Seeking Out Cinema's Hidden Gems

Reviews - All | Reviews - Silver Screen Surprises | Features | Contact

Friday, September 30, 2016

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

A Bedtime Story Brought to Life

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 30, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Running Time: 127 minutes
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Ransom Riggs (novel), 
Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, 
Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, 
Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, 
Chris O'Dowd, Terence Stamp, 
Ella Purnell, Enoch O'Conner, 
Lauren McCrostie, Pixie Davies, 
Cameron King, Milo Parker, 
Raffiella Chapman, Thomas Odwell, 
Joseph Odwell 

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is a whimsical fantasy from director Tim Burton, but like all of Burton's work, there's a darker edge too.

Jake (Asa Butterfield, "Hugo") is a lonely lost boy living in Florida. While the skies may be sunny, his life is anything but. His father (Chris O'Dowd, far removed from his usual friendly, folksy demeanor) is cold, distant, and doesn't understand him. His grandfather, Abe (the superb Terence Stamp, making the most of his limited screen-time), is said to be suffering from dementia. When Jake was younger, Abe would tell him fantastical tales about growing up in a group home surrounded by other children with special abilities and their mysterious headmistress named Miss Peregrine. It was the perfect bedtime story for a child to fall asleep to. But Jake is now a sullen teen. He no longer considers himself a child and has put away childish things.

If Jake wasn't a child before, he's forced to grow up quickly when he discovers his grandfather dead in the woods with his eyes sucked out. Nightmares and trauma follow, but his psychiatrist (Allison Janney) assures him he's not crazy.

Jake wants to visit the children's home of his grandfather's youth. It's a long way from Florida to Wales, but his father reluctantly agrees because the trip could provide a much-needed sense of closure.

These are rather weighty themes to explore so early in the film, but it isn't long before Jake ends up in the 1940s of his grandfather's childhood and discovers that all of those amazing bedtime stories were true. There really was a Miss Peregrine (a delightfully off-kilter Eva Green) and she really did run a school for peculiar children. Abe's past has become Jake's present. The boy hasn't landed in a fairy tale, though. Trouble is brewing.

The Peculiars, as the children are referred to, include:

  • Emma (Ella Purnell): Floats through the air.
  • Finlay (Enoch O'Conner): Brings inanimate objects to life.
  • Olive (Lauren McCrostie): Firestarter.
  • Bronwyn (Pixie Davies): A little girl with superhuman strength.
  • Millard (Cameron King): Invisible.
  • Hugh (Milo Parker): Bees live inside him.
  • Claire (Raffiella Chapman): An extra mouth resides in the back of her head.
  • Masked Twins (Thomas and Joseph Odwell): Short and creepy – somewhat reminiscent of Sam from "Trick 'r Treat."

Fans of the Ransom Riggs novel, which I have not read, will immediately notice one major discrepancy: The characteristics of Emma and Olive have been swapped – for reasons unknown. Silver Screen Sister lamented that there were many changes made from the book.

The Peculiars are eventually greeted by two guests: one welcome and one unwelcome – the wise Miss Avocet (Judi Dench) and the villainous Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, back in the "real world," Jake's bird-watcher dad has bonded with a fellow ornithologist (Rupert Everett).

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is overflowing with creativity. Therefore, it is with a little guilt that I admit I was never quite able to love it. Don't get me wrong, it's still great fun. The Peculiars are interesting, the set-pieces are fantastic, the action is thrilling, and the emotional moments are well-played. Yet, all of those elements don't feel entirely cohesive at times. The same movie that deals with a boy's loneliness and grief also features Samuel L. Jackson mugging for the camera with wild white hair and garish fanged teeth. Because of that, the quieter human moments didn't affect me quite as much as they could have and the big battle scenes felt slightly lower-stakes than they should have.

Still, the ending sequence is amazing. Unfortunately, it's comprised of only rapid-fire clips and a quick explanation from one of the characters. I could have easily sat through another hour of the developments presented in those final few moments. What a missed opportunity! It almost felt like a TV show that was cancelled unexpectedly and had an epilogue added in post-production to wrap up any loose ends.

Even so, two of the characters who should have interacted in the final ten minutes of the film never did. But I guess that's what sequels are for. (Ransom Riggs wrote two more books in the "Miss Peregrine" series.)

