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

The Other Kids


Even the other kids gotta blow-dry.

Even the other kids gotta blow-dry.

(2016) Drama (CB Films) Savannah Bailey, Hunter Gilmore, Kai Kellerman, Sienna Lampi, Natasha Lombardi, Joe McGee, Isaac Sanchez, Abby Stewart. Directed by Chris Brown

Florida Film Festival 2016

High school, according to Hollywood, is a party. Everyone is cool, or popular or both. Guys are studly, girls are gorgeous and everyone gets laid. We form deep friendships that last a lifetime and eventually graduate and move on to a great life.

For most of us, our high school experiences are a bit different. Sure, the popular kids exist and they seem to sail right through (and that in itself is a myth). Then there are the other kids.

You know the ones. The ones that don’t fit in. The ones that never get invited to parties. The ones who sit by themselves at lunch. The ones that are too busy working to socialize. These are the kids who caught filmmaker Chris Brown’s (Fanny, Annie and Danny) attention.

Brown took a handful of kids at a small Northern California town and convinced them to tell their stories. He let them develop their characters and gave them what essentially was a filmmaking crash course. The result was a mix of fact and fiction, what Brown has dubbed a “Fictumentary” which presents these teens in the manner in which they choose to be presented.

It’s a bold concept and tons of things could easily have gone wrong but happily, what has come to pass is a fascinating look into the lives of modern small town teens as they enter the final months of high school before graduation. Some have plans to continue their education; others are going right into the workplace. Some have relationships going, others are single, happily so or otherwise. Some have stable family homes, others do not.

The thing with teens is that they are not always easy to spend a lot of time with. They are learning as they go along, feeling things out; they will talk just for the sake of calling attention to themselves, making meaningless chatter rather than listening to what others might have to say. There is also the arrogance of youth, of knowing that you are young and strong, which in the eyes of youth gives you the idea that you know everything you need to already. This isn’t a dis of young people, incidentally; we all are guilty of the same mindset when we’re high school seniors and a little older. It isn’t until life has kicked us around a little bit more that we discover how ignorant we truly are.

The kids here are engaging and thankfully, interesting. There’s no doubt that they have a certain amount of screen confidence that allows them to hold your attention; none are camera shy and none are particularly awkward onscreen, although some of their native awkwardness is portrayed. Like with all teenagers, the hormones rage hard within them and the emotions can be overwhelming. Things become life and death with them, things that the gift of perspective not yet bestowed upon them might have diminished.

The big question I have here is whether or not that it would be as illuminating to simply spend time with teenagers of your acquaintance as opposed to watching this. The answer is I don’t think so; kids that age tend to be much more reserved around adults and you don’t really get the opportunity to know them as well in real life as you might here. Parents of teens or pre-teens might benefit from seeing this as it may give them insight into what their own kids are going through.

This isn’t a slam dunk by any means; anyone who has raised a teen will roll their eyes a little here at some of the things said and done. I know there were times that my own son had moments as he was growing up that affected me much the same way as nails on a chalkboard does. Those with a low tolerance for teen angst may also want to steer clear.

For everyone else, this is illuminating as much as it is entertaining. Even though we have survived our own teen years, the world of teens five, ten, twenty years removed is often as mysterious as the most remote parts of the Amazon. It’s not so much that we forget so much as we have changed. The things that made sense at 17 are no longer easily understood at 27, or 37, or 57 and the further away we drift through the years, the less it makes sense to us.

This serves as a reminder not just of who these kids are but who we were as well. I don’t think Brown, a fine filmmaker (and for the sake of transparency, a good personal friend) really expects that this will bring any sort of great understanding among the generations. What I think this film accomplishes extremely well is that it shows these young people dispassionately but also compassionately – it portrays them as real people, not just cardboard Hollywood cutouts. These are the kids who are walking past your house on the way to and from school, the ones hanging out at Mickey Ds, and the ones who are laughing at you behind your back. They’re the ones who are inheriting the world we are giving them, and at the very least we owe them some appreciation since we’ve messed it up so badly.

REASONS TO GO: Has a real documentary feel to it. A literal slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Spending time with teens can be aggravating.
FAMILY VALUES: Some teen sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film centers on teens attending Sonora High School in the Gold Rush country of Northern California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

Divergent


Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

(2014) Science Fiction (Summit) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer, Ansel Elgort, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, Amy Newbold, Ben Lamb, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Clara Burger, Anthony Fleming, Ryan Carr, Alex Hashioka, Will Blagrove, Rotimi, Justine Wachsberger. Directed by Neil Burger

We have a tendency to slot people into boxes. This one is a hothead, that one is a braniac, this one is a stoner, that one is a loser. It is easier for us to compartmentalize people but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story about someone.

