Southern discomfort, a blood-soaked fish fry and the return of Nanny Mcphee

by Mark Burger

Like a lot of films about the Deep South (too many, perhaps), Get Low depicts a deep-rooted nobility that exists beneath the eccentricities of its characters. This is a character study in which the setting (1930s Tennessee), initially is presented as something akin to another world, is as much a character as the people who populate it.

Robert Duvall, in yet another performance destined to be remembered at awards time, plays Felix Bush, a crusty old coot who decides, rather arbitrarily, to arrange for his own funeral party — to be celebrated while he’s still alive and with him still in attendance.

It’s an unusual request, to say the least, but the local undertaker, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), is more than happy to take Felix’s business, assigning his underling Buddy (Lucas Black) to see to the customer’s needs.

There is, of course, a method to Felix’s madness, and it stems from events long ago and all but forgotten — except by him, of course.

This marks the first feature directed by Aaron Schneider, whose short film Two Soldiers (shot in the Piedmont Triad) won an Oscar. This film moves as its own, extremely methodical, pace — “Get Slow” might sometimes seem a better a title — yet the sincerity and subtle humor of the principal actors always make it worth watching, and sometimes savoring.

Duvall’s performance is loaded with tics and mannerisms, but it’s such a pleasure to watch him work — and, somewhat, to nibble on the scenery — that they become endearing and indelible, offering this fabulous actor yet another roomy showcase. He also enjoys an easy, unforced chemistry with Sissy Spacek, who portrays as his lost love, Mattie Darrow. Murray is relaxed and ingratiating, and compared to the other actors, by default he’s the film’s live wire, with Black acting as his straight man (and doing a nice job of it). There are also good appearances by Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs, both cast as ministers here, although not as stereotypical Bible-thumpers. This is a film with a lot of characters, and a lot of character.

As the summer movie season fades into autumn, it’s time for those potential Oscar hopefuls to settle things down after the last few months of high-concept, high-decibel film fare. Get Low is definitely an early, and welcome, harbinger of what will hopefully be better films to come for the remainder of 2010.

Alexandre Aja’s version of Piranha is a remake/rehash of the 1978 Jaws knock-off in (brand) name only. It’s also unabashed, unashamed trash, made with an enthusiastically zany sensibility and a full-throttle approach that makes it a must for B-movie mavens (and maniacs).

Not for a moment is the film to be taken seriously in any way. By letting the audience in on the joke, right in the first scene, in which guest star Richard Dreyfuss (in a nod to his role in the original Jaws) is the first to go, it’s a laugh riot throughout, packed with gratuitous gore and nudity — all of it presented in lip-smacking, eyerolling 3-D. (The 3-D effects, it should be noted, are quite good.)

It’s Spring Break in the Arizona resort town of Lake Victoria (actually Lake Havasu), the perfect time for an underwater earthquake to unleash a school of prehistoric piranha that have been feasting on each other for centuries and now seek fresh meat. The thousands of obnoxious partygoers that have descended on the town for fun and frolic are soon to be shredded by the score.

The nasty characters get what’s coming to them — in movies like this, the monster always has a notion who’s been naughty and who’s been nice — and so do some of the nice ones, too. If a character goes in the water, there’s a good chance he or she won’t be coming out… at least not in one piece.

An eclectic cast of actors is on hand, a few seemingly too classy for something like this, but they bring a spunk and a spirit to the silliness. The ever-lovely Elisabeth Shue portrays the local sheriff, whose three children are soon in peril, and Ving Rhames brings his trademark muscle to the role of her faithful deputy. A riotously hammy Christopher Lloyd shows up as the resident marine expert, who knows a million-year-old fish when he sees it. Jerry O’Connell brings zest to his role as a smarmy, obnoxious porn producer whose “scouting location” for his latest nudie video goes expectedly awry. Adam Scott, Dina Meyer, Steven R McQueen (grandson of Steve McQueen), Kelly Brook and porn star Riley Steele round out the players on hand — some of whom end up as fish food before the finale.

Anyone looking for great art need not apply, but for those in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, Piranha 3-D is a jolly exploitation jaunt.

In the case of Nanny McPhee Returns, one visit was probably enough.

That’s not to say the film is completely worthless, but except for a few inspired moments (the synchronized-swimming scene is funny) and the quality cast, headed by Emma Thompson in the title role, there’s a certain “leftover” feel to the proceedings.

Once again, the title character descends upon a house filled with unruly children — this one in the English countryside during the Second World War — and once again she puts right all wrongs. There aren’t a lot of surprises here, although some kids may enjoy the familiarity.

Thompson, also the film’s executive producer and screenwriter, is surrounded by a pleasant cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, the unbilled Ralph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor, and Maggie Smith, whom it’s always nice to have around but who has here what may be the most embarrassing moment of her screen career in the scene where she insists on sitting on a “cowpat” — more commonly known stateside as a cowpie. Not necessarily funny, and hardly necessary in any case.