Who Dares Wins 1982 ****

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What better film to watch on Brexit day, or indeed any other day, than Ian Sharp’s Who Dares Wins? A low-budget British thriller that somehow cracked the annual top ten movies at the box office, Sharp’s film did Dunkirk numbers back in 1982, and yet is unknown in most territories world-wide, even under an alternative title, The Final Option. Producer Euan Lloyd noted that it had become unfashionable to fly the flag by the early eighties, but Who Dares Wins caught the kind of rare jingo-istic wave of enthusiasm that a muddled retreat via Brexit has failed to engender. Whatever ones makes of the film’s politics, which range from quite right-wing to rabidly right-wing, Who Dares Wins was and still is a British movie worth getting nostalgic about.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. As a kid, I was mystified by Leonard Maltin’s tv guide and his one-star reviews of Clint Eastwood films; the author wasn’t a fan of the star’s politics, and therefore was churlish about such robust crowd-pleasers as Magnum Force. To this critic, cinema is a broad church, and many opinions can be housed within four-walls; we’re reviewing films, not the political views of the makers. Most action films are fantasy, right or left wing is just the flavour you choose. Lloyd made all kinds of blood-and-bullets action movies, notably 1978’s The Wild Geese, but the siege of the Iranian Embassy in 1980 inspired him to tackle the SAS, the Special Air Service that successfully liberated the embassy. The SAS play themselves in the brief, exciting action scenes that climax the film after a long, slow burn.

Of course, it wasn’t enough just to kick the asses of some random foreigners on-screen. Lloyd ramped things up by casting around for his villains; not only are they foreign terrorists, but they’re in league with the  CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and other beardie-weirdy liberals, and they enjoy something called ‘the arts’, so there’s simply no redeeming these people and death can only be a relief. A surprisingly large part of the film features arty-farty performance-musical critiques of American foreign policy, including a live-set by musicians identified only as Metamorphosis, the kind of avant-garde band who use their brand of incendiery rock to warm up for a sermon from a bishop from the Church of England (Kenneth Griffith) who is, in turn, interrupted by unruly skin-heads out to create a riot.

Truly, the unholy stew of Britian in the eighties is a pestilent place, but there’s one man to sort this mess out, and what a man he is. Peter Skellern was the name of a rather old-fashioned British crooner of sincere power-ballads, but it’s also the name of the SAS captain played by Lewis Collins in this film and he’s the epitome of colour-supplement cool. Swaggering through street-markets in a black polo neck and pure white raincoat, affecting quilted blouson jackets; there’s no end to the sartorial style offered by Collins, who was already a household name due to his work on ITV espionage series The Professionals. Re-united with director Sharp from that show, Collins was clearly auditioning for James Bond here, and got his audition, only to fall out with the producers at the final hurdle. If the Bond movies had doubled-down on seriousness post-Moonraker, Collins would have been a strong Bond in the Daniel Craig mode, but twenty years earlier.

Any film that opens with a cross-bow through a throat sets out a stall, and Who Dares Wins also has a pungent, transgressive narrative, which sees Skellern seducing a CND activist Frankie (Judy Davis). Frankie is also a terrorist sympathiser because, in Lloyd’s book, they’re pretty much the same thing. Undercover investigators sleeping with suspects is a hot-button topic today, and it’s interesting to see the subject covered with so little thought here; casually bedding Frankie is all part of Skellern’s macho humble-brag. Frankie is so impressed with Skellern that she somehow brings him along as a support animal when her pals take over the US Embassy, taking hostages including imported US stars Richard Widmark and Robert Webber. Their plan is to blackmail the UK government into firing a nuclear weapon at Scotland, something that most UK governments would not require much persuasion to do. Of course, the cavalry arrive in the form of the SAS who chopper their way in, blow the corners off the doors and sort it all out in time for scones and tea. As one character notes; ‘When the SAS is called upon to do what we’re trained to do, we have been likened to a surgeon cutting out a cancer. It’s a filthy and difficult job. We don’t like doing it, but it’s our duty…’

There’s tonnes of non-PC content here, from Hammer Horror star Ingrid Pitt’s Helga, a thin-lipped trainer of the bad guys to Skellern’s mountain-range yomping expidition that seems like a thin justification for personally-motivated torture. Randoms caught up in the melee include top cop Edward Woodward, wine expect Oz Clarke, Anna Ford reading the news and a final scene involving Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman; a quick look at the fantasy of Who Dares Wins would stir the patriot in even the most lily-livered, church-loving, arts-affiliated liberal.

 

Jojo Rabbit 2019 *****

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Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.

Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.

Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.

There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.

Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.

But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.

 

Rob Roy 1922 ****

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There’s more chance of getting funding for a bridge over the Atlantic than Scots getting funding for a film about Scottish history; ‘that’s a job for outside talents’ has been the message from successive governments. Back in 1922, things were more up for grabs than might be expected, and this home-grown version of Rob Roy is surprisingly direct in depicting a ordinary Scot in class conflict with his aristocratic betters.

The opening titles are keen to emphasise that this isn’t yo mamma’s Rob Roy, or at least, not Sir Walter Scott’s; the intertitles also disarmingly point out that parts of the Rob Roy legend have been embellished to create a good story. But William P Kellino’s film is rather modern in structure, comparable to 2018’s Irish hit Black 47 in the way it shows how the downtrodden might coalesce around a rebel with a cause. That’s Rob Roy (David Hawthorne), who foolishly signs a deal with the Duke of Montrose (Simeon Stuart) and finds his community decimated in his absence. Rob Roy vows to get justice, even if he has to come back from the grave to do so; part of the fun is exactly how Rob Roy’s plan plays out. And there’s also sophistication in the way that Rob Roy’s own motives are depicted; he’s saved from certain death, not by brute strength, but because of previous kindnesses; this Rob Roy doesn’t gain his strength from patriotism, but from humanity.

Other critics have noted Hawthorne’s similarity to John Cleese; there’s certainly a hint of Ewan McTeagle about his appearance, wandering the glens with an enormous hat and huge furry eyebrows. Time has also added lustre to the supporting cast; Scots singer and film-maker Richard Jobson also appears to have a doppelganger here, as does Steve Coogan. And there’s a gallery of funny supporting turns, including Tom Morris as Sandy the Biter and Alec Hunter as The Dougal Creature.

If you’ve tried and failed to enjoy silent film on You Tube, it’s often because the worst possible prints end up there; this recut version of Rob Roy is currently touring in Scotland, with a soundtrack by David Allison that mines the emotion from the images. This is no twee piano accompaniment, but a rigorous application of traditional motifs delivered in a way that’s strikingly modern, with squalling guitars for the battle-scenes and lilting melodies for the romance and the dancing. If nothing else, the use of real locations is extraordinary, from the hills and glens, complete with dogs, sheep and highland cows, to Stirling Castle itself.

For anyone interested in Scotland, film-making or just a good old slice of traditional storytelling, Rob Roy is something of a treat; they literally do not make them like this anymore, at least in Scotland they don’t.

The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (HippFest) pressent Roy Roy at

Friday 8 November 2019 – Dunoon Film Festival

Tuesday 12 November 2019 – Inverness Film Festival, Eden Court Theatre

Friday 24 January 2020 – Dundee Contemporary Arts

Friday 14 February 2020 – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Zombi Child 2019 ****

 

If you’re only going to see one film about black magic in a girls’ school, then you’d probably be best to skip the Suspiria remake and head straight for Zombi Child, a remarkably poetic yet properly horrific film from Bertrand Borello, whose Nocturama has become a cult item; he’s likely to increase his considerable reputation with this hard-to-categorise, highly original film.

The presence of real-life historian Patrick Boucheron, seen delivering a lecture on French history and specifically on the meaning of the revolution, is an early tip-off that Zombi Child is not one for the casual viewer. The history lesson is at a posh girls school, where the pupils include Fanny (Louise Labeque), who strikes up a friendship with and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) over a mutual love of Stephen King’s writing. Mélissa has a story to tell, shared with the audience in a counter-narrative about the death of her uncle Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) who died in Haiti circa 1962 only to be reanimated as a zombie. Mélissa has a certain discomfort mixed with respect in terms of her own family history, but Fanny is keen to explore, leading to a climax that revitalises familiar horror tropes due to the careful work that’s led to that point.

Jump-scares, cap-doffing, in-jokes and such conventional horror-movie moves are entirely absent here; Zombi Child plays so hard and straight with the material that it’ll work for the art-house crowd in particular. But there’s enough frisson in the activities of Fanny’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to draw a sophisticated crowd; the modish pop-culture references to Rhianna help keep Borello’s vision fresh.

The weight of the past, and of French colonialism in particular, loom large over Zombi Child, a horror film of rare intelligence and wit; the final scenes are frightening, but also satisfying, and the long wait for the pay-off is more than worthwhile. Screened at Cannes in 2019, it’s a smart pick-up for MUBI, who have this exculsively on their books from the 18th of Oct 2019.

https://mubi.com/films/zombi-child

Horrible Histories:The Movie- Rotten Romans 2019 ****

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There’s a tradition of making fun of history for kids in a way that gets them interested in the subject; 1066 and All That to Monty Python and so on. Horrible Histories manages to skip past most of the established clichés of kids movies and offer something fun; a ruthless Roman warrior named Paulinus (Rupert Graves) swings into a rap battle with Boudiccia paraphrasing Jay-Z with the line ‘I got 99 problems but the Brits ain’t one’. It’s one of a number of sweet jokes here; like the Banksy-inspired vandalism in Rome. Rotten Romans also has great young leads in Orla (Emilia Jones) and Atti (Sebastian Croft). He’s exiled from Rome for selling horse urine under the guise of Gladiator sweat to the British ambassador; Nero is displeased when he accidentally washes his face with it. Atti’s exile is mitigated with his romance with Orla, a tough Celt following in the footsteps of Boudiccia (singer Kate Nash). This is not only a comedy but a musical, with funny, tuneful songs and there’s game cameos from everyone from Derek Jacobi to Kim Cattrall. There’s so few British films made, and even fewer comedies, that Horrible Histories is a breath of fresh air, a Carry On film with with non-sexual gags, and plenty of energy in the telling. School holidays should be the ideal time for this kind of romp; admirers of 2016’s Bill will find the same welcome gusto in the historical antics portrayed.

The Childhood of a Leader 2016 ***

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Before the pop excesses of Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s debut feature explored the private life of a different kind of public figure. The Childhood of a Leader has a tricky concept to explain; it’s about the childhood of a man who will one day be a dictator, and is only named at the end of the film. Until then, the audience is given various clues and left to stew; we see The Boy (Tom Sweet) and his family round about the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Could it be Hitler, or Mussolini? Before anyone scampers off to google it, The Boy is eventually named as Prescott, but who is Prescott meant to represent? Corbet’s film is slow and stately, with Liam Cunningham and Bernice Bejo as the boy’s parents and Robert Pattinson contributing a small but significant cameo. Corbet’s film is frustrating, but also immersive and rewarding; whatever it means, and the jury is out for now, it’s engrossing and serious work.

Angels & Demons 2008 ***

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It might seem hard to imagine, but there was a brief window between the publication of The Da Vinci Code and the film version being released, and in that brief moment, Dan Brown was seen as an exciting new writer of modern day adventures. A shuffle through the film versions of Da Vinci, Angels and Demons and Inferno reveals something rather different, a ersatz Indiana Jones without the action, but with long stretches of cross-word puzzle wisdom and shonky history lessons. Angels & Demons has built up a cult reputation in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, and there’s no doubt, it’s kind of fun. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to outsmart a potential terrorist who has kidnapped various cardinals in the run-up to the announcement of a new pope. Could it be significant that one of the candidates , Irish front-runner (Ewan McGregor) is an ex-helicopter pilot? Brown’s plotting isn’t much better than a National Treasure movie, but the production is lush, Rome is skilfully evoked, and Ron Howard brings his usual professional approach to the material. The final barrage of plot-twists is ludicrous to say the least, but that’s what makes Angels & Demons such a hoot; impacting layers of smug cleverness end up forming a crust of nonsense that makes Angels and Demons far more amusing than most comedies.


 

Ragtime 1981 ****

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Milos Foreman’s 1981 drama is best remembered as the final film of screen legend James Cagney; he’s only on screen for a couple of memorable scenes, but this adaptation of El Doctorow’s historical novel has plenty of other points to recommend it. It’s the story of a black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr (Howard E Rollins Jr) whose wife and baby are taken in by a well-off white family. Coalhouse gets into a beef with a Fire Chief (Kenneth McMillian) that leads to a siege, with Police Chief Waldo attempting to resolve the matter. There’s small roles for Jeff Daniels, Samuel L Jackson, Mary Steenburgen, Donald O’Connor and more, and the sense of the 1900’s is pervasively caught. Ragtime was garlanded with Oscar nominations, but didn’t win; it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser at 155 mins, but as a consideration of the darker side of American history, specifically racism, it’s an absorbing and powerful watch for grown-up audiences.

Outlaw King 2018 ***

 

pine_outlaw_kingAfter the high of Hell or High Water, the reteaming of star Chris Pine and director David Mackenzie promised much, but critical derision after festival screenings at Toronto knocked the wind out of its sails and it’s appearance on Netflix went largely unheralded. Whatever its issues, it’s a straight-up historical epic with lots of action and a different POV on similar events to Braveheart. US reviewers who saw Outlaw King as a sequel to Mel Gibson’s film should take a history lesson; William Wallace is seen here only as a corpse, and the focus is positively on Robert the Bruce, who Gibson’s film relegates to a minor role. As played by Pine, Robert the Bruce is determined but politically naïve, and it takes a series of defeats and setbacks before Bruce successfully turns the tide. Some groan-worthy dialogue mars the grand scale of the action, and the casting on non-Scots in all the central roles creates a feeling on unreality. But the big battle scenes are rousing, and Outlaw King’s larger-than-life heroics, like the enormous catapult seen in the opening moments, deserve to be more widely seen.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80190859?source=35

Wolf Hall 2015 ****

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This BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantell’s bestselling book is a history lesson, but it’s never dull. Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell, the man behind the man in the court of King Henry VIII (Damien Lewis). His position as an eminence grise is established through his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Price), but it’s the battle between Cromwell and the King that makes Wolf Hall such a gripping watch. Covering much of the same ground as A Man For All Seasons, Wolf Hall has a much more political view of historical events, complete with some wicked humour and freaky dream sequences. And Rylance’s performance is a huge achievement; good as he was in support in Bridge of Spies, this is acting as its very best.