A Monster Calls

“So you didn’t get your ‘happily ever after?'”
“No…but that’s life. Most people just get ‘messily ever after.'”

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A Monster Calls
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Based on the book by: Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Released: 2016
Rated PG-13

Conor, a little boy in England, is not having a happy childhood. His single mother is dying of a disease heavily implied to be cancer, and his grouchy grandmother is trying to get him to come live with her as a result. To make matters worse, he’s getting beaten up regularly at school, he has no friends, and he keeps having the same nightmare over and over. But one night, at precisely 12:07 a.m., he is visited by a monster made from an ancient yew tree. The Monster says he will tell Conor three stories, and after that, Conor must tell him a fourth: the story of his nightmare. Sure enough, as his mother’s illness gets worse, the Monster keeps visiting at 12:07 to tell Conor stories about the times he went walking before, and what he knows about life and the people who live it. Meanwhile, Conor just hopes the last story will end with his mother being cured.

Like all the Monster’s stories, this movie looks and acts a lot like a fairytale at first glance. The titular creature looks amazing, and his stories are animated with lovely watercolours that look like they came straight out of an illustrated fantasy book. The movie’s beginning, what with the sick mother and the Monster suddenly appearing in a surreal fashion, even reminded me of a Narnia story. (The fact that Liam Neeson voices the Monster helps.)

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“And when he shakes his mane…the ceiling caves in.”

But the Monster’s stories are not fairytales. Each one twists the usual character types and morals of a fairytale (such as evil queens and knights in shining armour) and subverts them in order to tell a harder truth: that real people don’t fit into those little boxes. Sometimes the evil queen has her good points, and sometimes the knight in shining armour is less noble than he seems. “There isn’t always a good guy, nor is there always a bad one,” the Monster says. Another story examines a man who was willing to give up everything he believed in order to gain a favour, thus proving he never had true faith in the first place. You know…basic picture book morals like that.

But that’s how this movie rolls. It’s a story about a boy coming to grips with the loss of a loved one, but more than that, it’s about the importance of facing the truth. The lesson Conor really needs to learn is that he must admit the truth about his feelings, especially towards those he loves, if he’s going to be able to survive tragedy. In keeping with that message, the movie itself is consistently honest. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat the awfulness of watching a loved one die, and it doesn’t take the easy approach to characterisation. There are no villains in this movie. Conor’s grandmother might be fussy, and she certainly doesn’t understand him, but she loves both him and his mother deeply. His dad (who lives in America with a new family after a divorce with his mother) might be a bit of a deadbeat, but it’s clear he’s trying to be a good father in his own way. Conor himself, despite being the protagonist, is very flawed and does some terrible things over the course of the movie…but given the kind of story we’ve got here, that often just makes it even easier to sympathise with him. Even the Monster, despite giving out lots of sage advice, is still, well, a monster. He delights in destruction and he can be rather menacing at times.

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“I….AM….GROOOOOT!!”

The movie has an all-star cast (one of several reasons it baffles me that it didn’t get more attention when it came out last year), and everybody is bringing their “A” game. Liam Neeson has one of those voices I could listen to forever, and he puts it to great use here. Felicity Jones, of Rogue One fame, gives a horribly tear-jerking performance as Conor’s mum. It’s a little weird to watch Sigourney Weaver  being a British grandmother, but then maybe I’ve just seen Aliens too many times. She does a good job, even getting the accent right for the most part. But Lewis MacDougall really carries the movie, showing a ton of emotional depth and nuance in his acting. Impressive, considering he was about 13 when it was filmed, and this is only his second movie.

I don’t cry easily during movies…or at all, for that matter. Sure, occasionally a real tear-jerker will make my eyes go a bit misty, but until this week, the only movie that had caused me to actually break down crying was Inside Out–and that was because it gave me flashbacks to a particularly difficult time in my life. I was crying like a baby by the end of A Monster Calls. It is, hands down, the most thorough exploration of grief and loss I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it got downright hard to watch at times. I think that’s why it got rated PG-13, despite not containing any harsh language, sexual content, or graphic violence. This is definitely not a movie you watch with your kids, unless you want to have some very serious discussions with them afterwards. But its sadness is cathartic. It made me, as a viewer, feel that I had been on a journey with Conor and understood a bit of what he was feeling. Sometimes it’s easier for me to empathise with unpleasant feelings when they’re presented in the form of fiction, and this movie did that for me.

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“Humans are complicated beasts.”

And I think that is the entire point. Early on in the movie, Conor watches the original King Kong with his mother, and he feels sorry for the titular monster. He asks why the soldiers are trying to shoot Kong down. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” his mother explains. Understanding is another major theme of this movie. People avoid or even bully Conor because they don’t understand what he’s going through, while he does the same to the relatives he doesn’t like. But by the end, he realises that everyone is fighting their own kind of battle, and he begins to understand why some of the people around him react the way they do. That’s the thing about grief: it can divide, but it can also unite people. Everyone dies, after all, and almost everyone has lost loved ones. It’s the one terrible thing we all have in common.

My only real problem with the movie is that I would have liked to see more of the Monster’s stories reflected in Conor’s life. I haven’t read the book this is based on (though now I want to), but I have a feeling a lot of things were left out in the adaptation. For example, the Monster’s third story is really just a few sentences that don’t get animated at all, and although subsequent events show what the intended lesson was, it’s not dwelt on as much as the others. I also would have liked to see the bullies in the movie humanised a bit more, like other characters are. It would seem to be in keeping with the story’s themes.

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After all, if even fairy tale villains have their good sides, you would think primary school bullies would, too.

But overall, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking movie with an unusual message: that life, love, and loss are all complicated things, and it’s okay to have complicated feelings about them sometimes. It advocates honesty and understanding between people who are suffering. It shows that everyone has both good and bad inside them, and shouldn’t necessarily be judged by just one or the other. They’re all things we need to know in order to live full adult lives, but are rarely expressed so clearly in movies.

I’d highly recommend seeing A Monster Calls if you get a chance. Just keep the tissues handy.

Grade: A

Split

I am an M. Night Shyamalan fan. There, I said it.

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Split
Director and Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Released: January 2017
Rated PG-13

So this movie starts out with three teenage girls getting kidnapped by a man named Kevin who has severe dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 personalities living in his head, ranging from a hyperactive 9-year-old boy to an outgoing fashion designer to a motherly British woman. A few of his identities have taken over his mind and are trying to bring out a 24th, which they call “the Beast,” because they believe he’ll have superhuman powers and be able to protect all the people living inside Kevin’s head. The three girls have a part to play in this Beast’s emergence, and, although it’s only vaguely hinted at in the beginning, it doesn’t seem to involve them getting out alive. But one of the girls, named Casey, stays surprisingly level-headed and calm about the whole situation, plotting an escape and figuring out ways to stay one step ahead of her captor throughout the movie.

When I say I’m a Shyamalan fan, I should clarify that, until I watched this movie, I had only seen his first four films: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. And I loved all of them. (Yes, even The Village. Fight me.) I thought they all employed cool cinematography, good acting and a clever use of symbolism to tell powerful, original stories. They had flaws (especially The Village) but I’d still pay money to see any of them again. I have not seen any of Shyamalan’s more reviled films, such as The Happening, Lady in the Water, or The Last Airbender. Based on what I’ve heard, they deserve their reputation for awfulness. But since I haven’t seen them myself, they haven’t sullied my opinion of M. Night as much as they have for most people.

Still, I didn’t go into this movie thinking it would be the next Sixth Sense. I was curious about it because I was interested to see what a good actor like James McAvoy could do with a challenging character like Kevin/Hedwig/Dennis/Patricia/Barry etc., and because it was the first M. Night movie in over a decade to get more than 70% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But I wasn’t expecting to be blown away.

And in some ways, Split lived up to my expectations. As I expected, James McAvoy is incredible in his role. He shifts effortlessly between personalities, giving each of them its own unique mannerisms and body language, and making each one totally believable as a separate person, even though they all look the same. He is incredibly creepy at almost all times, yet it’s still possible to sympathise with him during a lot of scenes, and he’s always fun to watch. I seriously think McAvoy deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. He won’t get one, because it’s a Shyamalan film, but at least it shows he’s a good enough actor to hopefully get that kind of recognition in the future.

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Etcetera.

The non-Kevin characters are…a little iffy. Fortunately, there aren’t many of them. There’s Kevin’s psychiatrist, who specialises in DID. She has a nice relationship with one or two of his personalities, and gives a lot of helpful exposition about her theories on the disorder, but she’s not super memorable. The two kidnapped girls who aren’t Casey are basically non-entities. We barely learn anything about them by the end of the movie, their actresses give mediocre performances at best, and they consistently make bad decisions. They’re there to fulfill a plot function, and nothing more. And it’s a shame that I, as an audience member, think of them that way, because that’s clearly how most of Kevin’s personalities view them as well. I don’t like agreeing with villains, man!

Casey herself is better. She has a personality. She’s smart, resourceful to the point of being manipulative at times, and she has courage. Of course, that doesn’t always stop her from doing dumb horror-movie things like staring at the horrible thing for too long before running away, but give her props for at least trying to out-think the villain. She also has an interesting connection to said villain that is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, very effectively in my opinion. Anya Taylor-Joy does a decent job in the role, but it’s hard for her to look great next to McAvoy.

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“Professor X? How could you?!”

This movie definitely has its problems. There are some extremely clunky lines of dialogue that sound like nothing a human being would ever say (the psychiatrist being the most frequent offender). The story also drags just a bit in the beginning, with some scenes that seem a little repetitive. And although we hear over and over that Kevin has 24 personalities, we only ever get to see about nine of them. Granted, that’s still impressive for one actor, but it would have been kind of nice to see more.

Then there are the other questionable aspects. Like most Shyamalan movies, I think this one suffered from some bad marketing. The trailers make it look like a horror film. It’s not. (Although it does use some horror tropes.) The premise makes it sound like a psychological thriller. It’s not. (Although it does feel like one at times.) It actually belongs to a different genre altogether, which I’ll get to at the end of the review.

I think it’s important to go into this movie knowing that it’s not meant to be a realistic depiction of what it’s like to have DID. I don’t know much about the disorder myself, and from what I hear there are some varying opinions on it, but I’m fairly sure there’s not a single real psychiatrist who would say that people who have it can “change their body chemistry” to the extent that one personality has diabetes while the others don’t. And I don’t think Shyamalan thought that either, since he seems to have done at least a little bit of research on DID. I mean, at least he got the name right. Most of the times I’ve seen it pop up on TV or in movies, it’s called “multiple personality disorder” and played for laughs. But this movie takes some basic facts about a real, though rare, disorder, and exaggerates and twists them to fit a more fantastical narrative. Some people won’t much like that. Personally, I didn’t mind it, because I thought it worked with the kind of story Shyamalan was trying to tell.

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“I respect the mind’s power over the body. It’s why I do what I do.” Wait, wrong psychiatrist.

It’s also important to go into the movie knowing that it features heavily implied child abuse of various kinds. The gory details are never shown, but what is shown will probably be enough to upset many viewers, especially anyone who’s gone through something similar in real life. Then there are the creepy overtones of a strong but mentally unstable man keeping three teenage girls locked in a basement (and yes, one of his personalities is very much a pervert). So, fair warning: just because it’s PG-13, and not a horror movie, that doesn’t mean it can’t be disturbing.

Overall, though, I’d say the movie’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It does a great job of building up an atmosphere of suspense, up until the last half hour or so, when all that tension explodes into a white-knuckle climax. Iffy minor characters aside, the interactions between our heroine and villain are always fascinating, increasingly so as more about their pasts is revealed. There are lots of funny moments scattered about to relieve the tension, mostly courtesy of Kevin’s 9-year-old persona. Shyamalan may not be the greatest at writing dialogue, but his visual storytelling is still pretty sharp, in my opinion. A lot of this story is told through images, body language, and symbols, even though the psychiatrist does spout exposition on occasion. Again, McAvoy has to take some of the credit, since he manages to convey a lot more than the script requires, but I think we can blame the direction for some of it as well.

Okay, now it’s time to talk about why I think this really is quite a good movie. As you’d expect from a Shyamalan film, it has a twist at the end: a revelation that completely changes everything about the movie. And it works better than any Shyamalan twist since The Sixth Sense. To me, it was this twist that put the movie over the line between “okay” and “really good.” But there are two problems with it. One is that not everyone who sees the movie will understand it. I think it’s possible to enjoy Split if you don’t fully understand the ending, but it might be harder, since the twist actually goes a long way towards fixing some of those questionable elements I mentioned earlier. And you wouldn’t understand why it made me yell at the screen. The other problem is that I can’t say anything about the twist without spoiling it, and since it was my favourite thing about the movie, that makes this review kind of difficult for me.

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Here’s one case where the Clark Kent glasses actually DO make someone a completely different person.

What I will say about the ending is that I think it works. It’s foreshadowed throughout the movie in subtle ways, it makes sense, and yet I don’t think anyone could have predicted it if they didn’t know about it beforehand. And it opens up a huge number of great possibilities for the sequel it’s definitely getting. That’s all I can say without spoiling things. If you’ve seen the movie (or don’t plan to), and want to know exactly why I loved the ending, you can scroll to the bottom of the review and find out.

Split, despite its flaws, is a creative movie that takes a surprising number of risks. It doesn’t follow the conventions of its genre, and it demands some thought from its audience. Not everyone will enjoy it, but fans of Shyamalan’s earlier work should definitely consider checking it out.

Grade: B+

 

*SPOILERS FOLLOW*

YAY UNBREAKABLE SEQUEL!!!!!! That was my second favourite (or possibly favourite–I go back and forth between it and The Sixth Sense) Shyamalan movie ever, and I am so stoked to see more stories taking place in its universe. Also, with Marvel dominating the big screen these days, there’s never been a better time to introduce a totally unique, understated, philosophical style of superhero movie. Split focuses on the villain more than Unbreakable did (although Elijah Price was by far the most interesting character even in that movie), giving him an origin story rather than introducing a new hero. Although by the end, it looks like Casey could have some superheroic tendencies as well. I hope so, at least, because I felt her character arc was a bit unfinished, and I’d like to see more of it in the sequel.

