COLOSSAL




A Nacho Vigalondo film is a strange beast.  He, it was, who brought us Time Crimes (2007), the film in which a character’s story folds over itself, as he travels back through time and tries to save himself and his wife, time and time again.  It very cleverly uses the character’s limited perspective; we never leave his side, so we only discover what is going on, as he does.  It’s kinda like the second half of Back to the Future Part II (1989), without the Chuck Berry music.

Vigalondo also, more recently, brought us Open Windows (2014), which takes the conceit of turning the cinema screen into a computer screen and opening various windows to run several narratives at once.  Both films use a cunning narrative structure and strictly limits point of view, to tell stories about perception and about voyeurism. 

There is a deeply disturbing scene at the heart of Open Windows, where movie-star Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey) is blackmailed into performing a sex act in front of her laptop camera, so an insane fan (Neil Maskell) can feed the video to the internet.  This scene is uncomfortable, not just because it is upsetting to watch, but also because of the questions it raises about the viewer’s culpability in the creation of the images they watch.  

Gloria takes delivery of a colossal telly ... All the better for watching the world burn.  In HD.

This isn’t the first film to ask such questions:  The idea of people being tortured live on-camera for the amusement of viewers over the internet has been explored in films like the Gregory Hoblit / Diane Lane film, Untraceable (2008), Bernard Rose’s gothic horror Snuff Movie (2005), and in several police procedural TV shows - notably Criminal Minds and several of the CSIs.  It’s such a common motif, that it even has its own entry on the invaluable TV Tropes site, here.

It’s also worth mentioning that the much-reviled Brian DePalma, from the earliest days of his career (with Hi, Mom! in 1970, Sisters in ’72 and Phantom of the Paradise in ’74), was asking difficult questions about the relationship between audience, voyeurism and the unwary victim.

I mention all this, because Vigalondo has, with Colossal, taken the involvement of the voyeur with the viewed to a whole new level.  He’s reworked the idea for the generation accustomed to the idea of fighting a war by remote control from the other side of the planet.

But these high-flying ideas dawn slowly; the film begins simply enough by charting the travails of depressed, alcoholic, burned-out journalist, Gloria, played somewhat improbably by Anne Hathaway.
What’s this?  Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway in a monster movie?  What nonsense.  Well, Oscar-winner Brie Larson was in Skull Island.  Oh, yeah.  Okay, then.

Like all writers, Gloria does her best displacement in a pub, with a beer.
 Now, I say that Hathaway is improbable in the role, not because her performance is bad, it isn’t.  It’s a fine study in failure and rudderless depression.  She makes Gloria complicated and contradictory and very human.  And it’s refreshing to see the hoary old trope of the burned-out gin-soaked writer being played by a woman.  What I struggled with was her being this depressed and this soaked in booze ... So young.  Hathaway is in her thirties now, but looks younger.  One would expect a writer to be driven into the bottle by their despair and cynicism to the point where they can no longer function, when they’re in their 40s or, maybe, 50s.

But, let’s gloss over that and move on.  Gloria’s boyfriend, Tim (played by Mr is-there-a-film-he-isn’t-in-this-year Dan Stevens), has put up with her chaotic lifestyle for a long time, but finally has had enough and throws her out.  So she goes back to her home town, which is shot in autumnal browns and greys and looks as downbeat and depressed as the characters within it feel.  Not an accidental use of mise en scene, I suspect. 

Gloria immediately bumps into Oscar, her old friend from the old school old days, who just happens to own an old bar.  She follows him to the bar, and only has eyes for his tequila bottles.  This isn’t the most therapeutic location for her.

Jason Sudeikis is wonderfully down to earth as Oscar, in this, the first ‘straight’’ role I’ve seen him give.  He and his bar-buddies are all gentle, easy-going souls, who are a bit damaged, a bit lonely, but holding themselves and each other together.  It could so-easily have turned into one of those life-affirming romantic comedies from the early 90s.  Doc Hollywood anyone?

 
Sudeikis gives an understated performance as Oscar.  Like everything else in the film, his damage is deep down and is betrayed by behaviour rather than by visible wounds.

But, where’s the colossal monster, I hear you cry.

Well, it’s in Seoul.  It strides through the city, causing widespread devastation and leaving colossal footprints, very much like the little ones Gloria leaves when she walks through the town’s abandoned playground.  Everyone sits around in shock, watching the horror unfold on 24-hour rolling news.  

The world unites in support of the stricken Korean city, and braces for an assault from this giant bipedal monstrosity, since no-one knows where it will strike next.  Then it goes back to Seoul.  The film makes the point that, as soon as the rest of the world realises this terror is only happening to Seoul, the cease-fires collapse, the warm-fuzzy sense of international collaboration evaporates and everyone goes back to hating each other; because no one feels motivated by a disaster that is happening somewhere else.

Gloria notices that the strange beast scratches its head, just as she does.  Slowly, realisation dawns that whatever she does in that abandoned playground, the monster does too, on the far side of the planet, as though somehow being remote controlled by her.  When Oscar steps into the playground, a giant robot joins the giant kaiju and smashes its way through the sky-scrapers.  So, both Gloria and Oscar have this strange, magical super-power.

Where Gloria is wracked with the guilt at the death and destruction she has somehow inadvertently caused on the other side of the planet, Oscar is remarkably calm and level-headed about it.  At first.
Their relationship suddenly changes, becoming much darker, as Oscar's true nature is quickly revealed.  After which, the conflict between them, which has repercussions on both sides of the planet, is edge-of-the-seat stuff, involving great acting from the two leads, audacious film-making from Vigalondo and, in one scene in particular, exceptional use of sound - when we can hear death, destruction and screaming, but we can’t see it.

 
Tiny cruelties on one side of the planet can have major repercussions on the other, when the mysterious monster is joined by an equally unlikely robot.  And there's not a butterfly wing in sight.

Gloria goes from a woman whose defining characteristic is the lengths she will go to to avoid responsibility, to feeling like she is responsible for the woes of the world.

This is a film which buries its themes deep.  It is concerned with the power of social media, a tool which can have world-altering influence and consequence, but which is fuelled by raw emotion rather than considered and reasoned argument (cough-Trump-cough), and which allows one to divorce oneself from the culpability of one’s actions through distance and anonymity.  The film considers (through metaphor) the lengths people will go to, to become internet celebrities (as Open Windows did, before it).  Colossal looks at the way that fighting real wars, with real casualties, has become a video-game simulation fought by kids in front of video screens.  You pull a trigger in America; a building full of real people explodes in the Middle East.  This is an issue which is also dealt with, head-on, by the excellent Eye in the Sky (2015), which I encourage you to seek out.

Colossal is not a film big on logic.  For one thing, it’s hard to believe that Seoul wouldn’t have been evacuated after the first attack, leaving no innocent civilians to stomp under foot on subsequent visits.  But, hey, if you can accept colossal beasties and giant robots, a little extra suspension of disbelief shouldn’t be a problem.  What the film lacks in logic, it more than makes up for with heart and, if you’ll forgive the pun, soul. 

The trailers made this film look like a whimsical comedy, and the film certainly has its light, comical moments, but it also has depths unhinted-at in the marketing.  And, just one word of warning: if Colossal confuses you at all, don’t scratch your head.  Lives are at stake.

I don't know what it means, Tim, it's a real head-scratcher.
Writer, Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Dur: 110 mins
Cert: 15

ALIEN: COVENANT

I don’t generally do prequels.  I’m also not the greatest fan of sequels.  And this is a sequel to a prequel, so ... Double jeopardy.

Of course, part of the reason I don’t do prequels is Prometheus (2012), the film which promised so much (not least Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction after 30 years) and delivered so little (by way of a coherent narrative with a satisfying conclusion).
 
My review of it is here.

