Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in Ben-Hur
Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in Ben-Hur

BEN-HUR

The first words heard in the new remake of Ben-Hur are delivered in voice-over by – wouldn’t ya know it? – Morgan Freeman, meaning that the quality of director Timur Bekmambetov’s biblically themed epic is up in the air from the start. Will this be another Shawshank Redemption? A Million Dollar Baby? A March of the Penguins? A War of the Worlds? A Love Guru? A Hillary Clinton DNC bio-video?

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the movie, like Freeman’s vocal-track record, is similarly all over the place – sometimes lugubrious and laughable, sometimes powerful and exhilarating, sometimes merely blah. It’s hardly a threat to the legacy of 1959’s Ben-Hur and its record-setting 11 Oscar wins. But on the rare occasions that Bekmambetov’s unnecessary outing works, it works thunderously well, and either way we’re spared the monolithic orating of Charlton Heston, which is a plus right there.

In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, Gore Vidal (an uncredited contributing writer on the 1959 version) described Ben-Hur’s plot thusly: “Ben-Hur and Messala – one Jewish, one Roman – had known each other from youth, they disagree over politics, and now they hate each other for the next three hours.” That’s about as succinct a synopsis as you could ask for, and it’s fitting for this 2016 adaptation as well, but with one major and blessed difference: Here, they only hate each other for the next 100 minutes. As with many modern togas-and-sandals offerings, it’s easy to chuckle at the stiff, affected performances, and at the alternately pious and anachronistic dialogue. (My favorite howler in Keith R. Clarke’s and John Ridley’s script was the encouragement that Freeman’s Ilderim shouts toward Jack Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur: “Good move, Judah! Good move!” As taken from the Book of Matthew, no doubt.) Yet you can’t accuse the screenwriters or Bekmambetov of not trimming the fat from 1959’s three-and-a-half hour version, and I was grateful for their combined abilities to get down to business and keep things moving. Hell, even though it’s only a teaser for a longer sequence to come, this is a Ben-Hur that starts with the freakin’ chariot race.

Toby Kebbell in Ben-Hur

Ah, the chariot race – probably the only thing many of us vividly remember from 1959’s endless Oscar champ. Viewed today, it’s easy to see why director William Wyler’s masterfully shot and edited action climax became legendary, and if it were in a better film – a much better film – Bekmambetov’s updated staging might also have been talked about for generations. I, for one, didn’t much care about the leading dullards competing in the horse-drawn melee, which significantly diminished the scene’s risk. (While Huston is a vacantly handsome cipher as Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell is unremittingly, one-dimensionally pouty and petulant as Messala – a real casting disaster.) But on a purely visceral level, good God is this thing exciting. Dust flies, wheels fall off, men and horses tumble to the ground with bone-snapping force, the camera spins upside-down, and it’s all joyously, intensely thrilling. Much has been made in the press about the ridiculousness of both remaking Ben-Hur at all and remaking it with a $100-million-plus price tag. Bekmambetov’s brilliantly conceived chariot race, though, at least indicates what financiers might have imagined they were investing in – a true biblical roller coaster. (Some of that same electricity and technical showmanship is on display in a harrowing sequence involving warring ships at sea, which is a brutal gasp-inducer that somehow manages to suggest Titanic, Master & Commander, The Poseidon Adventure, and Amistad all at once.)

It’s too bad, though, that Bekmambetov doesn’t show a similar gift for, or interest in, the handling of people. Perhaps that’s too much to ask from the director of Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but what ultimately ruins this Ben-Hur is our emotional disconnect from those on-screen. The brotherly love between Judah and Messala, which sets the whole plot in motion, is more stated than felt from the very beginning, but every relationship here – even the narratively essential romantic ardor between Judah and his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) – comes off as perfunctory. (Bekmambetov may as well be saying, “Don’t worry, folks, I’ll speed us through this boring exposition as fast as I can.”) As probably should have been expected, this Ben-Hur, with its energies all seemingly saved for the action-flick money shots, has more in common with modern blockbusters than with any biblical epics of the past, and for an entertainment being sold as “pro-faith,” it’s remarkably cavalier about its religious leanings. (I never imagined that the first appearance of Jesus Christ in a movie could ever be treated as a throwaway; Rodrigo Santoro’s introduction as Jesus finds him offhandedly addressing Ben-Hur while blithely finishing up a carpentry project.) Regardless of its being a big, fat slab of film history, I don’t know anyone whose interest in 1959’s Ben-Hur extends beyond the chariots. If it’s lucky, the same may be said of the 2016 version in 57 years. Or, you know, in one.

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in War Dogs

WAR DOGS

Lots of things can be well-faked in movies: specific time periods; alien invasions; Tom Cruise’s actual height. But one thing that absolutely can’t is screen chemistry, a fact I was reminded of repeatedly during director Todd Phillips’ War Dogs. Inspired by a Rolling Stone article documenting the exploits of twentysomething arms suppliers David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, this shame-based dark comedy follows the best friends from childhood as they and their purportedly “reputable” company con their way into transactions with the U.S. military and the selling of embargoed Chinese ammunition, in Albania, during the second term of George W. Bush. It’s one of those narratives so preposterous that we don’t need the requisite opening title card to know it must be based on a true story, and the key to its success has to lie in how much we believe in the leads – Miles Teller plays Packouz, Jonah Hill plays Diveroli – and their enabling, bros-before-CEOs relationship. But therein lies my problem with the film: Not only did I not buy Packouz and Diveroli as buds who loved one another; I didn’t buy that Teller and Hill, as actors, even much liked one another.

It’s doubtful that matters would have greatly improved had Teller and Hill displayed the combined presence of Hope and Crosby – or even the Tatum and Hill of the Jump Streets. True to life or not, the movie takes a chicken’s approach to Packouz’s involvement in the operation by making him an easily gullible dupe who barely questions the ethically shady Diveroli’s motives, and for added “relatability” he’s given a dimensionless sweetheart (Ana de Armas) whom he loves unconditionally and who is bearing his child, to boot. (Poor de Armas is stuck in one of the most insulting “It’s not that you’re a criminal; it’s that you lied to me” spousal roles that movies have offered in many a moon.) And Phillips’ film really pushes the boundaries of where homage ends and plagiarism begins, seeing as it’s overflowing with directorial tricks – freeze-frames, voice-over narration, incessant pop-music cues – borrowed from GoodFellas, and DePalma’s Scarface is visually and verbally referenced enough to make that 1983 movie a legitimate contender for SAG-ensemble consideration. (It can only be the time period, and maybe Hill’s involvement, keeping our douchebag protagonists from continually citing Scarface instead of Wolf of Wall Street, which, in this movie’s context, would’ve made a lot more sense.)

But War Dogs’ considerable failings might have been ignored, or at least more readily glossed over, if Teller and Hill – both of whom are quite fine individually – had exuded a modicum of rapport. Unfortunately, they don’t, and it winds up feeling kind of weird that they don’t. Teller is earnest as all-get-out, and Hill snorts coke and laughs in a high-pitched tenor, and not for a moment do you believe that these two are the lifelong compadres the movie keeps trying to sell them as; both performers seem to be in their own individual movie, and mildly annoyed when the other interrupts it. (If you see the film, notice how few scenes find Teller and Hill sharing the same frame at the same time, and how their dialogue doesn’t sound like conversation so much as “You’re done talking now, so it’s obviously my turn to speak.”) For all I know, in real life, Teller and Hill may be the closest of pals. On-screen here, they seem barely to have been introduced.

Kubo & the Two Strings

KUBO & THE TWO STRINGS

At the start of the animated adventure Kubo & the Two Strings, the film’s titular youth, speaking in voice-over, tells us, “If you must blink, do it now,” and insists, “If you fidget, if you forget any part of our tale even for an instant, our hero will surely perish.” Damn, that’s a lot of pressure on a kid! Not since the clap-or-she-dies threat of Tinkerbell’s demise has a family entertainment demanded such acquiescence. Yet while a few fellow patrons did fidget at times, and expressed occasional confusion about the narrative, my guess it that it’ll be hard for them to forget Kubo considering how rife it is with happy-nightmare imagery – the sorts of visual shockers reminiscent (for my generation) of the banshee in Darby O’Gill & the Little People, or the chicken decapitation during Willy Wonka’s boat ride. The crux of this heavily plotted tale rests with Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a Japanese boy on a quest for three magical pieces of armor that will allow him to defeat the Moon King, a supernaturally powerful being who (a) is Kubo’s grandfather, (b) previously plucked out Kubo’s left eye, and (c) is now on the hunt for eyeball number two. If you think that’s a pretty grim setup, you’re not wrong, and parents of the easily squeamish (or easily squeamish parents) should be warned that director Travis Knight and his screenwriters deliver even more in the potentially-upsetting department: a malevolent skeleton with swords in his skull suggesting Hellraiser’s Pinhead; an underwater encounter with a cadre of enormous, unblinking eyeballs; a pair of floating samurai – Kubo’s aunts, naturally – whom Rooney Mara voices with hypnotic “Come play with us, Danny” eeriness.

Yet as realized via the traditionally arresting stop-motion-animation of Laika Entertainment – the studio responsible for Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and the magnificent ParaNorman – Kubo isn’t just a freak-out for the under-10 set. In truth, it’s hard to think of another 2016 release that has offered quite this much variety in terms of emotional tone and effect. There’s gravely moving melancholy in the scenes of Kubo tending to his damaged, nearly catatonic mother, and Kubo’s attempts to communicate with his deceased father through an un-illuminated paper lantern. There’s charming, frequently hilarious road-trip slapstick in Kubo’s countrywide trek with traveling companions Monkey (a smashingly deadpan Charlize Theron) and Beetle (a goofy, deliriously dippy Matthew McConaughey). There’s tension and excitement in the numerous battle sequences involving Mara’s witches and Ralph Fiennes’ Moon King, primarily because, in a summertime rarity, it feels as if there’s actually something at stake in their outcomes. And through all the high drama and low comedy (some of it provided, delightfully, by the great, baritone-voiced Brenda Vaccaro), there are beautiful meditations on family, duty, and youthful self-sufficiency, plus a heartrending finale to make you shed tears of sadness and joy. Kubo & the Two Strings is an unusual, all but unclassifiable thrill, and more-than-sufficient added evidence that when it comes to being the standard-bearer in animated innovation and cleverness, Pixar should really be watching its back. Me Laika.

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