Ben-Hur (2016)

For F*** Magazine

Director : Timur Bekmambetov
Cast : Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black D’Elia, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 5 mins
Opens : 18 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Ben-Hur posterThe epic tale of Ben-Hur is told yet again in this, the fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) is a Jewish prince residing in Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the 1st Century A.D. Judah’s adoptive brother Messala (Kebbell) becomes an officer in the Roman army, and after Judah is falsely accused of an assassination attempt, the brothers become enemies. All that Judah holds dear, including his mother Naomi (Zurer), sister Tirzah (D’Elia) and Esther (Boniadi), a servant with whom he has fallen in love, is taken from him. After being arrested by the Romans, Judah encounters Jesus (Santoro), a carpenter who preaches compassion and love. Judah becomes a slave in the galley of a Roman vessel, and years later, has his chance for revenge against Messala. Judah trains under the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Freeman) to become a charioteer, facing off against Messala in the arena.

Ben-Hur Jack Huston chariot race 1

The 1959 Ben-Hur film, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, is widely venerated as a classic of American cinema, and remaking it seems to be a fool’s errand. Sequels and remakes have proven profitable, and nothing’s off-limits, so here we are with another big-screen version of Ben-Hur. Director Timur Bekmambetov is known for favouring style over substance, coming into prominence with the Russian horror fantasy blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, and following that up with Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. There are still plenty of dramatic scenes, but they tend to carry little emotional weight, one getting the impression that Bekmambetov is spinning his wheels until the next big set-piece.

Ben-Hur Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston chariot racing

The action sequences in Ben-Hur are meant to be its selling point, with Bekmambetov reining in (pun intended) the indulgences he’s displayed in his other films. Alas, it seems chariot races in cinema have forever been ruined by The Phantom Menace, and this reviewer couldn’t help but be reminded of that infamous sequence, which was itself inspired by the 1959 Ben-Hur. Go-Pro camera shots, reminiscent of those that show up in modern car racing movies, detract from the sequence’s authenticity rather than enhancing it. Bekmambetov insists that he tried to shoot as much in-camera as possible, but there’s no denying the phoniness of the computer-generated effects. This is evident in the ship battles even more than in the chariot race. Despite its $100 million budget and location shooting in the historical Italian city of Matera, Ben-Hur often looks cheap.

Ben-Hur Jack Huston training

There’s definitely an attempt made at fleshing out the title character. Judah’s arc, which begins with him as an entitled nobleman ambivalent to the struggles of his countrymen, sees him put through the wringer as a slave, and concludes with him questioning his drive for vengeance at the foot of Jesus’ cross, does have its impactful moments. Huston gives it his best shot, but there’s just something about the actor which makes it difficult to buy him as a truly heroic character – it’s as if his face is always a moment or two away from scrunching up into a snarl. It makes sense that Huston was originally considered for the role of Messala. The heart-warming plot point of Judah saving and eventually being adopted by Roman warship commander Quintus Arrius is excised here.

Ben-Hur Toby Kebbell chariot racing

Thankfully, Messala is not characterised as a moustache-twirling villain, with the possibility for reconciliation between him and Judah never entirely out of the question. The film strains too hard in trying to convince audiences that the two really started out as best buds, with a friendly chariot race between the two early on that’s pretty much ripped from The Prince of Egypt. Santoro is fine as Jesus, who is given a slightly larger role here than in the 1959 film. Alas, it seems Jesus had more impact when there was an air of mystery to Him – the famous scene in which Jesus offers a parched Judah some water had considerably more impact in the 1959 version, when we only saw Jesus from behind and He didn’t say a word. In this film, Jesus’ mini-sermons seem tacked on.

Ben-Hur Rodrigo Santoro and Jack Huston

The emphasis is placed on the bond and eventual rift between Judah and Messala, leaving the rest of Judah’s relationships somewhat under-developed. There isn’t enough to the women in Judah’s life for us to care about him, with Huston and Boniadi in particular sharing little chemistry. The film’s inability to convey the passage of time is also a factor. Chyrons reading “3 years later” or “5 years later” pop up, but even when Judah sports a scraggly beard and scars from repeated flogging, it doesn’t seem like more than a few months have elapsed. As such, it’s hard to buy the desperate longing Judah has for his beloved Esther.

Ben-Hur Morgan Freeman

Freeman can always be counted on to lend some gravitas, but those dreadlocks do undercut his screen presence. While we don’t miss the brownface sported by Hugh Griffiths to play Ilderim in the 1959 version, we do miss the effusive warmth and light-heartedness he brought to the part, which is entirely absent from Freeman’s stern, serious Ilderim.

