Friday, August 26, 2016

BEN-HUR (2016)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight August 26, 2016

I sat down to watch director Timur Bekmambetov’s (NIGHT WATCH, 2004, DAY WATCH, 2006) remake of the historical epic BEN-HUR (2016) with little preconceived notions about the story. I’ve never seen the original 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, even with eleven Academy Awards under its belt. It’s a badge of shame I hope someday to remove, now that I’ve seen this version and enjoyed it a lot. I was impressed with the scope and authentic feel of the film, among many other facets.

As an aside, I was struck that no one in opening night crowd (and it was a pretty good crowd) was under the age of forty. The name Ben-Hur mustn’t resonate with young people. Too bad, it should.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, AMERICAN HUSTLE, 2013, OUTLANDER, 2008) is a privileged Jewish prince during the Roman occupation of Israel in the early first century. “Prince” meaning he is a member of the upper crust of Jewish society. He is wealthy and lives in a spacious home with his parents, sister Tirzah, and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, WARCRAFT, 2016, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2014). Judah and Messala are as close as any brothers could be, though Judah is high-born and Messala the orphaned son of a Roman soldier taken in by the Ben-Hurs as a child. Messala is treated, for the most part, as a regular member of the family, but he never quite fits in.

The young men also have complicated love lives. Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia, PROJECT ALMANAC, 2015) and Messala are in love. He does not feel worthy of her, so leaves to make a name for himself as a Roman soldier in order to stand on his own reputation and accomplishments. Judah loves one of the family’s servants, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, HOMELANDTV Series, IRON MAN, 2008).  The filmmakers could have elaborated a little on what Mom & Dad think of all this, but BEN-HUR isn’t a three-and-a-half-hour epic like the 1959 film, so they simply smile a lot and aren’t fazed by this. Besides, they’re rich, have good standing in Jewish society, and aren’t overly burdened by the conquering Roman machine ruling over everything.

The Romans are smart but brutal rulers who deal diplomatically with the wealthy elite, but control the poorer masses with violence and fear. Crimes are answered with brutal punishment, especially death. Crucifixions are common. One group of Jews in particular has been a thorn in the Romans’ side for years: the zealots. After hundreds of years of oppression, the zealot rebellion has gained traction, using guerilla tactics, hiding in shadows to attack roman soldiers and garrisons with quick and violent results. To stem the rebellion, punishments have become more severe. Oppression over the population is at its worst.
Why the history lesson? It’s what this film is about, on the surface. BEN-HUR does a good job showing this, albeit mostly from the perspective of the wealthy population, who are the least affected group.
Judah knows what Rome is capable of, so doesn’t make waves. Until the night his sister brings home a wounded young zealot named Dismas (Moises Arias, ENDER’S GAME, 2013, and the HANNAH MONTANA TV Series). Judah reluctantly helps the boy and takes him in until he’s recovered. He learns about the Roman occupation from another perspective, and though he does not condone their violence, he starts to understand a little better the why of it all.

Messala returns home as a captain of the Roman guard, held in high esteem by his compatriots, especially the incoming governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, LUCY 2014). Messala has been hardened from years of bloody warfare. Rome and its mission means everything to him. His reunion with Judah is happy, but tense.

When the Dismas tries to kill Pilate from the Ben-Hur rooftop, the entire family is arrested. Judah’s father is killed, and though Judah pleads with Messala for mercy, his mother and sister are arrested and given a death sentence, though his Esther escapes. Judah is sentenced to a life of slavery aboard a Roman warship, where he will spend years as a rower, below deck. Never knowing the fate of his family, he spends these years sitting in the same seat, rowing and rowing, holding on to his new-found hatred of his brother and the Romans, in order to survive.

With a PG-13 rating, depicting the brutality of Roman occupation and the subsequent affliction of Judah Ben-Hur was a far cry from the Gibson-esque bloodbath of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), but the filmmakers do a decent job. This is especially true in the bowels of the Roman ship. It’s very claustrophobic, and the eventual—and fateful—battle the ship finds itself in one day, viewed only through cracks in the hull through which Judah can watch, is quite good and frightening.

The tagline for BEN-HUR pretty much tells the overall story arch: “Prince to Slave to Rebel.” When Judah escapes slavery, he vows to learn what happened to his family and, more importantly, seek revenge on Messala.

His view of his world began as apathetic, not wanting to make waves, to live his life as comfortably as possible. After his enslavement, hate drives him on. When he returns home, this emotion is all he has left, even after finding Esther, who has spent the time on the street helping people in need and becoming a follower of a man claiming to be Messiah, Jesus.

What might come as a surprise to some, Jesus plays a significant role throughout Judah Ben-Hur’s life, though has far less emphasis in this current incarnation of the story than the blockbuster 1959 film, and much less than the original novel.

Like the previous films, including a silent version in 1925, BEN-HUR is based on one of the biggest selling novels in American history. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. I did some research, and was surprised (since I’d never heard of it) that it was so popular for its time and throughout the twentieth century. In fact, until Gone with the Wind was released in 1936, it was the largest selling book in America next to the Bible. Like its later adaptions, it intertwines the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur with the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. The book itself opens with the Three Wise Men visiting baby Jesus when Judah Ben-Hur is just a boy. Though Judah and Jesus do not grow up together, their lives are forever entwined from that point on, and the book tells the story of the Christ through the eyes of Judah. The 1959 film has more room, and I assume more social acceptance of religious themes in movies, to delve deeper into the Jesus storyline. In the 2016 version, Jesus appears in three significant scenes. First, when Prince Judah gets into a debate with Esther about Roman occupation.  Jesus (played with silent intensity by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, THE 33, 2015) is still a carpenter and overhears their conversation. He interjects that God has a path for each of them. And “if God is righteous, then we should do righteous things.” This statement affects Esther, though Judah waves the comment off.

When Slave Judah is dragged through the streets, bound and bloodied, Jesus gives him water. Very little is said, but a connection is made, one that comes arounds much later in the film when Jesus himself is dragged through the streets of Jerusalem. Though the intertwining of these two storylines is somewhat downplayed, it is a critical component, mostly as the film comes to a close. The reason being the underlying story of BEN-HUR: how his view of violence changes over time. From apathy, to hate and the need for revenge, to seeing another way. It’s this other way which eventually is the redemptive path he must find.

The big highlight of BEN-HUR is, of course, the chariot race. If you’ve never seen the movie, or know little about it, you still know that there’s a climactic chariot race somewhere in there. The movie opens at the start of the race, with Judah and Messala posturing with each other from their respective chariots before tearing out onto the “circus,” a huge oval stadium built specifically for these deadly competitions. That’s the teaser, before we are brought back seven years earlier to tell the whole story.

I’d been enjoying the film up to the race, but kept my enthusiasm in check until I was able to see how this pivotal scene played out. Knowing how critical it is to the story, it had to be good. And it was. In fact, it was amazing, full of all the action and drama one would expect from a large scale epic. One aspect I thought was well-done was the lack of CGI. Granted, they probably used a lot of computer-generated effects. But there’s a good mix of live action blended in, so one does not notice the special effects. A good comparison would be the original LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (2001-2003), which used this mixed-effect technique so bloody well, and its prequel THE HOBBIT (2012-2014) where the CGI was obvious and so prevalent it was almost sad, especially in the final installment. The action and adrenaline of the chariot race never fell into cheesy overkill, allowing the viewer to truly enjoy the experience.

The sets and cinematography throughout were gorgeous. I assume much of the film was shot in locations to reflect ancient Israel, with effects used to compliment rather than overpower the sets.

The acting was good as well, with a cast culled from around the world. For example Ayelet Zurer (MUNICH, 2005, MAN OF STEEL, 2013), who plays Judah’s mother, is a popular Israeli actress. Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) is Brazilian. Danish actor Pilou Asbaek portrays a unique, and much less sympathetic, Pontius Pilate than is depicted in other films. From the home front, what story revolving around God doesn’t have this man:  Morgan Freeman (nearly every movie ever made) as the wandering and wealthy Arab Sheik, Ilderim, who takes on Judah as his chariot driver after convincing him that beating Messala in the circus would be more satisfying revenge. With such a unique (and unknown, to me, at least) cast, I wondered if Freeman’s star image and voice might stand out (in a bad way), but he isn’t in this many movies because he can’t act. His Ilderim is a strong side character and anti-hero.

