Tuesday, 14 March 2017

iBoy

Adam Randall, 2017, UK

Caught between Young Adult fiction and urban gangster clichés, Netflix’s ‘iBoy’ forgets how absurd its premise is, that this could be pleasing and that it should be having a lot more fun. Based on Kevin Brooks’ novel, Bill Milner is Tom who, having accidentally stumbled upon a gang-rape of a girl he likes, is shot when fleeing and calling the police and gets bits of his phone stuck in his head. This not only leaves him with a stylish scar, it gives him powers to log into the networks around him and he pledges to use them to get the boys who raped Lucy (Maisie Williams). As superhero powers go, this is promising as it means he’ll have to smart about things and there’s initially some fun to be had when he is discovering how to use his powers – like tracking people using virtual maps. But then he carries out martial arts moves and punches successfully after watching some video and the premise stops relying on wit.

Milner is agreeably vulnerable but it’s Williams as Lucy that stands out more, distinguishing a role that could have relied solely upon victimhood. There are gaping plot holes that can’t quite be avoided – so the assault was because her brother wouldn’t join the gang, but do they just forget about him afterwards? Do the police not follow up gang-rapes and shootings? And when the gang effectively carry out a mass theft, would this not inspire a potential crackdown? Wouldn’t there be some questions after the closing showdown? It’s all filmed in blue hues that just about steer clear of the grey and unflattering tones that usually denote neo-realism, but it’s all muted enough to make the cyberworld Tom’s sees pop out. There is some mildly effective class symbolism by having all this take place in the shadow of London’s Gherkin and Rory Kenear turns up to provide some focus in the later stages, but it’s never fun enough to pull it all together. It never quite finds a happy medium between its absurdity and it's gangster genre cruelty. Rather, it’s so busy trying to “hard-hitting and gritty” in a particularly English way that it fails to realise it’s humour and potential. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2016, USA

Over Christmas, I watched ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ which I hadn’t seen in a while: of course, I came for the Harryhausen creations but then it became evident to me that actually the script and the acting were a bit … lacking. Indeed, my Christmassy family left the room and I could hear them grumbling about “bad acting” in the other room. And I thought: maybe it’s always been this way with monster blockbusters, that the monster stuff is good but the scripts and acting are crap.

And ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is no exception. 


To the good: Kong himself is a frequently exceptional special effect. CGI has come a long way and it’s not unusual, with the right amount of cash and an army of multiple effects crews, to get realistic monsters that can stand up to lingering close-ups. Of course, we could be blasé now that we’re used to such amazing spectacles as the recent Planet of the Apes’ films, but I could  only dream of such photo-realistic monsters as a kid. Some have bemoaned that Kong is shown too early but I would say around the first three Kong reveals are good and thrilling. I had no issue with this, although it did imply a rush to the money shot for fear that the audience wouldn't have any patience. There is enough believable heft to these digital monsters that it’s all quite convincing. Yes, monsters yelling and/or plunging into the camera gets a little tedious, but the fights are decently orchestrated, paced and considered – including Kong battling a giant squid (??) – so it’s all good. That’s what you came for, after all.

But oh the script is woeful - by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. And that’s when you start to notice all that’s wrong. There are many big names in the cast but this means very little when the material they work with is so poor. I mean, why are good actors even necessary here? Only John C. Reilly really comes to life with what he’s given because he’s the comic relief and has more to work with. But even then, he’s the Comic Relief, because that’s what this kind of thing always has. He’s with the natives, but the natives literally have no voice so it’s America all the way (…okay, except for Hiddleston).

Tom Hiddleston is the ex-army Brit whose introduction speaks to how the script seems to be mostly more just ticking boxes than really trying: John Goodman and Houston Brooks are looking for someone to lead their expedition into an uncharted island so they walk into a bar where Hiddleston is playing pool; he has some kind of disagreement and dispatches his opponents with a couple of violent super-moves and Goodman decides that he’s their man – all this in about a minute. He goes on to warn them that the island will be full of diseases, etc. – but seems to forget this major problem as soon as they land. He’s happy to T-shirt the adventure. But it’s okay: the film forgets too, even though it went to the effort of mentioning it. ... and anyway, just because he's good in a barroom fight, why would they assume he'd be ideal for an expedition on a unknown island? Oh, he is though, so that's okay.

