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
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

Zootopia


Only someone crazy like a fox could smile at the DMV.

Only someone crazy like a fox could smile at the DMV.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Jason Bateman, Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J.K. Simmons, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, Raymond S. Persi, Della Saba, Maurice LaMarche, Phil Johnston, Tiny Lister, Fuschia!, John DiMaggio, Katie Lowes, Kath Soucie. Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

In the animal kingdom, there are different, distinct roles; some are predators, others are prey. The law of the jungle has existed for as long as there’s been in jungle. Predators and prey generally don’t become friends.

That’s not how it is in Zootopia, a metropolis in which anthropomorphic animals live in peace and harmony. “Anyone can become anything” is the motto, and for Judy Hoppe (Goodwin), a perky rabbit living on a carrot farm in the sticks (sorry, couldn’t resist) “anything” means a police officer, something no rabbit has ever achieved.

So despite the deep misgivings of her Mom (Hunt) and Dad (Lake), she heads for the big city and against all odds, graduates the academy and becomes part of a new initiative from Mayor Lionheart (Simmons) to integrate more mammals into the police force much to the disgust of Chief Bogo (Elba), she joins the central city force. Except that Bogo, having little regard for what skills she might possess, assigns her to meter maid duties.

With the encouragement of Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Slate), an overworked sheep, she perseveres and when an opportunity to take a missing persons…,er, animals case, she plunges in with both paws. With the only clue leading to smug con-fox Nick Wilde (Bateman), the two traditional enemies become partners, and eventually learn to respect and care for each other. However, their investigation turns up a massive plot whose origins lead deep into the corridors of power in Zootopia.

Disney has hit another one out of the ballpark from a box office standpoint and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, kids love their animals and what’s not to love about cuddly rabbits and smug foxes, even if the main fox here looks identical to the title character of Robin Hood – Ooo de lally. Not a problem for the younger set, but for veteran Disneyphiles, it can be distracting.

The movie tackles some pretty complex and timely subjects; the division of people into categories (left and right) is not dissimilar as to what you see in Zootopia. While the movie was written before the advent of Trump as a viable presidential candidate, much of the issues being brought up around that candidacy make up the subtext here. No doubt the bean counters at the Mouse House are quite thankful for The Donald’s controversial campaign right about now.

The voices are cast almost perfectly; Goodwin, who portrays a plucky warrior princess in the hit TV show Once Upon a Time transmits the inner core of that character to the animated feature without making the characters too similar. Bateman, a natural wiseass, also inhabits Nick to a “T” carrying the smug smooth-talking con artist off much as he did in Bad Words. The interaction between the two is genuine and warm, and makes it easy to root for the both of them.

There are a ton of in-jokes, from references to other Disney and Pixar movies (including a hell of a lot that are not but make sense in any case) and to gags based on the theme parks and Disney merch. It’s a little bit Shrek­-like in the rapid fire cultural touchstones but that doesn’t mean it won’t delight adults as well as kids. However, the storyline is a bit derivative even if the subject matter is pretty high on the food chain for a kid’s movie. I suspect there will be a little bit of discussion about this movie long after it’s passed from it’s theatrical run. It probably could have used some judicious trimming, about ten minutes worth I’d say.

Disney’s designers and animators also deserve kudos for the overall environment of Zootopia. Divided into a number of zones – rain forest, sub-Saharan desert, rural farmland, savanna, and even a miniature city for the mice and other smaller creatures, each one is imaginative and believable. Zootopia is a place you’d want to visit – even if you have just the two paws.

REASONS TO GO: Complex story concept. Nice interplay between Nick and Judy.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit derivative. It’s also a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of rude humor, some mild thematic elements and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original concept had the story revolving around Nick Wilde but when early test audiences didn’t identify strongly with the character, the decision was made to make Judy Hoppe the focus and the film was re-edited.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Brainwashing of My Dad

The Quiet Ones (2014)


Sam Claflin perfects his "What's that noise?" look.

Sam Claflin perfects his “What’s that noise?” look.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Sam Claflin, Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland, Max Pirkis, Tracy Ray, Richard Cunningham, Eileen Nicholas, Rebecca Scott, Ben Holden (voice), Aretha Ayeh, Max Mackintosh, Harman Singh, Dean Mitchell, Nick Owenford. Directed by John Pogue

There are things that we can’t explain yet. Phenomena that occur that seem without rational, scientific explanation. Many of these eventually will be explained once you dig deep enough. Sometimes though, our ignorance can be dangerous.

