MOVIE REVIEW: CINEMATIC GEMS TO MAKE YOUR HOLIDAY SPARKLE
YOUTH • THE LADY IN THE VAN • THE LETTERS • A ROYAL NIGHT OUT
December 10, 2015
We may be in the midst of the holiday season but that also means we are in the midst of the movie awards season aka “studios bring out their best and brightest Oscar hopefuls.” And while some national and regional awards have already been handed out, with many more to come, and nominations for other awards like the Film Independent Spirit Awards announced, many of the names and titles being bandied about haven’t yet made it to most theatres; they are playing in New York and LA for what are known as “qualifying runs” in consideration of the Academy Awards. (And for my local readers in Culver City and Santa Monica and surrounding areas, aren’t you lucky, because you get a shot at seeing these films before national roll-outs.)
This weekend boasts a number of exquisite films being released on a limited or qualifying basis, all of which are, to put it bluntly, quite magnificent. So as you look for respites from the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping and traffic, take some time to stop by the theatre and check out some of these sparkling cinematic gems.
Who doesn’t love Michael Caine? Can you ever get enough of him? I know I can’t. And thanks to writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, Caine is front and center along with Harvey Keitel, in YOUTH. A unique examination and contemplation of life and age, which is uniquely told with some random abandon but filled with a delicious dark, yet at times, quirky humor. An extremely intelligent film both in script and concept, Sorrentino soars with his visual metaphor and dichotomous juxtapositions throughout the film.
Fred Ballinger has spent more than 20 years taking annual respite at a Swiss resort spa. Looking more like a throwback to the health spas for the European elite in the 30's and 40's, there is a comfortable ease to the resort that Fred seems to cherish. Is it the memories it holds of days gone by or something more? A world renowned composer and symphony conductor, Fred has long retired. Still sought after for his memoirs, which he refuses to write, his daughter Lena is his “manager.” However, it’s not difficult to see the strained relationship between father and daughter, the reasons for which carefully unfold as the film progresses. But it’s not just his memoirs people seek. The Queen wants “a command performance” of Fred conducting his most famous composition, “Simple Songs”, at a ceremony for Prince Philip. A Buckingham Palace emissary appears at the spa begging for Fred’s agreement, in exchange for a knighthood, of course. Fred refuses “for personal reasons” he won’t disclose.
Also at the spa is Fred’s oldest friend and relative-in-law, Mick Boyle. A filmmaker who doesn’t believe he’s past his prime, Mick has surrounded himself with a group of young wannabees to finish writing and develop what Mick describes as what will be his “testament” to the world, a film entitled “Life’s Last Day.” And as for the relative part, Fred’s daughter Lena is married to Mick’s son Julian, that is until Julian leaves Lena for pop star Paloma Faith, adding Lena to the resort spa guest list.
Other interesting spa guests abound, including the very cerebral actor Jimmy Tree (think Johnny Depp meets James Franco) who spends his time observing and intellectualizing others. Fascinating character to watch. Also populating the spa is a very obese former soccer star tattooed with Karl Marx on his back and wearing an oversized Jesus pendant on his front, a young masseuse whose hands “speak” to Fred akin to notes of a composition, and nightly entertainment harkens to elegant vaudeville theatre-in-the-round. And then there’s an appearance by aging Hollywood star Brenda Morel, a former love and leading lady of Mick’s life and career.
Through it all, Fred and Mick marvel at the absurdity of it all with well worn patter of enlightening chit chat, telling pauses and silences and reflection on a life well lived versus a life yet to live. And then there are two powerful monologues, one from Lena and one from Brenda that reveal more about life in their combined ten minutes than Mick or Fred have ever considered. Sentiment abounds for lives, and loves, lost.
As Fred and Mick, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are at the top of their game. Caine knocks it out of the part with subdued subtlety while Keitel has a clinging desperate lust for life that is almost envious, while at the same time very sad. Rachel Weisz really bites into the character of Lena and allows us to see a glorious emerging of a woman, like a butterfly spreading its wings for the first time. The emotion she infuses into Lena is raw, visceral and heartbreaking both as a dumped wife and oft-deserted daughter. Her mud room monologue alone is enough to warrant Academy attention for supporting actress.
Speaking of Oscar, someone shine a bright light on Jane Fonda who, in two brief scenes, captures and conveys every myth, legend and truth of Hollywood and life. I was spellbound, unblinking during her rant with Keitel. And not to be overlooked is another indelible turn this year from Paul Dano; this time as the “Johnny Depp-esque” observational take as Jimmy Tree.
Sorrentino’s visual design and the setting is beyond impressive. A gorgeous visual metaphor for life, endless to the sky yet limited by the mountains themselves. Particularly telling is the funicular snow scene with Keitel’s Mick and his minion writers. Nighttime performance pieces are an oddity, adding that charming touch of quirkiness - which, by the way, fits with the old world immersion of this “spa” (clearly a sanatorium in earlier decades).
Pacing may seem at times a bit slow, but the visuals and the characters with their unfolding stories are riveting and even if you feel time lag a bit (as in life), it is impossible to look away. There are some big reveals that come as shocks.
There is a simplicity about YOUTH that is touching, reflective, sentimental. YOUTH can be a “simple song”. It’s age that gets complicated.
THE LADY IN THE VAN
‘Tis the season for legends and icons as we move from Sir Michael Caine to Dame Maggie Smith in Sir Nicholas Hytner’s THE LADY IN THE VAN. Warm, witty and wonderful, THE LADY IN THE VAN is a pure delight!
Adapted from the acclaimed stage play written by Alan Bennett based on his “mostly true story” of THE LADY IN THE VAN, directed by Hytner from Bennett’s script, and starring Smith and Alex Jennings, who reprise their stage roles for screen, this is the story of the unforgettable Miss Shepherd, who did indeed live in a van in Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years.
The time is 1970 and we meet Miss Shepherd. A bit wonky and homeless (although she says she’s not as her home is her van), she has been parking her van on the streets of the a beautiful garden district in suburban London. An eyesore to be sure, when it comes time for the vehicle to be towed, writer Alan Bennett takes pity on Miss Shepherd and allows to park her van in his unused driveway “for a few months.” The writer in him, however, finds both her and her situation fascinating. And then with Alex Jennings in a dual role as himself, THE LADY IN THE VAN takes flight with the dazzling antics of Miss Shepherd as Alan Bennett the writer sits at his window observing Miss Shepherd, the van and the goings on of life, and Alan Bennett the participant who interacts with Miss Shepherd and everything outside the walls of Bennett’s den. The result is stimulating and entertaining beyond belief as we go back in time with Miss Shepherd’s remembrances, as well as forward, watching one of the most engaging human interest stories ever.
Maggie Smith sparkles like the brightest diamond, glistening with wit and whimsy. Smith dives in head first, relishing the bizarre quirkiness of Miss Shepherd; most notably with Shepherd’s devotion to and claims of divine guidance from the Virgin Mary, her dumpster wardrobe and her utter lack of personal hygiene. But then Smith zings us with a palpable fear at hearing music or a man that repeatedly knocks on her van window at night demanding money. And the surprising innocence we see on her face in some late in life tender moments will warm the coldest heart.
As for Alex Jennings in the dual role of Alan Bennett, his performance is beyond fabulous. The dueling personas within Bennett’s head now brought to life are entertaining and engaging. Joyous is part of what Hytner describes as his repertoire company, including cameos by Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Roger Allam and Smith’s former "Harry Potter" co-star, Frances de la Tour, in a "meatier" role than what we normally see of her. de la Tour just fuels the romp that's unfolding with genuine laughter and glee.
Hytner's direction is inspired, creative to the core. Production designer John Beard has outdone himself with creating "The Van" and its immediate environs, while costumer Natalie Ward truly captures every element of attiring the homeless - with layering and fabrics, while capturing the personal, yet too often overlooked, pride of the individual. Cinematography is light and bright, never bogs down into darkness or claustrophobic lensing; on the contrary, Andrew Dunn actually makes the world of "The Lady" and of "The Van" feel spacious. Dunn's lens adds texture to the surrounding palette of "The Van" by capturing the minutiae of the community - bricks, florals, gates, cobblestones, windows, etc. while never making any of those layers too obvious. Visual nuance; like little metallic threads in embroidery.
Run, don't walk, to the nearest screen for THE LADY IN THE VAN!
Mother Teresa. Her name. Her face. Her charity. All world renowned. And rumor has it she will finally be given sainthood in 2016. But who was the woman underneath the famous white and blue robes that walked the streets of Calcutta for so many decades? With THE LETTERS, writer/director William Riead seeks to answer that very question.
Based on decades of letters written by Teresa to her spiritual advisor Fr. Celeste van Exem, THE LETTERS is framed as a look back at her life via a postulator investigating Teresa for possible beatification (a rung on the step to sainthood) and his interviews with van Exem who had Teresa’s letters. We hear from van Exem, Teresa suffered from great inner turmoil, emptiness and loneliness, even losing her faith in good.
