Director Tim Burton has opened himself up to a whole new world with his new film, the dazzling “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” and he’s brought with him largely a new cast of players for the trip.
Apart from Eva Green and Terrance Stamp, who previously starred in Burton’s “Dark Shadows” and “Big Eyes,” respectively, the cast of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” mostly consists of a slate of actors Burton has never worked with before. Among them are young adults like Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell, and stalwart veterans like Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson.
In a phone conversation with Jackson from New York City Tuesday, Jackson, who has worked often with acclaimed writer-director Quentin Tarantino, said Burton reminded him quite a bit of his frequent collaborator.
“I wrapped ‘Hateful Eight’ with Quentin and I was wearing Mr. Barron’s eyes, teeth and wig two days later,” Jackson said. “I found that both Tim and Quentin are both sure-handed directors who know what they want and how they want to do it, and they have a crack team of people around them that understand them and their shorthand. They get what they want very quickly and don’t work you to death trying to get it.”
In “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” opening Friday in theaters nationwide, Jackson plays Mr. Barron, an undead, shape-shifting creature on the hunt for a group of “Peculiars” — supernaturally gifted children who are being hidden in a time loop by watchful Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a headmistress-type with a special gift of her own.
“He’s an interesting character, I don’t know if he’s bad, but he has his interesting moments,” Jackson, 67, said. “He has a great ability to intimidate people, but he’s an affable kind of human when he’s human.”
Jackson knows audiences will likely be frightened of Mr. Barron because of his ghastly appearance, so that’s why he made a conscious decision to lessen the air of fear that surrounds the character.
“Because he has an intimidating look, I thought it was incumbent upon me to find some way to draw an audience in to discover who he is,” Jackson said. “I wanted to give them a brief respite from the look and be able to laugh with him and at him, sometimes.”
Jackson said the reason he got to play around with the role stems from the creative freedom Burton granted him, making Mr. Barron more of creative collaboration than a standard film role.
“He allowed me to blossom in the role. He had his idea of how the world of the film worked and who the people inside of it were, but allowed me to come inside and show him what I wanted to do,” Jackson said. “Once he figured out that I was playing with Mr. Barron’s humanity more than his monstrosity, he was extremely happy that I was bringing some light moments to things that would be very heavy in the hands of someone else.”
One of the delicacies of the role, at least to Jackson’s character, were human eyeballs — food, if you will, that Mr. Barron and his cohorts need to consume to in order to regain their human form. Jackson said he wasn’t too grossed out by the prospect. Basically he kept the ghoulish thoughts out of sight and out of mind.
“It was actually quite enjoyable. We had one hour of sitting at this table where we sat and ate these delicious marzipan eyeballs they made,” Jackson said with a laugh. “There was a moment of ‘ewww’ and then that repulsiveness turned into the joy of watching us enjoy them like they were the best thing on the planet. It turned into a laughable moment that should be repulsive.”
Also having lighter moments with her character, quite literally, was Purnell, who plays the Peculiar Emma Bloom — a teen who has the power to levitate and create bubbles underwater so she can swim to unfathomable depths. And while Burton used movie magic to create Purnell’s floating scene, all the underwater work in the film was her — with the exception of the bubbles and air pockets, of course.
“I did all of my work underwater since I knew how to swim beforehand, but you feel in such safe hands with Tim,” said Purnell in a separate phone conversation. “Even though it was this huge underwater sequence and it was before they added the special effects, I wasn’t nervous. I felt, ‘Tim knows what he is doing and how he wanted the scene to be.’ It was fun to take a massive leap of faith with somebody that was so brilliant.”
Purnell also did extensive wire work to create the illusion that she was floating, but despite it all, when she screened the completed film for the first time, she couldn’t help but feel that what she was watching was real.
Ella Purnell in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”
“I still have to pinch myself because it’s so surreal. I have to admit, I do quite actually enjoy being up in the air now,” Purnell quipped. “Having spent six months strapped in a harness, I kind of miss it now, where they’d leave me up there and go out for lunch. It was such of a comfortable, happy place, and that’s why I could really relate to the character.”
Purnell believes the key to the success of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (based on the best-seller by Ransom Riggs) is that reliability — a sort of reliability that extends to the film’s audience.
“I think everybody can relate to the feeling of not fitting in, wondering what your place is and who you are,” Purnell, 20, said. “It’s OK to realize that you’re not as normal as you’d like to be or potentially you are a bit weird and stand out for the right or wrong reasons. Nowadays with social media, with young people following celebrities and trying to conform with society’s expectations, it’s important that they get our message. They have to see this movie because it celebrates individuality. It celebrates it as a strength – as something you can actually use to your advantage. You can use it to protect and save like-minded people. I just think that’s so wonderful.”
Iconic director Tim Burton has invited us to all sorts of fantastical cinematic settings throughout his illustrious, 31-year feature film career, and quite often we get a point-of-view look at those distinct landscapes through his eyes as his characters virtually take on his peculiar persona.
That’s why fans of the famed filmmaker are certain embrace his new cinematic wonder “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” adapted from the international best-seller by author Ransom Riggs. Set in the present with leaps in time back to 1943, the film finds the caring Miss Peregrine protecting from evil a group of children with different sorts of supernatural abilities. One can see monsters, while another can bring inanimate objects to life. There’s also a child who has the gift to project visions in his mind out of his right eye, and another who has a body inhabited by bees.
Burton said in a phone conversation from New York City Tuesday that he can deeply relate to the isolation and indifference felt by all of Miss Peregrine’s children, and while he’s heartily proven over the years that he can see monsters, create them on a set and project them on a big screen, he’d just as soon leave the insects out of it.
“The peculiarity I’d least like to have is bees living inside of me — I have enough buzzing around in my head and I don’t need that,” Burton said, laughing. “I tried to find myself in all of these characters. That was the fun of it. Each of the characters has a slight symbolic meaning to them that I always tried to relate to.”
Eva Green and Asa Butterfield in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” (Photo: Jay Maidment)
The great thing is, that symbolic meaning isn’t exclusive to Burton. Much like the characters that populate the director’s other films, the children in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” are also bound to resonate with audiences. True, the children have fantastical abilities that you and I could only dream of, yet they’re multi-dimensional people who are relatable on an emotional level because Burton is the filmmaker serving as the story’s creative conduit.
“One of the things that I loved about the story is that I think a lot of us ar
e deemed as weird or peculiar,” Burton said. “The fact is, while all these kids have their peculiarities, if you didn’t know what those peculiarities were, they’d just be viewed as normal kids. That’s something I really felt close to and was an interesting dynamic in the story.”
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” stars Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, along Asa Butterfield as Jacob Portman. Jacob is a shy and sensitive Florida teenager who is perceived as troubled because of his claims that he can see monsters — villainous creatures that turn out to be real and are threatening him, Miss Peregrine and the peculiar children tucked away in a mystical time loop halfway across the world.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” also stars Ella Purnell as a teen peculiar who has the power to levitate; Kim Dickens and Chris O’Dowd as Jacob’s parents; Terrance Stamp as Jacob’s grandfather, Abe; Allison Janney as Jacob’s therapist; Samuel L. Jackson as villainous former peculiar and Judi Dench who has a peculiarity akin to Miss Peregrine.
Among the crew on the film is executive producer Derek Frey, who began his career as the director’s assistant on “Mars Attacks!” in 1996. In a separate phone conversation, Frey said that Burton maintained the same level of bursting enthusiasm for “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” as he’s had during their 20 years of collaboration.
“Whether an idea is generated by him or exists in a book previously, regardless of where it comes from, Tim remains completely committed and gives his all to every single project … he’s putting his mark on it and putting as much energy into as everything else,” Frey said. “That’s what inspires me, to see that energy. Tim’s an artist. He’s truly unique and that’s why he’s one of the few remaining distinct filmmakers out there.”
