Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

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Hysteria (2011)


You'll find this in the dictionary under "knowing look."

You’ll find this in the dictionary under “knowing look.”

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Felicity Jones, Gemma Jones, Anna Chancellor, Malcolm Rennie, Kim Criswell, Georgie Glen, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Linda Woodhall, Kim Selby, John Overstall, Ann Comfort, Jonathan Rhodes, Leila Schaus, Ellie Jacob. Directed by Tanya Wexler

Medicine is a field of study that is ever changing. What we KNOW for sure one year is medieval foolishness the next. The human body is a mystery that we have yet to get a real handle on.

In Victorian times, medicine was positively barbaric. Going to a doctor was just as liable to get you killed as the illness or injury you had. Still, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Some scientific sorts were challenging widely-held beliefs through research and the scientific method. Things we today take for granted – the changing of bandages on wounds to prevent infection, the washing of hands before examinations and surgeries, these things were brand new then.

Given the Victorian view on women, it is unsurprising that their mood swings, feelings of frustration and general anxieties were all lumped together not so much as female foolishness but as a catch-all diagnosis – hysteria. Women could be committed to asylums or jailed because of it, or if criminally charged could have forced hysterectomies performed on them (and yes, that is where the term comes from).

However, there were doctors who treated that sort of thing. Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce) was one. He had discovered that women with these complaints (and other similar ones) often found relief by a technique that involved manual stimulation of the genitalia. With a discrete tent-like curtain up, he would let his fingers do the walking and soon enough the woman would experience what he called a paroxysm. It’s what we today call an orgasm, although it was thought at the time that females didn’t experience sexual pleasure. Medieval foolishness, remember?

Anyway, his practice is getting so large that he needs to take on some additional help and it looks like Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy) is just the ticket. While he has a tendency to question the methods of established physicians which has basically put him in a position where nobody is willing to hire him, he manages to convince Dr. Dalrymple that he will behave himself. Seeing as Dr. Dalrymple is desperate not to mention that his field of expertise is frowned upon by the medical establishment, it seems they both need each other.

Granville being young and handsome soon becomes a hit with the female patients, but also with the residents of Dr. Dalrymple’s home including Emily (F. Jones), Dr. Dalrymple’s youngest daughter and a proper Victorian lady at that; and Charlotte (Gyllenhaal), his oldest who is the source of all the good doctor’s grey hair. Miss Charlotte you see is a non-conformist, a sort of pre-feminist who runs a shelter paid for by dear old papa who more than likely is happy enough to get her out of his sight. There’s also the randy young maid Molly (Smith) who flirts outrageously with the good Dr. Granville.

Dr. Dalrymple is having none of that however. He feels that Dr. Granville is a fine catch, someone who can partner with him in the practice and marry his youngest to seal the deal. However, Dr. Granville is becoming a victim of his own success; he has begun to develop muscular cramping and pain – most likely what we would call Carpal Tunnel syndrome. However his good friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Everett), a kind of brilliant slacker, has invented an automatic feather duster, the movements of which remind Dr. Granville of the same motions he uses to stimulate his patients. Thus, the vibrator is born.

Female sexuality is still largely taboo in many ways even more than a century later. Our country is just as prudish as Victorians when it comes to women having sex, let alone enjoying it. Even discussing the subject is thought to be perversion. I personally don’t get why but I guess that I’m just slow on the uptake. The movie has a wonderful opportunity to talk about this subject and give it some weight.

Sadly, the filmmakers choose to make it more of a lighthearted farce than an examination of the attitudes towards women in general and their sexuality in particular. Still, the movie does at least invite conversation on the subject which is at least something. It also has the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal who takes a movie that occasionally loses focus and gives it life and energy. While occasionally the role of Charlotte becomes strident, Gyllenhaal gives her enough soul to make her sympathetic rather than irritating.

Everett and Pryce, both veterans who are normally counted on for fine performances, give a decent go of it but Dancy who has had some pretty good turns on both the small screen and the big is largely colorless here which is kind of odd for him. If he’d had half the energy Gyllenhaal did this would have been a movie contending for year-end awards. As it is, it is a movie that has some moments both of pathos and humor with a modicum of thought-provoking on the side. Even despite the movie’s flaws that’s still a recipe for success in my book.

WHY RENT THIS: Gyllenhaal is likable indeed and Smith is fabulously sexy here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Trivializes the subject a bit. Too low-key.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would guess from the subject matter, there is plenty of sexuality and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original electromechanical vibrator was portable but required a wet cell battery that weighed 40 pounds.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An abridged documentary on the female orgasm as well as a Q&A session with Dancy, Wexler and Pryce at the Tribeca Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Real Genius

White House Down


Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are in the crosshairs (almost).

Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are in the crosshairs (almost).

(2013) Action (Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Rachel Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Jake Weber, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Williams, Kevin Rankin, Garcelle Beauvais, Falk Hentschel, Romano Orzani, Jackie Geary. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Okay, stop me if you heard this one before: a guy walks into the White House and then a terrorist attack helped out by traitorous elements from within go after the President with the apparent goal of getting nuclear launch codes from him, but that turns out to be a mere diversionary tactic for something far worse…

That’s pretty much the plot for White House Down which it shares with a Gerard Butler movie from earlier this year. Here, we’ve got Channing Tatum in the Gerard Butler role. So who will come out on top?

Well, both movies have a few things worth noting. Here you’ve got Jamie Foxx as President, a sometimes irreverent but well-meaning liberal sort who has pissed off the wrong people when he announces a treaty that will get all U.S. troops out of the Middle East. Those darned military-industrial sorts simply have no sense of humor and decide that a change in plan is needed. But rather than do it the old-fashioned way – by buying Congressmen to block the treaty’s ratification – they decide they’d rather have their own guy in office. So they decide to take the White House by force with an inside guy close to the President making it happen.

There’s a pretty decent cast here, all in all – Richard Jenkins as a hangdog-looking Speaker of the House with Jim Boehner-like politics (although he seems to have a much more cordial relationship with President Jamie than Boehner does with President Obama), James Woods as a wise Secret Service mentor who’s about to retire, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his protégé who used to have a thing with Tatum’s D.C. Cop character who applies (and is turned down) for a job in the Secret Service.

Tatum actually does a pretty decent job. He’s still not the most expressive of actors but he’s getting better and his likability quotient is also improving. Joey King plays his politically precocious daughter with whom he’s trying to repair his relationship with. There’s a pretty decent dynamic between the two although King’s character is so annoying that you almost root for the terrorists to win so she can be executed. Does that make me a bad person?

The movie telegraphs most of its plot points as if the writers were of the impression that nobody who goes to see this movie will have ever seen another movie before. Early on in the movie you’ll figure out where the betrayal is coming from unless you’re stone deaf, flat blind and plenty stupid. There are a few grace notes – Nicolas Wright’s neurotic tour guide who knows everything there is to know about the Presidential Palace – except what Joey King’s character knows but then there’s always one of those on every tour. Jimmi Simpson has carved out a nice niche as the wisecracking tech guy and here plays a…wait for it…wisecracking tech guy.

There are some nice visuals of wanton destruction and some nifty stunts – Emmerich who has done big budget summer movies for decades knows how to keep the testosterone flowing. I have to say that Foxx also does a great job; generally when he’s onscreen the interest level picks up. Emmerich realizes that this is very much an action buddy movie with Foxx and Tatum and he wisely emphasizes that aspect of it.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the believability aspect of this is pretty much nil; if a bomb went off in the U.S. Capitol (as it does here) the President wouldn’t be holed up in the Oval Office waiting for a situation report – he’d  be already on his way to a safe location outside of Washington before the sound of the blast had done echoing away. And even if he didn’t get out, once the White House was in enemy hands there’d be no question – he would be stripped of his Presidential Powers and the next in line of the succession would be President Pro Tem until the situation resolved. It isn’t the man, folks, it’s the office that is being protected and that’s why something like this would never work.

Still, all in all it’s pretty entertaining in a mindless way and sometimes that’s all a body needs. It just doesn’t really add anything to the genre so you’ll get that feeling of déjà vu all over again. Mindless fun has its place, and I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker creating a highly skilled entertainment, even one as derivative as this one is but I can’t necessarily say that the moviegoer doesn’t have better options available out there either.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of testosterone-churning action. Foxx is fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely predictable. Doesn’t hold up with similarly-themed movies released earlier this year.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bang for your buck – lots of violence, gunfire and explosions. There’s also a brief sensual image and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jimmi Simpson may best be known for playing Lyle the Intern on the David Letterman show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the movie got mediocre reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympus Has Fallen

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Heat

New Releases for the Week of June 28, 2013


White House Down

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

(Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Jimmi Simpson, Matt Craven. Directed by Roland Emmerich

A DC cop who had just been turned down for the secret service is touring the White House when it comes under a terrorist attack. Don’t you hate when that happens? In any case, he needs to rescue the president, keep his daughter safe and keep our country from collapsing. All in a day’s work, right?

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of  action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)

20 Feet from Stardom

(Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Bruce Springsteen. The world’s greatest backup singers of the rock and roll era get together to reminisce on their careers as some of the most recognizable voices in music whose names you don’t know. A big hit  as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. Catch my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Music Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material) 

Copperhead

(Brainstorm) Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Fonda, Francois Arnaud. A pacifist farmer in upstate New York defies his neighbors and his government in 1862 as the Civil War rages. The resulting schism in the community thoroughly illustrates the fact that war isn’t only fought by its combatants and it can have a terrible cost on the community at large.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for an unsettling sequence) 

Fill the Void

(Sony Classics) Hadras Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir. A Hassidic family in Tel Aviv is rocked to the core when the eldest daughter dies in childbirth. When it looks like the widower will be matched with a Belgian woman, taking their only link to their deceased child with him, the family proposes that the younger daughter (who is betrothed to someone else) instead marry the widower. She now must choose between family duty and the call of her heart.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking)

