the_monster_posterThe Monster (2016)

Starring- Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

Director- Bryan Bertino

R- language and some violence/terror


A mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine), stranded in the woods after a car accident, find themselves pursued by a terrifying, otherworldly creature.

You won’t hear me calling The Monster great. It has a lot of problems. It’s the sort of movie that’s more enjoyable in the moment than it is in retrospect. But I simply do not understand the way horror fandom seems to have just shrugged it off. To the extent that it’s been ignored, I think The Monster might be one of 2016’s great underrated movies.

Is it sort of workmanlike? Yeah. I don’t think it offers any great surprises. Whatever you imagined it to be based on the premise is probably what it is. But we haven’t had anything quite like it — anything worth taking seriously, anyway — in a long time, and I think people have overlooked how good it is. Maybe it’s just knocking down the genre dominos, but boy is it having a blast doing it.

Bryan Bertino — I’ve never seen The Strangers, so this is my introduction to his work — is the MVP here, or at least one of the two strongest candidates for the title (we’ll be getting to Zoe Kazan) in a moment. His handle on the tone and atmosphere of this creature horror is superb; this movie wrung me dry and left me exhausted. The moment the monster was introduced as a player — and a while before that, for that matter, when the characters only know that something is out there — the movie grabbed me by the throat and never once relaxed its grip. It’s short and contained enough that it’s under no obligation to let its audience breathe, so it never does. The threat hangs over everything; no matter where the characters are or what they’re doing, you know death is lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. It’s nearly insufferable — you can see the wicked smile on Bertino’s face as he teases you, dragging out the monster’s first appearance, setting up a million opportunities he refuses to take, letting your imagination fill in every unknown sound, every glimpse of movement. I was silently begging the movie to just scare me already and get it over with.

You could argue it’s a bit of a closed-room thriller — technically, the setting is an entire forest, but the leads spend most of the movie hiding in a vehicle, trying to figure out how to escape. Bertino makes the most of it, though: This dark forest is fully, frightening alive. The trees are dark, with flashes of sickly green from the feverish, yellow flickering of a nearby street lamp. Wind and rain course through the branches, keeping the leaves in constant movement — and every now and then, a shadow that seems as though it has to be the result of a living being. The forest is creepy long before we know something sinister lives there. It’s a shadowy hand that seems to close around the protagonists, who are locked in a small, claustrophobic car with nowhere to go and nothing to do about the darkness that engulfs them.

Every horrific moment lands — and the movie’s solid character work has a lot to do with that as well. Whatever its narrative flaws (and there are plenty), The Monster wastes no time bringing you into its characters’ inner lives and making their personalities and motivations stick. You have a thorough sense of this pair and their relationship with one another within the first five minutes, so there’s a strong rooting interest long before the creature even shows up. That it does so despite the lead being fundamentally unlikable is all the more impressive. It would be easy for a movie like this to go the usual route and give us a functional family with no significant reason for self-doubt fighting against entirely external forces, but Kazan’s character is established from the get-go as an emotionally (and even, sometimes, physically) abusive addict throwing her life away, and probably her daughter as well. But Kazan is tremendous in the role, playing the character not so much as the “evil stepmother” type but as broken beyond repair and lashing out at the world around her. The movie never gives you the reasons, but Kazan leaves you with no room to doubt. She finds a balance few performers in such roles are able to — she’s selfish and abusive, and her impact on her child is almost entirely negative, but you can see the part of her deep down that loves the kid and sees her as the only positive thing she could possibly leave behind at this point. As the daughter, Ella Ballentine is fine, perhaps a little too “child-actory” for my taste — she carries herself with an adult poise that I never really believed (obviously, with such a neglectful mother, the character would be strong and self-sufficient; I’m talking more about the maturity with which she speaks and reacts to things). But given the circumstances, she does a good job — being the kid in a horror movie is a thankless job, and she acquits herself well enough.

And what the hey — the creature’s pretty great, too! It appears to be mostly practical, and it’s a really well-realized effect. It looks like a living thing that belongs to its environment; there are no  bad animatronics or obvious guy-in-a-suit moments. It’s tactile and threatening. I found it thoroughly convincing.

