Monthly Archives: September 2016

‘Danny Says’ Surprisingly Little: Documentary About Rock Manager Lacks Insight


Pristine Condition and Danny Fields in the documentary Danny Says.

Magnolia Pictures


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Magnolia Pictures

Pristine Condition and Danny Fields in the documentary Danny Says.

Magnolia Pictures

Whether boosting or buffeting the careers of the Beatles, the Doors and the Stooges, Danny Fields was the man behind the curtain. He remains so in Danny Says, a candid yet unrevealing documentary named for a song the Ramones wrote about Fields.

The movie will be a revelation for some viewers, but that’s probably a small group: punk fans who know the music, but not Fields’ role in it. Those already familiar with many of these anecdotes — perhaps from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s 1997 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — won’t learn much. Others may find the subject overly cultish, or simply too ancient.

Daniel Feinberg was born in Brooklyn in 1939, into a family he says was devoted to amphetamines. He identifies as gay but is equally taken with beauties of both sexes, and asserts he is attracted to intelligence. “Smart is sexy,” he announces.

Fields (the surname he adopted as a young adult) clearly was smart. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at 15, and Harvard Law at 19. But he dropped out of the latter, and at 76 he still doesn’t seem to have settled on a career.

That’s one of many narrative pieces director Brendan Toller never quite puts into place. Fields worked as a publicist and manager and was employed as “company freak” by Elektra Records. That label’s founder, Jac Holzman, explains that Fields was useful because “he stayed up later” than anyone else.

Periodically, Fields edited teen magazines, whose outlook he tried to subvert. During a 1966 stint at Datebook, he reprinted a British interview in which John Lennon casually opined that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The subsequent furor nearly broke up the band.

Ironically, one of Fields’ longtime pals was rock photographer Linda Eastman, who a few years later married Paul McCartney.

The pop-savvy Beatles weren’t Fields’ idea of fun. He preferred the Rolling Stones and the Doors — although he and Jim Morrison didn’t get along — and later MC5 and the Stooges. At Andy Warhol’s Factory, Fields met Nico, Edie Sedgwick and the Velvet Underground. It’s no coincidence that MC5, Nico and the Stooges all signed to Elektra — or that the last two were produced by ex-Velvet John Cale.

Elektra made money on another Fields find, pro-pot troubadour David Peel. But MC5 and their White Panther Party proved too incendiary for the company, while Iggy Stooge (later Iggy Pop) and Nico both vanished into a heroin haze. “It’s the worst drug in the world,” says Fields.

Fired from Elektra, Fields returned to pop journalism before encountering the Ramones. He managed them for five years, a collaboration that was successful artistically but less so commercially. Since the band dumped him in 1980, Fields seems to have done very little, or at least very little this documentary finds noteworthy.

Long prized as a raconteur, Fields did interviews for the film over a long enough period that you can watch him age. Other notable interviewees include Holzman, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman and John Sinclair, the man behind what Fields calls MC5’s “amusing politics.” (Many of the other relevant figures are dead.) The 1960s and ’70s are represented mostly by still photos, although Toller uses animations to illustrate some incidents.

What’s missing is a sense of Fields’ inner life. He talks about sex a lot, but never mentions love. He acknowledges chronic financial distress — Fields’ mother paid for the Ramones’ first proper drum kit — yet never discusses the psychic toll of that struggle.

What Danny Says portrays, perhaps simply because it’s incomplete, is a man who existed only through others. It suggests that Fields had a lot of great adventures, yet never got a life.

A Grouch Gradually Grows Grudgingly Grateful In ‘A Man Called Ove’


Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a bitter and reclusive widower, reluctantly finds friendship among his neighbors.

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures


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Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures

Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a bitter and reclusive widower, reluctantly finds friendship among his neighbors.

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures

The angry old gent at the heart of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove is the kind of man who puts on a suit and tie every time he tries to kill himself, which believe me is more than twice. He’s also the kind of man you’re likely to find in films submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So even though Ove, who’s played with firmly compressed lips by Rolf Lassgard, is a royal pain in the butt, the suicides are played for gentle laughs and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that things will pan out, in their deadpan Scandinavian way.

A Man Called Ove won’t win Best Foreign Film this year, nor should it, but it’s worth your time, and it’s easy to see why this proudly populist movie was a smash hit in Sweden. Men in white collars do not fare well here; the heroes are Everymen and -women who actually make things. But this modest dramedy, deftly directed by Hannes Holm from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, is as sweetly sincere as it is market-driven, with gusts of saving black comedy rolling in to rescue it from excess goo.

In fact, Ove’s not that old. He’s only 59, but life has slapped him around a lot, especially lately. His beloved wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) recently died of cancer and the impertinent whippersnappers who now head the company he’s faithfully served for 43 years fire him with the most callous of golden handshakes. He’s alienated his best friend over a trifle, and now the friend is paralyzed by a stroke. Small wonder that Ove kicks other people’s pets, appoints himself the enforcer of regulations that neighbors on his provincial street never knew existed, and calls almost everyone he meets an idiot. It goes without saying that the neighbors we see scampering off his lawn, headed by a heavily pregnant, congenitally optimistic young Iranian named Parvaneh (a beguiling Bahar Pars), will gear up to give him reasons to live. There will be babysitting, and driving lessons, and hot meals on doorsteps, and lashings of amiable shtick before Ove gets with the program.

So far, so pleasantly familiar. The flashbacks that carry us through Ove’s past are consistently richer and deeper, in part because they take seriously his gains and losses — and his cascading grief, once he confronts it. The film observes his transformation from salt of the earth to embittered curmudgeon with intelligent sympathy. Like many adults who lost a parent early, Ove (played as a young man by Philip Berg) is awkward and childlike, but he’s a fixer who shows love and respect through building and repair, and we learn that he’s enough of a diamond in the rough to be plucked from bachelorhood by solid women like Sonja, who has cornflower-blue eyes and an enchanting overbite. In her absence, the exuberant Parvaneh steps in to heal the savage breast.

Much of this is pure corn, of course, but it’s sprightly, honorable corn. And A Man Called Ove doesn’t shy away from the darker insight that almost every life, at a certain point, becomes about incremental losses and about how we struggle to deal with them. Ove doesn’t achieve insight or even that mysterious, made-up thing we call closure. He gets busy caring for others, and then he grow attached, and then he rediscovers his own best self by other means. And then — well. You’ll have to see.

In ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ Oil And Water Don’t Make A Good Mix


Mark Wahlberg in the film Deepwater Horizon.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate


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Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Mark Wahlberg in the film Deepwater Horizon.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be making a film about Sept. 11, the news alone felt like a startling provocation: Hollywood’s most political director, a man known for upending assumptions about America’s history and institutions, would be commenting on the formative tragedy of the early 21st century. Perhaps Stone would indulge in the type of leftist conspiracy theory that informed his JFK or, at a minimum, seize the opportunity to critique the drastic changes in domestic and foreign policy precipitated by the attacks.

Instead, Stone made World Trade Center, the single dullest film in a career that now spans three decades and counting. With only five years’ distance from Sept. 11, addressing the event head-on would be like staring into the sun, enough to turn the camera lens into a molten goo. So Stone and his screenwriters looked instead for a silver lining, opting for the story of two Port Authority officers who got trapped in the rubble trying to help the people fleeing the Towers. He paid tribute to the heroes of that terrible day and, for the first time ever, made a film no one would find objectionable.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 wasn’t Sept. 11, but it could fairly be called the formative ecological catastrophe of the early 21st century, a sea-floor gusher that lasted for 87 days and discharged 4.9 billion gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Director Peter Berg doesn’t have to negotiate the same political minefield Stone did, yet Deepwater Horizon is equally craven in focusing on the event itself at the expense of the larger political and environmental picture. He’s made World Trade Center all over again, telling a story of bravery and self-sacrifice that tables a more contentious discussion.

On the other hand, the environmental implications of the oil spill were so enormous at the time that it was easy to forget that 11 men died on the rig before it went down. Deepwater Horizon does the service of remembering them while implicating the greed and carelessness that put them in harm’s way. The message gets lost in a towering inferno of gas explosions and other pyrotechnics, but there’s enough context for the audience to boo and hiss at the news that Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, two site managers charged with manslaughter for negligence, had the charges against them dropped. Every disaster movie needs its cardboard villains, after all.

