that’s Emma Thompson? Nanny McPhee.
Spoonful of Sugar Less
by Kirk Jones
Much has been written of late about how P.L. Travers, the
author of the Mary Poppins franchise, disliked Disney’s
sugary version of the governess. The “real” Poppins, as readers
will no doubt remember, was rather stern and prickly and not
at all likely to burst into song or cavort with animated penguins.
Americans may be less familiar with Nurse Mathilda, a creation
of the author Christiana Brand, but thanks to the movie Nanny
McPhee, viewers may finally enjoy something more along
the lines of Travers’ protagonist, er, warts and all.
As scripted and played by Emma Thompson, the title character
is a formidable presence, what with her bell-shaped body—just
where does all that black wool end and an actual body begin?—and,
more strikingly, facial warts, hairs and a single buck tooth
that looks like the worn specials board of a clam shack. Nanny
McPhee literally materializes out of thin air, just at the
moment when widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) is at his lowest.
Seems his late wife’s austere aunt (Angela Lansbury) has threatened
to cut off the family’s sole source of funds if he does not
remarry within the month. Trouble is, Mr. Brown can’t find
a nanny to remain with his seven unruly tykes, let alone a
suitable companion for himself; the fact that he’s still hopelessly
besotted with the late missus doesn’t help.
The movie opens on a raucous note, with the 17th nanny jumping
ship in the wake of a prank by the elder kiddies. For the
most part, the rollicking tone doesn’t let up. Nanny McPhee,
with her clipped tones and economy of words, quickly sets
things right, with a tap of her gnarled walking stick and,
more important, the ability to teach the children five necessary
lessons that are as much about youthful empowerment as they
are about discipline. In this way the story suggests an ideal
for both parents and children, and on this level it works
And yet, the movie is strangely uneven, trying to balance
the comedy of the children’s attempts to unnerve Nanny McPhee,
and then Mr. Brown’s frightful choice of a new wife, Mrs.
Quickly (Celia Imrie), with a burgeoning love story involving
housemaid Evangeline (Kelly MacDonald) and, of course, the
whole moral of the tale. Michael Howell’s inventive set is
a cacophony of vivid colors, like a late-’60s Lucky Charms
commercial, and the cast is uniformly up to the challenges
presented; however, not enough attention is given to the way
in which Nanny gradually wins over the children and gets them
to realize a sense of their own abilities. This is doubly
unfortunate since Thompson seems to have great chemistry with
Thomas Sangster, who plays the eldest son with equal parts
rascally charm and grave dignity.
The gradual disappearance of Nanny McPhee’s ugly features,
which happens after the children have learned a particular
lesson, is meant to depict the idealized way in which we see
somebody who has garnered our love and respect. It is instead
presented as a byproduct of the wizardry of special effects.
It’s too bad that this otherwise delightful tale has to resort
to such high-tech stuff, and that Thompson felt it necessary
to muddy the human element in such a way, but there is enough
to embrace to make Nanny McPhee a recommended “must
see” for the whole family, and anybody else who cherishes
the memory of the “real” Mary Poppins.
by Richard Shepard
Matador is about a hit man, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan),
who compares himself to a great bullfighter, because he kills
with one quick stroke. A comedy of sorts, The Matador
is as obvious as its title analogy. But for as far as opposites-attract,
male-bonding buddy flicks go, at least this one has a nifty
For more than 20 years, Julian has been the top “facilitator”
for corporate gigs, offing people around the world under orders
from his “handler” (Philip Baker Hall). Julian is also an
alcoholic sex fiend who realizes, late one night alone in
his hotel room in Mexico City, that he is bored and lonely
and doesn’t have a friend in the world. He meets Danny Wright
(Greg Kinnear) in the hotel bar. Danny is a straight arrow
from Denver, still married to his high-school sweetheart (Hope
Davis), and recently laid off from his longtime job. His new
business venture will fail if he doesn’t land the contract
he bid on that day. Julian takes Danny to the bullfights,
and they spend the rest of their holiday hanging out.
Danny’s childlike naiveté appeals to Julian, so much so that
he tries to enlist Danny as his partner in killing-for-hire.
Danny turns him down on the grounds of moral outrage, despite
Julian’s assurance that he only kills bad guys. Danny’s refusal—he
could certainly use the money—also seems to be related to
his grief over the loss of his young son three years ago.
“I’m just the best cocktail-party story you ever met,” says
Julian as he swaggers away in disappointment.
Matador tries mightily to be insouciantly stylish (lots
of primary colors and modernist contours) and stylishly raunchy
(Julian’s sleazy braggadocio is too juvenile to be believable).
But the dialogue is pedestrian and often trite, which spoils
the fun of Brosnan-as-Julian being the antithesis of James
Bond, as well as any potential sparkle between the madcap
killer and his safe-as-white-bread buddy. There’s also the
small matter of witnessing Julian shooting a woman in the
head. But Brosnan makes the best of his not-quite-satirical
role, however, carrying the audience along until The Matador
finally starts to percolate.
That occurs one year later, when Julian shows up at Danny’s
doorstep—much to the tremulous excitement of Danny’s devoted
wife, Bean (brilliant as always, Davis lights up their palavering
conversation like an acetylene torch). Subsequently, three
or so chunks of plot fall into a place with a satisfying snap,
making The Matador just a little bit more than a mere
hoot for Brosnan fans.
by Duncan Tucker
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you review the movie you have,
not the movie you want.
All through Transamerica, a comedy-drama about the
reunion of a pre-op transsexual named Bree (Felicity Huffman)
with the son (Kevin Zegers) he never knew he fathered, it
was hard to shake the nagging feeling that maybe this wasn’t
the most interesting story to be told about a transgendered
character. Maybe there’s enough genuine drama—and, perhaps,
black comedy—in the life of someone born into the wrong body
without adding a clichéd, gimmicky plot.
Unfortunately, writer-director Duncan Tucker didn’t make that
more interesting movie. The one he made is even lazier than
the film hinted at above: Not only is Transamerica
built around a kid-from-nowhere narrative hook, it’s a road
picture. Bree has to fly to New York City to meet Toby,
his son, and they go through the wheezy, predictable process
of getting to know each other while driving across this fat,
dumb, happy land of ours. Worse, Bree pretends to be a Christian
missionary trying to save street hustler Toby from a life
of sex and drugs. (Gee, aren’t Christians funny?)
Is there a visit to Toby’s unhappy hometown? Check. Are there
laughs along the way? Check. Encounters with characters noble,
evil and ridiculous? Check. Bitter tears and violent recriminations?
You know the rundown.
This is especially disappointing because Huffman gives a fascinating
performance as Bree. While Bree may really be a woman inside,
that doesn’t mean the physical manifestations of womanhood
(courtesy of hormone treatments and assorted cosmetic surgeries)
don’t take getting used to. Huffman expresses a mixture of
physical awkwardness and pride that is both charming and moving.
She conveys the idea that Bree revels in the trappings of
womanhood—fashion, makeup, a certain primness of manner—as
a way of communicating both with the woman inside and the
More important, Huffman’s portrayal keeps the audience in
the picture, even as it goes through its every predictable
twist. The obligatory visit to Bree’s gargoyle parents (a
sunbaked Fionnula Flanagan and an uncharacteristically mellow
Burt Young) climaxes with a highly telegraphed public blow-up,
but more engaging is an encounter Bree has with a gentlemanly
Navajo rancher (Graham Greene). There’s a nice irony in the
fact that Bree is found most attractive by an old-fashioned,
Huffman earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance,
and it is well deserved. Too bad she didn’t get the movie