comedy drama

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

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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

The Disaster Artist (2017)

They say Hollywood loves movies about movies, so I guess that’s why we the people have been gifted with The Disaster Artist, another entry in the genre of self-validating cinema. Unlike award-winning but limited appeal fare like Birdman and The Artist, The Disaster Artist benefits from its mainstream stars and the growing profile of cult hit The Room to tell the story about the worst movie ever made. It’s done with obvious affection by director James Franco and his usual suspects, brother Dave, Seth Rogen, and stars like Zac Efron, Danny McBride, and Judd Apatow, who stand in for cameos.

Franco cares deeply for his characters and admires them not in spite of their wackiness but because of it. The lead oddball is Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco himself. The mysterious auteur behind The Room is someone who could easily be played for laughs. An aspiring actor of unknown age or origin, Wiseau attacks his art with abandon, always with embarrassing and unsatisfactory results. Whether he is growling his way through the Stella scene in A Streetcar Named Desire or mounting a sprawling production of his poorly written and poorly conceived movie, he is singularly focused on extracting the purest, rawest emotion out of every performance.

I have to wonder if Franco sees something of himself in Wiseau, a fellow truth-seeker willing not just to push the boundaries of convention but to crash through them. The actor has made his own mark with his unconventional behavior and try anything attitude. His off-screen pursuits include university lecturer, multimedia artist, short story writer, and painter of nudes. Adopting Wiseau’s stilted mannerisms and speech patterns and donning a stringy wig and facial prosthetics seem par for course. This may be why, for all its chances to do so, the movie never descends into mockery. Quite the opposite, a joy and earnest humor shine through in the filmmaking.

And yet, that underdog spirit keeps The Disaster Artist from ever maturing as a film. In the end, it doesn’t rise above its characters’ eccentricities. Wiseau remains a mystery, as impenetrable as ever. That might be excusable if Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), his friend and acting partner, were more than a fawning, angsty fanboy. His character is disappointing, not because of Franco the Younger doesn’t deliver; he’s rather charming as a timid actor who gets swept up in Wiseau’s delusions. It’s because the film doesn’t address in a satisfying way why Greg is so enamored with his mentor. You sympathize with his mom (Megan Mullally), and really most of the other characters – the script supervisor cum director (Rogen), Greg’s girlfriend (Alison Brie), the costume assistant (Charlyne Yi), all of whom question Greg’s association, and their own, with Wiseau.

Perhaps I just don’t have the passion for creating art. I certainly don’t presume to understand actors’ motivations for doing what they do. Maybe that’s why I need Greg’s infatuation with acting laid out more plainly. When Wiseau goads a wide-eyed Greg into performing a monologue from their coffee shop booth, I’m inclined to sympathize with the patrons rather than with the artists disturbing the peace. I wish the movie had strained less for authenticity and more for depth of character. It’s an uncritical love letter, which doesn’t make it a bad film but not a great one.

Released: 2017
Prod: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Dir: James Franco
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, lots of cameos
Time: 103 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Maid in Manhattan (2002)

Sometimes you come across a bad movie at the right time and, despite knowing better, still find it enjoyable. It’s happened to all of us, and Maid in Manhattan is one that caught me unawares on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A lifeless, predictable romance, if we’re being honest, this movie nevertheless wormed its way into the edges of my heart. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though it does have its stock of absurd characters and situations, but I liked Wayne Wang’s quiet direction, which was content to let the story hum steadily along.

The movie still depends on wacky, blown-up moments that pivot the action from one point to the next. Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a maid in the rich people’s floor in a fancy Manhattan hotel, is a devoted single mother with aspirations of joining management. When her friend convinces her to try on a guest’s discarded Dolce and Gabbana, she catches the eye of Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a state assemblyman with aspirations of joining the U.S. Senate. He mistakes Marisa for Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), whose room she is cleaning, and they go out for a walk. Unable to stop this train, she continues the deception, much to Chris’s confusion when the real Caroline shows up at a private lunch.

Anyone who’s seen a romance knows where this is heading and how it will work itself out. The movie doesn’t get its fuel from its original storytelling but in part from the charisma of its supporting characters. The actors ham it up, exaggerating the drama just so. Richardson has the most fun with her role and teases the clueless, British Caroline. Stanley Tucci also makes an impression as Chris’s dry chief of staff, ever on guard for media stories that may threaten the Senate campaign. Others have roles that aren’t as juicy, a young Tyler Posey as Marisa’s politically obsessed son and Bob Hoskins as the avuncular head butler, for example, but they stand out for their sincerity.

