★★ / ★★★★
Although not short on imagination, “Colossal,” written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, remains a marginal disappointment because it is unable to balance its dramatic shifts in tone. A picture about alcoholism, toxic relationships, and giant monsters attacking Seoul, South Korea requires writing so on point that it creates an effortless melding of variegated elements. What results is a watchable but frustrating film, full of potential but ultimately unsatisfying.
Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a New Yorker and an online columnist who also happens to be an alcoholic. Her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is so fed up with the same old speech involving her willingness to make a change but history proves there is only inaction. Hathaway is able to play a spectrum of emotions and halfway through I wondered how she would fare in bleak dark comedies, a shade or two darker than her work in “Rachel Getting Married.” Here, she shows that she has a knack for looking like and being a miserable character but there is something about her portrayal that makes us wish to find out more about the flawed person who takes up a job as a waitress in her hometown. I wished, however, she would have refrained from employing her go-to wide-eyed innocent girl when situations present more interesting avenues to show other emotions.
I admired the film’s willingness to show what alcoholism does to a person. Initially, I found it quite off-putting that certain scenes would simply stop in its tracks, without closure or punchline, and then it is onto the next scene. Upon closer inspection, however, we realize that we experience what Gloria experiences on a day-to-day basis: random blackouts, inability to focus on tasks or conversations, the sheer exhaustion of having to keep one’s eyes open, the confusion of waking up in a room she doesn’t recognize. I enjoyed that the writer-director made the decision of allowing Hathaway to look beautiful physically but the ugliness lies within the characterization of both the performer and screenplay.
I found the giants fighting amongst South Korean skyscrapers to be cheesy and overlong despite being shown in quick bursts. I think that it is supposed to be cheesy on top of being silly, harmless, and amusing, but I did not buy fully into its conceit. The metaphor involving alcohol mixed with personal demons personified through these monsters is a hammer over the head, but it works well enough because Vigalondo grabs onto his ideas and pushes them all the way. There are even a few creative moments worth a chuckle or two. However, it must be pointed out that moments performed in front of a green screen are awkwardly put together, distracting, and ultimately taking away from the drama.
“Colossal” is for a select group of audience. If you believe monster movies, dark comedies involving a return to one’s small town, and character studies through veil of booze is niche, get a load of this one. I am happy to give it a marginal recommendation for those willing to see something on the fringe of mainstream. But viewers with certain defined expectations when it comes to how character studies should unfold might find it a better alternative to overlook the picture completely.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Having led ten flights in just three days, some might say that Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is not in the best of shape to fly a plane. Add him having consumed high levels of alcohol and cocaine the night prior to flying an airliner from Atlanta to Orlando the next day through a portentous rainclouds, some would say that not only does he choose to be irresponsible, his behavior is downright criminal.
But SouthJet Flight 227 is meant to crash due to a faulty machinery. Capt. Whitaker just happens to get on that plane. Through intense aircraft acrobatics, he manages to minimize the casualties onboard by landing the plane onto an open field. But there is a problem: a tragedy of this magnitude has the National Transportation Safety Board investigating what went wrong, beginning with the crew’s blood samples. Someone is responsible.
Written by John Gatins and directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Flight” is superficially about one man’s addiction to alcohol and how it consumes his life from the inside out. Although a topic that has been taken under a microscope many times before, the material is elevated by a carefully measured lead performance in front of the camera as well as ace talent from behind the lens. It paints a scary portrait of the beast in the bottle that takes control of the mind without relying on typical “down in the dumps” scenarios. That is a feat worth noting.
Whitaker is a man of pride who is deeply hurt that his ex-wife and son want nothing to do with him other than times when they are in need of money. Right from the opening scene, Washington tunes into the pain of his character through anger. But not just anger. Anger with a thin layer of regret and yearning to at least have some kind of connection, one that is rewarding, with his family. I liked the way Washington pulls himself back from lashing out completely at his former wife on the other line because it communicates clearly that Whip values her even though she talks to him like he is less than nothing. It is amazing how we can feel their history when we do not even lay eyes on the two of them sharing a space until much later on in the picture. That is telling of a great script.
We can take the gymnastics that the plane goes through as an example of the director’s level of control. Logically, flying the plane upside down in order prevent it from losing altitude requires a leap of faith. I’m not sure that jet airliners are designed to function that way. However, we cannot help but buy into it completely because Zemeckis pays close attention to the details of a typical flight: stewardesses making announcements while most passengers do not pay attention, people walking about on board, and the stresses on people’s faces when a plane goes through convulsions that can attributed to rough clouds. We also get detailed shots of what happens in the cockpit like what is being relayed between pilots and technicians at the command center. It is an isolated environment and since the elements are in place to align, when a jolt is applied, our eyes are glued on the images. We are thrilled, we are horrified and bemused, and we demand how it will all turn out.
