Colossal (Vigalondo; 2016)

I’ve spoken a number of times before in this blog about how metaphor can be used to enhance a message and make an average idea for a film into something much better.  Lights Out, my favorite horror film of last year, was a metaphor for dealing with a loved one who has a serious mental illness.  Sausage Party was a not so subtle metaphor for how religion affects our world’s cultures.  Colossal is another metaphor film, one which I enjoyed even more than the two I just mentioned, but it manages to take metaphor to a level I’ve never seen before, and is a bit hard to describe, but the best way I can think of to put it is that by placing a metaphor side by side with a real life experience it uses the metaphor to describe the plot in a way that meshes and enriches two story lines which on their own would be mundane.

The summary of Colossal on imdb.com is simply “A woman discovers that severe catastrophic events are somehow connected to the mental breakdown from which she’s suffering.”   Part of me wants to say that it’s best that I just tell you this movie is definitely one to see, trust me, and leave it at that because the nature of the “severe catastrophic events” and the “mental breakdown” are so imaginative and surprising that I think the best way to experience this film is blind.  Being allowed to discover what is really happening in Colossal along with the main characters would be a movie going experience you would remember for the rest of your life, but that wouldn’t make for much of a review on my part, and the trailers already give away what the movie’s main conceit is, though they don’t give away anywhere near as much as it would seem they do.  So, my personal recommendation is to stop reading right here, go see Colossal, then come back to finish the review.  If you want to continue reading, though, then I promise I won’t give away much more than what the trailers already do.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria.  Gloria had success early when she managed to get a writing job in New York allowing her to escape her life in small town Northeast America (I believe the small town is in New Hampshire, but I could be remembering incorrectly).  When the film opens, Gloria has lost her job due to her constant drunken partying, and her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) is kicking her out of his apartment for the same reason, telling her she needs to get her life together.  With nowhere left to go but the small town she once escaed from, Gloria returns to her now empty childhood home and is reunited with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) a boy, now man, she knew as a young girl who inherited the local bar from his parents.  Reuniting with a bar owner who obviously has a crush on her allows Gloria to resume her party girl ways, but when halfway across the world a giant monster materializes out of thin air to attack Soeul, South Korea, Gloria’s life gets a bit of a shock when she realizes the actions of the monster hold more than just a coincidental parallel to her own out of control drunken exploits.

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The metaphor and the themes at the core of Colossal are ones of control.  It’s a film that talks about how dangerous it is to lose control of our lives, dangerous both to ourselves and to those around us (and even to those halfway around the world) whether that loss of control be due to alack of self control or due to others trying to take control of our lives away from us.  The metaphor that Gloria becomes a rampaging monster after a night of drunken partying is an apt, if incredibly on the nose, metaphor, and if left at that the movie would be cute, well done, and thoughtful if ultimately light, but the movie only starts there and takes the themes to places you would never expect from the light tone of the movie’s start and from its marketing campaign.

Those places can get very dark, indeed.  The tonal changes throughout the film are essential to its success, and the fact that they are handled as deftly as they are shows that Nacho Vigalando has the potential to one day be a director of legendary reputation.  It’s important that we are sympathetic to Gloria despite her crippling flaws, so we begin with a light, practically comic tone.  But, it is also important that we are ultimately shown just how dangerous the life Gloria and Oscar are living can be, so as the film goes on the tone gradually goes darker and darker until we reach a point where it’s uncomfortable to watch the events unfolding before us, giving the metaphors their power and allowing us to see that while they started as a silly conceit, the silliness is concealing hard to confront wisdom which we now are face to face with despite ourselves.

