Friday, September 30, 2016

Tim Burton Fails Again With 'Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children'

This review originally appeared on

While I've often appreciated the films of Tim Burton, I've very rarely loved them, finding him too often to be so involved with the the look of his films that he forgets he's supposed to be telling an actual story. Add to that the nearly constant inclusion of Johnny Depp (who is a dominating presence, to say the least), and his recent films have felt both one note and exhausting.

While he didn't direct the disastrous Alice Through the Looking Glass that was released earlier this summer, it still had his handprints all over it, and Burton is probably hoping Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will wash away the memory of that mistake. Sadly, it will have to be chalked up as another failure.

Based on the first book in a young adult series by author Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's centers on Jacob (Asa Butterfield), a Florida teen who is closer to his grandfather (played by Terence Stamp) than to his dad, partially because Grandpa told some pretty great bedtime stories in his youth. But Grandpa's continuing insistence that those stories weren't just stories is chalked up to dementia as he's grown older, and Jacob begins to doubt him too.

When his grandfather meets a gruesome fate, it convinces Jake that he had been telling the truth all along. He persuades his distant and bird-watching (?!) father (Chris O'Dowd) to accompany him on a trip to an island in Wales, to see that "home for peculiar children" where his grandfather was once a resident.

What follows involves portals, time travel, and those aforementioned peculiar children, who are all living the same day in 1943 over and over again to avoid eyeball-eating "Hollowghasts." (Seriously.) Jake is looked on with suspicion by residents like Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), the sullen boy who can bring inanimate objects to life, and is clearly a stand-in for Burton himself. Others can't help but be drawn to him, like Emma (Ella Purnell), the literally ethereal blonde who would float away if not weighted down by her steampunk metal shoes.

Maybe 20 years ago, a home full of kids with "special" and often supernatural talents would have elicited some sense of wonder or excitement, but all I could think was, "Yeah, I liked this place better when it was known as Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters."

Burton's latest "muse" Eva Green (when you've got a type, you've got a type!) plays Miss Peregrine. She gives an enjoyably weird and off-kilter performance, speaking in an odd, clipped accent and gliding around with birdlike movements, which is appropriate considering Peregrine isn't just her name.

But she's really the only standout in a film that feels phoned in. The majority of the kids are reduced to the peculiarities and given no real personality, and Jake spends way too much of the movie as an observer instead of a hero.

But where the movie really fails is with the bad guys, lead by Samuel L. Jackson. God bless him, but I'm just plain tired of seeing him show up as the villain! Especially when he doesn't bring anything new or exciting to the role. Here he's the same old grinning monster, cracking wise but rarely saying anything that's actually funny.

It doesn't help that he's also in charge of some monsters that are so unoriginal, I was sure their initial appearance was a joke. Ha ha, you thought the bad guys were gonna just be eyeless and noseless dudes with fang-filled mouths, AGAIN? — just kidding! Here's something REALLY SCARY!

No such luck.

The original book's best aspect was its use of found photographs as a starting-off point for a supernatural story: Actual found black-and-white photos of spooky-looking kids doing things that look unexplainable are interspersed throughout the book. Of course, the photos are really just old camera tricks, but having them included in the book with a backstory adds a certain sense of plausible reality to the whole thing.

Burton barely gives those photos a passing moment, taking away the one thing that would explain why Jake was convinced his grandfather's stories were true. But I suppose that makes sense. The film actually does come off like a long-winded and boring tale told by someone who's probably ready for his pudding after a nice long nap.

Friday, September 23, 2016

'The Dressmaker''s Uneven Tone Makes For A Jarring Experience

This review originally appeared on

The Dressmaker opened overseas last year, and became the second highest-grossing film of 2015 in its home country of Australia. But I seriously doubt it will be met with quite the same enthusiasm here in the States.

Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage, a haute couture dressmaker who has returned from Paris to her small, dusty, hometown in 1951 Australia. Her entrance, along with her opening line, "I'm back, you bastards!" sets up the story like an old-fashioned revenge Western, only this time, the hero is armed with a Singer and not a Smith and Wesson.

Tilly has ostensibly returned home to care for her feeble and slightly insane mother, Mad Molly (Judy Davis, who gets the majority of the film's limited laughs), but what she really wants is the answer to a question that has haunted her since childhood: Did she in fact murder a classmate when she was ten years old?