To wrap this up, I need to throw in some spoilers. If you don’t want to know how it ends stop reading now and know I enjoyed the film, with a couple of qualms about the ending.

Yes, some aspects of the ending bothered me, and I’m guessing might have really irked other reviewers, since general reception to BEN-HUR has been meh at best.

The chariot race is the lynch pin of Judah Ben-Hur’s tale, but it’s not the end. Moving from disinterest to rage, there was one more change he needed to go through before out story was finished.

Before the race, he discovers his mother and sister are alive, rotting in a jail cell where they’ve contracted leprosy and live in squalor. This only fuels Judah’s hate. After defeating Messala in the circus and earning his freedom, Judah becomes involved in the zealot movement. Esther has become an apostle of Jesus and is present in the garden when he is arrested. Judah finds Jesus on the road, bloody and falling under the weight of the cross. He gives him water, then grabs a rock to attack the soldiers. Jesus stops him, calling him by name and explaining he does this of his own free will. There is another way towards redemption besides violence. Something about this moves Judah to later collapse at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies as he understands letting go of hate, offering forgiveness to others, is the only true path to redemption.

The phrase “something about this,” however, is where I think this year’s BEN-HUR falls a little short. His exposure to Jesus is scarce and scattered. Aside from one moment of kindness, there was no connection between the two. Yes, Esther is a pre-Christian follower, but his epiphany at the cross, as well-done and dramatic as it was, seemed too much without cause. Even most of Jesus’s disciples did not understand his teachings until three days later. Somehow, Judah understands the basic tenants after three brief encounters during his lifetime. The cause-effect would be more believable had there been more interaction between them, aside from Esther. (Yet another reason for me to check out the Heston version to see if they managed to accomplish this). At its core, BEN-HUR is a spiritual movie, but you can’t cram all religious elements into the last ten minutes!

Lastly, this may sound odd coming from an optimist, but the final scene is too happy. As in the book and 1959 movie, Judah’s mother and sister are healed miraculously of their leprosy. In the book, Jesus heals them at the side of the road before his arrest. In the previous film, they were healed with Judah at the foot of the cross. Here, it rains as Jesus dies and the rain leaks into their prison cell, and they are cured. Of the three, being at the cross works best for the plot. But that’s not my issue, really. In the very last scene, everyone reconciles with everyone else (including Messala and Judah’s sister), and every face has a big smile. The movie is somber and at times quite dark—so this many smiles at the end simply does not work. Hollywood insists that every film end with the main character smiling, to send the viewer home smiling, too (don’t believe me? Just try not to notice it in every film going forward). The film’s predominantly somber tone should have continued until the end, just more hopeful in tone. The Hollywood Rule backfired here, big time.

My issues with the ending scenes notwithstanding (unfortunately, these are what every viewer will leave remembering the most), BEN-HUR is an excellent, big-scale production and well worth the price of a ticket.


I give it three and a half racing chariots.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight August 6, 2016


When the J.J. Abrams (STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS, 2015, LOST TV Series) reboot of the STAR TREK movie franchise debuted in 2009, I was very happy with how it turned out. And though I also enjoyed the sequel (STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 2013), with its re-telling of the Kahn legend, I was ready, with STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) for a more original story to be told. Homages to episodes- and movies-past can only carry a franchise so far before it needs to stand on its own creative merits. A lesson I hope the Abrams team has learned when the eighth installment of STAR WARS hits the screens next year (even if FORCE AWAKENS was phenomenal in its own right).

Say what you will about STAR TREK BEYOND (as I will, since this is my review), it has followed this path and given us an original adventure for Kirk and company to fight their way through (even if the Enterprise gets destroyed… again). It doesn’t have quite the heart or oomph (for lack of an actual word) of the previous two films, but it still succeeds in other ways.

We left the crew of the USS Enterprise at the end of INTO DARKNESSpreparing for a five-year mission into uncharted space, in keeping with the original premise of the 1960s TV series. When BEYOND opens, they’ve been at it for three years, and the extended mission seems to have taken a toll on the characters (and, it felt to me, the actors, but more on that in a moment).

