This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 6, 2017)

06 Jan 2017

A MONSTER CALLS (USA/Spain 2016) ****
Directed by J.A. Bayona

Based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick Ness who also wore the script and served as producer of the film, A MONSTER CALLS must have been a love project from the start and it looks so.   A dark, occasionally humorous and exciting film, A MONSTER CALLS reminds one of the best of the horror fantasy films - Guillermo Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and Nicholas Roeg’s THE WITCHES. 

The protagonist of the story is young Conor O’Malley - who we are told by voiceover is too young to be a man and too old to be a boy, (a fresh performance by Lewis MacDougall).    Conor has been dealt some of life’s most devastating blows.   His mother (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer, his father (Toby Kebbell) is not part of his life and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) offers no consolation.  To top it all, he is bullied at school.  Conor has nowhere to turn, until he receives a nighttime visit from an enormous, tree-shaped monster (voiced by Liam Neeson).  The monster is to help him, but not in a regular way.

The monster declares that it will tell Conor three stories and that when it has finished recounting the tales, Conor must reciprocate with a story of his own.  All of the monster's stories offer a lesson in the complexity of human nature (e.g. the murderous king lives happily ever after  and loved by his subjects) and the consequences of the actions — while each of the monster's visits leaves destruction in its wake.  When the time comes for Conor to tell his story, he must confront difficult truths that can no longer be ignored.

The stories told by the monster unfolds on the screen with special effects animation.  But the very best effect is very basic -  appearing in the boy’s room where three hanging cut out painted pieces of cardboard dangle coming together to form the face of a monster.  But it is not only the animation that dazzles (though it does) but the stories themselves.  Each is as dark as dark can be and all have an unexpected twist where expectations are thrown to the wind.  These stories are so amazing that they almost eclipse the main plot.  The main question in every viewer’s mind is how the stories relate to the boy’s real life.

But director Baoyna’s film teases all the way.  Where and when is the film set?  As the film has a vintage look, one expects a period setting, but then Conor owns a cell phone.  One assumes a British setting from the looks of the houses and buildings.  This becomes clear as the school is clearly British but still one is never certain which city the film is set.  The only clue is the pier and the amusement park nearby.  So it could be Brighton but not Blackpool for the lack of the working class accents.  Another puzzle occurs at the end of the film when Conor looks at the drawings of a book, with the author’s name Lizzie Caplan in front?  Who is this Lizzie?

A MONSTER CALLS proves that a good story is more important than just a movie which dazzles the eye.  A MONSTER CALLS has the bonus that it does both.  And with the young boy as the protagonist, every adult can sit back and pretend to be young once more, facing and conquering the monsters in life.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2Xbo-irtBA

SILENCE (USA 2016) **
Directed by Martin Scorsese

SILENCE. directed by Martin Scorsese and written by him and Jay Cocks is Scorsese’s labour of love.  He was supposed to have made this film decades ago, but had to postpone the project many times owing to his obligation to direct other films.   Finally, SILENCE is here, and despite all the hullabaloo, the film is surprisingly pristine and distant.

There is a lot of talk about the dedication and sacrifice the Jesuit priests went through.  But the film never goes into the details of the source of this self-sacrifice.  The only clue is the quoted scripture from Mark: 13, “Go ye into the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.”  Apart from that, all the audience is given is lengthy talk of the priests insisting of going to Japan.  There is one lengthy, unconvincing scene where priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) argue with their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to be given permission to travel to Japan to locate their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

The film, based upon the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō is set in the 17th century.  The two main characters are the Portuguese Jesuit priests — Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe.  They face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who has committed apostasy after being tortured.  The story is set in the time of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians") which followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638) of Japanese Roman Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate.

SILENCE contains many awkward scenes, the funniest is the one which involves the act of apostasy.  Apostasy is the formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person.  The term is also used is used by sociologists to mean renunciation and criticism of, or opposition to, a person's former religion, in a technical sense and without pejorative connotation.  In the film, Father Ferreira apostates and talks about it.  It is a hard word to pronounce and in that scene Neeson blows the pronunciation.  It is a wonder why Scorsese did not cut that scene out of the film.

Another is the homo-erotic hugging of the two priests played by Driver and Garfield before they depart.  Their odd look - as if they know what the scene could indicate but totally ignore the fact - is priceless.  But the first scene with the torture of the priests by the Japanese soldiers using leaking ladles is quite ridiculous.  I am sure the Japanese could have devised more torturous and less cumbersome instruments.

The film is shot in both English and Japanese.  As the priests were Portuguese, whenever the actors speak English with a weird accent that is supposed to be Portuguese, The English is supposed to stand for Portuguese.  Fortunately, Japanese is left as Japanese.  But these pose problems when in one scene  priest asks: “Do you speak my language?” in English which stands for Portuguese.

The film contains too many set-up conversational pieces and laborious inquisitions for its own good.  The lengthy 160 minute running time does not help either.  SILENCE ends up a long, laborious and boring affair.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqrgxZLd_gE


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