With her gaunt features, careful Brit enunciation and nose for distinguished projects, Emma Thompson has often seemed like the modern-day equivalent of Julie Andrews in her 1960s prime. So it makes perfect sense that Thompson should finally get around to making a film that owes its origins to Mary Poppins. Nanny McPhee may be based on Christianna Brands Nurse Matilda books, but its cinematic predecessor is clearly the family film that turned Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious into the longest household word ever recorded. Reminiscent of the black comedies routinely made by Danny De Vito (most notably his delightful Matilda), Nanny McPhee finds director Kirk Jones and Thompson (who also penned the script) similarly employing menacing situations, questionable comic material and oversized, often grotesque characters in an unorthodox attempt to arrive at a sentimental conclusion. Thompson, delivering a sharp performance under pounds of facial latex, plays the title character, a snaggletooth, wart-sprouting nursemaid who mysteriously shows up to help a widower (Colin Firth) contend with his seven monstrous children. As Nanny McPhee helps transform these little devils into little angels, she also becomes involved in the familys strained affairs with an interfering aunt (Angela Lansbury) and a husband-hunting harridan (Celia Imrie). Most of the screen time is spent on the children, which is a shame, since Thompsons character is by far the most interesting one on view. Nanny McPhee should play well with the small fry, though adults may be more bothered by the clumsy shifts in tone.
SOMETHING NEW PP1/2
From Silver Streak to Bringing Down the House, there have been countless movies in which an uptight Caucasian is taught how to loosen up by an African-American acquaintance. Something New reverses that formula, but beyond this little-seen novelty, theres not much about this modest romantic comedy that transcends the storys expected ebb and flow. Here, the rigid individual is Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a workaholic who doesnt have time to look for her IBM (ideal black male). When she finally does make time to go on a blind date, shes stunned to discover that the guy, a landscape architect named Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), is white. Initially resistant, she soon finds herself relaxing in his company and comes to realize that hed make a suitable boyfriend. But once Kenya is eventually introduced to her perfect mate, a black businessman (Blair Underwood) who shares her work ethics and outlook on life, shes forced to make a decision between what she wants and what society expects. This potential sleeper from director Sanaa Hamri and screenwriter Kriss Turner (both making their feature-film debuts) is a diamond in the rough, blessed with a vibrant leading lady and choice moments dealing with racial tensions but marred by occasional clunky dialogue and perfunctory supporting characters.
The selling point in Capote is the excellent lead performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, that character actor extraordinaire who has contributed finely etched portrayals to such films as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia. Constantly punctuating the air with his whispery wit and entertaining other people as if to the diva manner born, Hoffman's Capote is an odd figure against the barren backdrop of the Kansas flatlands, where he has come to learn about the brutal murders of a respected family of four. Accompanied by his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), whose own book is about to make her a celebrity in her own right (a running gag is that nobody can recall the name of her upcoming novel, just that it has something to do with killing birds), Capote gets to know some of the locals and, eventually, the two drifters found responsible for the repugnant killings. He forms a bond with one of them, a pensive type named Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). But as time passes and Capote keeps needling Perry for specific details on the murders it becomes unclear -- perhaps even to Capote himself -- whether the author is merely using Perry for his own purposes or whether the doomed convict has indeed stirred Capote's own humanity.
LAST HOLIDAY PP1/2
A remake of a 1950 British comedy starring Alec Guinness, Last Holiday is better than expected thanks to its retooling as a vehicle for Queen Latifah. Latifah stars as Georgia Byrd, a working class woman who, upon learning that shell die in three weeks, cashes in all her assets and heads off to the Czech Republic with the intent of winding down her life in luxury. While at the hotel, she befriends the cook (Gerard Depardieu -- how Ive missed him!), offers sage advice and butts heads with her former boss, the hardhearted CEO of a national retail chain (Timothy Hutton). Meanwhile, her love interest (LL Cool J) back home discovers her dark secret and hightails it to be by her side.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN PPP1/2
The secret behind Brokeback Mountain is that, behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as the gay cowboy movie, this is as universal as any love story Hollywood has produced in recent times. As Jack, Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance thats by turns silly and sullen. The weakness in his work -- that he doesnt completely disappear into his character -- is only noticeable because his co-star is operating at such a stratospheric level. Ledger, in short, is phenomenal as Ennis, the sort of pensive individual whos so reluctant to speak that it appears as if uttering a syllable is as strenuous for him as lifting a refrigerator is to the rest of us.
Munich is a strong film, an important work, and already a lightning rod for controversy and (one hopes) healthy debate. But another instant Spielberg classic? Not quite. With a script drafted by heavy-hitters Tony Kushner (Angels In America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Munich is largely a fictionalization of the events that transpired after that tragic day at the 1972 Olympics in Germany, when a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September slaughtered the Israeli athletes they were holding as hostages. The movie reveals that, in an effort to exhibit their toughness to the world, the Israeli government sent a select band of assassins to eliminate everyone who was responsible for the Munich massacre. Spielberg and his writers bring to vivid life this motley crew of enforcers.
Clearly aping the Shrek films, this attempts to put a spin on the classic childrens fairy tales by adding all manner of so-called hip references and grownup-geared plot maneuverings, approaches that grow more stale with each passing year. Hoodwinked is basically Little Red Riding Hood by way of Rashomon, as amphibious Detective Nicky Flippers (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) hears variations on the saga from four different participants: Red (Anne Hathaway), Granny (Glenn Close), the Wolf (Patrick Warburton) and the Woodsman (Jim Belushi).
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA PP1/2
Director Rob Marshalls adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel plays like a Disney version of a Zhang Yimou movie, though the end result isnt as dreadful as that designation might suggest. Two Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon alumni handle the key roles: Ziyi Zhang plays Chiyo, the penniless foster child who grows up to become the legendary geisha known as Sayuri, while Michelle Yeoh essays the role of her mentor, Mameha.
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE PP1/2
The 1977 original employs Jane Fonda and George Segal in a lumbering yarn about a well-to-do couple who turn to crime once the husband loses his job. Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni play the new Dick and Jane, who find themselves in a similar predicament once the CEO (Alec Baldwin) of Dicks company bails out, leaving thousands of employees without jobs, pensions or benefits. After working a series of low-paying odd jobs (the pictures funniest sequences), the couple eventually turn to robbing local shops with a squirt gun, earning enough dough to engage in even more elaborate heists.
KING KONG PPP1/2
Peter Jacksons new Kong will make a fortune, and it saddens me that it will be viewed by scores of people who wont even give the original 1933 take a passing glance because they lack the imagination to immerse themselves in the world of vintage black-and-white cinema. But thats their loss, and certainly not Jacksons fault. Hes done his part by treating the property with love and respect, and, much to my surprise, his Kong is a -- pardon the pun -- roaring success. The first portion of the film details how visionary filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) elects to head out into uncharted waters to make his epic adventure movie, recruiting a struggling actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to serve as his leading lady. Denham is all business, meaning that Anns romantic escapades arrive in the form of Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a sensitive screenwriter. The second part charts the arrival on Skull Island, whereupon Ann is co-opted by local natives for a human sacrifice to the great ape known as Kong. The climactic third act finds Kong captured and taken to New York, where, billed as King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World, he becomes the featured attraction in Denhams lavish theatrical production.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE PPP
Like the best kid flicks, this one never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, so it's not surprising that the films based on their respective works often resemble each other. I'd wager it took the success of the LOTR flicks for Narnia get the green light. Therefore, it's easy to see the plucky Pevensie children as human Hobbits, bravely entering enemy territory to defeat an evil entity.
WALK THE LINE PPP
Walk the Line positions itself as a love story, one that finds Cash locating his soulmate in country star June Carter. A vivacious firecracker who takes her time in committing to this troubled individual, June has her own demons to tame. Just as Ray lived or died on the performance of Jamie Foxx, so too does Walk the Line depend on the mesmerizing work by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who both do their own singing). Phoenix commands the screen, yet even he's topped by Witherspoon in her most fully realized performance since Election. Phoenix may provide the movie with its voice, but it's Witherspoon who delivers its soul.