Learning to Drive: A Gentle Touching Comedy of Changes (Review)

Starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, Learning to Drive is a gentle, touching comedy about life changes and growing up “later in life.” Directed by Isabel Coixet (who worked with the two stars earlier in Elegy – 2009) and based upon an article written by feminist author Katha Pollitt, (then turned into a screenplay by Sarah Kernochan) this could be seen as an older “chick flick.”

Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley Wendy and Darwin

Starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, Learning to Drive is a gentle, touching comedy about life changes and growing up “later in life.” Directed by Isabel Coixet (who worked with the two stars earlier in Elegy – 2009) and based upon an article written by feminist author Katha Pollitt, (then turned into a screenplay by Sarah Kernochan) this could be seen as an older “chick flick.” 

In reality, the film is more of a “coming of age” tale, coming  at a time in life where sudden change can mean a temporary return to the insecurities of childhood, even when this happens to a protagonist in her mid-50s.  An unfaithful husband leaving his wife; Wendy (Clarkson)  and a man ready to marry a bride he has never met; Darwin (Kingsley) meet and change each other’s lives.

Wendy’s husband takes her to a restaurant to reveal he is leaving her. As the couple storm from the eatery and grab a cab, driven by Darwin, they argue and continue the fight that began in the restaurant.  Ted (Jake Weber) gets out and tells Darwin to drive Wendy home. Once the cab reaches her home, she gets out and leaves a parcel in the vehicle.

Darwin shows up later to return the envelope and Wendy notices he is a driving instructor as well as a cab driver. She asks for his card and decides that she now must learn to drive. Learning to Drive follows these two disparate people who each teach the other something about life, trust and observation.

Wendy is a book critic with a grown daughter and a husband who has left her for another woman, an author she actually admires. Darwin is a Sikh who was imprisoned in India and took political asylum in America. The former university professor drives a taxi cab and works as a driving instructor.

Darwin’s sister in India chooses a woman for him to marry and this means that, like Wendy, his life is now in turmoil as well. With both people facing huge changes in their separate worlds, they learn from one another. Wendy, learns to take control of  her life and Darwin learns to adapt.

This film is rich in character study and looks closely at how people interact on a personal level. We follow Wendy and Darwin during their lessons. These driving tutorials reveal much about both people and the film also peeks at their lives outside the lessons.

Kudos to Clarkson for appearing nearly nude for her “love scene” at 55. The Oscar nominated actress owns her character from frame one and the audience gets behind the woman who faces this mid life direction change because of an unfaithful husband.

Kingsley gives the sort of  relaxed performance that one expects from an Academy award winner and looks much younger than his 71 years.  Appearances aside, this is the sort of character that the actor could portray in his sleep and the chemistry between Kingsley and Clarkson is sheer magic.

Grace Gummer has a cameo as the daughter caught between the soon to be divorced parents. There is something infinitely watchable about the real life daughter of Meryl Streep. When Grace is on screen the gaze is immediately drawn to her character and when she is not in the shot, one longs for more Grace.

Jake Weber acts his socks off when he is on screen, although there is not a lot of screen time for his character as Ted becomes peripheral after the break up.

This tale of discovery is not really one “just for the girls.”  Fans of gentle comedy, with a touch of romance and a little truth will enjoy this film. Coixet’s direction is firm and she guides the story smoothly and with feeling.  The script if full of dialogue that amuses and entertains on many levels.

Learning to Drive is up for a number of awards, Best Actress, Best Actor, Director and Best Original Score. If one takes a moment to read the original article by the source author Katha Pollitt it would not be surprising if  Sarah Kernochan gets the gong for Best Adapted Screenplay. (Remember you heard it here first…)

This is an enjoyable 5 out of 5 star film.  Everyone hits the right notes to make this a touching comedy about changes that gently serves up its message.  Watch this one and smile…a lot.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014) Old Fashioned Gothic Romance Story

Stonehearst Asylum Film Poster
Directed by Brad Anderson (The Call, Transsiberian) and adapted for the screen by Joe Gangemi (Wind Chill, Inamorata) from an Edgar Allen Poe short story (The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether) Stonehearst Asylum stars Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Total Recall), Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas, Ashes), David Thewlis (Macbeth, The Theory of Everything) along with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley as well as some of England’s finest character actors like Jason Flemyng and Sinead Cusak. Set in 1899 just as the world is slipping into the 1900s; Beckinsale plays Lady Eliza Graves, a woman driven mad by her brutish husbands sexual demands on their wedding night.

This is the reason given for her incarceration, but in reality, she attacks her husband with a comb and puts out one of his eyes when he attempts to force her into sodomy.

A doctor known as an Alienist, played by Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later, Safe House) parades Graves at a medical lecture where he induces her to have a fit by touching her “inappropriately.” Later, a young Alienist, Dr. Newgate, comes to Stonehearst Asylum to become the latest member of staff in the madhouse. The stone structure is out in the middle of nowhere and the first person the young doctor meets is Mickey Finn (Thewlis) who is disturbing to say the least.

Once inside, Newgate meets the Asylum head, Dr. Lamb (Kingsley) and learns that the doctor does not give drugs to the incarcerated patients and practices new and unusual treatments. The new doctor meets Lady Graves and later finds that Lamb and Finn are actually patients who overpowered the real staff and taken over. Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and the remainder of the asylum’s professional care takers have been locked in cages in the building’s basement.

The look and feel of this 2014 film is a mixture of mystery, thriller and a good old fashioned romantic Gothic love story. Enough of the real inhuman treatments of the clinically insane are featured in the film and this marks the second time that Kingsley and Caine have worked together, the first being their Holmes and Watson double act in the 1988 film Without a Clue.

