King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie; 2017)

Once upon a time, ancient Londinium was ruled by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana).  Uther ruled with his wife, Igraine (Poppy Delevigne), by his side, his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) giving him much good advice, and all in preparation for the day his son Arthur (Zac Barker) would eventually take the throne.  It came to pass that the evil sorcerer Modred (Rob Knighton) would attack Uther’s kingdom with 100 foot tall elephants, because that is how sorcerers operate, apparently, and would force Uther to flee with his family, and Vortigern to take his beautiful wife whom we shall just call Mrs. Vortigern downstairs where he would stab her most mercilessly.  Shortly after the stabbing, Uther’s family would run into a boss monster from a video game which would slaughter Igraine and have an epic fight with Uther that ends with Uther throwing his sword into the air, turning into stone, and the sword falling and burying itself in what was moments before Uther’s back.  During the battle Arthur climbed into a boat, which as we know, makes you completely and totally safe from boss monsters.

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Arthur’s boat apparently made its way to Rome eventually, as, even though everyone there speaks with an Irish accent, we see a shot of the Colosseum.  Arthur is taken into a brothel where he is raised by the women there into a very strong and pretty bro douchebag.  One day, when the bro douchebag Arthur (now Charlie Hunnam) is telling, via quick editing and snazzy sound effects, of his exploits in which he stole the money from and cut the beard off a viking he met at the docks – but the viking did something wrong so it was all justified – the brothel is raided and the captain of the guard who raids the brothel tells Arthur he can’t protect him this time, even though we have no idea why Arthur would have been protected before, because the viking Arthur attacked knows the king.  Well damn.

Arthur is therefore put on a ship to Camelot where he is to meet his punishment, which is apparently that he has to try to pull a sword from a stone, get branded on his wrist if he fails, then be sent on his way.  Arthur marches up to the sword in the stone, and the second he touches it he has intense pain and harrowing visions, which you think would be enough for him to walk away, get his brand, and call it a day.  But, no, the douchebag who would be king pulls and pulls on the sword and finally extracts it from the rocky sheath which once was his father just as he falls unconscious from the intense pain and visions.

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When he wakes, Arthur is in a prison cell and is soon visited by King Vortigern, plot twist!, and told through quick editing and snazzy sound effects that Vortigern was working with Modred to take the kingdom, but he needed to get the sword out of the stone and kill Arthur to make it official. Oops!  Looks like our douchebag is in a whole heap of trouble!  But, just as his execution is to take place, people we’ve never seen before including a girl mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals rescue our future monarch.  Once the excitement dies down, we learn that this band are Percival (Craig McGinlay), the girl mage who was sent by Merlin, Bill (Aldan Gillen), and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), who, while I have no problem with diversity in casting, is a black man in England with no real explanation much like why everyone in Rome speaks in baroque.  Why did they rescue him?  Because the plot calls for it, silly!  Otherwise Arthur would die and the movie would be nowhere near two hours long!

This kind of crap continues, I won’t spoil anything more, and believe it or not this is barely more than the set up, but this level of intelligence and understanding of the original Arthurian myths continues throughout the entire film’s length bring up such questions as:

Why is Sir George in a movie about King Arthur’s origins and why is he Chinese?

If the lady mage is Morgana why isn’t she Arthur’s sister and if she’s Guinevere why is she a mage, and why don’t we know who the hell she is in the first place?

Why does the king feel the need to stand so near his body double as well as taking along his advisors if he is just setting a trap for the good guys?

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If you could summon a giant rattlesnake to kill everyone in seconds, why the hell didn’t you do it earlier and save everyone a lot of trouble and effort, not to mention lives?

If the sword, which is obviously Excalibur but never called such, gives you superpowers like the Flash, why the heck was the video game boss able to defeat Uther?  And, how the heck did Uther turn into stone, anyway?

Why the hell is Vortigern building the tower to make his powers unbeatable when he doesn’t seem to have any powers which aren’t given to him by outside sources in the first place?

Final verdict:  If Joby Harold (writer) and Guy Ritchie (director/writer) know anything about the legends surrounding King Arthur aside from a handful of characters’ names, they certainly don’t show it in this abomination of a movie.  While I have no problem with taking liberties with source material, and in the case of Arthurian myths actually believe it to be necessary, this handling of it is so poorly done in every conceivable way from the plot, to the dialogue, to the acting, to the special effects, and the camerawork, that it accomplishes nothing but offend those who care at all for the original stories.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a senseless, ugly, unthinking, scattershot attempt at storytelling which will hopefully be seen by no one so that the sequel they seem to want so badly given the number of loose plot strings in the film never gets made.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.

