Stephen Romei’s verdict on the lat­est cin­ema re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Stephen Romei

The Leg­end of Tarzan (M) Na­tional re­lease Swiss Army Man (M) Na­tional re­lease from July 14

The Leg­end of Tarzan and Swiss Army Man are two of the strangest films I’ve seen in a while. They don’t have a great deal in com­mon, ex­cept for putting men in the wild. Maybe that’s all it takes. Let’s start with Tarzan, as it’s the sim­plest to de­scribe. Swiss Army Man de­fies ready reck­on­ing. This lat­est screen ver­sion of Edgar Rice Bur­roughs’s books about a man raised by apes is di­rected by David Yates, who was in charge of the fi­nal four Harry Pot­ter films. He also made the first-rate 2003 Bri­tish tele­vi­sion drama State of Play.

I think the prob­lem Yates faced here was be­ing un­sure of what sort of movie to make. This Tarzan would work best as a com­edy. It has some planned and un­planned funny mo­ments, helped by off­beat cast mem­bers Sa­muel L. Jack­son and Christoph Waltz. But it’s also an ac­tion ad­ven­ture, not bad at times, and a moral­is­ing 21st-cen­tury re­minder of the wrongs of 19th­cen­tury Euro­pean coloni­sa­tion of Africa.

The film opens with an im­pres­sive con­fronta­tion be­tween Africans and Bel­gian sol­diers in the Congo. The itchy-fin­gered troops are led by the white-suited, rosary bead-clutch­ing Cap­tain Leon Rom (Waltz). The real Rom, some ar­gue, was the in­spi­ra­tion for Kurtz in Joseph Con­rad’s novel Heart of Dark­ness. Waltz doesn’t take it quite that far, though his spi­der-silk prayer beads do have a sin­is­ter sting. We move to Eng­land to meet the well-groomed John Clay­ton III, Lord Greystoke. “My name is not Tarzan,’’ he warns.

So this is part se­quel, as Tarzan is in his man­sion and mar­ried to Jane (Aus­tralia’s Mar­got Rob­bie, who is good but this char­ac­ter just isn’t the com­plex one she had in her star turn in Martin Scors­ese’s The Wolf of Wall Street).

We do see Tarzan’s child­hood his­tory through flash­backs to his life with apes and other jun­gle beasts. He’s a slightly trou­bled young lord, still work­ing out his right place in the world. His right species, per­haps. There’s a nice scene where he shows some chil­dren his strong, un­usu­ally formed hands. “I grew up run­ning on all fours.’’

Tarzan’s destiny, it seems, lies in the jun­gle. He’s per­suaded to go back, to look into the brutish Bel­gian busi­ness, by Amer­i­can politi­cian Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Wil­liams (Jack­son). “You are Africa’s favourite son,’’ he tells Tarzan. Jane goes along too.

Now what­ever you think of Tarzan films and tele­vi­sion shows, they do at­tract hand­some men, from Olympic swim star Johnny Weiss­muller at the start in the 1930s. He was re­placed, af­ter 12 films, by the even hand­somer Lex Barker. Aus­tralia’s Travis Fim­mel, a for­mer Calvin Klein model, did his bit in a 2003 TV se­ries. French actor Christo­pher Lam­bert was lean and mean in Greystoke: Leg­end of Tarzan in 1984. But the new one, Swedish actor Alexan­der Skars­gard, may just take the beef­cake.

Un­like the an­i­mals in the film, which are in­vented by com­put­ers, he is real. He takes his shirt off about 30 min­utes in and it never comes close to go­ing back on, which I’m sure will be cheered by a large sec­tion of the au­di­ence. The flashback mo­ment where tyro Tarzan first seduces young Jane is much funnier than it should be. You may re­mem­ber it later when Jane ob­serves, “My hus­band is no nor­mal man.’’

Tarzan, Jane and Wil­liams are back in the Congo, tak­ing on Rom. Jack­son, as wise­crack­ing, gun-wield­ing Wil­liams, looks like he has con­tin­ued mak­ing Quentin Tarantino’s re­cent west­ern The Hate­ful Eight. Wil­liams is an Amer­i­can Civil War vet­eran and there is an at­tempt to make a point about slav­ery and the suf­fer­ing of black peo­ple world­wide, but I found it a bit pa­tro­n­is­ing. Waltz, an­other Tarantino favourite, brings his usual un­usu­al­ness to Rom, but in the end it’s a bit thin. Look for the scene, though, where he has a din­ner date with Jane.

