Tag: joe swanberg


Proxy (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written by Kevin Donner and Zack Parker with a twisted imagination and a willingness to keep viewers on their toes, “Proxy” is a kind of picture that mainstream Hollywood dares not to make, let alone support, due to its lack of commerciality. But aside from its occasionally shocking content that dares to focus on characters with dark ideations, the film works as an exercise of style, so malleable and consistently interesting as it undergoes genre-bending acrobatics that would tickle even Alfred Hitchcock, its apparent inspiration.

The film quietly opens with a pregnant woman whose baby is about two weeks away from being born. Her name is Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) and, after engaging in a brief and impersonal exchange with an obstetric technician, we get the impression she does not at all seem excited to raise a child. Whether her sorrow is simply a part of her personality or due to her current state, we do not know. (Rasmussen knows this is the character’s hook and so the performer plays upon the mystique.) On her way to the bus stop, we witness Esther get mugged and her assailant, with a brick in hand, pounds away at the would-be mother’s belly. We do not see a glimpse of the attacker’s face, but we note the red sweater.

To reveal more about the plot and where it is going is to perform a disservice to those who shaped the picture. Notice the screenplay’s knack for efficiency, how nearly every other scene appears to reveal a pattern: characters tend to express or do things that they ought not to—at least not in public. Because every one of them seems to be damaged, perhaps even pathological, in some way, we attempt to understand these figures either through crumbs of their histories, which can be found in conversations, or the defense mechanisms they employ in order to be liked, regarded, and thought about by others. Those who have experience with a psychology course or two can have a field day with these subjects for the material almost requites to the viewer to peek underneath the facade in order to realize the horror lurking underneath.

In the middle of this beguiling suspense-thriller, I wondered what the screenwriters are hoping to communicate to the audience. Surely the film’s purpose is not only to entertain because the plot is not the propulsive kind. In fact, some stretches are quite ruminative, silent, and the camera fixates on a body language or face. It is willing to take the time to show what grief does to a person. How loneliness cripples from within. This is a story of desperate people who look pretty normal on the outside but screaming on the inside.

I believe Donner and Parker attempt to point at our humanity, or a largely unexplored part of it, something so embedded in our subconscious that none of the events that we see on screen—at first—should register as even remotely amusing. But as one looks at it further, dissects it, maybe it is funny, for instance, how far we go to keep our needs a secret—needs that are not socially acceptable, those considered to be morally wrong, ugly, dark, even sick. Perhaps the film is a critique of our society, the sacrifices we make to be “normal,” to belong.

Musings aside, Zack Parker directs “Proxy” in such a way that it delivers a memorable experience. Although the work can be criticized for the occasionally overwritten script, the actors being tasked to sell the more complex dialogue that befits a play, this shortcoming can be overlooked because nearly everything else functions on a high level. Here is a film for those with unconventional tastes, those looking for projects unafraid to take risks.

Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Though each of them is in a relationship, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) flirt at work occasionally to the point where it is worth asking if they feel something more than what they let on. Their counterparts, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick), are not aware of the possible mutual attraction. When Chris invites Kate, Luke, and Jill to his family’s beach house, the flirtatious co-workers, especially when alcohol gets involved, may not be the only ones who might be open to temptation.

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, “Drinking Buddies” is an acquired taste because it immerses feelings and intentions in the mundane while still attempting to say something about the dynamics of romantic relationships. The camera is still as to capture the essence of the unsaid and we observe the four characters navigate through what they think they want versus what they really want. It has moments of genuine fascination.

The problem lies in the fragile line between realism and boredom. One can argue that many scenes, comprising of about half of the picture when taken together, is dispensable drivel. One will not necessarily be wrong. Admittedly, even though I wanted to know more about the characters and if any of them would be brave or foolish enough to cross the line, I found myself tuning out between silences. This should not be the case. If the material were more engaging, silences in relationship comedy-dramas allow the audience to think about what we feel toward a situation and the characters as well as assess what we might do differently if we were in our subjects’ shoes. Here, there is nothing much to the silences. It is often that they are employed to communicate an awkward but superficial situation.

Out of the four, Kate is the one I kept my eye on. In my opinion, she is an alcoholic—albeit a functional one—and so she has the tendency to imbibe when she is unhappy, when things do not go her way, and when she feels the pangs of loneliness. I found it interesting that sometimes a part of me wanted to think of her as the villain—the woman who gets in the way of a relatively happy relationship between Luke and Jill. On another hand, Luke flirts with her, too. He gives Kate a reason to be more attracted to him. In that way, I felt sorry for Kate. One can argue that she is given the most complexity.