 

 

 

 The Circle (Ponsoldt; 2017)

The Circle is an adaptation of the novel by the same name by Dave Eggers who also worked on the screenplay alongside director James Ponsoldt.  It’s the story of Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman searching for a job which pays enough that she can help her rural working class, now unemployed, parents care for her father’s (Bill Paxton in his final film role) multiple sclerosis.  Her friend Annie (Karen Gillian) gets Mae an interview with The Circle, a tech firm in which Annie is a high ranking member of the inner circle (no pun intended).  Mae nails the interview, gets the job, and quickly rises up in the ranks of the company discovering along her meteoric journey that The Circle’s agenda may be far more nefarious than it seems on the surface.

If that summary seems trite, it is, but you haven’t heard the half of it.  If just being trite was this film’s only problem, I’d say I don’t recommend it and promptly forget about it ten minutes after writing this review.  But, the surface of the film The Circle is at least as rotten as the underbelly of the company The Circle.  The best part of the film is its cinematography and visual effects, these are best because while they are in no sense of the word creative nor innovative, they at least aren’t utterly incompetent.  The visual effects are almost entirely computer user interfaces overlayed on top of the action going on in the movie, and the camera work was little more than point the camera where stuff is going on, but the visuals at least had the skill of an infomercial.

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As for the script, well I hope you like infomercials, because large chunks of this movie, nearly every time Tom Hanks is on screen, are fictional TED Talk style infomercials, and that isn’t even the screenplays worst transgression.  Almost all of Tom Hank’s scenes and almost all of the scenes which further the plot occur as a corporate mass meeting where hundreds of sit in a theater as The Circle’s founder Bailey (Hanks) gives a speech complete with Blu-tooth headseat outlying The Circle’s latest product and how wonderful it is, how it will change the world, and how proud everyone should be to be a part of this great company.  It’s probably meant to be unsettling and imply to the audience that something creepy is going on at The Circle, but that is so obvious just from the premise of the film, that we don’t need these scenes to imply that, let alone over and over again.

The other problem with these scenes and the ultimate problem with the script overall, is that the vision of this film is so flaky, so scattered, so unfocused, that I have no idea what the film makers’ point is.  Is this a satire of our Facebook obsessed society?  Is this a warning about how we are gradually losing all right to privacy in our society?  Is it saying privacy is overrated and we function far better as a culture with true transparency?  I have no idea.  These are all topics touched on, as are holding our leaders up to the same standards we are, the way the internet has transformed how we interact with each other, and a few other “Black Mirror” style topics, but when all is said and done I can’t figure out what lesson or viewpoint, if any, the writers and director wanted me to walk away with.   Every one of the topics I mention above was touted as both a positive and a negative, but the film’s end suggests that Ponsoldt and Eggers intended us to walk away with a message, they just did a horrid job at getting across which message it is.

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There is one aspect of The Circle which is even worse than its writing, and that is its acting.   Tom Hanks performance is essentially just a charming Tom Hanks style infomercial, and as awful as that sounds to watch for close to two hours, it is the best performance on display here.  Emma Watson is once again wooden and robotic,  seemingly incapable of showing any emotion or displaying any passion, convincing me more and more that she just is not a good actress and perhaps she should have retired after hanging up Hermoine.  I hope that is not the case, and she finds something within herself eventually, but nearly everything she’s done since Harry Potter has been barely watchable.  Most of the other cast members line up with Watson where wooden and dull is concerned, but one performance, that by Ellar Coltrane as Mercer is so horrible, it could be the origin of a drinking game, and I honestly can’t see how it made its way into a professionally made movie.  Coltrane somehow manages to scream every line without any emotion to them whatsoever as he stares blankly at something off screen for every second he is on screen.  It’s seriously embarrassing and the only reason it won’t be a front runner for a Razzie at year’s end, is because its a smaller role in a film very few are going to even remember.

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Final verdict:  Emma Watson hasn’t shown the greatest judgement when it comes to choosing her film roles since she finished Harry Potter, so that may explain how she came to be in this travesty of a movie, but Tom Hanks had to have been blackmailed.  That’s the only explanation I can think of.  The Circle is a movie that defies genre, but not because it’s so original, rather because it has no idea what it wants to be or what it wants to say.   Nearly everything about the movie is amateurish and uncomfortable, and the only reason I would ever recommend it is for some sort of MTS3K party in which a lot of drinking is involved.  Then I could see it actually being kind of a blast.

