Sunday, June 4, 2017


Alternate Title:  Gone Kaiju
One sentence synopsis:  Following a traumatic breakup and dealing with spiraling alcoholism, a woman returns to her hometown to reconnect with old friends just as a tremendous monster begins attacking a city on the far side of the world.

Things Havoc liked:  I had an astoundingly hard time coming up with the synopsis above, because Colossal, whatever else it might be, is a really weird movie.

A personal project directed and written by Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo (none of whose previous work I am familiar with), Colossal was a movie I went to see entirely on spec. A woman named Gloria (Anne Hathaway), unemployed and a raging alcoholic, breaks up with her boyfriend (Beauty and the Beast's Dan Stevens) in New York City, and moves back to her hometown somewhere in small town middle America. There, she meets an old childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), who gives her a job at his bar to get back on her feet, and seems to be interested in kindling a relationship, introducing her to his friends around town and helping her put her place in order. What sounds like a setup for a particularly boring romantic dramady is salvaged however, by two complicating factors. One of these factors is that a two hundred foot reptilian monster begins assaulting the city of Seoul, South Korea, smashing things, killing people, and vanishing into thin air from whence it came. Over the course of several nights of these rampages broadcast on live news and YouTube, Gloria begins to realize that the monster is mirroring her own actions whenever she stumbles home drunk at eight in the morning through a disused playground somewhere in town, and that she is consequently responsible for the murder of hundreds and the destruction of much of Seoul. The other one of these factors is actually important.

But... before we get to that, let's talk about what we've got here. All of the above actors, particularly Hathaway, are sublime. Of course Anne Hathaway is always sublime, even in bad movies like Bride Wars or Alice in Wonderland. Her character is a blind drunk, accustomed to getting away with murder (metaphorically, one hopes) by acting cute and batting her eyes, and pivoting instantly to hyper-serious when confronted with real consequences, such as being thrown out of her home or realizing that she may have started World War III by accident. A great early sequence has Hathaway effortlessly expressing total desperation, shock, and misery, all without a word, after her boyfriend throws her own of their shared apartment and her drunken friends carry on carousing behind her, oblivious. Given the weirdness of a premise that requires her to discover that she can control Godzilla, she, and the movie, plays things very down to earth, as she struggles to find a way to make things right without the wider world discovering what is actually going on. Vigalondo's direction is light on effects and heavy on quotidian observation (he wrote, smugly), with the emphasis firmly on the characters and their reactions to what, in a worse movie, would be a world-shattering discovery leading to super-heroism or chase scenes, and in this movie leads to slurred conversations in bars while watching events play out on television. In fact, one of the funniest things I've seen in years is a CNN report that plays a YouTube video of one of the Kaiju "incidents", complete with internet memes and embellishments. I almost choked.

But I said a moment ago that there was another factor that was actually important. What factor is this, you ask? It's the character of Jason Sudeikis' Oscar, who starts the movie off as a friendly, neighborhood bar-owner, willing to help Gloria out with a job and spare furniture, and ends it as... well... one of the most toxic, abusive, controlling people that I have ever seen applied to screen. It's not that Oscar is a monster, although he is, it's that the movie does a sterling job of portraying what an abusive person actually looks and acts like, rather than the cartoon psychopaths that are generally put on screen. His behavior is cyclical and self-delusional, with subtle warning signs initially before spiraling into full-blown narcissistic delusion and aggressive, controlling behavior, fueled, in-part, by his own incipient alcoholism and circumstantial opportunities (the aforementioned Kaiju situation) to force his fantasies into reality. Sudeikis, an SNL alum, is an actor I've known about forever, but I don't think I've ever seen before this, at least not in movies, and he's amazing. This is a role that most directors would fill with guys like Vince Vaughn or Billy Campbell, tough-looking creepers who can loom menacingly and appear monstrous at the drop of a hat, with the usual consequence that one wonders just how the abused protagonist couldn't see this coming. But this film has Jason Sudeikis, of Mother's Day and Zach Galifianakis movies, a guy whose established movie persona and look are about as threatening as a bowl of soup, turning on the repressed rage and toxicity, rather than unconvincingly turning it off. It's an incredibly good performance, a star-making performance, helped by a restrained script that only provides the barest glimpses of what must be going on underneath the surface of the character, letting the audience figure it out for themselves.

