Drinking Buddies (2013)

★★★

Drinking Buddies PosterDirector: Joe Swanberg

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); November 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

If I knew anything about alcohol, I’d compare Drinking Buddies to an ice cold brew: refreshing and momentarily absolving, but certainly nothing impactful in the long run. Guzzle too much and you’ll wake up with a dizzied demeanour, clutching at the faint straws of last night’s antics. You probably wouldn’t want to indulge these characters for too long either, else their credible charm will devolve into a more septic annoyance. Director Joe Swanberg finds an amiable balance though and subsequently delivers a film that is controlled despite its obvious air of improvisation. But much like that 11th beer, Drinking Buddies just doesn’t feel necessary. There is a gaping plot contrivance, one that’s really difficult to ignore.

As co-workers at a Chicago-based brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) spend more time with each other than they do their respective partners. The duo even manage to squeeze evening bar gallivants alongside other staffers into their laid back schedules. A double date weekend away ushers in a few new home truths — at least one more than we’re already aware of — whilst also cementing the obvious, that these two should be a couple.

So why aren’t they? Drinking Buddies calmly shuffles along for 90 minutes and for at least 85 of those we ponder that exact sentiment. The notion promoting Kate and Luke as a terminally separate item is quite unbelievable, so much so that the amour scales eventually bowl over into absurdity. At its heart the film is a ‘will they, won’t they?’ story that seems destined for a conclusion within reach but beyond common sense. Kate and Luke are both drinkers, they’re both jokers, both laid back. The two even work at the same craft brewery. Better still, the duo’s respective partners are more suited to a relationship with each other as opposed to their current situation. Anna Kendrick is Jill, who likes to hike and muse over philosophical idioms. She’s not much of a bevy merchant. Inconspicuously, neither is Kate’s boyfriend Chris.

The plot, though straightforward and immersive enough, struggles to overcome the grandiose fabrication staring it right in the face. We spent far too much time frustrated, pleading with the characters to face the overt facts. Not frustrated in an enticing manner, rather, gratingly so. It is a shame because Swanberg — who also wrote, edited and co-produced — drives home a genuine sense of believability when it comes to his characters. We recognise the people and we like them, but their situation is borderline nonsense.

There is an impetus to improvise and, for the most part, a justifiable one. Although proceedings occasionally teeter down an overly spontaneous route where natural is irritatingly substituted in favour of awkward (a conversation during a mundane forest hike, for example) this mantra that puts the ball in the actors’ court is a welcome one. The indie tint is prevalent and actually very agreeable; visually, Drinking Buddies manifests as cosy if not at all flashy. Nor should it be flashy. The filmmaker squeezes a lot out of his $500,000 budget by tending towards simplicity, a decision that also coalesces neatly with Swanberg’s attempts to enforce purity.

Much of what is happening hinges on the talents of Drinking Buddies‘ cast and they universally deliver. Olivia Wilde leads as Kate, constantly dawning shades in order to convince us she is hungover. Kate could easily be unlikeable — she is sort of clingy and relentlessly fails to take control of situations — but Wilde’s effortless allure grants her unlimited lives. Stepping away from the wrestling ring for a moment, Jake Johnson turns up as the other half of the film’s dynamic duo, Luke. Johnson has a slightly easier job than Wilde but delivers wholesomely nonetheless; Jake is cool (he has a beard) and eternally collected. The flick is at its most mobile when these two share the screen, their chemistry constantly sizzling. Anna Kendrick is also thrown in at the deep end — Jill is the character who is sort of ruining what inevitably would be a picturesque relationship. Yet, we still get along with her. Kendrick’s stock is on a rapid ascent and it is clear why.

Simmering irrepressibly beneath the love quadrangle is alcoholism, a damning and serious issue. Though the tone fluctuates between frothy romance and light wit, the subject of alcoholism subconsciously rears every so often — it would, at the end of the day this is a piece about people working with drink and drinking after work — and Swanberg handles it well. He has to. Kate is definitely the serial gulp offender and it is consequently unsurprising that her personal life is the one falling apart. The director aptly manages said topic by raising awareness without stumbling into burdensome territory.

There is no avoiding the almost fatal error in Drinking Buddies’ narrative. The film’s strive to be authentic butts heads with its stubbornness when it comes to characters’ romantic tendencies. Put that to one side though, and Joe Swanberg’s light-hearted indierrific outing will certainly quench your thirst.

Drinking Buddies - Olivia Wilde & Jake Johnson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures

The Conjuring (2013)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

After months of heightened anticipation built up through posters and trailers, The Conjuring hit cinema screens accompanied by scares more in tune with a series of pithy jabs rather than any fully blown knockouts. Even though it does hit the mark on a number of elements, the film is deceivingly weak on the horror side of things.

Set in the early 1970s, The Conjuring is based on a case undertaken by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. It relays the events the husband and wife pair experience as they attempt to assist the Perron family in ridding their new Rhode Island home of an evil presence.

Directed by the imaginative and twisted mind behind horror hits Saw and Insidious, James Wan, The Conjuring surprisingly relies heavily on drawn out sequences of tension-mounting silence. So much so that by the fifth time the spike in music arrives to signal a scare, the impact is lost on the viewer. In fact, any potential hair-raising moments brought upon through tension have already been screened in the trailer. The objective of any horror film is to frighten its audience, but there are other ways to do so as opposed to relentless attempts at jump-scaring (that is, solely depending on giving the audience a momentary and sudden fright). In fact the few times The Conjuring does deviate from this and instead opts for creepy imagery, it works very well and evokes that sense of fear and dread every horror film should strive for.

Another problem The Conjuring faces is the moments of incomprehensible decision-making by some of its characters. There is something about walking into a dark room which seconds before boasted a demented-looking ghost spewing eerie dialogue that does not exactly scream out as the most sensible option for somebody to take. This is not an obstacle exclusive to The Conjuring though, and is often an unfortunate nuance found in other horror films every year.

However, even when taking the aforementioned concerns into consideration, The Conjuring is still a very well-crafted, aesthetically on point film. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as the Warren family and strike up a well-oiled dynamic as the piece progresses. Both are enjoyable to watch and Farmiga in particular stands out as an anxious-yet-determined mother and investigator who has suffered some sort of psychological attack, and who also holds the safety of her daughter close to her heart. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play the heads of the Perron family and both do a more-than-adequate job as a slightly sceptical father and an utterly confused and worried mother, respectively.

James Wan has a tremendous eye for developing encapsulating visuals, as proven in his previous work. This time, everything from the Amityville-like house which looks and sounds like it could collapse into a pile of wood within seconds, to the wonderfully hideous make-up splattered across the ghoulish faces of the demons, adds to the somewhat diminished fear-factor the film possesses. The very short and ominous title sequence also deserves a mention, as the blend of screeching instrumentals and a menacing yellow text font provide an introductory chill worthy of a scarier film. Wan does capture the essence of most of the essentials needed to create a fully-fledged horror spectacle, but disappointingly misses out on consistent spooks.

It is probably true that The Conjuring has fallen victim to too much hype (an account “too disturbing to be told”) and it also places too many of its eggs in one basket as far as focusing on the true story element of the film goes. Otherwise, it ticks all of the boxes required to be an entertaining film and it succeeds on the few occasions James Wan does get the horror aspect correct.

Credit: The Times
Credit: The Times