When life meant happy days for Erin Moran

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – “There is a lot of pressure. You’ve got to be thin. You’ve got to look pretty. You’ve got to look good. There’s a lot of competition, There’s too much to worry about.” That was “Happy Days” star Erin Moran speaking to me in 1982 just before the launch of “Joanie Loves Chachi”.

The actress has died from cancer aged 56 after a difficult adult life following her childhood stardom that began with commercials and a regular role on the U.S. drama series “Daktari” when she was 6 years-old.

She was in a James Garner and Debbie Reynolds picture titled “How Sweet It Is!” (1968), had guest roles on popular sitcoms of the period such as “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “My Three Sons” and she was a regular on “The Don Rickles Show” (1972).

Moran, who was 21 when I interviewed her, had starred as Joanie Cunningham on one of the era’s most popular shows since she was 13.  She did not appear to be daunted by the challenges and pitfalls of early attention.

“I am a competitor but not in that respect. It’s too much for me,” she said. “I’m too kicked back for that. I do get crazy but not a lot. I’m a Libra so I weigh things up. I think about it and get down to me. What’s important … letting this thing ruin me or to be happy? I just want to be happy. That’s my motto. That’s all I want to be, is happy.”

The late Garry Marshall, who wrote and produced “How Sweet It Is!” (with Jerry Belson), told me: “I found this little girl who was missing three teeth in the front of her mouth and I hired her for the film. I thought, ‘This little girl has very good timing for such a little person.’ That was it. A few years later when we were casting ‘Happy Days’, she came along and she had teeth this time. She looked a little different but she still had that instinct for timing with no fear. Many kids have fear and get inhibited.”

Moran was not in the first pilot, which did not sell, but she was cast in the second along with Henry Winkler and Ron Howard. “She’s spent 9 years with us. I watched her grow up. I watched graduate from school on the Paramount lot and I watched her become a young lady,” Marshall said.

He created “Joanie Loves Chachi”, he told me, because of his love of sports and he used a farm-team system to develop his shows. Scott Baio (pictured with Moran below) had joined “Happy Days” as Chachi in Season 5 and later became Joanie’s long-time steady. They both had singing talent and Marshall decided that music would be the key to a new spinoff following “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy”.

“Just to say ‘here are two good actors, let’s make another show’ is not quite enough for me,” he told me. “But they both sang so well and we kind of let them break that in on ‘Happy Days’, and that plus their acting ability makes it worth doing another show. I just hope it works.”

It didn’t. “Joanie Loves Chachi” lasted 17 episodes and the two performers returned to the original show for the final season. After “Happy Days” wound down in 1984, Moran’s career floundered with a few appearances on “The Love Boat” and sporadic roles on shows such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “ “Diagnosis Murder”. She died on April 22, survived by her second husband, Steven Fleischmann, with whom reportedly she had fallen upon hard times.

Back in 1982, those dark clouds seemed far away although there were times on “Happy Days” that were difficult, she said: “I always played two or three years younger and that was hard from the start. I wanted to grow up but the character wasn’t growing as fast I was. Everything was awkward for me but it worked out. The thing with Joanie is she’s just an all-around normal American girl. Nothing’s unusual with her, nothing’s outrageous. I don’t have anyone approaching me about taking off my clothes or doing pinups. It’s a family show and I don’t have those offers. With Valerie Bertinelli (“One Day at a Time”), it’s a different story. She’s got a lot more maturity and it’s modern.”

Competition for roles didn’t bother her anyway, she told me: “Competing with other girls; I stopped doing that. I used to when I was younger but I can’t. I just can’t. If I start worrying about that then it gets crazy. It doesn’t get you anywhere. One day, I’d like to get a real, good, meaty role. Someone like Sally Field, I look at her work, at her movies, and I just think, ‘God!’ When Natalie Wood died [1981], that killed me. I’ve always wanted to meet that lady. She’s my favourite. If I idolised anyone, I idolised her. This is what I look forward to; those types of roles. Those types of characters, because it’s pretty close to where I am and what I think I can achieve.”

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As he turns 80, ten Jack Nicholson films you should see

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The phone rang on my desk at The Hollywood Reporter and a deep, familiar voice said, “Ray? Hey, it’s Jack.” It was in the run-up to the Academy Awards in 1998 and I was expecting the call but I was impressed that he knew he didn’t need to say his full name.

