A Monster Calls (2016)

fourstar

It’s difficult to say objectively if A Monster Calls is likely to resonate with most audiences the way it did with me at the exact moment I happened to catch it in theaters. The very same week the fantasy-leaning cancer drama reached New Orleans I had lost my grandmother to an aggressive form of cancer and, at the time I’m writing this review, she still has not yet been memorialized with a funeral. The wounds are still fresh in a lot of ways, so I don’t have enough critical distance to say if this dark children’s fantasy about “a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man” struggling with the gradual loss of his young mother to failed chemotherapy treatments is truly the emotionally impactful, thematically complex filmgoing experience I found it to be. I can only say for sure that A Monster Calls is admirable in the brave ways it tackles issues of frustration, resentment, and self-conflict that wreak havoc on families who are hit with this kind of loss through prolonged illness. The film’s multi-faceted, sugarcoat-free discussion of how grief can be destructive long before it’s cathartic is not the thematic territory typically expected of a kids’ movie featuring a talking tree, but A Monster Calls fearlessly dives head first into those troubled waters and emerges as a hauntingly beautiful experience for taking that leap, one that arrived at the exact moment I needed it.

Liam Neeson voices the titular monster in this dark fantasy drama, a talking tree that visits a young boy each time he wakes from the recurring nightmare of physically letting his mother go while holding her hand at the edge of a cliff. The mother (Felicity Jones, who in all honesty gets just as little character development here as she does in Rogue One) is losing her battle with a rapidly progressing cancer; the boy is being physically bullied at school by the one kid who bothers to notice him; and the rest of the family struggles to figure out what to do with him now that his only attentive parent is at the verge of death. The tree monster solves none of these problems. He only awakes to tell the boy three seemingly unrelated stories (illustrated in beautiful watercolor-style animation) about dragons, kings, suicide, magic . . . pretty much nothing to do with his current predicament. Instead of smiting the boy’s enemies and bringing his mother back from the brink of death, the tree monster merely teaches him a few harsh life lessons: that sometimes life is a cheat, that sometimes good people do horrifically bad things, that sometimes “bad” people can do good, that terrible things often happen for no reason at all. The monster coaches the child through a tough moral gray area and, in the process, allows him to admit & accept some less-than-honorable feelings he’d been repressing about his mother’s impending death before it’s too late.

Besides the obvious reasons why I would connect with this kind of a cancer-themed familial drama at this time in my life, A Monster Calls also appeals to me directly by evoking the same brutal honesty & melancholy tone I found solace in with the similar dark children’s fantasies Paperhouse & MirrorMask. In all three films, young British children process real world emotional grief in a harsh dream space of their own artistic design. A Monster Calls joins this tradition, which unfortunately has a bad critical & financial track record, with a morally ambiguous tale of how there are no easy answers to the ways we process loss and how you’re not always going to be proud of the things you do, say, or feel in your worst moments of grief. It’s the exact kind of thoughtful, morally complex narratives I look for in my children’s media combined with a distinct visual palette (complete with a muscular tree butt for some reason) and impeccable timing, arriving just when I needed to wrestle with my own conflicted modes of grief. I may not be able to discuss A Monster Calls objectively due to my own recent familial loss, but I can say that it’s a deeply relevant & revelatory experience when you’re in that very particular, very fragile state of grief & mourning. There’s just some things about life that you need to hear from Liam Neeson dressed up like a talking tree to fully grasp, I suppose. It worked for me, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

When I found out last year that there were going to be 6 new Star Wars films — not just the new trilogy, but three stand-alone films as well — I was skeptical. As excited as I was about the final trilogy, the in-between films sounded like nothing more than a money grab. But after seeing Rogue One, the second entry in the reboot, I’m pretty sold.

Before watching The Force Awakens last year, I kind of lost myself in fan theories and had fun with the idea of Jar Jar Binks coming back as the ultimate big baddy, but for Rogue One I went in blind. After all, chronologically it happens in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. People who are even slightly familiar with Star Wars know how this plays out, but it turns out there were a few twists and turns I didn’t expect. Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion. The notion that it’s not political is naive and out of touch. But I guess you should never count on a multimillion dollar mega corporation to stand by the radical media that they inadvertently release

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) of the Rebel Alliance. They form a group of misfit rebels with Andor’s brutally honest droid sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind force warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his big gun toting conterpart Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and a defecting Imperial shuttle pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they work against the Empire to smuggle the plans of the the Death Star to the Alliance. One big problem I had, though, was that the characters are not as developed as they should be. I keep hearing people say that it’s a lack of screen time, but in the case of Jyn I really think that they had ample opportunity to present her as more than just another brunette leading lady with good aim and an uncanny ability to scale vertical surfaces. I also thought that Cassian could have been a much more interesting character. As he is, I don’t really buy the vague romance that he and Jyn are supposed to have by the end of the movie. Though with Star Wars, it’s usually the minor roles that win hearts. Chirrut and Baze are a great pair, and K-2SO is a real pal. I’d like to have had more from Riz Ahmed’s character, instead of shoving him to the background and referring to him as “the shuttle pilot” half the movie, though.

What the movie gets right, it gets really right. The villains are scary. Somehow Rogue One was able to present a fresh introduction to Darth Vader, which is great because this is the first time we’re seeing Vader as Vader, really doing his thing, since Return of the Jedi thirty-three years ago. He is used sparingly and masterfully, and is truly terrifying and cruel. It’s so great to hear James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of that mask again. The gestures were spot on, right down to that iconic Vader finger wag. This is not the “NOOOOO!” moment of the prequels. This is true Vader. Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin also gets resurrected as a total computer recreation. Despite the general mixed response, I found to it be extremely impressive and convincing.

It’s also a pretty movie. It really captures the look and feel of a Star Wars movie. There’s hazy shots of star ships gliding across horizons at sunset and far off planets in the distance. One of the locations in particular really stands out. There’s a moon called Jedha, with a city and a temple that we’re to assume belonged at one point in time to the Jedi. There’s an aerial shot of the landscape featuring a giant, ancient Jedi statue on it’s side in the sand that, nerdily enough, reminded me of The Gates of Argonath, the great statues of kings on the river Anduin in Lord of the Rings. There’s some really cool costumes too: floor length bright red robes in the cities, Chirrut’s semi monk style clothing, and some retro helmets made a comeback.

In the day and age of reboots and series revivals Star Wars has taken the lead for quality. The two newest movies have proven that the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude works out and has even redeemed a franchise so nearly killed by its own creator. Rogue One was far from being the nostalgia fueled money grab I expected, and actually left me feeling some complex things.

-Alli Hobbs