I’m happy to confirm that this film does answer some of the questions which were left hanging over the cliff at the end of Prometheus.  For example, we find out what happened to David and Elizabeth Shaw.
Scott directing Katherine Waterston as Daniels.  "Yes, luv, you do look a bit like Ripley.  But, don't worry, you don't have to strip down to your kecks."
This is very much Ridley’s passion project.  It’s almost like, as he approached the end of his career (he is 79, after all, although he has the energy of a man half that) he is finally finishing what he started with his breakthrough film.  A recent interview for Radio 4’s Film Programme (which you should still be able to listen to, here) betrayed that it is still a sore point for him, that the Alien sequel went ahead without him; so he seems to be reclaiming his creation with these prequels, as though he wishes to wipe out the memory of Cameron’s Aliens.

This film chooses to start with a prequel to the prequel, in a scene which echoes his other legacy piece, Blade Runner; we begin with an eye opening.  (Blade Runner will have been much on Scott’s mind over the last couple of years, as he green-lit, produced and, ultimately, decided not to direct its decades-in-gestation sequel).  In this case, the eye belongs to Michael Fassbender’s eccentric synthetic, David.  He discusses parenthood with his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in a brief cameo, revisiting his performance from 2012), and asks “Who made you?”  Synthetic people ruminating on the philosophical questions of life was, of course, a driving force in Blade Runner, so we’re on comfortable Scott territory here.  The journey to find The Engineers in Prometheus began with this question and, for me, exploring the results and ramifications of asking it, is this film’s most interesting theme.

Fassbender returns as the hubristic, narcissistic David.  And also as the na├»ve Walter.  Both magnificent adverts for Weyland's A.I. business.
But, before we get to that, we need to herd some new cannon-fodder into the line of fire, so, please welcome on stage the crew of the colony ship Covenant.  As is usually the case in an Alien film, these people are all fast asleep, tucked-up in their cryo-pods, until something goes wrong with their ship and they all wake up.  Whether the solar flare that wakes them is an act of God, or possibly of a lazy script-writer, once they’re awake, they intercept a mysterious signal from a mysterious Earth-like planet so, being explorers, they decide to go and investigate.

As plot contrivances go, it’s not quite up there with Kirk being stranded on a random planet and running into a random cave and just happening to encounter Spock (a la 2009’s Star Trek) but it’s still terribly convenient that they just happen to be in the right place at the right time to discover the derelict Engineer spaceship from Prometheus (Ridley does like his derelicts) and, thusly, stumble upon the only other Weyland synthetic in all of space.
 
Another derelict spaceship.  Another planet.  Quite why this one crashed is one of the many plot points which isn't explained.
Yes, David has been patiently waiting for someone to arrive for ten years.  He’s been keeping himself busy, mind, studying the flora and fauna of his adopted home-world, and covering the walls of his dark cave-like quarters with drawings and dissections of all kinds of creatures (one does wonder where he gets the endless supply of paper and pencils ... But, he is in the middle of a forest, so I suppose he could make his own, if necessary).  This is partly why he is fascinated by the Covenant’s resident synthetic - Walter.  Their scenes together are a delightful interplay of classical allusions (David is well-read and pretentious with it) and subtext.  David clearly looks upon Walter as being another fascinating case-study; just another exotic form of life to study.  The bonding between them takes the form of David teaching Walter to play his flute, which they both take turns blowing and fingering ... And, yes, it has quite deliberate sexual overtones.

Books have been written about the phallic imagery of Scott's 1979 Alien, with particular reference to the image of the creature's tail rising up between Lambert's legs.  The sequence originally came from the attack on Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), but, during the editing, Scott moved it to Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), to emphasise the sexual violence.
He has, seemingly, since decided that this was too subtle so, in Covenant, we get two people shagging each other silly in the ship shower, oblivious to the fact that someone else wants to make it a threesome.
Sex and death is a theme throughout (as, let us be honest, it was in the original 1979 Alien), from the xeno-erotic poster that caused quite a stir when the shot its load over the internet a few months ago, to the ultimate wish-fulfilment scene of the alien fucking up a couple while coupling in the shower.  That sequence, particularly, felt like an Alien copycat, giving in to the baser instincts that Scott’s original was always tasteful enough to suggest but not show.  Other sequences are subtler, particular in relation to David and his asexual birth, fascination with the reproduction cycle of the xenomorph, and cocky self-confidence because he knows he doesn’t have to die (he doesn’t have a six-year life span, you see).

The religious imagery also runs through the film like a pulse; not, surprisingly, in the presence of Billy Crudup’s character, Chris Oram, who mentions that he is a person of faith, then proceeds to do nothing with that.  If anything, David is the one with faith, because he had met his maker and his maker’s maker and has demonstrated (to his own satisfaction) his superiority to all of them.  He has faith in himself.  Hence why he starts to think of himself as a god.  Or possibly Lucifer.  His assessment of his creator:  “He was human.  Entirely unworthy of his creation.”  No narcissistic, psychopathology there, at all, then.
There's something genuinely disturbing about the soft, fleshy Engineer-Xenomorph, which doesn't suffer from the over-familiarity of the original Geiger model.
What of the visuals?  Well, you know you’re in safe hands with Ridley.  From the spaceship which has echoes of the Nostromo (the first Alien film is set about 17 years after this film), to the gorgeous landscapes on the Engineer Planet, to the now all-too-familiar innards of the Engineer spaceship, and the cyclopean expanse of the Engineer city ... (Which HP Lovecraft fans, will no doubt, become quite agitated about) that is decorated with thousands of twisted, fossilised Engineer corpses, as though the entire species died out in one place at one time.
They travel to the other side of the universe to find the ancient city of R'lyeh.  "Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"
I can’t believe I’m thinking this, but part of me is feeling it would be a good idea for Ridley to bring modern CGI animation to bear on his original Alien, and release a version that has the visual splendour that the new films are capable of, with none of the limitations of budget and technology from the 70s.  A bit like the wash-and-brush-up they gave to the original Star Trek TV series.  Then the original film can be watched and appreciated in the same way as the films that lead up to it.
The problem with the film, and you knew there’d be one, is that it is far too reliant on that standby of trashy horror movies: Intelligent characters doing stupid things for no good reason.  These films can’t function unless the victims stupidly put their own necks in the noose and, as such, they kinda deserve what they get. 

I mean, presumably these pioneers have been trained in how to work as a team, how to improvise (since they’re years away from help) and how to keep calm in an emergency.  And yet, the very moment things start to get hairy, the entire team flies apart so fast, the audience gets hit by the shrapnel.  They make bad decision after bad decision; they split up; the captain goes off by himself into the dark; they think about quarantine regulations when it’s too late; one of them opens fire with a machine gun inside a delicate, complicated and highly combustible space ship (why, in God’s name, do they even have machine guns?) and, of course, women can’t run without falling over.
Yeah, I'll take a look in that leathery, moving egg.  What's the worst that can happen?
 So, in short, don’t get too attached to anyone, don’t bother learning their names or developing an affection for them; cos they mostly ain’t gonna be around long.  Don’t bother wondering about how the Alien grows so big so fast (cos, to be fair, that happened in the original Alien too).  And don’t bother trying to follow the action of the big fight at the end, cos the camera’s too wobbly and the editing’s too fast.  In which case, I just switch my brain into neutral and wait for normal narrative to resume.

On the plus side, this film features James Franco’s most likeable performance.

Hi, James.  Bye, James.
Dir: Alien Covenant.
Writers:  John Logan, Dante Harper.
Cert: 15.
Dur: 123 mins.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Vol 2





                The original Guardians movie came out of nowhere.  As much as a $200 million movie ever could.  I have been a Marvelite my whole life and I didn’t know these Guardians at all.  Back in my day, they were led by a blue-skinned bloke with a fin on his head (yes, Yondu was very different in those days); so these characters were a complete blank sheet to me.  The film’s biggest stars are only doing voice work and James Who? was hired as writer/director.  The expectation was pretty-much zero, at least until the first trailer screened.
Y’know, this one ...



                The film proved to be an unexpected unalloyed joy, unlike anything that Marvel had yet produced, and rightly made both Chris Pratt and director James Gunn into stars.  But, here’s the thing, it’s not that difficult to exceed zero expectation.  The level of expectation for the sequel, on the other hand, is ... Well, out of this world.  (Sorry.  I won’t do any more of those.  Promise.)

