The Lady in the Van (B). The redoubtable Maggie Smith (TV’s Downton Abbey) stars in the title role in this British import. An introverted playwright named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, The Queen) has bought a townhouse, and he soon meets neighborhood fixture Miss Shepherd (Smith). She’s an eccentric, excitable, and malodorous homeless woman who lives in a decrepit old van that she occasionally moves up or down the street. The neighbors, being normal people, don’t really want her around, but, also being liberals, they can’t bear to run her off either. Somehow she eventually gets Bennett to let her park in his driveway, and there she stays–for the next 15 years. And apparently this is based on a true story! We get bits and pieces of Miss Shepherd’s backstory, which, as to be expected, is not a particularly happy one. Good performances, but the story is a bit slight and certainly a bit sad.
Zootopia (A-). The latest animated offering from Disney is a delight. In a world with no humans, all the other mammals have evolved a technological (and very human-seeming) civilization. Miraculously, predators and prey now live together in peace and harmony. But species-based stereotyping is still a problem, and when rabbit Judy Hopps decides that she wants to become the first rabbit police officer in the great city of Zootopia, she sends cultural shockwaves throughout the department. The visuals of the city and its many citizens are great, and Judy herself is completely adorable. Outstanding voicework by Ginnifer Goodwin (He’s Just Not That Into You) as Judy and by Jason Bateman (Couples Retreat) as a shifty fox on the make also contribute greatly to the success of the movie. Plenty of other celebrities also contribute vocals, including Idris Elba (Thor) and Shakira. Check it out!
Essays in Biography, by Joseph Epstein (2012). Long-time readers of The Movie Court know that I love essayist and short-story writer Joseph Epstein. It goes without saying that I enjoyed this collection of short biographical pieces by the master. Almost all of them are about modern intellectuals, but there are a few exceptions—the book starts with a piece about George Washington, of all people, and there is one about Xenophon and another about an interesting fellow Epstein just happened to befriend a few years before he died. The only reason I enjoyed this book a little less than I have some of Epstein’s others is that some (many?) of the essays have previously appeared in magazines that I take, so I had read a lot of them before.
The Witch: A New-England Folktale (B). I don’t usually do horror movies, but I decided to give this one a try because (i) it has been getting very good reviews, and (ii) it looked more spooky than really horrifying. It is pretty darned spooky, all right. It’s the story of a Puritan family recently arrived in 1600s New England. This crew is too puritanical even for the Puritans, and in the opening scene they are booted right out of the settlement. So William, Katherine, and their five kids load their meager belongings onto a cart and start a farm right on the edge of a deep, spooky forest. They pray all the time, constantly lamenting their disgusting sinfulness. Weird and unsettling things start to happen. We see the action mostly through the eyes of the oldest child, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, Vampire Academy, looking much like a young Michelle Williams), a girl on the edge of puberty who scares her younger sister by claiming to be a witch. Director Robert Eggers adeptly amps up the tension with long blank cuts between scenes and haunting music. If you like eerie movies with a slowly building sense of dread, or if you are into the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch is the movie for you. (Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.)
Deadpool (A+). A novel twist on the super hero genre. Smart, witty, and with a great sound track. It will not win any Oscars, (except maybe for the intertwining of real life and computer generated animation), but it is delightful movie fare. It has something for everyone – pretty actors (check), action (check), hip dialogue (check). The back-and-forth between Ryan Reynolds (Adventureland) and T.J. Miller (the bar owner) (Our Idiot Brother) is fantastic.
[Postscript from The Movie Snob: Note that the movie is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity.]
The Movie Snob submits a new review of an old movie.
Laura (B). Who killed Laura Hunt? That’s the question that drives this classic 1944 film noir. Laura (Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven) was a beautiful and successful advertising executive (long before the Mad Men era!). She was the frequent companion of a venomous and snobbish newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb, Three Coins in the Fountain), the lover of a shiftless cad (Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth), and the niece of a wealthy, frosty aunt (Judith Anderson, Rebecca). And now she’s dead, slain with a shotgun in her own apartment. It’s up to sharp-eyed detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives) to find the clues and solve the case. It’s a fun and twisty little movie, and only 88 minutes long, too. Check it out!
45 Years (A-). I didn’t see Room, so I can’t say Brie Larson didn’t deserve the Academy Award for best actress this year. But I must say that Charlotte Rampling’s performance in this quiet, understated British drama is one of the best I have seen in a long while. Rampling (Swimming Pool) plays Kate, a British woman who is only six days away from a big party celebrating the 45th anniversary of her wedding to Geoff (Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago). But then a letter arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, Geoff’s girlfriend before he met Kate, has been found. Kate knew about Katya, and that she had died (and disappeared) in a tragic accident while she and Geoff were hiking through the Alps. But the news hits Geoff harder than seems entirely reasonable, and both he and Kate are increasingly distressed as their anniversary party relentlessly approaches. If you like dramas with no lasers or zombies, this is the movie for you.