Monday 2 January 2017

Review: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls
Cert: 12A / 108 mins / Dir. J.A. Bayona / Trailer

And so, my bid to watch and review all of 2017's movies in alphabetical order begins on a strong footing. My bid to evade more heavyweight fare in search of entertainment and escapism? Not so much.

The cinematic adaptation of Patrick Ness's award-winning book is a musing study of grief, anger and forgiveness, and one which is as deliberately frustrating and contrary as its subjects. Seen through the eyes of the introverted young Conor O'Malley as he struggles to accept his mother's cancer, the film shows a series of lucid dreams where he's visited by a monster formed from a tree in the local churchyard. The monster tells Conor three stories, and insists that after the final one, Conor must tell his own. Although he becomes unsure of what is real and what he's imagining, Conor knows the monster isn't an enemy, but an embodiment of the challenges faced by his whole family.

The film is driven by fantastic performances from Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones as Conor and his mum, Lizzie. Liam Neeson's voice and motion-capture work as the monster is convincing enough for the audience to take for granted, and gracious enough to know that it's not the real star of the movie. This is a slow-burner for the first act, but once the monster tells his first story - the first two are illustrated through some frankly beautiful animation - the structure becomes more clear. And this clarity is needed because there's a lot going on in A Monster Calls. Even though it's a film which frequently pauses to examine and interpret its own analogies, the third act is a triumph of emotional writing. That Ness has adapted his own novel for the screen helps a lot, especially since the story origininated from author Siobhan Dowd during her own terminal illness, and Ness has the best hand for keeping that closeness. While the film never quite blew me away, the intricate web of metaphor it weaves will stay with me for a long while.

That said, the pacing can feel a little uneven, especially with that slow build-up. The film is also occasionally a bit too whimsical, even for a fantasy-tale. Toby Kebbel appears as Conor's estranged father, and while he plays the role sympathetically enough, I can't help feeling he should have had a greater impact on the story (it's not like Conor or Lizzie hate him at all). And while I'm prepared to go with a 1,000yr old tree in England having that sort of vague Irish brogue that Liam Neeson brings so effortlessly and so often, I can't help wonder why/how Sigourney Weaver passed the audition process as 'an English grandmother' when she can't keep her native accent under control. It doesn't de-rail the film, but it's more distracting than it should be.

But none of this stops A Monster Calls from being an outstanding piece of cinema. It's just probably one that I don't think I'll have the strength to watch again.

If you've had enough fun and frollics over the holiday season but you're not quite ready for the earnest hand-wringing of true-story adaptations that the awards season has lined up, you could do a lot, lot worse than A Monster Calls.

It's heavy-going.
It's meant to be heavy-going.
Try not to cry.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Tale of Tales, Arrival.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Not necessarily, the film's hook is mainly emotional so should work on any size screen.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's definitely up there.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Probably not.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Not only has this film got Jyn Erso and Qui-Gon Jinn in it, Toby Kebbel's in there as well and he did voice-work in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Oh, yes.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
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