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

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REVIEW: The Conjuring

28 09 2014

Mass-produced horror series like “Saw,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “Final Destination” (with “Insidious” rapidly approaching supersaturation) tend to give the genre a bad name.  It’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, a horror film like “The Exorcist” could get a Best Picture nomination.

I certainly do not mean to draw a parallel that implies “The Conjuring” is equal in stature to William Friedkin’s aforementioned terrifying masterwork, nor am I saying that James Wan’s film was robbed of Oscar glory at last year’s ceremony.  I merely aim to point out that when done well, horror films can really be exemplary pieces of filmmaking.

Wan expertly utilizes filmic tools like sound design and cinematography to cast quite the spell with “The Conjuring.”  He’s interested in more than the quick “gotcha” of a jump-out scene.  The scares those generate, after all, generally tend to dissipate within seconds.  Wan’s filmmaking lingers with its eeriness, leading you to wonder when all the tension floating around will materialize into a nightmare.

His mission is also aided by a more than passable script, based on a true incident from the call of duty of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Though hauntings, possessions, and exorcisms are old hat to most by now, “The Conjuring” never seems plagued by triteness.  If anything, the well-plotted and developed screenplay hampers Wan’s filmmaking through its sheer length and scope.

In the time between the film’s big scares, some of the tautness of the terror has a chance to loosen.  Taking ten to fifteen minutes out of the final edit might have made this one of the all-time greats.  Still, “The Conjuring” delivers where it needs to – and delivers big when the frights arrive.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Touchy Feely

5 08 2013

Touchy FeelyHow ironic that director Lynn Shelton should begin to lose her touch in the film “Touchy Feely,” a film about people who literally touch for a living.

All the seemingly effortless perceptiveness into our very humanity in Shelton’s prior two films “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” have eluded her grasp in her latest feature.  “Touchy Feely” is a mess, unfocused and unorganized from the get-go.  Shelton writes plenty of interestingly odd characters, but they ultimately offer us nothing to take home and apply to our own lives because we can’t identify with them.

The film jumps from emotional non-sequitur to emotional non-sequitur as everyone seems to act in only the most bizarre and irrational ways possible.  Whether it’s taking ecstasy, forcing their significant other to strip in a bathroom at their place of business (only to then walk out), or going to an experimental massage therapist to improve their dentistry, Shelton’s got the sheer unpredictability of human nature cornered.  The problem is, however, that none of these quirks add up to anything – nor do they highlight anything about what it means to be alive, or in love, or a productive member of society.

The actors could have turned “Touchy Feely” into their showcase by picking up the slack from Shelton’s script, but they wind up falling into the same humdrum, forgettable pattern of the film.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s erratic Abby shows nowhere near the vitality and inner life of her titular bride in “Rachel Getting Married,” and Ellen Page just plays Juno on downers.  Not even Allison Janney could breathe any fresh air into the film.

On a final sad note, I was really hoping this would be a breakout role for Josh Pais, a stalwart character actor who first caught my eye as a cantankerous Harlem teacher in “Music of the Heart” when I was seven years old.  He’s been popping up in movies and TV shows for years, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him.  But his role in “Touchy Feely,” a deadbeat dentist, was a droning monotone. Hopefully he gets another shot at a big part like this again; I just hope this wasn’t the first time a casting agent saw him on screen.  C-1halfstars





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