Ben-Hur Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston chariot racing 2

Ben-Hur isn’t a travesty, but it’s every bit as unnecessary as anyone thought the moment this remake was announced. This reviewer feared that any and all character development would be jettisoned for stylistically overblown action, and while the story of Judah Ben-Hur is abridged, it’s mostly intact. The film is pervaded by the feeling of going through the motions, and it’s not long before the wheels come off this chariot.

Summary: This remake is occasionally sincere but generally uninspired, its dramatic moments cheesy rather than potent and its spectacle underwhelming rather than awe-inspiring.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Days in the Desert

For F*** Magazine

LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT

Director : Rodrigo García
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ayelet Zurer, Ciarán Hinds
Run Time : 1 hr 38 mins
Opens : 23 June 2016
Rating : M18 (Some Nudity)

There was a meme going around a while back, of a framed photograph atop an altar of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones, the idea being that some old lady thought it was a picture of Jesus Christ. Here, McGregor actually plays Jesus, referred to as “Yeshua”. This film imagines an incident during Jesus’ sojourn to the desert, during which He was tempted by the Devil (also McGregor). Jesus comes across a family living in the desert, comprising an unnamed Father (Hinds), a sickly Mother (Zurer) and their son (Sheridan). The Devil poses a challenge to Jesus, wagering that the Son of God will not be able to find a solution that will please each member of the family. Jesus stays as a guest of the family, helping them out with a construction project, while wrestling with the Devil, Father God seemingly millions of miles away.



            Writer-director Rodrigo García has repeatedly clarified that this not your run of the mill Biblical epic, and is instead an intimate drama and character study. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is told in three of the four gospels, and Christians will be familiar with how Jesus refuted each of Satan’s challenges to Him by quoting from the scripture. This film departs from tradition, but also does not feel like it’s courting controversy for the, uh, hell of it. García explained his decision to refer to Jesus as “Yeshua”, which is the original pronunciation, in an interview with Christianity Today. “I wrote a few pages in which I called Him ‘Jesus’, but when you’re writing a screenplay and it says ‘Jesus walks, Jesus says,’ after a while, the weight of the name is paralyzing,” García said.

            There are individual elements to García’s approach that are intriguing, but as a whole, the film often comes off as aimless and meandering. If it was his intention to make the audience feel like they’re spending 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness alongside Jesus, then García has succeeded. All things considered, the 108-minute running time is not particularly long, but even then, this feels interminable at times. It seems like three or four good ideas are spaced out, with a vast void in between. The Oscar-winning Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is the cinematographer here, but it is a dull movie to look at, the desolate surroundings about as dull as one imagines the average desert to look. The film was shot on location in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, and it might sound silly, but for this reviewer at least, the knowledge that this was filmed in the United States did rob the movie of some authenticity.

            Speaking of authenticity, this is yet another Hollywood film in which a white man is cast as Jesus. We don’t want to harp about issues of race and sure, there’s always room for poetic license, but especially with an actor who feels as contemporary as Tye Sheridan running about, it’s very hard to take this very seriously as a film set in Ancient Israel. That said, McGregor does face the myriad challenges in portraying the iconic religious figure head-on. There’s enough of a humanity to Jesus and at one point, He even laughs at a fart joke, but McGregor’s portrayal does have an undercurrent of reverence to it.



One of the smartest ideas on display is that of having McGregor play the dual roles of Jesus and His tormentor Satan. A conversation they have about the nature of God is the closest the film gets to any real theological insight. For a movie that wants so much to depart from tradition though, it seems a cliché that Satan wears jewellery as a way to differentiate him from Jesus; that the bad guy has to be coded as flamboyant. The visual effects work in duplicating McGregor is seamless and one does forget that there aren’t two Ewan McGregors after a while.

            On one level, this is a family drama, with the parents and their child working out their issues while a house guest is present. Hinds’ Father is a realist, a practical man who has his doubts about issues of faith, but does not dismiss the holy man outright. The struggles of a father in understanding his son are very relatable. Sheridan shares some genuinely affecting moments in which the son bonds with Jesus, but as alluded to earlier, he’s ultimately too American to be believable in this setting. The mother is ill for most of the film, so Zurer has less to do compared to Hinds and Sheridan, but the character’s pain still resonates.



            Last Days in the Desert feels more like a filmmaking experiment than a well-told story, but García is largely able to strike a balance between portraying Jesus’ humanity and deity without getting caught up in that, or blazing down a blasphemous path Last Temptation of the Christ-style. Alas, it is likely that this will induce thumb-twiddling rather than soul-searching.


