Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie Review: A MONSTER CALLS (Review #2)

A Monster Calls follows a young boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones) is ill from cancer, and gravely so -- she is terminal. Having difficulty dealing with this horrible situation, Conor is visited by a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) at 12:07. On one occasion the monster comes and tells him he is going to narrate him three stories and once he is done Conor will have to tell a fourth one and said story will have to be 'the truth'.

What a premise right? If this doesn't get you excited immediately I would question one's film fandom, especially considering the talent involved all around from actors to director to composers to source material. Add to that the buzz that came out from TIFF and you can imagine the excitement I had in managing to see this very early on.

With deep sadness in me though, I have to call a spade a spade and say that A Monster Calls was a bit of a disappointment. Whilst still being an above average effort in filmmaking and having some incredibly inspired work behind it, the final product, the sum of it all, is a partially pleasing or cathartic experience with tonal shifts and a little messy directing.

What is the film's core problem but also its natural fascination is its fantasy element. It is brought to life on a sole visual and sound level incredibly well. I mean the CGI here is flawless, MacDougall's performance contributes to giving an enormous weight to this creature whose artistic value is probably close to what a Guillermo del Toro would do. Add to that the voice of Liam freaking Neeson going really low on his tones with some beautiful sound enchantments, and you have your unforgettable monster.

Character wise too, the monster manages to emerge from the screen and really be a three-dimensional presence in the film that you just treat as another character in the narrative. He also has something to say as it is clear by the film and all of this mystery surrounding him plus the various traits and shadows he is given. This gives him a kind and calm presence at times, giving the monster an aura that was fascinating and hard not to be compelled by.

The movie of course, given the themes, has its deeply emotional moments that tug on your heart-strings and whilst we will talk later about how some of these moments fall completely fat, there is an inherent emotion established, especially between the monster and the boy, which makes for some really touching scenes enhanced by Fernando Velasquez's beautiful score that repeatedly came in and gave me chills. If there is one thing the film nails it's the music, which actually nails down the tone of the whole story, contrary to the film itself. And that brings me to the problems.

The movie does not manage to balance its fantasy element easily and this makes for very heavy tonal shifts and problematic storytelling and directing. Firstly, the monster's mythology is never, ever clear to the audience. You see, there is a difference between explaining everything (which should never be done) and rationalizing something, meaning that you establish some rules for your particular world, you stick to those few rules in order to make the audience understand and, in fact, rationalize the glorious fantasy craziness that's going on on screen. Well, A Monster Calls unfortunately doesn't do that. You never understand if the monster is imaginary or a dream, you don't understand how it is supposed to come in, you just cannot manage to get a grip on how it interacts with the boy and consequentially with the world. It is breaking established limits left, right and center. Worst of all is the telling of the three stories. Don't get me wrong, the movie blends animation beautifully and intelligently, the problem is that other than the first story the others aren't delivered to you completely, it creates a annoyingly chaotic story-line which in the end suffers from this: the resolution doesn't hit hard because you get to only partially understand and enjoy the fantastic element of the film.

Moreover, when in the real world entirely, the film is plainly flat and uninteresting. I do not know what direction Bayona was giving Sigourney Weaver, but it made for what is possibly her worst performance. Outside of the dream world, A Monster Calls becomes clich├ęd, unemotional and almost boring. The directing switches and becomes really, really flat, with aimless shots and terribly disjointed storytelling. Toby Kebbell could have been easily cut out of the film as he plays a character that brings exactly zero change to the picture. Felicity Jones' brilliant talents are unfortunately relegated to a one note performance that reaches a very high point at times, but the impact on emotion and story was sadly bland as there was just nothing to grasp in the family drama that was both written and directed chaotically and unconvincingly.

A Monster Calls underwhelmed me and I could not be sadder it did, I wanted to love this film with all my heart, be captured in its world and experience this deeply thematic and cathartic tale: I only got a glimpse of that and what a glorious glimpse did I get, but overall it seems that we'll have to wait some more time before getting another experience like Pan's Labyrinth.

James's Score: 6.5/10

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