Emily Blunt

Emily Blunt

“THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN”  My rating: C 

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Girl on the Train” is something of an anomaly — an otherwise mediocre film containing an Oscar-caliber performance.

That the award-worthy performance comes from Emily Blunt should surprise no one. This English actress has an uncanny ability to meld with diverse screen incarnations (she’s played Queen Victoria, a modern dancer, a futuristic kidkass Marine, an ethically compromised FBI agent). As Rachel — the alcoholic, anguished, out-of-control heroine of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel — Blunt is by turns painfully compelling and utterly alienating.

Too bad that the rest of Tate Taylor’s film is indifferent.

One could argue with some of the Hollywoodization at work here . The novel is set in Great Britain and its heroine is a slightly zaftig  sad sack who comes off like a tormented Bridget Jones. The film, on the other hand,  takes place in a bucolic suburb of New York City and Blunt can hardly be called overweight.

But that’s not the real problem. No, the film’s downfall is the screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, a hodgepodge of narrative feints that makes it almost impossible to relate to any of the characters and which leaves the cast members to emote to no good end while director Taylor (who had a vastly better film with “The Help”) must try to pave over the narrative hiccups and improbabilities with a slick visual style.

You can almost feel the desperation.

We first encounter Blunt’s Rachel on the commuter train that takes her to the city every day.  As the train passes the neighborhood where she used to live with her now-ex husband, Rachel is always on the lookout for the beautiful  young blonde woman who lives just a few doors down from her old home.

That would be Megan (Haley Bennett), who likes to lounge on her balcony (facing the train tracks) in her skimpy undies. Megan has a husband, Scott (Luke Evans, late of the “Hobbit” franchise), and frequently Rachel can see the couple passionately spooning through the windows or around a fire pit in the back yard.

In voiceover narration Rachel tells us that she has built a huge romantic fantasy around the couple. She doesn’t know them, but between slugs of vodka (she keeps the booze in one of those plastic sports-drink bottles), Rachel imagines herself part of their loving scenario.

Uh, have I mentioned that since her divorce Rachel has become a pathetic basket case?

Turns out that Megan is currently the nanny for Rachel’s ex, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).  Poor needy Rachel is making life impossible for the couple, phoning at all hours of the day and night, and on one occasion sneaking into the house and walking out into the yard with their new baby. (Rachel and Tom couldn’t conceive, and this failure haunts her.)

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Sharon Jones

Sharon Jones

“MISS SHARON JONES!”   My rating: B 

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

Barbara Kopple made her reputation with hard-hitting, left-leaning documentaries like “Harlan County, U.S.A.” and “American Dream.”

But she also has a long history of music-themed films, including “Wild Man Blues” (Woody Allen’s Dixieland jazz band), “Shut Up & Sing” (the post-9/11 Dixie Chicks) and “Woodstock: Now & Then.”

“Miss Sharon Jones!” is about a musician, but it’s really not about music.  Rather, Kopple uses her cameras to record singer Sharon Jones’ battle with pancreatic cancer.

Jones, who was once told by a recording exec that she was  “too old, too fat, too short, and too black,” has recorded several albums, one of them Grammy-nominated.  But her career rests on her heavy tour schedule with the Dap-Kings, her nine-member interracial backup band.

For Sharon Jones in action is a sight to behold.  She swaggers, she sways, she gets funky, she dances, and she has a voice that absolutely shreds r&b and soul numbers. Continue Reading »


Margherita Bay, John Turturro

“MIA MADRE” My rating: B- 

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” is like Fellini’s “8 1/2” melded with a dying mom movie.

It’s not always a graceful union, but since the film stars Margherita Buy (who makes middle age look impossibly attractive), we go along for the ride.

Margherita (Bay) is in the middle of directing a movie about economic upheaval, ruthless corporations and striking workers.

That would be enough to keep her plate full, but every evening after closing down the set she goes to a  hospital where her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a retired teacher, is awaiting the results of tests. It’s not looking good.

Margherita is torn between a demanding, often maddening profession and an abbreviated personal life.  Divorced, she has no lovers and only rarely sees her teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini).  And while she may be a master of emotional nuance on the big screen, she struggles to connect in real life.

She feels particularly helpless and guilty about Ada.  Thank heaven for her brother (writer/director Moretti), who has taken a leave of absence from his job to care for their mama…although this only makes Margherita feel even guiltier.

Moratti, who specializes in droll comedies (“We Have a Pope,” “Caro Diario”), is in a more sober mood this time around.  A dying parent, after  all, is a sobering topic.

But he nevertheless finds humor in the form of an American actor (John Turturro) who has been cast as a factory owner in Margherita’s movie and brings along a backpack of neuroses, bullshit anecdotes (he claims to have been a protege of Stanley Kubrick, though nobody can find his name in the credits of any Kubrick film), and the inability to remember his lines.

There are some surreal dream sequences (another nod to Fellini) as Margherita’s overtaxed psyche attempts to deal with all the chaos in her world

A lot of the on-set movie scenes are inside baseball, and will be far more amusing to viewers who’ve actually worked in the movies than to the average filmgoer.

The parts of the film dealing with Margherita and her mother,while fairly glum, certainly reflect a common parent/child dynamic.

Bottom line: “Madre Mia” is fine, but nothing to write home about.

| Robert W. Butler

AltamiraBison“FINDING ALTAMIRA” My rating: C+

97 minutes | No MPAA rating

The conflict between science and superstition (not to mention stubbornness and stupidity) is nothing new.

In Hugh Hudson’s “Finding Altamira” a 19th-century archaeologist sees his life and reputation reduced to tatters over his discovery of spectacular prehistoric cave paintings.

Marcelo Sanz de Sautolo (portrayed here by Antonio Banderas) was a wealthy Spaniard and gentleman of leisure.  He was also an amateur scientist who loved getting his hands dirty digging up old things.

In 1879 Sautolo was excavating a cave discovered a few years earlier.  His nine-year-old daughter Maria (Allegra Allen) wandered off from the entrance and stumbled upon a magnificent chamber decorated with drawings of animals — mostly massive bison — rendered in red ochre and black ash.

Sautolo  concluded that this was the work of prehistoric man — but work of undreamed-of sophistication. As it turned out, that was the sticking point. No one — not even Europe’s most acclaimed archaeologists — believed primitive man capable of such efforts.

Sautolo was accused of forging the cave paintings to satisfy his own need for celebrity. Twenty years later he was vindicated posthumously after other such sites were discovered around southern Europe.

The screenplay by Olivia Hetreed and Jose Luis Lopez-Linages employs these historic facts as the backbone for a tale that takes on religion, professional pride and father-child relations.

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Eva Green

Eva Green


127 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Filmmaker Tim Burton’s latest is pretty much par for the course: Two hours of great art direction in search of a movie.

This adaptation of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” the first entry in the popular young adult series by novelist Ransom Riggs, might be classified as a goth version of the X-Men foundation story: Shunned children with supernatural powers are sheltered and trained in a special facility.

The main difference is that this story unfolds in semi-creepy Victorian circumstances that are right up Burton’s visual alley.

The film looks terrific — so dark and weird that even sunlit afternoons seem gloomy.

It’s got the ever-watchable Eva Green as the titular Miss Peregrine, a sort of witchy version of Mary Poppins who can transform herself into a falcon, and Terence Stamp as the occultist grandfather whose secrets launch the story.

What it hasn’t got is any sense of drama, forward motion or a central character interesting enough to warrant our attention.

Young Jake (Asa Butterfield) is a moderately miserable Florida teen (his clueless parents are portrayed by Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens, both wasted) who witnesses the death of his beloved grandfather under mysterious and alarming circumstances.

The child psychologist (Allison Janney) who subsequently treats the traumatized teen suggests that Jake go to Wales to confront the reality of Grandpa’s wild tales of the “peculiar children” who were his boyhood friends. Once Jake sees that it was all in the old man’s head, says the shrink, everything will be fine.

Or not.

Jake discovers that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a rotting shell, flattened by a German bomb back in 1943. And then, magically, he finds himself transported back to the day of the disaster.

Not only is the school restored to its former gingerbread grandeur, but Jake meets Miss Peregrine and her oddly talented wards. Like the lighter-than-air girl (Ella Purnell) who must wear leaden boots lest she float away. Or the teen (Lauren McCrostie) who can start fires with her fingertips. Continue Reading »

**** and ****

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz

“LITTLE MEN”  My rating: B

85 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Suffused with somber wisdom and and delicate emotions, Ira Sachs’  “Little Men” is a terrific movie about boyhood friendship.

It’s also about conflicts in the adult world that can destroy that innocent and easygoing intimacy.

Thirteen-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) is initially dismayed when his parents move from glamorous Manhattan to pedestrian Brooklyn and the building long owned by his recently deceased grandfather. Yeah, there’s more room in the rent-free second-floor apartment where Grandpa lived…but it’s Brooklyn.

He undergoes an attitude adjustment after meeting Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) operates a dress shop on the ground floor.

The kids complement each other nicely.  Jake is quiet and thoughtful; Tony is brash and confidant (and very, very bright).  Moreover, they share a love not only of video games but of the arts.  Jake is a promising painter and Tony has set his goal on becoming an actor.

Over time they set in motion plans to get into an arts-themed high school.

The boys are so tuned in to each other’s emotions and intellects (there’s just the slightest suggestion that Jake might be gay, but the matter is left hanging) that they’re late in realizing the conflicts developing in the adult world around them.

Jake’s parents — his psychoanalyst mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and struggling actor father Brian (Greg Kenner) — discover that Leonor has been paying Grandpa a fraction of what should be the going rent on her storefront shop in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Leonor maintains that she and the old man were very close (just how close is a matter for speculation) and that he wanted her to have the space more or less in perpetuity.  Furthermore, she maintains she was more of a family to him than his flesh and blood across the East River.

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Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet

“THE DRESSMAKER” My rating: B-

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

So many stories, moods and contradictory elements are swirling around in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “The Dressmaker” that it’s no wonder it never settles down into a coherent whole.

Parts of this Down Under oddity, though, are delightfully memorable.

Adapting Rosalie Hamm’s novel with her husband, filmmaker P.J. Hogan (“Peter Pan,” “Muriel’s Wedding”), Moorhouse has given this period piece a distinct visual look and no shortage of eccentric characters.

And almost everywhere you look, “The Dressmaker” is paying homage to other films and literary works.

There is, for starters, the film’s basic setup: A woman returns to the provincial town of her childhood, not so much to be reacquainted with old friends as to explore her tormented past and perhaps take revenge on those who made her youth a living hell.  That, combined with its blend of absurdist humor and angry drama, makes “The Dressmaker” a sort of modern-day clone of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s often-revived 1956 tragicomedy “The Visit.”

At the same time “Dressmaker” borrows freely from the spaghetti Western tradition. Though it’s in Australia, the town to which our heroine returns looks like nothing so much as a barren Wild West burg, complete with dirt main street, weird rock formations, ramshackle buildings and  a few leafless dead trees.

David Hirschfelder’s musical score is heavy on ersatz Ennio Morricone, right down to the electric guitars, pounding tympani and clanging chimes.

It’s 1951 and after an absence of nearly 20 years Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) has returned to dusty Dungatar (emphasis on the “dung”). She moves back in with her half-cracked mother Molly (Judy Davis), who lives in bag-lady squalor in a crumbling hovel overlooking the town.

Tilly reintroduces herself by attending a local football match in a flaming red evening gown that must be the brightest object within 100 square miles.

In the years she was away Tilly worked in the fashion industry in London, Paris and Milan and she relishes the opportunity to rub the townspeoples’ faces in her sophistication.

Some locals aren’t buying this vision in their midst.  As a child Tilly was suspected of murdering a classmate and was shipped off to a boarding school in Melbourne for her own safety. She’s not exactly everyone’s favorite person.

But others, mostly long-put-upon women, see her arrival as a godsend.  Especially after Tilly uses her dressmaking and makeup skills to transform a drudge of a shopgirl (Sarah Snook) into a glamorous fashion plate capable of luring and hooking the wealthiest young man in town.

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