A Monster Calls (2016)

Spanish director J.A. Bayona again demonstrates his prodigious skills, with this moving fantasy-drama, which only slightly falls short of his previous efforts.

With just two films to his credit – The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012) – Bayona has established himself as one of most interesting filmmakers to emerge from Spain in recent years.

So this project, based on a novel by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd) was much anticipated.

It explores a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggling to deal with a dying mother (Felicity Jones) and a vision of a monster he sees at night (Liam Neeson) who tells him tales.

A lot rests on MacDougall’s shoulders here, being centre stage throughout, and he delivers a remarkable performance, convincing in conveying a number of emotions, spanning anger, grief, frustration and terror.

Indeed, the most affecting aspect of the film is the sense of human confusion at the brutal events life can throw our way and how complicated it can be to resolve them.

The interplay between him and his loving mother (Jones), absent father (Toby Kebbel) and strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is central to why most of the audience will be moved at the end.

Yet while the human plane is handled with a sensitive and subtle touch, the monster’s – rendered by a multitude of visual effects – is somehow less impactful. A curious case of more ending up as less, with a CGI character leaving too little to the imagination.

Of more note is the animated fairytale sequences, which the monster narrates. Splendidly animated by Adrián García, they explore the Prince Charming myth, medieval faith, and “an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen”.

The flaws don’t derail A Monster Calls, which still deserves plaudits for boldly confronting dark issues inside the framework of a ‘family fantasy’.

A Monster Calls screened at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on January 6th

> Official site for the film
> London Film Festival

The Almodovar Collection (1983-1995)

Some wonderful early highlights from the career of the Spanish auteur are out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Studiocanal UK

Spanning eleven years of his career, these six films provide a rich snapshot of the Spanish filmmaker’s work throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Dark Habits (1983): When a nightclub singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) gets on the wrong side of a criminal gang, she flees to a convent where the nuns have secrets too. The title has a double meaning for what the holy women wear and what some do in their rooms. Treading a fine line between satire and serious critique of the Catholic church, it manages to keep both irons in the fire. Pascual is excellent in the lead role and there are some fine supporting performances from future Almodovar regulars, such as Marisa Paredes and Carmen Maura. After debuting at the Venice film festival it caused considerable controversy, put its director on the European festival map.

Extras:

  • New Around Dark Habits – Featuring interviews with: Marisa Paredes, MercedesGuilamon, Anabel Alonzo, Lluis Homar, Felez Martinez, Alaska Miguel, Angel Silvestre and Augustin Almodóvar
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984): The setting is an overcrowded Madrid apartment, with all manner of characters orbiting around a stressed-out housewife, Gloria (Carmen Maura). There is her vile husband (Ángel de Andrés López); her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave), curious children and a prostitute next door. The plot involves murder, intrigue and even a pet lizard, as part of an outrageous patchwork weaved by the director. Amongst an already impressive cast, Maura is the standout performer here, and it is fairly obvious why she became a regular part of Almodovar’s creative ensemble. More was to come, but this was a marker for his later works.

Extras:

  • New Around What Have I Done to Deserve This? – Featuring interviews with Mercedes Guilamon, Javier Camara, Carlos Areces and Anabel Alonzo
  • Trailer

Law of Desire (1987): Containing his trademark blend of profane tragic-comic thrills, this was perhaps his boldest film yet when Almodovar was cementing his position as a flamboyant soothsayer for post-Franco Spain. Stylishly flaunting social and sexual mores, it explores a love triangle between a famous director Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), his long-term lover (Miguel Molina) and a young actor, Antonio (Antonio Banderas). Parallel to this, is a sub-plot involving Pablo’s sister Tina (Carmen Maura) which interlocks with the main narrative. Although the plot may resemble something Fellini may have done, it still packs a considerable thematic and stylistic punch.

Extras:

  • New Around Law of Desire – Featuring interviews with Esther Garcia,
    Alberto Iglesias, Elena Anaya, Javier Camara, Rossy di Palma and Victoria Abril
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo
  • Trailer

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988): Another international breakthrough was this brilliantly realised surreal farce. A heady brew of infidelity and insecurity involving a voiceover artist (Carmen Maura), her extramarital lover (Fernando Guillen), his wife (Julieta Serrano) and an anxious friend (Maria Barranco) who has fallen for a terrorist, a synopsis for this film is difficult. But as usual with Almodovar he pulls all these strings together, with the help of what by now had become almost a stock company of actors.

Extras:

  • New Around Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Featuring interviews with Pedro Almodóvar, Loles Leon and Rossy di Palma
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo
  • Trailer

Kika (1993): Regarded by some observers at the time as something of a creative and commercial disappointment, in retrospect this holds up very well. Another riotous and colourful affair, it sees the aforementioned Kika (Veronica Forqué), a make-up artist living in Madrid with a philandering American writer (Peter Coyote). Circling them are a manic kaleidoscope of characters including: drug addicts, serial killers, porn stars and transexuals. Perhaps at times it does spin out of control, but that is part of Almodovar’s skill. One of his hallmarks is an ability to juggle outrageous comedy with darker themes – a controversial rape scene being a case in point – makes him a rare talent in world cinema.

Extras:

  • New Around Kika – Featuring interviews with Victoria Abril, Rossy di Palma and Anabel Alonzo
  • Introduction By José Arroyo
  • Pedro Almodóvar interview
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • The Characters
  • The Music
  • Trailer

The Flower of My Secret (1995): The last film in this box set marks a transition for the Spanish filmmaker, with a more toned down approach. A superbly layered portrait of a writer (an excellent Marisa Paredes), who wants to focus on the melancholic realities of pain and loss, rather than cliched happier endings. Though it retains the energy of his previous work, it is channelled in different ways. Fine supporting performances from Juan Echanove, Carmen Elias, Rossy De Palma and Chus Lampreave are a treat (with the latter two a fine double-act) and the end result points towards the masterworks to come in the late 90s and new millennium, such as All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002).

  • New ‘The Flower of my Secret’ (featuring interviews with Rossy di Palma, Augustin Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar and Marisa Paredes)
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • Introduction By José Arroyo
  • Trailer

The Almodovar Collection is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Studiocanal UK

> Buy The Almodovar Collection on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Pedro Almodóvar: 13 great Spanish films that inspire me at BFI
> Find out more about Pedro Almodovar at Wikipedia

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Alex Cox’s film about the turbulent relationship between Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, gets released on DVD & Blu-ray today as part of its 30th anniversary

Alex Cox’s film about the turbulent relationship between Sid Vicious and partner Nancy Spungen, is out now on DVD & Blu-ray as part of its 30th anniversary.

Although initially praised by critics on its release in 1986, the film badly underperformed at the box office and was further tarnished by a stinging condemnation from John Lydon.

Furious at both his and Sid’s portrayal, he wrote in his 1994 autobiography:

“To me this movie is the lowest form of life. I honestly believe that it celebrates heroin addiction…”

Yet, although one can understand Lydon’s discomfort at the film, the fact is that it is a convincing portrait of addiction and a fateful, doomed love affair.

This is in large part down to the two lead performances from Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, who manage to come across as soul mates as their relationship spiralled out of control into alcohol and heroin addiction.

Cox’s direction and screenplay (co-written by Abbe Wool) is solid and greatly enhanced by Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which are given an extra lift on the restored Blu-ray edition.

Although your appreciation may depend on how much you like the music and brief career of The Sex Pistols, time has been kind to it.

For many it remains a cult classic and an imaginative reconstruction of a significant chapter of rock history.

Sid and Nancy is out today on Blu-ray and DVD

> Find out more about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen at Wikipedia
> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK

Highlander (1986)

The cult sword and sorcery epic gets a handsome UK Blu-ray release to mark its 30th anniversary.

The cult sword and sorcery epic gets a handsome UK Blu-ray release to mark its 30th anniversary.

Although a relative disappointment at the box office in the mid-1980s, Highlander found a much bigger audience on VHS before establishing itself as a cult favourite on home video.

Set in 1985 New York, it explores a fantasy underworld where, since the dawn of time, several immortal warriors have been fighting each other until a final battle (“The Gathering”) will establish one final winner (“There can be only one!”).

It explores this narrative through Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a New York art dealer by day and swordsman by night, who since the 17th century has encountered many characters on his journey.

There is a Spanish-Egyptian mentor (Sean Connery), a mortal enemy (Clancy Brown) and many others, as his backstory is discovered through flashbacks by an expert in antiquities (Roxanne Hart).

Directed by Australian director Russell Mulcahy, then famous for landmark music videos such as The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and his debut feature Razorback (1984), it is a mixture of fairly wild themes but also styles.

Mulcahy brought to his videos for Duran Duran, Elton John and various other 1980s acts was a sense of grandeur on a lower budget, which you can see in Highlander through the lensing of Gerry Fisher and an epic score by Michael Kamen.

Added to all this, the presence of Queen on the soundtrack just adds to the bombast. Most of the actors seem to be having a lot of fun (especially Connery) and although there are lapses in logic (if the warriors are immortal how can they be killed by being beheaded?) if you give it a certain licence then there is much to enjoy here.

My first experience of this film was in the VHS era and watching it now Blu-ray (from a 4K transfer) shows how far film technology has developed. Highlander already had a cult status in the analogue past and that looks likely to continue in our digital present and future.

The extras are plentiful, including:

  • Newly Remastered in 4K for the Anniversary Release
  • New interview with director Russell Mulcahy
  • New interview with actor Christopher Lambert
  • Making of documentary in 4 parts
  • Deleted scenes
  • Audio commentary with director Russell Mulcahy
  • Original theatrical trailer

Highlander is out now from Studiocanal UK

> Buy the film at Amazon UK
> Find out more about Highlander at Wikipedia

Room (2015)

One of the highlights of last year was this deeply impressive drama about survival and the bond between a mother and son.

The setup of Room, a disarmingly interior story from its claustrophobic first half to the surprising second half, is how a mother (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay) have to survive in a confined space.

An unusual opening sequence gradually establishes a narrative framework of kidnap and incarceration, not dissimilar to those in films such as The Collector (1965) and Michael (2011).

But director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting from her own novel) opt for a different approach.

To fully reveal what that is would unleash all kinds of spoilers, but there is an emphasis here on survival, complex emotions, trauma and readjusting to environments.

Whilst the story could have descended into daytime mush, Abrahamson and his team skilfully tread a fine line of raw honesty, then lace it with knots of fear, anger, grief, hope and love.

Larson impressed in Short Term 12 (2013), but here she really excels and was well deserving of her Oscar for Best Actress. Yet, even she was slightly upstaged by the young Tremblay, who gives one of the greatest child performances of recent decades.

Not only does he manage the difficult nature of the project with considerable aplomb but shows astonishing maturity for his age, without resorting easy sentiment, which the script and direction never allow.

In supporting roles, Joan AllenWilliam H. MacySean Bridgers and Tom McCamus are all solid, but the chemistry between Larson and Tremblay is what ultimately powers this film.

In a year of quality dramas (Spotlight, The Big Short, The Revenant and Brooklyn), this was perhaps the most emotionally draining. Yet, there was a redemptive quality about Room that made it particularly special.

Room in out now on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD from Studiocanal

> Buy Room on Blu-ray or Amazon Video
> Reviews of Room at Metacritic