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Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Ness’

All movie monsters are metaphorical, but few of them are quite so up-front about it as the title character of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a film which has already earned the coveted title of First Thing I Saw In A Theatre In 2017. This is not even the most distinguished plaudit to be heaped upon the movie, for it has already been described as ‘the best film of the year’ – though which year we’re talking about is, perhaps intentionally, a little unclear (was it the year it was advertised in or the year it’s being released in?). I’m not sure I would go that far myself but this is still an interesting and accomplished film.

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This movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who I was previously only really aware of as the head honcho of the online Doctor Who spin-off Class, about which perhaps the less said the better. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, a young boy with serious issues far beyond the fact that his name is arguably spelt wrong. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is very seriously ill – yes, I know, it’s getting to the point where Jones has less chance than Sean Bean of getting to the closing credits of a film – and Conor has to some extent been thrown on the mercies of his severe and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, imported to help with that crucial US distribution, and deploying a pretty decent English accent) and largely-absent father (a rare performance by Toby Kebbell that remains untouched throughout by prosthetics or CGI).

What with also being viciously bullied at school, it’s all getting a bit much for the lad, and his tribulations are accompanied by the manifestation of a huge monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who, it must be said, does look rather like Vin Diesel’s character from a certain hugely popular Marvel sub-franchise. The monster insists that he has been summoned for a purpose, and that there are important tales to be told and deep secrets to be revealed in the days to come… (At no point does Sigourney Weaver appear in a fork-lift truck and start battling the monster, which I kind of guessed was never going to happen – it was still a tiny bit disappointing, though.)

I wasn’t really aware of Bayona prior to seeing this film, though of course it turns out he’s handled some fairly major releases, but while watching it I completely assumed he was an English director, so convincing is its depiction of the texture of British life and society. I was rather surprised, therefore, when the closing credits rolled and it turned out everyone in the crew had names like Enrique and Pedro: yup, this is an Anglo-Spanish co-production, partly even filmed in Spain (other bits filmed in my old haunt of Preston, somewhere not frequently mistaken for the Iberian peninsula). Perhaps this explains the script’s occasional, very slightly distracting lapses into American English (Mom instead of Mum, for instance).

But, as I say, you don’t really notice any of this while you’re actually watching the film. This is the kind of film where it’s more or less clear from the trailer exactly what’s going to go on: a wrenching tale of how harsh and cruel life can be, counterpointed by a fantastical metaphor that serves to give the thing a bit of life and imagination and stop it from just being utterly soul-stampingly grim. And for the first part of the film, this was exactly what I was given, to the point where I got a bit restive and started to wonder just what all the critics had been getting so excited about.

Then a few things happened: the script got slightly more sophisticated than I’d expected – ‘honestly, this is just a dream, can we get on with it,’ says Conor at one point during a visit by the monster, proving he is just as clued up as the audience – while the animation used to realise the stories told by the monster is genuinely beautiful in its own right. And the story – well, I’m not sure that there’s anything strikingly original about it, to be honest, but it’s told with such skill and sincerity that it doesn’t feel like something that you’ve seen before. (Well, perhaps with one exception – quite apart from the monster looking like Groot’s dad, there’s a key scene in this film which is almost a reprise of an equally important one in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

I think mostly it comes down to the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Lewis MacDougall gives a quite astonishingly assured and mature performance as Conor, in no way upstaged by playing scenes opposite heavyweights like Neeson or Weaver. (It was only after seeing the film that I learned the young actor suffered a close family bereavement shortly before making it.) Even Toby Kebbell, who I really assumed was only working so much because his head was a convenient shape for sticking those motion-capture ping pong balls to, gives a very solid turn.

In the end it all goes together to make a film which does pack an emotional wallop and tackles some serious themes and material in a manner which never feels too heavy or laborious at all. I found myself at distinct risk of having an emotional reaction in the cinema, and judging from the amount of stifled sobbing and sniffling coming from the seats around me, other people had been affected even more powerfully. Not the best film of 2016, if you ask me, but if it does turn out to be the best one of 2017 that wouldn’t mean we’re not in for a good year. An extremely fine and moving piece of work with some profound emotional truths at its heart.

 

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Now, as anyone who’s been following along will know, I stopped writing (and, for the most part, caring) about what I suppose we must call current Doctor Who about two years ago. Who knows, once Moffat finally clears off (only another fifteen months to go!), I may be minded to reconsider, but honestly I doubt it. But that’s a discussion for another time. Now, and not strictly covered by the no-Moffatt-Who embargo, we have the new spin-off to consider.