Professor Joseph Coupland (Harris) specializes in abnormal psychology. He has a theory that people who have been labeled “possessed” – people around whom paranormal events seem to occur – have traditionally been institutionalized, or harm themselves or others before that happens actually manufacture these occurrences through the powers of their own minds. Coupland believes that these occurrences are due to strong negative feelings inside and that if you can get the patients to transfer these feelings into a doll or some other inanimate object that they can be cured. “Cure one and you cure the world,” he tells his class at Oxford.

To that end he has a patient – one Jane Harper (Cooke) who has been in and out of foster homes and institutions all her life. She is said to be clairvoyant and haunted by poltergeists. Coupland believes that she can be cured of these issues by manifesting her negative feelings and pushing them into a doll. He is assisted by students Harry Abrams (Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi Dalton (Richards). Documenting it is a graduate, Brian McNeil (Claflin).

This being 1974, the dons at Oxford are none too pleased about the noise (the students keep Jane awake by playing loud rock music at all hours in order to get her into a state where she can manifest) and less pleased still about the subject of Professor Coupland’s thesis. Predictably, they pull their funding.

Enraged but still determined, Prof. Coupland rents a spooky looking house in the English countryside some distance from Oxford. There, isolated and essentially free to do as he wants, he starts working on Jane, keeping her exhausted and locked up to keep her from running away – or harming anyone.

At first, the manifestations are more startling than terrifying – things moving, doors opening, distinct rapping noises. In the meantime, Harry and the oversexed Krissi have become a kind of thing (although Krissi has also shown some affection for the chain-smoking Professor) and the shy Brian and the fragile Jane have also shown signs of attraction.

But things don’t remain this way for long. Tension is beginning to build among all five people, isolated in the middle of nowhere – Krissi likens it to being in a prison. Prof. Coupland has become more obsessive, refusing to admit that he may be wrong about his hypothesis. The manifestations have begun to get more sinister as Jane’s spirit guide Evie, a little girl who apparently died in a fire, has grown more agitated and almost cruel. Brian begins to suspect that there may be something going on beyond what Prof. Coupland can explain. Can he get Jane out of this environment before the experiment goes tragically wrong?

This is the most recent movie by Hammer, the venerable British horror production company that back in the day made the Christopher Lee Dracula movies and more recently, the excellent The Woman in Black. This one was actually completed back in 2012 but hasn’t been released until now. Considering the tepid reviews it’s gotten, that’s not surprising although it must be said that the studio has released movies far worse than this one in the interim.

Claflin has been slowly building up a leading man resume and while he hasn’t broken through with a star-making role just yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does sooner rather than later. He has the looks and the charisma although in this particular part he doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with. Cooke and Harris come off as the best of a nondescript bunch. Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris, has settled into a character actor’s lot in life and this is the kind of role that he excels at – officious, smart but corrupt in ways that aren’t always apparent. He is the glue that holds this movie together. Cooke gives us a classic possessed girl performance but adds a touch of melancholy to the role which is the perfect grace note. She’s an English rose, even as unkempt and unglamorous as she is much of this film.

The era of the 70s is captured very nicely, not just with the period audio-visual and scientific equipment but also with the cars, hair styles, clothes and more importantly, attitude. Modern audiences might be horrified at the amount of smoking that goes on in this film, but that was pretty much standard for its time (I lived through it, remember?) and especially place.

A horror film’s job is to scare its audience and the movie is successful at that more often than not, although there is a tendency to rely on cliches of the genre a bit too much. That makes the movie a little bit more pedestrian than it needs to be. I think partly too the filmmakers were waffling between making an atmospheric ghost story with gothic overtones, and making a slam-bang scarefest and wound up with neither. There’s even a “found footage” kind of sequence during the movie that reminded me how overused that particular genre has become. However, the climax while not breaking any new ground delivers one of the best scares of the film which goes a long way to redeeming some of the films more glaring faults.

This isn’t a bad movie; it’s well-acted for the most part, delivers some nice scares, shows off some young female breasts and is spooky and atmospheric at times. It just isn’t particularly innovative nor is it going to kick you in the seat of your pants with its scares nor is it going to creep you out with its atmosphere. At the end of the day the movie ends up being blander than most horror audiences – including me – tend to like.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent scares. Captures time and place adequately.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on horror film cliches overly much.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terrifying moments, some violence, bad language throughout, some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on the Philip Experiment which took place in Toronto with eight participants.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Jodorowsky’s Dune