Brie Larson is The Female, an anti-war photographer disapproving of male warmongering as females are wont to do, tilting her chin upwards all the time to denote integrity. But she does get to do some action stuff.

And Samuel Jackson is at his most annoying, fronting the troupe of wisecracking military yahoos. Hey, they die and they never made an impression anyway so we don’t have to care. Jackson is meant to look tough, but he looks equally bored. His character is meant to represent the bad side of the American military “Always Win: Kill Kill Kill!” mindset, and there’s lot of allusions to Vietnam, but these are meagre shadings. Perhaps it’s just Jackson’s character that is irritating.

And why in these things do they seem to think rifles can bring down monolithic monsters? But it’s okay if you have endless ammo, I guess.

And for an island full of gigantitude, shouldn’t the natural surroundings show a little more wear and tear? I mean, we see Kong leaping from peak to peak and causing major damage to the island. And do we really need fantasy monsters as opponents when anything else real could be made big? And this isn’t even getting into how Kong Is A Good Guy And Defender Of Humans rather than a naturally morally neutral, fearsome beast. 

You saw the ‘Kong: Skull Island’ trailer, yes? Well that’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ aesthetic: the editing seems to have been learnt from trailers, commercials and actions stills from posters. It’s relentless. Gliding shots over everything – not only over the island, which is understandable, but over a pool table, for example – which means the film is in a constant state of “Awesome!” which only diminishes the genuinely notable and remarkable shots, for example the vista of Kong against the sun and the cast hiding out in a giant skull to name just two (we don’t need a sweeping trick-shot through the native city to see how remarkable it is). Now, I’m all for camera trickery and conceits – I give ‘Hardcore Henry’ a pass for this – but here’s it’s in equal measure intrusive as inspired; it’s like the film doesn’t trust the quieter moments in case we notice how insufficient they are and thinks technical bombast will distract. Mark Kermode thinks the pacing is decent and that the direction has some distinction: I disagree. The monster fights are edited with coherence and focus; my problem seems to be that much else is directed as if a box-of-tricks has been dumped all over it, which I always think reeks of desperation.

And the jukebox soundtrack just seems by rote – by the time Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (sheesh, again?!) is followed by Bowie, I was just rolling my eyes. This just feels emblematic of how cynically packaged the whole enterprise felt (“Hey, people, we know from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ that you like Seventies soundtracks, right? Buy this one!”). It’s gets so that just the opening riffs of songs can be heard to set a tone and that’s it.

So, yeah, come for the monsters. I am reminded that this is the way with blockbusters but I should be the ideal audience for this – I am a sucker for giant monsters and, sure, there are some great shots – but when so much else aggravates, I am left gravely disappointed. Perhaps this has always been the way with such features, even as far back as Harryhausen, but for all its flaws I didn’t feel the cynicism in that; I didn’t even quite feel it in ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Warcraft’ (for all of their failures, they did feel as if they were trying for something individual), but I felt it here. Yeah, I'm nitpicking and I know it's meant to be fun, but it seemed to be so by rote and cynical that I couldn't find it to be so. I don’t demand much, nothing remarkable, not really, honestly: just a reasonable script with my monsters.

And oh yeah, the post-credits teaser for a franchise is crap too.


Saturday, 11 March 2017

Wavelength


Mike Gray, 1983, USA


A minor close encounter: a couple – Robert Carradine and Cherie Currie -  go investigate weirdness on the nearby hill when she starts to telepathically hear cries; they stumble into a secret subterranean complex where the military are dissecting what they think are alien corpses.