Most of the miserable townsfolk believe she did, and don't exactly welcome her home with open arms. But she's come armed with the talent she's honed since her banishment from town, and once the townsfolk see her prancing around in her fabulous frocks and learn about the skills she has to offer, they start to appreciate her.

Until they don't, and go back to hating her again.

The Dressmaker is a movie that doesn't stick to one tone, even during the course of a single scene, and it all adds up to a jarring experience. Granted, Australian comedies are rarely subtle, and the characters that inhabit the dusty town Dungatar are broad to the point of caricature, including the cross-dressing police sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who screams in glee at the sight of some silk organza yardage; the hunchbacked pharmacist (Barry Otto) who prescribes riotous lectures instead of actual medicine ("It's addictive!"); and the town Councillor (Shane Bourne), who nightly drugs his high-strung wife to the point of unconsciousness, and then proceeds to rape her.

It was that scene, which comes fairly early in the story, that had me distrusting the film. While the moment isn't exactly played for laughs, it's also not presented as the horrific act it is, either. And so much of the film that follows has a similar problem of not managing to balance the extreme mood swings it takes.

There's a romance at the center of the story, between Tilly and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a young man who, for some unfathomable reason, hasn't become a horrible person like everyone else in the miserable town. (Kate Winslet is clearly older than Liam Hemsworth, and while it's refreshing to see that kind of age difference play out in the actress's favor for once, it doesn't make sense within the context of the film since they're supposed to be the same age.)

Teddy wants to help Tilly get to the bottom of her mystery, but is constantly warning her that even with all the fancy sewing she can do, the town is never going to like her. Which had me wondering, wait, is that the point? What exactly is she trying to do? She knows they're horrible people, and it doesn't seem like she cares much what they think of her. Yet, she makes them all these dresses leads to no change in them. If anything, it makes them even worse.

Speaking of those dresses, the first half of the film is filled with some lovely fashions (my favorite was the black evening dress with the white accordion sleeves). That, the burgeoning romance between Teddy and Tilly, and some suspense surrounding just who killed that little boy in the schoolyard all makes for a pretty entertaining little tale. For a little while.

But then the film starts to pile on the tragedies, lining them up right next to some comedic deaths, and because both are played with the same tone, the film earns neither the tears nor the laughs it's shooting for. Is The Dressmaker a comedy? Or a tragedy? It tries to be both, and ends up being neither.

Friday, September 9, 2016

'Sully' Manufactures Unnecessary Drama, Sells Subject Humorlessly Short

This review originally appeared on

I'll say up front that Sully was a difficult movie for me to watch, since one of my biggest fears is flying (and I happen to be getting on a plane Monday). But I would imagine even those who aren't scared of flying aren't thrilled by the prospect of crashing, so watching a realistic plane disaster probably instills some rapid heart beats in your average viewer, if not the virtual panic attack it gave me

And director Clint Eastwood certainly doesn't shy away from that crash (sorry Captain Sully, I mean "forced water landing"), showing the full event more than once throughout the course of the film. The story takes place during the weeks immediately following that "landing," although it jumps back in forth in time, showing the moments before the event, the event itself, and the investigation that followed, but not always in that order. There are also a few flashbacks to Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's earlier days as both an amateur and a military pilot.

One of the biggest miracles of the event dubbed "the Miracle on the Hudson" is that the man behind it turned out to be so perfectly modest, down to earth, and likable. So it was almost inevitable that, when the (equally) inevitable movie came out, he'd be played by the universally likable Tom Hanks.

Hanks has the white hair and mustache, and looks enough like Sully to seamlessly blend into the character. But ironically, the one thing Hanks's performance is lacking is levity, and anyone who has ever met the real Sully (who hails from the Bay Area) or has seen him in TV interviews knows that he's got an easy and often self-deprecating sense of humor.

Granted, the film takes place within the week after the crash, so it's possible that Sully wasn't at his most charming during that time. (Actual TV interviews that happened that week, however, tend to prove otherwise.)

