LFF 2015: The Lady In The Van ***

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It was playwright Alan Bennett who said, “Life is generally something that happens elsewhere”, which is certainly how he must have felt saddled with an old lady who camped outside his Camden home for 15 years. This is the feature film written by Bennett of his play of the same name, a semi-autobiographical tale of his relationship with homeless Mary Shepherd – a role reprised again by Maggie Smith after 16 years.

Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) moves to leafy Gloucester Cresent in Camden in the late 1960s and encounters Miss Shepherd (Smith), an easily irritated and rude homeless lady who lives in a van on his street. Having been moved on by other neighbours for various reasons, and with parking restrictions coming into force, Bennett takes pity on her and offers her his driveway as a temporary measure that sees her stay until her death.

This is the ultimate vanity project for Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner – who directed the play and radio versions. With Smith onboard again, the big-screen version is clinched, as is an Oscar nod perhaps. All three have had time to revisit and tweak the material to make it the witty and undoubtedly charming tale it is. However, this would have been a gamble was it not for the strong casting of Jennings opposite Smith.

Jennings triumphantly plays both Bennett characters – the man and the writer, like a bickering married couple, evoking the true Bennett spirit in both: He is the hen-pecked worrier with an (unhealthy) obsession with the lives of old ladies (his mother and Miss Shepherd) and one of life’s self-depreciating cynics. Real-life Bennett takes an honest introspective look at things, but has Jennings to thank for lifting that off the page.

Smith is known for her cantankerous role-playing on both the big and small screens. Here, she encapsulates all that we love about her stubborn, independent screen spirit in one juicy role. However, her Shepherd is far from two-dimensional, rather a chameleon of emotion, a contradiction of ideas, highlighting the fragility of London’s social community cohesion too. She is also defiant to the outside world she distrusts, making her a fascinating lead agitator.

Connecting with Shepherd is key to Bennett’s film, or it becomes a chore as a purely character-driven piece with little else by way of plot. Hytner’s direction tries to keep some momentum going to counter this. There is the mystery of ‘Mary’ – or is it ‘Margaret’ – but again, this all plays out within the confines of the street, albeit, the odd trip to Broadstairs, Kent. The treat is how her character flexes with Bennett’s in the highs and lows, while they have a constant battle of minds.

It’s also how they unwittingly unite to react to others – queue the comical moments the social worker feels ‘some hostility’ from Bennett. There are also some deliciously colourful cameos from Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Frances de la Tour and the like as an assortment of snobby neighbours who all disapprove of Shepherd while equally find her predicament quite ‘quaint’ and their local star attraction.

It is a case of North vs South (or rather London) superiority again, as Bennett’s Northern roots (and mother) are the butt of all cheap jokes rolled out when the script feels wanting, becoming a little passé as a result. The true wit is had from what Bennett the writer thinks of his ‘mummy’s boy’ alter ego, as well as how Shepherd picks up on this.

The Lady In The Van is both intimate in its core relationship and formal in its social commentary arising from the situation – highly apt in today’s austerity climate but executed in a pleasingly comical light. Bennett fans are likely to be sold (there’s even a cameo), but it’s perhaps those who admire Smith that will try this in support of her veteran talent while, just maybe, stumbling upon that of Bennett’s in the process.

3/5 Stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Steve Jobs ***

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Love or hate the man, no one can deny the mark Steve Jobs made on the personal computer landscape. Would Apple be where it is today without his bullish vision? The initial fascination with this film, entitled Steve Jobs, is how Apple’s late ambassador became such a presence. Also, with news that whoever ended up portraying the man on screen had his very own acting mountain to climb by being in every scene, it’s Michael Fassbender’s performance as Jobs in the Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film that’s equally intriguing.

We follow behind the scenes and watch how Steve Jobs ticks and grows a global brand – divided up into the run-ups to three iconic product launches, ending with the 1998 unveiling of the iMac. We see how the people who worked with him – Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) to name a few – weathered the turbulent Jobs ride, as well as his relationship with a daughter, Lisa Brennan (played by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss), who he initially denies is his.

Looking nothing like Jobs to begin with, Fassbender does a remarkable ‘Job’ (pardon the pun) of getting the essence of the man that by the time he dons that ionic black polar-neck sweater, jeans and round-rimmed glasses, the differences become acute. Without investing in the actor’s hard graft, we would have a hard time continuing watching.

