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.

Gomorrah: Season 2

Written for Film and TV Now July 2016 (Available here)

Now that you’ve finally caught your breath after its intense first series, the brutal Italian crime drama Gomorrah is back where it left off, plunging deeper into the darkness of the Comorra drug wars.

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By the final episodes Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore) – the closest we have to a protagonist but one that we must keep at arms length for fear that he might betray us – had tipped of the police to have Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino) incarcerated, ordered the death of his wife and shot his son in the face. This climactic finale would seem to mark the end of the Savastano clan and the beginning of a new era, but with Pietro escaping prison and son Genny (Salvatore Esposito) showing signs of life, we don’t think for a second that it will end happily ever after. (more…)

Taxi (1978 – 83)

Written for RAF News May 2016

When new hire Elaine (Marilu Henner) enters the grotty base of the Sunshine Cab Company in Taxi‘s first ever episode, she cuts to the heart of the atmosphere, asking why everyone here just a little angry.

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This small, tiny in the case of dispatcher Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito), but diverse group of part-time cabbies are united by their New Yorker attitudes, their sarcasm and bitterness, their incessant innuendos and quick-fire insults. Filmed in front of a live studio audience their constant quips keep the laughs coming, but the show never shied away from making a serious point, earning it the title of ‘morality play’.

Over it’s 5 series span in just as many years, Taxi would become iconic for it’s opening theme tune, it’s clownish character actors and its tendency to get a bit gushy at the end. Where Alex (Judd Hursch) would be seen as the fatherly figure of the group, the one true cabbie, episodes would often follow as he offered some of his learned wisdom to the others, or capping the show with a life lesson. But this sentiment could be found in the most cartoonish characters – the innocently idiotic foreign mechanic Latka (Andy Kaufman), lovable idiotic boxer Tony (Tony Danza), and joining from the second series the burnt out hippie and outright idiot Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd).

All the cast of the Sunshine Cab Company are larger than life, big voices with big gestures that really make the punchlines land. This is especially true for struggling actor Bobby (Kenickie himself, the late Jeff Conaway) and Devito’s Palma – who spends most of the show’s run in the dispatcher’s cage, where his petty tirades are delivered with such fury that it steals your attention, and though he is undeniably the most despicable character, he is hilarious and the centrepiece to the show.

A precursor to Cheers and even The Simpsons, Taxi is a time capsule of a sit-com, and of 70s New York, that can be reopened and revisited now that it is being released on DVD for the first time in the UK.

 

Against The Sun (2016)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Feb 2016

Against the Sun tells the incredible true story of three US Navy airmen who were left stranded in the South Pacific near Japanese territory during WW2.

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Chief Harold Dixon (Garret Dillahunt, 12 Years a Slave), bombardier Tony Pastula (Tom Felton, The Harry Potter series) and radioman Gene Aldrich (Jake Abel) find themselves low on fuel and way off course, with no other option but to crash land their torpedo bomber into the ocean. It is only once they climb inside a life raft that they meet each other properly.

The remainder of the film takes place aboard this small but formidable life boat as the three men try to stay alive long enough to make it to shore. As it turns out the nearest islands are over 1000 miles away, which means weeks of travel if they can survive the journey. All of this they must do without food or water, without maps, flares or flashlights. If that wasn’t enough the two younger lads can’t swim and the waters are shark infested. The odds are stacked against them and yet the film maintains a tone of triumph, of sheer American optimism.

Remarkably similar to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the two films are different in scope and magnitude. Where Jolie’s dramatic story is on a much larger scale with glossy special effects, Against the Sun is stripped back to the bones. It is simple and unsensational by comparison – and more effective for it. But that’s not to say it’s too memorable either.

It feels as though there are countless missed opportunities to create tension but it holds its punches intentionally, even if the film suffers for it. This is a true story and measures are taken to capture the events accurately. On this small scale production the performances take focus and it is the dynamic between the minuscule cast that makes the film, but unfortunately the tone stays the same throughout – so while their story is unbelievable the film doesn’t do enough to leave a lasting impression.

The Lobster (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film offers more of the same darkly surreal dead pan comedy, except this time there’s an all star ensemble cast who speak English for the most part.

This has a number of effects on the film. Firstly, a new audience has opened up to this testing black humour – curiosity irked and sensibilities challenged. This made for a very tense atmosphere in the cinema where I saw the film, confused at what was supposed to be funny, at what was allowed to be funny. There were a few walk outs halfway into the film, claiming that it was the most disgusting film they had ever seen, and that this was surely not the romantic-comedy they were promised on Graham Norton

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The other major effect the English casting had on the film, for me at least, was on the tone of the dialogue. It seemed inconsistent. Some were putting more into their lines than others – more sense of comedy, irony or emotion.

Colin Farrell is impressively uncharismatic as David, damaged to the point of losing his humanness. But his performance seems to be a pastiche of those in Lanthimos’ previous films Dogtooth and Alps. The Greek cast remain defiantly more dead-pan and robotic. This difference is seized upon when David’s passivity is tested by Lanthimos staple Angeliki Papoulia as Heartless Woman – and clearly he possesses more emotion than he is letting on. He, like the audience, is being pushed at what he can stomach.

The use of familiar actors in a familiar language draws more attention to the flat delivery of stilted dialogue, and has a different effect to reading the plainly worded sentences in the subtitles. It feels similar to the black comedies of Scandinavia: obviously staged and void of emotion. Like a children’s play, badly translated from another language, written with an alien understanding of how humans interact. It has a childlike naiveté but is self-aware and hilarious with it (as in the game: Touch Feel Think Win) .

The closest English-speaking counterpart to this style of delivery that I can think of is Wes Anderson, whose characters often speak with a dry melancholic tone; depressed and detached. They are withdrawn emotionally which is usually explained in the narrative as part of a dysfunctional family or childhood. Stylised and self-aware, many of Anderson’s characters adopt this tone, captured perfectly by the blank Buster Keatonlike expression of Bill Murray. The Lobster offers us no such context, instead blanketing the world with people who speak plainly and frankly to the point of extreme discomfort – “This is Robert. He lives in the room next to mine and has a lisp” or “I swallow every time I give fellatio and don’t mind anal sex”.

Although everyone speaks bluntly, there is still dishonesty and within this world deception is grounds for punishment. Masturbating in the hotel means your fingers will be jammed in a toaster at breakfast in front of the other guests. Lying about how little you care about anything will mean your brother-turned-dog will be kicked to death. The lack of explanation forces you to confront the style and relate it to reality, making you realise the farcical nature of human interaction.

This was the subject of Attenberg, a film which Lanthimos both starred in and produced, warping communication between people into something very surreal, especially when dealing with sex. Although this is still confined to strange individuals in our shared reality. In doing this we can choose to draw comparison to our own personal lives or just write it off as fringe behaviour, or an act of surrealism. The Lobster changes the rules of the world and forces us to rethink the rules we have in our own world. The protocol of normalised behaviour, the gameplay of relationships. How people tend to pair together due to a shared interest, experience or flaw. The hilariously frank dialogue is so funny because it defies our social rules – it tells us that we are not always honest. Behind someone’s back we might define a person by their limp or maybe we would suggest flirtingly how promiscuous we are, but we adhere to a code of decency that appears arbitrary and hypocritical in light of The Lobster.

The final moments of the film tease and toy with you. The room tightens up collectively and there are a few audible gasps. It’s almost identical to Dogtooth. Those new to Lanthimos already don’t trust him, and those who are familiar know not to.

Brooklyn (2015)

Written for RAF News Sept 2015

Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel, this period drama set in 1952 follows Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) a young Irish wallflower in search of a life with better prospects across the pond, finding not only a job but first love. 

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Leaving behind her sister and mother in their rural hometown that couldn’t promise her a future, Eilis heads for Brooklyn, the Irish home away from home, but not even a job and night classes can quell her homesickness.

A traditional Irish score carries Eilis’ thoughts of home, and so too does an event for which she volunteers, offering food to the older generation of Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, the forgotten souls who built the tunnels and bridges. In one particularly striking moment, a man stands and sings in Gallic, a powerful and piercing performance that resonates with all, nonemoreso than Eilis.

Although there is romantic nostalgia anchored in Ireland, it is painted in earthy tones, in brown and beige, where New York’s excitement is met with a smattering of vibrant colours. It is only when Eilis finds the attention of humble Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), that she is pulled in by the allure of the city – finding comfort in her new home and confidence that her life is coming together. 

That is until she is called back home following tragic news, discovering that her situation has changed and that there might be a future back in Ireland after all: a job and a charming young suitor played by Domnhall Gleeson.

The camera seems to be in love with Saoirse’s portrait, her detached gaze caught in constant close-up throughout the film, offering a poignant insight into the struggle of finding herself and where she belongs. Eilis is straight-faced for the most part, shining with innocence even after being dolled up by the ‘awful gossip mongers’ of her boardhouse.

The supporting cast provide colour and comedy, none moreso than Julie Walters who steals the show as the maam of Eilis’ boarding house, with a few gloriously written lines, delivered effortlessly.

Brooklyn is a charming love story that doesn’t sensationalise. A simple and effective story that feels honest and is all the more powerful for it.

Barely Lethal (2015)

Written for RAF News Sept 2015

High school is hard going – even for a special agent.

Prescott is an institution that takes in young girls and turns them into badasses. Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) is a natural but longs to have a normal life, and so whilst pursuing target Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) she fakes her own death and enrols in an exchange program at a new school with a new family. But how much of 83’s training help her in the social minefield of high-school?

In preparation 83 gathers intel in the form of Mean Girls, Clueless, Bring it On etc. so when a group of cheerleaders offer her a seat on her first day, she declines defensively weary of it being a trap – ‘I thought we were nice?’ the girl exclaims to her gang with complete incredulity.

From 83’s research it would seem that she will avoid the pitfalls of the teen-movie but instead she falls for each one in sequence, chasing the vapid heartthrob over the endearing geek, and duped into becoming the school mascot for his attention. The selective intelligence of 83 shows that the film wants to have its cake and eat it, no sooner referencing a tired cliche than employing one without irony.

The best comedic performances come from the single parents, played by Rachael Harris and Rob Huebel, but they are just background colour to the romance between their kids, which is far less interesting. Samuel L Jackson plays head of the spy school Hardman in a role that he could act in his sleep, and Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner stars as rival agent 84.

There is something of Grosse Point Blank in the premise, especially the last act, but it is softened for a younger audience and closer to the sensibilities of Spy Kids. Unfortunately for those who have watched the same films as 83, Barely Lethal is predictable and though it tries to be edgy and offers the occasional action scene, it is safe and forgettable for the most part.