Mike at the Movies

“Nanny McPhee Returns” (PG) *****

The drought of magic in summer films is over. Emma Thompson reprises her role as Nanny McPhee and as writer of the screenplay. She is surrounded by an incredible cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal is radiantly breathtaking as Isobel, trying to survive WWII without her husband; Rhys Ifans is devilishly perfect as the villainous Uncle Phil; and Ralph Fiennes plays a wonderful cameo role as a war officer. There’s also a final surprising cameo at the end of the film. The kids are perfectly cast, Asa Butterfield as Isobel’s eldest son, Norman, even looking like her, and Maggie Smith is irrepressible as the doddering Mrs. Docherty.

This is a movie about magic, and it produces it in the most charming ways imaginable and unimaginable. Pigs in a synchronized swimming performance, elephants that turn the plot around and a pesky raven named Mr. Edelweiss whose propensity for eating putty turns into a major plot device, are the highlights of the magic.

Nanny McPhee has been, as she says, “deployed” to help the Green family and their snot-nosed cousins, Cyril and Celia Gray, adjust to each other and to the situation. She does this by teaching them five lessons and reminding them that: “When you need me but don’t want me, I can’t leave. When you want me but don’t need me, I must leave.”

Subtly, as McPhee helps the family, she loses warts, uni-brow and weight, but even behind the scary makeup, Thompson glows as the star of the film. She ain’t no Mary Poppins!

“Nanny McPhee Returns” brings magic in all its dimensions back to the cineplex. For everybody in the family, this is a “don’t miss.”

“The American” (R) *****

I will admit the possibility that I loved this film because it is an assassin film in which the scenery does not get blown up. Yes, a few people do, but George Clooney — “Jack,” “Edward” or “Mr. Butterfly —” kills people but doesn’t want to any more, especially after killing someone in Sweden he believes innocent. He moves to Italy to fulfill one more contract. This time it’s merely providing a weapon. He doesn’t have to pull the trigger. That will be done by Holland’s Thekla Reuten as Mathilde. Will it be one last job or is Jack himself the last job?

Director Anton Corbijn does a masterful job of creating suspense so intense from the opening scenes that every tree, person, statue and street holds a potential threat to Jack. So does the breathtakingly beautiful Violante Placido, an Italian screen veteran of whom we should see more. Well, to be honest we see all of her several times in this film as she is a prostitute and is seen plying her trade with Jack, with whom she falls in love. Is she falling in love with him or setting him up?

What about the genial priest, Father Benedetto? What about that waiter? What about Fabio, the mechanic? What about the other hookers? Everybody is suspect.

The tension in this film is palpable from the start, and it is maintained throughout, sometimes to excruciating lengths. Clooney tones it way down, and we feel his frustration as well as his paranoid suspicion, caused by a life in an atmosphere in which everything and everybody is threatening. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

His handler, Pavel, played by Belgian Johan Leysen, is clearly not ready to give Jack a gold watch and is one of the more sinister of the threats facing Jack at every turn. It’s a shame, too, because the scenery is outstanding around Sulmona, Abruzzo, in the east-central part of Italy.

Some might be disappointed that there is not more obvious action in an assassin film, but the tension caused by the lack of it — Jack spends much of his time studying butterflies — is astounding and well worth the tense pace.

This is one of the few feature-length, plotted films that Corbijn has done — he has done famous video features for U-2 and Depeche Mode. He may have found a niche in suspense if this can be taken as an example.

Clearly for smart, patient, sensitive adults and others who like to think about characters rather than be blown away by them, this is the film of the summer.

“Going the Distance” (R) ****

Drew Barrymore is back! The cute, lispy, sometimes strange actress has gained range and control and is now a very attractive 30-something who is not trying in any way to be younger. This movie is a bit on the obscene side because life is more like that for this age group than it was for us older folks, but in its context it has a logic and a form of kindness that makes it all acceptable.

Many of the funniest bits in this film — such as an attempt to cross a N.Y. street while talking about releasing sexual tension — are obscene but hysterically funny. The same goes for Garrett (Justin Long) and Erin (Barrymore) as they enter her sister’s house in California and abandon all in a tsunami of lust.

This is Barrymore’s picture. Period. Her scenes sparkle with wit, frustration, longing, cautious optimism and crushing disappointment. She is so good portraying all those conditions that she makes Long a better actor. He has to match her and, by film’s end, he’s doing so regularly.

Christina Applegate is note-perfect as Erin’s picky, spermaphobic sister, Corinne, and Jim Gaffigan is also perfectly cast as Corinne’s husband, Phil. He’s sour, pessimistic about most everything, especially marriage, and very funny.

The plot is simple: Erin and Garrett fall in love in New York, but she has to go back to school on the West coast where she is given a job offer in San Francisco. Does Garrett give up his N.Y. job (which he hates) and join her, or insist that she come to N.Y.? The working out of that puzzle allows Garrett to discover that doing the right thing can hurt a lot.

Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis have great parts as Garrett’s best friends, with Day doubling as his mad roommate, Dan. This is my nominee for rom-com of the summer, albeit from a pretty thin list of entries. If you are not charmed by Barrymore, have a charm-check and find a cure. She is that delightful.

“The Switch” (PG-13) ****

Bill O’Reilly is in an uproar about this movie, but he clearly has problems of his own to worry about. Many 30- and 40-something women with a ticking biological clock may see it entirely differently.

Jennifer Aniston, as Kassie, doesn’t want to marry just any old guy she meets and have a child. What’s wrong with that? What’s clearly wrong here is that her Best Friend, Wally (Jason Bateman) is perfect for her. Sure, he’s a bit neurotic, a bit of a hypochondriac and hardly adventurous, but he lives in Manhattan. That’s risk enough for most guys.

Enter Patrick Wilson as the ideal sperm donor. Sperm donor, yes, but husband and father we in the audience see right away, no way. In a drunken stupor at a party, Wally spills Roland’s (the donor’s) sperm and, with the erotic stimulation of a Diane Sawyer magazine cover, substitutes his own. Confusion ensues, and Sebastian, a charming kid, results. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his father in mannerisms and appearance, but because Wally can’t remember what he did, he is as confused as everybody else about what happened. That confusion is the key to the success of this film as all involved have to sort through the likelihoods and the obvious facts to reach the correct conclusions.

Bateman’s performance is right on — patient, confused, hesitant and vulnerable — and Aniston matches his restraint. Fortunately for the laugh index, Jeff Goldblum, as Wally’s boss, and Juliette Lewis, as Kassie’s best friend, have a wonderful time playing to the confusion. Wilson as Roland, is totally insufferable; he’s clearly the only member of the cast who can stand him.

“Takers” (R) ***

Your usual heist film with a slight difference: It becomes clear that the bad guys have feelings. It takes a bit before the audience can sort out the many characters in the cast, but basically they are the Good Guys — Jack Wells (Matt Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez) — and the Bad Guys — Jesse (Chris Brown), AJ (Hayden Christensen), Jake (Michael Ealy), Gordon (Irdis Elba), Scott (Johnathon Schaech) and the Villain of Villains, Ghost (T.I. Harris.) Zoe Saldana shines in a role that is little more than a cameo, as the moll of both Ghost and, later, Jake.

The involved plot consists of a successful heist by a very affluent and hi-tech gang. They are challenged to make an even bigger armored car robbery by Ghost, out of prison and eager to regain his lost leadership of the gang. It takes a while to keep the gang members straight in one’s mind.

The task is made more challenging by the fact that, in “Takers,” the Bad Guys have feelings, too. The cops have feelings, the Bad Guys, the women — everybody has feelings. That may elevate the film from the mundane chase and shoot heist film, but it does slow things down when it might have been wiser to keep the pedal to the metal or the shoe leather to the pavement.

One of the best extended scenes in the film is an old-fashioned foot chase through downtown LA. Extended and unlikely, but at least all the chase scenes are not done in cars for a change. This is certainly not the worst of the sound-system testers of the summer, and you may like the fact that feelings abound.

“Vampires Suck” (PG-13) *

The problem with making a horrid film like this is that the “Twilight” series is so overdone that it has become a self-parody. That doesn’t make it impossible to write a good satire, but this is not good. Smutty instead of funny, obvious, clichéd, filled with easy and witless references to pop culture from Tiger Woods to the Khardashians to the Twilight series itself, it shows neither wit nor cleverness.

The audience reaction dwindled away to silence about two-thirds of the way through the showing I saw. Even accepting teens can tell when they’re being taken.

The director must have said to his largely amateurish cat: “When in doubt, over-act. The dumb kids will never know.”

They do, Mr. Director, they do.

“The Last Exorcism” (R) *

I wish the title was a promise, but it probably won’t work out that way. Thanks to the original “Exorcist” of years ago, the exorcist movie for Catholics, this one had to be made for the Pentecostal crowd. That it features a preacher who admits that it was all show business — both sermons and exorcisms — will not make the balance seem even.

The curse of this picture is not Blatty’s “Exorcist” but “The Blair Witch Project.” It made popular professional cameramen doing their best to make what they film look amateurish. In this case it is so artificially amateurish that it gets nauseating.

Since the cast seems largely amateurish as well (they are all professionals, amazingly enough), I suppose it doesn’t make much difference, but believers of every stripe should find themselves united in ecumenical disgust at being manipulated by a shoddy premise and even worse acting and production.

For more of Mike’s reviews go to www.towncourier.com.