There are some de­cent thrill-seek­ing scenes, such as when Tarzan and Wil­liams race through the jun­gle tree line, in­clud­ing via vine. Some of the mo­ments with an­i­mals are OK, es­pe­cially when Tarzan’s ape mum looks af­ter him. But by and large they are a bit un­be­liev­able, par­tic­u­larly a stam­pede to­wards the end that re­minded me of James Cameron’s hu­man-an­ni­hi­la­tion quest Avatar.

The Leg­end of Tarzan is a pass­able ac­tion ad- ven­ture. I ended up think­ing a lot about it af­ter­wards, be­cause I found it so odd. I’m not sure that’s enough to rec­om­mend it to any­one who has to buy a ticket to see it. Swiss Army Man is an independent Amer­i­can film, the fea­ture de­but of Dan Kwan and Daniel Schein­ert, who wrote and di­rected it. The duo made their name with TV com­mer­cials and mu­sic videos. The film pre­miered at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, where some au­di­ence mem­bers walked out, and where the di­rec­tors won an award.

It is a chal­leng­ing film to re­view be­cause there’s no back­ground guide for po­ten­tial view­ers. Most peo­ple, for ex­am­ple, will know what a Tarzan film is about. As a viewer of Swiss Army Man, I think I would have joined the walk­out. Yet if other peo­ple think this ab­sur­dist, ex­is­ten­tial film is bril­liant, I won’t be sur­prised. One rea­son for that is it’s a film un­like any other.

It opens with a star­tling scene. A man ma­rooned on a de­serted is­land is about to hang him­self. He stands awk­wardly on an esky, a rope around his neck. Sud­denly he sees the body of an­other man washed up on the beach and he — just — man­ages to avoid suicide and goes to in­ves­ti­gate. We learn the ma­rooned man is called Hank (Paul Dano, who was Beach Boy Brian Wil­son in the re­cent Love & Mercy). He calls the flot­sam man Manny (Daniel Rad- cliffe con­tin­u­ing his in­ter­est­ing post-Pot­ter ca­reer). Both ac­tors are con­vinc­ing in dif­fi­cult roles.

It looks like Manny is dead. He’s also full of flat­u­lence, which takes the Week­end at Bernie’s idea to a new level, though I found it hard to bear. Hank climbs aboard Manny and rides him — a gas-pow­ered jet ski — to un­oc­cu­pied land­fall. From here he car­ries Manny on his back in a trek to find help (maybe), and the two have se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tions about the mean­ing of life. Be­cause Manny starts talk­ing, and mov­ing. Or does he? “You are a mir­a­cle … or am I just hal­lu­ci­nat­ing?’’ Hank asks.

The title refers to the many func­tions Manny offers, from the fire-ig­nit­ing gas emis­sions, to a re­gur­gi­ta­tion of drink­ing wa­ter, to arms that chop and even shoot. He’s a “mul­ti­pur­pose tool guy’’. He may have a wife or girl­friend, or then the woman in ques­tion may be a girl in Hank’s mind, and per­haps his past. Hank — and Manny — ex­plore this in an imag­i­na­tive and dis­turb­ing way.

There is a fair bit of dis­cus­sion about sex, mas­tur­ba­tion and, well, poop. Manny’s pe­nis seems to work like a com­pass. I didn’t like much of this ei­ther, but what I found harder to un­der­stand was the per­spec­tive. If Manny is dead, then we shouldn’t see him the way we do. We see him with our own eyes, not just through Hank’s. I sus­pect the di­rec­tors don’t care about this. It’s their film, made in their way for their pur­poses, and per­haps they are right to think like that. Whether what we see is real or a dream or the in­side of one man’s mind or some­thing else al­to­gether is for us to de­cide.

There are mo­ments, es­pe­cially to­wards the end, when Hank’s be­hav­iour comes across, to my eye at least, as a mov­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of men­tal ill­ness, of iso­la­tion in the or­di­nary world, of a young man mis­un­der­stood by his fa­ther. I could have done with more of that, and less of a fart­ing corpse.


Sa­muel L. Jack­son and Alexan­der Skars­gard in The

Leg­end of Tarzan, above; Daniel Rad­cliffe and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man, left

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