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.

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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.

A Man For All Seasons 1966 ****

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About as classy as a film can get, Fred Zinnermann’s 1966 film of Robert Bolt’s play exudes intelligence, telling in broad strokes the story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and his battle to reconcile his religious beliefs with his position of Lord Chancellor. When Henry VIIII (Robert Shaw) plans to marry again, More is not prepared to bow to his will and annul his previous marriage. More refuses to crumble in the face of the king’s persuasion and pressure, and his spirited legal defence of his position is a key text in understanding the nature of personal faith. Scofield and Shaw give magnetic performances, and support from Orson Welles and a very young John Hurt make this a historical epic that’s firmly grounded in the personal, and has a sensitivity for language that makes More’s arguments endlessly quotable.