Nanny Diaries

TND posterIt’s hard to put my finger on why I like The Nanny Diaries. There isn’t a single shootout, car wreck, or fist fight in the entire thing; not even one punch thrown to accent a dramatic moment. Not only that, but (male audience members be warned) this is very much a chick flick – be prepared for a lot of whining by several characters about how hard it is to be a woman.

I guess it boils down to two reasons: first, for all its fashion tips and feminism, Diaries is ultimately a movie about kids and family life, two areas that are just as important in the end to men as they are to women, whether we like it or not. And second, it is one of those few movies that succeeds in telling a very engaging story with nothing more than everyday life.

The lead, Annie Braddock (Scarlet Johansson) graduates from college with honors in business. Her mother, a nurse, has spent the last 22 years pulling extra shifts, in between raising Annie alone. (Just for the record, in the book, the protagonist, Nanny, or “Nan,” had a very involved father, who, being a teacher, was a key part of her life and a mentor in her career as a nanny.) She has done this to give Annie something better than what she had, and wants her to go on to an illustrious career in finance.

Annie’s first love is anthropology. Her mother’s reaction, of course, is “how are you going to make a living at that?” Grudgingly, Annie accepts an interview at the prestigious Goldman, Sachs firm, but gags when the interviewer asks her “who is Annie Braddock?” She suddenly realizes she doesn’t know. She rushes out of the interview and into Central Park, where she saves a child from being run over. The mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linny), breathlessly runs up and showers her with thanks. Annie introduces herself as “Annie” and Mrs. X blurts out “Did you say you were a nanny??” Annie immediately finds herself buried in the calling cards of moms from the Upper-East-Side of Manhattan, including Mrs. X.

Repulsed by the finance profession, Annie decides to adopt the persona of

The "ideal specimen of an Upper-East-Side female" pushing her son out of the way.

The "ideal specimen of an Upper-East-Side female" pushing her son out of the way.

an Upper-East-Side nanny for a summer and treat the experience as an anthropological case study. She narrates the rest of the movie as though dictating a field diary. She finds herself being wined and dined by moms all over Manhattan until she accepts the job with Mrs. X. She tells her mother she’s gotten a finance job and moves to the city.

Much like with a human trafficking syndicate however, once a Manhattan family has a nanny hooked, the sweet talk is over. As Annie arrives at the Xs’ Fifth Avenue apartment, expecting a fun, easy job, she suddenly finds herself stuffed into a bedroom that is more like a closet, and expected to learn to cook and work 24 hours, single handedly raising the X’s five-year-old son, Grayer (Nicholas Art). The first thing Grayer does on seeing her is kick her in the shin and scream “I hate you I want Bertie! (The last nanny).” Annie battles through the next several scenes, trying to find a way to Grayer’s heart, reminding herself that anthropologist “Margarette Mead didn’t run home every time she contracted malaria.”

Grayer soon becomes the least of Annie’s worries, however, as an Upper-East-Side Nanny must also serve as the punching bag for an Upper-East-Side mother’s anxiety, anguish and insecurity. Mrs. X loads Annie down with non-child-related errands to give herself time for shopping, and vents her pain over Mr. X’s infidelity on her. In one scene, she barges into Annie’s room holding a negligee, and demands “This is not mine so it must be yours, right? Right??”

Annie observes “Male monogamy remains an elusive … practice throughout the world. In many Bedouin tribes, powerful men are encouraged to take multiple wives. In contemporary France, mistresses are de rigour and quietly tolerated. But for the women of the Upper-East-Side, adultery is pathologically ignored.”

It takes a while for the audience to meet Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), who the authors of the book describe as a common example of an Upper-East-Side Male, who is “bashing his brains out on Wall Street, so that his wife can have thousand dollar curtains … but he’s missing out on what he has … a wife who craves his attention, and a son who thinks he hung the moon.”

"Nanny" is singing to Grayer in French when he drops the "L" bomb.

"Nanny" is singing to Grayer in French when he drops the "L" bomb.

With the strife between his parents, Grayer transfers his affection to his Nanny. In a pivotal scene (above), Annie narrates that “three little words made it a thousand times harder to leave” the job she has learned to hate.

One darkly comic scene was eerily reminiscent of my experience at a “Bar Bench Conference,” where lawyers and judges are “allowed” to voice their grievances against each other. Of course, with things going back to normal the next day, you can probably guess how much the lawyers had to say. Likewise, Mrs. X takes Annie to a Mother-Nanny Conflict Resolution meeting, where Annie joins a collection of third-world women standing against the wall who know better than to say anything.

