Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2017

Colossal

Split personality

On earth-shattering intoxication, playing deceptively against type, and monsters with good intentions

Colossal
Neon
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Screenplay: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell and Hannah Cheramy
Rated R / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release
(out of four)

Spoiler Warning: This review acknowledges certain plot and character developments that occur up until around the halfway point of the movie. It's impossible to address various aspects of the film without at least hinting at certain things, so if that's too much spoiler territory, go ahead and jump off here. Everything pertinent to the resolution of the story, and the back half of the movie as a whole, remains preserved in secrecy. Either way, you've been cheerfully warned.

You think you really know a person. You've gotten to know them over the months or years or decades, and you've developed a more than sturdy handle on who they are. Their virtues, their problems. If someone asked you to describe them in a few words, you could do it practically without thinking. It's not difficult - they're consistent. The same person one day as the next. They are, in your mind, clearly defined.

You think you know yourself. You believe you're a good person. Sure, you know how you can get sometimes, but you - only you - know who you really are. You're almost restrictively self-conscious, so you're well aware of the flaws other people are usually too polite to bring up. You know how you react to things, how you are at certain times of day, how you come across to friends and lovers and co-workers. You know your moods and patterns. You see yourself clearly. No one else really understands you.

Except what if it turned out that person you know - whether it's a significant other, a childhood friend, a family member, or even yourself - was, completely without your knowledge, an abuser, or an addict, or, oh I don't know, had a nasty habit of levelling South Korean cities and stomping innocent people to death.

Oh, what, you're shocked? You've never seen them in this light before? Well, neither have they. Or, to drop the pretense and be more specific, neither has Gloria (Anne Hathaway), who has only just discovered that the giant kaiju splashed all over the news recently - the one who promptly appears at a specific time every few nights and proceeds to clumsily tear Seoul apart - is ... well, it's her. Or a sort of manifestation of her, except skyscraper-tall and gangly, with long lanky arms and a lethargic tail, and a flat head that pokes out sharply on either side, forming what I can only assume are ears. Sure, it may not look anything like Gloria, but she does control its every move - its leisurely walk, the occasional flailing of its arms, all of which causes a great deal of property damage. (Also death.) So far, military jets and helicopters - even with assistance from the international community - have been powerless to stop it (her? whatever). Those aircrafts usually don't have very long anyway - after a set period of time, no more than a few minutes, the creature inevitably disappears into thin air.

But as the saying goes, if you can't handle her at her worst, you don't deserve her at her best. And childhood pal Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) most certainly believes he deserves Gloria at her best. That her nightly bouts of drunkenness often result in widespread destruction halfway around the globe is a problem they can work through. (It's never as bad as it seems, right?) And when, on occasion, he has to sheepishly break the news of her monstrous antics from the night before, he tries to soften the blow as much as possible. I mean, that's the ticket, right? All he's gotta do is show her a bit of understanding and patience, be a nice guy, casually deluge her with gifts, treat her like one of the guys, and get bitterly jealous when she goes home with the soft-spoken, boring-as-hell pretty boy from the bar.

Then apologize.

That Gloria and Oscar are not - and never have been - together is but a conspicuous detail, at least from the latter's perspective. All signs do seem to be pointing in that direction, and it would certainly fit the formula. Would fit it almost too well. She's just come back to her hometown because she washed out in the big city, her drinking and consorting and lying comining to sabotage her long-term relationship with Tim (Dan Stevens). Out of work and out of sorts, she has no recourse but to go back home, figure her life out, and presumably start again. And wouldn't you know, it seems to be working out exactly like the romantic comedies always do. The guy? Well, it's like he's practically practically waiting for a woman like Gloria to fall into his arms. And c'mon, it's Jason Sudeikis! Nicest fella in the world! Handy, good-natured, kind. He even has a part-time job offer for her at the bar he runs. As far as perfect scenarios to fall ass-backwards into after hitting rock bottom, you could do a lot worse.

But the strange existence of a remotely (and inadvertently) controlled creature on the other side of the world should be signal enough that things in Colossal don't and won't follow all the seemingly straightforward rules put so cleanly in place. What emerges instead is a terrifically entertaining twist on the monster movie - focusing not so much on destruction but on destructiveness, and the personal turmoil/devastation left in its wake. The developing situation in Seoul is merely collateral damage. The real drama is back home, where the personas so carefully cultivated by this group of characters are slowly coming undone. The film is a gentle upending of formula and a pointed subversion of well-defined cinematic personas, specific both to these character archetypes and the actors playing them.

Gloria is the film's quite unwitting villain; if there is such a thing as serial involuntary manslaughter, this is it. It is the metaphysical, accidental symptom of her penchant for heavy drinking - nothing more malicious than that, but certainly a behavior that has begun to leave lasting damage. Anne Hathaway gives the character a light, sincere touch, both in and out of inebriation, imbuing a self-awareness to Gloria's irresponsibility that transforms into genuine moral virtue once her city-destroying deeds come to light. She is this world's great, unconquerable menace, and yet in truth she has the instinct and capability to be the hero. It just needs a chance to shine is all. The perceptual back-and-forth is nothing new for Hathaway, who has had a career full of persona shifts, both deliberate and unintended. From the prepackaged wholesomeness of her early princesses and fairy tales to a willful shift into more adult material (Havoc, Brokeback Mountain), gliding effortlessly into both prestige star and geek-genre staple (Tim Burton, Lewis Carroll, and a pair of Christopher Nolans), and somewhere in the middle of all that shifting from A-list darling to pariah in the court of public opinion (stemming from the Les Misérables award-season circuit). The fact that she's proven she can pretty much do it all - gritty dramas and rom-coms, Batman villains and Broadway musicals - makes her uniquely qualified for a role in which she is both hero and villain at once, and all depending on appearances. She's unsurprisingly great in Colossal, a bit reminiscent of the specific blend of toughness and vulnerability she showed in the underrated Love & Other Drugs.

That leaves the big surprise for Sudeikis, Hollywood's quintessential nice-guy. He embodies that persona completely as Oscar, only to slowly reveal himself as a bitter, entitled, temperamental abuser who is more than willing to cross particular moral lines - sometimes when he's mildly prodded, other times just because he's a spiteful asshole. The ease with which his performance can slip between sincere, good-hearted friendliness and venomous, manipulative cruelty - while his basic persona remains consistent - nicely exemplifies the elasticity of character itself, how first impressions and displays of personality can be so unreliable or deceptive. Sudeikis has such a reliable type - whether he's a romantic lead, a best friend, a sidekick, even a hitman (Masterminds) or amateur criminal (Horrible Bosses) - that it probably takes a scene or two longer than it should have to really see Oscar for who he is.

It should come as no surprise that writer/director Nacho Vigalondo would find such particular ways to use his actors. Thought I've found his work frustratingly erratic over the years, he's always been a terrifically inventive filmmaker, and he puts that quality to great use here. Of course his version of a romantic comedy would be a monster movie. Of course his version of a monster movie would be a subversive test of character. Colossal is unusually observant about human behavior, which it frames through absurd comic fantasy. Every character in the film is a misdirect of one kind or another. We think we know them - know exactly who they are - from the moment they appear on screen; but the longer we watch, the more wrong we become.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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