Fox News harrassment.
Kidman, Theron and Robbie.
A stellar trio.
Fox News harrassment.
Fox News harrassment.
Kidman, Theron and Robbie.
A stellar trio.
Lazy, spoiled Jesper.
He’s been sent to Smeerensburg
To post some letters.
Ben-Hur is one of the most celebrated and successful pieces of cinema in the history of the art. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, which feels like it’s getting longer rather than shorter. I’m 34-years-old now and this is a good age to be looking back beyond my 1984 birth year.
I make no apologies for the spoilers. It’s over half a century old, for Christ’s sake.*
The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a prince living in Roman Empire-occupied Jerusalem under the watchful eye of guards working for Julius Caesar. His long-time best friend Massala has returned following extensive guard training and is now a fully-fledged devotee to the Roman Empire. However, when a guard’s march walks through the city and a tile falls from a roof and hits a guard, Ben-Hur is blamed and banished to slavery, whilst his mother and sister are sent to prison, all at the hands of a Massala keen to impress his superiors. This begins Ben-Hur’s plight to avenge this wrongdoing and seek justice.
Now, there are a couple of things that may have been prevalent in the marketing of Ben-Hur back in 1959, but 60 years on all we hear about is the chariot race scene and as such we’re left with a few surprises.
Firstly, this film is extremely religious. Indeed, the story is, at heart, a tale of how one man’s beliefs are tested and torn to shreds before eventually being restored to a place stronger than ever. Jesus Christ is an important character, even though he is never mentioned by name, nor is his face ever seen. The story uses Judah Ben-Hur as an allegory for Jesus, and it is an adaptation of a novel titles ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’. It is effective in doing so, albeit through the medium of a fairly slow-paced cinematic epic.
Secondly, whilst we’re on the topic of the slow pace, this film is almost four hours long! It is split across two Blu-ray discs.** This is a crazy amount of time, and it was proved to be far too long when the film was remade a few years ago in around half the running time. Admittedly, this version was far less successful than its most popular predecessor (itself a remake). Realistically, the only way to get through it is to watch it in installments.
Indeed, manually splitting it into a four-part mini series will make it more manageable to modern audiences. I hate myself for recommending doing that, but this film is no easy nut to crack based on what modern audiences are used to.
It’s typical of the blockbuster films of the time to be over-long and of epic proportions. The Ten Commandments. Gone With The Wind. Looking back, it seems the longer the film, the more likely it is to have stood the test of time.
It is no wonder that fans of the film concentrate so heavily on the brilliant chariot race and that horrific rowing slaves scene. True, when this film is good, it’s great. The scene where he discovers his sister and mother are still living in The Valley of the Lepers is truly heartbreaking. Watching him confront Massala on the operation table is as satisfying as it is horrific.
Of course, the chariot scene is rightly celebrated. Watching that in isolation, in all its grandeur, is something to behold. If you have the setup, I highly recommend you watch it at home in brilliant HD and surround sound. It is absolutely majestic.
It is wholly unfair to judge it by today’s standards, of course. Is Murnau’s Sunrise as entertaining as Jenkins’s Moonlight? Probably not. But it operates on a different plane. Both are excellent, judged by whatever standards, but modern audiences are more likely to enjoy a film made in modern times.
The same holds true for Ben-Hur. It’s of its time. It is definitely hard work, without a doubt. But if you can’t dedicate four hours to it in one sitting, then you’ll still get a lot out of it by splitting it up into bite-sized chunks.
* You see what I did here? Of course, this is a religious joke. And the film is religious. I’m a classy reviewer…
** Probably not a concern at the time.
Andy Serkis’s take on ‘The Jungle Book’ is a waste of time and money. There, I’ve said it. It’s not awful. It’s not offensive. It’s just not brilliant. And as such, it’s not necessary.
This is a much darker take than more familiar adaptations, in keeping to the original Rudyard Kipling stories. This leaves it in no-man’s-land, not suitable enough for children but too boring to be enjoyable for adults.
We’re treading familiar ground here. It’s the tale of Mowgli (the impressive Rohan Chand), who is taken on by a pack of wolves after becoming orphaned in a horrific opening scene involving Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s some character development as he learns how to live in the jungle with his animal friends, including black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and sloth bear Baloo (Andy Serkis, sounding like he’s about to offer you the latest Bet 365 betting odds). Cate Blanchett features sporadically and inconsequentially as Kaa, the Indian rock python.
What really doesn’t work is the facial motion capture. It makes the animals look odd and is a distraction from the story. I’m not an expert. All I know is that it doesn’t work.
The interesting part of the film comes when Mowgli arrives in the local village and starts to learn to become more human, which is something explored much less in other adaptations. It’s not amazing, but it does at least do something fresh with the material, and it results in a fresh climax to the story (particularly when Mowgli discovers a distastefully familiar menagerie).
It’s just a film that doesn’t make any sense in terms of why it was released. If the budget was anything like Disney’s live action adaptation, it was $175m. It’s a big loss to take for any studio, even one of the size of Warner Bros.