And that's just part of the the film's overall problem, as it repeatedly gins up drama where it really isn't needed. I'm sure Sully had more than one moment of PTSD after January 15th, 2009, but the film's version of Sully shows him barely holding it together, imagining planes crashing every time he looks outside a New York window, waking up in cold sweats, and having many angst-ridden phone conversations with his wife (Laura Linney) who is back home in Danville. Alas, Linney's character is almost exactly like one she parodied in an Inside Amy Schumer sketch earlier this year. (Note to screenwriters: If the wife role requires her to spend the majority of it on the phone anxiously speaking to her husband, perhaps rethink it a bit.)

Sully's anxiety is centered on one constant question: Did I do the right thing?

Sure, it seems like a silly question to have when what you did basically saved the lives of over 150 people, and it had me thinking, so what if he could have landed at a nearby airport safely? The end result would have been the same.

Except for the loss of that plane, of course, and that's where the movie's manufactured villain comes in.

The implication is that the National Transportation Safety Board was more concerned with the loss of the aircraft than it was pleased by the avoidance of a deadly disaster. But I don't really believe the hearings that were conducted after the accident were as insulting and skewed (and brief) as they are in the film. I was disappointed to see Eastwood, who has been able to avoid black-and-white morality in a lot of his movies, resort to creating such a cartoonishly evil villain in the NTSB (as personified by Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, and Mike O'Malley).

Sully landing that plane on the Hudson is an amazing story, but it's also a pretty brief one. Captain Sully never wanted to be in the spotlight, and got out of it as quickly as he could. He also never took sole credit for the events that day, always acknowledging his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played in the film by Aaron Eckhart and his mustache), his crew, and New York's emergency response teams. It's ironic that a movie being advertised as "the story you didn't know" is actually at its best (and most harrowing — see it in IMAX for added heart stress!), when it's showing us the story we do know, namely the events of that cold afternoon in New York, on January 15th, 2009.

Friday, September 2, 2016

'The Light Between Oceans' Is Pretty But Turgid

This review originally appeared on

The Light Between Oceans, adapted by writer and director Derek Cianfrance from the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, is an old-fashioned romantic tragedy filled with fateful events, bad choices, and really pretty people walking around really pretty scenery.
Michael Fassbender stars as World War I vet Tom Sherbourne, who returns to Australia and accepts a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the western coast. He's a moody and tight-lipped man who is dealing with some obvious post-war angst, so a lonely island is just what the doctor ordered.

Tom easily catches the eye of the lovely Isabel (Alicia Vikander) during a visit to the mainland. She's a smart, happy, and forward young woman who basically takes the reins, asking Tom on a date and then essentially proposing to him a few hours later. But, it being 1918, no marriage can actually take place until those two exchange several turgid letters to each other over the course of several months.

Once wed, Isabel joins Tom on Janus, and while their isolated island is an Eden at first — there is no limit to the number of shots that include glistening waves, vivid sunsets, and the swaying fields of grass that surround their home — things turn terrible when pregnancy enters the picture. Childbirth was an already a dangerous experience back then, but toss in a complete lack of any immediate medical care, and anything but the most complication-free pregnancy is a potential for tragedy. And it's just such a tragedy Isabel and Tom must face. Twice.

So when a healthy baby shows up on their shores shortly after Isabel's second miscarriage, it seems to Isabel to be nothing but fate. She urges Tom not to report it, and to raise the baby as their own. Who would know?

Of course, things don't turn out so happily ever after. A few years later, during another visit to the mainland, a grieving widow (Rachel Weisz) catches Tom's attention. And therein lies one of the movie's main problems: Tom is such a cypher that we never really understand his motivations — or lack thereof — or why he's so haunted. Isabel clearly wears the pants in the relationship, and, as a uniquely forthright and determined young woman in the early 1920's, is a much more interesting character to center a movie on. But instead, we see the story primarily through Tom's passive eyes.

The film is, of course, beautiful to look at, with lots of shots of the good looking leads in their lovely lace dresses and manly woolen sweaters as they walk through the rugged landscapes. Fassbender and Vikander both do the best they can with the material at hand, and if you sense a real sense of chemistry between them, it's probably because the couple fell in love while making the film. Weisz is also very compelling in a role that requires her to spend a lot of time crying.

And sure, I'll admit to shedding some tears myself by the end of the movie. But it was an almost involuntary reaction, like jumping when something leaps out in a horror movie, or burping after drinking a big gulp of beer. There were tears on my cheeks, but I wasn't feeling a thing.