Writer and director Richard Curtis has made a career out of making films about love: falling in love, falling out of love, first dates, heartbreaks, and everything in between. About Time takes a slightly different approach to the subject, by combining a time travel-based romantic comedy with a story about the importance of family and living your life to the fullest. It's the latter part of the film that really makes About Time stand out from all of the rom-coms in his repertoire, and its release is perfectly timed to give audiences a warm, fuzzy feeling to combat the family conflicts that rear their heads around the holidays. Think of it as Curtis' answer to August: Osage County.
After a disastrous New Years party, the endearingly awkward Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to travel through time. As with all time travel films, the rules are laid out from the beginning: Tim can only go into his own past, never to the future, everything he changes in the past causes a change in the future, and he must go into a small, dark space in order for the travelling to work – although, some of these rules get bent or even broken over the course of the film in order to better suit the narrative that Curtis wants to tell. And so, with that instruction, Tim is off, intending to use his power to find the love of his life.
The first half of the film is typical rom-com fare, instilled with enough wit and warmth to make it stand up to Curtis' other films. Gleeson is wonderfully charming, selling both the awkwardness and the humor of the failed courting of his sister's friend, Charlotte (Margot Robbie). Of course, once that goes terribly wrong, it's only a matter of time before he meets-cute with Mary (Rachel McAdams) on a blind date, and woos her, only to lose her... and then win her back through the graces of his gift. The film never addresses the implications of Tim using his power to manipulate Mary, leaving the morality in the formation of their relationship a bit of a grey area. However, McAdams and Gleeson do a good enough job of portraying their growing love that it's easy to push those tricky issues out of your head... at least until the credits roll.
As Mary, McAdams is capable and charming, and carries the role the best she can. Being a rom-com veteran works to her advantage here, as she tries to imbue Mary with all of the warmth and personality that the other characters have. Unfortunately, there’s something that feels missing from the character, and even though McAdams and Gleeson have wonderful chemistry and a rapport that saves their scenes, Mary is never quite as magnetic as the film wants you to believe. Additionally, Tom Hollander is terribly underused as Harry, Tim's foul-mouthed curmudgeon of a roommate, who not only provides the bulk of the film's laughs, but also serves to balance out the lightness and happiness of the rest of the film with some well-placed cynicism.
But McAdams and Gleeson are enjoyable enough to watch, and Curtis' script sweeps you into their love story, but it's once their future is assured and the film begins to focus on Tim's relationship with his family that the movie excels. The strength of the film is the relationship between Tim and his family — in particular, his father and sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). Nighy and Gleeson play off each other perfectly, with the perfect amounts of sentiment and sarcasm in their dialogue. Nighy's character is both incredibly specific to the film and open enough for the audience to project their own idealized father figure onto his place, and he manages to imbue every line he speaks with affection for his son and the world around him. Their relationship is an easy one, and it gives the film most of its warmth and happiness. Their chemistry is what holds the film's narrative together and it's because their scenes are so enjoyable to watch that it gives the film's conflict the right amount of impact and makes their story's ending so bittersweet.
Gleeson also has wonderful chemistry with Wilson, who turns a minor role into a compelling character. As the "screw up" of the family, Kit Kat has a volatile relationship with her dead-beat boyfriend and a habit of drinking too much, and Tim has to reconcile his desire to help rescue his beloved sister with the pressure to keep his ability a secret. Wilson does a wonderful job with Kit Kat, who undergoes a quiet transformation throughout the film from a bubbly, twee sidekick to a more serious, jaded adult. Their love for each other is clear throughout the film, and watching her struggle while Tim eases through life provides an extra layer of tension to their relationship, and another layer of depth to the film.
What really makes About Time work despite its issues is Gleeson's performance. In his first "leading man" role, he not only carries the whole film with charm and ease, but his chemistry with every one of his costars makes him a joy to watch. He portrays Tim's journey from shy, awkward 21-year-old to a content, confident family man with enough wit and heart to easily win the audience over. The film itself does much the same thing, and if you can set aside the slightly formulaic plot and the inconsistent time travel rules, you'll find About Time as enjoyable as its stars. And with the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder, About Time will provide you with just the right amount of entertainment and warmth for the holidays.
Animated films may come to dominate the family-film genre but they’ll never entirely edge out their live-action counterparts -- not so long as there exist characters like Nanny McPhee whose charms could never be properly rendered in a computer. After a half-decade away from the big screen Emma Thompson’s magical governess is back to take on a new batch of recalcitrant children in Nanny McPhee Returns. She's gotten better with age.
The second chapter of the Nanny McPhee saga which marks a definitive improvement over the first sends the unsightly taskmaster to the English countryside where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the mother of three rambunctious tots (Oscar Steer Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods) has been left alone to raise her unruly brood and manage the family farm while her husband is away at war. (Though it’s never specifically mentioned the film is presumed to take place during World War II.) Harried but capable Isabel’s tenuous grip on her unfortunate situation begins to loosen when a pair of privileged London cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and a shady indebted brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) arrive to wreak fresh havoc in her already chaotic existence. On the verge of losing control of both her farm and her family she opens the door to find Nanny McPhee’s wart-covered visage staring back at her and not a moment too soon.
Though for the most part a breezy and whimsical fable Nanny McPhee Returns is unafraid to scatter a few dramatic bombshells amid its mix of lighthearted fantasy and practical life lessons trusting correctly that its youthful audience can handle a few bleak bumps en route to its happy ending. The biggest revelation of the film aside from director Susanna White and screenwriter/star Thompson’s bawdy comedic sensibilities (one of the film’s less pleasant lessons: kids never tire of scatological humor) is the proficiency of its child actors so often the weak link in even the best family fare. It’s their winning performances along with that of the always excellent Gyllenhaal that help make Nanny McPhee Returns not just an entertaining experience but an endearing one as well.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.