Trailer: Tea With the Dames — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins

Posted on July 2, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Four grand dames (and British Dames) of the theater: Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie Smith.

They’ve acted together (and, I imagine, competed with one another) and get together now and again to talk over old times. “Tea With the Dames” allows you to spend time with these acting legends as they remember their professional experiences across theatre, television and film.

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The Lady in the Van

Posted on January 21, 2016 at 5:55 pm

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures

What connects us to each other? What creates a sense of obligation? Why is it that we somehow find ourselves alone when we don’t want to be and with others when we don’t want to be? Are there secrets that completely change the way we think about people we thought we knew?

And is it possible to be fair to the other people in our lives when we tell stories about them?

Writer Alan Bennett (“The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) got an urgent appeal from a disheveled woman in a kerchief. You know the kind of person I am talking about, the ones we ignore or pretend to ignore. She is not exactly homeless. She has a dilapidated, broken-down van parked on the street near his new home. His neighbors are not unkind. One even tries to bring her food. But for some reason, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) likes Bennett. And for some equally inexplicable reason, he kind of doesn’t dislike her. And for another equally inexplicable reason, as frustrating and annoying and inconvenient and often infuriating as Miss Shepherd (as he always calls her) is, he finds it easier to deal with her than with his own mother, who is beset with her own cognitive challenges.

“A writer is doubled,” Bennett tells us, “the one who writes, the one who lives.” He is clearly most comfortable as the one who writes. And we get to see them both. Alex Jennings plays two slightly different variations on Bennett, the subtle variations of clothing and attitude showing us the tension as he wavers between being involved and observing. Part of him recoils from Miss Shepherd’s “multi-flavored aroma” with a thin layer of talcum powder. Part of him knows that she could lead to exactly what we are watching — a book, a radio play, a theatrical production, a movie with an Oscar-winning Dame in the title role. Yes, she asks if she can park temporarily in his driveway and stays for 15 years. But given the money he made from the story, who was sponging on who?

A writer will inevitably be drawn to the peculiar mix of sense and nonsense, sometimes called a word salad, coming from someone like Miss Shepherd. There’s something about the way she ends her mildly preposterous statements with equivocation. “I’m in an incognito position, possibly,” she tells Bennett. He will learn more about her past, but Bennett has enough respect for us and for Miss Shepherd that there is no attempt to try to explain her. It is just to help us do what he did instinctively, though perhaps reluctantly — to see the person inside the weirdness.

“A proper writer might welcome such an encounter.” Yes, he might. Yet, he thinks, “You won’t catch Harold Pinter pushing a van down the street.” Shouldn’t a writer get to pick his subject? “I don’t want to write about her,” he says. “I want to write about spies.” He knows that “you don’t put yourself into what you write; you find yourself.” And his two selves seem to come closer together as Miss Shepherd disintegrates further. If, as Arthur Miller wrote in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid to people we would prefer to overlook, Bennett has done that for Miss Shepherd, with grace and humanity.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of mental and physical illness, fatal car accident, blackmail, and non-explicit sexual situations and bodily functions.

Family discussion: Why did Alan treat his mother and Miss Shepherd differently? Why does he let her stay? Why are there two Alans and what can we tell from the way they dress and speak?

If you like this, try: “The Madness of King George” by the same author and his early work in “Beyond the Fringe”

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Based on a book Based on a play Based on a true story Drama Family Issues

If You Miss Downton Abbey: More From Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern

Posted on March 14, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Copyright PBS 2015
Copyright PBS 2015

“Downton Abbey’s” season is ending and it will be months before we get new episodes. Now might be a good time to check out some of the other roles played by your favorite Downton-ites.

Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) may not have hit superstardom until she was in her 70’s, but before that she had a long and highly successful career that included two Oscars. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie she plays a fiercely independent but free-spirited teacher whose efforts to have her students live out her fantasies results in tragedy. In California Suite ensemble comedy from Neil Simon, she was heartbreaking as a movie star herself up for an Oscar, escorted by her husband, a man she loves and who loves her, but who is gay in an era where he could not be honest about it. I also love her in Room With a View as the spinster aunt who does not see much but who can tell everyone sees her as fussy and in the way, in The VIPs as the loyal secretary who saves the day for the boss she secretly loves, and in Travels With My Aunt, a wild story based on the book by Graham Greene.

Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) has a central role in one of the cleverest comedies of all time, three plays known as The Norman Conquests. They all take place at the same time, one in the living room, one in the garden, and one in the dining, so an entrance in one of them is an exit in another. She co-starred with Helen Mirren in Calendar Girls (based on the true story of a group of middle-aged women who pose nude for a fundraising calendar) and with Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) stars opposite a Peruvian bear in the popular 2015 release Paddington. You can also find him as Hugh Grant’s inept and awkward friend in Notting Hill, as the foolish Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park, and as the unfortunate M. Bovary in Madame Bovary.

