Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Monster Calls

This may not be a great movie, but I’m kind of surprised by how quickly it’s coming and going - opening in Boston on the 6th, it was down to one show a day at the theaters that kept it on for a second week, and not just matinees, but in the case of the two local AMC theaters showing it, early matinees - before 11am, which means relatively cheap $6.99 tickets, but also screams of just keeping it around out of something close to obligation. All the theater employees were wearing shirts promoting the movie, and there was apparently some sort of bonus point thing going on for Stubs members through the second weekend, so it would be bad form to boot the film before then.

It’s kind of surprising to me that it came and went so quickly - the previews were good, it’s got some people that you’d think would draw attention in Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, and Sigourney Weaver, and it’s an idea that seems easy enough to grasp. Then again, it sometimes seems as if people just don’t want impressive visual effects paired with something other than flat-out entertainment, like there’s a presumption that they hit two parts of the brain that aren’t just different, but incompatible. I seem to recall that director J.A. Bayona’s previous film had a bit of that going on - The Impossible was grandly shot and beautiful, but not the sort of obviously-uplifting sort of thing that folks want from that kind of tale of survival.

Still, Bayona makes great looking movies, and ambitious ones, so I wonder about him being the guy to do the follow-up to Jurassic World - is that going to make the movie more interesting or have him doing something disposable? I’m not sure, but it will be interesting to see.

A Monster Calls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, DCP)

I don’t think we’ve quite reached a point where what a filmmaker can do with the technology at his or her disposal is so simultaneously incredible and accessible that it can be taken for granted, but it’s certainly easier to become jaded. The first half-hour or so of A Monster Calls, for instance, offers constant delight in not just the obvious fantasy elements director J.A. Bayona and his crew put on the screen, but just how carefully and beautifully everything else in the film is constructed; by the end, one will quite likely find oneself taking that for granted. As good, sincere, and capable as their efforts are, one can still get detached and wonder if it’s enough.

To no longer amaze as the film approaches the finish is probably a deliberate choice on Bayona’s part, and the confidence behind it is admirable: If he’s making the movie he wants to make, then the audience should be fully invested emotionally with the characters by the end, to the point where he needs to be worried that the spectacle he used to draw the viewer in might prove a distraction. So when the script by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the original novel) moves the characters from one house to another, the new place doesn’t seem quite so lovingly constructed and designed, the exteriors have less of a strong sense of place, and the final story that the monster of the title tells is not animated as the others are. The film does not abandon its fantasy elements, but it de-emphasizes them in a way that has clear intent.

The question then becomes whether the story is worth that trade-off, and it’s not quite all the way there. The basic premise of it isn’t bad - as the mother (Felicity Jones) of 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) fights a losing battle with cancer, he sees the ancient yew tree in a nearby churchyard come to life as a monster (voice of Liam Neeson). The cast of characters surrounding him - a sadistic bully (James Melville), a stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a friendly but uninvolved father (Toby Kebbell) - is a good one. But the getting things together often seems arbitrary enough to put off full involvement: When the monster shows up and announces he’s going to tell three stories and then Conor will tell him a fourth, it’s a weird enough demand for the filmmakers to have Conor remark upon it, and they never do make it seem natural, especially as a part of Conor’s subconscious. He’s not quite that imaginatively clever, and while the viewer can see the film stretching to connect storytelling and art to dealing with real-life turmoil, that connection remains just elusive enough that, when it’s supposed to be the emotional foundation of the climax, it’s just short.

Full review on EFC.

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