The Lady in the Van

'The Lady in the Van' movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

The Lady in the Van is really good if you like watching movies about the elderly, the homeless and the incontinent. (Spoiler alert: I don’t mind them.) Maggie Smith, who is the lady in the van, is a real piece of work in this British comedy about London playwright Alan Bennett and the homeless woman who parked her van on his driveway and stayed put there for 15 years.

Mancurian director Nicholas Hytner takes from Bennett’s book of the same name, a book that has already seen a stage production with Smith in the titular role as the housingly-challenged Miss Mary Shepherd. Hytner’s adaptation is a modest farce generally concerned with the struggle between two main characters as one fights for their right to be and the other fights for their right to be in peace.

The film was shot on location in the northern London district of Camden Town, at the very house and driveway where the squatting happened. While observing Shepherd and Bennett’s interactions, Van ruminates on a variety of personal and social issues, not least of which being the nation’s treatment of the homeless — controversy over squatter’s rights emerges as one of the more intriguing narrative cruxes. But it’s also a measuring stick for personal growth. Bennett seeks more recognition for his West End plays that aren’t doing so well. And like Bennett we would like to know what befell Shepherd to put her into such dire straits.

The film certainly feels like it’s adapted from a play. You can imagine the set. There are only so many people we keep seeing out and about and they show up in such regular intervals it seems a little too coincidental. The world feels oh-so-small and quaint and controlled as they come and go from stage left and right. It’s a piece that revolves around one unusual prop — her hideously yellow van (well, it was once a morose mixture of green and gray before she “painted” it). And there’s a brilliant narrative device that splices Jennings’ performance into two distinct manifestations: he plays Bennett, the perpetually distracted writer and Bennett the tenant, who is desperate to figure out how to get rid of the cantankerous old woman. Much of his time on screen is spent arguing with himself and Jennings really makes it amusing.

As much fun as Jennings is this is still Smith’s show. Dressed in layers of tattered rags and under makeup that gives the impression the woman has traveled many more miles and endured very hard times indeed, Smith is essentially mummified for the part. Visually its amusing (sort of) but even this wardrobe can’t conceal the gravitas of a performer with the kind of experience Dame Maggie Smith has. She teases out just enough vulnerability as a former Nun now facing life on the street, coloring a complex character with shades of empathy — if only just shades — that keeps us entranced, despite a lethargic pace.

Van isn’t anything flashy on the outside (save for that oddly out of place Monty Python-esque segment towards the end that takes place in a cemetery) but on the inside it is surprisingly cozy and well worth spending an afternoon with, unlike its titular character. She’s certainly no uptown girl.

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Recommendation: One for the Maggie Smith fans, The Lady in the Van pairs farcical comedy with heartfelt drama about life on the streets. Offers an interesting look at a transient way of life, a lifestyle that doesn’t make its way into too many films sadly (you might have to go to Sundance and other high-profile film fests to find more like it). Performances invite you in and consistently entertain, with Jennings making for a lovable put-upon and Smith a stubborn force to be reckoned with.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the carer. She is there, I am here. There is no caring.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

99 Homes

Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Ramin Bahrani; Amir Naderi

Directed by: Ramin Bahrani

I have tried several different ways of expressing my enthusiasm over this movie about the housing market collapse of 2008, but each time I have failed. For whatever reason I’m struggling to make things like home foreclosures and adjustable mortgage rates sound exciting. Yet that’s exactly what 99 Homes is — thrilling, unnerving, emotionally resonant.

It’s particularly well-acted, and that goes a long way in getting an audience into a movie that’s based upon and set in the very economic times in which we live and from which many are still recovering. I suppose you could make a case for this film being skewed towards the homeowners in the audience but that’s a pretty pretentious target audience, don’t you think? 99 Homes must have something to offer that’s more universally appealing than showing just how disconcerting it is for a head-of-house to no longer be able to provide shelter for his family; that there is now officially a time where he will be “trespassing” just by standing at his own front door.

Andrew Garfield plays an indeterminately late-20/early-30-year-old construction worker named Dennis Nash with an almost immediate and effortless charm. Dennis lives in Orlando with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his own son Connor (Noah Lomax) but is seen in the beginning fighting in court to keep the home he and generations of his family have lived in. Facing eviction after three months’ worth of overdue mortgage payments, the Nashes seemingly are given a second opportunity when Dennis is told they will have 30 days to appeal. The next day (or perhaps a few days later, timelines aren’t made abundantly clear) a real estate tycoon by the name of Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up at their door and delivers the bad news.

There isn’t a comic book in sight as Spider-Man and General Zod square off in this political parable in which Rick Carver, a man who makes the seething Kryptonian warlord look like a saint, works with alarming efficiency in kicking the Nashes to the curb and coldly informing Dennis they have until the end of the day to get rid of whatever personal effects they have — now scattered on the front lawn — else their neighbors will be entitled to pick through it. It’s one of a few scenes that are surprisingly uncomfortable to sit through.

Perhaps it’s going too far by describing this as difficult to watch — it’s not as visceral, nowhere near as violent as the drama that drives hyper-realistic films like United 93World Trade Center and JFK — yet the authenticity of Ramin Bahrani’s timely film is just as sobering. 99 Homes masterfully embitters us to these harsher economic times, refusing to resort to action sequences or melodrama to express its outrage over the consolidation of power at the corporate level. Not to mention, the stripping of it from the average Joe.

Desperate to find work, Dennis takes up an offer from the very man who has just kicked him out of his house. Rick will pay him $50 for a clean-up job on a property he’s about to inspect. Dennis cleverly turns that $50 into $250 after impressing Rick with his work ethic. As this is going on he’s having to deal with life in a motel room, a motel that seems to be sheltering several other families and individuals enduring a similar situation. Dennis reassures his mother and son that he’ll do whatever it takes to get the house back, though he stops short of going into detail about how he’s earning the money.

As the weeks go by Rick takes note of how fast Dennis is learning and adapting, and in turn, Dennis’ income steadily increases as he graduates out of literal shit work and into more lucrative positions, such as the guy who gets to forcefully remove people from their homes. The irony of his employment status reaches a fever pitch when he’s forced to deliver a fabricated document from Rick’s office to the courthouse, a move that will all but ensure the eviction of a man whom Dennis has known for some time because the man’s son goes to the same school as Connor. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Dennis turns the document over, unable to face the consequences of losing his job.

I suppose there is technically some superhero influence to be found here, despite Ramin Bahrani’s every effort to keep his production grounded in reality. Garfield’s slide from decent, hardworking American father into greedy, shortsighted and frightened real estate agent epitomizes Harvey Dent’s veiled critique of the Dark Knight’s vigilantism. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” While it is the writing that must judge the transformation such that it occurs neither too quickly nor too deliberately, it’s up to Garfield to sell his character as someone who has lost their way profoundly.

We’ve seen this kind of hypocrisy before, in fact it’s a fairly popular narrative device, defining everyone from misled youths to overzealous superheroes to working class fathers seeking the perfect Christmas gift for their children. Yet it’s against this backdrop of a severe recession where the blueprint feels inspired, where an otherwise predictable character arc feels less predictable. The still up-and-coming Andrew Garfield gives a rousing performance in the lead, and is supported ably by an intense and malevolent turn from Michael Shannon. Between the two of them, there’s plenty of real estate to value and cherish in this urgent and relevant drama.

Recommendation: 99 Homes, somewhat ironically, does not exactly sell itself. It’s a film about the housing market collapse and there’s no denying that’s going to be a turn off for many theatergoers, but if you’re a fan of either actor involved here I urge you to give it a shot. It’s surprisingly compelling, tense and beautifully mounted and the performances in particular tend to stay with you. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Gimme Shelter

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Release: Friday, January 24, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Gimme Shelter finds Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson playing down their beauty profoundly as Hudgens goes from literal rags to riches in this powerful and emotional drama about life on the streets.

The High School Musical starlet ditches the cute smiles and glitzy performances at the behest of writer/director Ron Kraus and the considerably somber true story upon which this film is based. Twenty-five-year-old Hudgens takes on the challenge of overhauling her unreasonably good looks with her lead performance as Agnes “Apple” Bailey, daughter to abusive mother June (a virtually unrecognizable Dawson) and absentee father Tom (Brendan Fraser).

