Tuesday, 11 April 2017

SWISS ARMY MAN

Directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, Starring: Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Arty(Farty) Comedy Drama, US, 2016, 94mins, Cert 15.

Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray on 10th April 2017 by Lionsgate UK.

Imagine an art-house reworking of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S and CAST AWAY with Daniel Radcliffe as a perpetually flatulent drowned corpse who washes up ashore a deserted island. Well, almost deserted, apart from a bearded young man, Hank (Paul Dano), a stranded castaway who's just about to hang himself when he spies ‘Manny’ lying on the beach. Hank’s initial hope of living company soon turns to despair when he realises Manny is dead, but Manny is destined to become Hank’s ‘Wilson’ like Tom Hank’s volleyball in CAST AWAY.  And he’s also about to be Hank’s ticket off the island when Hank harnesses Manny’s propellant fart power to ride him like a jet ski back to the mainland.  

Bodily functions play a crucial role in directors’ Scheinert and Kwan’s (the ‘Daniels’) surreal and charmingly quirky meditation on the human condition. Audaciously skipping across a tight rope of puerile crudity and gross-out outrageousness, it also finds time to juggle in affecting moments of pathos and regret, and a re-evaluation of the restorative power of Cheesy Puffs.

Radcliffe undertakes as much of the physical dead corpse work as he can, including selling practical effects such as spewing geysers of digestive seawater, whilst inevitably having to concede certain tasks to stunt dummies, stunt bottoms (and animatronic penis).

Paul Dano carries the film (and often Radcliffe’s corpse) as the desperate and disillusioned Hank, who finds himself increasingly confiding in his deceased confidant. The two characters ‘exchanges’ on the intricacies of the body’s biological functions induce full-on guffaws, whilst scattering wry observations on modern life and unrequited love in equal measure.

The sound department excel themselves in providing an impressive arsenal of variant fart effects which renders the camp fire sequence in BLAZING SADDLES positively constipated in comparison. The uplifting vocal scoring elevates and soars to accompany Hank’s trials and tribulations. The detailed intricacies of the set designs (such as the simulated ‘bus ride’ sequence) consistently provide intriguing possibilities for the players to work with. And there’s also a refreshing commitment to practical effects over CG work, wherever possible, so whilst you won’t quite believe a man can fly by intestinal gastric expulsion, you have to at least admire the audacity of the gag.  

I know this is a film which divides. I’ll wager you’ll know by the time the title credits flash up to accompany Hank’s butt-ski dash across the waves whether this is a film you’ll happily let float your boat, or one which you’ll happily tell the filmmakers exactly where they can shove it. I for one loved its unabashed unapologetic lack of self-restraint coupled with its joyously tainted sentimental optimism about acceptance. And it had the best use of the theme from ‘Jurassic Park’ ever.

Extras: Deleted Scenes, Q&A with the filmmakers, Behind the Scenes Featurettes and Audio Commentary. 
****(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

THE GREASY STRANGLER

Directed by Jim Hosking, Starring: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo. Comedy, Horror US, 2016, 93mins, Cert 18.

Grease is the word...

Jim Hosking’s directorial feature debut comes across like a congealed platter of early John Waters and Troma films, and is disgustingly enjoyable in its (albeit) calculated bizarre grossness.
‘Big Brayden’ (Sky Elobar), a taller version of Matt Lucas’ character ‘Andy’ from LITTLE BRITAIN, resides uneasily with his grease obsessed father ‘Big Ronnie’ (Michael St. Michael), a cross between Klaus Kinski and the titular creature from Stan Winston’s PUMPKINHEAD. Big Ronnie - apt considering his humongously grotesque (prosthetic) penis - runs tours of L.A’.s disco scene with his son by day, and just maybe the greasy strangler by night (hint: this isn’t really a mystery). Their dysfunctional grease encrusted existence is shaken to its core by the arrival of “Hootie tootie disco cutie” Janet (Elizabeth de Razzo) who overlooks Brayden’s remarkably small penis and lack of stomach definition “Not all girls like ripped up abs”, and begins to fall in love with Brayden. That is until dad works his disco moves and greasy globules of lubricant on Janet.
This intentionally bad taste mix of copious full-on genitalia, cartoon-like splatter gags, and repetitive expletive infected dialogue doesn’t register anywhere near the shock value it once might’ve had in these desensitised times. I actually found myself chuckling more at the drawn out patience-testing scenes of banality such as the verbal sparring between Big Ronnie and his tour party insisting on free drinks, the latter’s discussion as to the contents of a packet of crisps, and a hot dog vendors’ insistence on not being able to sell his dogs covered in grease.  
Of course the repetitive singularity nature of these character lives are what director Hosking is conveying here, even the supposedly illicit serial killing thrills of the greasy strangler are reduced to a replicated pattern whereby he ends up each night in the local car wash purging off the grease before exchanging inane pleasantries (whilst still nude) with the blind gas station owner.
Accompanying the intentional one-note performances which nail the films sensibility with toe-curling precision is Andrew Hung’s plink-plonk electronic soundtrack, a hybrid of 80’s video gaming bleeps and what sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks underwater.
Overall less eye-popping then it perhaps aimed to be, this is still a noteworthy calling-card for Brit Jim Hosking, and it will be interesting to see what he serves up next as to whether he is a “Bullshit artist!” or one to watch. Judging by THE GREASY STRANGLER, I’d say (for now at least) the latter.  
**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)

Directed by Mike Flanagan, Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson. Horror, US, 2016, 95mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on digital download on 13th February 2017, and Blu-ray, DVD and on demand on February 27th 2017 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

(Alice) “The basement...Lina: wait outside.”
(Lina) “No. No way, no, that’s my sister. This is my house, and I’m going with you...Besides, splitting up sounds like the stupidest idea in the world.”   

