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FILM: November 2009

Out now is a delightful new version of the film TOY STORY IN 3D (cert. U 1hr. 21mins.), and a wonderful new 3D animated film, UP (cert. U 1hr 42mins.) in which an older somewhat bad-tempered widower, having decided to take his house on an adventure, ties thousands of balloons to his home and sails upwards accompanied by a stowaway 9 yr.old.

ROUND UP OF THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL and on release now: There were some excellent films on offer at the LFF which has just finished and a number of them are already released or will be very shortly. As there are too many to outline here I shall give fairly brief details and offer more when they are released later. We begin with the well-scripted and beautifully crafted FANTASTIC MR. FOX (cert. PG 1hr. 27mins.) which, although aimed at children is also suitable for adults.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The story is an expanded version of Roald Dahl's book put together under the direction of Wes Anderson. Featuring the voices of well-known actors who recorded their parts before the film was shot, the actors spent a few days running around a farm location all together "acting out" their roles. Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep) live happily with their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who only wants to impress his dad, and welcome their young nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

However, after 12 years of good behaviour, Mr. Fox yearns for some adventure and returns to stealing chickens aided by some of his animal friends, although his wife is not aware of what is going on. There are three evil farmers led by Bean (Michael Gambon), who are determined to capture the wily Fox. How Mr. Fox, his family and friends evade capture keeps everyone on their toes and the audience sides with Mr. Fox even though he is basically a thief - hey, it's Clooney, after all! There are other well voiced characterisations including Bill Murray as Badger and Willem Dafoe as Rat. Good music is provided and sung by Jarvis Cocker.

At the Press Conference for the film we learnt more about the process of making it from director, Wes Anderson and about the actors' approach to their work here from some of those involved including Clooney (with his melodious voice and dreamy looks on full display) and Murray, who spouted some witticisms along with his views. We were interested in Anderson's casting whereby in this very English story the good actors are all American and the villains British. Anderson's answer was that two Americans adapted the book so the animals are Americans and the humans Brits. It was most interesting to learn about the technical process: the film is shot in stop-motion animation using three-dimensional puppets as the characters. Typically each second of what one sees on the screen has 24 frames of film time, so the puppet is moved just a very tiny amount to show the character moving. The director also employs Dahl's use of captions to herald each scene, such as "Mr. Fox has a plan." I really enjoyed the film and trust that my grandchildren will be equally enthralled.

Also recommended and out November: THE INFORMANT (cert.15 1hr. 49mins.) is a quirky, unusual look at a whistle blower (Matt Damon). It has many twists and quite a lot of humour. Not much humour in GLORIOUS 39, directed by Stephen Poliakoff, which gives a well-photographed view of the period immediately before the war and stars Romola Garai (recently seen in TV's Emma) as an orphan adopted by relatives with dark secrets. BRIGHT STAR (cert.PG 1 hr.59mins.) directed by Jane Campion, is the story of the love affair between 23 year-old English poet, John Keats (Ben Whishaw), and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is keen on high fashion when we first meet her in London 1818. She gradually comes to love both Keats and his poetry but they are torn apart when Keats falls ill a year later. The cinematography showing the scenery around Hampstead village is lovely and there is good acting from the company of actors, although Whishaw is a bit dour as Keats. You can't fault the poetry, though!

A really excellent film AN EDUCATION (cert. 12A 1hr.40mins.), based on one of the incidents in journalist Lynn Barber's autobiography, starts Carey Mulligan (already being tipped for an Oscar) as 16 yr old Jenny (Lynn) a bright student heading for Oxford who is seduced by an older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard). The screenplay by Nick Hornby is witty and catches the whole atmosphere of the early 1960s, and the entire cast, particularly Alfred Molina as Jenny's father and Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David's friends cannot be faulted. Emma Thompson excels in a small part as the anti-Semitic Headmistress. At the press conference director, Lone Scherfig and Hornby, answered my question complimenting the team on the authentic costumes and set decoration of the period, by saying they had talked to Barber and were trying to catch the spirit of the period. Cooper commented that the dialogue was exact and helpful.

One film which shouldn't be overlooked is TODAY'S SPECIAL, which has not yet found a distributor. Director David Kaplin has Aasif Mandvi as a chef who, when he leaves the prestigious restaurant in New York where he is sous-chef to hone his talents in Paris, unexpectedly finds that he has to run his father's run-down Indian restaurant although he knows nothing about Asian cooking. Aided by an expert cook (Naseeruddin Shah) who he finds driving a taxi and supported by a young woman he met in his other job he strives to change the menu and ambience of his father's restaurant. At the same time his mother (Madhur Jaffrey) is keen to thrust him into an appropriate marriage with the right person. A lovely mixture of comedy, pathos and genuinely emotional moments the film tells a good story and has a cast and authentic settings to put across this worthwhile production. Once it has a distributor and I know the release date I shall write further on my interview with Mandvi. The wonderful PRECIOUS and KICKS will be dealt with when they are released early next year.

The UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL runs from 7 to19 November and has some very good films on offer. One of the highlights is A SERIOUS MAN (cert. 15 1hr. 46 mins.) which was also shown at the LFF and is on general release 20 November. A very amusing tale of Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg),a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, search for some meaning in his life after he has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him.

Serious Man

She has fallen in love with one of their acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a pompous man who proceeds to take over Larry's living arrangements and he is forced to move into a motel He is also troubled by his unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who is sleeping on his couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who finds school and Hebrew classes difficult, his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who wants a nose job. Larry is facing selection for a higher position and is also bothered by money problems as he has to pay for his son's Barmitzvah. To advise him, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Once again Joel and Ethan Coen have fashioned a very amusing tale - this time set in the late 1960s. Michel Stuhlberg is excellent as the unassuming Larry who faces disasters at every turn and the rest of the cast, mainly unknown to British cinema goers, are all most effective.

You might also enjoy some other films in the Festival: worth trying are LATE MARRIAGE (1hr. 40mins.), Russian immigrants face the intermingling of different cultures when the son falls in love with a Morrocan divorcee. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN stars Ronit Elkabetz as the daughter of a Jewish lawyer who once loved widowed Louise (Catherine Deneuve), the mother of Jeanne who tells a lie about being assaulted by a gang of youths who mistook her for a Jew. And EYES WIDE OPEN (1hr 31mins.) deals with the love between two men within Jerusalem's orthodox community. These and other goodies can be found at various cinemas in London and then around the country from January 2010. For information contact www.uk/Jewishfilmfestval.org.uk


THEATRE TIP

Those of us who have seen MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN (it is given the full title of Bertolt Brecht's play in Tony Kushner's translation at the National Theatre) in the past will each remember a particular scene. For me it is Mother Courage's mute daughter banging on a make-shift drum to alert the townsfolk to the presence of the enemy army. And, in fact, that is one of the key ideas here - the conflict between the anti-war stance that is associated with the play and the necessity to fight against our enemies and the need of these wars in order to provide the merchant, Mother C. with her livelihood.

Mother Courage and her children

The alienation techniques that Brecht uses are well-deployed in this setting with scene changes and the costume fitter appearing on stage. Fiona Shaw gives a lively portrayal of a woman trying to make sure that she, and whoever is left of her family, survive during the 30 years' of war that the play covers. Earning money is Courage's primary aim in order to buy food and keep going. Shaw is particularly moving when she is forced to deny she knows her dead son.

Deborah Warner has achieved a dynamic production with Courage rising on a plinth like the singer Madonna and giving a generally bravura performance.

THE SPEAKING OF TONGUES (Duke of York's) by Andrew Bovell has been written so that the four actors appear after the interval as different characters. Although this was not possible in the film, Lantana, based on this play, it adds to the general air of mystery. I must say that I found it enthralling, if occasionally somewhat puzzling, and it was good to have another play this month that required involvement of the brain! A clever start sees two couples, unbeknown to the others, meet adulterously and echo each others words. Later we see them confessing at home and the ramifications. Act 2 finds different people with their own stories, but it becomes clear(ish) that they are involved in the first stories. John Simm, Lucy Cohu, Ian Hart and Kerry Fox play their roles adroitly and Toby Frow's direction brings out the detective story elements as well as the intellectual conundrums.

