Skip to main content

You were hit on the head.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The immediate question that springs to mind with Exodus: Gods and Kings is “Who is this for?” The core audience for a Biblical epic is surely the hallowed Christian ticket, one that promises potential rewards on a vast scale (The Passion of the Christ). So why make a movie where the Old Testament protagonist’s communication with God is implied to be all in his own head, and where God’s interventions – at least in part – are serviced with “feasible” scientific explanations? Noah also went off message, and had a God who was profoundly silent (not surprising from atheist Aronofsky), but it was stuffed full of enough weirdness to at make it something different. Exodus appears tailored to fall between a myriad of stools and so is thoroughly anaemic (in its casting too), its ultimate undoing.


Watched in an unintentional double bill with The Voices, it’s more than evident that Ridley Scott (with writers Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) was intent on presenting Moses as a functional schizophrenic (certainly, this was Christian Bale’s take). His first experience of God comes after a bump on the head, a pretty clear indication of how the makers are seeing this.


Effectively, they’re just hedging their bets, mistakenly assuming that if they water down the religious-miraculous they’ll appear to a wider audience, when they end up appealing to no one. Yet the climactic killing of the first-born doesn’t fit into the “explicable” lens Scott is looking at the Biblical account through, so it begs the question of why bother going that route in the first place? Where the director doesn’t get to part the Red Sea and Moses doesn’t even carry his crucial staff around. As for suggesting a host of crocodiles is responsible for turning the Nile red, surely its no more “grounded” than a plague sent by God?


Moses is rendered a strangely passive, on-looking figure in all this. Joshua, played by Aaron Paul as a Monty Python “It’s…” in search of his next crack pipe hit, continually observes Moses’ chats with God from afar. In which Moses is talking to… no one! The nutter! Moses doesn’t interact or announce the successive plagues (compacted into a series of successive connected incidents here), and there’s no progression of confidence as he takes the speaking role first given to Aaron (who hardly figures).


This mad Moses is seen throughout; his voices are even personified as a dramatically inert kid delivering the God part (such a conceit can work in horror, but for gravitas it sucks). When we get to the Ten Commandments, it’s Moses chipping away at them up Mount Sinai, rather than receiving them from Him signed and sealed. As on old man he’s still seeing his young scamp version of Yahweh. Yeah, this version will go down a storm in Sunday school.


It would have been more interesting to see a stark depiction of the Old Testament God, the one who hardens the Pharaoh’s heart, presented in a warts and all fashion. It might have given some substance to Ramses’ outraged line “Is your God a killer of children?” (which might elicit a “I know you are but what am I?” response, to an Egyptian religion that is uninterrogated aside from auguries, entrails and the odd bit of deduction to stress it’s all perfectly explicable during the plagues). Scott handled distinctions between religions much better a decade ago in the (patchy) Kingdom of Heaven.


Which leads one to wonder how Ridley developed this rep for being good with such swords and sandals fare, or period pieces generally. He’s only ever been as good as his script since the mid-80s (when he started out he built worlds, now they’re more like Lego kits), and his successes (The Duellists, and qualified appreciations of 1492 and Gladiator) need to be set against the increasing cluelessness in the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Exodus. However you look at it (and most these pictures have done proportionally better internationally than in the US) the price tag hasn’t justified the enormous expense. Then you take into account the critical drubbings and you have to think he’d be best to steer well clear.


He’s particularly off with driving the plot of Moses, spending a lot of time establishing his relationship with Ramasses II (Joel Edgerton) but seeming to have no sense of how to (presumably) navigate a man who finds his way back to his heritage. Exodus is long enough (two and a half hours) that it should be able to cover its bases, but aside from Bale’s uncompelling Moses and Edgerton’s petulant Ramasses barely anyone gets a chance to stand out. Neither of these two is well cast. Edgerton looks plain silly with his bronzed skin and make up and, even leaving aside the whitewashing of the roles, neither seems entirely comfortable. Bale has a very modern sensibility and delivery, in a way say Russell Crowe can overcome by dint of charisma. Bale’s moody authority is bland and unconvincing here, probably the most unpersuasive he’s been in a role since Terminator Salvation.


On the side-lines, Ben Kingsley hardly registers, the same with Sigourney Weaver (as Ramasses’ mum!) John Turturro and Ben Mendelshon make something of limited screen time, the latter as the weasely fellow who gets Moses in trouble in the first place, and the former as Sethi I and Moses’ surrogate father. Indira Varma and Maria Valverde make an impression as a high priestess and Moses’ wife respectively, the former sharing a fate with Ewen Bremner’s “expert” in one of the picture’s few amusing moments (Ramses gets tired of his inaccurate advisors).


The special effects are as accomplished as you’d expect, but all for nought. Exodus is an inert, pointless picture (the irrelevant double think of its subtitle may have been a result of Exodus already being taken, but I’d be surprised if they hadn’t gone with it anyway; it illustrates splendidly that they don’t know who their appealing to or why). Increasingly with Scott, since his Gladiator emergence as a financial (semi-) reliable, it’s hard to pinpoint what he sees in his choices, other than a fleeting whim. He’s a guy who pronounces story is king, to the extent he believed his agnosticism benefited his approach (“because I’ve got to convince myself the story works”), which is like having conversations with NASA before taking on Legend.


Look at the mess that was the storyline progression for Robin Hood, or the permutations Prometheus went through. From the start of Exodus: Gods and Kings, the story allows itself that prediction and the supernatural exist. Moses is told, “I know you don’t believe in omens and prophecies, but I do believe”, something validated when the prophecy of Moses becoming a leader comes to pass. To go from there to vacillating between delusional visions and lucky natural phenomena and actual divine intervention indicates a lack of clarity of theme and purpose. Scott has nothing to say with Exodus, other than that he thinks its still fine to cast white to the point of absurdity and recognises some fairly banal points about the terrible things done in the name of faith. Just keep churning them out, Ridders.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).