Ben-Hur Review

They remade Ben-Hur? Sure, why not? With all the other bloody films being remade let’s just do whatever film studios still have the rights to. Disclaimer; I haven’t seen the original (apart from the chariot sequence), but it is usually seen as one of the biggest films of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Let’s see though, maybe the remake could be good.

Ben-Hur stars Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, and Nazanin Bonaidi and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Based on the book from 1880, the film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) who is betrayed by his Roman Soldier brother (Kebbell) and forced into slavery during the time of Jesus Christ.

I’ll start with what I did like. The film is split between several built sets and real-life wilderness. While it is very easy to spot the former I really enjoyed the latter. Near the beginning we see a montage of Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother Messala’s army career with him fighting in Germania and Gaul through wheat-fields and falling snow. It reminded me of the opening of Gladiator, but sadly it is only in the film for a limited amount of time. I also mostly enjoyed the chariot sequence. While it can’t hold a candle to the original (famous for the alarmingly high amount of injuries and near-death experiences on set) the destruction throughout has a nice crunch to it.

I’m also glad that a lot of the horse and chariot racing was done for real. Sure, horses being tripped and riders being thrown off or trampled are computer generated, but there are many scenes where Ben-Hur is learning to tilt his chariot onto one wheel or another where he jumps onto runaway horses, and it is all done for real. Director Timur Bekmambetov stated he wanted to not rely on CGI unless it was heavily needed so I applaud him for using it correctly rather than splashing out.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been used and quite terribly. During Ben-Hur’s time as a galley slave, rowing ships for the Roman Navy, he looks out the portholes and sees some truly awful looking ships. The previously mentioned chariot sequence (when it isn’t the real riders) is full of rubbery looking models unfit for the early 2000s. It is a little sad when something goes from real-life stunts to bad stand-ins.

The acting is mixed pot as well. Most of the cast is English or American (odd, since the film is meant to be set in Jerusalem). Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur as a gruff, wooden character, breathing every other word like Kristen Stewart used to do back in Twilight. Toby Kebbell isn’t as charismatic as he was in Warcraft earlier this year (he was honestly the best part of that film), but his character is meant to be a nigh-emotionless killer so I’ll let it pass. The person I was most confused by was Morgan Freeman. While he is really good in the film I was pulled out the experience by his inclusion. Everyone else is either relatively unknown or coming into their careers so to have this huge actor in the film creates a divide. Bekmamtebov said he wanted the film to be global hence his inclusion of Freeman. Alright, I’ll let it go. Morgan Freeman does draw in the crowds since remaking a classic film is not usually a winner of box offices (the film is reportedly making a loss of $120 million).

The bit I found both unintentionally hilarious and odd was the inclusion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is in the original story (the subtitle is A Tale Of The Christ), but in the 1959 version he’s usually off-screen, a higher presence that is alluded to but never truly shown. There is a line in the updated version which basically is, “This Jesus fellow is rather great, he’s just wonderful.” I’m all for including whatever you want in a film, but it was just so funny how the line was presented in the film, it felt really out of place. That being said, Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who plays Jesus (who also played Xerxes from 300 and Karl from Love Actually, interesting fact), is actually giving a good performance and an interesting addition to the film.

In the end Ben-Hur wasn’t as bad as I was thinking it was going to be. Its an odd mix of Gladiator, Passion Of The Christ, and Ben-Hur, but sadly with nothing really standout to warrant it being remade.

Score: 5/10 There are better movies to spend two and half hours with.

Kubo And The Two Strings Review

For all of the shoddy sequels and comic book movies this year, animation has been on point. With Disney’s excellent The Jungle Book and Zootropolis, Studio Ghibli’s final film, When Marine Was There, and the incredible Anomalisa, 2016 is looking up in terms of animation. And now, a new one, Kubo And The Two Strings.

Kubo And The Two Strings stars Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara and is directed by Travis Knight. The film follows Kubo (Parkinson), a young boy who must find a set of magical armour bequeathed to him by his samurai father, while being chased by evil forces.

The animation is some of the best of this year, which is really saying a lot. Laika, the team behind Kubo, is the same team that made ParaNorman and Coraline, two recent greats for animation buffs. The level of detail and the production design is part of the reason to go see Kubo right away. The incredibly smooth stop-motion animation, along with the 3D printed faces turns even the small down time in between the big action set pieces into a jaw dropping display of craftsmanship, you completely forget the massive human effort it took to create something so magical. One of the first big fights in the film includes what is apparently the largest stop-motion character ever animated. Be sure to stick around during the credits, which includes a “see how we did this” behind the scenes moment that shows how ridiculous the task must have been.

Kubo is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore. While the story is a grab bag of several different legends and tales, it’s more in the mood rather than the plot. Little wisps of fog coat lakes, half forgotten statues to Shinto and Buddhist religions are throughout the land, it does a good job of creating a world, and not just a succession of places in a line. The music helps settle us into the world, with the strings of Kubo’s guitar, along with flutes and chimes constantly coming and going from the film, highlighting some scenes as being instant favourites of the year so far. The plot though is very by the numbers. A little boy finding magical armour and defeating dark gods, it’s a story that’s been told before (mainly Legend Of Zelda). The story has a few twists that might be easy to figure out for the older viewers, especially reveals about Kubo’s companions Monkey and Beetle, but overall it’s more a dressing than the central point.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are excellent as Kubo’s friend Monkey and Beetle respectively. Theron is doing her usual badass performance, with McConaughey playing a bit against type as the rather slow-minded Beetle. Ralph Fiennes does his sinister charm in a small role as Raiden, and Rooney Mara, playing dual roles as a pair of evil witches is remarkably menacing for how little she is on-screen. Art Parkinson though as Kubo is who deserves the high praise. Most notable as Rickon Stark from Game Of Thrones, the young actor carries the majority of the first act mainly by himself.

I always feel that when animation goes dark, due to it being animated, it adds to the scariness. Kubo And The Two Strings is rated PG for “mild fantasy violence and scary scenes”. The scary scenes are mainly supplied by Rooney Mara’s excellent twin sisters (who never actually get names), who appear at night in a swirl of black smoke. Their black robes and their constantly smiling facemasks add a genuine deal of creepiness to the film, and leave a distinct impression that will be remembered long after it’s finished.

In short, Kubo And The Strings is one of the best of the year and one that will be enjoyed both by young and old. Go see it now while it’s still in cinemas, then go push it on all your friends. You will not be disappointed.

Score: 10/10 Genuinely awe-inspiring.

The Legend Of Tarzan Review

After a slew of uneventful, boring and drab summer blockbusters, (all three sum up Independence Day 2), we have to wait a few more weeks until we get some actually great movies (Jason Bourne and Finding Dory respectively). So let’s review a film from last week that I finally got round to watching, The Legend of Tarzan.

The Legend Of Tarzan stars Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by David Yates. Based of the characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film follows Tarzan (Skarsgård) who after living in London for several years is lured back to The Congo by a conspiracy been orchestrated by Captain Leon Rom (Waltz).

The Legend Of Tarzan is the perfect example of a B movie. Nobody was really asking for a new Tarzan film, he had his time from the silent era all the way into the 1960s. But there is just something about it, it has a little bit of Indiana Jones sense of adventure, of exotic locations and scheming villains that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

The acting is a rather mixed bag. While physically Skarsgård is a perfect Tarzan (the guy is huge, you totally believe he could be swinging around on vines) he doesn’t display too much emotion. He hasn’t much chemistry with Margot Robbie (this movie’s Jane) who is a charisma machine in whatever role she plays. Samuel L. Jackson is doing a less foul-mouthed version of one of his Tarantino characters, while Christoph Waltz’s Leon Rom is like a live-action version of Dick Dastardly. All of them are sadly let down by a weak script and some bizarre moments of comedy. A running joke by Jackson about monkey testicles seems really odd since it’s delivered in a scene where Tarzan is being beaten down by gorillas. It’s just an odd placement and destroys the tense mood.

The film tries to tie the mythical story of Tarzan to the true events in the Congo at the time, which also seems jarring. Jackson and Waltz’s characters are actual people, so it’s odd to see them mixing with the superhero acrobatics of Tarzan. Add in the real-life atrocities that Waltz’s character committed and it gets really quite uncomfortable.

Tarzan’s mythic quality could have explained away any other combatant. Tarzan is the books fought dinosaurs and Nazis. Who wouldn’t pay to see that, Ape Man fights Nazis? Waltz is already is costume as Belloq from Raiders Of the Lost Ark and there are several scenes where he seems to just replicating that character. Who cares if it’s historically inaccurate, this is a film about a man who climbs on trees and swings on vines, were pretty far from anything realistic at this point.

And since Tarzan is a man of the jungle, he also is able to talk to the animals. Sadly, the CGI is rather low quality. At a time where you have Andy Serkis’ Apes movies and this year’s other jungle-dwelling feral story, The Jungle Book, you really need to step up your game up when it comes to animation.

Don’t be fooled though, there is some greatness to be found in The Legend Of Tarzan. For one, it looks great. While a lot of the film was shot on sound stages, some photography was done in Gabon, allowing for endless sweeping shots of the plains and mountains. And while done on stages, the sets are well designed and realised. Opar, the fabled diamond mine where Djimon Hounsou’s Mbonga and the leopard men live is a stunning set and contains two great action scenes, both at the beginning and end of the film. Costumes as well are on point. Hounsou’s previously mentioned Mbonga, who wears leopard print, claws and bones, as well as Waltz’s all white linen suit fit into that adventure story mould.

In the end, I enjoyed The Legend of Tarzan on purely a anachronistic level. It’s not mind-blowing or transcendent and a little bit long, but it’s a good popcorn flick.

Score: 7/10 B Movie adventure ridiculousness.