Taking over the reins from Stiles White, director/co-writer Mike Flanagan delivers a retro-tinted character-driven prequel to the 2014 box-office hit OUIJA. We rewind back to a 1967 suburban neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), together with teen daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) and younger daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson), run a home based séance scam business. The act is getting stale until Alice purchases a Ouija board as a prop to enhance their deception. The board game comes with three rules:
1. Never play alone.
2. Never play in a graveyard.
3. Always say goodbye.

Unfortunately, Alice’s blasé attitude as a spiritual charlatan leads to fatal complacency and she promptly breaks rule 1 and 3 (and unknowingly, rule 2 in the bargain). You see the Zander’s seemingly quiet suburban house harbours a dark gruesome secret buried behind its walls, and an evil entity which doesn’t need a second invitation once the Ouija board is opened to find a human host to give it a voice.

The problem with prequels is no matter how radical a tangent you set out your stall, you’re duty bound to eventually converge plot points in order to join up with the original narrative. No more so is this evident than in ORIGIN OF EVIL. That’s not to say director Flanagan doesn’t lead us on a merrily entertaining and determinedly nostalgic visual dance beforehand - at least until the final reel that is. 

Although shot digitally, Flanagan works hard to achieve (with some degree of success) a 70’s/early 80’s vibe. Utilising the classic Universal Studios logo and a retro-styled title card for starters, we are also treated to reel change cigarette burns, and DP Michael Fimognari’s camera zestily zooming in and out with an antique set of lenses which infuse candle light and sunset with a warm hazy palette mostly absent from current genre offerings.

There is also further warmth generated by a trio of fine performances from the three female leads. Lulu Wilson in particular is a revelation as little Doris, who undergoes a startling character transformation courtesy of Doug Jones’ demonic ghoul with chilling effect. 

Director Flanagan admirably holds out for close on 40 minutes before unleashing his first big sting jump scare sound effect – a notable achievement given today’s multiplex template - instead wisely opting for ambient sound design and judicious scoring to achieve sustainable unease. Of course given the PG-13 brief of the franchise, he is somewhat hampered as to how far to push the scares and physical threat when necessity dictates in the final reel. And it’s here where the film stumbles when the inevitable haunted house/possession clichés are rolled out stage left, right, along the walls and up on the ceiling. Think a mishmash of elements from POLTERGEIST and THE EXORCIST filtered through a PG-13 gauze, with ET’s Henry Thomas wearing the white collar of the heroic priest. (And yes that is an intentional nod to THE EXORCIST’s iconic poster image when he pauses outside the Zander house).

If you’ve seen OUIJA (2014) you’ll already know the respective fates of the three Zander women. (I watched the original on Netflix by way of prior homework the night before). There are still some loose ends which don’t quite tie-up when you review the events of the first film, and the final jump scare before the credit roll rings hollow (even if it just might be a homage to THE EXORCIST III). Oh yes, and if you reading the end-credits and begin wondering where was Lin Shaye, she turns up in a very brief post-credit coda which does link up nicely with the first instalment and proves just what a good sport she is.

Extras: Deleted scenes, x3 making of featurettes, director commentary.
***(out of 5*)


Paul Worts

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

LIGHTS OUT (2016)

Directed by David F. Sandberg, Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello. Horror, US, 2016, 78mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on 12th December 2016 by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

“Ghosts aren’t real”- “Then what is she?”

When the lights are on, there’s nobody home...
David F. Sandberg’s 2013 short film competition entry went (deservedly) viral on YouTube. Within its 2 ½ minute running time it succinctly encapsulated and distilled the very essence of being afraid of the dark. A supernatural silhouette appears at the end of a hallway every time the occupant switches off the hallway light. There’s two punchily effective jump scares and it’s over: job (well) done.

Having been invited by producer James (all things that go bump in the night) Wan to direct an expanded feature based on his short, Sandberg delivers a visually slick piece of lightweight multiplex spookery, but fails to conjure up anything more than run of the mill chills from a script that combines THE BABADOOK with DARKNESS FALLS with incrementally diminishing returns.

In this unsuccessful endeavour Sandberg is hampered by a script which on the one hand seems obliged to crank out expositional ingredients by the numbers yet never satisfactorily explains away how the entity, known as ‘Diana’, haunts the shadowy recesses of creaking cupboards and under lit interiors.

Teresa Palmer (Rebecca) older sister of Martin (Gabriel Bateman) generate some sympathy when they’re lured into a trap in the basement with only a UV glow stick and a torch to defend themselves. Maria Bello as their manically depressed and under-medicated mother spends most of the running time either unconscious or oblivious to the harm she’s exposing her (remaining) family to by entertaining her ‘friend’.
Despite it’s relatively short running time, you do get a decent ration of scare set-ups for your buck - rarely do you have to wait more than a couple of minutes for the next ‘BOO!’ moment – even if they’re only occasionally effective (the use of a flashing neon sign outside Rebecca’s apartment being a rare moment of inspiration).

But ultimately the more contrived instances of lights out in LIGHTS OUT, the less the scares register, and the fade out to credits is decidedly underwhelming. Watching the deleted scenes on the disc, there’s an alternate coda sequence which concludes proceedings far more satisfactorily – and I can only assume it was dropped in order to implausibly green-light LIGHTS OUT 2 (although where the filmmakers go from here is something I can’t shine any illumination on).
   
Extras: Deleted scenes.
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts