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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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Anything can and may be said about this Venice Grand Jury winner, but I believe that all should agree that it’s got a superb style, the performances are brilliant and it shows the director has a film-making talent for visual design.

Gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) receives a proof copy of a novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ in reference to him calling her that, she becomes taken by the story which features a devastating crime and the hunt for justice by Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again). The novel haunts her more so because it links closely to what she did.

Tom Ford in only his second time as feature director, showcases that clear understanding of cinematic style to relay a quite harsh and dark story. Not only did he direct but he handled the screenplay too, adapted from the early 90’s book written by Austin Wright. Ford ensures that Susan’s world is artistic, sleek and modern but there seems to a vapid sadness to this existence that works well. The world of the novel sent to Susan is grittier and makes for a great contrast, which only goes to make the incredible transitions and paralleled shots between book life and real life more impressive.

I have to admit that I found the story within the story aspect of the movie more engaging to watch. That brutal tone and developing crime narrative digs a hook into you as you watch Tony’s struggle continue. That’s not to say that Susan and the real world is bad, it’s just not quite as interesting because it seems to feel empty, maybe that’s a mirror to the character’s feelings on the choices she’s made but there doesn’t seem to be much directorial interest in exploring Susan, her interest in the book and Tony and what it means to her.

Art and music come together in a thoughtful way and pretty much everything to do with this film is something that made me go away pondering what I’d seen. Abel Korzeniowski’s score may not be memorable but it fits well with the haunting and cruel nature the film’s plot exhibits. Little details on walls or in the soft lighting transitions between scenes all speak a higher connection, one that I think warrants second viewing to fully accept and understand the film as a whole.

Amy Adams as arguably one of the finest actresses of the last 10 years pulls off a perfect nuanced performance, subtle changes in her expressions from her eyes to smiling all speak loudly about the inner sadness of Susan and the kind of woman she is. You never dislike her but Adams does well in making her character someone you don’t get on side with either. Jake Gyllenhaal tackles the screen with more power as Tony, his emotion and anger for justice lighting the screen and working so well for a possible Oscar nomination. Michael Shannon is such a great casting choice for a ruthless detective but over all these high class actors, it’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the slimy Ray that steals the show and feels like a vicious wolf in the night. The smirks and overly trying way of being calm yet obviously calculating is pitched expertly and he deserves praise. Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber encapsulate growing fear well and suit the red-headed ties to Susan reading the story, doing little to dispel that silly quip that Adams and Fisher are the same person.

Upon seeing this well fashioned and structured movie, and leaving nearly a day to let it settle, I’m still unsure on what I feel for this movie. I know I liked it and it’s definitely powerful regarding life, loves, achievement and loss but it’s not as stellar in the moments outside of the Tony story.

7.5/10

The Girl on the Train (2016)

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Shuttling out the tunnel of a disappointing summer of movies is this bleak-tinged film with a harsh microscope on human flaws. It isn’t a hugely predictable turn we witness but then it’s not much of a surprise either, leaving Emily Blunt to be the biggest saving grace in quite a tepid thriller.

Frequent train passenger Rachel Watson (Blunt) spends her travelling time peering into the lives of people who live in homes along the rail-lines. She becomes fixated on the world of Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), who she follows one day. The next day she wakes up and Megan has gone missing leaving Rachel to try and figure out the truth whilst coping with her own problems.

Tate Taylor does ensure there’s a degree of captivation in this feature, the tone of the movie is dialled down to a greyish spectrum and along the way there’s a clear burrowing sense of danger which is great. Also the little moments where time seems to slow, people shudder just a smidge as the frame blurs and zooms are neat aspects that don’t just tie in with Rachel’s addiction but also build that level of unease and question of trust.

Author Paula Hawkins, of which this movie is based on, may be getting sick of the comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’ but when the marketing team releases a trailer that looks very much like the Fincher release then audiences/fans of that will relate the two. It’s no big issue relating the two as the stories both deal with dramatic relationships and the harsh nastiness people can hide within themselves. They also both harbour a mystery and twist narrative, perhaps this is where Hawkins’ plot falls down in contrast. Though the film tries taking us down tracks of surprise, it isn’t a massive twist that we get and overall the ending section of the movie becomes a lacklustre affair with scorn driving the way.

I doubt Hawkins is to blame, in translation I can imagine her novel lost impact and dramatic build up to the reveal. The movie seems to drip-feed more hints and though I didn’t guess the figure to blame, I wasn’t exactly stunned either. It’s the focus on Rachel and her problems that is the strongest story-telling quality. Just the way she tries struggling through existence and as we learn more about her, the routine she takes and her past, it’s these signs that keep the movie interesting.

Emily Blunt is by the far the best thing in this film, she utterly buries herself under the skin of Rachel and she looks like a shattered, damaged being. Depending on the following months of movies, I can see and also hope that Blunt is up for an Oscar, because she brings the tears, strength, broken self-belief and is a wonder to watch. Haley Bennett gets an interesting role also, trying to sink her teeth into a woman that’s trying to find something she doesn’t know what whilst being a temptress, mistress and wife. Justin Theroux gets more screen time than Luke Evans, but both men like Edgar Ramirez are nothing more than mysterious possibly bad guys who flit in between the lives of Rachel and Megan.

I was hoping the film would be more intense, or at least more of a bubbling pot of tension, instead it simmers slightly and only heats up thanks to Blunt and her incredible performance. The themes of addiction, abuse and depression don’t feel like the smart traits they should be, but mind this gap and sit down for an occasionally bumpy ride that has enough of the thriller genre to keep you seated.

6/10

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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This movie certainly possesses that Tim Burton look that most of us recognise now. That’s a positive at least because for the most part it’s the style of the film that is glorious whereas the story feels slightly dull, definitely long and disengaging.

After the mysterious death of his grandfather, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is gifted a postcard, this item on top of the stories his granddad told him lead him on a journey to try and stop time loops being invaded by Hollows. Jake and his dad Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) wind up in Wales where Jake steps into a 1943 children’s home run by shape-shifting time-bending Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who needs Jake to step up and look after her special children as an attack looms.

That’s just the mild basis of what goes on during this movie, to be honest there is a lot more that happens with characters both main and small. It’s this bloated plot that makes the entire feature feel more than a little bit messy and one you’d hoped was more refined. The darker elements are well felt and the Hollows are interesting movie monsters but a narrative bouncing back and forth between time and countries becomes rushed and silly.

What doesn’t help is the lead character in Jake is less than thrilling. He’s a bland hero type who asks questions, obviously falls in love with the girl and that’s about that. Also, though the odd little children have peculiar quirks, we don’t get much at all in the way of their lives or backstories, instead we focus on Jake, his grandfather, the village of Wales and Hollows. In the end, the writing from Jane Goldman based on books by Ransom Riggs shoehorns the children in as nothing special and they solely become their peculiarities and nothing more. A film focused on the twins with death stares is something I’d love to watch.

A pier battle in Blackpool of all places is shot nicely and edited with zip, giving the movie a much needed lift by this point. The skeletons fighting nearly invisible Hollows looks exciting, earlier on in the movie there’s a neat section of stop-motion as ‘Toy Story’ Sid-like creations fight each other. The WW2 vision of the village is detailed and there’s a sunny Edward Scissorhands look to the home during these happier moments. Burton hands this story a welcome kookiness but he’s still not back to his best.

Asa Butterfield is massively boring during this film, whether it’s him or the character or both it makes no difference to the annoying fact that we have to follow him the entire way through. Eva Green does what she does best, her sultry voice and authoritative demeanour working as a kindly yet strict headmaster, mother figure. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the better factors in this, he has some great comedy lines and reacts well to the trying heroics of the children. Ella Purnell is the Burton special with an Alice like dress, big eyes and peculiar ability, she’s enchanting though and helps the film even if she’s no more than the romantic interest.

I won’t lie and say there’s nothing entertaining in this movie, because it does have good moments of whimsy and quite dark treads into that Burton world but it’s let down by plot holes the size of Wales and is far from the interesting spectacle it could have been.

5.5/10

 

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

Me Before You (2016)

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Admittedly not my sort of film and I’m not the demographic it’s aiming for, but I can say that I liked this film. Aside from my pessimistic view on the cheesiness that others find cute and the less than emotional subject matter, this is a movie that I got nearly all wrapped up in thanks to a solid spark between the leads.

Needing to find a new job to help her big family in a small house, Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) lands a carer position at the Traynor’s. She looks after Will (Sam Claflin) who after an accident 2 years prior is now paralysed from the neck down and wants out of his life. Louisa begins falling for him as he helps her see more to her own life but can she change his mind?

The thing I don’t get on board with, considering this trend of ‘weepy’ films, is the way that it tries pushing audiences into reaching for the tissues. This one is hardly different, in that you know what to expect from the ending, it’ not like an M. Night Shyamalan twist is going to enter and uproot what we’ve seen before. Therefore I don’t see how people get so emotional watching a movie that just leads to an event we all know is going to happen.

Taken from a novel by Jojo Moyes, this film has her writing the screenplay which is good because it means she can keep control of the material and tone of her story. The only big issue I had with the plot was the central problem Will faces and how he wants to deal with it. This movie does deal with suicidal thoughts, but it doesn’t seem to do it in a careful way. The whole Dignitas promise of six months feels crudely forced for sad faced impact, in fact my cynical side wanted more of this by the end because what we get are just bleary glimpses of a subject matter that deserves a more focused look.

In fact, the quadriplegic life Will leads is one that feels very icky. In all his athletic and smart ways he subjects himself to lone time in an annex, not even caring that of course disabled people can still continue. I get that at first you’d shut yourself away but after two years, even his family haven’t tried getting him to notice disabled sports are popular. The story almost makes it seem like being in a wheelchair is a burden and nothing else, which doesn’t even change by the end.

