Notes ahead of the 2017 Academy Awards

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Repeat screenings of the Academy Awards nominees serve to reinforce original impressions so while I doubt that it will win, my choice for best picture remains Denis Villeneuve’s profound sci-fi picture “Arrival” (pictured).

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a haunting and ultimately life-affirming story of grief and guilt and I would not be displeased if it were to win.

The same goes for David Mackenzie’s terrific modern Western “Hell or High Water” and I would smile if Theodore Melfi’s warm and rewarding “Hidden Figures” took the top prize.

Garth Davis’s “Lion” is what soccer fans call a game of two halves – the first section is captivating and thrilling while the second is pedestrian.

Denzel Washington’s talkathon “Fences” captures August Wilson’s stage play in a manner not much different from the way the National Theatre and others capture their stage productions for cinemas – in other words, it’s not really a movie so much as a play caught on film. The problem is too much reverence for Wilson’s dialogue. They cut Shakespeare, don’t they?

Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” also has two distinct parts, one labours over establishing a young man’s religious conviction, the second is a zombie war picture with the Japanese depicted as soulless and extraordinarily agile ghouls. Leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, on third viewing, is a celebration of mediocrity in story and execution as two not very talented people pass on happiness to find a degree of fame. Some dreamy sequences are let down by unmemorable music.

Another viewing of “Moonlight” fails to reveal all the great things that so many other people appear to find in the film with its main failing simply that it’s extremely dull.

Here are my choices in some of the other categories:

Director: Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) for creating a sci-fi movie that is both thrilling, thoughtful and deeply involving. Runner-up: Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”.

Actor: Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) explores a complex character without sentiment and the choices he makes serve the film brilliantly. Ryan Gosling does well to make a jerk look like a great guy in “La La Land”. Denzel Washington deservedly won the right prize for his splendid performance in “Fences”: a Tony Award. I have great regard for Viggo Mortensen but I hated “Captain Fantastic” from the opening scene to the last.

Actress: Amy Adams delivered the two best performances of the year in “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals” but she is not nominated. I hope Isabelle Huppert wins.

Supporting actor: Michael Shannon has the best lines in “Nocturnal Animals” and, boy, does he nail them. I love Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”) but these days he appears to speak with a mouthful of marbles. Lucas Hedges does splendid work in “Manchester by the Sea” but all the acclaim for Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” remains a mystery to me.

Supporting actress: Michelle Williams doesn’t have a lot of screen time in “Manchester by the Sea” but she is heartbreaking. Viola Davis deserves an Oscar, period. But she also has a Tony for “Fences”..

Music: Mica Levi does so much of the heavy lifting in “Jackie” that were Natalie Portman to win as best actress she should give the composer half of her prize.

Original screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan for his deeply affecting “Manchester on Sea”. Fine work too by Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) and Mike Mills for “20th Century Women”, a shaggy tale with great performances by Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. It’s a sort of female “Wonder Boys” with a similar rich vein of observation and humour.

Adapted screenplay: Eric Heisserer for exploring aspects of time and wonder in a cinematic and accessible form.

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Sixty years a film critic … how it all started

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – My life as film critic began 60 years ago with a log of movies I saw along with my verdict on each one. I was 11.

The first movie image I recall seeing was of a man with curly white hair in a battered top hat who reaches deep into a pocket of his baggy overcoat and when he draws out his hand, his fingers and thumb are lighted candles.

Harpo Marx in “A Night in Casablanca”. Harpo tries to comfort a girl named Maggie on a park bench. He pretends that his eyes are made of glass and he mimes removing them, cleans them and puts them back. He plays “Happy Birthday” on his harp and does the magic with the candles.

The first movie I saw on my own was the musical “White Christmas”, with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, when I was 9. The Odeon cinema in Ashford, Kent, was packed and I entered right in the middle of the picture. One of the usherettes led me down the aisle with a torch to find a seat and I had that amazing sensation of going from daylight into the darkened corridor of a cinema to emerge in a crowded auditorium with a giant, glittering screen.

I’ve loved it ever since. My professional career commenced 55 years ago when I was 16 as a trainee reporter on the Gravesend Reporter in north Kent and over a long career on newspapers and magazines in the U.K., Canada and the United States, I have always found a way to write about the cinema.

