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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: ‘Silence’

dfm_silence-poster-300An impressively devout expression of religious faith that seeks to answer some of mankind’s most pressing questions, Silence demands respect and inspires debate, all while displaying the absolute command of master filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

Now 74, Scorsese has reportedly desired to adapt Endô Shûsaku’s novel for some 25 years (or, soon after The Last Temptation of Christ). The novel, first published in 1966, reflected Endô’s views on Christianity from a personal perspective; he became a practicing Catholic at a young age in the 1930s. Shinoda Masahiro made the first film version, Chinmoku, in 1971.

The movie follows two Jesuit priests from Portugal who travel to Japan in 1630 on a mission to locate a missing priest. Before they leave, they are released from their assignment by Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), who informs them that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy and publicly rejected the faith. Still, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) insist on going; Ferreira was their beloved mentor, and even if he has committed apostasy, they feel obligated to save him.

So off the priests go. Officially, Japan has outlawed Christianity, but as soon as they land in country, thanks to drunken former Christian Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke), Rodrigues and Garrpe come into contact with a group of “hidden Christians” who are grateful for their presence. The local Christians persist in their beliefs, despite the knowledge that government officials constantly search for them, intent on persecuting them until they recant by stepping on a fumie, a small stone with an image of Christ carved into it.

Initially pleased with the opportunity to provide for the villagers’ spiritual needs, Rodrigues and Garrpe are tested by the need to remain in hiding during the daylight, and their consequent inability to search for their mentor Ferreira. This slowly sets up one of the essential dilemmas of the film, as the priests eventually learn that the government has decided to persecute the priests, not by torturing them, but by torturing others until the priests recant.

Silence is less a story and more of a meditation, largely constructed around long, grueling sequences that become challenging to endure, especially after Rodrigues and Garrpe are separated. Rodrigues is imprisoned alone in an open-air cell, where he can watch the horrors visited upon fellow believers. He is regularly questioned, not for the purpose of learning about his religious beliefs, but to prompt him to question his faith; all he has to do is take one step, the officials taunt, just one step on the face of Christ (on the fumie) and all the torture and suffering will cease.

Perhaps what makes the film even more grueling than might be expected is the knowledge that Scorsese is at the helm. He exercises great restraint, avoiding his usual visual grace notes — save for an occasional “God’s eye” view from above and one or two gracefully swooping, extended ‘follow’ shots — and instead makes the suffering as palpable as possible. The locations are well-chosen (Taiwan standing in for Japan) and Scorsese and company, including cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and production designer Dante Ferretti, make good use of them in recreating 17th century Japan.

The performances by Garfield and Driver are soul-wrenching. Film director Tsukamoto Shinya portrays a hidden Christian named Mokichi in an affecting manner, while Asano Tadanobu gives his role as a government interpreter a villainous gleam.

Silence is a film to be admired and respected, more than it is to be enjoyed. The long stretches of inaction are a test of patience to watch, which is likely what Scorsese intended. After all, if we find it difficult to watch fictionalized depictions of torture and suffering, what must God think when he looks down upon Earth and sees the real thing?

The film opens at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano on Friday, January 6.

‘Unknown’ May Need a Warning Label

Liam Neeson, in a moment of quiet repose before he loses his mind, with January Jones. (Warner Bros.)

‘Unknown,’ the latest slick genre flick from director Jaume Collet-Serra (‘Orphan,’ ‘House of Wax’), is, indeed, stylish, and features an attractive cast in Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, the great Bruno Ganz, and Frank Langella. Yet it’s so convoluted that it left my head spinning, and not in a good way.

The plot is so contrived and so far-fetched and so incredibly convoluted that we’d be happy to leave it in the land of make believe; just leave us alone with all the explaining and justifying. But the movie insists on providing details that we don’t need. It’s meant, perhaps, to be a distraction; the movie has more red herrings than the biggest fish market in the world.

You can read my entire review at Pegasus News, which marks my first appearance there as guest reviewer.

‘Unknown’ opens wide across the Metroplex today. Check showtimes via Google.

Review: The A-Team

'The A-Team'
'The A-Team' in action

Many movies aspire to be live-action cartoons, but few succeed as well as Joe Carnahan’s big screen version of The A-Team.

The action sequences are informed by lunacy. Instead of ink and paint and word balloons, the raw materials are CGI, stunt doubles and constant wisecracks. It’s a diverting mixture, and proves to be satisfying entertainment for genre fans who prize explosive weapons above all else. When you see a crack team of ex-Army Rangers parachuting out of an exploding cargo plane while strapped inside a huge tank and under attack from drone planes, you may think you’ve seen it all. But that’s only the first act.

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