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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

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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

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)

When I was a kid, if your Catholic school music teacher wanted to show a Biblical themed musical, chances are you were watching Jesus Christ, Superstar. As a result, kids like me – or maybe just me – spent their childhood confused as hell about hippie Judas. There’s a wider selection these days, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is still a mainstay, and you can now opt for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat instead.

The musical, about Joseph of the Book of Genesis, his jealous brothers, and path to forgiveness, was always family friendly. Filled with songs that borrow from an array of musical styles from country hoedown to calypso, the numbers are jaunty and even a little silly. This direct-to-video film from 1999 makes the most of that and turns Weber’s hit into a wacky aural and visual feast.

The movie is framed around a primary school production of the musical. Students are shepherded into the auditorium by their dour teachers, including Alex Jennings and Ian McNeice, who soon spring into action as the singing, dancing characters in the story. They play the major roles while the kids occasionally run amok and snake their way into the scenes.

Maria Friedman stars as the Narrator, a spunky guide who invites us into the story of Joseph and ushers us through his journey from favored son of Jacob (Richard Attenborough) with a gift for interpreting dreams to Egyptian slave cum savior. Taking on the title character is Donny Osmond, revisiting the role he brought to life in earlier stage versions. Osmond, the syrupy voiced teen pop idol turned syrupy voiced fantasy for middle aged mothers, is a fitting choice that bridges all demographics. He retains his puppy dog’s earnestness, which proves useful when you want to gain sympathy because your brothers have sold you into slavery. His show-stopping ballad, “Close Every Door,” which Joseph sings after he is wrongly accused and imprisoned for seducing his master’s wife (Joan Collins), washes down like a dream.

It’s probably the most conventional Broadway number, highly singable and earwormy. The others are not as catchy, but they each have a unique flare and accompanying set piece. If you don’t like the pastiche of musical and visual style, then the experiment can be distracting. I think the artistic shifts tend toward the schizophrenic and make it harder to remain focused on Joseph. The religion teacher in me was agog at the bedazzled nipples in the Art Deco-inspired Potiphar number, the one in which Joan Collins undresses and seduces dear Donny. Just a couple scenes later, we have Bye, Bye, Birdie Pharaoh (Robert Torti), a hip-swiveling rock n’ roll king who summons Joseph to help him untangle some disturbing dreams. I’m guessing kids won’t care too much about these clashing styles, and the constant changeover may even keep their attention. They’ll work out the themes to this story, ones that include trusting in God and not coveting your brother’s awesome multicolored parachute cloak.

Selected songs below. You can find all clips and songs here.

“Any Dream Will Do”:

“Jacob and Sons”:

“Joseph’s Coat”:

“One More Angel in Heaven”:

“Potiphar”:

“Close Every Door”:

“Go, Go, Go Joseph”:

“Song of the King”:

“Those Canaan Days”:

“Benjamin Calypso”:

“Any Dream Will Do (Reprise)”:

Released: 1999
Prod: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Andy Picheta, Nigel Wright, Austin Shaw
Dir: David Mallet
Writer: Tim Rice, Michael Walsh,
Cast: Donny Osmond, Maria Friedman, Richard Attenborough, Robert Torti, Ian McNeice, Joan Collins, Christopher Biggins, Alex Jennings
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

Detour (2016)

Detour is not the type of movie I watch for fun on a Saturday night, but dammit, Emory Cohen. The actor’s sensitive, Gilbert Blyth turn in Brooklyn has got me working my way through his back catalog and man, is it a dark, disturbing journey. Take Detour, which throws three lonely souls together on a cross-state road trip, ostensibly to kill one of the party’s stepfather. There’s a hitch in the plan, but not the typical kind like a cop coming up from behind on an empty road, though that happens too.

The film begins with Harper (Tye Sheridan), listening intently as a law professor expounds on how to get away with murder. The aspiring attorney has other things on his mind though. His mother is in a coma, thanks to a drunken joyride with his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), who decides to visit his younger mistress instead of the hospital. Harper suspects Vincent’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas is more pleasure than business and is willing to take drastic measures to keep his stepfather from straying. The tidy coed gets sloshed, stumbles into a trashy bar, and sets off a very regrettable chain of events.

Harper meets Johnny Ray (Cohen), a coked up tough who has “Fear” tattooed in Lucida Calligraphy font on his bicep. The guy is clearly bluster, but he’s enough of a live wire that you’d avoid his sightline just to be safe. Harper does the opposite and drunkenly admits to wanting his stepfather dead, which is good enough as a job offer for Johnny. When he shows up at Harper’s house the next day, it’s too late to turn back, and the two, along with Johnny’s girl, Cherry (Bel Powley), hit the road towards Vegas.

Except the movie takes some unexpected, well, detours. Johnny insists on seeing some snarly drug boss named Frank (John Lynch, who will always be Lord Archibald Craven or Balinor to me). It’s a meeting he characterizes as a courtesy call but is actually a mandatory stop and one that could have disastrous consequences for Cherry. A casual sit-down at some sleepy diner also escalates into a situation that well, doesn’t end cleanly. The most surprising diversion though is the film’s narrative shift. The movie starts to flash back as it moves forward, and the slow drip reveal of Harper and Vincent’s relationship, and of its deterioration, unsettles the entire timeline.

Detour rumbles and disturbs but leaves its best parts untouched. The talented cast, all garlanded with breakout star laurels, give meat to the script. Sheridan is a capable lead, walking his character down a fine line of privilege and insecurity and tipping him just over the edge when he gets too close to type. His is not the most interesting role but has the most closure. Powley, meanwhile, gets the most underwritten part. The actress is a tour de force in The Diary of a Teenage Girl but is too confined as the girlfriend/hooker/occasional drug mule. Still, she’s magnetic and it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I have to say Cohen is the best, and not because I keep toggling between sweet Tony Fiorello and trashy Tony Fiorello. Johnny is actually a pretty stale character, kind of a C-grade Ben Foster type. But Cohen shares a scene with Lynch that immediately transforms his character into someone who’s much less tough and selfish than he appears. That’s the Cohen I love.

Released: 2009
Prod: Julie Baines, Phil Hunt, Stephen Kelliher, Jason Newmark, Compton Ross
Dir: Christopher Smith
Writer: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, John Lynch, Stephen Moyer, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017