Michael Bergeron
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Van & Dog

Van & Dog
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If you found a stray dog or cat crying from the gutter in front of your house you would take said animal in, right? But what if that sad animal was a human being?

So begins The Lady in the Van, a whimsical story the comedy of which skews British humor more than what would pass for a laugh on this side of the pond. Maggie Smith stars as the titular character with Alex Jennings as playwright Alan Bennett, the homeowner who lets Smith have squatter’s rights.

Bennett’s plays include The Madness of George III and The History Boys, which were directed on film by Nicholas Hytner, who also helms here. The story depicted in the film is based on true events, as the real life Bennett allowed the homeless lady, Mary Shepherd, to park her van in the driveway of his home in Camden, a well to do neighborhood in central London.crop_KP_107654_1200x720

Parts of the film show Bennett talking to his alter ego as they argue the morality of helping this woman in need. Eventually Mary’s backstory is revealed but it hardly helps the audience feel more than a modicum of sympathy. Smith to her credit does everything to make her character abrasive and unlikable. She’s a crazy cat lady with a broken van instead of a cat, and when she shits herself (twice) the movie plays it for a morbid laugh. She criticizes Bennett’s penchant for young men and mutters religious doublespeak and paints her van primer yellow with a compulsion that borders on craziness.

Still there’s something to admire about a film that tackles serious issues such as mental illness and homelessness in the guise of a quaint English dramedy. The Lady in the Van opens in Houston at the downtown Sundance Cinema.

Over at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston a truly expressive and personal art film unwinds that pays tribute to concepts of life and death as well as the life of a dog.heart_of_a_dog_still_h_15

Heart of A Dog, written and directed by Laurie Anderson, charts a course both experimental and lyrical. Anderson shot footage of her terrier Lolabelle over a period of time and combines these images with ruminations of her pet’s blindness coupled with its ability to play piano. We see a lot of shots that are taken from the p.o.v. of a small dog walking down the street. And yes the canine does have a unique sense of where to put her paws on a keyboard.

There are parts of Heart of A Dog that talk about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and references to the passing of a loved one being guided by monks shouting in their ears upon passing. The irony is not lost that Anderson’s husband Lou Reed died a few years ago. Heart of A Dog doesn’t try to achieve any sort of mainstream consciousness so much as it marches to the beat of its own spine.

Heart of A Dog plays twice this weekend at the museum’s Brown Auditorium with screenings on Saturday and Sunday.

— Michael Bergeron