Watching a loved one battle with cancer is harrowing experience, but a child supporting their parent through the disease is even worse. A Monster Calls, based on the acclaimed young adult novel, takes the perspective of a boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall; Pan) whose single mother (Felicity Jones; The Theory of Everything) is in the middle of chemotherapy. At school Conor is bullied and at home he has to deal with his controlling grandmother who wants him to live with her. As his mother’s condition worsens, Conor is faced with possibilities he has done everything to avoid. Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, a monster (Liam Neeson; Schindler’s List) appears. The monster tells him stories of the past and asks that Conor repay the favor by telling his own story.
The monster feels surprisingly tactile. Unlike most directors, J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) chose to use a significant amount of practical effects including animatronics to bring the monster to life. The sound design furthers this representation. Each step of the monster comes with the heavy creaking and groaning of normally static wood being contorted against its nature. The result is a ferocious beast that moves with a heft rarely found in computer generated imagery. Neeson’s voice is the perfect fit for the monster. His normally raspy tones are boosted with base that booms with ancient power. Despite the monster’s strength, size, and appearance, Neeson underscores his dialogue with a subtle kindness, like a parent nudging their child in the right direction. His voice acting and the stunning effects create the imposing presence needed to make the otherworldly monster feel natural.
Punctuating the real life events are animated sequences. The monster’s stories are realized through vivid watercolor-like images that illustrate narratives beyond the typical fairy tale. The screenplay, also written by the book’s author Patrick Ness, uses these stories to emphasize the complexity of life. As the monster says, “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.” Ness chooses to explore the messiness of life and the inherent contradictions in the way most people behave. His parables reinforce the difficulty of Conor’s situation and hint at the truth behind his feelings.
Few films are able to capture grief without being manipulative. The sight of someone suffering is enough to produce an emotional response, but what separates great films is understanding the nuances of the pain. Bayona goes far past the obvious. As Conor watches him mom deteriorate, his worst fears are never far from his mind. MacDougall’s body language and sunken eyes show his weariness and pent up frustration. He has seen her suffer for months and has had to endure the constant pity of others without being able to do anything to help her. The decision to focus on the boy’s struggle rather than images of his mother failing health may slow the movie’s pace early on, but it makes for a much more emotionally complex and effective angle. The film is able to delve into the psyche of someone caring for a cancer patient and explore the repressed feelings that cloud their mind. Conor’s fear, his anger, and, most of all, his guilt are heartbreakingly human.
Coming off of the major success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney followed through with their plan to release spinoffs that would feature new characters and viewpoints within the Star Wars universe. The first of these films is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla). Set prior to the events of the original 1977 film, the plot centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones; The Theory of Everything), the daughter of the architect of the Death Star, who has been captured by rebel forces to help them find a way to destroy the superweapon.
A prequel always creates the urge to heavily reference the existing films, but Rogue One is able to avoid many of those mistakes. When developing the prequel trilogy, series creator George Lucas was unable to resist this temptation. He wrote characters that were either younger versions of existing characters or new ones that were basically stand-ins for those you already knew. The key difference here is that Rogue One answers one of the franchise’s lingering questions: why was there a spot on the Death Star that would immediately destroy it? This necessitates the film to focus on an entirely new cast in a very different situation.
Edwards deliberately separates his film from the mainline entries. Each production detail is selected to contrast with what we expect from the franchise. Camera movements are often shaky and focus on the perspective of the ground troops rather than sweeping shots of the greater battle area. The final action scene has moments that mimic the Normandy Invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan. The lighting also reflects the clandestine nature of the characters. Many rooms are poorly lit, implying these rebels don’t have the money or the time to stay in any location and build a base. Even the normally pristine Stormtroopers are speckled with debris. Everything feels grimy with an air of desperation.
The screenwriters are able break away from traditional formula of the franchise. Previous films focused on the Jedi which made morality simple. There was no question of who to root for when it was the monks versus space fascists, but Rogue One takes a different approach. The rebels fighting here are not waging a war of ideologies, they are the people that need to make the hard decisions to win battles. That means lying and killing if it moves their position forward. The added complexity is refreshing in the otherwise simplistic universe, but, perhaps fearing public reaction, this is relegated to the periphery. The film instead chooses to focus on the action rather than the choices behind it. Exploring this ambiguity would have further distinguished the film and balanced out the pacing that drags early on from the repeated action sequences.
The filmmakers take full advantage of the freedom that not needing the set up future installments affords them. The major downside to the franchises that dominate cinemas today is that they lack tension. Even as characters are shown in perilous situations, it doesn’t produce the intended effect. Why should we be worried when we know that sequels are already in the pipeline? Captain America and Iron Man can’t kill each other when the next Avengers movie is just around the corner, so their battles don’t have any meaning. That is not the case for this spinoff. Characters are expendable and the writers aren’t afraid to prove it. The new perspective and narrative turns make Rogue One an exciting change to the standard Star Wars tropes.