Ten Thousand Saints (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Based on the screenplay and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Ten Thousand Saints” is an ambitious drama about youth, friendship, family, New York City on the verge of change, and sacrifices that adults (and soon-to-be-adults) are willing to make for their children, but it is not a successful film because it fails to focus on and explore any one of the subjects it attempts to tackle. What results is a formless picture, bereft of compelling elements that are specific to the characters involved.
After a New Year’s Eve party in Vermont, Jude (Asa Butterfield) suggests that he and his best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), get high on freon—the former unaware that the latter had taken some cocaine at the party just a few minutes prior. They lose consciousness amidst the snow and the next morning, both of the boys’ bodies are found—Jude still alive but unable to move, Teddy dead for several hours. Jude’s father, Les (Ethan Hawke), who grows cannabis in NYC as a source of income, invites his son to live with him in the city for a chance to make a change, if Jude wanted, in his life. Soon enough, the surviving teenager meets up with Johnny (Emile Hirsch), Teddy’s elder brother, who lives his life as a Straight Edge—one who makes an active choice in avoiding all drugs, sex, and eating meat.
The picture is shot quite beautifully, highly convincing in showing us different lifestyles of people who do not have much money but are getting by. The interior of homes are so detailed, it is like visiting a real house with many years of memories. This is especially critical when people get into a disagreement or when secrets are revealed. The walls and decorations exude the feeling of becoming more alive over time—that the more experience family and friends go through together, the picture frames, furnitures, figurines, and other knickknacks become all the more embedded in the place of living’s DNA.
Significantly less convincing is the love shared between Jude and Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of the woman (Emily Mortimer) that Les is currently dating. Although the screenplay touches upon the different types of love between them, Jude’s feelings for her are never given a chance to come into focus. As a result, the protagonist is paper thin as a character but has a memorable physicality: bright blue eyes and a lanky frame. He is a quiet young man, but what does he stand for? Why is this specific story worth telling through his eyes? There is a lack of a defined perspective and insight here.
Another lost opportunity comes in the form of failing to delve into teen drug abuse. Although the material addresses the topic quite heavily during the first third, it is almost completely dropped about halfway through. Instead, we get to hear Jude tell another person he longer is into smoking marijuana—and that’s about it. This is inappropriate because he still feels guilty for being an instrument toward his friend’s untimely death. By sweeping the drug angle under the rug as if it were unimportant, the film loses about half of its staying power. The second half drags like nails along a chalkboard.
Based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson, “10,000 Saints” is also about rebellion, whether be in a suburb or a city, but there is a lack of convincing passion amongst its main players. What the film needs is rage and a punk-rock attitude to match its soundtrack in order to ignite the fire underneath the more melodramatic elements. Because it is missing this critical ingredient, the characters are unforgivingly dull, one-dimensional, and forgettable.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite all the magic flaunted in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” based on the novel by Ransom Riggs and directed by Tim Burton, why doesn’t it feel magical? Part of the answer is because it fails to choose a specific target audience. Too scary for younger children and not dark enough for pre-teens, it ends up somewhere between. What results is a watchable fantasy-adventure but far from a memorable one. It is without a doubt, however, that the material has the potential to become a series that can get better given a more detailed writing, more focused direction, and an approach that doesn’t hold back out of fear that the final product isn’t family-friendly enough.
Let us consider the title character played by Eva Green. The performer exudes the look of intrigue, perhaps even a sinister layer or two beneath those knowing dark eyes and curious smirk, but the writing has a frustrating habit of making Miss Peregrine friendlier just when we feel we are about to discover a surprising trait or perspective from her. As someone who has the power to control time, the children’s home and way of life perpetually stuck in 1943, Miss Peregrine is not convincing in her wisdom and role as protector of children born with abilities—such as being able to control fire, air, plants, and the like. The character is diluted when in fact the material demands that she be as extreme as possible since she anchors the strange universe we observe from the outside.
Another character, equally important, that is watered down, but in a different way, is Jake, the grandson of a man who used to live with Miss Peregrine and the peculiar children but, due to the Second World War, has since left the home and grown old. Portrayed by Asa Butterfield, he has the lanky body frame and awkward postures that fit well in this particular story but I did not feel a certain enthusiasm, a wondrous feeling, in the portrayal. Since Jake is our conduit to the magical world of time loops and bizarre abilities, Butterfield does not exude a sort of warm and inviting feeling. The Jake who becomes a leader during the final stretch of the film is most unconvincing; the evolution rings false.
In terms of its images, the special and visual effects impress. For instance, the look of so-called Hollowgasts with their gargantuan frames, eyeless heads, shark-like teeth, long tongues, and reptilian movements creep thoroughly and convincingly. Eyeless corpses we come across once in a while command a certain tragic lifelessness to them. (The Hollows love to eat eyes—especially those of children.) In addition, the look of the children’s home on the Welsh island in 1943 is colorful, bright, detailed, and inviting. If only the same adjectives could be used to describe each person who lives there. They are reduced to superficial traits.
Based on the screenplay by Jane Goldman, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” has room for considerable improvement. Although far from an impressive start of a potential series, small but critical shifts in terms of mood, tone, characterization, and willingness to take risks might turn an otherwise forgettable material into a work with a specific voice and perspective about the current state of our world and ourselves. Looking at the big picture, the story is about “peculiars” or outcasts and their place, or lack thereof, in this world and this time period. This subject is ripe for social commentary.
Ender’s Game (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Fifty years since a bug-like alien race called Formics failed to colonize Earth, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is desperate to find a child who has the potential to lead against a second wave of invasion—one that he is convinced will happen soon. His search seems to be over when he comes across Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a cadet who fought back against a school bully. Eventually, Ender is informed by Col. Graff about his admission in Battle School, an elite training facility in outer space where gifted teenagers learn advanced military tactics.
There is a surplus of movies that run over two hours for absolutely no reason other than to create a semblance of importance, so when a picture that actually deserves to have its story told over a span of two-and-a-half hours, maybe even three, but gets a final cut of just under two, a part of me cannot help but get irritated. This is because “Ender’s Game,” based on Orson Scott Card’s novel and adapted to the screen by Gavin Hood, is high level entertainment as well as an intelligent commentary about the qualities one must possess in order to be considered an effective leader.
The hurried pacing dilutes what could have been a compelling psychological portrait of a character who is continually told, in subtle and overt ways, that he is gifted and special. While still interesting, we are only given snippets of the doubts that cross his mind when these are the elements that should have been expounded upon so that the material can stand above increasingly familiar “chosen one” franchises. Instead, the middle section almost relies on a formula between battle simulations and Ender’s troubles with figures of authority.
The action sequences look stunning. The zero gravity scenes where recruits must work as a team in order to take out members of the opposing team, a game similar to laser tag, command a level of excitement that is unexpected because we know that the weapons are designed only to disable via temporary paralysis—with zero level of pain. The various effects and acrobatics had to be done with CGI but as hard as I tried to pinpoint which exact elements are obviously done on the computer, my efforts were to no avail. The fluidity and seamlessness of every action and reaction—without the camera resulting to the increasingly annoying shaking tactic in order to induce thrills—allow the images look very polished, professional, and appropriately futuristic.
I also enjoyed the acting, especially by Butterfield and Ford. Ford has mastered the low, menacing growl and I believed him as a man of authority who thinks that his way of thinking and doing is the only right path and proposed alternative routes leave too much room for risk and therefore failure. Viola Davis, who plays Major Anderson, does a good job as a sounding board against Col. Graff’s domineering personality and ideas. We can detect that her character is also strong but on a different level. However, because of the aforementioned time constraint, it appears as though Major Anderson’s role in Ender’s extensive character arc is a bit unripe.
As with Butterfield, he has a knack for crossing the thin membrane between someone who can easily be pushed around one minute and then the next someone who has gotten control of a situation who may or may not push things a bit too far. He gives Ender a bit of edge by allowing him to be slightly dangerous. In addition, it is important that we believe that the protagonist is a highly intelligent tactician—on and off the simulations. Butterfield is able to embody this quality. He looks lanky, awkward, determined, and smart—and these contradictions work for him. I felt there was a soul in the character I was watching. I wished, however, that Bufferfield avoided tears in order convey sadness or heartbreak. Sometimes holding it all in thereby allowing only the audience to go through the catharsis is a more effective avenue.
I demand a sequel—one that is longer but equally ambitious. For instance, I wish to know more about Ender’s crew (Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rhambo)—the friends he made while in Battle School—and the specific qualities they put on the table to make a great team. Though director Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” has weaknesses that are recognizable, they can just as easily be overlooked when it is able to deliver on the material’s inherent potential and you find yourself invested in what is going on, what is going to happen, and what certain decisions might entail given it has a chance to continue.
★★★ / ★★★★
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.
Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was told in the eyes of an eight-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) who likes to explore his surroundings and play with other children. One day, his family decides to move from Berlin to a remote place in Poland because his father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi soldier and he is promoted there by the higher ranks. Bruno, being unaware of the horrors that the Jews are going through, assumes that the concentration camp that he can see from his bedroom is a farm. He also takes notice of the people there and tells his mother (Vera Farmiga) that he thinks they are quite strange because they wear pajamas all day. As a young explorer, he eventually visits the concentration camp and meets another eight-year-old boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) and the two become friends. I liked that this picture was told from the eyes of young person who didn’t know anything about what was going on around him. While his mistaken assumptions were amusing at times, it was very sad in its core because little by little his innocence got stripped away. I liked the scenes when the private tutor would teach Bruno and his sister (Amber Beattie) how to think like Nazi and labeled Jewish people as “evil” (among other things). Such scenes showed two crucial reactions from the children: the sister’s total acceptance of the Nazi ways to the point where she started putting up clippings and posters on her wall; and Bruno’s as he tried to resist what he was being told by asking questions such as if there were nice Jewish people. Since this was aimed as a children’s story, it was important for me to see how Bruno processed the varying information that was being presented to him by his strict Nazi father, his mother who was having a breakdown after finding out a secret that her husband kept from her, his patriotic but ultimately deluded sister, and his Jewish friend who was clearly miserable. And I did see and feel his confusion and frustration about what people have told him and his own experiences. As for the ending, it completely took me by surprise. But I suppose the director (Mark Herman) did a good job building up the tension that led to the conclusion. This film provided a nice change from other Holocaust pictures. If the fact that all of the characters spoke in English instead of German does not bother you, this is a pretty good find.