The couple get imbrued in conspiracy scenarios and when the military attempt to cover it all up, the aliens get free. The telepathic angle means Currie can explain the aliens where things need a little clarification – hey, they’re just stranded tourists which means not only being captured and incarcerated but a trip to a church for a little religious undertone and then the desert. The aliens resemble naked bald children so immediately they are going to tap into the sympathetic/creepy kid vibe. Speilberg’s ‘E.T: the extra-terrestrial’ was meant to be cutesier. They see Jesus on the cross and consequently happily go back on their initial rejection of clothing: what is this, an introduction of Shame and a covering up of Innocence? But anyway, it’s then a little more in the adventure mode of ‘Escape from Witch Mountain’ but it’s tone is consistently eerie enough to align it with far headier affairs such as, say,  ‘Phase IV’, helped greatly by a score by Tangerine Dream. Although it’s unremarkable in many ways, the acting is solid and things clip along at a fair pace, but it’s most notable achievement is its accent on the situation and how it veers away from having clearly labelled villains: the military men may be cruel but they do so under the guise of just-doing-my-job rather than overacting malevolence. They often seem desperate and baffled in their orders and the brutal consequences of their reactions an offhand feature of what they do rather than denoting obvious sadism: arguably this banality of evil is far more chilling.



And all of this and claims it’s based on a True Story too, but this does not lead the film: indeed, this was surely already a well-trodden cover-up conspiracy theory in 1983. As an example of earnest Eighties b-movie fare, 'Wavelength' is enjoyable with budgetary restrictions beneficially making the focus on the drama.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins, 2016, USA


Like ‘Manchester by the Sea’, another film-of-the-moment, here is a further drama whose performances are exceptional across the board. Told in three segments – childhood, youth, adulthood – here is the story of Chiron, a gay black man trying to reconcile those identities over a lifetime in a mostly disapproving environment. 

Barry Jenkins’ film starts with Chiron as a child (Alex Hibbert) hiding out from his tormentors and running into a drug-den and Juan (Marshalala Ali), a passing drug dealer who literary tears down a wall to talk to the kid. How’s that for symbolism? The boy turns out to be a cagey, silent kid and already we can see that trusting others is something that he has learnt not to do easily, if at all. But Juan perhaps sees in the kid something that he was, or simply a vessel to place his untapped paternalism in; whatever the motivation, Juan and his girlfriend provide a safe place for Chiron as he tries to negotiate bullies and his unreliable drug-addict mother. The other kids sense a difference in Chiron that he hasn’t quite cottoned to yet and this makes him an easy target. Then we jump to Chiron’s youth (Ashton Sanders) and he’s still fighting the same battles but he’s now torn between keeping silent and speaking up for himself. But by now, he realises that he is targeted because he is seen as gay, which he is. How to stop it all? Then we skip forward to his adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) where he has becomes somewhat of a stereotype: a man dealing drugs. He can bury his sexuality beneath this identity: he has built himself again from the ground up and forsaken his natural sentiment and emotional range. Until the old friend he once had a sexual encounter with gets back in touch.

‘Moonlight’ has attracted praise from all over and allow me to join in. The theme of bildungsroman and the three-act conceit is likely people think of Richard Linklater’s formal daring with ‘Boyhood’ to capture growing up. Of course, ‘Moonlight’ probably triggers all kinds of preconceptions as to what it will be like once you are told the plot, but it’s not quite the gritty drug-addled tragedy you might assume: it’s bright, easy-going and given to occasional flights of lyricism that hint at the influences of Wong Kar Wai and Lynne Ramsey. The three actors playing Chiron move fluidly into one another – all exceptional – and so rounded is his character that revisiting him at different stages of development clearly reveals different angles on his personality; the leap-frogging structure allows a view of how Chiron develops, how his experience informs his decisions and how that affects his development. Certainly, there is a resonant ring of truth to the tale, and in adapting semi-autobiographical Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ Jenkins has said that this tale resounds with his own experience. Indeed, this will resonate with any repressed and bullied individual.

