Horror is likely the most forgiving genre out there for being derivative. Just about every modern horror movie wears its many influences, even the recent trend of elevated horror movies that are trying to say Big Things with equal amounts of arty style and bloodshed. There’s only so many monsters that can chase so many teenagers. Ti West (House of the Devil) is a director I haven’t fully enjoyed, though I would say X is his most accomplished film to date for me. It’s clearly going for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and docu-drama aesthetic. It’s set in 1979 and we follow a ragtag film crew trying to make “a good dirty movie.” They’ve rented a guest house in the middle of nowhere Texas as their film site because who knows. The octogenarian couple who owns the farm property doesn’t seem to approve of these young folk, and the old lady ends up becoming the slasher killer that mows down the randy young adults. Turns out the old lady has her own urges that the old husband is no longer physically able to satisfy, so she seeks out solace one way or another with the newcomers, whether that be through her sexual satisfaction or through violence. To West’s credit, he has given more attention to his characters. These people are not going to be confused with three-dimensional figures but there’s enough character shading that made me more interested in spending time with them and a little more rueful that most of them will probably die horribly soon enough (Chekhov’s alligator). The slow burn is not wasted time or dawdling, and there are some very well-executed squirm-worthy moments of discomfort. I don’t think X quite works on that elevated horror level of late; it’s mostly a slasher movie with a dollop more complexity and style. The real reason to appreciate X is from the dual performances from actress Mia Goth (Suspiria), the first as a stripper-turned-ingenue that sees pornography as a path of possible self-actualization, but she’s also secretly the killer old lady under piles and piles of makeup. Her wild performances, including scenes where she is facing off against herself, makes the movie far more interesting. Goth goes for broke. I don’t think the X is as fun as it thinks it is, nor is it as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and I don’t know if I care about a prequel that was shot back-to-back that illuminates the killer old lady’s younger life. Is this character really that interesting to warrant her own movie? As a horror movie, it’s disturbing and bloody and surprising in equal measure even as it doesn’t do much with re-configuring the many conventions of its genre.
Netflix’s Choose or Die is one of those spooky horror movies that wants the audience to play its deadly games alongside the unfortunate characters, much like Saw and Would You Rather?, and I typically enjoy these kinds of movies and thinking what options or strategies I would undergo if I was in their place. The structure is pretty straight forward, with a young woman (Iola Evans) and her programmer friend (Asa Butterfield) coming across a cursed old school text-based computer video game that forces its users to make awful choices. The game turns itself on every 24 hours, so there’s a natural delivery of set pieces, each increasing in its personal stakes. There’s the amateur investigation of the history of this 80s video game and uncovering the possible owner who might be benefiting from all this cruelty and sadism. This is a movie built around its set pieces and they start strong. When the protagonist sees the game in action, with a poor diner worker force-feeding herself broken pieces of glass, it’s truly horrifying and the sound design makes it so much worse. The movie isn’t s gory as it could have been and implies a lot more than it shows. The problem with Choose or Die is that there are too many leaps in logic and characters doing silly things just for the sake of the plot. There needs to be an established system of rules or else everything will feel arbitrary, and eventually that is what dooms Choose or Die. Even while we get more of an explanation behind the makers of the game and their occult connections it never feels like we’re better positioned to beat the game. I will say the final act, the Boss Battle, is where the movie cranks things up and gets really intense and darkly humorous. There’s a showdown that involves a key concept of self-harm that plays out in moderately clever, bizarre, and surprising ways, and this splashy, silly finish made me wish the rest of the movie could have lived in this tonal space. I found the overall sound design to be very annoying as it cranked up the volume on lots of glitchy electronic noises that just made me want to turn it off. There are some good ideas here, like the criticisms of being too nostalgic to the past, and of misogynist men believing nobody else is deserving of being the hero of their story, but this is a movie that lives or dies on its killer set pieces, and those just fall flat after its unsettling first level. Watching someone vomit VHS tape is not scary. Watching people move their bodies like they have no control over them will inherently look goofy. Choose or Die wouldn’t be the worst choice of a movie to kill 85 minutes but it’s certainly not much more than the sum of its parts, and even those are overly derivative and been done better by its predecessors.
