I’m in a zombie mood again!

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Directors: Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke
Writer: Yolanda Ramke
Starring: Martin Freeman
Music By: Daniel Rankine (I think…the internet is unclear)
TV-MA (for swearing and zombie-related grossness)

Andy, his wife Kay, and their baby daughter Rosie are waiting out the Australian zombie apocalypse on a houseboat in the middle of a river. Since a sensible set-up like that obviously can’t last in a zombie movie, the undead catch up with them, Kay gets killed and Andy gets bitten. Alone in the outback, with about 48 hours of humanity left, Andy has to find a way to get his daughter to safety before he becomes a mindless, munching monster.

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An Unexpected Journey.

This movie is based on an excellent 7-minute Australian film with the same name and the same writer/director duo. When I stumbled across it on YouTube a few years ago, I loved it because it was such a short, sweet story, and packed such a big emotional punch. (I’d still highly recommend it–you can watch it here.) So when I found out it was going to be a Netflix movie, I was torn between excitement and pessimism. On the one hand, the short was so good that I was sure its creators had it in them to make a good feature film. And Martin Freeman starring in a movie is always a good sign. On the other hand, much of the short’s impact comes from its simplicity, and I wasn’t sure how well it would work to expand it to two hours. Not to mention that the term “straight to Netflix” is starting to take on the same connotations as “straight to DVD” when it comes to movies.

And yes, this movie does sometimes feel as slow-moving as its zombies. There’s very little action and quite a lot of walking and talking. But the writer and director clearly worked hard to expand on their original concept. For one thing, in the full-length version, Andy is joined on his journey by an Aboriginal girl named Thoomi, a clever survivor who’s still having trouble accepting that there’s no cure for her zombified loved ones. The movie also adds a human antagonist in the form of Vic, a greedy miner who sees the apocalypse as just another business opportunity.

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And on top of everything else, her makeup’s running.

Part of the fun of any zombie movie is seeing how it portrays its living dead–because generally speaking, no two zombie movies are alike in that regard. Cargo adds some inventive twists to the monsters: hibernating zombies that have to stay in the dark, “diggers” that bury their heads in the ground while waiting for prey, etc. The transformation process is also a bit different–and a bit more gross–than usual. This movie’s zombies don’t come across as living corpses so much as really, really sick people, complete with a disgusting sap-like discharge from their eyes and mouths. That being said, the movie has a pretty tasteful approach to its gore. Most deaths happen off-screen, and the focus is always on the tragedy of the death rather than the blood-and-guts.

And personally, while I don’t mind fast zombies necessarily, I tend to prefer monsters that take longer to transform, partly because it allows for dramatic scenarios like the one in this movie.

The original short was a simple story of fatherly love. This movie keeps that theme, but it also adds several more layers of character development for its protagonist. For one thing, the full-length movie shows the disaster that kicks off the plot is largely Andy’s fault, adding a desire for atonement to his motivations for the rest of the film. It also throws some tough ethical dilemmas his way as he searches for a suitable home for his daughter. Turns out that, after an apocalypse, your options for an adoptive family are limited, and Andy often finds himself having to choose between leaving Rosie with people who are good at surviving or with people who are…well, good.

His relationship with Thoomi is another welcome change to the story. They meet under bad circumstances and don’t really get along at first. Like a lot of Aboriginal people, she has no reason to trust a white guy, and he doesn’t understand her way of doing things. But as their situation forces them to rely on each other more and more, they develop a rather sweet friendship. The movie becomes, not just a story about fatherly love, but also one of reconciliation and understanding between people from very different cultures. Which is also very sweet.

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“You’re all I’ve got.”

The problems I have with this movie are fairly small. Characters make some pretty stupid decisions, especially towards the beginning, and a lot of problems even later on could have been avoided if people would just come out and say what they were thinking. Some of these mistakes are understandable, especially coming from a character like Andy, who’s not used to surviving in the outback, and they’re certainly not unusual in the zombie genre, but they still annoyed me a bit.

On the other hand, the characters also come up with some pretty clever ways of avoiding the zombies later in the movie, so that helps make up for the earlier stupidity.

As one might expect from its premise, this is a very sad, bleak story, without much of the silliness or crazy action you’d expect from an average zombie movie. Its message is ultimately pretty hopeful and uplifting, but there’s a lot of depressing stuff to wade through before we get to that point. This is definitely not something to watch when you’re trying to cheer yourself up after a rough day.

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At least…the baby’s cute?

Overall, though, I thought it was just about as excellent as I would have expected from the makers of the original short. Martin Freeman is brilliant as always, and it’s kind of nice to see him doing an indie movie like this after becoming part of the big Marvel machine. The Aussie actors backing him up also do a great job (even the twins who played the baby, although whoever directed them should probably take the credit for that). There’s some impressive zombie makeup, some lovely shots of the Australian landscape, and some hauntingly beautiful music. It’s more thoughtful and more creative than the straight-to-Netflix label might suggest, and I feel comfortable saying it’s the best zombie movie I’ve seen in quite some time.

While I was watching it, though, I realised it’s been at least a good month and a half since I saw a movie in which all the main characters survive to the end. I need to find a more cheerful movie for next week…

Grade: A-


Train to Busan

I’ve been in a zombie mood lately. Not sure if it’s because the zombie army in Thor: Ragnarok whetted my appetite, or because I’ve just been paying too much attention to the news. Whatever the reason, I felt it was high time to check out this Korean flick.

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Train to Busan
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writers: Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park
Starring: Yoo Gong and Su-an Kim
Music by: Young-gyu Jang
Not Rated

Seok-woo is a recently-divorced businessman who’s too busy to spend much time with his young daughter, Su-an. She wants to visit her mother for her birthday, so he reluctantly agrees to take her on the long train ride from Seoul to Busan–partly to make up for missing her recital the day before. Unfortunately for everyone, the day they choose to board the train happens to be the same day the zombie apocalypse breaks out in Korea. Pretty soon a father-daughter jaunt across the country turns into a life-or-undeath race to what might be the only safe place left.

Out of the zombie movies I’ve seen (which, admittedly, is a relatively small number), this is easily one of the best. It’s got quiet suspense and explosive action. It’s got ghoulishly convincing zombie actors and even better regular actors (particularly the little girl who plays Su-an). Most importantly, it’s got all the moral dilemmas and emotional turmoil that really flesh out every decent tale of the living dead.

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Heh, get it? “Flesh” out? I’m hilarious.

That being said, there were a few things that took me out of it a bit. This is the first Korean film I’ve seen, so this may have partly stemmed from my unfamiliarity with the style, but it felt a bit long to me, even at just under two hours. The pacing is very episodic: the survivors get through one intense action scene, get a minute to catch their breaths, and then go into a completely different intense action scene–usually in a different location, since the train is always moving. While there is certainly a dramatic climax, we don’t get the gradual build-up to that climax that I’m used to in movies, and I think that made this one seem longer than it was. Also, while the acting is good throughout and the script is well-written (as far as I can tell from the subtitles, anyway), the movie is not exactly subtle. A few of the emotional moments struck me as ever so slightly over the top.

But these are minor issues, which might have more to do with my expectations than the movie’s quality. Train to Busan is not trying to say anything super philosophical or revolutionise the zombie genre or anything like that–it’s just intended to be a fun, scary, emotional thrill ride. And it does that extremely well. One reason it works so well is that it really takes time to develop the characters. It can be hard for me to care about the people in a story like this, when I go in expecting most of them to be zombie food by the end. But here, long before things start getting bitey, the filmmakers give us a solid glimpse into the lives of our father-daughter duo, the short-tempered beefy guy, the pregnant mother, the two elderly sisters, the shy teenage baseball player, and his maybe-girlfriend. As a result, by the time the insanity hits, I’m invested in their stories and want them to survive.

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Also because some of them are awesome.

The movie also avoids the common horror trap of making its characters stupid. The survivors we follow for most of the movie are constantly coming up with smart, creative ways to stay alive. Poor decision-making is at a minimum, except among characters who are clearly painted as evil and/or insane. But awesome zombie-killing is at a maximum, whether the weapons of choice are a baseball bat, a riot shield, or an entire freaking train. With fast zombies, rapid infection, and not a single gun in sight, the set-up really puts our heroes at a disadvantage, but they still manage to overcome obstacle after obstacle in spectacular fashion.

For me, the most important conflict in any good zombie story is not the heroes’ struggle to survive, but their struggle to retain their humanity. This movie is no exception. Every character who lives long enough reacts to the zombie apocalypse in a different way. Some show their true colours as selfish cowards, particularly one loathsome train attendant who causes most of the problems in the latter half of the movie. Others rise to the occasion and become heroes. At first, Seok-woo is only out to protect himself and his daughter, but as the film goes on, he starts to realise the importance of helping others, even at great cost to himself. And thanks to the zombies, he finally gets the chance to prove himself as a father.

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“Happy birthday!”

Overall, despite some minor issues I had with the pacing, I had a ton of fun with this movie. It’s an intense, emotional rollercoaster with lots of well-filmed action and a great cast of characters.

Also, I really miss train travel.

Grade: A

Pan’s Labyrinth

So you know the Disney versions of fairytales we all grew up watching? With the singing animals and the pretty princes and the happy endings? Yeah, this movie is the opposite of that.

