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.

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.

https://www.amazon.com/Black-Robe-Lothaire-Bluteau/dp/B001CJFTWW/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=black+robe+film&qid=1563460260&s=gateway&sr=8-2

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.