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.

Popular posts from this blog

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was