Celebrated Playwright And Down-And-Out Pensioner Forge Unlikely Friendship In Bittersweet Docudrama
For a half-dozen seasons, Dame Maggie Smith has been delighting television viewers as dowager Violet Crawley on Downton Abbey. Younger fans of the show might be unaware that she’s a two-time Oscar-winner (for California Suite and The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie) who had already enjoyed an illustrious career prior to appearing on the hit PBS series.
In The Lady In The Van, she’s been cast as a character practically the polar opposite of the imperious aristocrat we’ve come to love. For, Margaret Shepherd is a down-and-out homeless woman humbled by having to live out of a van which she parks on the street in the Camden Town section of North London.
At the point of departure in the early ’70s, we learn that Margaret’s miserable plight is substantially one of her making. She’s been on the run for five years since leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run car accident.
And while the devout Catholic has confessed the sin to her priest, she could never quite bring herself to surrender to the authorities. Consequently, she’s forever looking over her shoulder, fearful that her arrest might be imminent.
The plot thickens when she can’t afford to fix her misfiring jalopy sorely in need of a tune-up. Most of the owners in the upscale neighborhood where the van is sitting would simply like to see the eyesore towed away from the block once and for all.
But, for some reason, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) feels compassion for the ostensibly overwhelmed octagenarian, perhaps because he has a mother also of advanced age. So, against his better judgment, the famous writer allows “Miss Shepherd” to park her disabled car in the driveway on the express understanding that this will be a temporary arrangement.
But Alan proves to be such a soft touch that the cantankerous old coot ends up squatting on his property for the next 15 years. Can a Tony Award-winning playwright and a feisty pensioner coexist peacefully in such crazy conditions?
That is the question at the heart of The Lady In The Van, a heartwarming dramedy inspired by actual events. The film was adapted from Bennett’s 1999 theatrical production of the same name which also starred Maggie Smith.
Smith looks oh so relaxed onscreen in the role she originated onstage, whether cadging for alms on the pavement or exhibiting pangs of remorse about the crash which left her in dire straits. Just as effective is Alex Jennings’ interpretation of Bennett as a terminally-conflicted soul constantly carrying on an inner dialogue with himself.
A touching tale of empathy blessed by a couple of equally-endearing performances that are nothing short of inspired.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 104 minutes
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Richard Gere’s Services Squandered As Flamboyant Philanthropist With A Hidden Agenda
Filthy-rich Francis Watts (Richard Gere) is every bit as flamboyant as he is altruistic. But the Philadelphia philanthropist also has an annoying personality flaw: a need to interfere in the affairs of the recipients of his charity.
For instance, the meddling bachelor has purchased a home for Olivia (aka “Poodles”) (Dakota Fanning) and Luke (Theo James), newlyweds expecting their first child. Furthermore, he has not only paid off the husband’s medical school loans, but secured the physician a position at a children’s hospital where he serves on the board.
In this case, there’s a logical reason for Franny’s Iargesse, namely, his overwhelming regret about having caused the car accident that claimed the lives of Olivia’s parents. Still, that doesn’t explain why the creepy control freak feels entitled to crawl into bed with the couple or to pressure the young doctor to write him illegal prescriptions for the painkiller he’s become addicted to.
That is the intriguing point of departure of The Benefactor, a moralizing melodrama marking the writing and directorial debut of Andrew Renzi (unless you count Fishtail, a documentary he made about life on a Montana cattle ranch). Here, unfortunately, Renzi squanders the talents of A-listers Richard Gere and Dakota Fanning in service of a disappointing script that even their considerable talents couldn’t help salvage.
Gere’s Franny is an ostentatious dandy sporting a flowing silver mane who alternates between making bizarre and generous gestures. However, there is obviously a big hole in his soul but the picture doesn’t deign to divulge the source of his angst. No, that’s saved for the silly soap opera’s big reveal which, quite frankly, wasn’t worth the wait.
Meanwhile, Fanning isn’t given much to do beyond a variety of vapid reaction shots to Franny’s over-the-top antics. Oh, and her belly keeps expanding as her pregnancy progresses, too, if wearing different rubber suits counts as method acting.
