Friday 20 September 2019

Review: Maggie Smith is formidable in The Lady In The Van

The Lady In The Van Cert: 12A

Wildly anarchic: Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett in a thoroughly English film
Wildly anarchic: Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett in a thoroughly English film
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez
Melodrama: Russell Crowe and Kylie Rogers

Hilary A White and Aine O'Connor

Reviewed this week are The Lady In the Van, The Fear of 13, Tangerine, Fathers and Dauthers and The Hallow.

When Alan Bennett allowed a vagrant old lady living in a busted Robin Reliant to park in his Camden Town driveway, it was, he said, an act of "writerly selfishness". Mary Shepherd had landed mysteriously on his street and was attracting attention, both the wrong kind (hoodlums, authorities, etc) and the more welcome sort (kindly neighbours gave her clothes and food). While perhaps not simpler, Bennett reasoned at the time, life would be quieter with the van parked safely in his driveway, rather than out in full view on the pavement.

What was meant to be three weeks turned into 15 years and provided ample material for Bennett's much-loved 1989 non-fiction work The Lady In The Van. Maggie Smith played Mary in the subsequent radio play and Bennett's 1999 stage version, and is formidable here again as the hygienically suspect and wildly anarchic old bat about whom Bennett observed with typical Leeds dryness: "One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation."

There is an unsurprising buoyancy about Bennett's own screenplay that is very pleasing, especially in the nicely weighted sideways interludes where Bennett (Alex Jennings, superb) is bickering with himself, one half chiding from the desk, the other twitching the curtain in horror at Miss Shepherd's latest perversity.

Long-time Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner directs a film as English as pasties and Pimm's, but with a sting in the tail here and there that does the overall project great service. Good work. 4 Stars


Now showing

The Fear of 13

No Cert

In 1981 Nick Yarris was a 22-year-old drug addict and petty criminal when he was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a young mother. From the outset he protested his innocence, but so too did many of the inmates on Death Row in Ohio, and with virtually no education, Yarris was not well able to argue his case.  From a young, ignorant man, he grew to become a well-educated one so despairing of his situation that he wrote letters begging for his death sentence to be carried out.

It's a story Yarris himself tells from the beginning in David Sington's excellent documentary. One of the first things he did in prison was to get an education. He read everything he could, listed new words and embraced new concepts. One that he learned was triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13, hence the film title.

Sington allows Yarris, seated alone in a dark room in a pale blue shirt that might well be cell and prison uniform, to tell his own remarkable story.

And the man rises to the challenge, delivering a powerful tale as a sort of one-man show, which Sington illustrates not with re-enactments but with conjurings - scenes, images, sounds and music that augment Yarris's story but do not distract from it.

It would be a disservice to Yarris to tell the full story here when he does it so well himself. Suffice to say that plot-wise, this is powerful, but as a human story, even more so.

Yarris has had enormous bad luck in his life, even when he seemed to get good luck, yet the man onscreen is testimony to the power of human nature when you choose to look at things a certain way. 4 Stars


Now Showing IFI


Cert: Club

It's Christmas Eve and the sunny streets of LA are a very noisy place. This is primarily because a transgender hooker by the name of Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is on the warpath. She has just got out of a short spell in jail to discover that her no-good boyfriend Chester (The Wire's James Ransone) was playing around while she was inside.

She hears the news from fellow street walker and best pal Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in a retread of an old Four Weddings And A Funeral gag. It's not the only joke or dramatic device to be borrowed from elsewhere in a film whose originality is largely down to the shape and colour of its wildly unhinged and flamboyant protagonists.

While Sin-Dee stomps around diners and parking lots trying to find Chester or his liaison, Alexandra is handing out flyers for a musical performance she will be giving that night. The third part of the diorama is Karren Karagulian's Armenian cabbie and family man, who, it turns out, is a regular customer of both "niche-taste" prostitutes.

Unsurprisingly, the rhythms of Sean Baker's film all lead towards a kablammo finale that involves shrieked accusations, withering onlookers and transgressors getting caught red-handed. Everything takes place in a seedy, lowlife strata of LA society where petty drug abuse, curb-crawling and public disorder are the norm.

That Baker filmed the entire project on an iPhone only adds to the sense of street-level feverishness. He whips great energy out of his two central leads as well, and once the bleating and babbling diminishes, a well-structured three-act drama is allowed to emerge from the fluorescent din. This reveals poignancy and deep layers to the core friendship that is at Tangerine's heart.

But while the principal cast of Baker's film are indeed unusual (given that they are real-life transgenders), Tangerine is at times in danger of relying too heavily on this as a gimmick, particularly in its long, giddy tracking shots of the leads walking from A to B to the throb of blaring dubstep. 3 Stars


Now showing in IFI

Fathers and Daughters

Cert 15A

In 1989 writer Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) crashes the family car, killing his wife, badly injuring himself and traumatising his five-year-old daughter Katie (a very committed Kylie Rogers). Along with guilt and grief, Jake is left with a brain injury that causes seizures and requires a seven-month in-patient treatment regime, for the duration of which Katie lives with her very wealthy, and angry, maternal aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger) and her husband Will (Bruce Greenwood).

When he emerges from treatment, Jake faces not only ongoing health challenges and career and finance issues but a custody challenge from Elizabeth and Will. As this story unfolds, it begins to intermingle with the present, where the now-grown Katie (Amanda Seyfried) is a psychology PhD with attachment issues and a casual sex habit. When she meets Cameron (Aaron Paul), nice guy and her father's number one fan, the stuff she probably should have tackled in her training hits the fan.

Writer Brad Desch weaves the two stories together in a way that mostly works. However, both are a bit predictable, with too much going on for the psychological element to become any way rich, although I still cared enough to find out what happened. Crowe plays vulnerable well, Seyfried is a bit bland perhaps, in response to which Aaron Paul gets a bit shouty; Jane Fonda and Octavia Spencer are wasted, Quvenzhane Wallis stands out.

Although the film has no fear of melodrama and is based around emotion and could shamelessly have gone for the heart-string-pulling, it is surprisingly unaffecting. And this from someone who can cry at the end of a packet of crisps.

However, fans of family drama can enjoy two hours of non-committal but engaging story without fear of horribly swollen eyes. 2 Stars


Now Showing

The Hallow

Cert 16

Horror and comedy are the two most difficult genres to get right, so fair dues to anyone for trying. In The Hallow, director and co-writer Corin Hardy transplants an English couple, botanist Adam (Joseph Mawle) and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic), and their newborn son Finn to rural Ireland. They take over an old home, remove all the unsightly iron that is attached to every window and door and pooh-pooh the locals' dire warnings.

There are, of course, genre norms to be adhered to, so where you or I might prefer to stay at home and cower in the face of creepy noises from a creepy forest that freaks our dog out, or drive off to a hotel, horror protagonists have to venture into them alone with broken torches and no phone coverage. And, sure enough, despite the almost instantaneous onset of events that might suggest that the locals (who include a very underused Michael McElhatton and Gary Lydon) were not just being unfriendly or superstitious, Adam insists on wading into danger, and danger delivers.

The exposition in the first 30 minutes is a bit long, but before becoming a director Hardy worked as a special effects monster maker and his horror pedigree shows in the chiaroscuro lighting, sound effects, the monsters that emerge from the forest and the overall tone. It might have worked better to defy some conventions but whilst not truly a horror, this is quite creepy on occasion. 3 Stars


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