Swiss Army Man

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Taken at face value, the story of a disturbed man dragging a flatulent corpse around a forest to converse with as he waits for rescue has the potential to be something offensive and intolerable. But this peculiar, strangely moving film, the work of Daniels – co-writers and directors Daniel Schienert and Dan Kwan – provides us with a uniquely painful portrait of mental illness.

On the verge of suicide by hanging on what is seemingly a tiny spit of land in the middle of nowhere, Hank (Paul Dano) spots a body washing up on the beach. When his rope snaps he takes it as an omen that the dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), who he later names Manny, has been sent to keep him alive. Once he reveals a capacity to speak Manny displays a naivety about life and an ignorance of his previous life in the world of the living.

As if directing a child, Hank reveals to his all-purpose, interactive corpse friend the fundamental aspects of life, including behaviour to adopt in direct contact with the opposite sex. Often aimless, uncomfortably grim and just as regularly blackly humourous, Swiss Army Man (2016) is concerned with establishing the way in which the two form an intimate bond and unlikely alliance in forging onward, despite Hank’s misgivings, to get back to the world.

In a sense this instruction is as much about Hank’s need to re-educate himself about the life that he’s avoided but must inevitably return to. Having Manny as a wall to bounce off provides him with the necessary objectivity to untangle his own shortcomings and pierce the haze created by his unstable, dysfunctional perception of life. In the briefest of snippets we see Hank riding a bus and taking notice of a woman who becomes the focus of a fixation that will define him in strange, perturbing ways as his interaction with Manny takes on greater detail.

With stunning work from Paul Dano and a fine assist from Daniel Radcliffe – two actors increasingly unafraid to take creative chances in their careers – Swiss Army Man evolves into a deliciously strange, often bizarre cinematic experience which will earn your admiration for its devotion to a brazenly idiosyncratic point of view. A couple of montages in which an internal, yet interactive world – created by Hank using the detritus of tourists to fashion a bus, a stage, costumes and countless other things – comes to life, provide the film with its most loopily inspired moments. They also offer a brilliant overlapping of image and sound as the equally unconventional, off-kilter score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributes a strange magic of its own.

With a literal interpretation out of the question, there are multiple ways, obviously, to deduce the unfolding of the film’s narrative. It becomes clear, however, that Schienert and Kwan’s interest is in illuminating the often piercingly creative internal life of a damaged psyche. Through Hank we see something startling coming to life, offering genuine poignancy, especially as the slightly incongruent, not entirely successful, final scenes arrive. And as they do, a pervasive sadness, in which all of Hank’s inhibitions, anxieties and apprehensions about his life outside of Manny and the forest, are uncomfortably confirmed, is juxtaposed with an elusive, consolatory flash of liberation from the very same constrictions that prevented Hank from fulfilling any kind of destiny.

 

Youth

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Relying on vignettes that surrender his characters to recollections disparaged and tainted by the vexations of old age, Paolo Sorrentino’s second English language film sets its aim lower than his recent Oscar winner The Great Beauty (2013). In Youth (2015), which takes us to a stunning locale, a mist-enshrouded Swiss hotel abutting snow-capped mountains, Sorrentino introduces his two main characters informally. A former famous composer Fred Ballinger, (Michael Caine), is being visited by a representative of Her Majesty, politely enquiring if he would like to briefly interrupt his retirement to conduct a concert of his ‘Simple Songs’ for a gala occasion. Elsewhere, Fred’s best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director in his waning days, has convened with a group of young writers, tossing around ideas for his next project.

With his usual, meticulously conceived visual set-ups, Sorrentino employs the vignette to great effect. There’s no attempt to over-involve us with detailed versions of the lives of Fred and Mick. We’re offered snippets of their internal processes at work, but most of the joy of immersion in Youth comes from the dry wit, the predilection for pondering the past, present and future as though they’re individual worlds, each open to being randomly juxtaposed for the sake of enrichening Sorrentino’s separation of scenes.

Peripheral characters regularly enter the fray, including Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who’s been abandoned by her boyfriend – Mick’s son – and a young actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), suffering existential angst after only ever receiving public recognition for a single lame commercial success that he resents for leaving him hopelessly typecast. There’s a Maradona-like former football star treading heavily around the grounds, whilst a couple glimpsed only in silence in each other’s company provoke mild consternation for the curious Fred and Mick. Various moments are inserted for comic value, for their ability to serve as meaningful refrains; others still are used to break up the pacing and dimension of scenes.

