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We are spoilt for choice when it comes to the movies this month. In the long awaited film of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Cert 12A 2 hours 20 minutes) director Joel Schumacher has been remarkably true to the stage production in sequences such as the Phantom's abduction of Christine to his spectacular watery underground lair, which frankly could not be bettered on film. The performances, particularly that of Gerard Butler in the title role, reflect the passionate sensuality of Lloyd Webber's music - no mean achievement for a leading man, whose normally handsome face is hidden throughout by either a mask or the hideous deforming make up required for the role.

The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera

It's a beautiful looking film, whose visual tone is set near the beginning, when we move from the black and white introductory sequence of the ruined opera house in 1919 into the lush, scarlet and gold glory of its 1870 heyday. Emmy Rossum is an appealing and vulnerable heroine with a strong and confident soprano voice and there are good supporting performances from actors such as Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds.

The Aviator
The Aviator

Martin Scorsese's THE AVIATOR (Cert tbc 2hours 48 mins) opens in the West End on Boxing Day, going nationwide in mid January.It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as eccentric Hollywood film mogul and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. We get plenty about Hughes and Hollywood from the twenties to the forties - he made films such as "The Outlaw", for which he designed the famous bra for Jane Russell, and had relationships with stars such as Katherine Hepburn, captured in full loquacious form by Cate Blanchett, and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).

But as the title implies, the film also goes into Hughes's passion for aviation, his inventiveness and his battle for equal global rights for his airline TWA with the giant Pan Am. DiCaprio is extremely good, conveying Hughes' feverish energy and charm. Despite his youthful looks, he ages convincingly into the man in middle age and the deterioration of his mental state from mildly eccentric to obsessional breakdown is very well done. The film's full of interesting dramatic conflicts, culminating in Hughes' appearance at a senate hearing led by Alan Alda as a creepy, corrupt senator in the pocket of Pan Am's head (Alec Baldwin). A really good trial scene.

Talking of which, Michael Radford's film of Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Cert PG 2 hours 13 mins) contains one of the most exciting performances of the climactic trial scene that I have even seen, in which Portia (Lynn Collins) and Shylock (Al Pacino) are really knocking sparks off each other. It's a very handsome looking production and Radford's successfully made it "filmic". When he transposes or cuts material, he does it delicately and effectively.

The Merchant of Venice

. Not surprisingly for today's audience the film's sympathies are with Shylock in Pacino's largely low key, naturalistic performance, very moving in his discovery of his daughter Jessica's betrayal and at the end of the trial. He also successfully manages to make Shakespeare's words appear to come newly minted from his brain. The Christians in the main come over as a bunch of materialistic, shockingly anti Semitic snobs, particularly the fortune hunting Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), and the otherwise moving Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a tired, older man yearning for the affection of his younger friend and allowing himself to be manipulated by him.

I still find the business of Portia's suitors and the caskets a boring and unconvincing contrivance, making the supposed "love" between Portia and Bassanio a most unlikely happening, though Collins does her best. But because of the way the trial scene is handled, the often anti-climactic last act, where she finally reveals to her husband that the clever young lawyer was actually his new bride, works beautifully, making it plain that she is now very clued up about his weaknesses and this is not going to be an easy marriage for him!

The polar express
The Polar Express

If you are looking for a Christmas treat film for the younger members of the family, I would recommend THE INCREDIBLES (Cert U 2 hrs) over THE POLAR EXPRESS (Cert. U 1 hr 43 mins), both animations. "Polar", the story of a small boy being taken on a magical journey to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus, is very seasonal, looking like an animated Christmas card depicting the old fashioned American idea of Christmas in the forties and fifties, with Bing or Frank singing about snow and sleigh bells in the background, while the settings - snowscapes, the train itself and Santa's village - are stunningly beautiful.

While it is a great technical achievement in terms of the motion capture technique of using an actor's live performance as the digital basis for the animation, the human characters are almost spookily hyper real, every hair and eyelash perfect and with totally unlined complexions, even Santa. The fact that all the main male characters, including the boy hero, are animations of performances by Tom Hanks adds to the impression of their being androids rather than living beings. And there is not a lot of humour in it.

Not something you could say about Mr. and Mrs Incredible and their brood, a family of superheroes, who have been forced by today's litigious society to retreat into suburban conformity and hide their superpowers. They are reactivated, when a villain, who claims menacingly to be Mr. Incredible's greatest fan, kidnaps him in order to use the superhero's powers for his own ends.

The Incredibles
Pixars' The Incredibles

So Mrs Incredible and the kids have to come to the rescue. It's a lot of fun, particularly the antics of the super elastic Mrs Incredible, and makes some sharp satiric comments on contemporary America.

I should also mention that HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (Cert tbc 2 hrs), the gorgeous Chinese love story cum martial arts movie, which Carlie reviewed last month from the London Film Festival, opens in the West End and certain key cities throughout the country on Boxing Day. If it's anywhere near you, it's well worth catching.

THe Producers

The New York production of THE PRODUCERS (Drury Lane Theatre), which Carlie mentioned last month, has now opened in London to deservedly rave reviews, complete with its Broadway star, Nathan Lane, who came to the rescue when Richard Dreyfuss had to withdraw. And I'm so glad I've seen him in the role of rogue producer Max Bialystock. His comic timing is a work of genius. He and Lee Evans as his partner in production crime make a good team and contrast, having worked together several years ago on the film Mousehunt.

Sadly Lane is only in the show until 8th January, when he returns to America to make the film with his original co-star Matthew Broderick and there's not a breath of rumour as to who will replace him. But whoever that turns out to be - what about Henry Goodman, whom Broadwaygoers did not like, but we did in shows like "Chicago" and "City of Angels"?

- I reckon the show itself will still stand up. It looks spectacular - the lavish "Springtime for Hitler" sequence alone must mop up a large slice of the budget - the songs are good, book and lyrics witty and outrageous and they must have scoured Europe for beautiful girls with the longest legs, including the leading lady, a talented actress and singer called Leigh Zimmerman. And surely at our age we're going to love the sight of a chorus of elderly ladies in lavender tap dancing with their Zimmer frames!

I do miss the RSC, since they gave up their London home in the Barbican. However they are back in town at the moment for a season at the Albery. Michael Boyd's production of HAMLET, with Toby Stephens as the indecisive Prince, is on until 11th December. Next comes ROMEO AND JULIET from the 16th with Matthew Rhys and Sian Brooke making their RSC debuts as the young lovers. After that we have Corin Redgrave as KING LEAR, followed by Greg Hicks as MACBETH, and the season ends with a non Shakespeare classic, Euripides' HECUBA played by Vanessa Redgrave, returning to the RSC after forty years. Which means it was that long ago, when I saw her absolutely brilliant Rosalind back in the days when the RSC's London home was the Aldwych theatre!

Carol Allen    

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