Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor dips his toes in the water while Emily Blunt tries to warn him about the sharks.

(2011) Romance (CBS) Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked, Tom Mison, Rachael Stirling, Catharine Steadman, Conleth Hill, Hugh Simon, Tom Beard, Jill Baker, Waleed Akhtar, Peter Wight, Nayef Rashed, Clive Wood. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

There are things that we use for metaphors for the unlikely; screen doors on submarines, Hell freezing over and so on. But what could be more unlikely in real life than going salmon fishing, a sport for northern climates, in the middle of a desert?

Well, nothing if you’re a fisheries specialist and that’s just what Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is. He works for the British Environmental Agency (their fishing and aquaculture department, to be exact) and is called Dr. Jones so often that you half-expect an archaeologist in a fedora carrying a whip to tear around the corner and punch out a Nazi.

Then you meet Dr. Jones and realize that he’s a pretty milquetoast kind of guy. He is married to the shrill but caring Mary (Stirling) who is more and more putting her career ahead of her marriage. He designs famous flies for fly fishermen and talks to the Koi in his pond in the back of his Chelsea home. So when he gets the e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Tolbert (Blunt) who works at a large English financial company that she has a client interested in a project that would bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he responds with incredulity and essentially, some condescending rudeness.

But the times they are a’changin’. A muck-up in Afghanistan which resulted in British troops destroying a mosque gets their Press Secretary (and spin doctor) Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas) scrambling to find a feel-good story in the Mideast puts the spotlight on this potential project. Dr. Jones’ somewhat harried boss Bernard Sugden (Hill) nudges the reluctant Doctor to meet with Harriet and while the meeting is inauspicious, Dr. Jones is soon made to understand that this project needs to happen. Forthwith.

He comes up with a plan that’s theoretically possible and is taken to meet Harriet’s client, Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) who turns out to be very different than the pragmatic Dr. Jones expected. As does Harriet who as the project continues gets closer to Dr. Jones. There are obstacles of course; he’s married and she’s engaged to a Captain in the British Army (Mison) but when Mison goes missing and Mary leaves for an extended business trip to Geneva things get a little bit complicated.

Some movies just grab you with the amount of heart they show at their center and this is certainly one of those. Halstrom has a lot of those on his resume – The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News and Chocolat among them. This is certainly the sort of movie that would work for those who love those other films.

Part of the reason the film works is that this is so well-cast. Blunt and McGregor are both very appealing leads and the chemistry between them is genuine. McGregor gets to be full-on Scottish and that works nicely for the character. He is a bit of a prig but not so much that you get irritated. He is actually quite charming in his own way, although his sense of humor is a bit lacking.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of the go-to women for romance movies. She’s smart and beautiful and sweet, all characteristics that serve her character well. She’s also a hell of an actress, as she proves during the scenes where she must deal with her boyfriend’s situation. There is some real pathos there and she doesn’t overplay it, making her grief real and accessible.

Kristin Scott Thomas is also an adept actress, able to do comedy, mystery, drama, in fact whatever is asked of her. She is mostly comic relief here (some of the film’s funniest moments come during IM conversations between her and the prime minister) and she gives the role just enough stiff upper lip in order to make the character a bit more funny.

The ending is a bit too smarmy and a bit too pat. I always have trouble with people who are in established relationships getting out of them to be with the “right one” even though you’re rooting for them to. It always makes me wonder how (in this case) Mary and Robert (Harriet’s Army boy) are feeling, even though the movie tells you it’s pretty much rotten. I’m not a big fan of two people to be miserable so two people have a shot at a different relationship (and generally those sorts of relationships don’t work in real life anyway – too much guilt).

Then again, I’m being a bit of a pragmatist here and the movie really isn’t meant for that sort of thinking. It’s meant to be enjoyed, experienced with your heart more than with your head. It’s not sugary sweet and yet it makes you feel enveloped with a warm blanket, sipping a nice hot cup of chocolate. This is a hug-from-your-grandmother kind of movie, the kind that makes you feel better coming out than you did going in. You can’t give a much better recommendation than that.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet and full of heart. Not so quirky that it gets irritating. Blunt and McGregor make attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit too Hollywood for me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence, a smattering of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yemen-set portion of the movie was filmed in Morocco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FISH LOVERS: You will learn more about salmon and their breeding habits than perhaps you ever wanted to know.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Dog Soldiers

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