Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods & KingsEXODUS: GODS & KINGS

You can tell a lot about a movie by its trailers. I don't mean the trailers for the movie itself, although that's also, usually, the case. I'm talking about the ones that play before the main attraction - the previews for future releases that generally share a genre or overall flavor with whatever film you're paying to see, collectively acting as a sort of "Because you watched ______" recommendation list on Netflix.

On Thursday night, however, I saw trailers for three upcoming movies that wouldn't seem to have much connecting them: the comedic action adventure Kingsman: The Secret Service; the third revenge thriller in the Taken franchise (which, according to this sequel's on-screen spelling, we're apparently meant to pronounce as "take-threen"); and Do You Believe?, a faith-based drama from the writers of God's Not Dead. (The title cards for that film's cast conclude with the names and faces of Ted McGinley, Cybill Shepherd, and the Six Million Dollar Man himself, Lee Majors. Reserve your tickets now!) Yet amazingly, this trio of eclectic appetite-whetters proved a perfect preamble to Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods & Kings, which turns out to be a dramatic faith-based action adventure revenge thriller with occasional jokes. It's also, quite possibly, the most roundly absurd major-studio release of 2014.

Scott and his biblical epic have been getting a bit of flak in the press for the decision to have Exodus' Middle Eastern characters played nearly exclusively by white people. Why the press isn't instead championing Scott for his sensitive refusal to let Middle Eastern actors look utterly foolish is beyond me. In the director's mammoth-scaled - and 3D! - depiction of the enslaved Israelites' escape from Egypt, you can easily roll your eyes at the casting of the Welsh Christian Bale as Moses, the Australian Joel Edgerton as Ramses, the Brooklyn native John Turturro as the pharaoh Seti, and the British Ben Kingsley as the Israelite Nun. (To clarify, that's the biblical figure Nun; Scott's casting isn't actually radical to the point of gender-swapping.) But you might still be astonished at how thoroughly these and other normally fine performers humiliate themselves in service to Scott's vision, which emerges, at best, as a kitschy nod to old-school biblical spectaculars of the Ten Commandments/The Greatest Story Ever Told variety without delivering anything remotely close to their sincerity.

You'll certainly get your money's worth in terms of CGI grandeur. There are many, many sweeping aerial shots of the Egyptian capital Memphis, and numerous battle scenes as densely populated and incoherent as any in Scott's 21st Century oeuvre, with the flaming arrows of Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Robin Hood making their requisite appearances here. (For true flaming, though, you need look no further than Ben Mendelsohn's performance as the prissy Viceroy Hegep, who all but licks his lips when asking Moses, "Is there any way I could please you?" and shifting his gaze to Moses' crotch.) And as no proper Exodus story would be complete without the 10 plagues, you can certainly trust Scott and his effects team to go above and beyond in their presentation of these horrors, which does yield some good, nasty fun. I did find it a little strange that, in this re-telling, crocodile attacks appeared wholly responsible for the rivers running red with blood. But that didn't detract from the giddy thrill of watching these CGI reptiles greedily devour Egyptians, or the mostly well-rendered infestations of flies, frogs, and locusts that followed. Miracle-wise, the only real disappointment in Exodus is the parting of the Red Sea, which doesn't part so much as recede off-screen, only to reappear as a rather unconvincing tidal wave with the arrival of (what's left of) the Egyptians' chariots.

Golshifteh Farahani and Joel Edgerton in Exodus: Gods & KingsYet the biggest reason to be glad for the effects is that, for the most part, they stop the actors from talking for a while - even though I'll forever cherish the climactic moment in which the Egyptians made their approach, and the Israelites were ordered to safety with the biblical directive "Ru-u-un!!!" It's not that, in general, the dialogue that Exodus' quartet of screenwriters has devised is all that dreadful; it's certainly no more anachronistic or unbelievable than anything in Noah or Son of God or any other recent celluloid Bible story. But given the performers' readings and accents (or lack thereof), I'm thinking the only way Scott's film could have avoided unintentional hilarity was for it to be presented as a silent movie, with the dialogue delivered solely as subtitles. (This also would've spared us the bombast of composer Alberto Iglesias' exhausting, overreaching score.)