In the dystopian future projected here, this has been taken to the ultimate level. After war has devastated the United States leaving Chicago one of the few inhabitable cities (and that just barely), the surviving population has been divided into five factions centered around a characteristic considered to be a virtue; Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), Amity (kindness) and Erudite (intelligent). On Choosing Day, 18 year old citizens must choose one of these factions to belong to. Once the choosing is made, there’s no turning back.

Aiding the candidates is a test which tells them which faction they are best suited for. However when Beatrice (Woodley) who grew up in Abnegation takes the test, she is shocked to discover that her test was inconclusive – she isn’t suited for any one faction. What is more puzzling is the reaction of Tori (Q), the administrator of the test – she is fearful, warning Beatrice to tell no-one of her test results.

On the day of the Choosing Beatrice chooses Dauntless, much to the disappointment of her mom (Judd) and dad (Goldwyn), who are doubly disappointed because Beatrice’s brother Caleb (Elgort) chose Erudite. Beatrice, now going by Tris, is surprised to discover that she and her new friends Christina (Kravitz), Al (Madsen), Will (Lloyd-Hughes) and to a lesser extent the mouthy Candor transfer Peter (Teller) aren’t in yet – Dauntless only takes a percentage of its recruits; the rest are rendered Factionless with nowhere to go.

In charge of their training is the brutal and sadistic Eric (Courtney) who seems to have an immediate dislike of Tris and Four (James), a taciturn trainer who seems far more capable than Eric. Tris, raised among the Amish-like Abnegation, has trouble with the physical requirements but battles as hard as she can. In the meantime she hides her test results, labeling her as Divergent and apparently a threat to the Erudite faction who are actively hunting Divergent citizens down.

As Tris becomes closer and more attracted to Four, she discovers that there are some odd things going on in Dauntless. For one, secret visits by Jeanine (Winslet), leader of the Erudite faction, to Max (Phifer), leader of the Dauntless, and things that don’t add up are going on. Tris quickly realizes she’s involved in a very dangerous game and she doesn’t know the rules. When things go South, Tris discovers a horrifying plot by the Erudite that will take all of her bravery, compassion, honesty, intelligence and kindness to overcome.

Based on a bestselling young adult sci-fi trilogy by Veronica Roth, Summit is eager for this to become their next young adult franchise. Like previous franchises Twilight and The Hunger Games, Divergent is led by a female protagonist who, like Katness Everdeen in the latter series is strong and forced into becoming something of a symbol. Woodley is going to inevitably be compared to Jennifer Lawrence whose Katness has become somewhat iconic. Unfortunately, her performance doesn’t hold up.

It’s not for lack of talent or lack of trying. This simply isn’t the right kind of role for her. Woodley spends most of the movie looking befuddled because her character is largely in the dark about what’s going on around her. There is a gun battle scene near the end of the film when Tris essentially gets hysterical (and to be fair for good reason) but it’s disconcerting to see your lead character and role model fly into a tizzy.

Winslet is likewise wasted in a role in which she is cast as an icy blonde bitch who just wants to rule the world. She is a formidable actress who would have made an equally formidable villain but she’s not really given anything to work with as the focus is more on the young ‘uns. She only gets to let loose in villainous glee late in the film and by then the audience has essentially lost all interest in the character.

Only James really fares well among the lead. He is hunky handsome (or so say some of my younger female friends) and has a good deal of brooding presence. He may well emerge from this film the big star that Woodley should have been although time will tell on that score.

I’m not sure what Roth’s political views are or if she has any but I have to say that the story reads a bit like a wet dream of the far right; the villains of the story are the educated who want to take the freedom of everyone away and take control over every aspect of life because they know better than the rest of us. The military faction are the most free-spirited, running joyfully through the streets of Chicago with big mother-effin’ grins on their faces. I’m sure most military sorts will tell you how much running makes them smile. I could be reading too much into it (and I probably am) but I couldn’t help make the observation.

The old familiar theme of teens feeling like outcasts are also explored. Those who refuse to be pigeonholed are persecuted while those who conform are considered virtuous. Just like high school except on a more global scale.

The effects are pretty decent and there are some nifty action sequences but this is definitely a movie targeted for young adult audiences, particularly the female persuasion. I suspect male audiences will find this less palatable than The Hunger Games. This isn’t a bad movie despite all its shortcomings – I will say I was entertained and most of the audience I saw it with was too – but it didn’t generate in me the excitement that the Jennifer Lawrence series did from the get go. I suspect it will have enough inertia to get the proposed two sequels made but I doubt very much it will become the cultural phenomenon that THG became.

REASONS TO GO: Complex background explained well. Some fine action and effects sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Woodley a bit of a misstep casting-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of action, some of it intense. There’s also some more adult thematic elements along with implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller and Woodley are close friends in real life and Woodley had a very hard time during their fight sequences to be aggressive and antagonistic towards him requiring Teller to pull her aside and have a conversation with his former The Spectacular Now co-star.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Shuttle