Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I love history. This stems in a large part from poring through Bible stories when I was a child. The New Testament was fine enough, but it was the tales of the Old Testament – with its endless wars, suffering on a mass scale, fire and brimstone – that entranced me. God as a character was envious and unforgiving. Entire races of people were enslaved and treated like dirt. Heroes, born to beat insurmountable odds, emerged, and they dealt out death and judgement rather than sacrificed themselves for the sake of others’ sins. None of this led to a belief in Christianity, but it did ferment my supreme desire for a good yarn, and the early books from the Bible were the pages to refer to for exactly that.

It’s no surprise that people have tried to bring Biblical stories to the screen for almost as long as cinema has existed. This stuff is gold. Great tales, and for a long time the sort of fare that audiences just lapped up. Cecil B DeMille adapted the book of Exodus twice, first in 1923 that was much a fable of The Ten Commandments in contemporary life as much as it was about Moses. In 1956, he went for a more straight retelling, pitting Charlton Heston’s Moses against the Pharoah, played by Yul Brynner, to wildly profitable box office returns. I admit it’s probably one of my all time favourite movies, partly thanks to my respect for the vaulting ambition and ego of the director in bringing such a story to the screen in so emphatic a fashion. It’s incredibly powerful. DeMille had the smouldering intensity and mutual resentment between Heston and Brynner, but also storytelling on an enormous scale, and the best special effects of their day, which have of course dated over time but still look impressive now. One scene in particular stays with me. Having suffered a series of plagues, Pharoah is implored once more by Moses to free the slaves, but he’s implacable and orders nothing less than the killing of each Jewish first born son as the ultimate punishment. Unwittingly, it’s a course that rebounds. One terrible night, God takes away each Egyptian first born, his wrath personified by an eerie green mist in the sky, which develops tendrils gliding with ominous silence to earth and stealing the boys’ souls. It’s haunting stuff, a trick repeated in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998, where the mist becomes a deadly whirlwind.

Given the above, I’m likely to view Exodus: Gods and Kings with a subjectively kind eye, looking forward to the spectacle and human drama whereas many critics have shown only scorn. Finding reasons for the latter isn’t difficult. The production was dogged with controversy, notably for its ‘whitewashing’ of the main characters. Ramses, Moses and the rest of the cast would simply not be Caucasian, it was argued, so why in a modern movie fall for the classic tradition of casting the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Egerton when more ethnically realistic casting would do? Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell the tale without turning the Egyptians into villains, greedy slavers, and sure enough the film was banned in that country upon its release. Its director, Ridley Scott, retorted that the film would never have been funded without Hollywood stars, and besides it’s only loosely a historical tale. How much truth lies in the book of Exodus is open to extreme interpretation and translating the events as dramatic representations of what actually happened. There’s some evidence that the Egyptian Empire kept the Hebrews as slaves, but nothing is confirmed. The story is wrapped in mystery, and was committed to writing only after centuries of being handed down in the oral tradition. As such it’s as faithful a source as Homer’s The Iliad – no doubt there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s blended with mythology and the contemporary audiences for whom it was written in the first place.

Perhaps more pertinent is to question whether the world needed another Biblical epic at all. Noah, released earlier in 2014, had not been received rapturously, more like quizzically, suggesting the clamour for Bible stories was just not there, and Exodus: Gods and Kings was already gaining an infamous reputation for the reasons mentioned above. Hardly the basis for a box office smash, which indeed it would not turn into, though the reality was it had been in the planning for several years and was something of a passion project for Scott. As expected, the devil was in the detail, the crew building sets and using computer effects to create an ancient Egyptian world that is probably as close to the real thing as you will ever see. The word here is scale. Massive statues, glorious decorations, those different coloured tribal banners billowing behind the war chariots, the juxtaposition between Ramses’s palaces and the Hebrew ghetto; it’s all there, on the screen, and it looks fantastic. And yet the concern was never about how the film looked. Scott’s 2010 entry, Robin Hood, reimagined ‘merrie England’ in fleshy, realistic tones, for all intents and purposes travelling back in time for the sake of absolute authenticity,  and yet the movie was a boring clunker, overly serious and its stars uninspiring. Not a lot of fun. Would this fare any better?

One of the biggest issues with Robin Hood was its script, written by Brian Helgeland. For this one, Scott employed Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winner (for Schindler’s List) who was faced with the obstacle of adapting Exodus for a twenty first century audience. How to bring the Pharoanic court of Ancient Egypt to life, to make it feel like a working reality and avoiding polemics? The result is a Seti (John Turturro), the old ruler who oversees the affection between Ramses (Egerton) and his adopted son, Moses (Bale) while recognising the potential for a future rivalry, emphasising their need to protect each other. Made explicit is the throne room as a nest of vipers, high ranking officials who protect their own interests, in the classical style seeing Ramses as their best bet for maintaining the status quo while Moses has a dangerously radical side to his nature. The latter has grounded views about prophecies (they’re hokum), the nation of slaves (they deserve to be treated better), and the prospect that he believes in very little. A portent about the kingdom’s future hints at Moses becoming its ruler, something that results in Ramses discovering his Hebrew heritage and casting him into exile. Moses wanders the desert for a time, before coming upon a remote shepherds’ village and marrying.

Adapting to a simple life in the wilderness, it’s clear Moses’s spirit is restless. He then meets God, personified as a small boy, who tells him to go back to Egypt and accept a mission to free the slaves. Scott made a decision to tell the story of the resulting plagues and Moses’s interactions with God in as realistic terms as he could, suggesting that the former might have been the result of natural causes and the rest exists in the main character’s head, that ‘God’ might simply be the directions of his subconsciousness. When Moses first returns to Egypt he naturally sees his role as that of a military general, harking back to the position he held before his exile. Hebrews are trained to be freedom fighters, a rather clever allusion to the state of affairs in more recently occupied countries within the region. But progress is slow. Ramses responds to the acts of ‘terrorism’ committed by Moses’s underground army by publicly hanging slaves on a daily basis, his brutality increasing with the sedition. This in turn prompts ‘God’ to intervene, via the plagues that might very well have happened without any divine assistance, though it suits the narrative to explain these as more than acts of natural disaster.

Bale committed mountains of personal research into the life of Moses as part of his preparation for the role. His is a very human performance, from the wise leader he plays in the early acts, when his position in the hierarchy is more or less cemented, to the constant doubts he’s plagued with later in the film. When I talked about Kingdom of Heaven elsewhere on these pages, I mentioned the vacuum at the centre of the film that is Orlando Bloom; Bale is far more capable of commanding the screen and forces his character’s human drama to shine through the massive scope of the picture. Egerton and Turturro, while looking nothing like Egyptians, are fine as the two Pharoahs, and there’s capable support in relatively small roles from Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald. Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew elder with typical stoic resolve, and Ewan Bremner provides the film with a slim, much needed sliver of humour.

As with much of Scott’s work, there isn’t much comedy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter. What it does have is spectacle, artistry and weighty drama. It looks incredible, with the technical departments firing on all cylinders, and while that’s normally true of films with Ridley Scott’s name attached the narrative and performances are not ignored in favour of the visuals. It’s probably as good as a modern retelling of Exodus could ever hope to be, even if the demand for it just wasn’t there, and that was reflected in its losses at the box office.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****

Legend (1985)

When it’s on: Monday, 30 July (7.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As is customary with Ridley Scott films, various edits of Legend are floating about – I watched it on a Lovefilm rental DVD, which was the standard issue 2002 Region 2 release. It clocks in at a brisk 89 minutes and includes the score by Jerry Goldsmith rather than Tangerine Dream. I have never heard the latter but confess to a liking for the Dream, though the orchestral Goldsmithery is quite lovely.