While “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” seems like it was tailor-made for Burton, the truth is that the whole project came together by happenstance. Riggs, fresh out of film school in California, originally conceived the idea of “Miss Peregrine” as a picture book made up of unidentified vintage photographs of people he picked up at flea markets and antique shops in what began as a personal hobby.
The air of mystery about some of the photographs that featured children compelled Riggs to construct a narrative around the snapshots, and before too long, the proposal to adapt Riggs’ then-newly published “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” found its way to Burton’s office in 2011.
Derek Frey and Tim Burton on the set of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” (Photo: Leah Gallo)
“It was the first time I looked at a book and loved it before I read it, and it was because of the old photographs,” Burton said. “I like photographs — especially old ones — because they give you such a strange feeling. There’s something quite mysterious, haunting and poetic about old photographs. The way he constructed a story around these photographs was quite clever — that idea was inspiring, just on its own. When I read it and saw all the other layers that went into it, it just felt very close to me.”
Ransom Riggs and Tim Burton. (Photo: Leah Gallo)
Reading a book, of course, is one thing, and adapting it into a film is another, which is why Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman took great care in maintaining the core of Riggs’ novel.
“It was weird. We were doing a movie, which is based on moving imagery, and obviously that’s different from still photographs,” Burton observed. “That was always in the back of our minds. We wondered, ‘How do you do a moving image yet keep the spirit of the book, the poetry, the discovery and the feeling of a weird children’s bedtime story like the way Abe tells things to Jacob?’ We wanted to keep the spirit of the book and have Ransom’s blessing, because you don’t want to piss the writer off if you can help it, right? Luckily, between Ransom, Jane and I, we found a good mix.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey” (R) 1 1/2 stars (out of four)
For those skeptical of the hype surrounding the film version of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” you may be disappointed to find out that it isn’t laughably bad. That’s not to say it isn’t bad – it very much is – but just bad in a boring, overwrought soap opera-eqsue sort of way.
There are some laughs, to be sure – some intentional, some not – and without them, “Grey” would have been completely without color. Inspired by “Twilight” fan fiction, “Fifty Shades of Grey” – based on the first book in author E.L. James’ international best-selling erotic trilogy – fares far better than the promising-but-eventually-dreadful vampire novel-turned-movie series, especially in the lead actress category and the perpetually mopey Kristen Stewart.
For the uninitiated, “Fifty Shades of Grey” follows the “unusual behavior” (as the MPAA describes in its ratings block) of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a steely billionaire businessman who takes a curious interest in Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), an English literature student who fills in for her sick roommate to do an interview with Grey.
Challenging the control freak Grey’s answers, Anastasia suddenly becomes the intense focus of the 28-year-old magnate, and a bizarre courtship begins. Even though Christian is reserved, devoid of emotion and proclaims he “doesn’t do romance,” Anastasia becomes mesmerized with him, only to learn that he wants her to become a “submissive” to his “dominant” in his secret, lurid practice of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism), which he acts out in his swanky apartment’s “playroom.” Intensely pursuing Anastasia, Christian – who is clearly damaged goods from previous BDSM and childhood traumas – imposes a literal contract on the woman, which, if she signs, will effectively bind her to fulfill his every desire at any time, no questions asked.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” had the odds stacked against it going in, considering that director Sam Taylor-Johnson was given the daunting task of delivering an R-rated interpretation of a novel deemed by many to be pornographic. Instead, Taylor-Johnson reportedly tried to make “Fifty Shades” a love story; a baffling interpretation in that it involves sickening behavior that includes beatings (albeit consensual) with a belt, among other bizarre, sexually-infused, control-driven practices.
It’s that behavior during the movie’s 20 minutes of combined sex scenes that’s clearly the most disturbing thing to come out of “Fifty Shades.” Thankfully, there’s at least one laughable moment in one of the “playroom” scenes, where Christian strokes Anastasia with a peacock feather before lashing her (in a ridiculous slow-motion sequence) with what appears to be a softer version of a cat o’ nine tails.
