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.

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Criterion Sunday 229: Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973)

A quintessential Bergman-esque chamber drama of a couple dealing with their slow break-up and rapprochement over a period of about a decade, told in six chapters (six hour-long episodes in the TV version, but I watched the film version at half that length). There is barely anyone else on screen for the running time, and that’s really not much of an issue, because this is about these two people and the particular way they seem so happy together but, actually, aren’t. The acting is excellent, but I’m not sure I can summon enthusiasm for Bergman’s dramatics at this point in my life. However, I certainly wouldn’t wish to discount it: I was all ready to be very cynical early on, but I concede that the drama did eventually reel me in somewhat (even if I don’t accept this is necessarily how all marriages are).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson; Length 167 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 October 2018.

Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.

Descendants film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott; Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016.

Nightcrawler (2014)

This film, which appears to be largely a family affair (director, producer and editor all hail from the Gilroy family, the first of whom is married to the female lead), is another flourish of retro respect towards the scuzzy lo-fi VHS aesthetics of the 80s, a very literal ‘video nasty’ in many ways, which at certain levels reminds me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It’s a character study of Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal, lean, slick of hair and with a stooped shuffle), a low-life criminal and sociopathic grifter just looking for a career, who stumbles into filming real-life crime footage for breaking news items on cable news. In finding his niche, Lou is at some level just exploiting the already dubious ethics of TV news journalism, though in his own work he pushes at these pretty hard, and it doesn’t take long before he’s breaking police lines and moving bodies for a better shot composition. And yet it’s also a subtly twisted satire on management techniques, as Lou takes on the naïve and desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, lecturing him on being a good employee and deploying all his online business learning in negotiations first with Rick and then with the TV station and its producer Nina (Rene Russo). There are plenty of laughs in fact, though a lot of them are of the excruciatingly uncomfortable variety, as we recognise the intensity of Lou’s delusional beliefs being played out, an unfettered id wreaking havoc with real-life consequences. All this is shot in an immersively lo-fi digital video format (notably by Robert Elswit, a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and who has in the past inveighed against digital), which gives it all an extra level of discomfiting presence. Ultimately, how the viewer responds is likely to be related to their tolerance for these techniques, not a million miles from the morality plays of Michael Haneke if (thankfully) lacking some of the more acute skewering of audience complicity. It’s certainly a strong directorial effort for Gilroy, and a fine performance for Gyllenhaal.

Nightcrawler film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dan Gilroy; Cinematographer Robert Elswit; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 5 November 2014.

Psy-Warriors (1981)

This screening was presented as part of a series dedicated to the visual spaces of television, alongside a shorter work called “The Saliva Milkshake” (reviewed below). The image is a screen capture of the film’s title card. Both were originally shown on the BBC, with the feature originally aired on 12 May 1981 as part of the “Play for Today” series, and the shorter work on 6 January 1975 in the “Centre Play” series.


Psy-Warriors (1981)

I feel as though I preface a lot of my reviews by claiming I’m no expert on what I’m about to write about, but I must at least be honest. This is going to occur fairly frequently when one dips into areas of filmmaking that are strange or unusual or otherwise outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In this case, the format of the standalone television drama (whether a half-hour segment or a feature-length presentation) is one that has been particularly ill-served by advances in distribution over the last few decades. There are still huge numbers of TV shows languishing in archives (or entirely wiped from them) that get very little airing nowadays. They may have garnered larger viewerships than many cinema-distributed films at the time, but for only one or two airings many decades ago. It’s this context in which I come to this film I’m reviewing now, a fascinating document of a past era (albeit tackling themes still very much relevant now), which I saw in a one-off archival screening at the British Film Institute.

In Britain, many of our most well-regarded directors came from a background in TV drama, and specifically the television play, a rather more cerebral and stagy sub-genre of the format which flourished from the late-1950s through to the 1980s, and which reserved their most prominent credits for the writer (whose name would often be seen on the title card or immediately following it, like David Leland’s here) rather than the director. Nevertheless, many of these works showed a strong directorial hand, and trying to see many of those early films of, say, Ken Loach or Stephen Frears or Mike Leigh can be particularly difficult. Perhaps my favourite British director — and one who stayed true to the TV play format, making relatively few films which gained cinematic distribution — is Alan Clarke. Even now, there are extensive swathes of his TV output which are very difficult to see in any form, and Psy-Warriors is one such work. It deals with military psychological operations, or brainwashing and psychological torture to put it rather more crudely. One can trace a very direct line from what we see on screen here to what continues to be done as a matter of course in such environments as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

There are certain thematic ideas which run throughout many of the films which Clarke chose to direct. Generally, his films would deal with marginalised communities (the poor and the working classes, soldiers and criminals), and the way in which their lives are shaped by the State and its forces of oppression, often expressed via violence. Psy-Warriors is no different, though the twist is that the three jailed captives — whom we at first assume are terrorists — turn out to be volunteers from within the ranks of the military, looking to advance their careers as well as patriotically help out their government with perfecting its methods of interrogation and deprogramming. Despite this, the way they are treated removes their humanity and pushes them to the edge of their tolerance. The methods are presented unflinchingly, with the male suspects (John Duttine’s Stone and Derrick O’Connor’s Richards) seen stripped naked, with bags placed over their heads, and strung up in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. They are shown detained in cages (the third prisoner is a woman, Rosalind Ayres’s Turner), sleeping under bright lights or with grating white noise constantly playing, woken up by random intrusions from unremittingly brutal guards (the most prominent here played by the stalwart Warren Clarke), and fed a poor diet and even then only habitually. All these, of course, being techniques increasingly familiar to outraged readers of journalistic accounts of human rights abuses in modern detention facilities, and which must have been even more confrontational to television viewers of over 30 years ago.

