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FILM:January 2013

The block buster for this month is surely THE HOBBIT (cert. 12A 2hrs 50 mins.), which is the first in a trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, directed by Peter Jackson.

Set in Middle-earth 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, Martin Freeman (pictured here) stars as the young Bilbo Baggins, who we first see as an old man (played by Ian Holm) telling his story to his nephew, Frodo (a tiny part here for Elijah Wood). He tells of his great adventure when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) virtually forces him to join a small band of 13 Dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to reclaim their homeland - the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor - from the terrifying Dragon Smaug. Bilbo is most unwilling to leave his home, but realises he needs to find the courage to do so. The group battle with Goblins, Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, as well as very difficult terrain.

As he journeys towards the Lonely Mountain Bilbo meets the creature, Gollum (another wonderful performance by Andy Serkis), who will be responsible for ultimately changing Bilbo's life. The far from heroic Bilbo discovers that he indeed has the wit and courage to outmanoeuvre Gollum and also to gain possession of Gollum's "precious" ring that holds unexpected and useful qualities.

Peter Jackson directs - with Andy Serkis as Second Unit director - another film with magical qualities. In his choice of actors for the new characters, particularly Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, as well as re-using the marvellously accomplished Serkis as Gollum and McKellen as Gandalf, Jackson demonstrates good understanding of his audience as well as Tolkien and has given us a film that is pleasing to the eye as well as the ear.

The one drawback is the length of the film: at nearly three hours there are just too many tumbles from mountains and treks through picturesque forests and hills. However, the photography is superb and the use of new technology (shot in 3D 48 frames-per-second, since you ask!) allows Jackson to present us with a well lit movie and it is never necessary to peer through the dark as is customary with other 3D films. There is an appropriate musical background and some impressive set pieces including huge flying birds carrying the characters over the countryside. Do try to see the film in 3D - it is on at your local cinema now!

Most films dealing with the Middle East come down heavily in support of one side or the other. Unusually, and to its credit, this film treats the two communities equally. Director Eran Riklis (who made the excellent The Lemon Tree), sets ZAYTOUN (cert 15 107 mins) in Lebanon in 1982.

When his plane is shot down in hostile territory over Beirut and he is captured, Yoni, the Israeli pilot, (Stephen Dorf) never expects to be freed. That is without knowing about Fahad (Abdallah El Akal), a 12-year old Palestinian refugee, living with his widower father, who believes that he will one day return to his own village and replant the olive tree which he insists on cultivating. Fahad regularly skips school to hang around with his friends, who sell cigarettes on the streets.

Having seen his father killed by enemy fire, Fahad has a dream - to carry his father's olive tree to the village and find his parents' house to plant it. Left to guard the Israeli prisoner, Fahad strikes a bargain with Yoni: if Fahad can free the Israeli then Yoni promises that he will take him home. As they travel through a war-torn country the two companions learn about each other and both bear witness to the difficulties faced by their two homelands. They are forced to rely on the skills of each other and gradually come to respect their foe.

Visually the picture is striking as the camera follows the two from city centre to the camps and through the countryside. Stephen Dorff plays the pilot with integrity and we can actually believe that he has a past as well as a future. The young Arab boy playing Fahad is very talented and locals play some of the minor characters.

A clever combination of a road movie, a buddy film and a political thriller Zaytoun almost succeeds in pulling this off, except for the fact that a number of the incidents and escapes are just a bit too contrived. For all that, there are some exciting moments in which the director manages to make us eager to know how the friendship between the two will develop and we also wonder what will be the fate of Fahad.

The film was shown at the 2012 UK Jewish Film Festival.

Out in January is Dustin Hoffman's directorial film debut, QUARTET (cert. 12A 1hr 38 mins.), featuring an outstanding British cast including Dame Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon. Lots of old real-life musicians appear in small parts and it is good to see older actors gainfully employed!

Taking place in a retirement home for former musicians, the story, which Ronald Harwood has adapted from his own stage play, centres on a trio of singers (Courtenay, Connolly, Collins) and their director, Cedric (Michael Gambon, in a full bohemian character study), who are preparing to put on a concert to celebrate the birthday of Verdi and also raise funds to keep their home going.

Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins in "Quartet"

The equilibrium is upset when the former wife of one of the residents, the well-known soprano Jean (Maggie Smith) arrives and is met by applause from the seniors who gather around the entrance and clap as she walks in. Jean throws the home into a tizzy, especially her ex-husband Reg (Tom Courtenay). The trio of singers, Reg, sex-crazy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and forgetful Cissy (Pauline Collins) are worried about the effect that Jean's arrival will have on their little group as she used to be part of the Quartet. They make a big effort to try to get Jean to re-join them so that the original quartet of singers can sing again.

