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The Lady In The Van

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MV5BMjgwNjQyOTE1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjUyMDc2NDE@._V1__SX1217_SY827_Release date: 13th November

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam

Maggie Smith’s acid-tongued duchess is such a familiar feature on our screens – “Gosford Park” and, more recently, “Downton Abbey” – that it’s almost too easy to forget the depth and variety of her 60 year career.  Oscars for “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” and “California Suite” and a distinguished stage career that saw her play Desdemona to Olivier’s “Othello” are just some of the highlights.  But, in “The Lady In The Van” she takes on what is probably her least glamorous role, yet there’s still just a smidge of the crusty dowager lingering beneath the surface.

Based on the Alan Bennett book and stage play of the same name, the film sees Smith play the destitute Miss Shepherd, who lives in her van in Camden’s leafy Gloucester Crescent in the mid-60s.  After run-ins with the neighbours and drunken yobs, she and her van eventually take up residence on Bennett’s driveway.  And that’s where she stays for the next 15 years, during which time Bennett looks into her background and discovers a remarkable life.

It’s based on a true story.  Miss Shepherd became a permanent fixture on the crescent and his driveway, but this was no loveable little old lady.  Without a sense of humour, any gratitude for the kindnesses that came her way or the slightest hint of self pity, she was also funny without meaning to be, making her the object of some affection among the locals.  Although there was nothing likeable about the squalor that was her van.

Bennett weaves themes like community spirit and loneliness into the story, as well as looking at how he and the cantankerous old lady become dependent on each other, much to their mutual surprise.  Although he’s at pains to point out to a social worker that he’s not her carer.  At the same time, there’s the parallel story of Bennett’s relationship with his mother, who lives in Yorkshire.  Initially, she’s an active elderly lady who just wants to see more of her beloved son, but by the end of the film her memory’s declined and she’s living in a home.  He’s essentially bookended by two very different women, who both need his care and attention but in contrasting ways.

Maggie Smith is as glorious as you would expect as Miss Shepherd and it’s a joy to see her so far away from the costumes and dialogue of “Downton”.  She’s eccentric, fiercely independent and proud yet, beneath it all, vulnerable and scared.  And in her layers of extraordinary clothes, she has a strangely androgynous look, not a woman but simply a human being.

As Bennett,  Alex Jennings has become the go-to actor for the role.  Having played the author on stage and screen more times than he cares to remember, he’s got it down to a fine art, but this time we get a double helping. One is the writer, the other the person: they talk to each other, grumble, argue and disagree on a regular basis.  It’s been done before – think Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” – but here it’s too heavy handed for what is essentially a serious story but with a light touch.

The combination of two national treasures like Smith and Bennett – they first worked together in “A Private Function” in 1984 – is hugely appealing, so much so that the film is getting saturation distribution.  On the face of it, “The Lady In The Van” could be seen as another film for the so-called grey market, but this is something with a genuinely wider relevance and the blend of sharpness and sensitivity that always goes with Bennett.  Fans will love it.  And so will newbies.

In Cinemas This Week

Ghost in the Shell

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Reviewer: Hannah Woodhead

Director: Rupert Sanders

Stars: 

Released: March 30th, 2017

Months before it came anywhere near the big screen, Rupert Sauder’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell had a problem. The decision to cast white actors in the majority of main roles in a live-action version of a cult Japanese manga/anime did not go unnoticed by fans around the world, and many took to social media to voice their disappointment in Hollywood’s decision. “I think when people see the film they’ll understand the casting choices,” said Sanders smugly.

Well, Rupert – I saw the film. I understand the casting choices. You made the wrong ones.

It seems he meant that he decided to cast Scarlett as the character of Major to differentiate her from the world in which she exists, but the logic is flawed, and as the film drags on, it’s increasingly obvious that Johansson’s casting wasn’t anything to do with a conscious decision about storytelling. It was an attempt to make the film appeal to a wider audience, and indeed for large portions of the film Johansson cavorts around in a strange almost-nude ensemble that seems to fetishise the character. In fact, the film isn’t short on creepiness: there’s a transphobic joke, and an uncomfortable scene which implies a sexual assault is about to happen. The Major’s beauty is mentioned almost constantly, and you get the sense that the characters aren’t referring to the miracle of cybernetic enhancement. Whilst these could have been opportunities for the film to make a statement, that never happens, and it all feels gratituitous.

Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress – that’s a fact. She was spellbinding in Under the Skin and brought a character to life with nothing but the power of her voice in Her. Yet in Ghost in the Shell she doesn’t have the chance to really do much acting – so much of the film is concentrated on action sequences. The small parts of character development we do see are interesting and Johansson is more than capable of providing the delicate balance of vulnerability and grit that The Major requires, but it’s lost amidst the scramble to make the film big, bold and action-packed. It’s one fight scene after another, the only respite coming in the touching scene where The Major reunites with her mother, played by the wonderful Kaori Momoi. Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk and Juliette Binoche are a fine supporting cast too, but there’s too many characters given too little to do for any of it to really matter. If you come out of the film remembering any character’s name but The Major, pat yourself on the back for paying very close attention.