The strongest section of Deepwater Horizon is the time before the blast, when tensions are mounting over a “negative pressure test” to determine whether the rig is safe to siphon its payload from three-and-a-half miles deep in the ocean. Already 43 days behind schedule, BP rep Vidrine (John Malkovich) pushes “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), the crew captain of the Transocean rig, and his chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), to look past readings of pressure on the line. As Jimmy is off getting an award for safety—and the screenwriters are collecting their award for irony—signs of trouble are ignored and “the well from hell” starts to blow.

That’s it for setup. Director Peter Berg spends some time with Williams and the obligatory wife-back-home (Kate Hudson) and shows a nice facility with working-class camaraderie and technical detail, but once things go haywire, Deepwater Horizon goes right along with it. The last two-thirds of the film are a series of explosions and acts of derring-do, with Wahlberg’s Williams hauling one wounded co-worker after another to the lifeboat as fire engulfs the rig. There’s some detailing of logistics, like marshaling the Coast Guard from 30 minutes away or attempting to seal the line before oil bursts through the breach. But mostly there’s shouting and flames, coalescing into the visual and aural white noise of human desperation.

Deepwater Horizon is undeniably rousing, but the distance between it and Berg’s last waterlogged blockbuster, Battleship, isn’t as great as it seems. The source material may be more prestigious—a New York Times feature rather than a Hasbro game—but it’s still a common disaster movie, with cardboard heroes and villains and an excess of Irwin Allen spectacle. Any sense of outrage goes up in smoke.

A Legend Of Creepy Hollows: ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children’


Dame Judi Dench as the mysterious mentor Miss Avocet in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox


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Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

Dame Judi Dench as the mysterious mentor Miss Avocet in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

When did our expectations for Tim Burton movies sink so precipitously? We ought to be able to forgive the guy who made Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow a Planet of the Apes now and then. Or even an Alice in Wonderland, so long as he keeps balancing mega-grossing mediocrities like that with heartfelt stuff like Frankenweenie, his delightful stop-motion ode to his dog. Any director who averages a studio feature every other year for three decades will have a stinker or two on his resume.

And yet somehow Burton’s stock feels low enough to make the spooky, visually ingenious, oft-incoherent-but-in-a-dreamlike-way Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feel like a win just because it isn’t dreadful. Burton stages two or three striking set pieces, and otherwise builds as much of the movie as he possibly can around Eva Green’s severe-but-solicitous performance as mysterious headmistress Miss Peregrine, a sort of hard-eyed Mary Poppins. Surely that’s fair freight for your $12.

Everything that predates Ms. Green’s arrival — even scenes featuring the great Terence Stamp, and, well, one scene with the great Allison Janney — is kind of a slog. The movie takes at least 15 minutes to get going, and its final third is as narratively opaque as any table-setting Marvel or DC flick.

But by then I didn’t care that I couldn’t tell you the stakes: Even before Burton dispatches a platoon of skeletons to fight a horde of eyeless, tentacle-tongued “hollowgasts” on a London pier — a clear homage to one of his heroes, pioneering stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen — I’d surrendered once again to his gifts as peddler of surreal imagery. Burton uses archaic stop-motion techniques in addition to untold petabyes (or exabytes) of CGI, and the movie is never more entrancing than when a creepy babydoll armed with a chef’s knife is fighting a crab. (To be fair, its two young human leads, Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell, are quite animated and capable, too.) If you were to strip Guillermo del Toro’s decade-old masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth of all its allegorical and emotional heft, Miss Peregrine‘s is more or less what you’d have left. Easy to watch, after that distended Floridian prologue, and easy to forget.

The movie is a liberal adaptation of a bestselling 2011 young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs, whose muse was a stack of “vernacular” (read: found) photos he’d collected at the monthly Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena. Truly, the medium is the message: Jake, the 16-year-old hero of Riggs’ story (Butterfield in the movie), is likewise dispatched on a quest by collection of faded photos—portraits of, um, peculiar-looking children. These belonged to his grandfather (Stamp), who has been telling Jake stories about their odd subjects since Jake was a child. He’d once lived with these kids at an orphanage in Wales, he said. One was lighter than air and had to wear lead shoes to prevent herself from floating away like a balloon. One had a hive of bees inside his chest, which would escape when he opened his mouth to speak or eat. One could briefly reanimate the dead using animal hearts.

Naturally, Jake has become more skeptical of the old man’s fantastic claims as he has grown into adolescence. When he finds grandpa dead with his eyeballs missing, then catches a glimpse of a monster in the woods behind his house, his parents (Chris O’Dowd and the mighty Kim Dickens, who’s in the movie even less than Janney is) take him to licensed-and-bonded mental health professional C.J. Cregg — that is, Dr. Golan. The doc persuades Jake’s folks that a trip to Wales to try to find the old orphanage might help the boy to process his grief. O’Dowd, by the way, is 100 percent believable as the sort of impotent dad who would agree to this plan. He figures he’ll come along and get some birdwatching done while his son is busy moping. I don’t know enough about Wales or birds to know whether or not this is a joke, but I know Dickens, in her approximately 15 seconds onscreen, looks relieved to be rid of them both.

It’s when the scene shifts from flat, sunny Florida to cloudy, oppressive Wales that the movie brightens up. That’s Burton for you. Jake and his dad check into the one inn in town (it’s called The Priest Hole), and after some predictable complication Jake finds his way to the old manor among its occupants — as it, and they, existed in 1943. The place is basically Brigadoon crossed with Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters of X-Men lore, only the gifted not-so-youngsters in Miss Peregrine’s charge shall never grow up if she has anything to say about it. Her supernatural talent is the ability to create cul-de-sacs in time where she can keep her “peculiars” hidden from the vile Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson in milk-colored contact lenses), a kinda-sorta vampire who seeks immortality by… eating their eyes.

That’s not, I don’t believe, a spoiler, though I couldn’t swear I grokked the plot clearly enough to know which elements ought to be classified. Screenwriter Jane Goldman has plenty of experience translating dense mythologies born in prose and comics to the movies, having worked on the scrips for Stardust, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and a pair of the stronger X-Men movies, among others. The adaptation she’s delivered here borrows material from Riggs’ sequel novel Hollow City to permit an action-packed finale, but still manages to leave plenty of threads dangling after 122 increasingly chaotic minutes.

The result feels less like a thoughtfully-conceived franchise-starter than a picture that was rushed out of the editing suite prematurely. That makes it at once a minor disappointment and Burton’s most satisfying (mostly) live-action fantasy film in years. Too bad it probably won’t last ’til Halloween.

‘Danny Says’ Surprisingly Little: Documentary About Rock Manager Lacks Insight


Pristine Condition and Danny Fields in the documentary Danny Says.

Magnolia Pictures


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Magnolia Pictures

Pristine Condition and Danny Fields in the documentary Danny Says.

Magnolia Pictures

Whether boosting or buffeting the careers of the Beatles, the Doors and the Stooges, Danny Fields was the man behind the curtain. He remains so in Danny Says, a candid yet unrevealing documentary named for a song the Ramones wrote about Fields.

The movie will be a revelation for some viewers, but that’s probably a small group: punk fans who know the music, but not Fields’ role in it. Those already familiar with many of these anecdotes — perhaps from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s 1997 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — won’t learn much. Others may find the subject overly cultish, or simply too ancient.

Daniel Feinberg was born in Brooklyn in 1939, into a family he says was devoted to amphetamines. He identifies as gay but is equally taken with beauties of both sexes, and asserts he is attracted to intelligence. “Smart is sexy,” he announces.

Fields (the surname he adopted as a young adult) clearly was smart. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at 15, and Harvard Law at 19. But he dropped out of the latter, and at 76 he still doesn’t seem to have settled on a career.

That’s one of many narrative pieces director Brendan Toller never quite puts into place. Fields worked as a publicist and manager and was employed as “company freak” by Elektra Records. That label’s founder, Jac Holzman, explains that Fields was useful because “he stayed up later” than anyone else.

Periodically, Fields edited teen magazines, whose outlook he tried to subvert. During a 1966 stint at Datebook, he reprinted a British interview in which John Lennon casually opined that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The subsequent furor nearly broke up the band.

Ironically, one of Fields’ longtime pals was rock photographer Linda Eastman, who a few years later married Paul McCartney.

The pop-savvy Beatles weren’t Fields’ idea of fun. He preferred the Rolling Stones and the Doors — although he and Jim Morrison didn’t get along — and later MC5 and the Stooges. At Andy Warhol’s Factory, Fields met Nico, Edie Sedgwick and the Velvet Underground. It’s no coincidence that MC5, Nico and the Stooges all signed to Elektra — or that the last two were produced by ex-Velvet John Cale.

