Maggie Gyllenhaal

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

White House Down (2013)

As we near Donald Trump’s first hundred days as the President of the United States, it’s safe to say that we are living in truly absurd political times. I figured the appropriate way to cope would be to watch an equally absurd politically themed movie, so here we are. As things sometimes turn out, this bombastic action thriller is marginally more sober-minded than whatever it is that we’re currently watching unravel in the nation’s capital. At least White House Down makes perfect sense within the Roland Emmerich world of apocalyptic shit shows, and there’s the satisfaction of knowing that not only do the good guys always win but the bad guys definitely get punished.

So, possibly helped by the times, I must recommend White House Down, the enjoyable political disaster movie starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx as the heroes our country desperately needs. One (Tatum) is in the mold of your traditional action star. A brusk loner with an authority problem, John Cale recognizes the sins of his past and just wants to do right by his girl, Emily (Joey King). She is his precocious middle school daughter, a walking encyclopedia of political history and current events, but is none too impressed with her estranged father. In part to earn back some daddy points, he hopes for a career upgrade from protection detail for House Speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) to Secret Service agent.

It’s on their way out from the interview that they crash a White House tour and meet the other man of the hour, President James Sawyer (Foxx), channeling his very best Barack Obama. Six months ago, a chill black president who’s a little too professorial and a little too much of a dove would be par for course, but now there’s something Twilight Zone about it. If only Obama really had gotten that third term, maybe we’d all be laughing now. In any case, Sawyer rebuffs Cale, not knowing that this man will save his life and his whole damn country by nightfall. That’s because a group of mercenaries, some with elite military training and a massive grudge, has infiltrated the Capitol Building and the White House, and they’ve got inside help. There is just so much treachery in Washington.

Director Emmerich guides the story along with the steady hand of one who has blown up presidential quarters before, which is useful since the White House proves to be a very big playground. The action isn’t always graceful and is too often reliant on unimpressive special effects and green screen, but the movie rushes along at a steady pace, zipping back and forth between considerable explosions, tight firefights, and actual fights. All of this is supported by a low-key chemistry between Tatum and Foxx that keeps the mood serious but only just so. Tatum has less rapport with Maggie Gyllenhaal, a former love interest and potential superior. They don’t share many scenes together, but it doesn’t matter because the appeal is Tatum shooting things whilst clad in a tiny tank top.

And to be sure, there is a lot of shooting going on here. Some people will be aghast at the carnage. I don’t mean the body count, which gets pretty high pretty quick, but the priceless artifacts that are used as target practice. The only person who senses the devastation is the droll tour guide (Nicolas Wright). In fairness though, this physical blowing up of the White House is preferable to the metaphorical one that is happening right now.

Released: 2013
Prod: Roland Emmerich, Bradley J. Fischer, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis
Dir: Roland Emmerich
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Lance Reddick
Time: 131 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Hysteria (2011)

hysteria 2011

It was thought in the late 1800s, and probably long before then, that a woman suffering from hysteria required stimulation in her nether regions in order to “coax the uterus back into position.” This would right the body and mind, temporarily curing a woman of nervousness, stress, loss of appetite, and any number of symptoms owing to the her weak constitution. Of course, hysteria wasn’t a single disease so often as it was a manifestation of a basic human need. And the thing to satisfy that need – the humble vibrator.

The story of the first such electric massager is brought to humorous life in this film, which weaves a tale of invention with social and cultural change in Victorian England. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully bemused Hugh Dancy) is a forward thinking doctor who insists on cleansing wounds in order to minimize the chance of infection by germs. The preposterous idea that microscopic bugs could cause so much disease and death gets him bounced from one hospital to another until he lands a position at Dr. Robert Darymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic. Well respected for his ability to relieve women of their suffering, if one can call it that, he enlists the young Mortimer to assist in his hands-on practice, and possibly to form an alliance with his younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones).

It’s an amusing film that has great fun with its subject. That Dr. Granville could be so progressive on some areas of medicine yet still subscribe to the belief that women are “unable to experience pleasure without male penetration” garners knowing chuckles. The men are oblivious to the true nature of their work as they briskly oil their hands and finger their way past layers of skirt. Meanwhile, their patients are propped up on an elevated lounge chair, their lower halves covered with a gold and burgundy canopy that lends a certain elegance to the whole affair. Let’s say we’ve come, er, a long way.

And you see how easy it is to give into the temptation to make double entendres and other such coy winks at the audience. There’s sometimes a little too much tongue, and whatever else, in cheek, and the creation of the vibrator and the tremendous social changes that spurred its popularity can seem trite, as if the real significance of the story was brushed aside for some big masturbation joke. One of the first tests of the “feather duster,” as it was initially conceived by Granville’s inventor friend (Rupert Everett), is on an opera singer who’s lost her voice without her weekly sessions. Its success causes her to literally sing in ecstasy, to which I say, to each her own.

The film attempts to add context and seriousness, however, with Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dr. Darymple’s fiery activist daughter and Granville’s intellectual match. She blazes across the screen, full of righteous indignation, demanding her dowry in order to support a poor house for the indigents who are also her friends. The woman is formidable, and so is Gyllenhaal; there’s never a doubt that Charlotte can determine her course in both work and pleasure, seeking gratification in her high ideals and, should chance allow, a partner who shares those commitments. So while Granville is a hero of sorts, the climactic scene shows Charlotte to be the true model of a liberated woman.

Released: 2011
Prod: Tracey Becker, Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis
Dir: Tanya Wexler
Writer: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Evertt, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Anna Chancellor, Tobias Menzies
Time: 95 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016