Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Film (page 1 of 5)

Give Dame Maggie an Oscar now!

The Lady in the Van

Firstly apologies for having gone AWOL for a fortnight. Life took a hectic turn (annual school fireworks extravaganza one week for which I’m Health & Safety Manager, at the same time as preparing for school inspection this week). I’ve been too worn out to blog, but have built up a pile of books to talk about now! But first, a few words about The Lady in the Van

lady in van film poster

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this since first hearing about it, and had to see it on the day of its release. I took my daughter, and she loved it too.

I just couldn’t think of a better pair of actors to play Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett than Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings – both were pitch perfect. Although Maggie Smith is queen of the put-down with her impeccable tone and hauteur, she also doesn’t need to say anything – her face is just so expressive, it was a triumph of acting. Seen in close-up on the screen, it was very moving.

The film, made at Gloucester Crescent in Camden itself in and around the house still owned by Alan Bennett where he let her park her van temporarily – she stayed for 15 years, was adapted from Bennett’s stage play, in which fifteen years ago, Maggie first played Miss Shepherd – I do wish I’d got to see the original play. The film has built upon the stage play by expanding on the fact that Miss Shepherd had been a concert pianist, and in one moving scene near the end Maggie plays the piano – for real.

The story is narrated by Alan Bennett – who is split into two – ‘the one that does the writing and the one that does the living’ which is a really clever way of taking it.  The two Bennetts are quietly bitchy and supportive of each other at the same time.

I won’t say much more about the film, except that there are cameos for almost all of the History Boys, and the neighbours are a riot!  Go see it and enjoy the masterclass in acting from Dame Maggie.

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lady van gentlemanI first read The Lady in the Van  in Alan Bennett’s collection of memoir and essays Writing Home, published in 1994, although The Lady in the Van had been published separately previously on its own in 1989.  I’d thoroughly recommend Writing Home and Untold Stories which came afterwards.  But, although I already own a book with it in, freed from the inspection yesterday afternoon, I went to my lovely local indie bookshop and they had copies of a new edition of The Lady in the Van.  Apart from a film tie-in paperback, Faber have also brought out a hardback, illustrated by David Gentleman, and including loads of stills from the film, intro from director Hytner and film diaries by AB – and they had copies signed by Bennett – SOLD!!!

Two National Treasures at the Oxford Literary Festival

Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner in Conversation


Earlier this evening I went into Oxford for my only visit to the Oxford Literary Festival this year. It was a sell-out event at the Sheldonian – with two national treasures who have been collaborating for decades in conversation. We were all crammed into the Sheldonian. I’d bought a lower gallery ticket, and the ushers were trying to fill the gallery up from the furthest corners. Not wishing to only see the back of their heads, I decided to be awkward and claimed a decent seat, happily moving to let people past – I’d got there early enough to pick my seat I’d hoped…

Time for the talk, and Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden lead the pair in, Bennett shuffling – he is 80 now. Ovenden then introduced them, and told us that Bennett had gifted his papers to the Bodleian in 2008. Bennett quipped that they were assured of legend status as both had been “a small stepping stone in the rise and rise of James Corden.”

They settled down to chat, and Bennett started off by quizzing Hytner about his time as a chorister aged 12 at Manchester Grammar School and the joy of singing under the direction of Manchester legend John Barbirolli. They then moved on to when they first worked together – on the Wind in the Willows in 1990 at the National Theatre. Bennett had been asked by Richard Eyre, then the NT director, to write a play coming out of Wind in the Willows incorporating Kenneth Grahame’s life, but Bennett found that too tragic and adapted just the book (I saw it twice – loved it). Hytner directed and went on to direct many more family-friendly productions for the NT including their adaptations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and latterly War Horse. Here Bennett interjected that he had been approached to adapt War Horse, but said no, “not a literary work at all.”  He said that there was not enough in War Horse for the playwright to do to it – it’s all in the action and production design and direction.

Moving on to The History Boys – Hytner thought it better on stage than film. They talked about how they collaborated on the drafts of the play. Bennett told a funny story about how he performed one of the scenes at the NT 50th anniversary gala – it was from the French lesson – so all in French – but he got a laugh in one bit where Richard Griffiths who played Hector never did – Griffiths would have loved to get the extra laugh.

Maggie-Smith-in-The-Lady-In-The-Van-531772Then, before questions, they talked about their latest project – the film of Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. This is the true story of Alan Bennett himself and Miss Shepherd – who moved into Gloucester Crescent in her van – Bennett invited her to temporarily park her van on his drive – she stayed for fifteen years. Dame Maggie Smith will reprise her role from the stage as Miss Shepherd, and Bennett will be played by Alex Jennings (left). They filmed it in Gloucester Crescent in Bennett’s old house, so a real nostalgia trip for Bennett – and the remaining neighbours who remembered Miss Shepherd. I shall really look forward to seeing this film.