An unconvincing melodrama indicting money’s power to manipulate as the root of all evil.
Fair (1 star)
Running time: 92 minutes
OPENING THIS WEEK
For movies opening January 22, 2016
The 5th Wave (PG-13 for violence, destruction, profanity, mature themes and brief teen partying) Post-apocalyptic, sci-fi thriller set on a planet already overrun by aliens and revolving around a teenager’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) desperate attempt to save herself and her little brother Zackary Arthur) with the help of a stranger (Evan Roe). Ensemble includes Liev Schreiber, Ron Livingston, Gabriela Lopez, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe and Matthew Zuk.
The Boy (PG-13 for violence, terror and mature themes) Supernatural thriller about an American nanny (Lauren Cohan) who arrives in England to find that she’s been hired to care for a life-sized porcelain doll by a couple (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) grieving the loss of a young son. Supporting cast includes Ben Robson, James Russell and Rupert Evans.
Dirty Grandpa (R for profanity, drug use, frontal nudity and pervasive crude humor and sexual content) Robert De Niro plays the title character in this unlikely-buddies comedy about a retired Army general who embarks on a raunchy road trip to Florida with his grandson (Zac Efron) for Spring Break. With Aubrey Plaza, Zoey Deutch and Dermot Mulroney.
Exposed (R for profanity, violence and rape) Supernatural thriller about an attractive Latina (Ana de Armas) who witnesses a miracle before being befriended by a cop (Keanu Reeves) investigating his partner’s mysterious death. With Big Daddy Kane, Mira Sorvino and Christopher McDonald.
Get Happy! (Unrated) Romantic comedy about a hopelessly miserable misanthrope (Chris Riggi) who gets a new lease on life when he starts dating a free-spirited bon vivant (Lauren Sweetser). Cast includes Adam LaVorgna, Rebecca Blumhagen and Jordan Lane Price.
Ip Man 3 (Unrated) Donnie Yen reprises the title role in a high attrition-rate sequel which finds the legendary martial arts master taking on a gang doing the bidding of a ruthless real estate tycoon (Mike Tyson). With Lynn Hung, Jin Zhang and Patrick Tan. (In Cantonese and English with subtitles)
Jeruzalem (R for violence, sexuality, nudity, brief drug use and pervasive profanity) Horror flick about a couple of young Americans (Danie Jadelyn) whose vacation in Israel is ruined by the arrival of an apocalypse of Biblical proportions. Support cast includes Dibi Ben-Yosef, Odo Di Capua and Geri Gendel.
Mojave (R for profanity and violence) Cat-and-mouse thriller about a suicidal artist (Garrett Hedlund) who ventures into the desert to die only to encounter a homicidal drifter (Oscar Isaac). Featuring Walter Goggins, Mark Wahlberg and Dania Ramirez.
Monster Hunt (Unrated) Martial arts comedy, set in medieval China, revolving around the efforts of a half-human/half-monster baby’s parents to protect him from both the humans and monsters who want him dead. Starring Boran Jing, Baihe Bai, Wu Jiang and Elaine Jin. (In Mandarin with subtitles)
Naz & Maalik (Unrated) Out-of-the-closet dramedy, set in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, about a couple of gay, African-American lovers (Curtis Cook, Jr. and Kerwin Johnson, Jr.) whose secretive relationship leads an FBI Agent (Annie Grier) to suspect them of terrorism. With Ashleigh Awusie, Anderson Footman and Bradley Brian Custer.
Prescription Thugs (Unrated) Healthcare exposé examining Big Pharma’s role in the abuse of prescription drugs.
Synchronicity (R for profanity and sexual references) Sci-fi thriller about the creator (Chad McKnight) of a time machine who must travel to the past in order thwart a temptress’ (Brianne Davis) attempt to steal his invention for a unscrupulous venture capitalist (Michael Ironside). With AJ Bowen, and real-life husband and wife Scott Poythress and Claire Bronson.