Monday, October 24, 2016

THE B TEAM: a review of "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

Based upon the novel Never Go Back by Lee Child
Screenplay Written by Richard Wenk and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz
Directed by Edward Zwick
*** (three stars)

Whenever the word "formulaic" is utilized in describing the results of a finished film, it tends to be designed as a pejorative signifying a lack of originality, inventiveness, or any sense of creative juices at work. I have used that term countless times myself and more often than not, when a film is formulaic, the overall quality suffers greatly. But, why not look at the term from a certain flipside. The entire concepts of "formulas" stems from the fact that certain formulas do indeed work--they is how they became formulas in the first place--and I would concede that if the elements of the formula are pieced together well enough, the lack of creativity may be overlooked due to the skill of a job well done.

In the case of  Director Edward Zwick's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," the sequel to Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" (2012), and based upon author Lee Child's long running, best-selling thriller novels, we have a film that is more than formulaic but somehow just effective enough to warrant a pass. It's funny because when I saw the first film, it happened to be at home as I had missed its theatrical run and even so, the film felt to be more than comfortable as a home viewing as it carried a certain lack of cinematic quality and felt as more of a throwback to 1970's television detective dramas and Sunday night movies.

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" feels to be cut from the very same cloth, a film that possesses a certain lack of ambition yet purposefully so. It is a movie that knows itself and does not try to be anything more than what it is  And is what it ultimately turns out to be good enough for you? If you happen to like your movies taut, simple, economical and none too taxing, then "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" is indeed a film that is just your speed. As for me, I wasn't quite underwhelmed and I was not fully satisfied either. But, somehow it seemed to succeed upon it sown meager terms and sometimes that just may be enough.

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" again stars Tom Cruise in the titular role as the former Major of the United States Military Police Corps now perpetual drifter/vigilante who returns to his old military base to formally meet Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the figure whom now holds Reacher's old military position, with whom he has not only collaborated on various cases but has also carried a flirtation. Once Reacher arrives at the base, he is stunned to find that Turner has not only been stripped of her position, she has been placed under arrest for espionage, a charge Reacher is certain that she has been framed.

After breaking Turner free and the two become military fugitives, Jack Reacher becomes determined to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes the presence of the teenaged Samantha  Dayton (Danika Yarosh), who may possibly be Reacher's daughter from an affair long ago.

That is indeed the plot of "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," and Edward Zwick's film remains riveted to the constrains of the story's simplicity and structure, streamlining away all superfluous material, ensuring the final result is clean and tightly effective. Well...sort of. In some ways, the film's simplicity undercuts itself as its full two hour running time is more than  generous and certainly ends up providing some sequences that are rather wheel spinning and drowse-inducing due to the film's lack of complexity regarding its characters and story. It certainly would have been well served to have either added more to the proceeding to justify its length or to have clipped perhaps 20 minutes out. Regardless, Zwick's finished result seems to take its sweet time going where it needs to go and unapologetically so.

Again, this particular conceit of the film's presentation just makes me think less of the movies and more of classic television programs like "Kung Fu" (1972-1975) or those old Quinn Martin Production series that were never speedy affairs but just loped along in their own laconic ways, yet with a certain slow-burn intensity that was characteristic of the time. Additionally, I was also surprised by the film's lack of qualities that could be regarded as cinematic as this film, like its predecessor, just feels as if it has been made for the small screen.

Edward Zwick, with whom Cruise previously joined forces with in the David Lean styled widescreen epic "The Last Samurai" (2003), has also greatly scaled back his more cinematic aesthetics. Zwick has been a filmmaker of considerable gifts, being equally adept with handling the confines of of the small screen with intimate television dramas like "thirtysomething" (1987-1991), "My So-Called Life" (1994-1995), and "Once And Again" (1999-2002) as well as the massive canvas from films like "Glory" (1989), "Legends Of The Fall" (1994), "The Siege" (1998) and "Blood Diamond" (2006), among others. But with "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," Zwick, like his predecessor in Christopher McQuarrie, has fashioned the second film in the series that would possibly feel more at home... at home!

Even Tom Cruise's strong, imposing performance, which is as 1000% committed as anything else he has performed over his legendary career, also feels decidedly scaled back from his trademark charisma and go for broke enthusiasm. Certainly, his reticence and cold hard stare is all delivered at the service of his interpretation of Lee Child's creation and it does indeed go a long way in showcasing another side, a darker, harder side of the Tom Cruise film persona, especially as he is crafting an additional franchise to work alongside his impossibly vibrant "Mission: Impossible" film series, of which he also serves as Producer as well as the star.