The film, a big budget affair that was filmed in Pinewood’s vast 007 studio and heavily financed by British backers, is a real mixed bag. It sealed Scott’s reputation as a director with an almost incomparable visual flair that crashes into confused plotting and inconsistent acting, something he’d be stuck with until he struck gold many years later after taking on Gladiator. Make no mistake – Legend is a beautiful film. The forest that doubles as Jack’s (Tom Cruise) home is possibly the most gorgeously shot flora committed to celluloid, the sort of greenery Beethoven might have had in mind when composing his Pastoral Symphony. It suits the mood of the movie perfectly as the archetypal fairy tale woodland. The opposing force in the film is also ravishingly designed. Darkness’s lair has all the inky malevolence required, whilst the main villain cuts a superb concoction of Satanic imagery, cloven hooved, red skinned and sporting two enormous black horns. Tim Curry is almost unrecognisable beneath all the make-up and prosthetics.

Darkness surely deserves his place as an iconic baddie, certainly in terms of his appearance. Whilst he doesn’t appear fully in the film until nearly an hour’s passed, he features heavily on the publicity, which knew a good bit of imagery when it saw one. I’ve chosen the poster above because it’s reminiscent of the demon Chernabog from the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia and beautifully sums up Darkness’s evil intentions.

The downside to all this good stuff is a muddled plot and a black hole at the centre that should be filled with Tom Cruise’s hero. A rising star in the mid-eighties, with Risky Business announcing him to the world but Top Gun in the future, Cruise’s on-screen personality was still malleable at this stage and casting directors clearly didn’t know quite what to make of him. In hindsight, it’s obvious he was miscast as Jack, a forest dweller who possesses the gift of speaking to animals. There’s just no spark to his performance, making it very difficult to care what happens to him. Worse still is his complete lack of chemistry with the mythical characters who help him when Darkness arranges the cutting of a unicorn’s horn, thus plunging the world in semi-darkness.

Mia Sara, making her film debut as Princess Lili, fares better because she has more of an obvious arc. Believing she’s responsible for the unicorn’s mutilation, she goes after the goblins who’ve stolen its horn, only to find herself captured and brought before Darkness. Here, in one of the film’s more dazzling sequences, she’s made to perform a dance with a black masked figure, which clearly represents her own darker side, transforming her from a white clad innocent and into the heavily made up bride of Darkness, wearing her beguilingly plunging black dress and trading barbs with the lovestruck villain.

In terms of narrative, Scott trimmed back William Hjortsberg’s initial script, which would have led to a rambling production stuffed with subplots and tangents. Aiming to keep the already soaring costs down by focusing on a tight, linear narrative, he threw out any degree of investment in the film’s various characters whilst building up to a climax that is resolved with almost ridiculous ease. For all his pontificating and presence, Darkness turns out to be a rubbish Boss, defeated by a light beam and Lili’s duplicity. I was bored for much of the film and that should really have been impossible.

Legend has a small army of fans and apologists. For me, it’s a textbook example of style over substance, a film that works incredibly hard to look great and generate atmosphere, only to ruin it with the plot and acting. Comparisons with Gladiator, both fantasies of a sort, should focus on Russell Crowe’s presence and his ability to fill the screen as the main reason for Scott’s Oscar winner not going the same way. It’s also possible, indeed advisable, to compare Legend with Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings, which showed how to do this sort of thing correctly. It isn’t the money invested, the exhaustive pre-production and technical work, the superb effects work created in WETA’s workshops. It’s having characters in whom we believe, caring for the successful resolution of their quest. The absence of this element undermines Legend fatally.

Legend: **

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

When it’s on: Friday, 15 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

One of the nicest side-effects of the DVD revolution is the opportunity to watch ‘director’s cut’ editions of our favourite films. Often enough, this translates into some footage that didn’t quite make the theatrical version being shoehorned in, presumably whether the director’s had anything to do with it or not, but that’s fine with me. You want me to have an extra forty minutes of a Lord of the Rings movie? Don’t mind if I do.

I can’t think of anyone who’s done more director’s cuts than Ridley Scott, whose every work appears to be the subject of a revised edition at some point. The notorious example is, of course, Blade Runner, and the five-disc copy I own. Blade Runner’s a great film, but in fairness I don’t need umpteen different versions of it. To date, I haven’t cued up the workprint on the fifth disc, and I can’t imagine ever feeling the need to do so. Enough Deckard. More than enough ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Too much of the bloody paper unicorns. And, you know what, I didn’t mind the narration…

Scott’s reached a point now where one expects the director’s cut; I recall Robin Hood being released on DVD as an extended director’s edition, as though just to get it out of the way. And then there’s Kingdom of Heaven, my personal nomination for the film that’s been most improved following the addition of 48 minutes’ worth of extra material. In fact, I would go on to suggest that the director’s cut is the best of the ‘revival epics’, an outstanding piece of work on both a technical and narrative level that fleshes out its characters, provides a better historical context and throws in extra lashings of medieval tragedy.

It’s worth noting what a bold movie Kingdom of Heaven was to begin with. Much was made upon its release of writer William Monahan’s attempts to produce a screenplay that wouldn’t offend twenty first century viewers – in fact, it’s a script that appears fairly true to its most controversial character, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, or Saladin, the Sultan who is treated in the film as a towering figure of nobility and enlightenment. The Knights Templar, the other hand, emerge as its villains, the epitome of boorish Westerners on the make and in the ‘Holy Land’ for whatever they can take from it.

Also brave is the decision to make a serious film about the Crusades at all. Most people know basically what the Crusades were (though when I was at school, it was discretely airbrushed out of our History lessons), and there have been some very good documentaries on the subject, not least this recent series from the BBC. Less is known of the era’s politics, its various and ongoing tensions between contemporary factions. Kingdom of Heaven takes as its subject a real moment in history, the events leading up to and including Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem. In order for it to make any sense, it has to explain everything – the various characters, their motivations and the broader historical narrative. That’s a lot for it to do, and a major job to get all this on the screen without sounding like a lecture. On the whole, both versions of the film succeed, though the director’s cut, with its padding, does a much better job of putting across all the necessary information.

The one character radically altered from historical reality is the film’s main focus, Balian of Ibelen, played in the film by Orlando Bloom. Actually a noble, in Kingdom of Heaven he starts as a blacksmith in some medieval French village, clawing out a living in a land pockmarked by death, dirt and disease. Lamenting the suicide of his wife, Balian’s life changes with the arrival of Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson), returning briefly from Ibelin with the intention of finding his bastard son, who turns out to be none other than Balian himself. Godfrey gives Balian the opportunity to join him in the east, an offer that’s rejected initially but after the latter murders his brother, a corrupt priest played by Michael Sheen, he sees in Godfrey the chance to atone for the sin of his wife’s suicide by becoming the best of knights in the Holy Land. Soon enough, he enters Jerusalem and takes his place on the canvas of Middle Eastern politics as the leprous King Baldwin (Edward Norton, wearing a mask throughout the film) tries to keep the uneasy peace between Christians and Muslims, both placating Saladin’s vast army and keeping at arm’s length the ambitious Templar, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas).

Everything you need to know about Balian is in the saying carved into a beam of his blacksmith’s shop – What man is a man who does not make the world better? Orlando Bloom, at the height of his fame when cast in the film, was handed the difficult job of making his character both credible and inspirational. He had to carry a huge movie on his shoulders and duly gained weight for the part, appearing muscular and doing all he could to shrug off the ‘pretty boy’ catcalls that were becoming the stock criticism of his talent as an actor. These were based in no small part on his performance in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, in which he was handed the wooden, callow role whilst Johnny Depp got the best lines and Keith Richards impersonation. In the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, his expanded scenes show what a fine performance he actually put in. Capable of carrying the story and featuring in scenes – excised from the theatrical version – that demonstrate Balian’s ability to inspire and lead, there’s nothing at all wrong with his acting. Unfortunately, the shorter edition of Kingdom of Heaven that made it into theatres left a lot of this stuff on the cutting room floor, giving us in turn a truncated Balian who feels caught up in the tumultuous events in which he happens to have been dropped.

It’s an important point. If viewers don’t believe in Bloom’s Balian, then much of what makes the film work is lost. It becomes a tale about people in whom we can’t invest. Worse still than Bloom is the treatment dished out to Eva Green. Playing Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla, in the theatrical cut she comes across as little more than a medieval slapper, falling for Balian yet betrothed to Guy and handing him the kingship when Baldwin succumbs to his illness. What’s lost is her character’s entire background, which forms a small but vital sub-plot restored in the director’s cut. Without this, it’s difficult to see a point to Sibylla and certainly there seems little motivation in the ‘in shock’ character she has become by the film’s close.

Elsewhere, there are memorable turns from Brendan Gleeson, as Guy’s boorish henchman, and Jeremy Irons as a cynical Knight Hospitaler who exists to despair over the loss of mission to the Christian occupation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Both characters are as fine in the theatrical version as they are in the expanded edition. David Thewlis has a neat supporting role, and Ghassan Massoud is the epitome of assiduous nobility as Saladin. Kingdom of Heaven has a wealth of famous names popping up in minor roles – Kevin McKidd, Alexander Siddig, Philip Glenister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Iain Glen (indeed, by coincidence, much of the cast of Game of Thrones appears in some shape or form), and small, crucial roles for Bill Paterson and Robert Pugh ended up being cut.

But where both versions of the film really come into their own is in the visual sense. Always capable of producing ravishing ‘looks’ for his films, Scott places Kingdom of Heaven within a historical setting that appears so authentic he might as well have invented a time machine in which to send his cast and crew back into the twelfth century. The two major battles look incredible and it’s practically impossible to tell where the human actors finish and the CGI takes over. The best shot, that of the Christian forces appearing on the horizon at a critical moment, really is superb, particularly the sight of an enormous cross glistening in the sun. That apart, the costumes and design work take some beating. I recall a comment about Scott’s Robin Hood in which it was wished that the film could have been anything like as good as the effort plunged into the way it looked. Kingdom of Heaven is every bit as lustrous. One of the closing shots, which depicts Saladin striding through Jerusalem’s former cathedral, Christian flags falling to the floor around him, demonstrates just how much attention has gone into the detail throughout. Only it’s better than Robin Hood because the plotting is so rich in detail and layers. I’d go so far as to argue that the director’s cut is an improvement on Gladiator, only it had the misfortune to be made later.

Sadly, the version screened in cinemas is the one scheduled by More4. It’s still a powerful piece of work, though the rushed story of certain characters and loss of subtlety makes it a film that isn’t always easy to follow. The politics are too complicated and the level of characterisation all too uneven. Yet the early part of the film, the scenes set in France, are wholly immersive and it’s only later, once Balian takes the route where people speak Italian until they speak something else, that it starts to lose its way.

Kingdom of Heaven: ***

Films on the Big Box – a trip to the Cinema

The act of posting a brief film critique on a daily basis isn’t easy. It’s not a chore, but time is a factor. The ratio of titles I’ve seen previously to those I’m catching for the very first time is about 1:1, and many of the former are a case of blowing dust off the box before playing again. That means I [have to] watch at least a film per day, just to do the thing justice. This I often do alone, as Mini Mike believes there was no cinema before 1977 (Star Wars was apparently the invention of the motion picture) and Mrs Mike has her own interests. Besides, she laughed all the way through Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger; fair enough in many respects, but this is a serious business, god damn it!

A full-time job, family commitments, film viewing and writing eat up my days, and the unhappy upshot is that I rarely get to see the films other people post about. I try my best, and it’s especially frustrating because so many blogs I read elsewhere make their subjects sound fascinating. But, as an example, Pursued, the review of which was written up weeks ago with Colin’s usual panache at the excellent Riding the High Country, is still cued up and ready.

In the meantime, I used the last day of this welcomingly long Bank Holiday weekend to put in a rare trip to the pictures. I’ve been looking forward to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for some time, not least because the visual flair of the auteur who happens to be from my neck of the woods warrants a viewing on the big screen. Unlike many, I didn’t go expecting an Alien prequel. Whilst Prometheus takes place in the same ‘world’ as Alien, it’s quite a different animal from the dirty, working claustrophobia of the Nostromo and tells a much more expansive story. It’s a brave move from Scott, who could no doubt have pumped out more of the same and entertained us, though I suspect it would be impossible to replicate what people really want – that visceral, sublime jolt of horror when John Hurt’s chest blows wide open.

