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Review – A Monster Calls (12a) [2017]

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Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

  • JA Bayona – The Orphanage, The Impossible, Untitled Jurassic World Sequel

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Fernando Velázquez – The Orphanage, The Impossible, Mama, Crimson Peak, The Invisible Guest

In medieval and early modern times a series of fairy tales came to the fore in European folklore. Based on true or quasi-mythical events, fantastical stories like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Little Mermaid taught children simple, moral lessons that could be adapted to all eras to help them deal with their problems. JA Boyena’s brilliant, A Monster Calls has a similar moral to its tale.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) looking at the old yew tree in the distance, which is fabled to be a tree that can cure people.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) looking at the old yew tree in the distance, which is fabled to be a tree that can cure people.

The film is based on the book by Patrick Ness, which itself was inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd. The movie centres round lonely, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall). His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness and he is being bullied at school. With so much going on in his life, Conor needs to find an outlet. One night, while at drawing at his desk, the old yew tree near his house comes alive (voiced by Liam Neeson) and advises him on how to deal with his problems.

A Monster Calls is a wonderful, yet heart-breaking fantasy drama. It is a folktale in all but name, since it handles very real issues and enables our protagonist to confront the unfairness of his situation in a constructive and tender way. Also, narratively, the movie links every element of the story together. By the end, viewers understand why Conor sees this particular monster, why the Monster has its voice, and the significance of the Monster’s advice, among others. This makes A Monster Calls all the more moving to watch.

Conor with his ailing mother (Felicity Jones), who is trying to reassure Conor that she will be all right.

Conor with his ailing mother (Felicity Jones), who is trying to reassure Conor that she will be all right.

The movie is delivered with great sensitivity. JA Bayona’s directing is top class and the fantasy parts of the film are always appropriate and never over the top. The script is down to earth and delivered with the right amount of anger, compassion, and bluntness, depending upon the scene. The cast must be commended for this; especially, young Lewis MacDougall. He spends much time on screen alone (or with a CGI monster) and he manages to hold the audience’s attention due to the strength of his acting. This is no easy feat (one need only watch Jayden Smith’s awful performance in After Earth to realise how talented an actor must be to keep viewers interested when he/she is alone on screen). If he continues to perform so well in the future, MacDougall will be a star.

But MacDougall is not the only one who shines. Felicity Jones gives a genuine and heart-felt performance, putting a good spin on her diagnosis for her son despite looking worryingly worse as the film progresses. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver performs splendidly as a grandmother locked in a bygone era, trying to come to terms with losing her daughter and having to look after her grandson. Toby Kebbell, too, does a good job as a man who is not the sharpest pencil in the packet academically, but has emotional intelligence and is trying to do his best for Conor, in spite of his character’s impossible predicament.

If the circumstances aren’t enough to touch people, Fernando Velázquez’s music will do enough to induce lumps in viewers’ throats. His score is subtle and tugs at the heart, thereby giving an added dimension to the pain that our protagonists are suffering, particularly Conor.

Conor facing the (Liam Neeson-voiced) Monster, which looks like a cross between Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and Arnie's terminator, urging it to save his mother.

Conor facing the (Liam Neeson-voiced) Monster, which looks like a cross between Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, urging the Monster to save his mother.

Nevertheless, what is it that Conor is actually suffering from? If A Monster Calls has a flaw, it is that the film vocalises Conor’s pain. This comes across as tell-heavy and unnecessary. Just as the timeless fairy tales did not spell out the moral message of their stories, the movie would have been better served if it would have let audiences infer its message. Yet, this is nip-picking as the film should be enjoyed for the wonder that it is.

All-in-all, A Monster Calls is a fabulous, tear-jerking movie. It has a splendid plot, a cast that fulfil their roles superbly, and it finely blends reality and fantasy. What’s more, A Monster Calls has a strong moral message. This is what makes it a twenty-first century fairy tale, comparable to the classic folklore stories. The film offers children a coping mechanism for when they are confronted with a horrible reality.

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Review – Exodus: Gods And Kings (12a) [2014]

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Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

Cast:

  • Christian Bale – The Machinist, The Fighter, The Dark Knight I-III, American Hustle, The Big Short
  • Joel Edgerton – Smokin’ Aces, Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, The Gift
  • John Turturro – Anger Management, Transformers I-III, The Taking of Pelham 123, Hands of Stone
  • Aaron Paul – Mission: Impossible III, The Last House On The Left, Breaking Bad, Need For Speed, Eye In The Sky
  • Sigourney Weaver – Alien I-V, Ghostbusters I & II, Paul, The Cabin In The Woods, A Monster Calls
  • Ben Mendelsohn – The New World, Killing Them Softly, The Dark Knight Rises, Mississippi Grind
  • María Valverde – Body Confusion, The Anarchist’s Wife, The Liberator, Broken Horses
  • Ben Kingsley – Schindler’s List, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Hugo, Iron Man III, The DictatorKnight of Cups
  • Indira Varma – Rome, Basic Instinct II, Silk, Game of Thrones, Caesar
  • Hiam Abbass – Munich, Lemon Tree, A Bottle In The Gaza Sea, Nothing Escapes My Eyes

Music Composer:

In my review of Prometheus in 2012, I wrote that since Gladiator came out in 2000 all of Ridley Scott’s films have not been good enough for a director who once made Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. Since 2000, Scott has consistently made disappointing films like Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Prometheus, while 2013’s The Counsellor was rotten to the core. So bearing in mind Scott’s portfolio over the last fourteen years, what could one expect with Exodus: Gods And Kings?

Pharaoh Rameses II (Joel Edgerton), the villain of the Exodus story, looking splendid and glorious.

Pharaoh Rameses II (Joel Edgerton), the villain of the Exodus story, looking splendid and glorious.

The film starts with (the anachronistic method) of a transcript, giving viewers the political context of the movie, as well as Moses’ position in Ancient Egypt. Subsequently, the film centres round Moses of the Torah and we follow him (Christian Bale) as a young adult living among the elites in Cairo; through his exile and marriage to Zipporah (María Valverde); to finally taking his place as the first leader of the enslaved Israelite/Jewish people and leading them out of Ancient Egypt via the Red Sea.

Exodus: Gods And Kings is a lively adaptation of the famous Biblical tale. The film is not absolutely historically accurate (especially if one swears by the Quran) and contains much artistic license. Some of the inaccuracies are avoidable, for example the number of years that the Israelites were enslaved for. But others inaccuracies are unavoidable and require the artistic license that Scott employs because there is no historical record of it; for example, where and what Moses did in exile.

If one can overcome these inaccuracies, one can appreciate many of the enjoyable elements of the movie. Scott impressively designs Ancient Egypt to give viewers a feel for how ancient Cairo and the slave city of Piton probably looked like; the battle at the start of the film is really good (although, strikingly similar to the battle in the opening scenes of Gladiator); the splitting of the Red Sea is refreshingly different from the conventional story (although, one recently saw a better example of what the film achieves in Interstellar); and the CGI plagues and godly miracles are emphatic and vividly memorable.

Moses (Christian Bale) speaking with Nun (Ben Kingsley), one of the enslaved leaders of the Jewish tribes in Piton, about the need to escape Egypt.

Moses (Christian Bale) speaking with Nun (Ben Kingsley), one of the enslaved leaders of the Jewish tribes in Piton, about the need to escape Egypt.

Furthermore, Exodus depicts Moses in an innovative and interesting way that is seldom discussed. This is important as Moses was a human being (who we know little about), so his (real or possible) flaws should be laid bare for us so we can assess what sort of a man he was. Exodus does this in a pseudo-intelligent manner and Scott should rightly be recognised for trying to do something different.

However, sadly, Scott undermines his idea of Moses, as well as the other key individuals from this period, with his poor choice of casting. Forget the racism issue (which Scott daftly fuelled with his lamentable responses); none of the actors in the main roles look their part. Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver do not look like they are Ancient Egyptian or Mediterranean, and no amount of spray tan and make-up can change that. And, also, what was Scott thinking when he chose Christian Bale to be Moses? How can Batman be Moses? It just isn’t believable, and if viewers cannot believe in the characters, it is an uphill struggle for the cast to come across convincingly.

In fairness to the cast, they are handicapped by the wretchedly written script that relegates all, but Moses, to one-dimensional characters. The biggest victim of the script is the main villain: Pharaoh Rameses II, played by Joel Edgerton. If Scott’s intention had been to make Rameses be Exodus’s Commodus, Scott fails miserably. One may have loathed Commodus by the end of Gladiator, but that was only because Scott gave him/Joaquin Phoenix the chance to be loathed. Scott does not give Rameses/Edgerton such a chance, consigning Rameses to a pathetic, ranting idiot, who is unfit to rule. This is a shame (and gratingly frustrating) because it is a waste of a talent like Edgerton, because it is contrary to history, and most significantly because one feels nothing towards Rameses by the end.

The plague of hail. This is one of the ten plagues that rains down on Egypt after Rameses refuses Moses' request to let his people go.

The plague of hail. This is one of the ten plagues that rains down on Egypt after Rameses refuses Moses’ request to let his people go.

Speaking of the end, it takes an Earth’s turn to get there. One cares so little for the characters in Exodus that the movie’s 150-minutes running-time feels like double that. To think that Gladiator, at 155-minutes, was longer than Exodus, is surprising as it felt shorter. This speaks volumes for just how much of a masterpiece Gladiator was, and how far Scott’s stock has fallen as a director since 2000.

Overall, Exodus: Gods And Kings is not a terrible film. One may object to the historical inaccuracies within the film, yet this cannot be helped due to the limited amount of source material available on the subject. Instead, one should enjoy the aspects of the movie that have been done well. That is, if one can overcome Scott’s glaring casting errors and the poverty of the script that leaves even Christian Bale, one of the most talented actors of the current era, struggling for conviction. But, then again, what did one expect from Exodus? Another film of Gladiator’s quality? Don’t be ridiculous! Just be grateful that Exodus is not another Prometheus.

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