'Swiss Army Man,' 'Morris From America,' 'Wiener-Dog,' and 'The Greasy Strangler'
Day Two at Sundance is when you hit the ground running hard. I managed to make my way through four movies and was (mostly) rewarded with the following: I saw Harry Potter play a flatulent corpse, Todd Solondz project his misanthropy onto man’s best friend, an African-American coming of age story that converted me into a believer in The Office’s Craig Robison, and a revolting midnight movie that makes the early cult work of John Waters look appetizing.
Because we’re a classy media outlet, why don’t we start off with the flatulence. Directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (a duo that goes by the moniker “Daniels”), Swiss Army Man is already being referred to around Park City as “The Farting Daniel Radcliffe Movie.” That may be a little dismissive of a movie that’s brimming with deranged ambition, but there really is a lot of farting in it. Daniel Radcliffe, who’s pursued some pretty idiosyncratic projects post-Harry Potter, plays a pasty corpse that washes up on a desert island where Paul Dano is stranded. Dano is so lonely and so close to losing his grip on reality that he imagines the dead man to life in his mind. Radcliffe, in essence, becomes his Wilson, the volleyball.
The film looks great and it has an undeniably impressive level of imagination and ambition (not to mention some fantasy sequences that tap into the same inventive hand-crafted diorama groove of Michel Gondry). But while everyone in front of and behind is super-committed to their Weekend at Bernie’s riff, it’s depressingly juvenile. Every time you’re about to find a way in to Dano’s psyche, the film stoops to an erection gag or worse – like one scene where Dano’s character harnesses the gale-force power of the dead man’s flatulence to ride him like a Jet Ski. When it comes to surreal whimsy, you could say the filmmakers supplied it…and the audience denied it.
Far better was writer-director Chad Hartigan’s irresistibly sweet coming-of-age story, Morris from America. Hartigan, who was last at Sundance in 2013 with This is Martin Bonner, seems to be one of those indie filmmakers who knows how to pull some great performances out of his actors. Newcomer Markees Christmas plays a chubby 13-year-old African-American kid whose father (Craig Robinson, fantastic) has moved them to Heidelberg, Germany, for his new job. Christmas’ Morris is a confused, funny teen who has trouble making friends until he meets a beautiful 15-year-old bad girl whom he falls for and desperately wants to impress by rapping like Jay Z. Problem is, he’s a terrible rapper – something his dad humorously points out in one of their poignant and funny heart to hearts about trying to grow up too fast. The German setting and the welcome diversity of the cast helps turn what might otherwise be a sweet-but-fairly-predictable story into something that feels fresh. It’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser.
Before I get into the next film, Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, let me come clean: when it comes to this particular indie provocateur, I’ve never really been a fan. And after seeing his latest shticky bit of shock cinema, I’m still not. It was 20 years ago that Solondz became a Sundance sensation with the Grand Jury Prize-winning Welcome to the Dollhouse. Since then, his uniquely cynical deadpan movies have become more and more marginal. Maybe because he hasn’t changed very much. He keeps telling the same dark joke over and over again and it just gets less and less funny. His latest movie is really four short movies connected by one constant character — an adorable chocolate-colored dachshund. I suppose it’s the closest he’ll ever come to making a Beethoven movie. The movie looks great thanks to ace cinematographer Ed Lachman, but it’s a slog with one of the most childishly “outrageous” endings I’ve ever seen. The film has some great actors in it (Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn), but it’s so transparent in its desire to make you squirm that it’s deadly.
And now for something completely different. I make it a point to check out as many of Sundance’s Midnight section movies as I can. There’s something about walking out of a horror movie in an unfamiliar place in the wee hours that’s good for the soul. Plus, there’s always a couple of really great discoveries like It Follows last year and The Babadook the year before. Too bad Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler, the first Midnight movie of the 2016 fest, was godawful. And not even in the so-bad-it’s-good way it was obviously going for. Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar play a creepy father and son who look like they stepped out of a Daniel Clowes comic book. They live together, yell at each other (“bulls–t artist” is their insult of choice), and walk around in the nude while eating bacon. Then their freaky little slice of domestic bliss gets destroyed when they fall in love with the same woman. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose who’s M.O. is that he covers himself in a thick white coat of grease before murdering his victims.
There’s a tiny sprinkle of Napoleon Dynamite and John Waters and Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers in the film’s amateurishly bonkers tone. But honestly, this wannabe cult film is so revolting and stomach-turning, comparisons are beyond the point. I know some of you will read this and it will actually make you want to see The Greasy Strangler with your own eyes. To you, all I can say is you’ve been warned.