The script is where the whole thing falls apart. Obviously, as stated, it’s a little formulaic, but that isn’t a problem of all of the components work. I admire that it’s trying to be about something more than B-movie thrills, but the execution is a little clumsy. The metaphor is obvious and so broad there’s really no way to make it stick — abuse and addiction are monsters, and also there’s a real monster! They’re all monsters! Monsters! Get it? They’re bad! I appreciate the way the flashbacks to that effect deepen the characters, but they ultimately have no bearing on what’s happening in the main story. Without Kazan’s strength in the role, I’m not sure it’d work at all; her ability to capture the character’s neglect and nurturing in equal measure, and to make them feel like understandable pieces of one person’s psychology, is what sells it. Beyond that, the main storyline is a little thin — obviously, it’s a small movie with a limited in-universe timeframe (one night, more or less) and setting, and it’s about people running from a bloodthirsty monster, so it was never going to be a rich examination of the human condition, but it still needs to function and feel like it’s going somewhere. Too much of it feels like a waiting game, there are too many payoffs that aren’t set up, the character development doesn’t really satisfy the plot’s most immediate needs, and too many scenes feel purposeless. The characters also suffer from a bit of horror movie stupidity — not as dramatically as in worse films, but to an extent that’s worth noting. There’s a lot about the ending that’s unsatisfying because of this.

Even so, The Monster is really well-made, and it bugs me that it isn’t getting its due. A24 has really been knocking it out of the park with these low-budget genre films, and while The Monster is no The Witch or Green Room, it’s another notch in the belt. Give it a chance — if you’ve been dying for a quality modern creature feature, The Monster might be just what the doctor ordered.

the_handmaiden_filmThe Handmaiden (2016)

Starring- Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon

Director- Chan-wook Park


A young thief (Tae-ri Kim) is sent to work as a handmaiden for a rich man’s niece (Min-hee Kim) as part of a scheme to walk away with her inheritance. The plot goes awry, however, when the thief finds herself falling in love with her mark.

I feel as though I could say a million things about this movie, and none of them would add up to anything cohesive. It’s a Chan-wook Park movie, and I went into it completely blind, so as you might expect, I still feel as though I just got run over by a train. He’s one of those directors with whom I have just enough familiarity to theoretically know better but not enough to brace myself whenever I watch one of his movies. I went into The Handmaiden expecting a simple tale of forbidden love, and it was downright stupid of me to think Chan-wook Park could ever be that straightforward.

Not to say the movie isn’t simple — in a way it is, albeit deceptively so, hiding complexity beneath something that plays broad and easy to follow. It is, in a lot of ways, a stripped-down love story. It just strategically places information dumps and wild plot twists throughout, amidst its prolonged silences and character-focused structure. It’s a love story framed against a backdrop of something significantly darker and more depraved — textbook Chan-wook Park, in other words.

It’s so much more than it appears to be, in ways that thrill and discomfit in equal measure. There really isn’t any way, short of spoiling it for yourself, to properly guess where it’s going or how it intends to get there. It’s commanding, fearless, beautiful, and moving, and you could also make a really strong argument that it’s nothing more than exceptionally well-made pornography. At the very least, the differences are subtle.

No one can deny that Chan-wook Park is fearless, possibly even to a fault. There appears to be no subject too extreme for detailed and thorough big-screen exploration. The madness of his vision — and the alchemy of his approach — is the extent to which he’s able to have it both ways. The Handmaiden seems as though it will play equally well to both the exploitation B-movie audience and the arthouse crowd; they will come away from it with very different experiences, and all of them will be equally valid. Chan-wook Park has an inimitable ability to probe the darkness while also luxuriating in it. Take Oldboy, for example, a movie that on a thematic level could be described as a cautionary tale centered on how vengeance warps its characters’ minds and ultimately undoes them. It’s also a gleefully bloody genre flick with a pitch-black sense of humor that undeniably enjoys its twisted, blood-spattered plotting. It’s fascinating the way movie critics with a distaste for violence as entertainment circle around that movie and say, “Not that one, though.” Oldboy is just too insistent to be denied.

