Talking Movies

September 29, 2016

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton reunites with his Dark Shadows star Eva Green for a more successful outing than that fiasco, but not any meaningful escape from Burtonworld.

DF-07237 - Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) takes aim at her powerful enemies. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) runs a home for peculiar children on a Welsh island, but this story is really about young Floridian Jake (Asa Butterfield). When his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) is murdered, apparently by monsters, Jake is left with instructions to seek out the 1940s Children’s Home Abe lived in after fleeing the Nazis. Encouraged by psychiatrist Dr Golan (Allison Janney), Jake’s sceptical dad Franklin (a bafflingly miscast Chris O’Dowd) brings him to Wales. But they find Miss Peregrine’s Home was bombed by the Lutwaffe in 1943 with no survivors. But Jake in exploring the ruined mansion meets fire-starter Olivia (Lauren McCrostie), homunculi-manufacturer Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), and Abe’s lighter than air former girlfriend Emma (Ella Purnell). Miss Peregrine must explain the time-loop she has created in forever 1943, and the threat posed by Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson).

The work of Burton’s now regular cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is completely obscured by the 3-D: I’ve never seen a film so badly plunged into darkness by the act of putting on 3-D glasses. Ransom Riggs’ novel has been adapted by Kick-Ass and Woman in Black scribe Jane Goldman, but despite rattling along more efficiently than any number of Burton’s recent films this never really soars; undone as it is by an endless explaining of time-loops, as well as cliché, and Burton’s customary shortcomings. Burton seems to be targeting the YA audience to restore his credit rating after Dark Shadows and Big Eyes, but he can’t help himself. His love of the grotesque overcomes feigned interest in romance, and spurs him to depict villains feasting on mounds of children’s eyeballs, and go close on a character having his eyeballs showily removed.

Burton’s enduring reputation, born of confusing gothic with grotesque and fascination with evil as psychological darkness, continues to attract actors of high calibre; and, as so often, Burton has nothing for them. Judi Dench and Rupert Everett are almost comically under-used, and Kim Dickens seems to be in the movie because she wandered onto the wrong soundstage. It’s always great to see Stamp in action, and Purnell injects some life into her melancholic lead, while Butterfield is an effective hero, but there’s a hand-me-down feel to too much of the proceedings. Jackson’s Frankenstein’s monster of previous performances (Unbreakable, Jumper, Kingsman) is a lowlight, alongside Burton shamelessly lifting a Ray Harryhausen showstopper for his finale, and the pervasive X-Men-lite vibe emanating from a mansion housing children with superpowers and the betrayals of an elderly mutant who fled Nazis and speaks RP.

Tim Burton, on his 18th feature, is not going to suddenly change his stripes, and this is as wildly unsuitable for marketing to children as his warped Batman movies.

2.5/5

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January 17, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

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(10) Sinister

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays great flair with this tense horror in which Ethan Hawke’s true crime writer moves into a crime scene and stumbles over old home movies of a serial killer. Derrickson builds dread with a number of wonderful scares as evidence of a serial killer who’s been slaughtering families and abducting one child since the late 1960s unravels Hawke’s sanity. But then ghoulishness inexorably leads to a suspenseful, traumatic finale…

(9) 21 Jump Street

I hate ironic remakes of good television, and crude Apatow-riffing R comedies, so this hysterically funny combination of both surprised me. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum hated each other at high school, bonded at police academy, but then go back to daggers drawn as they’re sent undercover to a high school. Tatum becomes a science nerd, Hill pursues Brie Larson, and their narcotics investigation goes nowhere as Hill’s eye for the absurd inserts nonsense aplenty.

(8) Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor’s warm and very funny comedy sees his disappointed thirtysomething rejuvenated by effervescent correspondence with the witty 19 year old Elizabeth Olsen, a student at his alma mater. But this version of Manhattan boasts a wiser Mariel Hemingway and an ethical Woody Allen, and, amidst hilarious sequences of fighting over trashy vampire novels and the effects of listening to opera, a fantastically cold turn by Allison Janney; teaching Jesse some hard lessons.

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(7) The Hunter

This immensely assured Australian art-house thriller follows Willem Dafoe’s loner as he silently stalks the breathtakingly photographed Tasmanian wilds in search of the possibly not extinct native tiger with orders to kill it after capturing its unique DNA for a sinister corporation. But at his lodgings, as he starts to stand in for Frances O’Connor’s missing husband, he slowly begins to doubt his mission and to suspect Sam Neill’s family ‘friend’, leading to a very moving ending.

(6) Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Said Fellag’s Algerian immigrant offers his services to a well-to-do and very PC Montreal school when a teacher commits suicide in the classroom. This strict but loving teacher instinctively knows how to help, and, driven by his own loss, he does so despite orders not to encroach on the ineffectual female counsellor’s turf. This film achieves two minor miracles: it avoids crassness and sentimentality, and its child actors are superb, especially Sophie Nelisse.

(5) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998 was a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college-skewering nonsense where ingénue Analeigh Tipton is adopted by Greta Gerwig and Megalyn Echikunwoke. Gerwig’s desire to improve the global psyche with her international dance craze the Sambola seems slightly less daft after Gangam Style. But this is a ramshackle film of impeccably urbane daftness, from illiterate Zorros to a frat boy trying to learn the primary colours. No one talks like Stillman characters, but you feel F Scott’s old sports would like them.

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(4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director Stephen Chbosky invites comparisons with Adventureland as socially isolated Logan Lerman starts high school and is adopted by flamboyant seniors Ezra Miller (an exuberant joy) and Emma Watson (luminous). Lerman blooms under their tutelage in scenes of great wit and charm, but “We accept the love we think we deserve” is a piercing insight into the damaged relationships pursued by the central trio, and it’s the emotional depth with which Lerman’s trauma is revealed that allows this film to stand comparison with Michael Chabon’s Pittsburgh novels.

(3) The Woman in Black

A classical 1920s haunted house story sees Daniel Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer sent to the incredibly eerie Eel Marsh House to sort out its paperwork. Ciaran Hinds’ local toff is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but they’re right to fear the Woman being sighted… Classy horror concentrates on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror; this is a dazzling technical achievement because a maestro is conducting. When Radcliffe informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night to finish his work the terror becomes nigh unbearable…

(2) Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen gives a star-making performance in this intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult. She is both naive victim and malicious rebel as she spars with her guilt-ridden older sister Sarah Paulson; who tries to deal with Olsen’s sexually aberrant behaviour without knowing what happened in the Catskills with charismatic cult leader John Hawkes. This shares Take Shelter’s measured pacing, intensity, and even a tautly ambiguous ending leaving the viewer sick with dread – unsure if we’re sharing Olsen’s paranoia.

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(1) Shame

Imagine Bret Easton Ellis and Pinter co-wrote a movie about a businessman in NYC who’s constructed his entire life around his secret addiction. This would be it. Director Steve McQueen avoids salaciousness in tackling sex addiction by making the sex scenes as wincing to observe as an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. This is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering, derailing compulsion – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy; exemplified by a vicious argument between siblings Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan being shot in one fixed-position long take, and Fassbender’s frustrated midnight jog becoming a transcendent sequence as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks. McQueen never explains but he forces us into serious empathy with a condition usually mocked.

October 5, 2012

Sinister

The producers of Paranormal Activity eschew their look for a more classically shot horror that has odd echoes of recent art-house oddity Berberian Sound Studio.

