MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Fantasy Action/Violence and Peril

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Jane Goldman

(based on the novel MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs)

Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie & Samuel L. Jackson

To be perfectly blunt, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is Tim Burton’s X-MEN. I’m far from the first person to say that and I know that this film is based on a popular series of dark-fantasy books. However, the comparison is definitely valid. Taken on its own merits, there are positive qualities in PECULIAR CHILDREN. However, lots of factors contribute to the film being merely okay as opposed to anything special or a return to oddball form for Burton. This is yet another young-adult adaptation that feels like set-up for a franchise with more interesting installments down the line.

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an angsty teen who’s recently lost his dementia-ridden grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) to unnatural causes. Abe would constantly wow kindergarten-aged Jake with tales of invisible children, monsters, and shapeshifters, but Jake outgrew those silly stories. In coping with his grandfather’s untimely death, Jake discovers there may be some truth to the old man’s stories. Jake soon finds himself immersed in a “time loop” with weird headmistress Alma Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children. Dark forces soon threaten Jake, Peregrine and the strange youngsters, putting bravery to the test and throwing Jake into a supernatural conflict that he’s just beginning to understand.

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The good news is that MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN isn’t on the same low quality that many other generic adolescent-aimed adaptations have been. This isn’t nearly as lame as something like DIVERGENT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, BEASTLY, TWILIGHT, etc. The slick cinematography, special effects (lots of cool CGI and impressive stop-motion) and sheer amount of creativity make PEREGRINE serviceable enough for older viewers and entertaining for younger viewers who might not be familiar with the books. Burton has occasional moments of great weirdness that feel like they belong in his earlier films. The second half is fun to watch as we see the X-Men, I mean the Peculiar Children, facing off against Lovecraftian monsters.

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Now for the negative, PECULIAR CHILDREN takes an entire hour to set up the basics of its plot and establish the supernatural world that Jake finds himself in. There have been plenty of fantasy adventures that introduced new story elements as the plot moved forward, but PEREGRINE seems to be deliberately taking its time to establish the universe for future films. There are so many rules, exposition-filled conversations, and explanations that it takes nearly 60 minutes to sit through these patience-testing plot developments. What’s even more frustrating is that apparently this film deviates significantly from the source material (according to a friend who has read the books), so this is a problem that lies squarely on the movie’s shoulders.

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As far as characters go, almost everybody seems to be defined by their powers. To bring up the aforementioned X-MEN comparison, there are mutants in that series who are defined by their powers, but there are also plenty of deep backstories and distinct personalities. The same cannot be said of MISS PEREGRINE as these kids are their peculiarities (a.k.a. powers). These supernatural abilities (or as Charles Xavier would call them “gifts”) serve as jokes, defense tools and excuses to further along the plot (e.g. one kid projects his dreams). Asa Butterfield has proven himself to be a talented performer in the past (HUGO, ENDER’S GAME) and seems to be have been handed a bland protagonist here. Jake feels like a character that we’ve seen a million times before and portrayed better.

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Terence Stamp is decent as Jake’s “delusional” grandfather, while Chris O’Dowd is entirely wasted as Jake’s concerned father. He’s understandably worried about his son’s mental health and we never get a concluding scene with his character. Eva Green is hollow as Miss Peregrine, serving almost no purpose other than guarding the children and explaining stuff to Jake (and the viewer). Samuel L. Jackson plays his most over-the-top villain since 2008’s THE SPIRIT as the eyeball-eating mad scientist Barron. It seems like Tim Burton (as so many other directors have) just let Jackson do his own thing in front of the camera. Sometimes this strategy works and other times (like in this film) it falls completely flat.

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Though MISS PEREGRINE definitely has problems, it should be mentioned that I don’t think this is a bad film. It’s just one of the lesser Burton efforts and seems overly familiar in a cinematic landscape that’s already become watered down with young adult adaptations in recent years. PECULIAR CHILDREN is just okay by both Burton standards, adolescent adaptation quality, and pure entertainment. I had fun watching the second half and was utterly bored by the poorly paced first hour. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to sitting through any future PECULIAR installments in a potential trilogy. However, it would be nice if franchise starters could hold up on their own merits as opposed to feeling like a feature-length commercial for future sequels that might not even happen.

