Colossal — 4/10

COLOSSAL (2017, Nacho Vigalondo)

A frustrating waste of an interesting concept. Vigalondo, who didn’t exactly inspire confidence with his incompetent entry (the first short, “A Is For Apocalypse”) in THE ABCs OF DEATH, gives us just enough to be totally let down. It’s female-centric but with only one female character. It’s misandrist by virtue of giving all its awful male characters no believable arcs. And it’s purportedly about returning home and having an alcohol problem, but treats those themes as window dressing.

What about the giant monster terrorizing South Korea, you ask? Good question. I didn’t mention that because it turns out to be somewhat of a red herring, aside from a crowd-pleasing climactic monster sequence. The gimmick is basically an excuse to set up a love triangle between three uninteresting people and pretend there’s an undercurrent of international sci-fi. This is really a cheap stage play using the monster movie stuff as a magic misdirect: the vast majority of the action takes place in three locations (the house, the bar, the park) and Seoul consists of some CG buildings embedded on a YouTube screen and one studio-lot-looking street.

Almost nothing is suggested or revealed with the camera — the plot is moved forward with dialogue, and the fact that so much is communicated through screens (Hathaway lives on her phone and laptop and the giant TV given to her early on) doesn’t indicate to Vigalondo that maybe he should take that as a cue. This needed to either be much funnier, much darker, or much more creative in order to survive the poor characterization, limp pace, and mediocre performances — not really the fault of the talented Hathaway or Dan Stevens, though; these are tough roles to flesh out. Sudeikis on the other hand, okay it’s kind of his fault. He’s not good.

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The Lost City of Z — 8/10

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017, James Gray)

“I knew your father.”

“I didn’t.”

That simple exchange very early in this vast behemoth of a drama spells out a lot without saying much at all. Major Fawcett suffers from a form of social blacklisting because his father was a drunk and a gambling addict. (One aristocrat tells another that Fawcett “had a poor choice of ancestors”). Everything he’s about to do for the rest of his life begins with a quest to freshen the reputation of his family name — yet he proclaims that he didn’t even know his father. That is to say, what problem is it of Fawcett’s that his father was a fuck-up? They’re blood-related, but Percy is living his own life. Unfortunately, we’re blamed for things out of our control. All we can do is take it back.

In a decades-spanning arc, Fawcett goes from a guy with tragic flaws — hubris, arrogance, selfishness — to a man with an undying love for family, for duty, and a respect for humanity that is unmatched among on-screen British war heroes since perhaps Colonel Candy in Powell/Pressburger’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. Hunnam plays Fawcett with steely resolve, not much humor, and a gravity that really nails the scene where he refuses to apologize. Gray’s camera dwarfs Hunnam and the rest of the cast in nature, but doesn’t reduce them — his classical framing and storytelling reminds one of what John Ford did in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. And it always helps to have Darius Khondji behind the lens.

Juicy as melodrama, this epic definitely feels like the book adaptation that it is — it’s novelistic where many films would narrow their scope to one or two of the APOCALYPSE NOW-ish trips up the river — but the pace never lags thanks to a detailed script by Gray himself. It provides just enough info for us to ask more questions, but refuses to preach very often. The best moments are gestures, not words. By the time one character tells another that, essentially, an ordinary life isn’t worth living, and the pursuit of novel and potentially futile adventure is more fulfilling than anything else, you believe it. Not because of any salesmanship, but because we’ve been on the journey too.

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The Fate of the Furious — 6/10

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (2017, F. Gary Gray)

Unrepentantly stupid, and not in the tongue-in-cheek way that the series’ highpoint to date (FURIOUS 7) was — nobody expects verisimilitude in a franchise where cars jump through skyscrapers and drive off airplanes, but the movies are still more fun when the plot isn’t so dependent upon people making the most senseless possible choices at every conceivable point. This may not reach FAST FIVE levels of idiocy, but it’s close, and it has only a few bravura sequences and a few savior cast members to push it into still-entertaining-but-a-little-disappointing territory.

