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FILM:September 2013

Combining elements of a cop movie with those of a buddy film, 2 GUNS (cert. 15 1hr 42 mins.) manages, in the main, to do this successfully. It also has some of the expected action sequences that we look for in a cop movie. Robert "Bobby" Trench (Denzel Washington) and Michael "Stig" Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) have been working together for a while. The only trouble is that neither of them knows that the other is something other than the person they seem to be, which is a bank robber. Each works undercover for the United States government. Trench is a DEA agent, Stigman a US naval intelligence officer.

They get on well but distrust each other without knowing exactly why. In trying to infiltrate a drug cartel, run by the bullish Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) the two rob a small-town bank and discover not the small amount of cash they expect but millions of dollars. When Bobby and Stig find themselves disowned by their respective bosses, they have to rely on each other to survive. They also want to find out what has happened and why so much money has been placed in the bank. Obviously, the villains are also after the two comrades.

Denzel Washington & Mark Wahlberg

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur employs his cast well and uses the very good chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg to put across a story which is full of twists. The two work so well together that it is impossible to tell just what is improvised and what part of the script. There are some very amusing moments in the banter between the two stars and a lovely touch when Washington kisses a baby's head during the bank robbery. Denzel is now a master at putting across funny lines in a dry manner and he manages to lift up Wahlberg to accompany him on the various rifts he indulges in.

The supporting players like Olmos and Bill Paxton, who plays a somewhat villainous Russian-roulette-loving government operative, make the most of their parts. Paula Patton is the love interest and reacts nicely to Denzel's remark that he has "tried" to love her.

Surprise…RED 2 (cert.12A 1 hr. 56 mins.) is the sequel to Red! It looks as though Bruce Willis, who is the main character in the Red films, is trying to start another franchise. The first one was an acceptable piece of laid-back enjoyment and, whilst this movie tries hard to achieve the lightness of tone and all-action excitement of the first film, it doesn't quite make the grade. This is in spite of the sterling efforts of a cast full of Hollywood names.

The plot is at times difficult to follow, but once one gets in the swing it moves along nicely. For those of us who are somewhat slower to grasp initials, or never knew, RED is a code name that stands for "Retired and Extremely Dangerous."

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), the former CIA black ops agent thinks he has seen enough of the tough life and is happy to live a quiet life alongside his girlfriend Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker).

Mary-Louise Parker, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich

She, however, is not so sure that the staid life they are leading suits her. So she is quite happy when Frank is asked to assist his old partner Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) who has realised that they are being targeted because they have been listed as participants in a secret operation codenamed Nightshade, a next generation weapon that went missing while the two were in charge. The operation was conducted during the Cold War era in order to smuggle a nuclear weapon into Russia piece by piece. Sarah becomes part of the little group who are now searching for the bomb connected with Operation Nightshade. The group's old friend Victoria (Helen Mirren) informs them that she has accepted a contract from MI6 to kill Frank. An expert contract killer, Han Cho-Bai (Lee Byung-hun) has also been hired separately to kill Frank.

Frank, Marvin, and Sarah cover a number of different locations including London and Paris in their search for the deadly weapon. In Paris they meet up with a man nicknamed "The Frog" (David Thewliss), and also meet Katya (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Russian secret agent who Frank had a relationship with earlier in his career. Katya is also attempting to find Nightshade. Sarah is more than somewhat jealous of this beautiful, sexy woman. When the three comrades find documents in The Frog's security box, pointing to Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant physicist, as the creator of the bomb involved with Operation Nightshade, they are on their way to finding the actual weapon. And so on…complicated, but probably worth the effort for those who enjoyed the first Red and others who want a light evening's entertainment at the cinema. Zeta-Jones looks stunning and shows she can put across comedy in addition to toting guns. Hopkins is, well, Hopkins and Willis could do with more smiling, but he is what he is and you like or don't like! Malkovich comes across as a worthy comedic partner for Bruce and Parker is cute as the girlfriend who wants to be part of the action. She and Willis have some funny couple's scenes. Helen Mirren revels in her part in this action movie and also uses her acting skills to put across some amusing lines.

ELYSIUM (cert.15 1hr. 19mins.)

Although set in 2154, Director Neill Blomkamp, who is also the writer, draws on his own experience of living in apartheid South Africa to give his view of a society very strictly divided into the haves and have nots. Elysium has lots of action and exciting set pieces and this Sci-fi thriller is engrossing.

