A Monster Calls – a review

have you farted...?

have you farted…?

Director J.A. Bayona (best known for 2007’s The Orphanage) teams up with his long-time cinematographer and collaborator, Oscar Faura, to conjure a stunning and, if somewhat sentimental, moving Gothic fairy-tale in his latest offering, A Monster Calls.

lt has a lot going for it; a very strong cast, highly ornate and convincing special effects and a well written and intelligently crafted story. The latter owing to the work of author Patrick Ness, who penned the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name.

Sharing the production designer from Guillermo Del Toro‘s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as some of the team behind the special effects from that film, then although comparisons can and will be drawn between the two films, then the technical aesthetic that they share is largely where such comparison should begin and end. A Monster Calls is thematically similar, in that both films compose the coming-of-age story of a child seeking guidance from a somewhat frightening preternatural creature that emerges from nature (in Pan’s Labyrinth it’s a fawn, here a giant yew tree), but tonally the two are leagues apart.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, who is struggling with the reality of his single-mother’s terminal illness. And it’s a break-out role for the youngster, showing an admirable, albeit limited by his years, range in leading such a big movie whilst maintaining the essential vulnerability of youth that makes his performance so affective.

Felicity Jones, although limited on screen time, gives a warmth and reality to her situation albeit from the slightly idealised perspective of her adoring son. Apart from one moment when she says she’s ‘angry too’, you wouldn’t know it, as Jones is delicate and motherly, almost in a saintly way, rendering her unable to show the process she must be going through as her illness overtakes the efforts for treatment. Anyway, the film is crafted from Conor’s perspective, the journey, the rage, the sorrow, the self-discovery, the view of his mother, are all his and so ours too.

The bullies at school, the over-bearing ogre of a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and the ever-absent father (Toby Kebbell) are all sub-plots that merely add tapestry to the core design. That of this young boy turning to his imagination to escape the harsh realities presented by his life. That imagination takes form in a giant yew tree, voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson, that comes to life and challenges him with stories from times gone by in a not-too-thinly veiled mechanism to subconsciously process his grief and turmoil.

Apart from Conor, the characters are largely vignettes and, yes, Weaver’s accent is a little dodgy, Jones a touch too ethereal, Kebbell restricted to charming failure, but they are extremely well-crafted ones and serve their purpose perfectly. Visually, it’s a tour de force with the watercolour realisations of the tree’s mythical tales beautifully complementing the darker world that Conor finds himself trapped in.

Technically, it’s a spectacle. Brilliantly helmed and with a stellar cast, A Monster Calls is a thoroughly enjoyable and moving tale.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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La La Land – a review

let's dance...

let’s dance…

A Technicolour melange of fantastical dreamlike musicality, Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land is a gorgeous, potent and moving love song to a bygone age of golden Hollywood movie-making magic and to the potential and power of human love. It will sing and dance its way into your heart before gently breaking it in a kaleidoscope of stunning imagery and foot-tapping choreography.

Electric chemistry between the two leads and a bittersweet romance swirl together to make Chazelle’s second feature just as awe inspiring as his first (Whiplash), albeit they couldn’t be further apart in style. His debut was all restrained intensity and immaculately tight editing to emphasise the obsession of its protagonist. La La Land is as creatively bold and expansive as they come, giving form to the stratospheric highs and soul-crushing lows of romantic entanglement, launching Chazelle’s vision literally into the stars. And it’s the film’s stars who make that vision sparkle.

Ryan Gosling has long now been one of Hollywood’s leading men, combining his sex symbol status with an, often overly, understated pathos. Recently he’s taken on roles with a more comedic bent and here we get to enjoy the fruits of that process, he rails wonderfully between hapless hero and stone-cold screen icon. If Gosling is a star then Emma Stone is a burning supernova. She simply dazzles. In the dance routines both are a joy to watch but it’s Stone who steals the show, as your eyes play ping-pong between the two you’ll find yours wanting to settle on her. And her audition scene will halt your breath.

