Monsters, a Pulitzer-winning play, a musical round out July’s picks

By Leonard Heldreth

A monster movie involving a child, a filmed prize-winning play from the ’80s, a retro musical—quite a cross-section for July.

Do not be deceived. A Monster Calls is not a typical genre horror film, despite the fact that it contains a fiery 40-foot tall creature who can knock over a building with one arm. People may also be confused because director J. A. Bayona’s first film was the horror thriller, The Orphanage. Rather, A Monster Calls is a film about a child’s imagination, and the way a 12-year-old boy learns to face and cope with his mother’s long illness and death from cancer. It’s an emotional, complicated story overseen by a monster who acknowledges all the truths about life that the boy’s relatives won’t admit and who forces the boy to do the same.

Bayona’s underrated second film, The Impossible, looked at the effects on one family of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and just as its title indicates the impossibility of grasping that event, so in Monster it is almost impossible for Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) to understand and deal with his mother’s approaching death. Lizzie O’Malley (Felicity Jones) is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, as well as perhaps some more experimental drugs, but when she announces that she has to return to the hospital for further treatment, the inevitable sequence of events becomes obvious. Her ex-husband, Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell), has moved to Los Angeles and started a new family but returns for a short visit; her mother (Sigourney Weaver) has come to her house to care for her and the boy during her illness. Through these steps, Conor knows something is wrong (he knows more than he will admit even to himself), but no one will tell him the truth. Every night he has dreams of standing in the graveyard behind the church as the ground caves in around him; his mother hangs over the abyss, and he holds on to her with one hand, but she keeps slipping more and more from his grasp. He wakes up screaming.

Then, one night just after midnight, the wind begin to blow and heavy thumps shake the ground. Conor looks out the window and sees that the huge yew tree in the cemetery has pulled loose from the ground and, now a 40-foot tall man of bark, branches, and roots, is striding down the hill toward him. It knocks at his window, rattling the house, and when he opens the window, the monster says that it has come for him. Conor thinks the monster is there to heal his mother, one of several erroneous conclusions the boy jumps to. The creature (voice of Liam Neeson) tells Conor that he will tell him a different story for three nights, and on the fourth night, Conor will tell the monster a story that must be the truth about the dreams that haunt him.

Over the next three nights at precisely 12:07 the monster appears and tells Conor a story. The first is about a king who marries a wicked witch and dies; his son pursues a peasant’s daughter who dies violently before he takes his father’s throne. The second story, a folktale, concerns an alchemist and a minister, whose conflict results in the deaths of the minister’s daughters. The last tale has to do with a man who was invisible and didn’t like it. To distinguish them from Conor’s reality as well as to remind the audience of their fairy tale origins, each of these stories is presented in water-color animation that sometimes look like paper cutouts. Conor tells the monster what he thinks they mean, and then the monster gives an alternate interpretation, saying “There is not always a good guy, Conor O’Malley, nor is there always a bad one.” Finally, Conor must tell the monster about his dream of the collapsing graveyard and interpret its truth to the monster. As he does so, he slowly realizes what he has been hiding from himself.

As the nights are filled with the monster’s stories, so Conor’s days are filled with events–his father arrives from Los Angeles and takes him to an amusement part, the boy trashes his grandmother’s livingroom, and he strikes back so hard against the boy who has been bullying him that he sends the boy to the hospital. Throughout, Conor wonders why no one punishes him for his misbehavior, not realizing they all feel sorry for him for what is happening. The inevitable death scene is carefully handled as the monster crouches in the corner of the bedroom, obviously seen by the mother.

The monster is effectively constructed, a combination of animatronics and cgi (a clip from the 1933 King Kong is referenced as Conor is held in the monster’s fist just as Kong held Fay Wray in his paw.) The alternate art work for the fairy tales is impressive, and its style is finally referenced as the mother’s sketchbook is examined in the last shots of the film.

The acting is excellent throughout, especially that of Lewis MacDougall as Conor; the boy is sometimes astonishing. Weaver is fine as an actress, but her accent slips in a few places, and it’s hard to forget you’re watching Sigourney Weaver; a less well-known actress could have disappeared into the part better. A bonus is the walk-on part for the always-excellent Geraldine Chaplin as a schoolteacher.

A Monster Calls is a powerful film exploring the ways people, and especially young people, deal with death and loss. Its PG-13 rating is deserved, and parents may want to screen it before letting pre-teen children view it. Adults, especially if they have lost someone recently, should probably keep a few tissues handy.

August Wilson’s play, Fences, was first produced in 1985 with James Earl Jones in the lead role; it won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards. In 2010 it was revived on Broadway with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as the lead actors, again winning awards. This current film is an adaptation of that production with most of the cast transferred from stage to screen. The screenplay was completed by Wilson before his death and then shortened from its original three-hour length by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who receives a prominent co-producer credit.

Denzel Washington also directed the production, and the standard question about such a film is whether he adapted the play sufficiently to make it work as a film. The answer is probably not, and, perhaps more important, it doesn’t matter. The film has long stretches of dialogue, speeches within speeches that relate the characters’ pasts, and a tight, stagy setting in a backyard in Pittsburgh with only a few glances into the house or down the street. It skips flashy camera work, but gives us a front-row seat with closeups and great sound. When the dialogue is this rich and the acting this superlative, most of us should just shut up and be grateful that Denzel Washington captured it for the people who seldom get to Broadway. A play this good should be made available to as many people as possible, especially the black middle-class audience that it was written for.

Fences is in the great tradition of American family plays that extends from Eugene O’Neill through Arthur Miller and Edward Albee to the present. The familiar themes are there: clashes between fathers and sons, the way American society can both glorify and destroy the individual; the difficulty of being a father in a changing age; the marginalization of women; and the waste of human potential in an overly rigid society full of racial and sexual barriers. Wilson wrote 10 plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle, each set in a different decade; Fences is the sixth in the cycle. According to recent news, Denzel Washington has agreed to direct the entire cycle as a series of productions for HBO, and it will be interesting to see how Fences fits into Wilson’s grand vision of 20th century black life.

It’s 1957, and 53-year-old Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man with his friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Every Friday night Bono stops by Troy’s house, and they sit in the backyard, drink gin and talk about their lives; through these conversations Troy’s history and his aspirations are gradually filled in. A leading player in the Negro Leagues, his opportunity came before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and although he argues that he was as good as Robinson, he never got the chance to prove it. When Bono says he was just born too early, Troy rages, “There ought never have been no time called too early!”

Troy’s wife of 18 years, Rose (Viola Davis), thoroughly understands him and accepts both the good and the bad, sometimes puncturing the exaggerated stories he tells, until in the second half of the film, he goes too far. As he defends his actions, she shouts, “What about my life?” and by the end of the movie, the emphasis has shifted to her. Also living with Troy is his teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who is being scouted for college football scholarships, but Troy refuses to sign the papers because he is bitter about his own sports career. When Cory asks his father why he doesn’t love him, the face-off is memorable. Dropping by the house each Friday, usually to borrow money, is Troy’s older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who wants to be a professional musician; he keeps inviting his father to hear him play at various clubs, but Troy always has “other commitments”; he wants Lyons to give up this music stuff and get a real job. Rounding out the family, although he has recently moved to an apartment down the street, is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a brain-damaged veteran of World War II whose compensation for his war service enabled Troy to buy the house where he now lives. Gabriel believes he is the angel Gabriel, and he carries a dented trumpet around to blow and open the pearly gates. He also confuses local dogs’ barking with the baying of Hell Hounds, and when the police regularly lock him up for being a nuisance, Troy has to bribe the local cops to get him out with as little hassle as possible. Guilt over what he owes Gabriel and his inability to help him adds to Troy’s defensiveness.

The interaction of these characters is fascinating. Troy, for all his weaknesses, autocratic behavior, and failure to understand that things have changed in professional sports, is a flawed but sympathetic character. The parallels between Troy with his two sons and Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) with his two sons are obvious; like Willy, Troy doesn’t grasp that the world around him is not the world he understands. Their illusions are simply different.

Fences should be seen by anyone who values powerful, rich dialogue and superb acting. Fences may not be a great movie, but it is without doubt a superbly acted version of a major American drama, and that is no small accomplishment. Fences was nominated for Oscars for best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actress, and best adapted screenplay; Viola Davis won for best supporting actress.

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (an old name for Los Angeles) looks back to the musicals of the past, to the films of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Cyd Charisse, but its most extensive influences are from French musical director, Jacques Demy, and his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Chazelle acknowledges Demy’s influence in his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which takes its title from two characters in a Demy film. Then, in the middle of La La Land, he slips in another direct reference. Mia and Seb are touring the Warner Bros. lot, where she points out the window that Bogart and Bergman used in Casablanca; directly below it is a door with the stenciled word “Parapluies,” French for “Umbrellas.”

The opening of La La Land is its most spectacular musical production. Traffic is stalled on the L. A. Freeway with each person locked into their own car with their own music. Then one person steps out of her car and begins singing and dancing; another follows, and then another, until an entire stretch of highway is filled with people singing and dancing on and around their cars. It’s a big splashy musical number to open the film, and the film needs more of them. This sequence also introduces the audience to the two leads, although they are not involved in this number. She is sitting in her Prius studying for an audition, unaware that traffic has begin moving again, and he honks and gives her the bird as he passes her in his Buick convertible. “She” is Mia (Emma Stone), who wants to become a successful actress in Hollywood, and “He” is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who wants to play his kind of jazz in his own night club. Their meetings, separations, and new meetings make up the fairly predictable narrative of La La Land as they try to balance love with success without selling out completely. The ending, successful or not, tries to consider both options.

Gosling and Stone are excellent as actors and generally competent as singers and dancers, although don’t expect the quality of performance that filled Singing in the Rain. Stone is the better singer, and while Gosling is good on his feet, he seems to lack the bounce and vitality that the great dancers had. The music, by Justin Hurwitz with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul supplying the lyrics, is good but not great, with the possible exception of the opening number, “Another Day of Sunshine,” and Stone’s “Audition” song. Despite these limitations, it’s exciting to see this kind of action on the big screen again.

The film is full of references to previous movies. For example, in addition to the “Bogart window,” the couple go to see Rebel Without a Cause and then drive to the Griffith Observatory where the car scenes for that film were shot. There’s even a reference to Chazelle’s previous film: J. K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for Whiplash, has a walk-on as a club owner who fires Seb for not playing the right music.

With solid performances and music, La La Land wanted to be a great film but didn’t quite reach that level. However, it’s the closest we currently have to the great musicals of the past, so check it out. La La Land was nominated for academy awards for best picture, director, actor, actress, cinematography, sound editing, original Score, Original screenplay, original song, costume design, film editing, sound mixing, and production design; it won six awards for best director, best actress (Emma Stone), best cinematography, best original score, best song (“City of Stars”) and best production design.

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Editor’s note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.

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