Michael Caine: recalling a class act at the 2000 Oscars

By Ray Bennett

Spending time with Michael Caine is always a pleasure and since today is his 86th birthday, here’s one of my favourite encounters from 2000.

LOS ANGELES – It’s ironic that the word on everyone’s lips following Michael Caine’s acceptance speech at the Oscars on Sunday is ‘class’. It’s a word he’s been battling all his life.

As a Londoner from the wrong side of the tracks, dropping every ‘h’ and ‘g’ in his speech, Caine has run into Britain’s “class” system at every turn. He has observed that while in the States he is recognised as a successful and critically acclaimed star, among the nobs of the U.K. cultural establishment, he’s regarded as a ‘Cockney yobbo’.

That’s not true of the British public for whom Caine’s magnanimous display toward his fellow nominees following his win as best supporting actor for ‘The Cider House Rules’ seems entirely in character. And it didn’t seem to be the case at the annual tea part thrown by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles in Santa Monica on Saturday.

At one point, in quick succession, he was greeted by three venerable British film directors – Guy Green (‘The Angry Silence’), Ronald Name (‘Gambit’) and Ken Annakin (‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’ – who were all quick to congratulate him on his performance in ‘Cider House Rules’.

Caine’s response was typical. ‘Blimey, people ask me what’s happened to the British film industry,’ he grinned. ‘It’s right here in Santa Monica.’

Surrounded by hundreds of admires at the packed tea party, Caine recalled the last he won an Oscar for a supporting role in Woody Allen’s ‘Hannah and her Sisters’ in 1986. He was in the Caribbean working on ‘Jaws: the Revenge’.

‘I’d gone down there to do a couple of days on the movie and it went over,’ he said. ‘The awards used to be on a Monday and I was back her on the Tuesday but I just couldn’t get back in time. There were no planes, there was nothing.’

He didn’t even get to hear his name called out. The only television set as hand had a dodgy antenna. ‘I was fiddling with it and just as they said, ‘The winner is …’ it went crrrrzzzzldd. So I didn’t know. But then I got a phone call immediately. My wife was ringing me so it was all right.’

He was determined to be in Hollywood this time. He completed ‘Shiner’, a new gangster boxing picture in London on March 17 and spent the week before the Oscars sitting by the pool. Soon, he heads to Austin, Texas, to begin rehearsals with Sandra Bullock for a comedy, ‘Miss Congeniality’.

But he must return to England to receive a lifetime achievement award at the British Film Academy Awards on April 9. He will join a list of recipients that includes Sean Connery, Alfred Hitchcock and, last year, Elizabeth Taylor.

The presentation will cap a remarkable two years for Caine in which he received a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and his second Oscar. Many British actors and actresses have been favoured by the Academy over the years but Caine becomes only the second British male to pick up two acting Oscars joining Peter Ustinov, who won for ‘Topkapi’ and ‘Spartacus’.

Not even Laurence Olivier managed that. Talk about class.

This column appeared in The Hollywood Reporter on March 27, 2000.

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BAFTA 2019 Film Awards: picks and pans

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lots of good films and performances this year but some disappointing omissions among the BAFTA Film Awards nominations … good luck to all, especially ‘Roma’ (above) and ‘Cold War’.

Best Film:

Will win: Roma

Should win: Roma

Should have been there: Cold War and First Man

Best British Film:

Will win: The Favourite

Should win: Beast

Should have been there: Colette (right, Keira Knightley, Dominic West)

Best Foreign Language Film:

Will win: Roma

Should win: Roma (just as happy if: Cold War)

Best Director:

Should win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Should win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma (Just as happy if: Paweł Pawlikowski)

Should have been there: Damien Chazelle, First Man

Best Actor:

Will win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should have been there: Tomasz Kot, Cold War; Ryan Gosling, First Man

Best Actress:

Will win: Olivia Colman

Should win: Olivia Colman

Should have been there: Yalitza Aparicio, Roma; Joanna Kulig, Cold War (right with Tomasz Kott); Keira Knightley, Colette; Jessie Buckley, Beast

Best Supporting Actor:

Will win: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should win: Richard E. Grant

Should have been there: Steve Carell, Vice; Johnny Flynn, Beast; Dominic West, Colette

Best Supporting Actress:

Will win: Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Should win: Rachel Weisz (just as happy if: Amy Adams, Vice, right with Christian Bale)

Should have been there: Marina de Tavira, Roma 

Original Music:

Will win: Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk

Should win: Terence Blanchard, BlackKklansman

Should have been there: Marco Beltrami, A Quiet Place; 

Original Screenplay:

Will win: The Favourite, Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara

Should win: Cold War, Janusz Głowacki, Paweł Pawlikowski

Should have been there: Beast, Michael Pearce (right, Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn)

Adapted Screenplay:

Will win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty

Should win: First Man, Josh Singer

Should have been there: Leave No Trace, Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

Best Cinematography:

Will win: Roma, Alfonso Cuaron

Should win: Roma (just as happy if: Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski

Should have been there: Bad Times at the El Royale, Seamus McGarvey

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FILM REVIEW: Adam McKay’s ‘Vice’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – American writer-director Adam McKay’s political satire ‘Vice’ does for Washington what his 2015 film ‘The Big Short’ did for Wall Street with the same mix of techniques that includes sharp humour, characters speaking to camera, flashbacks and sublime acting.

The title stands not only for the immoral and probably illegal mischief of the men who surrounded President George W. Bush but specifically to the humourless mastermind Vice-President Dick Cheney played with uncanny skill by Christian Bale. Like Gary Oldman in ‘Darkest Hour’, Bale overcomes heavy makeup and CGI to achieve marvellous subtlety in a performance in which silence is as powerful as dialogue. ‘Vice’ is much better than the Churchill film, however, and that increases the likelihood that Bale will match Oldman and pick up the major acting awards.

Just as good is the always inventive Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne, who is even more Machiavellian than her husband. She played a role not too dissimilar in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film ‘The Master’ but if anything her Lynne Cheney is slyer and more cunning than Peggy Dodd in the earlier picture. As good as Bale is, without histrionics she captures every scene she’s in. Adams, too, will be in line for the top awards.

‘Vice’ follows the Cheneys as Lynne shapes her draft-avoiding, drunken loser husband into the kind of man who could go to school on shrewd cynics such as former Senator Donald Rumsfeld, who became George W.’s secretary of defence, and emerge as the most powerful creature in the White House zoo. Steve Carell also is priceless as Rumsfeld and his reaction when Cheney asks, “What do we believe in?” sums up the entire movie. Sam Rockwell draws smartly on his clueless character in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ for his depiction of W.

McKay’s spry and insightful screenplay shows how Lynne Cheney steered her husband toward positions in the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, 10 years in the House of Representatives and senior positions in big business. With a pleasing bit of trickery, McKay suggests that their public life ended when Bill Clinton became president until one day the telephone rang.

All the familiar faces of the era are portrayed – Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Matthew Jacobs as Antonin Scalia and Alison Pill as the Cheneys’s lesbian daughter Mary, whom they at first supported but then threw under a bus when their daughter Liz ran for election.

Cinematography by Greig Fraser, production design by Patrice Vermette and editing by Hank Corwin are all spot-on and Nicholas Britell’s savvy score mixes jazz, funk and orchestral themes in total sync with McKay’s cockeyed view of these particular affairs of state.

There’s a great deal of comedy in the film – even when Cheney shoots a hunting pal in the face and has regular heart attacks – despite all the tragic implications of the wars the Nixon and Bush administrations pursued in the interests of big oil firms and, in the case of Iraq, for the benefit of multinational destroy-and-rebuild exploitation firm Haliburton, where Cheney had been CEO. Hunger for power is shown as the prime motive but, while it is touched upon, perhaps even more important was sheer, unmitigated greed.

Released: US: Dec. 25 2018 (Annapurna Distribution) / UK: Jan. 25 2019 (eOne); Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Tyler Perry; Director: Adam McKay; Writer: Adam McKay; Director of photography: Greig Fraser; Production designer: Patrice Vermette; Music: Nicholas Britell; Editor: Hank Corwin; Costume designer: Susan Matheson; Producers: Megan Ellison, Will Ferrell, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messing, Brad Pitt; Executive producers: Chelsea Barnard, Jillian Longnecker, Jeff G. Waxman, Robyn Wholey; Production: Annapurna Pictures, Gary Sanchez Productions, Plan B Entertainment; Rating: UK: 15 / US: 18; running time: 132 minutes

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Russell Baker: a gift ‘for fooling around with words’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The great New York Times columnist Russell Baker, who has died aged 93, was one of my journalistic heroes and when I interviewed him in 1989 he turned out to be everything I’d hoped. He was an old-time newspaperman who never cared about scoops.

When we spoke, he was promoting the second volume of his memoirs, ‘The Good Times’, in which he relates his early days as a police report in Baltimore, his time covering the United States Senate and his stint as a foreign correspondent in London. He was a top reporter at the New York Times in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies covering federal politics and then a three-times a week columnist. He also succeeded Alistair Cook as host of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ from 1993 to 2004.

“I was never interested in the hell of a big story,” he told me. “That was a nuisance to me very often. I didn’t think scoops were important. I was interested in being a story-teller. I was interested in the kind of event where if you could bring it to life for people, you could a make a story of it in the paper.  It didn’t matter to me that you were one day ahead of the opposition. It just didn’t matter. What mattered to me was telling the audience clearly what happened yesterday, making them understand it. I thought that was the real mission of journalism.”