Since I somehow managed to avoid Internet spoilers before watching it, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that this movie would be a sequel until the last few minutes, but it works perfectly. Like Unbreakable, it’s very preoccupied with the characters’ search for “purpose” in their lives, and reasons for why those lives are so epically screwed up. Kevin, or “the Horde,” as he’s called by the end, comes up with a rather…unique solution, believing that it’s the pain he’s endured that gives his life meaning, and that people who haven’t suffered like he has are less valuable. Like Elijah’s ideas of purpose, it’s an insane idea that still sounds almost plausible enough to be true…especially considering how the hero mirrors the villain in both cases. I look forward to the sequel, which will no doubt find new and fascinating territory to explore with these characters and this universe…if Shyamalan doesn’t screw it up, of course. Fingers crossed!

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

After watching this movie, one question is uppermost in my mind: WHY DON’T I LIVE IN NEW ZEALAND??

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director and Writer: Taika Waititi
Adapted from: the book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump
Starring: Sam Neill and Julian Dennison
Released: 2016
Rated PG-13 (in the U.S.)

The movie begins when Ricky Baker, a rotund foster kid who fancies himself a gangsta, is placed with a kindly old couple in the New Zealand countryside. Well, the wife is kindly. Her husband, Hector, is kind of standoffish and grumpy, seeing the new kid as a nuisance. So naturally, circumstances conspire to leave Ricky alone with Hec. Afraid of being dumped back into the foster care system (since Hec can’t be expected to raise him on his own), Ricky runs away and gets lost in the bush (New Zealand code for pristine, gorgeous wilderness). Hec rescues him, but a series of misunderstandings conspire to make it look like he’s kidnapped the boy. Pretty soon, the two find themselves outlaws in the wilderness, with the police, the army, and one dangerously obsessed Child Welfare agent hot on their trail.

First, let me talk about the scenery in this movie. I’ve never been there, but between The Lord of the Rings and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I’m now convinced that New Zealand is the most beautiful place on earth. And here we see tons of panning shots of mountains, forests, lakes and flats that seem utterly deserving of Hec’s made-up word, “majestical.” The soundtrack, made up of delightfully quirky techno-pop by the band Moniker, only adds to the beauty of the atmosphere. I’d say it’s worth watching for the scenery alone.

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“It’s majestic.” “That doesn’t sound very special. Majestical’s way better.”

But that’s not all the movie has going for it. It’s also hilarious. Hec and Ricky play off one another wonderfully, and I got a lot of laughs out of their often prickly relationship and their different ideas of what it takes to be a tough guy. Then there’s Paula, the Child Welfare agent, who does such an over-the-top Inspector Javert impression throughout the movie that it’s impossible not to chuckle at her. The pair of outlaws run into several other quirky characters on their adventure, from a spacey priest who keeps mixing his metaphors to…”Psycho Sam,” who dresses like a bush to hide from the government. They are all amazing. Especially Psycho Sam.

But even though I laughed out loud several times during it, I’d hesitate to call this movie a straight-up comedy. In between the laughs, there are several extremely sad moments, and some that tug at the heartstrings for different reasons. Underneath the exaggerated action and adventure, this is a movie about two outcasts who decide to run from a society they feel has rejected them. It’s not just about Ricky teaching Hec what it means to be “skux” (sort of like being a “playa” here in the States) or Hec teaching Ricky how to survive in the wilderness. It’s about both of them helping each other to deal with the different sorrows they’re carrying from equally tragic pasts. Eventually, by becoming “wilderpeople,” they learn that they’re not alone and that the world doesn’t have to be as bad a place as they thought it was before the movie started. Their unlikely friendship is as heartwarming as it gets.

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All the best father-son type relationships start with hunting wild boar.

I was reminded of several other movies while watching this one. The relationship between Hec and Ricky is a lot like the one between Carl and Russell in one of my favourite Pixar movies, Up. The humor and some of the more surreal elements of the story remind me of the Coen brothers’ work, especially O Brother, Where Art Thou? But at the same time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is very much its own story. I’ve seen quirky comedies before, but never one whose quirks were quite like these. I’ve seen epic, scenery-driven movies before, but not many whose stories seemed so perfectly fitted to the landscape. And I’ve seen plenty of father-son bonding type movies, but this one is so unconventional that it affected me a lot more than most.

Also, I loved Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, obviously, but I didn’t realise what serious acting chops he had until this movie. And I keep forgetting he’s from New Zealand.

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And if you even recognised him under that beard without being told, kudos.

Another note: This movie contains a beautiful Lord of the Rings reference, and I saw it coming a mile away. And it still made me geek out.