In a way, it seems as if "Mission: Impossible" may represent the A level of Tom Cruise's productions. So then, I would supposes that makes his Jack Reacher series represent the B team--one that almost runs in the opposite direction of his Ethan Hunt adventures. Where the "Mission: Impossible" series travels the globe, gathering Hunt and his team for a collection of intricately designed and increasingly outrageous predicaments to get themselves in and out of miraculously, the Jack Reacher series remain in less grand, grittier, more closely confined locations and even the cases themselves are more intimate than global.

All of this would be just fine, of course but these Jack Reacher films, especially this second installment does fall into that more formulaic category where "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" is a film of no real surprises where anything of the extraordinary can occur, either conceptually or cinematically While that does call for a certain restless seat-shifting for me, and quite possibly for some of you, again, I do think that this is possibly the intent of Cruise and his collaborators.

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," through the generic nature of its title (which actually doesn't even make very much sense as Reacher does indeed go back to his military base but on the other hand, if he didn't go back, there wouldn't even be a movie...but I digress) to its more "comfortable" approach, possibly made for movie-goers who wish for an easy night out with a mild diversion of entertainment, one without hefty pyrotechnics or anything remotely complicated. Something efficient and economical...perhaps something like Lee Child's original novels, certainly not great literature but you know what you're going to get and it is done well enough to ensure its legion of fans remain satisfied and eager for any follow-ups. On that level, the formula, such as it is, works well enough and without any apologies.

On that level, Edward Zwick's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" succeeds. It is well acted, with Tom Cruise maintaining his unquestionable command of the big screen, a crisp storyline and some well choreographed fight sequences as well. Utilizing a culinary metaphor, the film wasn't satiating or sumptuous meal. Nor was it disposable cinematic fast food either. It was just more like a snack, while not quite hitting the spot, it is one that served its purpose.      

Monday, October 17, 2016

A HOLLOW FURY: a review of "The Birth Of The Nation"

Story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Written, Produced and Directed by Nate Parker
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

It is truly a shame that a film bold enough to reclaim a title such as this one is unfortunately also a film that ultimately rings so very hollow, becoming a powerful disappointment for a motion picture that should have been unflinching, incendiary and absolutely essential.

In college, as I embarked upon obtaining my Communication Arts degree with a concentration in film, radio and television, I, at one point, was instructed with viewing D.W. Griffith's "The Birth Of A Nation" (1915). For those of you who may be completely unfamiliar with the film and its importance within the legacy of the entire medium of film and motion picture arts and artistry, Griffith's silent movie was instrumental and innovative in its utilization of editing as a form of storytelling, in addition to its usages of subtitles, night photography, panning, close ups, a variety of camera angles and other techniques, all of which are still utilized in 21st century filmmaking.

Yet for all of its artistic triumphs, Griffith's film is also eternally controversial and reprehensible to a sickening degree for its racist depictions of African Americans (including some characters portrayed by White actors in blackface) and for, most notably, presenting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, certainly presenting a collection of emotional, conceptual and philosophical conundrums I had to deal with being an African American male having to study this film during which I was obligated to appreciate while also wishing to stone the screen for having to watch it at all.

By contrast, there was never any point, either during Lower, Middle, High School or even college, where I learned about Nat Turner, the enslaved African American who staged  and led a 48 hour rebellion of slaves and free Black people in Southampton, VA in the summer of 1831. Between 55 to 65 whites were killed during the uprising yet afterwards, and through retaliation from white militias, over 200 Black people were murdered and Nat Turner himself was executed. That discrepancy, the determination of teaching the fullness of film history when compared with American history, in an of itself, is an educational travesty and infuriatingly indicative of our nation's educational system as a whole.

In some ways, it feels that Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation," which details the story of Nat Turner, is not only designed to right some wrongs, inform the wider public about this crucial piece of American history while mirroring our nation's past to its turbulent present regarding race relations and the controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, it is also a cunning attempt to use all of D.W. Griffith's cinematic advancements and even his own title against him with the full reclaiming and re-branding of its moniker. To that end, Parker has indeed delivered his passion project with righteous fury but unfortunately, and surprisingly so, the experience as a whole felt unfulfilling and even disingenuous enough to render the entire proceedings as unacceptably hollow. "The Birth Of A Nation," by no means a bad film, is disappointingly manipulative instead of utilizing the truth of the information and drama inherent in this unforgivable chapter in our nation's history in being urgently persuasive in its message about the consequences that occur when the persecuted have been abused too much, too far and for too long.