                It simply isn’t possible for the sequel of a film that successful, to feel as satisfying, because we will be comparing it in a way that we weren’t with the first one.  That doesn’t matter, of course, because this film is now so anticipated that it will be review-proof.  Even if it stank, it would still make a billion dollars.  (It doesn’t stink.  Don’t worry.)  However, reaching to exceed this audience expectation is what, I believe, drives most sequelisers into making a second film which is the same as the first, only more-so.

                I understand that there is a certain pleasure to be had in seeing several familiar routines being run through in new, amusing ways (as, for example, with the two-dozen times James Bond has been issued with new toys that will save his life).  But that only gets you through the two hours you’re watching the film.  The law of diminishing returns applies to well-tried tropes; they don’t live with you afterwards and don’t inspire you to revisit the film because, in a very real sense, you’ve already seen it more than once.

                For me, a sequel is at its most alluring when it breaks its own mold and heads off in a different direction (provided it’s a good direction, obviously).  This, I believe, is also the only way a sequel can exceed your expectations, by completely ignoring them and going off in a different direction all its own.  This way, the film stands a chance of being as surprising as the first one was.  Aliens (1986) is the obvious example.  I’d also offer Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - both of which, incidentally, this film echoes.  All three of those sequels were significantly different from the films which preceded them, and were all the better for it.

"That's no Moon!"  "Wrong film, Harrison.  They hired Kurt, not you.  Get over it."

                James Gunn is a very clever film-maker.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and he knows what works.  Therefore, Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 isn't a radical departure from the first film, but it isn’t a slavish copy, either.  It is, instead, more of a continuation.  It has the same characters (sort of), the same tone, the same childish sense of humour, along with an even-more vivid colour palette, and an even bigger universe to play in.

                The opening scene features the gang working as mercenaries for hire, fighting a huge Cthulhu-type tentacle monster, but seen from the point of view of the new(ish) character, Baby Groot, who is dancing to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ and is totally oblivious to the pitched battle going on around him.  This sequence features several call-backs to the first film.  Which is great, ’cos it gets the fan-service out of the way early.

Production art of the opening scene beastie.  If it remind you of anything you might have seen in Gunn's horror debut 'Slither' (2006), I'd suggest that isn't accidental.

                 This beastie vomits in Technicolor, and that’s an indication that this film is going to be even more colourful than the first one was.  We get even more rainbow-coloured aliens; namely the gold-skinned Sovereign, a race of walking Oscar statues, who light one of this film’s various plot fuses.

                Possibly by way of inviting comparison with Empire Strikes Back, Gunn has our heroes propelled into an asteroid field as soon as they leave the planet, but there’s no point in anyone quoting them the odds as these asteroids teleport in and out of the way, just to make things even more interesting.  Besides, Quill and Rocket wouldn’t be listening, they’d be too busy bickering over who is the best pilot.

                Drax, meanwhile, is experimenting with having a sense of humour.  Oddly, I was finding myself resisting the film, until this scene featured Drax laughing hysterically, while a wide-eyed Groot sits and eats popcorn, during the mother of all space-battles.  That was it, I was on board.  It took about 15 minutes.

Come on, then, Mr. The Destroyer.  Show us your war face!

                It is to the film’s credit that Gunn takes the trust he has earned, and uses it to spend screen-time greatly developing the characters of Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who was particularly poorly served by the first film (which must have been expecially vexing, since she committed totally to her big-screen big-break and shaved off her trademark red hair for the role).

                We also meet Quill’s dad, who was referenced a few times in the first film and who, the pre-release publicity has been telling us for a year or more, is called Ego (played by the shy and retiring Kurt Russell).  With a name like Ego, you might be forgiven for expecting the character to be a little self-obsessed, but he’s a charmer and a delight.  Initially.

                It’s just a delight to see Russell having fun on the big screen again, and actually quite poignant to see the digitally-de-aged version they give us for the flashback to 1980 (the year the real Russell was wearing an eye-patch and shooting Escape From New York).

"You thought your prison escape was impressive.  That was nothing, kid!  Listen ..."