Many people are convinced that the alcoholism defines the picture. I thought about it and I’m not convinced. I think the void that Whitaker has nurtured from within is the spotlight. Yes, we see him drink a whole lot, but why is it that he drinks? Because he wishes to fill in that emptiness. The alcohol and the drugs just happen to be there, the alcohol being most available. There is a reason behind someone being an alcoholic. Look closely during the denouement. The attention is on the person who is making a choice.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ben (Nicolas Cage) was an alcoholic intent on traversing a destructive path. His wife and child left him and he was recently fired from his job so he decided to go to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. Sera (Elisabeth Shue) was a prostitute and Yuri (Julian Sands) was her pimp. When she didn’t make enough money for a night, he took pleasure in beating her. She didn’t seem to mind. For her, being hit was a better feeling than being lonely. When Ben hired Sera, it wasn’t a regular night on the job. He just wanted someone to talk to and listen to his sometimes incomprehensible words. In just one night, she seemed to have fallen for her client. Based on a novel by John O’Brien and directed by Mike Figgis, it’s easy to classify “Leaving Las Vegas” as a romance film, but I didn’t see it from that perspective. In my opinion, for there to be romance, two people had to be relatively functional and emotionally available. Ben was far from functional and he was definitely not emotionally available. I wasn’t convinced that we knew his true self. In each scene, he was either drunk with confidence or he was going through ugly withdrawals. Cage’s performance was very impressive because he had control of such an uncontrollable character. He had an organic way in terms of shifting from one intense emotion to another without ignoring the subtleties requisite to make us believe that we were still watching a person worth saving even though the beast inside him had almost completely taken over. For instance, while having dinner, Sera suggested that Ben go see a doctor. With bulging eyes, he said he wasn’t going to see any doctor with such authority in his voice, but at the same time I felt that the longer I looked in those eyes, there was nobody there. I cared for Ben but there was something about that moment that scared me. It reminded me of those times when I was about four and my father, who drank alcohol profusely at the time, would return home and act like a damn fool in the living room and my mom and I stayed out of his way. The fear I felt as I looked in Cage’s eyes was similar to the fear I felt when my father’s monster would throw furniture around the house. Was there love between Ben and Sera? I thought so. But I wasn’t convinced Ben and Sera were really in love with one another. Ben depended on alcohol and Sera depended on the feeling of having someone there. They enabled each other’s disease. One of the most beautiful things about “Leaving Las Vegas” was love, like addiction, encompassed many forms. Depending on our experiences, we were able to take a unique magnifying glass and interpret why certain scenes unfolded the way they did. But one thing was certain. It was accurate in portraying alcoholism: the temporary and fleeting illusions of joy, the ticks when the mind was hungry for alcohol, the self-loathing because loved ones left, and the crippling depression. Those who’ve never had experience with an alcoholic should see this film. It was scary in its realism.
★★★ / ★★★★
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was hired to coach an Indiana high school basketball team. He used to coach college basketball for twelve years, but he spent the last ten years in the Navy. The small town’s residents seriously questioned Norman’s qualifications and strange methods of training. After all, what could a man who spent his last decade on water impart when it came to basketball? Based on a true story of underdogs, “Hoosiers,” written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, made a sport I thought was uninteresting into an exciting, touching, and inspiring film that also touched upon what it meant to give and receive a second chance. Immediately did I admire Hackman’s character because of his determination to turn a team with raw potential into a force that worked as a single unit. Despite the town’s constant interference accompanied by unwarranted threats, he didn’t question himself and his methods. There was something about his confidence that I found comforting. The way Norman eventually earned his team’s respect felt natural because communication and wanting to change were established as a two-way street. There was no one rousing speech that changed everything the next day. Dennis Hopper as the assistant coach named Shooter was equally strong and compelling. In fact, I believed Hopper delivered two performances. The first was an alcoholic who lived in isolation and the other was a father who desperately wanted to make his son, a member of the basketball team, to be proud of him. We weren’t always certain whether Shooter would be able to defeat his alcoholism. Unlike the game which consisted of rules, statistics and a certain level of predictability, alcoholism was indeed another breed. It was a disease and the person inflicted could be fine one day and a complete wreck the next. The picture was successful in generating tension because its backbone in terms of the drama behind the basketball games was consistently in focus. When the big games arrived, it felt like there was more at stake, that winning would mean something more than a trophy and a title. It meant pride for the townsfolk who didn’t quite reach their dreams but nonetheless loved their town unconditionally. It meant a boost of morale for the players who worked tirelessly to improve their game. It also meant unity between newcomers and a town who didn’t like the idea of change. I only wished the romantic connection between Norman and Myra (Barbara Hershey), a fellow teacher, was either further explored or taken out completely. In a film with already so much heart, it didn’t need to feature a romantic interest in order to get us to care more than we already did. “Hoosiers” is often cited as one of the best sports drama depicted on film and with excellent reasons. Given that I’m not a big fan of basketball, I found my eyes transfixed on the ball and the scoreboard.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