Elektra made money on another Fields find, pro-pot troubadour David Peel. But MC5 and their White Panther Party proved too incendiary for the company, while Iggy Stooge (later Iggy Pop) and Nico both vanished into a heroin haze. “It’s the worst drug in the world,” says Fields.

Fired from Elektra, Fields returned to pop journalism before encountering the Ramones. He managed them for five years, a collaboration that was successful artistically but less so commercially. Since the band dumped him in 1980, Fields seems to have done very little, or at least very little this documentary finds noteworthy.

Long prized as a raconteur, Fields did interviews for the film over a long enough period that you can watch him age. Other notable interviewees include Holzman, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman and John Sinclair, the man behind what Fields calls MC5’s “amusing politics.” (Many of the other relevant figures are dead.) The 1960s and ’70s are represented mostly by still photos, although Toller uses animations to illustrate some incidents.

What’s missing is a sense of Fields’ inner life. He talks about sex a lot, but never mentions love. He acknowledges chronic financial distress — Fields’ mother paid for the Ramones’ first proper drum kit — yet never discusses the psychic toll of that struggle.

What Danny Says portrays, perhaps simply because it’s incomplete, is a man who existed only through others. It suggests that Fields had a lot of great adventures, yet never got a life.

A Grouch Gradually Grows Grudgingly Grateful In ‘A Man Called Ove’


Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a bitter and reclusive widower, reluctantly finds friendship among his neighbors.

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures


hide caption

toggle caption

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures

Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a bitter and reclusive widower, reluctantly finds friendship among his neighbors.

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures

The angry old gent at the heart of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove is the kind of man who puts on a suit and tie every time he tries to kill himself, which believe me is more than twice. He’s also the kind of man you’re likely to find in films submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So even though Ove, who’s played with firmly compressed lips by Rolf Lassgard, is a royal pain in the butt, the suicides are played for gentle laughs and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that things will pan out, in their deadpan Scandinavian way.

A Man Called Ove won’t win Best Foreign Film this year, nor should it, but it’s worth your time, and it’s easy to see why this proudly populist movie was a smash hit in Sweden. Men in white collars do not fare well here; the heroes are Everymen and -women who actually make things. But this modest dramedy, deftly directed by Hannes Holm from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, is as sweetly sincere as it is market-driven, with gusts of saving black comedy rolling in to rescue it from excess goo.

In fact, Ove’s not that old. He’s only 59, but life has slapped him around a lot, especially lately. His beloved wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) recently died of cancer and the impertinent whippersnappers who now head the company he’s faithfully served for 43 years fire him with the most callous of golden handshakes. He’s alienated his best friend over a trifle, and now the friend is paralyzed by a stroke. Small wonder that Ove kicks other people’s pets, appoints himself the enforcer of regulations that neighbors on his provincial street never knew existed, and calls almost everyone he meets an idiot. It goes without saying that the neighbors we see scampering off his lawn, headed by a heavily pregnant, congenitally optimistic young Iranian named Parvaneh (a beguiling Bahar Pars), will gear up to give him reasons to live. There will be babysitting, and driving lessons, and hot meals on doorsteps, and lashings of amiable shtick before Ove gets with the program.

So far, so pleasantly familiar. The flashbacks that carry us through Ove’s past are consistently richer and deeper, in part because they take seriously his gains and losses — and his cascading grief, once he confronts it. The film observes his transformation from salt of the earth to embittered curmudgeon with intelligent sympathy. Like many adults who lost a parent early, Ove (played as a young man by Philip Berg) is awkward and childlike, but he’s a fixer who shows love and respect through building and repair, and we learn that he’s enough of a diamond in the rough to be plucked from bachelorhood by solid women like Sonja, who has cornflower-blue eyes and an enchanting overbite. In her absence, the exuberant Parvaneh steps in to heal the savage breast.

Much of this is pure corn, of course, but it’s sprightly, honorable corn. And A Man Called Ove doesn’t shy away from the darker insight that almost every life, at a certain point, becomes about incremental losses and about how we struggle to deal with them. Ove doesn’t achieve insight or even that mysterious, made-up thing we call closure. He gets busy caring for others, and then he grow attached, and then he rediscovers his own best self by other means. And then — well. You’ll have to see.

In ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ Oil And Water Don’t Make A Good Mix


Mark Wahlberg in the film Deepwater Horizon.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate


hide caption

toggle caption

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Mark Wahlberg in the film Deepwater Horizon.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be making a film about Sept. 11, the news alone felt like a startling provocation: Hollywood’s most political director, a man known for upending assumptions about America’s history and institutions, would be commenting on the formative tragedy of the early 21st century. Perhaps Stone would indulge in the type of leftist conspiracy theory that informed his JFK or, at a minimum, seize the opportunity to critique the drastic changes in domestic and foreign policy precipitated by the attacks.

Instead, Stone made World Trade Center, the single dullest film in a career that now spans three decades and counting. With only five years’ distance from Sept. 11, addressing the event head-on would be like staring into the sun, enough to turn the camera lens into a molten goo. So Stone and his screenwriters looked instead for a silver lining, opting for the story of two Port Authority officers who got trapped in the rubble trying to help the people fleeing the Towers. He paid tribute to the heroes of that terrible day and, for the first time ever, made a film no one would find objectionable.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 wasn’t Sept. 11, but it could fairly be called the formative ecological catastrophe of the early 21st century, a sea-floor gusher that lasted for 87 days and discharged 4.9 billion gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Director Peter Berg doesn’t have to negotiate the same political minefield Stone did, yet Deepwater Horizon is equally craven in focusing on the event itself at the expense of the larger political and environmental picture. He’s made World Trade Center all over again, telling a story of bravery and self-sacrifice that tables a more contentious discussion.

On the other hand, the environmental implications of the oil spill were so enormous at the time that it was easy to forget that 11 men died on the rig before it went down. Deepwater Horizon does the service of remembering them while implicating the greed and carelessness that put them in harm’s way. The message gets lost in a towering inferno of gas explosions and other pyrotechnics, but there’s enough context for the audience to boo and hiss at the news that Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, two site managers charged with manslaughter for negligence, had the charges against them dropped. Every disaster movie needs its cardboard villains, after all.

The strongest section of Deepwater Horizon is the time before the blast, when tensions are mounting over a “negative pressure test” to determine whether the rig is safe to siphon its payload from three-and-a-half miles deep in the ocean. Already 43 days behind schedule, BP rep Vidrine (John Malkovich) pushes “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), the crew captain of the Transocean rig, and his chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), to look past readings of pressure on the line. As Jimmy is off getting an award for safety—and the screenwriters are collecting their award for irony—signs of trouble are ignored and “the well from hell” starts to blow.

That’s it for setup. Director Peter Berg spends some time with Williams and the obligatory wife-back-home (Kate Hudson) and shows a nice facility with working-class camaraderie and technical detail, but once things go haywire, Deepwater Horizon goes right along with it. The last two-thirds of the film are a series of explosions and acts of derring-do, with Wahlberg’s Williams hauling one wounded co-worker after another to the lifeboat as fire engulfs the rig. There’s some detailing of logistics, like marshaling the Coast Guard from 30 minutes away or attempting to seal the line before oil bursts through the breach. But mostly there’s shouting and flames, coalescing into the visual and aural white noise of human desperation.

Deepwater Horizon is undeniably rousing, but the distance between it and Berg’s last waterlogged blockbuster, Battleship, isn’t as great as it seems. The source material may be more prestigious—a New York Times feature rather than a Hasbro game—but it’s still a common disaster movie, with cardboard heroes and villains and an excess of Irwin Allen spectacle. Any sense of outrage goes up in smoke.

A Legend Of Creepy Hollows: ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children’


Dame Judi Dench as the mysterious mentor Miss Avocet in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox


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toggle caption

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

Dame Judi Dench as the mysterious mentor Miss Avocet in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

When did our expectations for Tim Burton movies sink so precipitously? We ought to be able to forgive the guy who made Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow a Planet of the Apes now and then. Or even an Alice in Wonderland, so long as he keeps balancing mega-grossing mediocrities like that with heartfelt stuff like Frankenweenie, his delightful stop-motion ode to his dog. Any director who averages a studio feature every other year for three decades will have a stinker or two on his resume.

