A Christmas Star (2017)

To reach A Christmas Star’s sweet center, you have to overcome certain flaws in narrative and character development, which may not be worth the trouble to some. Noelle (Erin Galway-Kendrick), the main character, is an eleven year old girl with miraculous powers, a perk of having been born in a barn under the Christmas star on Christmas Day. Unfortunately her powers are limited to one type of miracle – stopping arguments, and this particular skill set isn’t integrated into the story in any logical way. Instead, it’s more of a nice character quirk, something that occasionally sets her apart from others but that is talked about far more than it is used. No one except her best friend Spud-Bob (James Stockdale) knows about her powers despite their jarring and very noticeable effects.

It’s an unnecessary distraction from the rest of the story, which is propped up by one cliché after another but at least makes sense. The Northern Irish town of Pottersglen is in need of some saving. Its signature nativity snow globes aren’t selling anymore, and the pottery that makes them and that employs most of the town is facing ruin. Enter cartoonish villains, Mr. Shepherd (Pierce Brosnan) and Pat McKerrod (Robert James-Collier), the American owners. Well, McKerrod is originally from Pottersglen but left after some drama involving smashed snow globes and a rejected proposal to Noelle’s mom (Bronagh Waugh). This maybe explains his ropey American accent? Anyway, McKerrod hopes to turn mow down the pottery and most of the town and replace it with his own Christmas Kingdom, a premiere hotel-casino-golf-course destination but presumably with a holiday touch.

James-Collier already proved his slimeball bonafides in Downton Abbey as downstairs scoundrel Thomas Barrow. He’s moved upstairs now but still looks like the kind of guy who would enjoy ruining your life. The movie falls just short of an exaggerated kids’ movie though, and it doesn’t need a greedy bad guy rubbing his gloved hands together while cooking up his next scheme. The presence of a son makes things even more awkward. McKerrod keeps barking at Junior (John Moan) to “man up.” I wasn’t aware this was a 1950s sitcom and “Junior” was still a thing, and it’s not clear why McKerrod is stringing his detested preteen son along on a major business trip.

Noelle’s father (Richard Clements) is another confusing figure. A respectable, kind, and even clumsy person, he is also prone to lashing out at his daughter. Some of these fits of rage merit a trip to anger management, but the casual way with which his wife and Noelle dismiss them make me think that this is not really a part of his character. I understand freaking out about your daughter nearly getting crunched by a motorbike, but no need to get apoplectic about her claiming to have powers, especially when people always seem to stop mid-argument around her.

So what is this sweet center that I love about A Christmas Star? Kids. Galway-Kendrick and Stockdale in particular. For two young actors with few credits to their name, they capably light up the whole film, filling me with warm feelings long after I’d finished watching. Each radiates a childlike wonder that is equal parts innocence, confidence, and hope. Together though Noelle and Spud-Bob share a beautiful friendship. They are funny, like when they try to test her miracle powers by multiplying loaves, and honest, like when they talk about feeling different (Stockdale is physically disabled). Their vulnerability with one another touched me in a way that even Noelle’s relationship with her parents did not. I will always love it when young people want to see the good in others, and this movie, for all its faults, aims for that optimism. I will also love it when a movie supports young people in arts, and this production from the youth film charity, Cinemagic, does just that.

Released: 2017
Prod: Joan Burney Keatings
Dir: Richard Elson
Writer: Maire Campbell, Richard Elson
Cast: Rob James-Collier, Suranne Jones, Bronagh Waugh, Erin Galway-Kendrick, Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Richard Clements, Philip Rafferty, James Stockdale, Roma Tomelty
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019


Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

Here’s a pressing case for Sherlock Gnomes – why is this movie so terrible? Its predecessor, Gnomeo and Juliet, was a clever, fun-spirited retelling of a work with no shortage of creative retellings, but this movie, which tries to do the same, fails to stir up any excitement. Unlike the first gnome-y installment, it doesn’t attach itself to a familiar or beloved story, and though the characters may be well known, they are drawn from two distinct worlds that don’t have a natural meeting place. The star-crossed lovers intersect with a pair of uptight detectives but never occupy one cohesive narrative space.

Since Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) manage to make it out of their first movie alive, we’re venturing into fresh territory, and this time around they are preoccupied with post-marital troubles. Now it looks like their marriage might be the casualty. Their bickering is just a lot of petty back and forth though. If it’s supposed to be something more, we wouldn’t know. We hardly see what’s gnawing at their relationship before the story jumps to Sherlock (Johnny Depp) and Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The two sleuths are hard at work trying to trying to catch Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a Kewpie-like pie mascot who’s been kidnapping a bunch of gnomes throughout the city. This Moriarty is low-key bonkers, more manic energy than deliberate murder-maker like his counterpart in Sherlock and Elementary. He seems content just causing chaos, which is appropriate since this is a family film. When Gnomeo and Juliet’s family and friends go missing, lovers and detectives join forces to get to the bottom of the mystery. At least that is what should happen. Instead, Gnomeo and Juliet, being simple gnome folk, lack serious crime fighting chops and instead just tag along while mostly Sherlock does the work.

