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.

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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 Bog Momma’s House) on the way to an unsurprisingly tear-stained finale that casts Sixsmith in a surprisingly unfavourable light.

Black Robe 1991 ***

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Bruce Beresford’s film would make a good double-bill with Roland Joffe’ s The Mission; with Jesuit priests as their main characters, both films explore the difference between heaven and earth with skill. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, set in 164 Quebec, Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) sets out across snowy wastelands to establish contact with a remote mission, only to find the superstitions amongst his party tearing it apart. Based on a true story, Black Robe contrasts the beautiful but deadly vistas of remote locations with the physical and mental tortures that men exert on each other; it’s a darkly spiritual film that repays patient viewers.

Cool Hand Luke 1967 ****

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Adapted from a novel by Donn Pearce, Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 film is a decidedly cool proposition; the title character, Luke Jackson, played by Paul Newman, is sent to suffer on a Southern chain gang, but no matter what they authorities throw at him to try and break his spirit, he always bounces back.. The feeling is late sixties, even if the setting is 1949; Jackson stands for the masses in the face of officialdom, and the Christ allegory is handled with irreverence, not only in the famous egg-eating scene, but in Newman’s stirring performance of the folk-song Plastic Jesus; one big raspberry in the face of his captors. George Kennedy and Dennis Hopper contribute notable bits, but its Newman’s film all the way.

Jesus of Montreal 1989 ***

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Writer/director Dennis Arcand’s 1989 drama is a startling post-modern take on the idea of a Passion play. Set in Montreal, it depicts a group of actors, led by Dennis (Lothaire Bluteau) who is playing the role of Jesus, and begins to see many similarities between the life of Christ and his own predicament. With the Catholic church protesting the production, Dennis faces betrayal but comes to believe that he’s on a mission from God to perform. With Robert Le Page amongst the cast, Jesus of Montreal is an artistic triumph that skilfully manages to attack organised religion and spoof theatrical pretentions at the same time.

Everything Is Illuminated 2005 ***

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Actor Liev Schreiber took the writing and directing jobs on this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, and did proficient work in bringing it to life. Elijah Wood plays Foer, a young Jewish man who sets out to find out the truth about his family by travelling to a remote Ukrainian village. His journey is fraught with difficulties, some caused and some solved by his relationship with Alex (Eugene Hutz, from the band Gogol Bordello). The contrast between the straight-laced Foer  and the track-suited Alex makes for great character comedy along the way, and leads to some thoughtful revelations on the nature of love and war, poignantly captured by Schreiber’s subtle direction and allowing the actors to defy stereotypes with their energetic, heartfelt performances.