He became known as a humorist, and he was a top-notch one. His tale of seeing a spud fall from a high rise onto a pedestrian – potato mashes man – was a classic. But he spent much of his life as a serious reporter. “Covering the Senate, I thought it was really important to make people understand why a certain piece of legislation was important and what was going on. I spent a lot of my time covering the various civil rights bills, which were going nowhere but I thought were important and people ought to know about that. The reason more people don’t care is that it’s not presented in a way than interests anybody. People don’t read it. I was interested in finding ways to get them interested.”

He bemoaned the lack of competition in newspapers in America. One of the flaws in American journalism … “and there are many” … and one that always irritated him peculiarly, he said, was the “so-called passion for what we call objective journalism. It assumes that we have tablets down from … where do tablets come from, Sinai? … wherever, every morning. You know: This is the truth! Our editors have not polluted it in any way: This is what happened! And that is a fraudulent way to come on. You get that because of the loss of competition.

“The reporter is trying to conceal what feelings he has, the judgments he’s made. It’s a terribly distorting, suppressing kind of theory to operate under. American journalists always say that they’re trying to get to the truth. Well, that’s absurd. If you want truth then go and study philosophy, why don’t you. What we’re doing is a mishmash of facts and probably getting most of them wrong. I’ve been a reporter long enough to know that you’re out there on a shoeshine and a smile a lot of the time. You’re working on three facts trying to pretend you know 10,000.”

Baker said that he wandered into journalism without any real sense of direction. “I knew very early that if I had any talent whatever it was for doing things in writing, for fooling around with words. I was terrible in science. I couldn’t become a doctor. I was not a systematic thinker. I could not become a lawyer. I had no interest whatever in business. I had very few talents but the one thing I recognised was some skill, some ability, to work with words.”

He said he wasn’t dismayed that most people had started to get most of their information from television and perhaps now he would have said the same about the internet. “Most people? It doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, in the Dark Ages a handful of monks kept civilisation alive. Those others who were all pillaging and plundering, murdering the men, raping the women, stealing the cattle, their modern counterparts are people who get their information about the world from local TV. It doesn’t matter. Civilisation is preserved and forwarded by a small number of people, and they read newspapers.”

What did matter to him, as a great believer in Anglo-Saxon as opposed to Latinate English, was the way the English language was deliberately mangled, especially in Washington, DC. “The kind of English spoke n Washington is designed to conceal your thought to often to conceal that you have no thought. Nothing is ever ‘done’, things are ‘implemented’. You don’t ‘use’ things in Washington, you ‘utilise’ them. It sounds very learned. My God, it sounds important to utilise something and then implement it. Then you finalise it. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything.”

Here’s the New York Times obituary

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‘Roma’, ‘The Favourite’, ‘Cold War’ top London critics awards

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – There were few surprises at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards on Sunday as Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white Spanish drama ‘Roma’ won best picture and he was named best director while costume romp ‘The Favourite’ picked up four prizes including best British/Irish film and Polish drama ‘Cold War’ won two including best foreign-language film. Pedro Almodóvar (pictured above with Judi Love and Tamsin Greig) accepted the annual Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Filmmaking.

It was a warm and entertaining evening with an effervescent host in the form of comic Judi Love, who noted proudly that she was the first woman to be solo host of the event and the first black person. With no film axes to grind, she made the most of being a stranger in a strange land with an absence of awe, appealing self-deprecation and a willingness to not to take things too seriously.

‘The Favourite’ director, Yorgos Lanthimos, was on hand to collect his award as were Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, who won the screenplay award for the picture. Olivia Colman, named best actress, and Rachel Weisz (pictured above with Colman), who won as best supporting actress, both sent thanks via video. Lanthimos noted that “growing up in Greece, I never expected to be here making a film about Queen Anne”, and with an eye to current events he said he hoped he would be able to stay. 

Cuaron (pictured above on set with Yalitza Aparicio) sent video messages in response to his two awards in which he thanked his cast especially but also film critics for “the important role they play in bringing audiences to films that are unfamiliar”. Nicolás Celis, one of the film’s producers, was there and he praised the filmmaker along with his fellow producers and said “it would not have been possible without hundreds of people but especially two special actresses (best actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.

Pawel Pawlikowski was there to accept both prizes for ‘Cold War’ including the technical achievement award, which went to cinematographer Lukasz Zal in a field that included several different crafts. The British-based Polish filmmaker noted that “Polish isn’t such a foreign language here any more” and he thanked his producers and his cast, especially best actress nominee Joanna Kulig (pictured above with co-star Tomasz Kot). He dedicated his award to the late British journalist Nick Roddick, “a wonderful man who gave me my first job”.

Best actor Ethan Hawke (left) was the one real surprise with his win for ‘First Reformed’. He sent his thanks by video as did veteran filmmaker Agnes Varda, whose film with French photographer JR, ‘Faces Places’, was named best documentary somewhat surprisingly over Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.

