“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”: Absolutely! This instant classic takes its place with Tim Burton’s best fantasies and provides a wondrous evening of entertainment.
“The Girl on the Train”: Maybe. Well-made and compelling yet packed with miserable people engaged in all manner of sin, this is one ride to avoid if you’re easily offended.
Sometimes it’s hard to find a great movie to pinpoint for families. Sure, there are cartoons like “Finding Dory,” “The Secret Lives of Pets” or “Storks” that are obviously OK for kids, so I tend not to review those because I feel it’s more important to look at movies that people might truly wonder about. And of course, many weeks, only movies for older teens and adults are out, and that’s what I focus on then.
But this week, there couldn’t be a starker contrast in movies to consider. One is the delightful, instant classic “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” which is the latest film by Tim Burton (and one of his greatest). The other is the well-made but lurid mystery “The Girl on the Train,” which is packed with broken relationships, graphic sex and nudity, and brief but highly visible grisly violence.
“Miss” follows the story of a Florida boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield), an awkward teen whose only real friend is his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), who has spent his life telling him what seemed to be wild bedtime stories about a children’s home in England that was filled with kids who basically were comical X-men-style mutants. One is a boy who’s filled with bees that fly out whenever he opens his mouth, another is a girl who has to wear heavy metal shoes because she is lighter than air and floats like a balloon whenever she is untethered.
Jake has grown up to disbelieve his grandfather, even as he still loves and appreciates his stories. But when Abe dies after a mysterious home invasion one night – one in which Jake could swear he saw a strange man (Samuel L. Jackson) with spooky white eyes and a giant shadow monster that disappears after a friend shoots at it.
As a result of having a hard time processing Abe’s death, Jake proposes going to England with his father and seeing once and for all if the children’s home was real or a fantasy. What he discovers involves ageless youths living under the care of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), but in a time loop that traps them in the same day forever – a day that ends with Nazi planes coming to bomb their home.
Once Jake figures this out, his surprise turns to a determination to save them from their predicament. What unfolds from there is a wondrous thing to behold: a magical experience in the best possible sense with vibrant visuals, a lush score, its own utterly unique world that calls to mind Burton’s masterpiece “Edward Scissorhands,” and expertly done performances that are a delight.
There are some scary moments in the film, due to the prospect of the daily bombings, though they are shown in aftermath, as well as some of the goofily scary creatures the kids encounter including giant moving skeletons that get in the way of how they break themselves free. But the tone of the movie is always perfect in keeping things fun rather than truly frightening – especially for those who are 10 and up – as well as wondrously whimsical. This is a great one for families to enjoy together.
Meanwhile, “The Girl On the Train” stars perpetually-rising star Emily Blunt as a blackout-drunk alcoholic woman whose daily spying on her ex-husband’s house from a passing commuter train gives her unique insights into the mysterious murder of his gorgeous nanny. Like 2014’s smash hit “Gone Girl,” this movie is based on a hit page-turning novel (by Paula Hawkins) and is packed with lurid twists and turns tying together a mix of occasional yet graphic sex and even more sporadic yet surprising violence, with Blunt at the center of it all in a role that should take her into the big leagues of marquee movie stars once and for all while earning a much-deserved shot at an Oscar as well.
“Girl” stars Blunt as Rachel, a desperately depressed woman who discovered two years ago that her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) was cheating on her with their real estate agent Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and dumped her for Anna because she was infertile. She’s been simply existing ever since, occupying a room in her best friend’s suburban apartment while riding drunkenly to and from New York City every day on a commuter train and using her same specific seat as a vantage point to spy on Tom and Anna.
She starts to also wonder who the beautiful blonde younger woman that’s spending time with the couple is, not knowing it’s their nanny Megan (Haley Bennett), who has her own dark secrets and ample issues. In fact, viewers actually see Megan first, as her voiceover narration lets them know that she’s actually been reinventing herself in a series of false identities ever since high school, and that she’s now living just two doors down from Tom and Anna, married to an abusive lout named Scott (Luke Evans).
Add into this heady mix of messed-up humanity, her shrink, a guy named Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), with whom Megan is engaging in an affair. Megan disappears one evening just after Rachel has followed her and called her a whore in front of Tom, thinking that she’s stalking Anna.
When Rachel wakes up the next morning, with her clothes covered in blood and the TV news describing the discovery of Megan’s corpse, she finds that she’s the prime suspect of Detective Riley (Alison Janney). She manages to keep herself free long enough to recover shards of memory, including the fact that she saw Megan kissing a mysterious man on the porch of Tom’s house during one of her drive-bys.
She figures that if they can figure out who the mystery man is, Megan’s death can be avenged and her own name can be cleared. And from here, the story only gets crazier as the movie takes one unpredictable turn after another.
This may sound like “The Girl On the Train” might be as shamelessly enjoyable as “Gone Girl,” as viewers sort through the ever-growing puzzle formed by the seedy relationships of the super-rich. But “Train” has a more somber tone, a heavy weight born of the tragic secrets it reveals all the way to the finish, and that joylessness results in this exciting and engaging thriller being kind of a downer compared to the wickedly acid wit of “Gone.”
The question is, of course, whether – no matter how well-made a movie is on artistic terms – if it’s a bad choice in viewing for a discerning person of faith. With its portrait of broken relationships, deception, affairs, murder, cover-ups mixed in with sex, nudity and ultimately graphic violence, this is certainly not the healthiest way to find one’s entertainment, and possible viewers should use real caution here.
Make no mistake, however, that Emily Blunt delivers perhaps the most impressive performance by an actress this year so far. Conveying depression and alcoholism, as well as a growing strength and determination to prove she’s sane and can get both her sobriety and her life back, she is stunning to watch.
In the end, this “Girl” manages to be solid enough to be worth a look once on an artistic if not moral level. But be careful letting movies like this become obsessions like Rachel’s.