Randy Newman at 75: Part Two – Film composer

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Randy Newman, who turned 75 on Nov. 28, has Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a very funny man. He told me that he thought once of being a television comedy writer and he would make a great one – his work on ‘The Three Amigos’ with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels is proof of that – but TV’s loss is music’s gain.

He has been one of my favourite singer-songwriters since I bought his album ‘Sail Away’ in 1970 and he deserved Oscar’s attention for scores such as ‘Ragtime’, ‘The Natural’ and ‘Avalon’ long before his 16th nomination led to a win in 2002 for best original song for ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ from ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (He won a second in 2011 for ‘We Belong Together’ from ‘Toy Story 3’). I own nearly all his recorded work; I’ve seen him in concert several times; I’ve interviewed him a few times and hung out with him at the Festival de Cannes.

Hanging out with Randy Newman is as interesting and as much fun as you might expect it would be. His humour can be as caustic as some of his songs but he is self-deprecating and droll and a keen observer of life in general and music in particular.

Part Two: Randy Newman, film composer

Newman’s first film assignment was with Jack Nietzsche and Ry Cooder on the 1970 film ‘Performance’ directed by Donald Cammell (who died in 1996) and the late Nicolas Roeg starring Mick Jagger and James Fox. He said the transition from rock star to film composer was different from most because scoring pictures was “the family business”. One uncle, Alfred Newman, had 43 Oscar nominations and nine wins and another, Lionel Newman, had 11 nominations and one win. He told me, “When I was 8, my vague thought was that I’d be a film composer someday but I went in a different direction. The first picture scared the hell out of me. I had a perhaps exaggerated respect for it. I’d seen it done by experts and I thought if my family had been scared then I should be in the hospital.” 

His family legacy was daunting, he said. “I found it so. I think my cousins Tom and David [Oscar-nominated Thomas Newman (‘Bridge of Spies’, ‘Spectre’) and David Newman (‘Anastasia’, ‘The Nutty Professor’)], who are both really good film composers, might feel the same way. They were strict, you know. My uncle Lionel would have lunch at the commissary and unless you were Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams or a relative it was hard to get a seat. Yes, I felt the weight of my family. My uncle Alfred wouldn’t have cared but I felt Lionel and Johnny Williams … it would have meant a lot to me if, after I did ‘The Natural’, one of them had said ‘Oh, nice job son’ but we had the kind of family … other people would tell me, ‘Oh, your father loves you.’ I’d say, ‘Really? When did you see him?’ It was a rough family.”

Expectations for him were high, he said, “Only in my own mind. For the first few years, I was looking over my shoulder. It took longer for traditional composers to take me seriously, longer than it should have. It wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t as if I was denied Academy Award nominations. I sat next to Alan Menken three times at the Oscars. You’re always sitting next to the guy who beats you.” His composing credits are impressive, however, starting in film with ‘Cold Turkey’ in 1971 and including Oscar nominations for ‘Parenthood’ (1989), ‘The Paper’ (1994), ‘Toy Story’ (1995), ’James and the Giant Peach’ (1996), ‘Pleasantville’ (1998), ‘A Bug’s Life’ (1998), ‘Babe, Pig in the City’ (1999), ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999), ‘Meet the Parents’ (2000), ‘Cars’ (2006), and ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (2009). His latest picture was ‘Cars 3’ (2017) and he’s doing ‘Toy Story 4’ for next year.

Newman said he always records his film scores in Los Angeles because he goes back a long way with the orchestra there: “When I was a boy, my uncle [Alfred] was doing pictures like ‘All About Eve’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley’. There are families in the orchestra. They are a great orchestra. Certainly, they read better than any orchestra in the world, I’m fairly confident in saying that. They can play anything you put in front of them. There are other orchestras that can do it … more than I might think, I know. But I see no reason to go elsewhere. If someone suggests going elsewhere, I say I’d rather record in L.A. With directors, there will be problems in every area of your life, including respiration, but not that one. They haven’t tried to move me yet.”

His composing technique is simple: “I sit at the piano and sometimes I’ll cheat and use the trumpet but my trumpet sounds like it’s coming out of my nose. I’m not really computer literate but they do have good samplers.” Dealing with directors is more complicated: “You have to learn to subdue your ego. Everything you do is designed to make the picture look better, to make a love scene work better. I’ve seen love scenes without music and they don’t appear to even like each other. Music can trick people. You see ‘Star Wars’ without the music and you see the cardboard. With Johnny’s music there, it’s something else.”

The problem in writing music for films, he said, is that composers do not get enough time to do the job: “Never. There are guys who’ll take the movie and do it in three weeks. I won’t. I take time over money. Did I say that aloud? I’d rather have another two weeks than another $20. But, I wouldn’t want to come in too early. I don’t want to hang around the set and be pals with everybody. You don’t learn a thing from what you think when they’re shooting. You don’t know what the movie’s going to need until it’s up there on the screen. What you think the movie might require and what the director might think he’s got on the screen sometimes will be different from what’s actually up there.”

He said he does not expect directors to be articulate about music and so he speaks to them in a non-musical way: “I think the scene should have more edge, say. Music can communicate much information but it does emotional things very well. You must not to be intimidated by them not having musical knowledge. They’re not supposed to. I try to do what the director wants unless I have a better idea or what he’s got on the screen is not what he thinks he’s got on the screen. You always have a temp track and I almost don’t mind it now. I’d rather not have one but that’s never going to happen. They want to show the picture so they want a temp but you should hire a composer who will do better than your temp. The conversations with directors … if you think they’re wrong, you try to reason with them but it’s their picture. We work for them.”

He quoted the late film composer James Horner (‘Titanic’) who noted that directors tend to come from rock and roll and listening to the radio and watching TV. “It’s all little short things, songs that you can beat around but film doesn’t go that way. After ‘The Graduate’, they all wanted songs like that and they stuck them in everywhere. Sometimes they were hit songs, like in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ they had a truck running through the streets and they put its a song but it didn’t fit. It was wrong. The song was a hit so maybe it was the right thing do. I saw a Woody Allen movie and it had this great music in it, great old songs from the Thirties and Forties by the best composers America has produced in the medium. Gershwin’s in there. It didn’t work at all. It comes in, it comes out. It’s like a porn movie. You expect to see someone in one sock. Music can be great but not fit a movie. I’m not saying it’s a great art form but it is a very complex thing and not very many people know much about it.”

On ‘Maverick’ (1994), for instance, director Richard Donner asked Newman what funny instruments there are: “He wanted everything with the banjo. I said some vulgarisms. A tuba isn’t that funny. You could stick a trumpet up your ass, which is what we ended up doing. No, I ended up on the stand in front of 100 people with three of the best trumpeters in the world, two anyway, having them go ‘nwak, nwak, nwak’ with a trombone going like that too because he wanted what he wanted. He might have been right because the movie was successful and he’s been successful. He just wanted to make sure that the audience got the joke.”

Then there’s the time when a director throws out the score. “It’s happened to everyone,” Newman said. “It happened to me on ‘Air Force One’ and I don’t really know why. He never said anything so there’s nothing I can say about it so I’m sorry for myself but I never heard why. With that director, Wolfgang Petersen, when he described what he wanted, he would ‘Woof! Woohpah!’. I did it all with synths. One time there was a scene where they were talking in the cockpit. It was in the midst of action but they were still talking so I got the music down for the dialogue as you’re supposed to do. I took out the trumpets and played some woodwinds, still keeping it moving but playing it down. He said, ‘No, no, the dialogue doesn’t matter. Forget it, don’t worry about the dialogue.’ Don’t worry about the dialogue? I guess we were on different pages. He is an accomplished director but perhaps we didn’t understand each other very well. I bought back the music but unfortunately we’re getting along with the Russians now. If there’s ever a rupture in our relations, I’ve got some good ‘bad Russians’ music.”

Scoring animation, he said, is different from scoring action or a love story. “‘Maverick’ had a love story as well as action. With animated pictures, you can’t do them the same way. Tom Hanks plays Woody in ‘Toy Story’ and when he falls down you have to fall with him. There’s almost no way out of it. Disney has tried scoring them like real pictures but it just doesn’t work. If Tom Hanks falls down in ‘Saving Colonel Ryan’ … ‘Saving Sergeant Ryan’ … ‘Private’, really? .. and they save him, you don’t do that. Animation is more strenuous to do. ‘A Bug’s Life’ was very difficult because it’s fast music with a lot of notes. They’re bugs and they’re really moving. They’re not little ants to us. To them, a crevice is the Grand Canyon so I played the Grand Canyon. In ‘Toy Story’, they were indoors, this was outdoors. It was ‘The Big Country’ to some degree. Visually, it had an epic quality. Love scenes are different. In ‘Toy Story’, in their world those characters are adults and when they have emotions you play them seriously. When Buzz thinks he’s a spaceman, I write him a spaceman. I write him spaceman music. I think he’s a spaceman. You can’t condescend or treat them as if they were children. You take it seriously. There wasn’t a love scene in ‘Toy Story’, unfortunately. Woody and Buzz never … well, they did fall in love but they cut that part, so it’s very different.”

As with his songs, he prefers not to name his favourite film scores. “They are like children. Some of my children, I don’t like. No, I love them all. I think I helped fool people that a movie was better than it was sometimes, like ‘Awakenings’. A good score will not make a movie great but it can improve its IQ by a couple points. ‘James and the Giant Peach’ made a bundle and maybe I was responsible for $340,000 of it. It wasn’t a successful movie but I helped it. ‘A Bug’s Life’, maybe, ‘Monsters, Inc.’ The way I choose what I’m going to do, of the offers that I get, is how much music matters. There are great movies where it doesn’t matter what the music is … I was going to say ‘Beautiful Mind’, but in that case James Horner did a good score for it. He fooled you a little bit into thinking that movie was a little classier than it was. It does happen.’

Coming from a legendary film music family, Newman reveres the masters of his craft: “Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, my uncle Alfred. Alex North was one of the great film composers of all time. ‘Cleopatra’ was not a good picture but it’s a great score. Morricone. Nino Rota was one of the Top Five of all time, certainly. The guy who did Truffaut’s movies, Georges Delerue. Prokofiev was a great film composer. Copeland became a great film composer.”

