Ben-Hur (2016)

Director: Timur Bekmambetov (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

A biblical bromance goes bad in this fourth big screen version of the epic tale set in Jesus-era Jerusalem.

Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell give career worst performances as the lifelong friends Ben and Messala, a Jewish prince and Roman officer.

When Ben is falsely accused of treachery, Messala arrests his family and sends his buddy into slavery. Ben’s quest for revenge involves a sea battle, a chariot race and a chance meeting with a luxuriously dreadlocked Morgan Freeman.

As the owner of a racing team, his character performs the same function as Oliver Reed did in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Occasionally we hear echoes of Hans Zimmer’s epic score from that film as well.

Filmed in unrelenting unsteadycam, this feels like a TV mini series chopped down to cinema length when a buyer couldn’t be found, and a quick theatrical release considered an appropriate method of recouping the investment.

Contempt for the audience is a regular motif. The heavy fist of Roman oppression would seem a doddle compared to suffering the base level direction, writing and CGI on show here.

Assuming the grace of a one wheeled chariot, the film rattles through episodes of leprosy, arranged marriage, a stoning and crucifixion. Much needed momentum is lost whenever anyone stops to speak or think.

The 1959 version starring Charlton Heston became the first and only the third film to win eleven Oscars. At half the length, this film can only point to brevity as the only possible are of improvement.

Hunky carpenter Jesus keeps popping up to offer his message of forgiveness. But it’s hard to believe anyone involved in this shoddy level of craftsmanship is deserving of any.

@ChrisHunneysett

Gods Of Egypt

Director: Alex Proyas (2016)

With a budget of $140M this is possibly the most dull and cheap looking special effects spectacular you’ll be unfortunate to suffer.

Mortals and gods battling to save ancient Egypt in a camp and glossy action adventure romp should be huge amounts of fun.

10 feet tall gods bleed liquid gold and ride chariots pulled by giant beetles. Plus there are enormous fire breathing snakes and ox headed warriors.

But due to a terrible script, laboured jokes and painful dialogue it’s sadly far less entertaining than the sum of its ridiculous parts.

Also it’s terribly edited and badly dubbed with a voice over dropped in to fill – or possibly distract from – the gaps in the inconsistent story.

Humans are referred to as mortals even though gods are regularly killed or threatened with death.

The heroes are dull, women are inconsequential plot devices, no one knows who the main character is and it’s left to the bad guys to provide what fun there is.

The gorgeous set and costume design is wasted by appalling shoddy CGI, terrible storytelling and some awful acting.

Gerard Butler’s reputation survives because the Scots actor embraces the nonsense, strutting manfully as Set, god of the desert and war. He brings the noise and the muscle and when he and the excellent Elodie Yung are off screen everything flags, in the manner of the inflatable pyramid in Despicable Me 2 (2013).

It’s a shame the majority of the cast don’t follow his cue, offering light weight performances which are dwarfed by the sets and lost in the gravity free CGI.

Butler goes full Sparta, reprising the roaring camp egotism of his skirt and sandalled fighting king Leonidas, from Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006).

Bored after a thousand years of peace, he stages a violent coup over his nephew. Danish Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is astonishingly dull as the rightful king Horus left blind and in exile.

Equalling him for a lack of charisma are Brenton Thwaites and Courtney Eaton. As Bek and Zaya they are the happiest, healthiest and most handsomest slaves in Hollywood.

When Zaya dies Bek strikes a deal with Horus. In return for helping Horus reclaiming his eyes and his throne, Horus will use his power to return Zaya to the land of the living.

They trek about the desert, raiding tombs, visiting gods and fighting monsters. Joining them from Netflix’s Daredevil is the under used Yung.

Despite Hathor being the only female character on show with anything approaching complexity, she’s eventually sidelined and suffers the usual fate of strong headed women in movies. Being punished for her promiscuity would be wrong even if Hathor wasn’t the goddess of love.

Hathor’s absence from the rooftop finale leaves us with musclebound mahogany mugs battering each other as a giant space worm attempts to eat Egypt. Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.

Fresh from Captain America: Civil War (2016) Chadwick Boseman out camps out as Thoth the god of knowledge. In an ’80s romcom he’d be classed as the gay black best friend.

A strongly Australian supporting cast sees Bryan Brown, Bruce Spence and Geoffrey Rush failing to be embarrassed as various gods. Abbey Lee was last seen in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) alongside Courtney Eaton as wives of Immortan Joe.

The growling muffle of Kenneth Ransom’s voice of the Sphinx leaves his riddle indecipherable, never mind unsolvable.

With ancient gods reimagined as superheroes, for much of the running time this feels more like a retread of the recent X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) than anything Ray Harryhausen may have conjured up. And about as much fun.

It’s a long fall from grace for Alex Proyas whose directorial debut was the intelligently composed sci fi thriller Dark City (1998).

Gods Of Egypt has been criticised for a lack of Egyptian actors. Maybe they realised how bad it was going to be and decided against it.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Director: Ridley Scott (2014)

Striding into cinemas on a mission from God, Exodus is a handsome and monumental retelling of the Moses bible story.

Ridley Scott combines typically impressive design with spectacular action and even makes a couple of successful stabs at humour.

But he fails to broaden our understanding of events . Remaining true to the spirit of the story he fails to put an interesting spin on it. There is, of course, the parting of the Red Sea and the carving of the Ten Commandments.

Surprisingly for the director who gave cinema Ellen Ripley, G.I. Jane and Thelma and Louise, Scott provides no memorable female characters.

Although Indira Varma as a High Priestess makes an impression, Sigourney Weaver appears briefly and to no great effect as as Ramses’ mother Tuya. Love interest Zipporah (Maria Valverde) is forgettable. Even Scott’s recent and deservedly maligned Prometheus gave us two entertaining female roles.

In a nothing role Aaron Paul continues to cash in on his Breaking Bad kudos – but the likeable actor needs to start banking decent roles soon.

Egyptian general Moses (Christian Bale) is troubled when told he is the son of a Hebrew slave. His foster brother King Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) sees him as a threat and casts him into the wilderness

God appears to Moses in the controversial guise of a haughty and petulant youth – a confident and spine-tingling performance by Isaac Andrews.

He tells Moses to return to Egypt and free the chosen people but the prince-turned-prophet takes his time about it. So in the movie’s stand-out sequence, God lets loose a terrifying series of plagues including crocodiles, frogs, boils, flies and locusts.

All the children of Egypt are killed, including Ramses’ own son, and he orders the Hebrews to flee. But he chases them and they end up trapped between the sea and his bloodthirsty army.

Bale, with his usual intensity, successfully turns from sceptical young warrior to devout old leader – though his wildly changing circumstances barely phase him.

He’s not even surprised when he is unexpectedly introduced to his adult brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) for the first time.

Pompeii

Director: Paul WS Anderson (2014)

There’s not an ounce of originality in this ridiculous Roman romp – but you can’t help being swept away on waves of lava-hot fun.

It shamelessly borrows scenes, images, fights and even jokes from Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator despite not being fit to tie its sandals.

Pompeii is also poorly acted and badly written, with ramshackle dialogue and a plot that makes very little sense.

But Geordie director Anderson doesn’t waste time in getting to the main act – Mt Vesuvius blowing its top.

As choking-hot death rains down on Romans in an orgy of brilliant and gleeful destruction, I was grinning like a loon.

Plus it has Keifer Sutherland camping it up as a Roman Senator so resolutely evil that he has a English accent. (At least I think it’s supposed to be an English accent.)

The plot follows a Celtic – that is, British – child Milo who is captured after his family is butchered by Roman legionaries. lead by the evil Corvus (Sutherland).

Suddenly it’s 17 years later and he’s has grown up to become a feared gladiator known simply as ‘The Celt’ (Kit Harington) with the baddest rep, hardest abs and best hair.

Before you can say Maximus Decimus Meridius he is whisked off to Pompeii to fight in a computer-drawn city of unconvincing interior sets.

Milos falls in love with beautiful bland party-girl Cassia (Emily Browning). Her father Severus (Jared Harris) wants Corvus (now a Senator) to finance a new arena. But Corvus wants Cassia as part of the deal and plots to have Milo murdered.

Milos foils Corvus’s bid to kill him with the help of gladiator Atticus (Adewele Akinnouye-Agbaje). With the hero’s fate in the balance, the volcano erupts and everyone legs it for the docks to escape.

Except Milo, who must rescue Cassia, get revenge on Corvus and avoid being turned into ash with everyone else.