Maggie Smith stars as Margaret Shepherd in "The Lady in the Van."

(WOMENSENEWS)–"The Lady in the Van," opening today, Dec. 4, is the cinematic rendering of Alan Bennett’s stage play based on the true story of an elderly woman, Margaret Shepherd, who lived for 15 years in her van parked on the streets of a well-to-do neighborhood in London. Dame Maggie Smith’s performance as Miss Shepherd sets the screen on fire. Haunted by the guilt she still feels for a hit-and-run she committed years early, Smith portrays a Shepherd who is withered in skin and spirit. The film places Miss Shepherd and her van in the driveway of Bennett’s Camden Town townhouse. He establishes himself in the narrative as two alter egos. One is Bennett the man who tries to manage the wizened and manipulative rag clad bag lady. The other Bennett is the writer who sees Miss Shepherd as his muse. Both Bennetts are nicely played by Alex Jennings, but the alter-ego conceit stalls the story from time to time. Depend on Smith to pull things along and make this a major must-see.

Also opening Dec. 4 is "Chi-Raq," filmmaker Spike Lee’s liberal adaptation of "Lysistrata," Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy in which women stage a strike against sex to make men stop making war. Lee sets his version in Chicago, writes it (with co-scripter Kevin Willmott) in rap and infuses the antiwar scenario with a lot of sex and violence. It’s often crude, but it works. It opens with some horrifying stats that create a chilling context. Did you realize that Chicago hosted more murders in the past 10 years than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined? Lee deftly weaves the classic concept together with contemporary troubles. Spurred by the death of a young girl by a stray bullet in a gang shootout, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) gets the idea of organizing women to withhold sex from Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who talks to her about the effectiveness of a similar action by Leymah Gbowee in Liberia to stop the civil war there. Miss Helen levels blame at the pervasive gun culture. The film is an energetic, effective and entertaining treatise on the effects of violence today, both at home and at war.

"The Letters: The Epic Life of Mother Teresa" should be the fascinating tale of what a great woman accomplished and how she did it. But a sappy and reverential narrative gives it the quality of a sainthood campaign for the already beatified Albanian nun. It gives us a missionary who is flawless and a woman who has no doubts, bouts of exhaustion or frustration. We never see the moment when she is pushed to show the gut, grit and tenacity she must have needed to succeed. What a shame. Written and directed by William Riead, the narrative is based on missives that Mother Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) wrote over a 50-year period to her longtime spiritual adviser and friend, Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow). Riead adds fictitious characters — two journalists, for example — to set the scene and establish milieu.

"The World of Kanako" is an unpleasant, tortured, misogynistic Japanese crime/horror drama that revolves around a father searching for his missing teenage daughter who is revealed bit by bit to be totally morally corrupt. When her former detective dad (Koji Yakusho) goes looking for Kanako (Nana Komatsu) he finds that the girl has been a deceitful wretch of a daughter — wild and druggy and keeping bad company. Avoid this twisted take on the missing-daughter scenario unless you’re yearning for bile.

"Hitchcock/Truffaut," which opened on Dec. 2, is a must-see documentary for cinema lovers. Based on the eponymous 1966 book in which Francois Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock about his work, this documentary explores Hitchcock’s influence on Truffaut and a host of other distinguished directors, including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, James Gray, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater and Arnaud Despleshin, among others. Yes, they’re all men.

And, yes, Hitchcock was notoriously exploitive of buxom blonds. But what it has to say about making movies is essential knowledge for filmmakers and informed audiences alike. Filmmaker Kent Jones has done a very smart job of presenting the full scope.

Stay tuned for more December openers.

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