The first feature in my movie log, which I kept from January 1957 to January 1959, was a musical titled “Serenade” starring Mario Lanza. It was based on a novel by James M. Cain although even with Anthony Mann as director it didn’t retain much from the noir writer. The opera was fine, though, and I gave it three stars.

I learn now that director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) optioned the novel originally and he used a similar approach when he adapted “A Stone for Danny Fisher” by Harold Robbins into an Elvis Presley vehicle titled “King Creole”, which earned a full five stars in my movie log.

I was a big Elvis fan and so “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock” also received five stars although an exploitation quickie titled “Don’t Knock the Rock”, featuring Bill Haley and Little Richard, got only three.

I’m pleased to see that the five-star accolade went to “The Fastest Gun Alive” with Glenn Ford, “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon, “Fear Strikes Out” with Anthony Perkins, “Enemy Below” with Robert Mitchum, “Teacher’s Pet” with Doris Day and Clark Gable.

“The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis also had five stars along with “Indiscreet” with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, “The Young Lions” with Marlon Brando, Mongomery Clift and Dean Martin, “The Defiant Ones” with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” with James Stewart and Kim Novak.

I’m amused to see that I gave Lewis Allen’s wartime romance “Another Time, Another Place” three stars and mentioned Lana Turner, Glynis Johns and Barry Sullivan but not future 007 Sean Connery.

When I turned 12, I began to add a comment or two to some entries. Martin Ritt’s black-and-white drama of marital strife “No Down Payment” earned five stars and the comment: “Brilliant acting, amusing and highly dramatic”. Set in a California sub-division, its ensemble cast included Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Sheree North, Jeffrey Hunter and Canadian-born British actress Patricia Owens, with whom I was in love at the time, which probably accounts for the rating.

Even with Patricia Owens, however, the original “The Fly” rated just three. “The Fiend Who Walked the West” starring Hugh O’Brian and future producer Robert Evans was “amusing at times” with three stars. Raoul Walsh’s film of the Norman Mailer World War II novel “The Naked and the Dead”, which I had read, was deemed “slightly too long” with four stars. I’m pleased that along with Aldo Ray and Cliff Robertson in the cast I noted William Campbell, Richard Jaeckel and James Best.

War pictures “Ice Cold in Alex” and “Dunkirk”, both with John Mills, were “typically British” with four stars apiece. Anthony Mann’s swampy sex tale “God’s Little Acre” with Robert Ryan and Tina Louise, was “weird” with three stars.

Arthur Penn’s Western “The Left Handed Gun” with Paul Newman as Billy the Kid based on Gore Vidal’s play, had “good acting” at four stars. My favourite childhood star Roy Rogers had played William Bonney in “Billy the Kid Returns” (1938) and another favourite of my youth, Audie Murphy, played him in “The Kid From Texas” (1950).

That led to two lifelong literary interests, first tales of the Old West, which resulted in discovering the wonderful novels of Larry McMurtry, and then, after Audie Murphy starred in “The Quiet American” (1958), discovering Graham Greene, whose novels I re-read every 10 years.

My parents said that when I was little and they asked me what I wanted to do in life, I said, “I want to be a reporter and go to Hollywood and meet Roy Rogers.” And that’s what I did.

 

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My Top 10 Movie picks for 2016

By Ray Bennett

In a year that has featured many fine films with splendid performances by women, the movie I enjoyed the most was Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” starring Amy Adams (pictured).

In my review from the Toronto International Film Festival, I said: “Science-fiction movies that threaten to depict creatures from outer-space generally leave me cold but Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” presents a plausible “what if?” grounded in a contemplative question for humankind with another standout performance by Amy Adams.

“Adams, who wears no makeup and looks the least glamorous she could possibly be, conveys the linguist’s thought processes so clearly that she renders fanciful notions credible and dubious hypotheses possible.”

As I reported, the big talking point at TIFF2016 was the sheer number of films that featured high-profile performances by women including Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte (“Julieta”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Emma Stone (“La La Land”), Rosamund Pike (“A United Kingdom”), Rachel Weisz (“Denial”) and Adams again in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals”.

There were many others throughout the year including Kate Beckinsale in the excellent Jane Austen adaptation “Love and Friendship”, Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train”, Helen Mirren in the suspenseful drone drama “Eye in the Sky”, Meryl Streep as the caterwauling “Florence Foster Jenskins”, Annette Bening as a wise mother in “Twentieth Century Women” and the cast of NASA tale “Hidden Figures”. Not to mention Felicity Jones catapulted to major stardom in “Rogue One”.

Not a golden year, perhaps, but (while several titles are still to be released) not a bad one either.

Performances I enjoyed the most this year included, as best actress, Amy Adams in both her films, Kate Beckinsale, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike and Meryl Streep; as best actor, Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Snowden”), David Oyelowo (“A United Kingdom”), Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”); as supporting actor, Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”), Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”), Hugh Grant (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), and George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (all for “Hail, Caesar”); Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson (“The Girl on the Train”), Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe (all for “Hidden Figures”), Scarlett Johansson *”Hail, Caesar”).
Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta” had my favourite score of the year, by Alberto Iglesias and I also especially enjoyed the scores for “Arrival” (Jóhann Jóhannsson) and “Jackie” (Mica Levi).

Here are my Top 10 Film Picks for 2016:

Arrival

Julieta

Love and Friendship

Hell or High Water

Manchester By the Sea

Hail, Caesar

The Girl on the Train

Snowden

Florence Foster Jenkins

La La Land

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“Love and Friendship’, ‘Moonlight’ top London critics noms

kate-beckinsale-love-and-friendship-x650By Ray Bennett

Very pleased to see that Kate Beckinsale (pictured right) has won two nominations in the 37th London Critics’ Circle Awards for her sparkling performance in Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation “Love and Friendship”, which garnered seven nominations overall including film of the year and British film of the year. Continue reading

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How Alan Thicke turned failure into success

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By Ray Bennett

Canadian writer and performer Alan Thicke, who died on Tuesday aged 69, was one of the good guys. He found lasting fame on the Eighties sitcom “Growing Pains” but he was multi-faceted and he had to overcome one of the most public failures in TV history.

As he told me once, “nothing succeeds in Hollywood like failure, as long as you fail big.” Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’

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By Ray Bennett

Damien Chazell’s musical fantasy “La La Land” starts badly but evolves into a sweet little film for romantics thanks largely to winning performances by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

A tale of two dreamers whose ambitions in Hollywood are at odds in many ways but dovetail when it comes to romance, it’s a shame that the director’s love for musical overkill threatens to swamp a charming story.

“La La Land” begins with such aggressively appalling musical numbers that when I went to see it at the Toronto International Film Festival, I fled after 20 minutes. Only when film lovers I trust  urged me to stick with it did I discover something genuinely pleasing. Continue reading

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When Dar Robinson leapt from Toronto’s CN Tower

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The perfect word to describe legendary movie stuntman Dar Robinson, who was killed 30 years ago today: unfuckwithable. It allowed him to create thrilling stunts in films such as “Sharkey’s Machine” (above), “Papillon” and “Magnum Force” and combined with an irresistible pickup line, it made him catnip to the ladies.

Cathy Lee Crosby, host of the Eighties TV series “That’s Incredible”, told me when they were in Toronto in 1980, that he asked attractive women “How would you like to be my last?” Then he pointed to the CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, and explain that the following day he planned to jump from the top.

He had jumped from the tower before from a 700-foot deck, as stunt double for Christopher Plummer in the Richard Harris caper movie “Highpoint”. This time he did it from 900-feet for a TV documentary hosted by Crosby titled “The World’s Most Spectacular Stuntman.

I met him at the 1981 Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix. I was nursing a coffee in the VIP marquee for the Celebrity Race when he strolled over with a gorgeous young woman and said hello.

STICK, Dar Robinson, Burt Reynolds, Jose Perez, 1985. ©Universal

STICK, Dar Robinson, Burt Reynolds, Jose Perez, 1985. ©Universal

We chatted for a while, and when I said I had to go to the paddock, he asked if they could tag along. We spent the rest of the day together traipsing about the race enclosure, had lunch and watched the race together.

