Ben-Hur Review: Sword and Sorrow


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writers: Keith Clarke, John Ridley

Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2/5

Best part: The chariot race.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

Hollywood has latched onto organised-religion crowds for greater box-office returns. Movies including God’s Not Dead, although strange to most, appeal to a large segment of the population. Tinseltown’s most talented are also getting on board, with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings also aiming for that market. 2016’s Ben-Hur remake may single-handedly destroy this trend.

Actually, this is not the first ever Ben-Hur remake. The William Wyler-directed 1959 version is the quintessential version. The huge budget, Charlton Heston’s vigour, chariot race and epic scope helped it score 11 Academy Awards and become an instant classic. Surprisingly, there were multiple Ben-Hurs in the early 20th Century. This version never strays from convention. Here, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) grow up together in Jerusalem’s higher class. Messala, despite his affections for Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), feels alienated by matriarch Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and the family’s faith. After his enlistment and time in the Roman Army, he returns to warn Ben-Hur of oncoming threats. From there, the two butt heads and become fearsome foes.

The 1959 hit influenced Gladiator and sword-and-sandal epic in between. This Ben-Hur begs the question – Why now? No matter what the studio, cast, creatives etc. created, nothing would have eclipsed the 1959 version’s quality, exhaustive length, touching religious commentary and revolutionary tricks. Writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (the latter behind 12 Years a Slave) deliver irritating and alienating dialogue. The first half relies on religious discussion between the characters, grinding the pace to a screeching halt. Non-religious folks will despise the movie’s feckless stance on faith and history. Sadly, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not fit for the material. Lacking Ridley Scott’s deft touch, the schlock filmmaker appears bored by everything besides the action, special effects etc.

Ben-Hur follows the long line of laughable, anachronistic and feeble-minded modern historical/mythical epics. The movie never diverts from the standard revenge-drama narrative. It’s predictability is almost cowardly – the good guys are sweet and vanilla, the love interest – Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) – is whispy, the bad guys snivel and twist moustaches, Morgan Freeman plays the wise cracking mystical-magical black man etc. Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up to deliver bumper-sticker lines. This version may be remembered for its South American-looking depiction of the famous carpenter. Bekmambetov, halfway through, appears to wake up. The slave-ship sequence, training montages and almighty chariot race are particularly inventive. The grand sound design and fun action beats reduce the tedium.

Ben-Hur, like most of 2016’s blockbusters, is unnecessary, generic and borderline offensive. This useless remake squanders a fantastic cast, capable director and momentous resources. Attention Hollywood: Not everything should be remade!

Verdict: Pointless and unnecessary. 

Warcraft Review: Dungeons and Dullards


Director: Duncan Jones

Writers: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt

Stars: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper

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Release date: June 16th, 2016

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2/5

Best part: Toby Kebbell as Durotan.

Worst part: The human characters.

Hollywood has had a difficult run of adapting video games to the big screen. Over the past two decades, each entry has become a critical and commercial bomb. Sure, the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises are enjoyable, but not well made. The ins and outs of even the most popular video game properties appear to be lost on modern movie audiences.

Warcraft has stepped up to the plate, hoping the achieve what Max Payne, Doom, Prince of Persia, Need for Speed, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Super Mario Bros., Hitman (twice) and every fighting game franchise failed to do. Does it succeed? Nope, not even slightly. It merely adds to the long-line of silly, pitiful video game adaptations. It kicks off with the Horde, as the orc chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan, Durotan (Toby Kebbell), his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Nelvin), and his friend, Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky), prepare to leave dying orc realm Draenor. Led by warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) and dark magic known as the Fel, the orcs leap into human realm Azeroth via portal and soon wreak havoc.

From conception to execution, Warcraft presents all of Hollywood’s worst and craziest impulses. Writer/director, and long-time WOW fan, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) has worked on this adaptation for the past few years. Jones’ intentions are admirable, attempting to turn this franchise into the next Lord of the Rings-sized cinematic experience. Indeed, thanks to his unique style, it features several unpredictable twists and turns. In particular, the action sequences are directed with enough physical and emotional impact. Throughout its exhaustive 123-minute run-time, however, those unrequited with the lore will struggle to keep up. Marketed as an origin story, the movie exists entirely to set up a potential franchise. Jones is a little too infatuated with the world of Warcraft, throwing together a plethora of sub-plots, characters, and specifics from the franchise without explanation.

Similarly to Avatar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the movie provides a hands-on look at a whole new civilisation. The orc characters are fascinating, making rational decisions and showcasing their impressive brute strength in equal measure. However, the human characters are reduced to one-note performances and stereotypes. Vikings actor Travis Fimmel fails to make Military commander/lead badass Lothar appealing. Despite vague attempts at humor, he suffocates under the dour, self-serious tone and artificial backdrops. Charming actors including Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga, both from AMC series Preacher, deliver monotonal, deer-in-headlights performances. The Mage characters are laughable, with Ben Foster and Ben Schnetzer providing little else beyond out-of-place American accents. A miscast Paula Patton is buried under green paint and awkward prosthetics as human/orc warrior Garona.

Warcraft marks yet another failed attempt at adapting a video game into the celluloid medium. Despite Jones’ best intentions, the impenetrable exposition, stale performances, and lack of excitement make for one of the year’s most forgettable movies. Here’s hoping Assassin’s Creed, out on Boxing Day, can break the curse.