When I’d met Jack Nicholson at the launch of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975, he was exactly as you might expect: cocky, sly and charming, loving his late-bloomed stardom. When I spoke to him again 20 years later, he showed another side entirely.

The three-time Academy Award-winner turns 80 today and he wears his iconic status lightly. He hasn’t had a leading role in a film since “The Bucket List” in 2007 although reportedly he will star in a Sony Pictures Classics remake of the German comedy “Toni Erdmann”.

At the “Cuckoo’s Nest” launch, Nicholson was 38 with the slow, sensual voice of the alcoholic lawyer in “Easy Rider” (1969), the jaded pianist in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), the cynical Navy man in “The Last Detail” (1973), and the wry private eye in “Chinatown” (1974).

In 1998, Nicholson had earned the 11th of what would become 12 Academy Award nominations and he would go on to win his third Oscar for James L. Brooks’s “As Good as It Gets”. The Reporter was doing a series on the nominees and we asked the actor if he would talk to us. He agreed, but on one condition. He would talk only about his leading lady, Helen Hunt, for whom he had rapturous praise. He spent the entire campaign talking about the co-star of Paul Reiser’s TV sitcom “Mad About You” and he was as persuasive as her performance. Hunt won as best actress.

In 1975, Nicholson had told me that it was a good thing that he had to wait for stardom: “As a result of not being well-known for much of my career, my instincts are aesthetic more than for the money. It’s the challenge of what I can do with a character that I look for. If you’re not growing as an actor, it’s not too much fun to do.”

The range of his films confirms that but he also made some very canny deals. While other top stars boasted about making $20 million per picture, Nicholson smiled, took half of that number but also a big chunk of the back-end. I’ve heard that he made upwards of $50 million for playing the Joker in “Batman” (1989).

There are some films, however, that made less of an impact and here are 10 titles that remain worth a look.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Directed by Mike Nichols with a script by cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer, it’s a comedy with a fierce undercurrent as it follows two men, played by Nicholson and Art Garfunkle, as they pursue their dreams and fantasies about women. Candice Bergen and Ann-Margret also are terrific as two of the females involved.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Nicholson at his most reflective and subtle as a talk-show host who is inveigled by his dodgy brother (Bruce Dern) to get involved with a scam involving mobsters in Atlantic City. Directed by Bob Rafelson (“Five Easy Pieces”), it’s a great look at the Boardwalk city with a fine contribution by Ellen Burstyn.

The Passenger (1975)

Framed as a thriller, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film is typically complex with Nicholson as a man seeking both fight and flight as he opts to change character and identity in Africa. David Locke (Nicholson) is an English reporter educated in America who stumbles upon a story about a hidden guerrilla force. When the chance presents itself for him to pretend he is dead and assume the life of somebody else, he takes it and follows leads to Munich, London and Barcelona.  Existential and absorbing.

The Fortune (1975)

Underrated screwball comedy set in Hollywood in the Twenties with Nicholson and Warren Beatty as conmen who set out to cheat a flamboyant woman (Stockard Channing) out of her inheritance. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film has a great look thanks to cinematographer John A. Alonzo and production designer Richard Sylbert with uncredited music by David Shire. It’s much more entertaining than its reviews suggest.

Goin’ South (1978)

Screwball Western that Nicholson directs as well as stars in. He plays a ne’er do well about to be hanged until a law crops up that allows any woman who owns land to claim a convict so long as he marries and works for her. Mary Steenburgen plays the woman and the pair of them have a rare old time. It’s her screen debut and John Belushi’s too. The cast includes Danny DeVito, Richard Bradford and Christopher Lloyd. The opening chase sequence is brilliant.

The Border (1982)

Penetrating drama about the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas with Californian transplant Charlie (Nicholson) and his high maintenance wife (Valerie Perrine) adjusting to the realities of life in El Paso. British director Tony Richardson takes an outsider’s view of the way corrupt cops deal with Hispanics who risk everything in search of what they think is a better life. Charlie’s life gets complicated when he tries to help a young Latina (Elphidia Carrillo) and her baby. Harvey Keitel, Shannon Wilcox and Warren Oates are in the cast and the music is by the always reliable Ry Cooder.

Prizzi’s Honor 1985

A very entertaining mafia movie with Nicholson as Charley Partanna, a made man who happens also to be a complete doofus. The star said he came to grips with the character only when director John Huston reminded him: “Remember, he’s stupid.” Anjelica Huston won the best supporting actress Oscar as Maerose, a far more resourceful mobster who steps in when Charley falls for a dangerous blonde specimen played by Kathleen Turner. Scripted by Richard Condon (and Janet Roach) based on his novel, it’s a riot with a score by Alex North.

The Two Jakes (1990)

Nicholson directed this contemplative sequel to “Chinatown” with a screenplay by the original film’s Robert Towne. Set following World War II in a Los Angeles much changed from the Thirties, it puts private eye Jake Gittes on the case of another Jake (Harvey Keitel), who says his wife (Meg Tilly) is bonking his partner. A set-up leads to a death and Gittes has to delve deeper as a beauty played by Madeleine Stowe complicates matters. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and music by Van Dyke Parks add to the film’s attractions.

Wolf (1994)

Vastly entertaining picture that became even better when I realised that it’s not a horror film. It’s a comedy, and very funny it is too. Nicholson plays a successful but meek publisher who is fired by his boss (Christopher Plummer) after he is betrayed by a young man he has mentored (James Spader). When his car hits a wolf that bites him, things change dramatically. Michelle Pfeiffer (pictured top with Nicholson) and Eileen Atkins are splendid in a terrific yarn directed by Mike Nichols with a score by Ennio Morricone.

About Schmidt (2002)

Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”) directs Nicholson as a cranky man in his mid-60s who, upon the death of his wife, decides to travel across the States in a trailer to see if he can prevent the wedding of his estranged daughter Jeanine (Hope Davis). A road picture with plenty of incident, it’s a showcase for the actor’s range matched by Kathy Bates, who also won an Oscar nomination.

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FILM REVIEW: ‘The Sense of an Ending’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The problem with Ritesh Bafra’s new film “The Sense of an Ending”, which opens in the U.K. today, is that it makes very little sense and it has no ending.

Reviews of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel on which the movie is based suggest the same is true of the book but no doubt it is saved by the fine writing of Julian Barnes.

On the same basis, the film is worth seeing for the pleasure of watching Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walker, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Dockery and Charlotte Rampling (pictured top with Broadbent) at work.

Broadbent plays Tony Webster, the second most boring man in the world, as he delves into an incident 50-odd years ago about which he has a very faulty memory. Tony is in his 70s and has somehow made a very comfortable living selling and repairing Leica cameras.

A solitary and crotchety fellow, his only friends, whom he sees rarely, are from his schooldays. Otherwise, it’s just the ex-wife (Walker) and a very pregnant lesbian daughter (Dockery).

His anonymous life is disturbed when he receives the bequest of £500 and a mysterious package following the death of a woman named Sarah (Mortimer) whom he knew at college in the Sixties. Tony was in love with the woman’s flighty daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor) and in flashbacks we learn of their awkward romance.

We also see young Tony (Billy Howle) in class with a handsome young man named Adrian, who becomes his best friend. There’s an odd weekend visit to Veronica’s posh family home where he meets the most boring man in the world, her father, and an aggressive brother, neither of whom play any further role in the story.

The issue at hand is a diary kept by Adrian that Veronica (now Rampling) declines to hand over. There was also a vicious letter that Tony wrote to Adrian when his best friend betrayed him by becoming engaged to the young Veronica. Suicide ensued.

There’s another character who might be somebody’s son or brother or something: it’s not clear and the casting doesn’t help as the age of the character does not seem right.

Tony spends a lot of time rehashing everything with his ex-wife, supposedly a Queen’s Counsel, and his daughter and then finally with Veronica. What happened all those years ago remains shrouded in mystery in Nick Payne’s adapted screenplay.

Broadbent carries the film with lugubrious flare and Walker chimes in with typical wit. Rampling mostly remains inscrutable but utterly watchable in her few scenes. The young ones are pretty but bland although Mortimer makes the mother flirty and enjoyable.

What it’s all about, though, is very hard to say and the characters are so dull that it’s difficult to muster much interest.

Released U.K. April 14 (StudioCanal); Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Freya Mavor, Billy Howle, Joe Alwyn; Director: Ritesh Bafra; Writer: Nick Payne, based on the novel by Julian Barnes; Director of photography: Christopher Ross; Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams; Music: Max Richter; Editor: John F. Lyons; Costumes: Odile Dicks-Mireaux; Producers: Ed Rubin, David M. Thompson; Executive producers: Glen Basner, Ben Browning, Peter Hampden, Milan Popelka, Aaron Ryder; Production: Origin Pictures, BBC Films, FilmNation Entertainment; Rating: U.K. 15; running time, 108 minutes.

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Recalling … Jack Nicholson at the launch of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

By Ray Bennett

NEW YORK 1975 – Jack Nicholson appears in the breakfast room of a fancy Manhattan hotel on a Saturday morning in a baggy brown suit, no tie, his dark shirt collar inside his jacker, and dark glasses. He lights a Marlboro and scrounges coffee and says “You mean you guys actually got up for breakfast?” He curses lazily, shaking his head. “I’m wrecked.”

It’s the morning after the launch party for Milos Forman’s long-awaited film version of the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. [The film is back in U.K. cinemas April 14, a BFI release to mark Nicholson’s 80th birthday on April 22.]

That morning 40-odd years ago, Nicholson is relaxed with the kind of confidence that $1-million a picture will give a man. The fact that his new film is one of the best American movies in years doesn’t hurt either.

Nicholson plays Randall Patrick McMurphy, a streetwise loudmouth who lands in jail for fighting in bars and a slight case of statutory rape. “She told me she was 18 but she was 15 going on 35,” McMurphy says.

To get out of a jail sentence, he feigns craziness and is removed to the Oregon State Hospital, which he sees as a sure, swift and cozy route to freedom. Things turn out a little differently as he gets to know the other men on the ward and comes face-to-face with the only authority they know – the self-righteous and unyielding Nurse Ratched, played icily in the film by Louise Fletcher (below left).

The actress had been virtually retired for 10 years before Robert Altman cast her in “Thieves Like Us” (1974). Some writers at the press event complain that Fletcher softened the role from the hard-nosed character in the novel. Director Forman disagrees: “The fanaticism of the righteous is much more convincing than a black-and-white villain. It’s much more tragic if a person is doing wrong while believing that she’s doing good. In the book, she’s one-dimensional.”

Kesey tells his story, as Nicholson sees it, “through the ideas of a schizophrenic Indian poet. Forman takes a more objective viewpoint, which is almost mandatory in order to render the work on film. But the riotous comedy and ultimate tragedy of the book are intact thanks to great performances by the two leads and a terrific cast that includes Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson and Scatman Crothers. Jack Nitzsche’s score, which features a musical saw, is haunting and unforgettable.

Nicholson says, “When I first read the book, just after it came out in the Sixties, I thought what a fabulous part it would be for an actor but I was too young at the time.”

Kirk Douglas agreed. The “Spartacus” star bought the property and starred for six months (1963-64) on Broadway in a theatrical version by Dale Wasserman. But a movie never materialised as Douglas could not persuade a Hollywood studio to take it on.

In 1971, his actor son Michael Douglas took it over and while Kirk, at 60, was now too old for the role, he promised he would make good his father’s investment.

[At the New York junket, Michael Douglas gives me an exclusive: he’s going to quit his hit TV series “The Streets of San Francisco”. It’s one of my very few scoops.]

Nicholson, at 38, was exactly right for the role. There have been many stories about the actor’s personal research into mental hospitals but he says that is not so: “Milos did most of the research during the time of writing the script [by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman]. Most of my performance comes from that research. I didn’t do a lot. It all came from the script and discussions.”

The actor says he never thought the strength of the story was in its milieu: It’s a story of an individual who, if he was more sophisticated, would realise where the actions were taking him. He’s a street guy who’s trying to beat a jail-rap and he changes into someone concerned about what’s happening to the other men on the ward. That’s why he’s so let down by the others not telling him that they are voluntary patients while he’s committed to treatment. The real strength is not about mental institutions; it’s simply a human story.”

Nicholson knows that he has a problem with each movie he makes. It’s called fame following great acclaim for his performances as the alcoholic lawyer in “Easy Rider” (1969), the disillusioned pianist in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), the sarcastic sailor in “The Last Detail” (1973) and the cunning private eye in “Chinatown” (1974).

At the preview screening in New York, there is applause as soon as he appears on screen. It’s as if the audience felt, ah, here’s Baddusky or J.J. Gittes to set everything straight.

Nicholson says, “As you become better known, that is a problem. Audiences tend to have expectations based on what you’ve done previously and what they know about you. I try not be become too well-known. I’ve been very lucky as an actor. I’ve thought for a while that it’s not to an actor’s credit to be too successful too soon. No-one’s that good at acting in films until he’s done it for a while. In my case, it was learned by doing.

“As a result of not being well-known for much of my career, my instincts are aesthetic more than for the money. It’s the challenge of what I can with a character that I look for. If you’re not growing as an actor, it’s not too much fun to do.”

Although he has worked with other European directors – Antonioni, Polanski, Ken Russell – Nicholson says he doesn’t do it deliberately: “I think everybody makes creative decisions on a specific basis but I don’t choose a project because the director is American or European. I do go to school on all the directors I work with, though.

“I get an average of two scripts a day to read but at the present I’m in the happy position of not being committed to anything. I’ve cleared the boards so I can direct. Next June, I want to make ‘Moontrap’, a western set in Oregon in the 1850s about fur-trappers. It’s a novel by Donald Berry. He’s a history professor. It’s a mystically tinged wester, really.”

He says television does not interest him but if ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ had been planned for TV the role might have been strong enough to attract him: “I don’t like my movies on television. What I’m attempting to do doesn’t read on TV. I don’t think any ground has ever been gained by selling an inch to television. The idea of showing ‘The Last Detail’ on TV is absurd. I’ve done television in my time but I’m not too good at it.

“If I could, I would stop all of my films being shown on TV but it’s out of my hands. And I’m not disposed to doing a sequel to ‘Chinatown’. I’m asked a lot about that I feel it smacks too much of cashing in on something.”

With the press conference over, I have one small question for Nicholson. In Kesey’s book, McMurphy dreams of escaping to Canada. I want to know if Nicholson feels that was an accident of geography since the story is set in Oregon or, in light of all the Vietnam draft evaders, if it has a deeper significance.

Nicholson grins his killer grin: “I think it’s the traditional refuge, isn’t it? Ever since the days of Sitting Bull.”

• “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a major hit and went on to win five awards at the 48th Oscar ceremony: best picture, best actor and actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. Nicholson has won two more Academy Awards (best supporting actor for “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and best actor for “As Good as it Gets” (1998) and Forman picked up a second Oscar for “Amadeus” (1985), which won eight awards including best picture. Bo Goldman won a second Oscar for his original script for “Melvin and Howard” (1981). Fletcher’s success did not lead to stardom and when I asked Forman about that at the time of “Amadeus”, he smiled regretfully and said, “Bad choices, sadly.” Jack Nicholson never managed to get “Moontrap” made but he did direct and star in a sequel to “Chinatown”. Titled “The Two Jakes” (1990), it was a flop.

Here’s the new BFI trailer for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” http://www.bfi.org.uk/whats-on/bfi-film-releases/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest?gclid=CN7X-NeYmtMCFUu6GwodTlwCVg

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Oscars envelope snafu boosts ‘Moonlight’ box office

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Worldwide headlines about the Oscar fiasco over mixed-up envelopes that saw “Moonlight” triumph over “La La Land” as best picture has been a big help to the low-budget picture’s international theatrical release.

I’m happy to have been proved right when I made that prediction on Monday on BBC World News (see clip below).

Altitude Film Distribution, which has the U.K. rights to “Moonlight”, said that following the Academy Awards, the film had the highest per-screen average of any film in the Top 15 to take 4th place in the current box-office ranking.

The distributor expanded the number of screens from 170 to 239 on Monday and from today (March 3) it is playing on 280 screens across the country.

“Moonlight”, which earned $22 million at the North American box office, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Altitude on June 19.

The right-of-passage drama also won the best screenplay award for director Barry Jenkins (script) and Tarell Alvin McCraney and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali as a benevolent drug dealer.

The musical “La La Land”, which won six Oscars including best director for Damien Chazelle, best actress for Emma Stone, and Justin Hurwitz for original score and original song (with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), has grossed more than $370 million around the world. Its U.K. Blu-ray and DVD release by Lionsgate has yet to be announced. Polypro released the soundtrack in the U.K. on Jan. 13.

