Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

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What is it they want? I’ve done enough. Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger wrote a novella about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War entitled Killing a Mouse on Sunday. JP  Miller adapted it as Behold a Pale Horse (pace The Book of Revelations) and Fred Zinnemann (a director who purveyed an interest in men of conscience) took it to the screen. It was shot in southwest France but there was intimidation from the fascist government of Franco to the extent that Columbia Pictures divested its distribution arm in Spain afterwards and it wasn’t screened on US TV networks following intervention from Madrid. Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn are reunited following The Guns of Navarone as protagonist/antagonist to each other 20 years after the cessation of hostilities. Peck plays former resistance fighter Manuel Artiguez  (loosely based on real-life Catalan guerilla ‘Zapater’) living in exile in Pau, the Basque region of France. Quinn is Vinolas, an officer in the Guardia Civil who has vowed to kill his enemy of longstanding. The young son Paco (Marietto Angeletti) of Artiguez’ former co-fighter arrives  in Pau to ask him to avenge his father’s murder – the Guardia Civil beat him to death to try and find out Artiguez’ hiding place. A young priest Francisco (Omar Sharif) is summoned to the deathbed in the hospital at San Martin of Artiguez’ mother (Mildred Dunnock) an atheist who nonetheless asks him to stop off en route to Lourdes to warn her son not to return to Spain or he will be killed. Francisco’s colleague in the priesthood has a brain injury from a bank robbery the Loyalists carried out so he himself is implicated in any action against the police. Paco warns Artiguez that his close associate in Pau, Carlos (Raymond Pellegrin) is in fact an informer who watched his father’s murder. The scene is set for a squaring of accounts and promises a standoff of epic proportions – Civil War has the terrible longlasting effect of cleaving even families asunder. The first part of the film has its focus on Vinolas and his quest for revenge and his marital issues;  then we are primarily in Pau with the unfolding events. This leads to a pacing problem. Sharif and Quinn meet and we hope for something as graceful as their parts in Lawrence of Arabia and it’s promising but not really as effective as you would wish. When Peck and Sharif meet across the border it’s really a high point as the men’s various takes on morality are parried. Vinolas is then in the background until the final cataclysmic balancing of the books.  There should be more equivalence between these two but it’s really only down to a taste in loose women. The drama is slow and rather like watching pieces being manoeuvred on a chessboard.  Shot in a wonderfully oily monochrome by Jean Badal (with whom Zinnemann purportedly did not see eye to eye) this is beautifully captured. The action however is distinctly lacking and the climax is not the one we want – a shootout which wraps a conclusion that is neither logically exact nor emotionally true. We have been led to believe that this is the post-war equivalent of One Last Job and it fails spectacularly due to a wrongheaded decision by Artiguez (and the creative team). Who puts an act of personal treachery above the common good and the prospect of political revolution? That’s the question.There’s a subtle score by Maurice Jarre which picks out single notes and chords and drum sounds in an unconventional fashion and there are nice supporting performances by Christian Marquand, Rosalie Crutchley and Dunnock.  This is one of several films by Zinnemann dealing with the phenomenon of fascism (and the resistance to it) in the twentieth century, a body of work which means he more than deserves the occasionally perverse accolade of auteur. It’s not his best film but it is a testament to his beliefs. A misfire, yes, but a fascinating one, with Peck mostly convincing and Quinn very good but it’s Sharif you’ll remember. Those eyes!

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Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …

Light Up the Sky! (1960)

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What used to be called the forces comedy is a venerable film tradition but this starts out as a very stagebound vaudeville adaptation and mutates into something darker and dramatic. Narrated to camera years later by seemingly inept and dippy motorcycle-riding Lt. Ogleby (Ian Carmichael) who is actually quite bright and insightful, he regales us with the antics of a bumbling band of misfits manning a rural searchlight battery during the Blitz. Benny Hill and Tommy Steele are the McGaffeys, who take off to perform sketches at the theatre every chance they get and McGaffey the younger (Steele) is in trouble – or rather his girlfriend is. Then there’s grumpy Lance Corporal Tomlinson (Victor Maddern) who wants time off to get married.  Ted Green (Sydney Tafler) is mourning his son and tries to give advice but it goes unheeded. As the stories become stronger – someone going AWOL but being helped at the eleventh hour – the stakes are raised and there is (inevitably) a tragic sacrifice the next time a German plane comes close … Robert Storey’s play Touch it Light was adapted by Vernon Harris and while the comedy mixes oddly with the drama for the most part, it becomes a far stronger work in the concluding half hour. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

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Alright alright alright. School’s out in 1976 and it’s time for the incoming freshmen from junior high to get hazed by the seniors. There’s a lot of riding around, talking, smoking, and there’s a party later on tonight before someone gets it together to score those Aerosmith tickets everybody wants. There’s little mention of politics, just a throwaway about the Warren Commission. Family Plot is playing at the cinema. Everyone’s concerned about their social standing and who’s getting with who and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and his friends are determined to get their own back on bully O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) after a vicious paddling. Richard Linklater’s richly nostalgic slice of life take on a day in the life of average high schoolers is so laidback you’d think it wasn’t written or constructed or performed or directed – and it’s all shot and lit very nicely by Lee Daniel. Relax. Watch. Sublime.

