Swiss Army Man

This film cropped up on a lot of my friends favourites from 2016, so I belatedly got around to watching it. I get why they liked it, but I loathed it. It’s one of those movies. Plot wise it centres on hopeless castaway Paul Dano discovering the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe. The corpse becomes a tool and a friend as Dano begins his journey back to civilisation. It’s a one gag movie – Harry Potter is dead, but look, he’s got an erection!

I was reminded of my one attempt to write surreal comedy when I was about 14. I think it featured a scene where someone in a jungle comes across a walking dishwasher that shows Coronation Street. I thought it was so off the wall it would wow everyone with my zany connections. I showed it to my elder brother. He read it quickly, didn’t laugh, and passed it back to me with a deadpan expression. “It’s trying too hard,” was his damning, succinct and correct verdict. Watching Dano surf on the permanently flatulent corpse of Radcliffe I became my older brother. Really trying too hard. Some of my friends found meaning and emotion in the redemptive journey, but I’d long lost patience with it by then.

Sing Street

John Carney’s story of New Romantic coming of age in 80s Dublin is a sweet, charming treasure. The film follows Conor as the recession causes the break up of his parents marriage and his transfer from a private Jesuit school to the rough Catholic local one. Here the misfits form a band, primarily to impress the cool and aloof Raphina, by telling her she will star in their video.

This is all fairly conventional plotwise, but the film differs from some of its contemporaries (such as the Commitments and Good Vibrations) by choosing the early days of music video as the focus, more than the music itself. I recall hiring a VHS video camera to shoot a birthday video for someone’s 21st, and filming was still a novelty back then. People would stop and ask what you were doing, with this cumbersome, but professional looking piece of kit. Early music video was quite punk in its ethic, and as this film reminds us, so was the New Romantic movement. There was a just do it, DIY ethos to both components of teh music industry then which Sing Street captures perfectly. It also avoids falling into the “oh, isn’t it a craic” cliches of Dublin.

It is worth seeing for the wisdom of Conor’s older brother, Brendan. For instance “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”. It may not have the most original plot, and it can veer towards the Disney Rebel Radio type school rebellion at times, but it’s a delightful film.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Comedies often seem to fall into two categories: gross out ones (for whom penis/testicle sucking is the apotheosis of humour) and non-comedies (for whom a knowing wry curl of the lip is the equivalent of the guffaw). Wilderpeople is nearer the latter category, but has genuine laughs – imagine Wes Anderson but with added comedy. Directed by Taika Waititi, who is part of the NZ Flight of the Conchords team and directed the excellent What We Do In the Shadows, it continues the same vein of good natured idiots fumbling through an equally dumb world. In this case it is the young Ricky, who goes on the run with his “uncle”, the grizzled Sam Neill, in the NZ bush.

The scenery provides a verdant backdrop to the bumbling manhunt, led by the inept Rachel House with her mindless “no child left behind” motto. There is an inevitable Goodnight Mr Tom narrative, as the curmudgeonly Neill comes to accept the unrelenting optimism of his young charge. But although it plays the heartwarming card to good effect, it’s never schmaltzy or sentimental. A decent comedy has been a rare find in 2016, and you think we’d need them now more than ever.

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys seems at least as much defined by what it isn’t as what it is. It isn’t a Will Ferrell, gross-out, over the top comedy. It isn’t a gag-fest. It isn’t a by the books buddy comedy. It isn’t a quirky, Wes Anderson, uncomedy either. I admire it for not being all those things. But I’m less sure it knows what it is. The take of two private eyes bumbling through a convoluted plot involving a missing woman in LA has so much cinematic baggage, from The Big Sleep, to Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang via Mulholland Drive and LA Confidential (which also featured both Basinger and Crowe lest we miss the reference) that it is placing itself at an immediate disadvantage.

The jokes don’t come thick and fast, but there are some laugh out loud moments. I’ve seen some people complain about the storyline – have these people ever seen the Big Sleep, Maltese Falcon or Chinatown? A twisting, barely comprehensible, and largely meaningless plot is the whole point of a noir movie. It is less a narrative arc than a narrative slug trail. The function of that plot is to allow other elements to be showcased – the seedy side of Hollywood say, or Humphrey Bogart being endlessly cool. The interaction between Gosling and Crowe is presumably the intended primary function here, and while neither are awful, they are also not quite sufficient enough to justify the long running time.

