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Perhaps the best way to describe Swiss Army Man, the new indie comedy from writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, their first feature film, is that it is an odd duck of a movie. Of course, it’s no insult to say that it’s not quite as odd a duck as The Lobster, but if it quacks like one, etc. You get my drift anyway.
Those of you who watch the previews of coming attractions at their local bijou, or even those who don’t, probably know what the basic premise is. Paul Dano plays Hank, a depressed loner who gets stranded on an island after a boat he rented got lost.
As he is about to do himself in, he sees a dead body washed up on shore. This non-character is played by former Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, a role I bet never required him to pass wind.
Hank soon discovers that Manny has certain, shall we say, uses. He can fart with the power of an SST and he gets an erection that always tells Hank which way to go to get back to civilization.
And that’s just the beginning of the odd duckiness here. Read the rest of this entry »
Seduced and Abandoned is not to be confused with the classic Italian film directed by Pietro Germi that came out in 1964, but I doubt you’ll be fooled after five minutes into the picture. No, this 2013 release is a movie that purports to make a statement on the state of filmmaking today. At the same time, it’s also one of those movies where the filmmakers don’t realize that the statement they are making may not actually be the statement they are making.
The basic premise of this semi-documentary revolves around director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin taking an idea they have for a movie to the Cannes Film Festival and seeing if they can get someone to fork over $40 to $50 million to make it (and no, before you ask, they are not punking anyone; they are quite serious). When they don’t get the support they think they deserve, they then suggest that this is what is wrong with film financing today—no one is willing to take a chance and produce a work of art; they are only interested in the bottom line.
But let’s take a closer look at what is going on here. A director with a small cult following, but who really isn’t that impressive a filmmaker (for anyone who wants proof of this, watch Toback’s movie Fingers and then watch Jacque Audiard’s French remake of it, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, and one can immediately see what I mean), takes an idea (not even a completed script, but the barest of bones of a gleam in a father’s eye) that is to star Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell (Neve Campbell? Really?) and pitches said idea to seasoned producers. The idea? (And please try not to chortle and disrupt the audience members around you as I did): Last Tango in Baghdad (I told you, no chortling), the story of two people, a war haunted U.S. agent and a liberal journalist, who meet for a series of sexual encounters in a hotel room in the war torn city.
No, I am not making this up—that’s the idea. Actually, I’m being a bit harder on it that it deserves. There’s nothing that wrong with the premise. It’s perfectly serviceable and with the right screenwriter, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a good movie. But for me, things start going off the road a bit the second they started pitching it as a Last Tango rip off. In fact, the moments with the most humor in this faux-doc are the scenes Toback shows from that once, but no longer, scandalous movie—like Brando asking Maria Schneider to stick her fingers up his ass (at least they didn’t do the “pass the butter” scene); it’s unfortunate for Toback that Last Tango… hasn’t, unlike cheese, aged that well.
The other issue is that Toback and Baldwin pitch this idea as if it were the most original and daring idea in the world, that they are going to break new sexual ground and create something really scandalous; a statement that could only be made by people who have never seen a movie like 9 Songs where you actually see, in pornographic detail, a man and woman have sex, including cum shots. Now, are Baldwin and Campbell going to break new ground here by pulling a James Deen (no, not the actor, the porn star—notice the spelling of the name) and Joanna Angel? Why do I suspect not?
So what do we have? We have a second rate filmmaker, with barely an idea for a movie (and hasn’t been written yet), and an idea that’s not that original and with a lousy pitch, to star two non-bankable actors; and yet, Toback and Baldwin are shocked, shocked (in their very best Captain Louis Renault manner) that they can’t get $40 to $50 million in financing. Hence, their conclusion that something is rotten in the state of moviemaking. Meanwhile, I’m in the audience going, Uh, guys, you do realize that the only thing you’ve proven is that the guys out there financing films can smell a lemon a mile away? In fact, rather than demonstrate that something’s gone wrong in France’s version of tinsel town, Seduced and Abandoned ironically suggests that the future of movies is in sound hands.
Which is too bad. Because I actually think that Tobac and Baldwin are right. In many ways, I agree with the basic premise presented here. I do think that producers are too interested in the bottom line with little to no regard for the art of film (a huge change since the growth of independent film in the 1990’s). It is just unfortunate that Toback and Baldwin have chosen a less than stellar example to prove it.
And they seem so behind the times. They don’t explore how many contemporary filmmakers are finding money to make their films. In fact, there are no contemporary filmmakers in the movie. They interview Francis Ford Coppola, but not his daughter Sofia, who is one of the most exciting directors in film today (and seems to have less problems finding backing for her film than her father, or Toback). They talk to Martin Scorcese, but not such up and comers as Shane Carruth, Benh Zeitlin or Martin McDonough, all of whom are making some incredible films. The only contemporary artists they talk to are actors like Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain, all of whom have insightful things to say about what it’s like to be an actor today, but nothing about how to get a movie made.
There’s just something so false about the whole thing. Not only does the movie they are promoting never seem quite real (it’s all so vague, one wonders how they ever got the time of day from any financier to pitch it), it starts out with Toback telling Campbell that she is in the movie and nothing will stop that from happening. You know this scene is there for only one reason: so that at the first opportunity, Toback can make a satirical point by telling just about the first person he negotiates with that he will gladly jettison Neve for Jessica if they can agree upon a price. But again, it feels so fake, it’s hard to take seriously.
There is one other aspect of the film that gives a lie to Toback’s premise. When they decide to scale back the film and make it about these two people meeting in New York after both have left the war zone, yet are still scarred by their experiences, and meeting for sex at that point, they suddenly get offers left and right for a $4 to $5 million dollar film. Not only does the film now sound more interesting, Toback has found a way to finance his movie. It’s not his original vision, no; but then again, his original vision wasn’t worth $40 to $50 million in the first place.
Toback may be saying that these money men know how to make a profit, but nothing about art, but to be ruthlessly honest, I think he kind of unintentionally proved they knew both.
At one point, Kris, the heroine of the hypnotic new film Upstream Color, is on a subway with her new sort of, but not quite yet boyfriend Jeff when he starts making up stories about other riders. Thinking at one point he’s overreaching, Kris accuses him of being a bit too clever. It’s interesting that this description was delivered to a character played by the writer/director of the film, Shane Carruth, because there are times when the movie does become a bit too clever, perhaps, with a certain vagueness that may not always work in the film’s favor. I think it’s safe to say that Upstream Color is a movie driven more by images than clear narrative, with all the disadvantages and advantages that approach has.
Yet in spite of that, in spite of the disadvantages, Upstream Color is fascinating, riveting, what one would call a real page turner, if it was on a page. It’s one of the finest films of the year so far. It may be driven more by images, but those images are compelling and draw one into the movie’s odd little world with as dream like a quality as the various characters find themselves in at times.
The basic story revolves around a drug found in worms that when ingested (yes, the worm itself), makes the one who took it go into a sort of trance like state and do whatever they are told. Kris becomes such a victim and without her even knowing it, her victimizer has her remove every cent from her bank account; has her take out loans on her house; and has her reveal her secret hiding place of gold coins. And doing all this while she copies out pages from Henry David Thereau’s Walden (don’t worry, it may seem like a non sequitur-and in many ways it is; but at the same time, it’s an important part of the plot). This happens over the course of several days. When she comes out of it, she’s broke as well as fired because she missed work. And because she has no idea what happened, there’s nothing she can do and no one she can turn to. And that’s not all the horror she has gone and goes through.
But the drug also gives those who take it a sort of psychic ability so that when Kris runs into Jeff on a subway, they find themselves oddly drawn to each other. It’s obvious to anyone in the audience that Jeff was also conned in the same way. So the suspense boils down to, when and how will they realize that the weird things happening to them will lead them to what turned them into the people they are now? The plot is tricky, quirky, always surprising; it’s safe to say that you will rarely be able to predict what will happen next with scenes that at times are fascinatingly all over the place.
From a technical stand point, there’s little to argue with here. The acting is strong. Amy Seimetz, who plays Kris with a certain brittle strength, and Carruth, with a pouty James Dean look, are constantly puzzled and frustrated by their lives. They try to act normally, but nothing is normal anymore. And it’s not long before one is emotionally invested in their situation. They say little, but their eyes and expressions say much, and their courtship is an odd one—they seem constantly angry at each other, but seem unable to break up. They play their drama out against the constantly overcast and effective cinematography (by Carruth) and a moody, powerful score (also by Carruth—he also co-edited; I’m not sure I’d want to spend Christmas with him; he probably wouldn’t even let me put tinsel on the tree).
But there is also that narrative vagueness with scenes that are at times hard to follow and the constant appearance of a sound engineer and pig farmer (hey, it could happen) played by Andrew Sensenig (whose character actorly face is worth its weight in the gold coins in Kris’s hiding place) who keeps showing up for some reason. And I’m not convinced the ending really resolves things as satisfying as it might. In fact, the final scenes have something of the feeling of a David Lynch movie like Inland Empire where it comes across more as if the whole thing got away from the filmmaker and he couldn’t quite figure out how to bring all the earlier brilliance together.
In the end, I do think that Upstream Color has its issues. It comes dangerously close to falling into the category of such recent films as Stoker and Spring Breakers, where the narrative is either badly done or deemed unimportant, subservient to images for images’ sake, a questionable aesthetic choice. So I do believe Upstream Color is hampered by its distrust of a more solid and clear narrative (unlike Carruth’s earlier film, the compelling time travel movie Primer). At the same time, for all its issues, it’s still a far more fascinating film than most movies that are well made and are satisfactorily put together (like Lincoln and Argo and the recently released The Company You Keep).
A must see.