Tuesday’s Reviews – A Monster Calls (2017)

death, Felicity Jones, films, fucking beautiful, fucking sweet, fucking tragic, review, sad, Sigourney Weaver

I’ve literally just got back from watching Logan and am desperately trying to finish today’s review. My original plan was to watch something yesterday and write it up ahead of time so I wasn’t rushed. Instead I spent most of my day off asleep and only just had time to watch today’s film. As I have such a small window here I’m waiting until next week to write up Logan because I want to do it justice. Although, spoiler alert, I fucking loved it! I knew I would but it was so good. Despite the fact the we waited for a post-credits scene and there wasn’t one. It was just nice to sit and take events in whilst listening to Johnny Cash. I guess it’s good that there wasn’t actually anything after the credits. It ensure that the ending was as powerful as it needed to be. Gah, it was an emotional experience which means after watching A Monster Calls yesterday means I’ve been emotionally drained for the past 2 evenings. I need to start watching some happier films.

I’ve only ever read one Patrick Ness book and, if I’m honest, I really didn’t think that highly of it. It was The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which has to be one of the most disappointing reads for me. It sounded like such a good concept but it was wasted. So I haven’t bothered with any more of Ness’ works because it just seemed like the type of YA nonsense that gives Young Adult fiction in general a bad name for me. I know there must be good YA out there but I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of it. Anyway, as a keen member of the Bookstagram community I have heard plenty about his children’s book A Monster Calls. Certainly enough to get kind of excited when I saw the trailers for the film and heard Liam Neeson’s voice coming out of the titular monster. However, I knew it was going to be sad but I wasn’t prepared for just how bloody sad it is.

A Monster Calls is the story of a young boy, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer, his overbearing and stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), the school bully, and his absent father (Toby Kebbell). After waking from the same nightmare night after night, Connnor encounters a monster (Liam Neeson) that springs to life from the Yew tree that he can see from his bedroom window. The monster will visit Connor and tell him 3 true stories. After the third tale, Connor must tell his own story and reveal his truth. The stories help Connor come to terms with his situation and force him to face the awful truth that he has been trying to suppress.

A Monster Calls is such a simple and heartbreaking idea. What must it be life for a young boy who is watching his mother die of cancer? It deals with very dark and mature ideas but does so in such a tender and beautiful way. The fantastical elements and the Monster’s animated stories all work well against the bleak nature of the tale to make it a deeply engrossing and incredibly poignant film. Everything builds toward the final act and when the payoff comes it has the ability to absolutely destroy it’s audience. It may slightly hammer its point home but it never loses sight of what it’s trying to do. It is offering wisdom about an important and horrible topic whilst never losing it’s compassion for the character’s involved. It’s not quite perfect but it does what it needs to.

I think my only thoughts would be that the film is still slightly too dark for a very young audience but older members will be drawn in with the visual aspects and engrossing tale. The monster itself, played by Liam Neeson using motion capture, is incredibly realised. There can be no denying that the film is a technical marvel. Everything integrates together to create something that is very unique but perfect for the story it’s trying to tell. It is a tale about art, legacy, truth and humanity. It is the story of about the love between a mother and child and the impact that can have on the people involved. The visual aspects of the film help give this a sense of fairy tale and allow it to transcend reality.

However, thanks to the fantastic performances from the human characters, the harsh reality of Connor’s situation always remains. Connor is a boy who is having to grow up too fast and deal with emotions that he is not ready to deal with. He has nobody to turn to and is left unsure of where to turn. You can’t help but be drawn to him and Lewis MacDougall’s performance is vulnerable and hard to ignore. Something that works so well with Felicity Jones’ role as his mother. She is both strong and weak. A mother wishing to shield her son from pain but realising that she no longer can. It is a heartbreaking performance that, along with MacDougall’s, will have everyone weeping before the credits role.

A Monster Calls has a difficult job to do and a difficult story to tell. Whilst it doesn’t always manage to establish the type of tone it was striving for or achieve the purpose it wanted. However, it always manages to keep you guessing and always avoid being predictable. It is repetitive and unsubtle but is manages to be something that will keep you watching. It’s the kind of dark and creative kid’s that will no doubt be mostly appreciated by an older audience. I’m just glad that I didn’t watch it in the cinema. It would have been a pretty messy affair.

TBT – Aliens (1986)

alien, Bill Paxton, fucking scary, James Cameron, sci-fi, sequel, Sigourney Weaver, TBT

On Saturday 25th February it really was “game over, man. Game over” for actor Bill Paxton. The 61 year old died after complications during heart surgery. 61 really is no age at all and I can hardly imagine how his family and friends are coping. I liked Bill Paxton; although, I find this a sort of hypocritical statement to make considering most of the time I didn’t get his name correct. Yes, I’m one of those people that could never tell the difference between her Bills. Just like trying to get a USB stick into the hole, it always takes me 3 attempts to work out if I mean Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton. Even though I know there is one Bill I prefer, I just can’t remember his name. Bill Paxton was a great actor who had the ability to turn his hand to any number of roles. In order to honour his work and, conveniently, find something to write about for TBT, I decided to rewatch one of his greatest early roles. It was the role he won himself a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor. It only seems right.

Apparently there is still something of a debate going on about which film is better: Alien or Aliens. The major consensus seems to be that James Cameron’s follow up is the better all round film but Ridley Scott’s Alien is still a classic mixing of two genres that has never been equalled. Really I don’t understand why we need to pick between them. The two are very different films with very different approaches. They just happen to be about the same Alien creature. It’s about as fair as comparing Dracula and Twlight because they both contain vampires. I say, just admit they are both great. Alien was a triumph of horror and sci-fi. As I discussed a few weeks ago, it is still terrifying after all this time. Aliens, on the other hand, is more action driven and ramps up the special effects. The Alien is no longer a single entity stalking it’s prey. There are loads of them going to war with the crew of the spaceship of the USS Sulaco. Alien was Hitchcockian whilst Aliens is the kind of film that would have inspired Michael Bay.

The film picks up 57 years after the end of the first film when Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued after drifting through space in stasis. Her employers, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, are skeptical about her claims about the Alien that killed the crew. Ripley is then informed that the exomoon, where the crew of the Nostromo first encountered the eggs and Kane got infected, is now the home to a colony of people. When Weyland-Yutani lose contact with the colony they as Ripley to accompany a unit of Marines and a company representative to investigate. Obviously, it turns out Ripley was right and a lot of bad shit had gone down. The colonists have been turned into hosts for Alien embryos and there are Facehuggers and Xenomorphs waiting to strike the Marines. Ripley must use her knowledge to get the Marines out and ensure the safety of the colony’s only survivor: a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn).

As I mentioned earlier, Aliens is a much more familiar seeming sci-fi film. It keeps certain amounts of the horror and tension of the original film but adds more violence and explosions. Instead of an unsuspecting group of civilians trying to outwit a monster, this time we get to experience a group of full-blown Marines blow them the fuck up. It makes the first film look kind of tame and is unrelenting and uncompromising in it’s quest for more bloodshed. It’s a wild and crazy ride that was pretty technologically advanced in it’s day. It is the perfect action film. Although, I will say that out of the two films, it is the earlier one that has stood the aesthetic test over the years. The only problem with cutting edge special effects is that, in years to come, they start to look very silly and outdated.

All this talk of action doesn’t mean that the film lacks depth. Maybe it lacks a tiny amount of finesse that the first film did but has much more to offer than gunfire. Sigourney Weaver is given more room to develop the character of Ripley as she revisit her past and has to deal with the emerging mother-daughter relationship with Newt. She has a lot of emotional drama to deal with as well as going further to prove that Ripley really is the original badass female. The rest of the crew also have greater room to move than most of the original crew. We get to know the group of Marines much better than we did the crew of the Nostromo and their relationships feels more familiar and understandable. The soldiers are brave, bloodthirsty and scared in equal measure. They are like a family and a realistic military unit.

Just like Alien before it, this sequel will leave you in a fragile and terrified state but it will be for much different reasons. Rather than the slow build up of tension, this films offers a much more visceral punch and is a non-stop assault of action, scares and violence. Is it better than the original?  I refuse to make a choice. Both films are fabulous in their own way. Why can’t we live in a world where we enjoy each of them?

TBT – Alien (1979)

alien, classic, films, fucking beautiful, fucking creepy, fucking scary, John Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, TBT

On 25th January this year, legendary British actor John Hurt died. He was the kind of actor that never really fit into the role of leading man but would have been familiar to a whole host of people thanks to his supporting roles. As I’ve talked about multiple times since his death, John Hurt was the kind of actor that could turn his hand to anything and had a great deal of skill to bring all sorts of people to life on screen. My review on Tuesday looked at one of Hurt’s final films before he died where he made a great impression in the small role of a Catholic priest who Jackie Kennedy talked to after her husband’s death. His role has been made all the more poignant following his death as the character discusses death and the prospect of what follows. The film is definitely emotional but it was watching Hurt’s performance that really got to me. So I wanted to use my TBT post to revisit of his classic films. There are plenty of great ones to pick from and, normally, I should have watched something like The Elephant Man. There are so many great performances to decide between that it becomes impossible to pick just one. Instead, because I’ll take any chance to watch it, I picked Alien. John Hurt may not be in it for very long but his role in the film was certainly one of the most memorable moments in movie history. John Hurt is iconic in this role.

Alien is one of the greatest films of all time and, after watching it again the other day, I can honestly still say that it is still fucking scary. It’s a masterpiece of suspense and horror set in space. The casting is fantastic and the design is great. However, it wasn’t always considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. On it’s first release, several eminent film critics declared it to be nothing more than a mass of effects and little else. Oh how the table have turned. Alien is the film that changed its genre and became the template for so many films that followed it. In the 70s science-fiction was becoming more popular but was staying in the fairly family friendly realm. Alien reinvented space with a hideous Hitchcockian twist. And it’s fucking fantastic.

The premise is super simple and it really doesn’t matter. The small crew of a commercial towing vessel are woken from stasis early. Their ship brought them out of sleep to answer a distress call coming from a nearby ship. Upon investigating they discover the crew were killed and the ship has become a breeding ground for some mysterious being. Whilst taking a closer look at one of the creepy eggs on board, one of the creatures attaches itself to a crew member, Kane’s (John Hurt), face.
When the creature eventually becomes unattached and dies, it appears that Kane is unharmed. Until a fucking tiny alien creature bursts from his chest. The rest of the crew then face the bigger issue of a fully grown and deadly monster chasing them around the corridors of their ship and picking them off one by one.

When it comes down to it, Alien isn’t a success because of it’s narrative or it’s script. It’s a mixture of elements taken from so many science-fiction or horror films before it. Writer Dan O’Bannon freely admits that he took inspiration from multiple sources to create a familiar but workable story. What elevates the film is it’s design. O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott were inspired by the artwork of H.R. Giger and it was his paintings that inspired the final look for the film’s fearsome creature. Scott hired Giger to work on the whole of the film and it is down to him that we have such amazing visuals. Those images of the inside of the crashed ship and the egg chamber are all down to his dark vision and it is the making of the film. And it is not just Giger. Every aspect of the film’s design comes together perfectly to create this materpiece. At the time, it was a special effects dream. Everything was done by a skilled team who made some incredibly complicated set pieces come to life. The chest bursting scene is one of the most infamous moments ever seen on screen and has been parodied an infinite number of times by now.

That scene is a feast of blood, gore, and jump scares but Alien is so much more than jut a mindless horror show. The film carefully builds up tension as it goes along and is designed in such a careful way to ensure that the audiences experience is just as terrifying as the crew’s. The film doesn’t rush and takes a perverse pleasure in slowing down the pace as much as possible. It’s all about the suspense because, when it comes down to it, that’s what we want. Shots are held a little longer than necessary to suggest something is about to happen. The lighting and sound helping to create that sense of claustrophobia. Ridley Scott and co. came together to create something that has stood the test of time and is, to this day, one of the most terrifying films ever created. It’s simple and full of cliches but it’s so well crafted that it doesn’t matter. It is the film that started the trend and only goes to prove that you can’t beat the original. I still have to sit through certain scenes with my hands over my eyes. But I’ll always go back for another watch.

TBT – Ghostbusters (1984)

Bill Murray, comedy, Dan Aykroyd, ghostbusters, ghosts, Sigourney Weaver, TBT

Despite my excitement about the upcoming reboot of Ghostbusters, it did make me super nostalgic and all I wanted to do was watch the original. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve watched that film and I’m always outraged when I find out someone hasn’t watched it. I mean, in this day and age, who hasn’t seen Ghostbusters? I lived with a guy at university who hadn’t seen anything. I could accept that he hadn’t watched Gremlins or The Breakfast Club or something like that. But Ghostbusters? I mean what kind of awful childhood did that guy have that he never got the chance to watch it? I’ve since lost touch with him (not based on this revelation but it didn’t help his case) but will always remember him as the guy who never watched Ghostbusters. I assume he still hasn’t watched it and I feel bad for the guy. He’s missed out on so much.

It’s been over 30 years since Ghostbusters was released and it still feels as fresh as it ever was. Originally written  by Dan Aykroyd for him and John Belushi, it has become such a beloved classic that the announcement that it was being rebooted caused uproar. It’s one of my favourite films. Every time I hear the theme song I can’t help but get taken back to that first time I saw it. The joy, the fear, and the utter hilarity. I admit it’s not exactly the most intelligent or perfectly crafted film. However, if I had to pick one film that was close to perfection then this would definitely be a contender.

The story revolves around three scientists who were booted out of their cushy university offices and have their funding cut off. In order to make money they start their own business hunting ghosts for a nominal price. After a brief montage of their success, we see that the Ghostbusters experience a euphoric rise in popularity. Except with the city officials. Their big case comes in the form of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) whose fridge is transformed into a magical portal. Unfortunately, it marks the start of an impending apocalypse. And when the world is ending, who you gonna call?
Ghostbusters works on so many levels. With a sharp script and an outstanding performance by Bill Murray. There are countless quotable lines, memorable action pieces, and some great chemistry between Murray and Sigourney Weaver. The special effects, in 1980s terms, are remarkable and add to the story rather than take away from the comedy. It’s a fun romp that works all the more because Dan Aykroyd believes what he’s selling. In others words, the ghosts are not just silly sources of comedy but presented as a real possibility.
In fact, there is so much right with Ghostbusters that’s it hard to find something negative to say. However, there are some things that could have been done better. The story is really by-the-bye and is little more than a brief anecdote bloated by quotable lines and special effects monsters. Every time I rewatch the film I am shocked by how short it is. I always imagined that it was drawn out for longer but there is very little substance to the narrative. We have the Dana plot, a few interludes with other ghosts and a brief stop off at City Hall. I’m not saying the story isn’t good; it’s just not substantial.
In terms of cast, the group chemistry isn’t all it could be and that basically comes down to the dominance of one star over the others. Writers Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd seem sort of happy to let Murray take the spotlight here but it’s hard not to detect a certain amount of resentment filtering though. Thanks to the studio’s changes, Murray takes this film to even greater heights because of his undeniable star quality and commitment to the character. However, Ramis and Aykroyd are left with very little to do and are completely overshadowed.
Ernie Hudson is relegated to the role of sassy black co-star and has very little to do but quote bible scripture and play the streetwise New Yorker. It’s a shame that he doesn’t get anything to do and leaves very little impression on the narrative. It’s not Hudson’s fault and he is a talented actor but Winston just doesn’t get any good moments. We now know that Hudson’s character was changed massively to allow Murray the role of top dog, which makes the reality even more frustrating.
There is no doubt that Ghostbusters is Murray’s film rather than the equal partnership it should have been. His performance is the most memorable thing in it but it also sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s probably just me but I get more uncomfortable with his dominating role every time I see it. No matter how much I love this film (and I fucking do love it) I just wish it could have been more of an equal partnership. Although it’s a bit of a Catch 22 when you think about it. Murray completely takes over the film but without his dominating improvisational style this film probably wouldn’t have been the success it is to this day.