Yew Can Count on Me

A Monster Calls is deliberately more moving than scary

A Monster Calls, a fantasy drama about a boy and his (not so) friendly neighborhood yew-tree monster, follows a well-trod path of adolescent anguish. Yet it manages to feel resonant and worthwhile, thanks in no small measure to a healthy dose of magic realism provided by director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter/novelist Patrick Ness.

Conor is a quiet, lonely boy growing up in small-town England. An artist at heart, he has an additional burden: his mother is dying. With an emotionally distant grandmother and a geographically distant father, Conor has no one with whom to share his sorrow. Plagued by violent, recurring nightmares about the imminent loss of his mom, he somehow conjures up a monster from a craggy old yew tree in the churchyard outside his window. The monster, through a series of nightly visits—always at 12:07—and the seemingly tangential stories he tells, helps Conor work through his flurry of crippling emotions to a place of acceptance, both of his situation and of himself.

The familiar tropes of A Monsters Calls’ core narrative—lonely only child, art as a form of escape, prep school bullies, absent fathers—quickly cede ground to Bayona’s confident, baroque filmmaking. Previously recognized for his sweeping work on The Impossible, Bayona injects this story with the fantastical elements of the yew monster and his stories, which are told through a lovely, watercolor-like style of animation that is the antithesis of a cartoon. And the monster itself, growlingly voice-acted by Liam Neeson, is an arboreal marvel of CGI effects, bristling with natural energy and preternatural menace.

A Monster Calls grounds its fantasy in the strong acting skills brought to the human characters. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Rogue One) plays Conor’s mum with a combination of fierce determination and a hint of artistic play. Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell are equally effective in the smaller roles of grandmother and dad. But the film really belongs to Lewis MacDougall, the young actor who plays Conor. He makes you believe both Conor’s pain and his desire to seek solutions, maybe even absolution, from the imposing imaginary creatures.

I’m not sure that A Monster Calls covers any new ground in terms of story, but it does tell this familiar emotional tale with power and a compelling visual sensibility that is most captivating.

The War on Words – Oct. 2016

A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

Facebook Follies

Being on Facebook means never having to pay attention to spelling, punctuation, grammar, or, really, anything resembling proper English. In a feeble attempt to correct some of this errata, here are the (current) most misspelled words, as determined via scientific survey (my personal observations): • It’s cannot (one word), not can not. • Conversely, it’s all right (two words), not alright. • You lose something, you don’t loose it. You can, however, let loose on Facebook. • A female is a woman, not a women! • And (here we go again) you are an alumnus (male) or an alumna (female), not an alumni. (That’s plural.)

Movie Mix-Ups:

As a house party breaks up in Don’t Think Twice, one of the characters tells Keegan-Michael Key that a limousine is coming to pick him up and bring him to the airport. The action (and the limo ride) will be away from the speaker, therefore the proper word is take. As noted previously, the song is not “Bring Me Out to The Ball Game.”

Department of Redundancies Dept.

Shamed Olympian Ryan Lochte claimed that he “over-exaggerated” in describing his infamous incident in Rio de Janeiro. Similarly, Jenna Bush Hager, George W.’s daughter and sometime correspondent for Today, said that a colleague “over-exaggerated” when she praised Hager’s tennis skills after she hit a few with Venus Williams. Exaggerate means to overstate. From a press release for a new book: “Demia shares some of her own personal experiences.” The italicized words are redundant. And long-time reader Debbie Layton says she was watching synchronized swimming and heard the announcer say that one pair “had trouble seeing each other visually.”

Not So Fast . . .

Speaking of Debbie, she caught a glitch in the September column that resulted from a hasty correction on our part. We cited this sentence from the Pennsylvania Gazette—“The Pentagon people came to us instead of we going to them”—and claimed that “we” should be “us.” But, as Debbie points out, it properly should be our.

Media Watch

• “The Clinton’s are the real predators”— tweet from Donald Trump. Like all semi-literates, he gets apostrophes wrong. We’re betting the sign on his house reads “The Trump’s.” • Nick McCarvel in USA Today: “Work is something Nadal has never been adverse to.” The word Nick was looking for is averse, which means “opposed.” Adverse means “unfavorable,” as in “adverse weather.” • WIP’s Jody McDonald talked about a player being “over-evaluated.” This is a common error among sports talkers. A player can be over-evaluated, but they almost always mean overvalued or overestimated. • From The Washington Post: “They sunk into the white sandy beach that stretches along Disney’s luxe Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.” That’s sank. Another common error among both broadcast and print media. • Similarly, Liz Hernandez, host of Access Hollywood: “And now another lucky newcomer who has sang and danced but never acted.” Should be sung. Courtesy of reader Larry Kerchner. • From the News Journal: “Particularly for those that try to find that authenticity in their food, (the report) is not going to phase them.” That should be faze, of course. Phase is a distinct period or stage in a process of change, as in “the final phase of the war.” • From Humble Heroes, a book about the USS Nashville, a World War II Navy ship, the author writes of a cook who worked “in the boughs of the ship.” That would be bowels. • And finally, in the best-selling Everybody’s Fool, Richard Russo misuses disinterested several times to mean uninterested. Disinterested means “neutral” or “objective.” He also drops “of” from the expression “a couple of,” as in, “he moved a couple blocks away.” Surprisingly, this has become common among some of the best writers.

Word of the Month

vituperative Pronounced vy-TOO-puhr-uh-tiv, it’s an adjective meaning criticizing bitterly; scathing, abusive.