A WALK IN THE WOODS
Robert Redford turns in a beguiling performance as travel-writer Bill Bryson, who in middle age (Redford has to play him a lot older) decides to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine with his old buddy Katz (Nick Nolte), a reformed alcoholic and unreformed womaniser, They have all the gear they need, but neither of them is in the best shape for a 2,200 mile trek.
Bryson always highlighted the comic moments in his adventures and so does the movie. The two men encounter a few few hairy moments and a few weird people (notably a non-stop talkative hiker played by Kristen Schaal). There's a scene on a ledge above a river that inevitably calls to mind a key moment from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although most of the time we are reminded more of Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau in Grumpy mode. Nolte, looking more like Bryson than Redford does, plays in overdrive, much like Gene Hackman in his later movies. Redford, who looks as if he belongs on Mount Rushmore, is still as charismatic as he was in his Sundance days, and he does laid-back comedy as well here as he did 48 years ago in Barefoot in the Park. Like Paul Newman, he will always be a full-on star.
Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen offer pleasing cameos as Mrs Bryson and a motel owner. This film has a huge feel-good factor.
THE LADY IN THE VAN
At the bottom of the poster it says: 'This is a mostly true story.' Nicholas Hytner directs a 'revisionist' take on Miss Shepherd, the tramp-like old biddy who parked her van in Alan Bennett's front drive for a few weeks that turned into 15 years. The movie version fleshes out her story with glimpses of her past (a convent, a piano recital, a family feud, a fatal accident) which the narrator (one of the two Alan Bennetts played by Alex Jennings) tells us he only found out after she died.
A woman in front of me whispered to her companion, who wondered why Alan Bennett had a twin, that he actually had a split personality. That's not a bad explanation for the device of the householder Alan who puts up with Miss Shepherd (and clears her mess from his drive) and the writer Alan who doesn't think there's a story in this. I'm not sure that the double-act is entirely effective or necessary: a voice-over from the real Alan would have worked just as well, wouldn't it?
Despite the attempts to give the Lady a life before the Van, the screenplay is more revealing about the playwright, the reluctant Samaritan who is also having to deal with his northern mother's journey down the road to dementia. There are even a few references to the fact that Mr Bennett's sexuality was being questioned for many years before he finally outed himself.
The movie has more pace than the book and the play did. Maggie Smith is of course simply magnificent, fully absorbed into the grimy skin of this unlovable old harridan. Her performance is pitched midway between the Duchess of Downton and Muriel from the Marigold Hotel, although the character preposterously blends Hyacinth Bucket with Victor Meldrew. The 'History Boys', who largely owe their careers to Mr Bennett, pop up in a series of cameos, along with Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell-Moore from the same play. Jim Broadbent's scrounger is the least convincing presence and is perhaps mostly untrue.
This looks like being another highly competitive year for Oscars and BAFTAs, but Dame Maggie is certain to be a contender and could well be a winner. The Lady in the Van is not pitch-perfect in the way that The History Boys was (and the first - best - Marigold Hotel), but it is another master-class exemplar of British writing, acting and film-making.
Well, he was a pretty weird film-maker, so it's fitting that this movie version of his last 24 hours should be packed with weirdness. Willem Dafoe is the only non-Italian in the cast: his scenes are mostly played in English, with just a few Italian phrases (and an interview in French) to remind us we're watching a Continental movie.
And very Continental it is. The night before his murder we see Pasolini on his knees in front of a series of punk suburban toughs in a scene as close to hardcore as anything in his movies. The following day comprises a series of meals and meetings (with his mother, friends, movie people, his rent-boy nemesis): all slow-paced and stylised with echoes of Theorem, Pasolini's own contribution to the cinema of the New Wave. He's writing a book and visualises it in cinematic terms: it combines a vision of the Second Coming of the Messiah with a return to orgy-rich Sodom (does the pun on 'second coming' work in Italian?). And the day ends with his fateful encounter with the rent-boy and the tougher punks who will write 'Finis' to the Pasolini story. Writer/director Abel Ferrara does not venture into Oliver Stone territory to explore the conspiracy theories which sprang up immediately after Pasolini's death in 1975.
|The real Pier Paolo Pasolini|
So, this is film-making at its weirdest, turgid and pretentious to a rare degree, as were most of Pasolini's pictures. But this one is beautifully shot, and Dafoe gives an immersive performance (and bears a striking resemblance to the man he is playing). One maverick director's epitaph for another.