cycle. Altman’s familiar style, with a roving camera, plenty of zooms and overlapping dialogue is all in place and it feels a bit like a prelude to some of the multiple narratives he’d pursue in The Player and Short Cuts.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Each of the 11 episodes is prefaced by a minute or two of an in-character introduction filmed in 2004 (generally Murphy, but Reed and Nixon also show up), reflecting on the events of the previous episode. This was filmed at the time that Trudeau and Altman worked with many of the same actors on a follow-up mini-series Tanner on Tanner. That latter sequel isn’t on this set, but perhaps a future upgrade may include it?
  • There’s a 20 minute conversation between Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman from 2004, in which they discuss how the series came together and the way they shot the thing, as well as useful comments on the improvisations and working methods of some of the actors and political figures they got as cameos.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Creator/Writer Garry Trudeau; Cinematographer Jean Lépine; Starring Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Wendy Crewson; Length 353 minutes (in 11 episodes of c30 minutes each, although the first is a double episode).

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 207: 「エロ事師たち」より人類学入門 “Erogotoshitachi” Yori Jinruigaku Nyumon (The Pornographers, 1966)

This Japanese film about a small-time filth merchant doesn’t actually feature any of what the title suggests (probably for the best) but is instead a sort of odd, madcap series of incidents that hangs together really strangely — although I admit I was a little drowsy when I watched it, which hardly helped me keep it all straight, though I don’t really think it’s interested in straightforward narrative storytelling. It has enough oddity to make it more of a satire, and it probably helps if you know the society to pick up on what’s being skewered.

Criterion Extras: Nothing but a trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Imamura and Koji Numata 沼田幸二; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Shoichi Ozawa 小沢昭一; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 205: Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982)

One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 165: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992)

Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).

Criterion Sunday 120: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016.

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges; Cinematographer John Seitz; Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998).

Dear White People (2014)

It’s worth celebrating this film for what it is and what it achieves, rather than cavilling about the things I wish it had done. After all it is rare enough to see a mainstream depiction in a film from the United States of lives other than privileged white kids, especially within a stylistic framework that equally evokes Wes Anderson (the Ivy League-like setting additionally recalls his Rushmore) and Stanley Kubrick (whose Barry Lyndon gets referenced via some of the classical music cues), amongst others. In fact, given the film’s budget, it’s a wonder that it looks as good as it does, shot in crisp bright colours, beautifully lit and with a lot of frontal framing of the film’s black faces. It’s in these boldly direct images that the film scores highest, with challenges to such things as racial power dynamics (the myth of black ‘racism’ for example) and the crassness of media representations of minorities, generally delivered by its forceful leading lady Tessa Thompson (playing a character called Sam White, head of her college house’s student body).

Aside from the titular radio show in which Sam delivers further challenges to her collegiate audience, the film is filled with other references to the co-optation of ‘authentic’ black experiences by privileged white people (all the college’s houses are named after black jazz musicians, there’s a reference to the audience for aggressive rap music largely being non-black, while the denouement involves a staging of a hiphop-themed party at a white fraternity). Meanwhile, its other lead character, the student journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), moves from being stand-offish around his black colleagues as a show of resistance to black stereotypes, to being part of their movement to challenge campus-based racism. His arc seems to reference Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, though his climactic rage at the white fraternity he was a part of has less of the power of Mookie’s trash can moment in that film, possibly because none of the white characters here are in any way sympathetic (or indeed given particularly rounded roles — not that that’s a problem, of course). The narrative also becomes more conventional as the film progresses, dissipating some of the early excellent character work and humorous barbs.

However, much as I wish it had been angrier — its target seems almost quaint within a media landscape currently dominated by stories of murderous police aggression — it never allows the power of its black protagonists to be co-opted or dissipated within the dominant power structures. I look forward to further films from this cast, and from writer/director Justin Simien.

Dear White People film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Justin Simien; Cinematographer Topher Osborn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Teyonah Parris; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.

Step Up: All In (2014)

There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and larger role in Step Up 3D (2010), as well as his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).

The previous film’s pretensions of connecting to current trends in media (YouTube and mobile phone filming) and the rise of protest movements are dialled down with this chapter, though with the character of Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko), there remains a cogent critique of the media circus and its manipulativeness in search of ratings and success. As this TV-host ringmaster whose Las Vegas dance competition brings the two leads together, Miko is acting on a completely different planet from most of the film, as if she saw Elizabeth Banks in The Hunger Games and considered her performance just too naturalistic and muted. It certainly makes the task of the leads that much more difficult, and though Evigan does (ahem) step it up, I wasn’t convinced by Guzman, who is given a rather overextended emo sequence towards the end where his character is put right by the magic wise words of the generic European parent-figures.

What the film does well — and I admit this is rather the obvious point — is the dance setpieces, starting from the opening credits sequence (who knew films still did those) with its parade of dance-hopefuls trying out to bored producers, through to the epic final battle, which is obviously enhanced through montage and doesn’t convince at all as a filmed live reality show (though perhaps this is just another subliminal tip of the hat to the manipulativeness of modern television). Along the way we get a sense of how pursuing a career in dance can be a draining and difficult experience (something that was also a theme in the third film), from Sean’s voiceover during the opening auditions, to the glimpse at the crappy low-end service industry jobs everyone needs to take in order to make ends meet. His crew from the Miami film, now relocated to Los Angeles, soon disperses at the lack of opportunities and work, leaving Sean alone to recruit a new crew. Yet so expendable are these day jobs that everyone he reaches out to quickly ditch them for the slender prospect of something in Las Vegas. It’s only Moose who seems to acknowledge any commitments beyond dancing, in one of the film’s more affecting sequences.

Sure, it may be no actual bona fide masterpiecce, but this fifth film in the series is one of its strongest yet. There’s a colourful visual palette to go along with the kinetic energy of the dance sequences, and underlying it all is a cheerful optimism in the power of movement to overcome doubt and worry. The plotting and structure may fit into a long line of predictable genre exercises (this series and the contemporaneous High School Musical films as examples), but everyone attacks the script and the setpieces with the energy of people doing it all for the first time, and I find that a winning combination.

Step Up: All In film posterCREDITS
Director Trish Sie; Writer John Swetnam; Cinematographer Brian Pearson; Starring Ryan Guzman, Briana Evigan, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Izabella Miko; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014.