Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016)

hank and manny on beach

(NOTE: I also reviewed this film with Adam Kempenaar on the Filmspotting podcast, when I was a guest host for the show. You can take a listen here.) 

It isn’t a new idea, the idea that mental health and happiness are related to accepting yourself as you are. We could reference Free To Be You and Me, that album of the 70’s that challenged gender norms and promoted a celebration of individuality –

Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run
To a land where the river runs free
To a land through the green country
 . . .
 To a land where the children are free
 And you and me are free to be

Don’t be afraid, the song encourages children. There’s no shame in anything that you are. Just be yourself. Celebrate that.

It’s a message that you can find everywhere now.  Children’s movies, in particular, often contain some version of this idea. If you have short term memory loss like Dory in Finding Dory, if you’re a bunny like Judy Hopps in Zootopia, you are still just as important, just as valuable as anybody else.

In Swiss Army Man, the debut feature film from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, we have a return to this essential kind of story and these themes. It centers on a man called Hank (Paul Dano), who can’t live with himself anymore. He’s alone, literally and figuratively. He feels bad about life, he feels bad about himself. He feels like “broken,” “dirty,” “trash.” He lacks the courage to seek out a relationship with the woman he admires. He’s ashamed of his desires and his own corporeal reality. And that’s his basic problem. He can’t stand himself and his disgusting body and “weird,” disgusting self.  The film’s journey is, then, about the way he struggles with coming to terms with himself and all of the weird, gross, socially unacceptable bits.

So far, so good.  And so far, a lot like something we’ve seen or heard before.

The film has received attention though for the conceit it employs to tell its story. You’ve probably heard about it already: it’s the farting corpse movie.  The story isolates Hank in the wilderness and gives him a dead body for a companion (Daniel Radcliffe), a companion whose most socially uncomfortable bodily functions take center stage. It is through his interactions with this embarrassing corpse, whose name is Manny, and a very literal dealing with bodily functions, that Hank has to face himself. In Manny, he sees his corporeal, death-fated human reality, and ultimately, must decide, whether or not he will reject it or embrace it. Continue reading Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016)”

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)


A more harrowing or dread-inducing film you’re not more likely to find this year on Seattle Screens than Robert Eggers’s colonial fantasy The Witch. Set in 1630 and with dialogue partially based on diaries from the time, Eggers tells of a Puritan family living alone in a deep dark wood, and the evil that preys upon them there. Long a metaphorical vehicle for all manner of issues (the hunting of witches being analogized most famously as anti-Communism in The Crucible, while more recently witches themselves have become celebrated as free-thinking proto-feminists) or moral lessons, Eggers strips away the subtext of his folktale in favor of an experiential trip inside the mind of Puritan true believers. It is established right from the opening scenes that there are witches and that they are of the purest evil. It remains for us to suffer along with a people whose darkest imaginings are made manifest.
Continue reading The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)”

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015)

girls on street walking

It is Christmas Eve in Hollywood, a day in Tinseltown when everything is even more brightly showy than usual. It’s a town of glitz and dreams and fantasies, where stars soar higher than high and multitudes of others scramble below to make a living in those stars’ dusty grit. A few golden names will get a terrazzo or brass star on Hollywood Boulevard, an aspirational spot on the ground that is, perhaps ironically, open to be trod on by anyone in need of a sidewalk. And there is something of that sly irony in Sean Baker’s newest film, Tangerine, for Baker is a good deal more interested in those doing the treading on those stars, those who walk on and work in the streets, than in those who have their names emblazoned into them. And indeed, as the film opens – a shot of two pairs of hands clasping and exchanging a doughnut over a table at Donut Time, a place that couldn’t be farther from the showiness of the Walk of Fame – I am a good deal less curious about the stars whose names I might recognize than I am about to whom those hands on the table belong.