"Nanny" assists the tyrant queen in her chamber.

"Nanny" assists the tyrant queen in her chamber.

Laura Linny has a glare that can truly freeze the blood. After awhile, Annie starts jumping in fear every time Mrs. X comes around a corner. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Grayer gets upset and runs straight past his open-armed mother, throwing his arms around Annie. Mrs. X is starring daggers at Annie while Annie frantically begs Grayer “Go to your mom! Go to your mom!”

Having also read the book, I know that it just begged to be put on the screen. Believe it or not, director Robert Pulcini asked the authors of the book if he could make a movie out of it a year before the book was even published. I’d have to say the changes that he made to it are for the better. He starts it off with a fantasy sequence of Annie wandering through the museum of natural history looking at dioramas that depict child-rearing customs from all over the world – coming eventually to dioramas of Manhattan life, where they have “the most prosperous, but idiosyncratic social structure in the world.” In the book, Nan was a veteran nanny, explaining the field to the reader. As she is, Annie is more of the audience’s character, discovering the world of the Upper-East-Side the same time we are. Pulcini also flavors the soundtrack a bit with a few throwbacks to Mary Poppins, and plays jungle sounds and tribal drums over several scenes to emphasize the bizarreness of the rituals Annie encounters.

Johansson plays the role well, involving the audience in her reactions to this bizarre world, and entertaining us with her native New Yorker acting. Giamatti is creepy and devilish as Mr. X, and for a child actor, Art is very impressive. The rest of the cast also does a great job. Pulcini definitely paints a bleak picture of our world, but illustrates a number of excellent points, including that being rich doesn’t guarantee any happiness. Unfortunately, after doing such a great job with the darkness, he feels the need to force in a text-book happy ending in the last five minutes of the movie.

Overall, The Nanny Diaries is an excellent film about an unusual and very thought-provoking subject. And despite the fact that it’s a chick flick, I have to admit it is genuinely touching.

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Second Chance

2nd Chance posterIt seems before Fireproof, members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany Georgia were honing their film-making skills on smaller projects. One example is The Second Chance, in which they used their own church building as a set. Second Chance tells the tale of two churches, sister churches in fact, one of them a wealthy mega-church in the suburbs, the other a financially strapped church in the inner city, surrounded by prostitutes and drug dealers.

The inner city church, Second Chance Community Church, was once pastored by Jeremiah Jenkins (J. Don Ferguson) before he went on to bigger and better things in the suburbs. He left behind one of his early converts, Jake Sanders (Jeff Carr), a drug dealer turned pastor, to carry on. Jenkins is now grooming his son, Ethan (singer Michael W. Smith in his first acting job) to take his place at the mega church, The Rock, when he’s gone.

Jake addresses the congregation of The Rock one Sunday and, in disgust

Ethan (Smith) and Jake (Carr) kickin' it in da hood, yo.

Ethan and Jake kickin' it in the hood, yo.

over its lack of physical participation in inner city outreach, spurns its financial participation, saying “Keep your damn money!” (Yeah, that’s right, he said damn in church.) The Church Board blames Ethan for giving Jake the pulpit, and sends him to Second Chance to “observe and learn” from Jake. Thus worlds collide.

One reason Second Chance is such an interesting piece of film making is that, like Fireproof, you can tell they had a limited budget. What they do with it is quite impressive, though. From repeated confrontations on the same footbridge, each more intense than the last,  to a shot of a condemned church building with a wrecking ball dangling in the foreground, director Steve Taylor communicates volumes without a single line of dialogue. Instead of the seamless camera cuts that we’re used to, there will often be a single shot for a whole scene, with the camera panning back and forth to different speakers or facing the back of one side of a conversation. It’s kind of fun to watch for a change. In one scene, Smith accompanies a ghetto choir on the piano. Taylor tried to get fancier for this scene, and so we see a lot of rapid panning and zooming. It doesn’t look terrible, but still serves to highlight the budget limitations more than conceal them.

The credits start rolling at about 90 minutes, which is really too bad. The movie has a lot of subplots and a number of them could have stood more development. There are a lot of scenes that one would have to already be familiar with church life to appreciate. That’s okay, though, because this film doesn’t really have a message for the unchurched (which isn’t to say that they wouldn’t find it interesting). It’s a story about Christians, by Christians for Christians. It’s greatest contribution is its exhortation to those in safe and comfortable neighborhoods to leave them and be among the broken and the poor. Anyone who lives in the suburbs could learn a great deal by watching this film. It is a film riddled with clichés, but clichés exist for a reason, and these bear repeating. In other words, this is what The Preacher’s Wife would have been like if it had been made by smarter people.