Things Havoc disliked: So... here's the thing...

Some films are just bad. That's hardly a shocking statement. Some are the product of bad scripts or writing, some of terrible performances, some of awful direction, a rare few are victims of all of the above. Over the years I've been doing this, in fact, I've come to appreciate that there are an infinite number of ways to make a bad movie, and in the aftermath of one, it is often not that easy to sit down and parse out what actually went wrong. That's one of the reasons (beyond simple procrastination) why these reviews take so long. You need to give a movie time to percolate, time to settle in your mind. Sometimes you simply need to take the time to clarify your thoughts on a film before you can start speaking intelligently about it. And this is often the case for films, like this one, that are objectively very well made, with good acting and good writing and a good director overseeing it all, and yet which, for whatever reason, I found I didn't like.

Why? What more could I be asking for beyond a bunch of good actors acting well together in a refreshing story that occasionally had me howling in laughter? Initially, I thought that the problem was that the movie reminded me too much of films like Enough, the 2002 Michael Apted "thriller" that starred Jennifer Lopez as a woman fleeing her cartoonishly-evil ex-husband, who would sneer at the camera before monologuing about how deliciously evil he was and how helpless she was to thwart him. But as I mentioned above, that comparison isn't fair, as Sudeikis' performance (and, frankly, Vigalondo's directing) is miles beyond the cheap mawkishness of that early-00s snoozer (there's a reason the 1997-2004 period is now regarded as the Dark Age of Cinema). What, then, was the problem? Was there something more fundamental in this film that made me react this way, some deep-rooted issue of script or premise? Or was it instead a subjective matter, and whatever it was had nothing to do with the movie at all, just a facet of the baggage that all critics, no matter how objective they try to be, bring into the theater with them?

Maybe. Or maybe the problem lies, not with Enough, but with a movie from 2014 called Gone Girl.

Long-time readers will remember Gone Girl, the David Fincher film based on a Gillian Flynn book, the one that starred Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck at the top of their form, with a labyrinthine script involving insanity, betrayal, murder, manipulation, and the hunger for scripted villains by mass media. It was, by many standards, a great film, well created and shot, and written crisply enough that even Tyler Perry wound up looking good. And I hated it. Not because of any of the things above, but because I concluded, following a similar agonizing process to the one above, that it was a shallow, manipulative piece, coded in the language of misogynist sexism, one that romanticized all of its men, no matter how awful, and condemned all of its women, no matter how unbelievable. It was a movie that pretended to show the steamy underworld of obsession and manipulation, but refused to play fair with its characters, with the audience, or with the scenario it had set up, preferring instead to deal in thin stereotypes hidden by good performances and direction. At the time I reviewed Gone Girl, I said that I rejected the film, in part because "If a movie was made this way about men (and there have been some), I and others would be trumpeting outrage to the skies." And readers, I'm sad to report that the time has come, because Colossal is that movie.

