Find­ing nat­u­ral com­pan­ion­ship

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

T hat Span­ish di­rec­tor JA Bay­ona is very tal­ented will be con­firmed by any­one who’s seen his hor­ror film The Or­phan­age (2007), or The Im­pos­si­ble (2012), in which a Bri­tish fam­ily hol­i­day­ing in Thai­land is lit­er­ally swept up by the de­struc­tive Box­ing Day tsunami of 2004. His new film — not so new, ac­tu­ally, be­cause it’s been gather­ing dust on the shelves of its dis­trib­u­tor for far too long — is, like its pre­de­ces­sors, a film about a fam­ily in cri­sis.

Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Pa­trick Ness, which drew on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Mon­ster Calls does pose some chal­lenges for au­di­ences, which is prob­a­bly why it’s taken so long to reach us. Dowd was ter­mi­nally ill with breast cancer when she con­ceived the premise of a book about a child cop­ing with the death of his mother, a premise art­fully de­vel­oped by Ness af­ter her death, with il­lus­tra­tions by Jim Kay (whose con­cepts in­flu­ence the vis­ual style of Bay­ona’s film).

Films about chil­dren who be­friend mon­sters have not, in the past, been very suc­cess­ful (think of The Iron Giant, 1999, and The BFG, 2016, nei­ther of which per­formed well at the box of­fice, though they have their loyal fol­low­ers) and a film in which the 13-year-old pro­tag­o­nist is only too aware that his mother is dy­ing a painful death is, I sup­pose, a mar­ket­ing chal­lenge. Cer­tainly it’s not a film for young kids, but for older chil­dren and their par­ents it pro­vides a thought­ful ap­proach to the sub­ject. Plus it’s beau­ti­fully made, as are all of Bay­ona’s films.

Ness wrote the screen­play, so it’s no sur­prise the film sticks quite closely to the original. Conor O’Mal­ley (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small English vil­lage with his mother, Lizzie (Felic­ity Jones). His fa­ther (Toby Kebbell) is liv­ing in Los An­ge­les. Conor adores his mother, and her ill­ness is deeply trou­bling for him.

The stress he ex­pe­ri­ences finds its way into his dreams. He has re­cur­ring night­mares of an earth­quake that de­stroys the nearby church and grave­yard and he’s un­able to save his mother from fall­ing into the abyss cre­ated by the dis­as­ter. One night he ex­pe­ri­ences a dif­fer­ent kind of hor­ror: a giant yew tree that he can see from his bed­room win­dow comes to life. The Tree Mon­ster (voiced by Liam Nee­son) is not ex­actly fright­en­ing: he’s a solemn, im­pos­ing crea­ture who there­after ar­rives ev­ery night at ex­actly 12.07 — why this spe­cific time is some­thing we learn later.

The Tree Mon­ster prom­ises to tell Conor three sto­ries, af­ter which Conor will tell one of his own. Each of the sto­ries — de­picted via an­i­ma­tion — re­de­fines the norms of what’s Good and what’s Bad. In the first story there’s a wicked step­mother who kills her hus­band, the King. Her step­son, the Prince, is in love with a farmer’s daugh­ter — but all the con­ven­tions of the fairy­tale are up-ended in this and the other two sto­ries told by the Mon­ster.

Conor’s fa­ther pays his son a visit, but makes it clear he doesn’t want the boy to join him in Cal­i­for­nia. The only al­ter­na­tive, when the worst comes to the worst, is for Conor to live with his grand­mother (Sigour­ney Weaver) in the bed­room where his mother slept as a child.

For this del­i­cate and emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful film, Bay­ona ap­pears to have fallen un­der the in­flu­ence of one of the great­est films made in Spain, Vic­tor Erice’s The Spirit of the Bee­hive (1973). That film, too, in­volved chil­dren fright­ened by a mon­ster. In an early scene in A Mon­ster Calls, Conor and his mother watch King Kong, and the no­tion of a mon­ster with a ro­man­tic streak seems to af­fect the boy.

So far, Bay­ona has made his films in stu­dios lo­cated just out­side Barcelona, while film­ing the exteriors on lo­ca­tion. This worked con­vinc­ingly for The Im­pos­si­ble, which looked as though it was set en­tirely in Thai­land, and it works here too. Geral­dine Chap­lin, daugh­ter of Char­lie and a long-time Spain res­i­dent, has ap­peared in all the di­rec­tor’s films to date, and she crops up again here as Conor’s head teacher.

Bay­ona uses spe­cial ef­fects with great skill, but A Mon­ster Calls is noth­ing like the ef­fects­driven movies that fill our cinema screens these days. It’s a small, al­most del­i­cate film that will richly re­ward those who con­nect with it. Paris Can Wait, the first fea­ture made by 80year-old Eleanor Cop­pola (wife of Fran­cis Ford and mother of Sofia), is a road movie rather rem­i­nis­cent of the se­ries of Trip films fea­tur­ing Steve Coogan and Rob Bry­don, but with­out the jokes (their lat­est, The Trip to Spain, opens in a cou­ple of weeks). In this case, the odd cou­ple at the cen­tre of the film is not two bick­er­ing blokes but an at­trac­tive mid­dle-aged Amer­i­can woman and a charm­ingly flir­ta­tious mid­dleaged French­man. Like their Bri­tish coun­ter­parts these two em­bark on a leisurely drive through at­trac­tive coun­try­side, par­tak­ing of mouth-wa­ter­ing gourmet meals along the way. It’s all very se­duc­tive.

Ap­par­ently in­spired by real events, the film opens in Cannes dur­ing the film fes­ti­val. Anne Lockwood (Diane Lane) is mar­ried to worka- A Mon­ster Calls; Paris Can holic Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Michael (Alec Bald­win) who, when he isn’t do­ing deals on his mo­bile phone, is com­plain­ing about the prices (€12 for a bottle of wa­ter). Michael is flying to Bu­dapest in his pri­vate jet but Anne, who is suf­fer­ing from ear­ache, makes a last-minute de­ci­sion to skip the Hun­gar­ian cap­i­tal and travel over­land to Paris, where they plan to meet in a cou­ple of days. Michael’s French busi­ness part­ner, Jac­ques Cle­ment (Ar­naud Viard), of­fers to drive her, but they’ve hardly left Cannes be­fore Jac­ques is stop­ping for lunch at Le Moulin de Mou­g­ins, one of the area’s fa­mous restau­rants.

And so it goes on, with Jac­ques mak­ing lots of di­ver­sions either to five-star restau­rants (in Vi­enne, Lyon and Veze­lay) or to visit spec­tac­u­lar Ro­man ru­ins or ab­sorb some cul­ture, such as a visit to the Institut Lu­miere in Lyon, the mu­seum that cel­e­brates the birth of cinema. Dur­ing the jour­ney, Jac­ques reg­u­larly bor­rows Anne’s credit card to pay for ho­tel rooms and meals, and be­haves flir­ta­tiously to­wards her.

Whether you en­joy this very at­trac­tive road movie will de­pend on whether you find him a creep and a cliche of a French roue or the dan­ger­ous charmer to whom Anne finds her­self re­spond­ing. Jonathan Se­queira’s Aus­tralian doc­u­men­tary De­scent into the Mael­strom is a de­tailed his­tory of the 1970s Syd­ney punk band Ra­dio Bird­men, in­cor­po­rat­ing in­ter­views with its very ar­tic­u­late mem­bers. Lovers of the mu­sic scene will find the nos­tal­gic footage from 40 years ago ex­hil­a­rat­ing, but the film, well-made though over­long, is strictly for fans of this kind of mu­sic.

Lewis MacDougall as Conor in Span­ish di­rec­tor JA Bay­ona’s

left, Alec Bald­win and Diane Lane in Eleanor Cop­pola’s charm­ing Wait

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