Friday, May 19, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Brother's Keeper (1992)

Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directed by: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky.
 
Four year before they made the excellent Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – a documentary that spawned two sequels, and is often held up as one of the best true crime docs in history, Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky made Brother’s Keeper – a “true crime” doc in a lower key than the other film. It focused on the case of Delbert Ward – and his brothers. They lived in Munnsville, New York – a small town of only a few hundred people – one of those places where everyone knows everyone. And everyone did know the Ward boys – four brothers who didn’t bathe very often, came to town riding a couple of tractors, and basically kept to themselves on their large farm. While no one in town could rightly be called friends of the Ward boys – they weren’t enemies either – everyone basically kept to themselves. That is until the second oldest Ward boy – Bill – was found dead in his bed one morning – and Delbert was charged with his murder.
 
The Ward boys are not very smart – although, whether Delbert and the others actually suffered from intellectual disabilities, or whether they simply choose to remain mainly cut off from modern life, and hence no wise to its wise, is open for debate. Bill, the brother who winds up dead, had been suffering for a while – coughing and wheezing, complaining of pain in various places, etc. There is no evidence that any of them ever went to a doctor – so when Bill wound up dead, everyone assumed it was natural causes. But the cops find some evidence that confuses them – there’s debate as to whether a pillow was used to smother Bill, and some strange results on the autopsy. The police haul Delbert in for questioning – while there were four brothers, there were only two beds, and Delbert shared with Bill. They get a “confession” out of Delbert – but did they trick it out of him, coax it out of him – bully someone who wasn’t smart enough to know his rights to confess to something he didn’t do? The state at first floats the idea that it was a mercy killing – and then starts talking about something darker, and more perverted than that.
 
If you’re thinking this is going to be a documentary about a small town divided – you’d be wrong – while a few people do wonder if Delbert really did kill Bill as a mercy killing, no one in town wants to see him go to jail for it. They hold fundraisers for his legal defense fund – and the surviving Ward brothers become more accepted in the community than ever before. The case draws national attention – the filmmakers show the brothers watching themselves in a segment with Connie Chung for example. But what Berliner and Sinofsky capture is deeper than those segments on the show – because they stay there for so long, that everyone ends up simply accepting their presence. One of the other brothers, Lymon, is painfully shy in almost all social situations – but eventually he is able to open up to the camera – at least somewhat. The same is true for Delbert – who’s more articulate with the filmmakers than he is anywhere else.
 
The filmmakers also capture this small town brilliantly – and the attitudes in it, and why the police officers and the prosecutors – both from “the city” (what city? Who know, who cares) never do understand. I do worry that we’re going to spend the next four (or God forbid 8) years comparing everything to Trump, and Trump’s America – but you can certainly see the attitude many talk about contributing to the rise of Trump in this film. The locals talk about how everyone from the city thinks they’re all a bunch of idiot hicks – and they look on them, and think they can walk all over them without noticing. The prosecutor describes Delbert and the rest of the Wards as “outcasts” in their community – and he may not really be wrong – but the community would rather have their own outcasts, than someone from the city. The feeling that led to Trump’s rise didn’t spring up overnight – you can certainly see that in this film from 25 years ago. Yet, you can also see the humanity in rural people – some of whom are more open minded than you’d think (as one older man says even if there was sex going on between the brothers, who cares – it’s none of his business).
 
I won’t reveal the outcome of the trial – although I don’t think, the way the film is structured, that it’s ever really in doubt – especially when we get to the trial scenes themselves, which can be painful to watch. Paradise Lost and its sequels will always be the films that Berlinger and Sinofsky are remembered for – say what you want about them, but they are among the only films ever that you could argue saved someone’s life – but Brother’s Keeper is another triumph for the pair – and one of the best documentaries of the 1990s. It deserved to be more widely known.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Movie Review: Get Me Roger Stone

Get Me Roger Stone
Directed by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
Written by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
 
To hear Roger Stone tell it, there is hardly anything that has happened in American politics since Nixon that he isn’t at least partially responsible for. Undeniably, some of that is true – as Jeffrey Toobin calls Stone in this film, he is the “malevolent Forrest Gump of American politics” – in that everywhere you look at some major political event, Stone is there – perhaps off to the side, but he’s there. Is he responsible for all of it – or was he just there? No one seems to be quite sure what Stone did and did not do – what is fact, and what is the Roger Stone produced legend of himself. One thing is for sure though – Stone has not been a force for good in American politics.
 
Stone became a Conservative as a young man – Barry Goldwater was his idol at one point – and during college, he took time off to help work on Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, eventually becoming the youngest person questioned by the Watergate Grand Jury, because, of course he was. Stone makes no apologies for his love of Nixon – he even has the ex-President tattooed on his back for God’s sake. His association with Nixon, oddly, never really hurt him – and he later became head of the Young Republicans, and then worked to get Ronald Reagan elected. During the 1980s – he founded a lobbying firm alongside Paul Manafort (yes, Trump’s campaign manager) – where they specialized in dirty politics – taking money from dictators and warlords, and helping to clean-up their image. That made Stone a lot of money. It was in the 1980s when Stone met Donald Trump – and tried to convince him to run for President. When Trump eventually did run for President, Stone was there of course – a couple more decades, a sex scandal cannot slow down Stone. He was more of a fringe figure by then – going on Alex Jones, pedaling his Clinton rape book and shirts, and right there supporting Trump the whole way. He was on and off the campaign more than once.
 
To say that Stone is a sleaze isn’t really an insult to him – he relishes it. He wants you – the person watching the documentary filmed by what he calls “lefty filmmakers” – to hate his guts, because that means he’s effective. He knows how to appeal to dumb people, and how to get them to come out and vote. He doesn’t believe most of what he says – because he doesn’t have to. He just needs to convince others that it’s true, or muddy the water so much that they cannot tell what is true and what isn’t. In short, Roger Stone is one of the reasons we hear so much about “Fake News” – he invented it.
 
Or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think. He wants you to think that he’s responsible for everything – Reagan winning, the election of George W. Bush, the fall of Eliot Spitzer, the rise of Trump. When the Democrats win, it’s because he was sidelined – like during the 1996 election, when a sex scandal got Stone ousted from Bob Dole’s campaign (in the interest of being fair and balanced, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a sex scandal to me – I mean he and his wife were caught advertising for swingers to join them, so he wasn’t even cheating on his wife). He’s too much of a loose cannon, too in love with the spotlight to be a man in the shadows type like Karl Rove. If Stone’s not on TV somewhere, he’ll wither up and die from lack of attention.
 
The film follows Stone over a period of many months, leading up to Election night, when Donald Trump stunned the world and became President. It does provide some moments with Stone’s family – his wife, daughter and granddaughter, and Stone himself talking about the side of him we don’t see – the private side, the husband/father/grandfather. Thankfully, there’s not much of this (just the right amount) – not because I don’t want to view Stone as human, but because it really doesn’t matter what his private life is like – it matters what he does in public, which is really to debase the American political system. That’s he’s nice to his granddaughter doesn’t really matter in the face of that.
 
The film is an important documentary for 2017. I’m sure the filmmaker thought they were making a different film when they shot it – a look at how close America came to the brink of electing an idiot, based on the sleazy politics of Stone. That film would play as a warning, and perhaps a relief. The one they made is different – an entertaining tragedy. Because no matter what you think of Roger Stone, they man is entertaining to watch – even while doing so makes your stomach churn.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Movie Review: Risk

Risk
Directed by: Laura Poitras.   
Written by: Laura Poitras.
 
During the time Laura Poitras was filming Risk, her new documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, she also shot, edited and released her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour – which of course, won her an Oscar. That film was a tightly contained, almost thriller, in which Snowden spends a few days in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and a few journalists, explaining all the data he has leaked to them, just before their stories hit the airwaves. It also helped that while there are many contradictory feelings about Snowden out there (and in my case, my own head) – he really does seem to be a fairly earnest, straight forward kind of guy. What you see is what you get, and he’s not really trying to play Poitras, or anyone else. Risk, and Assange, is a different animal as it was shot over the course of seven years, and in fact more footage has been shot and added since the film debuted at Cannes in 2016. Poitras’ feelings towards Assange – and other figures in the film – changes as well. This makes for a very messy film – but a fascinating one.
 
This isn’t a film to watch if you don’t know anything about Wikileaks or Assange. That would be Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which does a good job running down their history. This is a more intimate film, in which Poitras simply points her camera at Assange as he goes about his days, and films. She wonders why he’s giving her so much access – he doesn’t seem to like her very much she says – and yet, there she is when he and a colleague try and get then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the phone to warn her that all of the State Department’s communication were about to be leaked – not by them, but because they themselves have been compromised (I cannot decide if egomania, brazenness or sheer idiocy that the pair call up the State Department and ask to speak to Hilary Clinton). At first, it feels like Poitras admires Assange and WikiLeaks, as well as Jacob Appelbaum, who also works there, and who we see loudly demanding accountability from Egypt’s telecommunication companies after the Arab Spring. If Assange always seemed like an egomaniac, perhaps doing good work, Appelbaum seemed like a good guy through and through. By the end, of course, her outlook on both changes drastically.
 
It’s fairly early in the film when Assange gets charged with rape with Sweden – and faces an extradition warrant back to Sweden, which he appeals as high as he could go in England, and when he still loses, starts to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy where he remains today – claiming it’s all just a ruse to get him back to Sweden, where they will end up sending him to America on more serious charges (I’ve never quite understood if that was the case, why America wanted him sent back to Sweden first – why not just get the Brits to send him back – but no, matter). Assange, of course, says the whole thing is a conspiracy against him, and he’s completely innocent. He may well be (since he won’t go back and face charges, we’ll never know) – but in the film he does go on a pretty toxic rant about radical feminists, and lesbian nightclubs, that wouldn’t be out of place on a MRA Forum. That scene is fascinating to watch the women around him, and how they react (or try not to).
 
Risk ends up becoming a study in contradictions – something Poitras admits in the film, as she didn’t know that was the movie she was making. It is about Assange who wants to expose everyone’s secrets but his own – about Appelbaum, who Poitras admits having a brief affair with – also being accused of abuse and sexual assault, while trying to project a more wholesome image of Assange (he does okay at first – but there are a few more cringe-y moments later in the film). While Assange lets Poitras back after the Snowden affair, he never forgave her for not letting Wikileaks have any of the information – instead allowing it to go the mainstream media. As Hilary Clinton’s emails get leaked, by Wikileaks, Poitras wants to know if he got them from Russia – and he won’t say, although he clearly hates Hilary Clinton.
 
You can make you want of Edward Snowden and what he did – I’m still conflicted myself – but it wasn’t really about him, and he knew it. For Assange, everything is about him – he masks it behind his ideology, that again, you can agree with or not, but he’s always at the center of it.
 
All of this makes Risk sound probably more interesting to watch than it actually is. The film is one of those that’s more interesting in retrospect – more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. The film meanders, and doesn’t always have a clear thought process behind what we’re seeing and why (I’m not sure why Poitras felt it necessary to show the embarrassing footage of Lady Gaga, but she does). This isn’t as good as Citizenfour (and neither is as good as her underseen doc from before them, The Oath) – but it is a fascinating one.

Movie Review: Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love
Directed by: Ben Young.
Written by: Ben Young.
Starring: Emma Booth (Evelyn White), Ashleigh Cummings (Vicki Maloney), Stephen Curry (John White), Susie Porter (Maggie), Damian de Montemas (Trevor), Harrison Gilbertson (Jason), Fletcher Humphrys (Gary), Steve Turner (Troy), Holly Jones (Miss Martin), Michael Muntz (Sergeant Mathews), Marko Jovanovic (Sergeant Henderson), Liam Graham (Pete), Lisa Bennet (Gabby Donovan).
 
Kudos to the people who decided to release Ben Young’s Hounds of Love on Mother’s Day weekend in North America for having the sickest sense of humor imaginable. This unrelentingly grim and bleak story of a pair of serial killers (loosely based on a real case from the 1980s) does have two mothers in it. One is the type of mother you expect to see in a movie – whose teenage daughter goes missing, and ends up doing any and everything she can to get her back. The other, is one of the sick psychopaths who kidnapped the teenage girl in the first place, and along with her husband torture and rape her – and are certainly going to kill her as well. After all, in the first sequence, we see them do the same thing to another teenage girl. I’m not quite sure I buy the final scenes of Hound of Love – the only moments where these two mothers are near each other – but up until then, Hounds of Love is certainly among the creepiest films of the year.
 
