The Two Popes 2019 ****

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There’s been plenty of criticism of the lowest common denominator programming on Netflix; from Bright to The Ridiculous Six, there’s often a pervasive, musty aroma of a bottom drawer project that no-one else wanted. Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quite a different kind of animal, a carefully wrought adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play about the changing of the guard in the Vatican. As a roman a clef, it bears more of a resemblance to The Crown in that it features a decidedly populist view of historical events; while hardly worth faking a box-office run for, it should do Netflix no harm to demonstrate that yes, they can generate genuinely meaningful content.

Let’s be honest, here, a lot of the fun of The Two Popes is in the margins. Did you know that Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) was a huge fan of Kommisar Rex, a tv show about a crime-fighting dog? Were you aware that his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) would drink Fanta and eat pizza with him like a couple of home-boys while they plotted the future of the Catholic Church? A funny end-sequence has them on the couch watching football; the de-mythologising of the papal home-life is a big part of the appeal here. An opening sequence, in which Francis whistles Abba’s Dancing Queen seeps into an orchestral version that provides a surprising and irreverent soundtrack to the initial selection of Benedict as Pope.

Meireilles hasn’t done too much to open up the play; the beautiful backdrops at the pope’s retreat and at the Vatican provide much to engage the eye while two great actors bring the popes to life. This is a two-hander piece much like Volker Schlöndorff’s excellent 2016 film Diplomacy, with vivid flashbacks to Francis’ struggles as a young man in Argentina. Both Hopkins and Pryce give big, relish-able performances as quite different men, and the script never lets sight of the weight that both men suffer from a deep sense of despair at their church’s failure to act over internal abusers.

The Two Popes has surprised many by coming straight out of the traps to secure Golden Globe nominations; given the pedigree of the cast and director, it’s certainly in the running for awards attention. Perhaps it’s too wordy and worthy for pop-corn-swilling crowds, but it’s an excellent, thoughtful film, and it would be nice to think that it may well end up with a higher competition rate than Roma or The Irishman; it’s a tighter, more disciplined film that either of these prestige pictures. If nothing else, it’s a great start to Netflix’s Papal Cinematic Universe, (PCU) with plenty of other key figures ripe for Pope-sploitation.

The Mission 1986 *****

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The last time I saw the late Jake Eberts, he was struggling to get distributors to look at a fresh cut of an expensive film. ‘They think they’ve seen it already,’ he whispered to me with his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone, then shrugged; he seemed to sense that he was on a hiding to nothing. And yet Eberts was a truly great producer whose films gained 66 Oscar nominations, including nine for best picture. The Mission was another notable setback for Eberts and Goldcrest films, a big-budget prestige picture that failed to connect to a substantial audience, and which, along with Revolution and Absolute Beginners, almost bankrupted Goldcrest Films. Viewed in 70mm in 1986, it seemed like a secret success, a beautifully mounted and thoughtful film out of step with commercial dictates; re-watched in 2019, The Mission is a film that swells to fill the gap left by its lack of reputation; it’s a really great movie that deserves to be praised, recommended and shared.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a missionary who travels to a remote South American community, who he charms with music; Ennio Morricone’s score, ingeniously integrated into the diegetic music featured, is one of the best of his storied career. Back in the 1740’s, the slave-trade was rife, and scoundrels like Roderigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) took full advantage; Mendoza operates in a moral vacuum until he kills his own brother in an act of rage, and joins Gabriel’s group as part of his penance. When the Portuguese and Spanish decide to take the land from the indigenous tribes, Gabriel refuses to take up arms, but Mendoza uses his knowledge of combat to lead a spirited defence, although neither tactic slows the invading forces down for long.

The Mission is a powerful film about religion, and comes recommended by the Vatican and the Church Times; the central themes about the on-going conflict between might and love are admirably caught in Robert Bolt’s script, and yet unlike A Man for All Seasons, piety is mixed with explosive action scenes, brilliantly lensed by Chris Menges. The result won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and the mix of thoughtful rumination on the place of religion and defiant action is still stirring to watch.

Perhaps you feel that you’ve seen The Mission already. But the content was way ahead of it’s time, a contemplation of man’s inhumanity to man, the exploitation of indigenous people and the way that democratic and religious institutions have, deliberately or not, supported that process. Roland Joffe’s film always looked and sounded great, but it’s never been so topical as it is now; the final post-credits stinger, as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray Mcinally) looks questioning to the camera, still invites us to think and act on the on-going tragedy of  man’s inhumanity to man. ‘Thus have we made the world…’ says Altamirano, and that deep sense of responsibility pervades this laudable film.

 

The Wicker Man 1973 *****

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The resounding flop of Midsommar should send horror fans back to a rather more effective treatment of similar ideas in the form of Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man, generally voted to be one of the best, if not the very best, of tBritish horror films . That’s quite an accolade, because Robin Hardy’s thriller is quite an odd proposition for any number of reasons. Largely shot in daylight, there’s no violence until the final scenes, the main character is devoutly religious, and the stakes are deliberately low; the failure of the story to work for sequels or reboots indicates what a unique proposition this singular film is.

