MSPIFF14 Reviews: Proxy and The Animal Project

Happy Wednesday everyone! Ok, we’re down to the last two batches of MSPIFF reviews. Today we’ve got two from Josh  from JJames Reviews.

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PROXY

Review by Josh P.

Proxy-PosterProxy begins with Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), who is nine months pregnant, at an ultrasound appointment, talking to a technician (Shayla Hardy). Rasmussen’s stunningly removed vocal and facial affect tells us that Esther is, at the very least, depressed. Co-writer/director Zach Parker’s decisions are just as unsettling. For instance, Esther’s pregnancy belly is shaped oddly; the sonogram never looks like a fully formed baby; the technician’s conversation is bizarre; and so forth. Everything about the opening scene tells us that something is wrong, foreshadowing the next development, when someone with skinny legs and a red sweatshirt brutally attacks Esther. The mother survives, but the baby does not, and so begins a series of off-putting conversations, culminating in Esther meeting Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins) at a support group. The two women form a friendship, but their relationship is complicated by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, Patrick (Joe Swanberg), Anika (Kristina Klebe), Peyton (Xavier Parker) and Melanie’s own mental instability. 

In the early going, Proxy is atmospherically mind-bending, featuring considerable tension that causes confusion without frustration. It helps that the two featured characters, and the actors who play them, are compelling. Esther and Melanie are disturbed but still interesting, especially Esther, whose mental illness we do not understand until it’s too late.

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Throughout, Parker’s artistic decisions—including a slow-motion sequence and an odd fantasy in the picture’s climax—build tension. Rasmussen’s entrancing performance helps just as much. In her hands, Esther might be a psychopath, a broken victim or something in between. 

Unfortunately, Proxy does not sustain such quality, largely because many of the twists make Melanie less believable, but mostly because Patrick and Anika are not as interesting as Esther and her new friend. Swanberg plays Patrick with, more or less, a single facial expression, one that makes a would-be complex character decidedly one-note. As such, whenever Proxy focuses on him, it suffers. Ditto that for Anika, though for different reasons. Klebe’s performance is fine, but the character she plays is poorly written, so poorly that Anika is archetypal, unexplained and unbelievable. 

Parker and Donner’s portrayal of women doesn’t help either. The three primary females are, to varying degrees, insane, and the minor characters are either insensitive or weak.  Would I call Proxy sexist? Probably not, but, at the least, I can understand why some (including Slant magazine) have. And, whether or not the film is biased, such characterization means we never genuinely empathize with any of these characters. In turn, we never feel Proxy’s would be emotion (I am aware that Slant’s review makes this point, as well).

For all of that, Proxy remains interesting enough to warrant a tepid recommendation, if only because, it does successfully buy our interest. We want to know what will happen next.

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2.5 out of 5 reels


The Animal Project

Review by Josh P.

The-Animal-Project-PosterWhat with simple focus on a small acting class, The Animal Project is not the most complex movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, but it is nonetheless a solid, character-driven dramedy.

In centering her Canadian film on Leo (Aaron Poole), a father, widower and acting teacher, writer/director Ingrid Veninger wisely chooses a complex and likable protagonist. Leo contends with considerable baggage, not the least of which is a positive but strained relationship with his eighteen-year-old son, Sam (Jacob Switzer), and muddled interaction with one of his students, Saul (Joey Klein). Eventually, Leo devises a plan to challenge his students by having them dress up in costumes and walk around town, offering free hugs to people they meet. 

That is, more or less, the extent of The Animal Project’s plot, which is why it proves meritorious that Veninger develops some interesting characters. Leo, Sam and Saul are all multidimensional. Even better, Leo and Sam’s father-son relationship forms a terrific emotional core, one that produces several moments of intense feeling, both when the two argue and when they reconcile. 

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The relationship between Leo and Saul, however, is less skillfully written. Though Leo probably is not gay, the two men share odd, underexplored sexual tension. Even by the end of the movie, we do not fully understand how these two men relate, or why they do so. Perhaps that is why The Animal Project is best when it focuses on Sam or Leo.

Or maybe it’s because the rest of the acting class characters are all undeveloped. Of them, Pippa (Jessica Greco) is the best, but that’s mostly because she’s intimately connected to both Leo and Sam. Ray (Emmanuel Kabongo) is worst. Alice (Hannah Cheesman), Jason (Jonathon Sousa), and Mira (Sarena Parmar) fall somewhere in the middle. In the end, even Pippa is underwritten, which means none of the secondary characters resonate, and The Animal Project stumbles every time it focuses on one of them, which it does semi-frequently. The film probably would have been better if it had been less ensemble and placed greater priority on Leo, Sam and Saul. 

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Still, The Animal Project is far from bad in its current form. With several laugh-out-loud funny moments and terrific acting performances all around (especially from Poole, Switzer, Klein and Greco), it is entertaining and occasionally moving. Not to mention worth viewing. 

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3 out of 5 reels

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What do you think of these two films? Intriguing enough for you?