The word "monster" alone might keep you from this film, that and the trailer of a walking, talking tree, bearing down on a small boy. Also, the plot involves a dying mother. Don't let any of these things keep you away. A Monster Calls transcends its title and delivers its promises.

Conor O'Malley is bullied and pitied at school. He's small. His luminous mother is dying. His grandmother is unwarm, acknowledging that the only thing she has in common with that small boy is his mum, her daughter. One of the things that mother and son have in common is art: they both draw. 

Wise beyond his 12 years, Conor creates drawings to deal with his anger at his mother's approaching death. His drawings of scary creatures and adversarials line his walls. And, then, after a close-up on Conor's pencil, its sounds captured audibly, the vinous tree appears to Conor at 12:07 a.m. The Monster promises to visit on three successive nights with three stories, after which the boy must tell the fourth story. He must tell the truth. 

A Monster Calls is based on the children's novel and script by Patrick Ness. Under the amazing direction of J.A. Bayona, the Spanish director of The Impossible, Jim Kay illustrated the monster with the sense of the man Conor will become. Liam Neeson voices the Monster as part papa and part terror. Bayona married animation to live action, juxtaposing fantasy and reality, and creating red skies right out of Brigadoon and Kagemusha

Felicity Jones carries the press of the sick mother beautifully, sadly. Sigourney Weaver bears the weight of Grandma. But the movie -- only his second --belongs to delicate Lewis MacDougall. A Monster Calls is nothing -- and everything -- you would imagine.


It may not sound like the most inviting documentary of the year, but Seven Songs for a Long Life is a heart-warming, life-affirming film. Set in Strathcarron Hospice, one of the largest such centers in Scotland, director Amy Hardie explores the present and past of six patients who vary in ages and prognosis but share a love of life.

They include an ex-motorcycle racer with m.s., one woman who faces a recurrence of cancer, another with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, one diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow, and so on. What unites them is a pressing, serious consideration of the end of life. Each deals with her or his situation differently; for example, one man doesn't want to know details of his illness, others want full and complete information. Several focus intently on their families and making their loved ones' adjustments easier, including their children's acceptance. 

These everyday men and women are remarkable exactly because they mirror our friends, relatives, and colleagues. This familiarity makes their humor, pain, and resilience resonate that much more fully--we know and are these individuals: Tosh, Julie, Dorene, Iain, Alicia, and Nicola. They are served by incredibly sensitive, gentle nurses and caring staff who share with their own emotional gifts. Most memorable among them is nurse Mandy. After having worked at the hospice center for a considerable time, Mandy wisely observes that what she's learned is how to listen because they can't fix things. 

As the title Seven Songs for a Long Life suggests, patients and staff also share the joy of song which liberates their spirits and moves their bodies as they sing, for example, "Strangers in the Night," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," and "The Good Life," among others. The restraint of the film, shot over three years, fits the subject, though there are, appropriately, sad moments and slow sections. Intercut shots of nature ground the film in the beauty of the area. 

It is ironic that those dying have so much to teach us about living but indeed they do, enhancing whatever appreciation we already have. Seven Songs for a Long Life screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, January 6 through Sunday, January 8 at 7:30 each evening. 



The Chilean director Pablo Larraín is known for the film No and other looks at his country's politics. He is out of his element, however, with his coverage of the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. By focusing on Pres. Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Larraín closed in.

This is despite efforts to open the narrative to Pres. Kennedy's 1,000 days in office leading to the November kill. Larraín shows Jacqueline Kennedy's famous televised tour through the White House.

Larraín frames the film inside an interview between Mrs. Kennedy and a man merely known as The Journalist, played stoically and symbolically by Billy Crudup. She and he sit on the portico, flanked photogenically by columns. He interviews, she skitters and smokes. He asks, as she knew he would, about the sound of the bullet, about the lapful of brains, about the service to JFK's memory.

Larraín's cameras go behind the cameras as Kennedy conducts the TV tour and is reminded to smile by her secretary, played by Greta Gerwig. Larraín shows her stepping boldly out of the White House rather than hiding, kneeling before the catafalque holding her husband's coffin, and stooping to tell her children that Daddy's not coming home.