The problem isn't Sudeikis' character, not really. He's an obsessive, evil, manipulative person, willing to commit horrific acts so as to control Gloria's life, but that much isn't sexism any more than Norman Bates was, it's a character of terrible depths played brilliantly, and one we don't often get to see, at least not with this spin. No, the problem, as always, is in the context in which we get to meet this character, because this isn't a simple story of girl-goes-home-and-is-manipulated-by-monster, Kaiju-laden or otherwise, and the movie treats it like it is. Gloria, lest we be reminded, is herself a blind drunk, one who, even after discovering this miraculous capacity to control the actions of Godzilla, drunkenly plays with the notion and shows off to her friends, resulting in the deaths of thousands and the obliteration of large portions of Seoul. It would be one thing if the story were one of Gloria learning from her terrible mistakes and taking back control of her life, while Oscar slides deeper into the throes of his own demons, but it's not, not really. Instead, Gloria is instantly forgiven everything that she's done wrong because... well because she's the heroine, I guess. She cures her raging alcoholism, a disease that has led her to kill thousands of people, offscreen, suddenly no longer suffering from it because she apparently decided not to. She does this, despite still working in a bar, surrounded by alcohol, an environment no alcoholic on Earth has sufficient willpower to resist. And just as she does so, everyone else in the movie swallows their evil pill, so that she can appear more saintly. Not only does Oscar take a turn from "weird and creepy" to "utterly irredeemable" (which is fine), but her ex-boyfriend (Stevens), the one who broke up with her in the beginning of the film because he didn't know what else to do, and has spent the movie calling her up and begging her to get help, even apologizing for sounding so superior and lecturing about it, the one who turns up in her hometown, having faked a buisness trip for the purpose, because he's afraid that she may be in real trouble (which she absolutely is), this boyfriend suddenly turns around and becomes a negging, verbally abusive, dismissive egomaniac, denigrating her attempts to do exactly the things he had previously been begging her to do, just so that when she inevitably tells him off and excises him from her life, the audience can feel good about cheering.

But that's not the only character this happens to. Consider Tim Blake Nelson, a wonderful character actor whom I've adored in films like Holes, Syriana, and O Brother, Where Art Thou. He plays Garth, an ex-drug abuser and friend of Oscar, whom Oscar turns on one night in a drunken rant, exposing his past as a drug addict and belittling him mercilessly. He tells Oscar off, and... is never seen again. Despite the fact that his character has been set up heavily as an important part of the story, and the fact that he knows the secret about the Kaiju, one of the most explosive in the history of mankind, he vanishes outright from the rest of the film, something the film tries to frame as moral cowardice, and I am tempted to re-frame as the film being afraid that having a male character who isn't an abusive monster will undercut their heroine. For proof of this, look no further than Austin Stowell, of Whiplash and Bridge of Spies, Oscar's other friend, with whom Gloria has a brief fling, prior to him turning into a doormat and an enabler for all of Oscar's worst habits, actively abetting him in the murder of thousands of people with no reason given beyond the fact that, well, he's a man, and you know how they are. I don't mind that these characters are all flawed, or addicts, or stupid, or abusive, or even monstrous. I've loved many a film with many a character that evidenced all of those things, some with much less acting skill than is on display here. I mind that the movie is coded such that they are those things because they're men. And that Gloria, no matter what she does, no matter who she kills, is not any of those things, because she isn't.

Final thoughts:   It should be noted that the people I saw this movie with had no such experience, and thought the movie was interesting and well made, and rated it highly. I do not claim that they are necessarily wrong, but I will note that I felt the same way about Gone Girl when I left the theater, and that it was only after much time and conversation with those who had reacted negatively to that film's latent misogyny that I came to realize that I hated it. I would not go so far as to say that I hated Colossal the same way I ultimately did Gone Girl, but I did not like it, not when I saw it and even less now, with several weeks' distance to think about the matter. The issue isn't just that it stereotypes men as abusive, manipulative monsters, although it absolutely does this. It's that in doing so, it also manages to imply that the only way the audience will empathize with a woman in the throes of an abusive relationship is by making her literally the only likable person in existence, beatifying her by proxy despite the fact that she manifests many of the same behaviors as everyone else. The only difference is that, as a woman, she's infallible, while men are the scum of creation. And if you think I'm laying this on too thick, consider for a moment that the character is named Gloria, and that one of the final scenes has her literally walking on water.

Enough then. I don't expect that many people will hate Colossal, in fact I expect quite the opposite, as the movie is unquestionably well made and acted by all concerned. I don't begrudge those who find value in the exercise as a result, but I cannot number myself among them. I mentioned in the Gone Girl review that a good film can be made about any subject, but only if it made with honesty, and like that film, Colossal is a crude simplification that gathers airs of depth because of its evident technical virtues. I denounced Gone Girl because of its insidious misogyny despite these virtues, and I will not refrain in this case simply because the shoe is on the other foot. To do anything else would be dishonest, and that would make me no better than the film itself.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  Magic, Mayhem, and Mad Science.

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