There are some positives to note beside the acting – Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe have produced an excellent score, and the visuals are stunning in IMAX, but too much of Ghost in the Shell is soured by an attempt to westernise a story that should have been treated with more respect.

There’s a serious lack of pacing at play too – at 106 minutes, this isn’t a long movie, but it definitely feels it. The first half drags and the second half glosses over much of the material that made the anime so unique and compelling. In fact the whole plot is largely changed and additions made, and the ending a definite departure from the original. Like Spike Lee’s Old Boy remake, it just feels unnecessary, like the story has been watered down for an audience who the producers assume have a limited attention span.

It’s lazy casting that ignores the fact that Asian audiences are criminally underrepresented in Hollywood, and Asian actors continually denied parts as studios have a ridiculous fear of alienating potential audiences. “You need a figurehead movie star,” said Sanders – so what about Rinko Kikuchi, the breakout star of Pacific Rim, or Kiko Mizuhara, the Asian-American actress who starred in Norwegian Wood and Attack on Titan? What about Rila Fukushima, who starred in The Wolverine, Arrow and – here’s the kicker – plays a robot Geisha in Ghost in the Shell?! Hollywood has a responsibility to audiences to introduce them to new talent and to represent the world for the brilliant, colourful diverse place it really is. Actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were catapulted to superstardom by their roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – big budget films can afford to take risks. Suggesting they are at the mercy of “what the fans want” is a complete cop-out.

Even if you try to ignore the obvious racism and creepy overtones in the film, this adaptation lacks the passion and emotion of its source material. The best films evoke some sort of emotional reaction from viewers – laughter, sadness, fear, anger. Ghost in the Shell evokes very little than a sense of wasted time. It’s definitely not the worst blockbuster ever made, but it’s far from the best, and the manga deserved better. Viewers deserve better. If you’re interested in the story, watch the fantastic original anime series first, and then if you feel the need, perhaps give this film an outing – but you might prefer to spend your time watching other films that deal with similar themes: Dredd, Under the Skin and Ex Machina are all far superior films and more worthy of your time.

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The Conjuring 2

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Released: 13th June 2016

Directed By: James Wan

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Liam Hoofe

Having turned down an apparent life changing amount of money to direct Fast and Furious 8 James Wan makes his return to the genre where he had his name with his sequel to 2013’s hugely successful The Conjuring.  The Conjuring was a box office smash in the states – breaking all sorts of horror box office records and also providing us with a spin off in the form of 2015’s Annabelle, which also proved to be box office gold.

This time around Wan’s move focuses on the famous Enfield Poltergeist case, which took place in London in the late 1970’s.Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their role as Ed and Lorraine Warren, whilst a relatively unknown supporting cast play The Hodgsons- a working class English whose daughter, Janet has been possessed by the spirit on an old man who died in their house decades before.

In terms of narrative and scares the movie is horror 101- Wan delivers the usual array of banging doors and frightening reflections, but what elevates The Conjuring 2 is Wan’s confident and assured direction. He brings to the table his usual bag of tricks but as with the movie’s predecessor he delivers them with a quality that is largely absent from the genre.

Unfortunately the film is somewhat indulgent; at just over two hours long the film suffers from some serious pacing issues and spends a lot of time meandering around the relationship between the Warrens instead of just delivering the scares it should be aiming for. Farmiga and Wilson both deliver solid performances as The Warrens but there is too much unnecessary fluff in the movie, several scenes- including the movie’s final one feel out of place and make the movie an endurance test at times.

The film closes with footage and images from the real life Enfield case and whilst these clearly serve the purpose of scaring the audience with the old ‘ based on a true story’ line what they actually succeed in doing is showing what an effective job Wan has done in terms of period setting and casting choices. American’s all too often provide an unreal depiction of life in England but Wan gives us a pretty authentic slice of working class British life in the 1970’s.

The Conjuring 2 is not going to change the genre but it will likely do incredibly well at the box office. Wan delivers well-crafted cheap scares throughout and despite suffering from some tonal and pacing issues The Conjuring 2 is an entertaining slice of horror cinema that proves that when it comes to mainstream horror James Wan is the man to turn to.

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Video Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

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In UK cinemas from Wednesday 18th May 2016.

Here is Darryl Griffiths’ video verdict on Bryan Singer’s (X-Men: Days Of Future Past) X-Men: Apocalypse.

https://youtu.be/8ETp5vN5kpc

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