I’m game for another attempt at literary mash-up, one that is more purposeful and that uses the diverse characters and plot points to support one another. But as this film shows, bringing together two popular literary universes (do we have to use that word now?) does not in and of itself generate a good or meaningful story. Even the set pieces are dodgy, particularly the most colorful one set in a Chinatown toy/souvenir shop. That Sherlock smugly announces clocks are unlucky gifts in Chinese culture does not make it less racist or self-aware. Also, if you wouldn’t have a white actress to wear a cocktail umbrella as a vaguely Asian disguise, and that’s a big ask, you shouldn’t have your white gnome to do the same. I’m only giving Sherlock Gnomes credit for its care in bringing the minor gnomes to life. When the mossy figures are unpacked and newly settling into their misty London backyard, you want to scoop them up and give them a good clean.

Alt Title: Gnomeo and Juliet 2: Sherlock Gnomes
Released: 2011
Prod: David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw, Carolyn Soper
Dir: John Stevenson
Writer: Ben Zazove
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mary J. Blige, Jamie Demetriou, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Room on the Broom (2012)

How many award winning actors does it take to tell a children’s story? Seven in the case of Room on the Broom, an Academy Award nominated short based on the picture book by Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The film features the voice talents of great character actors, including Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins with Simon Pegg narrating.

It’s tale about a witch, her broom, and her animal friends that take up all the room on her broom and is an endearing one for small children. Big people will be equally delighted. The witch (Gillian Anderson) sets off with her cat (Rob Brydon), and it, being very cat-like, is perfectly content to have the human all to himself. So when a few mishaps take the duo off course and lead them to meet new traveling companions, Cat is none too pleased. Dog (Martin Clunes), Bird (Hawkins), and Frog (David Walliams) are all eager to join the benevolent witch on her adventure, even if it means squeezing onto her compact broom.

The story is easy for even very small children to follow, and the stop-motion animation is simple without being plain. Still, it’s not visually arresting, and I wished it had a more distinct animation style. But the movie is so pure that I can appreciate it for what it does bring, and that is a measure of quietness and gentleness. Kids used to a constant fireworks of color and sound may be bored, but I loved the sparsity of storytelling. Besides stripped down visuals, there’s minimal dialogue – so much for the award-winning voice cast, but this only serves to emphasize the characters’ actions. Children will not easily overlook the genial witch and her generous heart nor will they fail to pick up on how the bickering animals overcome their differences to defeat the dragon, and the witch’s impossibly small broom. There’s nothing ostentatious about this little movie, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Released: 2012
Prod: Martin Pope, Michael Rose
Dir: Max Lang, Jan Lachauer
Writer: Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
Cast: Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Timothy Spall, Martin Clunes, Sally Hawkins, David Walliams
Time: 27 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010)

The first Nanny McPhee was a delightful outing, far more whimsical than its source material, the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. As magical as that adventure was though, the sequel is even more appealing, a family classic that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Set some eighty years after the Brown children have stopped terrorizing their household, this story finds another family on the edge of chaos.

It’s wartime Britain, and Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is at her wit’s end caring for the family farm while her husband is away fighting. Unsure whether she can afford tractor repairs in time for the barley harvest, she considers her brother-in-law’s suggestion to sell the place. What she doesn’t know is that Phil (Rhys Ifans), who owns half the property, is more interested in paying off his gambling debts than in her financial well-being. Not helping matters are Isabel’s three rambunctious children who are at odds with their city cousins, sent to the countryside ostensibly for their safety.

Star Emma Thompson’s script is full of wonder and humor. She’s created a world rooted in a real time and place but where wandering baby elephants and flying pigs don’t feel one bit out of place. It’s the sort of quiet country village where characters like Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Doherty, a slightly confused shop owner, will on occasion find herself buried under a mound of flour. The fantastical Nanny McPhee (Thompson) fits right in. A stern and odd-looking disciplinarian who commands respect with a sharp glance, she isn’t beyond using her magical walking stick to help things along, or to transform into the comely Ms. Thompson once the children have learned their five lessons.

As important as Nanny McPhee is, however, this film really isn’t about her. Instead, Thompson’s script centers on the Green family, and it is their troubles that give the story life. The war intrudes cruelly on their idyllic existence, and tragedy is never far away. Isabel’s worries are written on her face despite her best efforts to lighten the mood, and even the children are wise to the misfortunes that could upend their lives. They know that the family could be changed forever by events they can’t control, and that makes this story far more moving and consequential than the first Nanny McPhee.