Verdict: Another woeful video game adaptation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review – Goin’ Apesh*t!


Director: Matt Reeves 

Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Stars: Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

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Release date: July 11th, 2014

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


4/5

Best part: Serkis’ fascinating performance.

Worst part: The irritating supporting characters.

1968, with new issues sprouting unexpectedly as the decade drew to a close, was certainly a revelatory and thought-provoking year for Hollywood cinema. Bolstering the decade’s taste in celluloid entertainment, sci-fi and action won out over the attention-hungry pack. 2001: A Space Odyssey proved Stanley Kubrick to be Hollywood’s greatest genre filmmaker, while Night of the Living Dead and Bullitt were dead-set box-office winners. However, one post-apocalyptic adventure flick dared to mix the zeitgeist with wild thrills. I’ll give you a hint: “You maniacs! You blew it up!”.

Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee

No, I’m not yelling at my readers. I’m, of course, talking about Planet of the Apes. Sadly, however, this type of blockbuster cinema has been left out in the forbidden zone to wallow in a slow, painful death. Nowadays, genres and styles are pushed and prodded to fit certain desires. Thanks to a hit-and-miss crop, 2014 was in line to become the touchstone for blockbuster fatigue. With this in mind, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes swings into our line of sight to save us all. Despite the lugubrious title, this sci-fi action thriller succeeds at being taut, relevant, and poignant at appropriate moments. Like the original, the outlandish premise is met with delicate minds. Following on from 2011 series jumpstart Rise of the Planet of the Apes, DOTPOTA begins by re-capping valuable information about this invigorating franchise. Using news reports and inventive graphics, the opening credits sequence charts man’s war against Simian Flu and complete anarchy. Our story then picks up 10 years later, as our favourite cinematic primates learn the ways of a once-thriving world. The ape’s leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), runs an intricate, hunter-gatherer system within San Francisco’s Muir Woods. Despite an uneasy alliance with scarred compatriot Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s hyper-intelligence and reasonable motives make for the tribe’s best chance of survival.

Gary Oldman.

At the same time, a pocket of human survivors, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), move into downtown San Francisco. From there, our ape and human populations spark brutal confrontations. Here’s the thing about DOTPOTA – despite the noticeable flaws, the positives elevate it above most blockbusters of its type. The movie, moving out of the ’68 original’s shadow, lives up to our overwhelming expectations. With ROTPOTA  being 2011’s most surprising blockbuster, many fans and foes walked into this instalment with trepidatious movements. How do you reinvent an already reinvented franchise? Would it dilute the series the way Tim Burton’s ill-advised remake did? Thankfully, director Matt Reeves chose to take this silly franchise to blockbuster angst’s darkest possible depths. Despite the recent spate of apocalyptic popcorn-chomping extravaganzas, this sequel stands out from the pack whist sticking to a set list of reasonable goals. Like with Avatar, the narrative explores the inner-workings of a civilisation’s highest quarters and lowest troughs. Communicating through sign language and phonetic dialogue, the ape interactions deliver emotionally resonant peaks. In several instances, Caesar, his family, their allies, and Koba share moments that amplify Hollywood’s true potential. The opening sequence, in which our apes chase down deer and kill a Grizzly bear, is a masterclass in CGI storytelling. The first third, delivering key sequences designed to change to the narrative’s trajectory, lures us in before the gut-punches come flying. Sadly, the ape characters are far more intelligent and reasonable than their human counterparts.

“Apes! Together, strong!” (Caesar (Andy Serkis), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

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Andy Serkis as Caesar!

Unfortunately, as the narrative reaches emotional peaks and enthralling set-pieces, cracks begin to occur in DOTPODA‘s stunning veneer. Throughout this simple tale of primates and humans going ape-sh*it, plot-holes and trite twists become unwarranted obstacles in this otherwise compelling story. Linking vital scenes to major action sequences and character beats, some moments are far more stimulating than others. Eclipsing these minor quibbles, this instalment examines, and delivers answers to, some of modern civilisation’s most confronting issues. With an arms race forming between our two stead-fast factions, Reeves and co. never succumb to corny speeches or obvious symbolism. In addition, with good and bad warriors on both sides, this post-war conflict exclaims profound viewpoints about man’s treatment of his fellow man. With peace coming second to firepower, the narrative clings onto Malcolm and Caesar’s quest for diplomacy. Fortunately, the visuals and attention to detail are the movie’s standout qualities. Thanks to Reeves’ atmospheric camerawork and stark tonal shifts, his unique direction keeps the audience on edge throughout the appropriate run-time. Extended takes, including a look at human/ape warfare from a tank’s perspective, deliver wondrous flourishes within an otherwise gloomy experience. Surprisingly, San Francisco’s breath-taking vistas are honoured with a post-apocalyptic aura. Of course, Caesar is this series’ most enlightening character. With Serkis at the helm, he and the SFX department deliver one of modern entertainment’s more meaningful creations.

Despite the hit-and-miss human characters and baffling conveniences, DOTPOTA is far-and-away one of 2014’s most intriguing blockbusters. With viewpoints and allegiances pushed to breaking point, the sombre tone and moral ambiguity hit hard during some of this year’s most heart-breaking scenes. With Serkis’ purposeful mannerisms and startling commitment shining through, his work may inspire others to revolt against Hollywood’s lack of respect for motion-capture performance.

Verdict: An entertaining and ambitious sequel.