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FILM:December 2014

It's not often that one can recommend a film without any reservations - but MR. TURNER (cert. PG 12A 2 hrs. 29 mins.) is worthy of all praise. Mike Leigh's film shows the last 25 years of J.M.W. Turner's life before he dies in 1851. We see Turner (Timothy Spall) at work and also learn about his private life as he meets with his rejected lover, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and virtually ignores her and their two daughters and grandchildren. As Turner strides around London and also visits the seaside, a brothel and is even tied to the mast of a ship in order to experience bad weather and paint the scene, Leigh shows us the great artist and also the somewhat erratic and always difficult man behind the great paintings.

And Leigh does just this - he shows us what is happening; there is none of the, "And this is John Ruskin. He…" to explain the scenes. We simply see Turner's life unfolding before our eyes. He uses his obedient housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) for perfunctory sex but later forms a genuine attachment to his seaside landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) where he stays from time to time using a fictitious name. They later move from Margate to set up house together in Chelsea.

We note his very close relationship with his over-loving father (Paul Jeeson) who prepares his son's canvases, mixes his paints and shows the visitors into the gallery to see the paintings while Turner watches them through a secret hole in the door. William Turner Snr even shaves his son. The artist is devastated when his elderly father dies. Turner has a somewhat difficult relationship with some of his fellow artists and actually daubs a blob of red paint on one of Constable's pictures! We watch as the artist creates some of his famous paintings and get some insight into his mental state with each one we see.

Poor Hannah can only note Turner's absences until she finds where he is now living. She develops a dreadful skin condition but has to put up with it as she has to cope with the loss of her master to another woman.

Everything about the film works to enhance an overall beautiful movie: the background music, superb photography and sense of period. All the characters - Leigh uses many of his regular actors - once again enter into the person they are portraying with absolute conviction. There are truly lovely performances from the main women. Atkinson shows us, through her facial expressions, her love for her master and Bailey gives a delightful performance as the widow who ends up as Turner's last love. Above all Spall is really magnificent as Turner - eccentric, wicked, tender: a completely rounded figure. His grunt in reply to many statements by others is at least as full of expression as many long speeches in other films. With humour and tenderness, Leigh has given us a film of a great artist that is in itself a masterpiece. Do see it.

Welcome to MY OLD LADY (cert.12A 1 hr. 17 mins.), a charming quiet film starring Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline. My Old Lady has Kevin Kline as a penniless American who, at 57, is delighted to find that his father has left him his property in Paris. He looks around the large apartment in admiration until he discovers that there is a 92 year-old woman living there. This is Mathilde (Maggie Smith), who is a viager, a French legal term meaning that she can live there until she dies when the owner will then be free to have it.

On top of being deprived of possession of the apartment, Mathias discovers that, in fact, he has a debt - he is contracted to pay the old lady €2400 per month, which, until his recent death, his father had been paying. Mathias (who has been called Jim in the US) is none too pleased to discover that Mathilde's daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott-Thomas) also lives there. Chloe takes an instant dislike to the newcomer and wants him out. But he argues that as he is paying rent - he has given the old lady his gold watch as payment - he is now entitled to stay there.

The story is not simply about possession of the flat, it is also a love story and deals with the coming together of two needy people. In the course of trying to find out more about the old lady and her daughter, Mathias visits Mathilde's doctor and learns the she is very healthy and could live on for quite a while. He also discovers that Chloe has a married man with two children as her lover. Mathias starts drinking again after he learns some shocking news from Chloe.

Actually not a lot happens in the film, although what does take place is often amusing, frequently moving and always of interest. Mainly the characters try to come to terms with the past and with each other.

Kline puts in a good performance - at times showing the emotional side to his character and at other times expressing anger or frustration. He is probably best, though, putting across humorous lines. It is good to see Kristin Scott Thomas cleaned up after her role on stage as Electra! Here she puts in a very positive act but we are able to see glimpses of a tender heart beneath a somewhat aggressive exterior.

It is not surprising to find that Maggie Smith excels in her role. Without much make-up and playing older than she is, Smith, in a very natural performance, uses her own voice as the old lady - far from a LITTLE old lady, this one is a connoisseur of wine, and is very firm about how she likes to run her life and control those around her, "Precision is the key to a long life." she says, "And red wine."

Director Israel Horowitz wrote the original play and has opened it out here. Perhaps not enough as the streets look somewhat deserted. It is, however, a gentle little film which, while probably too static for young impatient bods, should certainly please the more mature cinema-goer.

Surprisingly, director Clare Lewins has managed to find a lot of new material about the great boxer Muhammad Ali to put into the documentary film I AM ALI (cert.PG 1 hr. 51 mins.). So much has been written about him and even films made that it looked as though everything that could have been said had been. And yet Lewins has managed to dig out tape recordings that Ali made of him talking to various children. And very sweet they are too.

When I spoke with two of Ali's daughters (which can be watched here) , Maryum, eldest daughter from his marriage to Belinda, and Hana, the daughter of Veronica, and heard how close they were to their father, frequently seeing him daily, one begins to understand just how much Muhammad adored all his children. In fact he ended up with nine children and was married four times. As remarked in the film, "he was not known to be a faithful husband."

There are filmed interviews with a number of key people in Ali's life. His younger brother Rahaman speaks about his brother's early prowess, while his third wife, Veronica obviously still admires and even loves her ex-husband. One of Ali's chief associates is his former business manager, Gene Kirby and he plays a major role in talking about Ali's boxing career along with his trainers.

We hear and see the young Cassius Clay dancing around, full of confidence, and his little sayings, Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." He describes himself as the "fastest, the prettiest" and he was!

He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he joined the Muslim faith; he no longer wanted a slave name but a black name. We get a good picture of Ali as a family man: although the children had different mothers, Ali brought them together and made sure he spoke to them all frequently.

We see pictures of racial discrimination such as 'No negroes in our school" placards. Ali spoke out against this and actually spoke at a number of colleges including Harvard.

Ali's main fights are covered including the 'rumble in the jungle' with Joe Frazier, his fights with Henry Cooper and Sonny Liston. He says, "I am the greatest," and he really was not just a boxing legend but a man who was willing to state his beliefs and stick to them, even, as it did, mean at one point losing his title and his licence when he refused to fight in Vietnam.

This is a well-directed, carefully filmed record of Ali, not just as a boxer, but as a man with a large family and a number of loyal friends, many of whom have worked with him for years. A very good documentary, which is worth seeing even if you know or care little about the actual sport of boxing.

Also recommended: HELLO CARTER (cert.15 1 hr. 17 mins.) is a somewhat quirky little British film saved by a good script and relaxed performances by Charlie Cox and Jodie Whitaker in particular. Cox is Carter - single, unemployed and homeless - who sets out to find his ex-girlfriend after 11 months apart. Coming into contact with his former girlfriend's eccentric brother, Carter has to undertake a task for him in order to get his sister's phone number. Buzzing all over London, accompanied by a baby and Jenny (Whitaker) his new acquaintance, Carter undergoes a number of adventures. Some amusement, a little chase and Cox and Whitaker make the film worth seeing.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (cert.U 1 hr. 32 mins.) sees the penguins from the Madagascar films have their own film. In the latest franchise film Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Christopher Knights), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) join forces with the spy organisation, the North Wind, which is led by by Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), to stop the villain, Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich) from taking over the world. The penguins join in the various espionage schemes going on in order to thwart Dr Brine.

10-year-old Lisa, who accompanied me, said that her favourite scene was when the little girl shook the snow globe with Dave - the octopus - inside it. Seems to be a tender scene until she goes off shaking it! She would recommend it to her friends. We thought it would best suit say 5 to 12 year-olds.

More suited to adults, and, indeed, all the family is the lovely film, PADDINGTON (cert. 12A 1 hr. 25 mins.) which tells how the little bear comes to London from darkest Peru to seek a new home. He is reluctantly taken in by the Brown family and causes havoc in their home. Nasty Nicole Kidman as a taxidermist wishes to stuff the bear, helped by the Browns' neighbour (Peter Capaldi). Lovely performances by Hugh Bonneville as the father, Sally Hawkins as mother and Julie Walters, an elderly relative, enhance the proceedings. But all eyes will be on the most delightful bear. If you see it out of nostalgia or because you want to take your children, you, as an adult will surely find it enchanting. Go see it!

Anyone seeing THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 should make sure they stay through the credits to hear Jennifer Lawrence sing a quiet gentle version of the hanging tree. I would expect this song to be nominated under the Best Song category in the Oscars.






What should seem a dated play comes across as remarkably up to date in Blanche McIntyre's production of Emlyn Williams' ACCOLADE (St James Theatre (until 13 Dec Box office 0844 264 2140).

Set in 1950 it shows Will Trenting (Alexnder Hanson), a successful novelist, who leads two lives - that of an upright honest well-known writer and separately as someone who spends his leisure hours whenever he can with low-life people. The honour of a knighthood and intrusive coverage by the media brings his double life to light. Although known to his wife, neither his friend nor colleagues are aware of Trenting's double existence.

Alexander Hanson (Will Trenting) and Abigail Cruttenden (Rona Trenting) in Accolade

With the current interest in the lives of celebrities and politicians, the play is bang up to date. Although some of the references are distinctly 1950s in tone, the overall picture chimes in with today's news. Blackmailed by the father of the under-age girl with whom the writer had sex completely unaware of her true age, Will and his wife are faced not just with the dilemma of telling their friends but also exposing themselves to their dearly loved son. To the couple the reactions of their son Ian (a nicely rounded performance by Sam Clemmett) is the most important.

