Posts Tagged ‘Nacho Vigalondo’

I always find it a bit concerning when someone gives me a surprise Xmas or birthday present of a book or DVD which I a) didn’t ask for and b) have never heard of. This sort of thing seems to me to suggest a profound confidence in their ability to predict just what’s going on in the depths of my pysche and just what things I will and won’t enjoy. As I frequently feel I only have a nodding acquaintance with the deeper workings of my own thinking-equipment, I expect you can see the potential for existential angst involved, to say nothing of the social awkwardness if I end up absolutely hating whatever it was they gave me.

Well, anyway, something along these lines happened at Christmas just gone, when Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager, completely disregarding the cherished conventions of Secret Santa, gave me a DVD with the assurance that I would love it – adding that I shouldn’t worry about never having heard of it, as this was intentional. The movie was Los Cronocrimenes (E-title Timecrimes), directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Rather to my surprise, it turned out I was not entirely unacquainted with this impressively-monickered gentleman’s work – he made the bracingly mad Anne Hathaway movie Colossal a few years ago. This boded well.

Timecrimes is mostly about the travails of Hector (Karra Elejalde), a well-to-do middle-aged man who at the start of the film arrives home from the shops to meet his wife. There is a mysterious phone call; ringing back just puts Hector in touch with a computer. Eventually he just settles down in the garden with his binoculars.

Casually scanning the woods behind his house, Hector happens upon a young woman (Barbara Goenaga) behaving rather oddly – the spectre of the exploitation movie looms, as she starts taking her clothes off, then seems to vanish. Acting purely out of gallantry, no doubt, Hector ventures into the woods in search of her, eventually coming across what seems to be her body. Almost at once he is set upon by a terrifying figure – a man whose head is swathed in bandages, armed with a pair of scissors. Fleeing through the woods, he discovers what seems to be some kind of private science facility – where a lab technician (Vigalondo himself) offers to show him a good place to hide from his assailant. The film’s first real twist comes with the revelation that the hiding place is inside a time machine. The second comes when it turns out this is not, as you might think, a very bad place to hide, but actually a very good and quite possibly essential one…

Saying much more about the plot of Timecrimes would spoil it, which would be a terrible shame; I already feel I have probably given too much away. Seeing it in a state of complete ignorance, as I did, is by far the best way to approach it. Despite the fact that the movie’s publicity seems to suggest it’s at least partly a piece of horror (bandaged figures holding sharp implements), it’s genuinely a piece of science fiction, and part of that spate of rather good time-travel-themed movies which appeared roughly ten to fifteen years or so ago – it’s somewhere between Looper and Primer in its sensibility, although apparently its origins came from somewhere rather more familiar to me.

One of the main influences on my youthful imagination was 2000AD, the galaxy’s greatest comic, which expanded the minds of a whole generation with its careful mixture of pulp SF conventions, political subversiveness, and utterly berserk violence. In amongst all of this, some genuinely clever and imaginative stories got published. Amongst these was a little five-page story called Chronocops, about a couple of time-travelling policemen who get their causality a bit tangled. It was the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, who a couple of years later really made the comics big time as the creators of Watchmen. Nacho Vigalondo has apparently credited Chronocops as the inspiration for Timecrimes, and once you’re aware of this the influence is quite clear – it would be pushing it to suggest that this is in any way an adaptation of the comics story, but if you were to include it amongst the various adaptations of Alan Moore stories, it would be near the top of the pile – certainly better than From Hell or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

This is all the more impressive when you consider that Timecrimes is practically the type specimen for a particular kind of low-budget movie – most of it was filmed in and around a single location, with a tiny cast (only four characters), and hardly any special effects to speak of. It manages to make a virtue of these limitations, simply by being very clever about its plotting – I wouldn’t bet against there having been some kind of flowchart involved at the scripting stage, keeping track of where every character was at any given moment in the narrative. This cleverness is the film’s great strength – after a while you cotton on to the game the film is playing and start looking out for the clues – but it still manages to be consistently surprising and funny. (I imagine it rewards multiple viewings unusually well, too.) If there’s a downside to this kind of film – well, other than the fact that the whole plot consists of multiple nested time paradoxes, in which events necessarily cause themselves to happen – it’s that the ending is kind of dictated by the beginning and the middle. The story doesn’t so much build to a climax as resolve in accordance with the situation that’s already been established: to a very great extent, predestination is part of the deal, regardless of whether or not this is dramatically satisfying.

Watching Timecrimes without any other information, you would assume that this is the kind of incendiary debut which would inevitably lead to much higher-profile work for its creator, probably in the mainstream of commercial cinema. Apart from Colossal, this doesn’t seem to have happened for Nacho Vigalondo, though he seems to be very active in TV. Perhaps, as seems to have happened with Gareth Edwards, he’s decided that the kind of creative restrictions that inevitably come with working in the biggest leagues simply don’t suit him. Which is fair enough. Nevertheless, this film suggests he is a major talent, who will hopefully continue to do impressive work for many years to come.

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Film companies, being the savvy and cost-conscious entities that they are, know the best ways to spend their money when it comes to things like marketing. They know that there’s not much value in advertising a reserved and thoughtful costume drama in front of a Vin Diesel movie, or showing the trailer for a gut-churning survival horror ahead of the latest Pixar offering. This is why you routinely get trailers for films of the same genre as the one you’ve actually paid to see (and the ‘These trailers have been specially chosen for this film’ message in some cinemas). When this isn’t this case, it’s a sign that either the advertising people have dropped the ball somewhat, or a film has come along that they really have no idea how to cope with. For the same movie to be accompanied by trailers for Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, My Cousin Rachel, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a clear sign of a system on the verge of meltdown, and a pretty good indicator of just how weird Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal really is.

This is one of those films that feels like it started out as part of a bet – or at least a conversation running something along the lines of ‘I don’t think you could possibly write a script which combines elements of any two random old movies’/’I bet I could’/’Go on then, pick two names out of this bag’/’All right… oh’/’Which ones did you get?’/‘Manchester by the Sea and Terror of Mechagodzilla’/‘Ha hah! I win!’/’No hang on, give me a chance…’ For this is pretty much what Colossal is, only much, much odder than it sounds.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a young unemployed writer struggling with a bit of a drink problem. The sympathy of her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is finally exhausted and he kicks her out, forcing her to return to her home in small-town America. Here she encounters her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and his buddies, and manages to land a job waitressing in Oscar’s bar (this is probably not the best idea for someone contending with incipient alcoholism, but she is pretty much out of options).

Gloria’s personal issues soon become less of a priority as the world is shocked by the appearance in Seoul, South Korea, of a skyscraper-sized reptilian monster, which proceeds to meander about leaving a trail of devastation and panic in its wake, before disappearing into thin air. The authorities rush to respond, people struggle to take in the news that the world is so much stranger than they had thought… and Gloria slowly begins to get a suspicion that she may have some involvement with all of this.

Yes, it eventually transpires that if Gloria is in a certain spot in town at a particular time of day, an enormous monster will materialise in Korea and mirror her every action. This is enough to give a girl pause, as you might imagine. But what should she do with this remarkable new power? Should she do anything at all with it? And where does the ability come from?

If you think all that sounds like an intensely weird premise, I should inform you that Colossal is another of those movies that bucks the current trend and doesn’t put the entire plot in the trailer. More than this, there are great swathes of story and character development that aren’t even hinted at – the film is much, much odder than even the brief synopsis I’ve given might suggest.

For a movie genre to be deconstructed and played with is normally a sign it is in robustly good health, and so you might conclude that the existence of Colossal suggests that all is well with the giant monster or kaiju movie. Well, maybe (the recent King Kong movie was pretty good, after all), but I think it may just be that this is a genre everyone knows, or thinks they know. There are no particularly clever allusions or references here for fans of the form to spot – I suspect the reason the giant monster shows up in Korea rather than Japan is just to avoid a lawsuit from Toho (the film-makers drew the ire of the legendary Japanese studio for using images of Godzilla without permission in very early production materials), although the appearance of the kaiju (specifically the horns) seems to me to recall the titular monster in Pulgasari, the notorious North Korean communist kaiju film.  There isn’t even a proper monster battle, really.

Instead, the monster movie angle seems to be there mainly because of the sheer ‘You what?!?’ value of mashing it up with an offbeat indie-ish comedy-drama, which is what the rest of the film initially appears to be. It is an intriguingly bizarre premise for a film, if nothing else.

That Colossal in the end doesn’t really hang together is therefore a shame: I like bonkers movies, and this one certainly qualifies, but in the end it just doesn’t work, despite being well-directed and performed. The sheer unevenness of tone is certainly an issue, for one thing: when the film attempts to mix more serious moments into what started off as a very offbeat comedy, you’re left genuinely unsure as to how you’re supposed to react – are these beats intended sincerely, or as just another piece of deadpan black humour? At any given moment, is it actually meant to be funny or not?

Some of the trouble is more basic, though, and derives from the most basic elements of the storytelling. In order to achieve that lurching mid-movie shift in tone and emphasis, and make it a genuine surprise for the audience, the story requires several main characters to either engage in behaviour which seems strikingly incongruous, given how they’ve previously been presented, or suddenly undergo radical changes in personality, both of which feel rather implausible.

I know, I know: we’re discussing a film in which a young woman magically acquires an enormous reptilian doppelganger in Korea, and somehow I’m complaining that it’s the character development which is the most implausible thing in the movie. But there you go – it only goes to prove that you should never neglect the carpentry.

I suppose the film’s lack of a strong central metaphor is also an issue – if it is indeed that alcohol can unwittingly turn people into monsters, it’s not really followed through with quite enough thoroughness, and the result is a movie which just feels like a collision of various strange ideas, many of them interesting and amusing, but not quite working together as a coherent whole. The simple fact that films as bizarre as Colossal are still being made is surely a hopeful one, though.

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