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