Video Picks & Passes

Nanny McPhee: PICK


Flight 93: PICK


Portrait of Courage: The Untold Story of Flight 93: PICK


Content advisory:

Nanny McPhee: A few instances of mildly suggestive content and naughty language; some tense family scenes; some mildly unsettling imagery. Flight 93: Restrained violence; brief profanity; intense terrorist menace. Portrait of Courage: Brief restrained violence/menace.

Mary Poppins meets Lemony Snicket in Nanny McPhee, adapted by star Emma Thompson from Christianna Brands’ Nurse Matilda stories about a magical nanny who knows just the medicine for a family of exceedingly naughty children, and doesn’t bother about the spoonful of sugar to help it go down. Colin Firth plays Cedric Brown, a widower and hapless father of seven children — children whose ingenious talent for mischief has driven off nearly a score of nannies. Cedric loves his large brood but can neither control them nor afford them, and depends on the largesse of his overbearing Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), whose plans for improving her nephew’s condition include compulsory remarriage and relieving him of one of his children.

Enter Nanny McPhee, whose alarming appearance and unsettling gaze are only the beginning of her bag of tricks. In Dickensian fashion, Nanny knows just how to make the punishment fit the crime, and sets about teaching the children to say please and thank you and to do as they’re told. So far, so good. Unfortunately the film frays in the second half. Mishandled subplots involving a hideously inappropriate False Bride and a True Bride waiting in the wings don’t work at all; the first isn’t funny, and the second wastes a decent setup by robbing the character of her earlier charm.

Although Cedric does stand up to his Aunt Adelaide at a critical juncture, his general diffidence wears thin, and he’s never allowed to improve. He’s a loving father, but never an effective one, and ultimately needs his children to run his love life, to the point of proposing both to the girl and to him on behalf of the other. In spite of flaws, Thompson’s toothsome performance, colorful production design and affectionate depiction of a large family remain strengths, and make Nanny McPhee diverting if less than magical family fare.

Paul Greengrass’s extraordinary film United 93, now in theaters, is likely to stand as the film of record for the story of the one hijacked 9/11 plane that did not hit its target. That said, two made-for-TV productions recently released on DVD are worthy of attention. Flight 93, originally broadcast on A&E, dramatizes substantially the same events as Greengrass’ film. Though not as persuasive or restrained as the theatrical film, Flight 93 is perhaps even more scrupulously attentive to the historical record.

The terrorists seem more professional and less nervous here than in United 93 — though also sloppier, allowing passengers to talk openly on cellphones and airphones. Flight 93 also spends too much time on protracted debate and last phone calls. Still, it’s an honorable and moving dramatization.

Portrait of Courage: The Untold Story of Flight 93 recounts the same events in documentary fashion, with brief dramatic reenactments, revealing the analysis and detective work involved in reconstructing the probable sequence of events on board the doomed aircraft. Through interviews with family members and other sources, the documentary shows us a side of the passenger-heroes not seen in dramatic versions. Though occasionally marred by somewhat glib, sensationalistic narration from host Michael Flynn, Portrait of Courage confirms the portrayals of Flight 93 and United 93 to a startling degree.