Monday, July 25, 2016

Ben-Hur (2010) - The British Mini-series


In anticipation of the August 19 release of the "re-imagining" of Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Babmembetov, my personal Ben-Hur-o-thon continues.

Watch the 2010 British mini-series version of the story! It's excellent. While it doesn't have the epic, broad scope of the 59er, this is an admirable, well-written, well-performed rendition whose big advantage is realistic location shots in the ksars and old buildings of Morocco. With more than three hours to work with, the mini-series builds in some re-interpretation of the story - Messala's father is a prick who pushes Messala in a power drive for the governorship of Judea - Quintus Arrius kills himself - Ben-Hur sleeps with a concubine - Ben-Hur's mother and sister do not have contagious leprosy; they just don't want Ben to see them like this. As often happens, however, the casting is largely Caucasian; Ben, Esther, and Jesus look as Jewish as Donald Trump. Sheik Ilderim, however, is played by a real Arab!

As for the classic action, the sea battle is done small-scale with three pirate ships pursuing Quintus Arrius's ship, but the encounter and sinking are gripping enough with dark lighting disguising the obvious CGI. The chariot race is realistically done without CGI - billed in the story as a small-scale affair appropriate to Judea - "the arm pit" of the Roman world.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Facts About Ben-Hur


Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was written by General Lew Wallace. It was published in 1880 and it became a bestseller, selling more copies than Uncle Tom's Cabin.

General Lew Wallace fought in the Union army during the Civil War. He flubbed things up at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 by taking his division the long way around the barn and arriving late at the battlefield. In 1864, he redeemed himself at the Battle of Monocacy, near Frederick, Maryland, when he fought a successful delaying action against Confederate forces threatening Washington. After the war he led the commission that investigated the assassination of Lincoln and he presided over the war crimes trial of Henry Wirz, commandant of notorious Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia.

His popular novel was adapted and produced as a stage play first presented in 1899. The spectacular London version was first performed in 1902. Both extravagant productions included hundreds of cast members, a sinking slave ship, and a chariot race with real horses, chariots on a treadmill, and a rotating backdrop to create the illusion of speed.

When I directed drama with middle and high school students, I toyed with the idea for a Ben-Hur stage adaptation. Wish I had done it.

This hilarious ad announcing a broadcast of Ben-Hur, on Turner Classic Movies is a wonderful parody of the 1959 film. At the same time, it shows how much fun a stage production could have been.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Ben-Hur (2016) Versus Ben-Hur (1959) - Wanna Bet?



It was probably an urban legend, but the story goes like this. During the lengthy run of the 1959 hit film Ben-Hur in San Francisco, a Market Street wino used to hang out in front of the box office and take bets on the chariot race. I have a feeling he put his money on Messala - otherwise, who would take him up on the bet? I remember, back in 1960 as an eight-year-old lad who had been wowed by this impressive epic film, rather admiring the guy's fervent optimism and his feeling that the magic of film might work a wonder. Obviously, he knew Ben-Hur won the laurel wreath, but perhaps he believed that Messala might pull ahead and win in one magical moment.

As for which version of the film will win the laurel wreath, my fondness for the 1959 version of Ben-Hur does not mean I will be bitter or disappointed if Timur Bekmambetov's "re-imagining" is better than the previous version. I just want it to be a great movie - and I am behind it all the way. The 1959er was the first significant movie to open my eyes to the expansive magic of film. After a very poor spring and summer movie season this year, I yearn for a film that can put the "wow" back into moviegoing. (If a new Ben-Hur can't do that, nothing can.)

As a frequent moviegoer I end up seeing the trailers for the big superhero movies so many times I try to avoid them. Oddly, I have only seen the trailer for Ben-Hur once in the theater. Although I've only allowed myself glimpses of the preview, I must say it looks good. Admittedly, the 1959er starts out too slowly. For the new one, I see, they have added some land-battle scenes, most likely flashbacks to Messala's days as a budding centurion expanding the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, 1959er's excellent screenplay does the same thing as battle flashbacks, as when Messala talks about conquering Libya:

"A tremendous campaign. We met their armies on the coast, and after two days of fighting they fled. Then we marched on their capital. Barbaric city, but fascinating, or it was till we destroyed it. (Dramatic pause before the blunt punchline.) Now it's nothing but ashes." (I love it when this stark ending to his tale puts a damper on his luncheon with the Hurs.)

I look forward to what the "re-imagining" will do with the new version. I had always wished the 1959er had included a flashback to the developing relationship between the younger Ben-Hur and Messala. Esther makes a reference to the time the boys went out lion hunting and Messala saved Ben's life. A scene like this would have pumped up the beginning of the film. The new version has a prime opportunity to include the lion hunt! Hope it does! That would be much more interesting than a battle flashback.

Finally, as I've said, the new film looks good, and I know it will have lots of action. Here's hoping the chariot race is not extended into CGI boredom. Listening to the trailer, it is clear that the 59er is a couple of lengths ahead of the 2016er in the writing department. When galley admiral Quintus Arrius harangues the rowers, he talks flatly about the ship being like a body and the rowers being its blood. Nothing can top, "Your eyes are full of hate, 41. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live." Indeed, there are many memorable lines that the 2016er will not be able to top. "What do you think you see? The smashed body of a wretched animal." Yes, the Heston Hur only features two major action scenes, but it has Messala's death scene - one of the most gruesome death scenes in cinema.

We shall see. I hope to see the new Ben-Hur at Downtown Disney in Anaheim on the morning of August 16 when I will be thinking of the lines, "This is the day, Judah. It's between us now." Indeed, on that morning, it will be between the two films, but I don't care which comes in first. I have a feeling I'm safe putting my money on the 59er, but I am open to being pleasantly surprised, and I look forward to any original elements that Bekmambetov might include.