The real weak link is the lead characters. It isn’t so much that Lopez and Fiennes are bad but that they have no chemistry. In fact, I easily fell for Marisa’s flinty personality and Chris’s wayward Republican attempt to see past himself. But the two act at each other, both characters earnestly in love with someone, just not the someone in front of them. Marisa makes a dynamic first impression on Chris because of the way she looks, but his continued devotion to her is puzzling, predicated on the fact that she will tell it like it is while his staff are all too eager to shield him from any hint of controversy. Likewise, she’s smitten, but since she always ends up lecturing him about the working class, what’s the attraction?

Besides making for a frustrating romance, this lack of clarity also raises questions of how race, class, and gender are portrayed. That the Latino girl moves up thanks to the generosity of the dashing white guy is just one of the concerns. Marisa is never really more than the maid who makes good, something that is emphasized most clearly in the closing scene when her name and photo are splashed across magazines and newspapers. Even after she strikes out on her own, she is always presented in relation to her former job or her partner. Once a maid in Manhattan, always a maid in Manhattan.

Released: 2002
Prod: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Dir: Wayne Wang
Writer: Kevin Wade
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Amy Sedaris, Bob Hoskins
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Waffle Street (2015)

Waffle Street is like your average Lifetime movie of the week, except it’s not a television film and is even less nuanced. After a hedge fund manager gets caught in a perfect storm of ethics violations and the 2008 recession, he goes back to square one and attempts to pull himself up again with some honest, back-busting blue collar work. In this case, it’s a job at Papa’s Chicken and Waffles, a regional chain à la Waffle House, where he starts as a kitchen and bus boy before graduating to waiter with hopes of owning his own franchise.

The narrative and emotional arc of this story is straight as they come and why you’ll love it or leave it. Those looking for an inspirational tale of hard scrabble folk who persevere through the good and the bad will appreciate this dominant strain of the American Dream. It’s all very Horatio Alger, and you could make a drinking game out of the many working class clichés. Aligning with the anti-Wall Street mood of the hoi polloi, the movie takes a dim view of the financial sector while giving a little spit shine to the unglamorous world of service jobs.

Our introduction to Jimmy Adams (James Lafferty) comes as he is trying to reason his way through an unethical but legal deal, for which he is eventually fired. Blackballed by his former employers, he has to try his luck in another field and eventually and somewhat accidentally settles on the restaurant business. He can be forgiven for that initial lapse in judgment, and presumably all his previous ones, though because Jimmy immediately redeems himself through his humility and tenacity. At first, his managers don’t know what to make of this man who is overqualified and out of his depth, someone who studiously highlights a 100+ page employee handbook the night before he starts work and who willingly sticks his arm into a clogged toilet because someone stole the plunger. These qualities make him an admirable and sympathetic character but also a convenient stereotype.

Jimmy hardly deviates from his ambition of owning his own Papa’s Chicken and Waffle, which he’s qualified to do after logging in 1000 hours, and that’s the big problem with this movie if you’re hoping to see a true story about the real toll of the financial crisis. His biggest troubles are first physical, keeping up with the demands of the job, and then strategic, as he formulates a plan to work enough hours and raise enough capital. But anyone who’s ever been through a job loss or career change of this magnitude knows that there’s a bigger existential crisis at hand, one that is never fully explored in this movie. We see Jimmy’s frustrations with work but not with the dramatic change in his financial or social status. What is the emotional weight of all this? Or is he just content with soldiering on?

Despite some misgivings, his wife (Julie Gonzalo) is fully onboard, even though, as she points out, it kind of makes their years of sacrifice for his MBA all for naught. For someone whose husband has gone from a hedge fund manager to a waiter at the local waffle joint, she’s exceedingly accommodating. The same is true for Jimmy’s father and grandfather, who eye him warily from the sidelines at first. In fact, it’s their working class roots that encourage his desire to have a “real” job.

I like the attention and respect given to blue collar work, but I have a real issue with the dishonesty that goes along with it. Waffle House oversimplifies this journey that Jimmy embarks on, scrubbing away difficult questions about opportunities and what work we value and how. In place of that story is a watered down narrative about not being too proud to get dirty and start over, which is admirable but ultimately unchallenging. I do think the movie ends in a better place and avoids the easy, comfortable resolution. Jimmy and his friend, a line cook played by Danny Glover, both get satisfying conclusions but not ones that they, or we, necessarily expect.

Released: 2015
Dir: Ian Nelms, Esholm Nelms
Writer: Esholm Nelms, Ian Nelms
Cast: James Lafferty, Danny Glover, Julie Gonzalo, Dale Dickey, Adam Johnson, Yolanda Wood
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017