In the end, I sorta liked it for not being other things, in the same way you sorta support one team who are playing against another you don’t like. But when that team doesn’t win, you’re not invested in it.

Brothers Grimsby

Alright, I kinda knew I wouldn’t like this, but gave it a try because a friend said it was quite funny. It isn’t. Really, not funny at all. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s take on England football supporting ‘chav’ is just nasty. There might have been a germ of a good idea in here, a sort of Shameless meets Kingsman, but at every step it makes the wrong choice. The depiction of the working class is just sneering, the offensive humour just offensive, the jokes lacking in any irony. Even 15 year old boys will find this tiring.

There is a fine line between getting things right and missing completely – ask the sibling of a famous sports star who toils away in the lower leagues while their star sibling is awash with great wealth. A bit of physique difference, a subtle alteration in psychology, a smidgeon of talent – not much here and there, but it makes all the difference. When you’re making this kind of deliberately offensive comedy all those decisions have to be right for it to work, and here none of them do. By the time it gets to a testicle sucking scene (acting out the old Lone Ranger -Tonto joke) it is so tired, and trying so hard to shock that it becomes truly embarrassing to watch.

Maybe there is a case for making a meta-point about culture and racism here – we didn’t mind when it was the people of Kazakhstan being offended with Borat. There may be some truth in that. But it has to be funny first before you can make any claims about irony or justifications about cultural comment. And this isn’t. Not at all.

Eddie the Eagle

British cinema has these based on fact feel-good movies down pat. We probably get the mixture of comedy, pathos and drama better than anyone, they are emotional without being overly schmaltzy and funny without being an unrealistic gag-fest. Pride, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty – working class tales of overcoming the odds, usually against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain (in this Thatcher has been a surprising boon for the UK film industry). Eddie the Eagle sits comfortably in this canon – after last year’s excellent turn in Kingsman, Taron Egerton again impresses as Eddie Edwards.

I have mixed feelings about these films. I’m scornful of them beforehand, a bit cynical afterwards, and enjoy them immensely during. I get that additional sense of emotion at altitude, which Mayo and Kermode have dubbed Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome, so when I saw Pride on a recent flight I was an embarrassing blubbing mess. I’m glad I saw this at sea level. While the film handles all the elements deftly and delivers just as you’d want it to, I’m still left unsatisfied. I suspect I may not be a feel-good kinda person. In the end these films remind me of those inspirational quotes people like to pass around on Twitter (“Never give up”, “Failure is the first step to success”, etc) – you get the value of them, and some of them are carefully constructed and inspiring. But you want a bit more depth or shade in your life than a simple slogan. But, hey we live in a world where Donald Trump is a reality, so a film that can make you smile and feel good about fellow humans for a while is no bad thing.

Deadpool

The trailers preceding this film were for Batman vs Superman, the new X-Men, Suicide Squad and the new Avengers. To many this is a smorgasbord of cinematic treats. For me this represents another summer of cinematic austerity. I’ve tried with superhero movies, I really have. X-men Days of Future Past is the best one yet I was told. Avengers Age of Ultron is a must see, folks on Twitter told me. Thor isn’t quite as bad as people say, others implored. Yet they all leave me cold. Two elements combine for this apathy towards all things Marvel and DC: they have no sense of their own ridiculousness – they take themselves seriously, and expect us to do the same; there is no tension is watching two undefeatable CGI creatures slug it out for 10 minutes denting as many metal structures as they can.

Deadpool is therefore a superhero movie for me. The opening sequence superbly sets the tone, mocking every element of the comic book formula. It is followed by ultra-violence, the sort we used to refer to as comic book before comic books were actually put on screen. Our superhero swears, urinates, fornicates, masturbates and generally undermines every aspect of the po-faced Marvey universe. It’s spit your fizzy drink funny, and has more in-gags than Spiderman has remakes. In the torture scenes to create the superhero there are also dark shades of Martyrs.

