SALT AND FIRE
Volcanoes And Protozoans
Werner Herzog’s super-volcano eco-thriller tops a busy year for the Bavarian director, following his documentaries Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World and Into the Inferno. However, many may wish that his new venture into fiction hadn’t seen the light of a projector...
Salt And Fire sees a three-person UN delegation fly to an unidentified South American country to investigate an ecological disaster called El Diablo Blanco: there’s an inexplicably sleazy scientist (Gael Garcia Bernal), his meek antithesis (Volker Michalowshi) and their vapid group leader (Veronica Ferres). Upon arrival, they are kidnapped by a group led by a mysterious CEO (Michael Shannon), whose company is responsible for the impending disaster.
Before a faintly promising premise can kick off, the script shamelessly writes off Gael Garcia Bernal after less than 10 minutes because his character has diarrhoea - or, as the script puts it: “hordes of protozoans swirling in my digestive tract” - and eventually side-lines one of the greatest working actors in the industry today (Shannon) to focus on Veronica Ferres. And there is no easy way to say this: Ferres’ speech cadence and telenovela delivery is so jarring, you legitimately wonder whether she has been dubbed in post-production.
However, not everything can be blamed on her sub-par acting. If Salt And Fire is as misjudged as it is laughable, it is chiefly due to the screenplay, penned by Herzog himself. Like his recent scripts, the overwritten dialogue sounds like Google-translated non-sequiters, and consequently, the acting is just plain awful. Not even Shannon can make a line like “Truth is the only daughter of time” sound anything but howlingly awful.
It may sound like a compellingly offbeat and surreal film, one that thrives on tortured allegories and nihilistic diatribes, but aside from a few stunning vistas shot in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats, this is a ridiculously stilted “thriller” that yearns for profundity but only achieves ridicule. Do not be fooled by the misleading poster, the involvement of Michael Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal, or those who will argue that it’s all a self-conscious and purposeful parody on Herzog’s part; the truth of the matter is that a natural catastrophe would be preferable to this dross.
- D - 08/12/16
AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
When Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was first announced, eyes rightly rolled. Based on a spin-off textbook Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling wrote for charity, the premise of a feature-length film adaptation (with another four - FOUR!!! - sequels in the pipeline) seemed like Hollywood at its most predictable: depressingly reluctant to let go of former glories and milking the good Potter name for all its worth.
Still, open mind and all that...
Set in 1920s, this faux-prequel sees young British magician Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrive in New York and lose control of a briefcase full of banned magic creatures. What follows is essentially a drawn-out game of Pokémon Go, where our hero and his newfound allies (the show-stealing triumvirate Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler) have to find the scarpering beasties and catch ‘em all before the American version of the Ministry of Magic gets involved. Oh, and avoid Colin Farrell too - he’s not happy, wears a necklace reminiscent of past bastardry and skulks around looking shady.
Series veteran David Yates is back in the director’s chair; after four of the pre-pubic wand-waver’s adventures, he manages to conjure up some of the magic of Potterverse and enrich the mythology without the security of falling back on Rowling’s most beloved characters. No easy task - and Maggie Smith and her Hogwarts posse are surely missed - but he pulls it off by injecting some ebullient visual panache to the Gatsby-era setting, and is aided by a script brimming with inventive flourishes penned by Rowling herself. However, the immersive first half is undercut by an overstuffed second, which gets side-tracked by superfluous subplots (and a mildly distracting 30-second cameo), in view of setting up some franchise foundations. This waters down the magic and only highlights the choppy nature of the story’s structure, the over-indulgent focus on the titular creatures and the fact that the film overstretches a meagre plot. You often get the impression that in lieu of a compelling story and a sense of urgency, the creative team compensated by stuffing in as many CG effects as possible: it looks great but can’t shake the feeling that a lot of what’s on screen is a gratuitous show-and-tell.
For all its shortcomings, there is enough in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them to delight devoted Potterheads and the cast contribute in no small way to soothing suspicions of cynical studio heads desperately clinging onto the past. The craft and the allegorical content are to be applauded, as well as the American setting, which slyly tease out some parallels with recent events; whether it casts a spell memorable enough to justify a whole franchise is another matter. What a shame it didn’t have the guts to simply knock back some Giggle Water and be a standalone adventure.