Hathaway and Sudeikis are the two who truly anchor Colossal, as both the plot and the themes of the film revolve entirely on the relationship between these two, and they anchor it incredibly well.  Both of their performances express the deep nuances of emotion required to get across the film’s message, and both perfectly navigate the tonal shifts of the film giving us characters that we are simultaneously sympathetic with and horrified at and for.  We start out laughing at them, but in the end realize that this is no joke, and through that we can see a mirror pointed directly at ourselves and our own experiences.  anne-hathaway-colossal-2

Colossal‘s major weakness is in its secondary characters.  While Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell, and Dan Stevens all perform their roles admirably, they just are not given anything to work with.  There is no time given in the script to developing the people who surround Gloria and Oscar in the story, and these three are ultimately not really characters so much as plot devices.  We don’t get any sense that these three have lives or aspirations of their own, but exist only so Gloria and Oscar have something to react to.  This isn’t that uncommon a trend to find in fiction, but in a story that’s otherwise done so incredibly well, this flaw does stand out.

The visuals of Colossal are handled nearly as deftly as the themes and the acting.  It’s obvious that Colossal didn’t have the largest of budgets, especially for a film with a giant rampaging monster as a focus, but Vigalondo not only did as well a job as anyone could ever expect, the script also foresaw that the film might not receive a large bankroll in its backing and actually wrote in a plausible (well, as plausible as can be) reason why the giant monster wrecking Soeul may not look entirely realistic.  The camera work is also well done, and together with the film’s remarkable editing handles the story which takes place at multiple locations simultaneously perfectly without the audience ever needing to stop just experiencing the movie to concentrate on figuring out what is going on.  The excellent focus, cutting, and splicing mean that the spell is never broken and our immersion in the story is never put in jeopardy.

I couldn’t end this review without also mentioning the unusual company, Legion M, which handled the distribution of Colossal.  Legion M is an entirely fan owned company begun in 2016 by founders Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison which looks to give movie fans a larger say in which films ultimately get produced.  While Legion M did not produce Colossal, they did take over the movie’s distribution after Colossal had a few showings on the festival circuit to make sure that Colossal got the wider audience they felt it deserved.  Legion M is still a fledgling company, but is certainly one to keep an eye on due to its quick rise in popularity and its innovative method of managing its business dealings.  They are currently holding a second round of investment funding as I write this review, so if you’re interested in making an investment in a fledgling movie company head on over their website and give them a look.

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Shaun’s final verdict:  Colossal is not a flawless movie, but its flaws are few, far between, and ultimately not that important.  It not only gives us an apt and entertaining metaphor, its beyond “on the nose” presentation of that metaphor is truly innovative.  The movie’s constant shifts in tone are necessary, and in lesser hands could have been a disaster, but Hathaway, Sudeikis, and Vigalando navigate them perfectly giving us an experience that feels amazingly true to life despite, and really because of, its fantastic conceits.  Colossal is at once funny, dark, moving, inspirational, intelligent, and the best giant monster movie to come along since the original Gojira (Godzilla).  It is an absolute must see, and a true feather in the cap for all who brought this film to life.

 

 

 

Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts; 2017)

Kong: Skull Island you would think is somehow attached to the King Kong remake from 2005 helmed by Peter Jackson, but this installment focusing on America’s favorite gigantic ape is actually apparently connected to the Godzilla reboot from 2014.  It seems every studio feels the need to copy Marvel’s success with their film universe and start with one of their own – this is the Legendary Entertainment subsidiary of Warner Brother’s attempt at a movie universe featuring giant monsters.  While I am getting a bit weary of so many obvious and lame attempts by so many Hollywood companies to start printing their own money like Disney and Marvel are doing together, I have to admit that the idea of a series of films with the likes of Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong, and Gamera all duking it out very much appeals to the little child that still lurks inside of Shaun.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973 with John Goodman playing Bill Randa a World War II veteran and current conspiracy theorist who is trying to get a government grant to visit Skull Island, an island permanently surrounded by a nasty chain of storms such that no one can get near it, nor even see inside.  He finally gets his funding when he convinces a senator that it’s important Americans get to the island before the Russians do, because who knows what secrets could be there?   What no one else knows, including the group of soldiers and scientists Randa gets to come along on the survey with him, is that Randa knows full well that this is an island filled with giant monsters, monsters that killed his platoon in World War II and now he is here to get Captain Ahab style revenge.

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What we are given in Kong: Skull Island is essentially an incredibly high budget B-movie.  The plot is paper-thin and really just an excuse to watch big monsters attack each other.  Cliche after cliche is the order of the day in both story and dialogue.  It seems like screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Boorstein found a list of overused lines from war and action films then ordered that list so that they ended making for some sort of patchwork story.  There are a handful, barely a handful, of original ideas to be found in the story, enough that you have to wonder if the writers were able to recognize the banality of their work and either didn’t care or crafted it that way on purpose, but for the most part you will be able to predict every line spoken and every action taken by every one-dimensional character on screen.

This lack of a nuanced script does no favor to the actors, who are for the most part portraying an archetype with a quirk or two rather than an actual character.  Tom Hiddleston is charming, but little else, the supporting soldiers are pretty much just walking tropes, and Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver is reduced to pure eye candy.  The exceptions to this are the three grizzled vets of the cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and particularly John C. Reilly who all chew the scenery like few others can and bring life to their crazy old men characters through sheer force of charisma.   All three are a joy to watch when they are given center stage, but John C. Reilly goes above and beyond even the other two and gives us a portrayal that at times feels too good to be in this movie.

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Who goes to see Kong: Skull Island for nuanced writing and Oscar worthy performances, though?  If you’re at all living in this reality, you’re seeing Kong: Skull Island to see a gigantic ape kick butt and terrify some puny mortals, and on this level Kong delivers and keeps on delivering.  The creativity lost in the script was apparently saved for the action.  As we see Kong himself and the various giant denizens of Skull Island battle for supremacy of their corner of the world we are awed over and over again at the sheer bombasity of scale and ferocity.  Without entering spoiler territory, let’s just say that a lot of soldiers and scientists begin the film alive, and not too many make it to the end, and nearly every one of their deaths will make you gasp and giggle and occasionally cringe in true over the top B-movie fashion.

The visuals match the action with really well made CGI effects giving the monsters and the environments a real wow factor, and provide us with a nearly non-stop spectacle so packed with things to look and wonder at that it seems impossible they can all be caught in a single viewing.  The only two serious issues I found with the visual element of the film is first that Kong himself seemed to be constantly changing size, in one scene flicking a helicopter the size of one of his fingernails then later a person standing in front of his face is the size of his nose, and second I personally found the villainous lizard monsters of the film to be rather uninspired and never really worthy of any fear or hate other than that I knew I was supposed to because that is what the movie told me to do.

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Final recommendation:  Kong: Skull Island is big, loud, and dumb, and never pretends to be anything else.  If just my saying the words King Kong doesn’t get you at least a little excited then this probably isn’t the movie for you.  If, however, as a child you spent a lot of time growling and knocking over you block and LEGO buildings while pretending to eat the little people hiding inside then this is absolutely a film for you.  Kong: Skull Island will not make you think, it will not challenge any of your preconceptions, it will not make you want to be a better person, but it will absolutely make the somewhat destructive child inside you utterly and completely gleeful.  I’d recommend seeing it at a matinee to avoid too large of a price tag for unleashing your inner giant gorilla, but I definitely recommend seeing it.

A Monster Calls (Bayona; 2016)

We’ve all experienced that story in which the prose is exemplary and the plot intense, but you just don’t connect with the main character.  The sporting event where everyone on both sides plays their hearts out and gives a spectacular showing then the final result is based on a bad call by the referee.  Watching A Monster Calls is very much the same sort of experience.  There is so much which is spectacular, but which then ends up being marred due to flawed technique.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old aspiring artist whose mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.  His attachment to his mother due to her state, and the additional stress in his life makes him a target for bullies, one bully in particular (James Melville), add to this an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an absentee father (Toby Kebbel) and Conor has nowhere to escape to except his art and his imagination.  When a tree monster (Lian Neeson) shows up to help Conor in a fuzzy manner, Conor begins to change in ways that scare those around him.

