Tag Archives: Felicity Jones

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

I literally have 60 movie reviews in my backlog and probably won’t be able to get to any of them for at least another week, but I’m sure this queue-jumping exception is acceptable. I had been looking forward to the first Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One, since The Force Awakens made the whole world blow its collective load a year ago, and I’m happy to say it was well worth the wait.

For those who might still be confused, Rogue One is set before the start of the original Star Wars film from 1977, now known as A New Hope (Episode IV). Directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), the film tells the untold story about a bunch of rebels who risk their lives to steal the plans to the Death Star. It was quite a risk and an experimentation of sorts for Disney and Lucasfilm, as this is the first film in the franchise outside of the main storyline. It is also quite different in tone to the other Star Wars films in that it is actually a war movie (as opposed to space opera).

Well, the experiment paid off. Rogue One has a great story, wonderful characters (both new and old), a cast filled with some of my favourite actors, beautiful visuals and action, a grand new music score that contains traces of the classic one, an appropriate dose of nostalgia, and ample surprises and Easter eggs for the geeks.

First of all, all the concerns about the film prior to its release turned out to be unfounded. Some were worried about Gareth Edwards not being a great storyteller (I was one of those people as I thought his debut film Monsters was far too slow, and while I really liked his version of Godzilla, storytelling was not one of its strengths). Others panicked when there was talk of extensive reshoots or lost their minds because the trailer or posters weren’t as good as they had hoped.

I don’t know about the process, but the finished product was a success. Admittedly, the film starts off a little slow, though it never loses sight of the narrative thread or the focus on the characters. It builds things up throughout the course of the first hour or so, and by the second hour I found myself immersed in the story, the action, and the emotions. Yes, it’s darker in tone than what we’re used to and there is far less humour, but that’s how it was meant to be. Perhaps it wasn’t this way before, and the ordered reshoots rectified the problems. In any case, it was impossible to tell what was reshot because it all blended together seamlessly in the end.

The other interesting thing is that I don’t recall the majority of the scenes or dialogue from the trailers being in the actual film, which is extremely rare — but I love it. I’m always complaining about trailers giving away too much, and in this case it was turned out to be a pleasant surprise. If only they could do that for all trailers — give you a hint of what the movie is about using footage and dialogue that’s not actually in the movie!

 

Visuals is one of Edwards’ strengths, so I knew I would not be disappointed. Rogue One is visually stunning but different in feel to the other Star Wars films. It’s grittier and utilises a darker palette with a narrower colour range, one that really suits the tone of the film. The space battle sequences are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film, though I do wish there could have been more close-range combat.

The other thing that stood out for me about the film was the superb cast and outstanding performances. It has by far the best cast ever assembled for a Star Wars flick and contains some of my favourite actors: Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones, Y Tu Mamá También’s Diego Luna, the awesome Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker, Aussie legend Ben Mendelsohn, rising star Riz Ahmed from The Night Of, ass-kicking martial arts star Donnie Yen, and the vocal talents of Alan Tudyk as bot K-2SO. All of them have real meat to their roles, and it’s hard to pick a standout from this list. I will say though that Mikkelson and Mendelsohn elevated their characters far above what they otherwise would have been had “average” actors been cast in their roles instead. The only disappointment is that the film did not have enough screen time to go around between all of them.

There are also a lot of links and connections to the Star Wars universe — I got all the major references but I’m sure I missed a lot of the Easter eggs. Oh, and there are plenty of appearances and cameos that will make the geeks spray their shorts.  I won’t give anything away except to say that movies these days can feature actors who are no longer alive or don’t look the same anymore. The technology is not quite 100%, but it’s better than what we’ve seen in most other films that have tried it.

I had many hopes for Rogue One in terms of what and who I wanted to see before I watched it. I would say they were pretty much all fulfilled, though I could not help but want more of certain characters and sequences. It’s like I got a taste of several cakes I wanted to try without being able to eat any whole slice. And as I result, while I was pleased, I was not pleased as thoroughly as I would have liked. I understand at 133 minutes the film was already pushing its running time too far, so maybe the extended version will show us what ended up on the cutting room floor.

On the whole, I give Rogue One a big thumbs up. The Force Awakens is fun family entertainment driven by nostalgia and perhaps a little too much rehashing for some, but it is light and simple enough that even non-fans of the Star Wars universe could enjoy. Rogue One is original, gritty, intense, and made more for the hardcore fans (which I don’t consider myself part of). Two very different films I enjoyed in very different ways. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as some of the early buzz from the premiere suggests it is (ie as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back), though it’s definitely good enough that I want to watch it again soon — and possibly again after that.