Opening in Southampton, VA circa 1809, Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation,"in which Parker also stars as Nat Turner, we meet our protagonist as a child born into slavery. Possesseing a natural inclination towards reading, Turner is taken under the wing of his first slave master Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) and is taught to read and study selected portions of the Bible. As an adult, and now owned by his second slave master, Elizabeth's son and Nat's childhood playmate Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Nat Turner eventually become a preacher to not only placate the slaves on their plantation and soon, slaves throughout the region, but to also help bring profits to the cash-strapped Turners.

Throughout his life as he continues to preach Nat Turner not only marries the slave Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), he witnesses one atrocity after another, forcing him to internally explore, examine and question the only life that he has ever been allowed to know with the words of the Bible as his ultimate conduit. With his superior gifts for language, public speaking and an ever increasing proficiency with the Scriptures, Nat Turner takes what was once tools of subjugation and transforms them all into the tools of uprising, formulating the very rebellion against any and all oppressors with the hopes of obtaining freedom.

To offer a bit of a confession to all of you, I have long held some conflicted feelings towards Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" both before and after having seen the film. It is a film that I have long felt obligated to see as it pertains to a portion of Black and American history which speaks entirely to the notions of slavery, freedom, protest, civil rights, holocaust, retaliation, revenge, retribution, morality and humanity. But truth be told, I was a little bit hesitant.

My trepidation had nothing to do with any sense of potential quality as the film had already won the Audience Award and the U.S. Grand Jury Award for Best Dramatic Feature at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. I guess what may have been troubling me was that there is just this part of me that is growing weary of slave epics--not that there have been so terribly many in recent years but because it it beginning to feel to me as if in the eyes of Hollywood, Black people do not exist in the present, in the 21st century and the only stories that can be told about us have to be ones where we are relegated completely into our pasts within stories of voyaging through enslavement into emancipation.

Yes, I have given ratings of the highest marks to those of Quentin Tarantino's audacious, extraordinary "Django Unchained" (2012) and Steve McQueen's elegantly devastating "12 Years A Slave" (2013), and the need for a film of the nature of Parker's is downright essential, especially as he is clearly holding up a much needed mirror to ourselves comparing past to present. Additionally, I deeply appreciated the sheer boldness of Parker reclaiming the film's title from its racist origins to showcase the fact that our very nation was indeed birthed from the blood, violence, rape, and near genocide of people of color at the hands of Whites. The intensity and urgency of Nate Parker's moral outrage is firmly contained and deeply palpable. Even so, and all of that being said, I was not certain if I really wished to sit through even one more on-screen depiction of my race's degradation--especially as I am able to turn on the television or the internet and be witness to the same levels of senseless degradation every single day, from unarmed Black people being murdered in the streets by police and vigilantes or watching those of us in silent protest enduring the slings and arrows of those against us or even regarding the shameful disrespect launched against our very own president for the last eight years.

Then, there is the real world controversy surrounding Nate Parker himself as he was accused and eventually acquitted of a rape charge during his time as a student at Penn State in 1999. Regarding this aspect of Parker himself, I will not weigh in yet, I do feel that his personal issues are also weaved into our perceptions of his film and the themes contain therein because whatever we may think or feel about Nate Parker due to his controversy, all of those elements do indeed speak to the perceptions, fears and realities of being a Black male in America, an existence that has grown increasingly perilous as we have all witnessed and has in turn inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Essentially, Parker's real life troubles ended up providing an unnecessary obstacle that has indeed clouded a bit of his artistic achievements with this film.

Controversy aside, I can only comment upon what I saw upon the silver screen and I have to say after now having seen the fruits of Parker's labors, I remain conflicted. There is no doubt that Nate Parker clearly has talent to burn and that he is passionate about his subject matter. But I do feel that his passion for the life and legacy of Nat Turner got in the way of his storytelling and just presenting the truth as is and without succumbing to certain embellishments that ultimately deflated the entire experience.

