A Monster Calls

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

11/06/18

Another day, another instalment of a well-worn movie franchise.

I’ll be honest with you, when I first heard about this, I wasn’t overly inclined to bother with it. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015) was okay, but nothing in it instilled in me the appetite for another monster helping. But then I noticed, that this time out, the movie was to be directed by J A Bayona and my curiosity was aroused. I’ve admired his three previous offerings, all very different beasts – The Orphanage, The Impossible and A Monster Calls, exceptional films, every one. Could he possibly bring something new to the table?

Fallen Kingdom begins with news that the ex-theme park of Isla Nubla, now a dinosaur haven, is in big trouble. The island’s resident volcano has decided to blow its top and its saurian inhabitants appear to be doomed to extinction all over again. John Hammond’s former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) has devised a rescue mission, which means that eleven different species will be captured and shipped off to a new, safe haven. Lockwood is terminally ill so the organisation of this complex mission has been left to his young assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), a man we just know at a glance is not entirely trustworthy. Mills calls in Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help with the mission and she enlists former love interest, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, as affable as ever), to assist her. With a couple of young associates in tow, they head off to Isla Nubla. (The good news is that Clare actually remembers to pack some sensible footwear this time!) Once on the island, they quickly discover that the mission is nothing like as straightforward as they originally supposed…

All right, so the first third of the movie is beautifully filmed and there are some decent people-versus-lava scenes. The dinosaurs are state-of-the-art CGI and, though there’s nothing here to disgrace Stephen Spielberg’s game-changing original, neither is there very much in the way of surprises. Indeed, this first section is haunted by that most deadly of dinosaurs, the Nothingnewbeforeus. Isla Nubla goes up in smoke and I start to think that this is the fate that’s inevitably going to befall the franchise.

But then the action shifts to Benjamin Lockwood’s estate in California and the film instantly takes a big step up, heading in a different, and much more compelling direction. The idea here is that no matter how well intended an original idea is, there are ruthless people waiting in the wings, ready to step in and monetise it. In comes the ever-dependable Toby Jones as Gunnar Eversol, a smug and utterly repellant dino auctioneer. He’s there to sell off the ‘rescued’ creatures to the highest bidder. There’s also a new addition amongst the specimens, a hybrid dinosaur called the Indoraptor,  a super killing machine that’s just crying out to to be ‘weaponised.’

When the auction goes a bit haywire, Bayona ramps up the suspense to almost unbearable levels and, there are some scenes that ride very close to the wind in terms of the film’s 12A rating. Best of all, there’s a fabulous sequence where Lockwood’s granddaughter hides in her bedroom, as the Indoraptor resolutely makes its way towards her. Bayona uses shadows and music to create something both menacing and enchanting – like a dark Grimm’s fairy tale with the wolf replaced by the most terrifying creature imaginable. If the film had all been as good as this, we’d be talking a much higher star rating.

Still, against all the odds, Bayona has managed to imprint his own DNA into this over-familiar franchise and in so doing, has created his own hybrid beast. The concluding announcement of yet another new direction for the series seems suddenly a much more interesting proposition. If they can get Bayona to direct, I for one, am in.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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A Monster Calls

01/01/17

A Monster Calls is an intensely emotional movie, telling the tale of twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and his struggle to deal with the realisation that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Siobhan Dowd, who conceived the novel the film is based on, died of the same disease before she could write her book. What we have here, then, is fellow author Patrick Ness’s interpretation of Dowd’s idea – and it’s good to see he’s done her proud.

Lewis MacDougall’s performance is extraordinary. (I should perhaps note here that he’s a student at The Drama Studio in Edinburgh, where I now work; sadly I can’t claim any credit for his achievements, as he’s not in my class, I’ve never met him, and he’d filmed this before I even joined the team.) He’s a gifted young actor, perfect for the screen, with a touching vulnerability here that’s reminiscent of David Bradley’s Billy Casper in the 1969 classic, Kes. His anger, fear and frustration are all writ large, and Philip and I find ourselves crying at regular intervals.

The story is essentially a simple one, making use of the idea of ‘the monstrous other’ and exploring the concept of duality. Conor is conflicted: he loves his mother, but he can’t live with the uncertainty of not knowing when she’s going to die. And so he stumbles between quiet acquiescence and towering rage, the latter symbolised by the unleashing of the yew-tree monster – like Jekyll’s Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, Bertha Rochester, or even Blue’s Savage in David Almond’s graphic novel. Like its literary predecessors, this monster allows Conor to release his repressed emotions. It is both his undoing and his salvation.

There’s a stellar cast at work here, with Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell occupying the roles of Gran and Dad respectively, neither of whom are what Conor needs to fill the void left by his mum, although they both try hard, in their own ways. Felicity Jones’s portrayal of the dying Elizabeth is utterly heartbreaking; she’s a real chameleon, and it’s hard to think of her as the same actor I saw in Rogue One last week. And the monster’s stories are beautifully realised, with some delightful sequences featuring dazzling, stylised animation.

There are some flaws: the bullies’ dialogue, for example, is wholly unconvincing and depressingly generic, and the first fifteen minutes or so seem aimed at a much younger audience. But these are minor niggles in the face of such an affecting, tragic piece of work. It’s a lovely film, and well worth going to see.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield