Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Wellcome Collection, London NW1, Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings until 26 February

This exhibition is dedicated to the votive tradition in Mexico. Mexican votives are small paintings usually made on tin roof tiles or plaques. They show humble individuals asking a saint for help, who are then protected from sickness, danger or death. More than 100 votive paintings will be displayed, taken from five collections held by museums in Mexico. Other sources like news reports, photographs, film and interviews, make Infinitas Gracias a fascinating and comprehensive look at votives.

Comedy

Soho Theatre, London W1, Eugene Mirman and Pretty Good Friends 7-9 and 12-15 October

According to his website, Eugene Mirman is a "comedian and hero who lives in Brooklyn". Mirman's humour is charmingly silly and he is best-known as Eugene the landlord in Flight of the Conchords. He is also the voice of Gene in Fox's animated series Bob's Burgers. The evening takes a varied format of short films, music, comedy and special guests.

Music

Hammersmith Apollo, London W6, Seasick Steve 8 October

Widely-known as Seasick Steve, Steven Gene Wold is an American blues musician. A winner of the MOJO Award for Best Breakthrough Act, Seasick Steve is a great live performer, famous for his three-string Trance Wonder guitar. Wold is widely-travelled and has lived in 56 different houses in 25 years, and his life experience comes across in his raw blues sound. He will play an array of past material and songs from his latest album You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

Talks

The Royal Institution of Great Britain, London W1S, The Biggest IQ Test 12 October

The New Scientist launched a test in October 2010 to measure intelligence. It became exceptionally popular, with 100,000 people across the world answering it. The results of the biggest IQ test of all time show that there is not a single general form of intelligence. Roger Highfield and one of leading neuroscientist Adrian Owen will discuss the results and the influence of age, computer games and other factors on IQ. Standard tickets are priced £10, concessions are £7 and Ri Members are £5.

Theatre

The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Cirque Éloize: iD, 12-15 October

iD is a love story set in a city, made up of exciting circus arts and urban dance. Based in Montreal, Cirque Éloize have performed across the world in more than 30 countries. The first week of their show will be held in the brand new Marlowe Theatre, which opened on 4 October. The project began in 2009 when the old Marlowe Theatre - originally a 1930s cinema - was demolished.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories