TIFF Film Review: ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

TIFF 'Pawn Sacrifice' Cliff

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Fast-paced editing, pumped-up music and an assortment of visual textures and styles serve to make a world chess tournament exciting for the uninitiated in Edward Zwick’s sprightly drama “Pawn Sacrifice”.

The director, who has made several exciting films from “Glory” (1989) to “Courage Under Fire” (1996) to “Blood Diamond” (2006), uses every trick in the book to recreate the tension that surrounded the 1972 World Chess Championships as it was experienced by devotees of the game.

Tobey Maguire produces and stars as American prodigy Bobby Fischer who was the great American hope against the Soviet-era giants of chess led by grandmaster Boris Spassky, played by Liev Schreiber.

It helps that the clash became the focus of worldwide attention as chess vied for the first time with World Cup soccer as a source of global patriotism and fervour and players were treated like rock stars.

The film tracks Fischer as a little boy whose skill and devotion to the game are positively scary through teenage victories to his emergence as a top player. It also tracks his increased mental instability although it wisely does not attempt to analyse it.

Born into a New York Jewish community with an absent father and a mother Bobby (Robin Weigert) who was a fervent communist involved deeply in politics, he was raised in an atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion, which later bloomed into extreme paranoia.

Known for his precise demands regarding where and when he would play and for how much, Fischer knew how important he was to American propaganda in the Cold War and he played the eccentric diva to a tee. Maguire grasps these complexities and conveys with brief smiles and distant gazes the notion that Fischer often knew exactly what he was doing. There are hints of illness too and the actor smiles rarely so that when he does it’s not clear if he’s marked a small victory or it’s a confirmation of his inner fears.

Schreiber plays Spassky with steel and charm speaking almost entirely in Russian. Michael Stuhlbarg is slyly effective as Fischer’s major supporter whose connection with the inner sanctums of power are just a bit sinister while Peter Sarsgaard is warm and convincing as the chess-playing priest who becomes Fischer’s second.

Supporting players are all effective and James Newton Howard’s propulsive score gives way frequently to the music of the time from acts such as Jefferson Airplane, Credence Clearwater Revival and the Spenser Davis Group.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert; Director: Edward Zwick; Writer: Steven Knight, story by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson, Steven Knight; Director of cinematography: Bradford Young; Production designer: Isabelle Guay; Music: James Newton Howard; Costumes: Renée April; Editor: Steven Rosenblum; Producers: Gail Katz, Tobey Maguire, Edward Zwick; Production: Mica Entertainment, Material Pictures. Not rated. Running time 114 minutes.

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TIFF 2014: A tale of three Equalizers

'The Equalizer' Edward Woodward Cliff

By Ray Bennett

File under “it’s a small world”: I’m at my old pal Ron Base’s place in Milton for a Sunday brunch chatting with another guest, Hans Gerhardt, who ran the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto when it was a showbiz mecca.

Ron, a former newspaperman and screenwriter turned novelist, who writes the popular “Sanibel Sunset Detective” yarns, has known Hans for years and he edited the colourful hotelier’s memoirs, titled “Hotel Biz”.

Gerhardt mentions in conversation that his friend Michael Sloan will be at TIFF for the world premiere of “The Equalizer”, in which Denzel Washington stars as a former special-ops agent turned vigilante named Robert McCall, a character that Sloan created in the 1980s with his then partner Richard Lindheim.

Michael Sloan

Michael Sloan

Now, it happens that I interviewed Sloan back then for a story in TV Guide Canada about Edward Woodward (pictured with William Zabka, who played his son, and Dana Barron) who starred as Robert McCall in Universal TV’s “The Equalizer”. It ran on CBS in the US for four seasons from 1985 and on ITV in the UK from 1987.

I had brought a copy of that issue of TV Guide with me as I intended to write about it. Gerhardt asks Base to scan it and he sends it to Sloan. Cut to the Four Seasons Hotel in Yorkville on Saturday afternoon and I’m enjoying a very expensive glass of Chardonnay or two with Hans and speaking to Michael Sloan for the first time in 28 years.

'The Equalizer' by Michael Sloan book jacket x300It turns out that not only does Sloan have a producer credit on the new film but he has just published a novel titled “The Equalizer” that is separate from both the original series and the Washington picture although the central character remains Robert McCall.

