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Film Review: A Monster Calls (2016)

Back in 2010 I lost my father to a heart attack. He was 54 and I was 24. I was going to college to get a Masters in Architecture in Chicago, and he was with my mother back in Caracas, Venezuela, about to go on a business trip.

My family managed to get a hold of me very early in the morning. They simply told me he was at the hospital, alive, but in serious condition. Little did I know that they were trying to spare me the news of his passing, while I was by myself, trying to make it back as quickly as I could.

There is, unfortunately, nothing that can prepare you to lose a loved one as early and unexpectedly as I did. I was very close to my dad. He was nurturing, inspiring and of a noble heart. He was the person I wanted to make proud and the person I most looked up to.

A Monster Calls is the story of a young teenage boy, of 13 or 14, whose life has been upended first by their parent’s divorce and, more importantly, by his mother’s debilitating and life threatening illness. Despite his young age, Conor must wash his clothes, prepare his meals and tend to the house he shares with his mother before he goes to school every day. Once there, he must also contend with a bully who is hellbent on making his life miserable, and later with a grandmother (a very good Sigourney Weaver) whose strict ways clash with Conor’s inner frustrations.

The way Conor is played by young actor Lewis MacDougall suggests this is a kid whose strong emotional facade masks a heavy burden. His skinny and pale complexion emphasizing the fragility of his psyche. It is, therefore, not entirely surprising for a kid his age to make sense of his feelings by using his imagination. Before sunrise, a big, old and beautiful tree sprouts, turning branches into legs and arms, transforming into a monster.

Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth or Where the Wild Things Are, the fantastical element in the film is not meant to serve as psychological shelter, but rather as a catalyst to emotion. For Conor it is not about escape into a fantasy land, but about understanding his feelings, even if it means using an “imaginary” monster to do so.

Given the heavy subject, it was easy to dismiss the film for consciously trying to pull at our heartstrings and aim for little more than our empathetic tears. While this is not an entirely baseless criticism at first, the film breaks away from melodrama through its cinematic flourishes and a stupendously moving last act that is as careful and poetic an exploration of grief as you will ever see on film.

As I watched A Monster Calls and the tragedy became increasingly unavoidable and Conor’s state of mind moved closer to the breaking point, I identified not only with the sense of dread, but with that sinking feeling that nothing you can do can make a difference. For Conor it was a matter of months, maybe even years, while for me, it was all contained within 24 hours of absolute fear. What would my life be like without him? How would I deal with the worst of news? How would I be able to cope with it in the long run? Everything within me wanted to believe in his recovery but, at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the worst had already happened and I needed to prepare for what was to come.

A Monster Calls is the first film I have seen in a while that dares to step outside of a straightforward expression of grief to explore something a lot more complicated: the burden and the exhaustion of having to wonder about a loved one’s health.

To go through such a trauma is to demand our brains to do something that it is certainly not equipped to do. On the day my dad died I went from one airport to another, I took two flights and managed to place some phone calls; I was a functioning human being but I wasn’t really there. I was always in my head, either worried sick about my dad, or thinking of a future without him.

Conor is one of the most complex, if somewhat anodyne, explorations of grief I have ever seen on screen. This child is both ready for his mother to pass, and has in many ways accepted it; while he also wishes, as any good kid of his age would, to keep his mother alive and by his side.

If seen from an inexperienced or unsentimental point of view, such a contrarian and contradictory exploration of grief is almost an outrage. However, the film capitalizes on Conor’s youth and innocence to suggest that, no matter how self-sufficient and prepared this child seems to be, there is absolutely no way in which he is ready to fully absorb the implications of losing his mother.

With a healthy budget of 43 million dollars, A Monster Calls is also a convincing visual spectacle that gives young actor Lewis MacDougall the chance to play a very difficult role with grace and with a level of maturity that belongs to someone much older. It is the nuance and craft of his performance that makes A Monster Calls one of the most compelling and beautiful cinematic experiences I have had in recent years.

Rating: 4.5/5

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films

Months in Review: September & October films (part I)

It is absolutely incredible to me that we are already in November. It feels as if Summer lasted about a week, Spring no more than 2 days and that Winter was about a month ago.

Per usual, my blog has been more inactive than I would like it to be but after 2-3 years of keeping the same pace, it’s about time I come to accept the infrequency of my blogging.

I have managed to stay within an average of watching at least 10 new films per month, with the goal of hitting at least 120 new films seen in the calendar year (I don’t think I’ve seen more than 10 repeats)

In September I watched 13 films averaging an unusually high 3.5 out of 5 score product of 6 films that hit 4 or 4.5 out of 5. Also an unusually high number.

In October, however, things went back to normalcy. I watched 10 films averaging 3.15, with only two of these getting a 4 out of 5.

To keep the posts manageable, I will divide them into two parts. One dedicated to September, and the other to October. Below my short impressions of each:

GONE BABY GONE (2007) [ 3.5/5 ]

Gone Baby Gone felt like an extended episode of Law & Order featuring a great cast that includes the likes of Morgan Freeman and Casey Affleck.

Set in a gritty, dark and unwelcoming part of Boston, the film tells the story of a private investigator and his partner searching for a missing girl. The characters are, for the most part, excellently conceived, filled with complexity and contradictions.

The moral question at the heart of the movie, which is presented to us in the last act, is one that is difficult to answer, probably splitting audiences in half back when the film was released in 2007.

What doesn’t work as well are the ways in which the film reaches those moral dilemmas, often opting to grab audiences by the hand, and never fully trusting viewers to make their own connections.

Casey Affleck’s performance is especially engaging in a role that has some of the ticks but not quite the range of his well-deserved Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

The latest reboot of King Kong is an attempt to bring the big ape to a new generation of filmgoers, giving audiences an origin story that, in all honesty, fails to live up to the long cultural significance of Kong in the big screen.

Aside from a particularly weak premise that sets the events of the film in motion, Kong is packed with well crafted and entertaining set pieces that keep the film from succumbing to its general lack of originality. John C. Reilly’s late cameo is one of the film’s pleasures and the only character I found myself rooting for.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) [ 4/5 ]

The Prestige was very much a precursor to Christopher Nolan’s amazing work in Inception. Like that film, The Prestige is built upon a story that is rich in complexity where every shot and every bit of dialogue serves the film’s ultimate reveal. As with the rest of Nolan’s impressive body of work, The Prestige hides its secrets by limiting our point of view. It works only by placing us in the thick of the story, while leaving a crucial perspective out until the end. As engaging and wildly unpredictably as the plot is, the invisible hand that moves all the gears and fits all the pieces into place seems a bit more conspicuous than usual.

Being so familiar with the director’s work was a bit of a detriment to the experience, expecting the perfectionism and directorial dexterity of Christopher Nolan to sweep us up at the end, cleverly tying in the film’s many loose pieces.

Having said this, The Prestige is one hell of a cinematic experience that is nearly as imaginative and deceptive as the director’s best work.

LEGEND (2015) [ 4/5 ]

A magnificent dual performance by the always surprising Tom Hardy headlines this wild gangster film set in midcentury London. The thespian plays Reggie and Ronnie Cray; one the suave and elegant empresario with a talent for boxing who desires love and success, and the other his psychologically disturbed bloodthirsty twin with a lust for sex, men and, of course, violence.

Most of what the film tries to say isn’t new or particularly inventive, but I did appreciate its take on the weight of family ties and how one rotten apple can sometimes bring a blossoming empire crashing down.

I also appreciated the film’s dark and twisted humor, its rich assortment of characters and the evil pleasure with which it tells what is a rather tragic tale.

One of the most underrated films of 2015.

A MONSTER CALLS (2016) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films

A beautiful film that moved me to tears. A story about loss and grief that I found extremely poetic and engaging. Though it may turn off some people due to its fantastical elements, A Monster Calls is, by no means, a kids’ film; instead, it is a carefully crafted drama of great emotional resonance that uses fantasy to great effect. I shall be posting a full review in the coming days.

NEON DEMON (2016) [ 3/5 ]

A slow burning and stylish film from Scandinavian director Nicholas Winding Refn set against flashing cameras and the orange glow of the city of Angels.

Like his film Drive, Refn spends most of the film’s running time enamored by the facile beauty of its movie star: Elle Faning, who plays a character both exasperating and relatable, humble at first sight but fundamentally narcissistic. She is treated both as the muse in distress hunted by jealous competition, and also as a sort of virus that has arrived to disrupt the natural order. Such dichotomy is at the heart of the film and it is ultimately what I found most interesting about it.

Sadly, the film lacks momentum, getting lost in its parsimony, with a script filled with holes that do nothing but serve Winding Refn’s brand of filmmaking which can often overwhelm the storytelling.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015) [ 3/5 ]

A biopic on the rise and fall of rap supergroup NWA that is entertaining without being particularly nuanced or thought-provoking.