Where Parker succeeded greatly for me was rather scattershot as he was able to deliver a variety of visual images and moments that linger powerfully and rightfully disturbingly. The image of a White girl skipping with her slave playmate, complete with a rope leash around the slave's neck as if she were a dog. The sequence where a slave's teeth were bashed out with a hammer as punishment for a hunger strike. Most certainly, what I felt to be was the film's most sobering and horrific image: a fleet of Black Americans, all hanging dead from trees with Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" as soundtrack commentary. And as with McQueen's film (although to a much lesser effect), Nate Parker was also able to capture a certain mundane quality to the Antebellum South, an eerie calmness that belies the rampant inhumanity abound. And then, there is the full performance is Nate Parker himself as Nat Turner during which I was struck by the breadth of his emotional range which was portrayed in subtle, nuanced fashion and the slow burn of realization to rage is indicative of (I believe) most African Americans in this country as we all slowly come face-to-face with a nation who has never thought of us as human beings and has been indifferent at best to an suffering we have experienced at the hands of racism. As Cherry Ann expresses solemnly once the retaliation against Blacks roars through the South late in the film, "They're killing people everywhere for no reason at all but being Black."  

Yet even so, the emotions I felt during "The Birth Of A Nation" were few and far between, only experienced in fits and starts, not cumulatively whatsoever. In some respects, Parker's film never truly felt remotely lived in, so to speak. Everything felt to be somewhat upon the surface and never delved deeply, making for an experience that should have been righteously uncomfortable instead of something that felt like the "greatest hits" of a cinematic slavery epic.

Returning to Tarantino's "Django Unchained," is it very odd to me that a film that was so very stylized, over the top and completely fabricated with Tarantino's specialized brand of cinematic artifice and showmanship would ultimately unearth and deliver an explosively vibrant and blood boiling sense of moral outrage as well as a greater truth to the nightmare of slavery. Tarantino did indeed somehow delve deeper and deeper beneath the surface of all of the cinematic conventions of the slave epic while also presenting them, challenging them, and even upending them in order to serve his revenge fantasy that gave me a rare sense of riveting fury and deliverance as I experienced it, and that is entirely because he honored the truth, despite the fantastical elements of his film.

By contrast, Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" almost feels like a hair like Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" (2014), a film that is admittedly effective but to an irresponsible degree. While Parker's film doesn't entirely fall into the dangerous propaganda of Eastwood's film, his storytelling approach, tone and disregard for facts and just allowing the film to present the truth, instead forces his efforts to fall into the traps of prefabricated plot devices and needless melodrama.

One aspect of Nat Turner's life the film presented well enough and I wish delved into more explicitly was his devout religious nature combined with his gifts with the layers of language. Yes, Parker illustrates Turner's discoveries that one passage of the Scriptures could be interpreted as a means for the righteousness of slavery whereas another could dismantle it entirely, thus inspiring retaliation.

Again, here is a point where Parker was extremely sharp, as he is indeed challenging all of us to really think about the Bible as what it really is, a man made object constructed as an interpretation of the word of God--and by the very means of the process of interpretation, the same words can posses different meanings to different people and therefore, different attitudes, actions and consequences may arrive from those varied interpretations. Yet, Parker's viewpoint is not presented through the lens of atheism as he also showcases Nat Turner's adherence to the word of God, which is represented through a collection of spiritual visions, which inspired the path his life ultimately embarked upon. This aspect of the film was strong enough to explore to an even deeper degree that I wished Parker explored those avenues to an even greater depth rather than how he did choose to present his film.

As it goes with any historically based film, there arrive questions of historical inaccuracies and from a variety of sources that I have happened to have seen, most especially, within an article written for The Nation by Dr. Leslie M. Alexander, "The Birth Of A Nation" is apparently, and inexcusably, rampant with such inaccuracies. Now I did, in fact, see a portion of a "60 Minutes" interview with Nate Parker and I did find myself more than troubled with his flippant remarks concerning any sense of historical falsehood contained in the film by remarking that his movie is indeed based on a true story and that no film is ever 100% accurate. To that, I cry foul, especially when creating a dramatic feature that is steeped within our own cultural, racial and national history Parker owes it to all of us, and African Americans especially to do his damnedest to get the facts absolutely right--for the benefit of our collective knowledge and even for those who are reluctant at best to even try to listen to the truth of the matter. How will anyone ever listen or even possibly empathize with the struggle of or people is we cannot even begin to tell our own stories correctly?

It seems that much of what was presented during the slave rebellion sequence of the film has been fabricated, from story driven killings--one of which centers around a film length conflict and final confrontation between Nat Turner and a lifelong nemesis/antagonist as depicted in the character of Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley)--to even complete battles, which some historians have proclaimed never occurred as depicted.

And then, there is indeed the matter of rape.