The only complaint I can think of is that the movie starts off a bit slow. We’re a good 20-30 minutes in before the plot really gets going. But even then, I’m not sure if I can complain, because so much of that beginning was used to develop an important character without whom the movie wouldn’t be the same. The tone is all over the place, with deeply tragic scenes constantly being followed up by something goofy and over the top–but that just makes both the humour and the emotion even more effective. It’s a masterfully told story with a great script. And the director’s next project is going to be Thor: Ragnarok, which gives me an enormous amount of hope for that film.

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If he can do action like this on a $77,000 budget, imagine what he’ll do with Marvel’s bajillions!

So in the end, I think it’s only proper to sum up my feelings about this movie the way Ricky would. In haiku.

Ricky and Hector
Outlaws living the skux life–
Grade A adventure.

 

 

The Babadook

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Well, NOW I can’t. Thanks, movie.

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Director and writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Released in: 2014 (in the U.S., anyway)
Not Rated

The Babadook is about Amelia, a single mother whose 6-year-old son, Samuel, is a bit of a problem child. He brings homemade weapons to school, freaks out other kids, and constantly has tantrums where he screams about monsters coming to get him. This does a number on his mother’s emotional state, which was already pretty bad because she’s still grieving for her husband, who was killed in a tragic accident several years ago. One night, Sam finds a new story on his shelf, called “Mister Babadook,” that his mum doesn’t remember buying for him. It turns out to be a creepy little pop-up book about a monster in a top hat that will do all sorts of vague and terrible things to you if you “let him in.” Naturally, it scares the crap out of Sam, and it eventually starts getting under Amelia’s skin, too, as she begins to imagine (or think she imagines) seeing and hearing the Babadook everywhere she goes.  And things get worse from there.

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Moral of the story: Don’t read mysteriously appearing books to your kids.

 

There’s a line in A Grief Observed, which is C.S. Lewis’s story of how he lost his wife, that says, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” And indeed, speaking as someone who’s felt relatively little of either, it seems that the two emotions do cause people to do very similar things. We avoid talking about things we’ve lost just as we avoid talking about things that scare us. Both grief and fear can lead to sleeplessness and poor decision making. And both can drive ordinarily decent people to do very indecent things.

That’s basically the premise behind this movie. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I think I can say that the monster is strongly tied to our main characters’ feelings of grief and resentment. So it seems oddly fitting that it’s also bed-wettingly terrifying. Hagrid was clearly involved in naming this thing, because only the guy who named a giant three-headed dog “Fluffy” could possibly have come up with a cutesy name like “Mister Babadook” for the face of all my nightmares. And keep in mind that this thing is rarely shown outside of the drawings in the book that introduced it. It doesn’t jump out at you from the shadows. It doesn’t rip people’s heads off or burst out of anyone’s chest. In fact, there’s very little blood or violence at all in the movie. All the scares come from places that are easy to relate to–weird noises in the house, a family member acting strange, lack of sleep, and, of course, the prospect of losing someone you love. And because of that, this is easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

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Nope. I’m out. Bye.

Not that I watch many scary movies. Most of the time, based on the trailers and posters I’ve seen, horror films just seem to be about uninteresting characters getting killed in interesting ways, and that has no appeal for me. Besides, even if the story’s good, there’s a limit to the amount of blood and tentacles I can take. But I heard this movie described as more of an allegorical character study than a monster movie, and that got me intrigued. Besides, I’ve been trying to watch more foreign films and more films directed by women, and this one checks both boxes. So I checked it out, and, even though it shaved an hour or two off my beauty sleep, I’m glad I did.

For one thing, it’s just a really, really well-made movie. The acting is top-notch. Amelia goes through quite a few emotional transformations throughout the story, and some of them could have come off pretty cheesy and terrible if Essie Davis hadn’t absolutely nailed them. But she did. The kid is also pretty great for a pint-sized actor, and although he can be annoying at times, it always feels intentional. The writing helps a lot, too. This is one movie where it pays to listen to the dialogue, because several seemingly innocent things are said early on that end up being tremendously important later. A lot is also said symbolically, or through subtext. This is not a movie that’s interested in spelling everything out for its audience. There were several times when I really had to use my brain to figure out what was going on–and there are a couple details I still don’t completely get. Then there’s the atmosphere. Even when nothing strange is happening onscreen, the way things are shot, the sounds we hear, and the music combine to give the movie a very surreal quality. It results in an incredibly suspenseful story that never stops building tension, from the first shot to the climax.

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No monsters under the bed…yet.

But none of that means anything if you don’t have a good story, and I think The Babadook does. It’s a very relatable and, dare I say, realistic take on something that many people have experienced, which is grief over the loss of a loved one. And although for the most part it’s as sad as it is scary, in the end it has something rather positive to say about that experience. It shows how destructive it can be to let one’s negative emotions take control, but it also shows that a little love and kindness can go a long way in healing the damage.

Things I had to look up:
This is an Australian movie, so I will admit that I did some googling to see if the Babadook was based on an actual Australian legend. Nope, the writer made it up. It is an anagram for “a bad book,” though, which…is fitting. Yeesh. Also, apparently shooting a fully functional crossbow on a playground doesn’t get you suspended from Australian school. It just gets the teachers to watch you more closely.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook. It’s extremely scary, but it also made me think. I like movies that make me think. I also like movies that make me feel empathy for other people–in this case, particularly for those who have to deal with loss every day. A movie that can bring out those kinds of emotions is worth a few scares in my book.

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“I love you. And I always will.”

Grade: A-

Sing Street

I just finished celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, which is my third favourite holiday of the year, so of course my foreign movie of the month has to be an Irish one.

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Sing Street is about a boy named Conor who’s growing up in Dublin during the ’80s. Things in his life are not going very smoothly–his city’s going through a depression, his parents are splitting up, and he just got transferred to a new school full of bullies and abusive teachers. But one day he spots a pretty girl across the street from his school and tries to impress her by saying he’s in a band. When she calls his bluff, he ends up actually putting together a band from among the other talented misfits at school. As the group, calling themselves “Sing Street” after the location of their school, work to find their own unique musical sound, Conor uses music to figure out who he is as a person and what he wants in life. I guess you could call it a musical, but not the type with a lot of big dance numbers or people bursting into song out of nowhere. It’s really just a movie about making music.

This movie is directed John Carney, the same guy who made Once, a similar low-key musical set in Dublin, which I haven’t seen. But I did see the stage version, and LOVED it. I’ve always wondered if that had something to do with the fact that I saw it in Dublin, during the most amazing three weeks of my life. But now I don’t think it was just a fluke, because this movie made me feel like I was right back in Ireland–albeit in a different decade. The atmosphere is perfect, from the soundtrack to the lovely city scenery to all the over-the-top outfits the kids wear.

Just like any boy band today, really.

I tend to enjoy movies about people making art. Whether it’s based on a true story or not, it’s just so much fun to watch people put their all into creating something beautiful. This movie is no exception. The kids’ enthusiasm for their music is both believable and contagious. As Raphina (the pretty girl) says right after jumping into the ocean for a music video, “You can never do anything by half.”

And it really helps that all the music is so great. The kids’ original songs blend seamlessly with the classic ’80s pop that makes up the rest of the soundtrack, and some of them are so catchy I found myself singing along.

“This is your life/You can go anywhere/Just grab it by the wheel and own it/And drive it like you stole it!”

Really, the only downside to this movie is that some of the side characters aren’t developed very well. Conor’s relationship with his older brother gets a lot of focus (and rightly so), but his sister serves no purpose in the story, and by the end everyone seems to have forgotten she exists. Which is a shame, because she seemed to have an interesting personality at the beginning. The other band members don’t get much attention either, with Eamon being the only one to get any kind of character development. Seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

But overall, this is an enjoyable, well-made film about growing up and following your dreams. Sure, it succumbs to a few high-school-movie stereotypes (your typical bullies, your typical useless parents, your typical bad teachers–this time of the “evil Catholic” flavour, of course), but a lot of them actually work pretty well in this movie, thanks to actors who make their characters seem three-dimensional, even with limited screen time. While I can’t sympathise with many of the protagonists’ dream of leaving Ireland (do you know what I’d give to live in Ireland?), I can certainly sympathise with their desire to make something good out of difficult circumstances and stand up to the various bullies in their lives. And while I’ve always thought of art as the best way to fight back against oppression, I also appreciate how Conor dreams of making friends with his mean teachers and bullies, rather than punishing them. Not all his dreams can come true in the real world (just how many of them do come to fruition in the movie depends on how you interpret the ending), but he’s willing to fight hard for them, and that’s what counts.

“Let’s run away with no money or plans like stupid teenagers!” “Yaaaayyyy!”

Things I had to look up:

Nothing that would impact my understanding of the story, but I did have to do some research to find out that Conor’s school, Synge Street Christian Brothers School, is a real place where a lot of the movie was filmed. Apparently it’s gone through some rough patches in the past, but is not nearly as bad today as the way it’s portrayed in the film. Also, divorce was indeed illegal in Ireland until 1995, which explains some of what Conor’s parents go through.

I’d say this is the perfect movie to watch on St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day you feel like watching a heartwarming story told in Irish accents. It’s got plenty of funny moments, plenty of tear-jerky moments, and tons of great music.

Grade: A-

Amelie

Augh! I’ve been tricked into watching a romantic comedy!!

When I decided I was going to start watching foreign films, I naturally asked my more knowledgeable friends (some of whom actually live in other countries) for suggestions. One of the most common suggestions was Amelie, a French film that I had always heard of but never watched, partly because the cover makes it look like it’s about a particularly disturbed serial killer.

Image result for amelie movie

Come on, take a look at those crazy eyes and tell me I’m wrong.

But as it turns out, Amelie is not a slasher film. (By the way, excuse my lack of proper accents–I have a bad keyboard.) It belongs to the one genre I despise more than slashers: romantic comedy. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, it being French and all. It tells the story of an imaginative girl named…you guessed it…who grows up in Paris with her socially awkward dad and her overly nervous mum, until a suicidal tourist falls on the mum’s head, killing her in the most hilariously cruel way possible. Fast forward a few years, and Amelie has turned into a lovely young woman who’s still imaginative, but also painfully introverted. Her only relationships are with her dad, who’s become a total recluse, and her quirky co-workers at the cafe where she waitresses. But one day she finds an old box of toys hidden in her apartment and decides to reunite it with its former owner. Thus begins her new career of trying to make life better for everyone around her–while talking to them as little as possible. When she meets a young man whose quirks seem compatible with hers, she tries to win him over in a similar fashion: through the magic of stalking.

To be perfectly honest, as romantic comedies go, this is definitely one of the cleverest and most artfully made ones I’ve seen. It avoids many of the usual cliches, and it really is funny at times. While Amelie’s brand of shyness may be a bit extreme–to the point where it seems she must have a mental disorder of some kind–every introvert can probably relate just a little bit to her fear of speaking to strangers, especially ones she fancies. Also, she’s homeschooled! I think this might be the first movie I’ve seen where the protagonist went to the same school I did. Yay home school!

Of course, my experience didn’t include blackboards…or French, sadly enough.

Amelie‘s cinematography is also lovely. Besides some random, cartoony special effects thrown in to emphasize the magical realism side of the movie, the Parisian scenery is constantly shown off in the most gorgeous ways possible. The soundtrack is great too, in a quiet way. And the movie has one of the least annoying narrators I’ve ever seen. I love the way he introduces each character, not with a bunch of backstory, but just a few of their likes and dislikes. His delivery also adds a lot of humour to the story.

The only problem I have with this movie’s “trappings”–effects, cinematography, etc.–is that it all seems a bit…stereotypical. The music makes great use of that accordion-sounding instrument that is synonymous with France in every American movie. People spend a lot of time drinking wine and talking about sex and art in picturesque cafes. Stripes figure prominently in several characters’ wardrobes. Paris is portrayed as a sparkly clean city full of beautiful stone buildings, bronze statues, and white people. Women (and the men around them) seem very comfortable with letting it all hang out, so to speak. It’s all so similar to the depiction of France I’ve seen in every TV show, movie, cartoon and poster here in the States that I can’t help feeling a bit suspicious. Then again, this movie was made by actual French people, and I’ve never even been to France, so what do I know? Maybe all the stereotypes are true. Also, this is the most famous French movie in America, and it’s been around for a while, so it’s possible some of the stereotypes I grew up with started with Amelie.

“Postcard Paris! Wheeeee!”

A bigger problem I have with this movie is that, even though it’s more artfully made than most romantic comedies, at bottom it’s about the same old thing: two pretty, quirky people decide to hook up because they’re both pretty and quirky. Even if Amelie’s portrayed as a pathologically shy person who gets braver by the end (sort of), she still falls back on the stalking method to woo her love interest, instead of actually trying to get to know him, and that is a method I can never condone. I mean…their relationship is primarily based on photo booth pictures! Honestly, even after seeing the movie, I still think Amelie would make a pretty good serial killer. She’s got the complicated schemes down, including disguises and ways of covering her tracks, and she does have a bit of a mean streak, as shown by the cruel pranks she plays on the neighbors she sees as “bad.” She’s even got the right kind of backstory–parental issues, a socially awkward personality, and at least one traumatic childhood experience. But in this movie she’s the heroine, because she only hurts people who are shown as total jerks, her stalking victim happens to think she’s hot, and…well, so does the audience. Nice.

In the end, this movie’s message seems to be: “Life is short. Take action to pursue your dreams, even if it’s scary, instead of just letting things happen to you.” Which is not a bad message, all things considered. Of course, it still doesn’t quite make up for the fact that our two romantic leads are never shown speaking to each other.

Statistically speaking, relationships that begin this way have a low probability of turning out well. And I’m still getting serial killer vibes…

I can definitely understand why so many of my friends like this movie. It’s pretty, it’s cute, and it’s funny. The acting is good, the cinematography is great, and the writing is witty. It’s got a happy, feel-good plot. But it simply isn’t my cup of tea. I’m not a huge fan of romance in general, as I’ve explained before, and I tend to like movies with a little more conflict. I’m also not a huge fan of nudity, and although I wasn’t surprised to see a few casually topless women in a French film, I still could have done without them.