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This set up and opening of A Monster Calls is handled so well it could be used to teach exactly how to handle the show don’t tell rule of screenwriting.  Not once is the word cancer said out loud nor does anyone talk about Conor being an artist, but all these details come across easily and quickly getting us into the story naturally.  Unfortunately, as the story progresses the skill put into the story telling becomes less and less consistent until by the end the characters are literally just blurting out loud how they feel, what they are doing, and what lessons should be learned.  The ultimate lesson is quite a doozy, too, one that takes some bravery to both tell and to allow to sink in so it’s even more unfortunate that by the time we are having it expressed to us it’s done in the crudest possible way.

One element of A Monster Calls that is consistently great, though, is the artistry on display.  The camera work is wonderful with shots through frosted glass windows to obscure what’s happening behind but still giving you an idea, extreme close up shots of pencils and ink so close that shavings are falling onto the paper and ink spreading out to fill its intended area, the titular Monster often quite literally coming out of the woodwork, and so on.  The camera work, the set design, and special effects are all handled wonderfully and with great care giving us a visual experience on par with films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Amelie.  The special effects are also a large part of the show don’t tell element which while inconsistent is done really well when it is done at all well as we see the Monster mirroring the body language and movement of Conor.  While the Monster normally takes on the dominant role when the two are on screen together, a careful viewer will see that the Monster follows Conor’s every move letting us know that what we are seeing is just a projection on his part, and this is the only way the film makes this absolutely clear aside from the audience understanding that this is a realistic film and monsters don’t really exist.

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To further add to the wonderment of the visuals, A Monster Calls has two sections of film that are done using hand drawn animation.  The animation uses a very rough style, but most certainly a stand out one.  The faces of characters can’t be made out, inks run and blend together forming new images and scenes as they do so, the color pallettes are chosen to express a mood, and in the second of the animated pieces, the “real” world of Conor and the Monster begin to blend in with it making for a very beautiful piece and an additional story element that couldn’t be seen coming.

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The acting in A Monster Calls is well done across the board.  Lewis MacDougall who before this had only played a minor role in the film Pan carries the movie excellently.  We absolutely buy into his pain and even the more subtle aspects of the character’s psychology, and this is very much a psychological study, come across well, at least until the closing parts of the film when the writing gives away too much, too quickly, and too crudely, but that is hardly MacDougall’s fault.   Felicity Jones as Mum does a decent job being pathetic and likable, which honestly is really all she is called upon to do.  Sigourney Weaver nails her role as Grandma giving us another nuanced performance (in everything but her accent, I honestly could not tell if she was supposed to be English or American)  in which she has to show that she loves Conor very much, but that is largely due to Mum being her daughter, and also that she will not stand for his acting out.  It’s often a fine line to walk, and she not only walks but dances along it.

A Monster Calls does so much so well, that it’s a near tragedy that it can’t remain consistent.  Two or three brilliant scenes will go by, tugging on your emotions in just the right way, instilling you with awe from the glorious visuals in front of you, and getting across important information to you without your even realizing it’s done so, and then, the Monster will show up and give a rote speech that he is going to do this, and this is why, and this is when crashing you back down to Earth and reminding you that you are just watching a movie, all your belief in this fantasy shattered, and what hope does a monster have if you don’t believe in it?

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Final recommendation:  If you love film primarily for the visual artistry of it, then this is a must see.  The director Bayona and the cinematographer Faura had a beautiful and creative vision that they portrayed wonderfully.  If story is the primary reason you go to the movies, however, it’s a little harder to wholeheartedly recommend.  The story is excellent for the most part, and I feel it deserves to be seen solely for the bravery of its message, but the fact that that message is delivered far too clunkily much of the time and could be a trigger for people who have recently lost a loved one makes me want to say this is not a film for the more casual movie goer.