How they deal with this gives us a most absorbing play which is fully developed in Blanche McIntyre's production. Hanson shows that he is not just an excellent musical theatre performer but also able to produce a finely tuned dramatic performance as he does here as Trenting. Abigail Cruttenden, as a surprisingly forgiving wife, shows her skills too. Giving a glimpse of the past with today's relevance in mind this is certainly one worth seeing.

As is a delightful production of Irving Berlin's musical, WHITE CHRISTMAS (Dominion Theatre Theatre until 3 January 2015 Box office 0845 2007 982). It's very sugary and extremely sweet with no hidden edges to it and certainly no political content.

Although it begins with a short prologue in 1944, the action really takes place in 1954 when the two army buddies, Bob (Aled Jones) and Phil (Tom Chambers), now a performing double act, decide to put on a show to save the financially insecure hotel run by their former boss, General Henry Waverley (Graham Cole).

The songs are beautifully presented and sung well particularly by Aled Jones who has developed from a boy singer to a man with a great tenor voice who can also dance…a little. Aled sings most of the solos. The dancing is provided by the charming Tom Chambers who produces a reasonable singing voice. Together the two men perform with gusto and manage to put across the very slight story most charmingly.

They are assisted by two sisters, Betty (Rachel Stanley) and Judy (Louise Bowden), both of whom put across their numbers, particularly 'Sisters' with wit and good singing. The two men and two girls have little scenes of misunderstandings as they come together, part and…well, you know!

Rachel Stanley as Betty (left) & Louise Bowden as Judy in Irving Berlin's White Christmas - the musical

It's basically the 1954 film which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, made into a stage musical. The dancing is well-choreographed and every number is given its full production value. The sets are pretty and there are the obligatory snowflakes. Perhaps overdone and a bit too long, but the show will melt even the hardest of hearts during its short seasonal run.

TIMES SQUARE ANGEL at the tiny Union Theatre, London (until 13 December Box office 020 7261 9876) is almost the exact opposite to White Christmas except for the fact that it too is charming, but in a completely different way. Charles Busch's play - new to London, but often performed on Broadway - is a little play with a distinctly feel-good Christmas air about it.

We find ourselves in 1948 New York where an angel, Albert (Michael Adams), a former magician is sent down to earth to convince Irish (Ian Stroughair) that she has behaved badly in her life and she needs to mend her ways in order to avert disaster. Along the way we see gangsters and theatre folk, along with a none too honest senator and his lovely daughter. There is also the lad who has known Irish all her life from before she was famous and is still devoted to her.

The cross-dressing Stroughair as the red-haired singer is delightful and produces a surprisingly strong singing voice to perform her night club songs.

The set, divided into different areas, is placed on the wide but narrow stage area so that we move our eyes as in the old cinemascope days.

This is a short show - lasting just 1 hour 15 minutes - but everything to make the show a delight to watch is included. Why we even have the voice of GOD!

While WILDEFIRE, Roy Williams' well-written thriller about life for those serving in the police force, has now finished its run, we can look forward to more goodies at the ever interesting Hampstead Theatre, London.

TIGER COUNTRY from 8 December to 17 January 2015 is a return visit of Nina Raine's play which was so successful in 2011 that it was sold out. It is set in a hospital and, a bit like Wildefire and the police, this gives an all too realistic portrayal of those working in our busy London hospitals. When I saw it in 2011 I must admit I found some of the scenes hard to take - people on drips being wheeled around on trolleys was too much like my recent observations at our big local London teaching hospital! You have been warned.

And don't forget Hampstead Theatre's on-going presentation of new or experimental productions in their Theatre Downstairs. You can get details of Tiger Country and all of the plays Downstairs and book at the box office 020 7722 9301.

Another most interesting venue is the still new St James Theatre, London which has already had a series of hits. A new one to look forward to and to book now is BAD JEWS (15 January - 28 February with the Press night on 21 January Box office 0844 264 2140)

Written by Joshua Harmon and directed by Michael Longhurst the UK premiere of this production of Bad Jews was a sell out at the Ustinov Studio, Bath earlier this year, where it earned huge critical acclaim for its hilarious script and sharp performances.

A beloved grandfather has died and a treasured family heirloom with religious significance is up for grabs. But who is most deserving of it? Bossy, overbearing, fanatically religious Daphna? Her wealthy cousin Liam who's just returned from skiing with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody? Or Jonah, his brother, who would prefer not to get involved in the fight?

A cramped Manhattan apartment becomes the setting for a viciously hilarious quarrel about family, faith and legacy as the contenders set at each other's throats on the night after the funeral. The original Bath cast will reprise their roles for the St. James Theatre run. Jenna Augen, who has been nominated in the Best Supporting Performance category at the UK Theatre Awards, will play the role of Daphna, Gina Bramhill will play Melody, Joe Coen will play Jonah and Ilan Goodman will play Liam. Certainly sounds worth booking ahead for this one.

All of us at TOFF TIPS hope that you enjoy the festive season and look forward to a lot of theatre visits in 2015!


Carlie Newman

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