The film opens with a visibly troubled young girl giving herself a radical haircut, and barely escaping an apartment building with her life after being violently attacked. She manages to flee in a cab but has very little money so the driver throws her out onto the highway. From there, her journey only becomes more desperate and lonely as she attempts to find some way to escape the hostile streets of northern New Jersey. Her goal is to track down her father and seek refuge for a little while until she can, as she puts it, “get back on her feet.”

Her father, a big-time Wall Street executive, doesn’t know what to do when Apple (don’t you dare call her Agnes) shows up in his life suddenly. She’s hostile, perpetually morose, and somewhat confrontational, which might be expected given the fact that she’s bounced from orphanage to orphanage for virtually all of her sixteen-year existence. She is the definition of a walking tragedy. Even if Hudgens at times overplays the part, she’s never less than convincing and despite her prickly outer shell, we feel compelled to sympathize for her. . .although that’s not really what she seeks from anyone.

Feeling unwanted at Tom’s house after she reveals that she’s also pregnant, she again takes to the streets in an effort to. . . who knows. There’s little hope for sanctuary at this point in the story, and the complaints lodged against Gimme Shelter‘s stifling melodramatics start to seem justified.

This is the painful journey of a young girl hurting on a level few are going to be able to comprehend. Hudgens’ portrayal of Apple is like holding up a mirror to reality. What she represents is a truth for thousands, perhaps millions of youths who wander around in our midst, continually struggling to rise above their current circumstances. Hudgens’ performance (not to mention, a disturbing turn from Dawson) is compelling and cannot be ignored. However, despite the genuine passion of all involved, where things become a little unstable is in Kraus’ handling of the third act.

Given the substantial amount of time we spend watching her suffer, it stands to reason we are going to experience some sort of upswing. Something must surely go her way. Kraus certainly thinks that in order to offset the hopelessness experienced throughout the majority of this film, we’re going to need a soap opera-like finale. He is seeking balance, but it hardly comes across as such. What should feel like awakening from a nightmare, turns into something of a dream; an equally dramatic twenty minutes of Hollywood idealism on how this situation should always be resolved. The saddest thing is that so often it does not go this way.

In short, one of Apple’s largest personal issues is her inability or disinterest in cooperating with others; that all changes in the space of a movie minute. Granted, a few developments in this scene occur that drastically would change her outlook on life, but the time she spends with her latest caretaker (Ann Dowd) seems rather contrived and unrealistic. Considering her disdain towards all foster homes, her newfound joy in this place is random and doesn’t feel earnest.

None of this is to say that Apple (and the girl upon whom she is based) doesn’t deserve happiness but given the backstory, these kinds of struggles aren’t the kind one easily “puts behind them,” as Tom suggests in an earlier scene. Apply this to our moviegoing experience: we can’t exactly put all of what happens to the embattled girl behind us as easily as Kraus would like us to.

On the whole, and omitting some of the major design flaws in the story, Gimme Shelter packs a heck of a punch. It features some terrific performances that are going to be overlooked, simply based on the release date of this film. January is a month not known for quality releases, and while this film isn’t award-worthy by any means, it’s certainly not deserving of the critical backlash it has already earned. It’s hard to believe that this is Hudgens here, and ditto that to Dawson’s June Bailey. Her inexcusable behavior exemplifies Dawson’s dramatic abilities. Brendan Fraser factors in nicely as well, as does the iconic, booming voice of James Earl Jones.

He may have admitted to being Luke’s father, but he sure should be Apple’s as well; he’d make for a far better one than Tom.

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3-5

Recommendation: It’s not a movie of subtlety. Gimme Shelter uses a girl’s troubled youth as a platform to spread anti-abortion sentiment (a fact that I personally have no issues with, but you need to know it is there), and a need to start finding ways to serve the nation’s (and the world’s) underprivileged youth better. Moving beyond the B.S. of politics, there are wonderful performances contained herein that you should not allow yourselves to miss. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a pretty moving one.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “I’m okay; I’m not scared.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com