The film’s greatest downfall is probably its two-dimensional portrayal of Jake as not needing to learn anything or repent of anything. Jake should have been forced at some point to reexamine his ideas the same way Ethan

"You see that cross? Anywhere you see that cross is MY hood!"

"You see that cross? Anywhere you see that cross is MY hood!"

is. Instead Carr plays the same two rolls the whole way through, waffeling between pastor and big, scary black man, and delivering lines like “The Bible says I have to love you, when right now, I just want to beat the hell out of you.” (Yeah, he says hell, too.) This is a problem for two reasons: it burdens the story with yet another cliché, and, frankly, Carr just isn’t very convincing in the roll. Still, I can’t deny that there’s something very grin-worthy about seeing him grab a gang banger’s fist, twist his arm behind his back, and say “ … I’m gonna open up a can o’ the wrath a’ God, all over your sorry ass.” (Yeah, he says ass, too.) If you’ve got two hours and a few dollars, get this one from your local rental (or Christian book store) and check it out. You won’t be sorry.

(I should note that, while this film was made by Christians, it is not for little kids. It deals with some very intense subjects, and it deserves its PG-13 rating.)

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World Trade Center

WTC poster

WTC poster

I confess: the second thing that went through my mind on September 11, 2001 (after the horror of the moment, of course) was “this will make a great film someday.” I would be mortified by this, except for the fact that I’m sure every member of my generation thought the same thing, if not as soon. Terrible as the day was, I was feeling a kind of thrill. I hadn’t been there for Pearl Harbor (although I did endure Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor), or for Kenedy’s assassination; moments when the country was instantly unified, if only for awhile. But I was here for a story that would be told and retold through many mediums. Already, I was starting to see the folk heroes that would emerge, the dramatic stories that would be reenacted – and probably embellished – for decades to come, and the moments, poorly filmed in life, that would look so spectacular done in a studio.

Apparently, director Oliver Stone had similar thoughts.

Nicolas Cage as John McLothlen

Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin

If this sounds terrible, consider the millions of solid citizens who praised the frank depiction of the gore in Saving Private Ryan, or the millions who lined up to see Braveheart again and again. If it makes a difference that these stories happened longer ago, consider that it takes about four to five years for a film to develop from concept to finished product. In the first five years since 9/11 we had already seen two movies about it (Flight 93 was released Jan. 30 of 2006).

John McLothlen, the man.

John McLoughlin, the man.

It has now been three years since Stone’s World Trade Center was released and I first wrote this article. During that time we have seen September 11 return to its status as just another box on the calendar. American culture has gone back to infighting and second-guessing government (Stone himself directed an anti-war ad in April of 2007). This has to raise questions in the alert reader because there are dates far older – December 7, 1941 for instance – that Americans still observe every year. One has to wonder if an ably directed film could reignite American reverence for September 11 (if not what we learned from it).

Micheal Pena as Will Jimeno.

Micheal Pena as Will Jimeno.

Needless to say, however, that wasn’t what WTC was intended to do. Stone intended it as a tribute, probably due the recency of the event. As a tribute, the film delivers. It introduces two folk heros, Port Authority Officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and William Jimeno (Michael Pena), who spend most of the movie under a ton of rubble. Probably the best thing about it is that if anyone who was involved with planning the attacks ever sees it, and they probably will, they will be very disappointed. The jihadis behind the attacks get no attention whatsoever. The crash into the North Tower is heralded only by the shadow of a plane swooping across a building and a muffled explosion. The rest of the film follows several main characters through the rescue efforts. In short, every frame is devoted to the good, the valiance and the victory I hope we all remember from that day.

Will Jimeno, the man.

Will Jimeno, the man.

Decades will come and go, the pain brought on by that day will lessen and the grieving families will be names in dusty historical records. As the subject gets less sensitive, so will the movies. We’ll see body parts fly ala Saving Private Ryan and we’ll get to know the villains. But for now World Trade Center focuses on what should be focused on.

As McLothlen says at the end of World Trade Center, “Nine eleven showed us what human beings are capable of – the evil, sure. But also the good. People looking out for each other, for no reason other than that it was the right thing to do. It’s important to remember that. And to talk about it.”

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