The film opens, and will return to throughout the film, by using a slow motion panning shot – taking in a group of teenage girls playing netball. This could be an innocent scene, of course, but it isn’t the way its shot – the slow motion heightens the sense of voyeurism, and the camera is not focusing on the teenage girls face, as them as individuals, but basically just as meat. This is how John and Evelyn (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) see them, and sure enough, it’s going to be one of these teenage girls they kidnap, rape and kill in the opening sequence. This was the 1980s after all, a slightly more innocent time – and while someone like John may not have been able to convince a teenage girl to willingly get in the car with him, he has Emma, and she seems nice. Who’s ever heard of a woman killer? This is the same routine they’ll pull on Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) a few days later. Vicki sneaks out of her mom’s house to go to a party – she’s pissed at her, for various reasons, and is walking when John and Emma pull up in their car. They offer to take her back to theirs for some pot – and then she can get to her party. She quickly finds herself bound to a bed, and fighting for her life as her day’s long ordeal is just starting. Most of the rest of the movie is set in that house – with those three people, only occasionally cutting away to Vicki’s frantic mother, trying to get people to take her daughter’s disappearance seriously (again, this was the 1980s, when cops thought every missing kid was a runaway, and didn’t take it seriously until someone turned up dead).
 
The film really is a psychological portrait of three people in that house together for those few days. Two of those portraits are expertly drawn, but precisely what we expect them to be. Cummings is terrific as Vicki, the survivor who does everything she can to survive – she attempts to get away, and when she can’t, she does an interesting job at trying to sow the seeds of discord between her captors – reading their needs, and responding. She bends, but doesn’t break. Curry’s John is also an excellent performance, but the kind of serial killer we’ve seen in films before as well. He really is a pathetic, weak man outside his own home, but inside, he controls everything with sadistic glee. It is Emma Booth’s performance as Evelyn – and her character – that makes Hounds of Love not only work, but do so in a way I haven’t quite seen before in a film like this. Evelyn is not a survivor girl like Vicki, nor purely sadistic like John – but a strange mix of the two in a way that is fascinating. She is certainly a victim of domestic abuse at John’s hands – both physical and psychological, and in some ways, she does what she needs to survive being with him. Yet, she is also a willing participant in every aspect of what happens to their victims – the kidnappings, the rapes, and the killings themselves. There is a part of her as sadistic as John is – her anger really flaring up when she thinks John actually thinks Vicki is attractive, and may want to cut Emma out of the loop for a moment – her whole identity is circled around being the only one John wants forever. Well that, and being a mother. We never see Evelyn’s kids in the movie, but they are brought up throughout the film. She has, unsurprisingly lost custody of them – and now dotes on her dog as she waits in vain for her kids to return (it is not a friendly dog).  
 
This is the directorial debut of Ben Young – who for the most part does an excellent job of not making an exploitation film out of the material. There is nothing overly graphic in the film at all (there is one moment, fairly early, right after Vicki is tied down that crosses that line, and hits a wrong note, but it’s the only one). Yet, there is no mistaking what happens, and it hits hard even if we do not see it in all its grisly details. As a filmmaker, he does a great job of showing the banality of this place, the harsh sun, the interchangeable houses, the dirt and grim of it all. He may overuse the slow motion panning shots, but there’s a reason beyond it looks cool (take that, Zack Snyder!). The film isn’t an easy sit, but it shouldn’t be. It’s also one you’re not likely to forget.

Movie Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

David Lynch: The Art Life
Directed by: Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
 
David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers – his dark, twisted, surreal films haunt your memory like childhood nightmares, never quite leaving you. His short films can be even more messed up, and his art – paintings, sculptures, etc. – are demented – like something you would expect a serial killer to make. Yet, when Lynch talks, while saying he sounds normal would be pushing things, what wouldn’t be pushing things is to say that he doesn’t really give you much insight into his work. The 10 “hints” he provided as the entirety of the written materials for the original DVD release of Mulholland Dr. are as cryptic as the film itself. Once in an interview, he stated that Eraserhead was his most spiritual film, and the interviewer asked me to elaborate. “No” was the entirety of Lynch’s response. All of this is a big part of Lynch’s charm – and I think part of his brilliance as artist. It also makes him a lousy documentary subject if he’s going to be the only one talking, and the subject is going to be himself.
 
David Lynch: The Art Life basically has Lynch tell his life story from the time he was a kid, until sometime during the making of Eraserhead. He recounts snippets of events from his childhood that fans of Lynch will recognize in some of his later work (specifically Blue Velvet – which seems to have sprung from his suburban childhood). But Lynch’s narration is basically a fairly dry recitation of events, as well as some rather cryptic comments about art. Do you really learn anything about Lynch and his life? Not really. He brushes over his first divorce – he’s married one minute in his telling when he started making Eraserhead, divorced the next with no mention of why or how. This is Lynch’s habit throughout – he gives what happened, but doesn’t really explain anything else. As a result, it doesn’t really explain his art either.
 
Now, Lynch is more than welcome to keep his personal life private – he also more than welcome to not want to elaborate on his work. Frankly, it would be better if more artists let their work speak for itself. Then again, why would he want a documentary about himself, if he didn’t want to open up, and share something about his life, or his work? Last year’s DePalma didn’t tell me very much of anything about the man, but it told me a hell of a lot about his films. Not so here.
 
What makes this all doubly disappointing is that the film itself is wonderfully well made. Filmmakers Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm have done a fantastic job of making every shot in the film interesting. The sound design is likely to be the best in any doc you’ll see this year (it’s not at Eraserhead level, but then what is). The filmmakers clearly know and love Lynch and his work, and have done a great job of making a doc about David Lynch look and feel like a doc by David Lynch may look and sound. The problem is there is gaping hole at the center of the film – one in which Lynch himself refuses to fill. And unlike in his films, where the ambiguity work, here it’s not ambiguity at all – it’s just kind of boring.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
 
It’s interesting to go back and watch a Werner Herzog documentary from before the world turn him into a meme – and he so fully embraced it. Aside from his masterful Into the Abyss (and the On Death Row side project), I am always stuck wondering in all post-Grizzly Man Herzog docs just how seriously he is taking his strange narration, and how much he is simply embracing the image that many have of him. This isn’t a wholly bad thing – it’s made some of his work, like Encounters at the End of the World both insightful and hilarious, but at other times it’s a distraction. Watching his 54 minute documentary Lessons of Darkness from 1992 – from before Herzog was a celebrity – is eye-opening in many ways. First, it is one of Herzog’s best, most visually striking documentaries – a brilliant look at the Kuwaiti oil fields in flames – presented with little voiceover narration or context. But it’s also interesting to look at the filmmaker Herzog was at the time – his voice is over much of the first half, and then almost none in the second – as if even Herzog has been struck dumb by the devastation he sees. It’s a choice that I doubt he would make today.
 
Herzog doesn’t really provide context for his documentary – instead, approaching it in terms of his voiceover as if he were an alien visitor, unsure of what he is seeing playing out on this strange planet. Split into 13 chapters, Herzog starts with shots of Kuwait’s capital before the war – a beautiful, old city. We then flash to the familiar CNN footage – night vision green – of bombs going off all throughout the city. From there, spends much of the rest of the time surveying the damage. Most of the shot in the movie are taken from helicopter flying above the massive wreckage – and Herzog’s typical voiceover only interrupts in order to provide necessary information – like the massive lakes and rivers we are seeing, although they appear to be water, are actually oil. He speaks to only two people – a Kuwaiti woman who says she witnessed her two adult sons tortured to death in front on her, and since then she hasn’t been able to speak (she does speak in the film, but in a barely audible whisper – that Herzog doesn’t subtitle) – and another woman, shown with her young son, who talks about soldiers bursting into her home, and throwing her son to the ground and stepping on his head – and how he has not spoken since either. These are powerful anti-war statements – made perhaps more powerful by the fact Herzog provides zero context for them – the woman talk of “soldiers” – but nothing else (like, where those soldiers were from). Herzog will follow the lead of the woman and the young boy for the second half of the film – not speaking for long stretches of time – as if he too can longer speak having witnessed the horror of war that he has seen.
 
The last third of the film is the most visually striking, as Herzog and his crew go to the oilfields themselves as they are burning – massive columns of fire shooting up from the desert – and the various firefighters and oil workers on hand to try and put out the flames, and cap the wells. Then, oddly, we see them setting more fires – and Herzog’s voiceover returns – confused about what we are seeing, and why? Didn’t they just put out the fires? Why are they setting more (the film never answers).
 
Lessons of Darkness ranks as one of Herzog’s finest documentarians for several reasons. One is, like much of his work, he is more than willing to go where many others would refuse to. This isn’t safe areas in which is he filming, but Herzog is one of those madmen who will not be stopped, and somehow always ends up unscathed. Second, because I do think it represents Herzog’s worldview – as seen in other films – in a more simple, straight-forward way. Had Herzog made an overtly political film – critical of this specific war, the film would instantly be dated. But he didn’t do that – and as a result, the film becomes some deeper, more universal – a treatise on wars and the illogical nature of them in general – much like he would do years later when examining the death penalty – where it wasn’t so much this one case, but the idea of the state putting someone to death – or more accurately, the state asking people to put others to death.
 
Herzog is such a prolific director, it’s impossible to keep up with everything he’s done – I’ve seen 20 of his films – which according to IMDB, only leaves 49 (and growing) to go. As anyone who makes that many films is, Herzog is inconsistent – but when he’s at his best, he can be terrific. He’s at his best with Lessons of Darkness.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Directed by: James Gunn.
Written by: James Gunn based on the Marvel comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and characters created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan and Jim Starlin and Stan Lee & Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Baby Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Sylvester Stallone (Stakar Ogord), Kurt Russell (Ego), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Chris Sullivan (Taserface), Sean Gunn (Kraglin / On-Set Rocket). 
 
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 delivers precisely what you expect it will deliver, and nothing else. This isn’t wholly a bad thing – you cannot complain that the film doesn’t deliver what its predecessor did – because it does. What it lacks this time is anything the least bit surprising. The film leans so heavily on what worked last time, that there really isn’t time for anything all that different. The good news is that because the first film was so wildly entertaining, that the second film is also an entertaining thrill ride. But the first film was a genuine surprise – a film that came out of the Marvel machine, with a least an inkling of something new and different. This one doesn’t have that.
 
The film once again follows the title group of space misfits – led Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), their goofy, 1980s music loving orphan and misfit, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a kick-ass, no nonsense green alien, who is also his love interest, Drax (Dave Bautista), a giant, muscle bound green and red alien out of revenge and comic relief, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon who is also a giant asshole, and Groot – the lovable tree who was all but destroyed last movie, and is no replaced by Baby Groot – the same thing but smaller and WAY cuter. This adventure finds them outrunning a planet of aliens they’ve pissed off and the Ravagers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) Quill used to belong to, who have been hired by those same aliens. Meanwhile, Quill meets his long lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) who tells him the secrets of his past, and Gamora is still battling her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The other major new character is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who works for Ego.
 
The film knows why it exists – and that is to please the millions of fans who made the first film one of Marvel’s more surprising hits – considering that this was a little known comic property when compared to the rest of their movies. Perhaps because it was lesser known, and had an August release date, Marvel let writer/director James Gunn off the hook a little bit, and allowed him to indulge himself a little more than most directors who work for them get to do. No such lucky this time around, as it basically seems like the instructions here were “Do it exactly the same as last time”. Luckily, that does involve a lot of Gunn himself, whose warped sense of humor comes out in the film. He also seems more comfortable with the special effects this time around, and the action sequences are smoother and better executed.
 
Having said all that, the best sequence in the entire film is the first one – a massive space battle that instead of following the action, follows Baby Groot who is at ground level as the action plays out behind him. There is more visual imagination and ingenuity in that sequence than the rest of the film combined.
 
Still, I feel like I’m being overly hard on a film that I generally had a good time with. This is a film that holds your attention from beginning to end, is funny and clever, well-acted and entertaining. For pure escapist fun, the film does its job. It just doesn’t do anything more than that – which I was kind of hoping it would. But hey, we’re about to enter a three month period of non-stop blockbuster – and if they’re all as fun as this, we won’t be complaining.

Movie Review: I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake
Directed by: Ken Loach.
Written by: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Dave Johns (Daniel), Hayley Squires (Katie), Briana Shann (Daisy), Dylan McKiernan (Dylan), Kate Rutter (Ann), Sharon Percy (Sheila), Kema Sikazwe (China), Steven Richens (Piper), Dan Li (Stan Li), John Sumner (CV Instructor), Dave Turner (Harry Edwards), Micky McGregor (Ivan).
 
From the beginning of I, Daniel Blake, there is no doubt who the director is. This is Ken Loach’s second film to win the Palme D’or – after 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley – and it falls neatly in line with the other films the 80 year old Loach has made over his 50 year career. The Leftist directors career has always been as messaged based as anything else, which has resulted in a career that has produced some truly great films, and others than feel like halfhearted sermons standing up for the little guy. When Loach marries his style with the right story, the results can be great – although too often over the past 20 years or, the message gets in the way. Luckily, for the most part I Daniel Blake is one of the Loach films that doesn’t overwhelm its narrative with its messaged, even if the message is front and center from beginning to end. The film goes overboard in the final act (no more so than in the final scene), but by then, Loach has earned his sermonizing I guess, by delivering a thoughtful, emotionally wrenching film.
 
The story follows the title character, played by Dave Johns, who is a 59 year old construction worker and widower, recovering from a heart attack. His doctor has told him he isn’t well enough to return to work yet, and to do his exercises, but to basically rest up and get well – he’ll get back soon enough. But Blake has trouble navigating the byzantine, Kafka-esque government bureaucracy to get his benefits. He’s supposed to be on disability, but someone known as the “Decider” has decided he doesn’t qualify anymore. He can appeal, but that takes time – and until then he has no benefits. He can apply for regular unemployment – but in order to qualify for that, he has to be actively looking for a job, and be able to prove it. Adding insult to injury, he’s supposed to do all of this online, but he doesn’t own a computer, and has no idea how to use one. One day at the government office, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mom new in town. She was “relocated” when her landlord threw her out for complaining about a leak that made her son ill. Now, she’s in an area where she knows no one, has no support, no job – and two kids to feed. She was late for her appointment because she just arrived in town, and got lost. Both Daniel and Katie end up getting thrown out of the office that day, but have to keep coming back to try and survive.
 
The first hour or so of I, Daniel Blake has a neo-realist feel to, and Loach follows Blake and/or Katie through their increasingly desperate day-to-day lives, as they become frustrated, or try and do what they are told to keep receiving their benefits. Even when Daniel does find a helpful work at the assistance office, he ends up getting her in trouble as she helps him fill out his forms, which she isn’t supposed to do. Meanwhile, he has to apply for jobs he doesn’t want, and cannot accept, because he needs to show he’s trying. And Katie is becoming increasingly desperate and poor. There is no romantic relationship between them – Loach isn’t that hackneyed – but a genuine friendship where they help each other other. The performances by Johns, and especially newcomer Squires, really are quite extraordinary in the way they inhabit these normal people, without ever condensing to them or the audience.
 
The movie does lose its way in the third act a little bit, as it starts to lay everything on very thick during the last 40 minutes or so., I’m a little tired of every attractive, younger woman with money problems becoming a prostitute right out of the gate at this point, and the finale – including a speech by Squires that she saves from being embarrassing – is way too on-the-nose to be effective.
 
Yet, the message of I, Daniel Blake is an important one, and for the most part, it is delivered in an effective way by Loach and company. The movie could have – and should have – trusted the audience a little bit more to get the message of the movie (even in the first act, it’s not very subtle – we certainly didn’t need to get beat over the head with it). Still, flaws and all, I, Daniel Blake is a fine film – Loach’s best in a decade – and a story that really does hit hard.
 
Note: There was quite a bit of controversy at Cannes a year ago when the film won the Palme D’or, despite generally mixed critical reviews, while a film as praised as Toni Erdman went home empty handed. Like Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan – which won a couple of years ago, I do think that giving I, Daniel Blake the Palme considering the competition (not just Toni Erdman but Paterson, Personal Shopper, American Honey, The Handmaiden and Elle – and those are just the ones I’ve seen and loved) is silly, but hardly reflects on the film itself – which is strong, just not a masterpiece. I fear that, like what happens at the Oscars when a good film beats a great film for Best Picture, all of a sudden the good film seems worse than it actually is.

Movie Review: The Lure

The Lure
Directed by: Agnieszka Smoczynska.
Written by: Robert Bolesto.
Starring: Marta Mazurek (Silver), Michalina Olszanska (Golden), Jakub Gierszal (Mietek), Kinga Preis (The Nightclub Singer), Andrzej Konopka (Drummer), Zygmunt Malanowicz (The House Manager), Magdalena Cielecka (Boskie Futro), Katarzyna Herman (Milicjantka), Marcin Kowalczyk (Tryton / Dedal).
 
If there was an award for weirdest film of the year, than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature The Lure would be a shoo-in for the win. This is a horror/musical/comedy about two mermaids in Communist era Poland, who come ashore to join a nightclub act. One of them falls in love with a man she shouldn’t – dooming her to a tragic end – and the other is more likely to rip out someone’s throat than to do anything else. The film takes weird narratives twists and turns – most of them completely out of left field, with little holding reasoning behind it. Does the film work? Not really – at least not in a traditional sense. The musical numbers are better as set pieces than they are as songs, and it’s impossible to find your footing in the movie, because as soon as you do, the film flies off in a different direction. Then again, that’s part of the movies charm. This is a film that feels more like a dream than anything – a fever dream at that, and the result is at least always interesting.
 
The two mermaids are named Silver and Golden and are played by Marta Marurek and Michalina Olsazanka. They are drawn out of the water by Mietek as he sings on the water’s edge, and they follow him back to the dingy club he works in as a bassist. If the pair are dry, then they look like any other human women – except they lack certain holes below the waste. Splash some water on them, and they’ll grow enormously long fish tales. In either form, they’re as likely to be naked as not – and the crash club owner decides to put them in the show, because, of course, everyone like duos. They can sing too - and when in fish form, communicate with each other in some strange fish language.
 
The one narrative thread the movie follows from beginning to end is the relationship between Silver and Mietek. She falls for him, hard, and even though he tells her that “You’ll always be a fish to me” – she willing sacrifices everything for him. Golden isn’t so subservient – and is the one responsible for all the blood in the film.
 
The film plays with ideas of the male gaze, misogyny and female sexuality in strange ways – sometimes in way that seem almost literal (a man complaining of a “fish smell” in a slit in the tail of one of the mermaids, the blood involved in a key sexual encounter between Mietek and Silver), and sometimes in obscure ways. All the characters in the movie function more like metaphors and symbols than actual people. There are levels on top of levels here, than you could spend a long time trying to piece it all together – the films constantly shifting narrative, and bizarre visuals and musical numbers keep you guessing to the end.
 
On its most basic level though, The Lure is more conventional than it first seems, as it about a girl, who throws everything away for an unworthy man – who changes who she is to be accepted by him, and still gets tossed aside. At least Golden’s there too though to set things right.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie & Tupac (2002)

Kurt & Courtney (1998)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
 
Biggie & Tupac (2002)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield.
 
Nick Broomfield is a talented documentary filmmaker – but a large part of him is also just a muckraking tabloid journalist who seems to enjoy taking on documentaries about famous people who don’t want to talk to him, and trying to figure out how to go about getting access. It’s a system that perhaps only Broomfield could pull off – since his films are always as much about their own making as they are their subjects, so even if he never gets anywhere, he still has a film to show. In 1998’s Kurt & Courtney and 2002’s Biggie & Tupac, Broomfield sets out to make two documentaries about the deaths of famous musicians – and whether there was a conspiracy involved in their deaths that implicate other famous people close to them. In Kurt & Courtney, he tries to unravel the truth behind Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and whether it was really murder – and whether his wife, Courtney Love, was involved in the plot to kill him. In Biggie & Tupac, he tries to figure out if Tupac’s murder was really an elaborate ruse perpetrated by Suge Knight – the head of Death Row Records, Tupac’s label, in an effort to avoid paying him millions in royalties, and then – 6 months later – killing Biggie Smalls to help build the narrative of East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars that would account for both murders. In both movies, Broomfield tries very hard to get to the truth – and ends up talking mainly to a bunch of people on the periphery of the lives of the dead superstars, all of whom have a lot to say – but not a whole lot of evidence to back any of it up. Yet even if, like me, you accept the standard explanations for these deaths – that Cobain killed himself (something, ultimately even Broomfield says he believes), and that a rival gang member that Tupac and Suge Knight beat up earlier in the same night Tupac was killed came back for retaliation (and was later, himself murdered in an unrelated gang fight) there is still value here (for the record, I don’t think anyone really knows what happened with Biggie Smalls’ murder) – there is value in Broomfield’s films – not least of which is entertainment value.
 
As a documentary filmmaker, Broomfield seemingly has no fear. He walks into any place, and will talk to anyone. In Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, he walks in unannounced with his camera person and a boom mic into a sketchy looking biker bar, and walks out just fine. In Kurt & Courtney, he talks to various addicts and hangers-on – including a scary looking man named El Duce, who claims Courtney offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt. In Biggie & Tupac, he somehow convinces the prison where Suge Knight was serving time to let him in – even though Suge had no agreed to an interview – and then, amazingly, gets the interview anyway. He has less lucky with Courtney Love – although he does get a few words from her near the end of the film at an ACLU event (she clearly knows who he is – addressing him by his first name) – an event that Broomfield will eventually be thrown out of as he commandeers the mic, and openly questions why the ACLU invited Love as their speaker, considering how many times she has openly threatened reporters (allegations that are irrefutable). In Kurt & Courtney, he teams up with two people who call themselves members of the “stalkerazzi” – who say they know how to get questions to famous people – but the two are complete, bumbling idiots – and amateurs compared to Broomfield.
 
There is a pattern established in both of these films in which Broomfield finds someone who is on the fringes of the case, and goes to interview them. They always claim they have explosive information that is going to blow things wide open – they just cannot share it at this time. In Kurt & Courtney, they all seem to think Kurt was some sort of saint, and Courtney the bitch harpie who ruined his life – even Love’s own father. What’s fascinating in that film is that to a person, they all claim Courtney Love is some sort of greedy bitch after Kurt’s money – and then half of them try to hawk their own book on the subject. Oddly, Broomfield rarely calls any of them out on that – he certainly did in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer -  although he does confront Love’s father, and asks him what kind of father would do what he’s doing to his daughter. It’s similar in Biggie & Tupac – he meets with various people who try to hawk their book or their music – everyone trying to cash in basically by their proximity to a famous person.
 
Yet both films have one sympathetic character in them as well. In Kurt & Courtney, that’s Kurt’s Aunt Mary – who doesn’t have an unkind word for anyone, and who will go on about Kurt lovingly for long periods of time – and started using Kurt’s life and death as an example to schoolkids. In Biggie & Tupac, it’s Biggie’s mother – who simply wants answers (out of the three famous musicians depicted, only Biggie’s music is in the films – the estates of Cobain and Tupac wouldn’t give up the rights). 
 
Ultimately, I think the value of both films is more in their depictions of those who surround rich an
d famous people than for any real insight into the deaths of the musicians involved. There is a lot of talk about conspiracies, but nothing that really, truly convinces of anything. No, the portrait painted of Courtney Love is far from flattering in Kurt & Courtney – but at worst, she’s portrayed as a gold digger who liked being famous, and took to it well (it should be noted that the film was made around the time of 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt – in which Love delivered an amazing performance, and seemingly had her life together – it didn’t last). And the portrait of Suge Knight isn’t nice either – but you don’t have to work too hard to make Suge Knight look violent, do you?
 
The two films are Broomfield’s best – they don’t rise to the level of either of his Aileen Wuornos docs or Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (I think, it’s been years since I saw that one, but it was my favorite at the time – and in need or a re-visit) or Tales of the Grim Sleeper. But both are fascinating portraits of fame – and those who are attracted to it. I’m not sure they were quite the films Broomfield set out to make – but they’re good just the same.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Movie Review: Casting JonBenet

Casting JonBenet
Directed by: Kitty Green.
 
