Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

Official Secrets 2019 ****

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In 2019, controversy is a famous actor pretending to have a brain injury, dancing to the music of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. A thriller accusing British and American governments of blackmailing small countries into supporting an illegal war in which million die barely creates a ripple. Times change; the kind of covert behaviour that a film like Official Secrets attempts to uncover is now shouted to the press from the White House lawn.

The man and his dog in the street now know that the Iraq war was instigated under false pretences; Gavin Hood’s film is, at least, a timely reminder of that unhappy truth. Based on the lugubriously titled book The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War; Katharine Gunn and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, Official Secrets may be raking over material that is cold potatoes, but as a look at what the personal consequences might be for a whistle-blower, it’s prescient and timely. Gunn (Keira Knightley) works at GCHQ and happens on an email from the US attempting to blackmail small countries into supporting a war via their UN vote. She takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Gunn’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.

Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal centre; after a couple of duds in the form of Colette and The Aftermath, Hood’s film makes good use of her national treasure quality; with lank hair, chunky knitwear and unflattering anoraks, she’s a dowdy figure ideal for these kind of down-beat shenanigans. There’s a decent support cast including the perennially underused Matthew Goode, but there’s also some shonky details that distracts; the newspaper office Bright works in doesn’t feel right at all, a cartoonish affair featuring shouty, sweary editors and sniping, pencil-pushing underlings.

Leaving such details aside, Official Secrets is a better-than-average spy story that never takes leave of its sense of outrage; watching the characters curse as Bush and Blair waltz across their tv screens, it’s a reminder of yesterday’s news, and how it might inform that radically different political problems of today. Gunn is lionised by this film; the point is that unless the public pay attention and act, the bad guys will always win the day.

The Day Shall Come 2019 ****

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Chris Morris is Britain’s most scabrous working satirist, and is probably best known as the creator of The Day Today, a parody of both news and news reporting that’s yet to be bettered. For his first feature, Four Lions, Morris attempted to make comedic hay from the idea of an incompetent terrorist cell, and it’s to his credit that he managed to make something that was much more than just a few gags on a topical theme. His follow-up, arriving almost a decade later, has a similar notion at its centre; outsiders in their Miami community, Moses (Marchant Davis) and his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks)struggle to make ends meet until an opportunity comes their way; to hide some guns…

Of course, guns are just the starts of Moses’s absurd journey, which brings him to the attention of Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), and her FBI team, who are keen to nab prospective terrorists in the act by feeding them bogus information and equipment, then sending in the SWAT teams after the misguided participants press the nuclear button. This is, Morris’s film makes clear, entrapment, and what‘s being entrapped is not ideological terrorists, but the poor. The Day Shall Come has good fun with Moses’s weird beliefs, and his understanding that blowing a small horn might just conjure dinosaurs out of the earth; the point is that Moses is just a misguided individual, and has no idea that his own brand of idiocy might make him vulnerable to being a political dupe.

There’s a certain brand of modern satire, via In The Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin, that relies on absurd swearing tropes, convoluted insults and all characters speaking thinly disguised locker-room talk to fill in between the actual jokes; The Day Shall Come is admirable in that it rarely stoops to crude gags. Instead, Morris mines a ridiculous situation to great effect, with vibrant central performances and a fun, prissy support-turn from Kendrick.

“Next thing you’ll know, the Statue of Liberty will be wearing a burkha and we’ll be beheading Bruce Springsteen,’ one of Glack’s team observe, but the stakes are carefully defined in Morris’s intelligent, trenchant comedy. America is not under attack from outside, but from within, by those who seek to profit and further themselves by creating enemies from outside. It’s a laudable, modern sentiment, and fully articulated by the Ace In The Hole finale that Morris creates with genuine cinematic verve.

Transit 2018 *****

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You are under arrest from the moment Transit begins; this critic literally had to restart Christian Petzold’s film to get his head round the film’s uniqueness. This is an adaptation of a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers, but the details are not in keeping with the book’s period; the sight and sound of modern ambulances and police vehicles interrupt the action, and the clothes seem deliberately chosen to not evoke any specific era. In this German/French co-production, set in a parallel universe, the dialogue and the situations are set out in much more detail, and they relate as much to 2019 as 1942. The building of walls and the re-enforcing of borders has led to an inevitable conclusion; almost everyone caught up in this story is a refugee of some kind. Georg (Franz Rogowski) leaves Paris for Marseilles carrying the writings of a recently deceased author and a letter from the author’s wife; it allows him to pass himself off as the writer, and potentially access to a precious opportunity to flee the fascist occupation of his country and head to Mexico. Georg is in transit, even if he’s temporarily stuck in the port while he works through various official channels. But his journey takes a diversion when he attempts to help a sick child, and becomes involved with the doctor who helps him, and a lover Marie (Paula Beer), who was previously married to the writer he’s impersonating. The situation is oppressive; there are, to paraphrase a line from Titanic, ‘too many people and not enough boats’; Georg must consider who will make it out of Marselles alive, and what role he will play in the escape. Transit is a brilliant and powerful film that blazes an original trail that puts most film-makers to shame; there’s a great throwaway line about a zombie movie where the undead congregate on a shopping mall; even the dead, one character comments, seem to have run out of ideas. Petzold’s distain for genre tropes is invigorating; he brings a classic text to life in a way that never puts it behind glass to admire. Instead he updates the text in a way that focuses on the timeless personal suffering of the dispossessed; Transit is essential viewing for anyone wondering where the political directions of 2019 might lead.

Transit is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Streaming Services from Aug 16th 2019.

The Candidate 2019 ****

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Accessing foreign language films in multiplexes and even arthouse venues looks like an uphill struggle in 2019; having said that, streaming potentially offers up a far wider audience that cinema ever could. A willingness to embrace subtitles, plus a working interest in Spanish politics might seem like a big ask in terms of finding an audience qualified to appreciate Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s tense thriller, previously known as The Realm. Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) is a politician with criminal links; when he flies too close to his political opponents, he’s indicted, and his whole world starts to fall apart. Of course, Manuel is more than just a dupe, and he quickly works out a series of internecine schemes to make sure that he’s not the only one to take the fall. The Candidate is rightly marketed as being by the producers of The Secret in Their Eyes, the excellent Argentinian thriller which offered a similar kind of tough, adult world. There’s not much action or violence, but there’s also not much melodrama or contrivance; the story is tight and realistic, and the carefully-shot drama brings to mind the 2010 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the way that ordinary settings take on an off-kilter poetry. A throbbing techno soundtrack helps engage the interest during a dizzying first hour, and things heat up further until a couple of brilliant, unexpected scenes wrap things up at the conclusion. This film might need a hard sell, but for anyone looking for smart, modern political cinema, The Candidate gets the job done.

The Candidate hits UK Cinemas and Digital HD on 2nd August 2019

Long Shot 2019 ***

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When Seth Rogen first appeared in a puff of dubious smoke, he offered a new type of male lead for the 2010’s. A slob, a stoner, but also a decent guy and a buddy, someone to pal around with, Rogen’s charms worked well in Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and Bad Neighbours, but less so when squeezed into vehicles like The Green Hornet. Long Shot is a romantic comedy set in the world of politics, re-uniting Rogen with director Jonathan Levine, who worked with him on 50/50. The role of Fred Flarsky, a shambolic political activist/journalist who ends up writing speeches for Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) suits Rogen fine, but more problematic elements let Long Shot down.

Probably the biggest issue here is that 2019’s political landscape is so extreme that fiction can hardly keep up; a throwaway line about ‘gay marriage causing earthquakes’ is about as close at Long Shot gets to addressing Donald Trump’s tenure. Instead, there’s a very weak joke about the president (Bob Odenkirk) wanting to give up the White House to re-ignite his acting career; such quaint vanities are not the ones an audience will likely recognise as current. As Fred and Charlotte navigate various foreign backdrops and put aside their differences to fall in love, there’s little satire or commentary, just some fairly goofy rom-com antics. Things liven up when corporate forces attempt to blackmail Charlotte into dumping Fred, and a positive message about truth just about gets out. But the equation of Fred’s enthusiasm for self-stimulation with the hidden mistresses of US presidents feels like a stretch, and repeated use of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love from Pretty Woman suggests a bald attempt to push the audience’s buttons by evoking ancient glories in the rom-com genre.

Worse still, a sequence in which Charlotte has to defuse a potentially life-threatening hostage situation while ‘accidentally’ under the influence of molly is exactly the kind of tired, contrived wackiness that Rogen’s blunt approach once seemed to be the perfect antidote to. Two likable stars keep Long Shot watchable, but it’s a shame the script goes low when it should be soaring high.

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.