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Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Fauno)
Writer and Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez
Music by: Javier Navarrete
Released: 2006
Rated R

Pan’s Labyrinth is a faerie tale about a young girl named Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be growing up in 1940s, Fascist-controlled Spain. In a bit of a twist on the traditional faerie tale set-up, she has an evil step-father, a sadistic army officer who has just summoned her and her heavily pregnant mother to come and live with him. Despite the cruel realities surrounding her, Ofelia still believes in magic and faeries. So she’s delighted when she enters the titular stone Labyrinth on her step-father’s property and meets an ancient Faun. The Faun tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost faerie princess (named Moanna–don’t laugh, this was years before the Disney version), and that her true parents have been searching for her. But in order to prove she is the real princess, she must perform three difficult and frightening tasks before the rise of the full moon.

I enjoy a good dark faerie tale every now and then. And there really aren’t enough of them in movies–not the grim, bloody, Grimm-style ones, full of child-eating monsters and morally ambiguous Fae. When this movie is a fantasy, it’s exactly that type of fantasy, and it’s fantastic. The creature designs–largely created through costumes and prosthetics, not CGI–are some of the most imaginatively creepifying things I’ve ever seen. Extra points for creepiness go to The Pale Man (the aforementioned child-eating monster), of course, but everything else about the magical realm is mysterious and oddly beautiful, too, from the tiny, insectoid, shape-shifting faeries to the majestic Faun. All it takes is a haunting soundtrack and some gorgeous underground scenery to complete the atmosphere.

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Shaking hands with him is awkward.

But Pan’s Labyrinth spends about as much time being a war movie as it does being a fantasy movie, and as scary as some of the supernatural monsters may be, they’re nothing compared to the human ones. Ofelia’s step-father, Captain Vidal, is one of the more irredeemably evil characters I’ve seen in a movie. One of his first acts onscreen is to viciously stab a young man to death in front of his father because he thinks he might be a Communist. And he only gets worse from there. Thanks in large part to him, the movie is almost unbearably bleak and sad at times. This is not the kind of story where the villain is defeated easily, or without causing the heroes a lot of misery along the way.

But fortunately, it does have its fair share of heroes. Ofelia may make one or two of those idiotic choices that seem to be required of all faerie tale protagonists, but she also shows constant courage, resilience and selflessness even as tragedies pile up around her. Ofelia’s only ally in the mortal world, a maid named Mercedes, is also worth cheering for as she secretly helps a band of resistance fighters behind the Captain’s back.  Ditto for Mercedes’ friend and fellow conspirator, Doctor Ferreiro. Throughout the movie we constantly see people rebelling against evil authorities (whether human or Fae) in order to do the right thing, regardless of consequences. And the bleak circumstances just make these heroic moments stand out all the more.

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“But captain, to obey, just like that, for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.”

I found the theme of disobedience particularly interesting, because a lot of faerie tales are all about how important it is to obey the rules: “Don’t touch that spindle,” “Don’t eat that food,” “Don’t go into the woods alone.” And there are moments like that in this movie, but the problem is that almost all the people making up those rules are either evil or under the sway of evil. So the only way to be a hero is to disobey. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good moral to teach kids, but in case it wasn’t clear enough, this movie is not suited for kids in any way, shape, or form. And the importance of disobeying evil authorities, even when it could cost you your life, is an excellent moral to each adults…especially if they happen to be living under a fascist regime.

My only real problem with this movie is that its fantasy elements all but disappear for most of the third act, leaving us with just the war elements. I was hoping for more fantasy lore and prosthetic monsters. But that’s a personal preference on my part. Both halves of the story are told equally well, and neither would work without the other.

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“I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce.”

Some other thoughts: 1. The English title is a misnomer. The god Pan neither appears nor is mentioned at any time in this movie, and the Labyrinth is never said to belong to him. The Spanish title, “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” is much more accurate. 2. This is the first foreign-language movie I’ve watched in which I could actually understand the foreign language (most of the time). So that was fun. I now have the words for “faerie” (hada) and quite a few expletives added to my Spanish vocabulary. 3. Some might say the ending to this movie is ambiguous, but they are wrong. It’s a faerie tale ending, plain and simple.

I don’t think everyone would enjoy Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a little on the odd side and very much on the tragic side. There’s quite a lot of gore and at least one scary monster (possibly more, if you’re not into the Faun’s design), and if you go in expecting a more Disney-esque fairytale, you’re going to be very disappointed. And probably traumatised. But the movie’s been out long enough that I think most people know what to expect, and for me it delivered exactly what I was hoping for: a dark, tragic, visually stunning fantasy with enough layered symbolism and references to a history that I (sadly) know little about to make it worth further unpacking.

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Now that I think about it, this movie has a lot of Alice in Wonderland vibes, along with the whole faerie tale thing.

So even though it didn’t spend quite as much time with the magical creatures as I would have liked, this is still a movie I could see myself watching over again. Like all great fantasy, it immersed me in a creative magical world without ever letting me forget what the real one is like.  And despite its deep darkness, it ultimately tells a rather hopeful story: one in which wonder, courage, and innocence are glorified while arrogance and cruelty are condemned.

Man, I wish Del Toro had directed the Hobbit movies…

Grade: A-


“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

-Winston Churchill, 4 June, 1940

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Director and Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, etc.
Soundtrack Composer: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Release: June 21, 2017
Rated PG-13

On 26 May, 1940, 400,000 mostly British and French troops are stuck on a beach near the port town of Dunkirk, France. Their efforts to stop the German army from invading France have utterly failed, and now they’re being picked off by German bombers while they wait for an inadequate number of British navy ships, and a whole lot of tiny civilian boats, to carry them over the narrow channel between Dunkirk and southern England. In this movie, we follow three groups of people: a few of the soldiers on the beach, the crew of a little boat that aids in the evacuation, and an RAF pilot in the air. Each one follows a different timeline, with the movie’s events taking place over about a week for the soldiers, a day for the boat, and just over an hour for the pilot.

Ever since I first learned about it (which wasn’t until college, sadly), the story of “the little ships of Dunkirk” has been one of my favourite chapters of World War II history. It’s a story of courage and determination in the face of defeat, and it shows that it’s possible to bring something good out of failure. Many historians believe the Dunkirk evacuation was one of the major turning points of the war, because it allowed the United Kingdom to keep a good chunk of its army (338,000 soldiers were successfully evacuated) and it gave the British people enough of a morale boost to keep fighting when the Nazis attacked their homeland.

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“We may not have won, but at least we…successfully ran away!”

So even if this movie wasn’t made by my favourite director of all time, I still would have had high expectations. And all of them were entirely met. This is exactly what I wanted out of a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation, and it’s the best war movie I’ve seen so far (though since I only watch one a year, that may not be saying much).

Although the timeline of events can get complicated–which should be no surprise to any Nolan fan–in most ways, this is a very simple movie. It recounts a single historical event with no larger context, no philosophising about causes and effects, and no sources of drama outside said event. Many of the central characters don’t get names, or are named in such quick bits of dialogue that they’re easy to miss. Dialogue in general is minimal, and there are no big monologues or expositional speeches. With the exception of the boat crew, who get one or two tidbits of backstory by the end, we never find out anything about the lives of the main characters–whether they have families, what they did before the war, what hopes and dreams they have, nothing. All we see is who they are in one particular moment of time, and we’re asked to root for them (or not) based on that. And honestly, I think it works. The actors, who include some Nolan regulars but also several newbies, all do a fine job. Their performances made it easy for me to sympathise with each character, despite not knowing much about them. Of course, the desire to survive is pretty universal, so that also makes it easy to sympathise with the characters’ goals.

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Tom Hardy, reprising his role as “Awesome Dude in a Mask.”

If I were to describe Dunkirk in one word, that word would be “intense.” From the beginning to just before the end, the tension never lets up. There’s never a moment when someone isn’t in immediate danger, and thanks to Nolan’s trademark practical effects and realistic filming, that danger always feels incredibly real. The soundtrack often consists of nothing but percussive sounds meant to simulate a heartbeat, the ticking of a watch, or the tide coming in. And just because the movie’s not rated R doesn’t mean its visceral portrayal of combat can’t be disturbing sometimes.

The story doesn’t shy away from showing the gruesome and, even worse, monstrously unfair side of war. It also shows some of the shadier aspects of what really happened, such as the Navy’s preference for evacuating British soldiers at the expense of the French, and no one ever really gets a big heroic moment to contrast all that. But there are lots of little heroic moments. Like the pilot’s decision to keep fighting the bombers instead of flying back home when he gets low on fuel, or the civilian boat captain’s many detours to rescue survivors of wrecked boats and planes before he even gets to Dunkirk. At its heart, this is a story about ordinary men doing all they can to help others in the worst of circumstances. And even though the events it covers were a real-life military disaster, the movie ends on a hopeful, even triumphant note. It shows the value of continuing to fight and give one’s all to a cause, even when there seems to be no hope of success. By the time the Churchill speech I quoted above is recited in the movie, I was able to hear it with a whole new perspective.

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“All we did is survive.” “Sometimes that’s enough.”

This is a beautiful film, both visually and thematically. It doesn’t quite reach the mind-bending heights of some of Nolan’s other masterpieces, but it does an excellent job of reproducing an amazing true story that needed to be told. Dunkirk is an experience no one should miss.

Grade: A

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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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


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

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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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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+



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.