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.

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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.

Vice 2019 ***

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After the information dump of The Big Short, Adam McKay continues his post SNL career as a political activist with this scabrous portrait of US vice president Dick Cheney. As played by Christian Bale over several decades, Cheney is viewed here as the man behind, happy for others to take the limelight while getting what he wants behind the scenes. With make-up rendering him all but unrecognisable, Bale seems to submerge himself into the part to great effect, and Amy Adams matches him as his wife. McKay is an anything-goes director, and it’s no surprise to hear that an elaborate musical scene was cut; there’s also scenes which don’t quite land with relation to the Halliburton scandal and the final obsession with heart problems is the film’s weakest suit. But some of the comedy is proper satire and it works, notably Albert Molina as a waiter offering a menu of corruptions, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and a interesting footnote on the creation of Fox News. As satire, Vice didn’t have much chance of reaching an audience, but it’s much more than just a glorified SNL sketch.

Blackkklansman 2018 ****

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Spike Lee’s best film in a couple of decades is a true-life story that’s both weird and wonderful; the story of a black policemen who infiltrates the white enclave of the Klu Klux Klan, Lee’s film would be unbelievable if it didn’t happen to be based on a factual account by ex-cop Ron Stallworth. Played by John David Washington, Stallworth is tired of getting the wrong end of the stick at Colorado Springs Police Department and calls up the KKK membership drive. Stallworth needs a white face to complete his ruse, and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is prepared to be his other half. Once the men get close to the Grand Duke (Topher Grace), they discover a bomb plot that makes their cover story all the more risky. While Blackkklansman exaggerates Stallworth’s story for dramatic effect, Lee’s film is a gripping ride, with Washington and Driver both engaging, and the audience’s lack of knowledge about how the story concludes creating considerable tension. A final coda using sobering newsreel footage from Charlottesville hammers the message home, and Blackkklansman takes no prisoners in demonstrating how right-wing ideology can create moral danger.

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.