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FILM: August 2010

If you are feeling sad that you have not seen Will Smith in a film for a while, fret no more. We have Smith Jnr starring in KARATE KID (cert. PG 2hrs. 20mins.). Jaden Smith is 12 year-old Dre Parker, uprooted from Detroit, USA to China by his mother (Taraji P, Henson) as she has to relocate because of her job.

With no father and encountering the bully, Cheng (a mature performance by young Zhanwei Wang) and his mates who beat him up. Dre feels very lonely. All he has is a friendship with Mei Ying (delightful Wenwen Han), a young girl who plays the violin very sweetly. Dre makes friends with the building maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who trains him to take part in a kung fu tournament where ultimately he will come up against Cheng.

Dre, in turn, helps Han to deal with the terrible loss of his wife and young son who were killed in a car crash when Han was at the wheel.

Under Harald Zwart's direction English Roger Pratt, the director of photography, gives us some gorgeous scenes of the historical sites and countryside in and around Beijing. Although he believes that his karate skills will see him through his battles with the school kids, Dre soon learns that he needs to learn kung fu to survive. Through a painful process, Han teaches his young protégée to focus, be strong, defend himself and thus defeat his opponents. Produced by Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, they make sure that this new version of a classic works for a modern audience. The film should appeal to teenagers and young men as well as the grandparents who accompany them to the film.

TOY STORY 3 (cert. U 1hr. 48mins.) completes the trilogy and is equally good, though this one is more adult-orientated in a number of ways. It deals with grief and moving on as the toys are discarded by a college-bound Andy. To some extent, it also addresses sexism in the form of the doll Barbie's relationship with Ken, the male version. It is in 3D and available to see in this format now at the Ritz, BOS. Back once again are Woody, (voiced by Tom Hanks), the cowboy sheriff, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), the heroic space ranger action figure, Jessie (Joan Cussack), the rough-and-tumble cowgirl doll, along with all the others we have got to know from the first two films. They, along with new characters that are brought into the story, amuse and thrill us with their exploits.

As 17-year-old Andy packs to leave for college taking just Woody with him, his other toys are accidentally sent to the Sunnyside Day-care Centre instead of being put safely in the attic. Unfortunately, the tiny children do not play carefully with the new toys and they plan to escape helped by Woody who has joined them. The toys find the centre ruled by a power crazy teddy bear called Lots-O-Huggin'-Bear, known as Lotso (Ned Beatty) who tries to stop them leaving. It is not easy and the toys are in much danger from machines as well as humans. The film examines what happens as children grow older and abandon their playroom toys. In an often-moving manner, we see Andy develop into a young adult as he comes to understand that he can no longer care for and play with the toys as he used to and needs to pass them on to a new generation of children who will appreciate them as he used to. It was good to see a feistier Barbie doll take on the macho Ken, a self-satisfied doll who is told where to go by the liberated Barbie! Surprisingly, you might need a tissue or two as you watch this film. Not just for young ones - in fact, it is a bit too long for very small children - I recommend it for all the family.

You will need to get your brain into full working order mode to fully appreciate INCEPTION (cert. 15 2hrs. 20mins), directed by Christopher Nolan at his sharpest. An American, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a special sort of thief: he steals people's dreams. His expertise is extraction - taking valuable secrets from inside the subconscious mind while people are in a dream state, and he is known as the best in the business.

Corporations hire him to steal secrets so they can gain access to the plans of other enterprises. When a rich Japanese magnate, Saito (Ken Watanabe) gives Dom the job of planting ideas into someone's head (inception), Dom has to call on the expertise of student architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), who happens to be a maze maker and mathematician. Together they set out with the other members of Dom's team to penetrate several levels of the consciousness of the tycoon, Fischer (Cillian Murphy) through his dreams in order to persuade him to break up his father's huge business empire which he is about to inherit. As the father is very likely to die shortly, the mission must be accomplished speedily. Dom, however has a secret of his own and that is the repeated imaginary visits from his dead wife, Mai (Marion Cotillard). This is potentially very dangerous for him as he has been accused of killing her and has been forced to leave his two children and flee the country. He is desperate to return home to his children and the main part of the deal he makes with Saito is that he will enable Dom to go back.

