Exodus: Gods and Kings


Christian Bale takes aim at a critic who gave his latest film a harsh review.

Christian Bale takes aim at a critic who gave his latest film a harsh review.

(2014) Biblical Epic (20th Century Fox) Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass, Isaac Andrews, Ewen Bremner, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Dar Salim, Andrew Tarbet, Ken Bones, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

Most of us are aware of the story of Moses, either through religious education or through repeated viewings of The Ten Commandments. Moses the Lawgiver remains one of the most iconic figures of the Old Testament, who along with Abraham is one of the foundations of the Judeo-Christian faith.

Moses (Bale) was born to Jewish slaves and when the newborn sons of Israel were slaughtered to prevent a prophecy that the deliverer had been born, his desperate mother floated him in a cradle of reeds down the Nile where he was picked up by the barren sister of Pharaoh Seti (Turturro) and raised in the royal household as a brother to Ramses (Edgerton). Ramses and Moses were as close as brothers and Seti felt that Moses would make a more effective ruler than his more impetuous biological son.

However despite the fact that Moses saved his life and has no ambition to rule Ramses has a healthy distrust of his childhood friend. When Moses discovers his true past from Nun (Kingsley), a Hebrew slave, his world is turned upside down. When Hegep (Mendelsohn), an Egyptian viceroy who has run afoul of Moses and seeks to curry favor with the new Pharaoh discovers the truth, Ramses is reluctant to kill his erstwhile kin. Instead, he exiles him to the desert, figuring that the Gods can deal with Moses.

The Gods deal with Moses by allowing him to traverse the desert to an oasis where he discovers the comely young shepherdess Zipporah (Valverde) who captivates the exiled Moses. The two marry and have a son. In the meantime, Moses is visited by God in the form of a young child who instructs Moses to raise an army and prepare to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. However, the Egyptians aren’t about to let the Israelites go so first there’s a matter of a few plagues – ten to be exact – before Moses is finally allowed to lead the slaves from bondage. However, they won’t get to the promised land without crossing the Red Sea and with a fired up army led by an enraged Ramses right on their tails.

Any cinematic version of the story of Exodus is going to inevitably have to deal with Cecil B. DeMille and his classic The Ten Commandments and anyone playing Moses is going to have to deal with Charlton Heston. For T10C the effects were impressive for their time, and the effects here are impressive for this time, bringing the plagues of frogs, flies, crocodiles and so on to vivid life. We can see the Egyptians trying to explain the plagues in anything but supernatural terms, much as we would do. But of course, they were also playing a game of “My Gods are better than Your God” with the Hebrews as well.

Heston was imperious, the very picture of an Old Testament prophet, intoning in a voice booming like thunder “Behold the Hand of the Lord” as he parts the Red Sea. Bale’s Moses is nothing like Heston; he bickers with the manifestation of God, feeling that he is a bit bloodthirsty for his taste and that his heavy-handed methods will be less likely to move Pharaoh’s heart. God essentially tells Moses he can do what he want because he’s God mofo! There has been a lot of controversy about this version of God who is not only a child but a petulant one.

Bale is a fine actor but this seems a bit out of his depth. In all fairness, there aren’t really any actors out there who can go all Old Testament on an audience; I honestly can’t think of any who would make a great Moses. That’s no knock on Bale; he can be as heroic as anyone but there is always an edge to him and there is one here as well. Moses here isn’t a Hebrew except by birth; he’s all about raising an army and taking on the Egyptian army – after all, with God’s help what army could stand against them, but God seems to prefer the art of gentle persuasion – by using a hammer on innocents. Moses has a problem with that and frankly, so do I and I appreciate Scott bringing it up because it is a question worth asking.

Some have complained that Scott, an agnostic, has diverged a fair amount from the source material but I think that as Scott himself has stated, his lack of Judeo-Christian faith gives him a certain amount of perspective that directors like DeMille who was known for being devout lack. However, Scott has justifiably been raked over the coals for casting white actors in parts that are essentially Middle Eastern, mostly casting what Middle Eastern actors he does have as slaves and soldiers. Scott raises the point that no studio is going to finance a $200 million film without name actors in the lead roles and that’s true enough. Which of course makes me wonder if that’s a statement on the racial bias of the movie-going public as much as it is the studios. Fill in your own answers here.

I liked Edgerton’s performance as Ramses although he has been getting a bit of flack for his work for the most part. Yes, he uses a bit too much eyeliner and he looks like some sort of giant Gerber’s baby with his head shaved but he captures Ramses as a man raised to believe he was a living God but full of insecurities, particularly because his brother was so much better than him in just about everything.

So this is one of those event movies that really relies on spectacle and there’s just enough here to make it worth seeing on the big screen if you can, but this isn’t great moviemaking or a great movie. Scott has done far better work, some of it recently. That doesn’t mean this doesn’t have merit and in this case, just enough for a guarded recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Edgerton makes a decent Ramses. The effects are spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and strays far from the Biblical source material. Insensitive to the religious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, particularly on the battlefield. There are also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Mendelsohn previously worked with Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises and Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Noah
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Foxcatcher

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Clash of the Titans (2010)


Clash of the Titans

Liam Neeson is all aglow as he releases the Kraken.

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Mads Mikkelsen, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Hoult, Polly Walker, Elizabeth McGovern, Alexander Siddig, Danny Huston, Vincent Regan. Directed by Louis Leterrier

One should be grateful to those who gave us life, but if those who gave us life are then cruel and capricious towards us, should we not then rise against them?

Spyros (Postlethwaite) is a simple fisherman, his ship drifting in a storm when he comes across a coffin-like box. When he opens it, he finds a beautiful woman, dead and an infant, alive. He decides to raise the boy as his own with his wife Marmara (McGovern). The boy grows up to be a handsome, strong man named Perseus (Worthington). Perseus loves his parents, but still understandably has questions about who he is and who he is meant to be.

However, all is not perfect. The Gods of Ancient Greece, led by brothers Zeus (Neeson), the King of the Gods, Poseidon (Huston) the God of the Sea and Hades (Fiennes), the Lord of the Underworld, had overthrown their parents the Titans mostly due to Hades creating the Kraken, a fearsome beast, from his own flesh. Zeus created men to worship and love the Gods who are in turn made powerful and immortal by the prayers of men. Hades, tricked by Zeus, lives on the fear of men.

However, men are chafing at the often capricious and cruel behavior of the Gods. Kepheus (Regan), the King of Argos, has declared war on the Gods at the urging of his wife, Queen Cassiopeia (Walker). His troops pull down a gigantic statue of Zeus, which earns the notice and wrath of Hades, who wipes out most of the troops at the statue. Unfortunately, Hades notices Spyros’ ship floating by and in a moment of pique sinks it with all aboard drowning. All aboard, that is, save Perseus.

The survivors of Kepheus’ army pull Perseus from the water and take him back to Argos, where Kepheus is declaring victory. Draco (Mikkelsen), Kepheus’ general, is less sanguine about the loss of most of his men but in the midst of Cassiopeia’s boasting that they, the royalty of Argos, are the new gods and their daughter Andromeda (Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite herself, Hades appears. He ages Cassiopeia to death and warns the assemblage that Argos will be destroyed ten days hence during an eclipse unless they sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken.

He also identifies Perseus as the son of Zeus. Perseus doesn’t believe it at first but Io (Arterton), a demigod herself, confirms it, telling him that he is the son of Zeus and the wife of King Acrisius (Flemyng), who also rebelled against the Gods. Driven mad by the despoiling of his wife, Acrisius orders the newborn and his mother thrown into the sea but Zeus disfigured Acrisius and sent Spyros’ ship to rescue Perseus.

Only the Stygian Witches have the knowledge to destroy the Kraken but only a demigod would have the strength and endurance to make the journey there and back in time to save Argos and Andromeda in particular. Draco and a few good men, including Eusebios (Hoult) and Io – okay, a few good men and a woman – accompany Perseus. Hades, aware of Perseus, enlists Acrisius (who now goes by the name of Calibos) to stop him, infusing the mad disfigured King with his essence.

Perseus is given a gift of a sword by the Gods, but he refuses, saying he wants to accomplish these feats as a man, not a God. Draco puts the sword in his pack, hoping Perseus will come to his senses. They then encounter Calibos, wounding him in the process but giant scorpions spring from his blood.

They make it to the Witches’ lair, but they inform Perseus that in order to destroy the Kraken they must get the head of Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) whose gaze turns any living flesh to stone, including that of a God. However to get to Medusa they must first cross into the Underworld and nobody has ever emerged from Medusa’s lair alive.

This is a remake of the 1981 film reviewed in this blog yesterday, and it is faithful only in that there is a Perseus and a Kraken in it (there is also a mechanical owl, Bubo, from the first film, a cameo only but done in a clever way as a nod to fans from the original). Director Louis Leterrier has amped up the special effects and made it far less comedic. This is strictly action and eye candy and both are of the highest order.