The expanded cut fleshes out Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) in more detail that the more widely seen version; arriving in a small village, he disparages graffiti saying “Jesus saves’; ‘ There’s a time and a place for it,’ he says, indicating that his beliefs are best kept private. Although in a relationship, Howie is a virgin, and does not suspect that he may be the victim of entrapment when an anonymous letter reaches him telling of a young girl’s disappearance.

Standing between Howie and the truth is a village of pagan-worshippers who openly fornicate outside the pub, worship phallic symbols, and allow their children to understand the world in sexualised terms. Howie is shocked, and his attempts to assert himself over his environment are blocked by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in tweed jacket and elbow pads. Ingrid Pitt and a dubbed (and body-doubled) Britt Ekland also make an impression, as does Lindsay Kemp as the pub’s landlord; there’s a gallery of strange locals for the honest copper to deal with.

The Wicker Man’s true horror is that of dying for nothing; Howie realises too late that his faith is no protection against unbelievers, and that his death will do nothing to alleviate their plight. In an original twist, the hunter becomes the hunted, and Howie’s investigation is turned on its head, revealing that he, in his hubris, is the real victim. Locating a beating pagan heart behind Scottish superstitions, The Wicker Man shows civilised man at a loss, out of his depth and helpless in the face of a fervent radicalism he thought had long-since vanished.

The Legend of The Holy Drinker 1988 ****

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Rutger Hauer’s favourite amongst his own movies was untypical of his output; working with the esteemed Ermanno Olmi of Tree of Wooden Clogs fame, he gives a quiet and understated performance in this adaptation of Joseph Roth’s slim novel. Hauer plays Kartak, a homeless man in 1930’s Paris who is leant money by a stranger (Anthony Quayle) on the condition that he repays it when he can. Of course, that’s not easy for an alcoholic, and his struggle to find the strength within himself to repay the cash has a clear and simple allegorical strength. One of Hauer’s biggest fans, critic Dilys Powell, was horrified by the direction his career took in the 1980’s and 90’s; a decent into B movie hell through random vehicles such as Blind Fury, Salute to the Jugger and Split Second. The Legend of the Holy Drinker was developed for Marcello Mastroianni, then offered to Robert De Niro; no less an actor that either man on his day, Hauer excels as the fabled alcoholic here in this quiet, often wordless film, somewhat ironically given that he was the promotions man for Guinness in a series of expensive adverts at the time.

Wise Blood 1979 *****

John Huston’s final film was one of the best of a legendary career; The Dead was a brilliant adaptation of James Joyce’s short story. But 1979’s Wise Blood, an adaptation of one of Flannery O’Connor’s two books, is every bit as well-drawn, and considerably more ambitious. A young man named Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) arrives in a Deep South city from an unspecified war, only to be identified by his hat and neat clothes as a preacher. Motes is anything but holy, shacked up with a prostitute and without much love for his fellow man. After meeting a fake-preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter (Amy Wright), Motes decides to become a self-styled evangelist, and forms his own Church of Christ without Christ. Dan Shor (Ram from Tron) is a devotee of Motes’ teaching, but a chance encounter with a mummified museum piece and a man in a gorilla suit send him in a different direction. Wise Blood is an allegory, but of a wry and intelligent kind that’s peppered with memorable moments and scenes, impeccably played and with a terrific score by Alex North. Huston’s later output is often seen as self-indulgent, but Wise Blood is a great film for the ages.

Ben -Hur 2016 ***

BEN-HURFor many fans of bad movies, an initial taste was found watching the thud-and-blunder epics of the 1950’s and sixties. The 1959 version of Ben-Hur was a perfect example; it may be a spin-off from The Bible in the form of Lew Wallace’s source material, but it’s pure Hollywood all the way. In it’s own way, Timur Bekmanbetov’s much heralded flop is the same; Ben-Hur’s story is now formed almost entirely around a chariot race viewed in a Fast and Furious fashion, and Morgan Freeman is on hand to explain a winning strategy that’s remarkably similar to the one featured in Tokyo Drift. Despite pallid leads in Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell as the brother estranged by fate and circumstance, there’s a full and groaning buffet of delights for bad movie fans. Jesus is treated like a minor character who might get his own franchise one day, popping up in the background to comic effect. There’s a stupendous sea-battle full of expensive money shots, not least when James Cosmo’s galleon-master gets pinged off by a giant oar like a rubber band. Ben-Hur; Full Throttle Drift Racer might have been a better title for this big, daft but undeniably amusing epic.

Philomena 2013 ***

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Steve Coogan is a fairly significant player in the UK comedy scene, but finding worldwide vehicles for his talents has resulted in minor roles in funny films such as Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, and leading role misfires in unlovable fare like Hamlet 2 and Around The World in 80 Days. Coogan scored something of a breakthrough with Philomena, adapting (with Jeff Pope) BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee as an international road movie, playing Sixsmith himself and with Judy Dench as Lee, a mother searching for his missing son. Coogan uses much of the same two-handed patter which made his TV show with Rob Brydon, The Trip, so entertaining, but doesn’t cop out of the criticism of religion, and specifically the Catholic church, that the story demands. Coogan and Dench do well with their roles under the direction of Stephen Frears, and there’s plenty of funny lines and amusing situations (Lee’s fascination with Big Momma’s House) on the way to an unsurprisingly tear-stained finale that casts Sixsmith in a surprisingly unfavourable light.