While the rape of Nat Turner's wife at the hands of a group of slave patrollers (one of whom is the character of Raymond Cobb) is not shown on-screen, nor is another with a surprisingly silent character portrayed by Gabrielle Union, both sequences are deeply troublesome not because of their subject matter, for the rapes of Black women by white slave masters was unquestionably crucial to the unforgivable slaver experience. These sequences are troublesome due to their disingenuous nature as they are utilized as lazy plot devices designed to embolden the male characters rather than present a deeper truth about our nation's inhumanity towards women, especially women of color.

According to Dr. Alexander's article, no historical evidence exists that Turner's wife Cherry Ann was raped by slave patrollers not was her rape ever conceived of as being the catalyst that inspired Nat Turner's rebellion. Here is where I felt Nate Parker made his most crucial error as a storyteller (and especially so, considering his own personal history at Penn State). For if Dr. Alexander and some of the film's detractors are correct, I just do not understand how or why Parker felt the need to fabricate an outrage that already exists, an outrage that again was formulated through the bastardization of religion, a topic Parker would have been well served to have explored more explicitly and even more controversially. In many ways, as storytelling goes, rape is a cheap and easy way to achieve a sense of vengeance within the recipient of the story. I mean, Parker literally has Nat Turner racing to his wife's aid--on horseback, no less--in the middle of the night after he receives word of her rape and nearly all moments afterwards center around him while Cherry Ann is left to suffer silently, while waiting for her dignity to be avenged by the eventual rebellion. But, in some ways, the proceedings felt to be false, certainly not what Nate Parker intended for his audience to experience.

Look, dear readers, I don't wish for you to think that I am being unreasonable or too hard on the film. I just wish for you to understand the process of my analysis and the emotions I went through while viewing "The Birth Of A Nation." Remember, I was not taught even one thing about Nat Turner during any stage of my schooling, from elementary school through college. Even now, what I do is fairly scant, and I do realize that any lack of knowledge at this stage of life entirely lies with me. That being said, if one is to attempt to make a feature length film about the legacy of Nat Turner, especially during the age of Black Lives Matter, I strongly feel that it would behoove the artist in question to adhere to the facts as strictly as possible to ensure the truth is preserved.

Now don't get me wrong. Nate Parker's job is to create a movie, not teach a high school history class. There is nothing wrong with any sense of directorial or artistic license in order to keep your film entertaining as well as enlightening. Think of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992), what I feel to be his greatest film, a three hour opus that not only contained Denzel Washington's career best performance (or performances, as he clearly portrayed five shades of the same man), but an arsenal of Lee's signature cinematic idiosyncrasies, including a full blown dance sequence early within the film. And yes, by film's end, Lee and Washington has fully taken the audience upon the life journey of one individual, and therefore, gave me an insight I had not previously housed whatsoever.

Returning to Quentin Tarantino, his recent parade of historically based yet "through the looking glass" epics from the World War II, the Nazis and the Holocaust in "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) and the aforementioned "Django Unchained," all of the playing with factual evidence never seemed to deflect from the overall moral truths of either tragedy. Furthermore, what else are both Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" (2015) and even Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "The Revenant" (2015) but stylized explorations into the brutalities of violence and racism that sit at the core of the birth of our nation as we know it?  All of those films and filmmakers are masters at their respective crafts and are uniquely able to take our collective history and weave a variety of elements together to force us to think about where we came from, where we are and where we just may be headed.

Unfortunately Nate Parker just is not that skilled as of yet and with his film, he just provided too little of some elements and too many of other elements, which ultimately diluted his subject matter despite its intermittent power. I guess, when it all came down to it, I never really felt as if I was receiving a view through a certain window into the life of Nat Turner because Parker's approach seemed to be one of myth making rather than historically based. Parker did proclaim Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" (1995) as being an influence for him and to that end, "The Birth Of A Nation" really felt to me to be essentially Parker's version of Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" (2004) as Parker's interpretation of Nat Turner strangely functions as a variation of the Christ narrative, from inner conflicts, the attaining of disciples, the crucial Judas turncoat figure (apparently another fabricated element) as well as the capture and crucifixion.

It was just a depiction that I did not need to see because for me, that sort of a narrative veered away from the truth and all of the inherent drama contained within. I had no need to see Nat Turner depicted as a majestic, messianic martyr. I needed to see the man, a man trapped within a life he, and all of Black America, were not supposed to survive  and how he found the audacity of strength, power, resolve and hope for a better future to rise upwards, to inspire others to rise with him and to fight back for the fullness of our freedom. Think of Ava DuVernay's "Selma" (2014) and how she took the iconic figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as brought him back to Earth to show us the flawed human being ad the work it takes to bring forth a grass roots civil rights movement. Or how about Jonathan Demme's "Beloved" (1998), which depicted how the Reconstruction period was indeed the reconstruction of Black America, individually and collectively.