- D - 18/11/16
Another year, another notable sci-fi release: 2013 boasted the sensory experience that was Gravity, 2014 had the compelling if clunky Interstellar, 2015 offered up the Golden Globe-winning “comedy” The Martian. As for this year, it looked like we were going to have to settle for Independence Day 2.
Thank the hovering alien monoliths then for Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a tale of first contact which not only tops 2016’s sci-fi batch but also graces cinemagoers with one of the most thoughtful and emotionally satisfying science fiction films in recent memory.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s novella ‘Story of Your Life’, Arrival sees 12 alien spacecraft enter Earth’s atmosphere and hover over specific locations. The military is on high alert but before nuking ET (this was evidently filmed before the 2016 American election), the US army decide to recruit linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the alien language and establish some means of communication with the intergalactic immigrants. To make matters more complicated, confusion and panic are spreading as many struggle to wrap their minds around the paradigm shift that has just occurred: how do we begin to communicate with the “heptapods” and most importantly, do they come in peace?
The less said about the way the narrative meticulously unfolds, the better. Safe to say that Villeneuve deftly unravels a slow-burning and multifaceted story that is, as you can imagine from the director of Prisoners and Sicario, lightyears away from the dumb-but-fun antics of Independence Day.
Like Christopher Nolan before him, Villeneuve expects the audience to keep up, and uses some stunning-yet-measured special effects to create a believable and unique approach to a familiar premise. Armed with a superb script by Eric Heisserer and a spot-on cast led by Adams, who is having a terrific year (scroll down for the review of Nocturnal Animals), he creates a frequently palpable sense of nervous anticipation and uses this as a springboard to explore weighty theories, without losing sight of the story’s emotional dimension.
Sizeable credit is due to Bradford Young‘s awe-inspiring cinematography, which adds visual poetry to the screen, complemented by Johann Johannson’s eerie score. These are constantly at the service of the film’s themes, making sure that the result is a sophisticated “initial contact” film. It succeeds in this endeavour, joining Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still and Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine, as movies which show how encounters can potentially lead to dialogue and reveal our relative primitive nature when faced with more advanced beings. Arrival explores how extra-terrestrial existence challenges our anthropocentric conception of the world, the way in which we communicate. Smartly, it merges this with plenty of heart and ends up being a story more about humanity than about aliens.
There is so much to be written concerning the film’s ingenuity, the way it grapples with Lovecraftian sensibilities and Kubrickian themes. Many will come out discussing the manner in which it deals with time as a concept, how adroitly it leans on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to oppose sequential thought and circular perception, or even how it leaves small clues along the way to make the finale’s mind-bending twist a genuine thrill. However, these aspects should remain unspoilt to maximize enjoyment.
What can be and should be said is that Arrival is an ambitious and engrossing sci-fi film that succeeds where Matthew McConaughey-staring films like Contact and Interstellar faltered; unlike them, it manages to match its big ambitions with a strong script and an emotional resonance that, for the most part, does not strike a false note. Granted, the film does wobble when it overeggs the ending: there’s a mawkish element in the final act, which could have benefitted from a more enigmatic execution. However, the ideas remain intact, the emotional kick powerful and nothing detracts from the fact that Arrival will stand the test of linear time (sly nudge). It’s not hard to imagine that we’ll be reading its name alongside Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a boundary-pushing sci-fi film that managed to balance spectacle, brain and heart.
Your move, Independence Day 3...
- D - 11/11/16
...A dish best served prose
After an excellent debut to his directorial career with A Single Man in 2009, designer Tom Ford has taken his sweet time before gracing us with his second feature, adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel ‘Tony And Susan’.
Thankfully, Nocturnal Animals proves that all good things come to those who wait. It tells the story of Susan (Amy Adams), a successful art gallery manager who abandoned her own artistic ambitions and is losing interest in her curative work. Her wealthy and philandering husband (Arnie Hammer) is frequently absent and she begins to feel unhappily disconnected from the shallow world she lives in, populated by eccentric socialites and the LA elite.
Things take a turn when she unexpectedly receives a parcel from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). They had a messy break-up 19 years ago and he has sent her the manuscript of his novel, a story about a Texas-based road trip gone horribly wrong. The book is dedicated to her and this gift sets in motion three separate narratives: we witness Susan’s visualisation of Edward’s novel as she reads, which in turn triggers flashbacks of their courtship and how she destroyed her marriage with the then-aspiring writer. Both strands are anchored by the primary plot thread, Susan’s present life: the novel has a devastating effect on her and not only opens past wounds but makes her question the present, whether her life “has turned into something (she) never intended”.
