Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Allen)

(Originally posted 5th October 2016)

Okay, buckle in kids, 'cause this is gonna get rough.

Hopes were tentatively high going into this film. The source material seemed to suit Burton well and the footage seen in trailers suggested a visually engaging action romp, albeit one apparently aimed at children. However, it was in fact not only a terrible film but it was one of the worst mainstream films I have ever seen (and that is not a statement I make lightly).

So let's try and deal with this piece by piece. Firstly, the story. I'm not familiar with the source material but I have to say that this felt like it would work better as a novel. There is a lot to be said for the power of the imagination and I think it covers a lot of cracks that really start to show when you try and actualise these things. The film is pitched at a tween audience and relies on the idea that they have no concept of relationships, love, physics, time, narrative structure, the history of fantasy adventure or really anything beyond the idea that it might be cool to be invisible.

The plot is so route one and cliched that I can sum it up in one facetious paraphrase: “Oh god, I'm such an angsty teen, nobody understands me and girls don't fancy me. I wish I could be whisked away to a magical land where my life has meaning and people respect me.”

You know when you were thirteen and you read Harry Potter and then you started writing that story about a kid who gets bullied but then finds out he's descended from ninjas and goes to secret ninja school and gets off with a girl ninja and then beats up the bullies? Yeah, that story was less derivative than this film.

The “peculiar” characters have no rhyme or reason and their mutations are either completely arbitrary or designed solely for how they can be used in a later fight sequence. There is no metaphor or deeper meaning behind any of it and this allows for no development (for a better example, take Rogue in X-Men, whose inability to touch people without harming them is an analogy for adolescent social anxiety). The main character, Jake, is about as bland a human as you can get (although that is the point) until he goes to magic land because of his twinkly-eyed magic granddad and finds out that he has exactly the special talent that everyone has been looking for.

I'm really struggling to write this review because my contempt for this film is so strong that it's annoying to me to break it down in a vain attempt to try and find something worth berating. This film is so bad, that by trying to justifiably analyse it, I'm already giving it greater validation than it deserves. It's like eating a shit sandwich and then describing the texture.

So let's get this over with. The plot doesn't make sense. It has no sense of direction, again because there is no greater point being aimed at. There isn't a reason that the creatures need to eat eyeballs, someone just thought that was a quirky thing to put in. There isn't a reason that the protectors turn into birds, it just makes for a cool visual. There isn't a reason for any of it, so it's just a stumbling mess that misses every opportunity to say anything of value. And there is potential for some philosophy here. We have a group of children and adolescents who have been stuck in a time loop of the same 24 hours for seventy years, but always conscious of their previous actions. What relationships must have been struck up and broken in that time? What betrayals? What emotional growth? What psychological torment to be stuck in the same day over and over, knowing you will never have the opportunity to actually live, and if that is the case, is life even worth living? Well, there is none of that stuff, so don't expect it. It's just a kid who can control bees or whatever because that's cool, right?

With an impressive effort, the film actually manages to get worse as it goes along, as all attempts to maintain any kind of logical reality or define any kind of rules of the story world are totally abandoned, to put in action a sequence of events that may very well have been the result of one of those writing exercises where you get three random phrases and have to build a story around them. In this case, those phrases would be 'Blackpool Tower', 'snowball fight', and 'the death knell of Tim Burton's career'.

So lets take a moment to talk about Tim Burton. We know he's a talented director; he has a body of work that can stand up next to any other. So what's going on here? This doesn't feel like a Tim Burton film; it feels like a film by a 19 year old who says that Tim Burton is their favourite director, even though they've only seen Beetlejuice and Big Fish. It doesn't feel like a film with thirty years of experience behind it. It feels like a studio hash job written by committee in an attempt to hit every stereotype that they think kids like without understanding the meaning behind any of it. And that is not what you expect from someone who has consistently been able to put their personality into studio driven projects. It's a sad low point of a career that has been spiralling downwards for some years now.

Before I give in completely; the cast. Eva Green actually manages to bring a bit of character into the titular Miss Peregrine, although it is not given any room to develop. She is kooky for kooky's sake, but gets away with it by putting in a solid performance (like Johnny Depp would). Samuel L. Jackson is the only one who looks like he's having any fun and the rest of the cast range from bland to awful, including the lead Asa Butterfield, who is mostly awful. But this doesn't feel like a cast that is lacking direction, it feels like a cast that is being badly directed; and that is perhaps more worrying.

If you're twelve years old, it's a bank holiday and it's raining, this might be watchable. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

2/10

 

For a look at some more pleasant Tim Burton discussion, check out our episode here:
SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/diminishing-returns/17-tim-burton
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/…/podcast/diminishing…/id1121069722

Bridget Jones's Baby (Allen)

(Originally posted 22nd September 2016 - spoilers)

It's probably fair to say I didn't go into this film with the best attitude. The first two of the trilogy, while entertaining, seemed to me to be remnants of a world that we are trying to leave behind. So what does fifteen years of progress look like? It actually looks... very good. Rather than dwelling in an outdated set of ideas, Bridget Jones's Baby feels more like a forward thinking film that is nonetheless held back by the past, which is a much more accurate portrayal of the plight of the modern woman.

The plot set up is that Bridget is now in her early forties and still single. Now, though, this is exacerbated by the fact that all her friends have gone off to have kids and no longer want to play with her and her biological clock is ticking. She's managed to stumble her way up the career ladder to become some sort of line producer on a news show and she's basically pretty comfortable. So far, so realistic, and this is where we start to feel the benefit of not having Richard Curtis on the writing team. Curtis doesn't seem to have ever met real, nuanced, complicated people, and only sees life in archetypes and stock rom-com situations.

In a last ditch attempt to relive her youth, Bridget is encouraged by her new younger friend Miranda (brilliantly played by Sarah Solemani and a shame that the character basically gets jettisoned in the second half to make way for Bridget's story) to get out and have some fun, which culminates in her having a one night stand with Jack. In the tradition of Bridget Jones's love interests, he's ten years older than her but devilishly handsome (although if you ask me he looks more like a well-tanned Chuckle brother).

Unfortunately, this whole character is one of the weakest elements of the story. Patrick Dempsey plays him with just the right amount of charm and empathy and in other circumstances it would work fine; the problem is that here he's going up against the long standing love interest of Mr. Darcy, so there is never any real sense of suspense about who she's going to end up with; the person with a fifteen year history or some guy she barely knows. Of course, if it had been Daniel Cleaver it might have worked but Hugh Grant was not prepared to give us that pleasure, the lovable bastard.

So, to get on with the plot, Bridget finds herself pregnant to one of these two delightful chaps and hilarity ensues as she at first tries to hide from this confusion and then has to confront it head on. The important part of this journey, however, is the bit where it looks like she's lost both of them and she concludes, fuck it, I'll just do it on my own. It's not overplayed, it's not some huge life lesson, she's just a strong independent woman and this is one more thing she might have to tackle in a strong and independent way. This is the growth of Bridget Jones that was missing in the previous films; a realistic sense of a woman who can take the hard knocks and keep going. Even the idea of having a child is done wonderfully subtly. She's not a baby mad spinster down to her last few eggs, it happens by accident and she rolls with it. The decision to keep the baby is similarly underplayed; it's probably her last chance so she's going to take it. I'd like to assume this was deliberate writing of a strong character rather than glossing over an important part of the process so we could get back to doing stupid gags.

The film also handles layers and irony rather better than its predecessors, with Bridget's mother being the prime example of this. The parents are not strongly related to the story, but her mother's change from an old-fashioned sense of family values to actually expressing genuine care is an obvious demonstration of the societal changes that I felt were missing from the original film. On the same note, it should probably go without saying that Emma Thompson's OB/GYN doctor is the best thing in the whole film, both in terms of character and performance.

The film still maintains the comedic and occasionally even slapstick tone of the previous films and this works better some times than others. The best example probably being when Darcy has to carry the in-labour Bridget to the hospital. Picking her up dramatically as the score kicks in only to find that she's a lot heavier than he'd anticipated. This is what Bridget Jones is about; overblown ideas of romance undermined by reality. It's holding up a mirror so we can watch and say, “Oh god, I've done that; how silly that seems in hindsight”. The difference in this instalment is that Bridget and by extension the audience actually learns and grows from these experiences, rather than just constantly falling back to imaginary 'perfect' scenarios.

The film certainly has its flaws. For example, there is a whole subplot that never really works about Bridget being worried about getting fired from her job. Also, I would have preferred a more ambiguous ending because there isn't any real suspense where they're trying to make us think there is. But even though on paper it seems like the ultimate Hollywood happy ending, it gets away with it because I believe the journey that took us there. It all gets wrapped up a little too neatly but I don't feel like that is at the expense of letting the character develop.

Overall then, the same humour and charm of the originals but with a much more healthy and forward thinking outlook.

8/10

 

Listen to our highly entertaining discussion of Bridget Jones here:
https://soundcloud.com/…/15-bridget-jones-the-edge-of-reason
https://itunes.apple.com/…/podcast/diminishing…/id1121069722

Ben-Hur (2016) (Allen)

(Originally posted 14th September 2016)

What is the purpose of a remake? Is it to update the story for a modern audience? Take advantage of improved technology to create a greater spectacle? Take an imperfect piece and try and improve it?

Ben-Hur (2016) does none of these things. It is a direct remake of the 1959 film of the same name and the only real advantage it has is that it's taken a couple of hours out of the run time.

The story follows Judah Ben-Hur, a well-off middle class Jew in Jerusalem who is betrayed by his adopted brother Messala, who is part of the Roman occupying force. His whole family is murdered or imprisoned and he is sent to the galley to serve as a slave until he is dead. He manages to escape (by luck more than design) and comes back to wreak revenge. When he achieves his vengeance, he comes to realise that it has given him no solace and the true path to spiritual peace is forgiveness.

There's a lot of potential in that plot and, unfortunately, it is not well examined. There are some hints of a good story near the beginning, dealing with the conflicting sides of a hostile occupation; the moral questions of pacifism and civil unrest; what is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom-fighter? But this early development never gets the chance to breathe and it just ends up feeling like lip service to a more worthy story possibility.

Also unexplored is the journey of Ben-Hur as a slave, which is summed up for us with a simple title card of “5 years later”. We see nothing of the mental trauma and angst that one must suffer in such a situation, and would obviously be fuel for his later actions and help us understand the character's journey. For a better example of this, see 12 Years a Slave, which shares a writer with Ben-Hur, but is a far superior film.

Visually, the film is also no improvement on its 57 year old predecessor, which probably speaks more to the quality of the William Wyler version than any distinct deficiency with the new incarnation. The director Timur Bekmambetov is known for a physics defying CG rich style of filmmaking and I must admit I was looking forward to how that would translate to a much more grounded swords and sandals type film. The answer is, he simply reined it in, making instead a rather standard bit of action nonsense. The chariot race scene, the tentpole piece of the 1959 version, is repeated almost shot for shot and really takes no advantage of the visual possibilities that modern filmmaking could have rendered.

A quick word on the acting. Jack Huston actually really stood out as an engaging lead. Very bright-eyed and full of spunk, as they say. Played the part about as well as one could have hoped and being new to me, was a welcome surprise. Although he did look a bit too much like Peter Serafinowicz for me to take him seriously. Toby Kebbell, who I've always really liked, gave a solid performance but felt somehow out of place with this more dramatic style of film and he always seemed a little out of place. Morgan Freeman pops in as a sage old man who guides our hero, of course, but the rest of the cast are basically anonymous, ranging from poor to average.

And now, I'd like to talk to you about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Jesus finds himself shoe-horned into the story and, just like in the 1959 film, his presence and resulting effect undermines the actions of the characters and the message of the film. To see a film in the 50s legitimately preaching christianity seems quite quaint to modern eyes; to see it in 2016 is actually quite embarrassing to watch. I'm well aware that I live in a very middle class liberal bubble that is deliberately insulated from the horrors of the real world, and when something like this sneaks in and reminds me of just how backwards-thinking some people are, I really find it very depressing. So not the heart-warming ending for me that it was meant to be. Speaking of which, one significant change was the very end, when Messala survives the chariot race and the two brothers find forgiveness in each other rather than Charlton Heston just ruing the death of a former friend/lover. This did actually feel like a better ending and a more sensible message in keeping with the theme of forgiveness. However, it was just kind of tacked on to the last five minutes with no real development and so instead felt like a Hollywood happy ending.

A pointless, valueless remake that does nothing and adds nothing.

4/10

 

To hear some sexier ideas for a Ben-Hur film, listen to our episode here:
SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/diminishing-returns/12-ben-hur
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/…/podcast/diminishing…/id1121069722