               When comic-book legend Jack Kirby created Ego, as a character in The Mighty Thor comic, he was visualised using a cutting-edge photo-montage technique.  Gluing photos together, photocopying them and laying drawn artwork over that genuinely was cutting edge comic-book art in 1966. It also gives something of a 3D effect which, of course, will be an important ingredient in this film version - for those willing to pay extra to see the digital fireworks.


I remember really not liking these photomontages at the time.  But, nowadays, I think about the tight deadlines Kirby worked to, the insane amount of work he produced, and then I think about the time he spent creating these montages, when it would have been so much quicker and simpler to just draw the picture.  And now they impress the hell outta me.

                In the film, Ego’s planet is a visual feast, one more visually beholden to a Rodney Matthews or Bruce Pennington than directly to Jack Kirby.  But the overall feel of the film, from the colours in space, to the psychedelic shapes and patterns we see throughout, are very much a response to Kirby’s visual experiments from the sixties.

                The masterstroke in Gunn's script, is to split the team up.  So Quill, Gamora and Drax go with Ego; while Rocket, Nebula and ickle Baby Groot stay behind, and get mixed up with Yondu’s gang.  From here on in, the two stories run in parallel and, I must say, it reflects on Gunn’s confidence as a story-teller that neither of these plot-lines is in a hurry.  Yes, Chris Pratt is the star, but everyone else gets a fair showing here, too.  The film is a genuine ensemble piece.  Gunn shares Joss Whedon's ability to juggle a huge number of characters and yet give them all room to grow.  It's quite a trick.

                Pappa Ego rattles off pages of exposition to Quill, about what it’s like being a Celestial, with the power to create life; while Drax strikes up a friendship with Ego’s assistant/slave/pet, Mantis (played by new recruit, Pom Klementieff), and Gamora is left with precious little to do, save fend off Quill’s persistently childish attempts to woo her.


"I'm auditioning for the remake of Jaws.  What's your next job, Basil Brush The Movie?"
                Meanwhile there is long (and I do mean really looooong) comedy sequence on Yondu's ship, featuring Rocket trying to explain to Groot how to break him out of jail.  This sequence is delightful, deliciously funny, and adds literally nothing to the plot.  But you don’t care because, if you have any heart, you’re just enjoying spending time with your CGI friends.

                If the film has a theme, it’s about families and the way they are complicated.   In the first film, Drax and Gamora begrudgingly admitted that the others were their friends.  Now that relationship steps up and they consider each other family.  But, of course, with Quill adjusting to meeting his long-lost dad, plus sisters Gamora and Nebula still dealing with their own daddy issues, and (at least in an off-camera sense) a substantially increased role for the director’s brother, Sean Gunn, as Yondu’s lieutenant Kraglin ... There’s a lot of family fun to be had.

                The film glitters with other gems, too.  Rocket gets to chew off some wonderful insults, and go full-Rambo on an entire army in a forest.  Yondu has a wonderful moment showing what his little remote control arrow can really do.  Sly Stallone has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.  Stan Lee’s there, of course.  And there are more little in-jokes than you can point a no-prize at (far more, I’m sure, than I spotted in one viewing) plus a riot of  audacious visuals and outrageous imagination throughout.

"Strike a pose for the group shot, guys.  Suck in those ... Damn, Karen, you is tall, girl!"

                The ending is very much as you’d expect, lots of bright colourful stuff flying around.  Lots of noise.  The inevitable count-down clock.  Lots of CGI that will look mind-blowing on an IMAX screen and - surprisingly - a properly emotional coda.  Yes, there are five end-credits scenes (one of which - involving a golden cocoon - got this old Marvelite genuinely excited for the upcoming Infinity War film), plus there are one-or-two other little surprises in the background images while the credits are rolling, so keep 'em peeled.

                And I haven’t even mentioned your new favourite soundtrack album.

                Gunn has confirmed that he will be back to round out the trilogy with Guardians vol 3.  Which is very much as things should be.  It’s Gunn’s Galaxy.  He does things wonderfully there.

Night-night, Baby Groot, see you next time.  Night-night.

Dir: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Cert: 12A
Dur: 136 mins