I will admit that as a true crime junkie (mainly in Podcast form, but yes, also in terms of docs) there are times when I feel more than a little guilty as you watch as other people’s deaths are trotted out as entertainment – sand become fodder for people to paw over. I don’t like that aspect of it, but I do think that good true crime can both be entertaining and insightful – meaningful even, and should be done – but I definitely have a line that I draw, when I think people are either making light of or sensationalizing a crime. It really shouldn’t happen.
 
There has perhaps not been any true crime case that has been thought over, sensationalized and exploited more than the murder of JonBenet Ramsey – a six year old beauty queen, found dead in her basement – murdered – and the bizarre investigation that followed, including all sorts of contradictory evidence and facts. Before I even became a true crime junkie, I knew the basic facts of the case, and even though I haven’t really sought out material on this case specifically, enough of what I watch and listen to has covered it that by now, I know more than most, and definitely know too much about it. If there was one case that didn’t need a true crime doc about it – it was JonBenet Ramsey. And that is precisely why Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is such a great doc – it isn’t really a true crime doc about the case at all. It’s about how we all absorb true crime, watch, observe and filter true crime through our own experiences. If you know nothing about JonBenet Ramsey, this isn’t the place the start (perhaps seek out the episodes of the podcasts Generation Why? or True Crime Garage about the case - avoid almost all of the trash TV, especially the garbage from last year on it). It’s something far greater than that.
 
In the film, director Green heads to Boulder Colorado, and puts out a casting call for local actors to come in and audition for any role associated with the case – mostly, it’s people playing parents John or Patsy Ramsey, although there are a few playing brother Burke, various police officers, the Santa Claus from a recent party some think may be involved in a bizarre conspiracy theory, or the creepy man who confessed the crime when he clearly didn’t do it. There are shots of little girls playing JonBenet – but unlike everyone else, they don’t really talk to the camera – they remain silent, dancing little beauty queens. When the actors arrive, Green explains what she’s doing – not really making a docudrama about the case, as much as a documentary about them, as they prepare to play the roles. Green asks them what they think about the case, who they think these people were. They offer their own theories – most of them fairly straight forward (it was Patsy, it was John, it was Burke, it was someone outside, etc). – and most fascinating, they offer their reasons why they think that’s the case. For the most part, it’s linked to something from their own past. The woman who was abused by her father, thinks it was John – they had the same demeanor of projecting an outward appearance of normalcy. The woman who remembers gets so angry at her son wetting himself that it scared her, thinks it was Patsy. The film then delves even deeper, as it does have these various actors and actresses “play” these characters in some scenes, and what effect that has.
 
Casting JonBenet then is something different than a true crime doc – which is a relief. We don’t need more talking heads analyzing the same evidence that every other doc has done. This is something different – it becomes a portrait of the captive audience for these stories, and how we filter than information. It is also a performance piece about acting, and how these various actors – none of which you will likely recognize (there was one woman auditioning for Patsy Ramsey that looked familiar). But it’s also a portrait of Boulder, and how small town it can feel, as there are various intersections between the people there, and the Ramsey’s themselves.
 
That’s a lot to pack into one documentary – but Casting JonBenet pulls it off wonderfully – and in less than 90 minutes. This is a haunting, memorable doc – one that kind of sneaks up on you a little bit. We get lots of true crime docs – some good, some bad – many will fade from memory. You’ll remember Casting JonBenet.

Quadruple Movie Review: L.A. 92 & L.A Burning & Burn Motherfucker, Burn! & Rodney King

L.A. 92
Directed by: Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin.
 
L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later
Directed by: One9 & Erik Parker
 
Burn Motherfucker, Burn!
Directed by: Sacha Jenkins.
 
Rodney King
Directed by: Spike Lee 
Written by: Roger Guenveur Smith 
Starring: Roger Guenveur Smith
 
It has been 25 years since the riots in Los Angeles broke out, and the city descended into chaos. The catalyst for the rioting was the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were captured on video beating drunk driving suspect Rodney King mercilessly. While that was the spark that started everything, things would not have been so bad – people would not have been so angry – had there not been a long, long history of racism and police brutality in the city. Around the 25th University of this event, there have been 6 movies looking back at the events, and I have seen four (I didn’t watch the Broadcast premiere of John Ridley’s Let It Fall on ABC this past Friday, even though the consensus is that it is the best, because the version aired on TV ran 88 minutes – the version that went to theaters the week before is 144 minutes – cutting out nearly an hour is no way to watch a film by a filmmaker of Ridley’s caliber – I’ll watch it when I can see the full version – as for Smithsonian TV’s The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots – I don’t think that is available here in Canada at all). All four of the films I did see have their merits, and should be seen – but in a strange way, they work very well together, despite using the similar footage in three of them, but having differing points of view. What happened in L.A. in 1992 is still relevant today, something all of these films know full well, but never beat you over the head with.
 
 
 
Of the docs I did see, I think L.A. 92 (which aired on National Geographic) is the best of the bunch. The film has a brief opening montage retelling the 1965 Watts Riots, then recounts the three large events that happened leading up the riots in 1992 – the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner, who was convicted of Manslaughter, but sentenced to probation not jail, the beating of Rodney King in March 1991, captured on video (as was the killing of Harlins), and the acquittal of those officers. The film then dives into the days of rioting and looting that happening in the wake of that acquittal. L.A. 92 doesn’t use any talking heads, reflecting back on that time – it is entirely made up of archival footage – most news footage from the time, with a few intertitle cards inserted when context is needed. The effect that directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Miller are going for, and for the most part achieve, is what it must have been like to watch all this unfold from America’s living rooms. Most people don’t live in L.A. – and I don’t think the film really captures what it would have been like to be on the ground in L.A. during that time – but it doesn’t need to. It’s documenting what happening the way most people in America – and around the world – experienced the event at the time. As a result, I don’t think the film offers much in the way of new insight – but again, that’s not its purpose. This was a scary event, in which violence spilled out in the streets, but that violence was the result of justifiable anger. That doesn’t make what happened right – but it does make it more understandable.
 
L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later (an A&E film) , I think, wants to be the documentary that L.A. 92 is not – as it is mainly talking heads, including producer John Singleton, talking about what happened during those three days. The directors, One9 and Erik Parker, shoot their footage on the modern streets of L.A. where the riots happened – often with those who were there explaining what happened, their actions, and reflecting on it. The film, of course, also uses footage from that time – including the Rodney King tape – but its main attraction is to see what residents and those involved think about what happened now. On that level, I wish the film had pushed the participants just a little bit more than they do – it allows them to tell their story, but doesn’t make them question it – including some of those involved with dragging a white trucker out of truck, beating him mercilessly and spray painting him – one of the most well remembered, and frankly sickening, things that happened. The film comes close to justifying what they did – which it shouldn’t – because it focuses more on their anger, which was justified, over their actions, which weren’t. It is interesting to hear from those involved in their own words – but somehow this film lacks the impact of the other three – I think because it lacks the ambition.
 
Ambition is one thing that Burn Motherfucker, Burn certainly does not lack – and that’s a little bit to the films detriment. Sacha Jenkins’ doc tries to delve deep into the historical context behind the riots – everything from Watts to the acquittal of those officers. Doing so is vital to understanding that the riots were not an isolated incident, nor that they sprung out of nowhere. However, trying to cram 30 years of racial injustice in L.A. into one, 97 minute package, means that many things get little more than surface level treatment – something, that I think the second part of last year’s best film, O.J. Made in America did better, in roughly the same amount of time. Still, Burn Motherfucker, Burn is the most ambitious of the docs in question, and still delves deeper into the history than the others, and is a fascinating film from beginning to end. I just wish Jenkins had been given O.J: Made in America like time to dive deep – there’s more than enough there to do so.
 

Spike Lee’s Rodney King is, of course, a completely different animal. It is another of Lee’s concert film – this time documenting his frequent collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith’s one man show, written in the wake of King’s death in 2012, and honed ever since. This is a bold piece of theater by Guenveur Smith, who opens the film with harsh words about King – not his own, those from a rap song from the 1990s, which basically calls King an Uncle Tom. From there, Guenveur Smith, dives deep, alternating between viewpoints on King, from 1992, what it most of been like for him to watch the riots, and his death in his swimming pool – as well as the various reactions to that death, and the current culture we are in. Shot on a stage, that is mainly black – although when it uses lights, it uses them amazingly well – the film is just Guenveur Smith on stage for 52 harrowing minutes, and it is a brilliantly performed show – expertly handled by Lee (mostly in the editing). Sure, sometimes Lee probably goes too far in his stylistic choices (in particular, when he multiplies the images) – but for the most part, he knows to stay out of the way.
 
Watching these four films in the span of just 3 days was an experience that deepened all four of them. The films have different aims, different purposes, different ambitions – yet they complement each other in an interesting way. What happened in L.A. in 1992 is still being felt in America – and the fact that not everyone can agree of on makes sense, and is up to America to deal with. All four of these films should be seen – and if you can see them close together, all the better.  

Movie Review; Colossal

Colossal
Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo.   
Written by: Nacho Vigalondo   
Starring: Anne Hathaway (Gloria), Jason Sudeikis (Oscar), Austin Stowell (Joel), Tim Blake Nelson (Garth), Dan Stevens (Tim). 
  
Some ideas are just too good to screw up – and Colossal is one of those ideas. I’m not quite sure the execution of the film matches the brilliance of its concept – if it did, it may would easily be one of the best films of the year – but it comes close enough that it won’t leave you disappointed. Unless, of course, you saw the poster and expected this to be a giant monster movie like King Kong or Godzilla, full of special effects and action sequences. This movie isn’t that – it’s different, and better.
 
In the film, Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria – a messed up party girl/alcoholic  living in New York, who has lost her job, and has been living off her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) for a while. He has finally had enough and kicks her out. With nowhere else to go, she heads back to her small hometown, and moves into her parents place (where they are is not mentioned, but the house has no furniture in it). She reconnects with an old friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) – who owns a bar, not a good sign – and starts hanging out with him and his loser-ish friends. Oh, and if she’s on the local playground at 8:05 am every morning, a manifestation of herself as a giant kaiju monster appears in Seoul, Korean, and depending on what she does, she could end up killing hundreds or thousands of people.
 
The concept of the movie is a great – it’s as if your issues literally becomes a giant monster and wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting world, unless you can control them. In the hands of a filmmaker like Charlie Kaufman, Colossal is likely a masterpiece. In the hands of Nacho Vigalondo, it’s just a really good, really interesting movie that bites off more than it can chew. At first, the major issue the film seems to be about is alcoholism, and Gloria’s struggles with that. In the second half of the film, it doesn’t completely abandon that, but it does shunt it to the side when a character we previously thought was a good guy, turns out not to be – and the film becomes, at least in part, about misogyny and how the fragile male ego feeds into it, and the crap women have to deal with. On one hand, it’s a fascinating turn of events – on the other, had the film either stuck to being about addiction, or been about misogyny from the beginning it could have been a great movie about either subject – because it tries to do both, it’s merely good.
 
Still, even when the film is clearly biting off more than it can realistically chew, it is anchored by a strong performance by Anne Hathaway, and another good turned by SNL vet Sudeikis. I never got the hatred toward Hathaway (oh my god, she seems so fake on talk shows and at awards ceremony, the fakest things in the history of the word), because she’s always been a fine actress. Here, she’s doing something we haven’t seen from her in a while – her Gloria doesn’t have the depth of her still career best work in Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married, but she is able to make what is essentially a spoiled brat of a character into a sympathetic one. It’s also just good to see her let loose a little bit more than normal. Sudeikis is almost her equal (if he isn’t, it’s more because his role is essentially two notes – and not at the same time, as he kind of transforms on a dime). The movie puts him to good use as both a nice guy and an asshole.
 
I do wish that Colossal was slightly better written. There is a masterpiece in this concept, and perhaps Vigalondo is not the writer to see that through to the end. The idea behind the movie is one of the best in recent memory – so good in fact, it’s hard to mess it up completely, which Vigalondo doesn’t do. But he also didn’t make the masterpiece this film could have been. He’s just made a really good film with a great idea.