And so it goes with The Handmaiden. Chan-wook Park has cast another spell, and it’s rapturous. It’s also deeply perverse, and this is the rare case in which I think its makers might take that as a compliment. It’s also that rare case in which I’m not entirely sure I mean it as an insult. I mean, I mostly do, but I have to admit to being abstractly impressed at the casual boldness of its indecency and the way Chan-wook Park manipulates it. He truly is the arthouse cinephile’s trash director — someone very good at what he does, to the point of being impossible to ignore, who trades in lurid pleasures but is conscious enough to weave in thematic depth that may be the point of the movie or may simply be the excuse that allows viewers to convince themselves it’s okay to keep watching. And thus we end up with a movie like The Handmaiden, which reads as critical of pornography and exploitative art while arguably being both of those things. It’s the sort of movie that can play at feminism and progressivism while also delivering the sensual goods, primarily because the director ties them together so well that you could convincingly argue that it’s all necessary. I think the word for it in some circles would be “sex-positive” — it’s not about abandoning the prurient interest but in reframing it in a more human context. The movie attempts to reject the more exploitative elements by portraying them as a product of objectification — wrong not because sex is involved but because one person’s wants, needs, and humanity are being denied for another’s pleasure. Its characters don’t reject their sexuality but embrace it in a context where they are loved, valued, and equal.

Basically, if The Handmaiden is porn, it’s a humanistic new variety of porn where the catharsis is drawn as much from empathy and humanity as the pure sexual spectacle of it all. And it’s one where the whole thing functions equally on a metaphorical level, where the objectification is extended to a society that views women as things that can be traded for property, status, or wealth. And it’s one with extremely strong, empathetic storytelling that values its characters and knows how to seed them with complexity that simmers beneath its broader tone. These characters, particularly the leads, are layered and interesting, and their interactions reveal rich inner lives that only deepen with each new turn in the, again, incredibly screwed-up plot. The Handmaiden knows how to budget its plot twists; each one turns the film on its head but never leaves you feeling cheated. It’s broken into three parts, clearly marked on-screen, and each functions as something similar to an episode of a TV show. They’re anchored in different characters’ perspectives and allow you to know everything they know, so there’s no feeling of obfuscation, like the movie is fighting tooth and claw to drag you away from figuring it out. The beauty of it is that it’s a movie with plot twists that doesn’t feel like a movie with plot twists until the first of them land. Chan-wook Park knows how to manipulate his audience’s expectations, opening on what plays like gaudy, conservative historical fiction, the South Korean version of what wins Oscars in the U.S., then hard-rights into B-movie territory, becomes a genre film, and then spirals off into who-knows-where. I always thought I knew where the movie was going, and I was always wrong — even though everything in it is quietly building toward its chosen conclusion. The split structure may cause it to drag in places — it’s a long movie, and it could probably stand to lose a few of its redundancies. But it’s a worthwhile trade for what it does for the film emotionally. The performances are universally stellar, the leads have excellent chemistry, and the cinematography and production design are effortlessly gorgeous.

The Handmaiden is undeniably fascinating, moving, intelligent, layered, beautiful, and at least half-insane, and part of me kind of loved it even though it made me really uncomfortable. It’s the sort of movie that leaves me feeling like I need more viewings in order to fully comprehend it but also somewhat disinclined to actually give it those viewings. So it lives in the memory as a tantalizing but evocative mystery. I’m sure to be thinking about it for quite some time.

Short version: Chan-wook Park is a freakin’ sorcerer, and I wish I hated his movies anywhere near as much as I feel like I should. They’re just too good.

clinical-netflixClinical (2017)

Starring- Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Nestor Serrano, Wilmer Calderon, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, William Atherton

Director- Alistair Legrand


A psychiatrist, Dr. Jane Mathis (Vinessa Shaw), finds herself on the other side of a table after a young patient (India Eisley) attacks her and then attempts suicide in her office. Scarred by the event, both physically and mentally, she refuses the trauma cases that once defined her career. But when Alex (Kevin Rahm), a trauma patient left horribly disfigured after an accident, draws her compassion, she agrees to treat him and soon finds herself haunted by her previous failure.

Scratch that — two! We begin the year with two forgettable TV movies courtesy of Netflix! Like Coin Heist before it, Clinical isn’t terrible, but it never rises to the level of a movie someone might conceivably pay to see. It’s perfect fodder for the psychological thriller/horror section, which suffers from a dearth of quality films and can safely throw a five-out-of-ten on the top of the page where horror junkies looking for something good might click on it out of desperation.

It’s somewhat better than Coin Heist; its mediocrity isn’t as overpowering. I can imagine someone finding it basically satisfying, depending on how badly they need a new thriller in their lives. It’s essentially functional; it’s just frustratingly skin-deep. You can see an interesting movie taking shape in the margins, but it never comes to fruition.