Things I had to look up: 

Really just the names of cocktails. Because Amelie works in a cafe that serves alcohol, people mention various drink orders a lot, which occasionally confused me. I didn’t know what a kir was, or a mauresque, for example. But I think that says more about my ignorance of wine and fancy wine drinks than my ignorance of France. I also had to look up the word “scurf.” But again, that’s an English word that I probably should have known already. Overall, this movie is very easy to follow for an American audience, which probably explains its success over here.

This is one movie that I don’t personally love, but I wouldn’t think any less of another person for loving it. It succeeds in everything it tries to do–I just don’t really love any of those things. Still, I found it mildly entertaining, and it even made me laugh out loud a couple times, which is more than I can say for most romantic movies.

You got that right, narrator.

By the way, apparently there’s a stage musical version of Amelie out now, starring Phillippa Soo. Now THAT I might pay money to see.

Grade: B

Hidden Figures

Here’s a movie that combines two of my favourite things: smart female characters and SPACE.

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Hidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. When the movie begins, they’re all working in the “colored computers” section of NASA, where they actually do the math that electronic computers do for astronauts nowadays. But as the U.S. struggles to keep up with Russia in the space race, they each get assigned to different tasks, where their genius and vital contributions to the project eventually convince their superiors to…treat them like human beings. Once they help put John Glenn in orbit, they end up doing for the rights of female and minority scientists what he did for space exploration.

Overall, this is a pretty by-the-numbers “inspirational” movie–which, to be honest, is not my favourite kind of movie. It’s pretty predictable. It’s got inspiring speeches in all the usual places, it has the usual sexist/racist villains who get their usual comeuppance, and it has the usual tidied-up happy ending with the text appearing on-screen to tell us how our heroines’ lives turned out. I don’t know that much about the real-life events the story was based on, but I’d be willing to bet the heroines’ problems weren’t all completely solved within the time frame of this movie. And that’s the problem I have with most inspirational movies based on real life–real life is a lot more complicated than they make it seem, and simplifying it doesn’t make it more inspiring.

But this movie’s main purpose isn’t to be a surprising, suspenseful story with lots of twists. Its purpose is to bring to light some important women whose achievements never got the recognition they deserved. And it achieves that goal. I had never heard of any of these women before the movie came out, and it made me want to learn more about them. So in that sense, it does what it set out to do.

Let’s play a game called “find the main character.”

Considering the constraints of an “inspirational” movie based on historic events, it’s very well made, too. Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson, and Janelle Monae all turn in fantastic performances. Henson has the most to do, since her character gets the most developed story arc, and she makes Katherine’s intelligence and determination totally believable. But she’s very down-to-earth and sympathetic, too. Everybody gets a big speech about racism in this movie, because that’s just the kind of movie it is, but Katherine pulls off hers the best. I think it’s because, while some of the other speeches come more or less out of nowhere, hers comes after a good hour of built-up frustration and is about something we can all relate to–the need to use the bathroom. The irony of a top-level NASA scientist being able to calculate the trajectory of the first manned orbit, but not being allowed to use the same restroom as her peers, is not lost on either the character or the audience. And of course, the cinematography, the 60s-era costumes, the music, the shots of the rocket taking off spliced with the original news footage–it’s all very well done.

Also, I find it really hard not to love any movie that has to do with NASA’s first few missions. Just the idea that we sent people to space in a time when a basic computer filled half a room boggles my mind. It’s one of the very few things that can make me feel proud to be an American. And knowing that black women helped make that possible, even back when most colleges wouldn’t let them get degrees, just makes it all the more impressive.

“We shall crush the white patriarchy under our high heels!”

So there’s nothing wrong with this movie, per se, and it probably deserves its Best Picture nomination as much as any other movie on the list. But I wish that, just once, we could have a movie about historical figures overcoming racism and injustice that didn’t beat us over the head with speeches all the time, didn’t wrap up everything so tidily at the end, and wasn’t so darn predictable.

But I highly recommend going to see this movie–in the theatre if you can. Not just because it’s a decent film in its own right that will get you thinking about an oft-ignored bit of history–but also because the more successful movies we get with black female leads, the closer we come to getting a movie about my favourite real-life black woman: Harriet Tubman. If done right, her movie wouldn’t just be inspirational and uplifting–it’d be cool. Harriet Tubman was a spy! She rescued hundreds of slaves! She led troops against the Confederates! She was like Indiana Jones and Batman in the body of a five-foot woman! Why haven’t we made a movie about her yet???

Hidden Figures is a good movie with a good message. But it’s a little too safe. It follows the “inspirational movie formula” a little too closely for me. I wanted a little more complexity and a couple fewer speeches.

Oh, well. At least now I have three more awesome scientists to read about. Any day I find out about brilliant women making a difference in space technology is a good day.

Grade: B+

Seriously, though, Hollywood: make that Harriet Tubman movie. We’ve waited long enough.