For a lengthy discussion of the look of Ben-Hur I invite you to check out my older article posted for the 50th anniversary of the film.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We've Moved!


I have moved, for the most part, to letterboxd.com where I will comment on ALL the movies I see each year. I may post longer reviews here as the spirit moves, but for the most part you can find me there.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Year at the Movies - 2014

Happy New Year!

Here is a chronological list of the 2014 movies I saw in theaters this past year. My top ten favorites of the year are accompanied by images.

Jack Ryan
The Invisible Woman
The Monuments Men
Winter’s Tale
Pompeii
Non-Stop
300: Rise of an Empire
Need for Speed
Divergent


Noah

I enjoyed this surreal, sci-fi rendition of the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. Russell Crowe stands out as an Ahab-like captain of the Ark.


The Grand Budapest Hotel

Although I was not always totally engaged by this film, I have to say that this is without a doubt the most meticulously conceived film of the year. Some of the sets are so full of color and detail you wish for the camera to linger longer - or you wish for the characters to return to that set but they don't. Though some parts work better than others, this film is always visually arresting.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Transcendence
Bears


Under the Skin

I’ve never seen anything like this movie. The surrealistic depictions of what the “alien” does with her victims is bizarre. The shots of Scotland are awe-inspiring. The film hits you in the gut in a number of places, and Johansson is perfect for the role.


Spider Man 2
Godzilla
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Million Dollar Arm
Maleficent


Edge of Tomorrow

I saw this a number of times at the movies, and I’ve watched it multiple times on DVD. Clever story, great editing, and an excellent Cruise performance as he mixes humor with serious acting. The year's most watchable movie full of humor and action.


The Fault in Our Stars
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Rover
The Immigrant
22 Jump Street
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Dawn of the Apes
Planes: Fire and Rescue


Lucy

Johansson strikes again in this violent but wildly bizarre action film that's basically about Scarlett Johansson turning into the Internet. At first you think that Lucy will just be this vastly intelligent and superior killing machine. Then the film takes Lucy where no action heroine has gone before.


The Giver
If I Stay


Boyhood

Real moments follow stilted moments and make this film worth watching. More than a film, it is a visual experiment that chronicles the real growth of a real boy throughout his ups and downs.


Guardians of the Galaxy

This engaging film takes tropes from Star Wars and has a lot of fun with them. One of the most delightfully entertaining films of the year.


The November Man
A Walk Among the Tombstones
The Maze Runner
The Equalizer
Gone Girl
The Boxtrolls
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The Judge


Fury

This grim depiction of the last year on the western front in World War II features a thrilling tank duel and a solid performance by Brad Pitt and even an excellent supporting performance by Shia LaBeouf


Nightcrawler

This creepy, uncomfortable, suspenseful film features an amazing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.


Interstellar

I saw this film six times at the movies. This doesn’t mean that it’s flawless. It means that I think it’s the best movie of the year for its epic vision, its transporting visuals, and the, excellent performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain.


Birdman
Big Hero 6
Rosewater
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
The Theory of Everything
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Wild
Annie
Unbroken
Night at the Museum: The Secret of the Tomb
Big Eyes
Into the Woods





Monday, November 17, 2014

Space Odyssey


Here is my contribution to the Voyage to the Stars Blogathon, John Hitchcock's very imaginative blog challenge inspired by the recent release of Nolan's Interstellar.

Here is my crew for my mission:

COMMANDER:


Janek - Idris Elba - Prometheus (2012)

He's the commander with a commanding presence but he still knows the importance of a sense of humor. "Try not to bugger each other." "Are you a robot?" Also, with his Christmas tree and vintage accordion, he's got character.

PILOT:


Victoria - Andrea Riseborough - Oblvion (2013)

She will make our crew "a perfect team"! She's attractive and very capable, in high heels or spacesuit.

NAVIGATOR:


Penny Robinson - Angela Cartwright - Lost in Space (1965 - 1967)

Well, she's classic, and she's had a lot of experience dealing with different planets, dimensions, aliens, robots, and weird doctors.

SCIENCE OFFICER:


Nadia - Antje Traue - Pandorum (2009)

She will be able kick mutant or alien butt if we get attacked, but she still looks sexy when she's covered with grime. She can keep plants and meal worms alive under adverse conditons.

MEDIC:


Cassie - Rose Byrne - Sunshine (2007)

She has that sensitive bedside manner that will soothe us through the long voyage, and she's not likely to vote anyone off the spacecraft if supplies run low.

ENGINEER:


Dr. Josh Keyes - Aaron Eckhart - The Core (2003)

He can fix anything, solve any scientific conundrum, and he can figure his way out of an inner-spaceship sunk at the bottom of the sea.

MISSION CONTROLLER:


HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Re-programmed, he has promised to be good. Risky, I know, but his voice will keep us calm in an emergency, and he's really smart!

PLAN OF ACTION:

Only light travels at the speed of light. Okay, so ship and crew have been transformed into beams of light although from the point of view of the travelers, fellow astronauts and ship are solid entities. How will we do this? No need to explain. This is science fiction.

Traveling at the speed of light, we can go far, where no man or woman has gone before. The mission is to find extraterrestrial life. Half the crew members believe they will find nothing; we are alone! The other half disagrees. We shall see!

STATUS REPORT:

We originally thought a 3 to 3 ratio of male to female passengers was essential. Then we decided the more sharp female thinkers the better. In order to defray possible partnering conflicts, we found women who would be more than happy to pair up and go in for a threesome with one of the two male crew members. Use you imagination as to who will trio up with whom.