‘Under Fire’ with Nolte, Cassidy and Hackman new on Blu-ray

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Great news! Roger Spottiswood’s excellent  1983 political thriller ‘Under Fire’ starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy,  Ed Harris and Jean-Louis Trintignant is out today on Blu-ray Disc in the U.K. from Eureka Entertainment.

The film, which deals with reporters covering the Sandinista rebellion in Nicaragua in 1979, ranks amongst the finest movies set in Latin American countries subject to dire mischief by American interests. Other top-liners are Oliver Stone’s ‘Salvador’ (1986) starring James Woods (music by Georges Delarue) and Costa-Gavras’s  two, ‘State of Siege’ (1972), set in Paraguay and starring Yves Montand and Renato Salvatori (music by Vangelis) and ‘Missing’ (1982) set in Chile and starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek (music in both by Mikis Theodorakis).

Each film confronts the issues of political subservision in countries beset by dictators and rebels and how unreliable reports are from all sides. The central subject in ‘Under Fire’ is the role of journalists when they discover criminal wrongdoing and become sympathetic to the oppressed. Photographs play such an important role in reporting and dissembling and both Nolte’s fotog and Cassidy’s reporter must confront a dilemma compounded by brutal repression by regional powers and callous disregard by American agents.

In his 1983 review, which contains too many spoilers to be read before watching the film, he observes correctly that the film “shows us a war in which morality is hard to define and harder to practice’. All five stars deliver naturalistic performances that enhance the credibility of the film and there’s plenty of suspenseful action with many thrilling sequences.

Roger Spottiswood, now 74, is a Canadian film director who co-wrote Walter Hill’s ‘48hrs’ (1982) and directed a pretty good drama about CIA’s dirty dealings during the Vietnam War, ‘Air America’ (1990) with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. and a not bad James Bond picture, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997) with Pierce Brosnan. ‘Under Fire’ is by far his best film.

Nick Nolte (left), a vastly underrated actor with terrific performances in films such as ‘Cannery Row’ (1982), ‘48Hrs.’ (1082), ‘Q&A’ (1990), ‘Cape Fear’ (1991), ‘Mulholland Falls’ (1996), ‘The Good Thief’ (2002),  plays a news photographer who hops from war zones in Africa to Central America to Africa. Joanna Cassidy (below right), who should have been a major movie star after this film and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) but who has had a long and distinguished TV career in shows such as ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘Call Me Fitz’, ‘Odd Mom Out’ and ‘Too Old to Die Young’, plays a resourceful radio reporter. Double Oscar-winner Gene Hackman, whose stellar films are too numerous to mention, is a seasoned senior television reporter with dreams of becoming a network anchorman. A romantic triangle between the three adds to the tension.

The also underrated Ed Harris (below left)  – ‘The Right Stuff’ 1983, ‘The Rock’ 1996, ‘The Truman Show’ 1998, ‘Apaloosa’ 2008, TV’s ‘Westworld’ – is a ruthless mercenary who also hops around doing dirty work on whichever side the CIA decides to support next. Jean-Louis Trintignant (‘A Man and a Woman’ 1966, ‘The Conformist’ 1970, ‘Amour’ (2013) plays a French gunrunner and all-round meddler in troubled affairs.

Scripted by Clayton Frohman (‘Defiance’ 2008) and Ron Shelton ‘Bull Durham’ 1996, ‘Tin Cup’ (1998), the film is shot by cinematographer John Alcott (‘A Clockwork Orange’ 1971 with an Oscar for ‘Barry Lyndon’ 1975 and features an outstanding score by Oscar-winner Jerry Goldsmith (‘Patton’ 1970, ‘Chinatown’ 1974, ‘The Wind and the Lion’ 1974, ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ 1979, ‘L.A. Confidential’ 1997, with an Oscar for ‘The Omen’ 1976). Goldsmith received the 14th of his 18 Academy Award nominations for his score, which features soloist Pat Metheny on guitar. The soundtrack is on Warner Bros.

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That time with a lobster on a boat off New Brunswick

By Ray Bennett / The Windsor Star / Feb. 19 1972

When eating a lobster, don’t break open its body on a boat in the Bay of Passamaquoddy, you may never eat lobster again.

Don’t misunderstand, the lobster in New Brunswick is as fine you’l get anywhere. There were members of our party, as we gently rode the Atlantic waters off southern New Brunswick in the the good ship Bo-peep, who devoured their lobsters with the nonchalance of a galloping gourmet.

But there were those of us who broke open the bodies of our lobsters in the Bay of Passamaquoddy. We may never eat lobster again.

There were eight of us from various Canadian newspapers taking a look at Air Canada’s Maritimes Explorer Tour, which offers a seven-day trip to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick at 30% reductions for flight and accommodations starting after Labor Day.

The tour cannot be said to be the best way to see the Maritimes. The basic plan calls for you to arrive in Moncton, New Brunswick, on the sixth day of the tour and fly home on the seventh but there is an extension tour available although of course at extra cost.

We were given a glimpse of the extension tour and it appears to be worthwhile if only for the visit included to St. Andrews, where we took a ride on the Bo-peep.

First, though, we saw Fredericton, a sedately charming city that is the capital of the province and where just about everyone you speak to works for the government.

Fleet Street newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook spent his youth in New Brunswick and he did Fredericton proud with his benefactions. In return, it seems that the people of the capital city have named every other building after the man.

We were there only for one afternoon and evening. There is not much nightlife – just one club. But the day we arrived, the provincial drinking age limit had been lowered to 19 and the discotheque Cosmopolitan was jumping with gregarious youngsters celebrating their first legal drink in public.

The drive from Fredericton to St. Andrews takes you past Mactequac Provincial Park on the Saint John River. Mactequac is a vast pastoral playground with hundreds of camp and trailer sites, two beach areas and facilities for just about all the sports you can name.

Heading south, you come across rivers and places with some of the most delightfully tongue-twisting names in Canada. There’s Magaguadavic Lake, Digdequash River, Oromocto, Chamcook and, finally, the Bay of Passamaquoddy. According to the New Brunswick tourism department, there is even a place in the province where the Skoodawabskooksis unites with the Skoodawabskook but this has yet to be proven.

Passamaquoddy Bay is tucked in the larger Bay of Fundy, which separates New Brunswick from Nova Scotia. Cruising along in the Bo-peep lobster board, which plies the waters for the huge Conley company in St. Andrews, is a pleasure not to be missed and tours can be arranged.

Bo-peep’s Captain, Don Hurley, is a ruddy-faced fisherman with a salty sense of humour and an endless string of coastal anecdoes. He and Conley manager George Beasley are as fine a pair of seamen you’d find to sail with. Throw in a trio of nubile and authoritative young ladies from the tourism department and a box full of cooked lobsters and life appears complete. Unless you make the mistake of breaking open the body of your lobster.

The waters of the Bay of Passamaquoddy were as still as the birds in an eclipse of the sun. The sun, far from eclipsed, was blazing down. The Bo-peep chugged gently in the background as Captain Hurley told us tales of lobsters and fish, poachers and the sea. Two of the girls had donned sun-and-eye-catching bikinis while ice-cold wine cooled the inner man.

My lobster sat on my plate. I broke open its body. I shouldn’t have done that. There is an organ deep in the body of a lobster called the tamale – in most other living things, it’s called the liver. It’s an oozing green liquid putrescence. To some people, it’s a delicacy but then some people will eat anything.

The scene that had been all bright blue sky and water and tanned bodies turned green to match the tamale. Even the wine looked green. In deference to our hospitable hosts, I tried valiantly to devour a piece of meat from a claw but the damage was done. I may never eat lobster again.

[Editor’s Note: This was the third in a series on The Maritimes written by Star staff writer Ray Bennett, who recently toured the area.]

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FILM REVIEW: Natalie Portman in ‘Vox Lux’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Just as in ‘Jackie’ two years ago, Natalie Portman gives a scintillating performance of a driven and complicated woman in a not very successful picture. Director and screenwriter Brady Corbet’s ‘Vox Lux’, which opens today in the United Kingdom, tells of a pop superstar named Celeste who survived a mass murder as a teenager, is a bit of a mess but even though she enters the picture late, Portman is mesmerising.

Corbet takes aim at fame in the picture and ties it to the kind of shattering events that change lives forever. With a patronising voice over by Willem Dafoe, the story unfolds in labeled chapters starting with a harrowing school shooting in 2001 that, while badly wounded, the teenaged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. To aid with her recovery, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) write a song that Celeste performs in a church service. A recording of it is posted on the internet and results in instant fame as she becomes a pop sensation.

Cut to 2017 and Celeste is a full-blown pop diva, a tough and brassy superstar with a broad New York accent plus a drink and drugs habit that has contributed to a scandal over her response to a driving incident and visual links to an act of terrorism. With her career in jeopardy, she sets out to launch a new album with a concert back where the  school shooting took place. The potential for disaster is made worse due to her difficult relationship with her teenaged daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy, pictured with Portman left), the sister she bullies and her demanding manager (Jude Law).

Portman does for Celeste what she did for Jackie Kennedy and turns her into a dynamic confusion of brilliant talent, outrage, arrogance and fragile vulnerability. Whether it’s family, management, the press or fans, she faces every challenge with ferocity. In a better film, she would be a shoo-in for awards and Raffey Cassidy, with two similar roles to play, would be right there with her. As it is, between some riveting scenes, the film lags with sequences that barely make sense. A bizarre score by Scott Walker adds to the dislocation and the original songs provided by Sia are merely generic pop. Cinematographer Lol Crawley, production designer Sam Lisenco and costume designer Keri Langerman, though, make it all look good. The production numbers are staged vividly and Portman delivers magnificently.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Released: US Dec. 7 (Neon) / UK: TBA 2019; Cast: Natalie Portman; Jude Law; Raffey Cassidy; Stacy Martin; Jennifer Ehle; Natasha Romanova; Writer, director: Brady Corbet; Director of photography: Lol Crawley; Production designer: Sam Lisenco; Music: Scott Walker; Editor: Matthew Hannam; Costume designer: Keri Langerman; Producers: D.J. Gugenheim, Andrew Lauren, David Litvak, Michel Litvak, Robert Salerno, Gary Michael Walters, Brian Young; Executive producers: Mark Gillespie, Jude Law, Svetlana Metkina, Natalie Portman; Production: Killer Films, Andrew Lauren Productions, Bold Films; Rating: US: R; Running time: 110 minutes

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Cheers to our Will, not sorry old George

By Ray Bennett

Today is St. George’s Day named for the patron saint of several places  such as Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal and Russia. Oh, and England. We English, of course, don’t mark April 23 in the boozy way the Irish do on St. Paddy’s Day. That would never do. It happens also to be Shakespeare’s birthday and we’d much rather honour our Will.

St. George is many things to many people including orthodox churchgoers, freemasons, Arthurians and boy scouts. In fact, he was some Turkish bloke employed as a soldier by the Roman Empire who was said to have slayed a long-tailed beast. He came in useful as a martyr for medieval spin-doctors who needed to put a bit of gloss on the Crusades and placed at the heart of all things chivalrous and knightly. When Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1350, he decided old George would make a fine patron saint.

The Bard made a brave attempt to encourage us to love St. George in his play ‘Henry V’ by having the young king tout the saint in a rousing speech aimed at getting every Englishman’s dander up in order to smite the French. It didn’t really take. We’d much rather celebrate Shakespeare, who was born 455 years ago today.

As London theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter in the first decade of this century, I was privileged to see a great many splendid stage productions of the works of Shakespeare. Here are some great memories.

‘Hamlet’  National Theatre April 2004

‘For his first staging of the play since 1970, Trevor Nunn has chosen a 23-year-old unknown named Ben Whishaw, who catapults instantly to fame with his unforgettable performance. As the young rebel with a cause, Whishaw (pictured with Imogen Stubbs as Gertrude) actually looks more like the early Anthony Perkins, knife thin and gangly, his fear striking out from jangling neuroses and hormones, but who also possesses great calm with beseeching eyes and a killer smile.’

‘Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2’ National Theatre May 2005

‘Nicholas Hytner’s immaculate production of William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1” is so vibrant and enthralling that it cries out to finally be made as a movie. Michael Gambon as Falstaff and Matthew Macfadyen as Prince Hal (top picture) lead a splendid cast. Staged it in conjunction with the more sombrely dramatic “Henry IV, Part 2”, the two plays make up six hours of the most persuasive argument that Shakespeare is as relevant today as ever.”

‘Macbeth’ A Chichester Festival Theatre production at the Gielgud Theatre September 2007

‘Seldom can Shakespeare’s murky Scottish tragedy “Macbeth” been have staged with so much clarity and emotional punch as in Rupert Goold’s exhilarating production at London’s Gielgud Theatre. Framed in the manner of a gangster film, it stars Patrick Stewart in probably the finest performance of his career in the title role and he is matched in intensity by Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth (above with Stewart) and Michael Feast as Macduff.’ 

‘Othello’ Donmar Warehouse December 2007

‘Audiences who flock to see Michael Grandage’s exceptional production of “Othello” at the Donmar Warehouse because of stars Ewan McGregor (as Iago) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (in the title role) will not be disappointed but it’s Shakespeare’s women who steal the show. Kelly Reilly and Michelle Fairley are mesmerizing as the wives whose faith in their men is betrayed wickedly. Reilly is heartbreaking as the faithful but doomed Desdemona and Fairley brings flint to Emilia, who finally sees how she has been duped. Ejiofor captures the nobility and trusting nature of the warrior Othello while McGregor portrays the duplicitous Iago as a cur eager for his master’s approval while doing everything he can to destroy him. Tom Hiddleston co-stars as Cassio (pictured with Reilly)’

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ National Theatre December 2007

‘Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker (pictured) breathe new life into the roles of belated lovers Benedick and Beatrice in Nicholas Hytner’s warmly enjoyable production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at London’s National Theatre. Beale and Wanamaker find the irony and humor in a couple that once shared something like love but lost it along the way. Encouraged by mischievous friends and family to believe that each is smitten with the other, they convey their characters’ loneliness and misgivings about contemplating happiness.’

‘Twelfth Night’ National Theatre January 2011

British stage legend Peter Hall celebrates his 80th birthday by directing his movie star daughter Rebecca Hall (pictured with Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch) in a lyrical and musical production of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy Twelfth Night that shows his touch is as deft as ever. Clad in brilliantly colored period costumes and accompanied by Mick Sands’ sprightly music for cello, mandola and flutes, the players engage one other like sure-footed dancers and the play’s insightful wit is given full measure.’

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Argentina’s Daniel Tarrab takes time to tango

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Argentinian composer Daniel Tarrab, who has had a long and successful career writing film scores, has released an album of jazz-influenced tango pieces titled ‘Otra Mirada (Another Look)’ on Silva Screen Records.

It shows that the Buenos Aires composer, whose films with Andrés Goldstein include ‘The Whore and the Whale’ (2004),  ‘XXY’ (2007) and ’Wakolda (a.k.a The German Doctor)’ (2013), has brought his usual passion to the project.

The eight tracks veer far away from the classic Piazzolla form of tango and are created specifically to encourage improvisation. Tarrab plays piano and contrabass on the album with Nestor Marconi on bandoneon and Pablo Agri on violin and a string section drawn from the Orquesta Filarmonica Nacional. Together, they make some marvellous music.

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Film Review Brief: Trevor Nunn’s ‘Red Joan’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Trevor Nunn’s slightly old-fashioned espionage drama ‘Red Joan’, which opens in the United Kingdom today, won’t set any box-office records but it is an absorbing drama.

Sophie Cookson (pictured above with Stephen Campbell Moore) is very impressive as idealistic young physicist Joan Stanley who gets involved with a group of intellectual communists at Cambridge just before World War II and ends up in a plot to share the secrets of the atom bomb with the Soviet Union. Tom Hughes and Ben Miles co-star.

The story is told in flashbacks with Judi Dench as the older Joan. Theatre legend Nunn shows he knows about film too. George Fenton’s score is typically evocative. It screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018.

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On Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Stanley Kubrick’s controversial ‘A Clockwork Orange’ starring Malcolm McDowell is re-released in the United Kingdom today. As always with Kubrick, it is a striking combination of visual power, evocative music and powerful drama. Now controversial for the right reasons, it remains disturbing but intensely watchable.

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Michael Caine: recalling a class act at the 2000 Oscars

By Ray Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even Laurence Olivier managed that. Talk about class.

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

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FILM REVIEW: Cruz and Bardem in ‘Everybody Knows’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Married Spanish Oscar-winners Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have become a reliable partnership onscreen and their latest feature together, ‘Everybody Knows’, is a bright addition to their canon. It opens today in the United Kingdom.

Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (‘The Salesman’, ‘The Past’), it’s a handsome, almost old-fashioned romantic drama that turns into a mystery with the kidnaping of a young woman from a large and colourful wedding reception.

Cruz and Bardem (top with Carla Campara and Sergio Castellanos) play former lovers now married to other people and their relationship is central to the plot, which changes the mood of the film from joyous celebration to sobering fear and consequential examination of family secrets and resentments.

The two stars are matched by a fine cast and the film is shot beautifully by José Luis Alcaine (‘Volver’) with an evocative score by Javier Limón. It screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018.

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BAFTA 2019 Film Awards: picks and pans

By Ray Bennett

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

Best Film:

Will win: Roma

Should win: Roma

Should have been there: Cold War and First Man

Best British Film:

Will win: The Favourite

Should win: Beast

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

Best Foreign Language Film:

Will win: Roma

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

Best Director:

Should win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

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

Should have been there: Damien Chazelle, First Man

Best Actor:

Will win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should win: Christian Bale, Vice

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

Best Actress:

Will win: Olivia Colman

Should win: Olivia Colman

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

Best Supporting Actor:

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

Should win: Richard E. Grant

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

Best Supporting Actress:

Will win: Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

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

Should have been there: Marina de Tavira, Roma 

Original Music:

Will win: Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk

Should win: Terence Blanchard, BlackKklansman

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

Original Screenplay:

Will win: The Favourite, Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara

Should win: Cold War, Janusz Głowacki, Paweł Pawlikowski

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

Adapted Screenplay:

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

Should win: First Man, Josh Singer

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

Best Cinematography:

Will win: Roma, Alfonso Cuaron

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

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

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