I'll cop to chuckling the first time I heard Turturro, with his bald dome and beaten-up-hooker eyeliner, making royal proclamations in his unmistakable New York cadences, just as I quietly snickered when his familiar reediness revealed that the crazy-eyed, hirsute slave Joshua was being played by Aaron Paul. (Of all of Breaking Bad's cast members, it's Paul, based on his recent film choices, whose career I most fear for.) But that still didn't ready me for the laughable and far too on-point vocal trajectory of Bale's Moses, who enters the picture sounding like Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ and, as the character grows increasingly connected to his Jewish ancestry, ends it sounding like Jackie Mason. Edgerton, who might be doing a tribute to Marlon Brando's deleted scenes in Apocalypse Now, lends no variety or authority to his lisping, faraway line deliveries. (I really liked Edgerton in Animal Kingdom and Warrior, but after The Great Gatsby, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and this, I'm now wondering if he's just a bad actor who got lucky.) Even the throwaway roles, or the roles subsequently edited to appear throwaway, are aurally jarring. Beyond all the tossed-off Brits hanging out in ancient Egypt, all of a sudden there's Sigourney Weaver, presented as an afterthought and giving flat, affectless readings that make you wish she was even more of one. Why is Weaver even here? Just to serve as a depressing reminder that Ridley Scott was once talented enough to make Alien?

Every once in a while, the director did come up with a flourish I really liked. Although they're shot distractingly like the sequences of Spielberg's mother ship passing overhead in Close Encounters, Scott's images of enveloping darkness in the 10-plagues segment have a creepy, spectral beauty, as does the director's simple, touching staging of the deaths of Egypt's firstborn. And I may be one of very few who winds up enjoying this element, but I thought the decision to make God's messenger - unseen by everyone but Moses - a prepubescent British kid was a great one, mostly because the young actor Isaac Andrews exuded more force and control than anyone else in the film. All told, however, Exodus: Gods & Kings is a massive crock, and one perhaps best summed up by Moses' response when Ramses asks his opinion of a strategic plan: "I think it's offensive, and I think it's ridiculous."

 

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in WhiplashWHIPLASH

On Friday, December 19, Damien Chazelle's Whiplash begins its engagement at Iowa City's FilmScene venue. I'm giving you advance notice about this because (a) I saw the movie in the Chicago area during Thanksgiving break and have been dying to rave about it, and (b) I'd highly recommend reserving tickets in advance, because if FilmScene's audiences eat the movie up the way I think they will, you might otherwise be waiting weeks for seats.

Or, you know, not. For some absolutely unfathomable reason, Whiplash - Chazelle's tale of a fledgling jazz drummer which was released in larger burgs in mid-October - has hardly made a dent in the art-house box office. Despite the critical raves and impending done-deal Oscar win for co-star J.K. Simmons, it hasn't even made enough money to warrant release in a movie market the size of the Quad Cities'. (Unless, that is, distributors are merely waiting for the Academy Awards nominees to be revealed, which, by this point, is probably the smartest way to go.) But this could end up one of those definitive cases of "Man, I wish I'd seen that in the theater!" when it eventually lands on home video, because Chazelle's sophomore outing as a writer/director is electrifying in the extreme: thrilling, funny, frightening, heartbreaking, and, despite what you may mistakenly perceive as "formula," almost stunningly unpredictable. Miles Teller, giving a lacerating and deeply honest portrayal, plays Andrew, a first-year percussionist at an esteemed New York school for the arts, and an obsessively hard-working drum student who believes he has what it takes to be the next Buddy Rich. Simmons plays his chief instructor, a black-clad figure referred to only by his surname Fletcher, and a jazz devotee legendary for his tireless perfectionism and ability to make even the most gifted of nascent talents routinely break down in sobs (or worse). There are a few other nicely rounded characters - Paul Reiser's concerned dad, Melissa Benoist's potential love interest, fellow students - but Whiplash is basically a two-man show. Maybe the most exhilarating two-man show in ages.

In general outline, you've likely experienced this narrative before in everything from An Officer & a Gentleman to The Karate Kid: cocky young upstart learns the ropes, and a lot about himself, through the tough love of a demanding superior who forces our hero to be the best he can be. That's as cliché as Whiplash ever gets. Not one scene, from Andrew's first rehearsal with Fletcher to his climactic trial by fire, transpires the way films of this sort have trained us to expect, and the unflinching, crackling energy of it - frequently expressed through Justin Hurwitz's original jazz compositions and Tom Cross' razor-sharp editing - leaves you staring at the screen in a state of rapt, happy astonishment throughout. (Leaving our screening, a friend laughed as she said, "I still can't breathe.") Both Teller's percussion and acting skills are beyond reproach, with what he does in the movie's last 15 minutes as strong as anything 2014 films have yet delivered. And did I mention Simmons' Oscar victory being a done deal? Seriously: It's as done as those deals can ever be. Even if you've loved the actor in the past, and I don't know a single soul who hasn't, you won't quite be prepared for how extraordinarily entertaining and fearsome and complex and alive the man is here; it's the J.K. Simmons performance we've all been waiting for and are finally getting. (Many of those souls I've spoken to don't know Simmons by name; I generally just say "Juno's dad" and they're instantly on board.) See Whiplash at your earliest opportunity. Unlike Andrew's blood-spattered drums, this thing can't be beat.

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