OJ: Made in America (2016)

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The white Bronco live TV chase on LA’s freeway. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial. Mark Fuhrman. The glove. Poor Dennis Fung! I watched it all. Who didn’t?! Golly, when The People Vs OJ Simpson:  An American Crime Story was broadcast last year I thought I’d never make it through and yet it was a stunningly told tale which gripped me the same way the sorry saga itself did more than twenty years ago. So it was with a heavy heart I approached this (admittedly Oscar-winning) seven and a half hour long trawl through exactly the same territory again, with added archive. Half the time I was disappointed not to see Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta (wasn’t he great?!) and Connie Britton showing up – so much of this tale of celebrity is now confused in my bear-like brain. And it starts with what appears to be an excuse for bad behaviour by a lot of people – the sudden migration of blacks into Los Angeles, a 600% increase in their numbers which drove the LAPD crazy and some of them became violent. The riots in the 60s. The ethnic issues not just between black and white but black and Asian. Into this maelstrom of social division arrives the college football player from San Francisco whom everyone loves – an amazing running back who became a key figure in the advertising trade and whose race mattered to nobody:  he looked incredible and parlayed his fame into TV commentating and acting (I first heard of him when I saw Capricorn One). Talking heads who were part of the OJ story relate their own roles – friends from his days in USC, policemen who arrested him, footage of Daryl Gates, the friend accompanying him to visit his gay drag queen dad who would die of AIDS,  the meeting with Nicole Brown, a beautiful blonde 18 year old waitress at The Daisy whom OJ immediately said he would marry:  except he was already married to a black woman who had had his children. And he – or someone – ended up severing her head from her body outside her house where an unfortunate waiter called Ron Goldman was returning her mother’s spectacles from a restaurant. As one sad friend says, their relationship was a reversal of slavery – he owned her. And her family, who she said would side with him if she left because he was funding their lifestyles through his generosity – her father had a Hertz dealership and her sisters similarly benefited. The regular reports of domestic violence and the photographs of her injuries then remind us of what this is really about. The friend of many years who abandons him during the crisis after OJ says he got his finger injury three different ways. How OJ became a crucible for the issues of race, celebrity, sport, policing, justice, the law and violence is told in a grindingly tough and inexorable fashion which turns out to have a sorry logic and inevitability. As for the procession  of police cars that accompanied him on his supposed suicide mission:  “If OJ had been black that shit wouldn’t have happened,” grins a transsexual helicopter cameraman who followed it all from on high:  “OJ transcended race to celebrity.” And we duly see other heli-footage of a black man being beaten after a car chase. While all this was going on the police who were at his home watched in astonishment while his family ate from a sandwich buffet as though nothing odd were afoot. And when a policeman brought OJ in cuffs in a car through the crowds screaming Free OJ, the Xanaxed one said to him, “What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?” The bizarre nature of the entire story seems encapsulated when Lyle Menendez walks past, imprisoned in the same correctional facility. The lining up of the downtown jury who were black and hated Marcia Clark and white people. The behaviour of Johnnie Cochran who made it a black-white thang not a double homicide charge in the wake of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, and the result, the gobsmacking shock and the resonance that lasts until today. This is a tough watch and it is worth it in the end but it’s a sad indictment amidst a litany of purported sociological causes and indicative of all those claims now finally being understood that the races simply cannot live together – read Robert Putnam’s long-suppressed report (by the Democrats) about race in the US or David Goodhart on the failure to redistribute wealth fairly in multi-racial societies. This is a very awkward film with several conflicts at its centre. At the end of the day a woman was murdered and her wealthy, famous sports star husband was not convicted of the crime. Terrible, compelling and all too unfortunately true. A film by Ezra Edelman.

Escape to Victory (1981)

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Aka Victory. The talented and peripatetic director John Huston, a Nazi POW camp and a couple of dozen great footballers:  what more do you want?! It’s WW2 and  Allied soldiers are desperate to get out of their shackles when the prospect of an exhibition match against the Germans looms with the approval of Commandant Max Von Sydow. Michael Caine is the English Captain (a West Ham player) lured into the propaganda stunt with Sylvester Stallone, US Army Captain enlisted in the Canadian Army, allowed in as the team trainer to be with the potential escapees. But Caine doesn’t want his team killed and butts head with his opposite number so Stallone escapes and enlists the aid of the Resistance but is placed in solitary upon his necessary return …  The story was conjured from Zoltan Fabri’s novel Two Half Times in Hell by Yabo Yablonsky, Djordje Milicevic and Jeff Maguire, with a screenplay by Yablonsky and Evan Jones. Great if you want to see Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, Pele and half of Ipswich Town (including Kevin O’Callaghan) in action, but it ain’t no Great Escape. Daft!