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" may not have captured my heart the way I was hoping for, but there's still plenty to like and recommend about it. If nothing else, it's another opportunity to take in Tim Burton's unique blend of oddity and spectacle. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Waffle Street

From Finance to Fries

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 24, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: TV-PG
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 86 minutes
Directors: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Writers: Autumn McAlpin, Eshom Nelms, 
Ian Nelms
Cast: James Lafferty, Danny Glover, 
Julie Gonzalo, Dale Dickey, Marshall Bell, 
Ernie Lively, William Knight, Adam Johnson, 
Yolanda Wood, Aubrey Reynolds, Sila Agavale, 
Jason Tatom, Michelle Lang

Papa's Chicken and Waffles is a combination of two of my favorite greasy spoons: Steak 'n Shake and Waffle House. When a financial fat cat loses his job, his next move – naturally – is to become a restaurant server. James Adams (James Lafferty) wants to do "honest" work like his father and grandfather (Ernie Lively and William Knight) before him. In a series of "comedic" vignettes, he applies to various "blue collar" jobs – auto mechanic, construction worker – but gets turned down for all of them. He's the picture of corporate cluelessness: clean cut, in a suit and tie, with no experience fixing cars or laying bricks. But he's a "quick learner," he says. That's enough to get him into Papa's – well, that and someone just quit right before he walked in.

Of course, a go-getter like James isn't content with waiting tables and sweeping floors for long. He crunches the numbers and sees the profit potential in buying his own Papa's Chicken and Waffles franchise. As luck would have it, the very one he's working in is up for sale. There's one hitch, though: According to the previous owner (played by "Total Recall's" Marshall Bell) and the Papa's handbook, James has to put in 1,000 hours of work before he can become eligible to buy it. That means taking double-shifts and working into the wee hours of the morning. Midnights at Papa's are like something out of an apocalyptic horror movie.

Throughout all of this, I never truly believed for a second that his long-suffering wife, Becky (Julie Gonzalo), would patiently and blindly go along with a cockamamie plan like this for as long as she did. (James is the type of guy who would probably use a word like "cockamamie.") I was never quite convinced. As it turns out, there's a reason for that: "Waffle Street" is based on a true story, but according to the memoir of the same name, "the screenwriter and directors created the plot device of my attempting to purchase the restaurant from the existing franchisee." Disappointing, but that's Hollywood! At least it explains why the wife's behavior never felt grounded in reality.

Meanwhile, Eddie, the grill cook (Danny Glover), warns James that a lot of people have talked about owning their own Papa's but none of them have ever done it. The best performance in the film probably comes from Glover, who is an actor I haven't always liked. While some of his dialogue can be ridiculous and over-the-top ("Well, consider me your waffle daddy!"), his character is probably the most realistic and grounded – at least at times. (This movie, as demonstrated by the absurd "waffle daddy" line, can't always help itself.) Glover's shining moment comes near the end. His character delivers a passionate speech about how much he loves grilling food. It doesn't feel like acting.

One nice touch: "Waffle Street" populates itself with the types of eccentric characters you'd expect to find in a 24-hour diner – Crazy Kathy (Dale Dickey), a disheveled customer always asking to borrow money; Jacqui (Yolanda Wood), the wise, friendly, and hard-working African-American who would be a stereotype if there weren't so many other similar people in various true stories about the restaurant business; Mary (Aubrey Reynolds), the teen or twenty-something server who's either just passing through or will end up becoming a lifer; Manuel (Sila Agavale), who is simply trying to earn a wage and keep his ahead above water; Matthew (Adam Johnson), the ponytailed manager with relationship issues; and Larry (Jason Tatom), a power-mad prick who isn't there to make friends and loves to write citations.

This story reminded me very much of the memoir by Michael Gates Gill, "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else." His childhood was spent around literary legends like Robert Frost, followed by an Ivy League education and a six-figure salary. In his sixties, he lost it all and ended up cleaning toilets at Starbucks. Now, that would make a great movie. (Supposedly, it's "in development.")

"Waffle Street" could easily be called "White Privilege: The Movie." There's nothing subtle about the main character, any of the other performances, the dialogue, or the film in general. James may as well have the word "earnest" stamped on his forehead like a scarlet letter. But he – and this movie – won me over anyway. Yes, it's that gosh darn earnestness of his that did it. (James would probably use a phrase like "gosh darn.") This is not a great film, but it's warm, pleasant, and doesn't have a malicious bone in its body. Plus, it made me consider the possibility – at least for a fleeting moment – of opening up my very own Steak 'n Shake or Waffle House.