The less said about the narrative, the better, but it’s safe to say that Tom Ford has crafted a stylish, emotionally literate psychodrama that stands as one of 2016’s very best offerings. The filmmaker / screenwriter has pulled off a crafty balancing act, one which makes you care about the different stories and their protagonists: there’s the brooding melodrama, the romance and the fictional story-within-a-story thriller that plays out like Dune-meets-Cormac McCarthy.
While the genre-hopping and timeline-weaving could be confusing, Ford’s adaptation mirrors Nocturnal Animal’s elegantly measured visuals. It is a dexterous feat of storytelling, matched by Joan Sobel’s precise editing, which makes the transitions seamless, Abel Korzeniowski’s Hitchcockian score and the stunning cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, who lenses the disparate layers with distinction. His photography complements Ford’s lush vision, as the stark and luxurious present looks soulless, the past is imbued with a nostalgic warmth, and the unbearably tense fiction feels gritty. The fact that these conversing and contrasting stories work together is no small achievement, creating clear distinctions and an overarching whole that is completely gripping.
The eye-watering cast are superb: Gyllenhaal’s raw turn as a distressed father is completely believable, Isla Fisher’s brief-but-precise performance shines, Michael Shannon’s maverick lawman is a treat and we get a career-high from an unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who injects a snake-like charm to his chilling antagonist. The supporting players are also memorable, injecting so much with only a single scene. Andrea Riseborough and Laura Linney stand out in particular, the latter briefly stealing the show as Susan’s snobbish mother, who - prophetically, as it turns out - tells her daughter that “we all eventually turn into our mothers”.
However, the key player here is Adams, whose quietly devastating performance is at the centre of the narrative but also leads the film’s thespian homerun. The actress does a great deal with the slightest facial movement, allowing her character’s macerating guilt and disillusionment to wash over her face at exactly the right times. Through her nuanced performance, we also appreciate the script’s potency, especially the emotionally articulate dialogue when it comes to portraying credible relationships, as well as the pragmatic / sensitive divide that poisons a couple.
Considering the director’s day job, many might feel that the pulpy content comes off as too measured or even pretentious, a textbook case of style over substance. However, there are layers of meaning throughout, with Ford and his team offering up jigsaw pieces that cleverly fall into place through style: vibrant colours add to the tense atmosphere, recurring motifs create mystery and a commentary about materialism, and objects echo patterns that contribute to themes of masculinity, regret and revenge.
Once again, the less you know, the better. Just make sure you don’t miss this multifaceted and emotionally-taxing film; it will consistently captivate from the baffling opening sequence to the gut-punch finale. Nocturnal Animals shows to what extent Ford shouldn’t leave us hanging for another 7 years, even if the wait was worth it.
- D - 08/11/16
Casts a familiar spell
For Marvel’s 14th entry in its shared universe, we get a new hero in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as the titular neurosurgeon and future “Sorcerer Supreme”. We follow him as he goes from preening narcissist to dimension-bending wizard, as the once-arrogant man “looking at life through a keyhole” puts aside his snarky ways and learns to embrace a higher calling.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s remarkably similar to Tony Stark and Thor’s character arcs, and this formulaic origin story has been seen countless times. Not that this hinders the fun, mind you: the studio has a long track record of delivering the goods and Scott Derrickson’s latest does not fall short. He and the execs have tried their hardest to address some of the frequent criticism directed at Marvel, delivering a standalone film that looks nothing like any of the others. The audacious visuals, which look like a kaleidoscopic cross between the collapsing cityscapes of Inception and MC Escher’s LSD-fuelled wetdream, are the main draw here. Add some lovely Nepalese vistas and you’ve got yourself a very good looking entry in the MCU.
However, Doctor Strange has retained some of the habitual MCU shortcomings, namely a limited villain whose only purpose is to introduce an Infinity Stone-shaped MacGuffin and under-utilized supporting characters. This is blatant with Rachel McAdams’ character, who is completely redundant to an insulting degree: the script may eschew the conventional last act dynamic of an epic punch-up, but such a depressingly constant trope should have been banished by now. Narratively, nothing stops the narrative from steadily ticking like clockwork, a glaring irony considering one of the main concepts the film deals with is the malleability of time. With a stunning rollcall of thesps like Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton (who frequently steals the show as The Ancient One), Mads Mikkelsen and Chiwetel Ejiofor, you wish they'd have matched the film’s visual boldness and the dramatic heft of its cast with a more creative storyline.