The Lost City of Z (Gray; 2017)

Charlie Hunnam plays Major Percival Fawcett, a member of the British military whose father tarnished the Fawcett family name through his various addictions.  “Percy” is also an experienced surveyor, so when war is near breaking out between Brazil and Bolivia due to a burgeoning rubber industry combined with a lack of a distinct border between the two countries, Fawcett is called upon to head to the jungles between the two countries and determine where the border definitively lies.  When he discovers the remnants of what can only be an ancient civilization during his mission, he develops a life long obsession with finding the lost city which only the “savages” in the area seem to know even ever existed and prove that the native people of the area aren’t really savages, after all.

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The marketing campaign for The Lost City of Z made the film look as if it’s a pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) style adventure complete with hostile natives, death defying escapes, and lost treasure hidden around every corner.  What the movie really is, is a biography which covers the span of decades, following Percy from a time shortly after the birth of his first son, through World War I, and finishing with his final trip to the South American jungles.  While archaeology and the Lost City do cast a shadow across the entire film, and Percy Fawcett’s story revolves around them, this is the story of a man, not a mission nor a place.

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin, Percy’s right hand man), and Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett, Percy’s wife) headline the cast and all give performances that can best be described as proficient, but never exciting.  All the actors give us a fully developed, realistic character whom we can fully believe, but for some reason they never allow us to become fully invested in them, the simulation of a life is there, but the spark is missing.  The one exception to this is Angus Macfayden as James Murray, a man who insists on accompanying Fawcett on one of his trips which Murray funds.  Murray ends up being a truly pathetic sham of a human being who jeopardizes the entire mission with his arrogance and incompetence, but he is also the one character that truly seems human, like a life we can be honestly witnessing.

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Competent, but with no spark, is a good way to describe the entire film, actually.  The camerawork gives us some beautiful shots, but what it gives us is more like looking at a landscape which you’d buy at an art fair rather than a Van Gogh or a Renoir.  Sure, the cinematographer (Darius Khondji) knew what they were doing well beyond just where to point the camera, but there was no personal touch to it.  Everything was pretty and easy to follow, but again – no spark.

The story itself is well written, the screenplay is probably the best part of the film, but could have been edited better.  The Lost City of Z is a long movie, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while I wouldn’t call that overly long if the time is well used, there are large chunks of the movie which could have been trimmed.  The pacing of the entire film is a slow, even one, which doesn’t have to be an issue, but it seems that director James Gray was overly enamored with too much of his material, choosing to linger on conversations which served a very minor purpose or leaving in scenes which added little to nothing to the story.

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Final verdict:  As a history lesson, The Lost City of Z is actually pretty great, but know going into it that that is what you are getting, a biographical history lesson.   Any adventure and excitement to found in the film is spaced very far apart and doesn’t last very long.  What we have is a very clinical look at an interesting life.  If you take a lot of interest in biographies and history then there is a lot to catch your interest in The Lost City of Z, for anyone else, though, I’m afraid this film may be too slow paced and aloof. There is a lot to learn here, but not a lot to enjoy.

 

Free Fire (Wheatley; 2016)

The first thing you notice about Free Fire, the British film from studio A24 which is now getting a wide release after making its away around the world via the film festival circuit, is that it has one hell of a great cast.  Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson are all three darlings of the independent film crowd and Brie Larson is right on the cusp of becoming an A-Lister with both action and serious drama credentials, plus Sharito Copley had his day when he showed he had some serious talent in District 9.  The second thing you notice is that after a short opening, the film is essentially one long gunfight, and the third thing is that there is only one setting in Free Fire‘s entire running length.

The premise of Free Fire is a simple one.  Justine (Brie Larson) has set up a meeting between some IRA members led by Chris (Cilliam Murphy) and a group of gun runners led by Vernon (Sharito Copley).  Despite a few hiccups, the meeting is going fine until one of the grunts on the gun runners’ team recognizes one of the grunts on the IRA’s team as someone he had a serious run in at a bar the night before.  Things degenerate quickly and we spend the rest of the movie watching them make quips and shoot at each other. That’s really about the entirety of the movie.

The great actors do are definitely on their game here, all giving charismatic, energetic performances to the level we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Unfortunately, that is all the good that can really be said about the film.  While the performances are excellent, the characters themselves have next to nothing to differentiate them, the dialogue they are given to work with is repetitive and generic and the situation they are placed in is ultimately fairly mundane.   This was actually a hard film to review since all there really is to say is that great actors give great performances, but there is absolutely nothing else of any worth on display here.

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That is, until I realized this is a perfect opportunity to talk  about how to recognize the director’s influence in a film by demonstrating an absolute failure on Ben Wheatley’s part in Free Fire (he is also co-writer on the film with Amy Jump, which may also explain a few of the failures).  The director is essentially the foreman or the manager on a film crew, overseeing every aspect of a film’s production even if he doesn’t directly handle any of those functions (though, he often can).  Therefore, the ultimate vision of what a film becomes lies squarely in the director’s hands, the tone, the themes, the style all come directly from the director’s vision of what he wants the film to be, and it is his responsibility to make sure everyone in the cast and crew understands and follows that vision.

Free Fire‘s first problem is that it has no idea what tone it wants to follow.  The lack of stunts, the single setting, and circumstances surrounding the action of the film suggest a gritty crime drama.  The quippy dialogue, the fact that people are shot over and over but never receive more than flesh wounds, and choices of music and a few exaggerated stereotypes suggest a comic tone.  If I had to guess, Wheatley was trying for a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie style film with witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and gritty action mixing to make a mixed tense and hilarious experience, but he never marries the styles together and ends up with a mess.  Even the actors themselves never quite get in sync with all their admittedly excellent performances seeming to come from different movies, Larson acts for an over the top action thriller, Copley is in a wry comedy, and Murphy gives a performance that belongs in a historical drama.

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The different acting styles are practically the only thing differentiating the character’s, though, that and their accents, so maybe it’s a good thing the different styles were so discordant.  Larson stands out as the only female character, but everyone else is dressed in a garish 70’s style outfit, most of them suits, most of them blue or grey, all the men have very similar facial hair, again garish 70’s style, and even the people he chose to cast look as if they could be related.  The only real stand out among the men is Armie Hammer due to his height, deeper voice, and slightly different hairstyle, all the others blend together to the point where you really have to concentrate to differentiate who is who, especially once the action starts.  This very well could be because of Wheatley’s vision, but if it was it was a poor idea, and if it wasn’t it was something he should have caught and put a stop to.

Those action sequences do seriously add to the problem of differentiating the characters as most of the film is done with hand held cameras (not shaky cam, though, fortunately) so the shots are close up too much of the time.  This means that we’ll see a character screaming and firing a gun with no idea where he’s aiming, or we’ll see an area around someone being riddled with bullets, but with no idea even which direction they are coming from let alone who is doing the shooting.  It’s rare that we are given any sense of perspective in Free Fire, and this makes for a situation where the tension is taken out of much of the movie as we have no idea what exactly is going on, so we can’t get excited about the events.

Finally, the script is the final nail in Free Fire‘s coffin.  Wheatly gave us witty dialogue, sort of, sometimes, but since any line could come out of any character’s mouth interchangeably the wit is lost since it has no real context, it’s just random funny things random characters say.  I’ve already mentioned the tone, but those tonal issues stem directly from a script which had an idea, but nothing else, and even that idea is fairly rote and mundane, so the complete lack of a solid tone just adds confusion to the drabness.

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Final Verdict:  I can only guess Free Fire came about because some high talent actors had a weekend free and someone wanted to take advantage of that, because aside from the performances everything this movie has to show seems like it could have been put together over a long weekend.  Cardboard thin characters, a mundane plot, no tone to latch onto, and hard to follow cinematography, art direction, and editing make for a film impossible to recommend.  There are critics out there who like it, so apparently there are those out there who see something in Free Fire I’m missing, and it probably is worth a rental or a view on streaming service some day because there are a few real gut level chuckles to be had here, but overall the only thing Free Fire has going for it is charisma, and that isn’t enough in my humble opinion.

 

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.

 

 

 

Raw (Ducournau; 2016)

The major Hollywood films this week are Smurfs: Lost Village and Going in Style, the movie about three octogenarians robbing a bank which really just looks to be an excuse for Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin to get a paycheck.  I’m guessing these films already have a built in audience, while I admit to having no desire to see either of them, I would have if I thought either could aspire to be anything more than they appear and they should be written about.  Given their April releases and lack of critic preview screenings, however, I’m guessing that my instincts were absolutely on target.  Therefore, I decided I’d challenge myself a bit by seeing a French horror movie which has been getting some critical buzz, and challenge myself I did.  That challenge is the focus of this review.

The average moviegoer definitely has a niche they love and will seek out, whether that be action movies, comic book flicks, romantic comedies, animated films, and so on.  In their chosen genre, they will love nearly anything thrown their way, but if a film falls outside of their favored genre then our hypothetical average Joe will complain and complain about all the reboots, sequels, overused plots and actors, and the general lack of creativity in Hollywood overall.   Here are the top 10 U.S. box office grossing films of 2016:

  1. Finding Dory ($486.2 million)
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($425 million)
  3. Captain America: Civil War ($408 million)
  4. The Secret Life of Pets ($368.4 million)
  5. The Jungle Book ( $364 million)
  6. Deadpool ($363 million)
  7. Zootopia ($341.2 million)
  8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330.3 million)
  9. Suicide Squad ($325.1 million)
  10. Doctor Strange ($230.1 million)

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Here we have five superhero movies, four family friendly “animated” movies (animated in quotes because I’m counting The Jungle Book as one of the four), six sequels (and only two of those sequels being only the second in a series), and all but one is based on a property that existed before the movie was made.  This is not a commentary on the creativity, intelligence, nor quality of these films as a whole, I loved quite a few of these and while I felt quite a few weren’t all that great, none made a worst of the year list of any kind for me.  I also understand that families are the biggest market for films purely because it’s something they can do together and there is by definition more than two of them.  But, one thing these films have in common is that they present no challenge to the viewer whatsoever (I’ll grant you the exception of Zootopia on that, but I think that was more of a pleasant surprise than something which was expected of it and sought out by audiences).  In fact, if you look down the list of top grossing films you have to go all the down to number 31, and Arrival, before you find a film that truly presents any kind of challenge to its viewer.  This is exactly why Hollywood keeps giving you the same familiar movies over and over again.  Because those are the movies you watch.

With that information as a guide, Raw should be a film that no one sees.  I’m going to use the word challenging yet again to describe this movie, and I’m sure I will again, because at it’s core that is what this movie is and does.  It’s themes are complex, realistic, and difficult to completely unravel, it gives us relationships that are not typical, that don’t fit normal movie tropes, but seem all the more real for it, and it is hard to simply watch at times very literally with images that are bloody, uncomfortable, and grotesque.  The original title of this film was Grave, and I am glad it was changed because that single word Raw is a perfect description of what this movie is both on a literal and a metaphorical level.

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Raw is about Justine (Garrance Marillier) the younger of two siblings who has been raised in a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The film starts with her being dropped of by her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) at the medical school her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends.  After quickly meeting her new roommate (“I asked for a girl.” “You got a gay.  To these people that’s the same thing.”) Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) the hazing begins immediately as the older students begin terrorizing the “rookies” in a sort of friendly, sort of legitimately scary way, and after one of the hazing rituals in which lifelong vegetarian Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney, Justine finds herself changing and developing appetites she never knew she had.

Raw is billed as a horror movie, and while I won’t argue with that descriptor as this is a tense, gory, at times sadistic move, I would describe it as a coming of age movie which just happens to use horror as a vehicle to describe the transition into adulthood metaphorically rather than the more literal story telling typically used in a coming of age film.  On its surface, Raw is about a cannibal at a veterinarian college and the themes seem to be statements about meat being murder and how we can become addicted to the slaughter involved in the meat industry to the point where it becomes more impulse than conscious thought, and those are absolutely relevant themes in the film.  But, looking even deeper this is really a story about family, particularly siblings, and how we bring out both the best and the worst in each other and how much our family determines who we are even in ways we could never suspect.

While nothing in Raw is the pinnacle of artistry, everything here is well done.  The incredibly intelligent script is the best thing on display here, even if the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, the visuals are rarely art, but damn are they effective and change up styles effortlessly where needed adding to the tension and creepiness of the movie, and the acting is all well done, though in this case well done is better than most horror films and none of the performances reach any inspired level.

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My final take:   If you want a movie that challenges you in nearly every way a movie can, then Raw is absolutely a film that needs to be seen.  Every scene in this film has layer upon layer of subtext with relevant, uncomfortable themes bursting forth in every image and every added plot point.  But, be wary that this film is utterly grotesque and unflinching.  I guarantee you that at least some things in this movie will make you uncomfortable, and for the more squeamish out there you may have trouble looking at the screen at all for large chunks of the movie.  A further warning is that since this takes place at a veterinary school there are injured and dead animals in the movie, and I know that will bother many.  I don’t expect many to go see this film, I expect them to skip over this one while griping that movies never do anything original anymore.  Well, here you go.  Raw is well made, really smart, and completely original.  Now’s your chance.  It’s time for the American general audiences to put up or shut up, even though I know they won’t do either, and I actually understand the reasons why they won’t.