Musings on the first trailer of the new Ben-Hur (2016)

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Most of you who’ve read my blog for a while knows I’m a huge fan of the 1959 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. I’ve listed it as one of the films that have defined me and one of my three favorite Oscar-winning films of all time. That epic masterpiece that won the most awards in its time (11 wins out of 12 noms) was actually a remake of the 1925 silent film. I always think that like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, etc., Ben-Hur is one of those classics that ought not get remade. Alas, nothing is sacred anymore these days so we shouldn’t be surprised that nearly 60 years later, we get yet another cinematic adaptation based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Behold the trailer…

 

BEN-HUR is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army.  Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery.  After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption.

Initial impressions

The way the trailer’s cut now didn’t exactly scream epic in terms of compelling narrative and emotional gratification. Given the pedigree of the director, whose Hollywood films so far seem to be more effects-driven than anything else, this trailer certainly showcase that. Yes so at the time, the 1959 Ben-Hur was marketed as an epic that offered a spectacle like no other, and that chariot race scene alone is a reason to see it on the biggest screen possible. Even as I saw it decades later, when special effects had improved significantly, that chariot scene still left me breathless and it remained one of the most incredible scene to pull off even by today’s standard. But yet, the film was far more than just the spectacle and what stays with me more is the story, it’s the protagonist’s journey and transformation (more of that later). I suppose with 3.5 hours running time, the 1959 version could go into more depth with the story and there are richer, more complex narrative that involve more than just Ben-Hur vs Messala.

So far my impression is meh, in fact someone remarked on Twitter that this is ‘Fast and Furious: Jerusalem Drift‘ and I don’t blame them for thinking that. I mean the blaring music is so generic and has no majestic vibe at all, and way too much screaming and laden with banal dialog. But y’know what, instead of just brushing it off, I thought I’d offer some of my thoughts about some of the elements of the movie.

The cast

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Heston was so 50-years ago, we now have Huston as the new Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur. Ok I have to admit I was inspired by this great opening line from EW.com. Jack Huston sure has quite a Hollywood pedigree – grandson of acclaimed filmmaker John Huston and nephew of Anjelica Huston, but whether or not he could step into Charlton Heston’s shoes, er sandals remains to be seen. Now, though I think Heston was great in the role that won him an Oscar for Best Actor, he’s not exactly the most expressive actor. What Heston did have in abundance is screen presence, and I’m curious to see how Huston fares in that regard in his first leading role in a big-budget film. Huston is not a household name yet but I’ve seen him in three films so far, American Hustle, Night Train to Lisbon, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which showed he’s a pretty versatile actor. He certainly looked more Jewish-looking, for a lack of a better word, with dark hair and dark eyes, than Heston was, though one could argue blond, blue-eyed Jews do exist.

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Morgan Freeman is the most recognizable face here as Sheik Ilderim and he naturally adds gravitas to the production. I do have a soft spot for British actor Hugh Griffith in the 1959 version though, as he didn’t take himself so seriously. He’s more of an ally than a mentor too, so it seems they’re more of equal footing in their relationship. Plus Freeman’s dreadlocks is distracting, it’s like something out of Battlefield Earth, did they just have their discarded wig or something?? It’ll be hard not to burst out laughing every time he’s on screen now, come on man, you’re supposed to add dignity not comic relief!

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Toby Kebbell seems type cast as a villain now. He’s just played Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Doctor Doom in the um, doomed Fantastic Four movie, and now Messala. Again, I LOVE Stephen Boyd who had a great chemistry with Heston as both friend and foe. I can’t say I’m feelin’ it with these two, but then again they’ve got mundane dialog like ‘Are we having fun now brother?‘ which seems to be inspired by another sword ‘n sandal epic Gladiator‘s famous line ‘Are you not entertained?‘ but folks, it’s all in the delivery and Kebbell ain’t no Russell Crowe. That said, I also think he’s a good actor from some movies I’ve seen him in, most notably Rocknrolla, War Horse and Control.

The director

So I think the cast might turn out to be ok, but what worries me most is the director, Russian filmmaker w/ the unpronounceable name, Timur Bekmambetov. Now, I’ve seen two of his previous movies, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I’ve enjoyed both in varying degrees, but he’s not exactly the name who’d be in my wish list if I were asked who I’d want to direct an epic sword & sandals masterpiece. For one thing, his films seems to be very CGI-laden, and from this trailer it looks pretty effects-heavy. Heh, I was hoping what Jack said at the IGN comic-con interview (promoting PPZ movie) were true, as he said there’ll be more practical effects and he had spent four months ‘doing everything for real’ which sounds really promising.

The core theme of the story

Now there’s the treatment of the Christ story, which is pivotal in the book, I mean the tagline IS ‘a tale of the Christ’ after all. Apparently Rodrigo Santoro is playing Jesus Christ here, as there’s a snippet of the crucifixion scene. I read that Jesus is given a bigger character arc this time around, and whilst that is a wonderful thing in my book it also worries me a little. What I love about the William Wyler version is the subtle-yet-powerful depiction of Christ whose face was never shown on film. The impact of his being was conveyed through the characters who encounter him in the film, i.e. the Roman soldier who wanted to reprimand him for giving water to Judah.

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It’s mysterious and mystical, and the faceless character had such gravitas that it’s unforgettable, especially the moment he gave Ben-Hur water when he’s chained as a slave. That scene is one of my all time favorite cinematic scenes that I could watch over and over. What the 1959 version did beautifully was that it showed how Judah’s and Jesus’ lives intersect, and the parallel of how the two men were charged and punished for a crime they didn’t commit. But in the end it was more of a story of redemption than a tale of vengeance, a theme that perhaps isn’t as cool or even marketable, but for me it leaves a much more lasting impression.

Interestingly, Bekmambetov actually said in an interview (per IMDb trivia) that he thought the 1959 version was more about revenge. Huh? Did he not stay until the end of the film?? Judah’s last line was not at all subtle about his own redemption.

Judah Ben-Hur: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Esther: Even then.

Judah Ben-Hur: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

He went on to say that wanted to focus more on the forgiveness aspect of the story, he said ‘…humanity has to learn how to love and forgive.’ Well, I sure hope what he aspired to do w/ the story will actually transpire in the final film, as I’m not seeing that in this trailer. At the very least I’m hoping that the Jesus’ story be handled respectfully and that the themes of love and compassion in Lew Wallace’s novel isn’t love amidst the CGI-fest spectacle.

One last thing, I find it odd to see Judah falling from his chariot and held on to his horses, how’s he going to get back up to the chariot and win the race?? I guess we’ll find out when the movie is out on August 12, 2016.


Well, that’s my thoughts. Now, what do YOU think about the first Ben-Hur trailer?

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FlixChatter Review – 300: Rise of an Empire

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After almost a decade, Warner Bros. finally released a sequel to their sword and sandals hit 300. Before I go into the review of this new movie, I wanted to point out that I was never a fan of the first movie, I didn’t hate it but I thought it’s like I’m watching a video game with nonstop carnage and I was bored with it.

Now I’m not sure if I should call this new movie a sequel since it took place the same timeline as the first movie. It opens right after the end of the first one, we see King Leonidas and his men bodies laying dead and Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) came by and chopped Leonidas’ head off. We hear an exposition voice over by his grieving wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), she’s basically telling the audience what’s going on in the movie. Then the movie flashes back and showed how Xerxes became such a powerful figure. We were also introduced to a new hero, Themistokle (Sullivan Stapleton), he’s the general of the Athens’ army. Upon learning that Greek is being invaded by the Persians, he tried to team up Leonidas’ army but the Sparta king refused to even to talk to him. Then we were introduced to another character, Persian’s naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green). She’s of Greek ancestry but something happened to her when she was a child and she vowed to kill every Greeks as much as she could. After the introductions of these characters, the rest of the movie’s basically a non-stop battles after another, just like the first one.

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So apparently the movie was based on Frank Miller‘s graphic novel called Xerxes but since the novel’s really about Xerxes rise to power, the script was written so that it focuses again on the Greeks’ army. The script was written by Zack Snyder, he’s too busy with Man of Steel so he decided not to come back and direct the flick. He and his co-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad didn’t really come up with anything new for this one. Heck they even included a little subplot of a father and son who’re part of the army. Instead of the father losing his son in that battle like the first movie, here the son lost his father. Wow that’ so genius of them to come up with a such a cool twist, I had to roll my eyes when I saw that scene.

Director Noam Murro, whom I never heard of before this movie, stepped behind the cameras this time and basically copied Snyder’s style from the first movie step by step. I wondered if since Snyder’s also the producer, he may have given Murro a style guide on how to shoot each scene the way he likes it. To his credit though, Murro did stage some cool action sequences, much more elaborate than the first movie. But still he didn’t bring anything new to the table for the sequel.

As for the performances, Evan Green looked like she had a lot of fun playing the vicious baddie. Unfortunately for the new hero, Stapleton didn’t really established himself as a leading man here. Even though I didn’t care for the first movie, I thought Gerard Butler was quite effective as the lead in that film. I always thought Lena Headey overacted her role in the first film and she didn’t change my mind in this one. Santoro‘s Xerxes didn’t really have much to do again in this one, he walks around looking like a super villain.

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I can’t say I hate this movie because I didn’t have any expectations for it and in a way, it lived up to my lack of expectations. It would’ve been better maybe if the movie actually focuses on Xerxes’ rise to power but since the studio folks only care about getting the big bucks at the box office, we got the same exact movie as the last one. Nothing new or original here. I’m giving this a two stars rating partly because I enjoyed some of the action sequences and I loved the Dolby Atmos surround sound mix. Fans of the original will probably enjoy this one and get their money’s worth. As for everyone else, this was a waste of time and money.

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What do you think of the 300 sequel?

FlixChatter Review: The Last Stand

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Arnold Schwarzenegger never seems to get tired of saying his iconic Terminator line. But after some petty cameos in two Expendables movies, this time he’s really back. It’s not some ubiquitous revenge thriller thankfully, but in an action comedy where he unabashedly makes fun of his old, beat-up self to great effect.

When I first saw the trailer, I thought this sounds like it could be fun, but it’s not something I’m dying to see. But the positive early reviews intrigued me, so when the screening time comes along, I was kind of looking forward to it. Well guess what, it delivered!

The story is ever so simple. A dangerous Mexican drug cartel honcho escapes from the Feds on the way to federal prison. His goal is to speed away in his ZR1 supercar to the Mexican border, but not without going through the sleepy bordertown Sommerton Junction guarded by a grizzled Sheriff Ray Owens. As Owen said in the trailer, ‘I’m not going to let that guy comes through our town without a fight.’ Corny, yes, and there’s not exactly anything new or fresh in this action flick, but I’ll be darned if I wasn’t entertained from start to finish.

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The Sheriff is taciturn but friendly. In fact, he’s revered but beloved by his townsfolk and the former LAPD deeply cares about this small town. When the time comes that the town has to face the drug cartel bandits, he only has his inexperienced deputies to rely on: Mike (the always hilarious Luis Guzmán), Jerry (Zach Gilford), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), with the help of a village idiot who curates a weapons museum (Johnny Knoxville). Fans of Jack Ass would enjoy seeing Knoxville here who’s right in his elements with his riotous zany-ness, he’s perfectly cast in this role. The movie is filled with ludicrous action sequences, alternating between insane car chases involving a 1000-horsepowered ZR1 Corvette going 200 mph and bombastic shoot-em-ups where people don’t just get shot, they also get blown up to bits!! I’d be too busy rolling my eyes if I weren’t laughing so hard. I wasn’t expecting it to be so hysterical, but believe it or not, there’s also an emotional moment at one point that I actually got choked up a bit.

Arnie’s one liners are inherently hilarious because of the way he delivers them, but Guzmán and Knoxville are the scene stealers here, there’s riotous laughter every time they’re on screen. Guzmán’s expressive delivery is the perfect complement to Arnie’s deadpan style, too bad he didn’t have a verbal face off with the inimitable Peter Stormare who plays the villain’s henchman. As the main villain Gabriel Cortez, Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes) displays a devilish charisma, who has a crazy mano-a-mano with the Governator… er Sheriff. I think he’d be on my next year’s list of actors I’d like to see more of 😉 Not sure what Forest Whitaker is doing here though, he’s pretty much relegated to a screaming bunch of nerves as the lead FBI agent tracking down Cortez.

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I’m quite impressed by South Korean director Jee-woon Kim‘s zippy and dynamic directing style, and for someone who reportedly doesn’t speak much English, he’s able to get the most out of his actors. The script is apparently one of the 2009’s Black List, an annual list of ‘most liked scripts’ started by a Universal exec back in 2004. The seamless mix of action and comedy makes this so entertaining to watch. It’s what I think the first Expendables should’ve been, that is, not to take things too seriously. I could tell the whole theater was having a jolly good time. It’s definitely a welcome change for me after watching something as intense as Zero Dark Thirty! I’m not saying this movie isn’t violent and bloody, but mostly it’s happens pretty quick so it keeps me from flinching too often.

So if you’re looking for a pure escapist entertainment but not quite ready to check your brain at the door, this movie should satisfy you. This ain’t gonna be the last movie you’ll see Arnie in (he’ll be seen with Sylvester Stallone again later this year in, what else, an action thriller called The Tomb), but he’s chosen a pretty good vehicle for his comeback. I’m pretty generous in my ratings here as I enjoyed it immensely, I’d be renting this one again for sure.

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Thoughts on Arnie or this film? Will you be watching it this weekend?