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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Inside Out (2015)

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Thoughtful and brimming with creativity, this is Pixar well and truly back on the scene after a few scratchy patches. The construction, emotion and wonder of what keeps our minds ticking leads the film into some smart colourful set ups with that expected Pixar stamp of heart you can’t dislike.

Minnesota born Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is going through the upheaval of moving to San Francisco with her mum and dad, little knowing that inside her head are the emotions keeping her brain chugging along and aiding her actions. Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are at the controls until two of the team end up lost in the back-lot of Riley’s mind and need to get back to stop the 11 year old from going awry.

There is so much joy to be had within this film, the colour coded characters for a start lift the film with that bright feeling of bold warmth, reds, blues and yellows shine on the screen gifting us that summer buzz. That could just be me but Pixar have a knack for lighting up cinemas with their tales of objects, be it toys or emotions, delighting audiences and putting some sort of magical glow in my heart. It’s the clever storytelling that keeps them ahead in the game and this is no exception.

Pete Docter directs but also conjured up the story and screenplay along with help from Ronnie del Carmen, Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve. The process of what goes on inside our skulls could be dark but they give it such unyielding spirit. Of course the plot travels down the sadness route to provide dramatic weight and this is something they always build up well. The straining family backdrop accompanied by the struggle of keeping Riley as they want is tense and believable, considering that the film is about walking talking emotions in our heads.

Also, there’s such fantastic rewards to be had in the journey that we go on with two of the emotions. Discovering what the subconscious, long term memory and other thought processes look like is a visual treat. The story makes room for clever openings on how we work as people and what could be behind our eyes helping us make decisions. Concepts of imaginary friends and forgotten memories all truly make you think when Pixar are at the wheel.

Michael Giacchino composes and you can feel that same emotive sense in the music that he crafted for ‘Up’. It bounces along when necessary making you happy and when the troubles begin bubbling away the music becomes tense, not too dark for the kids but worrying enough that you feel the desired emotions. I’m worried about how many times I’m writing the word emotions in this film review. But seriously, it stirs up the right…feels.

Animation wise, the content is gorgeous, the flaking static design of the main emotions and how each one suits their host body is perfect. The memory balls are shining, the view of Riley’s islands is intelligent and detailed and once the journey begins seeing the wonderful ways the brain could be if we were so lucky is fascinating. A dream scene and the little moment of abstraction and turning into broken pieces and 2D art is a cool sequence to watch. It’s a provoking and warm welcome back to this studio and their work.

All the voices suit greatly, Amy Poehler brings a peppy kick to Joy and though she’s control obsessed you can’t help but like her for the sunny disposition she has on the story. The golden voice has to be with Phyllis Smith who somehow makes you laugh and empathise with someone so one tone in their speech. Simply put, it’s a fantastically delivered role. Bill Hader freaks out in a non annoying way as Fear, Mindy Kaling manages to make you smirk as the person inside all of us wanting to spit the truth and Lewis Black blows his top being Anger, the rough determination speaking to all of us who want to get mad. As I mentioned the voices suit greatly, making the characters stand out as individual and integral.

It’s something that is more than worth one watch just to break up the unoriginal trash that floods cinemas consistently. It’s so damn inventive, fun and emotional that inside and out this movie does everything it needs to entice and excite people of every age. No disgust or anger, just sheer joy.

8.5/10

Still Alice (2015)

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Emotional, powerful and wonderful, ‘Still Alice’ doesn’t dumb down or soften the dramatic narrative of a character with a mental illness, it shows all the strengths of Alice with a lot of the low points of suffering with her condition. Adding to this delicate strong story is a stunning performance from Moore that makes the film hit even harder.

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a professor of linguists and a thriving working woman with three children and a busy husband, John (Alec Baldwin). Alice learns that she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease and her world and future is immediately tested as she tries memorising words, keeping on top of lectures and being present with her family.

The story is brave and quite unflinching and for this worrying disease it needs to be. Based on the novel by Lisa Genova you see how character can be tested when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The plot is fantastic in not making the entire thing a sob fest and making you feel pity for Alice, it shows the side of human nature that powers through, the will and reserve to try and stay positive and Alice at times does indeed try and be strong and make quips about her condition.

Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer joined together for the screenplay and directorial duties and they present a brilliant film. Credit too has to go to Glatzer who was suffering with ALS and couldn’t speak during shooting so used technology to talk to crew and cast. He has now passed but I’m sure he’d be proud of the work he and Westmoreland created. The soft look to a lot of the film makes the film more touching and real, their use of flashbacks to younger times as photographs are looked at are short but poignant in making you realise the horror of losing track of your life. The majority of the film does focus on Alice, even when other people are speaking and that’s a great directing decision as it lets you see her reactions, her processes and her progressions.

Alzheimer’s is something I am admittedly terrified of, memory loss and just forgetting yourself and the people around you is a generally scary thought. The film brings up those senses of dark absence spots in your mind a lot, forgetting little things to not knowing the layout of your own home. It’s an emotional film and it does make you more aware of this condition which Alice beautifully states is worse than cancer, maybe hard but fair in the grand scheme of things when she goes on to say why she feels that way. Alice is a character to root for, admire and cry for, her disease is a weakness but the film doesn’t zoom in on that, it tries and succeeds in keeping her heart in tact and the end of the film is near perfect in running with that idea.

Ilan Eshkeri’s score is poetic in the lullaby tones it maintains. A good portion of the movie repeats the similar sounds he composes and that works to benefit the story. The music in fact compliments the theme of the film really well, it’s present but not distracting, you know it’s there aiding in the emotion of what you’re seeing but it’s not too filled with strings or piano making it scream SAD. The score does shift pace briefly at a path that may open up for Alice as she watches a video of her past self instruct her to do something and that entire scene is tense and tough.

Julianne Moore is outstanding. The performance she gives deserved that Oscar, the way her character journeys from intellectual, assured mum and doctor to broken, scared and lost is phenomenal. The little looks on her face as she cannot remember words to the sobbing as she realises what she has all show Moore as the capable and brilliant actress she is. It’s a resounding role she immerses herself in and she doesn’t overplay the disability, she’s subtle and just right. Kristen Stewart proves that Bella was the bland factor and not her acting as she steps forth and acts damn well as the honest, dreamer of the family, trying to be an actor and help her mum at the same time. Alec Baldwin is great as the sometime supportive and sometime distant husband, the reality of the situation hitting later in the film as Baldwin nicely breaks the stern look and displays emotion.

A heart-breaking feature that doesn’t shy away from the subject matter even if little things in the story get lost to spend more time on the condition. Moore is fantastic and ‘Still Alice’ is bold, defiant and a life affirming film.

8/10