Basically existing as meathead Bond films for the last several installments, Neal Moritz’s F&F movies improved tremendously with the introduction of The Rock as series regular, and since then additions like Jason Statham and Kurt Russell have been huge assets. Now it’s hard to imagine the movies being even remotely good without those three guys, because all the scenes with Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez are like Fred Durst’s version of a Lifetime movie. Now they’ve added Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as the new Big Bad, and audiences get to see her kick more ass in the ATOMIC BLONDE trailer that precedes the movie than in the film itself. She spends most of her time behind a bank of monitors, wearing a headset and barking orders. Does Gray not think she could have pulled off a sequence like James Wan (still the series’s best director, and only a one-time drop-in) shot between Ronda Rousey and Rodriguez in Dubai? George Miller would argue otherwise. In other casting mistakes, the loss of Paul Walker evidently required a new bland white guy to reach the frat bro demographic, so in comes Scott Eastwood to be amazingly unmemorable and boring, and to play an FBI agent who mispronounces “nuclear.”

The worst thing about these episodes has always been Chris Morgan’s writing (he’s done all but the first two scripts) and whenever the films are good, it’s despite Morgan, not because of him. I have to imagine Johnson came up with the Samoan soccer dance (one of the funniest scenes) and vets like Statham and Russell make even the corniest dialogue sing with their expert timing and charisma. But the first scene in F8 has Diesel saying “it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood — it’s who’s behind the wheel” and then instantly putting nitrous oxide under the hood of the car he’s racing in order to win.

Luckily, that car chase is tremendous. The prison riot that follows is equally thrilling (the face-melting rap banger “Speakerbox” from Bassnectar helps a ton), and the top-notch action sequence trilogy concludes a little over halfway through with the “make it rain” New York City set piece, which will give pause to everyone like me who simply can’t wait until self-driving cars are all that’s left on the road. Unfortunately, the Iceland-shot climax involving a nuclear sub (with some keen parallel action involving a baby with headphones straight-up ripped out of FACE-OFF) happens with the tank on E, as everything limps towards a predictable conclusion — as a flashback revolving around Helen Mirren tells a story we’d much rather be watching than what’s actually on screen.

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Personal Shopper — 7/10

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017, Olivier Assayas)

An absolute stunner of a final scene can really go a long way. I wasn’t sure if I was feeling the direction this story was going, but the closing moments landed so well that I recalibrated the entire thing in my head. Taken as a whole, this is a fairly slow, arch, overly serious French movie (spoken almost entirely in English) that doesn’t necessarily take advantage of its premise in any of the obvious (or obviously engaging) ways. It’s only scary for a couple of isolated moments and the mystery is obvious (to all of us except Maureen, it seems). But as a means of meditating on the idea of liberty: whether it’s privacy, personal invasion (of space or property), geographical or occupational freedom, this film dances around the issues in new ways that grow increasingly absorbing as the running time creeps along.

Also, we’re entirely in Maureen’s world 100% of the way. Kristen Stewart is in every scene of the movie, and the second-billed actor is an iPhone 6s (which should be nominated for Best Supporting Mobile Device/Actress next year). Stewart shoulders the load quite well — proving once again she needs nothing else to really anchor a performance other than good material (maybe not even that, sometimes) and a director who gives her time to breathe. She got a lot of love for THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, but in that I thought she was overshadowed by the even-better Binoche — here, though, Assayas learned his lesson and made the celebrity Stewart’s character works for an afterthought as opposed to the on-screen partner. And she wears cool white high-tops.

One word of caution to creepy texters: turn off your “read” receipts!

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Short Takes – April 2, 2017

Only my third episode of these, which I guess is good in that I’ve been able to write about almost every new release I’ve seen, but I’m in another busy stretch and thus amateur film criticism has taken a back seat.

RAW (2017, Julia Ducournau)

Worth seeing if you’re into disgusting body-horror dramas, because it has a lot on its mind and presents ideas relating to female sexual liberation, college hazing, and parental influence with fresh perspectives (and a keen camera sense). It can feel muddled at times (where is the faculty, and in what world does a vet school like this exist?) and definitely isn’t for everyone, but it leaves a bit of a bite mark on you.

THE SALESMAN (2016, Asghar Farhadi)

The weakest of the four Farhadi films I’ve seen. It’s a bit worrisome that his two earlier films (ABOUT ELLY and A SEPARATION) were the most crisply written and his two most recent (THE PAST and this) are so heavy-handed. He’s always been tell-don’t-show, and I’m hoping he develops a more refined vision, but even when his eye is dull, his pen usually isn’t. It’s too bad this has such a leaden pace, full of so much painful exposition and lurching plot development. It’s hard to care even remotely about this contrived situation, because despite Taraneh Alidoosti’s sympathetic Rana, the inexplicably Cannes-winning performance of Shahab Hosseini is metallic and lifeless.

TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

I usually don’t write about non-theatrical new viewings but I wanted to alert readers to this epic, giant blockbuster from South Korea. It’s WORLD WAR Z without the boring parts: nonstop action (after the clumsy development of the first 15 minutes), horrific zombie attacks, likable characters, and all the disaster movie cliches you can chase off a cliff. It just got released on Netflix streaming, so zombie-horror fanatics shouldn’t miss it.


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The Great Wall — 6/10

THE GREAT WALL (2017, Zhang Yimou) 

Now there’s an odd directorial name to write after that comma. Take one look at any of the major set-pieces in this fantasy action spectacle, and you’ll double-take on the idea that one of the greatest realist storytellers of the ’90s (the man behind such masterworks as RAISE THE RED LANTERN and TO LIVE) is doing some sort of CG monster-war movie. It would be like seeing that Wong Kar-wai directed THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Granted, in his old age Zhang has veered towards action and fantasy a couple of times, most successfully in THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (which is as staggering narratively as it is visually) and most commercially in HERO. But still, this feels like the work of a hired gun, complacent in his late 60s, shrugging to accept the paycheck for doing this sugary piece of forgettable entertainment. It’s amusing in fits and starts, but hard to remember much of — even less than an hour after leaving the theater.

Co-writer Tony Gilroy (the only missing component of the Bourne series in JASON BOURNE, likely explaining why that film was so bad) is probably responsible for many of the clever lines in this 100-minute adventure, and his sense of humor keeps a lot of the talky scenes afloat. But the real money goes into the action scenes, and Zhang takes a few opportunities to give us some characteristic flourishes — remember the bean/drum scene from DAGGERS? Genetics of that are in the screaming arrows of Act II. And the oddly beautiful (and strangely inefficient) warfare method of bungee-jumping women-with-spears feels delightfully idiosyncratic. But then there’s a lot of communist-loving nationalism, underdeveloped characters (Willem Dafoe?), and a somewhat predictable third act. Still, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon (when this comes on Netflix), and has there ever been an unwelcome appearance by Andy Lau?

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Get Out — 8/10

GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)

The premise sounded great, but that’s just a premise. Then the trailer came out, and it was great, but that’s just a trailer. Now the film is here, and what-do-you-know, it’s great. Peele makes literal what has presumably been a figurative horror for so many black men: meeting their white girlfriend’s family. It’s hard to think of a horror masterwork in American cinema that hasn’t been anchored by either politics, social issues, or some sort of zeitgeist fear. But how often have the complexities of things such as interracial dating, fawning liberal condescension, and class guilt been mined for true terror? Not often, and Peele squeezes every drop of juice he can from this fertile fruit.

The script is tight as a drum — hardly a line or scene is wasted: the deer hitting the car feels metaphorical while it’s happening, but Rose’s reaction (refusing to let the cop harass Chris for his ID), her dad’s reaction (“They’re like rats” infecting the area and need to be stomped out; every dead one “is a good start”) all make such good sense the further this story goes. White symbols like the colonial architecture and the old-school teacup become harbingers of doom; passive bigotry like the discussion of black genetics, muscle tone, and lack of intelligence are all revealed as motives, not just opinions. And that feels somewhat revolutionary.

This is an hour of delicious setup, but then the final act is one enormous, cathartic release of tension. We spend so long seeing everything through Chris’s eyes (the most sympathetic protagonist in a horror film I can think of in years) that the hell unleashed in the back third of the movie comes armed with righteous truth. Not unlike Jamie Foxx’s rise to power at the end of DJANGO UNCHAINED, Chris’s arc is at once frightening, smart, and deliriously deserved. Peele’s camera sense is finely tuned, allowing close-ups to unnerve us as much as wide shots, long takes, and jump scares. Perhaps some of the narrative contrivances are a little too sweaty (Rod’s visit to the police, the happens-to-be-open-right-then closet door) but those flaws are easy to overlook when there are so many totems of wealthy, white, oppressive culture (a bocce ball, a police car, a stuffed and mounted deer head) put — ironically and delectably — into the hands of the black man.

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