Ghanchakkar

(UTV) Emraan Hashmi, Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt, Rajesh Sharma. A master safe cracker decides to do one last heist before retiring and so he does – the big score he’s always dreamed of. The gang decides to split up and lie low until the heat dies down. However, when they reunite to collect their cash, they realize the safe cracker has had some sort of accident and has completely lost his memory. Or is he paying a rather dangerous game? They must stick around and find out which it is.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Heat

(20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans. An uptight FBI agent and a loose cannon Boston cop team up to take down a ruthless drug lord – if they don’t end up killing each other first. Oh and by the way – said agent and cop are women. This could get real ugly.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Buddy Cop Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence) 

New Releases for the Week of September 28, 2012


September 28, 2012

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA

(Columbia/Sony Animation) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Cee-Lo Green, Steve Buscemi, David Spade. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

In an effort to insulate his willful daughter Mavis from the world, Count Dracula decides to turn his castle into a hotel for monsters only. There, he and Mavis can hang out with Frankenstein and his bride, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and all of their friends. However when a human hiker stumbles into the Castle and Mavis takes a liking to him, all manner of chaos will ensue. However, I don’t know how eager I’d be to have Dracula as my father-in-law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some rude humor, action and scary images)

Looper

(Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano. In the future time travel has been discovered but it’s illegal; so only criminals use it, to dispose of their “problems.” They send the people they want to whack back in time to the present day where an assassin – called a Looper – murders them and disposes of the body. Nice. Neat. But for one Looper, he is put in a very disconcerting situation when his assignment turns out to be his own future self. So would that be homicide or suicide?

See the trailer, an interview and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use)

OMG – Oh My God!

(Viacom18) Mithun Chakraborty, Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, Poonam Jhawer. When an antique shopkeeper loses everything to a tornado, his faith in God wavers to the point where he makes it his mission to convince others of the non-existence of God. This leads to mayhem until he gets an unexpected visit from Lord Krishna himself.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Pitch Perfect

(Universal) Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson. A shy young girl who has just enrolled in college is roped into the a cappella group, even though she’d much rather listen to music than make it. However she resolves to take the group from their traditional arrangements to mash-ups of modern hits which might lead them to success at competitions. Or unfair comparisons to “Glee.”

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, language and drug references)

Robot & Frank

(Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler. The concerned children of a retired thief are worried that he is unable to care for himself living alone. So against the old man’s wishes, his son buys him a robot that is programmed to improve his physical and mental health. The old man soon finds his life changing in some ways – and returning back to what it used to be in others.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Solomon Kane

(Radius) James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige. A soldier in the 16th century discovers his actions have damned his soul. He vows to redeem himself and refrain from violence for the remainder of his days, but when a supernatural threat descends upon the land, he discovers that his skills may be the only thing to save his home and people.

See the trailer, featurettes, a clip and a link to stream the full movie from Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: R (for violence throughout)

Won’t Back Down

(20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter. Two mothers, horrified at the state of education in their poverty-level neighborhood, resolve to improve the quality of the education in their area. Met with opposition from the city and education bureaucracy they find themselves forced to take the fight much further than they thought possible.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)

New Releases for the Week of June 15, 2012


June 15, 2012

ROCK OF AGES

(New Line) Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julianne Hough, Alec Baldwin, Malin Akerman, Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Diego Boneta. Directed by Adam Shankman

A small town girl and a big city boy meet and fall in love to the soundtrack of classic rock at a Sunset Strip club that is in crisis. The club is in financial difficulties and is relying on the concert by superstar Stacy Jaxx to help them out of it, but they are beset by blue-nosed housewives protesting the debauchery of rock and roll in general and the club in particular. Just another Saturday night on the Strip, don’t you know.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language)

Hysteria

(Sony Classics) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett. Back in the 19th century, women were often diagnosed with something called female hysteria, which had to do with basically being horny without being able to do anything about it. This would lead to the invention of the mechanical vibrator, the godsend of lonely housewives everywhere. This isn’t a true story – but there are some elements of the truth in it.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content) 

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

(Indomina) Ice-T, Kanye West, Chuck D, Eminem. Actor-rapper Ice-T takes us on a personal journey into the roots of rap, the newest musical art form, and dissects the roots, speaking with a variety of artists about their creative process. Along the way he displays the cultural influences of rap music not only on the lives of the African-American community from where it originated, but on America as a whole.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for pervasive language including sexual reference, and some drug content)

That’s My Boy

(Columbia) Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester, James Caan. A 12-year-old boy has an affair with his teacher and gets her pregnant. She goes to jail, his parents disown him and he’s stuck raising a kid while being a kid himself. Years later, he’s never really grown up and is in trouble with the IRS for never having paid his income tax. He needs $40,000 or he’s going to jail himself. His now-grown kid is a wealthy man now and might be able to bail him out. His son is getting married and didn’t invite him – they’ve been estranged for years – so he’s going to have to do some relationship building in order to pull this off. Maybe along the way he’ll find some responsibility – and his uptight son might loosen up just a little bit.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for crude sexual content throughout, nudity, pervasive language and some drug use)  

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