Popular winner as best supporting actor for ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Richard E. Grant was there in fine form: “This almost 62 year-old awards nominee virgin is very willing to be plundered by your plaudits.” When he planted kisses on both of Judi Love’s cheeks, she complained that he’d missed a couple of cheeks and so the ever-willing Grant rushed back to the stage to oblige.

Rupert Everett, who won as British/Irish actor of the year for his Oscar Wilde film ‘The Happy Prince’, sent a video but also his friend, actress Emily Watson, who read a note from him in which he said “to win this is literally incredible” and he thanked his entire cast and crew as “without them I would be dead meat”. 

Jersey-born director Michael Pearce accepted the Philip French Award as breakthrough British/Irish filmmaker for his crime mystery “Beast’. He noted that first-time feature film directors “get really nervous about what the critics will say” and said he was honoured to be in the company of the other nominees. His Irish star Jessie Buckley (pictured below with co-star Johnny Flynn) sent a video in which she said she was “shocked, honoured, surprised and overwhelmed to be considered among the other nominees” (Emily Blunt, Olivia Colman, Claire Foy and Rachel Weisz).

Molly Wright (right) accepted the award as young British/Irish performer of the year for her role in the religious drama ‘Apostasy’ and Canadian-born Lara Zeidan accepted her award for British/Irish short film for the London Film School multi-award winner ‘Three Centimetres’. 

The climax of the evening came when Tamsin Greig presented the annual Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Filmmaking to Oscar- and BAFTA-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (pictured with me below). The actress lamented that she had not appeared in any of his movies “probably because I don’t speak Spanish” but said she was proud to have appeared in the musical version of his film ‘Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ on the West End stage in 2010. She introduced clips from several Almodóvar films from ‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down’ to ‘All About My Mother’, ‘Volver’ and ‘Broken Embraces’ and told the assembled critics, “At a time when Europe seems in danger of splintering, you recognise a great international filmmaker, a true champion of cinema”.

Looking spry at 69, the filmmaker took time from post-production of ‘Pain & Glory’ starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas to accept the award. He recalled watching films as a youngster when he and his friends would sneak into the side of a cinema where “there was pee, jasmine and a summer breeze, that’s what I remember”. 

He said that his love of “explosive, exaggerated colour” in his films was in reaction to his discovery that his mother had worn only black for  30 years of her life as she was in mourning. “It’s my way of giving her colour,” he explained. He said he was saddened by the disappearance of movie houses especially in rural Spain but also in Madrid. “I cannot conceive of my life without the cinema,” he said. “We need to see ourselves on a screen that is bigger than we are in mirrors and on mobile phones. The screen should be much bigger than you.”

The 2019 awards took place at London’s May Fair Hotel with principal sponsor Dover Street. Here is the full list of winners:

Film of the Year – Roma

Foreign Language Film of the Year – Cold War

Documentary of the Year – Faces Places

British/Irish Film of the Year – The Favourite

Director of the Year – Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Screenwriter of the Year – Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite

Actress of the Year – Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Actor of the Year – Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

Supporting Actress of the Year – Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Supporting Actor of the Year – Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

British/Irish Actress of the Year – Jessie Buckley, Beast

British/Irish Actor of the Year – Rupert Everett, The Happy Prince

Young British/Irish Performer of the Year – Molly Wright, Apostasy

Breakthrough British/Irish Filmmaker of the Year – Michael Pearce, Beast

Technical Achievement of the Year – Lukasz Zal (cinematography), Cold War

British/Irish Short Film of the Year – Lara Zeidan, Three Centimetres

Dilys Powell Award – Pedro Almodóvar

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FILM REVIEW: Josie Rourke’s ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Josie Rourke’s pedestrian costume saga ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ offers a revisionist and modernist view of the would-be monarch who threatened Elizabeth I’s reign and was executed aged 44 in 1587 but it fails to convince.

Based on the 2004 history ‘’Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart’ by John Guy, it argues that Mary Stuart, the only surviving daughter of James V who became Queen of Scotland as an infant, had a greater claim to the English throne and would have made a better queen than Elizabeth. Writer Beau Willimon’s screenplay even has Elizabeth agree with that assessment.

The film touches on the very serious issue of the French Catholics who backed Mary and sought to end the Reformation in England but it focuses on the personal conflict between Elizabeth and Mary and their different personalities. Mary is strong-willed, independent and wise while Elizabeth is lonely, isolated and anxious and both of them take on duplicitous and ruthless men. Mary takes her pleasures and husbands hungrily and is fertile while stilted Elizabeth is desperate to conceive but cannot find a match.

Saiorse Ronan (top) plays Mary as a bright and imaginative young woman with a very strange accent that slips from Irish to Scots even though Mary grew up in France. Margot Robbie (below) is Elizabeth, her face painted white to obscure pox marks, and the Australian actress strives distractingly for posh Received Pronunciation.

