A Monster Calls: deeply sad and moving

Film

Quality over quantity. That seems to be how Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has approached his career thus far. His first feature length was The Orphanage (2007), then the immensely sad The Impossible (2012), which was a critical and commercial success. And now, at the start of the new year, he gives us likely Oscar contender A Monster Calls;¬†a tale of a 12-year old boy who struggles to deal with his mum’s slow fight with cancer. Tough stuff. But then, cynics would say it’s awards season, so we should be prepared for some difficult subjects at the movies over the next month.

With A Monster Calls we follow Conor (Lewis MacDougall) as he suffers a bully at school and a rapidly deteriorating mother (Felicity Jones) at home. Then one night a giant Yew tree in a nearby field comes alive, turning into a monster (Liam Neeson) and presenting him with an offer: hear three stories in exchange for one ‘truth’. Conor accepts and each night the monster serves up another tale which helps him deal – or fail to deal – with his family situation in some way. Right up until the inevitable conclusion that we know is coming.

My first thought was that this film shares a lot with¬†Pan’s Labyrinth (and a fair helping of Where The Wild Things Are). It’s a fairytale, it has a young character seemingly having to tackle big problems on his or her own and grow up fast, it has magic and fantasy and, naturally, it has a big bad monster or two (some are human some are pure fantasy).

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That’s it though. Here, this story is different enough. Where the girl in Pan’s Labyrinth is faced with violence (in her fascist father) and how she deals with that in order to protect her baby brother, the boy in this tale is forced to confront – and deal with – the anger within himself in terms of how he copes with his mother’s illness and truly faces his own sense of conflict.

And you’d think a giant talking tree (voiced by Neeson) wouldn’t manage to put us in the right headspace to feel deeply, but somehow, between Bayona, Neeson and MacDougall, the filmmakers manage it, quite cleverly too. Before you realise it you’re right there with Conor, desparately wishing you could take away his pain and acutely aware of the despair and helplessness he must be feeling at the fact that he’s slowly losing his mother and is powerless to stop it.

Casting Felicity Jones was a clever move, too. In someone that beautiful it’s even more painful to watch her slowly waste away (not that attractiveness has much to do with it, but seeing beauty decay, to me, is somehow more heartbreaking). And, whilst her scenes are not lengthy, you get a true sense of the bond she has with her son, and the chemistry they have feels real and credible.

Perhaps in this, MacDougall is the real revelation. Often child actors get surrounded by older ones to prop them up, but here MacDougall is in almost every scene, and you get the feeling he needs very little propping. And it’s testament to his screen presence that his performance will tug at your heartstrings from the off, but you almost don’t notice it’s happening.

Even if you’ve never experienced loss in any significant way, this film will still resonate deeply. We all fear losing a loved one and this will put you right back to childhood and straight into the shoes of the main character, having you care passionately about his fate, all the way until the credits roll. And we can’t ask for any more from a film, other than that it speaks to – and moves us – in some way.

The Leftovers: season two review

TV

Where does one begin with The Leftovers? It’s safe to say it’s like no other show out there. For sure, it has shades of other shows, mostly drama. But there’s a lot in there, and a lot that’ll go over your head (it did mine).

It’s also maddeningly infuriating too. As viewers and consumers and fans and critics we’re used to knowing everything these days. Instant gratification. The Leftovers takes that away from us. It puts us in the same boat as the characters, utterly lost and confused. And you sort of love it for that.

Assuming you’ve seen season one (it would take too long to explain, see here), season two picks up with the Garvey family (well, Kevin, Jill, Nora and a random baby) moving to Jarden, a town in Texas which has seemingly been spared the apocalypse while the rest of the world has not.

As well as being a tourist attraction the town is also closely guarded – after all, they can’t just let anyone in. This expands the world of The Leftovers and gives us an insight into other communities and how they’ve dealt – or failed to deal – with what happened; as the people of Jarden aren’t as ‘spared’ as the Garvey family first think. Furthermore, fleeing to this place won’t solve all of Kevin’s problems – he still suffers from guilt and is plagued by suicidal thoughts and visions which worsen as this season progresses.

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Other characters get a few scenes to keep things varied, but most are largely sidelined (Jill and Nora, prime suspects). So this season, it’s really all about Kevin. How does he adjust to Jarden? How does he deal with his guilt and depression? How does he connect with those closest to him?

