A Monster Calls (2016)

2018 #129
J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Monster Calls

Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

All the feels

The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

4 out of 5

A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

2018 #225
J.A. Bayona | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

It’s three years after the events of Jurassic World and the dinosaurs who overran Isla Nublar have basically been left alone while the rest of the world goes about its business. But now there’s a problem: the island’s previously inactive volcano is about to erupt, wiping out the dinosaurs… again. Former director of the park Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) now works for a charity struggling to convince people to save the dinos, where she’s contacted by Mills (Rafe Spall), a representative of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the one-time business partner of park founder Hammond who helped initiate the whole bringing-dinosaurs-back-from-the-dead palaver. They’re sending people to the island to rescue as many dinosaurs as they can, but they need Claire’s help. Naturally she agrees, and so along with ex-velociraptor-wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) and a motley crew of supporting cast members, they head back to the island… but it soon turns out Mills & co may have a nasty ulterior motive for wanting to save the dinosaurs…

Although there are shades of the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, in this setup, I think Fallen Kingdom does enough different that any similarities aren’t excessively problematic. Indeed, it’s got its own array of flaws for us to contend with first. It’s like someone assembled all the ingredients specified by a recipe, but instead of following the instructions they just bunged everything together haphazardly, and so the resulting dish seems like it should be right but is somehow just… wrong.

Letting sleeping T-rexes lie

To be less metaphorical, I think Fallen Kingdom is built on decent ideas and concepts, and it’s executed with some stylish direction by franchise newcomer J.A. Bayona (including a couple of particularly good sequences, like a tense oner in a sinking gyrosphere), but it’s all let down by a terrible screenplay from Jurassic World co-writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The story is poorly constructed — not in the sense that it’s unfollowable, but in that it’s wonkily put-together, frequently showcasing scenes that are nothing but exposition, with a pace and emphasis that feels unbalanced. Not unrelatedly, the quality of the dialogue is very weak, lacking in character or plausibility, or, failing the latter, memorableness. Sure, there’s the odd line the talented cast can make work (Howard gets a mini-monologue about the first time you saw a dinosaur that’s almost really good), but most of what comes out of their mouths is perfunctory. If they’d bothered to hire some solid writers, instead of just People Who Have Ideas, then maybe those ideas could’ve been turned into a cohesive whole that would be a worthy sequel. Heck, even getting someone in to polish up this draft could’ve helped a lot. Instead, Fallen Kingdom is a bunch of decent concepts for plots, subplots, themes, and visuals, haphazardly bunged together with half-arsed execution.

In terms of particularly egregious examples, the standout for me is the subplot with Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie. No spoilers, but her storyline is no more than a (too clearly telegraphed) twist and a thematic resolution, which is in need of an actual story to give it meaning and work it up to being an actual theme of the movie in the way they clearly want it to be. What could be a meaningful finale for her character is rendered moot by the fact it has no genuine build-up, not to mention they had to throw another lead character’s moral development under a bus in order to get there (for a more spoilersome discussion of this point, check out Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes).

Clawesome

It’s not just subplots that falter: the inciting incident (volcano is going to wipe out dinos; do we have a responsibility to save what we created, or is this nature course-correcting?) is a very rich premise with potential for debate; but other than stating those two positions, the film does nothing with it. It’s just there, an excuse to go back to the island and get the dinosaurs out, ready for the next part of the plot. This is probably why many viewers seem to find the first half perfunctory, but the second half — where the film takes a sharp turn into a Gothic-ish ‘haunted’ house movie — to be something fresh. Like so many of the film’s other ideas, I think it’s a good concept bungled in execution. It coasts by on imagery alone, Bayona achieving the look he’s after, but without Connolly and Trevorrow backing it up by making the situation work as a story, or for the characters. One example from this section: the scene of Maisie hiding in bed as the the dinosaur inches closer, which was featured so widely in the trailers. It’s a great visual, combining childhood fears and notions of protection (“if I’m under the covers nothing can get me”) with genuine threat and terror… but the film has to jump through hoops to make it happen — it’s only there because someone had an idea for the visual and they shoehorned it in, not because it makes any sense in context.

On a similar level is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as fan-favourite character Dr Ian Malcolm. He’s ostensibly contributing to that save-or-not debate I mentioned, but as that goes nowhere his appearance is equally pointless; no more than fan service — it feels like a tease; an excuse to put him in the trailer. A short featurette included on the Blu-ray gives some indication of what the filmmakers were actually trying for here (some of Malcolm’s dialogue is lifted from the writing of Michael Crichton, the goal being to link back to the franchise’s originator and reiterate his “science gone wrong” theme), but it doesn’t come off. Worst of all, I didn’t feel like Goldblum was actually playing Malcolm — it’s the same actor, obviously, but not the same character. Was he phoning it in? He was only on set for one day, after all. Or maybe it was just terribly written. I mean, on the evidence of the rest of the film…

It's getting hot in there

Fallen Kingdom is not the outright disaster some have painted it as, but it could’ve been much better. There are so many things it almost gets right — for another example, it’s very much planned as Part 2 of a trilogy, but it feels like real effort has been made to make it a film that works on its own; that isn’t merely a two-hour exercise in getting us from where Part 1 ends to how they want Part 3 to begin. That’s admirable (not everyone seems to bother), but undermined by how much the film feels in need of major structural work at a screenplay level. Ultimately, I think your tolerance for “good ideas but poor execution” will dictate exactly how you feel about the finished movie.

3 out of 5

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.