Of course, it becomes clear that Anastasia’s quest is to cure Christian of his deviance and heal his pain, which apparently will play out as the film saga progresses. Right now, though, as a standalone film, Christian essentially comes off as a sexual predator who won’t stop stalking the innocent Anastasia until he gets exactly what he wants.
As for the film’s sex scenes, while there’s a fair amount of skin shown, there’s no full-frontal nudity involved. In addition, there’s really no intensity there, and quite frankly, the scenes are quite boring.
The big surprise of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is that Dakota Johnson – daughter of acting stalwarts Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith – is actually pretty good as Anastasia. She certainly wasn’t the first choice of readers to play the virginal, dowdy character (Alexis Bledel topped a lot of fan polls), but Johnson clearly captures the innocence and vulnerability required of the character, although her reactions to experiencing sensuality are a bit overdone.
The person likely to emerge most damaged by “Fifty Shades of Grey” is Dornan. While he has killer looks, he just doesn’t have the sort of charisma to command the audience’s attention. True, Christian is not supposed to be the most emotional person in the world, but as performed by Dornan, the character is pretty much robotic. Fans who hoped for the casting of Matt Bomer in the title role will leave the theater lamenting “what might have been,” had the “White Collar” and “Magic Mike” actor been cast in the role.
Not surprisingly, “Fifty Shades of Grey” abruptly ends with a cliffhanger, hoping to create some sort of feeling of anticipation for the first sequel “Fifty Shades Darker,” which reportedly has already been given the greenlight. Instead, it left this writer, anyway, with a confused feeling of, “What is the fuss all about”? Despite that, the movie did keep me questioning what could possibly lead a person down such a sick path, and what could lead another person to almost blindly follow them. With any luck, those questions will be answered in installments two and three. For the time being, my understanding of what “Fifty Shades” is about is just as grey as ever.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (R) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
“Kick-Ass” director Matthew Vaughn kicks ass again, this time with “Kingsman: The Secret Service” – a dizzying action comedy homage to James Bond and other British super-spy stalwarts like “The Avengers” with a comic movie book twist.
Based on Dave Gibbons’ and Mark Millar’s “The Secret Service” graphic novel series, “Kingsman” stars the always great Colin Firth as Harry Hart, a veteran agent watching his underground British spy organization dwindle in numbers. After the death of one of his closest colleagues, Harry recruits Eggsy (an impressive Taron Egerton) – the streetwise son of a late spy who saved his life during a spy mission 17 years earlier – to compete for a spot within the Kingsman despite being a social misfit amongst a group of privileged recruits.
Harry his boss, Arthur (Michael Caine), and ace Kingsman trainer Merlin (Mark Strong) must act fast, though, because Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a megalomaniacal American billionaire tech genius, is concocting a shrewd marketing ploy to weed out the world’s population via an invention that involves millions of his unsuspecting customers.
While its first mission is to entertain with over-the-top action, “Kingsman” is also smart and daring – as co-writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman take satirical aim at the far left and the far right extremes of American society, and sparing no one in the name of political correctness. One target, who won’t be revealed here, is particularly shocking – and while the person isn’t identified by name, you’ll know exactly who he is when you see him.
Blazing through its two-hour and nine-minute run time, “Kingsman” has all cultural sophistication and gadgets and weaponry associated with the Bond films, combined with the hyper-kinetic action and comedy that punctuated the insanely entertaining “Kick-Ass.” Vaughn clearly has an eye for casting great actors, too (the winning cast includes an amusing turn by Mark Hamill); and like he did with “X-Men: First Class,” the filmmaker strikes a perfect balance between the narrative, the movie’s dazzling fight choreography and wondrous visual effects. Get locked and loaded for one of the craziest spy movies you’ll ever see: “Kingsman” is a real blast.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers