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FILM: December 2010

In this mini round-up of the 54th BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL I shall pick out a few films which are on release now (and not already covered). Out now: the excellent THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (cert. 15 1hr. 46mins.), which is a most unusual film to have come out of Hollywood. On the surface it seems like a story about a couple who are having trouble with their two teenage children. But look a little deeper and you will see that they are a lesbian couple, Nic (Annete Bening), a doctor, and Jules (Julianne Moore), who is setting up a landscape gardening business, who have used artificial insemination to produce their two children. When Joni (Mia Wasikowska) turns 18, her younger brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) encourages her to search out their birth father. They are surprised to find that the sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a an organic farmer and owns a restaurant. When introduced to the two Mums, the adults get on well at first, especially Jules who begins a sexual relationship with him. This threatens the life-style of all three adults and has an effect on the kids. The family story is conducted with much humour and very natural performances from the two leads. Bening is excellent as one of the lesbian mothers who becomes jealous when a man intrudes in the family's domestic life. Director, Lisa Cholodenko (herself a lesbian) has managed to give us a comedy that is both funny and sexy and also has an unusual slant. Out of the Hollywood mould, this is an adult comedy drama with two excellent central female roles. Make an effort to see it!

The strange but beautiful to look at Cannes Palme D'Or winner, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (12A 1hr. 43mins.) is out on release. See and judge this unusual Thai film with supernatural elements for yourself. I really enjoyed THE FIRST GRADER (1hr.38mins.). Set in a mountain village in Kenya, it tells the true story of a proud 84 year old Mau Mau veteran who is determined to learn to read and write and joins a class alongside six year-olds. Together he and his young teacher (Naomie Harris) face fierce resistance, and find themselves confronting their colonial past. I was, however, disappointed in George Clooney's new film, THE AMERICAN (cert. 15 1hr. 44mins.), a thriller directed by Anton Corbijn, about an assassin (Clooney) who hides in the Italian countryside before performing what he hopes will be one last job before he quits. The setting is beautiful - as is the enigmatic Clooney - the trouble is we don't really get to know the man beneath the weapons.

The three children were 9, 10 and 11 when the first Harry Potter film was made. Ten years later the final J.K. Rowling book has been filmed in two parts.

HARRY POTTER and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 (cert. 12A 2hrs. 26mins.) continues the trend for each of the HP films to become darker and this one is quite terrifying in parts. Following on directly from the previous film, the world of Wizards has become a dangerous place for all enemies of the Dark Lord.

Voldemort's Death Eaters have seized control of the Ministry of Magic as well as Hogwarts school, terrorising and arresting any who oppose them. But Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) wants to kill Harry Potter personally and he orders his followers to bring Harry to him, alive. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) set out on a dangerous journey to destroy the Horcruxes - magical objects which are the keys to Voldemort's immortality - before Voldemort finds and captures Harry. As they search for clues, Harry learns the legend of the Deathly Hallows. The danger is that if the legend turns out to be true then Voldemort would gain the ultimate power he is looking for. The three are out in the open away from the protection of the school and their professors and have to rely on one another. But the Dark Forces all around them threaten not only their lives but their close friendship. However, Harry's future has already been decided by his past, although he doesn't know this, and he is drawing ever closer to the task for which he has been preparing since he was first taken to Hogwarts. He is heading towards the ultimate battle with the Dark Lord.

Some of the magical set pieces are really well done and the actors, particularly the three leads, have matured well into their characters. A host of British actors make fairly brief appearances as they have in all the other HP films and the acting is all of the highest order. Fiennes is particularly good as the chief villain and Helena Bonham Carter, returning as Bellatrix Lestrange, is another nasty adversary. It is dark though and therefore unsuitable for very young kids. It relies on the audience knowing quite a lot about the previous films, which is hard as it has been some time since the last one. The main difficulty, though, is contending with the great length. At two and a half hours it is over long, and could well have been cut as there are a number of too lengthy episodes when a good trim should have been made. If you are a Harry Potter fan and have read the books, then you won't need me to tell you to see the film. If you are new to the series then you might find it rather hard going. However, it is a rewarding watch and there is much that is enjoyable.

The Australian director (Rowe) in his first feature film, LEAP YEAR (Ano Bisiesto) (cert. 12A 1hr. 32mins.) has delivered a rather strange, but vividly filmed movie with an outstanding performance by newcomer Monica del Carmen as Laura. There is one setting, inside the apartment of Laura, a lonely young journalist who works at home. She finds it difficult to live away from her family and she seems to have no friends. Only her brother, Raul (Marco Zappata) who has his own emotional problems, visits her from time to time and also speaks to phones her. Laura spends much of her time talking to her mother on the phone, often inventing stories about her life: how she is eating a well-cooked meal and seeing friends, when really she is eating take-a-way or the contents of a tin. Although she lives in Mexico City we stay inside and only hear about the outside through Laura. She brings back men who she has picked up in the clubs she frequents and has casual sex with them. They have their own lives as we see as one leaves immediately after the sexual act and another phones his wife, without bothering whether Laura hears.

We also see Laura marking off days on the month of February on her wall calendar, with a red circle around the 29th. As she talks to her brother we come to understand that a traumatic incident involving her father took place on that date. When Laura picks up Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) her life changes: he talks to her about her life as a newcomer to the city - she has come from Oaxaco - and forms a relationship with her. But Arturo is a sadist. Laura actually embraces his abusive acts of humiliation, such as peeing on her, and of violence and encourages him to do more.

Some of this is shocking to watch and is only made bearable by the quality of the acting; both actors behave convincingly in the very exposed sex scenes. In fact del Carmen's Laura wanders around naked for much of the film, and we see her performing intimate acts such as sitting on the toilet, picking her nose. Director, Michael Rowe's debut film won Camera d'Or for Best First Feature at the 2010 Cannes International festival. The Australian, who is also the writer, has been living in Mexico for 16 years and is able to capture the spirit of the country and of its people. Sometimes hard to watch, this is nevertheless a little film of quality with both the star and director set to have a bright future.


THEATRE TIP

Here are some excellent, but very different plays to take you over to the New Year. An array of well-known British actors brings a welcome note of comedy to these dark days. J.B. Priestley's WHEN WE ARE MARRIED (Garrick, booking until 26 February), set in the West Riding of Yorkshire, shows how three couple in the midst of celebrating their silver wedding anniversary find out that although they thought they were legally married on the same day, the Parson was not authorised to perform marriages. The couples are horrified as they face the embarrassment of all their friends and neighbours discovering this. Then some of them become aware that their lives can now be changed. The previously mild, hen-pecked Herbert Soppitt (Sam Kelly) now asserts himself over his bullying wife, Clara (Maureen Lipman). Annie (Michelle Dotrice) realises that she no longer has to put up with her mean, boring husband, Councillor Albert Parker (Simon Rouse).

The set is so beautifully arranged in the right period that the audience clap as the curtain reveals the 1908 drawing room. Christopher Luscombe gives us a lively production in which the difference between the social class and attitudes of the moneyed folk is well-contrasted with that of their servants. The couples are wonderfully portrayed with good accents all round and great timing.

In addition there is a little gem of a performance by Roy Hudd as a drunken photographer weaving his way through doors and joining a former girl-friend, Lotte (Rosemarie Ashe) in a couple of music-hall ditties. There is a lot of humour in the writing and, at the matinee I attended, some members of the audience were joining in and commenting on the jokes. If you want a good laugh, do go and see this production.

If however you prefer something more dramatic, that may well bring tears to your eyes, then MEN SHOULD WEEP (National Theatre until 9 January) is for you

Ena Lamont Stewart's 1947 play is set in a Glasgow tenement in the 1930s where the poverty stricken family led by the seemingly indomitable, and certainly over-worked, Maggie Morrison (Sharon Small) struggles to get enough food on the table, keep their home free from damp and just survive. Maggie has been married for 25 years to her husband (Robert Cavanah) now unemployed.

Living with them are her children. The oldest girl, Jenny leaves home to find a better life and eventually provides the means to help the family have a more comfortable existence. The young son has TB and is hospitalised and their oldest son gets drunk and is married to a money-grasping woman. The husband's ailing mother lives with them and is occasionally shunted off to another of her children. It all sounds grim but there are a number of humorous moments and the acting is absolutely sound except that the Glaswegian accent is difficult to follow at times. In a well-defined production under the direction of Josie Rourke, everything is well executed from the set design to the costumes and lighting.