Summary: Ewan McGregor shines in his dual role, but Last Days in the Desert’s loose structure and lack of narrative drive keep its audience at a distance.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Young Messiah

For F*** Magazine 

THE YOUNG MESSIAH

Director : Cyrus Nowrasteh
Cast : Adam Greaves-Neal, Sara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, Christian McKay, Sean Bean, David Bradley, Jonathan Bailey, Rory Keenan
Genre : Drama/Biblical
Run Time : 111 mins
Opens : 24 March 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

The Bible doesn’t give us many details about Jesus’ childhood. We jump from the Nativity to Jesus at age 12 speaking to the temple elders and then skip to Him at age 30. This Biblical drama attempts to offer a glimpse into the life of the Holy Family, with young Jesus at its centre.

Our story finds Jesus (Greaves-Neal) at seven years of age. He has lived in Alexandria, Egypt with his parents Joseph (Walsh) and Mary (Lazzaro) since they fled Israel, when King Herod the Great decreed that all boys aged under two be slaughtered. Acting on a vision he has received, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth. The family unit also includes Jesus’ cousin/adopted brother James (Finn Ireland), Joseph’s brother Cleopas (McKay) and Cleopas’ wife Miriam (Agni Scott). The new king, Herod the Great’s son Herod Antipas (Bailey), charges Roman centurion Severus (Bean) with tracking down and killing the young Jesus, after hearing rumours of a boy performing miracles. In treacherous times, the Young Messiah must come to grips with the truth about why He is on this earth.

The Young Messiah is based on the novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, by Anne Rice. Rice, known for her vampire novels, has had a fascinating personal journey, having been raised Roman Catholic, leaving the religion at age 18, returning to Catholicism in 1998, then distancing herself from Christianity at large in 2010, expressing her grievances with the state of organised Christianity. Unfortunately, The Young Messiah is not quite as interesting a story, and it’s easy to see why the filmmakers were boxed in. First, there’s the fact that the Holy Family is revered by large numbers, and their depiction cannot offend the sensibilities of the faithful. Second, there’s the “prequel trap” – we already know where Jesus ends up, so it will take a fair bit to get us invested in this story set earlier in His life. Working within these boundaries, the tale can’t help but feel stifled and slow at times.

The Young Messiah is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American filmmaker of Persian descent. He adapted Rice’s novel into a screenplay alongside his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh. Nowrasteh’s work has attracted controversy in the past; he wrote the docu-drama miniseries The Path to 9/11 alongside his wife and also wrote and directed The Stoning of Soraya M., about the human rights crisis in Iran. 

Being released around Easter and marketed to believers, The Young Messiah is very tame by comparison. There is a valiant effort made to humanise the Holy Family without committing blasphemy, and the anguish experienced by Joseph and Mary as they make sense of how to bring up God incarnate does have some emotional resonance. The family dynamics get fleshed out to a satisfactory degree, even if nothing quite riveting comes of it. Considerable stakes are established, but because we know it’s not Jesus’ time to die yet, none of them actually take hold. The way Mary and Joseph talk about Jesus’ abilities in hushed tones, it seems like a bald guy in a chrome wheelchair will show up at any moment to whisk Jesus to a school for gifted youngsters.

Portraying Jesus Christ, a widely-worshipped religious figure, is a challenge for any actor, seeing as how different theologians and believers at large view Him differently. Portraying Jesus as a child has its own set of challenges on top of that. How human is too human? How “wise beyond His years” is too much? What should Jesus’ level of awareness of His divinity be exactly? Should the young Jesus be innocent and filled with hope, or already world-weary and burdened with His destiny? For Greaves-Neal, known to Sherlock fans as the pageboy Archie from The Sign of Three, it’s all too much to parse. He seems unable to eloquently package this into a performance, so unfortunately, Greaves-Neal often comes off as awkwardly stilted.

Walsh’s Joseph is as sturdy and reliable as the furniture he builds and Lazarro finds an adequate blend of maternal warmth and youthful vulnerability as Mary. McKay provides some much-needed levity as the comic relief uncle without causing too jarring a tonal shift. Bean is the biggest name by far here and seems reluctant to be present, trundling through his part as the designated antagonist. When Herod Antipas is berating Severus for failing in his mission on the first try, Bean mutters “yes, my lord, I understand. It’s difficult,” with a laughable flatness. Bailey’s flamboyant, fey portrayal of Herod Antipas is silly rather than threatening. Keenan’s character, credited as “the Demon”, can only be seen by Jesus, wears eyeliner and a black cloak and is first seen crunching on an apple. Subtle.

The production values are passable – the film was shot on location in Matera, Italy, which has doubled for ancient Israel in numerous Biblical movies before. By focusing on Jesus at age seven, The Young Messiah treads ground that has not been covered countless times in earlier Biblical productions. It should play relatively well to faithful audiences, depending on one’s specific beliefs – for example, there are some who hold to the idea that Jesus did not perform miracles prior to turning the water into wine at the wedding of Cana, and here we see the young Jesus work wonders long before that incident. There is a “preaching to the choir” quotient here, if not as overwhelmingly as in other faith-based films, but it’s unlikely to result in mass conversions in the cinema.

Summary: The Young Messiah has to play by established rules and thus cannot take any significant risks in its portrayal of Jesus’ childhood. It’s almost moving at times, but clunky at others.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Exodus: Gods and Kings

For F*** Magazine

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Tuturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, María Valverde
Genre : Adventure/Action
Run Time : 150 mins
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
It could be said that Old Hollywood’s Biblical epics were the big-budget superhero blockbusters of their day, with their casts of thousands and lavish sets. Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments is the codifier of that genre and now director Ridley Scott offers up his retelling of the story of Moses.
            It is 1300 B.C. and Moses (Bale) is a general in the Egyptian army who has been raised alongside Prince Ramesses (Edgerton) by the Pharaoh Seti I (Tuturro). While on a routine survey at a work site, Moses is struck by how badly the Hebrew slaves are being treated. Nun (Kingsley) tells Moses the truth of his origins, that he was born a slave and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses is eventually exiled by Ramesses. He wanders the desert, becoming a shepherd and falling in love with the Midianite Zipporah (Valverde). After a dramatic spiritual encounter, Moses takes up the task of returning to Egypt to fight for the freedom of the Hebrew slaves. In the face of Ramesses’ stubbornness, God strikes Egypt with ten frightening plagues. Only after the most horrific of these calamities does Ramesses relent, but for Moses and the children of Israel, their journey has only just begun.

            The story of Moses is a familiar one, the best-known films inspired by it being the afore-mentioned The Ten Commandmentsand the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. Director Ridley Scott, who as the promotional materials are quick to remind us helmed Gladiator, delivers a not-quite epic. While the departures from the Biblical source material are not as outrageous as in Noah, it seems that Scott’s approach was to make more of a gritty swords-and-sandals flick than a grand, majestic Old Hollywood-style extravaganza. Perhaps this is meant to appeal to more cynical moviegoers but this reviewer was particularly disappointed that after being promised large-scale 3D spectacle, in this version, the Red Sea does not so much part as recede – off-screen. In trying to differentiate itself from earlier takes on the Exodus story, Exodus: Gods and Kings ditches one of the most iconic images in favour of a more “plausible” underwater earthquake.

            Sure, this is a $140 million movie and there still is spectacle to be had. The film was mostly shot in the historic Spanish city of Almería and the Egpytian palace sets do look suitably imposing and sprawling. The highlight of the film is the sequence of the ten plagues, in which we get swarms of buzzing locusts in 3D. The first plague in Exodus: Gods and Kings, the rivers of blood, is brought about by a violent clash of a bask of monstrous crocodiles. There are also lots of flyovers of ancient Egypt and while the CGI does mostly look good and certainly took large amounts of effort to complete, it’s always clear that what we’re looking at is computer-generated, resulting in the nagging sense of a lack of authenticity.

            Much has been made of the “whitewashed” cast – suffice it to say that you wouldn’t find anyone who looked a lot like Christian Bale or Joel Edgerton in Ancient Egypt. Scott has defended this by saying the big-budget film would not get made without A-list stars in the leading roles. Fair enough, but for this reviewer at least, this further affects the authenticity of the film and pulls one out of it somewhat – not to the extent of the film adaptations of Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender, but still in that unfortunate vein.

            Christian Bale is now the second former Batman to play Moses, after Batman Forever’s Val Kilmer voiced the titular Prince of Egypt. More emphasis is placed on Moses as a warrior, the film opening with a battle sequence in which the Egyptian army storms a Hittite encampment. Through most of the film, Moses comes off as weary and confused, with the heavy implication that his encounters with God might merely be delusional episodes. However, he’s still plenty heroic and steadfast and there’s enough of an old-school leader in this interpretation despite the modern “flawed hero” approach. Joel Edgerton seems visibly unsure of how over the top to go with his portrayal of Ramesses, conflicted as to how much scenery he is allowed to chew without going all-out ridiculous. In the end, this pales in comparison to the clash of titans between Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. The “brothers-turned-enemies” relationship was also drawn more compellingly in The Prince of Egypt.

            The supporting cast barely registers, with Sigourney Weaver getting a total of around five minutes of screen time. Ben Mendelsohn’s campy turn as Hegep is entertaining but seems slightly out of place, even given the flamboyance associated with Ancient Egyptian royalty. As with most of Ridley Scott’s films, there will probably be an extended director’s cut released and perhaps we will get more characterisation in that version. At 154 minutes, this theatrical cut is still something of a drag. The “event film” of the holiday season has its awe-inspiring moments but alas, they are few and far between.

Summary: “Underwhelming epic” sounds like an oxymoron, but that is the best way to describe Exodus: Gods and Kings.  
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong