Skip to main content

Five years of pain after twenty of privilege and now you think you know a thing or two about suffering.

Ben-Hur
(2016)

(SPOILERS) MGM has been entirely consistent in plundering its back catalogue for remakes. At least, to the extent that they never at any point suggested quality results were a determining factor. You’d have thought a redo of one of their greatest success stories would have presumed more care and reverence, but Timur Bekmambetov brings the same level of depth and discernment to Ben-Hur he did to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. About the best you can say for it is that’s it’s relatively concise in the telling.


Not that MGM didn’t throw money at the property ($80m of the $100m budget, with marketing on top, the rest coming from Paramount; it made $94m), but their understanding of what makes a good epic was closer to Kingdom of Heaven than Gladiator. Or, if you’re going the full biblical route, Exodus: Of Gods and Kings than The Passion of the Christ (or even Noah, like Exodus made by an atheist).


Indeed, there’s a faint embarrassment about the overly religious content that comes attached to the picture and none of the awe reserved for Jesus present in the previous iterations. We see Jesus’ face this time, in the unfortunate form of Rodrigo Santoro, who comes with an in-built, slightly unscrupulous vibe, which doesn’t exactly sell the crucial divine majesty aspect; the key to attracting the religious viewership, which can mean big bucks, is to make it at least appear that you buy into the nominally espoused values. There’s a pronounced absence of such conviction here. It’s notable that one of the producers stated faith-based movies need to feel like epic summer blockbusters in order to attract young and secular audiences, since that’s exactly what Passion didn’t rely on, and why its success hasn’t been repeated. Target audiences knew Mel bought into the depiction of a welter of suffering.


In attempting to deliver epic texture too, Ben-Hur gets it wrong from inception. You can fault Chuck Heston’s range as an actor, but there’s no doubting he had the presence to stand tall in the genre; he filled the screen. Jack Huston is a decent thesp (he stole Boardwalk Empire whenever he had a scene, and had you willing the makers to cut back to his plotline), but star wattage he lacks. We’ve seen this before, with much lesser actors Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven and Taylor Kitsch in John Carter, where, whatever merits the material nursed, they required underpinning by a performer of sufficient stature.


In fairness, the attempt by Keith Clarke, and John Ridley’s rewrite, to lend the relationship between Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebell’s Messala greater substance than previously at least half works. Kebell’s a more interesting actor when he’s going unhinged, and Messala’s a little too routine to bring out the best in him, but he succeeds in translating the character’s doubts and crises of conscience, even as there are some odd decisions en route to his change of heart (the ungainly scene in which a centurion explains to Judah that he didn’t carry out orders to kill his sister and daughter and instead locked them away stands up to no degree of analysis). Consequently, he’s a more interesting character than the protagonist, who’s there to give off a pin-up vibe and little else (Huston gets himself a short back and sides in time for the race; this picture, which sees the title character wandering around in hoody, also continues a trend of anachronistic garb in period pictures that reached its – hopefully – inglorious nadir in last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).


Still, employing versatile actors doesn’t mean they can get away with stinkers of dialogue. A more mannered approach, more closely aligned with the epics of old, would have helped foster a much-needed sense of scale. Instead, we’re left with a decidedly undressed form, one fixated on unlikely comparative views (“and we crushed the freedom of innocent civilisations simply because they were different” notes Messala at one point of his adventuring campaigns as an officer). Bekmambetov considered the stress on forgiveness rather than revenge marked it out from William Wyler’s film, but I guess he wasn’t paying attention to Wyler’s conclusion regarding the futility of revenge. Or that the forgiveness angle here is played out in risible fashion – not to mention it seems entirely unreliant on Christ’s presence –  with Messala losing a leg and Judah announcing “No more killing” as the latter rages and then breaks down (“All I can do is carry you” he tells Messala, and they all head off in frightfully friendly fashion with Morgan Freeman, whose role is marked out only by the mightily sculpted dreads Hair & Makeup have furnished for him).


Judah’s fall and rise are considerably truncated in this version. There’s a Quintus Arius (James Cosmo) but he dies in the naval battle (on the evidence of the CGI-heavy galley adventures, it’s just as well Bekmambetov’s Moby Dick remake failed to get off the ground). Cue Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim and Judah earning his trust by saving a sick horse.


The subsequent selling point chariot race – to the extent that it’s teased in the opening shot and throughout as the main event – is a bit of a damp squib, failing to capture the immediacy or visceral quality imbued by Wyler, with Bekmambetov breaking the pace by cutting away too much (including inept use of flashbacks) – somehow, we’re expected to believe Judah can hear Ilderim’s advice over the din of the racetrack –  and relying on obvious CGI (most egregiously when Judah rolls across the finish line and the remains of his chariot tumble over his head after him). Indeed, the only truly affecting moment in the entire bodge is when Judah realises the horse he brought back from the brink has bought the farm.


With Messala less hissable, that slack is made up by Marcus Decimus (David Walmsley) and Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk). The latter’s role is more prominent but also less interesting than previously; the character is always more intriguing when presented as half reasonable. Judah’s leprous mother and sister are once again healed during a magic rainstorm – but no blood of Christ with it –  but there’s no sense that, unlike wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), he has undergone a conversion. Indeed, it’s difficult to conclude the picture has any perspective towards belief or politics, rather suiting it’s artless genesis. At best, one might come away with the vague idea that individual empathy will overcome divisions of race or class; perhaps everyone leaving Jerusalem to its fate suggests a disinterest in resolving conflicts where there’s no will for peaceful resolution by all parties. Or it’s just careless writing.


MGM’s list of remakes and reboots is continuing apace, with the last few months seeing Tomb Raider and Death Wish released to predictably mixed responses and joining the similarly less than rapturous reception of The Magnificent Seven, Poltergeist, Fame and The Pink Panther. Upcoming: a gender-swapped Overboard (which wouldn’t have gone down well in its original form, but reverse the roles and apparently, it’s fair game). Like the biblical epic generally, it’s unlikely they’ll get wise while there are still success stories out there (even if they’re coming from other studios). In the current cycle, though, about the only approximation of hit criteria for a sword-and-sandals romp is that Russell Crowe has been in about two of them. But then, on a mean average, we won’t be due another big screen Ben-Hur until 2062.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …