Demon Seed 1977 ***

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With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.

The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.

Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.

The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.

Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.

When Eight Bells Toll 1971 ****

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The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.

Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morley as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.

There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.

When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.

 

Highlander: The Director’s Cut 1986 ****

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There’s been a reboot of Russell Mulcahy’s film in the works for a decade now; how hard can it be to revamp such an appealing property as Highlander? Five sequels, a tv show and many a rain-soaked holiday in Scotland has been inspired by this wonderfully daft bit of world-building. Highlander is a great-looking, funny and often dazzling fusion of The Terminator with sword and sorcery; if it seemed indigestible to critics in 1986, perhaps the time has come to embrace the story of Connor Macleod. Certainly, letting the John Wick’s Chad Stahelski loose on the Lionsgate property seems like a good idea, since when it comes to great Highlander movies, it would be a real shame if there could be only one.

‘I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal…’ is the line that introduces our hero, played by Christopher Lambert after Mel Gibson turned the role down. Lambert was, and still is, something of a dude’s dude; his shock-haired turn as the evasive thief in Subway built his reputation is an unpredictable but charismatic leading man. Lambert’s French accent was widely mocked, but there’s always been a close historical connection between France and Scotland via the Auld Alliance, so that mis-step could be forgiven, even if Macleod’s inability to pronounce Glenmorangie seems like a genuine gaffe.

Macleod is an Immortal, doomed to walk the earth listening to a Queen soundtrack, brooding in an awesome New York apartment, watching wrestling matches and heeding the advice of his foppish mentor, Egyptian metallurgist Ramierz (Sean Connery). A reckoning, a quickening, a happening, whatever it is, something bad is coming and it’s likely to take the form of bad boy The Kurgan, played by the perennially awesome Clancy Brown.

This European cut has some key scenes in the Highlander universe; during WWII, he rescues a little girl from a Nazi and casually machine-guns him to death with the line ‘Whatever you say, Jack, you’re the master race.’ This is a striking, irreverent and surprisingly brutal throwaway scene that opens up a potentially interesting world. If the Highlander is immortal, then he’s an old soul with a uniquely educated and evolved historical perspective, and his instant recognition of the Nazi foe is delightfully fleet and sour at the same time. More such flashbacks would be welcome, although training and soul-searching are centre-stage, this being the 80’s and all.

As with the John Wick films, the first in the series offers an imaginative springboard that the later films can only limit in terms of choices. The second Highlander film killed the idea stone dead by positioning Macleod as an alien. But Gregory Widen’s script taps into specific Scottish folklore with regards to magic and immortality, and there’s every reason to think that a reboot could boil down the existential philosophy of the Highlander films to an organic, granular level. There’s a reason why Scotland punches above its weight in terms of talent, in terms of acting, writing and ideas, and that eternal struggle finds one of it’s most entertaining manifestations in this gloriously deadpan fantasy epic.

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

The Wicker Man 1973 *****

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The resounding flop of Midsommar should send horror fans back to a rather more effective treatment of similar ideas in the form of Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man, generally voted to be one of the best, if not the very best, of tBritish horror films . That’s quite an accolade, because Robin Hardy’s thriller is quite an odd proposition for any number of reasons. Largely shot in daylight, there’s no violence until the final scenes, the main character is devoutly religious, and the stakes are deliberately low; the failure of the story to work for sequels or reboots indicates what a unique proposition this singular film is.

The expanded cut fleshes out Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) in more detail that the more widely seen version; arriving in a small village, he disparages graffiti saying “Jesus saves’; ‘ There’s a time and a place for it,’ he says, indicating that his beliefs are best kept private. Although in a relationship, Howie is a virgin, and does not suspect that he may be the victim of entrapment when an anonymous letter reaches him telling of a young girl’s disappearance.

Standing between Howie and the truth is a village of pagan-worshippers who openly fornicate outside the pub, worship phallic symbols, and allow their children to understand the world in sexualised terms. Howie is shocked, and his attempts to assert himself over his environment are blocked by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in tweed jacket and elbow pads. Ingrid Pitt and a dubbed (and body-doubled) Britt Ekland also make an impression, as does Lindsay Kemp as the pub’s landlord; there’s a gallery of strange locals for the honest copper to deal with.

The Wicker Man’s true horror is that of dying for nothing; Howie realises too late that his faith is no protection against unbelievers, and that his death will do nothing to alleviate their plight. In an original twist, the hunter becomes the hunted, and Howie’s investigation is turned on its head, revealing that he, in his hubris, is the real victim. Locating a beating pagan heart behind Scottish superstitions, The Wicker Man shows civilised man at a loss, out of his depth and helpless in the face of a fervent radicalism he thought had long-since vanished.

Connect 2019 ****

Still from the film 'Connect' showing at the Glasgow Film Festival 2019

With Joker on track for a billion dollar box-office take, it’s probably fair to say that, love it or hate it, the gamble of creating an origin story for a beloved comic-book character that specifically roots him in mental health issues has royally paid off. What’s frustrating is that the connection between mental health and loner violence is anything but the stigmatising slam-dunk that Joker makes it out to be. That makes the arrival of Connect, a Scottish film from writer/director Marilyn Edmond rather timely in that it tackles issues connected with suicide and depression without being exploitative, and that specific virtue is not the only thing that’s good about it.

Fresh from Dunkirk and Fantastic Beasts, Kevin Guthrie plays Brian, a young man in the coastal town of North Berwick, who is living in the shadow of a recent bereavement. Like many people who suffer depression, Brian has a lot going for him; he has a job, a loving family, a chance at romance with local single-mum Sam (Siobhan Reilly). But Brian is privately fighting a battle to keep the black dog at bay, and finds himself drawn to the cliffs where relief in the form of a quick death might await him. It’s on this borderline that Brian meets Jeff (Stephen McCole), who invites him to work in a local centre for the elderly. It’s a fresh new outlet for Brian, but he’s still carrying unresolved issues from the past, and fresh problems derail his efforts to move forward.

Suicide is a killer for young men, but Edmond’s well-shot feature manages to walk a fragile line between downbeat observation and uplift. Depression may be an unpalatable subject, yet it’s one that needs to be explored, and if a tiny percentage of people that saw Joker were interested in seeing the topic explored sensibly, Connect would be a box-office smash. Guthrie manages to suggest how a calm exterior can mask inner turmoil, while he gets great support from Stephen McCole. Since appearing as the school bully in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, McCole has turned up in everything from Beats to Outlaw King, and he brings a measured gravity to his role as a mentor to Brian.

It’s possible to demur that Brian’s journey is too schematic, that redemptions are too easily won, or that minor characters are too broadly sketched, and yet the film’s final coda artfully re-affirms that recovery is something fragile that can only be tackled one day at a time. Connect is a simple and effective drama that shines a light on a subject that most films avoid or exploit; hopefully it’ll gain a following by offering a fresh take on a universally mis-understood subject that needs tackled today.

Connect starts a UK day and date tour from Oct 25th 2019, details can be found at

http://www.angelfaceproductions.co.uk/

Beats 2019 ****

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After the pioneering work of Bills Douglas and Forsyth, then the bursts of energy created by the Trainspotting/ Braveheart era, the Scottish film industry has had feet of clay every since; a slew of Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland funded duds which not only failed on their own merits, but also stopped any indie scene from developing. Brian Welsh’s Beats feels like the kind of low-budget, high yield drama that could have been made at any point since the millennium; a simple story of friendship between two Scottish boys Johnno and Spanner (Christian Ortega and Lorne Macdonald), this adaptation of Kieran Hurley’s play is shot in a spare black and white, with occasional bursts of colour when the music takes over, notably in an eye-popping rave scene. The spirit of the mid-90’s period is well caught, and the narrative is carefully charted to avoid the clichés that hobble most local films. Beats is the kind of accessible, entertaining film that looks easy to make, but requires considerable skill all round; anyone who ever lost their mind outside a Portakabin in a field goodness-knows-where will know exactly what Beats is all about.

Beats has a UK release on DVD and blu-ray from September 9th 2019. Or Stream Below.

Reuben, Reuben 1983 ****

reubenWhy do some truly great films fall into neglect? Reuben, Reuben is a perfect case in point. Tom Conti won an Oscar nomination for best actor in 1983 for his performance as a drunken poet, with Dylan Thomas a clear inspiration. The screenplay, adapted from a novel by noted humourist Peter De Vries and then a play called Spofford, is by Julius J Epstein, who wrote everything from Casablanca to Cross of Iron, and that was also Oscar nominated as one of the five best adapted scripts of the year. It was the first film of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis. And it’s a funny, sweet and yet harsh and original story about excess and survival that’s not dated in any way. And yet there’s no Criterion Collection revival, nor even a spot on Amazon or iTunes, just a rare DVD or Blu Ray that, at twenty bucks a piece, won’t ensnare many casual viewers. The reputation of Robert Ellis Miller, director of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and this, was practically zero when he died in 2017, and that’s a shame for anyone with career highlights like this. Conti is ideal as Gowan McGland, a Scottish poet in suburban American, seducing women, drinking excessively, generally mooching off everyone and unaware that his behaviour is leading to a sticky end, and not one that he can possibly imagine. The problem is more than sex or alcohol addiction. Like Ray Milland in The Man With X Ray Eyes, McGland’s problem is that he sees too much; his wit pulls people towards him, but then pushes them away. It’s a tragic-comedy of the highest order, and it’s well-past high time something was done about restoring the reputation of Reuben, Reuben, which takes its title from the old song, and from the last line of dialogue in a devastating, surprising final scene.

Doomwatch 1972 ****

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Director Peter Sasdy deserves his cult reputation; from the Whispering Gallery finale of Hands of the Ripper to the enigmatic hysteria of The Stone Tapes, his best work has an iconic feel. Viewers of the BBC science-fiction drama Doomwatch generally felt that this 1972 feature film was a somewhat cruder affair, but as it resurfaces on streaming, Sadsy’s film is likely to entice the curious. Moving amongst characters created by Dr Who scribes Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch sees Dr Shaw (Ian Bannen) tackling chemical dumping on the fictional Scottish island of Balfe, although being a Tigon production, Cornwall doubles for the beauty-spot. There’s not much picturesque about what Shaw finds; growth hormones used on fish are getting into the food chain, and mutations are resulting. Does the Admiral (George Sanders) know more than he’s saying? Of course, he does, and Doomwatch is way ahead of its time in suggesting government conspiracies, and expressing anxiety about what we eat. Small roles for James Cosmo, Bond star Geoffrey Keen and Shelagh Fraser (who played Luke’s aunt five years later in Star Wars) keep things interesting. The original series is now impossible to locate in it’s enturity, so this capsule version of Doomwatch is well worth seeking out as a period piece with some unpleasant ideas which still resonate. Judy Geeseon co-stars.

Robert The Bruce 2019 ****

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‘Someday we’ll all be free…’ ‘Aye, someday, we’ll all be dead…’ runs a muted exchange in Richard Gray’s Robert The Bruce, which sees co-writer, co-producer and star Angus Macfadyen playing the same role he did in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart. Glasgow-born Macfadyen has gestated this spin-off project for over a decade, and with snowy Montana locations used for the Scottish Highlands, Robert The Bruce extends the history lesson to double-down on an incident that only makes for a few seconds of screen time in Outlaw King, but which captures much of the Bruce’s reputation in his homeland.

The Montana location raises a specific issue; post Rob Roy and Braveheart, film-making in Scotland had a momentum which has vanished in the 20 years since, largely because of the operation of government agencies Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland. Formed under the auspices of Conservative Michael Forsyth, then running through Labour and SNP administrations, they’ve blocked native Scots from any political or historical content, forcing rebel productions like this to offer their home thoughts from abroad.

Robert the Bruce is introduced in his violent confrontation with John Comyn (Jared Harris), which he quickly realises is a trap. Betrayed and injured, the Bruce retreats to a cave where a chance encounter with a helpful role-model spider inspires him to try and try again. Morag (Anna Hutchinson) and her family provide him with shelter and help heal his physical wounds, but with a price on his head, various parties are closing in on the king.

Robert The Bruce has been front-page news in Scotland due to the UK’s second largest cinema chain changing its mind about not showing it. Critics have been quick to suggest political motives, but Gray’s film is serious and sombre fare that should find its largest audience when its gets to streaming rather than amongst the froth of the summer multiplex. Macfadyen largely keeps himself off-screen to focus on Morag’s domestic situation, and while the film runs too long, its meditates in a compelling way on how the Bruce found his sense of purpose in the needs of his own people.

It’s become a regular occurrence for US film studios like Disney and Universal to open their films on hundreds of screens in Scotland without providing any opportunity for press to review them. It’s hard to imagine that high profile films shot in Scotland like Trainspotting 2 or Avengers; Infinity War lack the £200 for a press show; ascribing negative political motives to these decisions to stifle debate is natural. If nothing else, Robert The Bruce’s successful fight to make an appearance in local multiplexes suggests that, against the odds in such a politically charged climate, a Scot might still get a voice amongst his own people.