Elizabeth McGovern (Countess of Grantham) appeared in the Oscar-winning Ordinary People as a high school student and romantic interest for the main character played by Timothy Hutton. She was touching and funny in Ragtime as real-life performer Evelyn Nesbit, whose wealthy young husband shot and killed her lover, the renowned architect Stanford White. In Clover she played the white widow of a black man, fighting his family for custody of his daughter.

Also: Allen Leech (Tom Branson) is in The Imitation Game Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) is in Secrets and Lies, Richard E. Grant (Simon Ricker) is in Withnail and I and The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Lily James (Lady Rose) is in this week’s live action “Cinderella.”

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Actors For Your Netflix Queue

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Posted on March 5, 2015 at 5:55 pm

A documentary called “Young @ Heart” had a choir of singers in their 80’s performing contemporary rock songs.  The very fact of their age and experience gave an unexpectedly profound meaning to the words.  And in “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a plot that ranges from silly to very silly still resonates, because the people in the silly situations are running out of time.  And because they are played by actors of such superb skill that they give power even to fortune-cookie aphorisms like “There is no present like the time.”  The characters in this film have more romantic complications and far more opportunities than the average teen sex comedy — and a lot more sex, too.  But their situation gives it all grace and poignance.

You could give Maggie Smith “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and she would make it sound like repartee written by Oscar Wilde. Here, she has a couple of very good insults and delivers them with wit as dry as a martini made of gin over which the word “vermouth” has just been whispered.  Just listen to her crisply explain that tea is an HERB requiring boiling water to release its flavor.  No tea bags limply dipped in lukewarm temperatures for her.  “How was America?” she is asked on her return.  “It made death more tempting.  I went with low expectations and came back disappointed.”

In the original The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a group of expatriate Brits came to India, mostly because they could no longer afford to live in the UK.  The energetic and eternally optimistic young owner of a dilapidated hotel decided to “outsource old age.”  Just as he saw the beauty of the ancient, crumbling building, he saw the grace, and the revenue stream, of people no longer valued in the place they had lived their lives.

This sequel, with all of the surviving main characters returning, takes us from Sonny’s engagement party to the family party, and then the wedding.  

As it begins, Sonny (Dev Patel) and Mrs. Donnelly (Smith) are driving through California (in a convertible!) to make a pitch for financing to Ty Burley (David Strathairn), so the hotel can expand. Burley promises to send an undercover inspector to check out the hotel. When an American named Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives, Sonny assumes that he is the inspector and lavishes attention on him, ignoring another recent arrival, Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig of “Episodes”), who says she is checking out the place for her mother.

Meanwhile, Sonny is frothing with jealousy over another arrival, a friend of his fiancee’s brother who is handsome, wealthy, and very attentive to Sunaina (Tina Desai). Evelyn (Judi Dench), who has not quite managed to move things ahead with Douglas (Bill Nighy), is so successful in her free-lance work as a scout for textiles that she is offered a big promotion. Madge (Celia Imbrie, whose lush figure prompted Helen Mirren’s call for “bigger buns” in “Calendar Girls”), is happily “dating” two wealthy men and having trouble deciding between them. And in the silliest of all of these flyweight storylines, Norman (Ronald Pickup), who is trying out monogamy for the first time, thinks he may have accidentally put out a hit on his lady friend Carol (Diana Hardcastle).  There are some nice, quiet touches, though, as we see our friends more at home in India, including interacting more with the locals for friendship, business, and romance.

The movie gently disrupts all of the happy endings of the first film just enough to allow for some minor misunderstandings, some pithy and pointed commentary, and another round of even happier endings, leaving, I hope, the possibility of a third chapter.  Fans of the first film will arrive with high expectations and come home happy.

Parents should know that this film include brief mild language and many sexual references including infidelity and multiple partners.

Family discussion: Why was it difficult for Evelyn and Douglas to reach an understanding about their relationship? What was Sonny’s biggest mistake?

If you like this, try: the original “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “The Lunchbox”

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Based on a book Comedy Date movie Drama Family Issues Romance Series/Sequel

Trailer: Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in “My Old Lady”

Posted on July 15, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who inherits a Parisian apartment from his estranged father. But when he arrives in France to sell the vast domicile, he’s shocked to discover a live-in tenant who is not prepared to budge. His apartment is occupied by a “viager” (like a squatter) — an ancient French real estate system with complex rules pertaining to its resale.   The feisty Englishwoman Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), who has lived in the apartment with her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) for many years, can by contract collect monthly payments from Mathias until her death.

With no place to go, Mathias strikes a tentative lodging arrangement with Mathilde, instantly clashing with suspicious, lovelorn Chloé over his private dealings with a rapacious property developer, who wants to purchase the apartment. An uneasy détente settles in as the quarreling Mathias and Chloé come to discover a common ground of childhood pain and neglect. As they draw increasingly closer, Mathilde unveils a complex labyrinth of secrets that unites the trio in unexpected ways.

The first-time director is acclaimed playwright (and Beastie Boys dad) Israel Horovitz, based on his play.

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