Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: ‘A Monster Calls’

dfn_monster_calls_300Pardon the expression, but it can be monstrously difficult to adapt a children’s book into a major motion picture.

In this age of visual effects, it seems like almost anything is possible, and J.A. Bayona’s version of A Monster Calls summons up fantastic images, allowing a giant, monstrous, lumbering tree (voiced by a growling Liam Neeson) to serve as a hectoring, lecturing mentor to Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a boy on the cusp of adolescence who is struggling to cope with life.

At school, Conor is bullied mercilessly by slightly bigger and bulkier schoolmates. At home, Conor is crushed by the prolonged, terminal illness of his beloved mother (Felicity Jones). At night, Conor escapes from his problems by drawing.

On one of those nights, Conor’s drawing of a nearby tree comes to life and stomps to his room, demanding that the boy listen as he tells him three stories, because the tree will then demand that Conor tell a story. The stories are told at night, each illustrated in a slightly different visual manner and teaching a different life lesson. Meanwhile, Conor seeks to apply the lessons so he can better handle both the bullies and the enemy death.

Writer Siobhan Dowd conjured up the original ideas, but died from breast cancer before she could write the novel she had planned. Inspired by her ideas, Patrick Ness wrote the novel, first published in 2011, and then adapted the book for the big screen.

Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) brings a gloomy consistency to A Monster Calls, and the movie certainly looks impressive as a glum reminder that tragedies, big and/or small, are inevitable in life. The lessons are probably good ones for young people to learn, though, as expressed here, they tend to tear down the soul in their relentless ambition to proclaim that everybody hurts.

There is no denying, however, that Bayona and company have captured the primal bond that exists between loving parent and grateful child, and when that is ripped apart, well, of course it will be painful, and anyone who is empathetic — or has experienced the death of a loved one — will respond with deep emotion.

Sigourney Weaver portrays Conor’s grandmother with a reserve of graceful restraint, while Toby Kebbell contributes a good turn as the Conor’s father, who harbors ill feelings toward his divorced wife that has poisoned his relationship with the boy.

Undoubtedly aimed at children of a certain age, A Monster Calls is an effective, if melodramatic, tearjerker for adults of a certain background and experience. It is a dark fantasy with an uncanny ability to seep into the subconscious.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, January 6.

Review: ‘The BFG’

dfn-the-bfg-300Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg was known as the king of family-friendly entertainment.

That began to change with his eighth feature film, The Color Purple (1985), but it didn’t change dramatically until he tackled Schindler’s List in 1993, the same year that saw the release of Jurassic Park. It’s safe to say that the harsh, intense concentration camp drama changed audience perceptions about the veteran filmmaker in a profound manner.

Since then, his choice of subject matter has skewed largely toward the adult side of the ledger. Five years ago, though, Spielberg made The Adventures of Tintin, a generally lackluster family adventure that felt more like an experiment than anything else. Could he ever tap into the psyche of young viewers again?

Coming off a trio of finely made, yet somewhat dry historical dramas — War Horse, Lincoln and Bridges of Spies — Spielberg collaborates once again with Melissa Mathison, whose original screenplay for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial cemented her reputation after her fledgling success from writing The Black Stallion, and gave flight to one of the great cinematic sensations of the decade.

Mathison passed away last year, but her blueprint for The BFG feels like something that was hatched in the 1980’s. [Later research confirmed my initial impression: Roald Dahl’s immensely popular book was first published in 1982, though its origins stretch back to a short story by the author from 1975.]

In dramatizing Mathison’s script, Spielberg and his usual army of key collaborators — led by Janusz Kaminski (director of photography), Rick Carter (production design), Michael Kahn (film editing), and John Williams (original musical score) — have fashioned a movie for children that looks at home in modern cinemas while retaining an “old-fashioned” pacing and temperament.

The story begins with young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) living in an orphanage in Britain. The nuns who run the place are unpleasant and unkind to their charges, pocketing money intended for their care and providing a bare minimum for their survival. So when Sophie catches sight of an immense creature stalking about the city streets outside the orphanage, she is more than ready for a great adventure. Almost before she can blink, she is taken in hand by the creature, who sprints back to his homeland.