The technical effects are amazing and Nolan has achieved something remarkable in visually portraying the inner workings of dreams - such as the fact that dreams rarely have a beginning or an end. He uses special effects to show what Ariadne is able to do with buildings and complete areas of cities, as she does in Paris where we see whole streets transformed as buildings rise and collapse like pieces of Lego. The imaginative skills brought to the film by the technicians involved are frequently amazing. The acting is far from dull, either, and the more mature (and, I think, better looking than as a young actor in Titanic) DiCaprio gives substance to what could have been a lightweight interpretation. Surrounded by a worthy troupe of British actors, including Pete Postlewaite as the dying father and Tom Hardy as a man who forges dreams, DiCaprio and Page show they have star quality and can carry a film. And what a film! Always exciting and, though complicated in parts, it is worth concentrating on it to discover its merits. One of the few films that would be enhanced by more than one viewing.

ROUGH AUNTIES (cert. PG 1hr 43mins.) is an emotionally involving documentary film; you will need to be strong or be prepared to weep while watching. It shows a group of women working with the victims, mainly young women and children, who have suffered abuse. The workers strive to rescue and then help the victims and give them some security by bringing the abusers to justice. The multi-racial team of women do this through their Bobbi Bear group which hands different coloured teddy bears to the children so that they can point out the various body parts which the abusers have defiled.

A major area of work for the women - Jackie, who founded the group, Thuli, Mildred, Sdudla and Eureka - is to raise awareness of the dangers of HIV/AIDS in the rural community (near Durban) around them. The acts of sexual abuse can result in deadly consequences for the victims. The women encourage child victims to call them Auntie, and, because of the very direct, and occasionally dangerous, work they undertake to bring the perpetrators to justice, Eureka says, "I've become a rough Auntie since working here." Some of the women workers have their own harrowing back-stories, such as Mildred, who was raped as a child, but her own mother did not believe her. During the making of the documentary, Sdudla's son is accidentally drowned and we see her terrible grief and the trauma of the funeral. This might seem like too much intrusion, but the director uses the incidents to point out how in the white community people grieve for a very long time, whereas the Zulu culture deals with disaster and death very emotionally as sufferers give way to their sadness for a short period and then get on with their lives. At the end of the film, Jackie tries to persuade her husband to adopt another girl, showing how much the Aunties become involved in their work.

In the UK we would never want, or, indeed, be allowed to film the faces of young victims of sexual abuse and probably not the abusers either until they had been tried, but here Longinotto brings a camera into the most intimate of interrogations with the children and follows the capture of some of the awful sexual abusers. In English/Arabic with English. subtitles, it is a hard film to watch - and men might find it particularly challenging - it is a worthy and well-made documentary giving an insight into another slice of life in South Africa. You can catch it on British TV at the beginning of August


THEATRE TIP

We can see yet another unusual of NT production: WELCOME TO THEBES (National Theatre until 19 August), which is a new play by Moira Buffini.

She uses characters from Greek mythology combined with an unnamed African state to examine whether democracy can be founded on violence and a peaceful reign can succeed in a country of poverty. Sometimes it seems somewhat strange to have people such as Antigone portraying a different side to their well-known classical character. Most of the time, though, the story is engrossing and we can thrill to the idea of female power with Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a woman president, and the chief posts occupied by women. David Harewood portrays the cocky Athenian leader, Theseus.

A wonderfully realised site-specific production of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN can be seen at Waterloo Station until 4 September. Adapted by Mike Kenny and directed by Damien Cruden from E. Nesbitt's well-known children's book, this has all the original well-drawn characters from the book and film and places them in the old Eurostar railway terminal, which has been adapted for this production.

Seen first at York National Railway museum, the children look back on their adventures when their father went to prison and they became "poor." Seated on raised banks of seats at either side of the tracks, we see Roberta "Bobbie" (Sarah Quintrell) tear off her red petticoat to wave it at an on-coming train to warn it of disaster ahead. The highlight is the arrival of the original Stirling Single steam locomotive.

