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

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

New Releases for the Week of August 20, 2010


August 20, 2010

Emma Thompson has a message for the critics.

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS

(Universal) Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer, Eros Vlahos. Directed by Susanna White

The sequel to the surprisingly charming Nanny McPhee returns Oscar-winning actress to the role of the magical nanny who appears when she is needed most and wanted the least, this time with an entirely new family in an entirely different era. She must help a rural family and their posh city cousins get along, and along the way help them learn to work together to save the family farm. As there has been only Ramona and Beezus and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore to fill the family film market void since Despicable Me, this should do very well even if it’s only halfway decent.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements)

Get Low

(Sony Classics) Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black. A curmudgeonly hermit in a small Appalachian town during the Great Depression decides that he doesn’t want to miss his own funeral – who knows what is going to be said about him when he’s not around to defend himself – so he arranges with an unscrupulous funeral home director to throw a funeral for himself while he’s still alive. At the funeral, he determines to reveal a secret that will change the lives of those who live in that town for good.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material and brief violent content)

Lottery Ticket

(Warner Brothers) Bow Wow, Ice Cube, Loretta Devine, Bill Bellamy. A neighborhood in the projects is turned upside down when a young man buys a winning lottery ticket worth $370 million. He will have to find away to keep it from larcenous and sometimes underhanded  and even threatening neighbors over the course of a three-day holiday weekend in order to claim his winnings.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language including a drug reference, some violence and brief underage drinking)

Piranha 3D

(Dimension) Jessica Szohr, Richard Dreyfuss, Elisabeth Shue, Jerry O’Connell. The residents and visitors of a small town of Lake Victoria that is also a spring break magnet must find a way not to become chum when a tremor unleashes some prehistoric piranha. Here’s some advice; if you don’t want to get eaten, don’t go swimming!!!!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Rating: R (for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use)

The Switch

(Miramax) Jennifer Anniston, Jason Bateman, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum. When Kassie, a hip New York single woman, hears her biological clock ticking down, she decides to have a baby anyway despite the objections of her neurotic best friend. While at a party to celebrate Kassie’s impending motherhood, the sperm donor’s contribution is accidentally lost, forcing the best friend to substitute his own, something he keeps hidden from Kassie for seven years when the progeny of the insemination begins to show character traits disturbingly similar to the neurotic best friend.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content, sexual material including dialogue, some nudity, drug use and language)

Vampires Suck

(20th Century Fox) Matt Lanter, Emily Brobst, Ken Jeong, Jenn Proske. A young woman must decide between two boys – one of whom is a vampire, the other a werewolf – and looking incredibly stupid. She picks option “C.”

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content, comic violence, language and teen partying)  

Away We Go


Away We Go

A young couple face an uncertain future armed only with their love for each other.

(Focus) John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Gaffigan, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider. Directed by Sam Mendes

At some point in all of our lives we are forced to grow up. Usually some sort of life-changing event is the catalyst – a new job, financial difficulties or impending marriage/parenthood. Whatever the cause, we are required to put aside the irresponsibilities of our youth and get serious about our future.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are very much in love. They are pleasant, smart people, both with jobs that enable them to work at home wherever that home may be. They live in a ramshackle house that is probably well beneath what they can afford. However, Verona is expecting their first child and that changes everything.

Further complicating things are Burt’s parents Gloria (O’Hara) and Jerry (Daniels) who they were hoping would help with the child-rearing thing. Rather than assisting with their grandchild, Gloria and Jerry are more eager to move to Antwerp. This leads Burt and Verona to the revelation that they are completely free to live anywhere now, but with that freedom comes choice – where to live?

This leads them on a road trip to visit various relatives and friends to examine the relative merits of various locations as places to raise their impending family. First is Arizona, where Verona’s ex-boss Lily (Janney) lives with her husband Lowell (Gaffigan). Lily is a foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic who actually does her best to convince Verona not to move to Arizona. It’s probably a good thing, too, considering all the dumbass legislation that has been coming out of there lately.

Next on the list is Madison, Wisconsin where lives a childhood friend of Burt’s, LN (Gyllenhaal), who teaches radical feminist bullshit (as far as I can make out) and has adopted a goofy New Age mantra that makes her a loonie of the first order. I’d say she’s a caricature but I’ve met a few sorts who aren’t far off from the views she espouses so we’ll leave it at wacko.

It’s on to Montreal where college chums of the both of them Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynskey) seem to be living ideal lives and at first it’s very appealing to Burt and Verona but soon the desperate unhappiness simmering beneath the surface for their friends comes boiling through.

Next is Miami where Burt’s brother (Schneider) is struggling with a wife who left him to raise their children alone. This is one of the more poignant of the vignettes, but the experience leaves Burt and Verona a little shaken. After all this, Burt and Verona are faced with their decision, but what are they going to choose?

Director Mendes made this hot on the heels of his last movie, Revolutionary Road which was a totally different animal. Mendes is known for his condemnation of the suburban lifestyle, which he has explored in movies like the aforementioned Revolutionary Road and American Beauty but this is a bit gentler and a bit more quirky than his previous movies.

Krasinski and Rudolph, both TV veterans (from “The Office” and SNL respectively) do very well on the big screen. Their relationship is totally believable and the viewer is left with no doubt that these are two people who love each other very deeply. Yes, they have a certain amount of indie film arrogance about them, but Burt and Verona are genuinely nice people who are a little bit more educated than most and a little bit kinder than most. If that makes them smug and superior to some, well I suppose they have reason to be.

The various location vignettes work with varying degrees. Janney and Gaffigan are a bit out of whack with the overall tone of the film and it is a bit jarring. The Miami and Montreal vignettes are the best, ruthlessly honest and brutally frank.

