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: The Sacrament

6 07 2014

The SacramentIt’s hard to think of any stylistic development of the past five years with quite the impact of found footage.  Once “Paranormal Activity” arrived out of nowhere with a resounding bang, it seemed like its DIY cinema verité aesthetic could be found wherever you looked.  From cop films (“End of Watch“) to superhero movies (“Chronicle“) and even teen party flicks (“Project X“), everyone was doing it – perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, or maybe just to fall in line with the newest trend.

Yet very few of these movies have actually committed to the style as the main vehicle for storytelling.  Ti West, on the other hand, employs it as more than a half-hearted gimmick in “The Sacrament.”  Under his direction, the camera becomes our eyes and ears, our only means of accessing the events of the narrative.  West’s dedication pays off in spades as his film constitutes one of the most absorbing and frightening experiences of the year.

I do wish West hadn’t been quite so beholden to recreating the Jonestown mass sacrifice (that’s the one with the Kool-Aid) since his command the technique creates a truly ominous atmosphere.  He doesn’t entirely recreate the famous cult settlement, but West does little more than essentially plant it in the present day.

The camera through which we experience “The Sacrament” comes courtesy of Vice reporters Jake and Sam (Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen), who join colleague Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he goes to check the safety of his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) at the mysterious commune Eden Parish.  The film begins with their extended journalistically-oriented overview of the group’s calm facade lasting nearly 45 minutes … but then the Vice team more or less causes the collapse of the Parish’s fragile community.

West, in the final hour, lets loose into an absolutely nightmarish terror.  “The Sacrament” quickly and efficiently shows the allure of a charismatic leader like Eden Parish’s “Father” (Gene Jones) and how quickly he can self-destruct the edifice he has built.  It’s not redefining the subgenre of cult horror, but West crafts one scarily good movie that ought to give anyone a potent fright.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Happy Christmas

26 06 2014

Happy ChristmasJoe Swanberg had a modest little hit on his hands last summer with “Drinking Buddies,” a more mainstream-friendly comedy.  And thanks to all the stars he packed into the film (and thus the cover art), it seems to have found some nice legs on Netflix.

Happy Christmas” seems unlikely to win over those new fans once more, and it may not even wholly satisfy those more tolerant of the mumblecore style.  Swanberg shows his talents, sure, but the whole enterprise just feels slight and disposable.

It’s a slice of not particularly interesting life that gets in and out within 82 minutes.  During that runtime, the film doesn’t really have much to say, either.  Anna Kendrick gets to have some fun as Jenny, a hapless twentysomething who moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife, the sometimes-writer Kelly (Melanie Lynskey).

She brings headache and heartache along with her, as plenty of our own family members are capable of doing.  This familiar narrative device yields little new to ponder or even laugh about.  Unwrapping “Happy Christmas” is like opening the gift from that random aunt of yours … and realizing it’s the same thing you got from her last year.

Though the film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, that’s not to say it doesn’t boast some great facets.  The “cool girl,” seemingly down-to-earth Kendrick is a perfect fit for Swanberg speak.  She stammers like a natural, fumbling over “like” just as any of us would and reacts to her surroundings with startling authenticity.  Kendrick brings the honesty and fun to “Happy Christmas” where everyone else just seems kind of dour and depressed.  At least we can say we spent some time basking in her aura of awesomeness.  B-2stars





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