Brett Easton Ellis has taken ‘Moonlight’ to task for dwelling on a “victim narrative”, but that seems very narrow and a sweeping neglect of the nuances the film and acting presents. For example, fully, this is a story of how Chiron decides no longer to be a victim – there is the moment in the school office after being beaten up where he seems to take on board the advice he’s been given that there is a point where a person has to decide what to be. The point seems to be that he is made to feel that, within this culture, there are few identity options deemed open to him. He decides not be a victim but that leads him to an identity where he has to shut down his sexuality and neglect his subtleties. It’s about the tragedy of not feeling you can be who you really are due to what are seen as cultural norms. Indeed, this is spelt out during the remarkable final kitchen conversation between Chiron and Kevin (André Holland).*

 The Movie Waffler finds the ending a little too cute and flawed for that, perhaps with the idea that a happy ending is a sign of weakness; but it’s far more ambiguous than that, surely? All we have is the hint that Chiron has been able to express himself truthfully for once with no guarantee that this leads to anything more (indeed, Chiron’s smile may be untypically beatific, but Kevin’s more inscrutable). And, surely, why would you begrudge Chiron a moment of happiness? The film leaves him in a brief state of hard-won contentment but surely it would be a mistake to think this will typify his life from thereon out? Nick James says ‘Moonlight’ is sweepingly romantic, and there is that to it, but since when has a romantic venture for a gay black man had so much crossover appeal? Indeed, it is surely that popular cinema is including so many diverse and minority groups into popular narratives that has contributed to the era’s conservative political backlash. Sheesh, it’s an Oscar winner. Who’d have thunk? It’s one to make the racists and homophobes and right wing to bring on the ‘Hollywood is liberal politically correct gone mad hellspace oh so horrible’ tirades (indeed, Tucker Carson happily obliges). But for those of us that go to film to see reflections and representations, to discover how other people live and survive and therefore learn a little about them and ourselves, this is a treat.

‘Moonlight’ can soak up all the praise its had been given for its performances, steady pace, careful dialogue, segues into the poetic and its use of music are all exemplary (when we finally get to hear the song that reminded Kevin of Chiron, its undisguised romanticism is quite a shock and cuts deeps). It will probably survive the stigma of being an Oscar winner as this will typically bring on a backlash against its popularity, but it’s important (for reasons that Todd Brown discusses) and it is fully worthy. 

Oh, and it’s deeply moving.


Brett Easton Ellis also feels that ’12 Years a Slave’ trades in a “victim narrative”, which is surely a woefully miscalculated viewpoint. He seems to be conflating the narratives of “victimhood” and narratives portraying “making victims”: ’12 Years a Slave’ is about the wilful, violent making of victims, not wallowing in victimhood. For perspective, he thinks Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ a superior film. I have enjoyed many of Ellis’ books but I don’t go to him for empathy: indeed, it is telling that the only Ellis novel I have been properly moved by is ‘Lunar Park’, a story whose tragedy rests upon the protagonist’s selfishness and inability to empathise with his child.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Android

Aaron Lipstadt, 1982, USA

A hugely enjoyable excursion into 80s B-movie sci-fi from the Roger Corman stable: an android lives obliviously with his master on a space-station until three escaped convicts appear and change everything. With the winning directness of a short story and as a product of the 1980s, ‘Android’ is of course going to look dated – look at those computer games Max plays! – but the effects are mostly decent and, more importantly, the set design is no-nonsense and convincing in its limitations; they avoid looking too futuristic and trying too hard (it’s a case of budget restrictions being an asset) and with the company colours and strips all over it resembles living inside a canister bearing a logo.

Android Max 404 (Don Opper) is a blank slate, a technological medium only as good as his programmers, his innocence and mildness a means of making him compliant, but nevertheless this is unable to stop his natural curiosity for pop culture. There are undertones of film noir not only in Max’s aspirations but also at times in the lighting. This leads him to want to go to Earth and in the three new arrivals, he sees his chance. In fact, Max 404’s malleability is his major asset. It’s another plot with robots that cannot help but anthropomorphise – the who/what is human? is a staple intrigue of the android narratives – but it’s more a part of the pulp conceit rather than investigative as in something like Alex Garland's ‘Ex Machina’. This is a coming-of-age story for androids.

