A Monster Calls (2017)

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Thematically powerful with a strong emotional message, this is not a typical fantasy film. It’s better than that, cleverly balancing a talking tree with stunning animation sequences whilst retaining the necessary coming of age narrative.

Artistic Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) tries coping with his terminally ill mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones), being beaten up at school and now a huge yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) is arriving at specific times to deliver three stories to him. These tales may eventually help Conor in revealing his own truth and understanding more.

Patrick Ness’ novel written from an idea by Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer before completing the book, is a fabulously rich story with a central tug of grief that is handled very well. Ness who also wrote this screenplay ensures the interpretation of the Monster’s stories are clear enough to transfer to Conor’s real life. It’s just a really smartly told plot that keeps you interested and attached.

The water colour animations that arrive with each story are creative, bold and quite dark too. This weaving of human complexity within these sequences are engaging and lifts the film even higher. The CGI and mo-cap of the tree monster is great also, thin branches or wisps of wood curling round items add to the fantastical element, he’s an interesting coach for Conor, looking brutish and menacing but having a kind heart within his trunk.

I’ll openly admit that I found the movie emotional, it never reached that overly sentimental try-hard point. Yes it does go towards that area but the way director and writer handle the subject matter keeps it from being soppy drivel. I will also go further to say that I cried from watching this movie, the film is very affecting because you get wrapped up in the vivid world and it’s certainly a more adult feature than you’d think.

Felicity Jones is gripping during the movie, her condition gets bleak and she becomes a paler gaunter figure but still keeps hold of a hopeful glint in her eye, making her a likeable and strong mother figure. Sigourney Weaver like the witch in the first tale is a see-saw of characteristics but one, ultimately that you know will be good. Liam Neeson’s work playing the booming monster is perfectly cast and he adds gravely gravitas to the part. The show is truly Lewis MacDougall’s though as he carries fear, courage, sadness, confusion and anger through the entire picture with spellbinding conviction.

Only the very ending featuring a book felt like a twee moment, aside from that this is a movie to kick off 2017 in fantastic fashion. The emotional vein running through the story is constant, touching and intelligent.

7.5/10

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Cue magical music and the Warner Brothers logo in the clouds and rejoice because we’re back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This time we’re across the pond and in the jazzy 20’s as J.K Rowling steps up for her first screenplay and David Yates is back to kick start another series of fantastical fantasies.

Hufflepuff member and Hogwarts alumni Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in New York with a suitcase filled with interesting and exotic creatures. Unluckily some escape and with the help of non magical aka No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler) he tries tracking them down and evading the attention of Graves (Colin Farrell) who is a director for Magical Congress in America. Whilst they find beasts, humans are rising against the fear of witches and one group may harbour something more powerful than they know.

Managing to avoid spoilers myself I will refrain from any hint of ruin for people that may read this and not have yet seen the film. I can 100% say though that the dazzling effects and wide-spread world conjured up by the amazing Rowling is on form. As soon as the movie begins you cannot help but feel that Potter nostalgia wash over but gladly it starts moving away and feels tonally different as we enter the busy streets of the Big Apple.

It’s the mythology and attention to detail that truly sells this film and makes it the enjoyable spectacle it is. The moment we follow Newt stepping into his suitcase is a brilliant sight to behold and a great scene to watch. The landscapes and animals contained in his travelling pack like the TARDIS-esque tents from ‘Goblet of Fire’ are incredible and it’s the earlier fun segment of the movie that is better than the latter portion.

J.K Rowling takes her small Comic Relief funding book and transports it to the big screen with what feels like ease. Newt and his love of beasties is believable and the 1920’s American set era helps lift the story, giving it an intriguing edge. This newness lets us see the expanding world of magic and how our trans-Atlantic cousins deal with wizards amongst the towering scenery.

Another highlight in the film is when we see a speak-easy and I was happy to hear some 20’s inspired music, though that’s all we get. The scene flows nicely and though it’s small it features a new character that screams perfect 20’s NYC. Yates returns as director and though he doesn’t provide anything wholly special or creatively outstanding, he brings the audience back into that comforting mould we like from the previous HP outings.

