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A Monster Calls

Hidden Figures

January 12, 2017

A Monster Calls (** ½) PG-13

The impressively mounted adaptation of the children’s book of the same name, A Monster Calls, must be given credit for earnestly attempting to deal with difficult subject matter. Viewers thinking this might be perfect fare for the kiddies should be forewarned. It’s a film that tackles such heady themes as mortality and letting go. All in the guise of a fantasy film, of course, but still pretty heavy stuff. The film offers top-notch production values, especially in the art direction department, but unfortunately the journey to the film’s destination doesn’t always satisfy emotionally as much as it probably should even if the conclusion does pay off quite handsomely.

Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is a twelve-year old boy who’s carrying quite a bit of weight on his young shoulders. Not only is Connor bullied at school on a regular basis but his life at home isn’t much better either. A lot of this has to do with the fact that his single mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer and his father is largely absent from the boy’s life. Connor also is facing the prospect of living with his emotionally aloof grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) should his mother’s health not improve. 

Connor has a recurring dream of a giant pit opening up in the ground, threatening to swallow the boy and his mother.

The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) and Lewis Mac Dougall in A Monster Calls

One night after awakening from this feverish dream, the tree in Connor’s back yard (voiced by Liam Neeson) comes to life, alerting him the he will appear three times. Each time he appears he will relate a story with some sort of moral at its center. In turn Connor has to agree to relate his own story to the monstrous tree upon the creature’s fourth visit. Of course, the purpose of the stories is to help Connor deal with the growing emotional turmoil in his life, which is mounting every day.

Admittedly, A Monster Calls does pack a bit of a wallop during its conclusion but that’s to be expected. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t sprinkle its emotional rewards a bit more evenly during the film. Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) does an admirable job orchestrating things but, ultimately, he seems to be more interested in dazzling us with production values than giving the audience something to chew on, when it’s all said and done.

Hidden Figures (***) PG

Two pivotal events of the early sixties collide in director/co-writer Ted Melfi’s historical drama Hidden Figures. It’s a testament to Melfi and his screenwriting partner, Allison Schroeder, that the duo were able to take both the space race and the subject of civil rights and blend them together so well in a mostly compelling manner. Though Hidden Figures comes sometimes dangerously close to trotting out clichéd and formula movie tropes, the overall effect is mostly satisfying.

If Hidden Figures does tend to veer into the melodramatic stratosphere from time to time one can tend to forgive its shortcomings due to the inspired casting of its leads. The film is buoyed by the presence of Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Taraji P. Henson as three African American women whose talents were instrumental in putting the first American, John Glenn, in orbit.

Melfi and Schroeder’s screenplay is based on Margo Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction account of the trio and the significant contributions they made during their time working in a peripheral manner for the space program.

Spencer, Henson & Monae in Hidden Figures

The story is set in 1961 in Langley, Virginia. Water fountains/bathrooms were still segregated as well as schools, and white men ruled the roost at most places of employment. The film’s depiction of these injustices is sometimes hard to watch but that’s a testament to Melfi’s ability to vividly depict a not so long ago time and place.

The bulk of the film’s focus is on mathematician Katherine Johnson’s (Henson) struggles after she is hired to use her talent with figures to calculate a way to safely get Glen into space. The struggles of her pals, Mary Jackson (Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn, an engineer and computer supervisor respectively, are also depicted to some degree. Still, it’s Johnson’s story that takes center stage as she butts heads with supervisors (Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, both very effective in a scenery chewing manner) who seem to genuinely care about her plight in the pecking order of things.

Hidden Figures is the kind of film that tries awfully hard to make its audience feel good about the progresses that have been made since those days some 55 plus years ago. I’m okay with that. Even if the film’s emotional takeaway wasn’t quite as much as I would have liked it’s hard to dislike a film whose heart is in the right place.

At press time both these movies are playing at the Carmike in Hickory, and all around the area.

Questions or comments? Write Adam at filmfan1970@hotmail.com.

 

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