Review: “A Monster Calls”

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 6, 2017 in / No Comments


Grief is a beast. For young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), it’s a gargantuan tree-creature that he conjures from his sketches.  On the cusp of being a teenager, Conor gets bullied at school and butts heads with his rigid grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) at home, where most devastating of all, Conor’s mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is succumbing to cancer.  The only respite is inward, the only coping mechanism, his imagination.

A monster calls. What at first appears to be a threatening behemoth that rips itself from the distant English countryside and approaches the house with embers ablaze deep within  its dendriform, Groot-like appendages and eye sockets, is  a metaphor of Patrick Ness’s low fantasy realm. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster of director J.A. Bayona’s film “A Monster Calls”, which Ness adapted from his own YA novel of the same name, is summoned to tell the boy three stories that will presumably get him through his denial.

Presented in stunning watercolor work are these parables,  the story of an ancient kingdom  with kings and princes and an evil queen and deception,  and another about a healer who refuses to heal when a man loses his faith. This doesn’t make much of an impression on Conor, who fails to see the point of tall tales when all he wants is for someone so save mum.

As the story comes together, Conor’s rage boils over, directed at his father (Toby Kebbell), a decent man who comes to visit monster_callsfrom his new home in Los Angeles, but most acutely aimed at a cruel boy at school (James Melville) who torments him mercilessly without regard to his mother’s worsening condition.

All three elements of the film—reality, the monster, and the monster’s stories—are marbled together in an effective, handsome, sometimes tear-inducing production. Part fable, part drama, “A Monster Calls” boasts an impressive debut for young MacDougall—particularly in the company of Jones, Weaver, and Kebbell—and a rattling voice performance from Neeson, who also did some motion capture for the creature.

The bond between Conor and mum is established very early on–central to our investment in the film, no matter how impressive the monster FX may be–as they watch “King Kong” on the old reel-to-reel together, which makes its own statement about smashing and destroying things that we don’t understand. Her skin pallid and lips drained of color, the “Rogue One” actor is hardly recognizable. By the same token,  director Bayona’s mulit-genre-faceted film doesn’t seek to depress its audience; Neeson’s thunderous voice and MacDougall’s compelling durability won’t let it. For a film dealing in the reality of death, “Monster” does a great job of painting things in a different, very creative way without obscuring the message.

Area Theaters December 6th

—M. Parsons 2017

Posted in

Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *