Maggie (2015)

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

(2015) Horror (Roadside Attractions) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer, Aiden Flowers, Carsen Flowers, Walter von Huene, Dana Gourrier, Amy Brassette, David Anthony Cole, Mattie Liptak, Liann Pattison, Maris Black, Jessy Hughes. Directed by Henry Hobson


I have not been fortunate enough to raise a daughter. There is something very special about that father-daughter bond from what I’ve seen. While there are some dads who aren’t worth a counterfeit penny, most are quite willing to lay down their lives for their little girls if need be.

Maggie Vogel (Breslin) has a dad like that – Wade (Schwarzenegger) who owns a small farm in the Midwest. Disease has broken out – a pandemic that turns those that contract it into flesh-eating cannibals. They become mindless zombies, if you will. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and now she has the disease. There is no cure. She will slowly die over a period of several months; the end is inexorable. She’s run away from home, to find herself in a hospital. That’s where Wade finds her.

There aren’t many options and none of them are real hopeful. She can be left in the hospital where she’ll be sent to quarantine, eventually to be given a very painful death. She can go home and stay there until she turns, in which case she’ll get a very painful death. Or she can go home and her father can end her existence in a more humane way. Wade chooses the last option.

Things are breaking down back at home. Wade’s second wife Caroline (Richardson) – Maggie’s mom passed when she was a little girl – and her two kids with Wade Bobby (A. Flowers) and Molly (C. Flowers) don’t really understand what’s going on, although Bobby sort of does. Eventually Caroline packs up the kids and sends them to live with an aunt, joining them herself. While she does understand what’s going on, she doesn’t get why Wade would put their two healthy children in harm’s way for the sake of a daughter who is dying. Wade doesn’t really have an answer for her that she understands.

Maggie hooks up with an old flame back at home, Trent (Romero) who also has the disease. He doesn’t want to go to quarantine – he’s heard that the conditions there are terrifying. He locks himself in his room and only Maggie can talk him out but the local sheriff (Griffin) and his mean-hearted deputy (Evermore) drag him away to quarantine anyway. Maggie knows that she doesn’t want a similar fate for herself.

But the signs are getting more unavoidable. She finds live maggots in her arm. When she cuts open a finger, she feels no pain – and oozes viscous black liquid instead of blood. She regularly vomits up horrifying liquids. She can feel her humanity slipping away. The question is, does Ray have the strength to let go of his daughter and spare her things even worse?

=Zombies are a hot commodity in terms of film and television, with The Walking Dead being the number one show on TV as this is written. However, Maggie really isn’t about zombies; they are barely part of the landscape here. We see little violence involving zombies, although on the few occasions where there is some it is sudden and horrifying. No, Maggie is about death and dying – and given the subject, yes the tone is bleak and grim.

Schwarzenegger is of course first and foremost an action hero but the man is not far from his 70th birthday and action roles don’t really suit him anymore. Given a chance to show his dramatic chops, Schwarzenegger actually shines and comes out with the best performance of his storied career. His Wade is gentle, honest and loyal but he is also very conflicted. He knows what’s best for his daughter, but finds it hard to even consider letting her go, even to the point of possibly letting her suffer. It makes the movie’s denouement even more poignant. I truly hope that Schwarzenegger gets more roles like this in the coming years; he can certainly handle them.

Breslin is already a known quality. She started out as a child actress and became one of the best juvenile actresses in history. As a young woman, she shows she can handle much more layered, complex roles. She has all the skills to be one of her generation’s most successful performers, with the kind of talent that wins Oscars and carries lead roles in important franchise films.

There are plenty of pastoral images that indicate a lifestyle that’s both rural and satisfying. Perhaps there are a few too many of those; at times the filmmaker seems a bit more in love with the style over the substance which is a bit of a shame because the substance here is pretty outstanding. Hobson has a background in making titles and graphic design and certainly his expertise shows here which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but hopefully for future films he’ll give a bit more emphasis to the story.

Oddly, the zombies here are some of the least effective ever seen onscreen. Even during the few attack scenes, they are never as menacing as they are in other presentations. The process of becoming a zombie is given more attention, which is proper and it IS fascinating, but we never get a sense of what the end result is. Becoming a zombie is bad here because it is in other movies for all we know. I would have preferred to see some graphic displays of why becoming a zombie is such a horrible fate. There is a whole lot of weeping over it though.

Also, for a zombie apocalypse, life is going on pretty well as it had before. We don’t get a sense of civilization breaking down whatsoever. But then again, why does it have to? An outbreak of zombie disease doesn’t have to signify an apocalypse, although the zombie inconvenience doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.

There is a lot to recommend this movie, particularly the acting (who’da thought) and the concept, but I think the movie could have been an absolute classic with surer hands at the helm. A little less rumination and a little more action would have benefitted the movie overall.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of his career if not THE best and Breslin is nearly as good.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The zombies aren’t used effectively and the film gets way too schmaltzy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of gore and some disturbing zombie-related images as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schwarzenegger, who really loved the script, did the movie without taking any sort of payment. The film crew also used the same home and surrounding property of the house in Looper.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some surprisingly lengthy interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film on the Blu-Ray edition.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4 million on a $4.5M production budget.
NEXT: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

New Releases for the Week of October 28, 2016


(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni. Directed by Ron Howard

Cryptologist Robert Langdon, one of the most brilliant minds on the planet, wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. As he and his doctor try to piece together what has happened to him they discover a monstrous plot bent on reducing the population of the world to a manageable number – by releasing a virus that may kill half the world’s population. Their only hope is to follow the clues left behind concerning Dante, the Italian writer who created the modern conception of Hell. This is the third film to be based on the Dan Brown series of novels.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality)

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

(Fox STAR) Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Fawad Khan. A beautiful young woman, reeling from the break-up of a long-term relationship, starts to fall for a young man who loves to sing. The film has come under fire for the casting of a Pakistani actor; tensions have been high between Pakistan and India of late following a terrorist attack on an Army base near Uri in the Kashmir region.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Bollywood
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Michael Moore in Trumpland

(Dog Eat Dog) Michael Moore, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton. This surprise Moore film is hitting theaters only days after being filmed. This is essentially a one-man show that Moore did in Ohio, deep in the heart of Trump territory, discussing the 2016 Presidential election rather than a documentary on Trump himself, as some have surmised.

For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Killbillies (Idila)

Slovenia: Land of natural beauty and bored models.

Slovenia: Land of natural beauty and bored models.

(2015) Horror (Artsploitation) Nina Ivanisin, Lotos Sparovec, Nika Rozman, Sebastian Cavazza, Jurij Drevensek, Manca Ogorevc, Damjana Cerne, Matic Bobnar, Damir Leventic, Ajda Smrekar, Liza Marija Grasic, Kaja Janjic, Klemeth Nadler, Polona Torkar, Luka Zivec, Kristof Modic, Jana Nucic, Robert Sercer, Alen Rupnik, Gregor Janez, Tina Jenko, Nastasia Koncina, Nada Bozic. Directed by Tomaz Gorkic


It is often the most idyllic countryside that is the most remote. Those places that are for the most part unspoiled by modern society seem to be the most beautiful. They can also be the most dangerous.

Zina (Ivanisin) is an amateur model who is very much aware that she is no longer in demand and that the time for career success as literally passed her by. Unpopular with her fellow models for her no-bullshit attitude, she is honest to a fault and sometimes pisses off people with her straightforward opinions. She goes out for a night of drinking with three other girls who also dabble in modeling at a bar that can only charitably be described as a dive, but one of the girls likes the home-brewed liquor they served, all of it coming out of bottles with a curious whorl pattern on the label and nothing else. The ladies gossip amongst themselves until Zina is accosted in the unisex bathroom and has to resort to kneeing the guy who won’t take go to Hell for an answer right in the family jewels.

The next day she has a photo shoot with veteran photographer Blitcz (Cavazza) who also brings ditzy Mia (Rozman) for the outdoor shoot. They are joined by make-up artist Dragica (Ogorevc) who is a former model herself. They head out to a meadow way in the boonies of Slovenia and one has to admit, the location is beautiful but not so well-chosen; they are in short order approached by Francl (Sparovec) and Vintlr (Drevensek), two inbred redneck types whose country bumpkin look belies their sinister intent. They manage to overpower the four of them and transport them to a basement.

It turns out that these two yokels are moonshiners and their liquor is very special – it is distilled from the essence of fluid extracted from the human brain. It is an extremely painful process and one that is fatal to the person unlucky enough to be distilled, so to speak. Zina realizes after one of their number is brutally bludgeoned to death in front of her that they will all die if she doesn’t find a way out of the basement, but beyond it there are miles of forest that her captors know well – and she knows not at all. It will take all her wits and will to live to survive.

I wasn’t expecting much to be honest; I admit I’m not terribly familiar with the Slovenian film industry and I had my doubts that this would be anything more than a Grade Z cheapie. Instead, it turned out to be a suspenseful little action-packed gem with some pretty decent performances, particularly from Rozman and Ivanisin and some pretty spectacular gore effects that would do a big-budget Hollywood film proud.

The movie is pretty much divided between spectacular outdoor shots in the countryside and cramped, claustrophobic interiors. Both look pretty darn good, although some of the interiors are a little too dimly lit. Still, the last twenty minutes or so which is essentially one long chase scene is almost all outdoors and done with extreme effectiveness.

There isn’t a lot of sexuality here, although the ladies are gorgeous and one of the inbreds does seem like he’s going to rape one of the models midway through the movie but for the most part sex here is almost all unwanted by the ladies which makes for some interesting psychology. There is also a clear urban vs. rural divide here that hearkens back to classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and House of 1,000 Corpses that clearly have influenced the work here.

The behavior of the models with the exception of Zina is pretty much shallow and irritating, so some viewers having to listen to Mia prattle on interminably might get a little bit done with her before the film is done with her but she is dang pretty to look at. There is also a ton of smoking in the film; I found it somewhat amusing that all the gorgeous models smoke like chimneys but the horribly mutated hillbillies do not.

The effects make-up on Francl and Vintlr are also pretty nifty; Francl has a bulbous nose and a sunken right eye with pock marks and pustules turning his skin into a teen’s worst nightmare, while Vintlr has an elongated face, teeth only a Brit could love and also his share of skin issues. Both of them are about as ugly as you can imagine and while I wish there would have been more use of Mia’s shallowness about good-looking guys be laid bare by her revulsion to the spectacularly ugly country boys, the monsters here are satisfactory, although as things turn out, the worst monsters might be the ones who look normal.

In any case, this is in Slovenian with English subtitles but it’s well worth checking out, particularly this time of year. It’s a really fine film that you’ve never heard of so if you’re looking for something a little different to push your fright buttons this Halloween, this is truly a find you might appreciate.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a surprisingly well-made film that cranks up the suspense in the last 20 minutes. The locations are beautiful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the acting is a little bit over-the-top. Some of the shallow behavior of the models might be irritating to some.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of gore and violence, some profanity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length horror film to be produced by and in Slovenia.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo
NEXT: Day 2 of Six Days of Darkness!

Living in the Age of Airplanes

A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

(2015) Documentary (National Geographic) Harrison Ford (narration). Directed by Brian J. Terwilliger


We take travel for granted. We step on an airplane and in less than a day we are anywhere else in the world. It was not that much more than a century ago that was not the case at all. Long distance travel was done by ships, or by trains. And it was not that many generations before that that the fastest travel was only as fast as the horse you rode on.

The fact is that for the first 200,000 years of human existence, the only way we got anywhere was by walking. Most human beings never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born. We had a clearer map of the stars than we did of our own planet. What lay beyond the horizon of our sight might as well have been on the moon; in fact, we could see the moon much more clearly than what was just over the hill.

This National Geographic documentary celebrates the airplane – and I mean celebrates it. Narrated by actor and aviator Harrison Ford, this National Geographic documentary looks at how the airplane has changed the world and is divided into five different sections; the first examines the beginnings of flight and places it in a timeline of human history. Quite frankly, if you look at where the plane lies on that line, it’s barely distinguishable from its end which represents the present.

From there we look at airports as a portal to the globe; step through a gate, sit down and when you rise and emerge through the other gate, you’re in a faraway place; maybe halfway around the globe. Ford also intones that the airplane is the closest thing we have to a time machine in that it can transport us to sites where ancient civilizations once flourished, or to monuments of modern civilizations. It’s a claim that’s a bit histrionic and overly dramatic, but I can see the point.

We also see how much of the things we buy and place in our homes were transported there at least partially by air. We follow a rose plucked in Kenya with 14 days of life left to it; from Kenya it is flown to Amsterdam where it is then shipped via FedEx to Memphis and from Memphis to Anchorage to where it ends up in the dining room of an Alaskan home. We are then shown all the other items in the room that made it to that home through the air.

Finally we see the final stage. “Of all the places airplanes can take us,” muses Ford, “the most meaningful is home.” We see then the airport as a place where reunions take place. Anyone who has taken a trip where they have been separated from their families for any length of time, or visits a loved one they haven’t seen in way too long will appreciate this segment.

The music and images here are well thought out, and make for a fairly thrilling experience. There is an IMAX version of this 42 minute film and I wish I’d seen it in that format; it would have been remarkable. It’s still impressive even in the 2D presentation that you are likely to have at home.

We don’t see the down side of air travel here; the delays, the cramped seating, the expensive food and drink options, the inconveniences and the security checkpoint hassles. However, as Louis CK once said in a comedy routine, we bitch about being delayed half an hour for a trip from New York to Los Angeles that lasts about six to eight hours; a trip that once took fourteen months that the entire party taking it wouldn’t survive. We do have it a lot easier in that regard.

There’s no doubt that airplanes have opened up the world to the average person and made it possible for goods and services – and tourists – to travel the globe. It’s pretty astonishing if you take the time to think about it. While this particular documentary is a bit overly glossy in the style of an industry convention presentation or more to the point, a film in a pavilion at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, it does remind us that air travel is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. The world would indeed be a very different place without it.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are amazing. The James Horner score reminds us what a talent he was. The flower segment is absolutely fascinating.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a little bit like a film at an EPCOT pavilion. The subjects don’t flow and there is little connection from one section to the next.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s nothing here that’s not suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Horner, who scored the film, ironically died in an airplane crash shortly after its release.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A plethora of featurettes, deleted scenes and some content from some of the film’s partners including FedEx.
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!


Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

(2015) Psychological Thriller (East Meade Street Gang) Gabrielle Stone, Andrew Sensenig, Sean Patrick Foster, Dan McGlaughlin, Alexandra Landau, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Arita Trahan, Ben Lyle Lotka, Paul McNair, Scarlett Robison, Ana-Maria Arkan, Joe Koch. Directed by Nena Eskridge


It is said that no matter how far or how fast we run, the past always catches up with us. I think that’s pretty much true; after all, who can run from what we carry with us everywhere we go?

Jennifer (Stone) arrives in the idyllic small town of Chestnut Hill as a stranger, but she quickly finds a job at a local bar and a house thanks to the trust of lonely Marvin (Sensenig). When Jennifer announces that she’s pregnant, she wastes no time pointing the finger of fatherhood at bar owner Greg (McGlaughlin). As you can imagine, Greg’s fiancée Sarah (Walsh) doesn’t take this news all that well.

As it turns out, Jennifer has something of a checkered past and it’s about to roar into quiet Chestnut Hill like a tornado, with Jennifer at the center. Jennifer’s actions are violent and vicious but she’s had to be that way given what she’s been through. Can she leave that past behind or will she finally be able to create the family she’s yearned for all her life?

This is a micro-budgeted indie (i.e. under $100K budget) and the feature debut of Eskridge, who is an industry veteran in the Northeast. She’s very quick to point out that this isn’t a horror film although there are some horrific elements here so those who are sensitive to such things should be aware of it. No, it’s not a gorefest by any stretch of the imagination; she calls it a psycho-drama and that’s a fairly apt description, but we do have to look in some pretty dark places before the film is over.

With films of this nature, there is a need to keep in mind the circumstances behind it; you can’t hold it to the same criteria that, say, a Martin Scorsese film would be held to. There is a learning curve to filmmaking and it is rare that a first feature microbudget thriller is going to be mistake-free and this one isn’t but all the same this is a very good looking film. Kudos have to go to cinematographer David Landau who puts in some impressive images, using light and shadow effectively. His montage of pastoral scenes at the beginning of the film that is broken up by a scene of sudden violence is masterfully edited.

The film falls down a bit more in the more human elements. The writing is spotty; some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like things that people actually say to each other, and the plot is reasonably predictable and upon occasion, contrived. I don’t mind the occasional contrivance but the filmmaker shouldn’t make a habit of it. I felt that some of the plot points didn’t feel organic.

I don’t like to bash actors and this might well be Eskridge’s inexperience showing through but the acting is stiff. There are scenes when couples are supposed to display affection for one another or when characters are supposed to show attraction to another character, but the body language doesn’t convey it. One can forgive that in a high school drama production but it’s hard to ignore when you can see the stiffness in the way actors hold each other or cuddle. It takes you right out of the film as you realize that these are actors acting, rather than characters being captured on film. The difference is important.

One point is that Jennifer’s violent tendencies are given away too early in the film. I think it would have added to the suspense of the movie had her violent streak been revealed half way through and THEN the back story start to come into play. In a thriller, or psychodrama if you will, it is more effective to keep audiences off-balance when it comes to the lead character’s motivations.

That isn’t to say this is a horrible film; it isn’t. It’s certainly flawed but there are some moments where things click and you can see that Eskridge has some talent and some of the actors do as well, particularly Stone. It also should be said that it does improve as it goes on and the ending is pretty nifty. As I said, there is a bit of a learning curve and this is more of a film at the beginning end of it. The good news that this might be a movie you go back to watching after some of the cast and crew have gone on to bigger and better things and take a gander of what they were up to at the beginnings of their careers.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is stilted. There are a few plot contrivances that take any sort of organic feel the movie had generated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Gabrielle Stone is the daughter of famed actress Dee Wallace Stone.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
NEXT: Living in the Age of Airplanes


For those who wonder how babies are made, here's your answer.

For those who wonder how babies are made, here’s your answer.

(2016) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman, Chris Smith, Awkwafina, Ike Barinholtz, Jorma Taccone, Amanda Lund. Directed by Doug Sweetland and Nicholas Stoller


In a cutthroat commercial world, one must adapt to survive. Nobody knows that better than the storks, who at one time delivered babies exclusively. However, as satisfying as that job was, it wasn’t very lucrative. Now they toil for Cornerstore, a dot com shopping site that bears a sneaky resemblance to Amazon. Less baby poop to clean up, too.

Junior (Samberg) is the best courier in all of stork-dom. He has earned the attention of Hunter (Grammer), the boss stork who is looking for someone to succeed him. Junior seems the most likely candidate. All in all, Junior’s life is going exactly the way he wants.

Not so for Nate Gardner (Starkman), a little boy who is bored and lonely. His Mom (Aniston) and Dad (Burrell) are both completely involved in their real estate business with little time for their son. He desperately wants a sibling to fill his time, preferably one with ninja skills. As a result, he sends a letter to the Storks hoping to get a new baby brother.

Junior gets his first assignment as Hunter’s protégé; he is to fire Tulip (Crown), a human girl (the only human on Stork Mountain) whose delivery to her parents was messed up by the psychotic stork Jasper (Trejo) so she has been trying to earn her keep for the storks, except that she’s something of a klutz. Hunter has had enough of her, but the tender-hearted Junior exiles her to the “mail room” where letters requesting babies are essentially warehoused, as the storks don’t answer those any longer. Of course, Tulip being Tulip, she accidentally activates the baby-making machine with a single letter – the one Nate Gardner sent.

Now there’s a baby to be delivered and Junior realizes that it must be done quietly or his career is history. So he and Tulip set off to get the rugrat delivered, while Nate prepares his house for the new arrival and the deliverers are chased by a pack of very limber wolves (don’t ask) and when Hunter finds out from Pigeon Toady (Glickman), a real stool pigeon, things are going to get even more complicated.

The tone here skews towards the whimsical, with occasional moments that recall the Looney Tunes which are part of the Warner Animation Group’s DNA. The Rube Goldberg-esque baby making machine is fun to watch in action and the Wolves who turn themselves into submarines and motorcycles (among other things) are also pretty clever.

That said the movie also goes for the Disney points by getting the family bonding thing going between Nate and his parents and setting Tulip up to find her “birth” parents. Kids today are also a lot more sophisticated; while they may not necessarily know how babies are born, they certainly know that storks don’t bring ‘em. In that sense, the story is a bit antiquated.

The voice casting is top of the line, and one must give the producers kudos for including both Key and Peele in the cast; they work as well together here as they do on their hit Comedy Central show, albeit with less scintillating material. In fact, things pretty much go the non-subversive route, although the anti-corporate tinge here might infuriate your average Trump supporter.

In any case, this is pretty lightweight material that will keep your kids occupied and likely not rile you up too much unless, of course, you tend towards the heavy capitalist philosophy of life. Chances are you’ll be drifting off with far better movies on your mind while you watch this bit of fluff with your kids.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of whimsy displayed throughout the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Plenty of cliches displayed throughout the movie.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic elements and some kid-friendly action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Ty Burrell character is a real estate agent; Burrell also plays a real estate agent in his TV series Modern Family.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
NEXT: Stray

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton


I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
NEXT: Storks