Fassbender does have both Winslet and Rogen to thank, both of which are playing real, living people. Their characters’ interactions with Jobs are delightful to witness – though Winslet’s Polish-American accent as Hoffman is non-existent at the start but gets stronger as the pressure builds. This film is all about character building and acting. An extra treat as an Apple aficionado is the many nods to the brand’s history in the making to be thrilled by.

That said the rest feels like a rehearsal for something grander to be unveiled – it never reaches a heady, dramatic climax, unless you know a little about the Jobs-Wozniak history. Even the expected father-daughter schmaltz does little to elevate proceedings. It is understandably predictable, as we know the history, a major restrictive factor for any real-life biopic. Still, it’s a brave project for all involved and lifts the lid partially on the mystique of Jobs.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hallow **

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Things go bump in the night – and all that horror jazz. However, filmmaker Corin Hardy’s new Irish chiller, The Hallow is more stylised than scary, and pretty much of a muchness as a haunting goes.

‘Outsiders’, husband and wife, Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) Hitchens have moved from the big smoke to forest-strewn Ireland because scientist Adam studies trees. They have also brought along their baby boy to these idyllic, green surroundings. But things are far from ‘idyllic’ in their rustic home when they ignore local folklore and advice, and their old digs comes under threat from a supernatural force.

The actual horror story follows all the usual tropes, right down to the Hitchens checking out the attic space. The addition of the baby only ramps up the chill factor – he’s in virtually every scene, implying he’s vulnerable and prey to the ‘dark force’ trying to break in.

The Hallow bucks the trend a little by having the attack on the couple coming from the outside, rather than from within – to begin with. The trouble is, it’s like Hardy and his creative team are so proud of their animatronics ghouls that they show them off a little too soon. Something needs to be left to the imagination here, or proceedings become mundane.

In fact, the film’s only real positive is its organic production design. It’s rich in earthy substance that’s literally oozing menace. Even the subsequent ‘The Fly’ transformation is pretty impressive for a film on a limited budget. It is highly imaginative in this sense.

Aside from that, there is nothing very remarkable about The Hallow – it makes no real mark, even though it leaves matters open to a possible sequel. Still, you could argue Hardy is merely flexing his creative muscles before working on the reboot of The Crow. The Hallow is certainly a place to start.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: He Named Me Malala ***

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Malala Yousafzai is one of the most influential female figures in the world right now, an ordinary Pakistani teenager who stood up to the Taliban about girls’ right to an education and was shot on a school bus as a result, along with a couple of close friends.

This is meant to be Malala’s film – and it is to an extent, directed by Davis Guggenheim who brought us the terrifying and affecting documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), following Al Gore’s campaign trail to raise public awareness about global warming. Hence, her tale ought to be in good filmmaking hands.

While Malala’s strength and remarkable story are undeniably compelling, Guggenheim ‘s film lacks a more enriching ‘personal account’. It feels more like a polished piece of campaign material with lots of news clippings than an intimate portrayal, which you are expecting. You don’t feel any more informed about Malala herself than you did. The film trailer feels like a tease with hindsight.

At the very beginning, we discover through narration and one of the many animations in the film that young Yousafzai was named after a famous Afghan poetess and warrior called ‘Malala’. This opening sequence is a nice touch. Subsequent illustrations begin to feel too twee and borderline pretentious, even though the parts of the story need to be told and a talking head on camera may not be the best solution either.

The majority who will view this film know Malala’s story already, as it was headline news in October 2012. Even more will know about her going on to win the Nobel Peace Price at 17 last year, after ‘missing out’ the previous year, and her campaigning. The film’s strongest parts are the family moments – including on-camera interviews with her comic little brother, proving kids say the funniest things in all sincerity.

Although Malala has a grace and inner poise to greatly admire, coupled with a natural warmth and wicked sense of humour (as we discover), the film-makers could have got further under her skin to reveal more about her desires, what drives her, her family relationships, and what makes that network and support so valuable and nurturing. There is a far more interesting subplot about Malala’s mother and her education that is touched on but not fully explored that would have given a greater insight into Malala’s development, rather than coming at it from the father angle.

And yet, in spite of the fact the above criticisms suggest an overall disappointment with the film’s execution, it still should be show to every school-age child as a source of education and inspiration. Ironically, it feels like a PR package ready for just that purpose rather than a personal account like A Syrian Love Story, say, especially as Malala has had to flee her home, a small town in the Swat Valley in north-west Pakistan.

We certainly now know why she was named Malala, but do we know anything more about the girl who is a beacon of hope, short of a few giggly girlie crushes? Malala is an awesome character in a film that feels mediocre and unsurprising, and much like a party political broadcast at times. A great shame, really.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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