Studiocanal will release “Manchester by the Sea”, the drama about grief and guilt for which director Ken Lonergan won the award for original screenplay and Casey Affleck was named best actor, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 17.

Among the other films nominated at the Academy Awards for best picture, sci-fi drama “Arrival” is due on Blu-ray and DVD from E1 Entertainment on March 20. Entertainment in Video will release Indian lost-boy saga “Lion” on May 22. Studiocanal released modern wester “Hell or High Water” on Jan. 9.

Home entertainment releases are still to be announced for Paramount’s Denzell Washington drama “Fences”, for which Viola Davis won as best supporting actress; 20th Century Fox’s “Hidden Figures”, the true story of of unheralded black women who were vital to the success of NASA; Lionsgate’s violent war picture “Hacksaw Ridge” directed by nominee Mel Gibson.

Dogwoof will release “O.J. Simpson: Made in America”, which won the Oscar for best documentary, on April 17 and Curzon Artificial Eye will release the Iranian film “The Salesman”, which won the award for best foreign language picture, on May 29.

Walt Disney Studios released the best animated film winner, “The Jungle Book” last August.

Among films that picked up top BAFTA Film Awards, “I, Daniel Blake”, the benefits drama by Ken Loach that won as outstanding British film, came out on Feb. 27 from E1 Entertainment. Universal Pictures released “Kubo and the Two Strings”, which picked up the BAFTA award for animated film, on Jan. 16

[‘Moonlight’ still from A24 Pictures, David Bornfriend]

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THEATRE REVIEW: Ugly Lies the Bone

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Mind over matter is refined in Lindsey Ferrentino’s absorbing new play “Ugly Lies the Bone” at the National Theatre to the application of virtual reality to deal with physical and emotional pain.

The U.S. playwright’s approach is to first show us a young female soldier named Jess who has just returned from combat in Afghanistan with fearsome wounds as she dons a virtual reality headset and then she turns the backdrop of the stage into what the ex-soldier sees.

The production design is vital to the success of the play and between them designer Es Devlin, video designer Luke Halls and lighting designer Oliver Fenwick largely pull it off.

Kate Fleetwood (above and below with Ralf Little), her face a hideous mask of damage done by explosives, does well to convey the young woman’s torment with neck rigid and arms and legs stiff. Ferrentino gives her some tough-minded dialogue as she adjusts to life back in Florida.

The setting is the part of the state known as the Space Coast near Cape Canaveral where NASA’s Space Shuttle is making its last return trip. Unemployment is rife as the programme is shut down and the Florida heat remains relentless.

Jess chafes under the cheerful attentions of her sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley) and the impositions of her ne’er-do-well fiance Kelvin (Kris Marshall). She also feigns indifference to Stevie (Ralf Little), the boyfriend she abandoned for a second tour in harm’s way.

In a fast-paced single act over 95 minutes, under the smart direction of Indhu Rubasingham, the play draws sardonic humour from the way Jess uses sarcasm to deflect her anguish and in the awkward response to her wounds by the two men and the way Kacie tries to ignore them. All four give sprightly performances.

Perhaps due to the brevity, the play does not touch on what the U.S. military was doing in Afghanistan nor on what virtual reality might do for Jess’s mother, seen briefly, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Designer Devlin works with artists such as Beyoncé and Adele and she designed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics and opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro event. Her work on “Ugly Lies the Bone” is impressive with a half-bowl effect in which the sloping walls shift from a 3D impression of the dull suburbs to which Jess has returned and the snowy paradise where virtual reality takes her.

The National Theatre offers a free immersive installation in which to experience VR in the Lyttelton Lounge after playgoers watch the play.

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton Stage; runs to June 6; Cast: Kate Fleetwood, Olivia Darnley, Ralf Little, Kris Marshall, Buffy Davis; Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino; Director: Indhu Rubasingham; Designer: Es Devlin; Video Designer: Luke Halls; Costumes: Johanna Coe; Lighting: Oliver Fenwick; Music and Sound: Ben and Max Ringham. Supported by Travelex with many tickets priced at £15 for every performance.

Photos: Mark Douet

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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:



Love and Friendship

Hell or High Water

Manchester By the Sea

Hail, Caesar

The Girl on the Train


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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