True Grit (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old girl, was adamant about finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s cold-blooded killer, and getting even. She left her grieving mother and siblings at home while she went to town to hire a competent bounty hunter. She crossed paths with an alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who was first reluctant to tackle the task. Mattie desperately wanted him because she claimed he had “true grit” or the right spirit she was searching for. Mattie and Cogburn were accompanied by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also wanted to bring the criminal to justice. The western genre is normally not my cup of tea, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Steinfeld’s energetic performance as a headstrong girl who wanted vengeance instantly caught my interest especially the very amusing scene when she tried to sell back the horses her late father bought. In just one simple scene, Steinfeld established that Mattie was intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to bluff when the occassion called for it. She saw adults as untrustworthy so she had to be self-reliant and use fear to motivate others. Adults saw her as a child who didn’t know any better. On the positive side, she could get away with certain things that older folks simply would not. Much of the picture’s humor was embedded in the scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf tried to ascertain which one of them was the more effective lawman. Cogburn, aging and a drunkard, just didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead and LaBoeuf was difficult to take seriously because he walked around as if he already deserved to be respected. Bridges was successful in delivering the softer side of a man who wanted minimal contact with the world. Meanwhile, Damon complemented Bridges’ character by wanting to be seen, heard and admired. It was obvious that both were having great fun with their roles. As opposite as Cogburn and LaBoeuf were, the two could make a great duo when the situation turned grim. I admired the look of the film because I felt transported to that era. The contrasting images of the blistering hot desert and the bone-chilling snowy nights not only were great visually but they reflected what the characters felt, especially Mattie since we saw the story from her perspective, during their arduous journey. I just wished we had a chance to get to know Chaney a bit more in order to make room for another layer of complexity. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “True Grit” was a straightforward and character-driven revenge story. Simple is not something I’m used to when watching Coen brothers picture. Maybe that’s the irony.
La Mission (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Bratt, “La mission” told the story of the way a hypermasculine ex-convict (Benjamin Bratt) dealt with reality when he found out that his son (Jeremy Ray Valdez) was gay and had been going out with another guy (Max Rosenak). I liked that the movie managed to capture how painful it was to reluctantly come out of the closet but the movie took it one step further and begged the question of whether love really was unconditional. I easily identified with the intense scene when the son was trapped in a corner and he had no choice but to admit to his father about his lifestyle, all the while completely aware that his father would not take the news lightly. Something similar happened to me not that long ago and watching that scene made me tear up and I found myself feeling the need to pause the movie and walk around the house a bit. I thought the picture had an elegance in the way it handled the scenes where the father took his son back into their home but the father did whatever it took to avoid dealing with the situation. Since he had a violent past and a history with alcoholism, which still haunted him, I rarely agreed with his style of parenting. However, it was almost always clear to me that he cared about his son. He just did not know any other way to deal with his problems. Bratt’s acting was key because he then had to maneuver between holding onto his past and trying to deal with his son’s sexuality. I thought he did an excellent job because I managed to empathize with him despite his many unquestionably bad decisions. Instead of watching the movie through the eyes of the person coming out of the closet, we had a chance to see it through the person dealing with the news. I thought it was a refreshing perspective but it was sometimes difficult to sit through because I experienced his hatred as if that hatred was directed to me. I also liked the romance that developed between the father and the neighbor (Erika Alexander) who worked at a women’s shelter. I liked that she, too, was tough when she needed to, but she had control over her toughness which was completely unlike the man who was interested in her. But just when I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, the movie surprised me once again and reminded me that there wasn’t such a thing as someone changing over night. It requires effort and sometimes slipping back into one’s habits when things looked very dim. “La mission” had many elements going for it but the most that stood out to me was its honesty. It was honest with its characters and their complex psychologies, the neighborhood in San Francisco where the story took place and, most importantly, it was honest with its audiences. Despite its difficult and sometimes painful subject matter, it treated us with intelligence.