That’s possible because Sloan owns all rights to the character except for TV, which are held by Universal. When he began to think about “The Equalizer” as a film almost 10 years ago, he went first to the Weinsteins but he says they had in mind a gadget- and effects-filled James Bond approach.

After four years, he’d had enough and took the project to Escape Artists at Sony who agreed it should be more character-based. Richard Wenk (“16 Blocks”, “The Expendables 2”) wrote the script and it landed with Washington. The star chose the director, Antoine Fuqua, who made “Training Day” for which Washington won his best actor Academy Award in 2002.Network 'Callan' The Definitive Edition' x300

Sloan says he is very pleased with the film and he hopes along with Sony that it will become a franchise for Washington. He plans more novels, too, if the first one does well.

Meanwhile, the Woodward version of “The Equalizer” is available on DVD and Fabulous Releasing in Region 2 has a box-set with all 88 episodes, which feature an astonishing number of big-name guest stars including Robert Mitchum, Kevin Spacey, Sam Rockwell, Telly Savalas, Robert Lansing and Richard Jordan.

Acorn Media in the US has Woodward’s earlier British show “Callan” on DVD and Network Releasing in the UK has plans to release “Callan” with the pilot, all the remaining black-and-white episodes from the first two seasons and all the colour shows from Seasons 3 and 4.

Sloan says that while the studio would have preferred an American star such as James Coburn to play McCall in “The Equalizer” it was Woodward’s performance in “Callan” and Bruce Beresford’s 1980 Australian film “Breaker Morant” that convinced him the British star was perfect for the role.

 

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Here’s the original ‘Equalizer’, Edward Woodward

Equalizer.TV Guide Cover x650

As Denzel Washington steps into the shoes of Robert McCall in “The Equalizer”, here’s what the original TV Equalizer told me about it in 1986. Edward Woodward died in 2009 aged 79.

Hey, instigator! Hypnotizer! Extricator!

No matter what you call him, Edward Woodward gets the job done – as The Equalizer

By Ray Bennett Continue reading

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Tom Hardy in ‘The Drop’

Fox 'The Drop' Cliff

By Ray Bennett

London-born actor Tom Hardy cements his increased movie stardom as a slow-burning tough-guy on the fringes of organised crime in Michaël R. Roskam’s vivid Brooklyn-based noir tale “The Drop”.

“Nobody sees you coming, do they,” a cop tells Hardy’s character and the actor’s ability to hide his intelligence behind slow movements and considered silence adds greatly to the movie’s suspense.

Adapted from his own short story titled “Animal Rescue” by crime writer Dennis Lehane, the atmospheric and tense little thriller tells of a nondescript New York tavern that is required at random to be the drop for the daily takings of a band of Chechen criminals.

Grim and moody with a score by Marco Beltrami and Raf Keunen that pulses with foreboding, the film follows events that will lead to a raid on the bar in question when its secret stash is at a peak on the day of the Super Bowl.

Hardy plays Bob, a taciturn guy who works at the bar run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) but owned by Chechen mobsters. Bob is the kind of guy who will adopt a beaten puppy he finds in the trashcan of a woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who lives in the neighbourhood. They also begin a tentative relationship.

A robbery at the tavern brings the threat of retribution by the mobsters and interest from the police as Nadia’s brutal ex-convict boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up to claim the woman and the dog.

Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam sets a deliberate pace and builds a sense of increasing dread as Bob and Nadia grow closer, Marv begins to prove unreliable, Eric becomes more menacing and the grip of the Chechan gangsters tightens.

It’s rainy nights and gunplay as an old-fashioned film noir should be and “The Drop” should earn it’s way smoothly into the affections of fans who like their heroes on the quiet side.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. UK release date Nov. 14, 20th Century Fox. Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaert; Director: Michaël R. Roskam; Writer: Dennis Lehane; Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis; Production designer: Thérèse De Prez; Music: Marco Beltrami, Raf Keunen; Editor: Christopher Tellefsen; Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Mike Laroca; Production: Chernin Entertainment, Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time 106 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Jason Reitman’s ‘Men, Women & Children’

TIFF 'Men, Women and Children' Cliff

By Ray Bennett

Jason Reitman’s disdainful anthropological film “Men, Women & Children” looks at a small American town and sees only simple-minded, sex-obsessed parents and children who have never heard one word about the marvels of the internet, only its scuzzy side.

