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+

BATMAN (1989)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance & Jerry Hall

In terms of summer blockbusters, BATMAN was a game-changer. Before this film, the only notable theatrical superhero movies were the SUPERMAN series and a campy BATMAN from the 60’s (along with serials from the 40’s). Burton’s BATMAN opened the door for bigger comic book adaptations down the line. This vision of Gotham City was grim. This Joker was vile, scary and did horrible things with a sick sense of humor. Batman was portrayed as a tragic figure with serious motivations behind his crime-fighting. Though it’s not without some flaws, 1989’s BATMAN is a superhero classic that has mostly held up well over time.

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Gotham City is a grimy hell hole, populated by down-on-their-luck citizens and plenty of criminals. Only a miracle could turn things around and that miracle comes in the form of a “giant bat.” This masked Batman is secretly Gotham’s wealthiest citizen Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) dishing out vigilante justice on a nightly basis. Crime seems to be slowly diminishing and Batman’s reputation is being spread, but a new threat is rising. A crazed clown, known as “The Joker” (Jack Nicholson), has taken control of the city’s gangs and is enacting a terrifying act of terrorism. Soon enough, Batman and Joker will face off and the battleground will be all of Gotham. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne attempts to stoke a relationship with photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), which becomes dangerous when Joker makes her a prime target.

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BATMAN has a simple plot. It’s a basic good vs. evil tale, but the film goes into deeper places with Bruce Wayne’s tragic past. Though most modern moviegoers already know about Batman’s past, director Tim Burton slowly unveiled it to audiences in the 80’s who weren’t as familiar with the character’s origin story. From grim visuals to a gothic atmosphere, you can tell that Burton directed this movie…though he was allowed much more creative freedom on BATMAN RETURNS. The mood is further elevated by Danny Elfman’s unforgettable music and also slightly diminished by Prince’s songs that seem drastically out-of-place.

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Though the film’s title may suggest that the story mainly focuses on the titular hero, an equal amount of screen time is given to both the caped crusader and the clown prince of crime. We see Batman’s origin already in progress at the start of this movie (he’s merely an urban legend to Commissioner Gordon) as well as the Joker’s creation (Burton clearly took inspiration from acclaimed graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE). While Michael Keaton seems slightly stiff as Bruce Wayne, I took that to be part of his mysterious character. This isn’t the charismatic Wayne from Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy, but instead, a damaged man trying to clean up his city.

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Stealing almost every scene away from Keaton’s Batman is Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The character of Jack starts off as a strong-headed gangster with sadistic violent tendencies before he even becomes the iconic killer clown. All that’s changed when he’s dyed white is that his insanity is allowed to go further and more over-the-top than anyone could have anticipated. Joker’s storyline is almost like a rise-to-power gangster tale that happens to be about a psycho clown battling a masked superhero. The constant shifts between Batman and Joker’s storylines keep things mostly interesting, even if the pacing occasionally lags in a few spots.

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One character that feels totally unnecessary and useless is the annoying Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). This goofy journalist only seems to exist as an excuse for Vicki Vale to enter Gotham and then to gather information for her. Speaking of which, Kim Basinger is a mixed bag as Bruce Wayne’s love-interest, Batman’s damsel-in-distress, and Joker’s obsession. She has a couple of decent moments, but is mostly bland and delivers the most forgettable performance in the entire film. Someone who’s not forgettable is Michael Gough as Wayne’s sarcastic butler Alfred. Though Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons would take up later incarnations of this character, Michael Gough was consistently entertaining, funny, and charming in the ’89-’97 series.

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1989’s BATMAN suffers from two bland side characters and uneven pacing, but remains a fun time capsule of what the dark knight used to be. Burton’s BATMAN is a major reason why we even have the sheer amount of superhero movies that we do today. This film showed studios that the superhero genre could be something more than pure camp and cheese. Tim Burton injected a combination of darkness, humor, and big screen excitement into a well-received, highly successful superhero film. 1989’s BATMAN is a great piece of summer entertainment that holds up remarkably well over two decades later.

Grade: A-

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.

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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

SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Horror Violence and Gore, and for a scene of Sexuality

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker

(based on the short story THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Martin Landau & Christopher Lee

Published at the beginning of the 19th century, Washington Irving’s “Legend Of Sleepy Hollow” has become a staple tale read by many schools and a widely celebrated classic ghost story. Tim Burton’s approach to tackling this material for a feature film would take lots of creative liberties with the story. After all something that works as words on a page might not necessarily translate perfectly to a visual art form. SLEEPY HOLLOW made a huge splash upon its release in 1999 and (even though I was only nine years old) I can still remember seeing the creepy commercials and ads for it. Over a decade later, SLEEPY HOLLOW holds up as a fantastic crowd-pleasing horror flick and one of Tim Burton’s best works.

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Near the dawn of the eighteenth century, constable Ichabod Crane is tired of the barbaric practices by law enforcement. Enamored with new-fangled ideas such as autopsies and fingerprints, Crane is sent by his superiors to the small country town of Sleepy Hollow. In a mere two weeks, the community has seen three murders. All victims were beheaded and the heads are still missing. Crane is told by the town elders that the murders were committed by a ghostly figure known as the Headless Horseman. Ichabod is naturally skeptical, but finds out that the horseman is very real and lopping off people’s heads left and right. It’s up to Ichabod with help of an orphaned child Masbath and love-interest Katrina Van Tassel to find out why the horseman is killing as put a stop to his reign of terror.

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As with most of Burton’s films, SLEEPY HOLLOW is set in a darkly tinted world where the sun never shines. While this can be a little tedious in some of Burton’s other stories, it suits this tale quite well. The atmosphere captured the classical tone of an old Hammer horror film. It also isn’t necessarily taking itself seriously the whole way through as a silly sense of humor makes itself quite well-known within the first scene that Crane appears. The reworked story is a mix of a mystery and a supernatural slasher. One of the issues found Andrew Kevin Walker’s script is that SLEEPY HOLLOW can sometimes focus too much on the mystery at work, but also follows a traditional slasher formula at other points. It’s creative story, but also a slightly uneven blend of two different types of movies.

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Walker’s screenplay works on the general premise of Irving’s short story and taking it in whole new directions, but also pays a nice homage to the original tale during one scene in particular (the character is Brom is also included in the film). The fog-laded setting is brought to life by stellar set design and the film does work at transporting you into another world. This creepy tone is boasted by a phenomenal score from Burton regular Danny Elfman at the top of his game.

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As far as the cast is concerned, almost everyone does a damn good job. Johnny Depp has inhabited a vast variety of oddball characters with their own unique quirks. Ichabod Crane is a fine name on that considerable list of performances. He follows the predictable coward turned reluctant hero and gets a lot of solid laughs for it. Christina Ricci is bland as the love interest and the weakest character here. Orphaned Masbath is a close second. Unfortunately, they serve as his sidekicks. Fortunately, they don’t take up a huge amount of screen time. The side characters and other familiar faces (Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, etc.) all make their performances stick out in various ways. The real scene-stealer is Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman (glimpsed in an elongated flashback sequence).

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Besides a couple of iffy characters and a mixed bag of two distinct formulas, the other problem I have with SLEEPY HOLLOW is that Tim Burton doesn’t know where to draw the line at some points. The film gets downright campy in a few areas (with some aged CGI). Back in 1999, I probably would have thought these moments were a little too comically fake as well. The movie does shine in its kills, nearly all of which involve beheading of some kind. You might think decapitation would get old very fast, but each death has its own unique spin on it (in one case, quite literally). The design of the Headless Horseman is great. It’s been said that the more you show the monster in a horror film, the less frightening it becomes. That’s not the case with this flick, because the Horseman looks phenomenal and is always intimidating.

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As the poster tagline states, heads do indeed roll. Your eyes might roll too due to some silly moments, two dumb characters, and a somewhat confused screenplay. However, the film works fantastically as a whole. It has held up very well over time and will continue to so as it has a rewatchability that most films of this type lack. It’s a spooky ghost story, intriguing murder mystery and fun slasher. What more could you want in an atmospheric take on an old-school horror tale?

Grade: A-

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