The film’s style is striking, even if like many other films in this genre, it is necessarily curtailed by its stage-bound origins and limited budget. One expects in the television play to see a frontal staging on black cube sets resembling a theatre space, as well as long stretches of dialogue in place of action, and this is all here. However, Clarke and his collaborators are resourceful in using the bars of the cages as a recurring visual motif, filming many scenes through them, which have the effect of sometimes concealing the characters’ eyes or mouths and further impairing any easy identification. (It was in many respects unsurprising that Clarke went on to direct a Bertolt Brecht adaptation with Baal the following year, and his films throughout the 1980s increasingly become stripped down, notably Contact and Christine.) The camera also moves around the space, avoiding a slavish adherence to a fixed frontal view that would be all too easy given the film’s basis in a stage play, though the stage-bound form is appropriate to a story about people set apart from society and experimented upon.

If ultimately this isn’t either director Clarke’s or writer Leland’s strongest work, it’s still fascinating in its play on ideas that haven’t much diminished in importance in the intervening time. The acting, especially from the authority figures (Clarke and Colin Blakely’s psychologist), is imposing and the staging is striking. At times the expository talkiness of the dialogue can overwhelm the dramatic movement, but the line between authorities and terrorists is blurred, and the state’s culpability is questioned, in ways that remain somewhat unsettling even today.

Psy-WarriorsCREDITS
Director Alan Clarke; Writer David Leland; Cinematographer Ken Westbury [as film cameraman]; Starring Rosalind Ayres, John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke, Colin Blakely; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014.

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

It’s surely the most trailered and hyped-up release of the season. There were few places to turn where Will Ferrell’s Anchorman persona, newscaster Ron Burgundy, has not popped up at some point ever since he announced the return on US late-night TV talkshow Conan well over a year ago. The original film of 2004 has found an ever more committed fan base since being released to DVD and remains familiarly quotable. With the sequel, the setting has moved forward a bit from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, and from the West coast of San Diego to the Big Apple of New York, meaning all the period references have been overhauled. There are a huge number of additional cameo appearances, and all the core cast have returned. So maybe that explains why the feeling of finally sitting in a cinema to watch this return was so deflating for me. I can’t say it entirely lacks laughs, but it does lack cohesion. I don’t doubt the cast had fun making it, but the experience of watching it is a little wearying, especially for a comedy film that nudges two hours in length.

I don’t in all honesty have much energy for getting into it all in detail. It just felt fairly slipshod, like a series of only barely-linked skits, held together by the character tropes so familiar from the first film. Ron remains a media dinosaur, unable to keep up with social changes that threaten to relegate him to a racist, misogynist relic (and yes, we get a bit of both here, presented within a context of media satire — after a fashion, considering it’s about thirty years late). Paul Rudd’s Brian is a woman-chasing lothario with indifferent success, David Koechner’s Champ is filled with barely-repressed feelings for Ron not to mention very little knowledge of the sports he reports on, and finally there’s Steve Carell’s weatherman Brick, still with a very low IQ but now with an incipient love interest (the well-matched Kristen Wiig, who manages to remain a charming screen presence for all the brief time she’s on). Finally, there’s Ron’s on-again off-again love interest Veronica (Christina Applegate), who basically plays the straight man to all of Ferrell’s comedy stylings.

The film’s central thesis is that news has become a vapid attempt to secure ratings, which is not exactly a groundbreaking idea, but at least it’s put across with some gusto. The bad guy is a blatant mashup of Rupert Murdoch (Australian media mogul) and Richard Branson (blond goatee and an airline) as the owner of the 24-hour television station which recruits Ron and his team, and needless to say, Important Lessons Are Learned by the film’s close, both for Ron, for his friends, and for the mogul. There are good scenes and funny ones too (and I did laugh at the dinner Ron shared with his black female boss and her family, for example), but the individual pleasures all feel so very transitory. Stylistically, it feels like something that will work much better on a TV-sized screen, but here comes across as cheap-looking and rather flat.

Still, it’s a comedy and it has some laughs. It will no doubt make many of its viewers pleased, especially those who’ve come to enjoy these fashionably retro characters. I like the first film, and I liked this one too, just not enough to want to think too hard about it, because every time I do it makes me feel less warmly towards it. Perhaps that’s the key though. Try not to think too hard. It seems to work for Brick.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers Will Ferrell and McKay; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.