Don Opper, who wrote the script, is riveting and naturally charming as Max 404. Opper is a likeable and knowing presence that should have been one of the era’s genre cult heroes but didn’t really develop this promise. Klaus Kinski is admirably level as Dr Daniel in a role that could have easily introduced over-acting; having said that, perhaps that’s just how Kinski is – in constant deluded-and-mad-scientist mode and he’s just dialling in the performance. He’s busy trying to kick-start his supreme female android – which, it turns out, can be triggered by a dose of android sexual energy. But indeed, all the cast manage to step back a few steps from complete hamminess even if it is clunky at times. The convicts are the type immediately recognisable from the Eighties with only Crofton Hardester being straightforward villainous without nuance, and it’s fun that as the audience you can see they don’t realise what they’ve stepped into.
As with ‘Ex Machina’, the queasiness of the gender politics are somewhat mitigated by the overall exploitation aesthetic and moreso by the obvious intelligence and wit of the script. 


Monday, 13 February 2017

Amusements

"Under the Shadow": article on influences and Q&A with director Babak Anvari. How pleasing that such a great little horror film is getting such recognition.


Vic Pratt on his love for "Night of the Demon", which is a more-or-less just an excuse to post this picture.









Favourite songs #1


Favourite Songs #2

Thursday, 9 February 2017

St Vincent

Theodore Melfi, 2014, USA

Antisocial old guy babysits a bullied but bright kid for selfish reasons and, after hijinx, is redeemed by this friendship.

Ah, you know this one. A comedy based upon the premise that it is inherently funny to have an antagonistic older guy teach an innocent kid about name-calling, booze, gambling, prostitutes, etc. So the bar isn’t set very high but the main actors are a likeable bunch so it takes some time to realise that there aren’t enough gags to elevate the shenanigans before they give way to an uninteresting sentimental denouement where the full saccharine potential of the title is reached. Of course, although many characters call him such, we don’t really believe Vincent is an irredeemable asshole because he’s played by Bill Murray (or Bill “Fucking” Murray to give him his full chive.com name). His assholishness is put down to a broken heart and it is all resolved with social recognition, a hug and a makeshift family unit. But he’s also been rude, selfish, thieving, irresponsible, manipulative, etc. As Bill Murray the celebrity is a symbol for a kind of counter-culture japester devil-may-care machismo, Vinnie’s general unacceptable behaviour gets quite a pass, but this isn’t so much sticking-to-the-man as it’s taking advantage of and insulting working people.  

Elsewhere, Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Oliver has an appearance and manner that manages to mitigate his obvious precociousness into something more vulnerable and appealing, but like ‘Midnight Special’ there is the sense that this doesn’t use the most of him.
Naomi Watts has fun hamming it up as a Russian tart-with-a-heart and Melissa McCarthy grounds things immensely as if she’s stumbled in from a more earnest film – but of course this is Murray’s show and it’s a shame that it’s in the service of such slush. Beneath its bright superficiality, director Theodore Melfi’s script is only moderately funny with the kid mostly gets the best material (even with the amusing deleted scene where he and his pal discuss the origins of acting-up; his introduction to his new class struck me as perhaps the film’s funniest scene): Murray insulting and manipulating everyone isn’t instantaneously hilarious in itself, surely (?). You’re left with the feeling that there’s an emotional reconciliation because *shrug* that’s just what this stuff does. It’s all so by-rote (this is the bit where Vinnie tries to sabotage their friendship; here is where the kid overcomes the bully; here is a stroke overcome by a montage, etc) that it’s hard to be genuinely moved as the film seems to desire. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

X the Unknown

Leslie Norman, 1956, UK

Hammer Horror drawing on the Quatermass formula, the title even trying to bait the infamous ‘X’ certificate, just like ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (Nigel Kneale would not allow them to use his renowned scientist at the time). Something unspeakable is unleashed from the ground during a military training exercise and wrecks mild havoc on a quiet English town. There is a pleasing 1950s old-school black-and-white ambience and an adequate face melting to mitigate some obvious padding as well a smart if conventional script by Jimmy Sangster. The basis is the era’s paranoia that radiation is everywhere – the creature feeds on it like an all-devouring primal fear – and this “even becomes the background to an assignation between a doctor and a nurse in a nearby hospital.” 

Dean Jagger is the somewhat baffled and wildly-conjecturing scientist here, a more amenable personality than Quatermass, an American ingredient for the overseas market: he too is stolid but a routine eccentric. The creature itself is vengeful radioactive mud so the whole adventure does become a kind of “Wot The Blob Did In Scotland” but this pre-dates the more infamous ‘The Blob’ (1958). Unlike that film, ‘X The Unknown’ maintains a eeriness and a mean edge – imperilled children is a motif – and although it remains minor fare, fans of this era’s B-movie shivers are unlikely to be disappointed. 


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan, 2016,USA

I saw ‘Manchester by the Sea’ straight after A Monster Callswhich made it obvious how much they were kindred spirits in themes of loneliness, loss and grief, guilt and anger. But if the latter is about using imagination to cope with tragedy early in life, the former is about having tragedy strip that ability from you. It made for a emotionally thorough double-bill.


Central to the success of ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler, his demeanour, attitude and eyes always seeming to intimidate people, always implying something repressed. Is he scary because he might just flip over into violence? Well, he does that too, yet he never does that to the people closest despite losing his temper at times, however much we might anticipate and fear that he will. But the answer is more that he scares people because of what happened to him in the past, and therefore it is what he represents that is more daunting. It’s that he represents something irreparable, that he’s a broken soul, that he’s a walking symbol of unbearable guilt and loss. So when he does flip into violence it is something more akin to a fatalist bid to punish himself rather than being obnoxious.

But this is not obvious at first, for the story takes it time with revelations, interspersing flashbacks then memories triggered by what is currently happening. For example, discussion of Joe’s will where Lee discovers he is meant to be the guardian of Joe’s teenaged son, Patrick, not only triggers flashbacks but also strays away from the immediate scene the same way Lee’s mind is wandering. Rarely have flashbacks been so naturalistic. Lonergan’s direction may be devoid of superficial trickery but its fluidity and clarity are its strength and achievement, allowing the story and actors to grip the attention whilst conveying other layers with the framing of scenes. Lonergan’s script and style also fleshes out the secondary of characters to capture the waves of influence this drama has on the most incidental of characters (acquaintances, doctors and nurses, policemen, lawyers, etc.). It feels very much like life in that way.

It is the relationship between Lee and Patrick that provides the core of the film: Lee having to carefully battle with the impenetrable shell he has built around himself to try and do right by his nephew, which he wants to do. Patrick is a decent, fiery and horny sixteen year-old in a tremendous performance by Lucas Hedges.
The crux of the drama is the question of will this relationship bring Lee out of his detachment. Lonergan says, “I don’t like the Hollywood idea: ‘It’s all OK.’”* And if you don’t totally subscribe to the idea that cinema should be totally escapist reassurance, or perhaps you find so much feel-good material is condescending, then you likely think “Amen” to that. It’s a chance run-in with his former wife that proves the true test, and it’s a phenomenal scene where Michelle Williams reaches a complexity of raw feeling and reaction that is truly heart-breaking.

A lot of reviews imply it is miserablism and yes it’s dour, with the washed-out colourscheme setting the tone, but it never feels gratuitous. Indeed, it is often funny. It’s the tale of a man unable to overcome himself, although he tries, and that is a rare thing in a medium where overcoming is a dominant agenda. He carries on and there are hints that he is, indeed, changed and hopeful but the film refuses to condescend by elaborating to an ending where all is rectified. It’s a truly adult drama built on a supple script and tremendous performances.