The script is well-written by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida who are romantically involved themselves. One gets the impression there’s an awful lot of the two of them in Burt and Verona (even the names are similar), so that may be why the film rings so true. Authenticity is a commodity that serves movies like this very well, and there’s an abundance of it here.

The truth of the matter is that there is always someplace better, but if you want the perfect place, it is almost inevitably the place where you’re at – wherever the one you love is, there is the perfect place to raise a family. Those who complain that there are no good romantic comedies anymore would do well to check out Away We Go – it blows all those formula movies right out of the water.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is more than believable, and they both deliver fine performances. Supporting cast does very well.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a bit too low-key for its own good; the one vignette that is louder is jarring to the film’s overall tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, as well as some foul language. For my taste, some of the humor is adult but mature teens will be able to enjoy this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Collette was originally cast in the Maggie Gyllenhaal role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on how the filmmakers tried to make the production eco-friendly with the help of a group called Earthmark.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: State of Play

Paris, je t’aime


Paris je t'aime

This annoying Parisian mime has his poor woman beside herself.

(First Look) Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Gerard Depardieu, Marianne Faithfull, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Olga Kurlyenko, Emily Mortimer, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Miranda Richardson, Gena Rowlands, Barbet Schroeder, Rufus Sewell, Leonor Watling, Elijah Wood. Directed by Many, Many Directors

Ah, Paris, the City of Light. No other city in the world conjures romance and civilization the way the capital of France does. Visions of sidewalk cafes, the Left Bank, the beautiful architecture and the masterpieces at the many museums make Paris a city where one’s oeuvre for the finer things in life can be properly exercised.

But like any city its size, Paris has more than just one face and more than just one personality. Paris has many neighborhoods, some ethnically arranged and others more lifestyle arranged. One of the joys of exploring Paris is to delve into these neighborhoods, not all of which turn up in guidebooks.

Some of them, however, appear here in this love letter to and from Paris. 18 vignettes have been directed by some of the world’s best directors (or teams, such as the Coen Brothers) like Gus van Sant and Isabel Coixet. Appearing in them is a tremendous international cast, some of whom (but not all) are detailed above.

Each vignette is set in a different neighborhood in Paris and all have something to do with love, which is fitting enough. As with any anthology film of this nature, the segments work to varying degrees but I have to say that I can’t honestly say that any of them are horrible.

The only one that really feels jarring to me is the one directed byVincenzo Natali, whose “Quartier de la Madeleine” is a Gothic vampire romance, with Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko chasing Elijah Wood through fog-shrouded streets. The tone differs from any of the other films here and it felt more like a Parisian Twilight episode which didn’t really work for me.

Other than that one misstep, there is some magnificent work here. In Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa’s “Place de Victoires,” a grieving mother (played with astonishing power by Juliette Binoche) gets a chance to say goodbye to her dead son as given by a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who is acting not unlike Charon on the River Styx, escorting the boy to his final destination. It’s the most powerful segment in the movie in many ways.

Another wonderful piece is “Quartier Latin” by actor Gerard Depardieu and co-director Frederic Aubertin (who also directed the linking segments). Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, veterans of the John Cassavetes stable, play an aging couple who get together the night before they see the lawyer to finalize their divorce. It is bittersweet without being cloying, a tribute to the two actors who pull off some of the more understated work of the movie.

In a different vein, the Coen Brothers direct their Steve Buscemi in the ”Tuileries” segment for slapstick comedy, as a mute tourist is warned not to make eye contact in the Metro station and foolishly does, twice, leading to all sorts of mayhem being perpetrated on Buscemi, who takes more abuse from the Coens than he has since “Fargo.” The Coens do this kind of thing as well as anybody ever has.

Even horror director Wes Craven gets a shot, with his set in the cemetary at “Pere Lachaise” features Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as an engaged couple scouring the cemetary for the grave of Oscar Wilde, with Sewell getting romantic advice from the ghost of the writer himself. While this sounds on the surface to be right in Craven’s wheelhouse, it’s actually a bit of a departure for him, being much more romantic than we’re used to from the auteur of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise.

The great Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron does a stunning job with “Parc Monceau,” shooting the segment in one long continuous shot, allowing Nick Nolte to do his thing as a doting father trying to maintain a bond with his daughter. In “Pigalle,” director Richard LaGravenese need do nothing more than film a conversation slash argument between married couple Bob Hoskins and the extraordinarily sophisticated and beautiful Fanny Ardant.

Alexander Payne of Sideways fame directs the concluding vignette, “14th Arrondissement” with superb character actress Margo Martindale narrating the effect a trip to Paris had on the life of a frumpy Midwestern postal worker. It’s a sweet little coda that ties things together nicely.

As I said, not everything works but most work well enough to be reasonably satisfying and all have at least something to recommend them. All in all, it’s a pleasant little pastry that has been put together with loving care by many of the best chefs in the business, and it’s ready for you to sample and I recommend that you do, even if you don’t love Paris but especially if you do.

WHY RENT THIS: A cornucopia of wonderful vignettes about the City of Light with something of a tasting menu of some of the finest film directors in the world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the segments flat-out don’t work.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some bad language, a bit of sexuality (it is Paris after all), a few mildly frightening moments and some adult themes. While there’s nothing really that you wouldn’t let your children watch, they would probably be bored to tears unless they’re Francophiles.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intention of the movie was for each segment to represent a specific arrondissement in Paris (there are 20 in all) but this idea was abandoned.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In the special edition 2-disc DVD Steelbox edition of the film, there are 18 featurettes, each devoted to a specific segment of the movie. Oddly, these aren’t available on the Blu-Ray making it a rare instance where a DVD edition has more extras than the corresponding Blu-Ray edition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)