The weakest link, regrettably, is Kendrick. She makes a decision not to play a character who radiates positivity and enthusiasm, but it some ways it backfires. Unlike her co-stars, who have the necessary angst to make us want to get to know their characters, her approach makes the character neither lovable nor detestable. Since Jill falls smack-dab in the middle, she becomes the least interesting. It does not help that she is so nice and agreeable. Whenever the spotlight is on Jill, I was bored. Maybe Luke has a reason for noticing Kate. At least there is an excitement to her.

The film is not for everyone but I understand what it has tried to accomplish. Movies of this type are challenging not only because the characters have to be interesting—which means the actors must be on point all the time—but also since the standard is very high. Louis Malle and Richard Linklater have made pictures that share the same bloodline and, quite frankly, “Drinking Buddies” pales by comparison.

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre, “The Sacrament,” written and directed by Ti West, is well-shot, beautifully photographed at times, but there is not enough payoff—despite the many deaths during the final twenty minutes. What results is an ungainly found footage feature that offers no real scare—not the kind that jumps out at the screen and we are shocked for a split-second, but the more difficult kind: images that will stay in our guts minutes or even hours after it is over.

Patrick (Kentucker Audley) gets a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), saying that he is welcome to visit the parish that she had joined—a community that helped her to overcome drug addiction. Patrick’s friends, Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), who cover provocative stories untouched by the mainstream, decide to tag along. The trio expect to encounter a hippie commune, but minutes after getting off the helicopter, they are greeted with guns and unfriendly faces.

West is a type of filmmaker who is fond of build-up—a quality that I like. I enjoy a screenplay that actively works to give us the creeps which reaches a peak either about or well past halfway through when the veil is quickly taken away and we learn that our suspicion is true—a refreshing step away from so-called twists that are—upon closer examination—nonsensical, illogical, a brazen attempt to get away with cheating, or all of the above. But all this movie has to offer is an adequate rising action.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when it has started to go wrong. The parish is led by a man only referred to as Father (Gene Jones, who gives a convincing performance). Though Sam and Jake are unexpected guests, Father agrees to be interviewed on-camera. Sam plans to go for the jugular by asking questions designed to expose the flaw in the small community, but he finds himself overpowered by a man who not only knows his way around words, he knows how to twist them in such a way that it takes a person by complete surprise and suddenly all defenses are down.

While it is understandable the Sam character feels shaken for a bit during the interview, from the moment he is thrown off his game, the script commits a critical miscalculation of never allowing to get him back up. This is problematic because he is the eye from which we perceive the bizarre story. He is supposed to be a sharp journalist who knows when and how to get what he wants from his subjects. West should have made Sam a more formidable protagonist, someone who can really challenge the villain of the piece. Otherwise, what makes the story interesting?

The final act of the picture is supposed to be horrifying, I guess, but I felt close to nothing. Though suffering is clearly being portrayed on screen, all I saw were people acting, trying their best to emote what they think dying is like or attempting—and failing—to look like dead people. In other words, it comes off as a charade because there is minimal substance that propels what should have been a convincing tragedy.

If the screenplay had been smarter, it would have focused more on the mind that is single-handedly controlling an entire community. Instead, it comes off not knowing a thing about human psychology—let alone fully understanding a mirror-filled, labyrinthine mind of a master manipulator. Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it is supposed to be a horror film when, really, it is quite flat across the board—inspired by a true story or otherwise.

24 Exposures

24 Exposures (2013)
★ / ★★★★

There is a way to make every day lives interesting, but writer-director Joe Swanberg has not found a way to capture cinematic qualities in seemingly small moments—which is why “24 Exposures” is ultimately a waste of time and film. Just about everything about the picture is intolerable, from the lack of a compelling script to the way certain scenes—which are supposed to make us care about the murder mystery—are shot.

The plot involves a dead woman, a detective (Simon Barrett), and a photographer (Adam Wingard) who just so happens to be the main suspect. But the plot is irrelevant because the screenplay finds one excuse too many to avoid dealing with it head-on. Instead, we get numerous and increasingly tired scenes where women’s bodies are objectified whether it be by way of being topless or a woman kissing another woman. We are even forced to sit through a warmup for a threesome. These are moments when the camera is most still and focused.

One might claim that the film is about modern voyeurism and how it desensitizes. After all, the main character, Billy, is used to observing the world through the lens of his camera, the subjects almost always being women who wish to start a career in the entertainment industry. The subjects regard him as someone who can potentially ignite their careers while he sees them as mere objects. And when the camera is not in his hands, he views the world through his spectacles—every image is, in a way, filtered.

But to make such a claim gives the work undue credit. While elements that can make such a commentary valid are present, there is a lack of well-defined connective tissues to give the claim weight. So, in the end, one gets the impression that the writer-director has no idea what he wishes to communicate, that he is too lazy to actually try and make his work cohesive.

The film has neither dramatic core nor a convincing tension. At first, it appears as though we are supposed to care about Billy, his girlfriend, and their open relationship, but it fails to evolve into anything other than two people sharing the same room and sleeping together once a while. Then the whole subplot of the detective trying to be friends with Billy is introduced and so the murder mystery is swept under the rug completely. Swanberg forgets to convince the audience why we should care about the story and the characters in it.

“24 Exposures” is one exposure too many. With a running time of under eighty minutes, it feels so much longer because so-called scenes are placed in front of us and barely anything of consequence happens. The movie is not for everyone, not even patient viewers. Maybe it’s for audiences who are braindead but to even make such a claim is cruel—because the movie is not for anybody other than for Swanberg’s masturbation of his ego.

Digging for Fire

Digging for Fire (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Married couple Lee and (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson) agree to house-sit a multimillion-dollar house belonging to an actress, Lee’s client, who is shooting a movie in Budapest. The day after they move in, while exploring a relatively untouched area of land, Tim comes across a bone and a gun. Thrilled by his discovery, he runs to his wife and tells her that he is convinced there are dead bodies buried nearby. However, Lee, concerned that they are overstepping certain boundaries, tells Tim that he should stop with the excavation and focus on being there as a family.

Written by Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson, “Digging for Fire” is a severely anemic picture, a bore from the moment it begins right until its nondescript, platitudinous ending. The premise sounds mildly interesting—hinting at a possible murder mystery—but do not be fooled: It is merely an attempt at a marriage drama with nothing interesting or insightful to say about modern relationships and the tribulations that come with it.

The script lacks dramatic pull. Because it never shows why Lee and Tim should or should not be together prior to them going on their separate journeys toward would-be realizations, it is hard to care about them and think about what might be going on in their heads as they consider choices that could lead to transgressions. And although it touches upon relatable problems like the couple having money issues about half a dozen times, these are so superficial that it is laughable. Not once do we buy these actors as real people. Thus, for example, when DeWitt’s character considers whether or not to buy an expensive leather jacket, I saw a successful actress pretending like she doesn’t have enough funds in the bank.

The film is rife with scenes that can be considered as junk or time-fillers. For instance, when Lee and her son go to see Grandma and Pop-Pop, Tim throws a little get-together with his male friends (Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Sam Rockwell). It wouldn’t have been a problem if the entire charade hadn’t been so dull. We watch them drink beer, talk about women, swim the pool, and dig up more bones but there is no sense of real camaraderie among them. One wonders what the writers wish to communicate. Is it that Tim misses male companionship so badly? If so, the picture does not provide a good reason why. His friends are written to be so generic, it is a challenge to keep our eyes open as we watch them interact.

Eventually, the movie is reduced to a recognition game. That is, plenty of familiar faces drop in and out: Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick, among others. What do these people have in common? They are real performers who have been in much better dramatic films. Here, they are not used wisely or efficiently. They might as well not have appeared at all. It probably would have made the film stronger because perhaps the focus would have been on the couple rather than the people they come across.

It is difficult not to feel robbed after watching “Digging for Fire,” directed by Joe Swanberg, because we keep waiting for something interesting to happen but it never delivers. The couple are boring together and apart, the people that share a connection with them are cardboard cutouts, and the subject of marriage is not delved into in an honest way. Just about everything about the film rings false.

You’re Next

You’re Next (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

It is the thirty-fifth anniversary of Aubrey and Paul (Barbara Crampton, Rob Moran) so they invite their grown kids to their vacation home, unaware that their neighbor next door was massacred the night before. Dinner is served and barely two minutes into what should have been a nice meal, an argument between brothers (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) explodes. As upset voices fill the room, a guest is hit by an arrow, shot by someone from outside.

“You’re Next,” written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, is slightly better than an average slasher flick for one reason: a final girl named Erin (Sharni Vinson) who is worth rooting for until the very last second. On the other hand, its premise, masked strangers terrorizing a family, is painfully standard. It only gets better when unexpected pitch-black humor, such as a line uttered by someone who is badly hurt, surfaces.

The first half is stronger than the latter half. I enjoyed watching panicked people running around the house as they try to gather the fact that someone outside wants to kill them. The material finds a few creative ways to move a group of people from one room to another despite an avid shooter picking off the weakest links. Here, the screams of terror works even though lines like, “We’re gonna die!” cheapen the moment a little bit. One of the most effective scenes involves Aubrey having a meltdown as she watches one of her children die.

But the star of the picture, appropriately, is the survivor. In horror movies, I always find it annoying when a whiny weakling makes it to the final act or, worse, survives. Erin is the antithesis of a dumb blonde who asks, “Is anyone there? …Hello?” while entering a dark room with no weapon—and no chance. Erin is tough mentally. She makes brisk movements. She is always looking around for whatever she can use to defend herself. She knows what to do with the weapons. She can be creative when resources are limited. Most importantly, she is given enough background to make the fight in her believable.

The masked murderers are not interesting at all. While we are given to understand their motivation, there is not much substance to them except to look sinister as their image is reflected on glass. The problem is that they are not as smart as the heroine. Still, some of the kills are inspired. I liked the one where a masked figure traps one of his victims, lying on the ground, and uses an ax as if he were playing crochet. Though one anticipates the crunching sound of a skull being split open, one still cannot help but flinch.

Those who make careless claims that “You’re Next” is innovative need to get their eyes checked—or watch more horror movies. It is entertaining during some parts and at times it falls completely flat due to the lack of energy and precise execution while tension is supposed to be escalating. We are given a good protagonist but the screenplay requires more work in order for the final product to be truly worthwhile.


V/H/S (2012)
★ / ★★★★

“V/H/S” is composed of six segments with a unifier titled “Tape 56” where four friends are able to make money by recording with a video camera, stalking women, and forcing them to expose themselves. The videos are then posted online for the world to see. A fan who claims to have seen their work on the internet contacts the group offering a nice paycheck if they are able to break into a house and steal a VHS tape. Naturally, they accept the offer because it has made apparent that these guys will do anything for money. When they get inside the house, however, they find a dead older gentleman sitting in dark room in front of several televisions. One of the guys decides to watch the tapes while his friends explore the basement.

The scariest thing about this film is its prospect of becoming a new trend or franchise. As a whole, it is neither scary nor thrilling; written with neither creativity nor zest; and executed with neither love for its characters nor love for film. It’s as if a group of so-called filmmakers decided to come together and conclude that it would be a fabulous idea to take a sickness from a dark corner in their minds, make it a reality, and pass it off as “art.”

I love horror movies because if they are well-made, they stimulate my mind and heart like no other genre can, but watching the contents of “V/H/S” is a depressing experience with its recurring images of women being cut up and mutilated. While men do experience deaths, notice that the camera places shorter attention on a male with blood on his body than a female. Like in “Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner, men meet their gruesome demise in the dark while in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” directed by Joe Swanberg, the woman’s torso area being sliced open is front and center. There is a surplus of other similar examples that can easily be found in the other segments. The film insidiously communicates a hatred of women and implies that’s it’s all right to relish a girl exposing herself and languishing in violence.

There is one segment I enjoyed highly. On “Second Honeymoon,” written and directed by Ti West, a couple (Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal) goes on a road trip and makes a stopover at the Grand Canyon. They eventually plan on going to Las Vegas so Sam can play some craps. I admired it because the horror is more subdued and is actually relatable. Sam and Stephanie stay in motels during the night. During one of those nights, a girl (Kate Lyn Sheil) knocks on their door and asks if they can give her a ride in the morning. Points for West for allowing Sam to express the uneasiness he feels after speaking with the hitchhiker. We’ve all experienced talking with a stranger and feeling that something about them is just a bit off. The segment has a sense of humor, too. Stephanie investigating the dirtiness of the motel room–dust, stains, and all–is a horror story in itself. Admittedly, the segment deserves a much better ending.

What “Tuesday the 17th,” directed by Glenn McQuaid, and “10/31/98,” directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, et al., have in common is that they both have numbers on their titles. The other is that they are both a waste of space and time. With the anthology’s two-hour running time, it could have done without the pair’s stupidity and predictability. For instance, as you begin to suspect that a character running in the woods is going to trip and fall (on a branch, no less), he does. When you think that something will pop up on a corner with an accompanying “scary” music, it does. What is the point of sitting through a movie when your mind is always ten steps ahead of it?

“V/H/S” is pessimistic. I have a special disdain for movies of its type. I haven’t even begun talking about how the screen is frequently full of glitches, conveniently ubiquitous when a scary thing happens, pummeling us over the head with, “You’re watching a VHS tape so it needs to look like the tracking has to be adjusted!” But I think you get the idea.

