Tuesday 23 July 2019

Film review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - enchanting fun

Cert: 12A. Now showing.

Eva Green in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Eva Green in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton surely cheered when he came across Ransom Riggs's three-million-selling young-adult novel about macabre children and the warping of reality and magic. Watching this lavish fantasy adventure unfurl before you, it comes to remind you why Burton is such a singular presence in filmmaking, with Riggs even remarking that the director brought some improvements to the tale in his adaptation.

A suitably eye-catching cast is assembled to depict the tale of Jake (Asa Butterfield) following his late grandfather's (Terence Stamp) dying instructions to travel to a remote Welsh island to find the titular home. He voyages there with his man-childish dad (Chris O'Dowd) and eventually uncovers the home, long since ruined by German bombing. He is discovered by Emma (Helena Bonham Carter lookalike Ella Purnell), one of the peculiar children, and brought back to happier times to meet the dazzling Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, a vision around which the whole thing seems to revolve).

By this stage, the project is really starting to hum with Burton's special aesthetic. Emma wears an Alice in Wonderland dress and lead boots to stop her floating away. There is an invisible boy, and a little girl with superhuman strength. Weirdos and outcasts are the heroes, the beautiful freaks bringing colour to the world. Musty mansions, fairground rides and circus rings host an eventual showdown with the dastardly Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson, camping it up) and his monstrous "Hollows". Only a cameo by Edward Scissorhands could make it more Burton.

Butterfield is dimmed by such bright lights in the cast around him. Some CGI-heavy scenes in the finale are wearisome but the madcap register of calmer moments makes for enchanting fun. 3 Stars

Hilary A White

Free State of Jones

Cert: 15A. Now showing

The inherent problem with historical dramas is that we know the ending so suspense can be a little hard to conjure. Where they are most effective is in telling little-known episodes from larger events. Free State of Jones unquestionably falls into that category. However, set during the American Civil War and dealing with the increasingly fraught issue of race, it has had a mixed reception from US critics. From a less-involved perspective there are some problems around the storytelling mechanism and pacing in the film, but they don't overshadow what is an interesting story with some important issues and a great central performance from Matthew McConaughey.

The film opens with Newton Knight (McConaughey), a Confederate medic during the US Civil War, tending to yet more injured men. Another death pushes him over the line and, already disgusted that so many poor farmers are being forced to fight for the rights of slave owners, who are largely exempt from fighting, he deserts. Back in Mississippi he finds that the only person who will care for his seriously ill son is a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and that the families left behind are being taxed into penury to fund the war. He incites rebellion, is forced on the run, and forges an alliance with runaway slaves led by Moses (Mahershala Ali).

Gary Ross's script takes an hour to get to where the action begins when they launch a mixed-race mini revolution. It also cuts back and forth to 1948 and the (real) trial of Newton's descendant Davis Knight for the crime of mixed-marriage which, although relevant, doesn't totally work. Still the story and performances carry a film that history buffs should enjoy. 3 Stars

Aine O'Connor

Deepwater Horizon

Cert: 12A. Now showing.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon collapse remains one of the most destructive industrial calamities in history and the largest oil spill of its kind to boot. After the rig went up in flames (claiming 11 lives), the well continued to pump billions of litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico until finally capped almost three months later.

A New York Times investigative article detailing the events forms the bedrock for this disaster drama from Peter Berg (Hancock, Battleship), and the results are, for the most part, refreshingly sophisticated for a kaboom-heavy actioner starring Mark Wahlberg.

Wahlberg tones down the blue-collar muscularity he usually ploughs to play electrical technician Mike Williams, enjoying one last morning of domestic bliss with his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter before a three-week stint on the doomed platform. He, Kurt Russell's rig chief and Gina Rodriguez's bridge officer helicopter out to this petroleum Skull Island to discover a concrete test has been called off and John Malkovich's slithering BP supervisor making light of it.

The feeling of pressure building both within the characters as well as 10km below on the seabed is sharpened gradually to an excruciating crescendo. The dialogue is excellent, immersing you in the reality rather than spoon-feeding you a dummy's guide. When everything comes to the boil and the devastation is wrought loudly on the screen, it is quite terrifying to see violent energy, human instinct, and Big Oil greed collide.

Berg, with sensitivity to the real lives lost, plays it cool up to that point, like Paul Greengrass without the shakes. None of the cast puts a foot wrong either side of the central pyrotechnics. 4 Stars

Hilary A White

Baden Baden

Club Cert. Now Showing IFI

Doing up your granny's bathroom because you have nothing else to do is not perhaps the most promising of story premises. But Rachel Lang's debut feature, a cobbling together of two of her well-regarded short films, delivers a lot more than aimless DIY.

Twenty-six-year-old Ana (Salome Richard) returns to Strasbourg after failing as a movie runner. She moves in with her fabulous granny (Claude Gensac) and, following the older lady's fall, Ana decides it's time for a bathroom upgrade. It is a project that fills in the time she needs to make sense of her life, find direction and recover from a slowly revealed heartache at the hands and other bits of artist Boris (Olivier Chantreau).

Told in little episodes, some just a short scene, from Ana's summer it is all whipped together into a film that feels like a soufflé, light but impressive and deceptively simple. The main characters are all interesting and the performances very good, there are lots of funny moments and all round it works really well as a slice of life, observational comedy drama. It doesn't linger too long, but the taste it does leave is good. 4 Stars

Aine O'Connor

The Lovers & the Despot 

Cert: Club. Showing in IFI

The outright weirdness of North Korea and its vicious ideological repression lend this documentary an immediately striking disposition. Add to this some Cold War intrigue and even a dash of life-imitating-Hollywood bemusement and The Lovers & The Despot belongs firmly in the realm of 'couldn't make it up'.

Shin Sang-ok was one of South Korea's biggest names in filmmaking, while his wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee, was a big-screen goddess. In 1978, the pair were lured to Hong Kong and kidnapped by North Korean agents (complete with bundling and sedation) and brought before Kim Jong-il who was adamant that Daddy's dictatorship have a thriving film industry to show the world what it was capable of.

Once they had accepted their lot, the couple conspired to secretly tape their meetings with Kim, and it is in these grainy recordings that things get very odd. Kim's reedy voice can be heard apologising to the couple about their treatment like a charming Bond villain and complaining about his people being "so closed minded".

Things blur slightly in the account. Once he'd stopped trying to escape, Shin liked the absence of budgetary constraints in this new work environment. South Korea was also quite dictatorial and repressive back then, so maybe things weren't quite so alien for the pair. Shin Films had a helpful cheerleader in the soon-to-be supreme leader but for how long? What if the heir grew bored with them? At a festival in Vienna, they plotted their escape.

A curio from the fringes of movieland, indeed, but interviews and archive clips remind you this was no game for Shin and Choi. 4 Stars

Hilary A White

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