Monday, January 16, 2017

A Monster Calls Review

It was a bit of an interesting journey to theaters for "A Monster Calls." This is a movie that was initially supposed to come at the end of the October during a weekend with a total of five wide releases. Probably a good thing that it avoided that weekend. What they decided to do instead was release it at the end of December and submit the movie into the major fall film festival runs. That's the route most major awards contenders take, so it was obvious that the studio was confident enough to promote it for awards season. Following that, they decided to adjust one more time and make it's December release a limited release and expand wide in January. A move that should've optimized its box office potential, releasing in a less crowded January while still having it's qualifying awards season run with that limited release. Add to that the movie's nearly universal praise by everyone who saw it and you would think this would equate to major box office and awards season success, right? Well, not so much. Not only is this movie turning into a major box office flop, but it's getting zero awards season buzz outside a potential visual effects nomination. That's quite a shame because this movie is great. Now I have to defend this movie as potentially the most overlooked film of 2016.

"A Monster Calls" is the story of a lonely boy whose mother is dying from cancer. It's based on a book by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. I have not read the book, but I have several friends who have and absolutely love it. So there's a strong recommendation there. But since I have not read it personally, that's as much as I will say about the book. What attracted me personally, outside some great trailers, is director J.A. Bayona. In January 2013 he released a movie called "The Impossible," which had a similar box office story to "A Monster Calls." It was released in 2012 on a limited basis and expanded in January. Despite great reviews and an Oscar nomination for Naomi Watts, the movie really didn't reach an audience as it had a domestic run of just $19 million, a total that looks like will end up being five times more than what "A Monster Calls" will make here. Interestingly enough, both movies have done great in Bayona's home country of Spain as well as in the U.K. But we sadly seem to not have taken to this guy here in the U.S. That definitely will change soon as he's signed on to direct the "Jurassic World" sequel. When that movies comes out, know that you heard it here first. Bayona is a master director that deserves your attention.

Thematically speaking, "A Monster Calls" is similar to another movie I reviewed recently called "Manchester by the Sea," which is actually getting a ton of attention from both awards ceremonies and the box office. "Manchester by the Sea" definitely is a far superior movie, but I would say "A Monster Calls" is a much more accessible film and is still worth your time. It's rating is a PG-13, albeit a very light PG-13. In fact, I went in thinking that it was PG and left thinking it was PG. It wasn't until a later discussion that I realized it was PG-13, which honestly surprised me. I suppose I can see why this got a PG-13, but if it were up to me I would say that content-wise this is essentially a PG movie. Now if you've ever lost someone close to you, whether it be a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a child, a friend or someone else, you'll know that that's a rough thing to deal with regardless of your beliefs of an afterlife. Thus touching on this theme is tricky because it's a very sensitive subject for many. Both "Manchester by the Sea" and "A Monster Calls" deal with the subject in a very honest, yet careful way. "A Monster Calls" shows things from the eyes of a young boy who is in the process of losing the only person close to him. And yes, this movie will make you cry.

The title of the movie comes from this boy being visited by a tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson who is there to tell him three stories as he is dealing with his mother's continually deteriorating health. I don't know exactly what to call these visitations. I don't know if they are dreams or visions, per se, but this monster is definitely more of a psychological thing for the boy as it's not a real monster visiting him. But the movie is built around these three stories that the monster tells the boy. After which, the monster tells the boy that the boy needs to share the nightmare he has been having with the monster. I won't tell you what these stories are, but I will say that my reaction was quite similar to that of the boy's. And I think that was intentional for this movie. I was bracing myself for three super deep, thought-provoking stories that would hit me to the core and I got that in a way I wasn't quite expecting. The stories didn't make any sense at first. And they didn't hit me to the core. Not right away, that is. But I was patient with the film as I got the feeling that there would be an "A Ha!" moment in the film where everything made sense. But until then, I vowed to be patient with the film as I trusted Bayona and knew that everyone that has seen the movie has praised it.

The first thing that blew me away were the visuals in the movie. This tree monster is phenomenal. And quite terrifying at first. I suppose that's where part of our PG-13 comes in. The movie is almost set up like a horror film when it first introduces the monster. The tone is very dark, the score is a bit creepy and the monster is very ominous. The CGI is very realistic and impressive with this monster and the way it approaches this boy makes you want to yell at the boy to escape. But of course the horror aspect goes away rather quickly once Liam Neeson starts speaking because you know he's not there to harm the boy, but rather help him. But Liam Neeson's voice is rather perfect. He has a very distinct and impressive voice that fits this role perfectly. He sounds gruff and scary like a monster, but he also has a very wise and intelligent voice, which is why roles like Aslan in "The Chronicles of Narnia" and Qui-Gon Jin in "The Phantom Menace" are perfect for him. Liam Neeson is a man you don't want to mess with or make mad, but he's also the perfect wise sage that you would trust with your life when he's talking to you and giving you advice. This is another excellent role for him.

Speaking of excellent performances, everyone in this cast perfectly portrays the correct amount of emotion and in the perfect way. First and foremost, much praise has to go to Lewis MacDougall as this boy. Without the perfect performance from him, this movie wouldn't work as well. And by goodness does this kid rock it. The only thing on his resume previously is a supporting role in that awful "Pan" movie from 2015, so this was quite the find. I can't remember how old his character is supposed to be, but Lewis is 14 years old. And he does a great job of portraying the honest emotions of a young teenage boy suffering a loss like this. It's much more than tears and sadness. He reverts to seclusion and bottled up anger. He pushes people away. He won't let people help him. It felt like an honest, real, young teenage reaction, thus elevating the tragic reality of the situation. Then we have Felicity Jones as his mother. My goodness is this woman impressive. This is another fantastic performance following most notably that of "The Theory of Everything" and "Rogue: A Star Wars Story." She's the perfect, loving mother to this boy. You just want to break out and cry that the world of this movie is taking her away from the boy. He needs her. But he doesn't get her for long.

I don't want to dive into the end of this movie. I'll let you experience it for yourself. But as far as my reaction, I will say that the patience I talked about earlier does pay off. Everything comes together perfectly as far as these stories in relating to the events of the movie. In comparing this movie again to "Manchester by the Sea," Manchester throws the emotion at you right at the beginning, punches you in the gut in the middle and sends you reeling backwards throughout the whole second half of the movie. "A Monster Calls" acts like it is going to punch you in the gut at several times, but backs off until the final act where it delivers at absolute TKO. If you have lost someone you love, this movie will destroy you emotionally. If you are a human being with a heart, this movie also should destroy you. If you happen to walk out and announce that you were unphased emotionally, I will be convinced that you are a robot. That's how strong this movie is. It takes a while to get there, but it's worth the wait. "A Monster Calls" is not likely to make it on my end of year list, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. This is a phenomenal, emotional film. I'm going to give "A Monster Calls" a 9/10.

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