Part of the problem lies on a script that is too heavily focused on the highlights of the lives that made NWA a reality. As a result, the film feels more like a made for tv 2-hour special, rather than an engaging study on the group members and what made them such a potent artistic force.

Straight Outta Compton also feels like a film that was tinkered and edited in post-production to take away the focus from weaker actors: O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Corey Hawkins, playing Ice Cube and Dr. Dre respectively; and give the spotlight to the always great Paul Giamatti, playing the sleazy and conniving manager, and actor Jason Mitchell, playing the late rapper Eazy-E with surprising emotional conviction.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) [ 3.5/5 ]

Spike Lee has always been one of those directors whose persona has loomed large in my decision to approach his work trepidatiously. His oeuvre is one that I have only recently began to dip my toes in, first with Chi-Raq, and now with what many critics call his masterpiece: Do The Right Thing.

In defense of the modest 3.5/5 score I give the film, I found that Lee’s work in this predominantly African American treatise may be one of those that, in order to be appreciated, both time and successive viewings may be required.

While his most recent work in Chi-Raq is one that attempts to tackle many large subjects through a tight and clear story; Do The Right Thing is the kind of large, expansive, complex and theatrical exposition about racial relations in the United States that I found to be more relevant as a historical document rather than as an artistic piece. My problem with it is that I simply could not make the transition from the almost whimsical African American micro-universe that Spike Lee had created in almost 90 minutes of film to the very violent and tragic last act. It was an abrupt and hard transition that I simply could not get on board with, despite appreciating the boldness behind the choice.

In addition, I found it unfortunate that Spike Lee made the decision to also take on the lead role, often looking flat opposite an excellent cast of actors.

MOTHER! (2017) [ 4/5 ]

A film so intense that I left the theater feeling exhausted. In the days that followed my trip to the theater, my esteem and appreciation for Darren Aronofski’s latest piece grew, and could easily become a favorite in the years to come.

If you’re so inclined, you can find my full review of the film here

TOWER [ 4/5 ] (2016)

I was introduced to this very good documentary courtesy of the best podcast on film out there: filmspotting.net

The film is one that deals with a very current subject, mass shootings, but it does so by focusing on the victims, both dead and alive, of a single tragic episode without precedent that occurred at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966.

The documentary, directed by Keith Maitland, is as nuanced an exposition of the horror of such an experience as you’re likely to find. It’s both affecting and engaging, creatively crafted using a style of animation that is both painterly and evocative, capturing the emotional drama, while softening the horrific violence.

A must-watch for cinephiles aspiring to make documentaries on tough and difficult subjects with tact and attention to detail.

THE BIG SICK (2017) [ 4/5 ]

Based on the real circumstances that surrounded the relationship of writers Kumail Nunjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a breath of fresh air in the romantic comedy genre.

Apart from being genuinely funny from beginning to end, the film was surprisingly touching, giving each one of its characters tangible and credible personalities, with only the occasionally cheesy one-liner.

It helps that the relationship at its center worked, and both Kumail and Zoe Kazan deliver crafty performances that are witty and surprisingly nuanced.

The Big Sick is clearly a labor of love inspired by love. One of the best films of 2017.

THE DEAD ZONE (1983) [ 2.5/5 ]

One of the biggest disappointments of late. The Dead Zone is one of those cult films that has survived the passage of time based solely on the curiosity of cinephiles willing to invest a couple of hours to explore the odd pairing of director David Cronenberg and a rare lead performance by Christopher Walken.

The actor plays Johnny Smith who, after a 5-year coma, wakes up to find his fiancé has moved on, his job is gone and, more importantly, that he has psychic powers he must suddenly contend with.

Even when there is something of merit to be found in the film’s interesting explorations of the psychological ramifications of wielding such power, Cronenberg’s execution is terribly uneven.

The dramatic scenes feel staged, the performances unnecessarily heightened, the camerawork is sloppy and the major set pieces anticlimactic.

SNATCHED (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

After the success and unexpected quality of Amy Schumer’s first starring role in a feature film in 2012’s Trainwreck, I half-expected the stand-up comedian to follow it with something catastrophically bad (in what the industry commonly calls the sophomore slump).

What is surprising about this mind-numbing slapstick comedy is that there is enough comedic chemistry between Goldie Hawn and Schumer as mother and daughter to make the film bearable.

Having said that, I still wish Schumer and Hawn could have done something a lot more worthwhile.