Leicester Square Theatre is a little gem and the production of MARILYN: FOREVER BLONDE (until 18 November) works well on the fairly small stage. The seats have been re-arranged to form a more conventional setting and the simple set is most effective: there is a bed, made up with satin sheets, on a plinth with photos projected on to a screen behind. At one point Marilyn gets out fully dressed from a bath with plastic bubbles, looks at the audience and remarks, "It's only make belief." It's a one woman show set in 1962 when Marilyn is 36 and she looks back at her life, recalling some key events and illustrated by some (in general real) voices from her past including husband Joe Di Maggio, Yves Montand and Sinatra. The show relies on a good Monroe and in Sunny Thompson it has succeeded: she has a good figure, appropriate hair and manages a great voice and facial expressions, oh, and, of course, MM's wriggle! It is surprising to hear MM (all the words used are her own) say that she read Jane Austin.

At first glance somewhat strange bedfellows but the idea behind the two plays at the Rose Theatre in Kingston is that a bed is the focal point of each play. Stephen Unwin has directed a somewhat dark version of MISS JULIE, although Strindberg's play is never really amusing! In fact there is an extra bed which can be seen on the opposite side of the stage; this is where Kristin, the cook (well depicted by Lucy Briers) retires exhausted after a long day's work. We see and smell her cooking at the start of the play. Kristin leaves her fiancÚ, Jean, and Miss Julie, her boss, together and after some seduction by the mistress of the house they enjoy a rather rushed sexual act on his bed. Although Julie fantasises for a short while about a future life together, Jean knows that she is far above him in status and, as he remarks to her, "You stood for everything I couldn't have." Julie finally gets the message that she will always look upon him as her servant. Although somewhat slow in action Rachel Pickup and Daniel Betts give cracking performances as the mismatched couple.

BEDROOM FARCE (both plays until 28 November) is directed by Peter Hall and is absolutely spot-on in catching the comedy inherent in Alan Ayckbourn's play. Three couples in their own bedrooms are visited by another couple who are beset by marriage problems. The most accurate of the three is Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost, an older couple whose chief pleasure is eating pilchards in bed. Good comedic characterisations from Finty Williams and Daniel Betts (at some variance from his role in the previous play) who play a young couple rather too intent on playing practical jokes to boost their sexual efforts in the bedroom.

Bedroom Farce

The supporting pairs are played by Rachel Pickup (in a very different role from Miss Julie) plus Orlando Seale and Lucy Briers and Tony Gardner. Well-staged and performed this is a must-see occasion.

OUR CLASS (National Theatre until 12 January) tells the stories of the 10 school children who make up the class in the small Polish town of Jedwabne from their time as youngsters beginning in 1925 until now. Gradually this mixed class of five Catholic and five Jewish students becomes enemies as first anti-Semitism grows and then the Soviet occupation in 1939 is followed by the Nazis domination in 1941. While some Jews are betrayed by their former Catholic playmates, others risk their own necks by hiding their friends. If the name Jedwabne sound familiar to some it is because a massacre of 1,600 Jews took place there in the summer of 1941 (this followed the Soviets massacre of 22,000 people in 1940 as depicted in the recent excellent film, Katyn). The play then details what happens to two of the perpetrators of the massacre (now said to have been carried out by the local community) and two Jewish survivors. In 1949 there is a trial of members of this community who took part in the massacre and it then moves through the years taking in the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1969, the visit of the new Polish Pope to Poland and the rise of Solidarity. While Tadeusz Slobodzianek, in a version by Ryan Craig, has written a powerful play with a lot of facts and stories to digest, I found some of it hard going and would have welcomed some Brechtian-type captions. It is sometimes difficult to remember who is who, particular amonst the men, and to follow each of the stories. However there is no denying that the simplicity of the setting - an oblong layout in the Cottesloe Theatre - is most effective. The acting is uniformly excellent and Director Bijan Scheiber has shown not only the lives of the 10 selected but has also given us a picture of the surrounding events and shown a collective guilt that still resonates.