The rustic setting does a lot to set the tone. There’s a sense of peace that allows the characters’ frustrations to mellow rather than to build into something more chaotic and claustrophobic. A lot of credit goes to the actors too for navigating the emotional terrain. This is an ensemble cast without a weak link. The veterans, that is to say all the adults, are flawless, but we’d expect nothing less from the likes of Thompson, Gyllenhaal, or Ralph Fiennes, who pops in for a scene as Isabel’s officious brother-in-law.

It’s the kids who deserve most recognition though. Asa Butterfield often portrays boys with a bewildered stillness about them. Here, he plays Norman, the eldest of the Green siblings and a child whose quiet disposition puts him at immediate odds with his arrogant, shouty cousins. Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Riston, for their parts, are superb as the arrogant, shouty cousins, Cyril and Celia. You couldn’t find two more entitled, smug brats if you went looking for them at the Insufferably Posh Kids Garden Party. Vlahos and Taylor-Ritson aren’t just here to sneer, however. Cyril and Celia have their own family troubles, and it’s not that they’re horrified at the thought of living with their auntie’s pigs so much as they are hurt that they’ve been sent away. They win everyone over by their tremendous capacity for compassion, which is a message this film delivers with success.

Alt Title: Nanny McPhee Returns
Released: 2010
Prod: Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Dir: Susanna White
Writer: Emma Thompson
Cast: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Kelly, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Nonso Anozie, Daniel Mays
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Nanny McPhee (2005)

Nanny McPhee teaches five lessons to the naughty Brown children, but the lesson for me is that I want Emma Thompson in my life, either as a nanny or a fairy godmother or, in this case, a little of both. Her nanny is the anti-Mary Poppins, a severe figure who never smiles and is more likely to give you a spoonful of castor oil than sugar, but as she transforms the children and herself, she becomes otherworldly. I don’t know how Ms. Thompson does it, but her performance is bewitching and had me believing in her kind of magic.

She’s here to whip the seven insufferable Brown children into shape. They’ve driven away their latest nanny by pretending to eat their youngest sibling. They also guillotine dolls’ heads on the regular and have tied up the cook so they can catapult food around the kitchen. Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), the gentle scullery maid, does her best to calm the litter but is limited by her position. The blame really falls on Cedric (Colin Firth), their bewildered dad who still doesn’t know how to handle life after the death of his wife. His preferred method of coping is to ignore his children and their bad behavior and to bury himself in his work as an undertaker.

The sudden appearance of Nanny McPhee one dark and stormy night begins to restore order to the household. The children do their best to defy her only to learn that their usual tricks, like feigning the measles and just being rude, are sure to backfire. Anyway, there’s a bigger problem on their hands when their dad decides to marry Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie), a ridiculous widow who reminds them of the evil stepmother in their storybook. Cedric is not keen on the marriage either but must do so in order to keep the monthly allowance from his wife’s Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury).

The peril of losing their home and each other never seems too great, even though it sends Cedric into an occasional panic. The most serious moment of danger comes when Aunt Adelaide decides to take one of the girls away. Appalled by the neglect and chaos, she wants to raise at least one of her grand-nieces in a more dignified setting, preferably one that doesn’t look like it’s been attacked by fluorescent poster paints. When she chooses the second youngest Brown children to take home, the whole family goes into hysterics, and the emotional stakes get raised several notches. 

Otherwise, it’s not always easy to sympathize with Cedric or his children. Simon (Thomas Sangster), the oldest, starts out as the ringleader and becomes more likable as he confronts his own hurt feelings and takes some responsibility. I’m not nearly as invested in any one of them as I am in Evangeline, however. Macdonald is as sweet as ever, and even though she only appears in about half the movie, her character is calming force in the family, the one who will dependably keep the Browns intact even after Nanny McPhee has left.

Not to be outdone is star and writer, Thompson. Her stern and homely portrayal of Nanny McPhee exerts a strange power. Maybe it is in the appearance. Nanny McPhee’s bulbous nose, her unibrow, and snaggletooth give her a certain menace, especially when she appears out of nowhere or framed in an attic window. Thompson keeps that harsh look about her, which is why her transformation is so enchanting. As the children learn each lesson, the warts begin to disappear and her complexion clears. Something about the way she carries herself softens, even if she is still glowering at her charges. It’s a magical performance fit for a magical film.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Dir: Kirk Jones
Writer: Emma Thompson
Cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Thomas Sangster, Angela Lansbury, Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton, Derek Jacobi, Patrick Barlow, Adam Godley
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018