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/

 

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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.

Madame Sin 1972 ***

sinProduced by Robert Wagner, this nutty spy caper takes place largely on the rather lovely and certainly picturesque Scottish island of Mull, and the tiny town of Tobermory, recognisable from the children’s tv show Balamory. Released in 1972, David Greene’s feature reflects a growing problem in Scotland; the creation of Thought Factories by criminal geniuses like Madame Sin (Bette Davis), where sound waves can be used to cleave the unwitting into two like apples, and thoughts can be implanted into unwary Polaris submarine commanders like the one played by Gordon Jackson here. For a tv movie, released to cinemas when no execs bought into the daftness on show, Madame Sin is pretty lavish stuff, with classy support from Dudley Sutton, Denholm Elliot and Space 1999’s shape-shifter Catherine Schell, and the story, while on the brisk side, is reasonably fresh, But Davis is the highlight here, clearly having fun as a Fu Manchu-style super-villainess and spitting out truly outlandish dialogue like “How would you like your submarine, gentlemen, gift wrapped?’

https://www.amazon.com/Madame-Sin-Bette-Davis/dp/B07JMM8888/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=madame+sin&qid=1562234022&s=gateway&sr=8-1

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Pokemon; Detective Pikachu 2018 ****

Pokemon movies are 40 miles of bad road for the unwary; unimpressive animation, convoluted stories, and a sense that all the information required for a basic comprehension is not on-screen; the Pokemon animations feel like an accessory to the game, rather than the other way round. But those who deny the power of Mewtwo will have to adjust their thinking after Rob Letterman’s film, a far more imaginative and involving effort than anyone might have expected. Justice Smith plays Pokemon trainer Tim, who teams up with the deer-stalker sporting bundle of fur named Pikachu to solve a case; voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Pikachu offers a PG version of Deadpool’s trademark snark, which works well here to deflate any potential cuteness. Kathryn Newton also makes an impression as cub-reporter Lucy Stevens, but it’s the Pokemon themselves which are the real stars. While the plot takes a few steers from Zootopia and Happytime Murders in terms of a detective investigating a world balanced between furry creature and humans, it also provides plenty of opportunity for huge fantasy set-pieces, with the effects team on point to create an inflatable-strewn city parade and a massive chase through the Scottish countryside that literally makes the earth move. Franchise starters are many and standard; Pokemon; Detective Pikachu is one of the few which leave audiences keen to catch a few more. And goodness knows what Bill Nighy thinks he’s doing here, but he rips through his dailogue in the best traditions of a pantomime baddie.