Going back in time to Teresa’s days as a teacher at Sisters of Loreto's Calcutta school for girls, the chronology unfolds, from her horror at the poor and destitute seen from the safety of the convent to her years long battle for decloistering so she may go out into the poor and serve them
serve them to the birth of the Missionaries of Charity to her awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout, we have the benefit of narrative through Fr. Van Exem’s telling of THE LETTERS. The one shortcoming, however, is while we hear of her loneliness and emptiness, we don’t really see that much of it as the film focuses on her charity work and her presence among the people.
Why no one is as yet talking about Juliet Stevenson for awards consideration is beyond me. Now in her late 50's, Stevenson plays Mother Teresa from age 35 to 70 with a believability and resonance that radiates from within. The depth of conviction and humility which she imbues in the character took my breath away. Her physical stance, nuanced movement and motion; you feel the onus of life on Teresa’s shoulders. Powerful fragility at its finest. And when she smiles that little smile, genuine warmth emanates.
As Fr. Celeste van Exem, Max Von Sydow is the embodiment of paternal kindness, concern and generosity of spirit. Particularly impressive is the casting of Aapo Pukk as the young van Exem. Pukk manages to capture Von Sydow’s physical movement to cement the generational connective tissue. The man who kicks off the story, postulator Benjamin Praagh, is given a strength of conviction thanks to Rutger Hauer. Like Von Sydow, minimal screen time, but Hauer makes the most of every minute.
Riead’s construction of effective and extremely well paced. The story completely engrossing. Interesting is that while we know Teresa was Catholic and the Vatican is an integral part of her story, the film - like Teresa's work - is essentially devoid of preaching Catholicism or any religious bent, but for some procedural elements.
A lesson in humility. An eye-opener on a woman who touched the world. THE LETTERS is one film that captures the true spirit of the season.
A ROYAL NIGHT OUT
Pulling a page right of history and the diary of a young Queen Elizabeth, screenwriters Kevin Hood and Trevor De Silva have crafted a “what if” fantasy of royal proportion with A ROYAL NIGHT OUT.
As has been discovered over the past years, on the night of VE day, then Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret went out into the revelry of the night with the commoners of England. Documented in her diary by Elizabeth herself, “Out in the crowd again. Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, walked simply miles. Saw parents on balcony at 12:30 am - ate, partied, bed 3am!” Beyond that entry, we know not exactly what the girls did, but Hood, De Silva and director Julian Jarrold posit just that in this frothy confection of fun, A ROYAL NIGHT OUT.
Taking us on a tour of nighttime London, we follow Elizabeth and Margaret on their adventures about town, including Elizabeth’s flirtation with a handsome Air Force lieutenant, a rather tipsy Margaret, the separation of the girls and Elizabeth’s hunt to find her sister, parties upon parties, meeting “ladies of the evening” and service men alike, and of course, the proverbial unhappy parents when one wanders home at 3am.
As Elizabeth, Sarah Gadon is polished, confident, yet with a streak of fun, while Bel Powley steals the show as Margaret. And dare I mention Gadon’s flawless British accent. (She’s Canadian, although her grandmother was British and served England during the war.) A comedic darling, Powley reminds me of Imogene Coca with her comic style, and her performance just fills you with exuberance akin to that of VE Day. Jack Reynor enchants as Elizabeth’s knight in shining armor, Jack, and the two have a chemistry that is filled with razor-edged wit laced with tenderness. Some equally sweet and funny moments between the two. But, the joy and fun of the chemistry amongst Gadon, Powley and Reynor is gleefully infectious! Emily Watson is sterling as the stuffy disciplinarian Queen Mother while Rupert Everett is charming, albeit a bit frail, as loving father King George VI.
From Laurence Dorman’s production design to Claire Anderson’s costuming to Christophe Beaucarne’s lensing to period perfect musical selections buttressed by Paul Englishby’s score, A ROYAL NIGHT is a upbeat toe-tapping delight! It is so upbeat, so beautiful from prod design & costume to lensing, the big band music so much fun it makes your toes tap, and Bel Powley a comedic darling (reminds me of Imogene Coca with her comic style), that it just fills you with exuberance akin to that on VE Day. The joy and fun of Sarah and Bel and Jack is gleefully infectious!
To borrow from Glen Miller - I'm always "in the mood" for A ROYAL NIGHT OUT!!!