When we in Cannes film in 2002, there was a memorable concert, a rarity at the film festival, which featured top composers conducting an orchestra performing their most famous scores. The late Francis Lai (‘A Man and a Woman’), Frederic Devreese (‘Louvre au noir’), ‘Antoine Duhamel (‘Ridicule’), Ennio Morricone (“Cinema Paradiso’) and Jean-Claud Petit (‘Cyrano de Bergerac’) were there along with Randy Newman, who presented his score for ‘Avalon’. Newman told me afterwards that being there had meant more to him than winning the Oscar. ‘It was kind of fantastic. I’d like to go again. It was unforgettable seeing Francis Lai playing his accordion.”

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Randy Newman at 75: Part One – songwriter

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Randy Newman, who turns 75 today, has Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a very funny man. He told me that he thought once of being a television comedy writer and he would make a great one – his work on ‘The Three Amigos’ with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels is proof of that – but TV’s loss is music’s gain.

He has been one of my favourite singer-songwriters since I bought his album ‘Sail Away’ in 1970 and he deserved Oscar’s attention for scores such as ‘Ragtime’, ‘The Natural’ and ‘Avalon’ long before his 16th nomination led to a win in 2002 for best original song for ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ from ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (He won a second in 2011 for ‘We Belong Together’ from ‘Toy Story 3’). I own nearly all his recorded work; I’ve seen him in concert several times; I’ve interviewed him a few times and had drinks with him at the Festival de Cannes.

Hanging out with Randy Newman is as interesting and as much fun as you might expect it would be. His humour can be as caustic as some of his songs but he is self-deprecating and droll and a keen observer of life in general and music in particular.

Part One: Randy Newman, songwriter

He told me in Cannes in 2002 that he wasn’t bothered that his first Academy Award came for a song for hire. “The awards don’t have much to do with merit,” he said. “I’ve often thought, I get to vote on cinematography. I don’t know a damned thing about cinematography. Costume design – look at me. They let me vote on those and film music is sort of an arcane kind of craft. There aren’t many people who know a great deal about it. If they hear a tune they like they might think, well, there’s a good score but that’s a different thing. I don’t mind that it isn’t Beethoven’s 7th symphony that I got it for. I always expected that it would be something trivial possibly.”

After all those nominations, though, the win did come as a surprise. “I thought I would lose again. I thought Paul McCartney would win or Sting would win. You really couldn’t hear where I was sitting but Faith Hill told me and pushed me out, which was nice. I had nothing in mind to say. I thought, oh, Jennifer Lopez is out there, I’ll say something about, ‘Oh, this is like going to heaven with a lot of beautiful women’ … it was more of a Muslim heaven than any other kind, but when I got there she didn’t look like Jennifer Lopez. Not that I’d ever seen her when I was stalking her earlier. I was very surprised that the audience jumped up. If they liked me so much why didn’t they give it to me 20 years ago? The orchestra was applauding. They were told not to, I learned later. But they did and it touched me. If I’d had a heart it would have been full. But I was very moved, much more so than I thought. I never minded losing. It was always the nomination that really meant a great deal to me. But when I was up there I was kind of choked up and touched that the people were so happy for me.”

Newman’s songs for movies are very different from those he writes for his own albums. He said, “If they give me an assignment and give me enough adjectives on what the song will be – it’s about friendship and they’re friends, and we’ll all work together and everything will work out … given any sort of assignment, any sort of start, I can write a song fairly quickly. For myself, I won’t say ‘I love you’ or ‘You’ve got a friend in me’. I mean, I will but it’s just harder. It’s too hard.”

You won’t learn anything about Randy Newman from his songs. “For the 99% of you who don’t know my music … the style I’ve chosen is sort of the third-person style where I’ll be a narrator who’s often unreliable or stupider than we, the audience, are. That’s not me, ever. I don’t think I have five songs where the ‘I’ is actually me in them. It’s an odd choice to have made. I forgot what point I was making. I actually had a point. Anyway, it’s an odd box to be in. Maybe I’ll try and be more direct. If I were to write a song called ‘I love you just the way you are’. That sounds like a hit song to me, that idea. I like that. Or like, ‘Somewhere over the … rainbow’.”

Writing an album such as his brilliant ‘Bad Love’ (1999), he said, “was a matter of courage and will. I’ve never liked to write so I don’t just leap in there to the piano every morning. I kind of have to drag myself in there. With a movie there’s discipline imposed from without so you have to work every day from eight in the morning until six at night or you don’t finish. I don’t anyway. When I’m given an assignment and I have to please the director, the studio, the movie people, it’s the closest I get to the mainstream. I don’t write songs like that much. I do it for the movies but not if I’m left to my own devices. When you’re writing songs for yourself … I mean they’re hardly waiting for the next Newman album; it’s not going to affect their bottom line. People don’t line up at midnight. So it’s not like the record company has got to have the new record this month. So, it tends to drag on but I get there. To write songs my own albums, I make up assignments for myself. It’s a little better.”

Newman paid attention to songwriting at a young age because while his father was a doctor – “he gave drugs to the other side of the family who are all down below watching us now” – he also wrote songs. “I admire his lyrics. He admired Lorenz Hart a great deal and I do too.  I like Sondheim, Dylan, Cole Porter, the French story-telling guys Jacques Brell and Charles Aznavour … I do sort of the same thing; shittier but sort of. Tom Lehrer, I’m somehow related to Tom Lehrer. It’s very rare for someone to write as many humorous songs as I have. I like to make people laugh. I admire Carole King. We were competing against her, Jackie de Shannon and I. We were at the same publishing company when Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill were at a very successful publishing company. I would think I was writing real middle-of-the-road stuff for Gene McDaniels or the Crystals and she was getting all the records. Pre-‘Tapestry’ was really great stuff, a great American writer. Irving Berlin is an inexplicable genius. He had hits for 50 years, from 1908 to 1954.”

There are several box-sets of the Newman canon. ‘Randy Newman’s Fuast: Words & Music’ is a masterpiece and besides ‘Bad Love’, he has produced wonderful new original material on ‘Harps and Angels’ (2008) and ‘Dark Matter’ (2017).  He told me, “There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that people do their best work at a very young age in rock and roll. Like chess and physics but dumber. There aren’t many people who get better and better and better. McCartney’s an exception. He did his best work with Wings, and continued to grow. And still he remains a regular bloke even though he’s got a billion dollars. He’s got a mouth, he’ll drink a beer with you as soon as not. But there’s a lot to indicate that people do do their best work sometimes before they’re 30. The Who stayed good. Neil Young has stayed consistent. I wasn’t sure whether I would be one of the ones who wrote their best stuff when they were 25. But I don’t think so.”

Like all songwriters, Newman is reluctant to choose between the songs he’s written but he confessed, “My favourite recording is ‘Miami’. It’s a satisfying record to me. My favourite song is ‘Old Man’. It’s a chilly thing; it’s so cold. But when my father died, I saw how true it was … that I had that kinda shithead thing. Funny, too.”

He wasn’t sure in 2002 if music had changed for better or worse: “It’s hard to say. I always watch out for the old crock in me. I have kids and they’d bring me stuff when punk was starting. I’d listen, and I’d hear some good stuff. Black Flag. But I heard myself say one time what my father would have said, ‘It’s too loud.’ Now, what the hell kind of criticism is that from a musician to make of music. ‘Too loud?’ You have to watch out. You have to be able to recognise that Eminem is a great artist, which he is. He’s a comic artist, and he knows he is. But they happen. Dr. Dre will make a nice track. That Eminem record with … who’s the girl who sang on that? Dido, a great record. This thing by Pink now. Pet Clark could have done it in 1962. It’s like the No. 1 record on Mars, as clear as could be. There’s always good stuff. I don’t know what’s going to last. It seems as if what’s lasted in pop music since rock and roll, starting in 1954, is the hit. You don’t go back and find some undiscovered genius like Schubert. You back to the Shirelles or the Crystals, Gene Pitney. The hits are still the hits. That’s why possibly I will go unremembered and unmourned in the future. I don’t expect to be remembered.”

Even Randy Newman can be wrong.

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FILM REVIEW: Yorkos Lanthimos’s ‘The Favourite’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Fasten your corsets, it’s going to be a bumpy night. Yorkos Lanthimos’s costume romp ‘The Favourite’ is a cartoonish depiction of the fiery relationships between 18th century Queen Anne, her best friend and senior courtier Sarah Churchill, and a young woman who seeks to replace Sarah in the monarch’s affection. Call it ‘All About Abigail’.

Olivia Colman, as the flighty, ailing Queen; Rachel Weisz (top left with Colman and below) as the beautiful and intelligent but wilful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as the seemingly guileless but devious and determined newcomer Abigail Hill  (below) are all in top form. There is a great deal to enjoy with lots of intrigue, sex and filthy language even if director Lanthimos (‘The Lobster’, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’), fails to match the deft touch that Armando Iannucci brought to his wickedly funny ‘The Death of Stalin’.

It is a crowd-pleaser so there was little surprise when it was named best film at this year’s British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs). It succeeds as a raucous romp without any real historical context aside from references to military conflict with France and the monarch’s squabbles with parliament. All the men are foppish and unthreatening twerps, the peasants and servants are as revolting as the landed gentry and aristocrats, and the ending is bathetic, but historical accuracy is not its aim.

The film takes for granted Sarah’s disputed allegation following the queen’s death in 1714 that Abigail’s affair with the monarch included lesbian relations and, to fit the bawdy narrative, insists that Sarah’s did too. Abigail arrives at court to plead for a job after a rough life following the loss of of her family’s aristocratic position. (In truth, her cousin Sarah invited her). She soon proves helpful to the Queen who is plagued not only by explosive mood swings but also very painful gout. Abigail’s agreeable nature, eagerness to please and home-made potions applied to Anne’s legs create an intimacy she’s only too willing to exploit. Her rivalry with Sarah escalates to the point of physical violence and attempted murder.

All three actresses are delightful and very funny. Colman and Weisz play it straight with exceptional skill and both should be in line for awards beyond their wins as best actress and best supporting actress at the BIFAs. Colman adds a human dimension to a character who could easily just be addled and amusing with occasional fits of demented rage while Weisz conveys Sarah’s brilliance, shrewdness and fierce candour but also her sympathy for the queen and vulnerability. Stone’s English accent is perfect and she does well too, playing canny and knowing while appearing to be sweet and innocent, although she does tend to wink at the camera as do many of the male members of the cast including Nicholas Hoult (below centre) as the Tory Robert Harley, Mark Gatiss as Marlborough, James Smith as the Whig Godolphin and Joe Alwyn as Abigail’s suitor Samuel Masham.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and production designer Fiona Crombie make the most of the gorgeous Hatfield House while triple-Oscar-winner Sandy Powell’s costumes are ravishing. Works by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi are joined on the soundtrack by pieces by such modern composers Luc Ferrari, Anna Meredith and Olivier Messiaen.