The cast neither looks nor sounds like the actual people: John Carroll Lynch's LBJ, Beth Grant's LBJ, Peter Sarsgaard's Bobby Kennedy, and a Dane, Casper Phillipson, as JFK. John Hurt play the generic priest more easily. Only one, Natalie Portman, tries to look and sound like her role, but she does not succeed and ends up looking and sounding forced. 


Larraín is good at atmosphere -- the fog at Arlington, Mrs. Kennedy's silent shower, her face before mirrors. But Jackie, the film, is too focused to teach history to the young and too invasive to appeal to the old, who watched TV that November. 



In 2010 at Broadway's Cort Theater, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis electrified the stage with their performances in Fences, August Wilson's 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Now, in the film presentation with a screenplay by Wilson, directed by Denzel Washington, he and Davis deliver equally visceral, emotionally shattering depictions of Troy and Rose Maxson. 

Married 18 years to Rose, 53 year-old Troy works as a garbage collector who aspires to promotion to driver. He clashes bitterly with his older son Lyons, a musician, and younger son Cory, a talented high-school football player eager to meet a college recruiter. Himself a baseball player years ago in the Negro League, Troy rails against the racial prejudice that he feels kept him from the big leagues, racism still pervasive in 1950s Pittsburgh where he lives. Rose unquestionably loves and supports Troy who harbors a seething anger for his lot in life and, according to his sons, takes it out on them.

Troy's on-going project to build a fence in his backyard gives the play and film its title, Fences. Its symbolic significance is articulated by Troy's friend and coworker Bono who observes, "Some people build fences to keep people out, some people build fences to keep people in." Truth be told, Troy does both, revealing the depths of his Troy's desperate need for validation leads to the most painful confrontation in a scene impossible to forget.  

The weakness of Denzel's migration of the play to film is that it feels like exactly that. It isn't opened up or expanded, a comment on Troy's entrapment but conferring some claustrophobia into its circumscribed world. The energy, and it is considerable, derives from the vitality in Wilson's superb writing, burrowing deep into the demons that Troy battles, scapegoating others while fighting himself. 

In that regard, Denzel and Viola embody truly astonishing depictions of this couple, acting at the highest level of perfection even in slight reaction shots or minor movements, and as director Denzel captures these details. Also superb are Stephen Henderson as Bono, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, and Jovan Adepo as Cory. But Fences belongs to Denzel and Viola for their fiery interaction. Check area listings.


Director Garth Davis' film Lion sits squarely in the category of real-life stories that are more astonishing than any fiction. Here, briefly, is what really happened. In 1986 in rural, central India, older brother Guddu and five-year-old Saroo steal coal from trains and rummage for whatever else they can to help feed their impoverished family. 

One night Saroo falls asleep on a train and ends up in Kolkata, a thousand miles from his home. Since he speaks Bengali, he doesn't understand and can't communicate in the locals' Hindi. Saroo's fortunes change when he is adopted by Sue and John Brierley who live in Hobart, Tasmania. There Saroo grows to adulthood with his mentally-challenged brother Mantosh, also adopted. Twenty-five years later, Saroo decides he must attempt to find his original family, though he doesn't have a clue to even the name of his home town. 

With a deft, delicate touch Luke Davies has adapted Saroo Brierley's own account of his life's journey, "A Long Way Home." It would have been tempting to surrender to the sentimental aspects of this touching story, but Davies and director Davis choose a wiser course: a straightforward, restrained recounting, almost documentary in style. As Saroo negotiates with clever street savvy the dangers in Kolkata, no histrionic, sensationalized appeals are warranted or present. 

This extends to the undemonstrative performances by newcomer Sunny Pawar as Saroo the child and Dev Patel as the adult Saroo. Patel, who made a strong statement in Slumdog Millionaire, shows his chameleon-like range here and that he's grown into diverse, adult roles. Though they don't get much screen time, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham do a good job as Saroo's parents with Rooney Mara as Saroo's girlfriend.  

Shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser in Kolkata, India; Hobart, Tasmania; and Melbourne, Australia, the locations add a tangible presence conveying the dislocation Saroo experiences; that is, the lighting and color palette in India differentiate it significantly from Tasmania's art direction. 

Saroo's name means "lion," giving the film its title. In English as well as Bengali and Hindi with English subtitles. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Theatres.


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