Matt Damon plays Max, who is, most definitely, one of the poor. He lives in a slum on Earth (actually Los Angeles) and works in a factory and can only dream of getting to Elysium. Elysium is a satellite in space where the very rich live. Not only do the residents enjoy a luxurious lifestyle but also a wonderful futuristic health service where technology in their own homes provides them with instant cures.

Matt Damon

Max is finding it virtually impossible to save enough to pay for tickets to take his childhood love, Frey (Alice Braga), who he met when they were both placed in an orphanage, to Elysium. Max battles against his superiors and against bureaucratic robots.

It is when Max receives a fatal dose of radiation that his chance to live his dream appears to come to fruition. Equally important is to get himself cured by using one of the high technology healing machines on the planet for the rich. To achieve both aims, he makes a deal with a hustler known as Spider (Wagner Moura) to undertake a dangerous mission.

It becomes even more difficult when he antagonises the powerful contractor Carlyle (William Fichtner). Max and his best friend Luna (Diego Luna) battle too, with the powerful Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her employee, the mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

This story of two different worlds so near to one another and yet so different is a good allegory for showing the extremes of the very wealthy and those right at the other end of the poverty line. Although set in the future the movie is very obviously showing us not only what is happening now in many parts of the world where one percent of the population live in ostentatious richeness and the rest suffer from poverty but also how it can get very much worse in the fuutre. As I write, a Report on Child Poverty from the National Children's Bureau warns that Britain could become a place in which "children's lives are so polarised that rich and poor live in separate, parallel worlds."

Not, therefore, a very optimistic film except that Max is shown only out for himself until he learns exactly what is happening on Elysium and what is proposed for the rest of the population and then decides that he is the only one who can save the masses.

As a low key hero, Matt Damon gives a good, non-showy peformance, grounded in reality in spite of the futuristic setting. And he looks good, too! With strong support from the rest of the cast, partcularly Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner and Diego Lina, Jodie Foster stands out as the cold, ambitious official, and she speaks good French, tool.

Neill Blomkamp did a terrific job with District 9 and while Elysium does not quite achieve such a high standard, the director still manages to make it visually exciting with great set pieces and much action. The design of the film gives a good idea of the two very different worlds and Blomkamp manages to convey not only the squalor of life on earth (much of the filming took place on a giant rubbish tip in Mexico City) but somehow presents us with the smell of the place - it won't be long before we have smelly vision in films - and at the other end we have the high tech very attractive planet of Elysium where all is peace and beauty. The director also manages the many special effects dexteriously and integrates them seamlessly into the whole.

Elysium is a worthy follow-up to District 9, with an absorbing story line, focussed direction, exciting action sequences and a great performance from Matt Damon in the main part. The film is recommended.

     
     
     

 

 


 

THEATRE TIP

It is true that the musical, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London Until 7 September 2013 BOX OFFICE 0844 424) is, indeed, syrupy at times, but this show deals with the political climate of the time in which it is set in a direct and often very moving manner. This production of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical at the Open Air theatre in Regent's Park is directed by Rachel Kavanagh in a manner that enhances both the romantic side of the story as well as the fearful political climate which forms a very real part of the show.

The story, although somewhat fictionalised, is based on the actual von Trapp family's story as told by Maria Augusta Trapp. Set in Salzburg, Austria in the months leading up to the Anschlus in 1938, we meet Maria (Charlotte Wakefield) as she insists that she really wants to be a nun but the other nuns along with the Mother Abbess (Helen Hobson) are concerned that she is too flighty to ever settle into the quiet contemplative life of a nun. She is forever late as she sings in the hills surrounding the convent where she is a postulant.

Rather than dismiss her, the Mother Asbbess sends Maria to be governess to the widower Captain von Trapp's seven children. How she wins over the children and then the heart of the Captain forms the bulk of the story. The dark part comes when the couple return from honeymoon and Captain von Trapp (Michael Xavier) is summoned to take up a post under the aegis of the Nazi Government in Germany. When the Captain agrees that the family can perform at the Salzburg Festival it looks as though he agrees with the takeover of Austria by Germany.

The set is the same for all scenes - showing a gate into the convent and a long staircase up at the beginning - it manages to also be the home of the von Trapp family. The children line up on the staircase in response to their father's whistles to summon them. The nuns later line up on the same staircase at the wedding of Maria and the Captain. There is a moat around the stage where Maria and the Captain dabble their feet - thus showing that the grief-stricken widower is finally relaxing in his love for Maria.