4 stars out of 5

Inferno (2016)

inferno_ver4

Let’s be honest: No one was really looking forward to Inferno, the latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s “Robert Langdon” adventure series starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. Well, maybe except me.

For whatever reason, the Langdon books have not translated well to the big screen. The Da Vinci Code was a relative disappointment given the hype, though I thought—if you could take the preposterousness seriously—Angels and Demons was an improvement and even occasionally exciting. But I knew Inferno was facing an uphill battle because any remaining Da Vinci Code hype had likely evaporated, and the book, which came out 3 years ago (review here), was not as good as its predecessors.

That said, I really wanted to like Inferno. I am still a sucker for adventure thrillers that wove in real history and puzzle-solving, shady government organisations and operatives, and plots that feature intriguing twists and turns.

And Inferno certainly had potential, starting off with a bang by getting right into the heart of the film’s core issue—the overpopulation of the Earth—with snippets of a presentation from Bertrand Zobrist (Best Foster), an extremist billionaire who believes the human race is heading to extinction because population growth is spiralling out of control. Before long, we’re getting horrific images of hell as described by Dante’s epic poem, Inferno, and a Tom Hanks—with normal hair too—who appears to be in the most pain he’s been in since he had urinary tract infection in The Green Mile.

So far so good. In terms of basic elements, Inferno has it all: An attractive woman who decides to help Langdon out (this time it’s the lovely Felicity Jones), a dangerous assassin (Ana Ularu), government operatives you don’t know if you can trust (Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen), and a shady underground organisation (headed by Irrfan Khan).

As you would expect, Tom Hanks spends much of the movie running around Europe with Felicity Jones, solving riddles and piecing together puzzles while dodging bullets and trying to shake their pursuers. Having learned from the mistakes of Da Vinci Code, much of the exposition (the historical facts and stuff about Dante, in particular) is summarised and explained on the go, so that the momentum isn’t slowed.

And yet, it still feels like there’s a whole lot of expository dialogue all throughout the film. It’s one of those situations where you have two leading experts on Dante who keep telling each other facts they already know about Dante. It’s for the benefit of the audience, of course, but it feels awfully clumsy and trite. Perhaps that’s the fatal problem in adapting all of these Langdon movies—there’s just no way of explaining the most interesting parts of the books in a way that’s doesn’t come across as either boring or stupid in the films.

Furthermore, while some elements from the book have already been streamlined for the film (including the ending), the story is still so outrageously preposterous and filled with plot holes that it becomes hard to take seriously. I was more forgiving in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons about these sorts of things, but in this film it got to the extent where I couldn’t simply ignore it. The plot was far too silly for the film to take itself so seriously, and that’s why I’ve tended to enjoy the National Treasure films more.

Look, the cast is good, the performances are decent, the production values are solid, and you’ll always get a certain level of quality whenever Hanks and Howard are involved. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t bring myself to like Inferno. While I didn’t dislike the film, it just felt like they were just going through the motions because they were contracted to do the movie. Having been intrigued by The Da Vinci Code and surprisingly thrilled by Angels and DemonsInferno came out as easily the tamest and least inspiring of the trilogy.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

the-theory-of-everything-poster-2

I’m not much of a science guy (ironically I wanted to be a scientist in the early stages of my childhood), and so I’ve always been more interested in Stephen Hawking as the witty man who battled insurmountable physical odds as opposed to the brilliant scientist with the revolutionary theories.

The Theory of Everything, up for five gongs at the Oscars in a couple of weeks including Best Picture, is therefore custom made for people like me. Based on a memoir, the film places its focus firmly on the incredible love story of Hawking and his first wife Jane, who married him despite knowing that he was going to be handicapped and probably die shortly from his early onset motor neuron disease — better known today as its sub-category, ALS, thanks to all those ice bucket challenges — and bore him several children while looking after him and studying for a PhD herself.

You might have already guessed (correctly) that this is one of those moving and inspirational true stories about surviving the odds and overcoming adversity. While reality prevents the film from turning their story into a happily-ever-after fairytale, viewers need to be prepared for a highly romanticised version of what really happened, where events are cut, altered or made up and inconvenient facts are glossed over or ignored. It doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, but it does smooth over the ugliest side of his illness and their relationship. And let’s face it, there must have been one — I could barely handle what he went through and what she had to put up with in a sanitised two-hour film, let alone fathom what it was like in real life stretched over decades.

