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 …

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The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.

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.

Churchill (2017)

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There was a Prime Minister called Churchill, he was married to Clementine, World War Two happened, and Operation Overlord aka D-Day was planned with or without him leading the charge. And that’s what concerns this film written by an historian called Alex Von Tunzelmann. Other than that, this film bears scant relation to documented historical fact. Brian Cox gives the cigar-chomping depressive egotist with his finger on the nation’s pulse some wellie, Miranda Richardson does her best as his long-suffering but intuitive other half, and John Slattery does nothing to enhance his reputation as Ike. Why? Etc. At least the map room is nice. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

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When a spacecraft lands in the hill behind the house where David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives, his parents don’t believe his story. And then they start behaving strangely – and it’s not just them, it’s his ghastly teacher Mrs McKeitch (Louise Fletcher) and horrible little classmate Heather (Virginia Keehne). And as for the police … This remake of the striking and iconic Cold War classic (directed by William Cameron Menzies) falls between the stools of sci fi and horror, in other words right into the lap of auteur Tobe Hooper who was working for the Go-Go boys. David enlists the help of the school nurse (Karen Black, Carson’s real-life mother) who believes his bizarre story. It turns out aliens have landed in order to mine copper and the military are starting to figure out something odd is going on. If this isn’t the classic it might have been, Dan O’Bannon (& Don Jakoby) make a good attempt to scythe fears about parental weirdness, Cold War paranoia and school bullying into this genre piece – which also has something to say about dumb scientists who think they know what aliens are really up to… It all ends in a conflagration. Or does it?! Remember:  never trust a teacher who eats the lab experiments while they’re still alive and watch out for people with Band-Aids on their necks! Based on the original screenplay by Richard Blake with an appearance by the original little boy, Jimmy Hunt, as the police chief.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

It’s in the Bag (1944)

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A Gert and Daisy film – which is to say a comedy starring a couple of English vaudeville and radio comic performers (sisters Elsie and Doris Waters) – in which the robust Cockney biddies discover they’ve inadvertently got rid of £2,000 sewn into the hem of their late grandmother’s dress and have to go to all sorts of extremes to retrieve the dress and thereby the fortune. It involves donning masquerade at a theatre to impersonate the snobby Rose Trelawney (Vera Bogetti) who’s trawling protege Peach St Clair (a very young Megs Jenkins) about for his/her nascent stage career. There’s a funny sleepwalking scene  on rooftops, some farcical scenes as they give their military outfit the runaround and the pair bring the house down at the conclusion with one of their (allegedly) typical rousing singalongs, but the ‘social satire’ for which they were acclaimed seems like a very distant relic at this juncture, probably not helped by the ‘lost’ wartime release being cut by something like 20 minutes for DVD with neither titles nor credits. The pair’s brother was Jack Warner, of Dixon of Dock Green fame. Written by Con West, directed by Herbert Mason.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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What have I done? Adapted loosely from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, this continues the saga in a reboot that, for this viewer at least, worked brilliantly in the first episode and not at all in the second (horrible cast, horribly shot). Matt Reeves however is back to direct this and it’s fierce, chilling and captivating, in every sense. Caesar (Andy Serkis) now has a psychological battle (against Koba) and an actual war against an American military whose renegade paramilitary California outfit (the Alpha and the Omega) run by the ruthless colonel Woody Harrelson imprisons apes in a quarantine facility aka work camp where parent apes are separated from their children.  Torture is random and regular while a collaborator ape, Donkey, brutalises his fellows. The allusions to the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazis are inevitable not to mention the theory of eugenics which originated in that great state. Caesar’s personal motive  is now revenge after his wife and younger son, Cornelius, are murdered in raids. He takes off with his own small band of brothers – orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary) – and they rescue a little human girl whom they christen Nova (Amiah Miller) who has been rendered mute but is quite the brain. Then they find a seemingly witless addition to their group (Steve Zahn) who repeats the mantra ‘bad ape, bad ape’ but turns out to be quite the strategist. He’s been in hiding since the killer simian flu outbreak. This is quite a bleak but utterly compelling fast-moving narrative with one big scene (a tad too on the nose?) between Caesar and Harrelson in which the prototypical neo-Nazi lays out his reasoning (fighting a holy war for the future of mankind) and explains how he killed his little boy rather than have him disabled by this strange illness causing the loss of speech. Harrelson looks like he did in Natural Born Killers which is probably a reference too far. The crucifying of Caesar (and others) has clear Biblical allusions (water, desert, one rebel and his few followers) and the suffering can be tough to watch. But the action is at a cracking pace. This aspires to mythical qualities and has them in abundance. You might find there is resonance with the current political situation – in many territories – or that might also be a reference too far. Whatever. There is a great but deathly dangerous escape and a tragic sacrifice. You either roll with this or you don’t. I do! Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, adapting from Pierre Boulle’s source novel which started the whole thang.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