NOTE: One regret about the picture is that it probably rules out any chance of a serious movie about Sarah Churchill, who was one of the most powerful and fascinating women in British history. The script by first-time screenwriter Deborah Davis and TV writer Tony McNamara (‘Puberty Blues’, ‘Doctor Doctor’) plays fast and loose with historical facts. Sarah did pretty much rule the country during Anne’s term after succeeding William and Mary as she was a brilliant woman married to the powerful Duke of Marlborough, hero of Blenheim.

Her relationship with the queen, however, foundered more over party politics than jealousy – the Queen decided to back the anti-war Tories while Sarah and her husband were Whigs and Abigail was a Tory – and it barely addresses Anne’s deep religious feelings. The film omits entirely any mention of the Queen’s consort, George, Prince of Denmark, and treats the fact that Anne had 17 pregnancies with no survivors as bearing only on Anne’s wildly unruly mental state. In fact, had any survived to adulthood and taken the throne, then George 1 very likely would not have become the first Hanoverian monarch.

The film suggests falsely that Anne gifted Sarah with Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, when it actually was a reward to her husband for his victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. It’s true that the queen withdrew funds for its building and banished the Marlboroughs from court but they returned upon her death and were re-established in the highest echelons of what during Anne’s 12-year reign had become Great Britain. The Duke of Marlborough died in 1722 and Abigail, who became Baroness Masham, died in 1734 aged 64. Sarah completed Blenheim Palace and died in 1744 aged 84 as one of the richest women in Europe.

Released: UK: Jan. 1 2019 / US: Nov. 23 2018 (Fox Searchlight); Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, James Smith, Joe Alwyn; Director: Yorgos Lanthimos; Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara; Director of Photography: Robbie Ryan; Production designer: Fiona Crombie; Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis; Costumes: Sandy Powell; Producers: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Magiday; Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Deborah Davis, Ken Kao, Andrew Lowe, Tony McNamara, Josh Rosenbaum; Production: Element Pictures; Scarlet Films; Film4; Waypoint Entertainment; Rating: UK:15 / US: R; running time: 119 minutes

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TV REVIEW: The Coen Bros’ ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The Coen Brothers have taken Netflix for a ride with their anthology production ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. It’s a western ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ in which they have dusted off some mostly hoary old story ideas and spent a lot of money on a great cast and crew and wonderful locations. Sadly, only one of the yarns reaches the level expected from the Coens and the others probably would never have seen the light of day without the streaming service’s desperate need for big names. 

No doubt the Coens were happy to take all that money for old rope and what seems most evident in the six short films that make up the production is that everyone appears to have had a great time. The opening sequence, which gives the film its title, is the only one worth seeing as it displays the brothers’ wit and whimsy and taste for fantasy and offbeat violence. Tim Blake Nelson (above) plays Buster, a singing cowboy who narrates his own fable and is gradually revealed to be a fatalistic psychotic killer who seeks only the next gunfight. It’s wickedly funny.

That cannot be said of the five other predictable yarns introduced by the flickering pages of an old book of western stories. James Franco plays a hapless bank robber in one sequence, Liam Neeson is a frontier impresario who reconsiders his meal ticket in another, and Tom Waits (above) is a resourceful miner in the fourth. The fifth is a longer piece about a young woman (Zoe Kazan, with Bill Heck below) facing peril on a wagon train and the last is about a stagecoach ride to nowhere on a theme treated more brilliantly in the Monty Python sketch in which ‘to serve salmon with botulism at a dinner party is social death’.

All the actors are just fine, Blake Nelson especially, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor make the most of the splendid locations in Sioux County and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, and near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Carter Burwell’s music ups the IQ of the lesser sequences with his usual flare.

All the stories dwell on mostly forlorn hopes but the biting wit of the first story is sadly missing from the others. If the Coens want to find terrific source material for a truly colourful and accurate depiction of the Old West, they should look no further than the great Texas writer Larry McMurtry’s wonderful collection, ‘The Berrybender Narratives’. Now they are ballads worth singing about.

Screened in London; Streamed on Netflix: Nov. 9; Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Clancy Brown, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Bill Heck, Jiji Hise, Grainger Hines; Directors, writers, editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen; Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel; Production designer: Jess Gonchor; Music: Carter Burwell; Costume designer: Mary Zophres; Producers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle; Production: Annapurna Pictures, Annapurna Television, Mike Zoss Productions; running time 131 minutes.

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FILM REVIEW: Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’, which is running in selected theatres in the United Kingdom ahead of its 60th anniversary, is the funniest comedy you’ll see this year, or any year. Restored in 4K by MGM, Park Circus and the Criterion Collection, its black-and-white cinematography is stunning.