The cast features good actors such as Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, Martin Compston, Brendan Coyle and James McArdle, and they are all fine if colourless. Jack Lowden plays Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley as a weakling and a chancer and David Tennant pops up every so often to rant and rave as the Protestant cleric John Knox. Max Richter’s score is efficient but unmemorable.

With many debates and arguments and dull battle sequences, the staging and framing by first-time director Rourke, artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theatre company, lack cinematic power.

Like Charles Jarrott, who directed the 1971 ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ starring Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, Rourke is unable to resist contriving a meeting between the two that never happened. Coming towards the end of the picture, this scene is staged in a large room with strange billowing curtains. Despite wearing the crown, Elizabeth appears anxious and intimidated and Mary swans about as if she expects everyone to bow down to her will. Sadly, the young woman appears almost delusional in her arrogance, which cannot have been the filmmakers’ intent.

Released: UK: Jan. 18 2019 (Universal Pictures) / US: Dec. 21 2018 (Focus Features); Cast: Saiorse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce; Jack Lowden; Joe Alwyn; David Tennant; Director: Josie Rourke; Writer: Beau Willimon, based on ‘Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart’ by John Guy; Director of photography: John Mathieson; Production designer: James Merifield; Music: Max Richter; Editor: Chris Dickens; Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne; Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward; Production: Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 124 minutes

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FILM REVIEW: Jon S. Baird’s ‘Stan & Ollie’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Jon S. Baird’s ‘Stan & Ollie’ appears well intended but it has two central problems. One is the decision to portray the great silent comics Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as sad clowns and the other is the impossibility of anyone matching their unique genius.

The film wallows in the impression that the iconic stars of the silent era had to suffer humiliation on tour in 1950s Britain, booked into second-rate venues and forced to stay at third-rate hotels. It is true that their movie career was over by that point and they had to turn to live performances to make money as, unlike other silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, they did not own their films.

Their post-World War II tours of Europe were hugely successful, however, and they were mobbed everywhere they went. Their last British tour suffered because both men became seriously ill. In the film, Laurel is trying to get backing for a spoof of Robin Hood but actually he had failed at that in the late Forties. It’s a shame that the film resorts to the Martin & Lewis theme of partners who secretly despise one another as there is nothing to suggest that was true.

Beyond bending the truth, however, is the simple impossibility of imitating great comedians. To impersonate other famous figures is relatively easy. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Winslet as Joan Crawford, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles are all convincing as are Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney.

Several gave it a great shot but no one has succeeded as a great comic, not Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers, Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin, Rhys Ifans as Peter Cook, David Walliams as Frankie Howerd, and not even Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman. In ‘Stan & Ollie’, John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel also try hard and it’s not their fault that they simply cannot do it. 

Their makeup is good and things are fine when they’re not doing comedy but it’s when they try that it goes wrong. Stan and Ollie’s original silly little dance in ‘Way Out West’ is charming and hilarious; in the new film it’s just two odd-looking blokes prancing about. Laurel devised new gags for their stage shows. It’s likely they could spin comedy gold from an in-and-out of doors sketch or one with Oliver in a hospital bed, a hoist on one leg in a cast, while Stan visits and proceeds to peel and eat a hard-boiled egg. In the film, not so much. 

Released: Dec. 28 2018 (Sony Pictures Classics)) / Jan. 11 2019 (Entertainment One); Cast: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda; Danny Huston; Rufus Jones; Richard Cant; John Henshaw; Director: Jon S. Baird; Writer: Jeff Pope; Director of photography: Laurie Rose; Production designer: John Paul Kelly; Music: Rolfe Kent; Costume designer: Guy Speranza; Producer: Faye Ward; Executive producer: Kate Fasulo, Christine Langan, Xavier Marchand, Joe Oppenheimer, Eugenio Pérez, Gabrielle Tana; Production: Entertainment One, BBC Films, Fable Pictures, Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions, Sonesta Films; Rating: UK/US: PG; running time 97 minutes

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‘The Favourite’ set to clean up at the Bafta film awards

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – This year’s Bafta Film Awards nominations are predictably conventional but it hardly matters as the immensely popular ‘The Favourite’ (pictured) is a shoo-in for many of its 12 nominations including the actress prizes, Brits Christian Bale and Richard E. Grant are odds-on to win the acting gongs and ‘Roma’ will sweep just about everything else.

Having won 10 British Independent Film Awards in December, ‘The Favourite’ is easily the forerunner for the big Bafta prizes including best picture. It’s a shame that Joanna Kulig for ‘Cold War’, Keira Knightley for ‘Colette’ and Yalitza Aparicio for ‘Roma’ were overlooked for best actress in favour of Lady Gaga for ‘A Star is Born’, Melissa McCarthy for ‘CanYou Ever Forgive Me?’ and Viola Davis for ‘Widows’ but Olivia Colman for ‘The Favourite’ will triumph over even a very good Glenn Close for ‘The Wife’, so never mind.

