The Automatic Hate


Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

(2015) Dramedy (Film Movement) Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell, Darren MacDonald, Vienna Stampeen, Travis Quentin Young, George Riddle, Sea McHale, Matthew Fahey, Jozef Fahey, Craig Wesley Divino, Mark Andrews, Brooke Stone. Directed by Justin Lerner

All families have secrets; skeletons in their closets that once let out affect the dynamic of the family in unexpected and often unintended ways. Those secrets sometimes die with those who were there but there are occasions when the consequences are passed down the generations.

Davis Green (Cross) is a head chef at a Boston restaurant, but as well as his culinary career is going, there is a lot less to desire in his private life. His emotional girlfriend Cassie (Woll), however, locks him out of the bathroom and can’t stop sobbing. She needs alone time and Davis is inclined to give it to you, especially after he hears why she’s sobbing (although we don’t find out until later). He heads down to his favorite bar to hang out with some friends, when he notices a beautiful blonde there who acts like she knows him. When he approaches her though, she runs away.

She shows up later at his apartment and introduces herself as Alexis (Clemens). She tells him that she’s his cousin, but that can’t be right – his dad was an only child. Nonetheless, she insists that’s who she is. When Davis confronts his dad Ronald (Schiff), at first his dad – a respected Yale-educated developmental psychologist – denies the existence of a sibling. Not one to simply take the word of his own dad who has always expressed disappointment in Davis’ career choice (and choice of girlfriend for that matter), Davis goes to talk to his grandfather (Riddle) who seems to confirm that there’s a long lost brother – “we don’t talk about Josh” he croaks before having a panic attack.

Once again, Davis confronts his dad who reluctantly admits to the existence of Josh (Jay) but won’t explain why the two are estranged. Devastated by this and by a revelation from his girlfriend, Davis decides to take a break from everything and find his cousins.

That’s right, plural. It turns out Alexis has two sisters – Annie (Y. Zima) and Vanessa (V. Zima) and they live on a bucolic farm in upstate New York, although it is not super successful. They live a kind of hippie existence, even to the marijuana dispensary in the consignment store the girls run. It turns out that the feelings Davis’ dad has for Josh are reciprocated. Davis and Alexis try to figure out what would cause such a rift between brothers – and all the while Davis is developing feelings of his own for his first cousin. When a family tragedy forces the two families together, what comes next is inevitable – and awkward.

This is not your average family drama nor is it your average romantic comedy. It falls somewhere in between and is seriously bent, in a good way. It is also bent enough that it may make some feel a little bit squeamish, particularly when you learn exactly what drove the brothers apart. However there is a real heart at the center of the movie that kind of helps drive through the less savory feelings that may occur.

The mystery of that estrangement could easily be a MacGuffin or become a distraction but Lerner never allows it to do so. The casting of veterans Schiff (The West Wing) and Jay (tons of David Mamet films) is brilliant; the two have a bit of resemblance facially and in vocal mannerisms. The two feel like brothers, which is important here, although brothers who have not seen each other in 20 years and have lived separate lives. Everything works here.

The cousins are all extremely beautiful blondes, which makes for a happy reviewer. There’s also some nice cinematic scenery in the upstate New York countryside. While there are a few hiccups – the hoary plot-advancing device of finding home movies in an attic seems a little bit beneath this film – this is one of those gems that come along every once in awhile that flies under the radar and is far more impressive than you would think. However, those who are easily squeamish about unorthodox romantic and sexual relationships should be on notice that this film may be a little bit uncomfortable for them.

REASONS TO GO: Handles the mystery adroitly. The cousins are gorgeous. A lot of heart (oddly enough) at the center.
REASONS TO STAY: The adult relationships are a bit uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, graphic nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in and about Mt. Vernon, New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Eddie the Eagle

Hyde Park on Hudson


Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

(2012) Historical Drama (Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill, Nancy Baldwin, Samantha Dakin, Jonathan Brewer, Kumiko Konishi. Directed by Roger Michell

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating project, Lincoln finally came to fruition. It was a superb film that really humanized the iconic President and made him, if anything, even more worthy of admiration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is another President who is much loved (well in Liberal circles anyway) and a similar treatment of him would surely have been welcome.

It is 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. King George VI (West), the recently crowned and woefully unprepared monarch of England (after the abdication of his brother) is coming to the United States – the first reigning King of England to ever do so – not just to make political hay in his own country but also for a desperately important task; to gauge whether the Americans would assist them when war inevitably broke out (as it would do a scant three months after their visit).

Springwood, the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson Valley is in an uproar. To be hosting the King and Queen (Colman) of England is important enough but the whole affair has turned into a battle of wills between the President’s mother (Wilson) and wife Eleanor (Williams). Mommy, ever mindful of FDR’s political image, wants nothing done to tarnish his image as a world leader while Eleanor seems hell-bent on tweaking the monarchs somewhat.