In a good light, the look of the film is perfect for this genre. The soft tones, the idyllic castle setting and the almost slowed down moments that let the frame hover over the romantic stares between Will and Lou. Thea Sharrock ensures the film gives plenty of breathing space for Lou’s life and her character, Will gets a sort of back seat exploration but we get enough to know he’s bitter yet educated, rude yet thoughtful. Lou expanding her horizons and living life to the max because of Will’s aide are a nice touch and give some hope to the story at least.

It’s clear to see the costume department had a field day on this film as Louisa runs amok with an array of mismatched yet funky fashion choices. Her character wanted to study in Manchester but never did, though she still has an eye and heart for clothes and we see this constantly in the movie as she goes through an almost concert night of changing outfits. They are very loud but fun choices and really enhance the chatty and colourful nature of her character.

Emilia Clarke is absolutely brilliant throughout this film, giving a beautiful expression filled performance for her softer side dealing with her blossoming love, but in a more perfect way she sells Lou as a proper goof, spieling off words, smiling in a way that would make the Cheshire cat jealous and generally injecting this movie with a ton of charm. Sam Claflin is great in slowly thawing and realising he can still do things, he’s strong in being shut off and cold which seems to be his most continuous mood through the plot. I have to credit Matthew Lewis who transitions away from brave Neville Longbottom into a running obsessed fitness freak with an arrogance the size of Hogwarts.

There is a huge issue with the handling of the subject matter within this film, some may view it as tender and cry-worthy and others, like me will view it as problematic and a cheap way to get emotion. All that being said, the chemistry is engaging and Clarke shines in a funny and effective way.

5.5/10

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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Opposing displays of dominance still strike as powerful to this day and considering that’s 40 years down the line, that’s a worthy feat. The villain from most movie quiz questions and Mac’s divide makes for a rewarding cinematic clash. It builds nicely giving you everything from character, heart and tension and light relief also.

Randle ‘Mac’ McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) on sentence for assaults and statutory rape gets moved to a mental facility for evaluating to see whether he’s truly ill or just dangerous. The ward he’s on is run by unflinching Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who keeps her patients in line until Mac’s presence spoils her usual leadership. During his stay he becomes friends with the rag tag of people inside but is always looking for a way out.

Milos Forman’s feature deservedly scooped the Best Picture, it’s majority set within the dull walls of the mental institution does serve nicely as a look at how those times deemed society to be in order, this microcosm idea lasts the ages always doing wonders to shine a light back on the establishments trying to keep us in line, from Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ to this very picture. The way Forman builds the film is paramount for liking certain characters and making the more clinical moments that much colder. It does every now and then feel very claustrophobic, this setting and the shots giving you the vaguest thought of how being cooped up would feel.

The joy of seeing McMurphy stand up and fight for his new found friends is heartwarming, it’s a lovely sequence to see him giving them a chance even if they might not take it. His gift of landing the ward Christmas, some ladies and a hope of something less mundane breaks their routine and shows however Jack the laddish and possibly dangerous Mac is, he’s a much kinder soul than the stony faced Nurse. The boat outing is a fun burst of escaping energy where he takes the patients on a fishing excursion but it loses the pent up frustrations manifesting inside the ward and is a little bit too long.

Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben’s screenplay is thoughtful and smart. The way McMurphy interacts with each character is studied and gives the audience something to enjoy, think about or possibly dislike, he’s not the nicest guy after all. The set up of basketball giving the notion that Chief can help sway a vote on the World Series is neatly penned in. Ken Kesey’s source novel is of course the material to credit in coming up with a cold villainess, a smarmy charming central crook and a host of others that play into the ideas of sane vs. insane. The bloody and bold wrap up of the story is hard and slaps across the face like a wake up call, showing the true harsh nature of these places.

Jack Nicholson demonstrates what a fine and convicted actor he is, a towering presence even opposite the literally towering presence of Will Sampson. Nicholson is cocky, full of smirks and winks as the lead but you can feel the gutting realisation of what he’s involved with as the movie progresses. He gives Mac flaws and you still root for his cause, the highs and lows are a force. Louise Fletcher’s role can be summed up by being mean and focused but Fletcher gives her Nurse Ratched persona a grave stare that worms into you, she always looks like she’s planning and her concern on the arrival of disruptive Mac gives you even more fear as she tries to fully stamp down on her mind numbing routines and therapies. Brad Dourif gives warmth to stuttering Billy who showcases the trusting nature of mankind, he also becomes someone that looks up to Mac like a father. Danny DeVito has a wry worrying smile on his face throughout and is lost in the madness of his circumstances, cheating, not getting things at all and being wide eyed in most scenarios. This was a big break not only for DeVito but for Christopher Lloyd who plays Taber with gusto as you’d expect from his subsequent roles.

Thoroughly detailed acting and a thoroughly engaging plot that demonstrates the oppression of individuals against the system, which will stand in movie history as a huge classic for years to come.

7.5/10