With this show (based on a book by Tom Perotta), screenwriter Damon Lindelof has crafted something incredibly poignant, nuanced and painfully flawed. It takes a long, hard look at death, loss, grief, faith, religion, zealotry, persecution, belief – and a heck of a lot more. It poses more questions than it answers and, as a viewer, you’re often at pains to see where, if anywhere, the story is heading. Yet that’s its strength.

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And it has matured drastically between seasons one and two, shifting locations, adding characters, expanding the world and so on. Currently HBO are pondering whether it deserves a third season. Like many, I’m torn (almost every reaction I have to do with this show). On the one hand, like many fans, I crave a third season, one which might provide some answers, or at least some glimpse of where it’s going. But then, the show’s not about answers and story arc, not really. It bucks convention.

In some ways ending where it does would be sort of perfect. It’s dramatic, narratively satisfying and poetically beautiful. And I bet most shows would give a lot to be able to say the same thing after two seasons. Golden age of television, indeed.

Wild: Witherspoon’s epic journey of discovery

Film

Reese Witherspoon is due a good performance. The last time she gave one, let’s be honest, was as June Carter in Walk The Line in 2005. Since then she’s been coasting a little with below par rom-coms and the like.

However that’s water under the bridge now, or snow down the mountain, whatever wilderness phrase you care to use; for with Wild she gives a raw, real, stripped back and unflinchingly honest performance in this true tale, based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

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Witherspoon plays Cheryl, a woman who has had an altogether bad lot in life. Following the rather sudden and early death of her mother (Laura Dern) as well as a messy divorce, she tries to numb the pain with drugs and meaningless sex (don’t we all?), but realises the only way to come out the other side of her grief is to ‘put yourself in the way of beauty’, as her mother puts it. So she opts to hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail to rediscover who she is and come to terms with her grief and self-loathing.

Following Dallas Buyers Club in 2013 Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee has delivered a one-two punch on his filmography in the last couple of years, drawing incredibly honest and affecting performances from his leads – McConaughey in Dallas and Witherspoon here.

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He directs in a languid, unhurried style, with confidence in his script (penned by author Nick Hornby) and lead actress. Cheryl’s journey up the PCT covers over 1000 miles and is mostly slow plodding, so as an audience we need some respite. Vallee gradually builds up a picture of Cheryl and why she’s taken on this life-defining challenge by giving us regular flashbacks to her past, which play out like a pleasant fever dream (if there is such a thing), like casting your mind back to a perfect summer’s day as a kid.

Whilst clearly painful to relive these memories, Cheryl is being driven along by a deep, almost unfathomable love for her mother, played superbly by Dern (who herself brings a vitality and vulnerability to a relatively small role). Vallee allows many scenes to take place wordlessly, or with little dialogue, letting us think and feel as an audience. With so many modern movies spoonfeeding emotions the filmmakers would like us to feel, it’s a refreshing approach for a director to treat the audience with this level of mutual respect.

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As a result this is one of those films where you can expect to be saddened, touched, uplifted and delighted. It has lighter moments peppered throughout (a particularly amusing hitchhiking encounter with a journalist is one to watch out for), as well as some incredibly tender moments (one where a young child sings Cheryl a song will probably have you getting a bit misty-eyed).

Moreover, the character of Cheryl is an interesting one… it’s clear why Witherspoon was drawn to the part. It’s the sort of challenging role you could see Jennifer Lawrence playing, as it’s a bit like her character in Winter’s Bone. However she’s in so much these days that it’s good it went to someone else.

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And Witherspoon is nigh on perfect for Cheryl. She’s one tough cookie, yet achingly vulnerable underneath it all. Physically she really laid herself bare. This is no ‘let’s slap a bit of fake Hollywood dirt on her’ approach, she really looks like she’s been hiking in the outdoors for months. An engrossing performance, made all the more poignant by the fact that it’s a true tale.

They do say that you can’t beat real life for the best stories, and this shows it. So hurrah for Vallee, Hornby and Witherspoon for bringing this sort of story to the screen. If this marks a new direction for Witherspoon’s career, I’ll be paying much closer attention from now on.

The Leftovers: season one review

TV

The brainchild of novelist Tom Perrotta and brought to the small screen with the help of Damon Lindelof (the chap that drove most of us mad with frustration for years with Lost), The Leftovers was an unexpectedly beautiful and tragically poignant portrayal of the way society – and the world at large – copes with loss on a massive yet distinctly personal scale.

