Swiss Army Man (2016)

2016 #177
Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
(aka Daniels) | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Swiss Army Man

If you’ve heard of Swiss Army Man, it’s likely for one thing and one thing only: this is the movie where Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe plays a farting corpse with an erection. But rather than the childish super-gross-out comedy that short pitch would seem to suggest, Swiss Army Man is actually quite a sweet indie comedy-drama. With some super-gross-out comedy thrown in, natch.

The plot that leads us to the farting boner corpse begins with Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island and, in his lonely despair, attempting suicide. Then he spots a body washed up on the nearby beach. It turns out this isn’t a new friend, because he’s dead. Hank dubs him ‘Manny’. One thing leads to another and Hank uses Manny’s gastric expulsions to create a kind of jet ski that propels them off the island. Hank soon discovers the corpse has myriad potential uses (hence the title), especially when he starts to talk…

Swiss Army Man is kind of like Cast Away if Wilson the volleyball was a farting corpse. Hank despairs at his situation, chats to the technically-inanimate Manny about it, and together they begin to work through the human condition. In between using Manny’s rigor mortis-powered limbs to chop wood, or his boner as a magic compass to guide them home, that is. I was going to say “it’s that kind of movie”, but I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie quite like Swiss Army Man.

He ain't heavy, he's my farting boner corpse

As well as the indie ruminations on the purpose and meaning of life, there are some mystery plots in play, just to keep things engaging. Who is the woman Hank keeps seeing in flashbacks? How many of Manny’s abilities are real and how much is just in Hank’s head? I mean, Manny can’t really talk… can he? What if Manny’s not the only one who’s dead? Maybe these shouldn’t be given so much focus — I don’t think the film wants to be about such plot mysteries — but they were the kind of things running through my head while watching, because you know there’s bound to be some kind of twist or reveal for what’s actually happening. Naturally, I won’t spoil that here; but perhaps the film plays even better on repeat viewings, when you can set aside such wonderings and focus even more fully on the friendship between man and corpse.

That’s naturally powered by the two lead performances. Dano is very good as a man who’s feeling suicidal for, as it turns out, more reasons than “I’m alone on an island”; though enacting such patheticness (as a human trait rather than a criticism of his mental condition) seems very much within Dano’s wheelhouse. Radcliffe, however, is simply brilliant. Manny comes back to ‘life’ as a kind of innocent, unsure of how the world works and driven by his basest feelings; a reflection of all our inner psyches, in a way. Physically constrained by being, y’know, dead, Radcliffe manages to convey so much despite — or perhaps even partly because of — the limitations imposed upon him.

Corpsehood

Made for a relative pittance, technical merits are also strong, with neat special effects to convey Manny’s abilities, and a very indie-ish but fitting vocal-driven score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Interestingly, the Blu-ray contains an option to watch the film without the score, which (based on the few bits I sampled) creates a remarkably different experience. That’s true of most films, of course, but here it dramatically changes the mood of some scenes. It’s less magical, in a way, and sadder, and maybe creepier, which is not the point or message of the film.

“The farting boner corpse movie” is the kind of pithy description that will put many viewers off, but hiding behind the gross-out facade is a sweet comedy-drama about human interaction that, in its own way, is an incredibly moving, perhaps even heartwarming experience.

4 out of 5

Swiss Army Man is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

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Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^

Looper (2012)

2015 #40
Rian Johnson | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

LooperWriter-director Rian Johnson re-teams with the star of his first movie for this near-future sci-fi thriller, hailed by critics as one of the best genre movies of 2012, though it seems to have been a little more divisive among audiences.

In the year 2044, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed by the mob as a very special kind of assassin. 30 years in the future, time travel will have been invented and outlawed, leading organised crime to use it for murders: the victim is sent back in time and immediately killed by a so-called ‘looper’, leaving the future police with no body to investigate. Loopers know that, one day, they’ll have to kill their future self, in order to cover their tracks by “closing the loop”. So — and you’d know where this was going even if it wasn’t part of the film’s very premise — it’s not long before we meet Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis), who escapes, intent on changing the future so he can live. It’s up to younger Joe to stop him before the angry mob kills them both.