The Prince of Tides (1991)

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They f*** you up, your mum and dad. So wrote Philip Larkin. Well that’s their parental duty. And they certainly did that to Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte, in a wide-ranging and delicate performance) and his twin sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon). He goes to NYC to speak to Savannah’s psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) after her latest suicide attempt and he tells her about their abusive background and painful family memories emerge. Pat Conroy adapted his novel with Becky Johnston, and director/star Streisand crafted a rich, deeply moving, sweeping romantic drama that will leave you sobbing the words, Lowenstein. Lowenstein. as you hit the Play button again. A comfort blanket to envelop you on this cold January night. And if you haven’t read the novel – do so straight away.

Ma Ma (2015)

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A movie about breast cancer? Hardly a seasonal choice. Ever. I had to watch this because it’s made by Spanish auteur Julio Medem, one of my favourite filmmakers in the Nineties (The Red Squirrel, Lovers of the Arctic Circle) and he went off my radar, at least, in the interim. Penelope Cruz is the wife of a philandering university professor who’s spending the summer vacation with another student. She’s left at home with their young son, a talented footballer. She gets a bad bill of health from her gynaecologist and then attends a match where a Real Madrid scout (Louis Tosar) falls over upon receiving the news that his daughter has been knocked down and killed and his wife is in a coma. She takes him to the hospital where her son joins them and while he deals with the inevitable funerals and she with her cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, they end up making a life together. The gynaecologist (a talented singer) is supposed to be adopting a daughter from Siberia and this figure in a photograph on his desk becomes the centre of Cruz’s fantasies as she creates a coping mechanism in a film whose aesthetic belies the misery narrative by utilising a fantastic array of editing techniques to convey a state of mind:  parallel cutting, flash backs, flash forwards, dreams, enhancing the surreal component of illness and the effects it might impinge on a person’s thoughts. Fascinating but uneasy viewing.

Concussion (2015)

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How ironic that a movie whose tagline is ‘Tell the truth’ should have coasted on a wave of controversy because Will Smith (a Black actor, apparently it’s not enough just to be an actor any more) wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. The truth is, this part-biopic of a forensic pathologist who linked neurological disorders similar to Alzheimer’s in NFL players to injuries they sustained during games is hackneyed and dull. Smith is unconvincing and his accent is distracting. And the whole unfolding of the one man against the system plot is about as predictable as an episode of General Hospital. This could have been made as a thriller and it would have worked a lot better. Frankly I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with a broom. There are some good supporting performances but they’re only by actors, not Black actors. Hey – can I get an award for being Black? I do hope I am not discriminated against for being white!  And hey, don’t let my being female put you off! I’m better than any man in the room! Sometimes you have to make a good film and give a good performance to be nominated. It’s not enough to show up.You know I’m right! It’s all in the title, really. Yawn.

Grimsby (2016)

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Aka The Brothers Grimsby. Where to start in this ode to Northern British scum? Liam Gallagher lookalike kebab-munching Nobby Butcher (Sacha Baron Cohen) keeps a tribute wall to the brother from whom he was separated 28 years earlier. It means as much to him as his football team in his awful council house where he’s shacked up with knickerless flatulent Dawn (Rebel Wilson), their 11 bastards and sundry grandchildren. He finds brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) at a London gathering for healthcare philanthropist Rhonda George (Penelope Cruz) and disrupts his work as a crack secret agent preventing an assassination, causing calamitous results including infecting Daniel Radcliffe with AIDS. They have to go on the run to protect Sebastian and go back home while MI5 boss Ian McShane unleashes ‘Chilcott’ (hmm!) on his black ops man turned supposed rogue agent, information helpfully supplied by Isla Fisher who’s hairless Sebastian’s on-off love interest. After some family bonding and flashbacks to their separation, the burst of post-Thatcher social realism amid the feral underclass shifts from one favela to another, in South Africa, where Nobby puts his daytime TV knowledge too good use, gets on down with the drug dealers (big up to LinkedIn!) and proves an idiot adept at the old spy game. The outrageous story complete with anal and phallic acts, animal abuse, defecation, fellatio, football hooligans, paedophilia, miscegenation, murders accidental and otherwise, takes place in a narrative of fraternal empathy, foster care, the World Cup, politics, eugenics and global germ warfare. And it’s literally jaw-droppingly tasteless, Jeremy Kyle Does James Bond, with a very large if flaccid and out-dated swipe at the kind of people who despise the shameless amoral creatures at its centre. I winced, I gasped and yes I did laugh on occasion:  more than I did during The Girl on the Train. And there is a suitably explosive ending. Plus an unnervingly up to date joke about a certain TV sleb turned US Presidential candidate. I do hope the elephants weren’t hurt as this action bomb lands on its footballs.Where to next for Baron Cohen? F**k knows, as he would undoubtedly say. Un film de Louis Leterrier.