Tag Archives: B+

NANNY McPHEE

Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Christianna Brands’s children’s books, about a nanny who magically transforms a family of unruly children into more responsible types by teaching them important life lessons, is a delightful surprise–perhaps the best film of its kind since “Babe.” That’s not because it contains anthropomorphized animals–though in one memorable scene, though not one of its most noteworthy, it does (a dancing donkey in women’s clothes). It’s simply because it’s visually witty and almost unfailingly charming, even when at the close it resorts to that old silent-movie chestnut, the pie fight, for a properly energetic denouement.

In addition to writing the script, Thompson also proves wonderfully droll as McPhee, a stern woman with a grotesque snaggletooth and several huge moles who claims to have been sent by the government to the rambling home of dotty mortician–and widower–Mr . Brown (Colin Firth, in full exasperated mode) after his seven unruly children have driven away their seventeenth nanny. She moves about silently, appears when least expected (usually saying to the surprised person she confronts, “I did knock”–a good running gag, later taken up by a different character), and carries a large stick with obvious powers attached. In short order she uses her special abilities to teach the kids–led by the eldest boy, Simon (Thomas Sangster)–a series of lessons, starting from easy ones like when to go to bed, when to arise and how to dress properly and moving to more profound issues of responsibility. She also aids in keeping the family together in the face of threats from rich Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who threatens to cut off her donations to the clan unless Brown remarries–a possibility that compels him to consider wedding a recent customer, the flamboyant and strident Widow Quickly (Celia Imrie), even though the sweet housemaid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) is obviously smitten with him (and he with her). And hovering in the background but occasionally bursting into the forefront are the family’s harried ex-military cook (Imelda Staunton) and Brown’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee assistants Wheen and Jowls (Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow)–three characters who almost seem to have stepped out of the pages of Lewis Carroll.

Under the dextrous hand of director Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”), who beautifully judges how to mix whimsy, slapstick and quirkiness, the supporting cast all have a great time. Lansbury plays the old dowager with the proper degree of archness, and Staunton gets the brusque bearing of the cook exactly right. Imrie carries off Quickly’s extravagance nicely, making the woman both repellent and absurd, while Jacobi and Barlow prove a pairing made in heaven as the staffers who find it amusing to pop up out of coffins as a joke. Remarkably in a picture like this, the children are very pleasant too, though some of their shenanigans tend to go on a bit long. Sangster manages to convey Simon’s precociousness but catches his serious side, too, and his younger colleagues–all the way down to Baby Agatha (Hebe and Zinnia Barnes)–have their moments, especially Raphael Coleman as the bespectacled science buff Eric.

But what really takes the movie to a higher level of joyousness is the astonishingly colorful production design by Michael Howells, art direction by Lynne Huitson and Matt Robinson, set decoration by Philippa Hart and costume design by Nic Ede. The eye-catching, magically artificial look is expertly captured in Henry Braham’s lustrous cinematography; few films since “The Wizard of Oz” have managed this sort of candy-colored appearance so well. Mention should also be made of the crisp editing of Justin Krish and Nick Moore, which brings the picture in at a spiffy 98 minutes; the appropriately homely effects supervised by Mark Holt; and Patrick Doyle’s charmingly supportive score.

What Nanny McPhee tells the Brown children early on is that when they want her to leave, she’ll stay, but when they want her to stay, she’ll leave. It’s a lesson that might be applied to the movie itself. You might initially be reluctant to go to a picture about an English nanny that threatens to be a “Mary Poppins” without the music, just as you probably were when you first heard about a picture about a talking piglet. But by the time “Nanny McPhee” is over, you’ll probably be sorry the movie is coming to an end–just as you were to see Babe leave the screen. This should become a family perennial.

BUBBLE

It’s been the habit of Steven Soderbergh, who after all started in independent film, to cleanse his cinematic palate after directing big-budget rubbish like “Solaris” and the “Ocean’s” movies by returning to his much more modest roots. It hasn’t always worked out terribly well–“Full Frontal,” anyone?–but with “Bubble” he’s fashioned an almost ascetically plain portrait of small-town, working-class existence that turns abruptly into an inexplicable American tragedy (Dreiser among the proletariat). Made utterly without frills using non-professional actors, HD digital cameras, straightforward cinematography and authentic settings, it captures the pathetic ordinariness of its characters’ lives, and deaths, without condescension; yet it employs some startling techniques toward the close to indicate there’s more to what happens in this story than meets the eye. Some will argue that these closing moments give an overblown touch to the picture, an effort to add a transcendent feel to a tale that’s until then been resolutely, even ostentatiously earthbound. But even if that criticism is considered valid, it doesn’t alter the fact that for the most part, at least, this is a fascinating depiction of the proverbial lives of quiet desperation, lived unnoticed and always on the edge, and–one expects–all too common.

The central figure here is Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged woman of ample size and helpful demeanor who works on the assembly line in a small doll factory on the Ohio-West Virginia border. She lives a very low-key life, serving as caretaker to her aged father in their modest home; her only real interest, it seems, is in her co-worker Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a darkly handsome but reserved and laconic youngster who lives with his mother in a trailer. He rides with Martha every day to the factory, and has taken on an extra job to save money for a car; she enjoys sharing a coffee-and-doughnut stop with him each morning, as well as a table in the vending-machine room at lunch. Their lived-in routine is altered by the factory’s hiring of Rose (Misty Wilkins), a flirtatious young woman, separated from the father of her daughter, who quickly hits up Martha for a few favors while chatting with Kyle and inviting him out for smokes after lunch. When Rose asks Martha to baby-sit for her one night while she goes out on a date, Martha’s surprised to learn that Kyle’s the one taking her out; and after Rose returns home, Martha witnesses an intrusion by her estranged ex, Jake (K. Smith) before leaving the shabby apartment; he accuses Rose of stealing from him. The next morning one of the characters is found dead, leading to a police investigation that has none of the drama of those in television procedurals. And while there’s initially a sliver of uncertainty about the killer, the identity is confirmed by the simplest of means. But while the “who” is revealed, the “why” remains obstinately obscure.

There’s a dour simplicity to Soderbergh’s work here (and Coleman Hough’s script) that’s both convincing and oddly unnerving. The flat dialogue, punctuated by not so pregnant pauses, and the deliberately bland, unvarying style of performance, with the leads and supporting players conveying a much greater sense of authenticity than professionals could ever have done, make for an absorbing portrait of people living from paycheck to paycheck and barely making ends meet–and help one to comprehend how even the most minor bumps in their routine can seem intolerable and bring explosions of rage. The plainness of the cinematography (ascribed to Peter Andrews, Soderbergh’s nom de camera), the found locations, and the use of natural light enhance the almost neo-realist look. The result is a picture that belies its ostensibly prosaic feel to give a touch of offbeat poetry to these deceptively humdrum lives.

Much will be made of the fact that “Bubble” represents a sort of revolution in film distribution: it’s being released simultaneously in theatres (by Magnolia Pictures, in Landmark cinemas throughout the country) and on cable television (on the HDNet Movies channel), and only a few days afterward on DVD. All that is well and good, but it wouldn’t matter much if the picture weren’t worth seeing in one way or another. As it happens, it is.