Some years ago the Open Air Theatre had a reputation for rather tatty costumes, but in the last few years the costumes have improved so much that in this show even the children's play clothes look sumptuous! And the very well-dressed Elsa Schreider (Caroline Keiff) Elsa is turned out in a most chic manner; the women around me were sighing over her high heeled ultra-smart shoes.

Rachel Kavanagh directs her cast in an unemotional manner and they respond with truthful performances. There are three different sets of children with Liesl (Faye Brookes) as the only constant. Her interaction with the young postman, Rolf (Joshua Tonks) who delivers letters with a Nazi salute, is tenderly shown. The children are well-differentiated and perform attractively although a couple of the girls tend to put on stage children type smiles at the end of songs. Michael Matus depicts the cynical impresario, Max Detweiler in an amusing manner and his interchanges with Elsa as they discuss her marrying the rich Captain are well presented. The audience can understand why the Captain rejects her in favour of young Maria.

The all-singing, all-dancing nuns have verve and the Abbess sings well although 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' was sung in a lower key in the 2006 Palladium production by Lesley Garrett and I think worked better. Choreographer, Alistair David, keeps the dancing simple and the Nuns and children seem to enjoy the movement.

A lot depends on the chemistry between the main couple and pleasant, non-operatic voiced Michael Xavier has exactly the right charm as the Captain to appeal not only to Maria but also to the audience. He begins by being a most authoritarian figure and is gradually released from his sadness at losing his wife to finding a way to embrace the gaiety of Maria and also to understand the needs of his children. We see Xavier show all this as he begins to respond in a more emotional manner to his family. Charlotte Wakefield enchants from her first appearance skipping down through the audience to reaching up on tip toe to the much taller Captain. It is really good to find an actress who can put across the songs in a delightful light soprano voice and is also able to act well so that the romance between her and the Captain is depicted with honesty. New to many of the audience she is absolutely captivating as Maria and obviously has a bright future in musical theatre.

There are many moments of pure sentimentality but the songs are presented in a very fresh way and even the romance between Maria and Captain von Trapp seem so real that everything in this production serves the musical well and gives us a true idea of the circumstances surrounding this family and the way in which the couple and the seven children manage to survive. Rachel Kavanagh presents the show in such a straightforward manner that the political dimension is much more obvious than in other productions of this well-known musical. Although you will have to hurry to catch it at the Open Air Theatre, it is a good bet for transfer to the West End. This is a delightful show and it is highly recommended.

For all of us with memories of Patrick Swayze and the great film, DIRTY DANCING (Piccadilly Theatre until 22 February 2014 Booking office: 0844 871 7630) will still attract. This is very much like the production mounted at the Aldwych in 2006 which ran for five years. It now comes into the Piccadilly theatre which was left empty after the flop of the Spice Girls' show, Viva Forever.

Set in a hotel in the Catskills, a predominantly Jewish holiday resort, in 1963, it tells the story of Baby Houseman (Jill Winternitz) from a well-to-do family and Johnny Castle (Paul-Michael Jones), the dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks. How Baby manages to evade her family and learns to dance with Johnny and later perform, as well as falling in love with her partner is the essence of the story. Along the way we meet the members of her family and also the other entertainers who present the nightly shows to the guests at the hotel.

Paul Michael Jones as Johnny and Charlotte Gooch as Penny

Baby's sister, Lisa (an excellent Emilia Williams) is a well-defined character - attention seeking and after a husband. There is some really good dancing, but not from Baby. The best of the dancers are Johnny along with his friend, Penny (who gets into trouble with one of the bad boys working in the hotel). They are shown in the picture above. Charlotte Gooch as Penny dances with enthusiasm and style.

Winternitz puts over the naiveté of the young Baby and is charmingly portrayed by the actress, but even when she is supposed to have learnt to dance, is more than lacking in that direction. However, her acting is good and she portrays the big leap at the end while executing a small jump!

