*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!)

MR HOLMES REVIEW

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Can one of Britain’s biggest screen icons take on one of the most iconic literary figures? The answer is elementary, my dear movie minions.

Sublime. From the moment, the stern sleuth corrected a child on his error for mistaking a wasp for a bee, I knew I was for in a treat. A superb performance from Sir Ian McKellen.

An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman (Hattie Morahan).

I’m not the world’s biggest Sherlock fan. The endless entries and reboots in both TV and film, despite having two charismatic leads, in Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch were overlong, over-hyped and needlessly complex. Watchable enough.

However, this take on the man behind the myth made for good viewing. McKellen’s charisma really carried the film as Mr Holmes attempts to recollect the details of his last case. The case that he never solved and forced him to exile to the pastoral countryside.

If you’re expecting an affair like the RDJ movies and Cucumberbatch TV series, you may be left disappointed. This is very much a slow burning yarn as Holmes must re-evaluate his life’s work and come to terms with his own mortality.

They really made McKellen look old and haggard. I mean obviously the screen icon is 76 but it’s mad how a few more lines and a hunched posture can change everything.

The story line flicks back and forth. Each flashback a little disjointed piece of a bigger puzzle. The only niggle I had with the continuity is that McKellen only looks a few years younger when the case is supposed to be 30 years old. Tut tut tut. McKellen can act as spritely as he wants. He can’t hide those greys. But only a niggle.

The structure worked really well as each development of the case coincided with a development in Holmes’ condition.

The case appears relatively simple. A suspicious husband curious of his wife’s activities. BUT of course in typical Holmes fashion, not everything is as it seems.

Hattie Morahan (The Bletchley Circle) played the wife well. BUT the case, for all its anticipated mystery and suspense, was a little disappointing. The puzzle solving was fun enough. BUT the unravelling wasn’t really that riveting or as rewarding as I hoped.

I was left wanting. There was one sobering moment that did surprise me. BUT the fantastic supporting cast were not used to their full potential and that was down to their poor characters.

Frances De La Tour (Rising Damp) certainly did a better job at a German accent than she did an American one in Survivor. BUT for all her flamboyance, the character was merely a weak red herring.

Roger Allam (The Queen) did the best that he could with his stoic doctor role and Philip Davis (Vera Drake) was merely a passing cameo with his detective. Shame.

What did stand out for me was the myth breaking of the man. The jokes about his deer stalker hat and pipe were brilliant. Merely for McKellen’s reaction. “I don’t smoke a pipe! I like the occasional cigar”.

I did get a chuckle as the miserable mystery man laughed at one of his latest screen offerings at the local pictures. Tutting and sighing away at the stupidity and inaccuracy of it all. His constant complaining of Watson’s exaggerations on his appearance, cases and life were entertaining.

Holmes’ memory loss made for sombre viewing. Forced to write dots in a diary when he forgets a name, place, date. It really hit home when Holmes couldn’t even remember the name of the housekeeper’s son Roger (Milo Parker) whom he had grown fond of. Quickly looking to the name he had written on his cuff.

McKellen and Parker were brilliant together. A stubborn old man versus a deductive, energetic fan. Parker will certainly be one to watch for the future. A strong performance. I really liked their relationship and it lightened the tone of a very serious case. A surrogate Watson, if you may.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I was too impressed with Roger’s mother. Laura Linney’s housekeeper was a mixed bag. I loved her in The Big C and I certainly felt for her character as she struggled to keep up with her son’s developing intellect. BUT what didn’t help was that her accent was so muddled. She really couldn’t grasp it and you could tell. It really grated against me. Each line felt like the bellow of a strangled cat. Well, maybe not that bad.

The story did lag in places and dither into random tangents which did have me questioning, “Where was this going?”. A quest for a miraculous herb known as ‘Prickly Ash’ in Japan felt a little out of place. BUT it allowed for a harrowing, if brilliantly shot sequence as Holmes ventures through the aftermath of Hiroshima.

It also unearthed Holmes’ desperation to fight his ailing condition. Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai)’s herb finder role seemed too tame and a thin subplot involving his father didn’t seem to make much sense.

However, the final quarter was unexpected. And all the little questions I had soon fell into place rounding everything perfectly. I went in expecting nothing and was rewarded with something more. I just wish that Holmes’ last case was much more memorable for the cast and the man. BUT the closing moments were written brilliantly and acted to perfection.

McKellen is everything you could imagine. The cast did their best. The case left little for desire.

BUT I would still recommend.

3/5

THE BOOK THIEF REVIEW

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An endearing and heartfelt drama. Brilliantly written, nicely shot and well acted.

Against the backdrop of the impending Second World War, a young orphan Liesel Nieminger (Sophie Nelisse) finds solace in stealing books as well as hiding a Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer) who is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.

I’ve never read Markus Zusak’s best selling novel BUT certainly want to now after watching this. A brilliant narration from Roger Allam (V for Vendetta) accompanied a sobering and dark opening sequence as Liesel met her foster parents for the first time; the instantly loveable and easygoing Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and stern and frumpy Rosa (Emily Watson). It allowed for an easygoing first act as she adjusted to her new home and made friends with the eager Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch). BUT also enemies with the delightfully unpleasant bully Franz Deutscher (Levin Liam).

The film subtly built up to the impending war. It was an interesting transition as it soon took a toll on the community. At 131 minutes, there were parts where the film did dip BUT it was still riveting and beautiful to watch. Once Max (a fantastic debut from Schnetzer – Pride) entered the mix, the film branched out and made for an endearing, suspenseful and engaging war drama.

Nelisee is a good little actress and carries the film well. She is definitely going to be one to watch for the future. It’s always important that these dramas have characters you can root for and care about. The supporting cast were perfect. Rush and Watson were fantastic as her sparring foster parents. Liersch and Nelisse had great chemistry as the childhood companions desperate to keep hold of their friendship as the war takes those around them.

It’s always tough to make a war drama after so many fantastic examples. It’s important to remember that this is an experience of the Nazi regime under Hitler through the eyes of a little German girl. If you’re expecting a gritty, explosive war flick you will be left disappointed. However, the film builds up to an unexpected, harrowing and tear jerking finale as the war breaks apart the idyllic Heaven Street. All aided with the a beautifully Oscar nominated score from none other than the great John Williams (Jaws/Harry Potter/Star Wars)

My main qualm with the film was that it breezes over crucial turning points in Hitler’s regime. We all know some aspect of the man’s madness. BUT we’re also NOT history buffs. We’re all aware of the horrendous treatment of the Jews BUT may not necessarily know the Night of the Long Knives. The overlong pace may test some. The first hour may have been a little schmaltzy BUT it still delivered a harrowing finale. The only problem was that it felt a little abrupt and left too many questions about certain protagonists. There could have been a little more time spent on explaining and been better for it without spoiling anything.

However, I still went in, NOT sure what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. Definitely one of the better films.

3.5/5