There’s quite a bit more to Looper than that — major characters aren’t introduced until a significant way through the running time, for instance. I’m sure some screenwriting gurus would have something to say about such a structure, but it helps make for a less predictable, more organic, more entertaining movie. One that, on occasion, plays about with its chronological structure. How apt. It does make it difficult to discuss in full without spoiling anything, mind, but as I’m posting this review in order to recommend the film just before it makes its TV debut, I shall endeavour to keep things newcomer friendly.

Not visually influenced by Blade Runner, honestFirstly, the less you know the better. I pretty much knew the above before I went in, and that meant the film had surprises from the get-go. For instance, the near-future world most of the action takes place in has been well-realised by Johnson and his design and effects teams, and time travel is not the only SF concept or imagery employed here, which I wasn’t aware of. Their vision is Blade Runner-esque in its decrepitude — this is a future where the global financial crisis has rolled on, so flying motorbikes exist but most people drive present-day cars retrofitted with solar panels, for example — but it doesn’t slavishly rip off Blade Runner’s style and imagery, as have so many other movies (both good and poor). The future concepts are also used economically when it comes to storytelling. Nothing is introduced merely for the sake of showing “it’s the Future, innit” — everything pays off in some way, but without the heavy-handedness normally associated with everything existing solely for a narrative purpose.

Once the genre-rooted concepts are established, the film morphs almost into a character-driven thriller. It’s one still absolutely grounded in ideas of future technology and its possible implications, but it’s what these particular people do in that particular situation that matters. A good deal of the second half is spent on a remote farm, for instance, where the extent of sci-fi tech is a self-piloting drone for watering crops. Some people didn’t like that; I thought it was fine. So too the action sequences, which are effectively put together and serve the story, rather than making this An Action Movie.

Lookie-likieHeading up the cast, Gordon-Levitt does a good Bruce Willis impersonation — believable, but not a slavish impression. That was probably quite necessary, because I don’t imagine Willis has the thespian chops to emulate an older Gordon-Levitt. Notoriously, the younger actor does the whole thing under prosthetics designed to make it more plausible he’d age into Willis. They’re a bit weird: not badly done — far from it, in fact — but you’re always kind of aware they’re there. A highly able supporting cast flesh out the rest of the characters, though most memorable is young Pierce Gagnon as an imperilled child you wouldn’t necessarily mind getting killed. And I mean that in a nice way; about the film and his performance, if not the character.

Time travel fiction is notoriously hard to get right because of the limitless potential for paradoxes, inconsistencies, and so on. Some reckon Looper has more holes than a golf course; Johnson has asserted it was incredibly carefully constructed and all of the criticisms are answerable. I’ve not listened to either of his commentary tracks (one on the disc, another made available for download while the film was still in cinemas) so I can’t really back one side or the other. Does it feel like there are issues? Maybe. But time travel is impossible, and probably always will be, so we can’t know how it would function. A fiction has to establish its own rules for what is and isn’t possible; what does and doesn’t happen. Looper doesn’t explain the nitty-gritty of everything it portrays — there’s even a hand-wave when talking about Old Joe’s memories of Young Joe’s current actions — but I believe there is at least some thought to how it all hangs together, just maybe not in the way some viewers would approve of. Well, you go write your own time travel story, then.

It's about timeEven if there are some logic issues, it doesn’t fatally undermine the movie. Looper comes with the joys of a well-imagined future, a captivating storyline, engaging characters, and enough twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing at the outcome. The best genre movie of 2012? That was a year of stiff competition among SF/F pictures, but Looper may have the edge.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Looper is on BBC Two tonight at 9:05pm.