Monday, October 3, 2016

Swiss Army Man **½

At the Sundance Film Festival this year, Swiss Army Man earned a nickname: "the farting-corpse movie." I heard that crowds were iffy on the comic drama, which is by turns bizarre, sweet and unsettling, but it won the festival’s directing award for first-time feature filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are collectively billed as the Daniels.

One thing everyone can agree on is that it may be the strangest, most inventive movie of the year.

Paul Dano plays Hank, a man stuck on a desert island. He’s preparing to hang himself when he notices something in the distance: a dead body that has washed up onshore. On further investigation, Hank realizes that the corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) is extremely gassy. His flatulence is so powerful, the marooned man manages to ride the body, like a Jet Ski, off the island.

It’s a shame that Swiss Army Man begins in a way that might immediately inspire DVD removals, because the rest of the movie doesn’t seem nearly as juvenile as those first few minutes.

After Hank and his makeshift watercraft land on another remote beach, the corpse begins to re-animate. He is barely able to move on his own, but he can speak. His name is Manny, he says, and he has many powers beyond the Jet Ski trick. Hank loads Manny’s mouth with projectiles, turning him into a gun, and hits Manny’s arm in a certain way so that it doubles as an axe. Hank even alleviates his dehydration by using the drowned man’s waterlogged lungs as a drinking fountain. It may not be entirely hygienic — or plausible — but it works.

Manny has few memories, so Hank spends much of the movie explaining the strange ways of the world. He describes love and city buses and sex, explaining why Manny has started to feel a strange sensation below his belt when he finds a discarded copy of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. (The erection, conveniently, doubles as a compass.)

Filmmakers Kwan and Scheinert reveal the beauty and strangeness of the human experience, but also the solipsism. For all its body-centric gags, the movie sneaks up on you, offering the chance to examine the way we live instead of wandering around on autopilot.

The directors’ methods aren’t always as inspired as their story. In the forest, on their way back to civilization, Hank uses shadow-puppet re-enactments of famous movies — and staged scenes from his own past — to explain life to Manny. The do-it-yourself aesthetic sometimes feels like a knockoff of such Michel Gondry movies as The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind. Swiss Army Man is also somewhat undermined by a late twist that takes a turn for the creepy.

That won’t be the only thing that turns people off about the film, which, it’s safe to say, isn’t for everyone. But the story is astoundingly original. During these months, when rental and streaming options are mostly occupied by superheroes and sequels, that’s something worth celebrating.

The Purge: Election Year **
Can you make a film that criticizes gun violence in America while also reveling in a relentless, gory orgy of gun violence, knife violence, chain-saw violence, and ax violence? That's the plight of the Purge franchise, an auteurish series of hyper-violent, dystopian thrillers from writer-director James DeMonaco ( The Negotiator, Skinwalkers) now in its third installment with The Purge: Election Year.

The premise and the basic story line are familiar: Set in the near future, the Purge movies concern an America where once a year, for 12 hours, citizens get to let off steam by committing any crime — including murder — without fear of prosecution. It's a nifty little law that saves the nation health-care and welfare costs: Since rich folks can protect themselves, the victims tend to be the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.

Each film stages a gladiatorial battle pitting a ragtag group of working-class characters, usually of color, against the gray white men who run the country. It's not the most sophisticated social satire, but the movies do tap into the growing discontent over the income gap and the prevailing sense that the rich play by a different set of rules.

Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, a former police officer who saved a band of folks from predators in the second film. Barnes has landed a job as the security chief for U.S. senator and presidential candidate Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), the only politician in America who wants the purge law to be repealed. Needless to say, her opponent, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor) has hatched a plan to assassinate her on purge night.

The film co-stars Mykelti Williamson as Joe Dixon, a struggling deli owner who teams up with friend and employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) to defend his business from the hordes. Betty Gabriel plays a neighborhood activist who uses a makeshift ambulance to help the injured.

The Purge: Election Year tries to show that what counts isn't firepower but compassion, not egoism but community. But frankly, it can't help but shoot itself in the foot: The violence is too tantalizing, too stylized, too fetishistic — the film features killers dressed in fanciful Halloween costumes who dance and sing as they dismember people. That's what wins out in the end.

X-Men: Apocalypse **
The stakes in the boringly apocalyptic X-Men: Apocalypse couldn’t be higher. Its long-entombed, ready-to-party mutant god, played by Oscar Isaac is both invincible and immortal, and he wants to control every single mind in every single human on Earth. The world’s nukes are unleashed willy-nilly, though that part works out fine. It's a "just kidding!" moment of imminent global destruction.

Then the movie levels the entire city of Cairo, leaving (presumably) many millions dead and injured. Well, you can't worry about everyone all the time. The film leaves the grieving and anger about collateral damage to this year's major rival superhero franchise installments Batman v Superman (the bad one) and Captain America: Civil War (the good one).

This one's "the OK one."

I can’t recommend much about this latest X-Men picture without getting into problematic and somewhat embarrassing territory. For example, Olivia Munn. She’s barely in it, and she’s barely wearing much of barely anything, yet I spent much of Bryan Singer’s earnest, competently crafted slog texting notes to myself regarding a petition I’d like to circulate that launches Munn’s telepathic ninja warrior mutant Psylocke into her own franchise. She's one of A-pock’s "four horsemen," the woman with the devil in her eyes brandishing a digital lightsaber-y lasso. X-Men: Apocalypse invests heavily in the moist-eyed emoting going on in the neighborhood of James McAvoy (Professor X, the one with the fancy boarding school for the specially gifted). The storyline requires Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence (the conflicted Magneto and the conflicted Raven, respectively) to try their damndest not to look as bored as they likely are with these roles, better for their income than their craft. Munn's a different, livelier story. She's stoked.

After an ancient Egyptian prologue, we’re plunked down into 1983. Apocalypse comes back to life, looks around, and calls for a cleansing of the planet’s debris and weakness, like a mutant villain version of Travis Bickle. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg lumbers through the conflicts, pitting McAvoy’s man of reason and hope against his old pal Magneto’s darker impulses. Like Batman v Superman and Civil War it’s superhero vs. superhero in Apocalypse; the ensemble members have no choice but to turn on each other.

Director Singer handles the traffic earnestly and well, with a modicum of snark and 1.5 teaspoons of levity. There’s a joke at the expense of the long-ago, far-away third X-Men picture, the lousy one directed by Brett Ratner. But this one’s no gem. It’s simply large, and long (two-and-a-half hours, the usual length lately with these products). I remain unpersuaded and slightly galled by the attempts to interpolate the history, locale and tragic meaning of Auschwitz into what used to be known as popcorn movies. The dialogue has a metallic, tinny ring (where’s Magneto when you need him?). At one point Rose Byrne’s intelligence agent speculates, in her exquisitely underplayed way, on the intentions of their chief adversary. This surly, pushy Egyptian mutant god routine might well "end in disaster … some kind of … apocalypse." Pause. Then McAvoy puts on his best Serious Actor face and solemnly adds: "Mmm. The end of the world." John Dykstra supervised the visual effects, which are relentless and routine. Like I said: I've seen worse this year. And better.

Other DVD release this week
Chevalier *** There are laughs and uncomfortable observations throughout, but Director Athina Rachel Tsangari never lays on too heavy a hand. One is free to contemplate the allegorical and satirical implications, but also free to enjoy the spectacle of self-imposed insecurity that plays out among these characters.
Microbe and Gasoline *** A quirky and unique coming-of-age story.
Joshy **½ Doesn’t provide any new revelations about the transition into adulthood, but, with an amusing ensemble, you could be stuck with a much worse group of guys.
Complete Unknown **½ Something’s missing in this picture, and it’s a spiritual issue. The problem is that for this situation, the unlikely reunion, a natural approach restricts any and all sensationalism, which is why the ending neither bruises nor squeezes — it just lingers.
Into the Forest ** At its core, this s a simple and triumphant tale of sisterhood, but with so much ladled on top of it it begins to feel as though it’s grasping for a grandeur it doesn’t need. Sometimes, even the most intense emotions can benefit from a light touch.
Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV * It quickly becomes apparent that the narrative content of this film is a barely coherent muddle.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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