Tea With the Dames (Nothing Like a Dame)


What could be more English than old friends having tea on the lawn on an overcast day.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell

 

Four mature English ladies get together for tea and gossip – four ladies who happen to be some of the most beloved and respected actresses in the history of the British theater. Two of them = Dench and Smith – are fairly well-known in the States due largely to their movie work which the ladies in question are almost dismissive of. Clearly, the theater is the first love for all these ladies, three of them who were born in 1934 whereas Plowright, the eldest of the quartet was born in 1930.

Apparently they gather annually at the country cottage of Plowright which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. There, the four gather at the kitchen table and in the living room with tea and champagne to gossip and take a stroll down memory lane, augmented by a fair amount of archival footage and stills of the girls in their youth.

Michell, a veteran narrative feature director with such films as Notting Hill and Venus to his credit, is often heard directing questions at the ladies although he is not seen onscreen. That isn’t to say that we don’t have meta moments here; often the crew is seen setting up shots, while one taking still pictures off-camera clearly distracts Smith who chuckles “We would never actually sit like this, you know.” In fact, it is Smith who comes off as the most down-to-earth and delightfully droll as she discusses an occasion when she was acting onstage with Olivier and he actually delivered a real slap to her face. Not to be put off, she delivers the best line of the show “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”

While the movie doesn’t have many bon mots quite as clear as that one, it does have plenty of laugh out loud moments as the girls discuss their careers, their own foibles (Dench comes under much jovial fire as the others complain that they can’t get movie roles because Dench has nabbed them all) and quite a bit of gossip. Talking about her time in the Harry Potter films, Smith says that she and the late Alan Rickman had a great deal of difficulty coming up with original facial expressions for the innumerable reaction shots both of these decorated actors were forced to give at the antics of the children, which Smith is quick to point out “as was proper.”

Although the ladies rib the director for artificially setting up what is supposed to come off as an informal and natural conversation, in fact at the end of the day it feels exactly like that – as if we as viewers were sitting at the kitchen table with these extraordinary ladies and getting the benefit of their recollections, their humor and their honesty. As old friends are, the four are completely comfortable with one another.

Although all the actresses here are in their 80s, mortality isn’t discussed much other than Dench dismissing an inquiry from Miriam Margolyes about whether she had her funeral arrangements made with a curt but affectionate “I’m not going to die.” Plowright, who is retired now, has severe vision issues and is nearly blind but is still as regal as she ever was. In fact, the vitality of these ladies in their sunset years is impressive in itself; I hope that I’m as vital in my 80s as these marvelous ladies are now.

The thing about a movie like this is that it rises and falls on how the conversation goes. Not to worry on that account; clearly most viewers who see this will be wishing for more when the credits unspool. The thing is though, not everyone is going to be impressed with a film of this nature and that’s okay. It will appeal to cinemaphiles, theater lovers and particularly those of a certain age. It’s impossible not to like these ladies after spending a too-short hour and a half with them however. I’d be absolutely over the moon to share a cuppa with any of these magnificent women. To be in on a conversation between all four is something like manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: The conversation is fascinating throughout. This is very much like sitting around the kitchen with a bunch of old friends.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the wealth of archival footage feels a bit busy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the film title, none of the four actresses are ever seen in the film actually drinking their tea.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Optimum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mandy

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Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death

Saving Mr. Banks


The happiest place on Earth.

The happiest place on Earth.

(2013) True Life Drama (Disney) Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Lily Bigham, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert, Jerry Hauck, Laura Waddell, Fuschia Sumner, David Ross Patterson, Michelle Arthur. Directed by John Lee Hancock

There are few adults or children who aren’t at least aware of the Disney classic Mary Poppins and most of those bear at least some sort of love for the film. In the review of the film, I mentioned that there are no others that take me back to my childhood like that one and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. It is therefore somewhat unsettling to note that the movie nearly didn’t get made – and if author P.L. Travers who created the character had her way, it would have been a very different movie indeed.

Walt Disney (Hanks) had always been enchanted by the tale of the flying nanny and made a promise to his daughters that he would make a movie of it someday. However, getting it done was a whole other matter entirely. P.L. Travers (Thompson), the prickly author of the Mary Poppins books, was unwilling to part with her creation to Hollywood which she considered a vulgar and schmaltzy place. Her prim and proper Poppins would doubtlessly be turned into a mindless dolt or worse still, a cartoon. Travers, you see, hated cartoons.

Finally nearly broke, she at last reluctantly consented to travel to Hollywood to sign away the rights to Poppins and the Banks family which she thought of as her own family. However, she insisted on script approval and Disney in a nearly-unheard of move for him granted it. He gave the chilly Brit over to writer Don DaGradi (Whitford) and composers Richard (Schwartzman) and Robert (Novak) Sherman.

Things go rapidly downhill from there. Travers is uneasy with the idea of making Poppins a musical – “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing” she sniffs – and absolutely hates the idea of casting Dick van Dyke as ert the Chimney Sweep. She’s very uncomfortable with the Americanization of her characters and the songs – well, she hates those too.

In fact there’s very little American that she doesn’t hate from the architecture to the smell of Los Angeles which she describes to her Disney-supplied driver Ralph (Giamatti) as “sweat and exhaust” but what he describes as jasmine which pretty much sums up the difference between the characters. She hates the pastries and treats that the long-suffering production assistant Biddy (Bigham) supplies and she barges in on Disney which drives his assistant Tommie (Baker) batty.

And nothing they do makes her happy, not even a trip to Disneyland with Walt himself. Walt is at wit’s end, particularly when she announces that the color red has been banned from the film. “You’re trying to test me, aren’t you,” he murmurs quite perceptively. “You’re trying to see how far I’m willing to go.” She holds the unsigned rights over his head like a Sword of Damocles. It isn’t until she retreats back to England, furious that Walt is planning on animating the chalk drawing sequence, that he figures out what is motivating her and why she is so reluctant for the movie to proceed.

There are clues throughout, almost all of them in flashback sequences in which an 8-year-old Travers, nicknamed Ginty (Buckley) adores her banker dad (Farrell) in rural Australia in the early 20th century but watches alcohol and disappointment slowly wear him away. It is there we see the genesis of Mary Poppins and the reason that P.L. Travers is a far different woman than Helen “Ginty” Goff was meant to be.

It’s something of a miracle that this movie got made at all. Although the script was independently commissioned, what other studio other than Disney would buy it? And Disney had a tight rope to walk on the film; if Walt comes off as a saint, it smacks of self-aggrandizement but if he comes off flawed they might see their brand eroded. I think that in the end that Walt comes off here as a genuinely good man but one who was a sharp businessman and who could be equally as cold and calculating as he was warm and compassionate. Near the end of the film, Tommie asks him why Mrs. Travers was left off the invitation list for the premier of Poppins and Walt says in a somewhat cold voice that there would be interviews and press to be done and he had to protect the film. Travers had to literally ask for permission to come and she never forgave him for that, among other things.

In fact the movie seems to imply that a certain understanding and mutual affection existed between Disney and Travers and that simply wasn’t the case. She found him overbearing and thought him deceitful and refused to work with him ever again. In fact when Broadway musical producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her to do a stage version of Poppins, she outright refused but later relented with the stipulation that nobody who worked on the film be connected in any way with the musical. After Travers’ death in 1996, Mackintosh later approached Disney and got input from them.

Thompson’s name has come up in Oscar discussions and for good reason; this is one of the finest performances of a stellar career on her part. Travers is a disagreeable, cantankerous sort who insists that every script meeting be audio taped and finds reason after reason why things can’t be done. However when she allows people in, the vulnerable child emerges and we see her regrets and her pain. I certainly wouldn’t object to her getting nominated for Oscar gold and I wouldn’t be surprised either.

I read that some retired Disney sorts who actually worked on the film who saw Saving Mr. Banks were brought to tears because the details were so on-target. Certainly this was a labor of love and like most labors was a difficult and often painful one. Hancock actually plays one of the actual audio tapes of one of the initial script sessions over the end credits so you get a real idea of how the real Mrs. Travers was (the same session is recreated in the film) and if anything, they softened her image from reality somewhat.

Disney, like most men who accomplish the sort of success that he did in life, is either sanctified or demonized depending on the nature of the person making the opinion. The real Walt Disney lay somewhere in between the two extremes. I think that this is as close a glimpse as we’re likely to get at the real Walt and while I tend to think that this is a fictionalized account of the real events surrounding the making of Mary Poppins, it is nonetheless entertaining and engrossing and one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the themes may be a bit too intense for children. There are also some unpleasant images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanks, who plays Walt Disney, is in fact a distant cousin of the studio chief.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Blood Creek