Thursday, 26 January 2017

Life, Animated

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Released from Dogwoof Entertainment on DVD this Monday 30th January, the Oscar-nominated Life, Animated tells the story of a young man, now aged 23, who is graduating after overcoming the debilitating condition of autism from the age of 3 years old; and how the watching of classic Disney movies helped him overcome his affliction and interact with the world especially his parents and family who feared they had lost him 'to the prison of autism'.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams, the film follows Owen Suskind who from the age of 3 was diagnosed with autism and how his parents Ron/Cordelia learnt that Owen through watching Disney films - Peter Pan, Aladdin, The Lion King - understood emotions of empathy, love and friendship; whilst his motor skills were slower he could process through the oeuvre of Disney pictures a place in society and how Owen fits into this real world.

The film is cautious to show Owen with his therapists and how wary they are about how his worldview may be clouded by the Disneyfication, how perhaps there may not always be a happy ending. This notion is put sharply into context when Owen and his girlfriend, Emily after a three-year relationship full of hugs and cutesy emotion is ended (somewhat abruptly) by Emily. This prompts Owen to ask, 'Why is the world full of pain and tragedy?' to his Mum on the phone, but this is part of Owen's learning that the world is not like the fantasy of Disney and can be cruel and big.

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The film uses original animation sequences to show the formative years of Owen and his growing up in hand drawn storyboards. These sequences are endearing coupled with the story Owen wrote as a young boy called 'The Land of the Lost Sidekicks' incorporating the fact that following a brief episode of bullying at a special needs school, Owen felt less of a hero and more of a secondary character in his own narrative like a Baloo, Rafiki, Iago.

As a documentary film, this is the perfect format for such a delicate matter where certain viewers may still be ignorant of autism and its affects on behaviour, yet the film credibly attempts to show you the effects on the rest of the family including a poignant moment for Owen's brother Walt on the occasion of his 26th birthday, when he reflects on a time when his parents may not be around and he will have to protect Owen himself. The genuine warmth and affection between the family radiates off the screen throughout and is a real joy to witness.

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The drawbacks on the film although minor is how does Owen interact with other films (although Casper is on his shelf) even alternative animation fare or is it just Disney films he watches regularly; no mention is made of the Pixar catalogue when a film like Toy Story about growing up and becoming responsible would ring true to Owen.

Delicately handled and beautifully edited Life, Animated is a vital portrait of a condition that the majority still are reluctant and ignorant to address.

Life, Animated is released on DVD on 30th January

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Monster Calls

Having viewed this film in the spacious and lovely surroundings of a new screen at Everyman Chelmsford, where me and my girlfriend sat comfortably on a plush sofa, A Monster Calls is a wonderfully realised adaptation of a children's novel that sets itself apart from other children fantasy stories.

Based upon the book by Patrick Ness and adapted for the screen by the same writer, J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) directs with aplomb in bringing the fictional tale of a young boy Conor (Lewis MacDougall) having to come to terms with the impending death of his young mum (Felicity Jones) from cancer whilst dealing with the fleeting visits of his estranged father (Toby Kebbell) and the conflicting relationship with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).

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To take solace from the grief and anger Conor is feeling, he has the fantasy life of bringing an old Yew tree he can see from his bedroom window to life.  Every night at 12.07am, the tree comes to Conor's window with a morality tale for Conor to listen to, from these the tree hopes that Conor will learn some life lessons for his day-to-day life.

The tree is voiced by Liam Neeson and his booming deep voice adds gravitas to the tree as this all conquering being, that has seen many things over the years bringing his authority to the voiceover work.

The tree in CGI is very convincing and Bayona does well with the scenes either shot in daylight or nighttime; but the real jewel in the film are the animated sequences that tell the three tales the tree tells Conor.  The tales are told with such panache featuring faceless people, therefore, rendering them universal in their themes.

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One tale makes Conor state that he/she is a monster, but the tree says not everyone is a monster because you merely label them as such; notice I refer to the tree as a tree and not the Monster the title suggests. Perhaps the Monster calling is not not a physical being and more of metaphorical unstoppable beast such as the cancer that makes Conor's Mum succumb.

The acting in the film throughout is superb but young MacDougall outdoes his older peers by carrying the film in a way rarely seen in mainstream films, but the other star is Bayona who directs with such a vision and confidence - count the number of match-to-match shots throughout - shooting it like a graphic novel with a deliberate mise-en-scene and composition; lighting it adroitly and getting the right balance of performance and action. There is a nice seamlessness to the film from the understated score to the editing and production design.

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A minor flaw would be the lack of conviction in the father-son dynamic, merely stating they were young and he had to leave, was not enough for this viewer; yet Felicity Jones brings real emotion to her performance as a dying young woman who wants to make sure her son remains creative and happy once she is gone.

A Monster Calls is a film that by the end of 2017 should rightly remain lauded and praised, and shown to as many young children/adults as possible. In our screen were families who came to see the film, a good sign that they came for the story and perhaps not the CGI.

A Monster Calls is out now in all cinemas

Thursday, 12 January 2017


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Debut novels are all the rage in this the early part of 2017, new crime voices are making big strides and in recent months I have reviewed thrilling bows from A. A. Dhand with Streets of Darkness and the impending arrival of Daniel Cole's Ragdoll.

Whilst Ragdoll is that mixture of genuine thriller writing, good plotting and the page turning abandon you find in Lee Child or Dan Brown novels; there is another new voice on the block. Joseph Knox is here to make himself heard and Lee Child himself, has been most praiseworthy of this debut novel.

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Sirens tells the story about DI Aidan Watts, a disgraced policeman in the Manchester Police Force, who whilst on suspension is asked for a special undercover role in finding a politican's daughter's whereabouts; but when Watts gets further into the loyalties of a crime lord he the past becomes murkier and the present day darker.

Knox in an interview with Radio 5 Live's Phil Williams last week said it took him the best part of seven years to finish the novel which prompted a bidding war between 10 publishers, with Doubleday/Transworld Publishers coming out on top.

Knox writes with a real verve and creates a foreboding atmosphere of a darker side of Manchester, much like Dhand did with Leeds and Bradford in his work.  The author has a keen eye on little details which he shares with Watts from the politician not wearing his wedding ring when away from his wife to the way people share looks and talk too loudly at house parties.

In the radio interview, Knox promised another novel starring Watts is in the works.  Whilst the line between good and evil is tread with fear by our protagonists, Knox is not afraid to take you to these places and his admiration for Manchester is clear to see. Should he continue to write with this flair and character, it will not be the last we hear of him.

Sirens is out from on Thursday 12th January from Doubleday Press/Transworld Publishers

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

George Lucas: A Life

George Lucas

Written by Brian Jay Jones, who has previously authored a biography of Jim Henson, returns with a new biography on another creative force that seismically challenged the cultural landscape of the late Twentieth Century, in this instance it is the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas.

Jones is a wonderful researcher and he uses his biography to cover the entirety of Lucas' life and career and not focusing on the space opera he created in the 1970s; he goes in depth on American Graffiti which was the film he made in 1973 and was the classic case of a small independent film becoming a phenomenon, the Blair Witch Project of its day.

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Yet Jones does not merely focus on the impact of the film on so many film-makers but also the process of making such a film had on Lucas and his creativity.  Lucas had a short schedule of a few weeks and had to shoot most of the film at nights with a skeleton crew and novice cast; yet Lucas was able to meld the apparent mess and create a force on the screen, one that got people jumping out of their seats by the end.

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If American Graffiti was a shot between the eyes, his next film Star Wars, would blow your head clean off. A film that 20th Century Fox were not comfortable with, Jones makes it clear how fortunate Lucas and his producer, Gary Kurtz were in that they had the support of Alan Ladd Jr. in the process of production - Ladd gained Lucas the extra money for shooting and held studio heads at bay who were worried about the production going into free fall and becoming a disaster.

However, Lucas' sheer bloody mindedness and determination to succeed, drove him through the post-production getting results from his fledgling effects company Industrial Light and Magic to create the thrilling trench run at the end of Star Wars.  Throughout, the book makes clear that whilst Lucas may have drawbacks as a director (his reluctance to actually direct actors) and is a better producer and collaborator as the chapters on the Indiana Jones films with Steven Spielberg can attest to.

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Lucas, much like Jim Henson, was a maker of legends and myths not only on the big screen. Without his drive to ambition for a cinema that no-one had ever seen before, you would not have the Star Wars universe, you would not have the phenomenal body of work ILM has created in its catalogue and from ILM sprang another game-changing company, Pixar. His influence and use of computer technology has changed film and movies forever.

The post-Return of the Jedi years were not kind to Lucas and whilst he remained a producer people wanted him to return to Star Wars and so he sat down and wrote The Phantom Menace which was released in 1999, yet the world was starting to change with another fantasy behemoth The Lord of the Rings pushing the envelope further than maybe Lucas thought was possible.

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Author - Brian Jay Jones

Jones tells the story of the prequel trilogy and does state reviewers criticism of them, but he does state how badly organised the films were in terms of production. Filming began on Attack of the Clones without a completed script, shooting on the fly with virtually all green screens for his actors to act opposite tennis balls and sticks.

The book concludes with mention of Lucas selling Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company for a $4.7billion fee and how he was ignored by the new company in regards to plot development for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This leaves a sour taste in Lucas' mouth but also an unfortunate glance at current society that once you make it big and become such a part of the cultural zeitgeist, people do not care for how you feel, they merely want to consume your product whichever way possible.

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Now Lucas is not tied to the Star Wars universe, he is an onlooker taking in what he created. Yet what he has created has had possibly the biggest ripple effect of cultural significance known to culture and arts.

George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones is available now from Little Brown & Company