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Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton’s direction reminds us of the distinct, peculiar coyness that was always at the heart of his best films.

3.0

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The opening title sequence of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, adapted from the acclaimed debut novel by Ransom Riggs, are so robotically dull in their GGI-addled affectations that one fears that director Tim Burton has lost himself forevermore within that soulless loop of corporate synergy that opened up around him in the early aughts. But then, after fake smoke plumes across the screen, the film jarringly (and hilariously) jump cuts to a long stretch of Florida beach so drably unadorned that one must take it at face value as a horror from which a child as imaginative as Jacob (Asa Butterfield), and by extension Burton, might want to escape.

After witnessing the strange circumstances of his grandfather’s death, Jacob encounters clues that inspire memories of the stories his grandfather, Abraham (Terence Stamp), told him as a child about a mysterious orphanage on a Welsh island and its peculiar, wondrous inhabitants. And at the urging of a therapist (Allison Janney) charged with helping him to distinguish the differences between fantasy and reality, Jacob eventually stumbles upon a kind of wonderland after he and his father, Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), travel to the island to determine the veracity of his grandfather’s remarkable tales.

But even as the peculiarities of this world are revealed to Jacob in ways that CGI could only have made possible, the film’s jolts of the ornately weird play second fiddle to the quietly felt sense of the characters’ alienation. In effect, Burton sensitively keys us to Jacob’s anxious befuddlement over what Abraham might have truly experienced here long ago during World War II, understanding the boy’s search as spiritual yearning: a quest for wonder, however dangerous, as a salve for the humdrum of a misunderstood life.

Throughout the film, Burton fixates elegantly on the eponymous children’s unique gifts. Once Jacob arrives at Miss Alma LeFay Perigrine’s (Eva Green) orphanage, after passing through a loop that allows its maker (here, Miss Peregrine herself) to live a particular day over and over again, so as to stave off the horrors of the future, he is immediately subsumed in the routines, ordinary and not so ordinary alike, of a place trapped in a kind of existential amber. Among the peculiars are Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who has the power to give life to the inanimate with little animal hearts; Hugh (Milo Parker), who can direct the many, many bees that live within his stomach; and Emma (Ella Purnell), who can levitate and must wear a pair of lead shoes so she doesn’t fly away and disappear into the heavens.

In this place, where time is reset daily just before a German plane can drop a bomb atop the orphanage, the peculiarities of these children are mostly useful for minor things, such as little Bronwyn (Pixie Davies) using her superheroic strength to pull enormous carrots from the ground, or Emma removing her shoes and tying a rope around her waist so as to bring a fallen critter back to its nest. These children—and, in turn, Burton’s camera—take visible joy in expressing these peculiarities for Jacob, and this celebration of difference allows him to embrace his own peculiarity, shared by Abraham, of being able to see evils that no one else can. It’s a gift that proves useful when Baaron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his hollowgasts (think Jack Skellington by way of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man) come knocking on the orphanage’s door, hungry for the peculiars’ eyes, the ingestion of which will make them human again.

A vision in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children of Jacob pulling a floating Emma from a rope across a Welsh beachside and toward a battle with the hollowgasts is as haunting as any Burton ever summoned, namely for its multitude of meaning: for teasing the romance that builds between Jacob and Emma, and for the sense of moral agency and empathy that so clearly informs Jacob’s gait. Also impressive is the daring, force, and tact with which Jane Goldman’s screenplay presents Jacob’s saga as a metaphor for the Holocaust, evoking its horrors in everything from Jacob taking Miss Peregrine’s peculiars to the orphanage’s attic and away from an advancing hollowgast, to Baaron’s moral “hollowness” and his grotesque appetite for destruction.

Throughout, Burton shuttles his peculiars in and out of loops, through past and present as they fight the hollowgasts, and his set pieces exude an alternately frightful and comic tenor that rarely feels off-balance. Baaron is never scarier than in the film’s climax, where Emma, who also has the ability to blow powerful gusts of air from her mouth, pins the milky-eyed menace to a wall, where he hangs for a minute or two while throwing shade at the girl, arrogantly marking the time before she runs out of air and he can resume his very complicated evildoing. The patience of Jackson’s performance is of a piece with Burton’s own, as the filmmaker moves from one incident to the next with a spatial coherence that often approaches the majestic.

Pity, then, that the filmmakers hold the peculiars at arm’s length. On the one hand, it’s clear that Burton and company’s refusal to articulate any of the children’s backstories—the how and why of their arrival at Miss Peregrine’s orphanage—is an attempt to avoid easy sentimentality, to give Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a sense of guardedness, a stiff upper lip if you will, that honors the will of those who must hide so they may get to live another day. But on the other, this has a way of reducing the children entirely to their one (sometimes two) peculiarities, which are deployed in a seamlessly staged lockstep that leaves one wondering why the peculiars couldn’t have pulled the rug out from under their enemies much earlier.

For all of its moral anguish and aesthetic riches, the film doesn’t quite stick the landing, as the children’s release of all that is weird within them scans less as a response to everything that’s hurt them up to this point in their lives than a lazy script mandate. Burton, caught between a rock and a hard place of sorts, doesn’t fully embrace the poignancy inherent in this material, even as his restrained approach nonetheless reminds us of the distinct and peculiar coyness that was always at the heart of his best films.

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O'Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies Director: Tim Burton Screenwriter: Jane Goldman Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 127 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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Film

Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.

3.5

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1900
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.

The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.

Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.

The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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