Movie Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Question – If you had to get stuck in a time loop, which holiday would you like to be stuck enduring the least? Thanksgiving – if you had to spend the entire day at your least favorite relative’s house? Labor Day – if you were still in school and had to return? Valentine’s Day – after you’d just been dumped? In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays a TV newsman who travels to a quaint town to do a story on that holiday and manages to get himself trapped in a time loop from which he can’t even extricate himself by committing suicide. In “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” (based on the book by Ransom Riggs), a group of children with supertalents and their guardian (Eva Green) seek refuge in a time loop of a single day, which strikes me as ultimately dull but which seems to work out nicely for them. For awhile anyway.

Asa Butterfield plays the young adolescent hero who lives in present day Florida. Since he was little, he has had a close relationship with his grandfather (Terence Stamp), far closer than the one he has with his dad (Chris O’Dowd). His grandfather has always enjoyed telling him stories based on a box of old pictures of children he once knew when he was sent to away to avoid “monsters.” These children have “peculiarities,” i.e. powers very much like the ones the “X-Men” characters have – such as the ability to manipulate fire, control a swarm of bees, and defy gravity which is Ella Pernell’s specialty. Mrs. Peregrine, their guardian herself has the ability to transform into her namesake, which made me jealous because my number one superpower if I had a choice would be flight. Anyway, when the movie opens, Asa returns home from work, only to witness the (apparently) supernaturally caused death of his grandfather. However, he naturally suspects he might be going crazy – and that’s certainly the consensus of his parents who ship him off to a shrink. After some time on the couch dissecting his psyche, Asa persuades his dad to bring him on a trip to the remote Welsh island where the children’s home once was. This is when the story kicks into high gear.

Asa manages to find the ruined home – complete with actual residents, which surprisingly doesn’t make him confident that his sanity is returning. But it turns out to be true – and he manages to find his way inside a time loop – the same one that his grandfather had once been in (yes, I’m sorry, I can’t explain this better). Thanks to the residents and Eva, Asa learns that the loop exists to protect them from enemies – and these are formidable enemies indeed. Led by Samuel L. Jackson, they are a group of eye-eating zombies that can turn into people if they wish to disguise themselves. Samuel apparently needs a steady supply of eyes of “peculiars,” and that’s why he keeps trying to hijack different loops. When he manages to infiltrate Eva’s, he wastes no time wreaking havoc, and it’s up to Asa – who just may be a peculiar himself – to save the day.

I don’t know why this movie wasn’t released closer to Halloween – it’s a perfect kids’ film to see around that time, but I’m sure the makers had their reasons. Never having read the book, I went into this cold, and was pleasantly surprised at how much struck me as original. Fantasy and science fiction are tough genres to come up with original concepts, but a lot of this felt fresh, even if I had no idea where the plot was going for much of the movie. Asa and his friends are appealing, and regardless of whether or not it’s a faithful adaptation, I enjoyed it.



A Look Back: Mask (Not the One with Jim Carrey)

In the memoir “Autobiography of a Face,” a poignant account of how she survived Ewing’s Sarcoma (jaw cancer) as a child, Lucy Grealy describes a time one of her many doctors made a stab at empathy. When she goes in for a consultation on having a bone graft performed, and he notices her dismay at how long and unpleasant the process will be, he proceeds to mention that he himself had bad acne as a teen, and thus (presumably) knows what it’s like to feel self-conscious. Surprisingly, Grealy’s reaction is somewhere along the lines of, “Are you kidding me?”

Beauty, so I heard someone say once, is skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone. This doesn’t help much in adolescence, but of course, we all grow up and realize that other characteristics, such as courage, humor and compassion matter more. That’s the message of countless Hollywood movies, and it’s usually done in an expected way, but “Mask,” starring Eric Stoltz and Cher, does it differently. Playing the real-life teen Roy, “Rocky” Dennis,” who is afflicted with a rare facial affliction called cranio-diaphyseal dysplasia (or its much crueler term of lionitis), Eric’s life isn’t easy, but at least he and his single mom (Cher) can take comfort in knowing that when it comes to courage, humor and compassion, he’s got more than enough.

“Mask,” takes place in the late seventies, and it’s that period where Eric’s school keeps trying to stick him in special education classes, although he is actually quite smart. At home, he finds comfort and companionship with his mom’s biker gang, led by her boyfriend (Sam Elliott). Cher isn’t portrayed as your stereotypical feisty single mom; her character winds up being more complex than that. “Your mom sometimes does the wrong things, but for the right reasons,” Sam tells Eric at one point. And she may be far from perfect, but she’s fiercely protective of her son and determined that he will lead as normal a life as possible. And who isn’t temporarily stunned into silence when she catches someone staring at her son and snaps, “What’s the matter, never seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before?”

Eventually, Eric takes a job as a counselor at a sleepaway summer camp for, as he puts it wryly, “little blind kids.” Fortunately for him, there are all different age groups, and he winds up falling for Laura Dern, who winds up being a kindred spirit as well as beautiful. “Mask” has a sad ending (and the real life story that includes Rocky’s brother is even sadder), but it’s one of those triumph of the human spirit movies that leaves you feeling hopeful anyway. The DVD cover is similar to that of “The Karate Kid” (made around the same time), with Eric’s silhouette against a fiery sunset by the water. Like Ralph Macchio’s character, Eric’s undergoes a trial by fire of a sort and emerges victorious. And trust me, after watching it, even acne will seem a minor matter.

Movie Review: Bridget Jones’ Baby

Dear Diary:

Caffeine units: 1 small (tall) latte with skim milk and two sugars

Popcorn units: 2 1/2 cups (modest estimate)

Calories: (don’t ask; work off tomorrow!)

Today, I went to see “Bridget Jones’ Baby.” Boy, has Renee Zellweger had some serious plastic surgery done, since the prequel (Bridget Jones’ Diary). However, she’s back and more than game for more, whether that’s lip synching to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” in the opening scene, or falling ass over teakettle into the mud at a music festival. Saw movie with mostly middle aged and young women. Undoubtedly all there to swoon for Colin Firth (note to self: Why does he always look vaguely constipated?), who plays the modern day Mark Darcy, with who she once was serious about but who has since parted ways. Probably not there just to watch Patrick Dempsey who plays the other man in Renee’s life, with whom she sleeps in a short span of time along with Colin and thus becomes pregnant, though not technically together with either. Awkward! Last saw Colin turning ninja and taking out a church full of rednecks in “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Always good to see him again, even wearing that expression for most of the movie. As for Patrick, remember him when he had a hair like a Brillo pad and was riding around on his lawnmower in “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Blast from the past. Makes me feel ancient. Plays a millionaire who discovered an algorithm for matchmaking. At least he didn’t pay anyone to pose as his girlfriend this time.

Luckily, Renee, who has just turned 43 and has a great job at news station, manages to secure the support of both men, both of whom are good sports, and agree to stick around. Her father (Jim Broadbent) is supportive although he has confesses that he has never quite been sure if Renee is his (!). Her mum (Gemma Jones) is less thrilled, as she is running for state council on a family values platform (however, she does come around). String of wacky high jinks occur as Bridget deals with pregnancy and other issues like a new millennial boss who wants to entirely change the station format. Many amusing scenes centered around Emma Thompson, as Renee’s primary doctor, who gamely plays along in Renee’s early days of not quite being straight with either “father.” Last saw Emma being Robert Redford’s buzzkill in “A Walk in the Woods.” Good to see her in a role that fully uses her comedic talents. Anyway, the movie, while quite funny, falls back on that old trope in which the heroine’s water breaks when she is far, far from the hospital, meaning that there’s quite a lot of mishaps on the way to the delivery room. However, all ends well. Gemma’s character even broadens her mind – and thus, wins her position. All quite sweet.



A Look Back: Revenge of the Nerds

Whatever trials and tribulations you may have dealt with your first semester in college – gaining unwanted weight, having difficulty budgeting your time, or drunken roommates stumbling in late Saturday nights to vomit in the wastebasket, it’s a sure bet that they weren’t anywhere near where poor Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards endure in “Revenge of the Nerds.” Arriving at the fictional Adams College, they are thrilled at the prospect of living on their own and maybe, just maybe, catching up on their sexual education. However, things soon go awry when a jock-ish fraternity, the Alpha Betas, manage to accidentally burn down their own house and are promptly moved into the freshman dorm – which naturally means, the two “nerds” and their ilk are forced to relocate to the gym. Yes. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you at least managed to keep your dorm room for the first semester; even if you found your roommate a “challenge” to live with, you probably didn’t have to dodge basketballs while you studied.

Since none of them are thrilled about the new arrangements, the group (which includes Timothy Busfield, Curtis Armstrong and Andrew Cassese) jumps at the chance to pledge a campus fraternity, but surprisingly, they meet resistance here, too. Ever enterprising, they persist, and eventually get a nod from the Lambda Lambda Lambdas (an African-American off campus frat) no doubt because it’s the only frat that they neglected to submit a group photo to. Upon meeting the group, the Tri-Lambs aren’t too eager but are nevertheless willing to give the nerds a chance to prove themselves – which they do by pranking the Alpha Betas and their corresponding sorority, Pi Delta Pis. They then follow this triumph up by competing against both in the Homecoming’s Greek Games, which will hopefully result in first place – and the chance to be in charge of the Greek Council.

Of course, there is girl drama, too (and girl success), but at the conclusion of the Games, certain events threaten to derail the nerds’ future, which leads to Robert and Anthony taking the stage and finally speaking out on behalf of “nerds” everywhere.

Lewis: Hi, Gilbert. I’m a nerd too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you. I know there’s alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams you might’ve been called a spazz, or a dork, or a geek. Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you’re a nerd or not, why don’t you just come down here and join us. Okay? Come on.

Gilbert: Just join us cos uh, no-one’s gonna really be free until nerd persecution ends.

This, of course, has the effect of galvanizing the crowd, and they at last triumph. However, the Alpha Betas are again facing potential homelessness, since they trashed the nerds’ house, and the nerds are going to be sharing theirs until repairs can be made.

So what should they do about the fact that once again they are homeless? Pay attention to the reply given by the Dean (David Wohl).

“You’re jocks. Go sleep in the gym.”

Which has to be one of the best touchés in cinematic history.

Movie Review: Snowden

If you were a child of the Eighties, you probably know that there are two ways to solve a Rubik’s Cube: the first is to apply your brainpower, and the second is to remove all those little colored stickers and put them back together in the right order when no one is looking. Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” explains the trick further when its titular protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) advises someone to start by lining up the white cross (Is that it?). Of course, Joseph doesn’t have to rely on either option; he’s smart enough to put the thing together blindfolded if need be. Rubik’s Cubes have starred in earlier movies than “Snowden;” in “The Pursuit of Happyness (sic),” one helped Will Smith’s unemployed newly single father land a plum, if unpaid, internship and develop humility. Here, the Cube has a more noble purpose – or perhaps, depending on your viewpoint, a more sinister one – helping to smuggle computer data from the NSA out of the highly monitored center so as to give to Guardian journalists (Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto) plus a sympathetic documentary maker (Melissa Leo). No one wonders why a grown man would be playing with such a toy in the late 2000’s, but apparently this part of the story really happened.

Once Joseph meets the group, they go back to a hotel, and after confiscating everyone’s cell phones and sticking them in the microwave, sits down to tell his tale. He starts when he’s undergoing basic military training – but after managing to ignore for some time the fact that both his legs are broken, really messes up his lower limbs, and is informed soberly that there are other ways he can serve his country. Indeed there are, and he decides to apply to the CIA. Soon, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game,” he’s stunning his superiors with his lighting fast programming skills. Soon, too, Joseph begins to learn just how invasive the government is when it wants to put someone under surveillance. The explanation he’s given will probably stun you (unless you work for the CIA, too); it’s basically that six degrees from any individual, there’s quite a few people who get swept up in the surveillance net, and guess what, thanks to web cams and cell phones and such, your private data becomes very public. If you are thinking, like Shailene Woodley, who plays Joseph’s photographer girlfriend, it’s not a big deal because you have “nothing to hide,” “Snowden,” will make you think again.

