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

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

For F*** Magazine

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES

Director : Burr Steers
Cast : Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 11 February 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

Something is rotten in the state of England – human flesh. It is the 19th Century and a plague has befallen the nation, resulting in zombie hordes. Country gentleman Mr. Bennet (Dance) has ensured that his five daughters are trained in martial arts and weaponry to defend themselves against zombies, while Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) is more concerned that they marry well. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley (Booth) purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet sends her daughters to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest daughter Jane (Heathcote). Meanwhile, the second eldest daughter Elizabeth (James) clashes with Bingley’s friend, noted zombie slayer Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Riley). Meanwhile, local militia leader George Wickham (Huston), who had a falling out with Darcy, takes a shine to Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Darcy must overcome personal pride and societal prejudices to battle the zombie menace and discover their true love for each other.

            Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is based on the 2009 parody novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, who combined Jane Austen’s 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice with zombie fiction elements. A film adaptation has been in the works since even before the novel’s publication, with Natalie Portman set to star as Elizabeth and David O. Russell directing. Alas, the end result doesn’t have quite that level of pedigree, with 17 Again’s Burr Steers writing the adapted screenplay and directing. Portman remains as a producer. Across the development process, it ended up that Grahame-Smith’s follow-up novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter got a film adaptation first.

            While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was criticised for being too self-serious, Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesacknowledges its inherent absurdity more readily. It’s not a dour affair and there is a great deal of winking self-awareness to be had, which led to this reviewer laughing more than he anticipated to. However, it’s quickly all too apparent that this is built on just one joke, that zombies are having their heads blown to bits amidst all the Jane Austen refinement. This is how the idea was conceived: an editor at Quirk books literally compared a list of “fanboy characters” like ninjas, pirates, zombies and monkeys with public domain classics like War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights. Sounds arbitrary, doesn’t it? This laziness comes through and the novelty factor proves insufficient in sustaining the film.



            We’ve had Charlize Theron with a bionic arm driving a giant oil tanker across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Emily Blunt in a mech suit fighting aliens, so kickass heroines are in vogue. In this film, the Bennet girls were trained in a Shaolin monastery and are proficient in various forms of combat. In one scene, two of the sisters engage in sparring practice while gushing over Mr. Bingley, speaking the original Austen dialogue. It’s pretty fun.



James makes for an adequate plucky, wilful protagonist and the actress demonstrates her awareness of the type of film she’s in. The Cinderella and Downton Abbeystar is perfectly convincing as an aristocratic 19th Century English woman fighting social norms, albeit a little less convincing as a formidable zombie killer. Riley’s Mr. Darcy is brusque and brooding, clad in a leather duster. Unfortunately, Riley and James share little chemistry and there’s no flow to the progression of their relationship. Matt Smith showcases good comic timing as the bumbling clergyman Mr. Collins, heir to the Bennet estate. In Austen’s original novel, George Wickham turned out to be a liar and conman, if not an out-and-out villain. Things end a little differently here. Huston’s pulchritude has a slight tinge of menace, which makes him suited to the role. Dance is a welcome presence as the kindly yet strict Bennet patriarch, but his Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey gets all too little screen time as the eyepatch-wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh.



Many readers have used charts and diagrams to follow the interwoven relationships in Pride and Prejudice. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trips up when it tries to get through the plot of the story as quickly as possible so it can get to the next zombie attack. The genre mashup isn’t as seamless and confident as it needs to be to fully sell the conceit. Furthermore, the action sequences aren’t particularly memorable. It’s also lacking the raw sex appeal of, uh, Colin Firth.

Summary: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not the unmitigated train-wreck it could’ve been, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that all the premise should sustain is a mock trailer on Funny or Die.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong