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

London Has Fallen

Director: Babak Najafi (2016)

Take cover as this big, dumb action sequel drops into cinema with the subtle grace of a lead balloon.

Gerard Butler is in age denial mode as Secret Service agent Mike Banning, the kick ass star of Olympus Has Fallen (2013). He knows no fear, mercy or decent banter.

It’s a noisy barrage of gun battles and explosions with torture to break the tedium. Cars collide, helicopters crash and the touristy bit of the capital are trashed.

Impressive physical stunts are undermined by some poor CGI, ridiculous dialogue and unintentionally funny moments.

Following the sudden death of British PM, Banning must leave his pregnant wife behind and postpone his resignation plan to accompany the US President to the state funeral in London.

As global leaders gather to pay their last respects and with the streets of London protected by fighter jets, horses, dogs, armed police and snipers, an army of terrorists launch an attack on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral.

With London transport on lockdown and the emergency services incapacitated through terrorist infiltration, it’s up to Banning to drag the President to safety.

Aaron Eckhart sighs, frowns and worries about being tortured on Youtube. This demonstrates his scant faith in Banning’s abilities to save him.

Back in the US, Morgan Freeman’s Vice President chuckles his way through the crisis and talks about his fishing.

Boro girl Charlotte Riley keeps her native accent as an MI6 agent. Her forthright intensity   is in contrast to the joshing efforts of  to shame.

Moments of social realism break out during lulls in the mayhem. The British cabinet is portrayed as posh, smug and stupid and the Italian PM is seen having a tryst with a woman half his age.

No one should expect political discourse from this determinedly violent and witless entertainment which assumes flag waving and drone strikes are the price of a free West.

Banning’s impassioned invocation of a 1,000 year rule is delivered without thought to historical precedent.

The leaden script pays lip service to the qualities of the British, despite London being taken down in a matter of minutes and Banning elbowing aside an SAS squad to do their job for them.

It also makes laughably sure the audience is painfully up to speed with the thin story.

Air raid sirens warn the population to stay at home. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

 

 

 

Ruth and Alex

Director: Richard Loncraine (2015)

Take a gentle stroll through this pedestrian and predictable drama about OAP’s moving house.

After forty years of affectionate squabbling, Ruth and Alex (Diane Keaton, Morgan Freeman) have put their beloved fifth story apartment on the market.

She’s an optimist, he’s a pessimist, neither actor is required to stretch their considerable talents.

Such tension as there is centres on whether they should stay put or up sticks. Ideally upstate to a more age friendly residence – with less steps.

Dinners, BBQ’s and house viewings drift by in a honey-hued haze of charm and nostalgia without consequence or friction.

Freeman struggles with his hearing aid and spends a lot of screen time staring into middle distance, lost in memories of happy times past.

He offers wry reflections on the devils of the modern world: technology and rude service.

There’s a bizarre subplot about a manhunt for a terrorist and much fussing over an over-indulged pet dog whom undergoes a CAT scan.

It gently mocks various wacky and obnoxious New York stereotypes but the humour struggles to zip beyond the New York post code.

A great amount of time is spent discussing the state of the property market – which is as thrilling as it sounds.

Claire van der Boom is impressive as young Ruth, Korey Jackson is less so as young Alex.

Cynthia Nixon (Miranda in TV’s Sex and the City) doesn’t even qualify for a name as their estate agent niece.

Ruth and Alex was released as 5 Flights Up on it’s inauspicious US debut.

It’s a light hearted tale offering no surprises. The limited entertainment springs from spending time in the agreeable company of two charmers.

The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller (2014)

Despite the astonishing Oscar snub, this is a brilliant, witty, inventive animation which kids will enjoy almost as much as their parents will.

As the opening song says, ‘Everything is Awesome!!!’. And it is. It’s stupid in a clever way, clever in a funny way and is continually exciting, hilarious and even subversive.

Assembled with huge energy and a wicked sense of fun, every brick of the plot is correctly placed to support the dizzying flights of imagination and yet more jokes.

During the ferocious chase scenes random street parts are rapidly fashioned into vehicles, destroyed and rebuilt into  succession of err, other vehicles.

Among the mayhem it even manages to visually referencing sci-fi classics such as Tron and The Matrix.

Brickburg is a modern plastic city with busy roads, extortionately priced of coffee and constant CCTC surveillance. Everyone and everything fits together and works correctly.

When construction worker Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) has an accident, he loses his vital rule book but discovers the Piece of Resistance.

Arrested by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) he is freed by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who believes him to be the prophesied ‘special’.

Only the Piece of Resistance can prevent the tyrannical President Business (Will Ferrell) from using his super-weapon called the Kragle to destroy the Lego universe.

Emmet and Wyldstyle set out to to prevent the President’s evil plan and are helped by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and other Master Builders.

They include famous lego–made characters who help make this the second best Batman movie and the fourth best Star Wars film.

Naturally enough the film emphasises the importance of invention and bonding but to say more will spoil the fantastic and emotional twist towards the end.

In a word, awesome.

 ★★

Interstellar

Director: Christopher Nolan (2014)

This plodding, muddled and bombastic sci-fi flick doesn’t fly – despite having talented Matthew McConaughey at the controls.

Even the star’s rocket-fuelled charisma can’t stop the space-travel, dimension-hopping, time-twisting tale from drifting aimlessly.

Cooper is working as a farmer, the sort who is cheerily content to cruise a truck through his own crops.

His daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is left coded messages by a ghost.

Solving this riddle leads them to a super secret Nasa base run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

He’s fond of quoting Dylan Thomas while scribbling equations on a blackboard in a sciency manner. Normally in Nolan films it’s Morgan Freeman‘s job to do that.

Despite having hugely limited resources – what with the break down of civilisation due to the crops not growing – Brand decides Cooper is the man they’ve been waiting for to pilot a spacecraft into a plothole, sorry, wormhole, near Saturn.

It’s tunnel to another galaxy where three astronauts are lost. Cooper is to rescue them if possible while scouting for worlds that could support human life.

He returns home to say a guilt-ridden goodbye to Murph but she’s not best pleased.

In Cooper’s crew are Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a robot called TARS; a cross between a giant iPod and a Swiss army knife.

It’s unusual and impractical design seems only for the purpose of demonstrating director Nolan is familiar with the work of Stanley Kubrick. TARS jokes are misplaced among the grim solemnity.

Hibernating en route they awake to hear a signal from one of the lost men and investigating they encounter the effect gravity has on time.

There is courage, sacrifice and stupidity. When the crew land on a watery world they are surprised by an enormous laws of physics-defying wave. Twice.

A betrayal results in a shortage of fuel means Cooper has to choose between returning home to his daughter or saving the world.

In space no-one can hear you scream because of the ear-piercing soundtrack. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema conjures up spectacular images but Nolan offers but no depth or mystery to accompany them.

While the dialogue is functional at best and occasionally laughable in it’s portentousness, the weak script signposts the twist which is possible to see from light-years away.

Later the galaxy’s most intelligent man repeatedly yells “override” to a password-protected computer. Which is showy but not very clever – like this film.

★★☆☆☆

Lucy

Director: Luc Besson (2014)

Chemically enhanced Scarlett Johansson goes into overdrive in this bonkers but brilliant bloody thriller.

The time-travelling, superhuman heroine tackles Chinese Triad gangs, French cops and dinosaurs in this knowingly daft sci-fi film.

Lucy (Johansson) is studying in Taiwan when she’s kidnapped by gangster Mr Jang (Min-sik Choi). He surgically inserts a bag of a wonder drug, CPH4, into her stomach so he can illicitly transport it to Europe.

But a henchman beats her up, the bag rips and Lucy absorbs a potentially fatal dose. Instead of killing her, the CPH4 unleashes her full brain power. Normally humans use only 10% but hers is rocketing.

Luckily Morgan Freeman (Professor Norman) is on hand to do what Freeman always does in such situations: spout sciency-sounding stuff to explain what’s going on.

Accelerated evolution gives Lucy access to secrets of the universe but also threatens to destroy her. As she develops super-agility, mind control and telekinesis, she’s becomes a deadly shot and goes on the rampage.

Director Luc Besson can’t see a corridor without having an actor sashay along it waving firearms – and he needs no excuse to follow Johansson’s famous curves.

With her cool detachment and deadpan delivery, the more powerful Lucy becomes the sexier she is. She joins forces with police to trace the other drugs mules.

When Jang’s heavily armed mob arrive in Paris for shoot-outs and a great car chase, Lucy begins to travel in time and space and it’s not just her mind that’s blown.

★★★★☆