Category: Films for children

A Monster Calls (Spain-US-UK 2016)

Conor and the monster

Conor and the monster

Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.

There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:

The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

About a Girl (Germany 2014)

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There are not that many screenings of German films these days, so this title in the Leeds Young Film Festival looked promising. It amply repaid the time at the Picture House. The Festival Brochure recommends:

See this if you liked: Heathers, Girl Interrupted, Juno.

In fact the last title is nearest in tone: a fresh and engaging look at a moment (a sort of rite de passage) when a teenage girl finds herself re-examining life, family, relationships and the larger meanings. In some ways the film seems blackly comic, as one of its main themes is ‘death’. However, this is contrasted with ‘life’ and the drama is not only affirming but is more questioning than sardonic.

The protagonist is fifteen and three quarter years Charleen (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). She lives with her mother Sabine, (Heike Makatsch, her nickname from her own teens is Bini); her younger brother and internet savvy Oscar; her granny Emmi (Dorothea Walda, much sharper that she first appears; and Sabine’s boyfriend Volker (Simon Schwarz, sometimes called Holger). In the course of the film we also find out about her father (not around). We meet her school friend Isa (Amelie Plaas-Link). And several schoolboys including Linus (Sandro Lohmann). Apart from being bright at maths he appears to also be an amateur taxidermist.

The Festival Brochure reveals that:

One day she (Charleen) decides to commit suicide. Waking up in hospital after her failed attempt, both her, her family and her friends are forced to reassess their lives and relationships.

This takes up the rest of the narrative. In the course of this we meet an unconventional psychologist Dr. Frei (Nikolaus Frei). We visit a funeral parlour, Charleen’s school, and a cemetery. We also meet Dr. Frei’s talking Budgie and Linus’ pet hamster Archie. We listen in on school sex lessons and watch the dynamics of teenagers in this environment; including their tendency to cruelty.

All this is treated with a relatively light touch. The film does become more serious in the last 40 minutes or so, but even here the plot allows the odd moment of wit or whimsy. One sequence I enjoyed was a near accident as the driver took her eyes off the road: the wandering eyes of drivers always worry me in films. A subjective viewpoint is also introduced with Charleen’s momentary imaginings about friends and people she meets. Several of these have real panache.

One of the virtues of the film is the style. It is more naturalistic than realist. But the techniques used, which include a couple of overhead shots and a crane, a slight slow motion effect and a series of freeze frames, is always completely apt. I was especially pleased that the Steadicam shots did not attempt to emulate a handheld camera.

My sense of teenage years is now all down to memories: but I found the confusions and angst depicted completely convincing. The film does attempt to include possibly too many issues: we have a gay relationship. But even here it fits. The final resolution of the relationships is slightly pat, but seems to work.

It looks like the film does not have a UK distributor as it does not have a BBFC Certificate: the Brochure recommends 15. It is to be hoped that some bright company picks it up. It is a rewarding 104 minutes and with the right publicity should surely win an audience. The film is in colour, 2.39:1 and has English subtitles. Well spotted by the Festival programmers.

Director and Writers: Mark Monheim. Music by Sebastian Pille; Cinematography by Daniel Schönauer; Film Editing by Stine Sonne Munch; Casting by Stefany Pohlmann; Production Design by Cinzia Fossati, Christina Heidelmeier; Costume Design by Carola Raum. The film is in German with English subtitles: oddly, I could not find a German title for the film.

Paddington (UK-France 2014)

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Paddington has been a huge hit and it is largely deserved. It needs to be a hit since StudioCanal are reported to have invested $50 million in its production after Warner Bros. pulled out of the project set up with their Harry Potter partner David Heyman in 2007. Heyman then teamed up with TF1 Films in France  – with StudioCanal taking UK and French distribution. Harvey Weinstein has the North American rights. Heyman via Heyday Films also produced Gravity.