Hampstead Theatre have discovered a really good new writer in 21 year-old Atiha Sen Gupta with her debut play WHAT FATIMA DID . (until 7November). Set in and around a North London school and drawing on her own knowledge Sen Gupta questions the effect that a schoolgirl, on the brink of celebrating her 18th birthday, suddenly appearing in a hijab would have on her friends. After the summer holidays Fatima appears (well, we never actually see her, as her actions are only described by others) now dressed as a religious Muslim wearing the hijab. Most react badly, particularly her boyfriend, an Irish lad (Gethin Anthony). who at one point rips off the veil attachment. Fatima's mother is not pleased either, but her twin brother wants to leave her to find herself. Other members of the class discuss both Fatima's reasons for suddenly adopting this garb and their reactions to this, ranging from a girlfriend's denunciation of Fatima's feminist principles to the conflicting attitude of their English class teacher (Catherine Cusack) married to an Iranian. Apart from a somewhat over-acting mother, the young cast perorm fervently and come across as real.

Jane Horrocks became famous in the stage play and then the film of THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE which now stars former reality star, Diana Vickers as LV at the Vaudeville Theatre. Vickers manages to look suitably down-trodden and at the same time produce a wonderful array of singing styles as she impersonates a range of female stars from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey. We see her emerge from her completely selfish mother's machinations to star in shows put on by the somewhat obnoxious impresario (Tony Haygarth, with an amazing false toupee) aided by the mother's new lover, (played with panache by Marc Warren). Terry Johnson manages a pitch perfect production with an appropriate chaotic set showing Mari, LV's mother 's home. The chief acting role goes to Lesley Sharpe as LV's avaricious mother, who is just the right side of giving an over the top performance. Good characterisations, too, from the director's son James Cartwright as shy Billy who befriends LV and Rachel Lumberg as fat Sadie, Mari's only friend.

Annie Get Your Gun

Jane Horrocks herself can be seen in a delightful production of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (Young Vic until 2 January). This lovely Irving Berlin musical shows how Annie Oakley, the sharpest shooter in the American West (here updated to the 1940s), comes up against Frank Butler, a champion shot. When she falls in love with him and realises that in order to get her man she has to actually lose their match, she does so with the realisation that, "You can't get a man with a gun." Every song is a gem and it is just amazing to realise just how many good ones there are in this one show.

My one caveat is the stage, which, although effective in showing a train sequence by using miniature scenery on a conveyor belt to show the passing views, is so narrow that there is no room for any real choreography and the audience seems to be looking through a letter box. While Horrocks is lively, though smaller and not as buxom as the usual Annie, her voice is strong and her acting fine. The real knock out performance is given by Julian Ovendon who plays Butler with his tongue in his cheek, his larynx at full throat effectiveness so that we revel in his beautiful melodious voice.

Unfortunately there is not room enough to do justice to INHERIT THE WIND (Old Vic until 20 December), a play based on the famous trial in 1925 in the American South of a teacher accused of teaching the evolutionary theory which had been deemed illegal. Here we have a young teacher who will not recant on his lessons, which included reading from Darwin's The Origin of the Species, and although his girlfriend, the daughter of a a preacher (a somewhat manic Ken Bones) and others urge him to give in to the demands of the State law, he sticks to his beliefs - or lack of them. The main part of the play is the conflict between the two great lawyers based on Clarence Darrow (Kevin Spacey) and William Jennings Bryan (David Troughton). Spacey is excellent as the witty, eloquent lawyer who tries to put forward logical arguments but is prevented from doing so by the bible-thumping Troughton. The two are, in my opinion, the best acting duo currently on the London stage.

     
     
     

Carlie Newman

   
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