Franklin (Murray) needs some respite from the bickering and stress. After a number of relatives are called without success, a distant cousin named Daisy (Linney) at last answers the call and is driven to Springwood to help “take the President’s mind off of things.” It’s awkward at first; while related, they barely know each other and Daisy isn’t really sure what she’s doing there. Franklin pulls out his stamps. They seem to hit it off however once that initial discomfort wears off. Soon they are going for rides in the countryside in a specially fitted car that the President, stricken by polio and nearly unable to use his legs, can drive only with his hands. Soon those drives are leading to stops and at those stops there is some intimacy.

Meanwhile the war continues with FDR’s secretary Missy LaHand (Marvel) trying to mediate but there are absolutes going on – Eleanor wants the Royals to attend a picnic in which hot dogs are served which is mortifying enough but that she wants to serve cocktails ­– that’s more than the teetotaling mother of the President can bear. Daisy tries to hover near the edges so that none can figure out the nature of the relationship she’s building with Franklin, but even she doesn’t quite understand what’s really going on.

The relationship between Daisy and FDR would remain a secret until shortly after she died just shy of her 100th birthday. Some letters and diaries were found in which she discussed her intimacies with the former President. I’m not sure how much the writers relied on those writings for the story – whether they were faithful to Daisy’s words or if they used them as a rough outline – but it could have been a nice jumping off point.

My problem with it is that Daisy really isn’t all that interesting a character. She’s a middle aged woman (she was 48 when these events took place) who hasn’t had a lot of experience with men and develops almost a high school crush on FDR. She is in her own way as lonely as the man at the top, her life mainly revolving around her aunt (Bron) whom she acts as a caretaker to.

She seems like a nice enough albeit naive woman but I’m not sure that she’s got the personality to base an entire movie around – and that isn’t a knock against Linney. She fares much better than Murray however, who doesn’t resemble FDR in the slightest and whose attempt to mimic the distinctive style of speech and accent of the President is simply ghastly. A very big issue – and this isn’t Murray’s fault in the slightest – is that we never get much of a three dimensional portrait of FDR. We see him as a letch and as somewhat disingenuous but we never get a hint of the political savvy or of his inner strength in pulling the country out of a depression and overcoming polio. Instead he sems mostly to hold to the parody image of Bill Clinton as an insatiable womanizer.

The surrounding cast is pretty good, particularly West and Colman as the somewhat befuddled royals who are on the one hand afraid and self-conscious but on the other hand not really sure what to do. We met West’s Bertie in The King’s Speech played with a little more charisma by Colin Firth but West carries the weak chin and frustration of a lifelong stutterer very well. Colman gets the haughty attitude of a Royal who is quite unsure if she’s being made sport of.

Williams also captures the forthright shoot-from-the-hip attitude I always imagined Eleanor Roosevelt to have, although like Murray her accent is distracting. The movie has a bit of a sense of whimsy in the humor (the looks on the faces of the Royals as King George VI is served a hot dog is priceless) but where it lacks is in heart. I was left unmoved for the most part and would have wished that the legacy of President Roosevelt didn’t get trashed by making him out to be the sort of man who thought first with his genitals. I believe him to be a much more complex character than that and that’s precisely what we didn’t get and despite delivering a beautifully shot, meticulously detailed film, we don’t get a movie that is anything more than an ABC Family movie for the middle aged.

REASONS TO GO: Captures some of the cult of personality around FDR and of the era he lived in. Reduces a crucial point in history into a soap opera.

REASONS TO STAY: We really don’t get a sense of FDR the man other than as a complete jerkwad and Murray seems content to caricature him rather than explore him.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality and some fairly adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daisy’s real name was Margaret Suckley and she was one of four women at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia when Roosevelt passed away.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Flowers

UPSTATE NEW YORK LOVERS: I’m not 100% sure if they filmed the exteriors in the Hudson Valley near where these events actually took place but it does look as if they did and those exteriors are just breathtaking.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack Reacher

Nanny McPhee Returns (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang)


Nanny McPhee Returns

Quoth the raven, nevermore.

(Universal) Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Daniel Mays, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Ewan McGregor, Sam Kelly.  Directed by Susanna White

It’s been five years since movie audiences in the States met Nanny McPhee, the wonderfully magical nanny from the Nurse Matilda series of books by Christianna Brand. Has she been missed?

We’ll get to that question in a moment. First, to the plot; fans of the first film will certainly recognize some of the particulars. While the first film was set in the Victorian era, this is set during World War II as the Green household is struggling. Isabella Green (Gyllenhaal) is trying to keep her head above water while her husband Rory (McGregor, mostly seen in family photographs and a touching flashback scene when Isabella washes her wedding veil) is off at war. The bucolic family farm is in big trouble; Isabella doesn’t have the money to make the next tractor payment. Without that tractor, they won’t be able to harvest the barley and if the barley isn’t harvested, they’ll lose the farm.

Young Norman (Butterfield), the man of the house while his dad’s away, has come up with the solution of selling the piglets to Farmer McGregor (Bailey) who’s willing to pay them enough money to make the tractor payment. His sister Megsie (Woods) and brother Vincent (Steer) are none to pleased about it, although they are more or less resigned to losing the piglets in order to keep the farm. However, with their dad gone (and no word from him in over three months) and their mom working in the shop of chronically confused and forgetful Mrs. Docherty (Smith), the three are acting out and constantly bickering like, well, cats and dogs.

To add to the misery, their snooty cousins from London, Cyril (Vlahos) and Celia (Taylor-Ritson) are coming to stay with them to escape the bombs of the Blitz. Now everybody is fighting, and snarky Uncle Phil (Ifans) is plotting to get Isabella to sell her half of the farm so he can sell his half to pay off the gambling debts he’s run up, otherwise two hitwomen – Miss Topsey (Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Brand) will take his kidneys instead. Hey, there’s a war on – all the good hitmen are in the Army!

To bring peace to her household, in pops Nanny McPhee (Thompson, reprising her role – as well as her position as writer and producer – from the original) with a flatulent blackbird on her shoulder. As before, when she is needed but not wanted she must stay; when she is wanted but no longer needed she must leave. Also as before, she is decidedly not attractive with several nasty warts, a snaggle tooth and broomstraw hair. Most importantly, as before, she has the crooked walking stick which when banged once on the ground produces magical results.

It’s these magics that made the first Nanny McPhee so visually delightful but as in the first, while necessary to the plot, it is the heart of the movie that makes it compelling. In the first movie, that heart made one of the more wonderful children’s movies of recent years; here the heart is not as evident.

The performances are satisfactory enough, particularly among the child actors. In particular, Vlahos, Butterfield and Taylor-Ritson might easily have been cast as the leads in the Harry Potter series had they just started filming it this year.

There are some moments that do tug at the heartstrings. One of the best is a scene between Cyril, Norman and Cyril’s dad (Fiennes), a high muckety-muck at the War Office. The gulf between Cyril and his father is evident and it is just as plain that neither one of them knows how to bridge it, although they both desperately want to. It’s superbly done, and ranks with moments from recent Pixar movies like Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3 as some of the best kidflick scenes in the past few years.

Gyllenhaal also does well as Isabella. She maintains a pretty decent British accent, and manages to walk the fine line between melancholy and manic cheerfulness without seeming fake in either; it takes skill to make them both work so organically but then again Gyllenhaal has plenty of skill. Thompson is surprisingly muted in her role as Nanny McPhee; she was certainly much more of a presence in the first movie but seems content to remain in the background for most of the movie other than to bang her cane occasionally.

When the cane is banged, some imaginative things happen, mostly involving animals like synchronized swimming pigs (who also fly, which puts rout to that particular cliché) and a kleptomaniac elephant but also saluting statuary.

Where the movie falls short is in the humor, which mostly revolves around pratfalls, poo and farting. I realize that kids don’t have the most sophisticated humor on earth, but I think that the filmmakers underestimate the sophistication of modern kid audiences; it was, in other words, dumbed down a little too much. Kids are far smarter than we tend to give them credit for; the odd thing is that the kids in the movie are pretty savvy and mature. Why wouldn’t the kids watching the movie also be?

I wasn’t as taken by the sequel as I was the original, but there is enough charm here to motivate me to give it a tenuous recommendation. It was released in the UK in March and did solid box office business there as well as in Europe; enough so there is rumblings that a third Nanny McPhee movie may be in the works down the road. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how excited I am about seeing it after this one. Hopefully Thompson will be able to recapture the magic of the first and combine it with the kind of casting that was done for the second; now that would be movie magic indeed.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the review, she was obviously missed in Europe where the movie has done well, but not so much in America where it has not; to be fair, the original Nanny McPhee didn’t do so much business in the States either. Still, I found that I liked the character very much – the love child of Dumbledore and Mary Poppins – and was looking forward to seeing the sequel. While I was disappointed, I am still hopeful that should a third movie be made, it will be better. Does that qualify me for a Leap of Faith medal?

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal and Thompson are two of my favorite actresses and I can’t quite say no to a movie both of them would be in. There are some well-done scenes in the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The humor is dumbed down unnecessarily to a barrage of pratfalls and poo jokes.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of poo humor to keep the kids in lowbrow laughs; however, there are some themes that have to do with wartime and death that might make it a tough viewing for smaller or sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the Courage medal that Nanny McPhee wears, there is clearly an engraving of a lion, a nod to The Wizard of Oz’ Cowardly Lion. Also, as Nanny McPhee and the boys approach London, there are several anti-aircraft balloons seen floating in the air; the one above Battersea Power Station is in the shape of a pig, a nod to the 1977 Pink Floyd album cover for Animals, which depicted the same scene.

HOME OR THEATER: Unless your kids are clamoring to see it, you can get away with waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray to come out.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Big Fan