All aged, the characters are portrayed with a real sense of humour but also awareness of their sadness as they try to cope with becoming old and losing their voices and, in Cissy's case, their minds. Director, Dustin Hoffman, in his first directing effort, after many years of acting, has brought real feeling to this well-written film, which is easy to watch with many a laugh.

He uses music throughout - there is a delightful scene when Reg uses rap music with a group of young people to try and get across the commonality between the teenagers' music and classical music. There are some lovely little comedic touches with some of the characters, in particular Connolly who chases women with particular attention to the young doctor (Sheridan Smith). Collins is delightful as Cissy and has some poignant moments as she begins to become more forgetful - is an Award awaiting her? Maggie Smith puts in another grand performance full of character as she breezes into the home and disrupts everything.

Older folk will find the story, the great cast, the setting, and indeed the complete film particularly charming. It is the acting, rather than the slight story, which gives the film that extra touch of magic. It is gratifying for older folk to see a number of movies finally concentrating on the older age group. We have had The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and also on release is Michael Haneke's Amour, while coming soon is Vanessa Redgrave in the sad but uplifting A Song for Marion.

Also recommended:

The documentary WEST OF MEMPHIS (cert. 15 2hrs. 27mins.). Written and directed by Amy Berg, West of Memphis tells the story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to stop the State of Arkansas from killing an innocent man and keeping two others incarcerated in prison. The film examines the police investigation into the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, and uncovers new evidence surrounding the arrest and conviction of the other three victims of this shocking crime - Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. They were teenagers when they became the target of the police investigation; all three went on to lose 18 years of their lives - imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Amidst widespread hysteria, alleged ringleader Damien Echols was sentenced to death, while Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley received life sentences, but critics of the case pointed to serious anomalies in the evidence that seemed to prove their innocence, sparking a 20 year campaign that finally resulted in their eventual release in 2011, with a plea bargaining which leaves them guilty but free. The investigation was much helped by money and time from Peter Jackson (the director of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit). See this documentary to learn what could happen to anyone of us!

In SMASHED (cert. 15 1hr. 21mins.) Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a young married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of music, laughter and, above all, drinking. Kate, a school teacher, realises that she is in danger of losing her job and possibly affecting her health for ever, and decides to finally seek help. Against her husband's wishes she joins AA to get sober. With the help of her friend and sponsor Jenny (the excellent Octavia Spencer), and the vice principal at her school, the awkward, but well intentioned, Mr. Davies, Kate keeps to the AA regime., which is very difficult for her with her husband, Charlie and his mates sitting around drinking in her home.

Her new lifestyle brings to the surface a troubling relationship with her mother, who is also a drinker, facing the lies she's told her employer and calls into question whether or not her relationship with Charlie is built on love or is just boozy diversion from adulthood. Well-directed by James Ponsoldt, the acting is extremely good with Winstead hitting just the right note as a recovering alcoholic.

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible

Telling the story of just one family caught in the dreadful tsunami which hit Thailand in 2004, THE IMPOSSIBLE (cert. 12A 1hr. 54mins.) stars Ewan McGregor as the father and Naomi Watts as the mother of three boys. In the original novel the family are Spanish but director J.A. Bayona has them as an English family on holiday for Christmas.

How they survive and cope with the traumatic events is shown in graphic detail. We get a real feeling of the terrifying disaster and the acting, particularly by Ewan McGregor is just wonderful. The three boys cope well and Tom Holland comes across especially strongly. A good, on-the-edge of your seat film which should appeal to all ages over about 10.

Let's finish with the other big blockbuster for January: LES MISERABLES (cert. 2hrs. 38mins.) tells Victor Hugo's story, which was made into a stage musical and is still on in London (Les Misérables originally opened in London at the Barbican Theatre on 8 October, 1985, transferred to the Palace Theatre on 4 December 1985, and after 19 years moved to its current home at the Queen's Theatre) and, indeed, all over the world.

Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Isabelle Allen as young Cosette in Les Misérables

The film is set in 19th-century France and shows the prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being released on parole. When he breaks that parole he is hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman, Javert (Russelll Crowe). Valjean befriends a poor factory worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and when she dies takes over the care of her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) as a young adult and they plan a life together. At first Valjean is wary of Marius' intentions towards his adopted child, but comes around to help the student rebel later on. The young lovers are assisted by Eponine (newcomer Samantha Barks) who loves Marius but realises that he only has eyes for Cosette.

There are not many laughs in this movie, and, in fact, the only comic characters are the innkeeper Monsieur Theanardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), who manage to get all the fun they can out of their fairly small parts. The film is virtually sung-through and the well-known, lovely songs from the stage musical are all here - I Dreamed a Dream, One More day, Bring Him Home and so on. The joy is that the stars have really good voices and, in spite of having to sing live as director Tom Hooper (of The King's Speech) shot the film, all perform most competently. Eddie Redmayne has a glorious voice which I hope he uses on the London stage in the near future. The music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and the lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer. Some might find the film depressing, but the great music and lovely performances give it life and joy.





Not until I saw the new musical VIVA FOREVER! "based on the songs of the Spice Girls" did I realise that that only three of their songs are memorable in any way, with the rest just mediocre. Expecting a plot like Mama Mia, it is disappointing to find the story, with a very ordinary script by the usually witty Jennifer Saunders, to be an average tale of a young girl being chosen at a reality talent show to become a big star. There are some amusing lines, but they don't advance the plot - what plot? Whilst Hanna John-Kamen, who stars as Viva, the member of the group of four girls who is picked out from the others and made into a star, has a pleasant enough voice, it is not outstanding.

The other three (Dominique Provost-Chalkley, Lucy Phelps, Siobhan Athwal) are fairly ordinary. Sally Dexter as Simone, the bitchy older reality show judge is somewhat of a caricature but fits in with the style of the musical. Sally Dexter puts in a feisty portrait of Viva's adoptive mother and is cheered when she appears in a Union Jack dress (reminiscent of Gerri Halliwell's famous attire) at the end.

I must say that the audience, largely consisting of young women in their 20s or early 30s (some with their mums) really liked the show. They had obviously enjoyed the Spice Girls when young. Screams of delight greeted the first notes from the band and their enthusiasm continued throughout the show, right up to the obligatory stand-up-and-clap- along at the end. This reminded me of my young daughters singing along to the film of Grease alongside the rest of the audience many moons ago. The young ones whistled at the dancing boys in their gym outfits. I rather think that Viva Forever is critic proof - a bit like Wicked - and will continue for some time.

Piccadilly Theatre booking until 1 June 2013 - 0844 412 6666

If you want to see a musical with a good story and some great singing, make your way to the Adelphi Theatre and become part of the audience for THE BODYGUARD. Using Lawrence Kasdan's orignal screenplay for the film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, the musical, as in the 1992 film, tells of a famous singing star, who has to employ a bodyguard, to protect her. In the stage show the pop singer, Rachel Marron (Heather Headley) is frightened by a stalker and has Frank Farmer (Lloyd Owen) employed to protect her and her 10-year-old son.

Frank works to a strict code: he never gets personally involved with his clients. However, when he falls in love with the diva he is there to protect, his work and personal life collide.

Director, Thea Sharrock, has brought the characters, choreography and plot into a smooth flowing, well-oiled show. The songs arise out of the dialogue and are put across well and with meaning. A number of the songs are those she performs as an artist and the emotion is shown in the effect the song has on the listener on stage as well as audience.

Heather Headley as Rachel Marron

The sets, swinging half-round at a time to produce different venues, are moved swiftly and easily, and the costumes are most impressive with Headley appearing in a variety of dazzling clothes and rising on a dais in a silver dress at the end.

Heather Headley has a lovely voice and puts across her numbers well, but she isn't Houston who we miss most in "I will always love you" (actually written by Dolly Parton). The singer who is a real revelation is Debbie Kurup who plays Rachel Marron's sister, Nicki. She has a beautiful voice which soars above our heads and one wishes she had more songs.

Adelphi Theatre booking until 27 April 2013 -0844 579 0094

Maureen Lipman gives us another wonderful character in her portrayal of Joyce in a new comedy at the Hampstead Theatre. OLD MONEY (until 12 January 2013 020 7722 9301) is written by Sarah Wooley and directed by Terry Johnson. In a number of very short scenes, we see Joyce at the beginning laughing at the funeral of her husband. Her daughter, Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman) is astounded to see her very drab, conventional mother break out in this manner.

After 45 years of a very unexciting marriage, Joyce is determined to have some fun. Fiona, who is pregnant with her third baby, is not so content with her lot either. Her husband has managed to lose their house by not bothering about getting a permanent job to pay the mortgage. She expects her mother to provide her with money to indulge in the lifestyle they want. Instead Joyce's first act is to buy a red coat and say she can't look after the children as she is going to town - she lives in Cheam.

Joyce, "I've got one life; I want another."

Joyce makes friends with strippers and prefers their company to that of her elderly mother Pearl (Helen Ryan) who still grumbles at her after treating her appallingly throughout her childhood. Reminding us of Oscar Wilde's Lady Harbury in The Importance of Being Ernest (spoken of but never seen), a new widow who "looks quite twenty years younger…living entirely for pleasure… [her hair has] turned quite gold with grief." Failure to communicate leaves Fiona amazed at the way her mother can ignore the needs of her own mother and those of her daughter too.

Lipman manages to show us the grief at life itself that lies behind her wish to enjoy the freedom that her new widowhood has given her and Oberman puts in an almost sympathetic portrayal of the daughter who expects her mother to provide for her both in time caring for her grandchildren and providing monetary support to them all. Perhaps more suited to television than the theatre, the play has more depth than at first appears and will surely speak to a number of people who are coping with any of the three age groups dealt with here.

At its studio theatre, Hampstead Downstairs, you can see TU I TERAZ (HERE AND NOW) until 19 January, by Nicola Werenowska, directed by Sam Potter. Telling the story of Polish immigrants, the play is well acted and the director brings out the difference between those who wish to blend in and be part of British life and others who cling to their own country even when they are living far from it.

Marysia (Ania Sowinski) has been in England a long time. She has worked hard to start a new life and provide well for herself and her son Kuba, now a teenager (Mark Strepan). She is joined by her sister Anna (Anna Elijasz), who comes from Poland and makes Marysia think again about her lifestyle and the choices she has made. Has she done the right thing? And how has it affected her son?

This is another play with many short scenes. It is an interesting little play with an all-Polish cast, giving us a view on immigration and how some of the very many Polish folk in this country manage to reconcile their past and present lives. Unfortunately a lot of the dialogue is in Polish with no translation, leaving most of us somewhat frustrated!

And now just time to catch a few Christmas shows: Let's start with ALADDIN: a Wish Come True,

Apart from Paul O'Grady, in her Lily Savage persona, there is little to rejoice at in this show. Lily Savage has gorgeous dresses and extravagant hairdo and she puts across the lines with excellent timing and gets deserved laughs. The rest of the cast are very average and the two side-kicks, shown in the picture above, have little charisma and go on interminably. While the dancing and singing are nothing to get excited about, there are two lovely little panto elephants and an excellently devised flying carpet scene which goes over the heads of the audience, reminiscent of the one flying out in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium a few years ago.

Lily Savage as Widow Twankey

It doesn't help that there is no proper heating in this temporary theatre at the O2 and an audience sitting huddled in their coats is not going to receive a lukewarm pantomime with any warmth!

The Theatre at the O2 until 5 January 0844 844 0444

While not really a Christmas show, THE ARABIAN NIGHTS ) has magic in the stories it tells and is most suitable for a family outing.

Adapted from The Book of a Thousand and One Nights by Mary Zimmerman, who was motivated by the 1991 Gulf War to show a different side of Arabic culture, the show gives us the well-known tale in a new and very simply told version. Here we have Scheherazade (Adura Onashile) literally fighting for her life after being given to a murderous husband. For three years King Shahryar (Sandy Grierson) has taken a young virgin as his new bride each night and killed her the following morning.

Using her wit and imagination, Scheherazade manages to avoid death by telling story after story to the King. She conjures up a variety of tales which segue easily from one to the other and are acted out by other members of the cast, all of whom take on multiple roles, backed by dancing and very interesting music from the Iranian indie band, Take It Easy Hospital. She also stops each evening at an exciting point leaving the King in suspense so that he wants to hear more the next night. Some of the stories are funnier than others. I particularly liked the one about a jester's faithless wife, who hides her lovers in the toilet, and children will enjoy the one about a loud fart!

Lu Kemp's direction has echoes of some of Peter Brook's work particularly in the use of a multi-national cast. The actors perform well with each other and put across the various characters with enough variety to ensure that each story come across as a fresh tale.

  Tricycle Theatre, London until12 January 2013 - 020-7328 1000

Again, not your usual pantomime fare, or indeed the Cinderella story we expect, but CINDERELLA: A Fairytale

is the traditional Brothers' Grimm version with all the cutting-off toes and gouging out eyes parts as in the original - still the children at the performance I went to seemed to be really enjoying themselves! Director Sally Cookson achieves marvels with her little band of actors, who besides taking on different characters also sing and dance, play musical instruments and even interact with the audience.

Ella (Lisa Kerr) has a close relationship with her father until he remarries. She doesn't want a new mother and is very unhappy when her father dies and her stepmother reduces her life to that of a skivvy serving her stepbrother and sister. Cleaning the hearth, Ella is told to sleep "with the cinders Ella" and becomes Cinderella.

This Cinderella is a tomboy and her best friends are the birds in whom she finds the spirit of her dead father. She meets a birdwatcher, a young man who is a bit of a nerd - he turns out to be the Prince - and invites Ella to a ball at the Palace. The birds help to defy the orders of the Stepmother and Ella is suitably attired.

There are a number of quirky touches in the production. The stepbrother turns up at the ball in a pretty skirt as his mother is most anxious that one of her two children marries the Prince. There is some lovely jazz music which is well sung and the birds are depicted by paper ones being floated around the stage by the actors. The father transforms into the stepmother by putting on a dress and hat, so the same actor can play both parts. Lisa Kerr makes a delightful Cinderella and this show is yet another triumph for the upwardly moving new St James' theatre.

St. James Theatre - 0844 264 2140

Carlie Newman

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