A Monster Calls (Bayona; 2016)

We’ve all experienced that story in which the prose is exemplary and the plot intense, but you just don’t connect with the main character.  The sporting event where everyone on both sides plays their hearts out and gives a spectacular showing then the final result is based on a bad call by the referee.  Watching A Monster Calls is very much the same sort of experience.  There is so much which is spectacular, but which then ends up being marred due to flawed technique.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old aspiring artist whose mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.  His attachment to his mother due to her state, and the additional stress in his life makes him a target for bullies, one bully in particular (James Melville), add to this an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an absentee father (Toby Kebbel) and Conor has nowhere to escape to except his art and his imagination.  When a tree monster (Lian Neeson) shows up to help Conor in a fuzzy manner, Conor begins to change in ways that scare those around him.


This set up and opening of A Monster Calls is handled so well it could be used to teach exactly how to handle the show don’t tell rule of screenwriting.  Not once is the word cancer said out loud nor does anyone talk about Conor being an artist, but all these details come across easily and quickly getting us into the story naturally.  Unfortunately, as the story progresses the skill put into the story telling becomes less and less consistent until by the end the characters are literally just blurting out loud how they feel, what they are doing, and what lessons should be learned.  The ultimate lesson is quite a doozy, too, one that takes some bravery to both tell and to allow to sink in so it’s even more unfortunate that by the time we are having it expressed to us it’s done in the crudest possible way.

One element of A Monster Calls that is consistently great, though, is the artistry on display.  The camera work is wonderful with shots through frosted glass windows to obscure what’s happening behind but still giving you an idea, extreme close up shots of pencils and ink so close that shavings are falling onto the paper and ink spreading out to fill its intended area, the titular Monster often quite literally coming out of the woodwork, and so on.  The camera work, the set design, and special effects are all handled wonderfully and with great care giving us a visual experience on par with films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Amelie.  The special effects are also a large part of the show don’t tell element which while inconsistent is done really well when it is done at all well as we see the Monster mirroring the body language and movement of Conor.  While the Monster normally takes on the dominant role when the two are on screen together, a careful viewer will see that the Monster follows Conor’s every move letting us know that what we are seeing is just a projection on his part, and this is the only way the film makes this absolutely clear aside from the audience understanding that this is a realistic film and monsters don’t really exist.


To further add to the wonderment of the visuals, A Monster Calls has two sections of film that are done using hand drawn animation.  The animation uses a very rough style, but most certainly a stand out one.  The faces of characters can’t be made out, inks run and blend together forming new images and scenes as they do so, the color pallettes are chosen to express a mood, and in the second of the animated pieces, the “real” world of Conor and the Monster begin to blend in with it making for a very beautiful piece and an additional story element that couldn’t be seen coming.


The acting in A Monster Calls is well done across the board.  Lewis MacDougall who before this had only played a minor role in the film Pan carries the movie excellently.  We absolutely buy into his pain and even the more subtle aspects of the character’s psychology, and this is very much a psychological study, come across well, at least until the closing parts of the film when the writing gives away too much, too quickly, and too crudely, but that is hardly MacDougall’s fault.   Felicity Jones as Mum does a decent job being pathetic and likable, which honestly is really all she is called upon to do.  Sigourney Weaver nails her role as Grandma giving us another nuanced performance (in everything but her accent, I honestly could not tell if she was supposed to be English or American)  in which she has to show that she loves Conor very much, but that is largely due to Mum being her daughter, and also that she will not stand for his acting out.  It’s often a fine line to walk, and she not only walks but dances along it.

A Monster Calls does so much so well, that it’s a near tragedy that it can’t remain consistent.  Two or three brilliant scenes will go by, tugging on your emotions in just the right way, instilling you with awe from the glorious visuals in front of you, and getting across important information to you without your even realizing it’s done so, and then, the Monster will show up and give a rote speech that he is going to do this, and this is why, and this is when crashing you back down to Earth and reminding you that you are just watching a movie, all your belief in this fantasy shattered, and what hope does a monster have if you don’t believe in it?


Final recommendation:  If you love film primarily for the visual artistry of it, then this is a must see.  The director Bayona and the cinematographer Faura had a beautiful and creative vision that they portrayed wonderfully.  If story is the primary reason you go to the movies, however, it’s a little harder to wholeheartedly recommend.  The story is excellent for the most part, and I feel it deserves to be seen solely for the bravery of its message, but the fact that that message is delivered far too clunkily much of the time and could be a trigger for people who have recently lost a loved one makes me want to say this is not a film for the more casual movie goer.



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards; 2016)

For nearly 40 years, the Star Wars movies have been the mainstream movie audience’s junk food of choice.  They really have no value to them whatsoever, but they are comforting, addicting, and go down easily.  Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in this metaphor would be your favorite pizza from your favorite parlor with your favorite toppings while the prequels would be the crap which has been sitting all day on the 7-11 rotisserie thing behind the counter.  Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars film in the same vein, and I’d call it chicken nuggets if I continue forcing the metaphor – don’t look too closely at what it is and how it was made and you can really enjoy it, but it really shows a lot of crap upon any close inspection.

First, let’s talk about the characters.  We have a cast of thinly developed and routinely acted characters led by Felicity Jones as our hero Jyn Erso and a particularly bland and unmemorable performance from Diego Luna as Cassian Endor.  From the supporting cast, we have a collection that are a bit more memorable than our protagonists, but moreso because of odd character traits than actual developed personality.  The only really fantastic and developed of the film’s cast is Alan Tudyk as the voice of reprogrammed Imperial Droid K-2SO who shows once again that he is one of Hollywood’s most underrated and unfortunately overlooked performers.  For an actor who never once shows his face on screen in this film, he still manages to steal every single scene he shows up in.


Here we see the most human character in the movie, and I don’t mean the shorter one.

The screenplay, too, is as thin as Rogue One‘s characters, serving only to set up action sequences.  Characters run into each other by chance then decide to never leave each others’ company for no explainable reason.  People who met ten minutes prior are suddenly close friends and treat each other as they would someone who has spent years earning their respect and trust simply because the plot needs them to and the writers were too lazy to find any other way of doing things.   None of the events in the film happen because of any realistic set of motivations or actions on the part of the characters, but obviously take place because the movie needed to start in one place, arrive in another predetermined place, and the writers give us the simplest, black and white, connect the dots means of doing so.

Yet, despite all this, Rogue One is often a whole lot of fun.  The centerpiece of any Star Wars story for the last 30 years has been action sequences mixed in with a heaping helping of fan service and nostalgia, and these are delivered creatively and spectacularly.  This is the closest thing we’ve had yet to a Star Wars war film, ironically, and seeing set pieces which mix up Stormtroopers fighting rebels while X-Wings and Tie Fighter lend air support battling straight overhead and AT-AT Walkers towering over the battle adding yet another element to the battle makes us realize we’ve never really seen something like this before in Star Wars films which are generally far more streamlined in its action sequences and never show that anyone is capable of thinking in a tactical manner in this world.


“Storm the beach, they said.  Take the high ground, they said.  I joined the wrong side of this war.”

No one expects anything more than fluff entertainment from a Star Wars film, and when taking just the special effects and action into account, Rogue One delivers on that fluff entertainment in the best way possible, with these sequences being some of the best we’ve ever seen in the Star Wars Universe.  However, the characters and script are more shallow than is even usual for Star Wars.  Back story, motivation, and logic not only take a back seat to the visuals, but are practically non-existent.  Rogue One will almost certainly entertain most people except for the most die hard anti-Star Wars crowd, and it has ample amounts of creativity in its action, but it is incredibly shallow leaving you wishing there had been more to it when all is said and done.

Rating:  5.8 out of 10