It doesn’t quite overcome my second reservation, there is still the climactic slugfest. It tries to have it both ways here: knowing winks about the cliche and yet, like comedy-horror, we have to be engaged in the primary format sufficiently. It just about gets away with this. There is considerable bravery in Marvel mocking their own cash-cow and in the adult, ribald humour for what is often a young adult audience. Pulling this off is to be applauded. I’m not sure it’d last to a Deadpool 2 though.

Zoolander 2

I go to the cinema with my daughter quite often, and for such films I have a different set of standards. If it’s something we both enjoy, then I’m grateful for that in itself and that separates it from a critical perspective. So, although I’d heard Zoolander 2 was a stinker, I was prepared to give it the critical Get Out of Jail Free card. Luckily my daughter hated it, and asked to leave before the end, so now, I am free to unleash on it, and I’m snatching back that card.

As literary agents who wade through unsolicited manuscripts can attest, the quality of many books can be gauged from reading the opening page. So with Zoolander 2, the opening sequence – which features a cameo from Justin Bieber, being gunned down at the end of a Mission Impossible type chase – tells you everything you need to know. This could be funny if it mocked Bieber, but it feels more like an ingratiating attempt to get as many cameos in as possible. And it does, each celebrity more annoying than then next, more desperate, more back-slapping.

There are many ways to got with a comedy – narrative driven with gentle laughs, character focused, satirical. Zoolander 2 rejects all of these, with an overblown, ridiculous plot, and no real characters. Which is fine, that worked in the first movie. But if you go that route, there is no reason for the viewer to sit in the cinema except gags. They have no involvement in the story or characters, so those gags had better come along thick and fast. Having a celebrity appear, say something bland, and disappear is not a gag. In fact, not only is it not funny, but it becomes offensive, us plebs are all supposed to sit here and admire the lovely people. Aren’t they all great? Thankyou for letting us look at you having what you think is fun. Oh, and Sting? Get lost.

By the time Will Ferrell escapes from a high security prison (it’s not a spoiler, because you can’t spoil shit), I had become distracted by pondering how much this lumpen, crass, overblown dollop must have cost. I felt insulted by that waste of money. The main joke in the film is that Zoolander is fashion model who is now out of date, and with its boob jokes, and desperate sexual innuendo, that’s exactly how this film felt. This film is like a cool friend you knew in college, who shows up one night. Tour pleased to see them, so you take them out with your friends for the evening. The college friend spends the whole night making dirty jokes and bragging about how much they earn, and who they know. Your friends are all looking at you with “who is this loser?” expressions. You shrug hopelessly, thinking, they used to be so cool, maybe I was wrong.

The Big Short

I went to see this with an air of reluctance, expecting it to be worthy and dull. A topic Hollywood feels compelled to make a movie about and will be very earnest in telling you just how bad these people were. But it turned out to be a lot more fun than one has a right to expect when having mortgage bonds, credit default swaps and CDOs, explained to us. Director McKay realised this stuff was the antithesis of any decent movie narrative so just decided to throw every director tricksy thing from the past 20 years at it: a chef explaining collective bonds, direct to camera dialogue, an animated drawing of a testicle, textual description on screen. None of it is particularly new, and many will find it irritating, but it works by breaking up the heavy duty economics lecture, and having a knowing playfulness throughout. See the scene above, with Gosling being an ironic parody of a Wall Street guy “I smell money”.
By an odd coincidence, I had started watching The Step Brothers earlier in the day, and turned it off after 20 minutes finding it crass and unfunny. Only after I’d seen the Big Short did I find out it was by the same director, Adam McKay. Apart from Ron Burgundy, he has made all the Will Ferrell movies you don’t like. If you were asked to name the director to make the telling film about the banking collapse, and could suggest one every ten seconds continuously over 24 hours, we’d probably be a few weeks into the process before you stumbled upon Adam McKay, half in jokey desperation to make this nightmare game end. He would seem the least likely candidate to make the film about the 2008 crash.
And yet he may have just been the perfect choice. In choosing to play it as a light comedy he shows how ludicrous the whole thing was, and how ridiculous these men are. But that these ridiculous men still controlled our lives and caused a global collapse is the biggest indictment of all on the system. It is a better political statement than making All The Presidents Men – the Wall Street version. It’s an odd Oscar choice, and won’t stand a chance against the more strident The Revenant, but in many ways it is a more thoughtful film.