REVIEW: Colossal

28 04 2017

Historically in monster movies, the imminent threat stands in for a more existential fear. From foreign invaders to nuclear weapons and screen addiction, we’ve seen any number of external forces terrorize the cinema. But starting in the 1960s (as compellingly chronicled by Jason Zinoman in his book “Shock Value“), some of these monsters came to represent parts of ourselves. They were manifestations of some internal demons, not some societal hazard.

Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” is the latest film in this tradition as Anne Hathaway’s trainwreck of a character, Gloria, manifests as a godzilla-like beast in Seoul when she gets blackout drunk in a certain radius. The premise sounds a little risible, admittedly, but Hathaway and Vigalondo sell its spirit with gusto. This is not the kind of movie devoted to detailed scientific explanation. You accept the oddly specific rules under which it operates and then delve into its rich metaphorical terrain.

A mid-movie turn in the plot should go unspoiled in a review, but I’ll hint at it by saying it opens “Colossal” up to be more than just a metaphor for alcoholism. The monster is all of us and whatever baggage we carry that makes us act impulsively. It takes a physical manifestation of these forces to make Gloria realize that her actions can cause collateral damage harming people around her. Vigalondo adds plenty of contemporary touches – in particular how the Internet can find a way to turn tragedy into memes instantaneously – but this classical dilemma lies at the very heart of the film. The satisfying resolution shows why Hathaway is uniquely equipped to play the part. It requires creativity, determination and a brushing aside of the haters. B+

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F.I.L.M of the Week (April 9, 2015)

9 04 2015

As I Lay DyingWith each passing year, it has become harder and harder not to have an opinion about the multi-hyphenate artist James Franco.  Is he a Renaissance man for our time, a master of many artistic trade?  Or is he merely an Andy Warhol, signing off on other people’s work to make it more commercially viable?  Or perhaps, is he just insane?

After the strange back-to-back pairing of “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Spring Breakers” in early 2013, I was unsure of where to place Franco on the spectrum of genius and lunatic.  Then, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in an intimate setting at the Cannes Film Festival after seeing his “As I Lay Dying” play in Un Certain Regard (and waiting many long hours to do so), and I made up my mind.  I really think he’s a true artistic talent.

Admittedly, I have not read the William Faulkner novel on which the film is based.  And after seeing the movie, I still do not think I could provide a summary of the events that occurred and somehow make it resemble a plot.  Nonetheless, Franco turns Faulkner’s notoriously difficult prose into a fittingly challenging art film.  By finding a visual match for the author’s words, his take on “As I Lay Dying” makes for a deserving selection for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The novel, notoriously, features multiple narrators, and Franco preserves that aspect by filming those direct addresses in striking close-ups.  But such is a rather predictable choice for adapting the book for the screen, so Franco goes further and really utilizes a unique technique: split screen.  The multiple images flooding the visual field proves an effective, engaging tool to represent narrative fragmentation.  At times, the images complement each other; sometimes, they clash.  “As I Lay Dying” is Malick imagery meets Soviet montage experiments, all wrapped up in the form of a gallery installation.

This makes the story somewhat hard to follow, although I get the sense that few read Faulkner for clarity like a light beach read.  Still, I enjoyed the film on a moment by moment basis, appreciating each scene as it came.  Franco went out on a limb and really experimented with “As I Lay Dying,” a truly bold choice given the familiarity that many have with the text.  He mostly succeeds, and even when a directorial decision falls flat, it’s hard to fault the ambition behind it.  I get the feeling, too, that he might have laid the groundwork for someone to come along and create a true master work with his split screen technique.

 

 





REVIEW: The Homesman

29 11 2014

The HomesmanHistorically speaking, the Western has not been the most hospitable type of movie to the female gender. This philosophical statement from the genre’s patron saint, John Wayne, pretty much says it all: “I stick to simple themes. Love. Hate. No nuances. I stay away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes. Couches are good for one thing.”

Writer/director Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” provides an interesting rejoinder to that legacy of rugged masculinity through its protagonist, Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy.  She is a gritty, hard-working single farmer in the Nebraska Territory who still maintains a sense of empathy and caring.  So, in other words, she balances traits that are socially gendered for both sexes.

She also initiates her own destiny rather than waiting around for someone else to save her, boldly proposing marriage to other landowners in order to consolidate property.  Unsurprisingly, in the 19th century just as today, men greet such a woman with suspicion.  And their favorite word to describe Cuddy?  Bossy, the very word for girls that outspoken feminist Sheryl Sandberg wants to ban.

Cuddy’s resolve certainly stands out not only for the film’s phylum but also within the movie itself, as women are otherwise made victims of rape or cruelly objectified by men.  This message is undeniably worthwhile, yet little else about “The Homesman” is.   The film is a meandering mess that no amount of advocacy can fully redeem.

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REVIEW: Lincoln

1 12 2012

I am by no means saying that “Lincoln” is not a smart movie.  I think the writing is very clever, the angle is interesting, and the words take the feel of political poetry.  And Daniel Day-Lewis gives a very meticulous and impressively restrained performance as the iconic 16th President.

But these two things do not necessarily a great movie make.  Director Steven Spielberg ultimately did not make a compelling argument as to why “Lincoln” is cinematic, and that is by far the most crucial component of a film’s success.  We don’t experience film on a page; we watch it on a screen.  And though I often sat wondering how much I would love to pore over Tony Kushner’s script, I never felt like I needed to see it on screen.  (Perhaps it would have been better served as a closet script, one meant to be read, not filmed.)

The history lesson is interesting in that it features a tight, narrow focus rather than the broad canvases in some of Spielberg’s earlier historical films such as “Schindler’s List” or “Amistad.”  Kushner’s grueling, often tedious procedural and insistance on parading new characters onto screen in rapid fire succession makes “Lincoln” feel more like an “Amistad,” meant to go straight into the DVD player in high school American history courses.  If it weren’t for the cavalcade of notable Oscar-recognized talent, it would feel no different than those dramatized History Channel specials that teachers show to give their students a break.

I have no problem with the Spielberg pendulum shifting towards education rather than entertainment and showmanship.  However, if such a changing dynamic is to work, Spielberg needed to shift his approach.  In “Lincoln,” he largely doesn’t.  In the first two hours of the film, we are bombarded with facts, details, and events.

Then, as the film comes to a close, the movie slows down and begins to amble.  We get generous close-ups of the people whose tireless efforts we have been following, as if Spielberg is telling us, “Here, feel for them … now!”  Perhaps after spending a semester watching all his films, I am hyperaware of his trademark shot and can fairly easily resist the pull.  But I wasn’t actively resisting or anything, they just didn’t work here.  The technique would have been great if “Lincoln” were more in the mold of “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” histories built around deep emotions.  He can’t simply pull the technique out to achieve a similar effect for an entirely different film.

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