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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The Worm is the Spice! The Spice is the Worm!

Dune (1984)
(SPOILERS) Dune was (still is?) one of those movies that seemed to be a fixture in student houses of “a certain disposition”, frequently played and part of the furniture, but not really absorbed. Easier to stare at rather than fully engage with. Unless, I presume, you were already an aficionado of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novels. I’ve seen it said of the Harry Potter movieverse that you really need to have read the books to get all you can from them, but the only one where I really felt that was the case was The Prisoner of Azkaban, which seemed to have some whacking great narrative holes in need of filling. David Lynch’s Dune, the source material of which I also haven’t read, most certainly suffers from such a malaise, the measures taken to impart the dense plot overwhelming the challenge of making an engaging motion picture. It’s just too stuffed, too conscious of the need to move onto the next sequence or barely-defined character, such that it ends up simultaneously sha…