I’m too old and too distant from children’s literature to know anything about Paddington as a character but I can do the research and it’s clear that this film adaptation should appeal to a large international fanbase. The books by Michael Bond first appeared in 1958 and have now sold 30 million copies globally in 40 languages. The central character is an orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who travels to London where he hopes to find the home promised to his family by a British explorer/adventurer who ‘discovered’ the bears in the 1930s. This bear speaks beautiful English learned from recordings and is ‘named’ when he is found by the Brown family sitting with his suitcase on Paddington Station in London. They take him home and the adventure begins. (Bond is said to have had taken the idea for the books from the stories of evacuation of children from the UK’s major cities during the Second World War.)

As far as I can work out, the film’s script by Paul King and Hamish McColl draws on several published stories and will have some ‘authenticity’ for fans. King also directed the film. His background is in directing theatre, film and TV shows featuring comic talents such as Richard Ayoade and Matt Lucas (who has a cameo in Paddington). McColl has written two of Rowan Atkinson’s  blockbuster comedy films. What King and McColl have come up with in Paddington is a comedy with appeal to children and adults which grapples interestingly with fantasy, parodies of well-known films and an odd but intriguing take on historical time periods. This latter is a result of the long production history of the books and the major social (and aesthetic) changes that have taken place over fifty years and more. The James Bond films face the same problem but they attempt to place Bond – a 1950s character – firmly in the contemporary world. Paddington is, for me, more interesting and more successful.

There have been TV series based on the books, two North American, one British, but all animations. Paddington is a live action feature in which the bear is created by a combination of animatronics and CGI. Framestore the UK company that helped produce Gravity had a major role in Paddington. The bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw in a very accomplished performance and everything about the presentation of Paddington works flawlessly as far as I can see.

The weakest part of the film is probably the action narrative featuring Nicole Kidman as a kind of Cruella de Vil character who is out to stuff Paddington to complete her collection of exotic animals. This involves borrowing the heist scene from Mission Impossible, a chase through the Natural History Museum and what can only be described as various fetish outfits for Ms Kidman (there is definitely a shoe fetishist involved somewhere!). The earlier comic sequences worked much better for me.

The main interest in the film outside of its obvious broad appeal is what it contributes to the current discourse about immigration. The whole narrative concerns the arrival in the UK of a migrant bear who is expecting a warm welcome but who finds that his first ‘host’, Mr Brown considers only offering him temporary asylum unless he can find a relative of the explorer who promised  him a welcome – otherwise he will be packed off to an ‘institution’. This all sounds very familiar. Two other aspects of the scenario are also worth mentioning. The original ‘invitation’ to the UK dates from the period of Empire and Mr Brown’s attitude is not matched by that of his wife and children who quickly become Paddington’s supporters. Young people in the UK are generally seen as less likely to be anti-immigrant than older people.

Damon Albarn's re-release of Lord Kitchener's calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

Damon Albarn’s re-release of Lord Kitchener’s calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

The migration narrative is of course caught up in the conundrum about the time period setting. The most problematic representation in the film is a product of this. The Browns live in the area of Bayswater/Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill. In 1958 this was one of the London districts in which ‘West Indian’ (as they were known then) migrants first settled and Notting Hill was the site of an infamous ‘race riot’ in that year. In the present film a group of colourfully-dressed ‘calypsonians’ pop up at various points in the narrative performing songs on street corners and in alleyways. One song is a version of Lord Kitchener’s calypso ‘London is the place for me’ which he sang when the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in 1948 with the first post-war migrant workers from the Caribbean. The story behind the soundtrack is told in this BBC Report. I enjoyed these musical performances but they do highlight the odd mixture of the modern and the historical and I do wonder if this is not an offensive representation? I don’t remember seeing many other examples in the film of London’s population diversity. London in 2014 is one of the most cosmopolitan and multiracial cities in the world but Paddington generally focuses on the middle-class white London of classic children’s books. The film is a fantasy not a social realist drama – but what do London children from Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds in London make of it?Just a thought.

The ‘live cast’ including Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the Brown parents embrace their roles with gusto and overall Paddington works very well. I’m sure it will do good business in the global market and I’m intrigued to see how they develop the story and the characters in the inevitable sequel. It might be worth comparing Paddington to Aardman’s animations such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films which represent the same timeless and nostalgic view of British culture.