And yet somehow Burton’s stock feels low enough to make the spooky, visually ingenious, oft-incoherent-but-in-a-dreamlike-way Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feel like a win just because it isn’t dreadful. Burton stages two or three striking set pieces, and otherwise builds as much of the movie as he possibly can around Eva Green’s severe-but-solicitous performance as mysterious headmistress Miss Peregrine, a sort of hard-eyed Mary Poppins. Surely that’s fair freight for your $12.

Everything that predates Ms. Green’s arrival — even scenes featuring the great Terence Stamp, and, well, one scene with the great Allison Janney — is kind of a slog. The movie takes at least 15 minutes to get going, and its final third is as narratively opaque as any table-setting Marvel or DC flick.

But by then I didn’t care that I couldn’t tell you the stakes: Even before Burton dispatches a platoon of skeletons to fight a horde of eyeless, tentacle-tongued “hollowgasts” on a London pier — a clear homage to one of his heroes, pioneering stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen — I’d surrendered once again to his gifts as peddler of surreal imagery. Burton uses archaic stop-motion techniques in addition to untold petabyes (or exabytes) of CGI, and the movie is never more entrancing than when a creepy babydoll armed with a chef’s knife is fighting a crab. (To be fair, its two young human leads, Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell, are quite animated and capable, too.) If you were to strip Guillermo del Toro’s decade-old masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth of all its allegorical and emotional heft, Miss Peregrine‘s is more or less what you’d have left. Easy to watch, after that distended Floridian prologue, and easy to forget.

The movie is a liberal adaptation of a bestselling 2011 young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs, whose muse was a stack of “vernacular” (read: found) photos he’d collected at the monthly Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena. Truly, the medium is the message: Jake, the 16-year-old hero of Riggs’ story (Butterfield in the movie), is likewise dispatched on a quest by collection of faded photos—portraits of, um, peculiar-looking children. These belonged to his grandfather (Stamp), who has been telling Jake stories about their odd subjects since Jake was a child. He’d once lived with these kids at an orphanage in Wales, he said. One was lighter than air and had to wear lead shoes to prevent herself from floating away like a balloon. One had a hive of bees inside his chest, which would escape when he opened his mouth to speak or eat. One could briefly reanimate the dead using animal hearts.

Naturally, Jake has become more skeptical of the old man’s fantastic claims as he has grown into adolescence. When he finds grandpa dead with his eyeballs missing, then catches a glimpse of a monster in the woods behind his house, his parents (Chris O’Dowd and the mighty Kim Dickens, who’s in the movie even less than Janney is) take him to licensed-and-bonded mental health professional C.J. Cregg — that is, Dr. Golan. The doc persuades Jake’s folks that a trip to Wales to try to find the old orphanage might help the boy to process his grief. O’Dowd, by the way, is 100 percent believable as the sort of impotent dad who would agree to this plan. He figures he’ll come along and get some birdwatching done while his son is busy moping. I don’t know enough about Wales or birds to know whether or not this is a joke, but I know Dickens, in her approximately 15 seconds onscreen, looks relieved to be rid of them both.

It’s when the scene shifts from flat, sunny Florida to cloudy, oppressive Wales that the movie brightens up. That’s Burton for you. Jake and his dad check into the one inn in town (it’s called The Priest Hole), and after some predictable complication Jake finds his way to the old manor among its occupants — as it, and they, existed in 1943. The place is basically Brigadoon crossed with Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters of X-Men lore, only the gifted not-so-youngsters in Miss Peregrine’s charge shall never grow up if she has anything to say about it. Her supernatural talent is the ability to create cul-de-sacs in time where she can keep her “peculiars” hidden from the vile Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson in milk-colored contact lenses), a kinda-sorta vampire who seeks immortality by… eating their eyes.

That’s not, I don’t believe, a spoiler, though I couldn’t swear I grokked the plot clearly enough to know which elements ought to be classified. Screenwriter Jane Goldman has plenty of experience translating dense mythologies born in prose and comics to the movies, having worked on the scrips for Stardust, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and a pair of the stronger X-Men movies, among others. The adaptation she’s delivered here borrows material from Riggs’ sequel novel Hollow City to permit an action-packed finale, but still manages to leave plenty of threads dangling after 122 increasingly chaotic minutes.

The result feels less like a thoughtfully-conceived franchise-starter than a picture that was rushed out of the editing suite prematurely. That makes it at once a minor disappointment and Burton’s most satisfying (mostly) live-action fantasy film in years. Too bad it probably won’t last ’til Halloween.