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A Monster Calls – ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ DVD Review

A Monster Calls

It wasn’t exactly what I expected, it turned out to be better.  A Monster Calls is about a young boy who has to find a way to deal with his mother’s impending death from terminal cancer, and how his imagination helps him to cope.  The movie was directed by J.A. Bayona and based on the book by Siobhan Dowd which she began writing while she herself was suffering from cancer, but passed away before she could finish it. The book was finished by Patrick Ness who also wrote the screenplay for the film.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is the boy who’s “too old to be a child, and too young to be a man”, but is forced to become one or the other as his mother (Felicity Jones) suffers through a terminal cancer diagnosis.  The disease is rotten and evil, and what better to fight evil than a monster?  Conor doesn’t exactly call the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) at first, but it appears to him late one night when he should be asleep, and it comes ripping away the wall of his room, telling Conor that it will come to him three times and tell him three truths, and on the monster’s fourth visit Conor must tell him a story and it must be true, or he will be eaten by the towering mass of branches and leaves formed into a human shape.  The stories each parallel what is going on in Conor’s life at the time.  Each night the monster appears at 12:07.

The first story:

An old king who’s lost his entire family save a young grandson remarries a beautiful young woman many claim to be a witch. He dies before the young prince has come of age, leaving the step grandmother as regent. She rules well and fairly, but, not wanting to hand the kingdom over, plots to marry the prince and remain queen.
The prince, who has a lover, runs away with his chosen bride, planning to flee to the neighbouring kingdom. There they will marry and wait out the time until he’s of age to claim the throne. They stop and sleep under the yew tree (the monster), but in the morning, the young woman is dead. Murdered. The shocked young prince covered in blood.
He tells the villagers who find them that the queen, a witch, must have done it out of jealousy and so he would be tried and hanged for murder, allowing her to keep his kingdom. He also tells the yew tree something which calls the monster awake for vengeance.
Enraged, the commoners rally around the prince to storm the castle, and the monster follows. They capture the queen and condemn her to burn at the stake.
The monster arrives to snatch her from the fire, and carry her away to a far off land where she lives out the rest of her life.
While disagreeable and a witch, she was not the one who had killed the girl. The prince had murdered her under the yew tree in order to inspire his people to back him into overthrowing the queen.

The story somewhat relates to Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who seems like a witch to the boy, with her rules and expectations of him, but who hasn’t really done anything wrong to him.

The second story:

A greedy, ill-tempered apothecary who follows the old traditions and beliefs constantly pesters a parson to allow him to cut down the yew tree in the church yard and use it for medicinal ingredients.
The apothecary becomes less and less popular and is nearly ruined, aided by his own foul nature and the parson’s active condemning from the pulpit.
When a sickness sweeps the land and many die, the parson goes to the apothecary and asks him to save the lives of his two ill daughters after all other resources are exhausted.
When the apothecary asks why he should help a man who has turned people away from his skills and denied him the yew tree, his best source of healing ingredients, the parson begs. The parson promises to give him the yew tree, and deliver the parishioners to him as patients. In response to the parson’s promise to revoke his beliefs and give up everything if only his daughters are healed, the apothecary says that he cannot help him and the girls die.
The monster awakens from the yew tree to destroy the parson’s house and raze it to the ground as punishment.
While the apothecary was a nasty, greedy man, he was a healer and would have saved many, including the girls, if the parson had given him the yew tree when first asked. The parson, however, was a man who lived off of belief, but had none of his own and changed beliefs as it suited him and convenience. His disbelief of the apothecary’s skill caused many to die, even his children. The healing traditions followed by the apothecary require belief in order to work; without the parson’s, the apothecary was unable to treat the two girls.

At the conclusion of this story Conor is destroying his grandmother’s sitting room, her keepsakes and her treasured clock.

The third story:

There was a man who was invisible because no one ever saw him. Tired of this, he summoned the monster to ensure no one forgot to see him again. The monster made them see, but there are harder things than being invisible.

As this story ends, Conor has severely beaten the school bully.  I have to admit I loved seeing the bully getting beaten up by Conor, and being chased by Conor/the monster.  I really don’t like bullies.

The final story:

His mother has been pulled from a cliff by a terrifying creature from the darkness below and Conor must hold on to her hand to save her from being dragged down by the creature. Eventually, his grip fails and the creature claims his mother.

The final story is Conor’s truth to the monster, and he relates his nightmare to the monster.  Conor is forced to confess the truth: he loosened his grip and dropped her on purpose.  He could have held on, but he let go in order to stop the pain of having to hold on.  Conor’s desire to let her go and drop her is his secret wish that both his mother’s and his own suffering will end. Ultimately the monster comforts him, revealing that its purpose has been to heal him as his mother dies at 12:07.

First off, there were great performances by everyone involved.  Neeson was great as the voice of the monster, and managed to convey every emotion needed.  Fear, horror, love, compassion.  He was humourous, he was serious, he was perfectly cast.  Felicity Jones is fairly new to me.  I think I’ve only seen her in Rogue One, but she was excellent as well as the dying mother, giving a very powerful but subtle performance.  (I really liked her in Rogue One too, and realize I missed reviewing that a long time ago….) (and I double checked, forgot she was in The Theory of Everything! oops!)  Bringing even more power to the cast was Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother, but Conor himself, played by Lewis MacDougall really carried the film.  He gave a strong performance that showed a great mix of maturity and innocence, strength and vulnerability.

I loved the animation they used each time the monster told a story.  I’m really enjoying movies like this and like The Little Prince that are employing multiple styles of animation.  Visually the film was fantastic, not just the depiction of the monster, but the lighting of the rooms, the telling of the tales, and really everything else.  A lovely film all around that can be enjoyed by everyone I think.

Bottom Line: I got the story texts from Wikipedia, but am strongly considering picking up the original book now too…


Theory of Everything – ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ DVD Review

Theory of Everything4.5 Stars

Theory of Everything tells the real life story of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), from his early days at Cambridge, to the meeting of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones), to the onset of his ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and his fifty year battle with the disease.  Hawking began his student life studying Cosmology at Cambridge, where he met Jane Wilde who was pursuing a degree in Romance Languages.  Very early on in their courtship, Hawking started to suffer the symptoms of ALS and was expected to only survive two years.  Despite the terminal diagnosis, Hawking and Wilde married and started a family.  His disabilities meant that the responsibilities of home and family rested firmly on his Jane’s increasingly overwhelmed shoulders, but it left him more time to concentrate on his theoretical work. Of course life was not all roses for the Hawkings, as his health deteriorated and their family grew, Jane needed more and more help, and eventually she met Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) who led the church choir.  Jonathan had recently lost his wife to leukemia and after befriending the family was anxious to assist.  In the film Jonathan becomes a father to the Hawking children that Stephen could not be, and it looked like he would be a lover to Jane as well, seemingly with Stephen’s acceptance and blessing, but they managed to keep things platonic.  The film continues to show us the private life of Hawking, who eventually finds companionship with Elaine Mason, his caregiver.  Stephen eventually leaves Jane and marries Elaine, though the film really only covers the separation from Jane who eventually reconnects with Jonathan.  It all sounds like a giant soap opera when put to (digitial) paper, but it really wasn’t. 

Theory of Everything was an interesting bio-pic, that was highlighted by Redmayne’s absolutely brilliant performance.  He played out each stage of the disease as it affected Hawking, and showed how it impacted his work and his personal life.  He has won both the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for Actor in a Leading Role, and is obviously nominated for the Oscar.  I’ve always been a little hard on bio-pics and people who play historical figures. Are they really acting or are they just really doing an impression of their subject?  Should an imitation of another person really be applauded as acting over that of an actor taking on the role of a fictional character?  When playing a real life person, you are restricted in what you can do, because you want the portrayal to be as accurate as possible.  Usually the subject is world famous, so there is not much room to bring creativity to the role, as you are free to do when you interpret a fictional character.  I’ve usually been the cynic, but Redmayne has given me reason to change my opinion.  Well, perhaps not my overall feelings, but my opinion in this particular case.  He is playing a very difficult role because of the physical demands and disabilities of the real man.  As the film goes on, his ability to convey the emotions, thoughts and ideas of Hawking diminish from full on dialogues to near paralysis, with only his eyes remaining active to tell the story.

I find it incredible sometimes that Stephen Hawking; a scientist, a physicist, an author who deals with some pretty high level theories; has become a pop culture icon.  He has appeared (as himself) in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, been on several episodes of The Big Bang Theory, voiced himself on The Simpsons, and now has another movie about his life.  Ironically Benedict Cumberbatch played Hawking in the TV movie Hawking ten years ago, and has also been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar this year for playing Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

Bottom Line: Oooh boy, it is going to be a very, very difficult Oscar pool this year.  To retain my championship at work, I have to remember to pick with my head, not with my heart…


Product Details3.5 Stars

Surround sound is hooked up, and though some wires still need to be hidden in the walls, that doesn’t really impact the use.  What does impact the use is the lack of furniture in my basement/theatre area.  Time to get a TARDIS, larger “traditional” vehicle or a Green Lantern power ring….ah to have friends with trucks eh?

So someone made a movie about the invention of the first vibrator in Victorian England.  Somehow they cast Hugh Dancy,  Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce and Felicity Jones.  Sorry, when I was watching the special features to Hysteria, this intro line came to me and sounded a lot better that it’s turning into now.  Clearly I’ve forgotten all the poignant thoughts I had then, but it would have ended up somehow with “of course I had to review it, because that’s kind of what I do these days”.  This will likely be a short review, because I’m tired on top of stupid.  I should know better than to stay up all hours of the night writing these, especially on the day when I’ve been up since 6:30 for a staff meeting.  I think I wasted that hour we gained from the end of Daylight Savings Time….though not by watching the movie.

Hysteria follows the somewhat true story of Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a Victorian doctor who is frustrated when his employers will not keep up with the latest medical science.  Touting the importance of clean bandages and washing hands over a course of leaches and salt tablets, he has been employed and released by at least five different hospitals in the last year.  Eventually he comes to the employ of the overworked Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who specializes in the treatment of “hysteria”, a catch all diagnosis applied to women who exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.  Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo “pelvic massage” — manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced “hysterical paroxysm” or orgasm…and yes, I lifted that right from Wikipedia.  Granville excels at his job of delivering pelvic massages until he suffers from a debilitating wrist cramp, and is soon fired from yet another medical practice.  But fear not, his friend and benefactor Sir Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) has been experimenting and dabbling with electricity, and his invention of an electric feather duster is quickly adapted by the pair into the world’s first vibrator, which quickly sets Granville back up in practice, back in the financial black, and back in the good graces of Dr. Dalrymple, and his lovely daughter.

Hysteria is a variety of movies in one.  It is equal parts a social commentary on the status of women in the 1890s; a commentary on the advancement (and resistance to) of medical science and the technological age; a fairly predictable romantic comedy; and a very funny comedy about the “taboo” subject of vibrators.  As seems the case in many period pieces and many romantic comedies in general I suppose, the good Dr. Dalrymple has two lovely daughters, the very picture of “British” Emily played by Felicity Jones, and the social rights activist Charlotte played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Who will Dr. Granville end up with?  Well, it’s rather obvious when you watch it, but I won’t spoil it here, or perhaps it is just obvious to me because I have seen so many movies; though really not that many in the “rom-com” genre I suppose…  Setting aside that aspect of the film, because I’m a bitter old fool, there were still a lot of laughs in this one.  The story moved along at a good pace, with humour in almost every scene, and the entire cast did an outstanding job.  There was one scene where Dr. Granville and Emily Dalrymple were walking through a park and see a pair of ducks in a pond.  The setup to the joke and the actor’s reactions were amazing.  This bit had me laughing out loud in my living room for a good minute after it was over.  While I enjoyed everyone in the movie, I think that Everett really stole every scene he was in, deliciously enjoying his character’s own “naughtiness” juxtaposed with his position in proper English society.  And proof that Doctor Who really is everywhere, Felicity Jones (Emily Dalrymple) was previously in Who as “The Unicorn” in the classic fourth series episode “The Wasp and the Unicorn”.

To sum up, if you’re looking for a bit of a naughty laugh, enjoy a little Hysteria.

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