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

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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-

Stranger Things

I spent my summer vacation watching all of the latest Netflix show, because why not?

Stranger Things is a sci-fi/horror Netflix original that currently sits at a breezy total of eight episodes. Set in 1983, it opens with something nasty escaping from a secret government research facility near the Midwestern town of Hawkins. Soon after, a young boy named Will Byers disappears from the town. When his three best friends go out looking for him, they find someone else instead: a frightened, nearly bald girl of few words and many mysterious abilities, who only answers to the name Eleven. Meanwhile, Will’s mom is certain he’s alive, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and starts searching for him in her own unconventional way, with support from the town’s troubled police chief. Will’s older brother Jonathan starts investigating, too. None of them have any idea what they’re getting into.

Lots more money spent on flashlight batteries, for one thing.

The show leans heavily on nostalgia for the “kid adventure” movies that were popular in the ’80s, which means most of those cliches and stock characters make an appearance. We’ve got a gang of bicycle-riding, D&D-playing middle-schoolers, a bunch of bullies, a gaggle of ghastly teens, a convention of clueless parents, a duo of dumb deputies (okay, I’ll stop) and, of course, the ominous Men in Black. The whole thing is so Spielbergian in tone that it’s actually a bit jarring at first to hear a spooky electronic soundtrack instead of something by John Williams (not that I’m complaining–the music is excellent).

But under the surface Stranger Things is entirely its own story, and it’s a good one. It’s suspenseful and, at times, genuinely scary. The mystery unfolds at just the right pace, tying up enough loose ends to bring some closure to the finale, and leaving enough dangling to make sure Season 2 has plenty to work with. While some of the main characters start out looking like cliches, they all undergo lots of development that pays off over the course of the season. It helps that they’re all played by excellent actors, even (especially?) the kids. Will’s mom spends a lot of this season crying or otherwise being hysterical, but she’s got her own kind of toughness that never fails to come out when it counts. His friends (Mike, Dustin and Lucas) sometimes seem a little too unfazed by what’s happening around them, but their loyalty and friendship feels genuine, and it’s the emotional heart of the show. The teenagers are, as aforementioned, ghastly, but even they step up their game when disaster strikes.

She’s sweet when she’s looking at music boxes, but if her nose starts bleeding, RUN.

 

The most memorable character, by far, is Eleven. She utters maybe a few dozen words in all eight episodes, but still manages to be equal parts creepy and vulnerable, innocent and  monstrous. One minute she’s shyly learning about waffles and television with Mike, and the next she’s snapping people’s necks with her mind. I loved her. The police chief, Hopper, is also a wonderful, complex character who gets in a lot of cool action over the course of the show.

The show does have its problems, one of the biggest being its reliance on the “clueless parents” trope that is so common in stories that focus on kids. I can buy a couple of bad parents, even downright stupid parents, but a “perfect suburban housewife” who fails to notice a strange child living in her basement for a week has gone beyond mere stupidity. All the kids, except the missing Will, seem to have parents who don’t care about them at all (I realise this set in the ’80s, when people were less paranoid, but I think even an ’80s mother would be a little worried if her kids were constantly roaming outside town by themselves, at night, right after another child’s disappearance). And none of them ever think to talk to any adult about their investigation, even when it turns life-threatening.

Not even this adult. I mean, come on!

It’s probably worth mentioning that, while 12- to 13-year-olds drive much of the show’s plot, it’s clearly not meant for young children. The monster from the research facility is truly terrifying, people die in pretty gruesome ways both on- and off-screen, and there’s a fair amount of language and sexually suggestive content. E.T. this ain’t, despite the homages.

That being said, it does promote some good values. Friendship and loyalty are major themes. The heroes are people who fight to protect and care for their loved ones, never giving up on them no matter what. The villains, and even just the more unpleasant characters, are those who use other people as tools rather than human beings and are willing to betray them in order to save themselves. Some of the “good guys” don’t treat their friends very well early in the season, but this always comes back to bite them, and the best characters learn their lesson by the end.

Friends have each other’s backs, whether it’s in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or an actual monster fight.

Overall, I enjoyed Stranger Things. So far I think it would make Spielberg proud–it’s got the same mix of suspense, mystery and fun that I enjoy in his earlier movies. And while the season finale was satisfying in a lot of ways, it left me hungry for more. I’ll definitely be tuning in for Season 2.

Grade: A