All of these interactions are like snapshots, moments from short stories that don’t necessarily add up to much – laced as they are with a degree of melancholy, piquancy or irritation – but bring a distinctive characteristic to the narrative nonetheless. In terms of a literary equivalent, there’s the feel of something like Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu about Sorrentino’s film in its overall arc being inverted through standalone moments that reflect the author’s themes in miniature.

There’s no great profundity to be gleaned from Youth; as good as it is, this is lesser Sorrentino, but a pared-back, contemplative gem even for its lack of ambition. Here revealed is a director at total ease with his process, returning to a form of storytelling that demands as much or as little as its audiences demands from its narrative through-lines and idiosyncratic blind turns.     

Sorrentino establishes a deliberate pace early on and simply trusts that either his audience will become locked onto the same wavelength or bail. For me, he’s a director who can rarely be faulted; even his weakest film, the overwrought and convoluted Il Divo (2008), has a stunning cinematic style to keep you hooked regardless of narrative threads losing focus. He’s a remarkable craftsman, constantly challenging his own standards of creativity and Youth is no different, each set-up feeling as organically derived from its scenario as can be. No part of Sorrentino’s frame is neglected, ensuring that something striking is always on show, whether because of his depth of composition or oddly slanted perspectives.

The performances in Youth are a joy; Caine, for example, hasn’t been offered a role as good as this in quite a while. He’s not asked to expand beyond his range, certainly, but he brings the weight of years lived to his interpretation of Ballinger, whilst Keitel is similarly sublime and toned down as the director aiming to rekindle his creative passions; he attempts this through conquering uncharted territory before having to truthfully come to terms with his long diminished skills and fading reputation. A cameo from a heavily made up Jane Fonda as Mick’s long-ago muse provides decisive in opening Mick’s eyes; like many scenes, it feels lacking in discipline and a little rough around the edges, but is full of bittersweet truths that are in line with Sorrentino’s overall objective for Youth. That is, to offer humour, spice and a tinge of regret in what is ultimately a half-serious lamentation for the past – a time and a feeling mired in the memorable and forgettable, each as impossible to evade or disremember as the other.

 

 

Youth opens in Australian cinemas on December 26th.

 

Love & Mercy

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Two extraordinary performances elevate Bill Pohlad’s insightful contemplation of the troubled life and times of influential Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, played as a younger man by Paul Dano and later on by John Cusack. Love & Mercy (2015) works brilliantly as an intense, disconcerting character study and as a commentary on the harmful side effects of creativity. The nonlinearity of the narrative, which sees the story split between two time frames, is effective in bleeding together the most crucial segments of Wilson’s life and recovery. Back and forth we smoothly transition from the heady days of the creation of seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds to Wilson’s 1980’s post-depressive recovery which was undermined by the venal, corrosive influence of his therapist-cum-legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (played with a suitable toxicity by Paul Giamatti).

In both cases, Pohlad concentrates uncomfortably on the dark undercurrent of dysfunction that plagued both Wilson’s erratic creative processes and his beleaguered attempt to reach a psychological equilibrium. His potential saviour in this later era is car saleswoman Melinda Bedletter (the ever-impressive Elizabeth Banks) who helps Wilson to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. She alone is able to penetrate the fog assembled as part of Landy’s unhealthy influence on every facet of Wilson’s frighteningly compromised existence.

The conviction of all the performances is what defines this superb film. Throughout the successful Beach Boys era, Wilson was plagued by self-doubt and a streak of resolute defiance, wanting to take the band in new directions that might deviate from their successful formula but bring freshness to their output. The resulting conflict with his brothers and other band members and crew is a source of distress to Wilson who often seems to regress to a place of consoling inner calm as a means of dealing with real world anxieties. Here he finds himself both dissociating himself from reality but also discovering the fresh currents of creativity that would define his subsequent output. There are also effective peaks at his tumultuous relationship with former band manager father, an emotionally hardened figure only interested in commercial success above all else and whom Wilson could never satisfy.

Dano and Cusack, though very different performers, are equally effective in guiding us into the reverberating deepest chambers of Wilson’s psyche. Dano conveys Wilson’s genius whilst simultaneously laying bear the vulnerabilities of the man as he strove – so often against the grain of his brothers’ thinking – to extract a deeper meaning from the process of song writing. Cusack seems, in his first few scenes, likely to succumb to an overly mannered delivery, yet the idiosyncratic ticks of the drugged-up, lethally controlled older incarnation of Wilson become an increasingly vital part of what is a marvellously subtle, nuanced portrayal. Unafraid to explore the darkness of its subject’s experiences, Love & Mercy reverberates with a veracity too rarely seen in similarly themed, usually overreaching bio-pics.