SHARON MICHAELS saw and enjoyed POPE JOAN. She writes:

There could hardly be a better setting for POPE JOAN (St. James's Church, Piccadilly, London until 15 September Box office: 0207 452 3000) than this Church designed by Sir Christopher Wren and decorated with the fabulous carvings of Grinling Gibbons. The play is about faith, lies, plots and equality and how two people use these tools to obtain the very highest office within the Catholic Church for their own purposes, be it for faith or merely the rewards of power. The music, song and chanting is all the better for the venue although the dialogue is somewhat hindered by the Church's acoustics.

The play tells the story of laddish young Johanna (Sarah Miele) desperate to read books and become educated. The only way of fulfilling her desire is to cut off her long flowing locks and enter a monastic life where she has access to a library and learning. There, now called John, she is beaten and whipped until she is completely fluent in the teachings of the Bible and eventually becomes Pope. Pope Joan's history is told well through flashbacks throughout the play and is acted with enthusiasm.

In the opening scene, atmosphere filled with music and incense, Pope John (Sophie Crawford) bounds her naked beasts tightly and dons the robes and the unyielding character of her high position. Unwavering in the duties bestowed on her, she takes them on without sympathy or emotion but in religious faith. However, she is forced to confront the fact that she is also a woman and has discovered that she is pregnant. Pope Joan is in conflict and turmoil torn between her position and her faith and her unborn child's life.

Sophie Crawford as Pope Joan

The huge issues she faces in her own character and in her changed attitude towards the prostitute (Ruby Kwong) brought to her for punishment and the role of women in the Church is now Joan's challenge. This is poignantly expressed.

She has, however, made a foe of Cardinal Anastasius (Robert Willoughby) and now, with Machiavellian treachery, aware that something is amiss, he schemes to reveal all. Motivated by his desire to become Pope himself, his dark plot is effective and merciless.

Sophie Crawford performance is brave and convincing, not unlike the Pope she plays. There are scenes which leave lasting impressions, such as her being carried high in the air, cruelly and mockingly, half naked, by sinister robed monks. She carries the part very well. Robert Willoughby plays his role brilliantly and excitingly as a man who will stop at nothing to ensure things go his way.

Perhaps it makes little difference whether the medieval story of Pope Joan/John is fact or fiction as one watches the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain bring to life Louise Bealey's first play with energy and enthusiasm. The play, written especially for the National Youth Theatre, goes beyond the simple telling of a woman who manages to disguise her sex to enable her to be elevated to a position only preserved for males. It cleverly examines the many issues including women's position within the Church and society as a whole, of education and equality, leaving one wondering how much really has changed over the centuries. Maybe little. It was tremendous to see this young and talented cast meet the challenges of the play and provoke thought on such difficult subjects.

Stephen Campbell Moore as Joe, Sean Gilder as Mel, in 'Chimerica'

Looking at the events surrounding the taking of the well-known picture of the man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lucy Kirkwood's new play is a fictionalised account of a young American journalist called Joe who took the picture. CHIMERICA (Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until 19 October. Box Office 0844 871 7622) is an ambitious project that is absolutely engrossing. The play covers events in China and America (hence the title).

Beginning in 1989 with Joe (Stephen Campbell Moore) happening to be in the right place to see a very ordinary man holding plastic bags and standing in front of one of the tanks to stop it proceeding.

The action moves forwards to 2012 and the American election with China's economic power on the agenda. Joe wants to find the so-called "tank man" and sets out to do so accompanied by his colleague Mel (Sean Gilder).

The play manages to look at global issues as well as those connected with human rights while at the same time putting a microscope to human relationships - particularly Joe and the market researcher (Claudie Blakley) with whom he becomes involved. We also see what happens to the brother of Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), back in China and have flash backs to Zhang Lin and his wife when they were both young before she was killed in Tiananmen Square.

The sharp direction under Lyndsey Turner and the clever use of a revolving design and back projections keeps the action moving and allows the actors to develop their characters. It is good to see Wong finally being recognised as the really good actor he is and following his performance as Ai Weiwei, he is very moving as the Chinese dissident, Zhang Li in this play. Do make an effort to see this before it closes.

Another one that is a must see is WEST SIDE STORY at Sadler's Wells, London (until 22 September. Box Office: 0844 412 4300).

This is a really exciting production, which shows that, although British actors are renowned for their skills, Americans still have the edge when it comes to musical theatre. The cast here is mainly composed of American and Canadian actors, young and bouncing with energy.

Leonard Bernstein's music (here conducted with verve by Donald Chan) is perfect for the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, or should that be the other way round? And Jerome Robbins' interpretation through his direction and choreography - which is replicated here - makes for perhaps the best musical ever.

It is not just the modernisation of the Romeo and Juliet story through its setting with the two gangs, the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, swaggering as they try to gain control of the streets and the scuffling which leads to tragedy, but the bitter-sweet love story of the young lovers who come together in joy and then face the deepest sorrow as they are drawn into the inter-gang brawls.

The set - iron staircases with balconies and a row of tenements - looks good and provides the right background for the story set in Upper West Side, a poor part of New York. Above all it is the dancing that really grabs one here, from the opening scene with the snapping fingers until the very last most sad moments, the chorus and leads (except for the young lovers) leap and move with speed around the stage. The songs are well sung by all too and the actors manage to bring humour in wherever they can. As usual the performance of Office Krupke by the Jets is well received. It is strange to hear the youngsters in the show, which takes place in the 1950s saying "cool" when my teenage grandson uses that term today.

While the romantic leads, Anthony Festa as Tony and Jessica Soza as Maria work well together and are sweet singers, Anita (Penelope Armstead-Williams and Bernardo (Pepe Munoz) have the more eye-catching and ear astounding roles.

A rather different show, but nevertheless exciting in its own way, is the RSC's excellent production of one of Shakespeare's most difficult comedies, ALL'S WEEL THAT ENDS WELL (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 26 September. Box office: 0844 800 1110

Joanna Horton and Greg Hicks in All's Well That Ends Well, at the Royal Shakespeare theatre

The play is "difficult" because it is not really funny and the hero is not a likeable sort of guy. Nancy Meckler, however, directs this Stratford production in such a creative manner that most of the audience will feel surprised that it isn't already on their list of favourite Shakespeare plays. She manages to draw together the mixture of themes - the political aspect with a kind of fairy tale and the facing up to what we, these days, would describe as gender issues.

Joanna Horton is very good at putting across her character - Helena, who, as an inferior, is rejected by Bertram (Alex Waldmann) the man she loves - but finds help and comfort in the actions of other women. These 'sisters', who include Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rosillion (played at the performance I saw by Karen Archer) and Diana (Natalie Klamar), who kindly takes Helena's place in her husband's bed in the "bed trick" when he refuses to consummate the marriage.

Actually there is humour up to a certain point in the character of the vain, lying Parolles, Beautifully played by Jonathan Slinger, who has a somewhat strange posh accent with a touch of Kenneth Williams. His comeuppance has echoes of the taunting suffered by Malvolio (Olivia's steward in Twelfth Night). And Greg Hicks once again gives us a well-thought out cameo as the dying King who is cured by Helena, the doctor's daughter. We see him first with tubes stuck into him and later dancing when cured (see picture above).

As one who has stayed in Ted Hughes birth house in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, I have more than a passing interest in the life of the poet. So, although DOONREAGAN Jermyn Street Theatre, London until 21 September Box Office: 020 7287 2875) was lacking in structure and pace, I was most interested in the relationship between Hughes and his lover, Assia, in 1966 as shown in this play.

While many know the poetry of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and the ultimately tragic outcome of their marriage, less is known of the time spent together of Ted and Assia.

After Sylvia Plath's suicide Assia and Ted went away together to Doonreagan House in an isolated area of Cashel, Connemara, Ireland (the furniture on display in the set is actually from Doonreagan House in the 1960s and would have been used by Ted and Assia). They took with them Assia's daughter Shura and Ted's two motherless young children. Ted had already left Sylvia before her death for his married lover Assia Wevill. Both are in their mid to late 30s.

Assia Wevill (Flora Montgomery) and Ted Hughes (Daniel Simpson)

Although the play lasts only 50 minutes, there are some longeurs between the short scenes - for no reason. Director, Alex Dmitriev shows back projections of lovely pictures of the uninhabited Irish landscape and seascape and makes one want to be there rather than in the theatre's tiny auditorium. The play is all about the couple and how they deal with everyday matters, the children and each other and how Sylvia still haunts them both. There are some challenging moments between the two and the play focusses on these rather than any narrative as such. Daniel Simpson catches Ted's look and accent and he has tears in his eyes at emotional moments (the beauty of a small theatre is that you can sit close enough to virtually intrude on the actors' lives and the drawback is that you can smell the smoke when the characters puff!). Wevill is not so well known and so Flora Montgomery seems fine in her portrayal.

Carlie Newman

   
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