Then there’s the issue of levity. Certain comedic beats work well, as per Marvel’s custom, but some references reek of studio bods wanting to appeal a little too hard to the younger Millennials. While Doctor Strange’s sentient cape gets a few laughs, à la Aladdin’s carpet, the patronizing cultural references are far too self-conscious and forced to recreate Guardians of the Galaxy-style laughs.
Overall, Doctor Strange won’t betray audience’s trust in the Marvel product and will delight fans. That being said, franchise head honcho Kevin Feige and his lot need to be careful. Marvel have shown over the years an impressive willingness to branch out, sidestep a few contrivances and take risks: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy can attest to this. And it’s with these superior films in mind that you can’t help but feel like Doctor Strange is a bit too standard-issue, an aspect which might in turn feed the oft-cited “superhero fatigue”. The bombastic weirdness of the special effects save it, but the bar has been set high... Doctor Strange clears it but not without leaving a slight sense of disappointment.
- D - 07/11/16
I, DANIEL BLAKE
Ken Loach returns to the silver screen for the first time since 2014’s Jimmy’s Hall with an incredibly affecting social drama that marries a deeply human story with scathing political anger.
I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a widower (stand-up comedian Dave Johns, in his first feature length role) who, following a heart attack, isn’t cleared to go back to work or get benefits. Trapped and humiliated in the Kafkaesque nightmare of modern bureaucracy, he befriends a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires, a revelation) who has been relocated to Newcastle. Both struggle in their own ways with the faceless British welfare system, as Daniel quickly becomes a fatherly figure to both Katie and her two children.
The director, as is his custom, pulls no punches: he is known for tackling social injustice in his realist style and I, Daniel Blake is no exception. Throughout his deliberately stark execution, the director delivers an uncompromising, blistering indictment of Tory austerity and a welfare system that not only syphons humanity but targets the vulnerable. However, Loach manages to keep the social drama from descending into easy hectoring or full-blown ranting with occasional bursts of levity and two exceptional central performances that shine due to their naturalism and heart. He keeps it human and manages to capture powerfully honest and raw moments of misery and compassion, none more so than a devastating scene set at a foodbank; this sequence - which shall remain unspoilt here - will move many to tears due to Squires’ compelling turn and Loach’s radically simple execution.
This achingly human drama is Ken Loach at his most Loachian. It might not be subtle or reinvent the wheel aesthetically, but this is the director doing what he does best, and that is vital: we need voices like his and his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty’s to tackle urgent issues with passion, shake people out of apathy with directness and appeal to our humanity with compassion.
If the rumours suggesting that this Palme D’Or-winning film could be Loach’s swansong, I, Daniel Blake is one hell of a last stand.
- D - 19/10/16
KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE
... the latest in blood and guts ...
15 July 1974. 29-year old news reporter Christine Chubbuck commits suicide live on television. Her last words: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.”
“Attempted” because she couldn’t be sure she’d succeed.
Say what you will about her mental state, but that’s some shrewd journalism right there.
Turns out she did succeed. Her act made the headlines the next day, but the story got quickly relegated to a broadcast anecdote. 42 years later - and having allegedly inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network - the name Christine Chubbuck has come back in public consciousness.
Indeed, in one of those weird “twin film” phenomenons which sees studios getting a simultaneous itch to tackle similar characters - think 2005’s Capote and Infamous, 2014’s Yves Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent or this year’s Marguerite and Florence Foster Jenkins, to name a few - two films are being released this year about Chubbuck. After 42 years, eyebrows can legitimately be raised... There is Antonio Campos’ straight fiction take entitled Christine, featuring Rebecca Hall, and then there’s this decidedly more experimental take on her story: a hybrid ‘documentary’ which sees Robert Greene’s daring, multi-layered approach take the spectator on a recursive trip.
