In “The Space Between Us” Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) is a regular kid with the usual litany of teen problems. Slightly nerdy and a tad socially awkward, he passes the time texting with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a pretty girl he’s never actually met. You see, Gardner is a normal teen in all respects except one—he lives on Mars.
Raised by scientists on the Red Planet after his astronaut mother died in childbirth Gardner lives in a settlement called East Texas founded by scientist Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman). As the only human ever born on Mars he’s alone, save for an R2-D2 clone called Centaur, astronaut/guardian Kendra (Carla Gugino) and a team of scientists. He longs for information about his mother so when the chance to return to Earth comes up on his sixteenth birthday he jumps at it, eager to track down Tulsa and find his biological father.
On Earth he marvels at the colour of the sky, the feel of the ocean but worries that he’ll be sent back to Mars before he has the chance to really live. He escapes, on a quest to find Tulsa and daddy, a man he never met. The boy who fell to Earth finds Tulsa and together they go off in search of papa with Shepherd and Kendra hot on their tails.
Is “The Space Between Us” a sci-fi film? Ish! Is it a teen adventure? Almost! Is it a doomed teen movie? Sorta! A romance? Not really! A fish out of water flick? Kinda! Is it a road trip? Maybe! It’s all those things and more wrapped up in an underwhelming Young Adult story.
At the centre of it all is Butterfield whose wide eyes give him a slightly otherworldly look, perfectly suited to play Tulsa’s favourite Martian. Robertson is spunky and even if everything that happens doesn’t really make sense, the two leads are appealing.
They stand in stark contrast to Oldman chews the scenery with unusual gusto. He over does it all the way, emoting as if acting was going to be declared illegal the next day and he’d never have a chance to do it again.
“The Space Between Us” a.k.a. “The Loneliest Boy On Mars” has some good moments but in its attempt to be all things—see paragraph four of this review—clutters up a story that would have been better served by streamlining the story and tone.
Richard sits in with Marcia MacMillan to have a look at the weekend’s new movies, the true-to-life thrills of “Deepwater Horizon,” Tim Burton’s X-Men-esque “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children,” the thriller “Imperium” and the ripped-from-the-headlines documentary “The Lovers and the Despot.”
From director Tim Burton comes “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children,” another story of outsiders trying to find place in the world where they belong. Or in this case a place in time.
Teen years are for making friends and having fun but for Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) they are a hardship. He’s the weird kid in class, friendless except for his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) who keeps the boy entertained with wild stories about a life spent travelling the world and the Home for Peculiar Children where he was raised. He grew up side-by-side with a boy made of bees, a teacher who could turn into a bird, and a balloon girl, lighter than air who had to wear lead shoes so as not to float away.
When his Abe is attacked Jake arrives in time to catch his last, strange words. “I know you think I’m crazy but the bird will explain everything,” he says before urging the youngster to venture off to find out who, what, he really is. “I should have told you years ago. I thought I could protect you.”
Thus begins Jake’s adventure, a journey that leads him to a small island where Miss Alma LeFay Perigrine (Eva Green) a.k.a. The Bird Lady, attends to her brood of peculiar child. She has created a time loop, reset every day, to keep her peculiar safe and protect them from growing old. Every day is September 3, 1943 all day. An attack by Hollows (Samuel L. Jackson and others), evil creatures who steal the eyeballs of peculiar children, upsets Perigrine’s orderly time loop and gives Jake a chance to learn why he was sent to the island.
The first hour of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” is pure Tim Burton. He creates a fanciful world—imagine quirkier “X-Men”—with all his trademarks—mid-century kitsch, topiary sculptures, weird creatures and characters straight out of the outer regions of the imagination—and a mythology all its own. World building is a fantasy director’s strongest asset, and Burton paints a pretty picture, it’s just too bad he gets bogged down in the story in the second half.
The mushy second half erases the charm of the first sixty minutes as fanciful dreaminess and unique stop motion effects give way to CGI overload. The film’s long climax seems to go on forever—as though the audience is in one of Miss. Perigrine’s endless time loops—in an orgy of digital trickery that betrays the feel of the piece. An army of skeletons is a cool homage to Ray Harryhausen and setting its macabre sequence to weird amusement park dance music is a nice Burton touch, but it pales by comparison to the smaller, more intimate touches that give the movie much of its personality.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” has some beautiful images—like Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), tethered to Jake like a balloon as he walks and she floats through an amusement park—but like many of Burton’s recent films the story feels like an afterthought.
One writer called the director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetle Juice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and this weekend’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, “the most widely embraced loner in contemporary cinema.”
“I always try to at least spend time, as much as I can everyday, staring out into space; staring out a window,” the director says. “I find that sometimes you get the most ideas and the most feelings when you’re not involved in things you have to do everyday; especially these days when technology is such that you can be reached any time. I try and avoid that.”
Unsurprisingly as a filmmaker the characters he champions tend to echo his sensibility. From warped Mad Hatter in his Alice in Wonderland to the grieving child in Frankenweenie who reanimated a dog’s corpse, Burton’s heroes are often misfits and outsiders.
From his debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton has showcased people on the fringes of society. “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me,” says man-child Pee-Wee (Paul Reubens), “I’m a loner. A rebel.” Loosely based Vittorio De Sica’s classic film The Bicycle Thief, Burton’s story sees Pee-Wee on a mission to retrieve his stolen fire engine-red customized 1940s Schwinn. David Letterman was a fan, describing the anti-social character as having, “the external structure of a bratty little precocious kid, but you know it’s being controlled by the incubus, the manifestation of evil itself.”
In his next film Burton breathed life into Betelgeuse‘s rancid lungs. In the haunted-house comedy Beetlejuice Michael Keaton plays a “bio-exorcist” with crazy hair, giant teeth and an attitude, hired by two ghosts to scare away the insufferable new owners of their old house.
“I think Beetlejuice shows the complete positive side of being misperceived and being categorized as something different,” Burton says. “He can do whatever he wants! He’s horrible and everybody knows it, so he’s a complete fantasy of all of that.”
Burton’s two greatest misfits, his most intrepid folks on the outside looking in, are the off-kilter Eds—Wood and Scissorhands.
Edward Scissorhands is the strange-but-sweet story of a man with scissors for hands. The first collaboration of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the movie is a funny, romantic and moving fantasy was inspired by a sketch Burton created as a teenager. “One look at that drawing was all I needed to understand what Edward was about,” says Depp. “I felt very tortured as a teenager,” says Burton. “That’s where Edward Scissorhands came from. I was probably clinically depressed and didn’t know it.”
Ed Wood, played by Depp in the film of the same name, is the story of one of Hollywood’s great outcasts. Wood wrote, produced and directed low-budget anti-classics like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. Burton says he was a fan of Wood’s films and after reading some of the director’s letters was touched by how Wood, “wrote about his films as if he was making Citizen Kane, you know, whereas other people perceived them as, like, the worst movies ever.”
Burton links his best-known creations, labelling them as “semi-antisocial, [having] difficulty communicating or relating, slightly out of touch,” and adds, “I feel very close to those characters. I really do. I feel like they are mutated children.”
“Ender’s Game” is jam packed with boffo special effects that bring its epic battle scenes to life, but the film isn’t really about that. It’s about empathy in a world that is in dire need of compassion and as such its best effect is in the clear blue eyes of its teenaged star Asa Butterfield.
The young actor—best known as the lead in “Hugo”—is physically slight to be playing a leader of men, but his piercing eyes suggest he has the strength and determination to be all he can be.
Based on a bestselling 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card, the story begins fifty years after Earth was almost annihilated by alien invaders called the Formics. Only the efforts of a brave fighter pilot named Mazer Rackham saved the planet, and in the subsequent years the army has been training recruits to take his place.
The program, lead by the hard-as-vanadium Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), focuses on videogame playing kids with lightening fast reactions and cognitive skills. Ender Wiggins (Butterfield) is a superstar among the best and the brightest, a young man who thinks tactically but has a complicated relationship with authority.
Through a series of ever escalating simulations the ruthless Graff trains Ender and his team—Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha and Conor Carroll—to become the last line of defense against the Formics and in doing so prevent all future wars.
There are obvious bloodlines connecting “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” to “Ender’s Game”—warrior kids with special powers—but a crucial element is missing. For as much time as they spend setting up Ender’s backstory, the cold father and violent brother that feed his problem with authority, by the time we get to the huge battle scenes (with villains we never meet) there doesn’t seem to be that much at stake.
We’re told the future of the human race depends on Ender’s actions, but the film doesn’t have the urgency to pull off its bombastic finale.
What it does have, however, is a complicated and timely view of the importance of honor, the value of state sanctioned violence and its desensitizing effect on Ender. That complexity is reflected in Butterfield’s eyes.
“Ender’s Game” has an old school feel to it, valuing the ideas of tolerance and diversity over the flash of the effects, but doesn’t quite find the balance necessary to truly succeed as a sci fi epic, although it’s almost worth the price of admission to see Harrison Ford float, Sandra Bullock style, through a space shuttle.
In it’s core cast the movie presents a diverse vision of the future, interesting given the troubling anti-gay politics of its author Orson Scott Card—he suggests gay rights is a “collective delusion” and gay marriage shouldn’t be legal—that more fits the Gene Roddenberry’s utopian cultural image of the future than you would expect from someone who also wrote an essay titled The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.
So, for me, “Ender’s Game” is a judge the art and not the artist situation. The movie works well. There’s a bit too much repetition in the early scenes—we get the backstory of the original Formic assault three times in the first twenty minutes—but perhaps the film’s positive messages of tolerance, compassion and understanding will drown out the less open-minded views of Card’s other work.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas began its journey to the big screen as a children’s book. A children’s book about the Holocaust. As unlikely as that might sound, it is a well regarded, bestselling book that teaches kids not only about the Final Solution but also about issues regarding culture and identity. Its messages of tolerance are being taught in schools in Britain and so far the book has sold over three million copies. The film version—rated 14A for mature themes and disturbing content—stars two remarkable child actors, Son of Rambo’s Asa Butterfield and newcomer Jack Scanlon, and has a powerful ending that, once seen, will not soon be forgotten.
Bruno (Butterfield) is the precocious son of a high ranking Nazi official (David Thewlis) with dreams of becoming an explorer. When the family is relocated to a country posting Bruno starts his new life by exploring the grounds of his new house. Next door he discovers a “farm”—actually a concentration camp—and befriends Shmuel (Scanlon), a young Jewish boy in “striped pajamas” on the other side of an electrified fence. Neither boy understands why the fence divides them and bond over a mutual need for friendship and compassion. When Shmuel’s father disappears one day Bruno is determined to help his friend locate his missing dad.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas isn’t a typical wartime drama. Director Mark Herman (Little Voice, Brassed Off) takes his time setting up the situation—a family living next door to a notorious death camp— gradually doling out the details of everyday life in a Nazi household. We see the story through eight-year-old Bruno’s eyes, and while he may be slow to realize what his father does for a living, the horror of the situation grows as the film progresses. In fact, the movie picks up steam from a slow start—perhaps too slow for the first hour—to climax with a breathless and breathtakingly shocking finale.
For the most part Herman avoids the trite sentimentality of Life is Beautiful, another Holocaust film involving children, but in taking great pains to present the Nazi atrocities in a way that children will be able to understand he oversimplifies a complicated and brutal part of our recent past. For instance I’d suggest that the portrayal of the father, a Nazi commandant, is almost too sympathetic. Of course Bruno loves his father, and we’re seeing the story through his eyes, but the result of that relationship may have been some unexpected empathy for a man whose job was to exterminate an entire race of people. David Thewlis plays the commandant as a family man with a job to do, the very embodiment of the “banality of evil,” but the character isn’t defined enough for us to understand how a man can love his family and yet make it his life’s work to destroy other people’s families.
Another sticking point with me is the complete lack of German accents. The entire cast speaks very proper Queen’s English with accents that sound more Sloan Ranger than Teutonic. It’s an old trope, left over from the days when Brits were cast as the bad guys, but here it sounds mannered and out of place.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a valiant attempt to tell a small scale story about an unimaginably huge period in our history, and while it may drag in places, it has its heart in the right place and a devastating ending that will take your breath away.