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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Computer Chess (2013)

Director Andrew Bujalski comes from the same low-budget New York scene that produced Joe Swanberg, whose most recent film was Drinking Buddies. I greatly enjoyed both films, but it’s fair to say that Bujalski has not gone in the same direction. Where Swanberg’s film was glossy and had stars, Computer Chess is determinedly retro-fashioned, avoiding well-known actors — avoiding in fact that kind of ‘star turn’ that looks so good on an actor’s CV — and utilising contemporaneous video technology in visualising its mid-1980s story of programmers and boffins holed up in a motel’s conference suite competing for the best computer chess simulator. In doing so, it’s easy to forget that this is a film from roughly 30 years later, though it does make it rather easier to imagine it transferring well to the small screen, given its Academy ratio and fuzzy lo-fi imagery. Therefore, it’s just as well that in the UK the film is being distributed by Eureka Video, a niche outlet who should be known to viewers for their fantastic Masters of Cinema range. In any case, the emotional affect is rather similar in both directors’ works, being focused primarily on interpersonal relationships in a way that largely avoids overt melodrama.

The story in Computer Chess, though, is difficult to categorise. It’s an ensemble piece that gives roughly equal weight to several different characters, who are split into teams for the competition, although there’s one independent operating solo, the self-consciously cool — and therefore gratingly egocentric — Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige). Michael holds himself aloof from the other (more overtly geeky) competitors, which is manifested primarily in his having lacked the foresight to book a room at the bland suburban motel where the competition is taking place. Gradually, however, one of the members of the star team, an awkward and shy young man called Peter (Patrick Riester), comes to prominence within the story, as he must try to figure out why his team’s computer is not achieving as well as hoped, receiving little effective help from his teammate Martin (Wiley Wiggins). There’s also even a romantic subplot of sorts for Peter, though it’s engagingly awkward and unforced.

Beyond this description of the plot’s set-up, I find myself grasping for generic descriptions for my tagging of this review. It’s a drama, but there are plenty of laughs in it too. The stakes are so low (for us as viewers) that the pleasure is not in which team wins the competition, so much as how they go about it, and the dramas they run into along the way. Commenting on the competition is the chess grandmaster whom the winning team’s computer will play at the end, and his pomposity becomes a running joke in the film (he is also played by film critic Gerald Peary, suggesting its own form of in-joke). I think the key to what the film is trying to do, though, is in the figure of Michael, who wanders the motel’s corridors by night trying to find somewhere to sleep, and in the process making connections amongst the various teams as well as with other residents of the motel. These latter include a consciousness-raising group seeking spiritual enlightenment in a peculiar touchy-feely swingers-y way, and the meeting between the two groups motivates some drama around the differences in emotional satisfaction as experienced (or rather, avoided) by the introverted programmers. There’s even a sort of hallucinatory moment of colour, like an epiphany, but a jagged one that doesn’t seem to resolve in anything.

It would be easy to suggest that Computer Chess is a bit of 80s nostalgia, but it doesn’t really come across that way. Beyond some of the haircuts and fashions and particularly those vast, chunky computers, there’s not really a focus on fetishising the past as you might get in a nostalgic period film — though one could argue the very technology used to make the film is a form of fetishism. Then again, this clunky period technology resists being used for the kind of 1980s we usually see in modern films (luridly coloured clothing, musical party sequences and the like) — it’s shot in black-and-white, but in a particularly unfocused and washed-out variety suggested the infancy of the technology used to make the film (as of that featured in the film). This is a story about people who happen to be working at a point relatively early in the development of computer programming and of artificial intelligence, making small but seemingly crucial advances on those fronts, but more than that learning to find some joy in their shared hobby, which had for so long been a solitary pursuit of a small number of individuals. The game they are making their computers play may enact the fall of empires, but through this they are almost creating a new one together. It’s charming.


© Kino Lorber

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski | Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky | Starring Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 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