Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Swiss Army Man Review (2016)

In the current cinematic landscape that’s populated by so many hollow, generic big budget spectacles, sheer eccentricity and audaciousness is greatly appreciated. And “Swiss Army Man” has a lot of that. Though, eccentricity on its own isn’t enough to carry a feature length film. Luckily, “Swiss Army Man” has plenty of heart and charm to go along with its quirkiness.

“Swiss Army Man” (written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as “The Daniels” in the credits) is the indie darling that took the 2016 Sundance film festival by storm. You know, the one about a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe? A farting corpse that’s befriended by Paul Dano? Yet, while it does contain a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe, the picture is much more than that. It’s a small film that reaches magnificent, sometimes profound heights and manages to pack a lot into its hour and ninety-five minute run time. “Swiss Army Man” is a wildly funny, endearing, beautiful exploration of love, friendship, loneliness and depression.

It’s also features a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe.  

The film opens on a desert island somewhere in the Pacific. Hank (Dano) is stranded and is getting ready to hang himself. That is until he spots said farting corpse (in a dress coat, blue plaited shirt and slacks) lying on the beach, farting like there’s no tomorrow. The flatulent corpse, named Manny, gives Hank a new lease on life. And just when you think “Swiss Army Man” is going to turn into “Castaway” (with a farting corpse instead of a volleyball) Hank rides Manny like a jet ski (as you do) to the mainland, right next to a temperate forest.

Manny slowly begins to take on a life of his own and the two embark on a journey back to civilization. That’s all I’m going to say plot wise because “Swiss Army Man” is perhaps the wildest, most unpredictable film I’ve seen all year. Every time you think you have it figured out it, the movie takes a left turn and gets progressively weirder.

However, “Swiss Army Man” remains coherent and focused from start to finish and its never quirky for the sake of being quirky. The farting corpse gimmick isn’t used simply because its silly and unexpected, it also serves a purpose, which is a ridiculous thing to type but it’s nevertheless true. Going back to the Jet Ski scene, Manny’s flatulence helps get Hank off the island and away from certain death. It literally propels the narrative forward. Additionally, the act of farting takes on a much greater significance in the film overall. As peculiar as “Swiss Army Man” gets that peculiarity either moves the story forward or deepens the characters.

At the same time, The Daniels know when to dial back the strange and allow for genuine, straightforward drama/emotion to play out between Hank and Manny. The film tackles weighty issues like anxiety and depression with delicacy and tenderness. “Swiss Army Man” mixes mundane earnestness and nutty surrealism almost perfectly.

The Daniels script is vibrant and intelligent, full of amusing one-liners (“If you don’t know ‘Jurassic Park’ you don’t know sh-t,”) and simple yet oddly brilliant insights (when you’re first getting to know a romantic partner you go to the movies but when you’re more comfortable with each other you stay in and watch Netflix). It’s also strongly committed to character. Through their interactions, the layers of both Hank and Manny are gradually peeled back.

That being said, The Daniels trust the intelligence of the audience by not over explaining—letting us to fill in the gaps, while also allowing for ambiguity in regards to the overall situation. The uncertainty of the setting gives the picture an otherworldly, at times lyrical feeling. Meanwhile, we’re unsure if the events taking place are real or imaginary, though in the long run it doesn’t really matter. The Daniels convincingly create a world in which a man using another man as a water vehicle seems perfectly plausible.

None of this would be possible without Dano and Radcliffe. With his lanky body structure and boyish face, Dano easily slips into the kind but deeply insecure Hank, giving an understated performance that becomes increasingly vulnerable as the film goes on. It’s almost impossible to feel completely unsympathetic towards him. Radcliffe is also sensational--childlike and introspective in equal measure. He’s simultaneously the comic relief and the voice of reason. Radcliffe brings warmth and dimension to a cold gassy corpse.

“Swiss Army Man” is easily the strangest film I’ve seen all year; it’s also one of the best. Yes, I’m talking about the film with the farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Neon Demon Review (2016)

Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” tells a twisted version of the cliché story in which the naïve small town girl runs off to L.A. to become a star. In this case, the naïve small town girl is Jesse (Elle Fanning) who goes to L.A. to pursue a modeling career. In no time she begins to climb the ladder of success, getting job after job and becoming the apple of everyone’s eye, making a few of the veteran models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathecote), envious.

“The Neon Demon” is all about the emphasis our culture places on surface level beauty. All the women in the film are obsessed with beauty, solely defined by it and see it as their only means of success/attention. Towards the beginning, Jesse says very blatantly that she’s not talented in any way; all she has is her “looks.” Meanwhile, the men are sleazy pigs who see women as sex objects and are often the ones who force them to try and attain impossible standards of beauty.

Though, what’s more compelling about the “Neon Demon” is that it highlights the ickiness that often accompanies modeling, particularly female modeling. Jesse is successful not just because she’s pretty but also because she’s young (she recently turned sixteen) and innocent. In one scene, an arrogant fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) auditions women for an upcoming show. After barely acknowledging the slightly older Sarah he’s awestruck by Jesse--captivated by her youth, purity and body language that screams “vulnerable.” There’s an undercurrent of pedophilia and perversion that I found to be deeply unsettling and far more disturbing than some of the more explicit sequences that come later on. 

Refn creates an atmosphere of dread that starts off subdued and gets increasingly unhinged as the film goes on. L.A. is transformed into a nightmarish hellscape (the heavy use of blood red lighting further stresses this hellish state) that chews people up and spits them back out. Danger lurks around every corner and there’s no one you can trust, not even those who pretend to be your friend.

A majority of this atmosphere comes from sheer style. Much like his characters, Refn is also obsessed with surface level beauty and no one can deny that “The Neon Demon” is aesthetically lush. The meticulously staged shots, (the production design is very neat and symmetrical) combined with the red, purple, pink, green and blue lighting give the film a dreamy elegance. At the same, the film contains scenes of intense and gruesome sequences of violence, sequences that look like they were lifted from a cheap exploitation picture. As he did in his last two features “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” Refn makes brings an art house sensibility to what is essentially a ‘b’ thriller.

Yet, as stylish and unsettling as “The Neon Demon” is, it also feels narratively hollow. It’s often unfocused and meanders frequently. The characters are paper thin and difficult to connect with. The only one I really cared about was Jesse and not because she’s a rich character but because I kept worrying that something really bad was going to happen to her. She constantly looks like she’s in danger. Fanning is soft spoken and graceful, having to do a lot of acting with her body and face, but I wanted more from the character. I kept waiting for Jesse to come alive--transition from innocent and vulnerable to more assertive and in control. While there are flashes, she remains frustratingly frail and two-dimensional.

Bearded Keanu Reeves makes a brief but noticeable impression as a sleazy/rapey motel owner, primarily because he’s playing against type. Lee is also strong as a scheming aging model that will do whatever it takes to retain her youth and beauty. However, she isn’t in the film nearly enough, which prevents a potentially intriguing rivalry between her and Jesse from blossoming into anything substantial. This is a shame considering how big a role she plays in the finale. Everyone else, including Jena Malone as an aspiring makeup artist, are sadly unmemorable.

As for the ending, it’s certainly disturbing and disgusting but I couldn’t help but feel a tad underwhelmed. The film acts as though it’s going build up to some profound and shocking conclusion but that never comes. Instead the outcome feels obvious; in fact the whole movie feels obvious. The film’s overarching themes (the physical and mental costs of fame/beauty for young women and the immense pressure they’re put under) aren’t groundbreaking in the realm of cinema and Refn doesn’t have much to say that’s fresh or innovative. In the end, the film tries to make you think it’s more intricate and deep than it really is through style and window dressing. And some of the more gruesome/disturbing sequences (like one that involves full on necrophilia. Yes, you read that right) are laughable, and come off desperate rather than bold.

“The Neon Demon” isn’t a bad film. It’s aesthetically appealing and it’s bizarre--making it watchable and somewhat intriguing. Additionally, the score by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez is spectacular, switching between warm and ambient music to pulsing 80’s slasher movie style synthesizer. But overall the film is more style and shock value than substance.