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

Jane Got a Gun

For F*** Magazine

JANE GOT A GUN

Director : Gavin O’Connor
Cast : Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn
Genre : Action/Drama/Western
Run Time : 98 mins
Opens : 18 February 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

In Marvel’s ongoing Thor comics series, Jane Foster is the current wielder of Mjolnir. In this western, Jane Hammond (Portman) wields more conventional weapons. It is 1871 in New Mexico territory and Jane lives with her husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Emmerich) and their daughter Kate. When Ham rides home seriously wounded after a gun battle with the Bishop Boys gang, Jane has no choice but to turn to her ex-fiancée Dan Frost (Edgerton) for protection. John Bishop (McGregor), a notorious outlaw from Jane’s past, has returned to torment her. Dan is still broken after losing Jane to another man, but he resolves to help Jane protect her family and her home as the Bishop Boys come a-knocking.



            Jane Got a Gun was plagued by numerous production problems, and it will be remembered more for its behind-the-scenes tumult than on its own merit as a film. The original screenplay by Brian Duffield was a hot property, landing on the Black List of best-liked screenplays in Hollywood back in 2011. Natalie Portman was attached to star and produce, with Lynne Ramsay of We Need to Talk About Kevin fame directing. Severe disagreements led to Ramsay dropping out on the first day of principal photography, with a bitter legal battle ensuing. Warrior director Gavin O’Connor was roped in to replace her, but the film’s troubles were just beginning. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were all attached at different points and Edgerton ended up switching roles from the villain John Bishop to the ex-fiancée Dan Frost. The release date was shifted back multiple times, with distributor Relativity Media dropping the film and The Weinstein Company later acquiring it.

            For all the drama involved in getting the film made, one would expect it to, at the very least, be bad in an interesting way. No such luck. Jane Got a Gun is soporific and dreary, sorely lacking in a key element of any revenge story: passion. It looks, feels and sounds like a western, but there’s so little energy and momentum behind it. The title suggests a fun genre piece with a feminist twist, perhaps something akin to Kill Bill in the American frontier. Some of the expected ingredients are there, including a tragic back-story and a score to settle with an old enemy, but it’s so plodding and self-serious that getting invested in Jane’s tale is quite the task. It’s sometimes a pretty movie to look at, but most of the time it’s visually dull: the picture is sepia-tinted, then the flashbacks appear to have another layer of sepia tinting on top of that and this stylistic touch ends up creating even more distance between the audience and the story.

            Portman may be playing the titular protagonist and has championed the film through the myriad obstacles it faced in getting made, but Jane Hammond will not go down as one of the great ass-kicking female characters in cinema history. There’s some emotional impact to Jane’s tortured past, but her supposed transformation into a gun-toting damsel no longer in distress is underwhelming. The love triangle between Jane, Ham and Dan bogs the movie down in melodramatics instead of creating any fireworks and nothing unconventional comes of the dynamics between the three characters. The villain in a revenge western should get to chew a good deal of scenery, but McGregor has too little screen time and too little material to work with, unable to create a particularly intimidating or striking villain. With Padmé, Obi-Wan and Owen Lars in the same movie, it’s a mini Attack of the Clones reunion.



            Jane Got a Gun has a round or two in the chamber: the climactic standoff brims with tension and the sombre atmosphere is sometimes effective. It is morbidly fascinating to read about how a straight-forward western got mired in so many production troubles and it is admirable that last-minute replacement director O’Connor was able to salvage it all. However, in the aftermath of this hullabaloo, all Jane Got a Gun has to show for it is mediocrity.

Summary: Dour and slow, Jane Got a Gun fails to make good on its promise of a fun genre piece starring a dynamic female lead.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The 33

For F*** Magazine

THE 33

Director : Patricia Riggen
Cast : Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Coté de Pablo, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Gunton
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG (Some Violence)
From the Atacama Desert in Chile comes the true story of courage and perseverance under pressure and underground. On Thursday, 5 August 2010, a major cave-in at the San José copper–gold mine traps a group of 33 miners 23 000 feet under the surface. The group is led by Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda (Banderas) and shift leader Luis “Don Lucho” Urzúa (Phillips). Among the 33 is Álex Vega (Casas), whose wife Jessica (de Pablo) is pregnant with their first child, and the troubled Darío Segovia (Raba), who is on poor terms with his empanada vendor sister María (Binoche). As the loved ones of the stranded miners grow restless with no news on the well-being of the 33, Minster of Mining Laurence Golborne (Santoro) coordinates the rescue efforts, collaborating with chief engineer André Sougarret (Byrne). As the nation of Chile and the world at large rallies around “Los 33”, rescuing the miners becomes a priority for the Chilean government, headed by President Sebastián Piñera (Gunton). In the face of insurmountable odds, faith and blue collar spirit must win the day.

            The 33 is based on the book Deep Down Dark, journalist Héctor Tobar’s account of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident. The film is in the English language and is clearly gunning for mass appeal, couched as an inspirational tearjerker that is a celebration of the “triumph of the human spirit” and all that good stuff. It may seem cold of us to be this cynical, but nearly every move The 33 makes seems right in line with established disaster/survival story formulas. Also, the ordeal was so well-documented that practically everyone who goes to see the film would already know the outcome, and the process leading to said outcome as depicted here is rather tedious. Structurally, The 33 is primarily comprised of a “three steps forward, two steps back” dance of some progress being made, only for the rescuers and/or miners to run into a setback before breaking through again. It gets repetitive rather than riveting the longer it goes on.

            Director Patricia Riggen does make some solid stylistic choices, and even though the 33 miners are cooped up in a small refuge underground, the story does have sufficient scope to it. The scene of the initial collapse is frightening and harrowing and the production values can’t be faulted, with the environment coming across as suitably foreboding. In a bid for added realism, actual news footage is spliced in and Chilean TV present Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld, better known as “Don Francisco”, plays himself. The miners’ Catholic faith and how their belief played a key role in sustaining them is also showcased.

            There is a scene in which the exhausted, starving miners fantasise about their loved ones bringing them the favourite foods they have so craved. It is corny and a little silly, but it possesses a combination of warmth, levity and sad longing that lifts the film above the standard tropes it presents us with up till that point. This reviewer found that to be the movie’s single most memorable moment.

            Every time a film based on a true story is made, there must be a bit of a dilemma with regards to casting. While a marquee name draws the crowds, thus drawing attention to the film, this might also pull the viewer out of the story. Banderas does bring plenty of star quality to bear as the charismatic and earnest “fearless leader”, though his performance is a touch theatrical at times. Phillips is something of an underrated actor and he’s excellent here as the second-in-command. Naturally, 33 characters is too many for each to be meaningfully developed, so the fact that most of the miners blend together can’t be held against the film.



            The casting of actors of different nationalities and ethnicities from the real-life figures they’re portraying achieves varying degrees of success. Binoche is commendably convincing, but Gunton’s accent slips a whole lot. Santoro is well cast as the slick Minster of Mining, because we’re conditioned to expect that a handsome government guy in a suit won’t actually get anything done. The interplay between Golborne and head engineer Sougarret is sometimes more interesting than the interaction among the miners themselves.

            There’s a scene around the middle of the film when de Pablo (who is actually from Chile), sitting with others around a fire at the base camp, tearfully sings a ballad expressing how she years for her husband to be returned to her side. That’s only one of many melodramatic moments in The 33. Sure, there are parts that manage to be genuinely moving, but it’s all pretty obviously engineered. Engineered entertainment value is a whole different ball game from engineered pathos. One gets the feeling that this story would be better served by a documentary featuring interviews with the real-life miners, their family members and the engineers and officials who orchestrated the rescue interspersed with re-enactments, as opposed to a generic survival drama movie.



Summary:The true story of the 33 Chilean miners is inspiring, but this film is a rather rote affair that is occasionally lifted by good performances and strong production values.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong  

Focus

For F*** Magazine

FOCUS

Director : Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Adrian Martinez
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 26 February 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Scene of Intimacy and Coarse Language)
In Batman Begins, Henri Ducard had this piece of advice for Bruce Wayne – “always mind your surroundings”. In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, someone whose stock in trade is preying on those who don’t mind their surroundings. A seasoned, talented conman, Nicky is skilled in the art of persuasion and deception. He’s prepared for everything – everything except Jess Barrett (Robbie), an attractive young woman eager to learn the tricks of the trade and become a grifter herself. Nicky has never let down his guard and let his feelings get the better of him, but Jess gets closer than anyone else does. While Nicky is in the employ of billionaire racing team owner Garriga (Santoro), Jess’ presence threatens to throw him off his finely-honed game.

            Escapism is a large part of what makes going to the movies appealing and there’s an undeniable allure to movies that offer a peek into worlds only the privileged few have access to. Focus very effectively seduces the audience, beckoning them into a dizzying, dazzling world of lies and shiny objects. There are certain dangers associated with the subgenre of conman movies – the audience should feel like they’ve been taken on a ride, but not for a ride, the difference almost imperceptible. Nobody likes the feeling of being invested in a film for two hours only to feel played out by the big reveal. Writing-directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage to quite masterfully negotiate that, having a firm grasp on the film’s tone throughout. It’s funny and playfully sexy, but there are stakes and the thrills click right into the proceedings where they could have easily felt out of place.

            The other danger of conman movies is that they can often come off as smug, as if the filmmakers are taking particular delight in feeling smarter than the audience. There is a little bit of that in Focus, to be sure, but that’s definitely better than if it were an altogether dumb affair. Real-life sleight-of-hand artist and “deception specialist” Apollo Robbins serves as the consultant on the film, choreographing the elaborate pickpocketing sequences which are very exciting to watch. While most of the jokes do work, there are a few too many at the expense of overweight comic relief sidekick Farhad, played by Adrian Martinez. The character also supplies more crass sexual innuendo than is strictly necessary.

            Remember how Will Smith tried to play against type as a stern, emotionless father in After Earth, to disastrous results? Focus is far more in his wheelhouse and absolutely plays to his strength as an actor. Three parts charming, one part goofy, it’s very easy to buy Smith as the shark with a heart of gold. He’s also the kind of guy who could go out with a woman 22 years his junior and it really isn’t that creepy because he’s that likeable. Margot Robbie, who impressed in The Wolf of Wall Street, is excellent here as well. Jess is simultaneously an ingénue and a femme fatale, Robbie nailing both aspects of the character. We can’t wait to see them together onscreen in next year’s Suicide Squad. At one point, Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart were attached to star – I think we can all agree that would have had, uh, markedly different results. The devilishly handsome Rodrigo Santoro makes for a sufficiently formidable romantic rival to Smith. B.D. Wong threatens to steal the show in his one scene as an overly-excited high roller.  

            Ficarra and Requa’s previous film was the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, which is considered one of the better examples of the genre in recent memory. With Focus, they have crafted what is almost the ideal date movie. Romantic comedies that crowbar in elements intended to appeal to men have often fallen flat on their faces – This Means War or Killers, anyone? Focus does more than serve up a shirtless Will Smith and Margot Robbie in a bikini, it attains an admirable balance of sexiness, laughs and intelligence and features a central romantic pairing that is unique and happens to really work.

Summary: Focus is sharp, slick and sexy, gliding along on the chemistry of its leads.
RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong