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

FREE SOLO Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
McQUEEN Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui
RBG Julie Cohen, Betsy West
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

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
A STAR IS BORN Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, Eric Roth

Leading Actress
LADY GAGA A Star Is Born
MELISSA McCARTHY Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Leading Actor
RAMI MALEK Bohemian Rhapsody

Supporting Actress
EMMA STONE The Favourite
MARGOT ROBBIE Mary Queen of Scots
RACHEL WEISZ The Favourite

Supporting Actor
ADAM DRIVER BlacKkKlansman
RICHARD E. GRANT Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Original Music
BLACKkKLANSMAN Terence Blanchard
ISLE OF DOGS Alexandre Desplat
A STAR IS BORN Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Lukas Nelson

COLD WAR Łukasz Żal
FIRST MAN Linus Sandgren
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón

THE FAVOURITE Yorgos Mavropsaridis
ROMA Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough
VICE Hank Corwin

Production Design
THE FAVOURITE Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton
FIRST MAN Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas
ROMA Eugenio Caballero, Bárbara Enríquez

Costume Design

Make up & Hair
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY Mark Coulier, Jan Sewell
STAN & OLLIE Mark Coulier, Jeremy Woodhead
VICE Nominees TBC

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)

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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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Ed McBain tops my 2018 reading list

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Evan Hunter was an American writer who wrote several novels that were made into movies including Richard Brooks’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (above) starring Glenn Ford and featuring Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow but known best for its opening credits song, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley and the Comets.

Richard Quine’s ‘Strangers When We Meet’ (1960) stars Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak, John Frankenheimer’s ‘The Young Savages’ (1961) stars Burt Lancaster and Delbert Mann’s ‘Mister Buddwing’ (based on his novel ‘Buddwing’) stars James Garner, Jean Simmons and Suzanne Pleshette. He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (1963).

He was known best, however, as Ed McBain, the name he used for some 55 novels set in the 87th Precinct of a version of New York City that he called Isola. Although his central character was Det. Lt. Steve Carella, Hunter’s intent was to make the precinct itself the hero of each story. A few McBain yarns were adapted for the screen, most notably ‘King’s Ransom’, which Akira Kurosawa re-titled ‘High and Low’ for his 1963 film, and a 1972 Burt Reynolds vehicle, ‘Fuzz’.

There also was a television series, ‘87th Precinct’ starring Robert Lansing as Carella (sitting, left) with Norman Fell, Gregory Walcott and Ron Harper (and Gena Rowlands as Carella’s blind wife Teddy in a few episodes). It was good but not a success and ran for just 30 episodes on NBC from 1961 to 1962. Hunter was very annoyed later when writer/producer Steven Bochco took credit for inventing the squad format for his 1980s hit series ‘Hill Street Blues’.

The early novels are eminently readable today not only for their portrayal of life in 1950s New York but for Hunter’s economical prose, insightful observations, well-drawn characters and his descriptive power. In 2018, I revisited 10 of them and enjoyed them all: ‘The Mugger’, ‘Cop Hater’, ‘King’s Ransom’, ‘Killer’s Choice’, ‘The Pusher’, ‘The Con Man’, ‘Killer’s Payoff’, ‘Lady Killer’, ’Til Death’ and ‘Killer’s Wedge’.

McBain was not the only author I revisited in 2018 as I went back to six by John Le Carré: ‘Call For the Dead’, ‘A Murder of Quality’, ‘The Looking Glass War’, ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ plus his latest, ‘A Legacy of Spies’, which was the weakest of the lot. Having re-read Len Deighton’s trilogies in 2017, this year I rediscovered the great pleasures of British writer Anthony Price’s espionage novels: ‘Gunner Kelly’, ‘The Old Vengeful’, ‘Sion Crossing’, ‘Here Be Monsters’, ‘For the Good of the State’. Recommended highly. As, of course, are Graham Greene’s ‘The Ministry of Fear’, ‘The Honorary Consul’ and ‘Stamboul Train’, which I read for the fourth or fifth time.

Three Frederick Forsyth thrillers were hit and miss: ‘The Negotiator’, ‘The Fourth Protocol’ and ‘The Kill List’. Much better were Mick Herron’s witty espionage tales, ‘The List’, ‘Why We Die’ and ‘Smoke and Mirrors’; Adam Brookes’s ‘Night Heron’, ‘The Spy’s Daughter’ and ‘Spy Games’; and John Lawton’s ‘East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road’ and ‘Friends and Traitors’. Jason Matthews’s ‘Red Sparrow’ and sequels ‘Palace of Treason’ and ‘The Kremlin’s Candidate’ are good fun. I also enjoyed David Downing’s ‘Dark Clouds Shining’, Charles Cumming’s ‘The Man Between’, Robert Harris’s ‘Munich’, Ken Follett’s ‘Night Over Water’, David Baldacci’s ‘The Fallen’ and ‘The Last Mile’, Jeffrey Deaver’s ‘The Coffin Danger’ and David Ignatius’s ‘The Director’.

I discovered Wilkie Collins’s excellent ‘The Moonstone’, re-read for the umpteenth time John Steinbeck’s much-loved ‘East of Eden’ and ‘Cannery Row’ and caught up with one of my all-time favourites, Larry McMurtry, with his latest, ‘The Last Kind Words Saloon’. Other reading in 2018 included, ‘The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral’ by Jeff Guinn, ‘1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World’ by Frank McLynn, ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’ by Geoff Dyer (for fans of ‘Where Eagles Dare’) and, of course, a couple by Ron Base: ‘I, The Sanibel Sunset Detective’ and ‘The Mill Pond’.

And having discovered Robert Olen Butler and enjoyed his ‘The Hot Country’, I am closing out the year with another enjoyable espionage romp, ‘The Star of Istanbul’. 

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Tomboy Barbara Mandrell loved to be called sexy

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Barbara Mandrell, who turned 70 on Christmas Day, was country when country wasn’t cool but in 1981, when she was 32, she loved it when I told her I thought she was a knockout.

“Well, bless your heart,” she said. “Why don’t you call me every morning?”

Back then, long before Shania Twain and aside from the adorably extreme Dolly Parton, tearaway Tanya Tucker and the peerless Emmylou Harris, female country singers tended to be demurely feminine or tough as nails. Immensely talented, Mandrell was the queen of country music at the time with hit singles and albums, sold-out concerts and a popular television variety show on which she she never hid her sex appeal.

“It always flatters me if somebody uses the word ‘sexy’ and attaches it to me,” she said, “because in my life, all my life growing up, I’ve always been a tomboy, and I still am.”

I wouldn’t normally say such a thing in an interview but given how sniffy the Nashville community could be, on the phone from Toronto, I wondered if being sexy had ever been a problem. 

“I don’t know,” she said. “Growing up, I played with dolls a little bit but my big thing was building forts and playing cowboys. I’m a girl too. I’d put on little frilly things, enjoy getting dressed up and feeling pretty. But I’m a mother of two and I’ve been around a long time. I’ve built a solid career and I’m very civic minded. Nashville knows how proud I am of Nashville and, unless they’ve got me really fooled, Nashville’s very proud of me.”

She won the 1980 Entertainer of the Year Award from the Academy of Country Music in  In 1981, she became only the third woman (after Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton) to be named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association and she topped that in 1982 when she was the first to earn the accolade twice. She also was named female vocalist of the year twice (1979 and 1981).

She earned 11 Grammy Award nominations with two wins. ‘He Set My Life to Music’ won for best inspirational performance in 1982 and ‘I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today’ with Bobby Jones won for best soul gospel performance by a duo or group in 1983. She had 26 releases on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart with ten Top 10 hits and 46 singles on the Hot Country Songs chart with 25 Top 10 hits and six that reached number one. Chart-topping singles were ‘Sleeping Single in a Double Bed’ (1978), ‘(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right’ (1979), ‘Years’ (1980), ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool’ (1981), ‘Til You’re Gone’ (1982) and ‘One of a Kind Pair of Fools’ (1983).

Besides the ‘Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters’ show, which ran for 35 episodes on NBC 1980-82, she performed on scores of shows including the 50th Annual CMA Awards special in 2016. Following her acting debut in an American version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ titled ‘Skinflint’ starring Hoyt Axton in 1979, she acted in shows such as ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’, ‘Baywatch’, ‘Diagnosis Murder’ and ‘Touched By an Angel’ and appeared in 35 episodes of the NBC soap opera ‘Sunset Beach’ (1997-98).

She retired in 1997 following a farewell concert at the Grand Ole Opry titled ‘Barbara Mandrell and the Do-Rites: The Last Dance’, which aired on TNN. Her 1990 autobiography ‘Get to the Heart: The Barbara Mandrell Story’, which tells of the 1984 car accident in which she almost died, was adapted into a TV movie starring Maureen McCormick by Hallmark in 1997.

She was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and in 2000 she was awarded the Academy of Country Music’s highest honour, the Pioneer Award. In 2009, she became the only woman ever to be inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2014, she was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame, recognised for her skill on multiple instruments, particularly the steel guitar. On her website, she says that today she can be found gardening, visiting friends, taking care of her home and family and enjoying a slower pace of life.

Aside from her great voice and looks, a big part of Barbara Mandrell’s success was down to her warm personality. She always looked as if she were having fun. “I’ve always thought I had a fairly good sense of humour,” she said. “I love to laugh at myself and I’m always attracted to people who have a good sense of humour. On the TV show, I found that I really liked and felt good doing ridiculous things. I found I could have fun with stuff and make people laugh. I like watching people smile and laugh … it lets me know that I gave them their money’s worth and that just means the world to me.”

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‘The Favourite’ leads London critics’ nominations

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Yorgos Lanthimos’s costume romp ‘The Favourite’ has picked up 10 nominations for the 39th annual London Critics’ Film Awards including best film followed by Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’, Rupert Everett’s ‘The Happy Prince’, Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ and Lynne Ramsay’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’, each with five nods. Pedro Almodovar will receive the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film.

‘Roma’, Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’, ‘Cold War’ and ‘You Were Never Really Here’ are the other titles up for best film. Lanthimos is nominated as best director for ‘The Favourite’ along with Cuaron, Granik, Pawlikowski and Ramsey.

Olivia Colman is nominated as best actress and Rachel Weisz as best supporting actress, both for ‘The Favourite’ (picture above). Others up for best actress are Yalitza Aparicio for ‘Roma’, Glenn Close for ‘The Wife’, Toni Collette for ‘Hereditary’ and Joanna Kulig for ‘Cold War’. Other best supporting actress nominees are Elizabeth Debicki for ‘Widows’, Cynthia Erivo for ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’, Claire Foy for ‘First Man’ and Regina King for ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Best actor nods went to Christian Bale for ‘Vice’, Rupert Everett for ‘The Happy Prince’, Ben Foster for ‘Leave No Trace’, Ethan Hawke for ‘First Reformed’ and Joaquin Phoenix for ‘You Were Never Really Here’. Best supporting actor nominees are: Adam Driver for ‘BlacKkKlansman’, Richard E Grant for ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’, Michael B Jordan for ‘Black Panther’, Daniel Kaluuya for ‘Widows’ and Alessandro Nivola for ‘Disobedience’.
There is no prize for music in the awards but nominees for the Technical Achievement Award include Nicholas Britell for his music in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and Thom Yorke for his music in ‘Suspiria’.

Awards Chair Rich Cline said, “Because our critics see almost everything that’s released, they nominated more than 180 titles in the Film of the Year category alone.” He said the list of nominees goes against expectations and is “very distinctive in the current awards season” as it includes two women for best director and performances that other groups are overlooking: “With such a wide range of titles on the ballots, getting a nomination is a real achievement.”

Winners will be announced at ceremonies on Sunday January 20, 2019, at The May Fair Hotel. Here’s the full list of nominees:
 – BlacKkKlansman, 
Cold War, 
The Favourite, First Man, 
First Reformed, 
The Happy Prince, 
Leave No Trace
, Roma, 
You Were Never Really Here
120 Beats per Minute, 
Cold War,  
A Fantastic Woman, 
, Shoplifters
 – Faces Places
, McQueen
,They Shall Not Grow Old
, Three Identical Strangers, 
, Beast
, The Favourite, 
The Happy Prince, 
You Were Never Really Here
 – Alfonso Cuaron – Roma
, Debra Granik – Leave No Trace, 
Yorgos Lanthimos – The Favourite, 
Pawel Pawlikowski – Cold War, 
Lynne Ramsay – You Were Never Really Here
Alfonso Cuaron – Roma, Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara – The Favourite
, Barry Jenkins – If Beale Street Could Talk, 
Steve McQueen & Gillian Flynn – Widows, 
Paul Schrader – First Reformed
Yalitza Aparicio – Roma, 
Glenn Close – The Wife, 
Toni Collette – Hereditary, 
Olivia Colman – The Favourite, 
Joanna Kulig – Cold War
 – Christian Bale – Vice, 
Rupert Everett – The Happy Prince, 
Ben Foster – Leave No Trace, 
Ethan Hawke – First Reformed
, Joaquin Phoenix – You Were Never Really Here
 – Elizabeth Debicki – Widows, 
Cynthia Erivo – Bad Times at the El Royale
, Claire Foy – First Man
, Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk, 
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite
 – Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman, 
Richard E Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
, Michael B Jordan – Black Panther
, Daniel Kaluuya – Widows
, Alessandro Nivola – Disobedience
Emily Blunt – Mary Poppins Returns, A Quiet Place, Sherlock Gnomes
; Jessie Buckley – Beast; 
Olivia Colman – The Favourite
; Claire Foy – First Man, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Unsane; 
Rachel Weisz – Disobedience, The Favourite
 – Christian Bale – Mowgli, Vice; 
Steve Coogan – Holmes & Watson, Ideal Home, Stan & Ollie;
Rupert Everett – The Happy Prince
; Richard E Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms; 
Daniel Kaluuya – Black Panther, Widows
 – Liv Hill – Jellyfish, The Little Stranger
; Noah Jupe – Holmes & Watson, A Quiet Place, That Good Night, The Titan; 
Anya Taylor-Joy – Glass, The Secret of Marrowbone, Thoroughbreds
; Fionn Whitehead – The Children Act; 
Molly Wright – Apostasy
Deborah Davis – The Favourite; 
Rupert Everett – The Happy Prince; 
Deborah Haywood – Pin Cushion; 
Daniel Kokotajlo – Apostasy; 
Michael Pearce – Beast
- Little Shit – Richard Gorodecky,
Night Out – Amelia Hashemi, 
Salt & Sauce – Alia Ghafar
, Three Centimetres – Lara Zeidan
, Under Growth – Evin O’Neill
 – American Animals – film editing, Nick Fenton, Chris Gill & Julian Hart; 
BlacKkKlansman – costume design, Marci Rodgers; 
Cold War – cinematography, Lukasz Zal; 
The Favourite – production design, Fiona Crombie; 
First Man – visual effects, Paul Lambert; 
If Beale Street Could Talk – music, Nicholas Britell
; Mission: Impossible Fallout – stunts, Wade Eastwood; 
A Quiet Place – sound design, Ethan Van der Ryn & Erik Aadahl
; Suspiria – music, Thom Yorke
; You Were Never Really Here – film editing, Joe Bini

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