I’ve never met another man like him. Dar Robinson was Steve McQueen cool but without the actor’s insecurities. He was 34 when I met him, not tall, very fit but not muscle-bound. He emanated no menace; he did not swagger and his glance did not contain a challenge. His serene self-assurance and calm authority were what I imagine a gunfighter needed to survive in the Old West.

He died on Nov. 21, 1986 performing a straightforward motorcycle chase on a cliff edge for the film  “Million Dollar Mystery”.

*That day in Long Beach was already special for me as not only was in my first Formula 1 event but I met one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman. Some actors – Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, George Clooney, for example – appear to be easily approachable, and they are. Others – Jack Palance, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall – suggest that you approach with caution. Gene Hackman is like that but I said hello anyway.

He was on his own in a corner of the VIP marquee, there to defend his title win the previous year in the annual 10-lap celebrity charity race. He was completely genial and we chatted until he had to go off to the starting grid although Robert Hays (“Airplane”) won that year.

Report on Dar Robertson’s death with amazing clips

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Angie Dickinson was TV’s first top female cop

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Angie Dickinson, who turns 85 today, claimed many a young man’s heart in 1959 when, as a woman named Feathers, she squared off in only corset and tights against John Wayne in the great Howard Hawks western, “Rio Bravo”.

16-angie-dickinson-x325We didn’t notice or care that the Duke was old enough to be her father, it was her blazing eyes and fighting spirit and, oh yes, those legs.

Some of us had spotted her already on Fifties TV westerns such as “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”, “Cheyenne” and “Have Gun – Will Travel”. Also in a couple of movies, a Randolph Scott oater titled “Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend” (1957) , with James Garner, her future co-star in Norman Jewison’s “The Art of Love” (1965), and an Andrew L. Stone thrilled called “Cry Terror!” (1958) opposite James Mason and Rod Steiger.

It was “Rio Bravo” that made Angie Dickinson a star and her allure and feisty self-confidence made her the inevitable feminine foil for the Rat Pack caper in the original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (below), and soapy dramas such as “The Bramble Bush” (1960) with Richard Burton, “A Fever in the Blood” (1961) with Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and “The Sins of Rachel Cade” (1961) with Peter Finch and Roger Moore.20-angie-dickinson-dean-martin-x325

The North Dakota native makes a great impression opposite Gregory Peck and Tony Curtis in David Miller’s offbeat medical drama “Captain Newman M.D.” (1963) and Arthur Penn’s torrid Deep South tale “The Chase” (1966) with Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (and a terrific John Barry score).

She has fun in such western frolics as “Sam Whiskey” (1969) with Burt Reynolds and “Young Billy Young” (1969) with Robert Mitchum, Roger Vadim’s crime comedy “Pretty Maids All in a Row” (1971) with Rock Hudson, and in the title role of Steve Carver’s bootlegging romp “Big Bad Mama” (1974, below) with William Shatner and Tom Skerritt.

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Besides “Rio Bravo”, her most striking film roles are in three notable thrillers, two of them with Lee Marvin: Don Siegel’s taut remake of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1964), angie-dickinson-ronald-reagan-x325co-starring John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan (his last film and only appearance as a villain, pictured left), and John Boorman’s masterpiece, “Point Blank” (1967, below right). The other is Brian De Palma’s mordant “Dressed to Kill” (1980) with Michael Caine and Nancy Allen.

Dickinson made lots of TV and she is best remembered for her groundbreaking hit “Police Woman”, which ran for 91 episodes on NBC from 1974-78. She played Sergeant Pepper Anderson in the first U.S. cop show to have a female lead. Barbara 26-angie-dickinson-lee-marvin-x325Eden (“I Dream of Jeannie”) had wanted to play a female police officer back then but she told me, “They said no policewoman would have blonde hair or fit her uniform, ‘absolutely not, it would not be believable’. Then Angie Dickinson came along on NBC (“Police Woman”) and proved them wrong. I guess NBC had more courage.”

“Police Woman” paved the way for all the female cops that followed and Dickinson tried again in 1982 with another NBC series, “Cassie & Co.” in which she essentially played a Pepper Anderson who has left the force and become a private eye.

angie-dickinson-nc-x325I was set to interview the actress in connection with that show but it aired first as a mid-season replacement and failed to gain traction. It lasted 13 episodes.

I did, however, get to meet her and see her at work. It was a location shoot on the pier at Paradise Cove in Malibu. She and co-star A Martinez did some scenes on a sailboat and I watched along with another co-star, the veteran Canadian John Ireland, and “Sands of the Kalahari” star Stuart Whitman, who was visiting the set. He and Dickinson later appeared in a Burt Kennedy TV western titled “Once Upon a Texas Train” (1988) along with Willie Nelson and Richard Widmark.

Dickinson had lunch with the crew in the open air, chatting and laughing and when she was done she took her own tray and cleaned it. Then 51, she looked not much different from the svelte beauty in “Rio Bravo” and she could still take a fellow’s breath away.

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TIFF2016: Women lead the way at Toronto fest

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – The big talking point at the 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival, which ended Sunday, was the sheer number of films that featured high-profile performances by women.

Around 400 titles were screened at the shindig, which kicks off the awards season and shines a light on what will be in cinemas and home screens over the coming months. British actresses among those acclaimed for their performances include Gemma Arterton, Sally Hawkins, Rosamund Pike, and Rachel Weisz, along with Amy Adams, Brie Larson, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, Hailee Steinfeld, Kristen Stewart and Emma Stone.

Always a key indicator of Academy Award potential, the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award this year went to an energetic modern musical titled “La La Land”, which Lionsgate will release in U.K. cinemas on Jan. 13. It will screen first at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 7.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), it stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress (pictured top) as they try to make it in Hollywood. Stone was named best actress for the film at this year’s Venice International Film Festival and already she is a favourite for an Oscar nomination.

Natalie Portman (pictured below) is tipped to provide awards competition for her observant performance in the title role of “Jackie”, from Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“No”), which follows Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The film won the Platform Prize at TIFF and Fox Searchlight acquired it for U.S. distribution with U.K. release details still to be announced.

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Amy Adams was one of several actresses who appeared in more than one film at the festival but she garnered the most praise for Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and both films should place her in awards contention.

“Nocturnal Animals” offers two films in one as Adams plays a lonely art gallery curator with a troubled marriage in Los Angeles who reads a noirish novel by her former husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) that she sees as a movie. Universal is set to release it in the U.K. on Nov. 4.

In the acclaimed science-fiction thriller “Arrival” (pictured below), she plays a gifted linguist who tries to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings who land on Earth. It will screen on Oct. 10 at the BFI London Film Festival with a release by Entertainment One set tentatively for Nov. 11.

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The London Film Festival kicks off on Oct. 5 with Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom”, which was received warmly at TIFF. Starring Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo, it’s the true story of the Forties romance between a black African Prince and a white English typist and the perils they face in both their countries, especially from the bigoted representatives of British imperialism. It reaches U.K. cinemas on Nov. 25 from 20th Century Fox.

Also seen at TIFF, Gemma Arterton stars in a zombie picture titled “The Girl With All the Gifts”, about a young girl who is immune to a strain that turns humans into the undead. It’s out in U.K. cinemas on Sept. 23 from Warner Bros.

The British actress garnered much for attention for Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest”, a crowd-pleasing British World War II comedy co-starring Bill Nighy and Sam Claflin (pictured with Arterton below) that tells of a hapless group of filmmakers at work on a morale-boosting movie after Dunkirk. It will screen at the London Film Festival on Oct. 13 with UK release by Lionsgate set for Feb. 19.

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Oscar-winner Brie Larson (“Room”) stars in British director Ben Wheatley’s Seventies gangland shoot-em-up “Free Fire” co-starring Cillian Murphy (“Peaky Blinders”) and Armie Hammer. The film won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award, a sidebar of the festival that shows extreme movies. It will screen at the London Film Festival on Oct. 16 with U.K. release by StudioCanal set for March 31 next year.

Rooney Mara co-stars with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel in a true-life drama titled “Lion”, which earned great applause at TIFF.  Directed by Garth Brooks, it tells the incredible true story of a 5 year-old Indian boy named Saroo who gets lost and ends up 1000 miles away from his impoverished family, lands in an orphanage and is adopted by a couple in Australia. The Weinstein Company will handle U.S. release on Nov. 25 with U.K. distribution details yet to be announced.