It is politically more aware than the film about the miscarriage of justice and the differences between rich and poor, and it is not afraid to use emotion to illustrate Mother's illness as well as the heart-wrenching scene of Father's return. We see him coming through the steam from the train at the same time as his daughter, Roberta, recognises him. The only difficulty in going to see the play is that it is something of a route march to get to the site once one is in Waterloo station. However, the show is not to be missed.

GEORGE SAVVIDES writes: Shakespeare's rarely performed history plays, HENRY IV PART 1 AND HENRY IV PART 2 are given terrific productions by Dominic Dromgoole at the wonderful Globe Theatre (until 3 October), which has deservedly become a favourite London tourist attraction. In Part 1 Henry (Oliver Cotton) is now King following Richard II's abdication and subsequent murder by the powerful Percy family. The King's estranged son Prince Hal (Jamie Parker) spends most of his time at the Boar's Head tavern in Eastcheap drinking in the company of friends and with "the fat as butter" knight Falstaff (Roger Allam) who becomes the object of the company's ridicule. But when Hal hears that his father is in grave danger from Hotspur (Sam Crane) and his uncle Worcester (William Gaunt) he puts a stop to all the mischief and joins the King's forces at Shrewsbury.

This thrilling production benefits tremendously by excellent performances. Allam is simply magnificent as the loveable but cowardly Falstaff. He effortlessly brings out the comedy as well as the pathos of the character without ever turning him into a buffoon - as he is so often portrayed - and he is always real and eloquent, grasping the audience's sympathy from his very first scene. In Part 2 he develops into a tragic figure especially in the scene where a crowned Prince Hal ignores his existence. This is one of the greatest scenes in the history of theatre and it is beautifully staged and acted.

Parker is also excellent as Prince Hal - he begins the play as a likeable but superficial young man who develops into a hard and insensitive individual hungry for power. He makes such a big impact in Part 1 that he is greatly missed in Part 2 where he hardly appears until the very end. Part 2 may be a bit repetitive and has a feeling of déjà vu but seeing both parts in one day makes this a unique experience - it is like visiting old friends. Part 2 comes full circle with some brilliant doubling especially from William Gaunt as the severe Worcester in Part 1 and the comical country justice suitably called Shallow in Part 2. It was raining on and off the day I saw the plays, but the actors as well as the groundlings (those standing in the audience) carried on valiantly. The rain occasionally made it hard to hear the dialogue but finally this is one of the best theatrical experiences I have recently encountered and it is definitely worth seeking out.

There is an amazing visual interpretation of Sir Thomas Mallory's MORTE D'ARTHUR at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon (until 28 August). Rarely have we seen such theatrical effects on a stage, although we have become accustomed to them in films such as Avatar. Films, novels and even musicals have been based on Mallory's version (printed in 1485) of the Arthurian legend. In this new adaptation by Mike Poulton, director Greg Doran illustrates this tale of knights, their brave, and also their not so virtuous, deeds and their loves and deaths. We see the link to Shakespeare's histories in this epic.

The story begins with young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and thus becoming the High King of Britain. The action embraces Arthur's marriage to Guenever and setting up his Round Table with all his knights. Other knights including Gawain, Agravain and Pellinor make their appearance. We also meet Mordred, Arthur's bastard son. In fact one can easily lose count of the knights and it is difficult to remember who is in a relationship with whom. We find out about Lancelot and Guenever's love for each other and finally see Arthur mortally wounded. This is a long tale (nearly four hours) with well-drawan characters populating the stage.

Sam Troughton shows Arthur's progress from a young enthusiast to a somewhat disillusioned, weakened King. Mordred, as played by Peter Peverley, comes across as decidedly evil and Launcelot (Jonjo O'Neill) is noble though flawed. Guenever is a truly pre-Raphelite figure in her simple dress with a long train. But above all it is the visual flamboyance of the production that remains with us and the whole team - creative, technical, costume, music and actors - are to be congratulated on bringing Mallory's England to life.

While interesting and informative, the National Theatre's production of Georg Buchner's DANTON'S DEATH (until 14 October) it is not emotionally involving. Running for under two hours (without an interval) there are some fine speeches in Howard Brenton's translation. Director, Michael Grandage, has given the play, written in 1835, when the author was 21, his own interpretation. This is the end of the French Revolution, the time of the Reign of Terror in 1794. Two opposing personalities, the fun loving, full of life and vitality, Danton (Toby Stephens) and the morally upright, anti-fun Robespierre (Elliot Levey) come up against each other with a disastrous end for one of them.

On a somewhat sparsely populated stage, Danton makes long speeches about the revolution, about the plight of the people and the importance of living life to the full. Robespierre also expresses his views to his supporters and in Elliot Levey's straightforward performance, we appreciate the coldness of the man but also his passionate belief in always doing the right thing, "My conscience is clear," he declaims with dignity. Certainly, Toby Stephens gives the livelier performance as he expresses the opposite view on allowing vice and pleasure. He rants a lot, though, and is more impressive in the quieter parts.

A very simple set allows the play to proceed without scene-changing interruptions and a lower as well as an upper balcony area are used. We are so used to big spectacle at the NT that this production comes across as strangely static. A lot of meat is packed into this intense play, but until the end, there is not a great deal of insight into the context in which the action takes place. Danton and his comrades are, of course, killed at the end - well, the title does rather give this away, doesn't it? As the guillotine drops, the heads fall off one by one into the bucket below and the headless bodies are removed. The theatrical effect is amazing and ends the play with a flourish.

When we saw Willy Russell's two plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory, some of us were concerned at the performance given by the actor playing the university professor. Now the plays are showing at the Trafalgar Studios (booking until 30 September) there is a new actor, namely Tim Pigott-Smith, in the part …and what a difference this makes. EDUCATING RITA and SHIRLEY VALENTINE each deals with a woman who discovers that there is a future for her; in RITA through education and SHIRLEY through going on a dream holiday and doing something to please herself.

Directed by Jeremy Sams, using an excellent book-lined study set, Laura Dos Santos gives a good, quick fire rendition of the garrulous Rita with an air of Liverpool street culture entirely in keeping with her character of a hairdresser searching for something more through the study of English literature on an Open University route. Pigott-Smith plays Frank, the alcoholic disillusioned tutor, who feels as though a breath of fresh air has entered his room in his encounter with the 26 year-old new student. He looks the part apart for the hairpiece he wears, which has a rather bad join. Pigott-Smith has a good comedic touch and delivers the well-written lines well. As Rita announces, "I want to know…everything," Frank is able to introduce his ideas on poetry and plays to the eager young woman. Although her real name is Susan, she has chosen the name of Rita as being more in keeping with her new student status. While she acknowledges her working-class Liverpool origins, Frank admits, "There is less to me than meets the eye." Rita knows that she needs to develop and change, but finds at one point that she does not fit in with her husband and his friends, or with Frank and his group. She wants to have a choice both of lifestyle and career and when she reaches that stage, Frank realises that he has taught her all he can. The two actors play well together and build up a lovely feeling of comedy and more moving moments as both find their lives have changed through their relationship.

As at the Menier, Meera Syal gives an excellent portrayal of Shirley, who is married to a demanding man who fails to comprehend his wife's desire for a more fulfilling life. Alone on the stage Syal conveys both the comedy and passion of Shirley, aged 42, who confides to the kitchen wall about her frustrations and yearning for something more exciting. Directed by Glen Walford in a functional set we see her preparing and cooking the complete meal of "chips and eggs" to put on the table for her husband's meal at exactly the same time each evening.

Syal manages the accent better in this production than originally and the actor manages to give us a rounded picture first of life in her home and then expanding into sunshine - literally and emotionally - in Greece. We rejoice when she concludes with, "I used to be the wife, I used to be the mother, but now I am Shirley Valentine again." Russell is a consummate writer and his characters' speeches ring as true now as they did when first staged in the mid 80s.

     
     

Carlie Newman

   
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