It’s a low-rent Sixth Sense with no ghosts — a psychiatrist fails a patient who stages an attempted murder/suicide in the opening scene and then falls into a twisty plot as he/she tries for redemption with a new patient who has a similar affliction. The Sixth Sense benefits from its final twist being a very good one, enriching and deepening rather than upending the movie that precedes it. I don’t know that Clinical’s twist ending necessarily ruins it, but it encapsulates the movie’s biggest problems — its prioritization of superficial thrills over character and storytelling. Bigger is not always better, and few movies better testify to that than Clinical — it’s certainly dramatic, but what it’s not is dramatically satisfying.

It doesn’t have a twist ending so much as an escalating series of twists, and each one compromises the much better storylines the movie develops previously. It could have been an interesting movie about healing and refusing to let our pasts define us that just so happens to have a horror twist as the main character experiences what may or may not be hallucinations related to her own trauma. It almost is, but the movie, unfortunately, is more interested in generic horror and the associated tropes, which it dutifully knocks down without enthusiasm or imagination. It approaches its leads’ respective conditions too broadly, so it’s never able to dive too deeply into the healing process. Its take on psychiatric therapy feels a little stereotyped and false. And each twist completely changes the nature of the story — the board is reset, the focus is on something new, and no one’s arc meets with a satisfying resolution. Character motivations are buried and make very little sense in retrospect. What did anyone learn in this movie? What did we learn? What am I supposed to talk about after the credits roll?

It’s just a lightweight psychological thriller that isn’t even that great at driving up the tension (partly because one of the twists it conceals ought to have been revealed from the start; not knowing it actually makes the movie less scary). It keeps you going with the promise of surprises just around the corner, but none of them actually live up to the hype. All I can say is that we no longer have to go to theaters to catch this year’s generic mid-winter horrors.

Hoping for better from Netflix in 2017. What’s their next movie? Let’s see here… iBoy, a movie where a teenager apparently acquires all the powers of a…smartphone.


mv5bndm4nzhhntqtzmuymy00otfllwflmzgtytq5ote3yjbmmta5l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjczote0mzm-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Coin Heist (2017)

Starring- Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Sasha Pieterse, Jay Walker, Michael Cyril Creighton, Mark Blum, David W. Thompson

Director- Emily Hagins


After their headmaster is arrested for embezzling funds from the foundation, four teens plot to rob the U.S. Mint to save their school.

And so we begin 2017 in cinema the way I suspect we’ll begin every year as long as Netflix continues with this experiment — with a subpar, forgettable TV movie.

I’m beginning to wonder if even Netflix has embraced the concept of the direct-to-streaming movie and all the implications thereof, because it’s reached the point where it’s premiering movies no one would ever pay money to see with absolutely no fanfare or marketing whatsoever. Half the time, they bury their releases where no one who didn’t already know they were coming out could ever find them. They know they’re not obligated to release movies, right? They don’t have to buy whatever comes their way to be charitable or something. They’re allowed to restrict their purchases to movies they think people will actually want to see.

Coin Heist isn’t that bad, but only a few of Netflix’s offerings have been. That they’re bad isn’t what confuses me; there are plenty of terrible movies in a year that at least make sense on paper purely as a business proposition. Transformers is the worst, but there’s obviously an audience for it; I’m not confused that it keeps getting sequels. What gets me is that so many of Netflix’s originals don’t appear to have any particular audience in mind — they aren’t good enough to appeal to the cinephiles, they aren’t flashy enough to grab general audiences, they never appear to be trying to tap into any cultural moment. They’re simply released upon an unsuspecting public to do with what it will. They really are the equivalent of TV movies — made for shoestring budgets solely to be watched by people who want to turn something on in the background and don’t care to pay for it. That’s a viable business model for television, which sells groups of channels as packages, but for Netflix? Netflix needs to persuade people to subscribe specifically to its services. And no one is going to sign up because they desperately want to see Coin Heist — if you don’t already have Netflix, you probably don’t even know it exists. It’s there as filler between larger acquisitions, except here’s the problem — Netflix is a streaming service with a broad library you can pick and choose from whenever you want. It doesn’t need filler to play before and after the movie of the month and pick up the ratings leftovers. And with that large a streaming collection, who other than people like me who arbitrarily decided to review all Netflix originals and are coming to deeply regret that is actually watching these? Who’s looking at a film and television library with some of the biggest names of all time and thinking they ought to make time for Coin Heist?