Watching this on Netflix is watching something designed for a big cinematic experience in a manner that feels like a compromise. If no previous film adaptation existed, it would maybe feel effective. As it stands, it’s just a poor business decision to plough on to complete this project in the knowledge you’ll finish second – both in speed of release and final quality.
The only singing vultures present here will be the critics.
A failure in almost every sense.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.
The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.
The film – more hit than miss
Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.
It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.
‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.
Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.
The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.
The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’
Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.
My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.
I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.
‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.
As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.
Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.
On Thursday 20th September 1973, 55-year-old former male tennis pro Bobby Riggs took on then-current Women’s Wimbledon champion Bille Jean King in a $100,000 winner-takes-all exhibition match. Whilst the prize was significant – King won only £3000 for her Wimbledon title – the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was more significant in terms of what it meant for the game itself. As King herself put it, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
Now, the match and the surrounding attention has been turned into a motion picture, courtesy of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their third feature film after debut ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006) and follow-up ‘Ruby Sparks‘ (2012).
And it’s really rather good.
The biopic stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It is clear from the start that both actors are relishing the chance to portray such iconic characters. Both have stories worth telling, which makes the final result feel fast-paced.
Riggs is larger than life, spouting ridiculous phrase after ridiculous phrase in the hope of any kind of attention. Carell is perfect for the role and, as usual, delivers something remarkably entertaining, far beyond the abilities of someone many mistake for a simple comedic actor. It’s amazing that Carell avoids becoming irritating, clearly enjoying with aplomb the misogynistic phrases Riggs became famous for.
King’s agenda is to exact revenge on those who underestimate the abilities of women tennis players, epitomised by Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and ensure that women tennis players were given a level of respect and pay equal to their male counterparts. It is a more complex role than Carell’s, especially when factoring in her failing marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) and her blossoming romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
Stone again proves her acting mettle with an absolutely brilliant performance. She truly is an actor at the top of her game. It is her first portrayal of a real person, but she has clearly benefited from time spent with Billie Jean King in getting her mannerisms perfectly nailed down.
Equally, be ready to gasp at the end when you’re reminded exactly how much Steve Carell looks like Bobby Riggs.
This is a story that is as important to the LGBT community as it is to discussions about women’s rights and equality in sport and, more widely, in every profession. Billie Jean King was the first prominent female athlete to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian. Whilst this tale isn’t fully explored – it is limited to the reactions of Billie Jean King, Larry King, Marilyn Barnett and rival tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – there is certainly a sense of the impact this would have had at a critical moment in the blossoming of the women’s tennis game.
It is rare that a biopic comes together with such a perfect cast and crew and tells a story so effectively and authentically. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a fine achievement in filmmaking and one I will undoubtedly enjoy for a second time when it receives its full UK release later this year.
If the thought of a horror-comedy fills you with dread, if not for the scary monsters then more for the fact that they usually fall short of whatever they’re trying to achieve, then fear not. Little Evil may not truly be a great horror film, nor is it a hilarious comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. For those wanting something lighthearted this Halloween there are much worse ways to spend 95 minutes.
Adam Scott stars as Gary, a real estate worker who has married Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), who comes with baggage in the form of her son Lucas (Owen Atlas), who Gary suspects may be the Antichrist. As he unravels the truth behind his new stepson, he is forced to form unlikely bonds in a race against time to save his family and the world.
There are supporting roles from the brilliant Bridgett Everett, Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia, Kyle Bornheimer and a surprising cameo by Sally Field, though this is less surprising when you learn that director Eli Craig is her son. It’s an ensemble cast that are able to provide plenty of humour to keep the wagon rolling without ever feeling like it stutters.
The film is peppered with nods to horror greats, presumably so that fans of the genre will giddily point at the screen and say “Oh, that’s the clown from Poltergeist!” at their less-versed friends. Of course, the more likely reaction is a roll of the eyes and silence, but the references are done in good faith. Sure, giving the child a 6th birthday on 6th June is fairly obvious, but not all comedy has to be subtle to be successful.
There is a worry that the film lacks any memorable gags and also fails to produce any striking horror set-pieces, though the movement of the buried-alive scene to the start of the film provides an impactful opening.
Adam Scott is a great leading man here, producing a relatable everyman who wants to make things work despite obvious signs that something is awry. There’s an art to his delivery of disbelief that only he seems to notice that Lucas is hiding something. It’s good to see him in a more prominent role than he is usually given.
Eli Craig has produced a fine follow up to his breakthrough film Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It has found a suitable home on the VOD service Netflix, which reduces the risk of it being a flop at cinemas and will undoubtedly increase viewership in the October double-header of Friday 13th and Halloween. It is notable, however, that it has quickly vanished from the front page of the service, making foot-fall traffic a little less likely.
Incidentally, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is also available on Netflix. If you’ve seen neither, Little Evil should be the one you approach second.