The hands are Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra’s (Mya Taylor), two friends, two transgender sex workers, whose journey, set all in one day in the Los Angeles streets and in the day-to-day haunts of those who make a living on the streets, invites us to question what we know, or what we think we know, about Los Angeles and those who live in it. Is the city, and by extension its inhabitants, as one character in the film puts it, a “beautifully wrapped lie”? Continue reading Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015)”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I am suspicious of my enjoyment of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in spite of the fact that the film, premiering at Sundance in 2015, received the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Drama, and I am not alone in such enjoyment. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a director until now primarily known for his TV work (Glee, American Horror Story) and based on a YA novel by Jesse Andrews, the film follows Greg (Thomas Mann), the titular “Me,” who, under non-negotiable orders from his mother, befriends a high school classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is diagnosed with leukemia; Greg is to be a companion to her through the ordeals of her illness and treatment. And so Greg, with his childhood friend and fellow film-buff, Earl (RJ Cyler), entertain Rachel in large part with the films the two boys make together, short films that cleverly pun around with titles of classic and foreign cinema: The 400 Blows becomes a film about “The 400 Bros”; 8 ½ becomes “Ate ½ (of my Lunch)”; A Clockwork Orange becomes “A Sockwork Orange.”

Continue reading Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)”

Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)


Ballet 422, which opens this week at the Sundance, owes a very great debt to the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman (seen recently haunting Seattle Screens with his National Gallery) especially his dance films (Ballet, La Danse and Crazy Horse). The film follows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he has two months to put together the New York City Ballet’s 422nd original production, his first choreographic work on such a large scale. As in the Wiseman films, the movie consists mostly of length footage of people at work, proceeding from the early rehearsal stage through the final performance, with occasional looks at the backstage workers (particularly the wardrobe department) and “pillow shots” (prominently close-ups of shoes, a favorite subject in the Wisemans as well) providing syncopating breaks in the narrative. As with Wiseman, there are no direct-to-camera interviews or explanatory voiceovers; the cinematic apparatus remains for the most part invisible (though there is a moment when the cameraman hilariously realizes he can see himself in a rehearsal mirror and quickly reframes himself out of the shot). Lipes does employ a very few un-Wiseman-like explanatory title cards, which are necessary in the beginning to set the story, but also serve to mark time as the clock ticks on our hero’s deadline.

Continue reading Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)”

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement/Taika Waititi, 2014)

what we do in the shadows waititi

Last year, Jim Jarmusch reestablished himself in many eyes with the existential ennui of Only Lovers Left Alive. The film interrogated the realities of being a vampire, looking at the practical ramifications of living for hundreds of years. How do the centuries affect one’s outlook on life, love and art? Now an unlikely companion piece arrives from New Zealand with the mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows, from Eagle vs. Shark director Taika Waititi and frequent collaborator, Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.

clement what we do in the shadows

What We Do in the Shadows follows the daily humdrummery of a household of vampires, all of various vintages and dispositions. There’s the dandy, the slob, the troubled one, and Nosferatu. House meetings are called to revisit the neglected chore wheel which has resulted in a stack of blood-drenched dishes in the sink. The film is basically variations on this joke for 80-odd minutes and somewhat surprisingly, it works. It’s a slight but amiable feature, low-key but consistently fun.

what we do in the shadows group

In keeping with the documentary facade, much of the film is shot closely with a spotlight shining directly on the leads, leaving their surroundings bathed in titular darkness. This style is particularly effective when the film introduces special effects such as flying and mutation, all of which are blended seamlessly and provide an occasional jolt amongst the chuckles. And it is mostly chuckles. But they’re consistent chuckles.

what we do in the shadows

The funniest scenes occur when Clement and Waititi decide to go for broke. Despite being a low budget comedy, the film doesn’t shy away from its horrific roots, occasionally doubling down on gore with fountains of deep red blood. Sure, they lay down a newspaper first but come on, that stuff gets everywhere.

(What We Do in the Shadows is now playing at the Sundance Cinemas, The Majestic Bay Theatre, and the SIFF Uptown.)