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

Rogue One (2016)

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Jumping into hyperspace is this Star Wars story, slotting before ‘A New Hope’, it’s a fantastically expansive kick-start to the Lucasfilm and Disney anthology series, with the overall feel of this operatic space blockbuster being somewhat different to what has come before.

After being freed by Rebel Alliance officer Cassian (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) comes to realise her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been building a powerful weapon for the Imperial Army. Hoping to find some plans to destroy the Death Star, Jyn leads a troop of fighters to do just that and avoid the evil grasp of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

A film such as this is obviously going to arrive with trumpets tooting and hype at an all time peak, so it’s always a task to live up to expectations. Mostly, this movie does succeed if not having a few minor weaknesses. The detail and visual splendour of every planet alone is enough to delight and even more so when seen on the IMAX screen. The new characters are engaging enough to take us on this rebel journey and they’re written with that classic Star Wars code of either bad or good to fit this standalone story snugly with the other movies.

What works so nicely and what I liked the most wasn’t just the impressive scale of the hero’s mission but the attempt at a different tone set up here. It’s not exactly darker but threat is certainly on the line and with everyone’s favourite masked baddie back again it’s clear that the good guys need to watch out. The narrative we receive is unique enough in not tripping fully down nostalgia lane and it has us thrown into a murkier spy-like sci-fi with lives very much on the line.

It’s a simple focused story which is why it’s easy to follow this film and immerse yourself amongst the new creatures, wonderful Michael Giacchino score and fan pleasing links to the Star Wars galaxy. Gareth Edwards directs confidently and with his team the structure of the movie is sound, it all works well, maybe too well because there’s times when the movie feels safe even when it’s treading down an unexplored road of danger and rebellion.

For me at least, the ending is orchestrated greatly, sky fights and ground battles combine in harmony but there comes a time when casualties of war become commonplace and drastically lose impact. Also a near end deus ex machina is totally cliched and felt lazy. Everything just comes to a head, it’s like they tried set up but it didn’t quite work and thinking on it the simple story is non-daring and tightropes the line of being not Star Wars but yet a thoroughly Star Wars picture.

Felicity Jones is brilliant in this, she portrays a gritty determination and hopeful look for a better Empire. The wavering teary eyes give great character emotion and then she can do steely Lara Croft action or engaging empathising smiles to round Jyn Erso as a cool addition to the Wars World. Ben Mendelsohn does a fine job in almost stealing the show, snarls and calm villainous stares make him a marvellous antagonist. Forest Whitaker is a believable guardian yet with a shaky moral core being good yet having a mean streak for intruders. Diego Luna pairs nicely with Jones, the writing of an affection is lame but he’s a rough and ready soldier and a capable male lead. It’s great to hear James Earl Jones voicing Vader once more and trust me, Darth does force choke his way to bad-assery during the film.

Mostly, Rogue One is an entertaining change to the galaxy we know, as it tries to conjure up something a bit different which is almost 100% successful and aside from a couple of near-end niggles, this is a movie to excite all ages and comfort you whilst blasting you with new faces and new worlds.

7.5/10

The Theory of Everything (2015)

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I love this time of year, new beginnings and resolutions may be some people’s great outlooks but I happily accept the influx of heavyweight movies lining up for award ceremony recognition. This is one of those movies. A biopic of one of the most famous male icons is developed through touching and beautiful storytelling led by two tour de force performances.

This film journeys from 60’s Cambridge to detail the relationship between physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and literary student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). It tells of their growing love and togetherness, strongly shown as Hawking is diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease leaving him declining in abilities and putting Jane front and centre as strong caring wife and mother as Stephen continues with his scientific theories.

By far this is the sentimental piece of the possible nomination crowd, the romantic biographical stance feels like the ’12 Years A Slave’ type and so that bodes well for this James Marsh directed story. On the whole, the romance is never sickly and forced, at least shared with Stephen and Jane it’s developed fantastically. The relationship feels so real and chemistry between the two actors is precise and authentic that you honestly believe you’re watching people and not stars doing their job.

If you want to see an emotional tale that not only feels but looks beautiful then this is the one for you. Cambridge couldn’t be more of a perfect English setting to backdrop the coming together of this strong willed minds and Benoit Delhomme captures the posh stunning landscape of the area in a great way that compliments the tone of the film really well. In general this film is softly felt, the look is not glowing but kind of rounded in the edges, making that romantic side of things more pronounced and most of the time this works to its benefit.

There’s creative and lovely imagery to be found in relations of subject and character. As Stephen begins his thoughts on black holes and the start of life, milk in his coffee begins to dance reflecting the vision of rolling black holes, once again as he’s weaker and relying on Jane to help him pull a jumper on his determined character makes him see a light-bulb moment that aids his theory. This is shown through the fireplace manifesting as swirling stars and burning orange mirroring space and the spark setting off in Stephen’s mind. The end cycling back through past events and stopping back on the young Jane and Stephen is also a wonderful moment in helping us relate to Hawking’s poetic yet scientific comment on there being no boundaries in life.

It has a good dose of humour that stops the film from being as overbearingly sentimental as it may otherwise have been. The smart and witty remarks from Stephen are brilliant and the way his disability is spoken of is funny, not taking the mick but lovingly poking fun at a man who can clearly take it. This humourous shine distracts just enough from the clear audible shoving of music to try and make you well up.

I think the main problem the film has are in a few certain moments where it pushes you to feel a specific way. Flaws laying in wishy washy manipulation aren’t to be overlooked and perhaps without the rising orchestral score being ever present, the emotion wouldn’t be as strong and tears wouldn’t be shed. The Wagner show for instance is a tad too dramatically done to but some backing to Stephen’s predicament, so too in a stained glass window magically glowing with sunlight as two characters kiss, it’s a little bit manufactured making it feel like a movie and losing the amazing reality Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are bringing to the picture.

Eddie Redmayne is in one word – outstanding. There’s no shadow of a doubt that he’ll be nominated and though I haven’t seen all of the other possible Oscar nods for lead actor, I’d agree with him winning. The immersion into this intelligent, funny man and the shocking heartbreaking disease that takes over his and Jane’s lives are so lovingly done, it’s like Stephen Hawking is on screen and not Redmayne. The twitches and crooked movements, the wide smile and the general absorbing presence he exudes make it one of the best male performances I’ve seen in a long time. Felicity Jones should also get nominated as she brings a forceful heroine onto the screens, she’s at first delicate and then tired but strong. It’s clear to see the way she feels from just the look in her eyes, she’s exhausted and needs someone else, Jones polishes the loving yet possibly lost wife with magnificence.

Aside from a handful of twee moments, this is a phenomenal biopic with pristine direction, hair, make up and costume and two magnetic and marvelous lead performances that’s it’s paved the way for 2015 very well indeed.

7.5/10

Breathe In from Writer Loves Movies

So…the next guest post comes from the awesome writing styles of Natalie over at Writer Loves Movies; also the first blog that I wrote a guest review for. This following write up is great and concerns the 2013 Sundance premiered film ‘Breathe In’. The review is great like I said and is as delicate and well handled as this movie apparently is. She’s made me want to watch it now!

Check out more reviews marked out of five stars at Writer Loves Movies.

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In 2011 director Drake Doremus gave us a beautiful drama about a long distance relationship thwarted by an overstayed visa. Like Crazy’s appeal resulted from the naturalistic style Doremus elicited through improvised performances and lead actress Felicity Jones took home the Sundance Festival’s Special Jury Prize.

In 2013 Doremus followed up Like Crazy with Breathe In, another naturalistic drama with Felicity Jones in the leading female role. This time the drama follows an English exchange student, Sophie (Felicity Jones), who takes up residence with an American family headed by father and music teacher, Keith (Guy Pearce). It’s not long before Sophie and Keith are drawn to each other. Keith’s wife frequently belittles his passion for music and desire to quit teaching for an orchestral seat, while Sophie is damaged by the death of her music-loving uncle. On paper it’s a fairly predictable plot but Breathe In has a mesmeric quality that comes from its naturalistic performances and Doremus’ commitment to atmosphere.

During the film’s early moments, Sophie is seen reading Jane Eyre. It’s a book Breathe In draws on heavily for its potent sexual tension. Doremus allows the relationship between Sophie and Keith to develop gradually, encompassing doubts and self-restraint as well as indulgence and passion. Breathe In eschews sex scenes and nudity in favour of burning looks, a surreptitious hand on the arm and nervous fingers intertwined. This somewhat old-fashioned approach feels refreshing and modern in the hands of Doremus whose palette of washed out blues and greys suffuses his film with despair while its searing tension rips and claws at your heart.

Music takes on a powerful role here too. Sophie’s first piano performance plays out as both a seduction and furious resistance to Keith’s authoritarianism. Later, there’s an almost operatic climax as the film’s various strands pull together in a cataclysmic conclusion.

Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones craft their characters with depth and complexity. Nothing is clear cut and it’s difficult to take sides. Keith is a conflicted father and husband. Sophie’s youth and love for music offer him a route back in time, an opportunity to start afresh, but it’s hard for us to root for him. We’re also aware that Keith is acting foolishly and represents a dangerous love interest to Sophie who is vulnerable in spite of her intelligence and free spirit. The lines are further blurred by Pearce’s impeccable performance that stings with pain and regret.

His burgeoning chemistry with Sophie feels very natural – it’s an alluring by-product of improvisation – as their conversations develop through varying degrees of awkwardness. But Breathe In is an intimate film where the locked gaze of Jones and Pearce says as much as the delicate, tentative dialogue.

Keith and Sophie’s relationship plays out in contrast to the desperate cries for attention that Keith’s daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), makes of despicable, womanising boyfriend Aaron (Matthew Daddario). Do her reckless actions result from Keith’s emotionally absent parenting style? And how differently should we judge Keith’s own infidelity? Keith’s wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), watches Sophie with suspicion while she feels her husband slipping away. Is Megan aware of her own role in the marital breakdown? Breathe In’s solitary omission is Megan’s under-explored character.

Breathe In is not a formula romance. It’s an intricate, poignant exploration of adultery, love and regret. With Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones both at their best, Breathe In cements Drake Doremus as the rising star of naturalistic drama.

Verdict: 4.5 stars