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

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Cue magical music and the Warner Brothers logo in the clouds and rejoice because we’re back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This time we’re across the pond and in the jazzy 20’s as J.K Rowling steps up for her first screenplay and David Yates is back to kick start another series of fantastical fantasies.

Hufflepuff member and Hogwarts alumni Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in New York with a suitcase filled with interesting and exotic creatures. Unluckily some escape and with the help of non magical aka No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler) he tries tracking them down and evading the attention of Graves (Colin Farrell) who is a director for Magical Congress in America. Whilst they find beasts, humans are rising against the fear of witches and one group may harbour something more powerful than they know.

Managing to avoid spoilers myself I will refrain from any hint of ruin for people that may read this and not have yet seen the film. I can 100% say though that the dazzling effects and wide-spread world conjured up by the amazing Rowling is on form. As soon as the movie begins you cannot help but feel that Potter nostalgia wash over but gladly it starts moving away and feels tonally different as we enter the busy streets of the Big Apple.

It’s the mythology and attention to detail that truly sells this film and makes it the enjoyable spectacle it is. The moment we follow Newt stepping into his suitcase is a brilliant sight to behold and a great scene to watch. The landscapes and animals contained in his travelling pack like the TARDIS-esque tents from ‘Goblet of Fire’ are incredible and it’s the earlier fun segment of the movie that is better than the latter portion.

J.K Rowling takes her small Comic Relief funding book and transports it to the big screen with what feels like ease. Newt and his love of beasties is believable and the 1920’s American set era helps lift the story, giving it an intriguing edge. This newness lets us see the expanding world of magic and how our trans-Atlantic cousins deal with wizards amongst the towering scenery.

Another highlight in the film is when we see a speak-easy and I was happy to hear some 20’s inspired music, though that’s all we get. The scene flows nicely and though it’s small it features a new character that screams perfect 20’s NYC. Yates returns as director and though he doesn’t provide anything wholly special or creatively outstanding, he brings the audience back into that comforting mould we like from the previous HP outings.

On the whole I really found myself wrapped up in this film and liking it; I only have three complaints. One was probably down to me because I guessed a twist from literally 2-3 minutes in. Secondly the latter half as mentioned nearly lets down the more adventurous gleeful first half, as we drift into the reveal of a dark force rattling through the city. All this wreckage with swirling smoke and black fire is quite messy and feels like too much, like a stitched on story to compete and fail with the better Newt journals of finding beasts and clearing his name. Thirdly, the end seemed to drag out and for me should have came before the last tiny scene which felt tacky.

I know that looks like a big paragraph but trust me, I enjoyed the move a lot. Positives totally outweigh the negatives and the cash cow is mooing heartily I’m excited for the announced sequels to come. This new look into the wizarding world with a great Redmayne had me mostly under their spell and is very entertaining.

7.5/10

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

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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Laugh inducing and off-beat, this adventure comedy from the zany mind behind the similarly brilliant ‘What We Do in the Shadows’, is a brilliant film with great performances and a welcome tone of heart and an affecting pairing charging the story forwards.

Young trouble-maker Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is offloaded to a couple out in the New Zealand bush. Not wanting to risk heading back into the arms of Child Protection he makes a break for it but ends up lost in the forests. He’s soon found by ‘uncle’ Hector (Sam Neill) and the pair of them have to stick together as the media begins hunting them in belief Hec has kidnapped the boy.

It’s an amazingly funny movie, if you’re not laughing you’re easily grinning from ear to ear at the splendid antics going on in front of you. It helps that the Kiwi accent adds a hilarious tone to the words being spoken, but of course it’s the script that ensures we get to watch an excellently paced movie with plenty of comical dialogue, farce and buddy-like adventure hyped up like a live-action ‘Up’.

Taika Waititi writes and directs this film with a great eye on the details of making the dynamics between Hec and Ricky an engaging thing to see play out. The lush greenery of the landscape they inhabit for the majority of the feature is both stunning yet it can also be alarming, as seen in the couple of well added moments of danger. Yet the way Waititi writes, with Ricky in particular, helps the movie bound along with an effortless energy and humour. Waititi also acts brilliantly in a small yet superb role as a confectionery jabbering minister.

It’s a blessing that you never really know where this film is going, or where it may end up. This unpredictably of circumstance and action helps keep the movie interesting. The film is made up of ten chapters and each one zips along nicely with the always guaranteed comedy but with the thankful addition of building the dramatic bond between the lad and his new uncle father figure. You really feel these two characters grow, change and learn and that’s a sign of a very well told story.

Sam Neill is so great in this, the gruff and bearded exterior is well performed as he demonstrates what a knack he has for the great outdoors but he gets to show a softer side, what with his relationship with the kid and his weakening side of being unable to read. Julian Dennison easily steals the show, his facial reactions in every scene are priceless and he walks with such a wannabe gangster swag that his character feels very much authentic. Rhys Darby shows off mega crazy very well as he dons a bush suit and conspiracy theories spew from his character. Rachel House deserves a mention too for her dead-pan serious portrayal of the stern Child Protection lady Paula, notably when appearing on a NZ morning TV show.