In the name of research true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into a house where a family was murdered. He neglects to tell his wife their new home is a crime scene… Law & Order fans will get a kick out of some minor roles as Ellison is brusquely welcomed by Fred Dalton Thompson (That’s Senator Thompson of Tennessee to you!) as the local Sheriff who wants him gone, and later he gets research help from an expert on the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio). He needs that help after stumbling over some old 8mm films in the attic, which turn out to be the home movies of a serial killer that include many other massacres besides the one Ellison’s researching, all just dripping occult symbols. Ellison gleefully believes this discovery will propel him back into the limelight. But then strange things start to literally go bump in the night…

Ethan (Training Day) Hawke as a man trying to re-scale the heights of a hit from the early 2000s seems like cruel casting that would do Veronica Mars proud. He’s very effective though as there’s an unexpectedly meaty emotional throughline with Juliet Rylance as his long suffering English wife Tracy; who’s worried about the malign effect his work has on their two children. There’s also great comedic relief from Deputy “So and So” (James Ransone); embarrassingly eager to assist Ellison’s research. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays flair in building dread thru the effect the horrors of the 8mm films have on Ellison’s psyche. The idea of a serial killer who slaughters families before abducting one child, and who has been this doing since the late 1960s, is chilling, and Derrickson stages some wonderful scares as an increasingly paranoid Ellison chases shadows.

But even a truly terrifying sequence involving the night terrors of Ellison’s young son has not involved anything ghoulish. And then a spectacular scare moment loudly announces that this serial killer’s methods are supernatural; and he is now after Ellison… Sinister doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Woman in Black because Derrickson cheats a good deal. Ellison has a bizarre preference for working in the dark. He never switches on a damn light in the house at night, making it easier for the audience to fill the shadows with all kinds of scary monsters; which Derrickson takes advantage of for one heart-stopping supernatural jump scare. A brace of central ideas are also lifted from Doctor Who and American Gods. Gripes aside, this is tense stuff that patiently, inexorably builds towards a suspenseful, traumatic finale.

I don’t understand why Sinister is being released this early in October, because it is by way of being the perfect Hallowe’en scary movie.

4/5

February 8, 2012

The Woman in Black

Director James Watkins abundantly fulfils the promise he showed with 2008’s Eden Lake by unleashing a terrifying film that establishes him as a true master of horror.

Daniel Radcliffe is back in the realms of the supernatural, but this time he has no magical powers with which to fight evil… Watkins’ Eden Lake was a social horror in which chavs terrorised a yuppie couple, but his follow-up is a classical haunted house story set in the early 1920s. The film unnerves from the prologue where three young children commit suicide at the behest of the titular ghost. Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer has lost his wife in childbirth, and is sent to the Norfolk broads on sufferance that if he doesn’t clear up the nightmarish paperwork concerning Eel Marsh House he will lose his job. The unwelcoming villagers try to convince him not to stay, and the ‘incompetent’ local solicitor thrusts documents in his hands; begging him not to visit the house. Driven by duty Radcliffe ignores them…

Sam, a wonderful Ciaran Hinds as the friendly local toff, is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but in this acutely observed 1920s the huge numbers of War dead has created a hunger for communication with the gone thru mediums. It quickly becomes clear that any sighting of the Woman leads to a child’s death. And Radcliffe has a child… Eel Marsh House, situated on a mountainous rise in the Broads with a road washed away by tides twice daily, is a tremendously eerie location. Inside, courtesy of the world’s creepiest toy shop, the dimly-lit house is primed for scares. Classy horror might best be described as a concentrating on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror. This is the best ‘classy horror’ film I’ve seen since 2008’s The Orphanage, because a maestro is conducting.

Watkins disdains the ‘ha, made you jump!’ scares that blighted Black Swan. Instead he delivers three amazing releases of tension in innocuous but sharp surprises at the house, before a slightly unnerved Radcliffe returns to the village only to encounter a true horror. It is when he returns to Eel Marsh House and informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night and get shot of the paperwork in one go that things become terrifying. Hitchcock defined suspense as the pleasurable/tense wait for something you knew was going to happen, and Watkins delivers multiple bravura sequences of truly terrifying attendance on the arrival of malevolent spirits. Jane Goldman’s lean adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel creates an escalating feeling of sheer dread and the ending defeats the cliché you may be expecting. That’s if you don’t bolt, screaming, before the end…

Eden Lake was a dazzling technical achievement but it was hard to recommend. The Woman in Black, while almost unbearable for the nervously disposed, cannot be recommended enough.

5/5

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