*NEW* THE LADY IN THE VAN REVIEW *NEW*

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An exceptional performance from a great Dame does enough to save this mixed bag of a mostly true story.

Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman (Maggie Smith) living in her car that’s parked in his driveway.

After a strong opening with a small glimpse into the past of our mysterious lady in the van, things were put on the back burner and we were subjected to the endless monologues of Alan Bennett.

And that was the problem. There was too much Bennett. I was aware of the renowned playwright but wasn’t really used to his style. The History Boys, being one of the other film adaptations I’ve seen, wasn’t my cup of tea.

Now credit where it’s due. Jennings was very good as the dithering playwright. Once I got used to Bennett’s running commentary, I was able to enjoy it a little more as the film went on. The ‘caught between two minds’ gag (in which we see two Bennetts) was a clever little skit and helped differentiate what Bennett did in real life and what he imagined. His snappy one liners and some of his monologues were actually quite entertaining as he argued and bickered with the lady in the van and himself.

The introduction of the London Borough of Camden community didn’t really bring much to the mix. If anything, they were heavily underused. Especially with the talent at Bennett’s finger tips. Jim Broadbent played the shady retired cooper in his limited role perfectly. He brought some needed suspense and drama to the mix.

Roger Allam and Deborah Findley were probably the only other characters that made an impression as Bennett’s nosy neighbours. Desperate to fish out any little bit of gossip. Frances de la Tour was completely wasted in her role. Dominic Cooper’s cameo was nothing more than an ongoing gag taking the mick out of Bennett’s promiscuity and sexuality. I couldn’t believe how many British sitcom actors popped up in this. Even James Corden turned up as a market trader.

BUT they were always going to fall short to the lady in the van. The iconic actress that is Maggie Smith. Bearing “a vagabond nobility”, the make up team really made her look rough. Her acid tongue and mad rants were hilarious. The outbursts at the sound of music. The exchanges. The looks. Brilliant.

A monster in one second. Ungrateful and using. Hurt and alone the next. Neglected by the church and left to fend for herself. When we finally got to delve into her past, you soon developed empathy towards the cantankerous old bat.

However, the main issue I had with the piece was that there was too much focus on Bennett. As much as it was a semi-autobiographical account; it would help if his life story was interesting. That’s not to say that it didn’t have its moments. Bennett didn’t exactly paint himself in the best light. His reluctance to look after his mad ol’ Mam (A sterling turn from Gwen Taylor) but acceptance of Smith’s squatter on his driveway drew a shocking, but interesting, comparison.

BUT the drama around Bennett soon dragged what was a charming little affair. The ramblings about his plays and the late night meetings with his “friends” was only really funny when Smith’s lady interrogated him. “All these men coming over at all hours of the night. People will think you’re a Communist”.

When Smith disappeared so did my interest. It’s hard when telling a loosely based true story NOT to exaggerate or guess what Smith’s character would have done or said. However, it didn’t really build up to anything that I expected. Her treatment at the monastery was ripe for more drama and confrontation BUT never amounted to anything. Neither did her back story of why she was in the van in the first place.

It was certainly watchable BUT engaging? The closing moments proved why Smith is still one of the best actresses going. The Oscar buzz might be a little premature but it was still a superb performance. The OTT ending didn’t really fit in with the tone for me. I understood why Bennett did this elaborate overture but I still wasn’t a fan.

Funny, charming, easygoing when Smith was involved. Otherwise, it just wasn’t as fulfilling or as entertaining as I expected.

3/5 (Just!)

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THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL REVIEW

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These old dogs need to learn some new tricks if there’s going to be another one.

As the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has only a single remaining vacancy – posing a rooming predicament for two fresh arrivals – Sonny (Dev Patel) pursues his expansionist dream of opening a second hotel.

Now, I loved the first film. It was fun, easy going, a charming little affair with a fantastic cast. When I heard that there was going to be another, I was excited. Hardly surprised after the reception the original received.

However, this outing seemed to suffer from the dreaded sequelitis. The charm offensive just about pulled it off to make it watchable. BUT I was left wanting more. A phrase I’m using far too often lately.

The opening didn’t really build my hopes up as Patel’s Sonny and Dame Maggie Smith’s Muriel barter with a boardroom of corporate drones about financing the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Smith’s rambling and raving about how Americans never serve tea properly didn’t really deliver the laughs. If anything, it annoyed the hell out of me and was dreadfully clichéd.

Look, I’m English. (What?!) Tea has always been a recurring joke but come on, we’re better than that! I still had a little guilty chuckle but when the gag kept popping up; it soon died of death.

Patel played Sonny well. But I found him a lot more irritating this time round. However, what did keep me watching was Sonny and Muriel’s relationship. A surrogate mother/son dynamic that made for hilarious and heart-warming viewing.

I felt Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle’s story line was a little too silly. I was interested in Norman and Carol’s relationship as the pair struggle to adapt to a monogamous lifestyle after playing the field for so long.

BUT all I got was a subplot that was taken out of a bad Carry On film with a drunken conversation between Norman and a taxi driver unwittingly setting up a “hit” on his partner.

I only really got some enjoyment or drama out of the pair in the closing moments. BUT it was resolved far too quickly for my liking. A shame.

Bill Nighy. A comedy legend and a talented actor in my eyes. Disappointing. He just seemed to dither and normally it worked to his advantage but I found myself getting bored of him. The whole tour gag with a young Indian lad feeding him information with a dodgy wireless ear piece has been done time and time again.

His subplot only got interesting when Penelope Wilton made a surprise appearance to upset the apple cart.

It was a surprise that Douglas (Nighy) and Evelyn’s (Dench) characters were still courting and not properly together. Inevitably a spanner is thrown in the works as Evelyn is given an opportunity to work again.

This is where it killed things for me. Dench’s absence was missed. Merely reprieved with little scenes in which we see her and a market trader bartering and dealing with the local community.

Celia Imrie’s love triangle story line was a little nothingy. Her inevitable brewing romance with the chauffeur that drove her to the two men she was seeing was predictable but easygoing.

However, she seemed to be pushed further into the background. If not for a memorable quote upon Gere’s arrival, “God have mercy on my ovaries”, I wouldn’t have known she was there.

Patel’s business venture ambitions and impending wedding certainly spiced things. Sonny’s best friend’s questionable friendship with his fiancee certainly ignited some much needed tension and drama into the mix. BUT to the same old infuriating and predictable results.

While we’re talking about predictable; the red herring hotel inspector subplot was naff. Richard Gere did his best and played the mystery man well BUT it was all so hokey. Sonny “pimping” out his mother to try and improve his review got the odd chuckle. BUT Tamsin Grieg and her shady American accent just didn’t work.

Hardly spoilerific but what was the purpose of David Strathairn’s role? He had the easiest job going. A waste of an incredibly talented actor.

It wasn’t all bad. Maggie Smith was on fine form as usual. Her sniping and complaining delivered the better moments. One perfect example being when Evelyn shares some wonderful advice with her and she simply looks at her, baffled and asks; “I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” Priceless.

The ending certainly left things open and wasn’t without a few surprises (Don’t worry. No spoilers). And dare I say, I had a little tear.

I was able to walk out with a cheeky little grin after seeing the geriatric icons jumping up and down at the wedding reception without a care in the world.

BUT it just didn’t carry it off as well as the first. A film I went in expecting nothing and was rewarded with much more.

Maybe I went in with too high an expectation this time. It was certainly watchable and there were laughs to be had, “Why die here? When I can die . . . there”.

A mixed bag of spice and naff tobacco for me. Tobacco being the stodgy story lines.

2.5/5