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Damn, that’s Emma Thompson? Nanny McPhee.

A Spoonful of Sugar Less
By Laura Leon

Nanny McPhee

Directed 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 fairly well.

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.

Shaggy Bull Story

The Matador

Directed by Richard Shepard

The 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 ending.

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.

The 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.

—Ann Morrow

Triumph Over Adversity

Transamerica

Directed 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 world outside.

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, “real” man.

Huffman earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance, and it is well deserved. Too bad she didn’t get the movie she deserved.

—Shawn Stone


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