Sunday, May 7, 2017

Noah Baumbach presents Anne Hathaway in: Frances Ha vs. Mechagodzilla


A half-assed kaiju allegory that, by all the evidence, really wants to be about humans, but somehow only feels all the more clunkily mechanical for the effort.

Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo
With Anne Hathaway (Gloria), Dan Stevens (Tim), Tim Blake Nelson (Garth), Austin Stowell (Joel), and Jason Sudeikis (Oscar)

Spoilers: moderate

Based on a sample of three features, Nacho Vigalondo is kind of weird, if only in a curiously facile way.  Timecrimes (or, if you must, Los cronocrimenes) is perhaps the least weird, in that it's a mercilessly-staitlaced exercise in logically—and occasionally tediously—laying out its own premise; but hewing so strictly to its premise, after all, is what made it weird, since its premise was a time loop, and time loop movies typically have some kind of point beyond the irrationalities imposed by their structure.  Seven years later, we got the Spaniard's first foray into the richer fields of English-language cinema.  This was Open Windows; and that's where it became very, very clear that Vigalondo was not interested in making normal movies, since Open Windows is an unabashedly stupid thriller that exists mainly (that is, in addition to making a salient sociological point) to support the ridiculously-challenging formal experiment at the heart of it, wherein Vigalondo sought to discover whether it was possible to deliver a giddy De Palmian potboiler exclusively through the images appearing on its hero's laptop computer screen.  Quite miraculously, it was: for all its brazen looniness, Open Windows is frankly amazing, one of 2014's most technically successful films, and even quite possibly the best hacking movie anybody ever made.  (That is, admittedly, a low bar, especially if you exclude The Matrix, as you probably should.)  Open Windows, however, might well be an aberration in Vigalondo's career.

That vague expression of displeasure leads us to Vigalondo's newest venture, Colossal.  It dials back tremendously on the formal innovation, and doubles down on the auteur's stupidly imaginative brainstorming, fixing on what amounts to a premise that—on first principles, and by the evidence of the film itself—probably didn't have any honest business stretching itself out to a feature's length.  Meanwhile, if you've noticed that in our little biographical sketch, we omitted Extraterrestrial, then this is simply because I've never actually seen it—and yet I suspect it has a great deal in common with Colossal (probably more than Colossal has in common with Open Windows), inasmuch as both films seem to deploy their genre tropes merely to jumpstart (and, to some degree, sugarcoat) their explorations of the psychological dynamics between jerks.  But like I said: I've never seen Extraterrestrial; perhaps appearances are deceiving, and I'm being unfair to an unsung masterpiece.  I have seen Colossal, though, and "an exploration of the psychological dynamics between jerks" is, indeed, exactly what Colossal is going for—after its fashion, not too terribly far removed from any other old indy art drama, which (as you know) are not exactly my favorite things.

So: Colossal is the story of Gloria, a barely-functional alcoholic in the very, very last years of her life when that sort of shit remotely flies, who was laid off from her non-job Internet job months ago, and has presently been kicked out of her New York home by her rich boyfriend, Tim, for her panoply of relationship sins.  With no other options forthcoming, she's moved back into her empty childhood home in Nowhere, New England—her parents, conveniently enough, have long since flown the coop—and, with great half-heartedness, tries to rebuild a life there.  By luck—or maybe not, it's a pretty small town—our non-recovering alcoholic heroine runs into her old childhood friend, Oscar, who should just so happen to own a bar.

This is where that wantonly nonsensical premise enters the frame, and, to its credit, it's a doozy: after a night-long bout of drinking, Gloria wanders her way back home through a kid's playground; and, at the same moment she lumbers across its boundaries, a great big reptilian monster appears in Seoul, which doesn't do anything outrageously malicious, but its very presence naturally results in a whole heap of casualties.  Gloria, of course, is the monster, its movements mapped to hers like a mo-cap puppet.  And, in due time, she figures this out, and gets something of a handle on the arcane rules of her situation (notably, Gloria's monster can only appear at 8:05 in the morning, EST, and disappears soon thereafter, even if she's still in the playground).  Her worst mistake—and it doesn't make an awful lot of sense, even in the drunken stupor she exists in—is that she tells Oscar about her power, and even proves it to him, which leads him to enter the playground, too, whereupon it turns out that he also is capable of manifesting a big monster (in this case, a giant robot).  Perhaps needless to say, Seoul has seen better days.

About the first half of the film, then, and maybe a little more, is spent dealing with Gloria's issues—and with establishing a monstrous metaphor for those issues on the other side of the world.  It is, almost entirely, the more successful half, and it concludes almost exactly as it would have to, with an apology and a promise that it'll never happen again.  (For those counting, however, this prompts one of Colossal's several annoying plot holes, when our pair of dire baeg-in seek out a Korean translator for a message that doesn't, when you consider it, need to have been written in anything other than English.)

And while you're considering that, consider that a single sector of Seoul has been under attack for weeks or months, but somehow people still live and work there.

But that second half, meanwhile, is a Lifetime movie that happens to have some kaiju looming in the background.  It involves a heel turn that is practically designed to feel unwelcome, resulting in another movie that puts toxic masculinity on trial.  Well, the heart is mostly in the right place in Colossal—and so let's not fail to congratulate Vigalondo on recognizing that Gloria's Frances Ha-type is more of an unsustainable wreck than she is adorable, nor fail to offer praise to both Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis alike for some rather decent acting, too, perhaps especially Sudeikis, who underplays Oscar as he slips on his smalltown bitterness and down the slope of madness.  But the turn from what amounts to a larkish dramedy toward an overwrought lesson about life as a lady comes at the cost of muddying the kaiju metaphor—not something that a film like Colossal, which is essentially just a metaphor, mind you, can very easily survive—and the thing becomes, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of tedious, and even didactic.

It is perhaps the case that a drunken white woman accidentally killing thousands of Asians in a sideways send-up of Asia's most-beloved native film genre was never, all-in-all, the best-judged symbol for self-destructive behavior you could have in the first place; personally, I'm agnostic on the subject.  But, clearly, it's less well-judged than it even needed to be, when the specific city full of Asian people to be killed appears to have either been chosen at random—or was, indeed, chosen deliberately, only the writer-director forgot that Korea (which has never produced a single kaiju film of any note) and Japan (the kaiju genre's very homeland) are not, actually, the same country.  Even so, Colossal still works on its chosen level, right up until the point that the film's batty frivolity collides face-first with its truckload of gender studies sourness; and after that point, precious little remains to command your engagement, even the tiny melodrama at the heart of it.  It's amazing how little the supporting cast matters in Colossal, for example: they are plot objects only, written out or written back in completely at a whim.

It's clear enough that Colossal only ever came into being at all because someone had a single interesting (but, it turns out, not-so-great) idea, and the defining feature of it, as it goes on, is one of increasingly-urgent narrative flailing—reflective, one supposes, of the desperate search for how to escalate and expand that one-act idea into a bona fide, almost-two-hour movie.  It manages, I suppose, but hardly the slightest bit more, for its back hour—and perhaps Colossal's single biggest problem as an entertainment is simply how grindingly repetitive it becomes—until it reaches its endpoint, which manages to redeem it somewhat—for it is, surely, a rather satisfying ending, on its merits.  (Though even here, one is not likely to be unaware that Colossal's premise has foisted upon its imagery a significant measure of awkwardness, and if there's one thing that it absolutely isn't, or is even trying to be, is a film with any solid kaiju action.  Nevertheless, in its defense, it does have some very well-mounted cross-cutting between the struggle in Seoul and the arguments in New England—even if what we're cross-cutting to does often look kind of silly.)

It is not exactly bad, all told; but it feels astonishingly rote for something so strange.  And when there's nothing very endearing or very meaningful or, honestly, even especially interesting about a movie that ought to have been—at the very least!—interesting, Colossal has no real alternative but to come off as a little bit like a waste of time.

Score:  5/10

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