COLOSSAL (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo

Written by: Nacho Vigalondo

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson & Dan Stevens

I’ve been holding off on reviewing COLOSSAL for a while now. The main reason for that is because this film is so strange that it’s hard to accurately sum up what makes it so enjoyable and refreshing for me. I know there are people who completely hate this film and I understand why they might feel that way. However, I dug the hell out of COLOSSAL for being the best bizarre little dramedy combined with a kaiju film that I’ve ever seen. This movie has monsters, laughs, and feels. What more could you possibly ask for from one-of-a-kind Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo (who’s also known for TIMECRIMES, so-so thriller OPEN WINDOWS, and the only good segment in V/H/S: VIRAL).

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has sunk to an all-time low in her life. She’s struggling with alcoholism, her lack of a job, a recent break-up with her frustrated boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), and, to cap it all off, she’s moved back to her depressing hometown. Things aren’t all bad though, because she’s reconnected with her long-lost childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and he owns a bar. There’s also been a recent appearance of a giant monster terrorizing South Korea, but that couldn’t have anything to do with Gloria’s return to her hometown, right? Well, actually, Gloria is somehow connected to this monster and the resulting antics spiral out of control as she discovers that millions of lives rest in her hands.

First and foremost, COLOSSAL works as a comedy-drama about a gal who’s trying to maintain control of her life and battle her personal demons. That might not be the sentence you expect to hear when describing a giant monster movie, but it’s definitely the descriptor that fits COLOSSAL. This film really functions on Gloria, her tepid relationships with men, and her struggle to overcome her problems. Meanwhile, there’s a monster terrorizing South Korea, but this evolves into something funnier and stranger as it moves along.

This film wouldn’t be funny, compelling or oddly heartwarming if it weren’t for Anne Hathaway’s performance in the leading role of Gloria. Hathaway plays a walking mess of a person who’s just trying to keep her shit together, while not entirely succeeding at that goal. As much as I could see her big character flaws, I cared about Gloria and wanted her to overcome her issues. Some actors and actresses don’t really know how to properly play drunk and instead come off as obnoxiously pretending that they’re wasted, but I believed Hathaway’s performance. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she was downing shots between her takes and I mean that in the best way possible.

On the supporting side of things, Jason Sudeikis makes a big impression here. Though he’s primarily known for comedies and COLOSSAL is technically a sci-fi comedy, Sudeikis gets room to flex his dramatic chops and Oscar is the most serious character that I’ve ever seen him play. I hesitate to say more, but Sudeikis becomes a force to be reckoned with in this film and I was surprised to see this performance coming from him. Dan Stevens occasionally pops up as Gloria’s concerned ex-boyfriend, who’s not exactly a jerk and yet has jerk-like qualities. I wish that Stevens role had been bigger, because the wrap-up to a certain plot thread would have felt more significant if he had more screen time. Also, Tim Blake Nelson is a welcomed presence as one of Oscar’s best friends and Austin Stowell is fast forgotten is a potential love interest.

Though it was made on a relatively small budget for a giant monster flick (15 million), COLOSSAL packs in great special effects. The creature design is unique and the news footage of it terrorizing Seoul is fun to watch. Director Nacho Vigalondo knows when to show the audience the chaos and when to leave it to our imagination. The less-is-more approach to certain scenes probably came from budget constraints, but these bits are effective in letting the viewer’s mind fill in the blanks. Sometimes, the mere suggestion of something combined with a few lines of dialogue can have more of an effect than showing tons of action.

If I have any complains about COLOSSAL, they stem from a couple of plot holes and the screenplay’s occasionally unfocused nature. It felt like the film was going to do more with Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, and Austin Stowell, and then completely forgot about them at points. Also, there’s an attempt to explain what’s going on and this explanation raises more questions than answers. Even with those problems in mind, COLOSSAL is a very fun, entertaining, and original flick. The comedy-drama elements are the main thrust of this story, with the monster stuff serving as a compelling twist on material that you’ve likely seen executed in many other comedy-dramas. This results in a cinematic oddity that’s thoroughly enjoyable and unique. If this sounds up your alley, then I highly recommend checking out COLOSSAL.

Grade: B+

DEATH NOTE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides & Jeremy Slater

(based on the DEATH NOTE manga by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata)

Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi & Willem Dafoe

An American DEATH NOTE film has been in the works since 2009, with directors like Shane Black and Gus Van Sant rumored to be attached and even a brief space of time where it appeared that Zac Efron would be playing the lead role. The studio also screwed with the formula from the very beginning, actively trying to remove the Shinigami (death gods) from the plot altogether. Adam Wingard has a reputation as a solid genre director and Netflix has been making ballsy risks with its steady supply of original content, so I was actually looking forward to DEATH NOTE. Sadly, diehard anime/manga fans, those who have only seen the Japanese films (I fall into this category), and newcomers will all likely be disappointed by this mess of a movie.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is an angsty teen coping with his mother’s untimely death and a frequent target of bullies at his Seattle high school. One day, Light finds a nasty little notebook and discovers that the pages within grant him the god-like ability to kill simply by writing down a name. This “Death Note” was dropped by bored death god Ryuk (a performance-capture/vocal performance by Willem Dafoe) and Light is all too happy to begin using it. Good intentions of killing only criminals soon give way towards personal, vengeance-driven motives as Light falls for psycho-bitch Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley). Matters only get worse when Light finds himself being hunted by mastermind detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) and the body count continues to rise…all while his high school prom is on the horizon. What’s an angsty whiny teen with god-like killing abilities to do?

2017’s DEATH NOTE isn’t all bad. There are aspects that I really enjoyed about this film, but they don’t fully counteract the many problems that I cannot overlook. The best quality comes in Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk. Many will know Dafoe for playing the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and gracing other oddball roles. Ryuk is no different. Dafoe steals the show as a chaos-loving, shit-stirring death god. I was entertained during every minute that Dafoe was on the screen. The problem is that Dafoe’s death god is noticeably absent from a majority of the running time, when he has a big role to play in the proceedings.

Another quality that I really enjoyed is that the gory deaths aren’t simple heart attacks like the manga, anime and original films. Instead, Light’s killings are reminiscent of FINAL DESTINATION. Though I’ve seen some fans complain about this online, I really enjoyed how this DEATH NOTE shook up its demises. It’s also worth mentioning that the final 30 minutes of the film have a few nifty plot twists that reminded me of better moments from the first two live-action Japanese films. 2017’s DEATH NOTE isn’t nearly on the same level as DEATH NOTE or DEATH NOTE II: THE LAST NAME, but this film has a couple of unexpected revelations that were clever and deserved to be in a better script.

This is where my praise ends, because everything else ranges from mediocre to stupid to downright baffling. That third descriptor is especially apt in saying this film’s 80s soundtrack simply doesn’t fit the proceedings and tonally distracts from what’s happening on the screen. There’s a big dramatic scene that’s supposed to be emotional and shocking, but comes off as laughably silly thanks to an idiotic song choice. The film isn’t set in the 80s either, so what’s with all of the 80s songs? Earlier this year, ATOMIC BLONDE rocked an 80s soundtrack because it was set during the 80s and BABY DRIVER had an assortment of tunes constantly playing on the main character’s iPod. Both of those soundtracks made sense of the context of their films, but DEATH NOTE’s soundtrack is weirdly placed for no apparent reason.

Besides the out-of-place songs, DEATH NOTE’s script is bland and muddled. This film was penned by two brothers (who’ve only written one other film, 2011’s IMMORTALS) and Jeremy Slater (the guy who wrote the worst superhero flick I’ve ever seen: FANTASTIC FOUR). It’s safe to say that DEATH NOTE’s writing is its biggest weakness. Somehow, this less-than-two-hour film packs tons of information into its opening 15 minutes and yet drags for a majority of its running time. The bigger plot points include a school prom and a forced teen romance with no believable chemistry, instead of a downward spiral of the Death Note corrupting Light or a tense cat-and-mouse game between two geniuses.

Speaking of which, 2017’s DEATH NOTE has terrible characters. Nat Wolff is unbearable as Light, coming off like a whiny little edgelord who’s oh so upset because life isn’t fair. Having a deadly notebook in the hands of a hormonally unstable teen could make for a very interesting take on the material, but Light’s annoying personality and frequent dumb decisions (like using the Death Note in the middle of gym class where everybody can see him) constantly get in the way of a potentially cool spin on the material.

Still, Nat Wolff’s obnoxious portrayal of Light is nowhere near as misguided as Margaret Qualley’s Mia (this film’s version of Misa) who’s a sociopathic psycho-bitch cheerleader who impulsively kills and seeks to manipulate Light at every turn. It’s almost like this version of DEATH NOTE did a 180 degree spin on the personalities of sociopathic Light and naïve Misa, but in a way that’s not at all enjoyable for franchise fans and newcomers alike. There’s no chemistry between Mia and Light, but the film forces their angsty teenage romance to the forefront. Also, Lakeith Stanfield is embarrassingly bad as mysterious detective L, who gets teary-eyed every single time one of his half-baked schemes backfires and eats candy to stay awake for 48 hours at a time (because that’s how sugar works, I guess?).

Adam Wingard has directed good films in the past and that’s one of the many reasons why DEATH NOTE is so damn disappointing. There are positive qualities that I really liked about this film, mainly Dafoe’s Ryuk, the FINAL DESTINATION-like deaths, and plot twists that felt like they belonged in a better film. However, the sheer amount of bad acting, dumb character decisions, plot holes, poor pacing, and misguided 80s songs really put a damper on the whole movie. DEATH NOTE isn’t the disaster that some have made it out to be, but it’s still pretty bad.

Grade: C-

WIND RIVER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, a Rape, Disturbing Images, and Language

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene & Martin Sensmeier

Taylor Sheridan has been making quite the impression in the independent film scene. He made waves with his script for the bleaker-than-bleak cartel thriller SICARIO (which I’d rank as one of my favorite thrillers of the 2010s) and received praise for penning the modern-western HELL OR HIGH WATER. Sheridan finally directs one of his own scripts in mystery-thriller WIND RIVER. The premise for this movie sounds very simple, but Sheridan is prone to breaking conventions and loves to focus on complex characters. His unique style of storytelling elevates this film far beyond its seemingly clichéd set-up.

The body of a young woman has been found on the desolate, snow-covered landscape of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker who’s used to hunting and killing predators. Saddled with a deeper emotional motivation than you might initially think, Cory takes to hunting down the person responsible for this homicide. Fish-out-of-water FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) also finds herself facing unfair odds in a no man’s land where back-up is a myth and survival is key. Together, Jane and Cory must piece together the clues behind this mysterious death, but Wind River’s harsh elements and tense environment are stacked against them.

Much like his previous two screenplays, WIND RIVER is a film that works because of its attention to characters, a genuine emotional core, and tense atmosphere. Though it’s not nearly as dark as SICARIO, I’d argue that WIND RIVER is a step higher than HELL OR HIGH WATER. This thriller isn’t perfect in its pacing, because there are a few scenes that noticeably drag a little longer than they needed to. However, the end result is a riveting thriller that will frequently punch you in the gut and constantly keep your eyeballs glued to the screen.

Jeremy Renner might have put in his finest performance yet as tracker-turned-investigator Cory. The film feeds us little vague tidbits about Renner’s character’s past and shows enough respect to let the audience put those puzzle pieces together for ourselves, though we do get a scene where more revealing details come out. Still, this slight bit of exposition keeps things enough of a mystery to remain realistic. Renner’s character has a bad past and this makes him a stronger protagonist to bring his own brutal style of justice to the proceedings. I was rooting for him the whole way through and found his final on-screen moments to be especially satisfying in two totally different emotional ways.

Elizabeth Olsen is the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, who’s appropriately outraged and concerned when she realizes the many injustices that the Wind River residents have to endure in a search for justice. Olsen’s Jane starts off as a tad unlikable, but gradually grows on the viewer as she begins to understand that she’s stumbled into especially dangerous territory and is investigating a case that nobody else wants to touch. Gil Birmingham gave a strong performance in last year’s HELL OR HIGH WATER as the Sheriff’s Native sidekick, but steals scenes here as a grieving father who has tons of baggage.

WIND RIVER’s unique setting adds a lot to the proceedings as well. The harsh, frozen elements are a constant plot point in this mystery and manage to pack in unexpected social commentary about the current sad state of how Native Americans are treated. This message isn’t overly preachy or forced in any way, but instead serves as a further powerhouse to the already depressing tale. The film is well-shot and there’s a constant air of menace lurking around this deadly white location. The mystery is further heightened by small clues that lead to big revelations. One particular moment, that cuts from a flashback to present day, is especially masterful. This carefully edited sequence racks up the suspense by giving the viewer damning information that the main characters are about to discover.

The biggest reason why WIND RIVER succeeds as a thriller, a mystery, and a great film in general is because it has a living, breathing emotional core. The characters, writing, atmosphere, and feelings elevate the material far above its meager set-up. I cared about these people. I cared about their plights. I wanted to see this mystery solved. I wanted to see justice delivered in a satisfying way. I gave a shit about every single thing in this film and that’s why Taylor Sheridan is a cinematic storyteller to watch. He forces his viewers to care by connecting them to believable fleshed-out characters and seemingly simple stories that are emotionally complicated. WIND RIVER is a must-see!