The early evening lecture finished with Ovenden presenting Hytner with the Bodley medal, Bennett already has one. I resisted going down to the book stall, there not being signing on offer (and I’d succumbed to a couple of purchases in Waterstones on my way to the venue earlier!). I could have sat and listened to Bennett all evening – he is just so simultaneously Eeyorish and witty – when he could get a word in edgeways – Hytner tended to be rather expansive, but it was a lovely event.

P.S. I forgot to say that Bennett finished off the conversation by reading a speech from his play A Habit of Art. Kay, the stage manager (as played by Frances de la Tour on stage) speaks the speech which defines ‘The Habit of Art’.  This speech was another collaboration between Hytner and Bennett – originally it had stopped halfway through, but Hytner suggested it needed more.

DVD Review – The Coen Brothers do the 1960s folk music scene…

Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers

inside llewyn davis cover

I’ve been taking advantage of my daughter being on holiday with her Dad to catch up on TV and movies. I binge-watched Broadchurch (loved) and The Honorable Woman (good, but confusing and irritating), but finished my week by watching the Coen Brother’s latest movie from earlier this year on Blu-Ray.

As a folk music fan brought up on Peter, Paul and Mary and being no stranger to Bob Dylan, I was bound to appreciate this film, and it’s one of the Coen’s finest, moving straight into my film faves.

Llewyn Davis is a folk singer struggling to make ends meet in New York. It’s winter and he’s homeless, moving from couch to couch between friends and relations around Greenwich Village. He doesn’t help himself, being a martyr to his own brand of earnest folk, and intolerant of others. He was part of a duo, they might have made it, but Mikey threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

Llewyn davisThe film follows Llewyn over the course of a week in 1961, which starts off with him accidentally letting his hosts’ cat out and locking himself out in the process, so he is left to wander the streets with guitar and cat until he can return it.

Another night, another sofa, another evening in the folk club watching other people play, another girlfriend in trouble. Luckily Jean’s new (unknowing) man can rustle up a recording session to put a few dollars his way. Later in the week, Llewyn makes a pilgrimage to Chicago for a chance to impress a music mogul, and the failure of this trip will begin to show him how his dream will end…

I hadn’t heard of Oscar Isaac, whose wisecracks and moody outbursts as Llewyn keep getting him into trouble. He was brilliant as the brooding folk-singer and he played and sang all his character’s songs. Fans will probably recognise the hand of O Brother Where Art Thou? collaborator T Bone Burnett in the soundtrack, in this case aided by Marcus Mumford (I’ve ordered the CD).

inside-llewyn-davis-10If Oscar Isaac was brilliant, all the supporting cast were too – from Carey Mulligan as the embittered Jean and a beardy Justin Timberlake as her husband to an extended cameo from John Goodman as the elderly madman in a syrup (of figs = wig) being driven to Chicago.

However, just like the Fedora hats being a recurring motif in the Coen brothers’ earlier feature Miller’s Crossing, Inside Llewyn Davis also has its own idée fixe, which upstages the actors at every possible opportunity – the cats. After Llewyn’s initial problems with his friends’ cat, a ginger cat crops up all over the place.

The Coen brothers have heightened the feel of it being set during the winter, and so many of the locations being very dingy be they bedsits or the folk clubs by using a washed out palette of colours and always grey skies. When a bit of colour intrudes, it fair zings out of the screen. The whole film looks stunning in its dullness, if you know what I mean.

Comedy is never far from the Coen’s minds. There were some great laugh out loud set pieces – when Jim (Timberlake) is teaching Llewyn a pop song in the recording session for instance, but it was quietly funny in their ironic way all the way through, even though the story was full of Llewyn’s increasing despair.  I loved it. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Inside Llewyn Davis [DVD] [2014], written & directed by the Coen Brothers.
Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording

My Les Mis-full day – not glum at all

Les Misérables – On Film and Stage

Over the years, the one musical that didn’t appeal to me was Les Misérables. In fact, I turned down free tickets back in the early 1990s, such was my lack of enthusiasm for it – the very thought of having to sit through it made me feel glum.

But, dear readers, I am cured!  Vivent Les Misérables!

My daughter, for reasons I’ll come to later, was desperate to see it.  I said I’ll book for the summer. ‘No, can’t it be Easter?’ she asked.  ‘I’ll see what’s available.’ I replied, and found us tickets for yesterday evening – good seats at a price, but as an irregular theatre-goer these days, I’m willing to pay out a bit for a good view, (I chose the 2nd priced stalls at £67.50 each!!!).

les mis movie posterHowever, as my daughter likes to understand what’s going on before seeing shows, (something that spoiled seeing War Horse for her with her old school – she hadn’t read the book, and they didn’t explain the play at all) we watched the DVD at the weekend as Les Mis is a complicated story, (I benefitted from that too).