Unfortunately, The Theory of Everything is also one of those movies where the more you read about how untrue the true story is, the more your impression of it becomes clouded and conflicted. So I would advise anyone wanting to watch it to avoid reading about Hawking’s life until afterwards, especially this Guardian review by Michelle Dean.

As for the science, you get a basic idea of what Hawking’s theories are about, but this aspect of his life is secondary to his disease and family in the film. The science in the story is not educational; it’s a tool to make statements about God and the meaning of life, themes highlighted by the contrast between Hawking’s atheism and Jane’s strong Christian faith, as well as the fact that God, if he exists, appears to have played a cruel joke on Hawking by awarding him one of the brilliant minds in history but crippling his disease-ravaged body beyond repair.

Some viewers might be disappointed by the decision to push science out of the film’s equation, but it was a necessary one to give the necessary attention to the story that it wanted to tell. What’s important is that the film makes it clear that whatever Hawking came up with was very impressive and world-changing, so much so that the expenses of his round-the-clock care are taken care of by charitable organisations and benevolent folk. At the same time, Hawking is no saint, and this film makes sure audiences know that, notwithstanding his brilliance, he was certainly a very flawed person with negative character traits like everyone else.

Inaccuracies aside, The Theory of Everything is an exceptional film; a touching, tear-jerking drama that deserves its Oscar-bait reputation. Backed by the pleasing direction of Oscar-winning documentary maker James Marsh (Man on Wire) and the assured yet conventional script by Anthony McCarten, the movie ticks all the boxes from a technical perspective. It is, however, the jaw-dropping performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking that fuel the heart of the film.

Of all the Academy Awards Best Actor nominees for 2015, the only one I haven’t yet seen is Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher, though I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of the award than Redmayne. Apart from the striking physical resemblance, Redmayne also channels Hawking’s expressions, mannerisms and demeanour. Having seen Hawking in the flesh a couple of times during my year in Cambridge, I can personally vouch for how good Redmayne is. In fact, he’s so good that Hawking himself said he couldn’t distinguish between the actor and himself.

Jones’ performance as the resilient Jane is arguably just as good, albeit for different reasons. The strength of her portrayal lies in the nuanced ways in which she displays the simmering emotions suppressed just beneath her stoic exterior, at times with only her love for her husband and faith in God helping her hang on by a thread. I doubt she will win the Oscar, though the nomination is certainly deserving.

It may have its share of detractors (who do have legitimate concerns), but it’s hard to watch The Theory of Everything and not get a lump in your throat. It’s easy to regard the film’s emotional punch as a natural reaction to Hawking’s devastating disease — especially when he had such a bright future ahead of him — though full credit must still go to the director, writer and cast for creating an experience that feels a lot less manipulative than it really is. This is a beautiful, bittersweet experience that ranks up there as one of the most emotionally engaging films of the year.

4 stars out of 5

DVD Review: Chalet Girl (2011)

Don’t ask me why I watched Chalet Girl, the British answer to American teen rom-coms.  I can assure you, it has nothing to do with the fact that I also watch(ed) Gossip Girl, even though this film also stars Ed Westwick (Chuck Bass).

Chalet Girl tells the story of tomboy Kim Matthews (played by a very likeable Felicity Jones), who used to be a champion skateboarder but a turn of events has her working at fast food joint to support her deadbeat father.  A catering opportunity in the Alps sees Kim discover the joys of a similar sport (or so I’ve told, from a technical perspective) — snowboarding.  Meanwhile, she befriends fellow chalet girl Georgie (Tasmin Edgerton) and finds herself getting close to her boss (Westwick), who, of course, already has a girlfriend.

If I sound less than enthusiastic, I don’t mean to be.  Chalet Girl actually isn’t all that bad compared to its US counterparts.  It’s mildly amusing, contains some exciting sports action and the plot is…well, at least there is a plot.  The film is anchored by Felicity Jones, who does a fantastic job as Kim, and it’s also quite interesting (and bizarre) to see Westwick speak in his natural British accent.

Ultimately, Chalet Girl is light, frothy, forgettable fun that’s a little more charming that it ought to be for a film of this kind.  But it still doesn’t mean that it’s particularly good.

2.75 stars out of 5