Dunkirk (2017)

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Survival’s not fair. A great disaster. Hundreds of thousands of British and French troops got at from all sides by the Nazis. A young guy Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down the streets of Dunkirk shot at from every direction with all his fellow soldiers mown down beside him. Then he gets to the beach and sees what looks like half the British Army waiting … and waiting. And the beach is strafed by German planes. In the clouds Tom Hardy (masked, mostly, like in his last Christopher Nolan outing) is playing cat and mouse in his Spitfire. His fellow pilot is shot down. Back in England Mark Rylance and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local lad (strange Irish actor Barry Keoghan) take their pleasure cruiser plus dozens of life jackets out with them before the Navy can check them dockside. These stories with their differing timelines (1 week, 1 hour, 1 day) don’t converge until 70 minutes in. In the interim there is a lot of water. – The tide is turning. – How do you know? – The bodies are coming back. Drowning. Suicides. Shootings by the Germans. If you’re afraid of water you will be very queasy. The word for the viewer experience is immersive. Quite literally. The bigger picture is only put in the mouth of Commander Kenneth Branagh in conversation as the safe place for berthing destroyers (the Mole) is being blown asunder when he talks about the war. That’s when we hear about the callout for small vessels to attempt a rescue on the beach. Otherwise we are escaping with Whitehead as he accompanies Harry Styles (in his film debut) and a Frenchie pretending to be English and they have to try to survive in the bottom of a sinking boat being fired upon; Rylance and son and the traumatised man they rescue from the hull of a sunken boat (Cillian Murphy) who tells them to return to Blighty and kills their assistant;  and the pilots – watching one almost drown is quite traumatic.  For all the enormous budget we never get a sense of the enormity or the scale of the enterprise:  far too few soldiers, hardly any boats. The stories are told in convoluted fashion due to the differing timeframes for each of them. So just when you think you’re ahead, you’re catapulted back to an explanation. And then … it’s over. This reminds me of the problem with Inception which it took me a while to work out:  that film is really a video game. This is also that in one significant part – I too have seen those YouTube Battle of Britain videos, Christopher Nolan, and they’re stunning:  I love a good airborne catfight.  And even though we see very little of Hardy, this is the first time I thought he’s a movie star at last. But that’s not it really. This is actually a tone poem. It’s more like a Derek Jarman film than anything I’ve seen since that great visual artist’s death. And that’s an issue presumably for most of the paying audience who like a good yarn. There is some characterisation – there is bravery, cowardice, viciousness, swagger, kindness and terrible suffering. But what little there is cannot make up for the lack of actual dramatic structure and story. And Churchill’s words are said in the most desultory fashion and barely make an impact because of the actor’s speaking voice and the sound mix even if it’s a very canny and surprising move in how it’s delivered.  But mostly there is Hans Zimmer’s astonishing score:  it’s an unforgettable, breathtaking symphony that deserves a better film. There. I’ve said it. Where’s W. H. Auden when you need him? It’s rumoured that Hitler gave the Brits a fighting chance by only allowing the bombing of the beaches instead of launching a full-scale ground attack and invading Britain:  Nolan simply dismissed the vastness of the story and loses its importance in the doing.