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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Arrival (2016)

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Gladly, this is not your typical ‘alien invasion’ flick, it’s a much smarter story that totally immerses you into a situation filled with dread yet hope, understanding yet confusion. I came out of the film feeling a little lost but it’s a grower because as you think on it the whole idea becomes more interesting.

As 12 shells arrive on Earth and hover above different locations, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called into help the military. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) hopes that she can understand and translate the aliens’ talking and find out why they’re here. Together with scientist and maths man Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they start uncovering a complex world-changing language.

Coming from ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve, you can surely expect tension and smart movie story-telling and you’d be right to do so, as this sci-fi release is burning with clever ideas about language, time and humanity’s fight for survival and knowledge. Villeneuve doesn’t go for any last minute twist, he keeps his film going along and through shots or blurred flashbacks we begin building a picture of what’s to come. What he does well is ensure every scene has importance or emotion and gives moments with the aliens a nervous and affecting tone as we try to grip what may happen.

Eric Heisserer gives the story no cliches or over expositional content, aside from one line near the end of the film, everything we hear sounds plausible and brings you into this alien filled drama with ease. The way he adapts the short story and ensures the Heptapods’ speech is intellectual, so much so that it befuddled my mind but not enough to make me disengage from the movie. This language is a huge factor of the script, connecting to Louise and creating a rounded story that gives ‘Arrival’ fantastic depth.

Back to help Villeneuve is composer Johann Johannsson, who has a superb skill in building tension through music. The dread mounts and through deeper reverberations in the score we feel on edge as the characters go to encounter the Heptapods. A brilliant track comes in with some narration and is used again for the credits, it’s haunting and a chorus of voices makes it more impacting.

Amy Adams in her second November outing, is much more interesting to watch in this compared to ‘Nocturnal Animals’, that’s to say she has more to do and her character is excellent. The subtle flickers of tired emotion that fill her thanks to flashes of events or the way she gleefully acts when breaking ground with the aliens communication all make Louise a captivating role. Jeremy Renner is good also, his smart mathematician role bouncing off Louise very well. Whitaker is a great choice as the military superior, his calmness a good thing as he easily could have been the villain straining for violence. Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor, always doing good with what he’s given and here he grows as the film progresses.

It may still have me slightly puzzling over the whole grand scope of time but this is a science fiction that dazzles and if you like a movie to make you think then this is the perfect choice. Performances, writing, directing and music create something to blow your mind like not much before.

8/10

 

Hush (2016)

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I’m loving Netflix for these movies that I otherwise wouldn’t see. This psychological horror is fantastically written, deals with tension so well that I don’t think it lets up from the moment the killer arrives to when the credits scroll upwards. It’s even better because it doesn’t jump to jump scares for help, in fact I don’t recall any in the entire feature…hurrah!

Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is struggling to write a second novel. She has multiple endings but cannot decide on which suits the story best. As she sits at her laptop she is unaware that a masked murderer (John Gallagher Jr.) is outside planning to kill her, he has an element of power because Maddie is deaf and mute from contracting meningitis when she was 13, however she won’t go down without a fight.

It is the tension in this that works so well, I read that director Mike Flanagan was originally going to have Maddie not hearing anything captured in complete silence, which he went back on realising the lack of sound would take audiences out of the picture. He is bang on, the echoing heartbeat effects drumming into recognition do enough to put you into her world but keep the tension brewing very nicely.

On the whole, this is a movie that cleverly plays with sound and flicks between the almost hollow scope of Maddie’s hearing and the louder life we are used to. It’s interesting giving the villain an advantage yet still having him not always being the almighty killer you’d expect him to be. The house is another character in a sense, as it provides our heroine with rooms of escape, crawl spaces and vantage points to try and win the night.

Though there is not a lot of dialogue, I must commend the writing of Flanagan and actor/wife/writer Siegel who both master a scene of superb tension between the killer and a neighbour who comes checking in. The levels of power play bounce back and forth and that dramatic irony of knowing who he is as he pretends to be otherwise is perfectly set up just making you want to shout out to John that all is not good. The inclusion of her as a writer is beautifully utilised as we see numerous choices for Maddie to possibly take, like her story left with many possible ends.

Katie Siegel is a great central character, her lost sense is never a weakness as she possesses a strong will and in her eyes there is that clear sense of determination even if she nicely showcases fear from time to time. Gallagher Jr. is great too, once he takes off the simple but damn effective mask, he goes to town on an unhinged murderer without needing backstory to create a well structured dynamic antagonist.

I was immersed into this taut and skilled movie from the offset and that connection was never lost. ‘Hush’ is an excellent home invasion release that is very smart and very tense.

8/10

 

Eye in the Sky (2016)

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Tough choices and morality come into strong effect for this war thriller; with more about the actual politics of war and the outcome those actions create. It’s directed neatly with a clear aim to rack up tension and see how all sides are affected by one big moment.

At least two of the most wanted extremists from Al-Shabaab are located inside a house on a street in Nairobi. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) wants to capture the targets but this mission soon changes as she and Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) see something life-threatening in the building. Now it’s a back and forth of what to do as Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is ordered with shooting to kill.

Not just a gritty war film, this outing makes things more intellectual as it raises questions about the choices made in combat. In fact, this film manages to get into your head enough that you end up thinking about what you’d do if faced with the decision the characters are dealing with. As the opening line says, ‘The truth is the first casualty in war’ and those eight words speak volumes for the shady line between right and wrong to get your culprit seen in the 100 minutes to follow.

Gavin Hood directs his best feature here, as a taut thriller from people on the ground to military in comfy rooms each get shown as human and stuck in the moral quicksand of legalities and political attention. It’s directed in a well paced way, the narrative building to the ultimate action of letting a missile go or not in such a nail-biting way as we see one bystander get wrapped up in the brutality of war, even if they don’t know it. Hood somehow and gladly so makes this a war film not of the usual kind as we see more of the philosophical side to what goes into making a choice that could enhance terrorism propaganda or kill many innocents.

We flick between different locations, but four main places especially that all link very well and seam this idea of a worrying ticking clock to levels so high that you do hold your breath. A war-room, office, pilot shack and Nairobi are front and centre in this examined detail of concious choices whether correct or not. The truth ends up being shifted as stats are altered or ministers are given small details but this in Guy Hibbert’s screenplay all feels natural and brings the stressful rules of political agendas and military tenaciousness to engaging life.

Of the things I liked, the music from Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian stands vividly in my memory, burning intensely like the masterful ‘Sicario’ score. Also the general tension is handled very well as we get immersed into the dangerous viewpoint of peeking at terrorists hoping not to get caught or see them escape. I’m very happy also that they made a character’s fate goes a sad but right way in making this movie more realistic. Going across to the things I didn’t like as much, I must admit that there’s perhaps too much of a red-tape to and fro and things between many political figures having their say gets slightly laughable amongst the drama driven Nairobi predicament but they’re my only negatives.

Helen Mirren brings an authoritative demeanour to her role and makes her Colonel a gruff female with a thirst for getting her man/woman. She’s not just that though and you do see, even amongst her flexible truths that she’s affected by what happens at the end of the movie. Aaron Paul is one of the more human humans, bringing a wet eyed performance as pilot first timer Steve. Barkhad Abdi of ‘Captain Phillips’ is a great man amongst the sand and war-torn side of it all, he’s not in it much but manages to be likable and gripping as he tries to help lower the casualties of the strike. Alan Rickman in his last physical role is great, even just sitting he brings a dulcet tone and powerful assurance to the character. He also ends with a truly poignant and memorable comment about soldiers and the consequences of war for whoever is involved.

You cannot help but take sides when watching this and that’s what it attempts and succeeds in doing, it manages to bring you into the dilemma of the film’s main plot and question what you’d do. A clever, ethical and tense film which makes you think.

7.5/10

Sleeping with Other People (2015)

A fantastically likable romantic comedy with fresh and engaging characters, empathy and sympathy for both the guy and the girl, a huge dose of sexual sprinkles but it does become flat not running free from the genre I hoped it would have broken the mould for.

During 2003, a chance encounter happens between Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Elaine/Lainey (Alison Brie). Shifting into present day, they happen to meet again, realising their lives are kind of similar in their lack of being able to settle down. Jake is a womaniser and Lainey is a cheater, through each other they learn a thing or two and develop that undeniable attraction from the first time they met.

Let me start with the writing, which is served up by Leslye Headland. She brings something much better than her play/film ‘Bachelorette’, crikey I seriously disliked that film. Everything that was so wrong in that 2012 flick is rectified here, with characters you can understand and like, scenarios that are believable and a running theme of being smart. The writing here might not be exactly on the clever tracks of screenplays but it’s going the right way, the dialogue can be very sharp and snappy, the changes out of comedy hit well in the emotional zone and it goes a good way a lot of the time in trying to do something different with the rom-com shtick.

Sadly that statement can’t be 100% guaranteed as a fair portion of this movie suffers by following the romantic comedy rule book. There’s a certain scene and action where it leaves you wanting the attraction to happen and it goes away from there. This brilliance should have been the end or a set up for another similar ending but without spoiling proceedings, you know from the film that it’s going to finish up as you’d expect, not as you’d wish just as you always knew it would. I was hugely hoping the great characters and moments would be enveloped by a similar breaking of the genre but they don’t get that joy.

The direction from Headland is smooth and comes with cool little quirks, the social media aspect is a trend we’ve seen and can expect to see for a long time now, but having the texts appear on screen doesn’t feel cliched here and one message thread is delivered on screen by the sender which is both funny and original. There’s degrees of slow motion, which aren’t Michael Bayed, they come sparingly and add a dramatic tinge to that slowed action. It’s a fast flowing movie and the neat shots of New York add to that rush of struggling romance. It also helps that I’m writing this review from the Big Apple and saw places in the film that I’ve now seen for real and one scene was shot on the street I’m staying at! I’m going off on a tangent, sorry, but yes, the city aspect is shot very well and feels very right for this story.

Alison Brie is a dynamic actress, she shows she can do comedy and the cutie pie routine in most of the films/TV roles she’s done but here she adds weight in some pretty emotive scenes. They come like firecrackers of despair after comedic moments that shoot fast and long. One of the break-ups is done in a funny way but she follows that with a pang of brutal self loathing that Brie truly makes feel real. Jason Sudeikis is an actor that hits or misses, I get his typical act but sometimes it feels too smarmy, here though it’s present but not annoying, he’s likable and you can see his stuttering when it comes to his thoughts on Lainey. The pair of them are charismatic and you do buy into their blossoming best friend journey. Also, great kudos to Andrea Savage and Jason Mantzoukas who bring some of the best lines to the movie and work brilliantly well as the married couple still down with being hip or at least wanting to be.

It may not be constantly funny or even genuinely sad all the way through, it also lacks a great premise to fully shatter the rom-com guidelines. Though even saying/writing this film is a delightful watch, it makes you smile and comes with charming performances helping the movie feel sexy, touching and enjoyable.

6.5/10