It’s also too bad that Jonathan Pryce for ‘The Wife’, Ryan Gosling for ‘First Man’ and Tomasz Kot for ‘Cold War’ lost out in the best actor nods to Bradley Cooper for ‘A Star is Born’, Rami Malek for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Steve Coogan for ‘Stan & Ollie’ but Christian Bale is a lock for ‘Vice’ over the worthy Viggo Mortensen for ‘Green Book’, so that’s all right.

It’s odd that Timothée Chalamet for ‘Beautiful Boy’ is preferred over Steve Carell for ‘Vice’ for best supporting honours but even with fine performances by Adam Driver in ‘BlacKkKlansman’, Mahershala Ali in ‘Green Book’ and Sam Rockwell in ‘Vice’, the much-loved Richard E. Grant will prevail for ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Rachel Weisz for ‘The Favourite’ will walk off with the best supporting actress prize against very good competition from co-star Emma Stone, Amy Adams for ‘Vice’ and Claire Foy for ‘First Man’ although it’s a mystery why Margot Robbie for ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is favoured over the splendid Marina de Tavira for ‘Roma’.

Despite the momentum of ‘The Favourite’, Yorgos Lanthimos for ‘The Favourite’ will struggle in the best director category against  Alfonso Cuaron for ‘Roma’ and that film also should take home the prizes for cinematography, editing and production design.

In original music, it’s a tight race between Terence Blanchard for ‘BlacKkKlansman’, Nichola Britell for ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and Alexander Desplat’ for ‘Isle of Dogs’ although Marco Beltrami for ‘A Quiet Place’ and Justin Hurwitz for ‘First Man’ sadly are ignored.

The winners will be revealed on February 10. Here’s the complete list of nominees:

Best Film
BLACKkKLANSMAN Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
THE FAVOURITE Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Magiday
GREEN BOOK Jim Burke, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodríguez
A STAR IS BORN Bradley Cooper, Bill Gerber, Lynette Howell Taylor

Outstanding British Film
BEAST Michael Pearce, Kristian Brodie, Lauren Dark, Ivana MacKinnon
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Bryan Singer, Graham King, Anthony McCarten
THE FAVOURITE Yorgos Lanthimos, Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
McQUEEN Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui, Andee Ryder, Nick Taussig
STAN & OLLIE Jon S. Baird, Faye Ward, Jeff Pope
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE Lynne Ramsay, Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, James Wilson

Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer
APOSTASY Daniel Kokotajlo (Writer/Director)
BEAST Michael Pearce (Writer/Director), Lauren Dark (Producer)
A CAMBODIAN SPRING Chris Kelly (Writer/Director/Producer)
PILI Leanne Welham (Writer/Director), Sophie Harman (Producer)
RAY & LIZ Richard Billingham (Writer/Director), Jacqui Davies (Producer)

Film Not in the English Language
CAPERNAUM Nadine Labaki, Khaled Mouzanar
COLD WAR Paweł Pawlikowski, Tanya Seghatchian, Ewa Puszczyńska
DOGMAN Matteo Garrone
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodríguez
SHOPLIFTERS Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kaoru Matsuzaki

Documentary
FREE SOLO Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
McQUEEN Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui
RBG Julie Cohen, Betsy West
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD Peter Jackson
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS Tim Wardle, Grace Hughes-Hallett, Becky Read

Animated Film
INCREDIBLES 2 Brad Bird, John Walker
ISLE OF DOGS Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord

Director
BLACKkKLANSMAN Spike Lee
COLD WAR Paweł Pawlikowski
THE FAVOURITE Yorgos Lanthimos
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón
A STAR IS BORN Bradley Cooper

Original Screenplay
COLD WAR Janusz Głowacki, Paweł Pawlikowski
THE FAVOURITE Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
GREEN BOOK Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón
VICE Adam McKay

Adapted Screenplay
BLACKkKLANSMAN Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
FIRST MAN Josh Singer
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK Barry Jenkins
A STAR IS BORN Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, Eric Roth

Leading Actress
GLENN CLOSE The Wife
LADY GAGA A Star Is Born
MELISSA McCARTHY Can You Ever Forgive Me?
OLIVIA COLMAN The Favourite
VIOLA DAVIS Widows

Leading Actor
BRADLEY COOPER A Star Is Born
CHRISTIAN BALE Vice
RAMI MALEK Bohemian Rhapsody
STEVE COOGAN Stan & Ollie
VIGGO MORTENSEN Green Book

Supporting Actress
AMY ADAMS Vice
CLAIRE FOY First Man
EMMA STONE The Favourite
MARGOT ROBBIE Mary Queen of Scots
RACHEL WEISZ The Favourite

Supporting Actor
ADAM DRIVER BlacKkKlansman
MAHERSHALA ALI Green Book
RICHARD E. GRANT Can You Ever Forgive Me?
SAM ROCKWELL Vice
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET Beautiful Boy

Original Music
BLACKkKLANSMAN Terence Blanchard
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK Nicholas Britell
ISLE OF DOGS Alexandre Desplat
MARY POPPINS RETURNS Marc Shaiman
A STAR IS BORN Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Lukas Nelson

Cinematography
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Newton Thomas Sigel
COLD WAR Łukasz Żal
THE FAVOURITE Robbie Ryan
FIRST MAN Linus Sandgren
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón

Editing
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY John Ottman
THE FAVOURITE Yorgos Mavropsaridis
FIRST MAN Tom Cross
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough
VICE Hank Corwin

Production Design
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock
THE FAVOURITE Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton
FIRST MAN Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas
MARY POPPINS RETURNS John Myhre, Gordon Sim
ROMA Eugenio Caballero, Bárbara Enríquez

Costume Design
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS Mary Zophres
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Julian Day
THE FAVOURITE Sandy Powell
MARY POPPINS RETURNS Sandy Powell
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS Alexandra Byrne

Make up & Hair
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Mark Coulier, Jan Sewell
THE FAVOURITE Nadia Stacey
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS Jenny Shircore
STAN & OLLIE Mark Coulier, Jeremy Woodhead
VICE Nominees TBC

Sound
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY John Casali, Tim Cavagin, Nina Hartstone, Paul Massey, John Warhurst
FIRST MAN Mary H. Ellis, Mildred Iatrou Morgan, Ai-Ling Lee, Frank A. Montaño, Jon Taylor
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT Gilbert Lake, James H. Mather, Christopher Munro, Mike Prestwood Smith
A QUIET PLACE Erik Aadahl, Michael Barosky, Brandon Procter, Ethan Van der Ryn
A STAR IS BORN Steve Morrow, Alan Robert Murray, Jason Ruder, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic

Special Visual Effects
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Kelly Port, Dan Sudick
BLACK PANTHER Geoffrey Baumann, Jesse James Chisholm, Craig Hammack, Dan Sudick
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD Tim Burke, Andy Kind, Christian Manz, David Watkins
FIRST MAN Ian Hunter, Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, J.D. Schwalm
READY PLAYER ONE Matthew E. Butler, Grady Cofer, Roger Guyett, David Shirk

British Short Animation
I’M OK Elizabeth Hobbs, Abigail Addison, Jelena Popović
MARFA Gary McLeod, Myles McLeod
ROUGHHOUSE Jonathan Hodgson, Richard Van Den Boom

British Short Film
73 COWS Alex Lockwood
BACHELOR, 38 Angela Clarke
THE BLUE DOOR Ben Clark, Megan Pugh, Paul Taylor
THE FIELD Sandhya Suri, Balthazar de Ganay
WALE Barnaby Blackburn, Sophie Alexander, Catherine Slater, Edward Speleers

EE Rising Star Award (voted for by the public)
BARRY KEOGHAN
CYNTHIA ERIVO
JESSIE BUCKLEY
LAKEITH STANFIELD
LETITIA WRIGHT

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A critic’s lament: Do you see what I see?

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Those imponderables challenge a critic with every review. For me, Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ is the best film of 2018 but a friend has a problem with it. Experienced and wise, an artist himself, a cultured man of taste, he writes: “I need your help. I haven’t been watching a lot of films for the past several years and am finally starting to do so again. The other night I decided to watch the screener of ‘Roma’. There was nothing in the first hour that made me want to sit through the second hour. What am I missing? Besides the second hour, or is it all in the second hour?”

One of us has failed. It’s not Cuaron and it’s not my friend. It must be me. I have failed as a critic to convey what it is I see and what it is I hear in this, to me, wonderful film. As we know, all taste is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one man’s meat is another man’s poison. We know all that. But it is a puzzle when you find yourself alone in an approving crowd. Why do so many love the musical ‘Les Miserables’ when it drives me up the wall? Why does the rock band Queen have so many fans when I just want to shut my ears?

In a review of a West End production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ many years ago, I tried to explain what it’s like when other people seem to get something and you don’t: “It’s like watching a sport you didn’t grow up with in a culture you don’t know. You always seem to miss the action and wonder why there’s cheering. Or it’s like being at a display of modern art where everyone else is nodding, yes, or sighing in awe, but you can’t see the faces for the cubes.”

With ‘Roma’, I suspect it’s the slow pace the filmmaker has chosen with which to tell his story. It might also be the story itself. Most films are about exceptional, gifted, strong, powerful and iconic figures – kings, queens, politicians, businessmen, superheroes, sportsmen – who gradually are revealed to be vulnerable, weak and ordinary, just like us. ‘Roma’ tells of an ordinary woman who is unexceptional with no gifts other than fortitude and dignity but who over the course of the film is shown to be a power of strength, the very backbone of a family for whom she is simply a maid, a cook, a cleaner.