Grade: C+

BIG EYES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur & Delaney Raye

Tim Burton seems to have made the same type of movie for the past decade or so. This can be for better (SWEENEY TODD, FRANKENWEENIE) and for worse (CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE). BIG EYES is a refreshing non-Burtony Burton film. Though it’s based on a fascinating true story and was poised as a potential Oscar contender for 2015, BIG EYES went in and out of theaters at blink-and-you-missed-it speed. I was originally planning on covering the film when it was in theaters, but regrettably missed out. Having finally seen it, I am happy to say that BIG EYES is a near perfect delight and one of the most underrated films from last year. It also happens to be the best Tim Burton film since 2007’s SWEENEY TODD.

BIG EYES, Amy Adams, 2014. ph: Leah Gallo/©Weinstein Company

The time is 1958 and Margaret has just left her husband, moving with her daughter to San Franciso in the process. The single mother is a struggling artist who paints furniture by day and sells her artwork (paintings of big eyed children) on the weekends. At one of these art walks, she meets the charming Walter Keane. The two form a relationship. One thing leads to another and soon they’re married. The pair of Keanes display their artwork for sale at a beatnik night club. Through a misunderstanding, Margaret’s portrait of a big-eyed child is mistaken for Walter’s work. He takes credit and begins selling her paintings under his name. Though Margaret is understandably upset, she decides to go along with the lie because Walter has convinced her that nobody would buy “lady’s art” in this oppressive day and age. As years pass by and she watches as her hugely popular art is passed off as someone else’s work, Margaret struggles with the decision to reveal the truth and get out from under Walter’s thumb.

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BIG EYES is based on an interesting true story and remains mostly accurate to the actual events. Some liberties have been taken in a couple of characters, one dramatic scene, and in scrunching the timeline up for a tighter running time. Aside from these elements, almost every plot point (even the most bizarre and unbelievable parts of this story) really happened. In fact, it’s been noted that Burton held back in one particular area: Walter’s insanity. It might initially seem hard to sympathize for someone who allowed themselves to be manipulated in the way that Margaret Keane was, but BIG EYES shows just how easily this whole situation spiraled out of control…much to Walter’s benefit and Margaret’s dismay. This is all driven by a really solid script that manages to tell the entire story in way that feels well paced, wholly entertaining and totally genuine.

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Amy Adams is fantastic as Margaret, adopting a light Southern accent and a timid demeanor that eventually becomes a quiet strength. Christoph Waltz seems to have no problem playing a bad guy (including the mismatched villain in GREEN HORNET, the most evil Nazi in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, and a potential Bond villain in SPECTRE), but he plays a domestic delusional husband in Walter. Waltz exudes a charisma and class that few actors have today. It’s easy to see why Amy Adam’s character (or real person in this case) is attracted to him. We like him to an extent. His abusive attitude doesn’t fully register itself until later in the film, when he becomes all out over-the-top, manipulative, and monstrous…just like the real guy. As far as the supportive cast is concerned, Danny Huston plays a gossip writer, Terence Stamp is an art critic and Jason Schwartzmann is a gallery owner. Of this trio, Stamp is really the only one of any influence as he steals his few scenes and actually contributes to the plot in a big way. Huston is enjoyable in his part, but is also delivers unneeded voice-over narration. He is still utilized far better than Schwartzmann who merely serves as a modernist snob providing fleeting comic relief.

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On technical aspects alone, BIG EYES looks great and sounds even better. Burton-regular Danny Elfman composed the score and did a fine job of it. Though it’s obvious that Burton used CGI and elaborate set dressing, the film feels like it’s a colorful version of the 1950’s and 60’s. In these stylistic choices, the movie feels ever so slightly like a Burton flick (mainly in the bright color scheme), but this is a far more human tale than he usually tells. It’s up there with ED WOOD as his best real-world film!

BIG EYES, l-r: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, 2014. ph: Leah Gallo/©Weinstein Company

Though it may not have garnered much attention in spite of good reviews and a big name director/cast, BIG EYES is well worth your time. It’s an entertaining, emotional and uniquely stylish take on a remarkable true story. Boasted with top-notch atmosphere and great performances, this is one drama that will hook you from the very start and keep your attention. I highly recommend checking out BIG EYES. If you’re still interested after watching the film, you should also look up the true story and prepare to be surprised by how accurate the film actually is.

Grade: A

STAR WARS Episode I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sci-Fi Action/Violence

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Directed by: George Lucas

Written by: George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Ray Park, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Silas Carson, Andy Secombe, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Sofia Coppola & Keira Knightley

2015 brings tons of new sequels for many nostalgic film series, the biggest being STAR WARS Episode VII. Like many kids of the 90’s, I grew up watching Episodes IV-VI on a regular basis. Darth Vader was one of the greatest villains of all time and I loved how this space opera series treated me like an adult with its serious storytelling. The original STAR WARS trilogy was an intergalactic battle between good and evil that deserved the fan base built around it. Enter 1999 and the much maligned Episode I. This blockbuster was garnering huge buzz. It was the second highest grossing film of the 90’s (behind TITANIC), but it now carries a much maligned reputation. While I don’t think PHANTOM MENACE is quite as bad as everyone says it is (I’ll get into why), it’s a major disappointment.

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Turns out this epic saga began with a taxation on trade routes. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are two Jedi knights (powerful warriors with a telekinetic ability known as the Force and deadly lightsabers) sent to negotiate a peaceful solution with the villainous Trade Federation. This kicks off a quest to save the peaceful planet of Naboo, thus throwing all sorts of alien beings, planetary battles, and the possibility of a prophecy being fulfilled in a young slave named Anakin Skywalker. That’s the basic outline of the plot, but there’s also an undercurrent of two evil Sith lords (powerful warriors using Jedi powers for darker purposes) at play.

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That summary might clue you in to the first big problem with PHANTOM MENACE. You’re telling me that this epic saga of Light Side and Dark Side, planet-sized weapons, and the ultimate conflict between good and evil sprang from a taxation? This isn’t colonial times of early America. This is freaking outer space! Surely, there could have been far more inventive ways of kicking this whole prequel trilogy off. The political talk has no real place in a Star Wars movie either, as the other films focused on interesting characters and simple (but powerful) plots. I remember being bored out of my mind when I saw PHANTOM MENACE on the big screen back in 1999 (I was in second grade). Maybe, George Lucas’s reasoning behind the annoying cartoon character sidekick that is Jar-Jar Binks was to entertain the kids. In this sense, it feels like the younger audience is being spoken down to and that’s something the original trilogy never did. To make matters even worse, there’s pointless clutter surrounding every scene. This is especially evident in the side antics of a lengthy Pod-Race scene. These silly quick bits amount to little more than George Lucas trying to show off.

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It might also help if there were characters worth caring about, but these folks are bland as can be. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are fantastic actors, but they’re completely uninteresting as Jedi knights. They’re almost as wooden as the young Jake Lloyd playing Anakin. This child actor can’t get a single line out of his mouth in a remotely believable delivery. It’s ridiculous and makes the viewer wonder how many other worse kids were passed up for this shining example of who won the audition. Natalie Portman gives the only decent performance to be found, but she’s not given a whole lot to do. Finally, there’s Ray Park (who went on to play Toad in 2000’s X-MEN) as the double-sided lightsaber wielding Darth Maul. He looks cool enough and contributes to the best scene of the film, but is completely ignored as a character. The main problem comes from George Lucas throwing the viewer straight into action scenes without taking the time to flesh any of these people out. It’s the equivalent of Lucas directing a TRANSFORMERS movie.

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So with all my ranting and raving about what’s bad, you might be asking “What do you like about it more than most other people?” I actually think there are lots of cool visuals here. The planets look good, despite some of the sketchy inhabitants. Speaking of which, there are also cool looking aliens in this flick. I already mentioned Darth Maul, but I actually dig Watto (though he’s essentially a Jewish stereotype) and the Podracer Sebulba. The practical puppets look really cheesy though, especially the Trade Federation (Asian stereotypes) and a cheap looking Yoda hand toy. That being said, I really enjoy the Pod-Racing scene (in spite of stupid additions by Lucas) and the final lightsaber duel is fun (in spite of an underdeveloped villain).

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Don’t get me wrong. PHANTOM MENACE is definitely a disappointment and a bad movie, but I don’t find it to be as awful as many fans do. There are a couple of cool sequences (the race and the final fight) and there’s an entertaining spectacle level in the other worlds being brought to life. It’s bad, but if you turn off your brain, you might have a little more fun watching MENACE. Another tactic would be employing a drinking game where you take a shot every time Anakin yells “Yippee!,” Jar-Jar says “How rude!” or the droids say “Roger, roger.” You’re likely to be plastered within the first hour. PHANTOM MENACE is bad, but there are a few redeeming things in it. Also, I could write a whole essay about why Jar-Jar Binks sucks, so let me just award this film a….

Grade: C-

On a side note, I used to own one of these as a child.

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Just saying…

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