Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg makes films like this one, self-contained little scenarios based entirely around his actors’ improvisations. By comparison, the previous year’s Drinking Buddies was a big budget blowout (even if it contained remnants of his cinematic style), but this is closer to his roots I feel. Swanberg plays Jeff, a husband to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), whose settled domestic life with their infant son is disrupted by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who stays in their basement while she gets over some situation or other. It’s an intimate little family drama played out over the holiday season, though that’s never really a big part of the film. Mostly it’s about these people interacting with one another, as Kelly is at first wary of Jenny’s youth and lifestyle, before finding some common ground and allowing Jenny to coax her into redefining certain aspects of her relationship with Jeff. Even recounting this plot makes it sound somehow more melodramatic than it ends up being, and undoubtedly not all audiences will connect with this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, but it feels like something more natural, reflecting something of real lived experience. Hearing Lynskey’s native New Zealand accent is also somehow reassuring, and reminds me of the vibrant improvised film scene when I was growing up in that country. I hope to continue seeing films like this from Swanberg; it marks a refreshing change of pace from the usual diet of slicker cinematic releases.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg | Cinematographer Ben Richardson | Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015

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Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I mentioned a certain psychosexual element to Josephine Decker’s earlier film Butter on the Latch, and that’s a quality which is decisively extended with this film. The setting is now entirely rural, at a small farm where Akin (improv indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) has been hired for the summer to help out Jeremiah and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) with their work herding and milking the cows. Akin seems fairly straightforward — he’s a quiet man, married with a child, though he has been trying to hide this fact — but it’s Sarah who’s at the heart of the piece. She’s a complex character, at once ingenuous and manipulative, who apparently fits into a certain bucolic ideal of untainted femininity, but who has a much more earthy connection to nature and, more particularly, to her sexual desires. So naturally things get complicated when Akin arrives. Once again Decker’s filmic style has an elusive, oneiric and even spiritual quality, poetic in its use of out-of-focus shots and off-centre framings, but no mere pastiche of, say, Terrence Malick (go search out Ain’t Them Bodies Saints if that’s what you’re looking for). This all renders the latter part of the film a sort of nightmarish phantasmagoria, or perhaps it’s just a descent into familiar generic tropes, but I don’t think the film is quite that straightforward. It may even be a stronger work than Latch, because it’s in some ways even more challenging — if not necessarily at a formal level, certainly to the idea of male patriarchal violence that is encoded into its setting and which seems to dictate its denouement. Whatever one’s opinion, though, Decker is certainly a filmmaker to watch (which is another way of saying, I need to go back and see this film again).


© Cinelicious Pics

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Josephine Decker | Cinematographer Ashley Connor | Starring Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg | Length 94 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015

Drinking Buddies (2013)

I like beer, it must be said, and I like the new wave of craft breweries in the States (and here in the UK) that have sprung up over the last decade. It’s almost certainly to this film’s benefit that it doesn’t spend too much time actually talking about beer (aside from a few establishing shots of brewing taking place, there’s no in-depth discussions of hops, malts or mouthfeel), but the characters certainly do drink plenty of it. You might posit that it’s because of the relationship dramas occurring in their lives, but really it’s probably because, well, you know, beer is nice.

Given the central characters work at a craft brewery (or a microbrewery, as it once might have been called), the film sets itself very much in a gentrifying inner-city world where men wear beards and trucker caps, where young people hang out in bars which have a studiedly old-fashioned vibe, go hiking in the wilderness, play music from vinyl records, and, of course, drink beer just so long as it’s not mass-produced lager. In this respect, the poster is somewhat misleading, since you’d hardly recognise one of the film’s leads, Luke (played by Jake Johnson, second from right in the poster), who sports a slightly unkempt thick beard throughout the film.

The film’s real central character, though, is Kate (Olivia Wilde), who works in a marketing capacity at the brewery. She and Luke flirt throughout their working day, but each has a stable (if rather more straight-laced) partner that they live with. Kate is with the humourless Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is engaged to the serious-minded Jill (Anna Kendrick). After the two couples have returned from a holiday together at a rural cabin owned by Kate’s partner Chris, the latter break up, leading Luke to start wondering if he has deeper feelings towards Kate. One suspects at this early point that the film is heading towards partner-swapping territory, given that Chris and Jill also seem to hit it off quite well. However, nothing is quite so programmatic, and it ends up being quite a bit more subtle than the set-up initially suggests.

Of course, this kind of small indie interpersonal drama is hardly the stuff to break any cinematic moulds. Stylistically, it sets itself apart from earlier films in the same vein (like Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs) thanks to some expert lensing courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson, with cleanly-framed images taking their cue from the metallic sterility of the brewery and the modernism of Chris’s swanky apartment. Yet the key to any such enterprise is the quality of the ensemble cast, and in this case the four actors gel together really very well. Kendrick and Livingston are rather less showy in their smaller roles, given that their characters are written to be somewhat pedestrian, but Johnson nicely conveys his character’s charming goofiness with a very subtly combative edge. Best of all is Wilde, who holds the film together with a low-key improvisational acuity, avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘strong, free-spirited single woman’ clichés. On the part of the whole cast, it has to be said there’s a lot of drunk acting required, and none of this comes across as forced or embarrassing in the way these things sometimes can; there’s also thankfully no sententious moralising either.

What results is a very focused little drama that feels like it’s dealing with people I know (or have been) in recognisable situations. It’s very careful not to push the revelations too hard or wring them out for melodramatic purposes, finding an ending that feels organic to the characters without closing off anything too neatly. And that kind of thing is, for me, always refreshing to watch. Somewhat like beer is to drink, so I’m going to stop now and think about that for a while instead.


© Magnolia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg | Cinematographer Ben Richardson | Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Wednesday 6 November 2013

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Every generation, I guess, has its cinema of self-involved navel-gazing, and for whatever it’s worth (not always very much to some critics it appears), this must be mine. I grew up in New Zealand which in the 2000s had its own micro-budget lo-fi independent digitally-shot relationship dramas, and New York it turns out has its (more widely-known) analogue with the so-called “mumblecore” scene (based largely around the creative personnel involved with this film), and presumably taking its name from the improvisational style of the dialogue. And yet, for me, it sometimes feels like there are completely different types of emotions unearthed within this idiom than in your more polished festival (and multiplex) fare, and for that I like it.

Andrew Bujalski (probably the pre-eminent director in the scene) plays Paul, the senior partner in a creative writing duo with Kent Osborne’s Matt. They work in a fairly bland little office for what appears to be a TV show. However, it’s their intern Hannah (Greta Gerwig) who is the film’s focus, as you might have guessed from the title, and her character is the one most nakedly exposed (quite literally in the first and last shots of the film). Over the course of the film, she gets into relationships with three of the men in the film, as she deals with a certain kind of early-20s ennui.

Having gone on to further successes, most prominently in Frances Ha earlier this year, it’s unsurprisingly Greta Gerwig who dominates the film, and your enjoyment of it is likely to be predicated on how charming and identifiable you find her. As it happens, I do. She has a deft and likeable comedic presence, while not sacrificing a kind of unfocused sadness at her character’s core, which she is only slowly (and with great difficulty) able to open up about in a conversation late in the film with Matt. She can be contrary and contradictory, but there’s an openness to the way she delivers it that I find likeable.

It’s the dialogue scenes, which I understand were largely improvised (hence the writing credits for most of the cast), that give the movie its momentum and with which some reviewers have taken issue. Yet I like the halting silences and lacunae that realistically inflect the conversations. For example, there’s a beautifully-judged scene in which Hannah invites Paul up to her flat and they meet her flatmate, who swiftly exits, whereupon the scene sort of judders to a fantastically awkward halt. Most of the time the cast banters affectionately, which provides the ebb and flow of the narrative, as unfocused as its characters.

It may not be a grand statement or a glamorous one, but in its way it says a lot about people in their early-20s learning to find their feet. At least as long as such films continue to star actors as watchable as Greta Gerwig, I’ll continue to be happy to watch them fumble through life on shaky digital video.


© IFC Films

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Joe Swanberg | Writers Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kent Osbourne and Andrew Bujalski | Starring Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski | Length 83 minutes || Seen at Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Sunday 25 August 2013

My Rating 3 stars good