Mara also stars in “The Secret Scripture”, directed by Jim Sheridan (“In the Name of the Father”), as a woman who spends a long time in an Irish mental hospital and tells all in a diary she reveals as an older woman (played by Vanessa Redgrave). It will screen on Oct. 7 at the London Film Festival with distribution details still to come.

“The Twilight Saga” star Kristen Stewart has the lead in the ghost story “Personal Shopper”, which screened at TIFF following its triumph for Olivier Assayas as best director at the Festival de Cannes. It screens at the London Film Festival on Oct. 10 with U.K. distribution and release dates not yet available.

Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) stars in Kelly Freemont Craig’s warmly received festival closer “The Edge of Seventeen”. Sony Pictures has worldwide rights with U.K. details still to come.

Sally Hawkins plays a humble Nova Scotia woman who becomes an acclaimed artist despite crippling arthritis in Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie”, co-starring Ethan Hawke. It received generally good reviews at TIFF but there is no news on a U.K. release yet.

Elsewhere in Toronto, Western remake “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, received a lot of attention. MGM and Sony release it in the U.K. on Sept. 23.

TIFF photo: Getty Images

This story appears in Cue Entertainment

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Rob Reiner’s ‘LBJ’

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By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Rob Reiner’s “LBJ” is an absorbing drama about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first days in office that is made memorable by a skillful and insightful performance by Woody Harrelson.

The film had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival today but distribution details have yet to be announced.

“LBJ” follows Johnson from when he takes the oath of office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the day he tells Congress that he will pursue the fallen leader’s goals on civil rights.

There are flashbacks to the Democratic Party nomination race between LBJ and JFK and Reiner strings out the fateful parade through Dallas over several scenes before gunfire changes everything.

Reiner also employs television footage from the time and recreates some scenes in black-and-white to complement the fine colour work of cinematographer Barry Markowitz.

Screenwriter Joey Hartstone includes some familiar LBJ vulgarisms such as his penchant for doing his business on the toilet seat while doing the government’s business with his staff and his declaration that he would rather have an opponent “on the inside pissing out rather than outside pissing in”.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is not given much to do (although she does it well) as Lady Bird Johnson other than console and encourage her husband when he frets that people do not love him as they do JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) and Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). Kim Allen, as Jacqueline Kennedy, has no lines at all.

LBJ’s skills as Senate Majority Leader are clear as he begs, bullies, and wheedles his way to win key votes. The film suggests that he envied JFK and came to embrace the sophisticated northerner’s quest for equal rights even though previously he had voted against such bills along with most of his southern peers.

Key conflicts in the movie are between Johnson and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who despised the Texan as crude and ignorant, and between Johnson and powerful Georgia Senator Dick Russell, who believed that to have a southerner in the White House would allow segregation to flourish.

Stahl-David, as Bobby, and Richard Jenkins, as Russell, get under the skin of their characters as much as Harrelson and their scenes together are tense and vivid. Brent Bailey conveys the tension and doubt of Kennedy’s staff in a brief scene as speechwriter Ted Sorenson.

Harrelson, whose facial resemblance to Johnson is not close even with substantial prosthetics, succeeds … as Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” … in capturing the essence of the man in his posture, his eyes and his voice.

Christopher R. DeMuri’s production design is handsome and composer Marc Shaiman provides an orchestral score that blends in cleverly whether the scene is tense, dramatic or comic, with subtle hints of the period.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK / US: TBA; Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, C. Thomas Howell, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, Joe Chrest, Kim Allen, Brent Bailey; Director: Rob Reiner; Writer: Joey Hartstone; Director of photography: Barry Markowitz; Production designer: Christopher R. DeMuri; Music: Marc Shaiman; Editor: Bob Joyce; Costumes: Dan Moore; Producers: Matthew George, Liz Glotzer, Rob Reiner, Tim White, Trevor White, Michael R. Williams; Production: Acacia Filmed Entertainment, Castle Rock Entertainment, Savvy Media Holdings, Star Thrower Entertainment; Not rated; running time 98 minutes.

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