Monday, April 24, 2017


A prologue. Seoul. A young girl has lost her doll and is looking for it on a lawn at night. Her mother calls her to come back home but she persists and finds it. As she does the sky explodes with electricity and a giant monster appears stamping through the city. Mother and daughter scream.

Cut to twenty-five years later and across the world to Manhattan. Gloria gets evicted from her apartment and relationship as her boyfriend can't take her spiralling drunkenness. She goes back to her small town and moves into the vacant house where she grew up. She hooks back up with a childhood friend who gives her a job in his bar. The next day she wakes from a drunken revel to the news that Seoul has been terrorised by a giant monster. A Youtube clip confirms it as the one we saw at the beginning. The town, like the rest of the world, is marvelling at the sight as the monster returns and wreaks damage on the Korean capital. But Gloria has noticed something.

Not only does the monster have the same head scratch she does when she's nervous but the gestures, reported as mysterious by the media, seem oddly familiar. Details of the early morning end of the previous night's abandon, a sluggish ramble through a children's playground, and a map of Seoul lead her to test a theory. It proves to be true. She is the monster, the one bashing the city.

This fable of growing up and accepting responsibility is steadily enjoyable but suffers from a lack of tension in the second act. The central group of characters gathered around Gloria have tension points that get exposed on tap rather than from work that might both add depth along the way so they would feel inevitable when revealed. And then when they are revealed the film can feel quilted as some scenes only serve mechanics while others play quite naturally and the pleasure of the story's conceit is sweetened. The unevenness causes drag and makes us feel that even at its reasonable hundred and ten minutes it can feel too long.

This is not the fault of the casting. Jason Sudekis brings nuance and depth to his small town boy grown up that allows his character magnetism but also space for disaster. The wonderful Tim Blake Nelson is achingly underwritten but his every scene is a delight. Mostly, at the centre, it's Anne Hathaway who summons every trick and trope of her art to go with and against her doe-eyed vulnerability, forcing intelligence and anger into a role that might have stopped at the vulnerability. She's a joy to watch.

The problem is in the writing and direction. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo who gives us both a kind of mid point between Michel Gondry's hard-edged whimsy and his compadre Guillermo Del Toro's expertise with dark fable. The problem is that the mix of whimsy and horror never quite blends where a stricter focus on Gloria's overcoming her resistance against her own responsibility might have made a leaner but harder (and better) film.

It was Vigalondo's name that sent me to the cinema. His lean and mean Timecrimes wowed me and the later Open Windows added some solidly disturbing implications to the real time thriller format. But, perhaps intentionally, there was no time for characterisation in the tight loop of the first and little need for it in the rush of the second. It might sound strange to say but Colossal could have done with a little less warmth, a little less writerly depth, and more of a reckless cavalry charge to the conclusion.

The scene in which we are given the kind of reason we were denied in Timecrimes for the bizarre events of the story and the smart and affecting conclusion by their ingenuity and emotional power do make up for a lot of the loose dragging of the journey. And the eloquence of the facial expression of the final shot shows us how much Viglondo relished working with his cast. I'll still be in the queue for the next Nacho Viglondo film. Perhaps a little more cautious but still there.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Maureen Cartwright, a young American in Paris, walks cautiously through a darkened house, seeking a sign from her dead brother. His widow and the couple who want to buy the place are waiting on her report. The scene is thick with dread. At one point we see a vague shape that could be a trick of the light or a spirit form behind her. When asked she admits that she doesn't know if there is anything in the house. She returns to the job that allows her to afford time in Paris while she waits for the posthumous sign that brother Lewis promised to give. In Paris she picks out her employers clothes and jewellery.

Though she identifies, as her brother had, as a medium she remains skeptical and cannot commit to belief in the phenomena even as she witnesses it. Her second attempt to contact Lewis in the house is traumatic and drives her back into her life as the personal shopper, a series of routines she dislikes for their triviality but performs expertly. Her difficulties in talking about this beyond some sketchy and irritated impressions leads to a second act dominated by a dialogue entirely in a series of texts as a thrilling but dangerous situation develops. Between this and the blank competence of travel and detached shopping we start to get a better view of the person in the elipse between the two Venn circles of spiritual and material. It involves temptation and dark adventure and ends in bloodshed. But then the mysteries continue.

This tale of the unknown, external and internal, is helmed by Olivier Assayas with a not altogether steady hand. In horror mode the sense of dread is genuine and there are white knuckle thriller moments and while these can easily overlap with the passages that more nakedly examine Maureen's character (which approach Dardennes brothers bleakness) at other junctures the sudden fades to black can feel like a last resort solution. Otherwise, the lighting and lensing are expressive and infrequent plays with focus all add to a pleasurable watch however intense this film can get.

None of this would work without a lead capable of giving us Maureen's different modes with such distinctly different tone and create a credible wholeness from it. Racked by doubt she can find spoken expression frustratingly inadequate. As the eyes and taste of her employer her selections of couture at various boutiques are made with an intimidating precision. When tested by the approach of threat her fear seems to transform into survival adrenaline. Through these three modes alone we are reminded that she is one character rather than an actor proving her range by the solid pedal note of solemnity she carries at all times, visible at the clothes rack, in the haunted house and wheeling around Paris on her scooter, she is always serious. The brief and jagged relief delivered through her Skype calls with what might be a friend or lover offer the slightest glimmer of escape from this intensity but for almost the entire running time which almost entirely features her in sharp focus we are aware of this dark pedal note droning at her core. If you still dismissed Stewart because she rose through Twilight it's time to reassess. Her restraint in this role is her power and there is a lot of it on show.

After the thunder and paranoia of the thriller second act we change again to something like calm, though it, too, involves tension and threat and the sense that we are not necessarily going to end well here is strong. The film's final statement, making the heaviest use of its focal point in a powerful use of noise vs whispers, leaves us in ambiguity and a fade to black. That doesn't qualify as a spoiler as it could be about a number of threads. The ambiguity is not the troubling kind as it is in Assayas' earlier Irma Vep but it offers a weight, if we'll bear it, that feels like our own deal with things unknown.

There's still MIFF to come, Raw, Get Out and who knows what else but I could easily peg this among the best of the imaginable year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: T2 Trainspotting

All through this one I kept thinking: why was this made? Then I'd think: Oh, that's good. It was like that for most of the movie until a few scenes in a row sharpened it up and I got it. I think. Trainspotting was a product of its time, it brought a knowing punk punch to the multiplex world of '90s cinema when it was needed. It did have help. Riding on the slacker vibe of Linklater and the retro-is-now mash of Tarrantino (and not a little of Oliver Stone's recently developed scrapbook approach) Trainspotting added both a junkie's nihilism and a view of the void at its centre and felt like a great read in a few hours at the cinema.

That was then. This is now. Renton is running in the opening scene but it's on a machine and he collapses mid-session. Sobered, he picks himself up and returns to 'Brrrrrruh to offer retribution by paying back the money he stole for his own escape those decades past. No one's really having it except for Spud but with the aid of a few bruisey encounters he levels up in a way while his old pal Sick Boy (now a budding extortionist and aspirant brothel owner) keeps him close for his own retribution. Meanwhile the dark terror of the first tale, Begbie, breaks out of prison and won't take yes for an answer.

The plot will only give you a little here, though, as this film has more on its mind than the cogs and wheels of the three acts. The opposing forces are in place and will get to a showdown but while we're getting there we've got some time to reflect on the last twenty years. Everyone's older and a little defeated but striving on. Spud finds telling his tale offers a way out of the constant grinding pendulum between addiction and twelve-step meetings. Sick Boy and his young Bulgarian girlfriend think of getting the best knocking shop in Edinburgh as a kind of grant-funded start-up. Begbie takes his young adult son under his wing and into the mire of petty crime.

At one point Renton and Simon (Sick Boy) explain to Veronika how amazing everything was back then ("and no one was fat!") in front of a massive LED tv as their soundbites roll on to the screen like running tweets. At another Simon and Renton are watching the video for the Rubberbandits' dark and funny Dad's Best Friend (shown almost uninterrupted) and Renton, gazing as the middle aged actor in the clip miming the lyric transforms into a black eyed alien, asks, "what's this?" What is it? Cruelly, it's the bad boy that none of them were able to become because they kept all that choose-life stuff they were ridiculing at bay while the hard won gratification nullified their lives. The song is a kind of confession by an incorrigible reprobate whose violence and chaotic will yet make him a valuable asset to daily life. He's a bastard but impossible to hate as he is armed with charm. But this is no Renton nor even a Begbie. The dad's best friend is middle class and able to "choose the hookers he likes the best" because he's privileged. It takes a breath or two to sink in but as the pair of old friends watch the video and laugh at the clever cheek of the visuals we know they also understand that every second of the years that have brought them to this point have been a waste.

The nostalgia in the reminiscence scene, soured by the contemporary pop song, can only ever be a lie, not just a futile grasp at an art-directed past but an out and out fib. The good old days are for the winners only and there's just nothing left to win here. When the force of Begbie discovers Spud's retelling of their shared past he responds to the account of one of his own atrocities like a viking hearing his own saga sung back to him. His fury abates only to let the vanity that fuels it refuel. And nostalgia chews its own tail.

Director Danny Boyle takes all this further into poignancy by giving us a lot of footage of what will pass for the characters as boys. They are larking about at school, goofing for the camera and then we see where they've gone. It's like a deep gravity version of Seven Up a few minutes at a time. More, all the references to the 1995 film like Renton's update on the "choose life" monologue or the laughter on the bonnet of the breaking car give us all pause who were fans of the first film and bid us turn the camera around, selfie-style, and look before we judge. Boyle's return to his chief triumph, then, does have a point and was clearly worth making but I wonder if it is not too precise, too comfy then confronting for its guaranteed fans to deal with and perhaps too embarrassingly sour for those younger who might too easily triumph in its candour.