·         Jonathan Romney, “A Winter’s Tale”, Sight and Sound, February 2017, vol. 27, issue 2,  pg. 51

A Monster Calls

J.A. Bayona, 2016, USA-Spain

So, before the film starts, I’m wondering if its reputation as a weepy is due to it using proper emotional content or the contrived stuff – the kind often called Spielbergian – that manipulates and ultimately leaves me cold. And then there are the ‘trailers appropriate to the film’ and they show the trailer for ‘Trainspotting 2’ and I am thinking How is that at all appropriate? But then I am predicting that the tone of ‘A Monster Calls’ is probably going to be more mature than ‘Trainspotting 2’ which I haven’t seen but it’s Danny Boyle and I know the type. How’s that for knee-jerk unreasonable criticism?

Anyway, I anticipated that ‘A Monster Calls’, an adaptation of Patrick Ness's book, would be mostly successful as soon as I heard that J.A. Boyona was directing: Boyona’s ‘The Orphange’ was a winner, visually lush and provided me with one of those proper scares (the game to summon the ghosts). As soon as the opening credits for ‘A Monster Calls’  rolled under stylised close-ups of pencils and paint splashes at work, I had the immediate impression that I need not worry about schmaltz, that I was in good hands; something about the tone and the aesthetic reassured me. A friend said the trailer made this look like something between ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (which I need to see again because something about it left me unconvinced) and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (which I love),  and this isn’t a bad summary. It’s like Terence Davies filtered through Guillermo del Toro, just to give a sense of its equal dour English melancholia and faith in the fantastical. The trailer seemed to imply to me more unleashing-of-the-Id, but it’s something more nuanced than that and not nearly as hampered by triumphantism as I anticipated.

IMDB synopsises like this: “A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mother’s terminal illness.” And that is fine, but it doesn’t convey the loneliness and alienation it conveys beneath its gee-whizz monster effects and animated digressions. Beneath these flourishes – elegant and vivid but always playing second-fiddle to the emotional content – it’s a sad tale of a boy struggling to cope with his emotions at the worst of times. Boyona allows the monster – voiced by Liam Neesan to rattle those bass levels – to be both scary and liberating without quite leaning too heavily on either side (even if you might think of ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’s Groot). He’s an intimidating ally, frequently boiling from the inside one moment, encouraging Conor like a bad influence then being steely but empathic at others. He's a typical embodiment of children's affection for  and fear of humungous monsters. As such a manifestation the monster is less a denial of reality, as with ‘Pan Labyrinth’, and more an extension of the boy’s imagination as in ‘Penda’s Fenn’ or Bernard Rose's 'Paperhouse'. It’s well-trodden ground but it’s still valid.* It is, as Tim Robey says, “…a film which keeps devising ever-more-epic collisions between an angry boy and his own sorrow.” 

The performances are uniformly strong and nuanced and the message that people like all things are ambiguous, that they might not be what they seem. is strong. Such ambiguity and complexity carries over to other details such as when Conor’s mum tells him that it’s all right if he’s too angry to talk to her, or the refrain that punishment would be no use for Conor, or in the hints of guilt crossing the bully’s face, or in Conor’s dad’s (Toby Kebbell) trying to overcome the dad-that-left baggage. 

Lewis Macdougall as Conor is more than capable of carrying the whole film without grandstanding, as dominated as everything is by his alienation, but be prepared to be truly heartbroken when he finally has “the talk” with his mum. For this moment alone one could see why he was cast. Boyona knows not to spoil this with a score that tells you to be sad, just as the final revelation is silent, and this allows real heartbreak to come through. The whole film brims with respect for the conflicts and feelings of its young protagonist and this is its genuine triumph. Perhaps its saddest revelation is that for all the fireworks and vivid creativity of his internal life, the loss that Conor is experiencing is rendered as starkly mundane and ordinary. It is a true verdantly conceived weepy, then, and earns it.


It reminded me that as a boy in bed, I used to image giants were outside my house walking up and down and I was nervous that they would look in and see me trying to sleep.