The sets and the lighting combine to create what looks to be a perfect recreation of the back end of the Victorian Era. Cinematographer Tom Yatsko (Gotham, The Day After Tomorrow) pulls out all the stops to make this film moody, atmospheric and Victorian. The only anachronism is the reference to slipping someone a Mickey Finn before the phrase became well known, as the setting is just prior to 1900 and the saying did not become popular until 1915 according to Wikipedia.

All the actors deliver brilliant performances. David Thewlis, who repeatedly plays roles so full of menace, does not disappoint as the mad lady-killer and Sturgess gives a wonderful turn as the love struck medico. Sir Ben Kingsley shows once again why he is an award winning actor and Michael Caine does the same. Beckinsale is appropriately stressed as the woman who freaks at a too-familiar touch and Brendan Gleeson is seen far too little.

A little nepotism is apparent in the casting, although not a lot as he does not appear until towards the end of the film, as Kingsley’s son Edmund plays the role of Sir Charles Graves, Beckinsale’s brutish screen husband whose sexual tastes drives her into the madhouse.

For anyone who adores British cinema (And who does not?) this is a 5 star film. Despite being set, very loosely, on a Poe short story, the movie feels as English as London fog. Streaming on US Netflix it is worth the time spent to watch it. Pop yourself some corn, grab a glass of fizzy and enjoy.

1 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb Child Friendly (Review/Trailer)

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb Child Friendly (Review/Trailer)

Perhaps the saddest thing about Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, with its child friendly atmosphere and plot, is seeing the late Robin Williams reprise his role as President Teddy Roosevelt. This last trip to the world of a magical tablet that brings exhibits to life at night feels tired and forced. Even Stiller in the lead role looks fed up with the whole thing. The only aspect of these movies that seems to change are the locations.

Exodus: Gods and Kings Ridley Scott Epic Moses (Review and Trailer)

Exodus: Gods and Kings Ridley Scott Epic Moses (Review and Trailer)

Out of the two religious themed films released this year, as in epic retelling of bible stories versus the feel good films also hitting theatres in 2014, Ridley Scott, with his epic tale of Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, is to be congratulated for having the moxie, or belief in his subject matter, to allow his biblical vision to actually mention the “big guy” or God. The film, which the English director dedicated to his late brother Tony, feels almost like a homage to David Lean, another English director, sort of a Lawrence of Arabia meets Moses of Canaan, if you will.

Iron Man 3 Downey Rocks and Paltrow Pops

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I was supposed to go see Oblivion today. My daughter Meg insisted that it would be money well spent because Tom Cruise shines in the film. But when facing the fact that Iron Man 3 was showing as well, it was no contest. That and the fact that Max (Meg’s significant other) was super excited about the film weighted the balance towards Team Downey and Paltrow.

I have seen all the Iron Man films and loved each and every one. But, third time lucky on a sequel that’s actually better than its two predecessors. That’s not to denigrate what director Jon Favreau accomplished with the first two films, but Shane Black‘s production was action packed mayhem that left you gasping.

Iron Man 3 sees Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and Tony Stark (Downey)  as a pretty solid couple. We have Stark narrating a sequence of events that start back in 1999 at Bern, Switzerland. Stark is attending a New Years Eve celebration and he “blows off” scientist super-geek Alldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and this “inconsiderate” action comes back to haunt Stark later on.

*On a side note here; is there anything that Guy Pearce isn’t in? The boy from Ely, Suffolk, England seems to be in everything recently.*

Super villain Mandarin (Ben Kingsley in a role so far removed from his award-winning Ghandi it’s not even funny) is terrorising the world and worse than that, he’s controlling the television stations as well. When Mandarin harms Happy Hogan (Favreau) Tony takes it personally and not only does he taunt Mandarin on the “live” news, but tells him his address. 

Proving to be too much of a temptation, Mandarin attacks Stark’s home and blows it into the sea.

One of the best things about Iron Man 3 Ben Kingsley.
One of the best things about Iron Man 3 Ben Kingsley.

Don Cheadle is  back as Colonel James Rhodes aka War Machine aka Patriot Man. Rebecca Hall plays ex-girlfriend (one night stand) Maya Henson who, like Aldrich Killian, shows up to “haunt” Stark in the present.

This film was a real run-a-way express train of a film. It featured more action and explosions than the first two films in the series. It featured a villain that seems indestructible, as well as his minions, and had some brilliant bits of humour as well.

For the first time in ages, I actually heard an English audience laughing out loud! I was so shocked, I almost dropped my popcorn.

With a run time of 130 minutes (2 hours and 10 minutes) the film moves so quickly that it doesn’t  feel that long. Iron Man 3 has it all; pacing, action, great performances, brilliant plot and great story.

My only complaint came at the end of the film when it almost seemed like Shane Black looked at his watch and went, “Shit! Is that the time? We’d better wrap this thing up. Now!” The details of the ending will have to be “un-revealed” (no spoilers from me friends and neighbours) but suffice to say, it had a rushed feel to it.

So while I sit here drooling for the new “Avengers” releases that are upcoming, I’ll re-live the film I saw today and rate it at a 5 our of 5 stars for delivering an Iron Man that allowed Downey to rock it like never before and Paltrow to pop her part (sounds rude doesn’t it?) up into the stratosphere.

Don’t wait for the DVD or VoD, watch it now! This is a big screen experience you don’t want to miss!

Iron Man and Patriot Man.
Iron Man and Patriot Man.