A Horrible Way to Die

A Horrible Way to Die (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Sarah (Amy Seimetz) recently joined Alcoholics Anonymous. On her first day, which happens to be the third month of her sobriety, she meets Kevin (Joe Swanberg). He claims he wants to get to know her outside of AA. She admires his honesty and figures she can use a little bit of that positive quality in her life. The two go on a date and everything goes swimmingly. Meanwhile, Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, Garrick (AJ Bowen), escapes from prison. We learned that when he was still with Sarah, whenever they weren’t together, he killed to feed his addiction for flesh. His motivation to get out of prison, it seems, is to see his ex-girlfriend and claim her as his most priced victim.

Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, “A Horrible Way to Die” has some good ideas and rather solid twists before the closing chapter, but the muddled cinematography takes away the little power that the picture has going for it.

We spend a lot of personal time observing Sarah and Kevin. We watch them meet, exchange smiles out of politeness which soon changed into something genuine, go on their first date, and the first time they have sex. But the camera shakes so relentlessly and dizzyingly for no good reason whatsoever. It feels like we are watching a first take as the cameramen and director attempt to adjust the lighting and make sure that the microphones are in their proper places. By moving the camera in such a way, the connection between the characters and audiences are disrupted. Instead of engaging us in a flow, it becomes a difficult and frustrating watch. Because of its presentation, the material appears unprofessional.

Sarah has a lot of self-esteem issues which is rooted in her struggle against alcohol addiction and is perpetuated by news that her serial killer ex-boyfriend is on the loose. The camera should have been still so that we are allowed to look her in the eyes and infer some of the questions that might pop into her head. This is her journey and I wasn’t convinced that the filmmakers were aware of that. If they did, the least they could have done is to get the technical issues right so the audience can focus on the story.

The writing needs revision because it fails to incorporate two of Sarah’s monsters: the alcoholism and the ex-boyfriend. Although flashbacks are provided so that we can get a sense of our protagonist’s history, there is no effort from behind the camera to put them together in way that makes sense. Obviously, drugs can be a source of addiction but what are the similarities between a drug and a bad relationship? Instead of exploring this question, the filmmakers hands us random scenes like Sarah thinking about Garrick when she touches herself at night. What does that have to do with anything?

“A Horrible Way to Die” lacks a bridge between drama and horror/thriller so the emotions on screen feel like a sham. The whole charade would have been laughable, not just maddening, if it wasn’t such a frustrating chore to sit through.

Nights and Weekends

Nights and Weekends (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mattie (Greta Gerwig) and James (Joe Swanberg) were in a long-distance relationship. Mattie resided in New York while James lived in Chicago. They tried to visit each other once in a while but there was a limit to how much effort they could put into their relationship when distance was clearly an issue. Written and directed by the two leads, “Nights and Weekends” had an excellent first half but fairly weak second half. The first half focused on the romance between James and Mattie. We learned things about them which ranged from the impersonal, like their jobs and the careers they would like to have, to more important details such as whether they would be happy if they turned out like their parents. We got a feel of their personalities. James was patient, a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he didn’t see himself as physically attractive but that didn’t stop him from projecting confidence to the world because he had a mental picture of a more attractive version of himself. Meanwhile, Mattie was adorable but a bit needy. Unlike James, she was more than willing to voice out what she thought was disgusting like when her boyfriend ate the dark brown area of a banana. When she was annoyed, she expressed it. For instance, she didn’t like the fact that she was left in the hall for ten measly minutes because James had to drop something off at work. Yet she was the one who didn’t want to meet his co-workers because she thought it might be awkward. Strangely enough, which is uncommon when it comes to romantic dramas, I related more with the male. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their relationship succeed because, despite the occasional tension between them, they were a very good fit for each other. But then there was a jump forward in time. Everything felt awkward. The tone it established prior was thrown out the window. It was unclear whether Mattie and James were even in a relationship. There was even a heavy-handed metaphor that involved Mattie trying to water plants, a symbol of her attempt to sustain their so-called relationship, but the plants wouldn’t absorb the water. I wondered what happened to the film’s naturalistic approach, something I found very charming and interesting, like the directors’ brazen decision to not reshoot when the actors stumbled over their lines. I liked the picture most when it captured real life. Sometimes our tongues just can’t keep up with our thoughts and we’re embarrassed in the fact that we’re not as eloquent as we would like especially when we’re trying to get a point across. But we continue and pretend that we didn’t make a blunder. I craved the realism it effortlessly seemed to have. Ultimately, the positive outweighed the negative. I admired that the film allowed its characters, in their twenties, to be immature, sometimes shallow, and consumed by their neuroses. The relationship didn’t have to be particularly meaningful or special because Mattie and James were still searching for who they were.