On the whole I really found myself wrapped up in this film and liking it; I only have three complaints. One was probably down to me because I guessed a twist from literally 2-3 minutes in. Secondly the latter half as mentioned nearly lets down the more adventurous gleeful first half, as we drift into the reveal of a dark force rattling through the city. All this wreckage with swirling smoke and black fire is quite messy and feels like too much, like a stitched on story to compete and fail with the better Newt journals of finding beasts and clearing his name. Thirdly, the end seemed to drag out and for me should have came before the last tiny scene which felt tacky.

I know that looks like a big paragraph but trust me, I enjoyed the move a lot. Positives totally outweigh the negatives and the cash cow is mooing heartily I’m excited for the announced sequels to come. This new look into the wizarding world with a great Redmayne had me mostly under their spell and is very entertaining.

7.5/10

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

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The grand ideal of hope is positively put to the test in this bleak and amazingly creative take on the zombie genre. Sure there’s things we’ve seen before, but overall it feels tonally different and has issues about life and survival that never felt more engaging, thanks to seeing them from the side of this young girl.

Dystopian England is where we meet a base of soldiers and wheelchair bound children locked up at night. During the day, they are taught by Helen (Gemma Arteton) who is liked by Melanie (Sennia Nanua), one of the children and definitely the smartest and most special of the bunch. As the army location is put under threat, a small core group leave to find human contact elsewhere but with fungi-infected crowds everywhere, their journey is tough.

What I liked most about this film was the huge feeling of tension/unease in the landscape presented. The majority of the movie is very intense and it’s almost as if you’re there with this small party of 5 trekking through a dangerously different London. It’s true to say that movie monster movies get tiresome, vampires and zombies have been done a lot so thankfully this story gives a grand spin on the latter and makes the walking dead a collective you want to find out more about.

Both the screenplay and the novel it’s based on were penned at the same time by M.R. Carey who injects a sense of fear but also wonder in having us focus on infected children and their possible cure for us. In a great way, this film has made me want to buy the book to read it and see what differs and what is similar and just to immerse myself into the world all over again. What is unique and good about the plot is that we stay with Melanie and see her discovery of humans and the city, she’s confident, inquisitive and likable and in fact, though people at times have villainous streaks, they’re not baddies, it’s just them trying to understand the mess.

I couldn’t leave this review without praising the efforts of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, his score/music effects for this British apocalyptic drama has such a reverb around the speakers, the opening scene with his work over the top is fantastically rich, intense and sets the mood just right. I already loved his sounds from the great TV series ‘Utopia’ and that chorus sound of electronica is felt again with this film.

Nanua is a blistering break-through in her debut role as Melanie. She quite literally eats up the screen and ensures her dramatic eagerness to learn is felt which keeps us on her side throughout. Arteton brings emotional depth to what could have been a bland jolly teacher. She’s interested in Melanie and wants her to thrive which is truly felt by the time we rest upon the ending. Paddy Considine starts with a rough exterior but gladly brings dimensions to his sergeant character, as does Glenn Close playing Dr. Caldwell, who is more than just the needle-happy doctor.

It’s a brilliant British film with plenty of frightening imagery to explore directed with imagination and realism by Colm McCarthy. Zombies have never felt more alive.

7.5/10

The BFG (2016)

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The language of the film harks to the marvellous-ness of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author and his charming writing but apart from that, the visuals and a few fun moments this big screen adaptation lags and is too vanilla.

Based on the book from Roald Dahl, this fantasy flick follows young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an orphan who glimpses a giant on the streets of London. She’s swiftly grabbed and taken to the wonky home of the lumbering man, known as the BFG – Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). He collects and gives out dreams but has a tough time due to the meaner giants who can smell Sophie’s presence and make things difficult.

I remember quite fondly, the times I watched the David Jason cartoon adaptation of this story. It’s a 1989 feature and it looks like a Quentin Blake sketch come to life, it’s also fun, dark and a joyous watch. Skip forward 27 years later and we get this take on the story of being brave. This isn’t as enjoyable as the animated offering, perhaps that’s my nostalgia speaking but more likely that it’s this movie attempting a huge amount of motion capture, CGI of the worlds and keeping a British sweetness yet murkiness to the plot…it succeeds in the first two.

Steven Spielberg can certainly make great films and he has a knack for presenting dramas revolving children and the lack of parental figures in their lives. This narrative then should be perfect for his directorial style? Well yes, in a way it suits him greatly and he ensures Sophie is a confident lass even in the cold abandoned state of orphanage upbringing. What stunned me is that Spielberg seems to loosen his grip on the drama of storytelling, as this movie feels sorely missing of tension and engagement.