I don’t want to kick things off with more of a downer than is strictly necessary, but I have to say I was slightly astounded to hear they were even doing another new spin-off. The glory days of the late 2000s are a long time ago, are they not, and the parent show itself is not quite in an all-conquering imperial phase at the moment (or maybe I’m just biased). The fact that the new show is premiering on a network that isn’t actually a network isn’t a good sign either.

Or perhaps I’m getting it backwards and the very fact that BBC3 doesn’t have its own network any more (sacrificed by the corporation as part of its ongoing holding action against the hellhounds of the privately-controlled Tory media) may be exactly why the ‘channel’ ordered the show: the Who fanbase is guaranteed to deliver a big audience, by online standards, and raise their profile accordingly.

Either way, here we are: Class, created by Patrick Ness. Should I be watching this show? Well, it’s a YA piece of SF aimed at people who actually like current Doctor Who, so I’m guessing probably not. Much has been made of the fact that Class has had its premiere ten years to the day after the first episode of Torchwood was first shown, but – at first glance, anyway – the two programmes have little in common beyond the universe in which they occur (always a fairly fragmented entity, and – is this my bias again? – particularly now).

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Torchwood, of course, was about a secret quasi-governmental organisation charged with investigating otherworldly phenomena in Cardiff, ‘made for adults’ as they insisted at the time. Class is about the travails of a bunch of London teenagers as they deal with alien menaces, not for kids, but definitely aimed at young adults. Quite different, of course.

Except… well, look at it this way. As was fairly clear at the time, Torchwood was basically an attempt to transpose the style and feel of Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a British context, which was why the members of the secret government team never really acted like secret government team members, and why that strange atmosphere of forced jollity prevailed a lot of the time.

Class, it goes without saying, is attempting the same trick, only playing it much safer: the American show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings has been retooled as a British show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings. There is the kid who is not all they seem, the member of staff who protects them and likewise has a hidden agenda, the popular kid, the geeky kid, the quiet-but-strong kid, and so on. Even some of the specific story beats in the first episode were very familiar.

(Although it does occur to me that Buffy finished well over ten years ago now and a lot of the audience for the new show may not be aware of it, so Class may not get called out for being a blatant knock-off as loudly as I thought would be the case.)

In short, with both Torchwood and Class we’re talking about two shows fishing from the same quite distinctive pond, both ticking all the necessary diversity boxes, both featuring gratuitous profanity, both with an unexpected level of gore, and both with a format built around people keeping an eye on a mysterious space-time rift.

Personally I find first-season Torchwood to be up there with early Next Gen in the painful-to-watch stakes, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first episode of Class turned out to be a rather less gruelling proposition: it looks much slicker, with effects that get the job done, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. I was rather taken with Miss Quill the psychopathic teacher, and none of the rest of the characters were that annoying. The setting-up-the-plotlines stuff wasn’t especially laborious to watch, either.

In short, the first episode was solid, though I must confess I was looking at my watch waiting for Peter Capaldi to come on. (Interesting that there’s been a change of approach at the BBC – the rule was that the Doctor would never appear in Torchwood, as it might lure small children into watching an inappropriately ‘adult’ (when talking about Torchwood‘s first two seasons, the inverted commas are obligatory) programme, but here he was in a show where somebody shouted ‘****’ at one point.

As things went on, though, it seemed more and more and more apparent to me that this was a programme with very little in the way of its own distinct identity – there’s nothing about it that made me go ‘Hmm, this is strikingly original’, and so many ideas, gags and plot beats that were blatantly lifted from the same tiny handful of sources (Doctor Who itself, Buffy) that I lost count.

I mean, it’s fairly watchable, probably because it’s derived (and I do mean derived) from series which most of the time were quality productions, but… well, look, there’s even a moment where the characters discuss how similar their situation is to the format of Buffy. The intention is probably to be knowingly meta and self-aware about the whole thing (the same is probably true of the gag about the Bechdel test, something else which I haven’t quite got my head round), but I think that doing jokes about how derivative your programme is doesn’t actually excuse the fact that you’re making a very derivative programme in the first place. But perhaps I am too harsh.

Anyway, I expect I will stick with it: there’s not exactly a huge quantity of UK-made SF or fantasy around at the moment, though thinking about it Humans is back soon (even though I kind of lost patience with that near the end of the first series). In short – the makers of Class have some very clever, inventive and groundbreaking ideas. Which they have pinched from a show nearly 20 years old.

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