The director blurs fact and fiction as we follow actor Kate Lyn Sheil (of House of Cards fame) researching her next role. She is preparing to play Christine Chubbuck in a cheap-looking TV soap and we follow her process of immersion; she chats to people who knew the tragic figure, gets fitted for lenses, purchases a wig and even traces her footsteps back to the gun store where Chubbuck bought the revolver. Sheil’s commitment to understanding Chubbuck’s frame of mind and wanting to respect without glorifying her is adequately described as “compulsive”. So much so that Laurence Olivier would have given her the same advice he gave Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.”
This faux making-of documentary works on so many levels. Kate Plays Christine is a film about an actor’s desire to do justice to the part she’s given, and you can’t take your eyes off of Sheil for one single second. It’s also a film about the nature of performance and what it means to act, as well as an accessible deconstruction of the documentary genre. Finally, it’s a searing critique on the consumerist “who remembers yesterday’s headline?” attitude, one that exposes the general public’s voyeuristic needs regarding tragedy, doubling up as a dig against the “if it bleeds, it leads” media moto. Or, what Chubbuck so eloquently dubbed “the latest in blood and guts”.
This last element threatens to sabotage the film towards the end, as the provocatively meta, borderline Funny Games fourth-wall break as we get to the on-air suicide might be one step too far for some. That being said, the tension throughout the final act, combined with Sean Price William’s knowingly playful cinematography, is so addictive that you’ll be willing to forgive this minor wobble.
As troubling as it is fascinating, Kate Plays Christine joins Pierre Bismuth‘s unusual Where Is Rocky II? as one of this year’s most ambitious non-fictional offerings. It will have you wondering what is staged and what isn’t. Thankfully, even if the thought of seeing a fiction-within-a-non-fiction-within-a-fiction sounds like it might overload your logic glands, there’s no need to fear. That's all part of Greene’s plan: the filmmaker wants the viewer to question what they’re watching and drops a few sanity-restoring clues along the way. In lazier hands, this could have been another by-the-numbers biopic; thankfully, the director has delivered a cinema vérité gem that shows the limits of fiction and objectivity’s borders.
- D - 12/10/16
WAR ON EVERYONE
Sounding like something Donald Trump or a Fox News anchor might casually suggest as a solution to... well, all of life’s problems, War On Everyone is writer / director John Michael McDonaugh’s first feature set outside of Ireland. It sees two corrupt New Mexico cops (a hunched, very bland Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña doing his level best) indiscriminately bribing whoever they please, while finding the time to “go fuck some scumbags”. One’s obsessed with Glen Campbell; the other enjoys picking on his youngest son because he’s the weakest.
Think Riggs and Murtaugh gone feral... while the 'Sabotage'-era Beastie Boys sue for plagiarism.
Their drug and alcohol-fuelled antics come to a halt when the duo get in over their heads with an unscrupulous, Billy Zane-looking British lord (Divergent’s Theo James, who is less threatening than a plimsoll).
Brass tacks: War On Everyone is a genuine misfire. It’s a wannabe acidic black action-comedy which falls short both on thrills and on laughs, despite the occasional contrived zinger. It cheaply emulates superior writing (Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino are obvious touchstones) and fails to register dramatically. It tries too hard to be risqué for no particular reason, the banterific dialogue standing stand out as nothing but irritatingly self-serving; the film also yearns to be satirical but only manages to tip its hat smugly to the Lethal Weapon / Starsky and Hutch buddy cop format, all the way to the grumpy police chief giving last warnings.
What a shame, since the tragicomic has always been one of the director’s fortes. Not this time, as his script noticeably lacks Calvary’s carefully balanced crossover between the bleakly fatalist and the mordantly comedic. More importantly, the bent duo’s shenanigans don’t hold a naughty candle to the mismatched teams in this year’s The Nice Guys, McDonaugh’s very own (and far superior) The Guard or even James McAvoy’s drug-addled tricks in Jon S. Baird’s far more provocative Filth. And there was only one of him...
“If you ain’t got a good script, you ain’t got shit”, one character cheekily affirms. As pleasingly meta as the line is, it sadly resumes McDonaugh’s pseudo-anarchic bid to export his craft stateside.
Maybe he’s getting too old for this shit?
- D - 05/10/16
Jean-Francois Richet’s Blood Father follows John Link, an ex-con in search of redemption (Mel Gibson), who reunites with his estranged daughter Lydia. She has fallen in with the wrong crowd (those nasty drug-dealing gangster types your mum warned you about) and is on the run from the cartel, having accidentally shot her kingpin boyfriend.
What ensures is a familiar cat-and-mouse tale which sees a father doing whatever he can to protect his offspring, even if it means violating his parole...
Adapted by Peter Craig (The Town, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1&2) from his own novel, Blood Father doesn’t subvert any tropes or add much to the action genre. It is a predictable, nut-and-bolts B-movie that embraces its mid-budget status... and what a joy that is. The screenplay efficiently sets up the premise and the direction delivers on that premise. End of.
And then there’s Gibson. Whatever you may think about the actor’s personal life and his well-documented antics, the fact is that he remains a hugely engaging screen presence. Sporting an impressive badger beard and delivering each line with cigarette-huskiness, his bulked-up, tatted and grizzled anti-hero works wonders here. Many will read between the lines and recognize the subtext loud and clear: he plays a semi-reclusive character saying sorry for past offenses and seeking redemption. However - beyond all obvious parallels - after the likes of Edge of Darkness, Machete Kills and The Expendables 3, it’s good to see him back in proper leading man mode. If ever there was a proper comeback moment for the actor, Blood Father is it.
Of course, it helps that the supporting cast are all game: Erin Moriarty is utterly convincing as Lydia, William H. Macy is reliably excellent as Link’s mate and AA sponsor and Michael Parks shows up as a neo-Nazi that will delight genre fans. Add to that Richet’s flair for gritty action, some snappy foul-mouthed dialogue, cinematographer Robert Gantz’ dusty lensing of New Mexico and you’ve got a lean, stripped-down actioner that will keep you solidly entertained for 88 minutes.
What more do the people want?
- D - 04/10/16
SWISS ARMY MAN
Getting to the fart of the matter...
“What the fuck?”
Never have the closing lines of a film encompassed quite so accurately its spirit, as well as the state of mind a lot of audience members will be in once the lights go up.
Closing quotes aside, another way to describe Swiss Army Man would be to ask the question: What if Michel Gondry had directed a cross between Weekend At Bernie’s and an episode of Bear Grylls’ Born Survivor?
Chances are though that you don’t need descriptions and have probably already heard of this film. Yes, it’s the movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse whose erect penis at one point doubles up as a compass.
You read correctly.
Hogwarts is a distant, long-gone memory.
This surreal comedy by writing and directing duo “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, famous for directing DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s ‘Turn Down For What’ music video) starts off with Hank (Paul Dano) about to commit suicide on a desert island. Before he gets a chance to join the choir invisible, a flatulent corpse washes up on the beach. After initial hesitation and some contact with the 'lifeless' Radcliffe (who is later named Manny), Hank straddles the body and rides it off the island, propelled by - you guessed it - Manny’s anal exhale. Not only that, but no time is wasted in breaking the fourth wall: Hank sings along to the soaring and triumphant score as he rides his new friend like a jet ski.
And then, believe it or not, things gets weirder.
To say any more would be to do the film and potential audience members a great disservice. However, it’s safe to say that if you’re still with the film after its opening 10 minutes and have decided to go along with the madness, Swiss Army Man will be a gas (pun firmly intended) and might end up being your favourite film of 2016. If, on the other hand, the Daniels have already lost you with this gross madcap concept, their debut feature film isn’t for you.
For yours truly, Swiss Army Man lies somewhere in between. More accurately, it constantly oscillates between the two poles. It is hugely audacious and at its best, is reminiscent not only of the aforementioned Gondry for its use of practical effects and dreamlike tone, but also of Monty Python and Spike Jones, for its undercurrents of surrealist whimsy and melancholia. There are also echoes of the Mighty Boosh’s ‘The Nightmare of Milky Joe’ episode, in which two characters are stranded and rebuild a life for themselves, whilst unknowingly tripping balls. These aspects, as well as the frequently crass humour and the film’s inherent oddness, might prove to be too much for some audiences... But it works. Less functional are the broad metaphors and certain typical indie sensibilities (luckless introvert pines for his dream girl...) that weigh the more excitingly original components of the film down. Additionally, the film does tend to wobble when it aims too strenuously for the meaningful, ending up as less existentially potent than it might think it is.
However, for all the to-and-fro between masterpiece and gross-out indie, the thing that firmly tips the scales in the film’s favour are the performances. Paul Dano is reliably brilliant as Hank: he sells the magical realism on show and does so in a subtle and very funny way. As for Daniel Radcliffe, this is his moment. The actor has been taking risks post-Harry Potter, most notably with his theatre stint in Equus and the recently released Imperium, and Swiss Army Man sees his persistence pay off. He makes Manny an infantile ingénue, offering an affecting and hilarious turn that is a slapstick joy to witness. His facial elasticity ensures that a mere twitch of an eye is oddly disarming and that a half-smile can be simultaneously oddly tender yet unbelievably creepy: it’s a fully committed performance that will rightfully draw comparisons with Buster Keaton and proves to what extent Radcliffe is a physical performer of the highest degree. The chemistry between both actors assures that ultimately, you’re watching a delirious - and hugely entertaining - version of 'Waiting For Godot' that features the most warped bromance in the history of cinema.
Swiss Army Man is creative and at times hilarious. Above all, it's deliberately strange and therefore a divisive film. Not everything works but, whether you like it or not, Daniels have crafted a cult movie in the making. The two things everyone can agree on are that firstly, nothing prepares you for it, its wonderful acapella score by Manchester Orchestra and its brilliant performances; secondly - as clichéd as it sounds - you’ve never seen anything quite like it.
- D - 30/09/16
Non-fiction: 1 - Fiction: 0
When it comes to the ongoing hot-button story of the former NSA employee responsible for the biggest leak of top secret information in American history, who better to helm the big screen dramatization than Oliver Stone? After all, a significant portion of the director’s filmography shows that he is no stranger to controversial issues; whether it’s tackling Vietnam (Platoon), delving into governmental conspiracies (JFK), questioning the political legacies of former presidents (Nixon) or even sticking it to still-sitting presidents (W.), this is a filmmaker who has never shied away from standing up to the establishment and giving Uncle Sam his two cents worth.
What a surprise then to find that Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic is an unremarkable, inoffensively toothless affair that lacks both pace and pulse. By putting the man in context and chronicling Snowden’s evolution from pro-government intelligence officer to whistleblower via the extensive use of flashbacks, the director doesn’t dumb down the material so much as flatten it. He and his co-scribe Kieran Fitzgerald play it too safe with a by-the-numbers screenplay that chooses to make Snowden’s romantic life a key feature of the narrative. Consequently, the intrigue is dampened by several scenes de ménage and formulaic beats which siphon away much of the story’s urgency.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is without a doubt the film’s ace in the hole: he looks the part and convincingly mimics the divisive figure’s speech cadence and intonations, which is more than can be said for what the actor subjected us to when playing Phillippe Petit in last year’s The Walk. However, his best efforts can’t prevent Snowden from feeling superfluous, a sentiment bolstered by the fact that the definitive film on Edward Snowden already exists: not only is Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour far superior to Stone’s dramatized effort, the once-provocateur filmmaker appears to remake certain shots of the Oscar-winning documentary and uses them to bookend the flashbacks. This only reminds this year’s audiences that 2014 filmgoers were treated to the genuine article, as opposed to a watered-down retelling.
It is true that multiplex audiences foolishly tend to dismiss documentaries outright, preferring more easily digestible fictionalized accounts. However, while the issues at the heart of this story are important enough to pander to the mainstream in the hope that a wider audience will fuel more debates over government sanctioned surveillance, Stone’s film only serves as further evidence that certain topics are fiction-proof. Many stories are so self-sufficiently thrilling that any glossy spin on the original documentary only shows Hollywood at its most artificial: 2013’s The Fifth Estate couldn’t compete with Alex Gibney‘s eye-opening We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the aforementioned The Walk paled compared to the superb Man On Wire and Snowden ends up as an uninvolving footnote to the thrillingly insightful Citizenfour. Poitras’ non-fiction made you hurry home to tape up your laptop camera; Stone’s fiction, by no means awful, is still more likely to make you wonder whose genius idea it was commission Peter Gabriel for an original song that features the lyrics “There’s no safe place to go / Now you’ve let that whistle blow.”
Don’t get me started about the pointless and laughable (spoiler alert) Gordon-Levitt / real Snowden switcheroo at the end, which completely undermines all the actor’s - and therefore the film's - efforts.
Uncle Sam should be trembling, not shrugging.
- D - 23/09/16