How I wish that I responded to Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" more positively than I did. But even moreso, how I wished that Parker remained more truthful to the horrors of our nation's past and how they sit at the pit of our current 21st century racial turbulence. Yes, Parker holds up a much needed mirror to ourselves but honestly, how can we even begin to completely understand our history if that very history has been tampered with just to create a cinematic dramatic effect?

"Based upon a true story" indeed.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

TIM BURTON'S BEDTIME STORY: a review of "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children"

Based upon the novel by Ransom Riggs
Screenplay Written by Jane Goldman
Directed by Tim Burton
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

As it so often happens as I watch movies, I am reminded of cinematic memories from my past. In the case of this afternoon as I screened "Miss Peregrine's Home  For Peculiar Children," Director Tim Burton's adaptation of the blockbuster Ransom Riggs novel, the tag line from the one-sheet poster of Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" (1981) popped into my head. That line stated: "It's all the dreams you had...and not just the good ones." 

That particular line struck me to my core when I was 12 years old, the age I was when  Gilliam's classic odyssey was originally released, as it did indeed conjure up something primal regarding my own sense of fantasies, daydreams and fears and how Gilliam, with his defiantly askew artistry and aesthetics, would tap into those very malleable inner states contained within those blurred lines of the mundane and the fantastic.

Tim Burton has long proven himself to being one of our most visionary, idiosyncratic and lucrative filmmakers who has magically merged the divides between his deeply personal outlook and populist tastes. Although, for my personal tastes, Burton has released films to varying degrees of success, as his superior gifts with creating spectacular visuals have often outshone his storytelling and for a couple of projects, including his career worst "Planet Of The Apes" (2001) and "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), he has found himself swallowed whole by special effects/CGI overkill fueled by dangerously impersonal corporate interests.

While his output in recent years has been shaky, Burton found himself in the full return of his powers with the wonderful "Big Eyes" (2014) and now with "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children," he has found source material to adapt that feels to be nothing less than tailor made for his talents and proclivities--so much so, that it often feels as if he had created every stitch of this bizarre, enchanting and often very frightening universe, instead of the novel's author and originator. While there are some minor flaws that stopped me from going over the top, Tim Burton's latest fantastical excursions ranks with some of his finest efforts.

As with the original novel, "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" stars Asa Butterfield as Jacob "Jake" Portman, an introverted 16-year-old living out his mundane adolescent life when tragedy suddenly strikes his beloved Grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp), found nearly dying in the dark woods behind his home with his eyes hollowed out with the presence of a shadowy shape-shifting creature nearby that somehow only Jacob is able to view. With his final words, Abraham provides Jacob with confounding clues and instructions which will then fully transform an ordinary life into something powerfully extraordinary...just as extraordinary as the bedtime stories Abraham shared when Jacob was a young child starring all manner of children with amazing abilities and fearsome monsters.

After suffering through post-tragedy nightmares, and undertaking a series of therapy sessions with Dr. Golan (Alison Janney), Jacob's parents (Kim Dickens and Chris O'Dowd), under Dr. Golan's suggestion, decide that a drastic change of scenery would do their son some good. Additionally, on Jacob's birthday, he is given a boo found within my Grandfather's home, a book containing a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson poems as well as a letter written to his Grandfather from the mysterious Alma Peregrine plus a set of vintage, macabre photographs.

Soon thereafter, Jacob and his Father, Franklin take a trip to a small island in Wales, the location of his Grandfather's childhood. While gathering a lay of the land, Jacob happens upon a dilapidated, abandoned orphanage where he mysteriously becomes acquainted with a collective of bizarre children who have to be seen to be believed.

There is Millard Nullings (Cameron King), an invisible boy who is only seen via the clothing that covers his body. Bronwyn Buntley (Pixie Davies), a small child armed with incredible strength. Hugh Apiston (Milo Parker), a boy with a beehive that lives inside of his stomach. Fiona Frauenfeld (Georgia Pemberton), a girl who communicates and is able to control all plant life. The Masked Twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell), named as such for their unmasked faces can transform any viewers into stone. And finally, and also among other characters, we find the mercurial Enoch O'Connor (Finlay MacMillan) who holds a long standing grudge against Abraham (and now Jacob) and the beautiful Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl who is able to control the air itself but must always wear a pair of lead boots, without which she would forever float away into the skies.

Making matters even more spectacular, Jacob now discovers that the orphanage first seen in near complete ruin is now the resplendent Home For Peculiar Children, overseen by the strict yet loving Headmistress Alma Peregrine (a strong and fully captivating Eva Green), an "ymbrine," a figure who possesses the ability to transform into a bird, and in Ms.Peregine's case, a peregrine falcon. The orphanage remains intact solely due to existing within a "time loop," a 24 hour period that repeats daily under Miss Peregrine's directions for as long as time itself. Yet this particular 24 hour period occurred in 1943 during World War II, the day before a bomb destroyed the orphanage, also meaning that Jacob has indeed traveled through time.

To make matter seven more perilous, Miss Peregrine, the Peculiar Children and now Jacob are being perpetually hunted by the horrific, ravenous beings known as The Hollows, enormous, tall figures with a series of tentacles for tongues and who sustain themselves by feasting upon the stolen eyeballs of their victims. Leading the Hollows in none other than the insidious Mr. Barron (a fearsomely unhinged Samuel L. Jackson), whose murderous tendencies and equally madhouse taste for eyeballs fuels his dark quest for ultimate immortality.

With the pursuit and battles between Miss Peregrine and Mr. Barron spilling over into present day 2016 and into an otherwise unsuspecting public at large, it is up to Jacob to not only rescue the Peculiar Children but to also merge the past and the present in order to not only understand the fullness of his Grandfather but to fully realize the potential and gifts within himself.

Much like the stories Abraham spins for his grandson, Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" feels designed to be presented as a bedtime story...albeit one that will certainly (and delightfully) give you nightmares. Granted, this is not any sort of a horrorshow, But if you can remember the shock of Large Marge in Burton's debut feature film "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1984), then I would say that you would have a hint of an idea of the artfully grotesque sights and characters that populate his latest effort.

As previously stated, the film is an absolutely perfect marriage between material and filmmaker as Ransom Riggs' original creations feel fully cut from the same cloth as Burton's past characters and films. The Peculiar Children feel from the same universe as Burton's gallery of misunderstood misfits, most especially the adolescent "Edward Scissorhands" (1990). The tone carries the relentless Brothers Grimm quality of Burton's outstanding "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street" (2007). And surprisingly, we are also given a heartfelt and starkly dramatic family drama merged with tall tales a la Burton's beautiful adult fable "Big Fish" (2003), with its love story between a grandson and Grandfather plus the on-going tensions between Fathers and sons.

To that mix, throw in a dash of Robert Zemeckis' "Back To The Future" trilogy (1985/1989/1990), Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993), Marvel Comics' "Uncanny X-Men," and most definitely Terry  Gilliam's aforementioned "Time Bandits" and even his extravagant "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen" (1989). Add to that combination a spectacular set and costume design, a gorgeous merging of practical, handmade and digital special effects--the film's climax, which features a battle between The Hollow and some skeletons recalls classic Ray Harryhausen a la Don Chaffey's "Jason And The Argonauts" (1963)--stunning and evocative cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and the twin peaks of Eva Green' simultaneously authoritative and sultry performance and Samuel L. Jackson's ferociously madhouse malevolence, Tim Burton has, at long last, delivered the very sort of fantasy epic that has always been housed inside of himself but has eluded him for far too long. "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" is truly one of his strongest efforts in quite some time.

Even as strong as the film is, there is a major flaw to the proceedings but minor enough to not derail the entire exercise and sadly, that flaw happens to be found within the titular Peculiar Children--although not as characters but as actors. Most certainly, Tim Burton has demonstrated great affection and empathy for Jacob, Miss Peregrine and her band of beautiful freaks and geeks so much so, that it would not be terribly far fetched to think of this film as somewhat serving as an allegory for any child who possesses special needs or is differently abled, as they attempt to navigate their respective ways through a world that is indifferent at best and cruelly harsh and unforgiving at worst. That said, I had some serious issues with Asa Butterfield and the bulk of the younger cast members regarding their performances. They all certainly looked the part but they also seemed to be quite stiff, wooden and possessed a lack of depth to their acting, that they did keep me somewhat at arms length when I should have been even more engaged, especially considering the emotional complexities and grand scope of the story plus having to keep up with the likes of Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson.