Book-ended with shots of the Voyager spacecraft, a narration delivered by Emma Thompson references Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” with its reminder of Earth’s tiny place in the scheme of things.

To emphasise the point, Reitman zooms in on a group of grownups and youngsters who never go online for anything useful or positive but spend almost all their time glued to internet devices to gossip, watch porn, share sexual images or play war games.

The screen fills with the words, signs and images that these people text or e-mail to one another and then pays attention to their attempts to get laid, avoid getting laid, masturbate at the thought of it, or just talk about it.

Kaitlyn Dever and Ansel Elgort (pictured above) play more or less normal kids but even they retreat to online games while all the parents treat the internet as a foreign place with a language they do not understand.

As one of the parents, Jennifer Garner looks like a severe schoolmarm from an old western except she uses any amount of spy gadgets to monitor her daughter.

Thompson’s narration is delivered in posh English tones so that the porn references sound incongruous in much the same way that John Gielgud used vulgarity in “Arthur” but without the comic effect.

Spike Jonze’s recent “Her” had much to say about how we deal with the development of computers but with its superior attitude and narrow focus Reitman’s film adds nothing to the conversation.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. Opens: UK Dec. 5, US Oct. 17 (Paramount Pictures); Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Crochicchia, Judy Greer, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Dean Norris, Dennis Haysbert, J.K. Simmons, Emma Thompson; Director: Jason Reitman; Director of cinematography: Eric Steelberg; Production designer: Bruce Curtis; Editor: Dana E. Glauberman; Producers: Helen Estabrook, Jason Reitman; Production: Paramount Pictures, Right of Way Films. Running time 116 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’

TIFF 'The Humbling' cliff

By Ray Bennett

Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling”, starring Al Pacino as an actor past his prime, is an example of how a lousy novel can sometimes make a good movie.

Philip Roth’s pretentious and sexist 2009 novel tells of an ageing thespian’s fight against the dying of the light as he discovers renewed vigour with a much younger woman. The film presents that idea seriously but braces it with much needed humour.

Pacino obtained the rights to the book and he is producer and star with Barry Levinson (Oscar-winner for “Rain Man”) as director and a script by Buck Henry (Oscar-nominated for “The Graduate” and “Heaven Can Wait”) and Michael Zebede.

Pacino plays Simon Axler, an acclaimed classical actor who has lost his passion for acting and started to confuse real life with fiction. The opening sequence illustrates part of his dilemma as he rehearses lines from “As You Like It” just before his curtain call and then loses his way to the stage.

Outside, in costume, he must persuade bovine young theatre staff to let him in since he’s the star of the show. At the end of the production he takes a swan dive into the orchestra pit and ends up at a clinic for 28 days before he retires permanently to his country home.

A cast of characters proceed to invade his life, which he describes in detail to his doctor (Dylan Baker) in daily chats via Skype, and the accumulation becomes increasingly bizarre and amusing but rendered with dry and subtle wit.

Pegeen (Greta Gerwig, pictured above with Pacino), daughter of actor friends, who has had a crush on him since she was little, leaves her lesbian lover Louise (Kyra Sedgwick) to take up life with Axler. Louise pesters him with aggressive phone calls while a woman named Sybil (Nina Arlanda), whom he met in the clinic, is beguiled by his movie roles and asks him to murder her husband. Pegeen’s ex-girlfriend Priscilla who is now a man called Prince (Billy Porter) also comes to visit while her parents, played by Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya, demand that she return home.

As his affection for Pegeen grows, Axler’s spending gets heavier and his agent Jerry (Charles Grodin) urges him to either do a hair product commercial or return to the Broadway stage in “King Lear”. There is a buzz about his return among those keen to see if he’ll do another nose-dive, Jerry explains.

Scenes constantly turn sideways as the comedy emerges organically from situations including a wonderful sequence that starts off with an injured cat and ends up with Axler given a shot meant for horses that renders speech impossible when Pegeen’s mother berates him.

Pacino is in confident and relaxed form and his comedy timing has seldom been better. The supporting players follow his lead with Gerwig pitch perfect while pros such as Grodin, Wiest and Hedaya hit exactly the right tone.

Levinson keeps things moving as he gives Pacino time to register the man’s mixture of confusion and clarity aided by cinematographer Adam Jandrup’s busy hand-held camera and a score by Marcello Zarvos that knows when to be jaunty and serene.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Millennium Films, no release date; Cast: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Kyra Sedgwick, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin, Dan Hedaya; Director: Barry Levinson; Writers: Buck Henry, Michal Zebede based on the novel by Philip Roth; Director of photography: Adam Jandrup; Production designer: Sam Lisenco; Music: The Affair, Marcello Zarvos; Editor: Aaron Yanes; Producers: Al Pacino, Jason Sosnoff; Production: Ambi Pictures, Hammerton Productions. Not rated; running time 113 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Downey Jr. and Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Warner Bros. 'The Judge' Cliff

By Ray Bennett

Robert Downey Jr. stakes a claim as a serious actor in David Dobkin’s family and courtroom drama “The Judge” and thanks largely to past master Robert Duvall he makes it.

It’s a familiar tale. The two stars play father and son in the legal profession, one a long-time honourable member of the bench in a small Indiana town, the other a sleek and cynical big-city attorney. Although they have been alienated from one another for many years, when the Judge is accused of murder, the son returns to defend him.

The script by Nick Schenk and Bob Dubuque is polished to a fault. Workaholic Hank Palmer defends wealthy criminals without qualm, loses his wife to another man but dotes on his young daughter, and goes home to see his father only reluctantly when his mother dies. The Judge rules his local roost, tolerates his middle son’s return with impatience, bosses about his other two grownup sons and grieves quietly for his late wife.

Only when police allege that the old man has run down and killed a man he once sent to jail for murder does the film begin to peel back the family’s secrets. Much of it is conventional with the paradox of a small town that is bucolic but also home to venomous rednecks and a police force that ignores 40 years of service by the judge and rushes to judgment.

The dialogue is no more than adequate but Duvall, who has been playing angry fathers since “The Great Santini” in 1979, and Downey Jr., who adds thoughtfulness to his nonchalant charisma, raise it to a higher level. Their encounters are at the heart of the film and make it well worth seeing.

Vincent D’Onofrio, as the patient elder son Glen, and Jeremy, as the slightly addled younger one, Dale, give heft to sketched characters. Vera Farmiga, as Samantha, the inevitable high-school sweetheart who never left town, is typically effective if a bit too glamorous for the role while Leighton Meester makes the most of her brief appearance as Samantha’s frolicsome daughter. Billy Bob Thornton is almost too shiny to be sinister as the aptly named special prosecutor Dwight Dickham.

Shot in Massachusetts, “The Judge” lacks any feel of Indiana although production designer Mark Ricker’s courtroom, local diner and family home fit the bill. Janusz Kaminksi’s cinematography and Thomas Newman’s orchestral score are almost too lush and in his desire to add depth to the picture, director Dobkin indulges several nostalgic scenes whose loss would in fact make the film more substantial.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. Release date: US Oct. 10, UK Oct. 17, Warner Bros. Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepherd, Leighton Meester, Billy Bob Thornton, Grace Zabriskie. Director: David Dobkin; Writers: Screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, story by David Dobkin and Nick Schenk; Director of photography: Janusz Kaminksi; Production designer: Mark Ricker; Music: Thomas Newman; Editor: Mark Livoisi; Producers: David Dobkin, Susan Downey, David Gambino. Production: Warner Bros., Big Kid Pictures, Team Downey. Rating: UK 15, US R; running time: 141 minutes.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’

eOne 'Maps of the Stars' cliff

By Ray Bennett

David Cronenberg has made some terrific pictures but his latest, “Maps to the Stars”, is not one of them. Filled with bile, it spins a risible yarn about two generations of a family who find that lust is a bust but incest is best.

Cronenberg clearly means the film to be a satire but it’s too one-dimensional to be funny, the violence is predictable and ugly, and the death-wish mood very unpleasant. His direction is oddly uninspired in a tawdry tale about a Hollywood that seems as phoney as the characters.

As Brad Dourif and Steve Buscemi used to, Mia Wasikowska has an air of sweet innocence that will lead inevitably to something really freaky so when, as Agatha, she gets off the bus in Hollywood and goes in search of stars, it does not augur well.

She fetches up in the home of a faded star named Havana Segrand played by Julianne Moore (pictured with Wasikowska) in full “Where’s the damned Oscar?” mode. Havana is desperate to be in a remake of the film in which her late mother became a star and to play the same role. She takes on Agatha as her personal assistant, or “chore whore” as she says, which turns out to be an unwise decision.

Agatha has a T-shirt with the name on it of a hit movie, “Bad Babysitter”, and wouldn’t you know the star of that film, a precocious kid named Benjie (Evan Bird), has the same agent as Havana. Benjie is spoiled rotten and the reason why becomes obvious in the form of his father, a money-obsessed self-help guru (John Cusack), and his brow-beaten mother (Olivia Williams). It also soon becomes obvious that Agatha and Benjie are siblings with a burdensome past.

Carrie Fisher shows up as herself, the better to rub in the whole “Postcards from the Edge” theme of lousy Hollywood parents and embittered offspring. There are ghosts and much ado about burning.

All the performers are as good as you would expect although Robert Pattinson plays an unprepossessing limo driver and would-be actor who shows Agatha around with the air of a man who once starred in blockbuster movies but can see his future all too clearly.

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner provides dialogue that conveys the bitterness that might come from someone whose career has not exactly soared since he wrote “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” in 1987.

Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore is credited with the score but it’s hard to recall a scene in which there is music, which sometimes is a good thing but this time is strangely not.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released in the UK on Sept. 26 by Entertainment One. Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Robert Pattinson. Director: David Cronenberg; Writer: Bruce Wagner; Director of photography: Peter Suschitzky; Production designer: Carol Spier; Music: Howard Shore; Editor: Ronald Sanders; Producers: Saïd Ben Said, Martin Katz, Michel Merkt; Production: Prospero Pictures, Sentient Entertainment, SBS Productions, Integral. UK rating: 18; running time 111 minutes.

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Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Sounding the gun

Judge TIFF 2014 Cliff

By Ray Bennett

With its extraordinary track record of screening hit movies and eventual award-winners on their way out of the gate, the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off for the 39th time.

The 39th Toronto International Film Festival commences on Sept. 4 with a massive array of movies that UK distributors, exhibitors and home entertainment specialists say is one of the best.

From the opening film – David Dobkin’s courtroom drama “The Judge” starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga – to the closing gala – Alan Rickman’s period drama “A Little Chaos” starring Kate Winslet – on Sept. 14, TIFF will screen 285 feature films.

Film Distributors’ Association Chief Executive Mark Batey notes that TIFF is always the launch pad of a new cycle of releases: “We’re heading into an exciting period when the new film line-up — for 2015 and beyond — looks particularly attractive. The Toronto festival has an amazingly varied programme of premieres again this year with at least some of the titles starting a six-month voyage through the international awards season.”

Cinema Exhibitors’ Association Chief Executive Phil Clapp agrees that the TIFF lineup suggests a range of titles that will be of interest to UK exhibitors and audiences: “Whether as a result of casting – for example Denzil Washington in ‘The Equalizer’ — excellent word of mouth, such as with ‘Foxcatcher’, or a mixture of those factors plus the pedigree of the director as is the case with Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr. Turner’, the slate appears unusually interesting and varied.”

HMV DVD Product Manager Andy Anderson says he prefers to wait at least for the trailer of a film before he cares to comment: “Most films sound great when you give them a one line, that’s a good PR job, so they always sound intriguing. They aren’t going to get a bad one-line.”

Still, he agrees that he looks forward to “The Equalizer” with star Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) back together. Other titles that caught Anderson’s eye in a quick scan of the TIFF announcements include “Foxcatcher” with Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestler Mark Shultz: “I’ve heard good things about this one”; “Pawn Sacrifice” with Tobey Maguire as US chess champion Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as the Russian Boris Spassky: “Interesting; chess is a lot more exciting than people give it credit for”; and “The Riot Club” based on Laura Wade’s play about a posh students club at Oxford: “This seems to have been trailed for ages; good to see it finally hitting screens”.

The HMV man also sees promise in TIFF’s opening and closing films: “‘The Judge’ sounds like a good drama with a very strong cast and with ‘A Little Chaos’, Rickman’s second film has been a long time coming so it will be well supported.”

Paul Traynor, who runs the Prime Time video rental store in Southampton, took a peak at the lineup and he says, “The Equalizer” looks like it will be a tense action thriller – “You can never go wrong with a Denzel film – it will be a fantastic renter” – while “The Judge” appears to be “a very powerful moving film” with two classy actors and a storyline to match: “It will be a good film to have on our shelves.”

Traynor has seen a couple of trailers for TIFF films and he says “Foxcatcher” looks good – “It will have a bigger than normal appeal with Channing Tatum in the film” – while “This Is Where I Leave You”, with Jason Bateman and Tina Fey in a comedy about four grown siblings forced to spent time together, “Looks great and will have a big audience appeal. Bateman at his best.”

Dave Wain, who runs the Snips Movies video rental store in the Wirral, also rates “The Equalizer” highly: “Whether or not the iconic Edward Woodward TV series is still in the public consciousness, I don’t know but under Fuqua’s guidance, this should prove one to watch.”

He says he looks forward to “Mr. Turner”: “Mike Leigh is a British institution and for his latest he’s chosen a biopic of the painter J.M.W Turner, featuring an eclectic British cast. It will be awaited eagerly.”

Other standout titles for Wain include “Black and White” with Kevin Costner as a man in a custody fight for his granddaughter: “Hotly anticipated film from Mike Binder … it’s been seven years since his last one, ‘Reign Over Me’, which gave Adam Sandler one of the roles of his career.”

A David Cronenberg film is “really an event”, Wain says, and “Maps to the Stars”, a Hollywood tale starring Robert Pattinson, Julianne Moore, John Cusack and Mia Wasikowska, is a social satire that “should prove no exception”.

Of Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game”, he says: “Alan Turing might not be one of Britain’s best known heroes but as this film highlights his contribution to cracking the Enigma code, that should soon change. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the man himself.”

He also mentions Sung Bo Shim’s “Sea Fog” (Haemoo), about smuggling illegal immigrants; Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes”, with Andrew Garfield as a desperate man whose family are evicted from their home; “Love & Mercy”, with Paul Dano and John Cusack as Beach Boy Brian Wilson young and old; Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler”, a crime thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal; and “Before We Go”, a comedy drama directed by and starring Chris Evans.

TIFF also is a great event for retailer HMV, which will sponsor some festival events at its stores in Canada. CEO Paul McGowan says HMV will take top-performing staff and competition winners from its Pure membership scheme to the festival and will stage meet-and-greets with directors and similar event. McGowan says: “It is an excellent festival, the guys who run it are brilliant.”

This story appeared in Cue Entertainment.

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My dinner with Richard Attenborough

Fox The Great Escape

By Ray Bennett

I met Lord Richard Attenborough, who has died aged 90, at the Ghent Film Festival in 2004 and it was a memorable encounter that included Sir George and Lady Martin.

At a Ghent restaurant, Lady Martin sat across from her husband with Attenborough on her left. I sat opposite the filmmaker with the record producer on my left. Lady Martin was speaking but Sir George and Attenborough appeared determined not to listen. They responded to my remarks but whenever Lady Martin opened her mouth, they spoke over her.

Then I recalled what Colm Meaney had told me just before we sat down. The Irish actor had been a fellow drinker with me many moons earlier at the Robin Hood Pub in Los Angeles and he was on the Ghent festival jury. He apologised for not joining me and said that Jonathan Pryce, also on the jury, had urged them to sit at the other end of the table. “It’s the deafness,” Meaney whispered.

It transpired that Martin, who was there to present an award at the annual World Soundtrack Awards, is deaf mainly in his left ear and Attenborough was deaf in his right. I was positioned perfectly for an entertaining conversation but poor Lady Martin was almost ignored. I would indicate that she’d spoken with a gesture or speak over the two men so they would pay attention.

No one appeared distressed by this, thankfully, as Attenborough’s anecdotes flowed. I told him that his first film as director, “Oh What a Lovely War” (1969), is one of my favourites but he protested: “Oh, but it’s so slow!”

Attenborough had been familiar to me as an actor when I was a kid, of course, and his first movies as a producer in the 1960s were formative in my film and general education. His first production was “The Angry Silence”, in which he plays a man who is given the silent treatment and abused by fellow workers when he refuses to go on strike.

Blinkered critics at the time saw it as an attack on trade unions but it is much more even-handed as it speaks for most people caught between two opposing forces as they strive to keep hearth and home together. The original story for the film was written by Michael Craig, who was a handsome leading man in British movies at the time.

Michael Craig, Richard Attenborough in 'The Angry Silence'

Michael Craig, Richard Attenborough in ‘The Angry Silence’

I was a fan and so it was disappointing to read later that Craig felt that Attenborough and co-producer and screenwriter Bryan Forbes had betrayed him. Forbes won the 1961 Bafta screenwriting award for the film and was nominated for an Academy Award. Craig also garnered an Oscar nomination along with Richard Gregson for the story but he felt that the two producers had won all the glory.

At dinner in Ghent more than 40 years later, Attenborough was quite clear as to his view of it: “It was very sad, really. Michael had come up with the story and he was keen to write a screenplay but there was a big problem: I had a screenwriter who couldn’t write.”

Craig had been a popular actor in British films such as “Campbell’s Kingdom” (1957), “The Silent Enemy” (1958) and “Sapphire” (1959) but by the mid-1960s his movie career was pretty washed up and later he emigrated to Australia where he continued to act and also created and wrote the 1970s TV series “The Outsiders” and wrote two episodes of “G.P”.

Attenborough and Forbes went on to make some of the most important British films of the 1960s such as “Whistle Down the Wind” (1961), “The L-Shaped Room” (1962) and “Seance On a Wet Afternoon” (1964). He produced 13 films and directed 12 including his 1983 Academy Award winner “Gandhi”, for which he earned two Oscars.

Richard Attenborough in 'Seance On a Wet Afternoon'

Richard Attenborough in ‘Seance On a Wet Afternoon’

Other films he directed that are worth watching are the Churchill yarn “Young Winston” (1972), which is better than many considered at the time; “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), which is star-studded with many good episodes but overall bloated; “Magic” (1978) with a great performance by Anthony Hopkins as an unhinged ventriloquist; “Chaplin” (1992), which doesn’t work as a biography of the great film comic but is a splendid showcase for the brilliance of Robert Downey Jr.; and “Shadowlands” (1993) with Hopkins as writer C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as his American lover. William Nicholson’s screenplay for that film, based on his own play, remains the finest film script I’ve ever read.

Attenborough’s breakout performance as the teenaged hoodlum in “Brighton Rock” (1947) remains riveting and he was equally sinister as serial killer John Christie in “10 Rillington Place” (1971). He had jovial roles in likeable war pictures including “Dunkirk” (1958) and “Desert Patrol” (1958) and comedies such as “Private’s Progress” (1956), “The Baby and the Battleship” (1956), “I’m All Right, Jack” (1959) and “Only Two Can Play” (1962).

While he has 78 acting credits over a long career he is probably known best to younger filmgoers as Prof. John Hammond in the “Jurassic Park” films and Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street”.  For many, though, he’ll always be “Big X” Bartlett in “The Great Escape” (1963) along with Steve McQueen (top picture)and James Garner. His appearance in McQueen’s “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) also is memorable and he acted with some other Hollywood greats including James Stewart in “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), Rex Harrison in “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) and as a London copper with John Wayne in “Brannigan”.

Garrulous, open and usually candid, Attenborough was, although he denied it, the original British “luvvy” – everyone was always “love” or “darling”. His influence on the British film industry was immense. The film section of the London Critics’ Circle, of which I am a proud member, renamed its annual prize for Best British Film in Attenborough’s name in 2004 to mark his 80th birthday.

My old pal David Gritten interviewed him at the time, when he said, “I’m not a great director or auteur. I’m an ensemble director. I left school at 16. I work by instinct in large measure. I’m not fascinated by technical advances in film and cineaste pyrotechnics are not for me. What I worry about is content. I can’t write, paint or compose music. If I were able to write, I probably would. But movies have given me a part of my life where I can express feelings and bring convictions to an audience as if I could write.”

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