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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…


Chappie – ★ ★ ★ DVD Review

Chappie3.0 Stars

Another sci-fi film from South African writer and director Neill Blomkamp, set in a Johannesburg just slightly ahead of our own time sees police utilizing humanoid robots known as “Scouts” to help fight crime.  When Scout 22 gets badly damaged (again), it’s destined for the scrap heap until the creator of the Scout program, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) rescues it as an experimental subject for his artificial intelligence program.  A program that succeeds.  Scout 22 has gained sentience and is effectively alive, unfortunately criminals have taken him and Deon in order to pay back a debt they owe to an even bigger criminal.  As the new life form struggles to discover who he is, and who he should be, rival forces from Deon’s own company (Hugh Jackman) have plans of their own, and all the Scouts must be eliminated for them to occur.

I liked the idea behind the film, and for the most part liked the execution, but it for some reason fell flat for me.  Perhaps it was because I hadn’t really heard anything good about the film.  I see that it got a 7.0 rating on IMDb but a 31%/61% score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is telling too.  I had heard going into the film that it just seemed like a reboot (or a third chapter) to Short Circuit, the 1986 film where a military robot is granted artificial intelligence and life (by a lightning bolt I believe) and then goes through the struggles of trying to sort out his new found free will from his programming.

The same sort of thing happens in Chappie, as Scout 22 struggles with doing as his “maker” wishes, which involves no criminal acts; and doing what his “mother” and “father” (Yolandi and Ninja from the South African rap-rave group, Die Antwoord  who play the criminals Yolandi and Ninja…) wish, which involves him becoming a proper gangster, swearing and pulling heists.  Yolandi is the one who actually names Scout 22 “Chappie”.  I think that whole scenario is what really bothered me about the film.  The “gangsters” didn’t really seem that credible or smart, or tough or anything.  They really seemed like caricatures of gangsters and were a little too “Tokyo-pop” for my liking in this film that was consciously set in Johannesburg.  Their reasons for “raising” Chappie seemed very simple (to commit crimes for Ninja) and they didn’t really feel like believable characters.  Deon felt believable, Chappie himself felt believable (and brought to life brilliantly by Sharlto Copley), but the character that was most believable was Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore, a workplace rival of Deon’s whose own law enforcement solution was passed over in favour of the Scouts.  His design,  called “The Moose” and it looked a lot like ED 209 from Robocop.  I understood his character, his motivations and his actions, and he was essentially the villain of the piece, even though his whole arc was him trying to get his own law enforcement droid approved.  I think his character overshadowed the actual criminals in the film that the Moose, the Scouts and even Chappie were designed to stop, and made them look rather inconsequential.  Jackman is a tremendous actor and gold in almost everything he does, and he knows how to play up his roles for the target audience.

At the end of the day though, while I enjoyed the film, there wasn’t enough to really set it apart from the pack except for the Johannesburg setting.  It seemed to be really riding the coattails of Blomkamp’s previous works, and this was not District 9, nor did it really capture the feeling and magic of that first film.

Bottom Line: why did this average film have to be two hours long?  Perhaps some editing would have cleaned it up a bit.

Red Lights

Product Details4.5 Stars

When Simon Silver, a famous blind psychic (Robert De Niro), comes out of retirement years after his toughest critic mysteriously passed away, veteran paranormal researchers Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are set to investigate.  The pair work in a university Parapsychology Department debunking fraudulent claims of psychic phenomena.

Well, I certainly enjoyed this one!  An amazing thriller; and not so much a “horror” thriller, but a nice, well thought out, taut psychological thriller.  For the first time in quite a while, I found another one of those gems where I liked virtually everything about the movie.  My only criticism would have to be that it ran a little long, but that may also have been because I started watching late after another long day at work.  This was a great tale from writer-director Rodrigo Cortés, check this one out, and pay attention.  There is a clue dropped early on that I loved, partially because I picked up on it, and partially because the way it played out was very similar to a story idea I’ve had kicking around in my head for quite some time.

The cast was simply the best I could imagine for this film.  Sigourney Weaver was fantastic, and ironically I had re-watched Ghostbusters back around Hallowe’en, and seeing her as a serious sort of Venkman was quite nice.  Through the film, we learn why her character is so dedicated to her work, and explore her views not only on the supernatural but also belief systems (her own and those of others) in a modern world.  Weaver gives instant credibility to Matheson, and you believe her to be an expert.  Cillian Murphy was perfectly cast as her younger associate professor bringing a great deal passion and seriousness to the role.  The excellent chemistry between Weaver and Murphy was evident from their opening scene, where they visit a creepy old house to observe a seance, using all their scientific tools to get to the truth.  Robert De Niro was captivating as Simon Silver, a role I’m having a bit of a hard time categorizing.  He was clearly the antagonist of the piece, but he wasn’t really a stereotypical “bad guy”, or was he?  If he’s a charlatan, I guess he is; but if he is a real psychic, wrongly accused of being a fraud, how do we view him now?  This was a role that only a great actor could manage to play successfully, and fortunately Red Lights got De Niro.  For quite a while now I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about the acting ability of Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of “the Olsen Twins”, who, let’s face it, they’re phenomenally successful, but they weren’t great actresses.  Elizabeth Olsen however, is quite a good actress, and she was a very good fit for this film, and with this cast.  To top things off, we also get Toby Jones, who I’m glad to say I’ve noticed popping up more and more recently.

I was initially drawn to the film by the trailer, the story looked very good, and of course the cast was top notch as I’ve said.  I will also admit I found it an excellent excuse to watch Elizabeth Olsen for the first time and get to see why she was getting so much praise.  Praise that I find well placed.  Horror is not really my thing, so I was a little leery, but this was such a well done film; with great pieces of suspense, drama and even a fair bit of dark humour; I’m very glad to have watched it.

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