Thursday 24 May 2018

Movies: The divine black comedy

Calvary (15A, general release, 101 minutes) Director: John Michael McDonagh Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Pat Shortt, Aidan Gillen, Killian Scott. 4 Stars

Strong cast: Dylan Moran and Brendan Gleeson
Strong cast: Dylan Moran and Brendan Gleeson

In his last – and first – film, John Michael McDonagh scored a decent commercial hit by exploring the venal and comical life of a hedonistic but formidably determined west of Ireland policeman.

The Guard mixed playfully stereotypical Irishness with a dash of Flann O'Brien and a dollop of Quentin Tarantino. It worked up to a point, but never really moved beyond cartoonish farce and was nothing much to look at. By contrast Calvary is very nicely shot and, overall, nurses altogether loftier ambitions. Brendan Gleeson heads the cast again, this time playing a country priest with rather a lot on his plate.

Father James Lavelle ministers to a small community on the storm-battered Sligo seaboard. He's that rarest of beasts in movies these days, a good priest and an actual Christian, who does his best to help his parishioners overcome life's daily challenges. It's a thankless task, because for the most part they are a pretty nasty bunch, sly, money-grabbing, mean and begrudgeous, and Father Lavelle faces slights and insults daily.

One morning he's giving confessions when a supposed penitent enters the booth and quietly tells Lavelle he's going to kill him. And though the priest has no clue as to the man's identity, there's no shortage of potential suspects in the area, from embittered publicans to sarcastic, church-hating locals and a supercilious developer.

The priest's faith is shaken by this encounter. He could run but he doesn't, and as he goes about his pastoral duties we get a glimpse of the little differences a man like Lavelle can make.

Calvary, in part at least, is a film about faith and Lavelle's travails are intended to echo those of Christ. But it also seems to hint at how hopelessly ambitious are the tenets of Christianity, which fly in the face of human nature's base realities. A strong cast includes Dylan Moran, who's surprisingly good as a melancholy millionaire, Killian Scott, playing the town's resident sociopath, Chris O'Dowd as the suspiciously jovial town butcher, and Pat Shortt, a resentful, watchful publican.

Gleeson shares one brilliant scene with his son Domhnall, who plays the kind of maniac who would test even Christ's benevolence. But perhaps Calvary's single most powerful moment comes when Lavelle stops to innocently say hello to a little girl who seems lost and is then verbally attacked for doing so by her father.

Gleeson is measured and majisterial as the benighted priest, and if McDonagh's portrait of a modern Irish country town isn't all that flattering, it's because it is not a million miles from the truth.

Runs out of steam

Last Days on Mars

(15A, general release, 98 minutes)

Director:Ruairi Robinson.

Stars: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams, Romola Garai. 3 Stars.

This solid feature debut from Irish director Ruairi Robinson is high on style and thin on plot, but shows a lot of promise. Last Days on Mars stars Liev Schrieber and Elias Koteas as the leaders of a scientific mission to Mars.

For six months, a team of scientists have been compiling data about possible signs of life, and the day before they're due to leave, one of them makes an extraordinary discovery. When Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic) finds traces of cellular activity in a soil sample, he races to the spot where the dirt was found. It's life alright, but a parasite that turns its host into a brainless, blood-sucking zombie.

Rama is raiser of a lost cause

The Raid 2

(18, general release, 150 minutes) 2 Stars

Director: Gareth Evans.

Stars: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo.

Ruairi Robinson sets his scene nicely, but the zombie plot line isn't strong enough to power a 100-minute film.

Many were very impressed with Gareth Evans' 2012 Indonesian-based film The Raid, an ultra-violent but compellingly focused crime thriller that seemed to bring the action genre to a whole new level.

Iko Uwais starred as a young undercover cop called Rama who infiltrates a tower block that's home to a criminal cartel and fights his way slowly towards the top. The real strength of The Raid was its lean and simple plot, which left Evans and his martial arts experts free to work up ever more elaborate fight scenes.

In this messy sequel, however, things have got a lot more complicated. Rama is contacted by the ruthless head of Jakarta's anti-corruption task force, who persuades him to infiltrate the Bangun crime family. His task is to expose corrupt cops, but as Rama gets involved in a brewing gang war it's hard to remember which way is up.

It's also hard to care what's going on. A raft of high-kicking incidental characters dilute what little dramatic tension there is, and the plot soon descends into cartoonish nonsense.

Intimate and moving

No Limbs No Limits

(PG, limited release, 68 minutes) 3 Stars

Director: Steven O'Riordan.

Stars: Joanne O'Riordan, Steven O'Riordan

Steven O'Riordan's moving documentary tells the story of his sister, Joanne, who was born in 1996 without arms or legs.

In the film's most powerful segment, her parents Ann and Dan Joe recall her early years, during which the medical profession did not cover itself in glory.

In a sense Steven O'Riordan's film feels like a home movie, but a very intimate and moving one, so nothing wrong with that.

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