Eventually, Joseph lands a job doing contract work in Hawaii, where both he and Shailene are happy, but then his conscience begins to bother him, and he decides to leak the information about illegal NSA surveillance (it’s around 2013) in hopes of informing the American people. This is, of course, not exactly welcome – which he anticipates and winds up fleeing to Russia (where he still lives with his girlfriend). Fittingly for a movie about how personal data gets shaped, there are lots of shots of the characters from different angles; at one point, we see Joseph and Melissa walking from behind, but only Joseph’s reflection blurs.  However, Joseph does a great job fleshing out his character. Oliver Stone also directed “JFK,” which I remember one critic said made her so paranoid, she began to wonder if she was involved in the Kennedy assassination herself. “Snowden,” might not go that far, but you might look at your web cam differently after seeing this. And maybe cover it up, when it’s not in use.

Montage Song Selection 101: The Good, Bad and Truly Bizarre

Warning: Reading this column may result in earworms – i.e. songs that get stuck in your head and play repeatedly, despite all attempts to forget them. You have been duly warned.

Irony is a concept that people often confuse with simple bad luck, which can also look a lot like what irony actually is. I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” which uses the Herman’s Hermits’ cover “I’m Into Something Good” (actually by Earl Jean). Because the movie is about a young girl whose mother conducts séances, somehow gets possessed, and wreaks havoc on all who know her, it was safe to assume the choice was (genuinely) ironic. Most songs in movies, however, play it straight; if your character is in drag, haul out Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” or if your characters have just won the Big Game, put on Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” But sometimes song selections are made with real flair, making the viewer admire how neatly its message dovetails with the movie’s.

So here are five songs used in a particular movie scene which get it right.

1. Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” – The boombox scene (and the earlier car sex scene) in “Say Anything.”

Why it works: Obviously, it’s hard not to be moved by John Cusack’s willingness to bare his heart and let Ione Skye know how much he loves her. Even a girl who broke up with him by giving him a pen has to reconsider her decision.

2. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” – The ending of “Stand By Me.”

Why it works: The narrator (Richard Dreyfus) is narrating how he never had friends quite like the ones he had at age twelve, even though he soon became distant from two once school began, and later on, as an adult, his closest childhood friend was killed in an accident. The contrast between the young main character (Wil Wheaton) returning triumphantly from a trip with his four friends and what is going to happen to him is heartbreaking.

3. Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” – The montage of Cameron Diaz dating Matt Dillon in “There’s Something About Mary.”

Why it works: Matt Dillon’s character is pretty awful, but for whatever inexplicable reasons, Cameron Diaz likes him. I believe the song was written years before the movie, but the lyrics fit like a glove.

4. Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” – Montage in “Office Space” in which Ron Livingston, among other things, comes intentionally late to work, removes a door knob that has been giving him electric shocks, and pulls down his workspace partition so that he can see out the window.

Why it works: Throughout the film, there are clear indications that the two white main characters are racist in some ways. Witness the opening scene where the white guy, who has been bopping along to a rap song in his car, dives for the door lock when he enters a “bad” neighborhood. While the film is (mostly) sympathetic to the plight of three main characters, who risk being downsized from their job, it still has parts where they are the subjects of mockery, even gentle. The scene in which Ron decides he doesn’t care what his boss thinks and proceeds to break every rule he can is a combination of both.

5. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – Montage in “Dead Poets Society.”

Why it works: It’s based on a poem by Schiller called “Ode to Joy,” and it plays during the scene where the young main characters experience the joy of learning/spreading their wings under the guidance of their teacher (Robin Williams).

And here are some that left me scratching my head.

1. Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” – The rape scene in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Why it’s odd: I first heard “Orinoco Flow,” when it was used in a Sesame Street segment montage. Though it’s a New Agey song, definitely not pop or rock, it got occasional air time on the radio during the eighties. It’s a song about – well, the Orinoco Flow; nowhere is there any allusion to rape. Perhaps whoever chose it was being clever in some way I did not get, a possibility I am willing to entertain.

2. Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” – One of several bullying flashbacks in “Never Been Kissed.”

Why it’s odd: The song is about masturbation, as you can tell from allusions such as “going blind.” It’s pretty straightforward. (But at least, they didn’t go with the even more explicit DiVinyls “I Touch Myself.”)

3. Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” – One of the several bar scenes in “The Brothers Grimsby.”

Why it’s odd: It isn’t if you just take it as a bunch of enthusiastic football (soccer to Americans) fans partying in a pub in Great Britain. However, the part where Sacha Baron Cohen sticks a lit firecracker where the sun doesn’t shine and runs around leaves the viewer with an image that is hard to forget, even though the song is straightforward and upbeat.

4. The Belle Stars’ “Iko Iko” – Opening scene of “Rain Man,” in which it’s established that Tom Cruise’s character is a rather sleazy sports car dealer.

Why it’s odd: According to Wikipedia, the song is about Native Americans. Not guys who still have unresolved father issues and believe their brother who they haven’t seen since childhood, was actually an imaginary friend.

Movie Review: The Disappointments Room

A dilapidated but stately ivy-wrapped manor far, far in the countryside. An overgrown, neglected garden full of vines, weeds and mysterious rustling sounds that can’t be easily explained. Ominous cawing of crows every time you venture out into the backyard. Still unless you are in a movie based on the children’s classic, “A Secret Garden,” you should probably beat a hasty retreat, but of course, if you’re Kate Beckinsale and her charming husband Mel Raido in “The Disappointments Room,” you stay and attempt to fix it up, noises and nightmares be damned. We soon learn in the film that although the couple has an adorable little boy (Duncan Joiner) with whom they appear to have a trusting, affectionate relationship, they’ve also suffered a loss of a baby girl – whose birthday anniversary is just around the corner. Also (shades of Rebecca Hall’s character in “The Gift”) Kate has had emotional problems in the past, which loads the dice for the chance that she won’t be believed when she starts emerging from a bizarre room upstairs, complaining that someone locked the door on her. Of course, Mel’s expected response, a tentative, “Honey, are you still taking your meds?” is met with anger at not being believed.  Still coincidences like a child, who lived there previously, dying in their house the same day as their daughter are difficult to dismiss, although being characters in a thriller, they manage not to run away screaming, even after Kate is informed point blank that the ghost doesn’t want her there.

As in really, really doesn’t, which we learn, after Kate is mysteriously mailed old photos and documents on the former residents, may be because the resident ghost (a former judge) has a young disabled daughter, who he and his wife kept locked up in said room because apparently, that is what occurred in those days. Oddly, Duncan who occasionally glimpses the young girl, does not bring up this with either his mom or dad. But soon there’s more than enough drama to fill Kate’s days, especially after the young, handsome handyman (Lucas Till) begins to help fix up the house. There is also an adorable cat already living in the house, and if you are a cat lover, it is best to keep your eyes closed during the scene where the cat goes missing, and Kate and Duncan attempt to scour the premises to find it. Actually, there are quite a few scenes involving graphic gore; this movie is not for the squeamish.

“The Disappointments Room,” is actually based on a true story of a couple who moved to renovate a country home and discovered yes, such a room, although I just learned this by clicking an online link; if this was acknowledged in the credits, I missed it. Maybe since the discovery is pretty horrifying, regardless of whether it’s a haunted room, the real life couple didn’t want any publicity. The finale of the movie surprised me by not hinging on literally killing ghosts, but rather a more metaphorical death. And in the end, they do take the advice of the ghost, which they should really have done a lot earlier.