Whilst Whiplash won Oscars for editing and sound mixing, along with supporting actor, expect La La Land to pretty well clean up this year, having already broken the record for most wins at the Golden Globes and no doubt BAFTA following suit. It’s the kind of film the industry love because it’s about, well, the industry.

A uniquely realised achievement, appealing to almost every demographic out there without compromising its quality or content in any way, maybe La La Land can go to the top of that category of films that are actually good, dare it be said, original, and make a lot of money too.

Quite simply, GO AND SEE IT. And then go again.

 

first published on Filmjuice.com

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Passengers – a review

passengers1

Have you seen my helmet…?

A beguilingly misleading trailer and marketing campaign do nothing to lift the ever-so-slightly uncomfortable feeling resulting from the plot in Passengers. By turns a slick and sweeping adventure thriller, then glitzy star-vehicle-blockbuster-fodder, then a touching but generic love story and finally a creepy moralistic ponderance, director Morten Tyldum‘s space jam is fun to watch but will leave you with some questions over its ethical tail, tucked coyly between its protagonist’s legs. Not just in terms of the story itself but how the people behind the film have coerced their ticket-buying audience, essentially lying to viewers through the trailer and posters ahead of the release to try to imply there is a twist which makes the film intriguing and worth seeing – when there is not.

Because of that retrospectively added ‘twist’ (which happens in the first half hour, so not really a twist – which conventionally comes at the end – but just the story) and because of the need to avoid doing the ‘spoiler’ thing, all that can really be said is that leading man Chris Pratt’s character, Jim, does something wholly unforgivable. We’re then expected to root for him and have him as our hero opposite Jennifer Lawrence‘s heroine, Aurora. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible because, yep, he did that unforgivable thing. It does loosely raise the question ‘would you do the same thing in the same situation?’ but then quickly forgets that it ever asked and glosses over the whole incident.

Anyway, it looks spectacular with stunning CGI, special effects and super modernist production design all lending to a compelling ‘near future’ space setting. However, this all proves largely incidental to the so-hot-right-now-uber-stars, Pratt and Lawrence, swanning around in a combination of ridiculously revealing outfits or just appearing semi-naked. Well, they are so-hot-right-now-uber-stars after all. Obviously the studio and/or filmmakers were aware of the assets at their disposal and weren’t going to miss out on the opportunity to exploit them. Shots of Jennifer Lawrence in her swimming costume and of Pratt with his arse out are sure to turn some heads but at what cost to the film’s integrity?

Well, sadly, it’s a considerable bill which gets paid by scrimping on the script and that old fashioned thing called narrative. An approach to storytelling that we will call ‘plot-lite’ allows the movie to, well, movie along. That’s not to say it’s without any creative craft or merit whatsoever, that would be unfair and also untrue. Some nice visual touches, like an homage to The Gold Room bar from ‘The Shining’, give a sense of style and elevate the isolation we’re expected to feel for our heroes. And in that bar, Michael Sheen pretty well steals the show with his nonsensical but effortlessly charismatic android bartender, giving a welcome dose of comic relief to off-set the ‘drama’. Pratt and Lawrence do their work commendably, exhibiting palpable chemistry and both showing signs of their latent abilities to do some of that there acting malarkey and carry a movie on their handsome shoulders.

The opening act shows real promise, just a shame that what it promises is to take you on a fun but somewhat dumb ride, only ever flirting with having an emotional or cerebral core but really just being a vehicle for its stars to shine and make-out in some steamy love scenes. Glimpses of some really cool Sci-Fi ideas nudge their way through the gloss, the swimming pool sequence in particular, but can’t do enough to punch through the resultant feeling that the studio just wanted something that looked good for its good-looking stars to make them some even-better-looking profit.

Visually pleasing and entertaining enough, Passengers are very much what Pratt and Lawrence are reduced to in this glitzy star vehicle. A bit of a space oddity.

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