Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

2017 #16
Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

Her special ability is being a badass

The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

The eyes have it

Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

Let's go fly a kite

Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.

Pride (2014)

2016 #131
Matthew Marchus | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

PrideI don’t know if the true story behind Pride was big news back when it all actually happened in 1984, but I hadn’t heard of it until the film came along. For those who’ve still missed it, it’s about a group of gay activists deciding to form a group, LGSM, to support the striking Welsh miners — two groups who were poorly treated in one way or another by ’80s Britain.

That sets up the obvious potential for culture-clash comedy — “what will those parochial little Welsh villagers make of The Gays? Hilarity ensues!” Fortunately Pride doesn’t indulge in these easy targets for too long, preferring instead to show how the two groups embraced each other’s support. There is amusement value in the meeting of such different social groups, but it’s handled in a relatively realistic way. The film also doesn’t ignore the prejudice that obviously arose in some quarters, and on both sides (there were some in the gay community who thought there were more important fights to fight), but the overall theme is of acceptance and cooperation.

The whole thing is eased along considerably by a top-drawer cast of mostly-British thesps. That “mostly” is essential thanks to American Ben Schnetzer as LGSM founder Mark Ashton, who sports a flawless (to my ear) Irish accent as he confidently swaggers through life, which masks inner uncertainty that comes to the fore in later developments. Joe Gilgun is his bespectacled and practically-minded ‘sidekick’, a complete 180 from his recent kerazy turn in Preacher. Perhaps most remarkable is Dominic West as a veteran homosexual, Welsh girls just wanna have funwhose dancing display has to be seen to be believed. Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine are understated as quiet, hesitant characters who have inner steel, and Jessica Gunning makes a similar impact as a housewife who is completely emboldened by the activism.

I don’t like just listing actors, but it would be a disservice not to mention Faye Marsay, Andrew Scott, Imelda Staunton… I could go on. Screenwriter Stephen Beresford finds meaningful stories and character arcs for each of these, while director Matthew Warchus controls the story so that it never devolves into a collection of subplots. I haven’t even mentioned the ostensible main character: George MacKay as a young man taking his first tentative steps into the gay world, an audience cipher character who still gets quality moments sometimes denied to a character fulfilling that plot function.

For what could have been a superficial Brit-com, Pride instead delivers a more truthful and thought-provoking movie, but one that isn’t heavy-handed or worthy, instead remaining amusing, emotionally affecting, and enjoyable. It takes a true story that I guess has become something of a footnote and suggests why it’s the ‘little’ stories that are sometimes the most important.

4 out of 5

The Machine (2013)

2015 #167
Caradog James | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

In a near future where Britain is part of a Cold War against China, a scientist (Toby Stephens) has been trying and failing to perfect artificial intelligence at a government research facility. When he hires a new associate (Arrow’s Caity Lotz) they make progress, crafting a machine in her own image (played by Lotz again, obviously). Unsurprisingly, their boss (Denis “turned down The Force Awakens” Lawson) has some less-than-ethical plans in mind for their new toy…

Welsh writer-director Caradog James presents some strong ideas about the morals of creating AI, our responsibilities in doing so, its right to sentience, and so on. Some of these notions are even quite original, in particular an ending that seems to be saying that the machines are going to replace us and maybe that’s OK. Unfortunately the concepts don’t always coalesce in the telling, and when the film resorts to a passably-well-done shoot-em-up climax it feels needless — it hasn’t been that kind of film.

Or maybe James, in only his second feature, is trying to show his full range and use the film as a calling card. After all, it does attempt human drama, an exploration of sci-fi ideas, a touch of conspiracy thriller, and, as mentioned, an all-action climax. Unfortunately he’s delivered quite a clunky screenplay, which lingers on inexplicable scenes one moment before rushing over vital things the next. Perfunctory dialogue fails to build characters or relationships in a way that pays off when it needs them to.

This may explain why the performances are a mixed bag. Toby Stephens can’t seem to find much to work with in his lead role, despite supposedly having a couple of emotional arcs. Lawson sleepwalks through his turn as a shady government higher-up. Lotz is unremarkable as a human, but fantastic as the AI-driven machine. Her performance as the latter is the primary reason to consider watching the film.

Production values are all over the place. Nicolai Brüel’s cinematography is often highly atmospheric, though sometimes nonsensical (why is a scientific lab so dark?) and prone to J.J. Abrams levels of lens flare indulgence. There’s some classy CGI, in particular the interface graphics on tablets and computers, but the set for Lawson’s office looks like it’s from an am dram production. You can’t help but suspect the aforementioned over-darkness is to hide more issues of this nature. In truth, that’s only a problem if you can’t see past a low budget to what a film’s trying to achieve; but it’s to the discredit of what else is going on that I did notice.

The Machine suggests a lot of potential, but the end result is a bit muddled and that promise is only fitfully realised.

2 out of 5

The Black Cauldron (1985)

2015 #17
Ted Berman & Richard Rich | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

The Black CauldronThe Black Cauldron is best remembered as an intriguing footnote in the history of Disney animation. Their 25th ‘official’ film, it was the first with no songs, the first to earn a PG (after being cut — twice — to avoid a PG-13), and flopped so badly they disowned it for over a decade. Fully-animated sequences were cut after disastrous test screenings for parents, and famed exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, who came into Disney management during the film’s production, reportedly ordered 12 minutes cut, muddling the film’s story. What a mess.

The final result… isn’t that bad. It’s not some lost classic, but nor is it an unmitigated disaster. Based on a series of children’s novels that in turn were based on Welsh mythology, it’s a dark-ages fantasy story in which a young pig keeper battles an evil lord intent on securing a magical cauldron and using it to rule the world.

Tonally it’s very odd. Segments of dark fantasy, on a Lord of the Rings-type level, butt up against childish slapstick and tomfoolery. There’s nothing wrong with being tonally varied, but The Black Cauldron features such extremes, and flits between them so carelessly, that it’s jarring. At times it’s almost like Disney’s animators forgot they were making a kids’ movie: there’s a buxom dancing gypsy, a bit where a chap is turned into a frog and gets stuck wobbling around in a woman’s cleavage, and a bunch of dark stuff with an army of the undead, which even in its cut-down form isn’t bright and cheery.

Also, one of the main characters is a clairvoyant pig called Hen.

Taran and EilonwyIt’s always interesting when a company like Disney break outside of the norm, and it’s certainly brought them some degree of success in recent years with the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Those have gone over very well with the geek audience, though I found them both severely lacking. The Black Cauldron also comes up short, but as the product of thwarted ambition rather than inherent mediocrity, I’m inclined to like it more.

3 out of 5