Choose or Die: C
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels like Tim Burton’s X-Men franchise, and it’s just as awesome as that sounds. Burton has always had an interest in the outcasts and misfits of society and now he has his chance to leave an imprint on the ever-present superhero phenomenon. His own personal group of gifted youngsters is looking to form a funky family and fight against fearful forces that have their sights set on exploiting these special children or worse. It’s a natural fit for a man who has become a Gothic industry unto himself over three decades of peculiar and spooky filmmaking. This is Burton’s chance to flex franchise tentpole muscles with a subject matter perfectly attuned to his offbeat sensibilities, and watching the fabulous final product is akin to watching a master musician dive into Beethoven’s Fifth. This movie was flat-out delightful.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) is reeling from his beloved grandfather’s (Terrence Stamp) mysterious death. The old man loved sharing his stories about tending to the shape-shifting Ymbryne Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her wards, a group of children with special abilities including starting fires, controlling plants, invisibility, and being able to float lighter than air. On a trip to Wales to investigate grandpa’s stories, Jake discovers a time portal and is taken back to the WWII era where Miss Peregrine is waiting for him. She and her children relive the same day and will never age. They’re hiding from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his group of scientists who wish to hunt the children. Jake is tasked with being the new protector, as he is the only one that can see an invisible band of slender monsters known as hollows that feast on the children.
There’s a whimsical nature to the dark elements, and the script is rife with enjoyable payoffs and fun moments that cry out for a full visual immersion. This is Burton’s best film since 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I have a soft spot for that macabre musical), arguably best since 2003’s Big Fish, and maybe his most fun movie since his 90s heyday. If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be tickled by all the imagination and humor. I grew up on the cinema of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, directed by stop-motion maven Henry Selick but still very much a Burton film), so I’ll admit that seeing Burton in high form once again warmed my little mischievous heart.
You get a sense just how involved Burton was in the filmmaking and its details, the degree of passion and involvement, and also his commitment to being a dark movie intended for peculiar children and adults with macabre interests all over the world. I kept thinking that the 12-year-old version of myself would have adored this movie, never mind the 34-year-old version of myself who greatly enjoyed it too. This feels like a natural evolutionary step for children and adolescents who gorged themselves on the works of Edward Gorey and R. L. Stine. It’s not a significant spoiler but it’s something I feel you, dear reader, need to know in order to properly assess just how wonderfully morbid the movie can come across. There is an entire visual feast of a group of villains dining upon the delicacy of… children’s eyeballs. You read that right. It’s a silver platter piled high with severed eyeballs, and they get slurped down like it’s spaghetti. I could only cackle to myself at the audacity of the movie to embrace the fun of the darkness rather than hiding from it, mitigating it, trying to be delicate with tone. The villains want to return to a normal state that can only be achieved by consuming the eyeballs of peculiar children, and so they are hunted not for sport or prejudice but for eyeballs. That’s wonderfully squirmy, and it definitely affected me, an avowed cinema patron who gets extra squirmy with any onscreen eye trauma. There are other creepy and memorable moments, like a dead child being used as a ventriloquist doll and the slenderman-styled hallows creatures. The moments are plenty but they don’t choke the story’s momentum, which hums along with great imagination and lucidity.
There’s a lot going on with Miss Peregrine, and Jane Goldman’s (Kingsmen) screenplay juggles a lot of rules and world building without losing momentum. I was intrigued early and the movie would widen its focus, providing more texture and connection to the world in calculated doses. It was enough that I always felt like I was learning something while still being able to see how the pieces snapped together in retrospect. There’s time travel that has to be done at a very specific point, the rules of who can travel back in time to these bubbles of safety, the history of this specific day stuck in time, the non-linear history of the protectors, the fact that the bubbles are also teleportation hotspots, the history with Jake’s grandfather, the history of the Ymbryne and their powers, the powers of all the peculiars, dream prophecy, mad scientists and their peculiar ailments, the differences between the hallows and the predatory scientists, and also establishing the character dynamics of several lost children and a budding YA romance. It’s amazing that Goldman’s script is as understandable as it is considering all that heavy lifting. It’s not completely free of muddled plot points and some hazy explanations, but those instances are a clear minority to what works so effectively. I wanted to know more about this world, and once they added time travel and teleportation, I was hooked. I enjoyed the movie so much that I’m considering reading the additional books for my next freaky fix.
The acting ensemble is full of bright spots and none brighter than the new queen of genre gusto, Eva Green. I raved about Green’s magnetic performance in the considerably lesser 300 sequel. She was easily the best part of that movie and it suffered whenever she wasn’t on the screen. The same can be said for the too-long-in-the-making Sin City sequel. She was the best thing in Burton’s otherwise forgettable Dark Shadows feature. In short, this woman is incredible, and she digs into the vampy and ridiculous with the right degree of malevolence and glee. Green is a wonderful hostess into this magical world, and her foreknowledge gives her a caffeinated energy that makes her even a tad more peculiar. Her children are all fine actors who have uneven parts thanks to the unfair distribution of their powers. Not everyone gets super useful abilities. I felt sorry for the kid who projected his dreams from his eyeball especially during the third act scuffles. A mouth in the back of the head doesn’t seem very useful either. I enjoyed the idea that the invisible kid needs to be fully naked to be fully invisible, and everyone acknowledges this reoccurring fact with shoulder-shrug nonchalance. The standout amongst the peculiars is Ella Purnell as the winsome girl who will float away. She has an innocent and yearning quality that doesn’t sink her character. She’s more than just a love interest to Jake and Purnell helps channel great affection. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is expectantly highly entertaining as the lead villain and Butterfield (Ender’s Game) is perfectly acceptable as an audience surrogate into this wild world.
I was duly impressed with just about every element, from the structure of the screenplay and its precision with information and intrigue, to the level of acting, to the dark and whimsical tone, to Burton’s own peculiar particulars that fill out the film with adoration. It may sound corny but there is an affection woven throughout the film, for its dispirit outcasts, for their strangeness, for the ardor of telling a spooky story that can appeal to children without pushing away adults. There’s a care that’s been absent Burton’s other recent films, especially Dark Shadows, which left me bewildered whether Burton had any genuine fondness for the source material. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a haven for fans of the peculiar, Burton’s oeuvre, and those looking for a quality children’s film that has some bite. I can only hope for more fantastical adventures.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Honestly I know more about Ender’s Game thanks to the swirling rabble about boycotting the film thanks to author Orson Scott Card’s homophobic personal views. I didn’t even know this book existed until I heard about the movie. With my cloud of ignorance, as well as some lingering worries that the director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was at the helm of this expensive would-be franchise, I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining I found the movie. It’s set in a future where children are culled and trained to be super soldiers against an alien race that has been in seclusion after a failed invasion of Earth. The emphasis is on strategy and manipulating your opponent, which leads to many military training sequences. At one point I wondered, “Is this whole story going to be training sequences and zero-gravity laser tag?” It’s not, thankfully, but even those sequences are fun. Writer/director Gavin Hood does an excellent job of fleshing out this world while giving enough time in between the games to also flesh out his ragtag group of characters. There’s something inherently satisfying to watching a team come together, and the film has plenty of small payoffs. The visuals are astounding to soak up. The zero gravity fun, backlit by the stars, is dazzling. The acting is strong across the board, with special appreciation that Harrison Ford has a good role that he’s actually well suited for. The pacing does start to slag toward the third act, mostly because the plot feels like an escalating series of games, until it’s not. There’s a measured degree of ethical ambiguity and contemplation to the film that’s admirable. Whether you plan on boycotting Ender’s Game or not, it’s a successful, thrilling, and visually engaging sci-fi flick that deserves to be seen at some point.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Martin Scorsese tackling a children’s film feels like an odd fit for the man responsible for classic gangster epics and symphonies of violence. But if David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Danny Boyle can all make family films that don’t make your brain rot, then why not the greatest living director? Maybe notorious sadist Lars von Trier will be next. Adapted from the award-winning children’s book, Hugo is, as my pal Eric Muller put it, a family film for film historians.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living beneath the walls of the Paris train station. He’s secretly the one responsible for winding up all the clocks and keeping time. He has to stay one step ahead of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who snatches wayward boys and sends them off to an orphanage. Hugo has been swiping clock pieces from the booth of a mysterious toy collector, George (Ben Kingsley). He needs the tiny pieces to fix a metallic man that Hugo and his late father (Jude Law) had been working on together. Hugo is convinced that if he fixes the metal man the automaton will write out one last message from his father. Hugo befriends George’s niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two of them explore the various shops and shopkeepers of the station. As they uncover more clues, the kids realize that George is actually George Méliès, the filmmaking pioneer best known for the 1902 fantasy, A Trip to the Moon (the one where the moon gets a bullet in its eye).
Scorsese’s first foray into 3D filmmaking is a rousing sensation for the eyes. The images pop without superfluous objects flying at the camera. The depth of field is nicely and creatively toyed with by Scorsese. Best of all, the 3D enhances the story rather than distracting you. Hugo is a celebration of the advances in moviemaking, and 3D is the latest advancement meant to make the theatergoing experience special. Of course the theatergoing experience has always been special, as the movie indicates. Where else but a theater can we collectively bond with a group of strangers, laughing collectively, feeling the pangs of emotion in unison? There’s a thematic rationale for Scorsese’s use of the third dimension. He masterfully fills the screen with wonderful images, like the massive inner working of clock towers. Scorsese’s signature tracking shots zoom in through the wintry 1930s Paris landscape and train station. A visual highlight is when a trunk of sketches busts open, the papers scattered all over the screen, some moving like flip books, creating the illusion of animation. I can honestly advise people to seek out a 3D showing of Hugo if given the option. For once, it’s worth the extra dough. I only anticipate making this same recommendation for the upcoming Piranha 3DD.
It’s the second half where the movie shows its true intentions, becoming a love letter to the power of cinema and the early pioneers of the art form. Scrosese has long been a historian of the movies, and Hugo is his celebration of the early cinematic dream makers, notably Méliès and his surreal theatrical landscapes. Arthur C. Clark famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s what early cinema was to a populace that had never seen the likes of moving pictures (we see an early audience fearing for their lives watching a film of a train arriving). It was like a new magic. The turn-of-the century filmmakers like Méliès were charting new terrain as visual storytellers, opening the public to new wonders of the imagination. Simple tricks of editing substitution, dissolves, and visual arrangement could help foster the ongoing illusion. It may be low-rent, like hand painting individual film frames, but it was the special effects of their day. D.W. Griffith once said of Méliès, “I owe him everything.” Scorsese is sharing his passion for the history of the movies and it’s hard not to feel the power of the movies.
But when Hugo gets swallowed whole by Scorsese’s nostalgia, the rest of the plot becomes incidental. The characters, which were not strong to begin with, are given pat resolutions that make you realize how flimsy the characterization is. The movie takes a sub-Amelie route, letting Hugo bring together disparate couples, but you don’t really know anything about these people. Emily Mortimer’s female florist has maybe two lines in the movie, so why should I root for her to get with the Station Inspector? There’s an older couple whose romance is sabotaged by an aggressive pooch. You can imagine the scintillating resolution that awaits. The film history section is honestly the best part of the movie, but it means that everything leading up to that point was just in service to prop up the academic nostalgia. It means that the characters and their mysteries were really unimportant, and they feel that way by film’s end. The movie just grinds to a halt. The mystery of the metal man is that he’s a MacGuffin, a means to discover Méliès’ past. The whole clockwork symbolism can be clumsy, instructing us time and again that people are broken and Hugo feels the need to fix things. Too bad he couldn’t fix the disjointed story.
The actors manage to make favorable impressions when they can fight free of the movie’s educational pull. Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is a strong lead actor who rises above the sniveling preface of his character. He makes you root for the kid even when we don’t really know much about him beyond his Dickensian conditions. The kid has some pretty piercing Paul Newman-esque blue eyes too. Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass) is showing the poise and grace to make it long term in this business. Kinglsey (Shutter Island) is effectively curt with his poorly veiled pain and regret. Cohen (Borat) expands his dramatic range noticeably, adding touches of empathy for a character that could mostly have been arch and cartoonish. He’s still the film’s best source for comedy. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) makes a welcomed appearance as an expert on early filmmaking, Méliès especially. He serves as the mouthpiece for Scorsese’s passion.
Hugo is a family film that ultimately gets swallowed whole by the filmmakers’ passion. It makes for an entertaining and informative essay on the skill and vision of turn-of-the-century filmmakers, but if people are anticipating a fun story about a scrappy kid and his mischievous adventures, then this is not that movie. Hugo benefits from terrific visuals, strong acting, and Scorsese’s blend of whimsy and innocence without stooping to anything crass or lowbrow. Hugo aspires for the rich, romantic experience of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) but comes up short. Hugo is at turns charming and magical but as a narrative it is too often flimsy, a wispy thing meant to lead to Scorsese’s love letter. It’s a fine and fitting tribute but even the best and most powerful love letter can only go so far, never mind the hassle of special 3D glasses.
Nate’s Grade: B