Thus begins an unusual friendship. Sophie is precocious; her instincts tell her to flee the creature’s home, but that only lands her in more trouble, for it turns out that, as large as the creature appears to her, he is, in fact, quite a little thing in comparison to the other giants in his homeland.

It’s a delightful invention by Dahl to establish that the creature, who becomes known as the titular “Big Friendly Giant” (or, BFG) and appears so overwhelming to her, is quite like a mouse in the eyes of his fellow, brutish and menacing giants. The other giants quite like to eat humans — though one imagines munching on Ruby would be like humans munching on bite-sized candies — in contrast to BFG, who contents himself with eating a nourishing stew of distasteful vegetables.

Superficial comparisons could be made to The Adventures of Tintin, as far as Spielberg stretching the boundaries of animation, yet The BFG has the advantage of the very human Ruby, a tiny thing who inspires sympathy and admiration because of her plucky and positive attitude. Likewise, Rylance manages to invest his character with a great deal of soulful modesty, which is a very becoming quality in a would-be hero.

Good actors providing quality voice-work / inspiration for the appearance of the giants include Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader; they stand clearly apart by their ravenous, selfish personalities. The third act sees the presence of a squad of human actors, who deliver performances that are well-tuned to the story’s tone.

All that is thanks to Spielberg, folding himself back into childhood to imagine what it would be like to encounter a giant who could, in effect, grant wishes. It’s a childish fantasy, to be sure, but quite a heartwarming and endearing experience.

The film will open in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, July 1.

Review: ‘Seventh Son’

'Seventh Son'
‘Seventh Son’
Jeff Bridges does a great impression of Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse, in this middling fantasy that is structured around a series of CGI-powered action sequences.

Grumbling and mumbling throughout, Master Gregory (Bridges) is a Spook, the last survivor of a proud army that has been decimated over the years. As a Spook, he is charged with fighting evil spirits to protect the local citizenry on a planet that may or may not be Earth, sometime in the Middle Ages, but he is growing old and must train a replacement, who must be the seventh son of a seventh son.

That individual turns out to be Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a blandly handsome young man who is languishing on his family’s farm. Master Gregory arrives to take him away, paying a handsome price in gold, but before Tom leaves, his mother Mam (Olivia Williams) gifts him with a necklace that is very special to her.

Training to become a spook may take a decade or more, yet only weeks remain before the Blue Moon arises, signaling a crisis for the land because the powerful witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) is poised to conquer the kingdom with the assistance of her younger sister Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue) and her niece Alice (Alicia Vikander), who are both witches as well.

When Tom and Alice meet, both are instantly smitten with the other, which spells trouble, since a Spook is supposed to kill all witches and this particular witch has been charged with spying on the Spooks, leading to their downfall.

More twists and turns arise, but the story comes down to a battle between the Spooks and the witches, the latter of whom can transform into dragons, making for a series of confrontations between CGI-empowered creatures.

Given a better-written vehicle for their talents, Bridges and Moore could make for a much more compelling couple, but with their characters drawn so plainly as hero and villain, there’s no room for complexity. This is a straightforward fairy tale, yet with the sides drawn so broadly, and played in such a sober manner, the battles lack any dramatic weight.

Director Sergey Bodrov has previously made large-scale epics, such as 2007’s Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, and there is nothing much wrong with his manner of staging action sequences, but the excitement is tempered because such a high percentage of the scenes are devoted to watching computer-generated creatures fight each other. It’s tempting to call it a video-game movie, but there is no sense of narrative to the fiercely-moving pixels, so it all plays out in a desultory manner, as though the viewer were watching someone else play the game.

Bridges, Moore, Vikander, and Williams do their best, but they can’t overcome the limp narrative nor the extended sequences that accomplish little more than passing the time quietly, if colorfully. Seventh Son amounts to little more than a seventh-rate fantasy.

The movie opens wide in theaters across North Texas on Friday, February 6.