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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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