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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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

The Boss (2016)

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Michelle Darnell is the orphan who grows up to be a big businesswoman – Melissa McCarthy, to be exact, whose rise to titanic success arouses jealousy and she’s framed for insider trading by her ex, villainous rival Peter Dinklage, going by the name Renault (formerly Ronald). When she gets out of the clink she reinvents her brand through her former employee Kristen Bell’s daughter by virtue of a takeover of the Dandelions, a charitable group of kids that sells brownies door to door – because Bell makes the best ones ever and Michelle sees a billion dollar a year business. One of the other mothers just sees a felon. Then Dinklage sees another business opportunity and a paradoxical way to get back with the only woman he’s ever loved … Co-written by McCarthy with husband and director Ben Falcone (who also produces with her) and Steve Mallory, this trades on the star’s great ability to play a scene and there are some excellent laugh out loud moments. However subtle it ain’t and the lapses in taste prevent it being in the same league as something like Bad News Bears which it weirdly recalls (maybe it’s the kids’ uniforms). Co-produced by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, this is just not up to the standard of Spy which was so subversive, satirical and, yes, smart. This manages to be too long and too short and enjoyable and a waste of talent all at once:  is it me?!

The Bear (1988)

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I was moving between several countries the year this was released so I saw the trailer in many different locations but contrived to miss the film itself. It’s 1885 in British Columbia. Orphaned bear cub Youk befriends wounded older grizzly Bart (actually a Kodiak) and they have to avoid dedicated hunter Tcheky Karyo on their journey to survival. An utterly remarkable piece of work by director Jean-Jacques Annaud with exquisite cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Now you know what bear cubs dream about. A wilderness film more than worth waiting for. Adapted from American author James Curwood’s 1916 novella The Grizzly King by Roman Polanski’s regular collaborator Gerard Brach.  Absolutely wonderful.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

The BFG (2016)

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Orphan Sophie is taken from her bed by the BFG (Mark Rylance) whose language is a mangled and funny take on the Queen’s English. She goes back to his cave where he is the runt of a gaggle of giants who like to eat human beans and she’s in danger when Fleshlumpeater sniffs her out. They must make their way to the Queen to stop other children disappearing … Roald Dahl’s work is much loved and the combo of Melissa Mathison with Steven Spielberg (many years after their classic work, ET) seemed like a surefire winner. Everything’s personal but I don’t like the way this has been made: the dark style (in every sense), the look of the villainous giant (way too lifelike but in the wrong way), and the scale seemed to vary from scene to scene; when the giants are outside BFG’s cave they’re one size, inside they’re another. It adds to the other problems. It’s not particularly funny and a lot of the lingo is gone. The magic is diluted into the dreamblowing effects instead of the relationship with Sophie and it’s at its considerable best at Buckingham Palace when the Queen (Penelope Wilton giving it welly), her corgis, the heads of the Army and her staff experience whizzpopping – and she is quite amused. There are odd performances here – the child (Ruby Barnhill) isn’t the most attractive or talented we’ve ever seen, Rafe Spall as a member of the Queen’s household is sporting a very weird accent, Rylance is alright and thankfully unlike Bridge of Spies where his vocal performance ruined the film, he manages to stay in tune with the character.The Fleshlumpeater is misjudged and comes off like a big giant paedophile. Frankly a misfiring disappointment from such stellar talent.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Bryce Dallas Howard ran around Jurassic World in high heels so donning the garb of forest ranger Grace should come pretty easy, dontcha think? Her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds little Pete (Oakes Fegley) deep in the woods her uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) is busy upending. Pete’s folks died in a car crash 6 years earlier and he’s been living there with his best friend Elliott. Who happens to be a dragon, the kind that Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) has been telling her about for years, since her mother died when she was five. Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley, welcome back) reads Pete the storybook that is his only remaining possession and Natalie has a copy – his own is the giveaway to Elliott’s cave, which Gavin quickly exploits … I don’t know about you but the last time I cried at a movie was … The Passion of Joan of Arc. And  Running On Empty. And ET, of course. (More than once but decades apart.) Amazingly, this out-Spielbergs Spielberg in Disney’s own remake of its 1977 musical which I have never been able to get through, despite – or maybe because of – Helen Reddy. This is straight drama and the casting is spot-on, the tone is perfectly managed and the overall effect is funny, smart, touching, witty, scary and magical. Absolutely wonderful. Now how often can you say that? And during the worst summer in living movie memory. There is a message of course – about conservation, family, decency, hunting … You can figure that out yourself. Get your tissues ready. Written and directed by David Lowery, with Tony Halbrooks also credited for writing, based on the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.