Review: A Monster Calls

Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Patrick Ness
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, James Melville
Released: July 27, 2017
Grade: A

A Monster Calls
Award-winning British author Siobhan Dowd had an idea for a novel about young boy dealing with a sick mother and a talking tree who tells him stories.  She’d provide details to a few people and written a rough opening.  That was as far as she got.  Tragically, Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and passed away three years later at the age of 47. 

Fellow author Patrick Ness never met Dowd but they shared the same editor at Walker Books.  Ness was told about the idea and asked if it was something he’d like to take on himself.  After an early reluctance, he found himself drawn to the concept and it wasn’t long before he put pen to paper.  A Monster Calls was first published in 2011 and went on to win the prestigious Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded to the best British book for children or young adults.

Ness was worried about giving up the film rights to the novel because of how badly it could be adapted if placed in the wrong hands.  To mitigate that risk, he spent a year coming up with his own screenplay.  There was no guarantee that a movie would even be made.  That changed when Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) got his hands on the novel and expressed a strong desire in bringing it to the big screen.  Bayona and Ness met and quickly realised that they shared the same vision.

There are lots of great family-orientated films released each year but is a growing predictability and conservatism when it comes to their messages.  Writers tend to keep things light and non-threatening.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this style of movie.  Last year’s Oscar winner for best animated feature, Zootopia, offered plenty of laughs whilst delving into themes of race, prejudice and discrimination.  It was a great film.

What’s been lacking from the cinematic landscape are more dramatic family films that “cut deep” and tap into the strongest of human emotions.  Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to A Monster Calls.  It revolves around a 12-year-old named Connor O’Malley (MacDougall) whose mother (Jones) is battling terminal cancer.  He’s an age where he kind of understands what is happening but also has a sense of denial about what lies ahead.

Adding to the gravity of the situation is the fact that Connor is very close with his mother and sees her as a pseudo “best friend”.  He doesn’t have a lot of friends at school and is bullied regularly.  He doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father (Kebbell) who now lives in America.  He doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his nit-picking grandmother (Weaver) who rarely has a smile on her face.

Connor’s way of dealing with his troubled life is to delve into a fantasy world that he has created.  He is visited just after midnight by a giant talking tree (Neeson) who promises to share three stories that will open his eyes to the complexities of the world.  It’s these stories that become of the heart of the film and the lessons learned are of relevance to both kids and adults.

A Monster Calls is a beautiful coming-of-age drama with some wonderful visual imagery.  It delves into the ways we deal with grief whilst also reminding us that there are many different perspectives when looking through the prism of life.


Review: Dunkirk

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan
Released: July 20, 2017
Grade: A

Christopher Nolan has made his mark with creative, inventive dramas set in fictional worlds.  Personal favourites include Inception, Memento, Insomnia and The Dark Knight.  It’s why I was surprised when Nolan announced Dunkirk as his next project in December 2015.  This would be a film based on historical events a change of pace was reminiscent of when Steven Spielberg made The Colour Purple back in 1986 (after a decade of action and sci-fi).

Dunkirk may be different in terms of narrative but Nolan’s is working with familiar collaborators and his fingerprints can be clearly seen.  Composer Hans Zimmer has crafted another bold film score that is both fast-paced and reflective.  Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema used a 25kg IMAX camera like a handheld device to create incredible imagies and put audiences “in the moment” as events unfold.  Editor Lee Smith has produced a tight, powerful final cut that successfully weaves many storylines together.

In promoting his movie back in April, Nolan remarked to the press that “Dunkirk is not a war film. It's a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film.”  That comment will make more sense once you’ve seen the finished product.  It is not intended to be a history lesson about the Dunkirk evacuation which began in May 1940.  We’re told next-to-nothing about World War II, the politics and why the British soldiers are even there.  In fact, we don’t even see a single German soldier.  All we know is what we can see – roughly 400,000 British soldiers are stuck on a French beach and need to find a way home before it’s too late.

Three different perspectives are offered.  On the land, we follow Tommy (Whitehead) – a British Army private who has seen many of his friends die in battle and is desperate to escape.  He teams up with two other soldiers (Barnard and Styles) and they work on a plan to circumvent the orders of Commander Bolton (Branagh) get priority access to a rescue ship.

On the sea, we follow Mr Dawson (Rylance) – a brave and/or naïve British man who isn’t part of the navy but is taking his small motor boat across the English Channel to help with the rescue effort.  He is accompanied by his son (Glynn-Carney) and another teenager (Keoghan) and they find a traumatised soldier (Murphy) in the early stages of their travels.

In the air, we follow Farrier (Hardy) – a Royal Air Force pilot who is trying to shoot down German planes and protect British soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach.  He has limited fuel and must make careful choices about his flight path and method of attack.  His situation is made more perilous when the planes of two fellow pilots are shot down and he’s the last man left standing.

Dunkirk is an intense, unrelenting drama from start to finish.  I was a sweaty mess as the closing credits started to roll.  It reminded me of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road in that the action begins from the opening scene and never lets up.  There’s no break in proceedings to provide character introductions or flashbacks to better times.  The cinematography and deafening sound effects make it feel like you’re alongside these people throughout their journey.  Dialogue is sparse.

In a time where films are becoming easier to watch in the comfort of your own home, Dunkirk reminds us that the big screen can still offer an experience for which there is no substitute. 


Review: The Beguiled

Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence
Released: July 13, 2017
Grade: B+

The Beguiled
Set in 1864 during the midst of the American Civil War, The Beguiled is shot entirely in one location – a seminary for young ladies located in a rural part of Virginia.  It’s a beautiful white mansion where the girls study during the day and help tend to the household at night.  They are educated about music, language and other important things to help guide them through life.

Business isn’t exactly booming though.  Given the outbreak of the war, which is practically at their doorstep, many of the students have returned home to be with their families.  Just five girls remain and they are only there because they have nowhere else to go.  They are taught each day by the two women who run the seminary – Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Dunst).

The monotony of their lives is upended when one of the young girls finds a wounded soldier in the nearby woods.  He identifies himself as Corporal John McBurney (Farrell), a “Yankee” from the Union Army who lives in New York.  Instead of turning him over to the authorities, the strict Miss Farnsworth unexpectedly shows a more compassionate side.  She tends to John’s injuries and agrees to provide him refuge until he is well enough to leave.

John’s arrival completely changes the dynamic within the household.  He’s a “novelty” that everyone is fascinated with.  All the girls want to chat and interact with him.  Miss Farnsworth tries to maintain a sense of decorum but it’s not long because things escalate.  Edwina and Alicia (Fanning) are both taken by his charming demeanour.  It’s hard to work out if he’s seducing them or if it’s the other way around.  

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’re familiar with the 1971 release which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page.  Both are based on the 1966 novel written by the late Thomas P. Cullinan.  I won’t reveal too much in terms of plot development but this is a curious character study with a few interesting twists.  There are mind games aplenty here.  Each of the major characters is driven by a particular desire but it’s clear that things won’t work out for everyone.

There are some terrific exchanges between Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell who both deliver strong performances.  John is trying to get beyond Martha’s prickly exterior and understand what makes her tick.  On the flip side, she is using her own methods to establish if he is a “good guy” and is someone worth risking the seminary to protect.  While they battle with words, others take a different approach.  Elle Fanning is terrific as a young woman who isn’t shy in hiding her growing sexual desires.

Written and directed by Oscar winner Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), The Beguiled isn’t centred on one particular character.  Rather, we see things from a number of perspectives and this gives the film a slightly fragmented feel.  We don’t always know what’s going on within the walls of the house at any one point in time.  While focusing on one particular conservation, another of equal significance is going on elsewhere in the house which we’re not privy too.

Coppola etched her name into the history books at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when she became only the second woman in history to win the best director prize.  While I admire the beauty of the setting and the interaction between the characters, I was hoping for more from the broader narrative.  It’s slow in places and doesn’t offer as strong a “pay off” as some might expect.

You can read my chat with star Angourie Rice by clicking here.


Review: Paris Can Wait

Directed by: Eleanor Coppola
Written by: Eleanor Coppola
Starring: Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin, Arnaud Viard
Released: July 20, 2017
Grade: C

Paris Can Wait
When it comes to filmmaking, many will be familiar with the surname Coppola.  Francis Ford Coppola won 5 Academy Awards and his directing credits include The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation.  His daughter, Sofia, is an Oscar winning writer with credits including Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette.  His son, Roman, also deserves a mention as a co-writer of The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom alongside Wes Anderson.

One family member who is not so well known is Eleanor Coppola, the matriarch of the household.  She's done a little bit of work in the film industry over the years but this has been predominantly to support her family.  Her most notable credit is a documentary that went behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now entitled Hearts of Darkness.

It’s been a long wait but the 81-year-old has now written and directed her first feature-length dramatic film, Paris Can Wait.  You get a sense that parts have been inspired by her own life since it begins in Cannes, home of one of the world’s great film festivals.  Michael (Baldwin) is a movie producer trying to get one of his big projects back on track.  Anne (Lane) is his supportive wife who is looking to spend some quality time with her husband.

They were supposed to travelling to Paris for a well-earned holiday but Michael is unexpectedly called away to Budapest for a few days on business.  Anne can’t accompany him because she’s been advised not to fly because of an ear infection.  Looking for an alternative, she accepts an offer from Michael’s producing partner, Jacques (Viard), to go on a road trip to Paris.  She can then wait there for her husband to arrive.

With the stage set, the next hour is spent watching Anne and Jacques travel through a bunch of French towns.  They view historical monuments, stay in nice hotels, and gorge themselves on food in some beautiful restaurants.  It’s reminiscent of The Trip series starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan but unfortunately, the conversations shared between Diane Lane and Arnaud Viard aren’t quite as interesting.

While there’s not a lot in terms of plot, the film’s hook is the quasi-relationship that develops between Anne and Jacques.  She’s a married woman and not really interested in advances.  That doesn’t stop him from trying though.  He’s relentless and not particularly subtle.  I wouldn’t describe him as sleazy but his act gets tired quickly.  I was surprised that Anne would even entertain the thought of being with him.

Those that have been to France might enjoy the look of the food and the scenic landscapes but for those after a character-driven drama, Paris Can Wait comes up empty.


Review: Lady Macbeth

Directed by: William Oldroyd
Written by: Alice Birch
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Released: June 29, 2017
Grade: B

Lady Macbeth
Despite what the title may suggest, Lady Macbeth isn’t a fresh spin on one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays.  Rather, it’s a loose adaptation of a 19th Century book from Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov.  There’s a small connection with Shakespeare though.  Leskov included Lady Macbeth’s name in the title in reference to the fact that his own leading lady was a cunning murderer.

In adapting the novel to the screen, first-time writer Alice Birch has shifted the setting from Russia to England.  Katherine (Pugh) is a young woman who lives in a beautiful country home but is married to a man she does not love.  It was all arranged with Katherine having no say whatsoever.  Her husband, Alexander (Hilton) offers little in the way of meaningful conservation and his short, quick antics in the bedroom only add to his negative qualities.

The setting here is 1865 and those familiar with the works of acclaimed Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters will know this was a time when men ruled society and women were expected to act in a subservient manner.  Suffice to say that Katherine doesn’t fit that description.  When her husband goes away on a long business trip, she has an affair with Sebastian (Jarvis), a scruffy-looking worker who helps tend to their land.  Her desire for a more fulfilling relationship is reminiscent of Madame Bovary – the novel authored by Gustave Flaubert which was published a few years before Leskov’s.

21-year-old newcomer Florence Pugh brings this intriguing character to life.  There are times when you’ll feel sorry for her.  She is verbally abused by her husband and father-in-law.  She’s warned that she shouldn’t even step foot outside the house.  With the house run by a group of long-term servants, Katherine actually has nothing to do.  There’s a humorous scene where she falls asleep in the middle of the day when sitting on a couch in the living room.  She’s bored stupid.

There are also scenes where your opinions of Katherine may shift.  As the affair commences, she puts one of the household’s most loyal servants, Anna (Ackie), in a tricky position.  Anna knows precisely what is transpiring but keeps quiet in the interests of preserving her job.  Things get a lot darker too.  Katherine will end up with blood on her hands as her secrets spill into the open.

It’s a little slow in places but Lady Macbeth is still an interesting drama from director William Oldroyd.  Music is often used in films to guide audiences towards a certain way of thinking.  A light, bubbly film score puts audiences at ease while a dark, intense score can create a sense of dread.  Oldroyd takes a different route here by leaving music out altogether!  You’re not sure how to feel and this adds to its creepy, unsettling nature.

A cross between a Jane Austen period piece and a Quentin Tarantino drama, Lady Macbeth is decidedly different.


Review: Baby Driver

Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx
Released: July 13, 2017
Grade: A-

Baby Driver
If you’ve seen Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ll know that writer-director Edgar Wright has a style and a sense of humour that is anything but conventional.  For cinephiles, that’s exciting.  His films take chances and are both original and memorable.  For powerful studio heads, that’s scary.  Wright was scheduled to direct the superhero film Ant-Man in 2014 but left the project due to “creative differences”.

As the saying goes – “when one door closes, another one opens.”  Just two months after leaving Ant-Man, Wright announced that his next project would be Baby Driver.  He had the idea in his head for more than two decades but the time had come to put a script together and get it made.  The finished product shows that he’s been given a great deal of creative freedom.

If you focus solely on the plot, one could argue that this film is a seen-it-all-before action piece.  Doc (Spacey) is the leader of a crew that orchestrates robberies across Atlanta.  Those he enlists include Buddy (Hamm), Bats (Foxx), Griff (Bernthal) and Darling (Gonzalez). They sound like characters from an old-fashioned crime drama.

Critical to the success of all the heists is Baby (Elgort), a quiet young man with incredible skills when behind the wheel of the car.  He’s the perfect getaway driver and his talent would fit nicely alongside Dominic Toretto in the Fast and the Furious franchise.  Baby has fallen in love and is keen to get out of the business but has been pulled back in for “one last job.”

Don’t roll your eyes.  While it sounds a little cheesy, Baby Driver wows audiences with its charm and flair.  Central to everything is its “killer” soundtrack.  Baby is a little socially awkward and suffers from tinnitus (a ringing sensation in the ear) after a childhood accident.  To compensate, he listens to music during almost every waking moment of his day.  There’s a scene where he needs to flee a robbery but before doing so, he has to pull up a particular song on his old iPod to help create the right mood (much to the disgust of his fellow crew members).

Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) brings the lead character to life with his terrific performance.  He’s very likeable (despite turning to a life of crime) and you get a sense that he’s a few steps ahead of everyone else with his thought process.  It is part of the reason why he can evade the police during car chases and part of the reason why others in the crew don’t know how to deal with him.  He’s a cool individual.

The tone gets a little darker during the final half-hour and I wasn’t fully sold by the ending but Baby Driver is a super fun action film that uses music as its hook as opposed to over-the-top stunts and special effects.  Thanks Edgar.

You can read my chat with writer-director Edgar Wright by clicking here.