“The Lady In The Van”

Viewers who want to see Maggie Smith play a homeless ex-nun concert pianist will be pleased with this vehicle tuned-up to show her talent. The crusty, pecking fire-brand is true to form. Viewers will not be as pleased with the guilt-ridden back story cum road murder mystery which seems contrived and unnecessary. The real story centers on a gay playwright who allows her to park her van in his driveway for fifteen years.

Director Nicholas Hytner tells us this is “mostly a true story” so we settle in with “The Lady In The Van” and expect some tampering with the telling for entertainment sake. All olfactory senses are on alert for a mixture of talcum, lavender, onions, wet wool and damp newspaper. Only later do we get urine and feces. Mary (Maggie Smith) barks that her unseen places are the cleanest of my mother’s children. He says her incontinence stain is ” not a fashion statement” and that she has left “a parcel on the path”. Scatalogical humor reigns.

Camden, England, 1973 on C High Street is our setting. Mary often reminds us and others that she is ” a sick woman, dying possibly”. The educated Mary ~ she speaks French and is musically gifted~ further states that she is “in need of dire assistance.”  The street’s  curious residents react with the full spectrum of recoil and disdain to grudging acceptance and generosity. “Staying long?” being one of my favorites.

Maggie Smith gutsy spirit is displayed as she asks for guidance from the Virgin Mary, sells pencils in doorways,and to those who ask of her chalk marks, ” I teach, the pavement is my blackboard”.  She moves on only when a family of  children practicing  on their recorders cause her musical ears distress. Margaret Mary ( she is called both) ends up in in playwright Alan  Bennett’s (Alex Jennings) drive. She uses his lav, his tv, and later his electricity. The social worker tells him, “You are the one she related to”.

Jennings has an alter ego which at first I thought was his brother. They dress differently and banter in conversation. I found this ineffective and confusing in showing his two minds. Stereotypically, there are mommy issues. His own mother wishes more attention and ends up in a nursing home with a broken hip and dementia. There is some guilt absolved by the lady in the van’s mere presence. As Mary tells us she is “disabled, I had rheumatic fever as a child” , “I need divine protection”: “off- street parking would be ideal.” Jennings uses his encounters with his “two minds” and  with Mary Shepherd to shepherd his own thoughts and anxieties. He writes a monologue and performs it on stage. Episodic clashes with boa constrictors, peacocks and yellow paint with clumps of Madeira cake are shared. Mary becomes his muse, and she becomes his mother’s derelict  counterpart residing in his garden.

I hated the “you make me feel so young” part of the score playing minutes before the screen lights up : old and eccentric genre made mean. We get glimpses of Margaret’s (Maggie Smith) backstory. She is in a crash, hits something that cracks and bloodies her windshield. With gloves and hat on she decides to ditch the police. We see her in her younger days on stage with full symphony. Her piano concerto glorious. We then see her in a nunnery admonished for practicing at the keyboard. The Catholic Church takes a beating in this film. Mary keeps confessing the same sin. The priest tells her that absolution is not like a bus pass running out, but no other intervention is arranged except for the air freshener kept behind the Blessed Mother statue.

Maggie Smith is what you will remember in this film. Her funniest line reminded me of a former high school teacher. As a series of young men come and go through Bennett’s home, Smith says ” I know who these men are: they are Communists”! She is humorously so very wrong and innocent.  Yet, her “cantankerous argumentative vagabond nobility ” as she rises in the ambulance plays well with what else we should take from this film. We do not do well with our own aging relatives. We need a whole village to hold hands. As Maggie’s character says, “when donations come rolling in, they will realize what a catch I was.”  I thought her Ascension into Heaven made light of her story and was a tad sacrilegious. See it for Maggie Smith, but a three star film it is.

“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

On occasion when I am not particularly looking forward to a sequel,I will let a few weeks pass and let others see it first. I remember enjoying the 2012 “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel For The Elderly and The Beautiful” all the while knowing that the film was capitalizing on my age group and beyond. The characters were well drawn and the pace was delightful in its introductions and comminglings. Friends varied in their feelings for “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” 2015. Three friends raved ,two did not like it and one actually reviewed it with a theater worker’s comment, “a Marvel action film for senior citizens”. I saw it with my husband this afternoon because I had to see for myself,and it was a rainy Monday. We both felt the sequel fell short of our low expectations.

Three years is a long time to remember the circumstances of all the varied players.I can’t imagine seeing the sequel without having seen the original. I will flatly state don’t try it. You are immediately thrown into a California scene where Maggie Smith and Dev Patel are in a convertible driving down Route 66. They magically end up in San Diego, not in L.A. The fast-talking Sonny (Dev Patel) is seeking financing for his second hotel. We guess that Muriel Donlevy (Maggie Smith) is brought along for her “economy of expression”. We later learn her part in the second enterprise is more critically important.

After suffering through some weak lines about weak tea,we are back in India at the local ex-pat. club learning that the boarders all have part-time jobs be it watering down the wine,guiding tours badly,or buying pashminas and fabric for a retail company. The hotel is home of the “happy hunters”, many looking for sex and companionship. Madge(Celia Imrie)has one of the worst lines. On seeing Guy Chambers (Richard Gere)register, she yelps “Lordy,Lordy, have mercy on my ovaries”.

Other banalities ensue. “It takes teamwork to make a dream work” and “We can still shake it,you know”. “Good things don’t come on their own,one must make them.” “Water doesn’t flow until you turn on the tap” and “No one is checking out until the ultimate ‘check-out'” are bromides less than wise.Snarky comments like,”what a busy little pensioner bee” and questions like,”When was your last check-up?” are the funniest.

There are too many mini-vignettes to enumerate besides a major engagement party and a wedding. Instead of the end of things and the beginning of things, we see a continuation of the same misunderstandings and befuddlements. Should we have more respect for our elders? Well, if they deserve it. Too many of this lot are still into scheming,bartering,cheating and insinuating. Don’t expect much wisdom here. These guys are still trying to figure life out, but for one exception. The wisest,Muriel, (Maggie Smith) gets the voice overs and the right to call Sonny a self-pitying mess-up.

I loved the dancing and the Indian music and ambiance. Tina Desai was beautiful as Sunaina,the bride. I hated the “novelist” hoax with the weakest lines I have ever heard Richard Gere deliver.Dev Patel reminded my husband and me of Ray Romano in his goofiness. I missed Tom Wilkerson and thought Bill Nighy and Judi Dench mis-matched. Whether the “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is “franchised or foot-noted” better not be up to me for director John Madden’s sake.