Sam Worthington is turning into a fine leading man. He carries the movie effectively, continuing his run of successful roles in Terminator Salvation and Avatar. He makes a more muscular and military Perseus than Harry Hamlin did in the original, Hamlin being a bit of a pretty boy. Worthington’s Perseus is less starry-eyed and more stubborn than the 1981 incarnation.

The special effects are what are worth the price of admission. The monsters are nightmare-inducing and all look realistic. Particularly in the case of the Medusa and the scorpions it was hard to tell that it was all CGI. Considering this is an action movie, there are some pretty fine performances, particularly from Mikkelsen and Postlethwaite.

This is solid, fun popcorn entertainment. It isn’t brain surgery and it isn’t rocket science but it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination to make a movie with the kind of intricate effects this one has. Director Leterrier, fresh off The Incredible Hulk, is proving to be a serious talent in that department. While there’s a little more cheese in the dish than I usually like, it is nonetheless all a lot of fun for the entire family except for those who are easily given to nightmares by the very realistic-looking monsters.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects and Worthington proves himself a solid leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Although in many ways a more serious film than the original, it still has a certain amount of cheese in the recipe.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of fantasy violence and some horrifically gory scenes but it is the monsters that make this not for small children or those given to nightmares. Fine for teens, though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Harryhausen, co-producer and special effects designer of the original film, was invited to participate in this one but declined, citing that he had retired in 1981 and intended to stay that way.

HOME OR THEATER: Theater definitely, preferably with a big tub of popcorn in your lap.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: How to Train Your Dragon

Sunshine


Sunshine

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone...

(Fox Searchlight) Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong. Directed by Danny Boyle

Boyle is the director of such impressive films as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Millions, all of which I would highly recommend (his next movie after this one was Slumdog Millionaire, previously reviewed in this blog). A couple of years ago, I was in puppy heaven when I discovered that he was doing a science fiction film.

It is about 50 years in the future and the sun is dying – take that, you global warming alarmists! A mission was sent to re-ignite the sun with a kind of stellar bomb, but that mission failed and the astronauts aboard the Icarus were presumed lost. The situation on Earth growing more desperate, a second mission – Icarus II – is launched and with it goes the hopes of humanity.

Things seem to be going pretty well, but as they approach Mercury, they pick up the distress signal of the first mission. Logic dictates that the crew continues on their way, explode their bomb and then see about the other Icarus but no, they have to go there first. Hey, what’s logic when you have science fiction? Anyway, predictably, bad things happen when they try to change course, an EVA repair mission goes the way of most EVA repair missions in science fiction movies these days and things burn up, flash freeze, explode and so on. What’s an astronaut to do?

Where to begin? This is a wildly uneven movie. There are a lot of great visuals, some wonderful dramatic tension and Chris Evans darn near steals the show – yeah, I know, Chris Evans – and the soundtrack kicks bootie. To the bad, you’ll notice at no point in my synopsis did I mention a specific human character. That’s because they are so interchangeable and unmemorable. Not all of it is the fault of the generally solid cast – it’s just that they play mostly subdued, as you would expect highly trained astronaut/scientists to be in that situation. In going for realism, Boyle winds up giving his dramatic tension short shrift. With a cast that includes some very good actors like Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis, that’s a bit of a crime.

Surprisingly enough, I found the direction of Danny Boyle to be one of the movie’s weaker points. Boyle is a genuine talent – his resume is nothing if not impressive – but he falls prey to the “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome, taking himself far too seriously, sacrificing story for overly-clever directing moves. For example, the villain – who is apparently fully human – is rarely glimpsed as anything more than an impressionistic figure. When the heroes engage in hand-to-hand combat with him, the results are nearly unwatchable and actually gave me a headache. One of the more interesting moves is that as the crew of the Icarus II board the Icarus I, faces (I assume of the first crew) flash onto the screen like some terrible subliminal ad gone awry. I’m not sure what Boyle is trying to accomplish here, but if a director needs to explain what you’re trying to get across, then he/she didn’t do a very good job in the first place. In the end, the movie breaks down in the third act, just when it should be picking up steam. You get the feeling that they were rushing things more than a bit – in any case, I think if Boyle had paid more attention to storytelling and less to style, he might have made a really super film.

While I complain a great deal here, there are some compelling reasons to see this. For one thing, it’s a “smart” science fiction movie – think Solaris and Event Horizon and those are rare enough as to be very precious. And yes, I listed a number of failings of the director, but in all fairness, he got more right than he didn’t, and that’s a plus too. This is not what you would call a popcorn movie, but at the same time the gorgeous visuals – the screen is constantly bathed in warm golds and yellows of the solar winds – beg to be seen on a big screen or at least an HD plasma home theater.

This is quite the disappointment; I was hoping this could be a sleeper hit, but the box office here in the States was dismal. That’s too bad – but I can understand why people aren’t warming to this movie, and considering how close it comes to the sun, that’s unacceptable.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific visuals. Chris Evans gives an unexpectedly strong performance. Astronaut-cicle; need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m directing. Messy third act. Style over storytelling.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some icky visuals. A little bit of language too.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The helmet design for the space suits were based on the character Kenny from “South Park.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The scientific advisor, Dr. Brian Cox of the University of Manchester and the CERN project provides a commentary track. There are also two unrelated short films that director Boyle included simply so that the filmmakers could be seen by a wider audience.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Noise

2012


2012

Here's the real star of 2012.

(Columbia) John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Thomas McCarthy, Liam James, Morgan Lily, Zlatko Buric, Beatrice Rosen, Johann Urb, John Billingsley, Jimi Mistry. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Nearly every culture has an end-of-the-world scenario, as does almost every religion. What would happen if one of them actually came to pass?

Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) is a junior geologist working for the U.S. Government. When he gets a call from colleague and old friend Dr. Tsurutani (Mistry) summoning him to India, he is happy to go but a bit mystified by the urgency. When his friend shows him figures regarding the temperature at the earth’s core, Helmsley immediately gets on a plane and crashes a fundraiser where presidential advisor Carl Anheuser (Platt) is holding forth. When Helmsley shows Anheuser the report, Anheuser leaves the fundraiser and informs Helmsley that he now works for Anheuser.

Flash forward several years later. Unsuccessful science fiction writer Jackson Curtis (Cusack) is resorting to driving a limo for an overbearing Russian billionaire (Buric). He gets a weekend off to take his kids – angry Noah (James) and incontinent Lilly (Lily) – camping at Yellowstone, where he and estranged wife Kate (Peet) once canoodled.

He meets a whacko end-of-the-world nutjob named Charlie Frost (Harrelson) who tells him why he and Kate’s favorite lake has dried up, and in the best conspiracy theory fashion, that the government not only knows about it but has been feverishly building spaceships to save the human race, the locations of which he conveniently has a map to.

Initially Curtis dismisses Charlie’s ravings but when they start to come true, he hightails it back to L.A. in his stretch limo and races against the earthquakes that will soon render the City of Angels a disaster zone, which might bring the property values down somewhat. From then on, Curtis and his family along with Kate’s nebbish plastic surgeon boyfriend (McCarthy) try to stay one step ahead of Armageddon.

Those special effects are absolutely worth the price of admission. Realistic and spectacular at the same time, we watch things in the words of the immortal Farm Film Report “blow up real good” and then blow up real good some more. Fleets of helicopters fill the skies as do flocks of hysterical birds escaping their impending doom. Waves crash over the Himalayas like they were pebbles on a beach, and we lap up every mind-blowing second of it knowing that it’s a little ghoulish but nevertheless we love it.

Cusack makes for an attractive lead. He’s not really suited for the action hero genre being much more of a hip indie sort but he soldiers on like the trooper he is. Ejiofor is one of those actors who I tend not to think about as a really compelling performer but every time I see him I notice how good he is – I think he’ll be on my list of must-see actors soon. Glover makes for a dignified president but compared to the Morgan Freeman presidency we got in Deep Impact doesn’t hold up quite as well, but still it’s nice to see him. Peet and Platt are two outstanding actors who take what they can out of a script that really doesn’t deserve them.

The big problem here is that the script is so predictable and cliché that after awhile you just long for a twist or a turn that you aren’t expecting. Also the movie at nearly two and a half hours is about 20-30 minutes too long. Still, these are things that get swept aside when you are in your special effects happy place.

Emmerich in that respect has become the Irwin Allen of his generation, and 2012 might just be his masterwork in that regard. He takes some pretty good actors who know well enough to just go with the preposterous dialogue and lets loose his digital effects subcontractors. The results are great entertainment and if that’s what you’re after then you’re in the right theater.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular apocalyptic special effects overwhelm the many script deficiencies. John Cusack even in his weaker performances is worth seeing.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is predictable and riddled with clichés. Character development is nearly non-existent.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of disaster violence and some occasional salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character name of Jackson Curtis is the real name of rapper 50 Cent backwards (Curtis Jackson).

HOME OR THEATER: The eye-popping disaster scenes must be seen on the big screen to get the full experience.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Superbad