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The show begins with an event in which a significant portion (2%) of the world’s population vanishes in an instant, never to be seen again. The show isn’t too concerned with explaining where these people have gone, but more so with how the people left behind deal with life moving forward. Hence… The Leftovers.

To give the story an anchor (and focus) it’s largely told from the point of view of the Garvey family, particularly the Chief of Police Kevin (Justin Theroux), an amazingly complex (and thoroughly conflicted) individual.

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The rest of the cast includes Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and father (Scott Glenn), the former Chief of Police; Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a mother who lost her entire family during the event; her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), a local priest who cannot reconcile his beliefs with what has happened; Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), a lady recently converted to local cult the Guilty Remnant, led by the resolute Patti Nevin (Ann Dowd).

At first, like a lot of people, I felt confused then indignant when I realised we’d not be shown what happened to those that vanished. You have to imagine that this was a conscious decision by the show’s creators, forcing viewers to experience similar emotions that those coping with – and trying to understand – the nature of loss might arguably go through.

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As avid (or resentful) fans of Lost are quick to point out, if you know Lindelof’s work you’ll know he likes to leave telling clues throughout his shows. Make no mistake though, clues is about all this shares with Lost. This is, through and through, a character study of a group of troubled individuals trying to live out their lives. But there is a constant stream of what could be clues, or at least suggestive imagery throughout.

A standout performance worth mentioning is Theroux’s Kevin Garvey, a self-confessed ‘bad guy’, despite (or because of?) his position of power as police chief. With a wife who’s joined the Guilty Remnant and wants a divorce through to a daughter with whom he cannot connect, a son on the run from the law and a father who’s been locked up on insanity charges, Kevin barely holds it together throughout the season, slightly unravelling with each episode.

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You could say his family represents a microcosm of the town at large and their problems, beliefs and conflict. Nora is another brilliant character. Utterly consumed with grief at the loss of her family she goes to some very dark places during the season, with Carrie Coon putting in a raw and unflinching performance.

Perrotta and Lindelof probably pose more questions than answers with this show. Where did the people go who vanished? Did they deserve to go? Are the ones that stayed the lucky or unlucky ones? Initially I found this story a difficult one to connect with, it’s sombre, loaded with grief and the characters are hard to like or understand. Yet, if you stick with it, you’ll find it gradually unfurls into something naunced, introspective, beautiful and very, very human.

Labor Day: Reitman’s most heartfelt film?

Film

20131103-LYALL-slide-7RAH-articleLarge As a director, Jason Reitman appears to be growing up fast. Labor Day is the fifth feature length film he’s given us and his progression as a storyteller is clear to see.

This film, set in a sleepy suburban American town in 1987, tells the story of Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) whose life is gatecrashed by escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) in a supermarket at the start of Labor Day weekend. He effectively holds them hostage, at least initially, until the coast is clear. Yet what then develops is a complex relationship between the three of them that is both tender, affecting and very human.

With Reitman pulling the strings – the man behind Juno and Up In The Air – you’d expect snappy dialogue and snazzy, snarky characters.labor-day-review-9 Here he strips the story right back and the majority of the film is told in looks and glances, eyes darting back and forth as characters try to figure each other out.

As Reitman is a wonderful observer of human interaction, this perfectly plays to his strengths and no doubt tested both himself and his cast. The two leads, Brolin and Winslet, rose to the challenge like masters at work. The film is warm in tone too. Set in the late ’80s the whole thing appears bathed in the golden glow of late summer. Like one happy memory. It’s not all sweetness and light though. The whole film is tinged with sadness, loneliness and loss.

If you take Reitman’s last two films (Young Adult and Up In The Air) there’s a strong sense of loneliness in both the main characters: Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary and George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham – they’re both searching for a genuine human connection. labor-day-movie-picture-2Here Winslet’s character continues that theme with possibly the most convincing performance of one of Reitman’s leads.

Apparently he wrote the script specifically with her in mind and kept the film on hold until the actress was available. You can see why too, it’s a compelling performance from Winslet, one of her best since 2008 when she won awards for The Reader and Revolutionary Road. Ultimately this film represents a shift of gears for Reitman, and indeed perhaps a more mature direction. He’s drawn brilliant performances out the cast – Winslet in particular – and created a piece of work that is both moving, well observed, nostalgic and highly engaging.

Can’t wait to see what he does next.