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, WONDER WOMAN, 2017, THE FINEST HOURS, 2016) is feeling a bit out of place, growing emotionally unanchored in the universe after being in space for so long. He’s having an early mid-life crisis, too, as he approaches his birthday when he will have outlived his father who died saving him and his mother in the amazing opening sequence of the first film. Kirk has applied for a desk job as Vice-Admiral of Starfleet. Spock (Zachary Quinto, HEROES TV series), in a nod to the passing of actor Leonard Nimoy (the original Spock) is mourning the death of, well, himself. Old Spock, we’ll call him. Spock now wonders if his time might be better spent continuing Old Spock’s work rebuilding the Vulcan race after the genocidal events of the first film.

Everyone else just seems tired, and it’s a good time for shore leave. They dock at a remote, but massive space station called The Yorktown. We’ve come a long way from the little Lego construction used as a space station in the original “Trouble with Tribbles” TV episode. The Yorktown is a Death Star-sized bubble containing a complex series of open-air levels and decks, each with entire city blocks reaching upward in different directions: the overall effect being a space-aged M.C. Escher painting. Docking starships enter through a long pipe in the middle of this ball. It’s quite a visual treat, and one of the coolest set pieces in the film. Here, we get a glimpse (albeit brief) into some of the personal lives of the crew, most significantly the fact that Sulu (John Cho, AMERICAN DAD! TV Series) has a husband and a daughter. In a script peppered with personal and genre references, this small plot point was done as a nod to George Takei, who played the original Sulu character.

Not long after, a lifeboat drifts out of a neighboring nebula (a natural phenomenon which has effectively kept most exploration vessels from venturing beyond to explore what may lie on the other side). Its only passenger, Kalara (Lydia Wilson, ABOUT TIME, 2013) explains that her ship has crashed on a planet on the opposite side of the nebula and is in dire need of rescue. Since the Enterprise is the only vessel available capable to making it to the other side, the crew cut their leave short and head out for an unplanned rescue mission.

I enjoyed one small detail around Kalara: she does not speak English, and her language is alien enough to require her wearing a universal translator around her neck. As she talks, the necklace translates for her. In the past, non-humans speaking English relied on the viewer’s assumption that their words were being translated either through their communications or the crew’s communicators. Nice to see an alternative approach out here. If you’re not an avid Trekkie, however, you probably won’t think this small plot point was worth an entire paragraph.

As soon as the ship arrives at the planet, they are ambushed, swarmed by thousands of small space craft that chip away at the Enterprise and chew off its nacelles (the long cylindrical “engines” used to create man-made wormholes, allowing the ship to fly at “warp” speed… didn’t think you’d learn anything today, did you?). They eventually behead the ship, leaving the large saucer section to tumble into the planet’s atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the attackers, led by the warrior alien Krall (Idris Elba, Roland in the upcoming THE DARK TOWER, 2017, and in PROMETHEUS, 2012) board the broken sections of the ship by latching onto, then through, the hull, much like pirates boarding old-time sea vessels. Well, OK, not much like that, but the association is obvious. The surviving crew is taken hostage, while those on the bridge (who happen to be the main characters) escape the saucer as it plummets onto the surface of the planet.

Most of the remaining film takes place here, on Krall’s planet, with the uncaptured crew trying to survive and find a way to rescue everyone else. We meet some new characters, see more nods to other science fiction films, and are treated to plenty of non-stop action until the closing credits.
That’s about as much recap as I can handle. What works and what doesn’t in this newest installment of Trek lore?
I’ll get one off my chest now, something I found troubling all the way through and which I touched upon earlier. The characters, and at times the actors themselves, felt disconnected from each other. This might be a deliberate effect on the part of writers Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, 2015, and who plays engineer Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung. The opening captain’s log explains how three years in deep space have affected everyone in some way. However, this might also be me looking for an excuse for what appears to be a lack of cohesiveness in the cast. In the last two films, the strong interplay and quick dialogue between the actors was a major plus. Here, they’re dressed up as their characters, but not fully into it.
Sofia Boutella (THE MUMMY, 2017, MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT, 2014) as newcomer Jaylah, injects much needed personality and life into this movie. She’s a complicated character, having lost her own people to Krall’s attacks, including her parents, and is living in a cloaked (aka, invisible) but broken spaceship hidden far from the hostiles’ prison camp, from which she’d escaped.
There is a cool scene where Kirk and Chekov (the late, and already much-missed Anton Yelchin, also in ODD THOMAS, 2013 and GREEN ROOM, 2015 – who died in a freak accident last month) are running through the demolished remains of the Enterprise’s saucer section, escaping the bad guys. I might be reading more than the filmmakers intended in this scene, but since the ship’s artificial gravity was explicitly mentioned earlier in the film, I believe that was to make this chase scene work as it did. They are on the planet, which has its own gravity, but as they run through the halls of the ship, they sometimes run up walls and ceilings, slipping down to the floor at other times. This could be due to the angle of the crash, but what struck me was that the artificial gravity was still turned on, but in a broken, messed up manner. Either way, this scene is a visual treat even if, in the end, their eventual escape should probably have resulted in Kirk and Chekov being flattened like pancakes before they got away. You’ll understand when you watch it.
Zoe Saldana (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, 2014, AVATAR, 2009) is back as Communications Officer Uhura, and has a major role in this film, even though she spends most of it as a prisoner of Krall. Her interactions with him are another high point in the film. Her character comes across as the strongest of the Enterprise crew.
I mentioned there are scattered nods to other films here if you look for them. One was in the anatomy of crewmember Ensign Syl, played by Melissa Roxburgh. The back of her head looks just like a face-hugger from the ALIEN (1979) movies. There was at least one other, but I can’t remember off the top of my head (no pun intended) and can’t read my notes (you try taking notes in a dark theater before you judge me!).
I won’t give away the “reveal” regarding Krall that comes late in the movie, but it was clever, though confusing in a number of ways. I’d need to see it again to fully grasp some of the finer details around it. Even so, I got the gist, and in a movie packed with this much action, sometimes that’s the best you can do. But I feel his “origins” could have been better explained, and after finishing this review and talking to my brother Paul, there might be more than a few plot holes here as well.
However, I have to give Pegg and Jung’s screenplay—and, as an extension, Justin Lin’s (FAST & FURIOUS, 2009) direction—some credit. Usually everything in STAR TREK is spelled out for the viewer with little room for obliqueness (I might not be using that word correctly). Not here. I get the impression some elements of this story are doled out sparingly, giving the audience some credit for being able to work things out for themselves, requiring multiple viewings to understand it all. Could also be the script was unclear at times and could have used a few tweaks. But I’m an optimist, and prefer to think their intentions were half-full.
Lengthwise, this movie felt too short. The running time was listed at two hours, but a lot must have been the closing credits since I was back in my car before then. Some of the scenes (such as shore leave, and another later when there is a short-lived breakout from Krall’s prison) felt as if they’d had their arms and legs left on the cutting room floor, perhaps to keep the action moving. If they’d remained, the movie would have been longer, true, but it would have allowed more room for deeper character development. Not that a film of this kind is the best venue for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION-style character exploration (they tried that in those earlier Trek films with disappointing results), but there was room for expansion. I’ll expect an expanded edition on DVD sometime in the future. Perhaps some of the more confusing aspects of the film will be better explained then.
The climactic fight between Kirk and Krall was, admittedly, quite awesome. I just wonder why so many action films need to end with hand-to-hand combat between the main characters, regardless of how much technology they have at their disposal. As well, without going into details of this scene, I admit feeling I’d seen it before at the end of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  Still, it’s visually spectacular given the set piece in which it occurs. And I need to stop beginning so many sentences with prepositions.
Overall, this is a decent, original addition to the Star Trek pantheon. I did not enjoy it as much as the first two in this rebooted series, nor does it delve as deeply into the crew’s inner worlds as its predecessors, but it does try something new. It misses some marks, but succeeds in others. I’m going to wager the series’ fan-base will be divided over STAR TREK BEYOND, but in the end it’s not going to hurt the overall franchise. It took a chance, (I’m not going to say it boldly went where no film has gone before, because it didn’t) and if you see it, you’ll enjoy it. You probably won’t love it, but you’ll be entertained.