Additionally, Tim Burton has historically had problems with keeping control of his stories, especially once they tend to reach their final thirds, when special effects tend to take over and story elements and plot points feel truncated or even forgotten. In the case of "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children," what felt to be so sadly lost was the relationship between Jacob and his Father, one that is fraught with back-and-forth tensions, plus a very adult inner trauma for Franklin, who is coping with a troubled marriage and failed artistic aspirations as a writer in addition to parenting Jacob, whom he fears is becoming increasingly psychologically unbalanced as well as mourning the death of his own Father, Abraham, despite their difficult relationship. All of these pieces are integral to the entire story as a whole and somehow, someway, Franklin is all but abandoned as the film flies to its epic conclusion--an area that would have indeed given the film a greater emotional and conceptual culmination. But maybe there's more to these themes in the books than the film itself depicted...

I actually have not read Ransom Riggs' series, most likely because I wondered if it was just some sort of Harry Potter catch-up/cash in. Now having seen the film version, it is easy to differentiate between the two series so much so that I am now intrigued to read it for myself--something I feel could not be even greater praise for Tim Burton to receive in this case, to inspire people to keep reading!!! Since I have not read the books, I am not able to speak to how faithful or unfaithful the film version is compared to Riggs' novels. But as I have always said, books are books and movies are movies and this is Tim Burton's interpretation of Ransom Riggs' novels and it should be experienced as such.

Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" is a Gothic fantasy of family secrets, time travel and the journey into the world that exists inside of the shadows that creep across the floors and walls at night. It is a film that again proves why Tim Burton has remained such an idiosyncratic and iconic creative force for over 30 years and this film in particular shows that he still has a vast collection of playfully sinister tricks and treats up his cinematic sleeves...and just in time for Halloween season to boot.

"Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" is indeed all of the dreams you've had as a child. Most definitely, the bad ones.

Your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast has a strong word of caution for those of you who happen to be parents of small children or parents of slightly older but more sensitive viewers, to not take your children to view this film. It is rated PG 13 but even moreso, it feels that the tenor of the story and characters has allowed Tim Burton to engage with his darker creative side more openly and to an artistically grotesque effect, especially considering the nature and look of The Hollows and Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Barron, who is truly the film relentless "boogeyman."  

While the film is essentially blood free regarding its violence, Burton takes a more dream and definitely nightmare approach to the material, which features villains--Jackson's Mr. Barron in particular--with piercingly white eyes, are shapeshifters who can assume any form, including benevolent figures, and whose only goal is to remain in constant pursuit of these strange children and are only satisfied once they have been caught, murdered and their eyeballs are eaten--some of which is grandly visualized.

There were images that gave me considerable pause often throughout this film and I am a full grown adult who possesses full knowledge of how films are made and the nature of performance and special effects. By contrast, small children do not possess those qualities and these images could be more than overwhelming and frightening on a huge movie screen.

Tread lightly....

Saturday, October 1, 2016


Hopefully, movies are about to take a turn for the better.

This past month, was shamefully dry in new releases, while films that I had hoped to view did not arrive in my city whatsoever, further accentuating the growing problem with the movie industry as it pertains to what the general public is actually allowed to see anymore. It makes me so upset when I cannot think of any reason that Ron Howard's Beatles documentary was unable to be seen on the big screen. And I do not care if Kevin Smith's latest was critically trashed. For all of the awful movies that do find themselves released weekly, I just wanted to have the chance and opportunity to check a new film, one that I would choose to see, out for myself. Why do the Hollywood bean counters not understand that if you take the power of choice away regarding the content of what moviegoers are able to choose from, everybody loses?

Rant over...I guess, but that being said, I am hoping that the tide can turn during these final three months of this otherwise dismal cinematic year. While Tim Burton's latest is on deck, I am hoping to also see the following releases this month...
1. "The Birth Of A Nation," the passion project from Writer/Producer/Director/ Actor Nate Parker, which ran away with critical accolades at the Sundance Film Festival in January is a must-see without question.  
2. "Moonlight," from Writer/Director Barry Jenkins has intrigued me from the very first time that I saw the intricately artful trailer. Films pertaining to the 21st century African-American experience are such a rarity that I feel compelled to see this one. 
3. Andrea Arnold's "American Honey" her nearly three hour road odyssey, which has also intrigued me from trailers and early critical praise is one that I would also be willing to try out...should it arrive in my fair city.

And for now, I do think that this is a fair amount of material to try and get myself to during the month of October. As always, please send me all of your good vibes and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!