REVIEW: Joshy

9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars

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REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Jurassic World

13 06 2015

“We want to be thrilled,” declares Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire to a set of interested investors at the beginning of “Jurassic World.”  One can easily imagine the very green director Colin Trevorrow, with only the indie charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed” under his belt, making the same kind of pitch to the corporate powers that be at Universal.

In a manner that recalls “22 Jump Street,” many lines at the opening of the film give a winking nod to the entire enterprise of jumpstarting a dormant franchise for a new audience.  In the 22 years the original “Jurassic Park” film hit the multiplex, a new style of action filmmaking has obliterated the level of craft in the genre.  These blockbusters – think Michael Bay and “Transformers” – operate under the philosophy of bigger, louder, harder, faster, stronger.

These films have become predictable, boring, and numbing.  We still marvel at the screen, sure, but we have come to expect the unexpected and see the extraordinary as ordinary.  “Jurassic World” invites that childlike sense of awe to rear its head once again after hibernating.  And in true Spielberg fashion, we receive the invitation quite literally through the perspective of a child.

The first time Trevorrow gives his audience a peek at the new Jurassic Park, now rebranded as Jurassic World, it comes as the young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes his way through the crowd to get to the front of a tramcar.  He sees the giant entry gates, and the score by Michael Giacchino swells to the tune John Williams made iconic years ago.  In the succession of shots that follows, we see the many amazing dinosaur attractions (along with a plethora of corporate sponsors) and know his wide-eyed wonder is not misplaced.

The visual effects from “Jurassic Park” were impressive at the time, yet they now look a little creaky and dated.  I cannot imagine what technological advances could improve the look of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World,” which exhibit a breathtaking photorealism, though the CGI wizards will undeniably make me eat those words.

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REVIEW: Drinking Buddies

27 07 2013

Drinking BuddiesThe mainstreaming of mumblecore continues in summer 2013 with Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” picking up the baton from Lynn Shelton’s summer 2012 crossover film “Your Sister’s Sister.”  Swanberg, picking up on so much of the nuance that makes us human, has made one of the best cases for his emerging movement’s tropes to be taken up by higher-caliber comedies.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out.  Swanberg, however, shows that plenty of drama can be found in all the conversation dead space in our lives.  In fact, it’s often the stammering, muttering, and fumbling for words that says the most about how we really feel.  If “Drinking Buddies” were any further away from Aaron Sorkin-speak on the dialect spectrum, it would be a silent film.

These moments of insight into the characters’ feelings make them feel so much more like us, not just lines of dialogue on a page.  Swanberg’s script allows so much wiggle-room for actors to explore, and the cast of “Drinking Buddies” explores it to fascinating ends.  As Kate and Luke, old friends fond of the brew, Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson share an unconventional and unpredictable chemistry.  We’re never sure where their inebriated antics will take them, but it’s always a gripping watch.

There’s also the context of their quasi-flirtatious conversations – both of them are in serious relationships – that adds a level of suspense to the proceedings.  Kate is tied to the coldly intellectual Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is nearing engagement to Jill (Anna Kendrick in her best performance since “Up in the Air“).  There’s none of your usual clichéd couple drama here … just two pairs that feel like they could be friends of ours in real life.

“Drinking Buddies” doesn’t aim for grand statements on life, love, and commitment.  Swanberg’s film finds that just showing normal people going about their lives can be a rewarding exercise without overreaching and adding significance.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Safety Not Guaranteed

19 06 2012

Maybe my response is partly Pavlovian due to four seasons of conditioning from “Parks and Recreation,” but I thought just about everything Aubrey Plaza said or did was hilarious in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a quirky indie comedy featuring the comedic dynamo.  At best, her muted enthusiasm elicits gut-wrenching laughs; at worst, a good and wholehearted chuckle that leaves no after-taste of guilt.  So forget Tom Cruise’s half-baked rocker impersonation and Adam Sandler’s self-parodic baby voice; this is the summer comedy you deserve to see.  And then maybe see twice.

Plaza plays Darius, a magazine intern in Seattle working for an aspiring Miranda Priestly (a lovely cameo by Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe from “24”).  Suffering from a bad case of cubicle tedium, she escapes by going out on assignment with Jeff, a lazy Lothario played with appropriately little decency or discretion by Jake Johnson, and a fellow intern Arnau, an Indian intern whose life motto must be “work hard, computer game harder.”  Together, the three investigate a very odd classified ad seeking a time traveling companion.

Don’t expect “Back to the Future” from “Safety Not Guaranteed,” though; this comedy follows all the antics leading up to a trip to the future with Mark Duplass’ Kenneth, the enigmatic man who placed the ad.  Darius must track him down, entice him, and then woo him into allowing her to see the details that would make an interesting piece.  The lines between the story and real feelings quickly blur, but the film has plenty of tricks up its sleeves along with an abundance of fantastic lines and nuanced comedic performances to guarantee satisfaction.  B+