I just don’t get it. Movies like this have no reason to exist, and boy do they feel like it. Coin Heist has it worse than most; at least Netflix’s low-budget genre stuff has some distant claim to Real Movie status on a production level. Coin Heist is basically a slightly edgier Disney Channel movie. It’s pretty grounded, at least on the visual level, so the low budget shouldn’t be that much of a problem for it; nevertheless, you can feel how spare it is. It takes place at a fancy prep school, but there’s nothing interesting inside it — it looks like a mediocre high school except smaller. The characters’ activities inside the Mint feel as restricted as possible — the fewer the places they go, the fewer the sets that need to be built. Nowhere is interesting or lived-in; they’ve built rooms, filled them with random stuff, and turned on the camera. So few characters outside the main four matter that the backgrounds start to feel somehow empty; most of it takes place at a school, but the winter formal might be the only time a crowd appears. Everything’s weirdly quiet and subdued, and not in a way that feels like a deliberate artistic choice. The movie simply has nothing going for it that isn’t directly in front of the camera.

And what’s there is pretty insubstantial. There’s no particular flair in the direction, and no one in the cast manages to stand out — none of the actors are bad, but none of them bring much life to their roles either. The plotting is pretty basic, and most of it doesn’t stick on a character level — there’s too much inevitability in the relationships (it’s one of those movies where you know from the get-go that everyone’s going to get paired off with one another, regardless of their chemistry or motivations), and the movie tries to force its beats into a certain mold rather than letting things unfold organically. The leads insist on building a team to do this before they even know how they’re going to do it — the protagonist insists upon this, literally, because he watched a bunch of heist movies to prepare and all heist movies have teams. This isn’t played for comedy or to indicate that this character is stupid; the movie takes it in complete seriousness.

Thematically, it’s…weird. I think its message is that if adults can break the rules and screw up the world, kids can do so to protect their interests as well. This isn’t treated as a commentary on the cyclical nature of wrongdoing but rather a fact of the matter, worth emulating. I suppose it’s of-the-moment, politically speaking, and I empathize with it, but it’s an oversimplification, and it’s weird that a generally light-hearted teen flick would be that cynical in the end.

There just isn’t much of anything going on here, and I can’t imagine what audience Coin Heist would appeal to. There are people out there who won’t dislike it, certainly, but it’s difficult for me to picture someone considering it a new personal favorite. It’s just there, wandering without purpose, hoping someone will accidentally click on it and not hate it enough to return to the menu screen.

the_secret_life_of_pets_posterThe Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Starring- Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie

Directors- Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

PG- action and rude humor


Max (voice of Louis C.K.) doesn’t take it all that well when his owner, Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper), brings home another dog, Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet), who competes with him for food, attention, and the most comfortable bed. But when an accident strands them in Brooklyn with animal control and an anti-human pet resistance led by the adorable bunny Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart) in hot pursuit, the rivals must work together to make it home in one piece.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Granted that I was expecting it to cause me physical pain. Fortunately, it’s only inoffensive and bland. What a relief, right? And not at all an ongoing cinematic trend that has me on the edge my sanity, huh? Huh? HUH?

The Secret Life of Pets didn’t do much to change my opinion of Illumination Entertainment. The studio’s work strikes me as the picture of everything I hate about modern kids’ movies — they look like sterile, featureless garbage; they’re manic and loud; and they don’t really care about telling a story anymore. I mean, their flagship characters are little yellow shapes that scream. And the studio definitely has it down to a formula at this point — despite their mediocrity, every single one of these movies has been a gigantic hit.

The Secret Life of Pets felt like it was going to be different for a while. I knew I was going to hate the animation from the first frame, but something about the pace and tone it established early on was winsome enough. For the first fifteen minutes or so, it feels like it’s going to be an animated Seinfeld about talking animals — a dry (by the standards of kids’ movies, anyway), observational, slice-of-life sort of thing, with a modest, charming sense of humor. It’s funniest when it’s humanizing weird pet behavior, trying to develop a semi-human intelligence around it.

But once the plot kicks in, it turns generic and affectless. The story never stops feeling slapped together; it’d be one thing if it were a non-narrative, comedy-driven sort of movie, but it isn’t — the plot matters, or at least is supposed to. But the script doesn’t give any of it the weight it deserves. It seems like it takes the easy way out of every dramatic turn, and it arbitrarily strings unrelated bits together so that nothing has a meaningful impact on the story or characters. The central arc is kind of obvious — two characters who don’t like each other are thrown into a situation where they have to work together, and they slowly become friends. It’s a kids’ movie; it can afford to be simple. But the script doesn’t invest anything in making that arc work — like so many similarly-plotted movies before it, the two protagonists get over their problems with each other more or less immediately and are suddenly friends because, well, the movie says so.

