Skip to main content

I used to be dead, but then he brought me back to life.

Swiss Army Man
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Sometimes I’ll finish watching a movie entirely bewildered by the praise it somehow merited. Spring Breakers was one notable case. Swiss Army Man is another. I’ll readily admit that music video turned feature directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan are incredibly inventive and talented – as writers not so much – and that Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as a corpse shows range I never knew he had (I mean that both ironically and seriously).  Otherwise, the experience felt like being harangued by a blowhard hipster for 90 minutes, one who thinks he has something desperately, insightfully deep to say but is actually running on empty after five. It isn’t even all that appealing if you love fart jokes: any given Austin Powers is far more flatulently fulfilling.


I was tempted to label Swiss Army Man a one-joke movie, so impressed with its own single-plane weirdness that it irons itself out into something not really very weird or compelling at all. Which would be unfair to its serious undertones. Yet those serious undertones in no way retrospectively justify the banality of having to endure Paul Dano (as Hank Thompson), never the most endearing of performers (some would say punchable, but let’s not be too hasty), effectively talking to himself for – yes, I’ll mention how long this lasts again – 90 minutes. And mostly about farting and masturbation. Swiss Army Man’s a movie consumed with bodily functions and the eccentric (imagined) ability of Radcliffe’s cadaver (“Manny”) to come to Hank’s rescue at the unlikeliest moments, until it’s not.


Then – much, much too late – it becomes a movie refocussing on the suicidal circumstances in which we first met Hank, mentally ill and obsessed with a young mother in his neighbourhood (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She is understandably aghast when he shows up in her backyard and his secret is revealed (this sequence also involves an erection gag in front of her daughter, always a great source of hilarity). Winstead’s performance is so tonally sensitive and insightful to Hank’s warped reality, I was very nearly willing to flip into seeing the picture in a retrospectively more rewarding light. Instead, we quickly revert to an “objective” scene in which Manny speeds off on a new fart-powered journey (as Winstead observes, “What the fuck?”)


There were clues from the beginning – besides the talking corpse, and a genuinely funny moment where Hank discovers to his amazement that he can use Manny as a flatulence-powered speedboat – that something was amiss, in that somehow, he has apparently been marooned on a desert island but his mobile phone battery hasn’t run out (even turning it off, it would eventually drain of power). But to engage with the reveal is to credit the preceding material, which plays like a fourteen-year-old’s idea of existential angst. There’s no profundity to Hank’s ruminations on life, sex, love and death, interspersed with moments of squirrel murder via Manny’s bazooka mouth or scaring off a rampaging bear by setting himself alight.


The directors have gone to great lengths and abundantly creative effort to bring to life Hank’s fantasy world, composed of litter and forest debris, but the substance is consistently tiresome. No, I didn’t find Hank’s self-delusional, make-believe relationship with Manny affecting, moving, insightful or joyous. I found it irksome and tedious. I’ve seen reviews comparing the directors’ style to Michel Gondry’s, which is actually a good call; working with others’ scripts, Gondry’s work has been sometimes extraordinary. Playing in his own self-penned sandbox, he has been consistently insufferable.


So Dano is Dano, but Radcliffe’s a different matter. For the first time that I can recall – certainly in terms of his transition as an adult actor – I wasn’t conscious of Radcliffe doing his over-delivered, over-eager Radcliffe thing. Perhaps it’s the voice, perhaps it’s just good direction, but he’s a world away from Now You See Me 2 here, suggesting there may be hope for the ex-Potter yet.


I’d sooner rewatch Weekend at Bernie’s any day than Swiss Army Man again. At least that picture had no pretensions to depth (on the other hand, Mr Profound himself, Shane Carruth, must have seen something in it, since he cameos as a coroner). The score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is magnificently uplifting, and Larkin Seiple’s cinematography is similarly vibrant and inventive, but to no avail. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you might undergo a Dano double bill with this and Ruby Sparks, another picture indulging his apparent obsession with updating crummy ‘80s Andrew McCarthy movies via an indie twist (that one being Mannequin). Although, Ruby Sparks is actually quite watchable; it’s the Dano factor that will have you squirming.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You can have it. Make the edits.

Little Women (2019)
(SPOILERS) It could be argued, given Little Women’s evergreen popularity, not least as a go-to text for Hollywood adaptations, that Greta Gerwig isn’t exactly stretching herself or giving us a better idea of the kind of directorial career she envisages. Hers is a likeable, intelligent, well-rendered sophomore picture. As such, the awards plaudits are probably no more or less deserving than for your average prestige period piece. Which is to say that Little Women is handsomely mounted and consummately performed (at least, by some of the cast), but it doesn’t absolutely feel like this umpteenth version of Louise May Alcott’s novel demanded to be told, even with the Gerwig’s innovations of experimentation with time frame and metatextual use of its author.

We need somebody to walk the clones.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
(SPOILERS) Not so much the banality of evil as of taking pot-shots at easy targets, Taika Waititi’s typically insubstantial, broad-brush, sketch-comedy approach isn’t the best of fits for the formulation of this self-styled “anti-hate satire”. The issue isn’t so much that it’s inappropriate or insensitive to broach material of Nazi persecution of the Jews comedically as that the manner in which it has been done here is so obvious as to be redundant. Waititi said his inspiration for making the movie was partly the statistics on those Americans who had never heard of Auschwitz; Jojo Rabbit is as cack-handed a way of going about informing them as Life is Beautiful.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.