A Monster Calls (2017)

monster_calls_ver2

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

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10cl_poster

A surprise film of this year, for when the trailer was unexpectedly dropped, I and I could imagine, many other people were taken aback by this secret project. Gladly the trails spoil nothing and therefore make this thriller even more special. It’s a fantastically dark exploration of confinement for a 12A rating and monster movie fans of the first film still get their kicks.

Clothes designer Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) ends up in an accident and then finds herself in a fully equipped fallout bunker. She’s looked after and/or terrorised by Howard (John Goodman) who has also brought in Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) in hope that the three of them can avoid his fears of the contaminated world outside.

I really don’t want to go any further than that for what happens as knowing little makes the movie a much more engaging mysterious experience. Clearly there’s some predictions to be placed at it comes in the same universe as ‘Cloverfield’ from 2008, so you will be seeing monsters but the fantastic quality about this spiritual tangent to the original handy-cam film is that it’s so different in tone and look.

Dan Trachtenberg directs with a knowing craft of the thriller genre and truly gives this movie an unnerving build-up. The constant close-ups add weight to the claustrophobic location, the little flourishes of Howard’s décor in the bunker add character and unease to what may happen. Things that go wrong never become tiresome but do their part in racking up the sweats as you hope Michelle can find her way out of the problem. As a director he shows how a monster movie can be more subdued and with a mostly 3 cast line up, this gives hope to a new future in dramatic storytelling.

From producer J.J Abrams we get that gnawing sense of trouble because of what we know from the ’08 movie. Though the monster moments in this are thrilling and work for the growing female power of Michelle, I must say I preferred all the elements of everything that came before. The music, the set, the conversations and comic moments from guessing games that tingle with sinister connotations to strained bondings, everything feels deeper and full of fear.

This is no ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ bunk up, the film is effortlessly tense and darker than you may think it could be. Of course I won’t say what happens but lots of wonderfully scripted sequences flash out of the gates, rattling you back into your seats and making you stumble to catch your breath. You, if you like the film that is, do root for Michelle as the lead and in a way, you buy into the other characters as well, whether they’re bad or good, you can believe their goals.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a brilliant final girl in films we’ve seen before and she comes along with aspects of that stereotype but is a much stronger and smarter heroine which is great to watch. Her designer background plays a part and her wiles keep her going all the way through, impeccably delivered by a capable actress. John Goodman is monstrously magnificent from start to finish, he plays both sides of the field so well that you don’t ever know for sure until near the end what kind of guy he is. John Gallagher, Jr. plays the guy in the middle really well, more than just a spare part, his presence gets put in the spotlight and he gives a needed comic lightness to one of the characters embroiled in the bunker. The trio bounce off each other superbly.

For any ‘Cloverfield’ fans or lovers of neatly packaged thrillers then I recommend you to get straight out and witness this slick and suspenseful feature. You’re always guessing, always worrying and always always enjoying the well directed and acted moments that come flying round the corner.

8/10

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The_Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame_Poster_Promo

Coming up to being 20 years old, this Disney classic features some heavy adult ideas mixed with some uneven story choices but at the end of it all, the key theme of acceptance is well animated and a likable hero in the unlikely appearance of the bell ringer emerges.

After chasing down a gypsy mother, Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) goes to rid her hideous baby but thankfully the Notre Dame Archdeacon makes him rectify his sin by keeping the boy alive. Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is banished to the church belfry where he spends his days looking down at the Parisian courtyards wishing to be with the people and the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Demi Moore).

Clearly the story is all about acceptance and having a message about acting with people the same no matter how they look. Here they have a perfect tool for that idea by Quasimodo being a deformed and hunchbacked individual. His soul and thoughts may be kind but sadly the people of Paris don’t look past the bulging eyes and stooped spine. It’s a great family film to have children learning early about the importance of treating others how you’d wish to be treated. Along the way, side stories of unrequited romance and comedy almost unravel the strong message but by the end, Quasimodo has become the symbol of good we’d expected he would.

The animation itself is rather good, the sweeping pass through the city in the opening gives good details to the stony buildings and the busy civilians. The grey and Gothic atmosphere is truly felt with the many scenes set around and in Notre Dame and there’s a lovely amount of colour to combat the tiredness of slates of grey, especially in the Festival of Fools sequence. There is a common feel of darkness amongst most of the story, the church, the fires and the secluded environment Quasi has to grow up in, it’s an almost Cinderella like slave space that helps us root for him and really dislike the equally spiteful villain.

Musically, the 34th animated Disney movie triumphs in including grand adult ideals of fate, religion and tolerance/intolerance to difference. Alan Menken conducts a deep score that emanates like the bells themselves. The music swells and really dramatically adds to the seriousness of some of these songs, no more can that be found than in Frollo’s passionate ‘Hellfire’ track. With Menken is Stephen Schwartz who pens some amazingly rich lyrics that resonate about sin and the belief of good in the eyes of God. ‘Hellfire’ once again is a perfect example of power in what Frollo as a character believes. Also this review wouldn’t be worthwhile without commenting that the opening jester story, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ which is sung to us and some kiddies is engaging and brilliant.

I hadn’t seen this film for a very long time but always remembered most of the visuals and story points and that sticks as a great lasting impression a film can have on me. It’s broody with Frollo yet mischievous with Esmeralda, it’s beautiful in drawing and important for themes, so even though there’s talking gargoyles I’m sure Victor Hugo would have liked what this animation did to his novel. Tony Jay is a great vocal star as Frollo who is the great opposite to Hulce’s tortured admiration of a world that doesn’t see him as equal.

There’s joy at the end but Disney were brave in picking to transform such a religiously rooted story with a dark hopeless thread of love and acceptance. The bells and I ring out in admiration and enjoyment for this film.

7/10