Her day begins as she swabs the carport of a middle-class doctor’s home cleaning the dog-shit that the family carelessly steps around until the maid’s work is done. It’s symptomatic of what Curaon suggests ails Mexican society in the 1970s as will become clear when the film opens up and events come tumbling down including a violent street riot, an earthquake, a forest fire, surging tidal waves and personal tragedies for key figures. To me, they are vivid and epic sequences with indelibly subtle and nuanced acting; joyful filmmaking.

Perhaps my friend is right and it is the second hour and a quarter when everything happens but it takes the slow development to make it all so powerful. I think the key, however, is that he started to watch it at home. No matter how big your screen is at home, it’s simply not the same as watching at a cinema. Going to a movie theatre is an appointment and sitting in a crowd demands the kind of attention in which the distractions of home do not intrude. I truly believe that when we watch at home we do not see or absorb as much as we do at the movies. ‘Roma’ is on Netflix and for subscribers it’s as if it were free so it’s no surprise that people will stay at home and millions will. But some pictures are just made for the big screen and ‘Roma’ is one of them.

For that, I am sorry for my friend and all the many others who will find nothing to keep them watching, and very sad.

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‘Roma’, ‘Cold War’ lead my Top 10 film picks of 2018

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – One of the great advantages of being a member of the Critics’ Circle and BAFTA is that distributors send out dozens of screeners of films for which they seek consideration in the annual awards. It means that sometimes months after seeing a movie, we have the chance to view it again and perhaps again. As a result, opinions can and do change.

As it happens, I was able to see the two best films of the year twice on the big screen as well as at home and I appreciate them both even more after further views. The best film of 2018, and possibly the best film of the 21st century so far, is Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ (above) and not far behind it is Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ (below). 

‘Roma’ is set in 1970s Mexico City and runs 135 minutes. ‘Cold War’ is set in Poland, Italy and France in the 1940s and Fifties and runs 88 minutes. Both are subtitled in English with ravishing black-and-white cinematography, extraordinary performances and stunning images.

In my reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival, I said they were each a masterpiece: “‘Roma’ is a film that is at once intimate and epic, a close-up look at ordinary folk and a sweeping tale on a grand scale … it is touching, funny and thrilling and it deserves every accolade and award coming its way.’ “‘Cold War’ evokes the complexities of life in Poland following World War II as the richness, beauty and contradictions of Polish culture clash with the cold, harsh and unforgiving force of Soviet rule’.

Third in my Top 10 is Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ (above). A film I did not expect to like, it is a seriously intense and involving look at the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Peter Farrelly’s warm and engaging ‘Green Book’ (below) is my fourth pick. Both films gained on second viewings.

For the Oscars, I would place  Armando Iannucci’s wickedly funny ‘The Death of Stalin’  in fifth spot but as far as the U.K. is concerned, it was from last year. Therefore, Yorkos Lanthimos’s filthy and amusing costume romp ‘The Favourite’ (below) is number five. It is very funny although it’s a shame the director did not know how to end it.

Wes Anderson’s colourfully eccentric stop-motion animation ‘Isle of Dogs’ is sixth followed in seventh by John Krasinski’s scarifying ‘A Quiet Place’. Adam McKay’s biting depiction of Dick Cheney, ‘Vice’, in eighth, diminished a bit on second viewing but it is good. Paul Greengrass’s ’22 July’, a deeply involving examination of mass-murder and its after-effects is in ninth spot and Wash Westmoreland’s unexpectedly vivid and enjoyable ‘Colette’, the story of a female writer flouting fin de siècle Parisian society is tenth.

Other films I enjoyed include Spike Lee’s incisive ‘BlacKkKlansman’, Steve McQueen’s complex and thrilling caper picture ‘Widows’, Drew Goddard’s enjoyable noir ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’, Jake Scott’s ‘American Woman’ for its fine performance by Sienna Miller,   Sebastián Lelio’s story of two women breaking the rules, ‘Disobedience’, Mimi Leder’s inspiring Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic ‘On the Basis of Sex’ and David Mackenzie’s breezy ‘Outlaw/King’

Robert Redford’s farewell, ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is so light it hardly registers apart from a lovely performance by Sissy Spacek, Jason Reitman’s naive ‘The Front Runner’ and Karyn Kusama’s incoherent ‘Destroyer’ starring Nicole Kidman are both disappointing.  Björn Runge’s ‘The Wife’ boasts fine performances from Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce and ‘Leave No Trace’ has excellent work by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie but the stories in each case are highly implausible. Just as ‘Wonder Woman’ showed that a film about a female superhero can be just as much drivel as the other Marvel vehicles, ‘Black Panther’ did the same for black superheroes. Of course, I am not their target audience.

As I am not paid to review films these days, I get to choose those I really don’t want to see such as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as I couldn’t suffer the music, and ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, as I was no fan of the original – I was 19 when it came out; it wasn’t meant for me. Both films have their fans, and they are welcome to them. I probably would feel a lot better about ‘A Star is Born’ if I hadn’t seen it but such is life.

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