I loved it – especially Hugh Jackman of course, who has a great pedigree in musicals (my late mum saw him in Oklahoma and fell for him). Even Russell Crowe wasn’t so bad, and was suitably brooding, and Hathaway we know can sing and was so brave getting her real hair cut off – and her collarbones made her look skeletal as the dying Fantine. The naturalistic singing, which was live rather than dubbed as I understand, made it seem so much more … miserable.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter (SBC and HBC!) were great comic relief as the money-grabbing Thénardiers. I cried like a baby at the end.  I went through the story with my daughter and we were prepared for our trip down to London.

20140415_192219_resizedWe had a good afternoon shopping in Covent Garden, then a burger and shake at Ed’s Diner in Soho before the theatre.  Our seats were great (no need to pay £20 more for that prime central block).  Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was smaller than I expected, but very plush.

On time, the orchestra struck up and we were transported to 19thC France. The staging was wonderful – using a surprisingly quiet revolving stage and clever lighting which allowed both props and actors to keep the action always moving.  Originally staged by the RSC at the Barbican, you expect the slickness and clever use of backdrops and props. An American party sitting behind me, although they loved the traditional theatre, had been expecting something on a bigger scale ‘like back in Boston’ (yawn!).

My daughter (left) gets Carrie's (middle) autograph

My daughter (left) gets Carrie’s (middle) autograph

None of the cast (except one) were familiar to me, but they were touts merveilleux! I  did have a sniffle when Eponine died, and could see lots of hankies being dabbed to eyes then and at the end.

Eponine was the reason for going at Easter, she was played by Carrie Hope Fletcher (sister of McFly’s Tom) and my daughter follows her on the web. So afterwards, we quickly went round to the stage door and found ourselves in a small cluster of waiting fans and she kindly signed our programme which made my daughter’s day.

Les Mis has now trumped both Oliver! and Matilda as her favourite musical and film. My favourite will always be the original Jesus Christ Superstar, but Les Mis will now vie with Oliver! for my second spot.

Victor Hugo’s story is epic in its scope, I started reading it around two years ago, and ought to resume – I got as far as Jean Valjean being given the silver, i.e. not very far, and paused. Seeing the musical twice has renewed my enthusiasm for it.

Musically, Les Mis is sung-through; there is no dialogue at all, and the score relies on recitative to link the main scenes. I was fascinated by the way there are really only about eight (guessing here) musical themes which get mixed up and reappear throughout the show, most obviously the Thénardiers’ comic song, and Javert’s brooding one, but they all blend together and never appear repetitive at all. This made it feel less of a musical, more an opera.  I loved it.

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Here’s links to Les Mis at Amazon UK, in case you’re interested:
Les Misérables [DVD] [2012] starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway etc
Les Miserables 25th Anniversary [DVD] the concert at the RAH with Alfie Boe etc.

A screenplay novelisation …

A Million Ways to Die In The West by Seth MacFarlane

Seth_MacFarlaneThere’s no denying it – Seth MacFarlane is very talented.

Apart from being very handsome, he’s an award winning animator – having worked for Hanna-Barbera after college, he’s the creator of Family Guy, co-creator/producer of American Dad, the comedy film Ted, and he acts/voices many characters. He sings too (wonderfully – I’ve seen him with John Wilson’s orchestra) and had a hit album of standards. Now he’s written a book – sort of…

When I saw his name attached to a comedy western novel A Million Way to Die in the West, I pre-ordered a copy – in fact I forgot I’d pre-ordered it and bought it again – so I have a spare.  It wasn’t until the book(s) arrived, that I found out that the novel is based on a screenplay by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild for a movie of the same name.  A little searching brought up the film poster below – it’s released in May.

millionwestposter_large It’s the tale of a mild-mannered sheep farmer called Albert Stark who’s fed up with life on the American frontier.  It opens just past high noon and Albert’s been waiting for the guy who challenged him to a duel to turn up.  He’s late, Albert’s a coward and he uses his opponent’s tardiness to wriggle out of the duel which would have meant certain death.

Louise is the object of Albert’s affections – she promptly dumps him after the non-duel for Foy – the extravagantly bewhiskered and over-dandified owner of the town’s moustachery.

Albert’s one friend Edward isn’t much help. Edward is a simple and happy soul who is engaged to Ruth, a Christian whore who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, (apologies in advance for the quotation below):

‘Where’s Ruth? She coming to church?’
‘No, she has a ten o’clock blumpkin,’ Edward answered matter-of-factly.
Albert stared at him, confused. ‘What’s a blumpkin?’
‘It’s when a man receives fellatio while he’s making stool. They just invented it in Italy, and it’s become popular here.’ Edward smiled with pride in his awareness of world affairs.
‘Receives fellatio? You make it sound like a Communion service,’ Albert said.
‘Well, it’s just the process.’
‘So, a guy gets his dick sucked while he’s taking a shit.’
‘Albert, don’t use those words, Edward said with indignation. ‘It diminishes Ruth’s work. She takes a lot of pride in doing a good job.’

seth macf

Yes, this is the level of the humour in this story.

What can Albert do to get Louise back?  A mysterious lady stranger may hold the answer – when Albert rescues Anna from danger in a bar-room brawl, they hit it off, and become friends. Anna turns out to be a regular Annie Oakley, and teaches Albert how to shoot.  But before he can put his new-found skills to use, Anna’s past catches up with her when the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood, the deadliest gunman in the west, comes to town…

I think the movie is going to be hilarious – sort of like Deadwood done for laughs – it has an all-star cast and looks great from the publicity photos.

The book though, because it was written up from a screenplay, is a little thin, not enough added to it to make it entirely successful as a novel.  It has it’s moments – there are some great funny gags, and even a reference to Homer’s Odyssey, but there is an awful lot of toilet humour – the film I imagine being aimed at late teens and upwards audience.

There was nothing wrong with the novel, it entertained and was very easy to read, it just lacked a bit of substance.  This is one occasion when I can say – I’m sure the film will be better than the book, and as a lover of westerns, I will probably go and see it. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Million Ways to Die in the West by Seth MacFarlane, pub March 2014 by Canongate, 208 pages, hardback.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – what a film!

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterImaginthe-grand-budapest-hotel-featurette-the-storye one of those old grand spa hotels from the early 1930s in an Eastern European alpine setting – a destination in its own right, busy, happening and very posh. Fast forward a few decades to faded grandeur marred by 1970s orange everywhere, near-empty, peopled just by the curious, or those on a bargain package… such is the plight of The Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s latest film.

What happened to the hotel? What was it like in its heyday?  Framed as a story within a story within a story, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H. – the best, the most attentive hotel concierge you’ve ever seen, and the events that got him into trouble.

Ralph Fiennes is Gustave, the concierge with an attention for detail nonpareil, who keeps all his old lady clients, including an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as Madame D. a dowager on her last legs, ‘entertained’.

The hotel has a new Lobby Boy – Zero, played by Tony Revolori, whom Gustave takes under his wing. Gustave will teach him to ‘Anticipate the needs before the needs are needed.

When Madame D. dies, they go on an adventure together.  Against the wishes of her sons (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe), she had left a priceless painting to Gustave.  In a moment of impulsiveness, Gustave takes the painting and runs – leaving him open to being prime suspect when it becomes clear that Madame D was murdered.  A series of hilarious capers ensues as Gustave is caught, escapes, and seeks out the truth.

The look of the film is sumptuous. All the interiors are plush and lush, or dark and brooding as needed. It is always snowing in this alpine region, but it never feels cold – strange that.  However, having made the wonderful stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox (my favourite Wes Anderson film until now), the director has built in some animated sequences too – the hotel from afar is seen as a cut-out against a screen backdrop and there are trademark scenes of running characters seen in silhouette against the sky – they blend perfectly into the action.  References abound too – from the police inspector’s fox head badge to scenes of long, and I mean really long, ladders. I loved all this.

Then there is the cast – I can honestly say that I can’t think of another film that has so many cameos of star quality as this one.  Apart from Gustave, Zero, the nasty brothers and Jeff Goldblum as the lawyer, the other main parts are all small but lovely – Harvey Keitel’s tattooed prisoner, Ed Norton’s police inspector, Tilda Swinton possibly stand out, but they are all wonderful.  All of Anderson’s usual collaborators are there, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman too.  (Doesn’t Adrien Brody look a proper gorgeous villain with that ‘tache?)


Dominating though is Fiennes as the normally unflappable Gustave, who when flapped is totally hilarious, other times effortlessly charming, the perfect host, and always just slightly camp, darling.  Revolori makes an excellent foil – although he does get cross when Gustave can’t help flirting with his girlfriend (Saiorse Ronan).


I haven’t mentioned the music yet either – lots of balalaikas – I adore balalaikas so much I’ve bought the soundtrack album.  In fact I want a balalaika too!

Now I can’t wait for the book of Stefan Zweig writings that inspired the film to arrive now…

This film is vintage Anderson, quirky, quietly hilarious, brilliantly acted, and with an exceptional attention to detail. It was utterly, utterly fab, and I’d go and see it again without a doubt (if I wasn’t too busy).

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