Not that Prometheus isn’t scary. It is, on several levels. There’s the same unsettling sense of dread that built slowly in Alien, not to mention the element of well-intentioned characters being manipulated by forces unseen. The acting’s incredibly strong. Top marks go to Michael Fassbender, in the ‘Ian Holm’ role but given the time to invest his android character with an attempt to understand humanity, which has unexpected consequences. Sean Harris plays a sardonic, Mohican-sporting geologist, and it’s a measure of the cast’s calibre that such a strong performer takes on a supporting role.

But it’s Scott’s compositional talents that really shine in Prometheus. From the first, gorgeous sweeping shots of a world in development, the film is a feast for the eyes. I found myself comparing it with Avatar. Scott doesn’t need to toss in floating islands to get across the awe of exploring a new planet. Everything’s in the sense of scale, the perspective, the ship that looks tiny compared with the ancient alien settlement it’s exploring. It leaves James Cameron’s box office beater behind. This is an adult world, within the context of a grown-up film, and its respect for its audience really can’t be appreciated enough.

Getting, at last, to the point of this post. I got in to the film for free, thanks to my Odeon card, and could even stretch to a Premier seat, which is well worth the extra quid in aiding the spine of a middle-aged office worker. The theatre was around two-thirds full. No one talked during the film. My concentration wasn’t broken with the chime of texts received; neither did I catch the light of a phone in use. The slurping from coke tubs and crunch of popcorn was largely absent. The back of my chair was never kicked. There wasn’t a steady stream of toilet goers. It was that strangest of cinema visits – people going to see the film because they wanted to see the film.

I find it very sad that these instances are now rare indeed. Last month, we caught Avengers Assemble and I was sat next to a bloke who spent much of it glued to his phone, whilst his child, all of three years old, became increasingly agitated. My previous visit was taking Mini Mike to see the 3D version of The Phantom Menace. Incredibly, the good bits were still good in three dimensions; the boring bits were just as dull, but it was during the latter moments that kids got fed up and were allowed by their parents to tramp around the theatre. They walked down the steps, along the bottom of the screen and up the staircase on the other side, a process repeated ad nauseum until the pod race or Darth Maul’s appearances.

I appreciate that moaning about these things is kind of old hat. We’ve all experienced moments of cinematic madness caused by fellow ‘patrons’, whether it’s the curse of teenagers who disrupt in the calculated knowledge that the staff are unlikely to do much about it, or the utter twunt who tried to smoke throughout a packed showing of The Return of the King. Yet it doesn’t make it any less of a shame.

Several of my best childhood memories involve moments of magic during those times spent in a pitch-black room containing an enormous screen. The endless adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Luke’s forlorn fight with Vader that rounds off The Empire Strikes Back. That bit in The Black Hole where the Cygnus suddenly lights up. I remember enjoying all this – and much more – in comfort and without interruption, even though the fleapits of 30+ years ago had nothing like the top of the range sound systems, air conditioning and seating we get to enjoy now. Added to which is the cost of a cinema ticket in 2012 – had I paid for yesterday’s seat, I wouldn’t have got much change from a tenner, and that’s for a midweek, afternoon screening in a northern town. I don’t think I’m being too expectant in proposing that, having coughed up, I should be allowed to enjoy my film.

These days, my cinema visits are dropping. The chances of being disturbed (and in the process snapping out of any atmosphere the film tries to create) make it less a pleasure than a vague hope that the ignorant are happy to wait for the DVD or just watch the inevitable sicked-up torrent. Instead, it’s often enough me opting for the home version. DVDs are certainly cheaper, but something’s lost. I would certainly regret it if I wound up seeing Prometheus for the first time on a 32” screen, yet too many times it’s the only resort for an uninterrupted watch.

Anyway, rant over. Normal service to be resumed tomorrow with a fine offering from the French.