Film review

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Written for RAF News September 2016

Stranded on a beach Hank (Paul Dano) has had enough and is ready to end it all when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore giving him new hope – as well as a way to chop wood and start fires. It’s kind of like Cast Away but with Harry Potter playing Wilson.

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All we know about Hank is that he is an outsider, a bit of a weirdo but sweet at heart. All we know about Manny is that he is dead, at least we’re sure he’s dead until he starts talking – prompting Hank to teach him all there is to life, mostly: love, farts and masturbation. In return Manny offers his body as a tool, appearing to have fantastical powers. If you hadn’t guessed from the title Swiss Army Man is ridiculous. It is pure comic absurdity channeled into the template of an indie film.

Hank’s life lessons are usually accompanied by elaborate props and scenes fabricated from twigs and refuse, giving the film an impossibly complicated homemade aesthetic that is so common of independent films – think: Be Kind Rewind, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or more recently Me, Earl and the Dying Girl and Adult Life Skills. It feels like an elaborate parody at times, with classic moments like hands rolling out of windows and underwater kisses – just with one of the character’s dead and propped up with sticks or his own flatulence. It’s this level of humour that prevents it from getting too serious, or at least when it seems to get serious it is undermined completely by its silliness.

Not so much concerned with whether he is a hallucination or not, Swiss Army Man ventures into the bizarre by trying to tell a serious story through the profanely juvenile. It embraces its absurdity and wears it with pride. The score is put together brilliantly, a cappella chorus that is sparked by Dano and Radcliffe imitating stirring and triumphant film music. Dano’s recent turn as Brian Wilson comes to mind, not only in his vocal harmonies but in his disturbed state of mind.

The repetition of certain jokes does get tired but much like Manny’s corpse they seem to have a second life after a time. Swiss Army Man is a bold film that sticks to its style and delivers something altogether different and a bit weird.

Two Women (2016)

Written for RAF News September 2016

Set in mid-19th century Russia, Two Women is focussed on the social fallout when a young tutor moves into a countryside estate only to steal the affection of both the wife and adopted daughter in residence.

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The harsh and hardened lady of the manor, Natalia Petrovna (Anna Astrkhantseva), has grown complacent, her eye drifting from her wealthy husband to her hopelessly-besotted friend Mikhail (Ralph Fiennes) and now to new arrival (Nikita Volkov) even though he himself seems distracted by young free spirited Vera (Anna Levanova).

Adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the CountryTwo Women is presented rather as two days. The first painted white and gold, every scene sun-kissed and glowing as the children play together and the adults fawn over each other. Then, in another move of unsubtle symbolism, the second day is met with torrential downpour, taking with it those promising emotions and complicating the relationships within the house.

Over the course of the film different pairings of characters walk around the luscious surroundings of this country home confessing their feelings for each other. Despite the large open spaces that they so often meander through, most are caged by repressed desires and how they ought to behave.

Two Women is a slow-burn that deals in subtlety, but in the hands of these performers small moments become something much larger. Fiennes is masterful at this, stealing focus when simply reacting. Although given that he had learnt the lines in Russian to be overdubbed this is all we are left with. Astrkhantseva gives a solid performance as Natalya, the perfect counterpoint to Vera, the other woman titled in the film though treated as a child. She is naive and vulnerable, spending most of the time running from something or other – which is pointed out as being rather improper.

Apart from a couple of quips made by the visiting doctor, each scene is treated as a rather sober affair, drifting apparently from the comedy in the original text. As if constrained by the same formality of its characters, Two Women moves slowly but deliberately. It relies on the performances to keep your attention, and this it manages to do but it sure does take itself seriously.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Are you sex or food? She’s dessert…. Because she’s so sweet.

In the claws-out fashion world of LA, green eyes and plastic smiles twist compliments into daggers. It seems there are no friends among rivals.

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Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the new girl in town. At 16 years old  – 19 if anyone asks – her innocence will prove to be that thing that everyone hungers for, but her quick progression will seed a poisonous vanity and make enemies of other models. Sarah and Gigi are veterans of the catwalk, and resentfully so. They show a relentless competitive streak and willingness to cut and stitch themselves into perfection. They are introduced to Jesse by make-up artist and mortician Ruby who seems just as obsessed with Jesse’s appearance as the camera.

In Refn favourite La Dolce Vita a swarm of paparazzo scurry and scramble over each other to get photographs of female stars. Like mosquitoes they are a persistent nuisance but no real threat – the women have power and an industry has been built around their sexuality. This is also true of The Neon Demon but on the surface it looks just the opposite, with girls clawing and clamoring to get in front of the camera and be noticed.

The male presence in the film is concentrated down to a few peripheral misogynists who seem to possess power no matter where they fall on the scale – from photographer and collection designer to motel manager. They speak very seldom but when they do they give orders. Enamored by Jesse’s natural beauty, you realise that her uncorrupt innocence is interchangeable with naivete and youthfulness, or perhaps even virginity. This infantilisation offers a stark satire of the fashion industry but it is not so far from the truth. Glammed up and glossed over it is the commodification of something lurid that exits in the underbelly of society too – ‘real Lolita shit’ says the motel manager of a 13 year old you can pay to fuck in a room neighbouring Jesse’s.

Whilst the film appears to be about girls, divorced from Refn’s sexualised male fantasy in Drive and Freudian complex in Only God Forgives, his few male characters signify authority and force the girls to compete in creating something like the ‘anti-female friendship’ film. They fight each other to have the opportunity to be exploited and objectified – which seems to be self-reflexive of the film. Refn’s male gaze is often felt behind the camera, at one point actually taking the point-of-view of an attacker, and when the film nose dives into exploitation in the third act it takes on the same predatory voyeurism, which is all part of its charm.

The final moments of the film could be seen as a comical misreading of the expression that escapes all involved in this industry – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

Written for RAF News July 2016

In wont of a child but unable to find a partner, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) settles for a surrogate in a gormless but poetic pickle farmer. This is just as she meets John (Ethan Hawke) and although he has a family already, it is obvious that there is a connection and that they are bound to be together, but who can say for how long.

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Maggie and John meet at the college where they both work, she is in the arts he is in social science but with aspirations of writing fiction. She is desperate to be a mother but he already has children with the formidable and tightly wound author Georgette (Julianne Moore). In basing this triangle of characters in academia they have sharp wit and quick retorts, they are able to draw poetic allegories of their own situations, as well as being utterly pretentious and narcissistic at the best of times

Passing mentions of Pussy Riot and Slavoj Zizek place this story in time and tells us about the type of people we’re dealing with: self-aware progressives – acknowledging the futility a family dinner when they all have business to attend to on their phones.

The film is wrapped up in the intellect and self-awareness of it’s characters, it dances around the typical beats of an indie romantic-comedy and offers an intellectual spin. It never drops its frenetic pace, jumping forward in time to Maggie and John with a 3 year old child of their own. Not as happy as she had imagined herself to be, this is where the second part of Maggie’s plan is put into action: to get John and Georgette back together, to put him back where she found him.

The film maintains a light tone with an upbeat ska and reggae soundtrack, but it is the ramped up, borderline android performance of Julianne Moore’s Danish author that tips the film into farce. This is a gamble which pays off. A perfect counterpoint to the drama underlying the story.

Maggie’s Plan twists the rom-com into an intellectual screwball comedy, unlike it’s characters never taking itself too seriously. It is offbeat, clever and funny throughout.

Jarhead 3: The Siege (2016)

Written for RAF News May 2016

Corporal Evan Albright (Charlie Weber) is a Marine with high marks and the newest to join the forces at the US Embassy in an unnamed Middle Eastern territory, but his goody-two-shoes keenness will make him enemies before he can warn them that the Ambassador is under threat.

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Shown through the compound and assured of its high level security, the films subtitle connects the dots for you if you hadn’t sussed it already – they’re not as secure as they think. Outside the gates are some local protestors and one particularly shady looking guy (Hadrian Howard) with ties to Islamic State can be seen with a camera focussed on the guard tower – this doesn’t look like a broadcast for Al Jazeera, at least Albright doesn’t think so.

The new recruit’s standalone attitude is his weakness, looking out for himself and ‘killing’ his entire squad in a training exercise so that when he finally has cause for concern no-one cares to listen. They see him as a hot-shot, John Wayne, but he’s more like John Cena, the professional wrestler turned actor – cartoonishly American in looks and attitude: pronounced chin, inflated features and patriotic to the point of ‘pissing red, white and blue’.

With an extremely simple story, loosely based on the Benghazi attack of 2012, it is coloured in by out of place dialogue that jumps from soppy inspirational lines to throwaway quips. In amongst the Yanks are a few Brits affecting accents – the standout performance being that of Scott Adkins as Gunnery Sergeant Raines, the badass of the bunch who proves himself handy with a sniper rifle.

Once the Embassy is inevitably breached, cue endless shots of scarf-clad terrorists folding like rag-dolls under gunfire. With a bodycount so high that it gets boring, Jarhead 3 couldn’t be more different from the first in the franchise, which made a point of showing very little action. A very standard film that does exactly what it sets out to do, kick terrorist ass and chuck in in the odd buzzword to make it relevant #Oorah.

Adult Life Skills (2016)

Written for RAF News April 2016

Stitched together from parts of writer director Rachel Tunnard’s life, save for the serious parts, Adult Life Skills is a piece of handcrafted whimsy that has heart and a whole lot of gags – that most of them don’t land doesn’t detract from its Northern charm.

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This low budget English film follows Anna (Jodie Whittaker) on the brink of turning thirty but still living at home with her mum (Lorraine Ashbourne), well almost – living in a shed at the bottom of the garden. This is her hideaway, adorned with pun-based signage (Right Shed Fred, Shed Zeppelin) and pictures of Patrick Swayze, where she makes internet videos of her thumbs for no-one but herself.

From her bobble-hat, bmx and back-pack it is clear that Anna is stuck in adolescence. She longs for the company of her deceased twin brother, and refuses to take life seriously without him. Anna remains a lonesome teenager and it is only when an old school friend (Rachael Deering) comes to visit, and as she spends more time with an outcast neighbourhood kid with an equalled sense of alienation (newcomer Ozzy Myers), that the full extent of her grief comes into focus.

Beneath her quirks Anna is shown to be stubborn, defensive and full of rage, which is well captured by Whittaker. The film comes off as a bit too cute and reaches too far for it’s dramatic moments- it is only in the fleeting moments with over-looked love interest, the soft-voiced but definitely not gay Brendan (Brett Goldstein), that the awkward comedy works. The funniest back and forth though, occurs between the crudely penned faces on Anna’s thumbs.

Adult Life Skills has charm but it feels empty and unrealistic, like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but hollow and without the pathos. It employs the same staples of the indie-twee and ends up as nothing special, but it’s hard to dislike – a low budget effort from some female voices that deserves to be supported.

One thumb up, and the other eternally depressed.

Disorder/Maryland (2016)

Written for RAF News March 2016

Back from service in Afghanistan as part of the French Special Service, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows signs of post-traumatic stress and so finds some private security work before he can return – if he can return. His judgement seems to be clouded though by his apparent disorder as he struggles to tell apart real threats from paranoid delusions.

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“A lot like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive but takes itself very seriously.”

Vincent is a brooding figure who shows little more than his vigilant drive to protect. The first half of the film is an interesting and stylised exploration of his state of mind in which we experience a job from his perspective. Hired initially as security for a wealthy Lebanese businessman who is hosting a party, we observe potential threats whilst the overpowering bass of dance music drowns out all voices and throws your focus.

The use of penetrating sound and the uncomfortably closed in shots of Vincent’s face as he stalks guests through the crowd works well to overwhelm your senses and create palpable tension. This discomforting paranoia will plague the entire film and create some extremely suspenseful scenes.

Schoenaerts is great without even having to speak. He acts with his body, showing a raw animalistic quality that has him physically restrained until he can find an outlet. He is threatening, even to the family he is hired to ‘babysit’ when the businessman leaves town. It is only when Vincent is left alone, protecting the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and son that the threats seem to become more real, but how certain can he be?

At first it feels as though Disorder will be a thoughtful but very different take on PTSD. But this message is abandoned half way into the film as it quickly becomes more of a genre film, an action thriller. It remains stylised and tries to hold on to the drama but it becomes almost a horror film by the end. As a result the message of Disorder is lost, albeit to very tense and involving action.

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This sudden plummet into a different genre changes the way in which you view Vincent and ultimately it creates a very unclear message. In ghost films there is often a character who warns everyone else, who senses a presence and is usually laughed at until the doubters are mutilated by said presence. The film aligns with this position because the idea of there not actually being a threat is less interesting for this kind of film. In Disorder, Vincent senses ‘the presence’ but it is clearly fallout from his PTSD, until it isn’t. Until the point where his paranoia comes true. I am not sure what is to be inferred by this? Is his disorder practical? Does he even have a disorder or is he just some clairvoyant Jason Bourne? It seemed like a cheap way to cash in on the tension created up until the last act. A cop out from creating non-action drama.

Even still the film was different enough to be compelling. The style was interesting even if there weren’t many realised characters or much of a story. It felt a lot like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – a taciturn father surrogate brutally kills bad guys with supposed moral justification, shown with European flare through the striking visuals and an important score -but Disorder seems to take itself more seriously, pretending to be something more, something deeper… for an hour at least.