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“THE BREADWINNER” My rating: C+

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The animation resume of Nora Twomey (“Song of the Sea,” “The Secret of Kells”) is heavy on splendid  visuals and meandering stories.

That pattern holds true in “The Breadwinner,” an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ young adult novel about an Afghan girl who survives the Taliban’s reign of terror by posing as a boy.

The film is heavy on social relevance but quickly loses its narrative way. Even moments that should be devastating come off as tepid.

Each day eleven-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) accompanies her father, a former teacher who lost a leg fighting the Russians, to the central market of Kabul where they attempt to sell a few family possessions, including a beautiful red dress which Parvana will now never get to wear. There they run afoul of Taliban bullies who maintain that no woman — not even a prepubescent girl — should be seen in public.

When Parvana’s father stands up for her, he is dragged away to prison.  This leaves the remaining family members — including Parvana’s mother, older sister and baby brother   — in a desperate situation.  Without a man to support them they face starvation.  Parvana risks arrests or beating just venturing outside to get water from a nearby well.

Sneaking around the bazaar one day our heroine meets an old school mate, a girl named Shauzia who has cut her hair and adopted a man’s name.  Parvana follows suit, and soon the two are working odd jobs; she’s proud to be her family’s breadwinner.

But discovery and punishment are never far from her mind, which may be why she concentrates more on simple survival than exploiting the privileges afforded by her new maleness.

“The Breadwinner” features a story within a story. Parvana is a born storyteller, and she amuses herself and family members by spinning out a fantasy about a young man whose village is beset by monsters and his efforts to reclaim the seeds vital to the community’s survival. Clearly, this is a metaphor for the situation facing Afghan women.

In contrast to the gray and brown palette of the “real world” sequences, these fantasy moments are bursting with color. Too bad, then, that the story Parvana relates lacks any immediacy. It feels like a time killer, and that feeling of inconsequence seeps over to the rest of the film as well.

It’s a case of a great message delivered in lackadaisical style.

| Robert W. Butler

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Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.

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Claes Bang

“THE SQUARE” My rating: B 

145 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Square” is the equivalent of one of those modern art installations where you wonder if the “artist” isn’t pulling everybody’s chain.

The winner of the  Palm d’Or at Cannes, this comedy from writer/director Ruben Ostend is so dry and droll that it’s often hard to know if we’re actually meant to laugh.

Our “hero” is Christian (Claes Bang), the director of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm that features shows with titles like “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel.” Prominent in the fiftyish Christian’s skill set is an ability to explain far-out conceptual art to the old rich folk who keep the museum afloat. He’s pretty good at schmoozing and coming up with deep intellectual underpinnings for the goofy displays his institution embraces.

The film follows Christian over several days during which he’s dealing with a new installation. “The Square” is just that…an illuminated square set in the cobblestones of the plaza in front of the museum. A plaque embedded in the courtyard describes the square as “a sanctuary of trust and caring”; it’s meant to be a place where the city’s homeless (and Stockholm apparently has an unlimited supply) can take shelter and interact with their more privileged brethren.

This project is more idealistic than realistic…most of the homeless people we encounter are surly and demanding and in their own way as entitled as Christian’s wealthy patrons.

There’s no real plot here, just a series of abusrdism-soaked vignettes depicting Christian’s professional and private life.

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“SWEET VIRGINIA” My rating: C+

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Jon Bernthal

Slickly made but essentially hollow, “Sweet Virginia” is a good-looking piece of neo noir that fritters away a good cast on a so-so story.

In the first moments of this moody effort from director James M. Dagg and scenarists Benjamin and Paul China, three men engaged in an after-hours poker game in a small-town Rockies restaurant are gunned down. The boyish killer (Christopher Abbott) makes it look like a robbery, but we soon learn that he was hired by local gal Lila (Imogen Poots) to murder her no-good cheating’ hubby.

Lila isn’t thrilled that two innocent lives were taken in the operation; she’s even more upset when she learns that her late spouse was insolvent. There’s no way she can pay the hit man, whose name is Elwood, the $50,000 she owes him.

Meanwhile Sam (Jon Bernthal), a beat-up former rodeo champ, runs his motel (the Sweet Virginia of the title) and tries to ignore the fact that all those times he was dumped on his head will probably leave him with a case of early onset dementia.

Ironically, Sam has been having an affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the wife of one of the shooting victims.  He’s decent enough to feel bad about continuing their liaison…but he gives in to Bernadette’s entreaties.

It all comes to a head when Lila, desperate to get the nasty Elwood off her case, sics him on a likely home robbery target. The ensuing mayhem will involve most of the film’s main characters.

“Sweet Virginia”  takes a long time to go nowhere.  Especially irritating is the dialogue,  which often dips into pretentiousness by giving the characters cryptic mumbles when all we really want is a straight declarative sentence.

That said, the perfs are fine with Abbott’s moody, unpredictable and unprofessional killer talking most of the honors.

| Robert W. Butler

Margaret Qually

“NOVITIATE” My rating: B 

123 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The movies rarely treat religion with anything like respect or even intelligent understanding.  Which makes “Novitiate” a welcome anomaly.

Writer/director Margaret Betts’ film — made with a predominantly female cast and crew — is a serious attempt to examine a religious vocation through the eyes of one young woman.

Cathleen (Margaret Qually…she played the daughter in HBO’s “The Leftovers”) is raised by her hard-case mother in the American South during the 1950s.  Mom Nora (Juliette Nicholson) is a drinkin’, smoking’ modern woman with a tart tongue and a disdain for much of Eisenhower-era society.

But she’s devoted to her daughter and one Sunday takes Cathleen to the local Catholic church. Though irreligious herself, Nora wants her child to be able to make up her own mind. Almost against her better judgment, she accepts a free scholarship for Cathleen at the local parochial school.

The girl takes to Catholicism like other teens glom onto Rod McKuen’s poetry.  As graduation nears she announces that she wants to become a nun. Mom is horrified, but what are you gonna do?

And so Cathleen becomes a postulant at a cloistered community run by the hard-ass Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who hasn’t left the premises in 40 years.

Revered Mother — the spiritual version of a Marine drill instructor — makes no bones about her intentions to weed out the unworthy.  Her methods are often brusque and borderline cruel, and part of the wonder of Leo’s performance is that the character’s ogre-isa behavior is, if not likable, then at least understandable. It’s a long-tested system to which she adheres. Continue Reading »

Frances McDormand

“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” My rating: A- 

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Frances McDormand gives what may be her greatest performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

But then the film scores a trifecta of sorts by also containing best-ever perfs of both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

Add to that the fact that the latest from Irish auteur Martin McDonough (“In Bruges”) is the funniest movie ever about grief, and you’ve got a serious — and seriously hilarious — moviegoing experience.

Not a perfect one, though.  Granted, the first hour of “Three Billboards” is just about flawless. In the latter going McDonough abandons the brilliant character study he’s been presenting and tries to woo us with iffy melodrama.  Still…

The title refers to three billboards on the road near the Ozarks home of Mildred (McDormand).  Almost a year earlier Mildred’s teenage daughter Angela was raped, murdered and her body set afire.  The local cops have hit a dead end and the angry, acid-tongued Mildred decides to jump start the investigation through shaming.

She calls at the local advertising firm and soon those three billboards read like a grim set of Burma Shave signs: “Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests.”  “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

This is a full frontal assault on the local police led by Chief Willoughby (Harrelson).  By all accounts Willoughby is a decent guy who has exhausted all leads. DNA collected at the crime scene doesn’t match anyone in the data base, and Willoughby rejects Mildred’s demand that the authorities collect samples from every boy and man in the county.

Willoughby reveals that he’s dying of cancer, apparently in the mistaken belief that this will soften Mildred’s wrath and she’ll take down the billboards. She’ll have none of it: “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?”

Woody Harrelson

Mildred may be the toughest, most uncompromising and prickly character of McDormand’s uncompromising and prickly career. You may not like her (she commits an unconscionable and, frankly, ludicrous act of arson against her perceived enemies), but you can’t take your eyes off her as plows through the town’s irate citizenry like a vengeful bulldozer. (One may look at the actress’s excellent work in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” as a sort of test run for this film.)

Her attitude even comes through in her choice of clothing. Nothing feminine about Mildred’s garb…she wears a blue jumpsuit and a Rambo-style headscarf, looking like Rosie the Riveter with a “can-fuck-you-up” attitude. (In one of the film’s slyer jokes, Mildred operates the Southern Charm Gift Shop — which thanks to her attitude is utterly devoid of  charm.)

Mildred’s contempt for the cops has its basis in more than just personal grief.  Deputy Dixon (Rockwell) is both astoundingly stupid and overtly racist and Mildred has no problem in calling him on his proclivities: “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?”

Dixon’s answer is that nowadays it’s “the person-of-color-torturing business.” (One of the iffier aspects of McDonough’s screenplay is that an honorable man like Willoughby employs a vicious asshat like Dixon; we’re led to believe that the Chief feels sorry for this moron and actually sees some potential in him. This strains credulity, but sets up later questionable developments in the Dixon subplot.) Continue Reading »

Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens

“THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS” My rating: C

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

When it is evoking the spirit of Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” cannot help but worm its way  into a viewer’s heart and mucus centers.

Seriously, for any halfway literate English-speaking person even the mention of Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts sets off mental and emotional detonations. Not only is A Christmas Carol one of the most artful stories ever written, it is credited by historians with triggering Victorian England’s wholehearted embrace of the Yuletide season. (Before the book’s publication, apparently, Christmas was no big deal.)

Adapted from John Stanford’s nonfiction book by Susan Coyne and directed by Bharat Nalluri (a veteran of Brit TV), “The Man Who  Invented Christmas” purports to relate how Charles Dickens came to write the story. Basically it’s Masterpiece Lite.

We first meet the great author (Dan Stevens, minus the facial hair of the older, more familiar  Dickens) in 1842 when he is going through a rough patch.  His last three books have tanked, his household is going through expensive civic improvements, his kids are running amok and the Missus (Morfydd Clark) announces that there’s another on the way.

Then there’s the arrival of Dickens’ father John (Jonathan Pryce), an entertaining/exasperating  bon vivant perennially in debt and congenitally incapable of earning his own living.

Desperate to offer his publishers a new book, Dickens proposes a Christmas story.  The editors are dubious, but Dickens says if necessary he’ll self-finance the volume. All he needs now are characters and a story.

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