The truth of life and the way the world works for people and espicially this child Ricky is done extremely well. The mixture of cracking comedy, investing emotion and charming wackiness makes for a wonderful thing.

8/10

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Stop-motion. I just adore it, the way it looks, moves and tells a story is fascinating and a story such as this rich and mythical tale is enhanced even further thanks to the brilliant Laika Studios.

With an eye for telling stories, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is sure to adhere to his mother’s guidance of being home before dark. This is because his mum’s sisters (Rooney Mara) are out to steal an organ from him and stop his quest for 3 important pieces of armour. Kubo must keep going with the protective Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the excitable warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

Marc Haimes and Chris Butler have woven such a fantastic screenplay from the magical and Eastern flavoured story by Haimes himself with Shannon Tindle. Together, they ensure what we get is a brave and fully engaging adventure to follow. The narrative is driven beautifully and is heavily shaded with moments of sadness and a deepness into beliefs, memories and hope.

Laika, as they’ve proven with their other 3 releases, are leading the way for stop-motion features. This is no exception, the more papery filled imagery giving a great texture to the scenes as origami creations come to life, a fluffy monkey runs through the landscapes and twisted, evil witch-like sisters float like angelic harpies. Everything looks incredible and the little moments where items or faces flicker give it that truly lovely stop-motion effect that I marvel at.

It must be mentioned also, that the fight sequences in this movie are spectacular and knowing that it’s done in stop-motion is just a feat to behold. The effortless movements and the quickness involved between characters as the battles take place easily rivals and overtakes live action fight scenes. In contrast to the snappier points, the softer scenes have a melancholic aspect about them as we feel the weight of Kubo’s quest on his shoulders.

What I enjoyed most was the clever story-telling, it’d be easy to call them twists because things come to light but in a way they’re not exactly shocking. I’d use the word revelations instead, because as the plot progresses we learn more, whether it’s about characters or the object of Kubo’s adventure being the armour he needs to find. Everything all neatly fits together to make a smart and well thought through film about big topics like kindness, family and humanity.

Art Parkinson gives Kubo a bouncing enthusiasm, no more felt than we he delivers his stories to the villagers, but he makes sure that his protagonist is three dimensional and makes Kubo brave, vulnerable and believable. Charlize Theron is great as the guardian monkey, getting time to shine as she delivers truths and guides our hero along the way. Matthew McConaughey sort of sounds like George Clooney but with his recognisable drawl that is lifted with excitable glee as he brings life to a strange human/beetle hybrid.

With the way that Laika are going, they are giving Pixar and Disney a run for their money with inventive stories and stunning animation. ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is a huge delight with a dazzling rich tapestry of narrative and visuals.

8/10

The Little Prince (2016)

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Thank goodness for Netflix, because otherwise I doubt I and many other people would have seen this glorious and gorgeous animation. Mixing computer animated scenes with the true art of stop-motion sequences, this French-Canadian movie is colourful, stirring and magical.

Single Mother (Rachel McAdams) is a busy worker and wants her daughter to follow suit by attending the prestigious Werth Academy. However The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) befriends the much talked about nutty man next door leading her down a more adventurous fun path. The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) has stories to tell and interests the girl with a tale about a Little Prince (Riley Osborne) who he met in the Sahara Desert.

In a way, the 3D graphics of the animated world featuring the girl and her older neighbour reminded me of the look ‘The Incredibles’ provided. The shape of people and their faces harking to that sort of visual. The way this grey and busy landscape is seen is brilliant, just the times we zoom out to see ant sized cars all leaving on the dot for work shows how professional and disengaged to a more fun life these adults are.

The special moments are in the papery looking but also wooden style design of the stop-motion characters. I’ve always said that the whole process of stop-motion animation is something admirable and rewarding and I stick by it ever more so due to this beautiful exploration of the medium. There’s a great charm in seeing The Little Prince stories come into the fold during this film and it gives the story an extra fancy touch.

Having never read the source material myself, I couldn’t comment on what the treatment of the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is like. They me quite faithful or changed a lot but I enjoyed the story presented here a lot. His tale is moulded nicely and Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti create a lovely screenplay that fits for all ages, centred around the idea of growing up and forgetting childhood. At times, this theme gets dealt an emotional hand and I felt a little tingly at the ideas being put across.

Only one portion of this movie kind of felt off and that’s annoyingly the third act as the Little Girl decides to take action and flies off in the hope of seeing the much talked about prince. It could be viewed as an act that loses people because it gets off track from the better grounded narrative scenes that come before, which is exactly how I see it. I guess you could say that at the time the girl falls, what comes after can be interpreted how you like which makes more sense but still doesn’t stop the last act being slightly iffy.

The music gives you chills, with a wonderful score from Hans Zimmer accompanying the on screen action with suitable bounce and heart. Camille provides lush vocals during the film, in a way that echoes of the enchanting yet haunting sounds from ‘Coraline’. Another positive is the light comedy that hits well, the sad notes of loss and looking to the stars for laughter provides a lovely notion and the pairing of the girl and aviator are fun to watch.

All I can really say is, it’s a massive shame this won’t be up for an Academy Best Animated Feature award due to it not being theatrically released. If it was it’d certainly give Disney and Pixar a severe run for their money because it’s stunning, emotional and special.

8.5/10