Who’s fine? No one really but we all knew that right? Where does politeness stop and uncomfortable truth begin and what are the considerations we make before burdening someone with the unvarnished truth? Everybody’s Fine ponders these things in a somber and intelligent way that belies its generic holiday movie poster.
Robert De Niro plays Frank an aging widower who spends his lonely days keeping his empty nest tidy and its surrounding foliage immaculate in the way the retired tend to do. He feels intensely the absence of his four grown-up children since the recent death of his wife and when they all back out of a planned holiday gathering at the family home he decides to pack up his bag and travel across the country to see each one as a surprise. As he goes from home to home he begins to realize some uncomfortable truths about the relationship he has with them and even worse that there’s a bigger secret they’re all hiding.
This is a remake of a 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene the follow-up to director Giuseppe Tornatore’s triumphant Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso. The American interpretation is written and directed by Kirk Jones who previously showed a knack for arty yet accessible films with Waking Ned Devine which like Everybody’s Fine manages to successfully navigate that oh-so-thin line between saccharine sentimentality and genuine emotional resonance. Unlike Devine Everybody’s Fine has no comedic spoonful of sugar to make the discomfort of an all-too-real family dynamic go down.
De Niro’s portrayal of Frank comes almost as a relief. After a lifetime of loud and brusque characters he settles into the retiree part like a comfortable old pair of slippers. Frank is easily as conflicted as any other person De Niro has played but in a much quieter way -- a dad sorta way. De Niro so entirely and naturally becomes Frank that it’s hard not to project your own feelings toward your father onto him. And I suppose that is the point.
Frank’s children are played by Kate Beckinsale Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore who are given just enough development to explain their estrangement from their father -- but that’s all the roles require. They’re loosely defined enough for the audience to hopefully identify with at least one of them but only in the service of laying familial guilt at our own feet. It’s De Niro's eyes the audience sees through; it’s his movie and he owns it.
Everything eventually leads to that question of whether or not to trouble the ones we love with our bad news. Everybody’s Fine is relatively taciturn with its conclusions but offers an important suggestion to consider the matter more closely in the audience’s own lives. And isn’t that what good art should do? This may not be the most uplifting film one could see this holiday season but it is one of the more thoughtful ones. Between the simple effectiveness of De Niro’s performance the lovely cinematography of Henry Braham (it is sort of a road-trip movie) and the interesting questions it raises Everybody’s Fine is a terrific choice for those who want something more in-depth from their Xmas viewing than tinsel and tired sentimentality.
Based on the first of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy The Golden Compass follows along the same lines as the Harry Potter series. It is set in a parallel universe very much like our own but not quite in which there are witches who fly the skies armored ice bears who rule the north and individual animal spirits called "daemons" who are intricately joined to their human counterparts. And of course there is also the whole good vs. evil milieu. The bad guys in this scenario are the Magisterium a group of high-minded intellectuals running the joint who want to control all of humanity by basically eliminating free will. Our heroine is 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who turns out to be the Magisterium’s greatest threat because she is the child destined to possess the last remaining Golden Compass a truth-telling device. Still with me? Her uncle the scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is captured by the Magisterium while a benefactress Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) takes Lyra under her wing--mind you not for benevolent reasons. Escaping Mrs. Coulter’s clutches Lyra sets out to find her loyal friend who has mysteriously joined the hundreds of children currently disappearing without a trace. Her adventure takes her over sky and ocean to the north and with her band of friends and allies--and the power of the Golden Compass--Lyra will need all her skill and courage to stop the war that’s coming. Whew that’s a tall order to fill for one little girl. But don’t let the little-girl act fool you. As played by the lovely Richards in her debut performance Lyra is one tough cookie seemingly unafraid of the challenges she faces including confronting a 12-foot-tall polar bear charging at her among other things. Much like Daniel Radcliffe before her the plucky actress is quite a find and should The Golden Compass trilogy continue she’ll be an indelible part of it. As will Kidman and Craig as the yin-and-yang parental figures in Lyra’s life--particularly Kidman who doesn’t stretch much but is effective as Mrs. Coulter. The enchanting lady whose daemon is a nasty golden monkey that doesn’t talk (fits the character perfectly) really does have ice water flowing through her veins. Also good are Sam Elliott as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and Eva Green as the ethereal witch Serafina Pekkala. But the character who makes the biggest impression both literally and figuratively is the armored ice bear Iorek Byrnison an exiled prince from his homeland of Svalbard who is looking for a little retribution. As voiced by Ian McKellen (who else?) Iorek is definitely a force to be reckoned with every time he is on screen. His bear-on-bear battle with the reigning Svalbardian king who kicked him out is one of the film’s best moments. Love the character names too. There’s a lot going on in The Golden Compass which might confuse the smaller ones in the audience. Pullman's books are dense much like the Harry Potter series and one must stay pretty focused to follow all the film's plot points--some of which will with any luck make more sense further down the line. And it is also at times hard to stay emotionally involved in the spectacle of it all (the exception is definitely the ice bears). But still if you allow yourself to be immersed in this fantastical purely make-believe world of gadgetry grandeur and austerity much like the worlds of Harry Potter Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia then you shouldn’t be too disappointed with Golden Compass. Even more amazing is the director who came up with the film’s vision: Chris Weitz best known for helming the little British dramedy About a Boy. Maybe not the first choice but it’s clear the director is passionate about the material as he covers as much ground as possible in the first installment. Probably the most fascinating part are the daemons who are the animal manifestations of their human counterparts interconnected in all ways. Some have smaller domestic animals such as dogs cats mice; some like Lord Asriel have big animals such as snow leopard; some even have insects. It gets your mind wandering about what yours might be.
Nanny McPhee captures a lot of the same magic as Poppins --but without songs about spoonfuls of sugar and flying kites. McPhee starts with some very naughty children--seven of them in fact who led by the oldest boy Simon (Thomas Sangster) have managed to drive away 17 previous nannies You see the children recently lost their beloved mother so they take great offense to being looked after by a nanny. Their father Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) a nice enough fellow is at wits end coupled by the fact his rich Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) is pressuring him to marry again--or she’ll cut him off. If there was ever a need for Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) this is it. She arrives warts and all and the children soon notice that their vile behavior now leads swiftly and magically to rather startling consequences. Leave it to Emma Thompson to throw vanity to the wind and give one of her more appealing performances in a long while. Nanny McPhee is a woman of few words conveying her point by either staring one directly in the eye or planting her magical cane squarely on the ground. And boy is she ugly--unless of course you start obeying her five simple rules. Then her appearance mysteriously changes. What fun for Thompson. The kids are also entirely adorable even when they are throwing food around or calling each other “bum!” The standout is Sangster (Love Actually) as the ringleader. Lansbury who makes her first feature film appearance in two decades is deliciously over the top as the domineering Adelaide while Firth as the hapless widower and Kelly MacDonald (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) as the Brown’s sweet scullery maid add that loving touch. Not only is Thompson brilliant on screen she has lent her significant talents behind the scenes as well by writing Nanny McPhee. She hasn’t written anything since she won her Academy Award for her stellar adaptation of Sense and Sensibility but it’s very clear Thompson still has a keen story sense. Based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand the actress crafts an engaging witty and yes even a little dark fable which is only enhanced by solid direction from Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine). This isn’t your ordinary Mary Poppins but more a magical nanny story for the Harry Potter generation. There are times the film lapses into silliness--usually when dealing with tricking the adults--but there are more moments of pure imagination and touching sentiments. Nanny McPhee is just a lot of fun for the whole family.
In Crush we are introduced to three highly successful single women. There is Kate (Andie MacDowell) an attractive headmistress at a private school Molly (Anna Chancellor) a sexy prominent physician and finally Janine (Imelda Staunton) a single mom and police inspector. The three women are best friends who get together once a week and do what the majority of single women out there do: bitch about their non-existing love lives. They eat chocolate drink gin smoke cigarettes and compare dating disasters with a prize going to whomever has the most pathetic story. Although it seems like they are basking in their own misery the three maintain a sense of humor about their situations and have formed a really strong bond over the years. But that bond is affected when Kate embarks in an affair with a much younger man--a former student of hers Jed (played by Kenny Doughty). Molly enlists Janine's help in breaking up the affair fearing Kate is simply setting herself up for major heartbreak. Molly however seems to be acting out of jealousy rather than concern for Kate and the effects of her actions change their lives and friendship forever.
Andie MacDowell whom I found thoroughly annoying in Harrison's Flowers found a role that is completely suited for her in Kate. Although the story unfolds in rural England director John McKay (Wet and Dry) opted to have MacDowell play an American therefore retaining her Southern drawl. Dressed in linen dresses and crisp white shirts MacDowell plays the role of repressed headmistress perfectly down to her closet chain-smoking habit. Anna Chancellor (The Man Who Knew Too Little) seems a little too slick for the serious doctor role (it's hard to believe someone working as a health professional would smoke and drink that much) but she pulls it off nonetheless. Imelda Staunton (Another Life) fits into the role of police chief Janine like a glove. She may be the least glamorous of the three but she's also the most sincere and down-to-earth traits well suited to her profession. Kenny Doughty (Titus) rounds out the cast as Kate's intriguing young lover Jed. Young scruffy and a little edgy Doughty is a perfect match for MacDowell's prim character.
Crush focuses on the relationships of three women who despite working in completely different fields and having lived unique life experiences (one has never been married one has had several divorces and another is a single mom) have formed a deep friendship that crosses different boundaries. What makes it work is the chemistry that MacDowell Chancellor and Staunton have on screen. The chemistry between MacDowell and Doughty also spices up the story. The age difference between them is dealt with in a realistic manner not over-idealized. Kate for example is concerned about what others think of her relationship and whether or not Jed will fit into her circle of friends. Although a romantic love story is at the core of this film it rarely gets schmaltzy (except for the dramatic climax) thanks to some hilarious scenes in which the women recount some of their dating disasters.