Lady in the Van BannerMaggie Smith - Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The Lady in the Van, the engaging film by Nicholas Hytner, based on Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir of his 15-year relationship with an elderly woman who lived in a van parked beside his front garden in North London’s Camden Town, benefits from a lively performance by Maggie Smith as “The Lady.” Fractious though she may be, with an upper-class hauteur that makes her prickly sense of entitlement almost charming, it’s her backstory, once we eventually come to understand it, that engages our sympathy and tugs at our emotions. Bennett turned his book into a play starring Smith in 1999, so she clearly owns the role. Coincidentally, after The Madness of King George and The History Boys, it’s the third time Hytner has successfully directed a Bennett adaptation of a Bennett play.

Maggie Smith. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The movie opens with black and white footage of a young woman performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1. Even though Smith’s character, Mary Shepherd, cannot bear classical music -- she attacks a quartet of diverse street musicians playing at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony early on -- we discover that she had been a piano student of Alfred Cortot’s in France before WWII. And that she had her love of music literally beaten out of her -- as she was playing Chopin -- by nuns in the convent where she was a novice. Our first clue that music had something to do with Shepherd’s mysterious past, comes when she visits a seniors’ club and enjoys listening to a young woman perform Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90, No.3 D899. The pianist is Clare Hammond, who also stands in for the young Miss Shepherd in the several excerpts from the second and third movements of the Chopin concerto, playing with a sensitive poignancy in the Larghetto Romanze and a restrained delicacy in the Vivace Rondo.

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett (left) with director Nicholas Hytner. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Among the artistic types who populate Gloucester Crescent, the leafy street where most of the film takes place, is the widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, but it’s the eccentric outsider Bennett, who shares centre stage with Shepherd. He’s presented onscreen as two sides of himself, the knowing writer and the misfit who cycles around and engages his neighbours in small talk.

The writer side of the equation is constantly offering advice to his other half while commenting on the screen goings-on. It’s a clever device that bears fruit in the film’s final frames.

The formidable supporting cast -- Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay as the neighbours -- includes History Boys’ alumni James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett in brief cameos. But it’s Maggie Smith’s touching portrayal that stays with you long after.

The Lady in the Van opens at the Cineplex Odeon Varsity Cinema February 5 for an extended run.

Author: Paul Ennis
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Géza Röhrig as Saul. Photo by Laszlo Nemes, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Laszlo Nemes’ intense, intoxicating, immersive debut feature, Son of Saul, won the Grand Prize (the silver medal, if you will) at Cannes this year. A few days ago it took the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Now it's poised to win the Academy Award in the same category.


TaynaTagaqJosephBoyden

In Al Purdy Was Here dozens of literary talking heads led by Margaret Atwood bring the charismatic Canadian poet Al Purdy to life with anecdotes, reminiscences and first-hand history but it's the copious video evidence of Purdy himself that makes the best case for his unique voice. The fate of Purdy's Roblin Lake A-frame in Prince Edward County is the starting point for this thorough documentary directed by former Maclean's magazine film critic Brian D. Johnson and written by Johnson and his writer/editor wife Marni Jackson.Elevating the proceedings are a number of songs inspired by Purdy's poetry that mainly succeed in their genre cross-pollination. Standouts include “Say the Names” performed by violinist Jesse Zubot, Giller Prize-winning novelist Joseph Boyden and the extraordinaryTanya Tagaq, who internalized Purdy's words (as spoken by Boyden) transforming them into raw emotional energy. Sarah Harmer performed her song about a place where music and art are welcome, the melancholic, moving, “Just Get There,” on the old upright piano in her house. Bruce Cockburn's “3 Al Purdys” ends the film, offering the singer-songwriter's own inimitable take on the poet, summing up the previous 90 minutes in a song.


Mavis Staples

Mavis! Is Jessica Edwards' inspirational film on the life of Mavis Staples, whose unique voice brought joy and happiness to millions as the most prominent member of the Staples Singers, a family act led by and directed with great foresight by Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Roebuck Staples grew up on a Mississippi plantation that also fostered the great bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton; Staples learned blues guitar from Patton, later incorporating it into his gospel music, thereby crossing a line that had never been crossed before.

The Staples Singers had a vast influence on people from Bob Dylan to Martin Luther King Jr. Dylan recalls hearing them as a 12-year-old: “Sit Down Servant made me stay up for a week,” he said. Why Am I Treated So Bad, which Pops wrote after he attended King's Montgomery Alabama church, was the Civil Rights leader's favourite song.

Informative talking heads (Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Levon Helm, Prince and more), a strong working relationship with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (who revived her career after her father's death in 2000) and historical perspective from biographer Greg Kot combine with priceless archival footage to present a vivid picture of a musical force of nature.

Mavis Staples

Kot pointed out that her life touched on seven musical eras beginning in Chicago with Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Mahalia Jackson as neighbours. Raitt described her as “sensual without being salacious.” The Staples Singers were among the most popular gospel music acts (when gospel music was hugely popular in the post-WWII years). They had a style that harked back to the 1920s plus a deep tremolo that was electric when combined with reverb guitar.

Footage from a 1963 Westinghouse TV show, Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs, amusingly quaint, featured Dylan and the Staples; later appearances on television with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton are no less culturally rich. Mavis appeared with The Band in The Last Waltz and recorded with Levon Helm and Steve Cropper. And brought her own gravitas to Prince's music (“Prince called – can you imagine?”).

Mavis! Plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema November 13-19 and December 7, 10, 14 and 17.

Director Jessica Edwards will participate in Q&As on November 13 at 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and on November 14 at 4:00 p.m.

 


heart of a dog

The most musical film I saw at TIFF 2015, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, is a visual and aural poem filled with truths and lies, imaginatively linked by the writer/director/narrator’s familiar persona.

Her Rat Terrier Lolabelle’s death sparks a lighthearted yet serious reminiscence that mirrors Kierkegaard’s maxim, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” as it pertains to her wondrously talented pooch. The lovable and talented animal doesn’t mind hearing her owner’s hypnotic cello figure for the 70th time.

Anderson learns to feel sad without actually being sad as she deals not only with Lolabelle’s death but that of her mother and husband (Lou Reed) as well. Reed is never mentioned but appears at frame’s edge in a home movie taken in Central Park and briefly as a doctor in a hospital scene. His song Turning Time Around ends the monologue after nearly 75 minutes and carries on through the final credits (which finish with a dedication to his “magnificent spirit”). It’s a touching acknowledgement of a significant part of her life the loss of which she obviously is unwilling to fully confront. Meanwhile her dry sense of humour carries the narrative as she showcases Lolabelle’s talent at the piano and “a pretty good Christmas record” that she and her pet produced.

Her whimsy masks a serious undercurrent. Humour is apt to appear in unlikely places that gently jar the viewer’s mind but always crack a smile; she uses 8mm home movies, dollar-store animation and her own drawings to further layer her artistic mien.

The soundtrack’s major instrument is Anderson’s voice. However filtered it may be, it’s always ultra-present, the perfect elastic vehicle for her insights, bemused observations and grains of Buddhist teachings (which reminded me of John Cage’s Indeterminacy).

Heart of a Dog includes musical excerpts from several of her pieces—The Lake and Flow from Homeland (2010), Beautiful Pea Green Boat from Bright Red (1994), Rhumba Club from Life on a String (2001) and excerpts from Landfall (2011) with the Kronos Quartet. The music interrupts, comments on, bumps up against and fuses with the narration; it’s an essential component of this fanciful, uplifting film.

Heart of a Dog is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.


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