The rest of the script follows suit. The story feels improvised; it’s always throwing in new elements that end up not mattering in the long run. Characters keep attaching themselves to the various subplots, but they aren’t independently important. Snowball captures one of the dogs’ friends to use as a hostage, and the movie just forgets about until the very end, when the situation resolves itself in seconds. It’s like the movie wanted to hold onto that card just in case it needed it to make the climax land, and when it didn’t, no one thought it would be worthwhile to go back and cut all the dead weight. Characters change motivations and allegiance when the movie needs them to; those who have arcs resolve them for no reasons. There are so many moments where characters overcome their problems and do something heroic, and none of them have any power because there’s no reason for anyone to be doing anything. There’s no sense of triumph behind it.

It could all be salvaged with a stronger visual style or more effective humor, but The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t offer much of either. I’m increasingly coming to dislike computer animation altogether, and movies like The Secret Life of Pets are why: It all looks so empty and lifeless, with no rough edges or texture or humanity. And while the comedy usually isn’t too bad — there are definitely some dumb moments, but mercifully few — it just kind of hovers in front of your eyes for the most part. It isn’t funny; it isn’t unfunny; it’s just there, not making you laugh.

It just goes in one ear and out the other. The end of this review is likely the last time I’ll ever think about this movie. You could do worse, but I’m not someone who considers that praise. There are too many good children’s movies out there for me to direct anyone to The Secret Life of Pets.

miss_peregrine_film_posterMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Starring- Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Cameron King, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell

Director- Tim Burton

PG-13- intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril


After his grandfather (Terence Stamp) dies suddenly and mysteriously, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) follows clues he left behind to a children’s home in Wales, which he finds is a hiding place for “peculiar” children — possessing special abilities — under the protection of the enigmatic Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). 

Is it possible for a movie to be an exciting step forward for its director and independently not all that great at the same time? After Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I have to say that it is. It’s a very flawed film, and in more or less the way we’ve come to expect Tim Burton films to be — the strong visuals never quite overcome the non-starter of a story. But there are parts of it that find Burton at his absolute best, more so than any of his live-action movies since…yikes, Sweeney Todd, maybe?

At this stage of his career, it’s often said that Burton’s movies work in spite of him, that whatever qualities found amidst the visual and tonal excess were either happy accidents or someone else’s doing. Miss Peregrine marks the first time in a while I’ve found myself able to say that a movie works because of him — and almost entirely because of him. Apart from certain members of the cast, Burton is the only person here knocking it out of the park, and it’s enough to rescue what I suspect would’ve been a dull film otherwise.

It’s the script that confounds me the most. Not because it doesn’t quite work; that happens all the time, and to the best of writers. It’s because the movie has such an obvious story sitting right there and even sets up all the necessary dominoes but then sort of maneuvers around it, like all of the setup was an accident that was never meant to amount to anything. There’s a really beautiful story about grief buried somewhere in here — a boy, distressed over his grandfather’s death, tries to learn the secrets of his life; he discovers a hidden world where children with spectacular powers live in a time loop, never get older, and have an eternity but no future; their headmistress is a touch protective herself, to the point of (minor spoilers, maybe) keeping a deceased student’s corpse in his old bed, since the time loop ensures the corpse will never decompose. It feels impossible that those elements are in play by accident, and yet the movie skirts around them.

And it doesn’t replace them with anything, which is the important part. Miss Peregrine is a premise in search of a movie it never quite finds. It’s just over two hours; about half an hour of that is the climax, and the rest of it is pure setup with no narrative drive, a lot of which, as previously established, never amounts to anything. For almost 90 minutes, this movie is more or less plotless, just scene after scene of Jake mucking around the children’s home and interacting with the residents. Within a certain context, that’s fine, too, but only a few of these scenes exist to advance interesting characters or tangibly construct the world. Instead, more than two-thirds of the movie is dedicated to a near-constant stream of exposition, and it gets tiresome in a hurry. It’s still setting up the basics well over an hour into its run-time, and I can’t help but think that could be trimmed considerably — especially since it never goes anywhere with the themes of grieving or father-son relationships or the Burton-mandated politics of being an outsider. It spends most of its time simply teaching us the rules (which somehow only get more confusing the more they’re explained — I was on board with the time loop concept immediately, but then the movie starts changing the rules to fit the contours of the plot, and by the end, I had no idea how these things worked anymore) and then stages a battle with the forces hunting the children. Roll credits.