Grade: A

SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, and Language

Directed by: Kevin Greutert

Written by: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Cary Elwes, Sean Patrick Flanery, Gina Holden, Laurence Anthony, Dean Armstrong, Naomi Snieckus & Rebecca Marshall

After the SAW series began to bring home diminishing returns, Lionsgate decided that it was time to end the once-profitable franchise. This resulted in two planned sequels becoming a seventh final entry in the franchise. Under the title of SAW 3D (later retitled to SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER), the seventh SAW attempted to answer one big question from fans and tie everything up in a gory final outing. Is it successful at either of these things? Well, kind of, but not really. SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER is far from the worst film in series (that distinction still belongs to SAW V), but it’s easily the blandest chapter of the bunch.

Picking up after the conclusion of the better-than-expected-but-still-not-good SAW VI, FINAL CHAPTER sees Jigsaw’s distressed ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) running from revenge-driven Jigsaw protégé Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). While Jill attempts to make a deal with the cops, it’s clear that Hoffman is trying to find any way to kill her. Meanwhile, supposed Jigsaw survivor-turned-motivational-speaker Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery) finds himself confronting past lies and facing a series of twisted traps that put his survival instincts to the test. Blood, traps, and body parts also fly towards the camera…because this film was originally shown in 3D and it’s impossible not to be reminded of that gimmick.

While the later SAW sequels (4-7) definitely weren’t up to nearly the same level of quality as the first three films in the series, SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER is almost enjoyable in a trashy sort of way. By this point, the series had become a mess of convoluted continuity, unrealistic gore, plot holes, and goofy scenarios. SAW fans were just kind of forced to sit back and watch the bloody mayhem ensue. However, I’d question whether anyone can take SAW VII seriously in any way, shape, or form. This script is dumb as a rock and it’s clear that the screenwriters were forced to rush things to a conclusion, while not being totally comfortable with the final outcome.

As far as the acting goes, Russell and Mandylor are just as crappy as ever. They also take up a lot of screen time here as we get flashbacks that delve a little deeper into Hoffman’s corrupt cop past and Jill frantically tries to save her own ass from a fate that seems sort of deserved (she did try to kill Hoffman). All the while, series’ newcomer Chad Donella comes off like the poor man’s Matthew McConaughey as internal affairs officer Matt Gibson. Donella might not have great acting chops, but he certainly got frequent chuckles out of me through his over-the-top reactions and goofy dialogue delivery.

Sean Patrick Flanery (of BOONDOCK SAINTS fame) scores the best storyline as a fraud who’s forced to confront his lies in grisly ways. The character of Bobby Dagen is an idiot and had to realize that the actual Jigsaw killer was going to come for him if he lied about being in a trap, so Flanery’s story arc is actually pretty fun and oddly satisfying to watch in a sick way. Of course, there’s the obligatory Tobin Bell flashback and his wardrobe choice seems like it was specifically chosen to get laughs (a backwards baseball cap and hoodie don’t exactly look like they belong on an elderly man). Gina Holden delivers the best acting in the film as Bobby’s misled wife, though she’s just regulated to being a damsel-in-distress.

As far as FINAL CHAPTER’s traps go, these death sequences are hit-or-miss. The seventh film’s best trap belongs to a gory scenario that sees Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington switching his vocal talents from singing to screaming as a neo-Nazi who realizes that we’re all the same color underneath our skin. As for the traps that Bobby encounters, they range from deadly obstacles to seemingly unwinnable games (like trying to avoid making vocal noises as someone pulls a fishhook out of your stomach) and one ludicrously laughable moment that’s meant to be taken as a straight-faced tragic revelation.

Sadly, FINAL CHAPTER’s effects leave much to be desired. This SAW was shown/filmed in 3D, which means that shit gets thrown at the camera every few minutes. These items range from jets of blood to body parts to a hacksaw during the biggest eye-roll worthy bit. The blood also looks like pink fruit punch for some reason. It’s clear that an effort was made to make FINAL CHAPTER the bloodiest SAW ever, with the highest body count of the series. However, the fake-looking blood and goofy effects distance the viewer from being disturbed or shocked. Instead, they transform a would-be gross-out gorefest into a silly viewing experience.

SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER attempts to deliver fan service by bringing back Cary Elwes (six years after he starred in the original film) and packs the biggest body count. However, the film is mixed bag thanks to shoddy acting, hit-or-miss traps, ridiculous continuity that’s comical at this point, and finale that doesn’t feel very satisfying. I look at this SAW as the biggest B-movie of the franchise, but it’s not nearly as disappointing as SAW IV or as terrible as SAW V. If you’ve watched all of the other SAWs, then you’re bound to watch this one too. If you’ve only seen the first three movies (like I recommended), then you’re not missing anything at all by skipping this flick. Also, seeing as JIGSAW (the eighth SAW film) arrives in two months, I just have to call out the final line of this movie. Game over? My ass!

Grade: C