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Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 12:08 am

Four new holiday films


A vivid, effective Monster

While no one would ever mistake J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls as Christmas fare, love is at the core of the film. This is an at times difficult-to-watch movie that deals with a young boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s terminal cancer. Adapted from the novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, the film benefits greatly from its veteran cast, a remarkable performance from a newcomer in its central role and impressive special effects, which bring to life the inner turmoil of its young hero. These elements are just enough to save the film, which is overlong and far too ham-fisted in delivering its cathartic message.

Conor (Lewis McDougall) has a great deal on his mind. Not only is his mother (Felicity Jones) sick and getting worse, but he’s also being bullied at school and may have to move in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a stern woman who keeps her emotions firmly in check. Adding to his woes are the nightmares he’s having, all of which feature a fearsome monster (voice by Liam Neeson) in the shape of a huge tree, its hair a tangle of branches, its body covered in bark and gaps filled with moss and dirt. He isn’t sure exactly what this creature wants, but it seems to be getting stronger and more realistic with each dream.

A Monster Calls.

When the monster comes knocking on Conor’s door one night to inform him that he will be telling him three different stories over the course of subsequent evenings and that he’ll tell him a fourth afterwards, the movie finds its footing. That the creature is a yew tree gives an obvious clue as to what is afoot. Over the three nights the lessons Conor learns from the monster help him to come to terms with not just the bullies at school and his repressed grandmother, but his own anger and confusion as well. As painful as it may be, the boy learns that facing his fears is the only way to find peace and the ability to move on.

It’s a heavy but vital message. Bayona’s visual approach matches this – the nightmares occurring under an overcast sky, the details of Conor’s world literally falling apart, brought to life with terrifying detail. The monster himself is a marvel, the meticulously rendered details of his body a wonder to behold, as is the fluidity with which he moves. We’ve become callous towards digitally rendered creatures but this is truly a marvel, while Neeson’s work gives him soul to spare.

Though the movie would have benefited greatly from a faster pace, the surprise Conor reveals while telling his story to the monster is a shocker as well as a daring narrative move. Monster doesn’t pander in delivering its powerful message. It knows full well that only through facing problems head on can we hope to grow stronger and survive.

A Monster Calls opens in Springfield on Jan. 6.

Will Smith as Howard and Jacob Latimore as Raffi in Collateral Beauty.

Beauty is ridiculous

Will Smith has proven time and again that he’s a capable actor, yet there are times when he errs in choosing material. Much like his well-intended but misguided Seven Pounds (2008), his latest, Collateral Beauty, suffers because it takes itself too seriously. The fact that it’s saddled with a ridiculous premise certainly doesn’t help matters. Perhaps the most curious thing about this film is the fact that Allan Loeb’s script read so well that he was able to seduce, in addition to Smith, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Michael Pena to sign on the dotted line to bring this thing to life. Something must have been in the water.

Smith is Howard, an ad executive who’s been in mourning for nearly two years after the death of his young daughter. As a way to cope with this and perhaps deal with his grief, he’s taken to writing letters to Love, Time and Death. Needless to say, he’s gotten no response and this is a cause of concern for his partners (Winslet, Norton and Pena) who want to sell their business but can’t because Howard, the controlling shareholder, refuses to do so. Their solution is to hire three actors (Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Mirren) to portray Love, Time and Death, record his interactions with them and then have their buddy declared mentally incompetent so they can close the deal.

If you don’t mind being shamelessly manipulated, then Beauty is right in your wheelhouse. If that’s the case, then I’d be willing to wager Hallmark Channel Christmas films are your cup of tea as well. You know exactly where this movie is headed, which is its biggest problem. While some may cry over tire commercials, those not as easily affected know that displays of true emotion don’t come easy or cheap. Director David Frankel wants you searching for a tissue from the get-go and he‘s not going to be satisfied until the box is empty and you’re a bloodshot mess.

No, a genuine emotional response is something that you build towards, which Frankel and his crew have no time for. If any entertainment is present in Beauty, it’s watching pros like Winslet, Mirren, Norton and Knightley struggle to lend this turkey credibility. It’s certainly not for lack of trying, as there’s plenty of emoting on display, what with Frankel’s reticence to steer his cast away from delivering the most obvious and broad interpretation of their characters and intentions. As for Smith, he stumbles through, thinking all it takes is a shell-shocked look to convey grief. (Check out Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea to see how this sort of role should be done.)

The long and short of it is, while Collateral Beauty may have its heart in the right place, its shameless, manipulative approach does nothing but insult the viewer’s intelligence as well as those actually trying to deal with insurmountable grief.

Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as Rose Maxson in Fences.
PHOTO COURTESY Paramount Pictures

Washington, Davis shine in Fences

Bringing August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Fences, to the big screen has been a passion project for Denzel Washington for some time. His enthusiasm for the material is evident on screen. The central role, that of the bitter Troy Maxson, is one that’s right in the actor’s wheelhouse, so much so that he won a Tony Award for his performance in the 2010 Broadway revival. So it comes as no surprise that Washington gives a titanic performance here, as does his costar and fellow Tony winner Viola Davis. What is refreshing is the actor’s prowess as director, as he’s able to effectively compress this material to a far more manageable length, compounding its dramatic heft in the process.

The drama takes place in Pittsburgh during the late 1950s. Troy Maxson is a man suffused by anger, latching on to any slight, real or perceived, to proclaim how the chips have always been stacked against him. While he tells anyone who listens that he’s a responsible man who dutifully takes care of his family, his presence is like a cancer, slowly eating away at his relationship with his faithful wife, Rose (Davis), and teenage son, Cory (Corvan Adepo). He is the personification of wasted potential, blaming others for his lack of success and in turn, preventing those around him from realizing their own dreams.

While the erosion of this family has been progressing for a long time, events come to a head as Troy’s behavior becomes more erratic, when guilt over his treatment of his addled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) and resentment towards his lot in life begins to consume him. Washington breaks your heart as he gives us a proud, strong man who allows resentment of slights from yesterday to blind him from the blessings he has. The actor’s presence makes the character all the more tragic as his strong bearing and sense of assuredness makes his acts of negligence all the more poignant.

Davis is equally effective, maintaining an air of strength that momentarily crumbles in the face of Troy’s callousness. The actress’ bearing never suggests weariness, though her eyes do at times, and while she eventually stumbles in the face of her husband’s behavior, she rights herself and takes control of the family. Displaying a sense of subtle power comes naturally to the actress and she’s never been better than she is here. Patient, steely and determined, she is one of the few actresses with the gravitas to go toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington.

The tragedy of Fences transcends race and time as it speaks to the corrosive nature of neglect and the self-destructive behavior it spawns. While Troy is powerless to defeat his own demons and does considerable damage to those close to him in the process, Wilson allows us a modicum of hope, showing through Rose that those who care for the misbegotten don’t have to be brought low by them. Their strength endures despite being buffeted by the injustices of life.

Megan Mullally as Barb Fleming, Bryan Cranston as Ned Fleming, Zoey Deutch as Stephanie Fleming, James Franco as Laird Mayhew and Griffin Gluck as Scotty Fleming in Why Him?

Stay away from Him

John Hamburg’s Why Him? deals with a young man who goes out of his way to make people like him. Keep in mind he’s not after “like,” but “really, really like” on the Sally Field level, complete and total acceptance that knows no bounds. Problem is, our hero invariably ends up shooting himself in the foot, trying too hard and driving potential admirers away in the process. Him is a lot like its protagonist in that Hamburg and cowriter Ian Helfer pull out all the stops, pelting the audience with one crude gag after another, in an effort to gain their approval. They get off to a good start, but as their attempts to generate laughs become more desperate, the level of bad taste rising all the while, they squander that good first impression, leaving the audience with a bad taste that no amount of goodwill can wash away.

Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) is the epitome of Middle America, a hardworking, self-made man who adheres to a work ethic and way of doing business that’s gone the way of the dinosaur. Yet he’s proud of the printing business he’s built from the ground up, as well as his beautiful wife, Barb (Megan Mullally), and his son, Scotty (Griffin Gluck). However, the apple-of-his-eye is his daughter, Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who’s about to graduate college and embark on what’s sure to be a successful career. Problem is she’s fallen for Laird Mayhew (James Franco), an eccentric billionaire who’s made his fortune in the video game industry. Stephanie hopes her family will take to Laird as she has and has them fly from their Michigan home to California at Christmas to see if this is a fit.

Needless to say, Laird’s lack of filter, boundless enthusiasm and disturbing need to please put the Flemings off from the start. This is the sort of role Franco excels at and the actor is never less than amusing throughout, unwittingly offending his guests again and again though he’s a complete innocent at heart. As his character increases his efforts to win over the Flemings, the jokes devolve to a raunchy level that becomes off-putting. Aberrant sexual acts are used again and again as comic fodder, all of which fall flat, none of them generating laughs but rather a response closer to “Ew!”

Hamburg has no sense of pace here either. Numerous gags run too long (particularly a sequence involving Cranston and a Smart Toilet), while there are at least two too many of Laird’s frantic attempts for approval. Not since Seth Rogan’s Observe and Report has a film gone so far out of its way to alienate its audience. By the end, even the sight of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in full KISS regalia playing Christmas carols with a ukulele and triangle couldn’t get me to laugh. By that point, I simply wanted to get as far away from Him as possible.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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