Review: In ‘A Monster Calls,’ grief and metaphor take center stage

The subjects of coping with grief and coming to terms with inevitable loss are some of life’s most complex. Director J.A. Bayona understands this with his vision of “A Monster Calls,” an adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel of the same name.

The film is simultaneously straightforward and allegorical, with so much of its brains relying on the audience to keep up with its multitude of metaphors. It still holds a certain amount of weight if you fall a bit behind, but reveling in its intricacies, now matter how forced they may seem, ultimately leads to a powerful message of accepting the direst situations life may throw at us.

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, whose mom, portrayed powerfully by Felicity Jones, is sick and not getting much better, despite trying seemingly every treatment available.

Conor is aware of her debilitating situation, but continually shuts himself off to it. What young child wants to think about having to live life without their mom? Instead he draws away his frustrations late at night, a distraction that proves to be a bit too effective.

That is, until the titular monster – a wooden CGI beast sporting Liam Neeson’s devilishly sly voice – pays Conor a visit, and begins to preach his parables.

These moments, although they are what make “A Monster Calls” unique and provide its billing, are hit-or-miss. Rest assured, there is a vital importance the monster’s origin and appearance other than being a cultural knockoff of Marvel’s Groot character, as there is in the stories he tells Conor.

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They are meant to instill some wisdom, although the messages seem a bit forced. Thankfully, some wonderful, unexpectedly macabre animation makes it more bearable. The sharp and analytical minds that pick up on the monster’s motives for telling these particular stories are the ones who will get the most out of “A Monster Calls.”

Instead, the film is at its strongest and most accessible in Conor’s interactions with other humans, including his father who now lives in America, and his grandmother that he has trouble connecting with. Not only is MacDougall stronger in these scenes, but the interactions may lead us to think back to moments in our lives where we may not have gotten along with a family member in a time when it was so important to be emotionally in sync with one another.

A highlight of the film comes during the monsters’ third, and most unexpected, visit. If we haven’t up to this point, it finally becomes clear what the beast represents, as well as his timeliness of visiting Conor. It is an impactful scene, and a rare one for Bayona when all aspects of his film come together perfectly as Conor finally begins to let out what he’s been keeping pent up inside.

And that’s only the prologue to his complete transformation in the film’s final act, one which makes us ponder the monster inside us all, and the power of releasing it when life swings its biggest punches. It’s difficult to tell who “A Monster Calls” is best suited for; its protagonist relates more to our youthful, innocent selves while the film is certainly more dark and mature than some may expect.

But the discussion that it is sure to spark between moviegoers of any age after leaving the multiplex is an important one, affirming the impact of a film that might make you question your perspective of life, even with its tough-to-absorb allegories.

 

“A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images 

Starring: Lewis McDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell

Directed by J.A. Bayona

2016

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Review: Rogue One, while immensely entertaining, will leave the uninitiated dazed and confused

If last year’s “The Force Awakens” was tasked with introducing “Star Wars,” Jedis, the Force, and its general outer space soap opera aesthetic for a new generation, Gareth Edwards’ mission with “Rogue One” was to bring the focus back to the franchise’s faithful.

Despite scattered references to the mystical Force, and the bare minimum of familiar faces a “Star Wars” film can offer, “Rogue One” still manages to fulfill a vital bit of fan service, essentially acting as a puzzle piece to one of the more critical story points in the entire mythos. In that regard, it’s a generally satisfying experience, and the best entry in the franchise this century.

The catch? It is all those things…for the aforementioned fanbase. For the uninitiated (who truly deserve some level of admiration for not having at least some knowledge of the “Star Wars” franchise up to this point), “Rogue One” – the first in a new branch of the franchise in the form of anthology/puzzle piece films – amounts to little more than an effects-driven, emotional sci-fi romp with a plot so straightforward you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel among rebels who is compelled to assist in the mission against an evil galactic dictatorship that now has the capacity to destroy entire planets.

Whether that premise sounds about as straightforward as can be isn’t really the point. Slap the subtitle of “A Star Wars Story” after the film’s title, and you’ve got packed theater seats, a marketing campaign built on nostalgia, and, admittedly, an advantage in the form of bias from movie critics. That is, admiration for arguably the greatest and most important franchise in movie history.

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Edwards has directed a great film. Truly, he has. And a large part of what makes it so great, aside from containing more Easter eggs than you’ll find in any basket come spring, is that he pulls off creating a “Star Wars” film that is distinctive in an increasingly crowded cinematic universe.

Similar to Edwards’ breakout blockbuster, 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is gritty, with a seductive sense of scale that makes the film’s climactic space battle as intriguing as an earlier sequence that is much more grounded. Immense AT-AT walkers have never seemed so foreboding. The extremist side of the rebel faction is explored. I half expected “Ride of the Valkyries” to play as the Death Star rises ever so slowly over the horizon of Scarif.

This tonal shift, the fact that this – more than any other “Star Wars” flick – was made with adults in mind isn’t a gimmick. It’s pulled off remarkably. There’s real stakes, there’s loss, there’s a pervading sense of “against all odds” storytelling that makes you wonder how Obi-Wan, Luke, Han Solo and company survived so many of their adventures.

The problem is that Edwards’ chosen style can only really be appreciated when you stack “Rogue One” against the other seven entries in the franchise. If this is your first “Star Wars” watch, “A New Hope,” episode IV in the overarching narrative, is almost essential viewing. Because only then can you truly appreciate what Edwards has done.

The film even allows the audience to watch “A New Hope” in a different light, giving us much more respect for the Rebel Alliance’s unsung heroes that are at the forefront of “Rogue One.” It makes a classic film even greater.

Do you see the problem here? “Rogue One” should be appreciated for acting (ironically) as a truly stand-alone experience, telling a singular story from beginning to end with no worries about setting up for future installments. Because we already knows what happens next, and beyond.

But in that endeavor of standing apart, it still is frustratingly, achingly tethered to what comes immediately after. The few narrative points that it does try to make all its own, on the other hand, don’t hold up.

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The role of Erso’s father teases a twist, when really he only provides functionality – the McGuffin for Jyn to find her path to rebel hero. And it doesn’t even feel that organic; an inspiring speech to her crew seems completely out of left field…er…hyperspace. There’s something lacking in her development, like if Harry Potter had defeated Voldemort two hours after hearing his name for the first time.

Of course, there’s still the spectacle. A handful of memorable sequences sprinkled throughout are fantasies come true for seasoned fans, and wildly entertaining for newbies.

Much of the dialogue is forced, but Alan Tudyk’s  standout turn as the sarcastic, “says whatever comes into his circuits” droid K-2SO makes up for it. When’s the all-droid anthology film coming? Get on it, Disney.

The Force is strong with most of the supporting cast, particularly Riz Ahmed as an Imperial defector and Diego Luna as the rebel willing to pull out all the stops for his cause, but other characters contribute very little.

The music is great, but that’s because it’s influenced by the one of the most familiar scores of all time.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, “Rogue One” serves to only gain more and more momentum with each act, with only a few moments that slow the pace.

And, of course, the callbacks – or perhaps we should call them call-forwards – to the rest of the franchise provides a treasure chest of references for seasoned fans.

“Rogue One” is as fresh as it is familiar. Of course this “feels like a Star Wars” movie. It’s uniqueness led to its initial ascension in the ‘70s. It’s an entertaining film made great only when viewed as a vital prologue to the Vader/Luke/Leia story.

But while that function as a bridge between trilogies will be appreciated by fanboys, by film’s end – even after Darth Vader has the audience standing and cheering – it’s hard to imagine newcomers doing much more than scratching their heads and saying “So what?”

 

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

2016