I’ve never read the book, but I’ve gone through a bare-bones plot synopsis, and I’m starting to think the movie’s problems stem from poor decision-making regarding what to adapt faithfully and what to change. It seems as though it’s semi-faithful to the first two-thirds of the novel and completely upends the final third, which immediately explains many of its problems — it has the thematic, character, and narrative setup of the source material but opts for a completely different payoff that fails to satisfy the threads it pulled earlier. Learning this also vindicated my slight distaste for the movie’s ending — it strikes me as overly easy, handing its characters a lot of what they want while paying little attention to what they need.

But Burton is such a perfect fit to this material that the whole thing just sings when he wants it to. It represents an ideal middle ground for the filmmaker, who has long been rooted in what I can only describe as “darkly whimsical” fantasy with a distinctive “gothic kitsch” aesthetic. Whereas something like Alice in Wonderland appealed to his worst instincts, leading him to double down on the quirky characterizations to the point that all of them were obnoxious and to indulge his visual style to the point of eye-bursting madness, and something like Big Eyes was a little too traditionally Oscar-baity to bring out much of his voice out at all, Miss Peregrine strikes a perfect balance of fantastical weirdness and humanity, and Burton directs it like he could have done it all blindfolded. Finally, he’s managed to bring his distinctive style to bear while preserving the fundamental humanity of the story. Yes, the premise is outlandish and the kids’ powers are outright bizarre, but the overall quirkiness doesn’t get under the characters’ skin and compromise their effectiveness — regardless of the fantastical elements, these characters live in a recognizable emotional reality, and their wants and needs are relatable on that basis.

Burton’s approach just takes those elements and spins something new out of them. I can imagine this movie being turned over to a workmanlike director who’d shoot it like a superhero movie or a low-rent Harry Potter knockoff. Burton not only applies his trademark visual flair but gives it all a chance to breathe, to get quiet for a moment, to indulge in the small, everyday wonders — as “everyday” as they can be when one character’s body is full of bees that he unleashes upon his foes. Burton’s great at foregrounding that kind of weirdness in a more grounded and mundane setting without upsetting the tone of the overall movie; his darkness is never so dark that it cuts to your soul, and his whimsy is never so whimsical that it rots your brain. He combines bleak humor with pathos to make a movie that feels family-friendly even though there’s a ton of body horror in it (the monsters tear out people’s eyes and eat them, which happens fully on-screen at one point, but it somehow never feels like a fantasy Apocalypse Now).

It was exciting to watch him work and find that classic Burton tone that made such movies as Edward Scissorhands rate among my favorites of all time. He’s in rare form, which makes me think that I ought to love Miss Peregrine — and I certainly love parts of it. But the script lets him down in a big way (of course, this depends on how heavy his influence was — he isn’t credited, but you never know; a few of its flaws do have his fingerprints on them).

I don’t know if that makes Miss Peregrine a good movie I don’t like as much as I should or a bad movie I like a lot more than the sum of its parts. It’s a few tweaks away from being one of the year’s best, but it’s absolutely crippled without them. Either way, I think it’s mostly cause for optimism and is worth celebrating as the weird little diamond in the rough that it is.

blair_witch_2016_posterBlair Witch (2016)

Starring- James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Currie

Director- Adam Wingard

R- language, terror and some disturbing images


James’ (James Allen McCune) sister Heather was one of the film students to infamously disappear while filming a documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch in 1994, leaving only a frightening collection of videos behind. Since then, he’s chased every possible lead to find out what happened to her. When he thinks he spots her on a video snapped by another Blair Witch investigator, he gathers a team of friends and locals, including film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who wants to make a documentary of her own, and sets out into the woods to learn the truth behind the stories.

Eh, I dunno. I’ve always been skeptical of found footage movies, and Blair Witch only hastened me toward the conclusion that maybe there just isn’t any way to make something great within the confines of the genre. Blair Witch does it about as well as I can imagine it being done, and it’s still a pretty middling production overall — entertaining enough for what it is but without any lasting impact.

Honestly, it’s a step above most over found footage horrors. Adam Wingard is a bit more acclaimed than the directors who usually get attached to this sort of thing, and he successfully elevates a lot of it. Blair Witch may be the first found footage movie I’ve seen that isn’t completely unwatchable until the scary stuff happens — while some of the acting isn’t great, the characters are somewhat more distinct than the norm, and their interactions are generally believable, a massive improvement over the cast of “20-something party animals being written by 40-year-olds who weren’t even cool when they were in high school” we tend to get with these movies. There were times early on when their banter actually made me laugh on purpose. That may be a meager accomplishment, but given some of the horror movies I’ve soldiered through, I’ll take it. And anyway, Wingard’s got his finger on the pulse of trashy genre cinema, so he comports himself well when it’s time for the scary stuff — the tension kind of unspools all at once, but it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. At any rate, the movie’s too short to be exhausting.

Nevertheless, it’s a found footage movie, and that carries its own set of problems that I’m starting to think just can’t be resolved, despite the best efforts of all involved. Take the original Blair Witch Project, for example. It’s the movie that just about invented the genre (or at least popularized it in the modern sense), and is still, for my money, its best representative. But I can only say that in a loose sense of the word. The idea behind found footage is that it’s authentic, right? It’s the mystique of watching the purported lost tapes of encounters with the strange and the supernatural. As such, in order to make one, you have to disguise its nature as a fictional film. There’s a director, but it can’t look directed; there’s a writer (usually), but the dialogue has to sound natural and improvised; there’s a story, but its narrative arcs have to be hidden as well as possible to the point of not even being there so the fiction of it doesn’t become overly apparent; there’s a horror element, but you have to be cautious about how you present it because if it plays to the camera or the camera is turned on when it realistically wouldn’t be solely to capture something scary that’s about to happen, it’ll feel staged. Of course, we know it’s all fake; it’s whether we believe it in the moment.

That’s what The Blair Witch Project did, and that’s why I find it an interesting experience overall — note that I didn’t say “a good movie.” Because, well, is it? I mean, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is what really counts, right? It’s authentic; it feels as though it truly could be the lost tapes of people who went missing investigating a haunting, in that the story structure is pretty random, it isn’t really about anything, the dialogue is mostly improvised and consists of the mumbled and shouting nothings that characterize a lot of our speech, the camera isn’t on all the time and thus doesn’t capture much incident, we see most of what happens as the leads document it after the fact. It’s a convincing replica of something real; however, because it does that, it sort of becomes something other than a movie. It isn’t really written or directed, nor does it position itself to capture all the vital story beats. What it does is fascinating, but what it does also feels somewhat beyond criticism.

So, someone making a found footage movie decides to steer clear of that problem and not worry as much about authenticity — make it just convincing enough that viewers can shrug it off, then do whatever you want with it. But then you run into another problem — you betray the aesthetic to the point that it doesn’t even matter anymore. The entire idea behind found footage is that it appears real; when you take that concept and make it more explicitly fictional, what you now have is an ordinary horror movie that’s unnecessarily saddled with obnoxious camerawork and sound effects. We don’t believe in it anymore, which takes away the mystique, but we still spend 90 minutes watching blurry cameras shake around in the dark while characters shout incomprehensibly. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it tends to leave me wishing they’d just made it as a typical horror movie — why deprive yourself of the full bag of cinematic tools when the decision to do otherwise isn’t actually adding anything to what you’re making?

Basically, the genre can’t win for losing. It can go the route of realism, in which case it’s going to be disjointed and a little sleepy, or it can go for something more obviously “produced,” in which case it’s going to be loud and irritating. Blair Witch aims for something in the middle, which helps it steer clear of both paths’ weaknesses but also deprives it of their strengths. That it’s very nearly a 1:1 retread of the original’s plot, just with more spectacle, doesn’t help.

If Wingard couldn’t figure it out — his output is somewhat limited right now, but if You’re Next and The Guest proved anything, it’s that he’s intimately familiar with the inner workings of genre movies and manipulates them with the precision of a master — maybe found footage really is hopeless. Movies can use the style to deliver a quick burst of tension — and that’s more or less what Blair Witch does — but I just don’t know that they’ll ever amount to more than that for me.

You were meant to read this as a very softly positive review, by the way, since you’re probably a little confused on that point by now.