From start to nearly finish, this film seems catered for the little ones watching. It’s a shame because Dahl was an exquisite master of creating characters, language and worlds with a twisted dark take, which isn’t felt in this release at all. The introduction of the beastly Bloodbottler or Fleshlumpeater should have been way more frightening than it was. It all comes across rather tame, this safe presentation of a giant filled Earth never picking up motivation.

I only sat up and woke up from the sleep I actually nearly nodded off into, once Sophie and her new friend mention that they need to visit the Queen. From that moment onward the movie shifts a gear and becomes driven and amusing, thanks to the scaling of seeing the BFG in a palace tackling tables, hallways and food. The dream ideas just paled in comparison which is a real travesty because it could have been a fun colourful ride into the madness of what happens when we sleep.

The motion capture is fantastic though, I was worried upon seeing the second trailer as more of the giant was shown. I thought it looked naff but the eyes were stunning and creases in the skin, fingernails, quivers of the face all add up to a further convincing demonstration that mo-cap is a way forward in movie-making.

Barnhill plays Sophie confidently and gets a couple of smart, funny lines. There are times when this newcomer feels a little stagey and you can imagine Spielberg feeding her tips before calling action, as the enunciation becomes pronounced quite a lot. Rylance has his face well transferred to the giant, it’s like he has shot up to 24 feet high and learnt how to blow dreams into peoples rooms. It’s a bit of a slow take on the giant at times but he’s fine. Penelope Wilton lands in the more energetic part of the film by playing Queen Elizabeth II and seems to have a good time discovering the truth of what Sophie has known for a while.

At almost 2 hours, this film feels less of a jolly escapade and more like a long trek you wish you hadn’t started, but once you get near the end and you see the finish line, things pick up and a positive feeling washes through you. The BFG – a Bearable Fine Gait.

6/10

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

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From the thrilling mind of John le Carre, this film adaptation takes his novel and transfers it to the big screen with enough enjoyable thrills, questions and definite stellar performances. It may not be 100% gripping or perfect but it’s well made.

Whilst dealing with their relationship issues on a holiday in Morocco, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris) have a chance meeting with Dima (Stellan Skarsgard). He’s a Russian figure in the Mafia but fears his life with an imminent money transfer on the horizon that could endanger him and his family. Dima entrusts Perry with some information to hand to MI6 man Hector (Damian Lewis).

First of all, I have to comment on the look of the film, the way it’s shot and also directed does work really well. There’s a cold blue tone to the film and frequent mirrored fractures of faces creates that dodgy spy world. As if the blur of trust is leaking out to the way the movie is filmed. It’s a beautiful film at times, from the magical white of the opening scene to the way London even looks sleek and captivating.

Based on a book, this film by Susanna White captures the le Carre spy genre very well. That mystery of government and human interaction, who to trust, death and danger all come together in a solid blend to make this a suspenseful watch on the most part. I must admit that at one point; end of second act and going into the third act as they venture to a safe house, the movie begins lagging and the tension that had come before disappears like a ghost. Also, for a story of this bubbling intensity it feels like the movie could have dealt with the delicate nature of involving an every-man in something so big in a better, perhaps more convincing way.

Marcelo Zarvos’ score is a big highlight though and fits the thriller market very very well. The Brazilian composer builds a rostra of music that compliments the tension of the narrative, it never sinks unheard but it never overshadows either. It’s a perfect pitch that tries immersing us into this glossy feature. The plot may not always be outstanding, it has a somewhat generic feel but with the acting, music and cinematography you can’t help but mostly get on board with the entire product.

Ewan McGregor plays the average Joe not called Joe with suitable frowns, worried looks and interchanging cardigans. He is the character we’re meant to get into the film with because he’s like us, an every day normal guy thrown into turmoil, threat and terrific parties and on the whole he acts well. Stellan Skarsgard is the selling point, he brings buckets of charisma to the role and exudes a masculine dominance over proceedings. Damian Lewis is an actor I love watching, there’s something about the careful yet carefree way he delivers lines that makes his characters, this film included, come alive. Naomie Harris does more of worth than the trailer makes you think and helps the narrative with another side of the human eye looking over the world of gangs and crime.

Our Kind of Traitor isn’t an out and out thriller to remember but it certainly looks good and is backed by superb acting and fine tension.

7/10