Acclaimed in many polls as the greatest film comedy of all time, it remains a masterpiece with clever plotting, terrific dialogue, wonderful slapstick, good music and extraordinary performances. If you don’t know, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play journeyman musicians who witness a mob killing in Chicago and to save their own skins dress in drag as Josephine and Daphne to join an all-female jazz band, with voluptuous and vulnerable Marilyn Monroe as the band’s singer, on a three-week gig in Florida. Hilarity ensues.

Scripted by the director and I.A.L. Diamond from a story suggested by veteran screenwriters Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, it covers a lot of ground very smartly with a forward-looking attitude to social mores, sex, and cross-dressing. Marilyn Monroe is unutterably gorgeous and sympathetic with unerring comic timing no matter how long it took Wilder to get her to nail a scene. Curtis does a very funny impression of Cary Grant and Lemmon (below with Joe E. Brown) is simply hilarious. It remains a crime that he didn’t win the Academy Award that year against the wooden Charlton Heston in ‘Ben-Hur’.

Adolph Deutsch’s vigorous and witty music comments amusingly on not only Marilyn’s way of walking and the boys’ attempts to appear like women but also the gangster threat from Spats Columbo and his gang and the comic chaos during the finale. Director of photography Charles Lang, who was nominated for the Oscar 18 times and won for ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (1932), captures it all in shimmering chiaroscuro. Much of it was filmed at the splendid Hotel del Coronado in southern California (Richard Rush also shot his wonderful ‘The Stunt Man’ there in 1980) and that adds to the fun.

Harry Wilson, left, George Raft, centre, Mike Mazurki and Pat O’Brien

One of other really pleasing things is the array of fabulous mugs that Wilder cast in the picture including George Raft as Spats Columbo, Nehemiah Persoff as his rival, Little Bonaparte, and Pat O’Brien as the cop on their trail but also much-missed character actors such as Harry Wilson, Mike Mazurki and the irrepressible Joe E. Brown, as millionaire Osgood Fielding III, whose passion for Jack Lemmon’s Daphne will brook no obstacle because, as he says, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. 

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Recalling … giggling over lunch with the great Cleo Laine

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – It was lunchtime at the Hotel Pontchartrain  in Detroit and things were getting a bit silly. Cleo Laine was talking about Kurt Weill and the Berliner Ensemble when someone mentioned Monty Python and soon she was giggling over her Dover Sole. We swapped favourite lines and it took a while before we got back to talking about the reason she was on tour in the United States.

It was one day in January in 1976 and I was at lunch with the singer, her husband jazzman John Dankworth and comedian Jimmy Edwards. Although they were household names in the United Kingdom, they had never met before so I suggested the meeting. Edwards was appearing in the farce ‘Big Bad Mouse’ at the Fisher Theatre with Eric Sykes, who would have joined us but for a bad cold. 

Edwards died in 1988, Dankworth in 2010 and Sykes in 2012. Dame Cleo Laine turns 91 today. She and Dankworth had performed in Detroit several times and they always found time for lunch. That time with Edwards was notable not least because Edwards added a comic touch to proceedings but because Laine was making her long overdue American theatre debut in the Brecht-Weill musical ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’.

The laughter at lunch was a perfect example of the lady’s free-wheeling taste, which allowed her to record an album of Schoenburg songs at the same time as she’s singing a Spike Milligan bit about a man with two many tonsils. She first sang in the U.S. in 1971 and instantly won a cult following. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called her ‘the greatest all-round singer in the world’. She started singing as a child and sang with the Dankworth band until they married in 1958 when she thought it wiser not to continue. 

Dankworth continued as one of Britain’s most successful jazz musicians and composers with many movie scores such as ‘The Knack; ‘Modesty Blaise’ and ‘The Knack’. Cleo went on to great success as a recording artist, not least with the 1976 album ‘Porgy & Bess’ with Ray Charles. She performed internationally and did a lot of work in the theatre including an acclaimed production of ‘Show Boat’. I asked why it had taken her so long to do a musical in the U.S.

‘Things just didn’t fall together,” she said in her deep, expressive voice. ‘I could have come over but doing what? For a long time, the Beatles dominated everything and all that was happening was rock and roll. It was the wrong time for me. I could have come over and done cabaret but if you do that, what do you do next?’ The answer was ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, which she had performed at the Edinburgh Festival, Sadlers Wells and Leeds. A 40-minute piece, it follows a devilish girl named Anna, portrayed in Detroit by dancer Mary Hinkson, who encounters temptation wherever she goes. Cleo played her conscience. ‘She wants to get out there and have all the fun and I have to tell her to stop,’ said Cleo.

Fortunately, Cleo Laine never stopped having all the fun and she has continued to make records and appear on stage for most of her long life. She starred in ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘The Merry Widow’, Dankworth’s musical ‘Colette’, on Broadway in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ and in Los Angeles in ‘Into the Woods’. In England, she and Dankworth ran a non-profit music organisation out of the converted stables at their Buckinghamshire home. ‘We call it the ‘all music’ plan,’ she said. ‘That’s sort of ambitious but it’s what we believe in. I’d hate to be stamped in one mould. I like to do all kinds of music.” 

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FILM REVIEW: Drew Goddard’s ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

By Raymond Bennett 

LONDON – A priest, a traveling salesman, and two young women walk separately into a hotel-casino on the California/Nevada border and all hell breaks loose. They aren’t who they seem to be and neither is the exotic joint where they’ve chosen to stay. Written and directed with assurance and tremendous style by Drew Goddard, ‘Bad Times at El Royale’ is a garish noir tale full of surprises, violence and no little humour. It also offers roles that a terrific cast – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson initially and then Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth – get their teeth into with very satisfying results.

Goddard’s TV writing credits include ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Alias’ and ‘Lost’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012) and scripted ‘World War Z’ (2013) and ‘The Martian’ (2015), for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. His yarn is set in 1970 at a typically Sixties neon and glass venue that was once a playground for the Vegas pack but has now fallen on hard times due to losing its gambling licence. Its unique selling point is that the state border runs right through the centre of the place so guests may stay either in California or Nevada. In a brief prologue set 10 years earlier, a man checks in, buries something in one of the rooms and is promptly shot to death.

Now, there’s only one person on duty, a diffident young man named Miles (Pullman) who seems reluctant to check anyone in, especially the crusty priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) and tough cookie Emily (Johnson) are more put off by the garrulous vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Hamm) but they take rooms anyway. It doesn’t take long to discover some of the secrets of the motley crew, not least that the salesman is really an FBI agent and that Emily has kidnapped a younger woman, Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and snuck her into her room where she keeps her tied up. Many more mysteries will unfold and Chris Hemsworth will show up later as a charismatic but menacing cult leader. Several scenes are revisited from a different perspective as the individual motives for being there start to clash with dramatic and increasingly violent results.

Bridges, Hamm and Hemsworth bring their A-game while Erivo (who also shines in the upcoming ‘Widows’) is splendid as both actor and a cappella singer, Johnson impresses with tremendous flair and Pullman peels the onion of his character with great effect. Young Cailee Spaeny hovers as an apparently naive girl who bears watching.

It’s probably longer than it needs to be but production designer Martin Whist’s vivid set is a character in itself and Northern Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey – Oscar- and Bafta-nominated for ‘Atonement’ (2007) and ‘Anna Karenina’ (2012) – captures it all luxuriously. There are plenty of songs from the era, both on the jukebox and sung by Erivo, and Michael Giacchino ties it all together with an energetic score that captures the period, enhances the contrivances and should be in for award nominations.

Released: UK, US: Oct. 12 2018 (Twentieth Century Fox); Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman; Director and writer: Drew Goddard; Director of cinematography: Seamus McGarvey; Production designer: Martin Whist; Music: Michael Giacchino; Editor: Lisa Lassek; Costume designer: Danny Glicker; Producers: Drew Goddard, Jeremy Latchem; Executive producer: Mary McLaglen; Production: Twentieth Century Fox; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 141 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Directors often claim full authorship of their movies in the credits but if ever someone merited that it is Alfonso Cuarón who is the writer, co-editor, cinematographer, producer and director of his dramatic masterpiece titled ‘Roma’. It is touching, funny and thrilling and it deserves every accolade and award coming its way.

The Academy Award-winning Mexican filmmaker (‘Gravity’) has created a film that is at once intimate and epic, a close-up look at ordinary folk and a sweeping tale on a grand scale. Filmed in scintillating black-and-white, the Spanish-language picture is set in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in the early 1970s. It follows a maid and nanny named Cleo, played by primary school teacher Yalitza Aparico in her first film performance, as she cleans up after a doctor’s family, does the laundry and nurtures the kids. Marina de Tavira plays Sofia, the doctor’s anxious wife who struggles to maintain the household with her mother, Teresa (Verónica Garcia), while her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) spends an increasing amount of time away.

Cuarón takes his time to show the mundane day-to-day activities of Cleo and her fellow maid Adela (Nancy García García), which involves housekeeping, baby-sitting, sweeping, bed-making, garbage clearing, wiping away tears and clearing up dog poop from the narrow car-port. Slowly, events begin to intrude as the doctor takes an unforeseen path and Cleo’s relationship with her overtly macho boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) takes a turn for the worse. The film opens up into engrossingly larger scope as Cleo, Sofia and the children go on outings to the cinema, an extraordinary big family Christmas, and the seaside. Their personal dramas escalate as politics explodes in Mexico City and they are caught up in a street riot in which the military and gang-leaders leave many dead.

Aparico’s lack of affectation makes Cleo’s growth through the film sympathetic, moving and unforgettable. Cuarón, whose film is a love-letter to his own childhood, does not shrink from making it clear that while Cleo is the foundation of the family she works for, she is still a maid. De Tavira is a professional actress but she also achieves a naturalness that informs her own character’s development. They both should be in line for awards. The kids are terrific and Veronica García, as the grandmother, and Guerrero, as the boyfriend, shine in a uniformly effective cast.

Cuarón chose not to have a score on the film apparently in order not to sway audiences but with music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein he illuminates the picture with selections from the period. As director of photography, the director has a marvellous eye for tiny detail as well as the city-, land- and seascapes he captures so thrillingly. Eugenio Caballero’s production design is enhanced with seamless CGI to recreate a thoroughly compelling depiction of what Mexico City must have been like back then. 

Netflix is to be congratulated for providing the funds for a picture that will endure as a classic and it’s to the streaming service’s credit that ‘Roma’ will be seen in some theatres in certain cities in several countries. It’s good that the film might gain an enormous audience via the internet but it’s a shame that so few will see it on the big screen where it cries out to be seen. 

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: Nov. 30 (UK: Curzon Artificial Eye / US: Netflix) Streamed by Netflix from Dec. 14; Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García García, Veronica García, Andy Cortés, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero; Director, writer, director of photography: Alfonso Cuarón; Production designer: Eugenio Caballero; Editors: Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough; Producers: Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón, Graciela Rodriguez; Executive producers: Jonathan King, David Linde, Jeff Skoll; Production: Esperanto Filmoj, Participant Media; Rating: UK: 15 / US: TBA ; running time 135 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: David Mackenzie’s ‘Outlaw/King’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Chris Pine keeps his Scots burr soft and believable in ‘Outlaw/King’, the saga of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century leader who succeeded where William (Braveheart) Wallace failed in uniting the Scottish clans to fight the English.

It’s a rousing adventure with several battles, a warm love story, and glorious settings filmed across Scotland. The title onscreen is ‘Outlaw/King’ although it’s not shown on posters or promotional material. The distinction is subtle but important as it conveys the point that Robert is not an outlaw king but a man seen by different people in different ways. He is a king and he is an outlaw. 

Scottish director David Mackenzie (‘Hell or High Water’) keeps things relatively plausible with fine contributions from Stephen Dillane as Edward I, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the mad-as-hell Scottish rebel Douglas, and Florence Pugh as Robert’s at first unwanted but then beloved bride. It’s a big picture that deserves to be seen at cinemas so it’s a very good thing that Netflix has released it to theatres, at least in the U.K., via Curzon Artificial Eye, otherwise it would just be an expensive TV movie.

Wallace makes a brief appearance looking very scruffy compared to Mel Gibson’s depiction and events follow his demise with the Scottish clans typically fighting over patches of land and adherence to various faiths and myths. Pine is every bit the movie star laird of the land and both his vocal delivery and movement allow him to carry the picture with ease. Dillane makes Edward a more subtle and devious character than Patrick McGoohan’s straight-forwardly powerful king in ‘Braveheart’. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson marauds and rages as Robert’s extremely angry and violent ally James Douglas and Florence Pugh adds another intelligent performance to her growing list of impressive roles (‘Lady Macbeth’, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’). The conflict is let down somewhat by Billy Howle, who makes the future Edward II a bit too weaselly and psychotic; the pace, which takes its time (Update: the film was cut by 20 minutes for release); and some typical historical fudging. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd captures the glorious Scottish scenery lavishly, though, and several composers contribute traditional music that sounds authentic.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 9 (Curzon Artificial Eye); Streamed on Netflix from Nov. 9; Cast: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Howle; Director: David Mackenzie; Writers: Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie, James Macinnes; Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd; Production designer: Donald Graham Burt; Editor: Jake Roberts; Costume designer: Jane Petrie; Producer: Gillian Berrie; Executive producers: Richard Brown, Steve Golin, Stan Wlodkowski; Production: Sigma Films, Anonymous Content, Clockwork Sessions; Rating: UK: 18 / US: R; running time: 137 minutes at TIFF; 121 minutes on release.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Forget the shallow glitz of ‘Ocean’s 8’, the women in Steve McQueen’s full-of-surprises caper movie ‘Widow’ really mean business. The British filmmaker (‘Hunger’, ‘2 Years a Slave’) brings his serious view of the world to an escapist drama and it is all the more entertaining for that.

Oscar-winner Viola Davis (facing in the picture above) steps up to a leading role and she carries the film with aplomb in the role of Veronica, a woman whose life is turned upside down when a heist goes wrong and her husband, a professional thief, is killed along with his henchmen. Also gone is the money they were trying to steal and Veronica becomes the target of attempts by assorted villains to recover it with her life on the line. When she discovers detailed plans made by her late husband for another robbery, she rounds up the other gangster widows to pull it off.

Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki (pictured left) and Cynthia Erivo (with Davis below) play the other women and the foursome become a formidable outfit in the face of obstacles not only from criminals but also crooked cops and politicians. Drawn from a 1983 British miniseries written by Lynda La Plante (‘Prime Suspect’), with a script by Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) and McQueen, the film is a taut, suspenseful and polished drama steeped in reality with many unexpected twists and turns.

Rodriguez is somewhat underused but Debicki (‘The Night Manager’) adds steel to her seemingly flighty character and Erivo (left), as a very tough cookie, makes another strong impression following her terrific showing in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. McQueen has cast some interesting men for them to play against including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s husband, Colin Farrell as a political chancer and Robert Duvall as his bombastic father. With the setting moved to Chicago, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Adam Stockhausen make full use of the gritty locations and composer Hans Zimmer’s score is lean and sinewy to match. 

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 6 (Fox) / US: Nov. 16 (Fox). Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coom, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson; Director: Steve McQueen: Writers: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen based on characters created by Lynda La Plante; Director of photography: Sean Bobbit; Production designer: Adam Stockhausen; Music: Hans Zimmer; Editor: Joe Walker; Costume designer: Jenny Eagan; Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan; Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Rodrigo Cortés, Rose Garnett, Matthew Senreich, Bergen Swanson; Production: Regency Enterprises, See-Saw Films, Film4, New Regency Pictures; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 128 minutes.

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