The second production at Hampstead Theatre under Edward Hall's leadership is Athol Fugard's THE TRAIN DRIVER (until 4 December), which Fugard also directs. Prompted by the suicide of a black woman from a squatter camp who, while holding her children, stood in front of an oncoming train,78-year-old Fugard's new play deals with the train driver's trauma in a similar situation. Simon (Owen Sejake), the poor black gravedigger, who looks after the graves of those unnamed who have been buried in his cemetery, tells the story of Roelf (Sean Taylor), who is looking everywhere for the young woman with a baby, who stepped in front of the train he was driving.

He is very troubled by her death and recalls seeing her eyes just as she stepped out. Roelf is proud of being Afrikaans, "I am fully bilingual" he repeats. He doesn't know the woman's name and nobody has claimed her. While Simon is worried about stray dogs or hooligans getting hold of Roelf, the driver is more concerned about his state of mind and the breakdown of his marriage leading to the loss of his wife and family.

Two excellently defined characters are depicted by the two actors who work well together in a set which gives a realistic picture of the graveyard on the Eastern Cape. Simon has placed junk on each grave to deter dogs and vandals. I suggest you hurry along to catch this.

It is the start of a normal day for Joseph: he has been for his run and is taking a shower, when two men arrive demanding that he accompanies them as he has been arrested. Thus begins Joseph K (Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, until 18 December). Tom Basden has written a modern day adaptation based on Franz Kafka's The Trial and relocated it in 21st century London.

This is not a good way for Joseph to celebrate his 30th birthday. He has no idea who the men are and why he has been arrested. And matters get even weirder as he encounters difficulties at the bank where he works when his phone doesn't work and other workers stop dealing with him. . As even the collected points on his Boots card vanish, his passport "doesn't work" and his hot and cold taps are reversed, Joseph is caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare which becomes even worse as his sanity and even his life are threatened.

There is some excellent satire on the way we conduct our lives in the Britain of today, and officialise such as the automated message on the phone which tells you to dial 1 if you want…2 if you want… and so on and if none suit you then go back to the beginning! The direction on the whole is sharp, although the multiple scenes and set changes result in long pauses. Lyndsey Turner makes good use of her small cast of four who each play a number of roles expertly, including Basden who has written a witty and intelligent version of Kafka's novel.

Just turned 80, director, Peter Hall has given us a very theatrical version of Sheridan's THE RIVALS, (Theatre Royal Haymarket, until 26 February). Hall has set the play in an 18th-century Bath, with an appropriate musical background and the feel of the time and place is well depicted. The chief attraction is the double act of Penelope Keith as the vocabulary mangling Mrs Malaprop, "He is the very pineapple of perfection," Lydia's guardian and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute, who wishes to marry his son to Lydia. Newcomer Robyn Addison does nicely as Lydia as she demonstrates her love for romantic novels. This has Sir Anthony expressing his dislike of women who are educated. The fun ensues when Sir Anthony's son Captain Jack Absolute (Tam Williams) at first refuses to marry her and then, when he finds out that Lydia is the girl he has been planning to elope with, has to convince her to take the less romantic path and marry him as an approved suitor.

Keith's well-cut accent with perfect enunciation is absolutely right in this role and she puts across the numerous malapropisms with complete confidence and without stressing them any differently from the rest of the speech. "I have intruded another letter," she says seriously. Bowles is a good foil and comes across well as pompous as Sir Anthony, who likes to be right all the time.

Well staged and, of course, very well acted not only by Bowles and Keith but the other characters as well, with a particularly funny Bob Acres, (who is a suitor for Lydia), as portrayed by Keiron Self.

Book now for the RSC's ten-week repertoire of eight plays by Shakespeare - six full-scale productions and two specially adapted for children and families at London's Roundhouse. The season opens on 30 November 2010 with Rupert Goold's production of Romeo and Juliet and runs in repertoire to 5 February next year, with Michael Boyd's production of Antony and Cleopatra; The Winter's Tale directed by David Farr; Julius Caesar directed by Lucy Bailey; As You Like It, directed by Michael Boyd; and David Farr's King Lear.

     
     
     

Carlie Newman

   
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