Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Release: Friday, December 12, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Adam Cooper; Bill Collage; Jeffrey Caine; Steven Zaillian 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Often I feel that I am needlessly ambiguous with what I’m trying to say in past reviews, but here I have this concern I am going to be too overt. The great Ridley Scott — yes, the one of Gladiator fame — has clearly relied too much on star talent to help carry his Biblical ‘epic’ (and sorry to those who think the word is inextricably linked to prepubescent Bieber fandom) to the Promised Land. Top billed are terrible in their roles while a boring and unevenly paced script contributes to a disastrous outing for all involved.

GODS VS. KINGS 

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Somewhere in the dust and ruin of his attempt at resurrecting temples he once had so majestically created, there’s a lesson to be learned for Sir Ridley Scott. If there were one commandment I would issue immediately, as someone who has been eagerly anticipating this supposed return to form, it would be for him to refrain from treating his selected actors as gods and kings. Forget Christian Bale’s mixed South African and Welsch ancestry. Forget Joel Edgerton’s emo eye-liner — he at least looks better in it than Bale sounds like with whatever accent he’s trying to pull off here. And you can forget all about Cecil B. De Mille’s commitment to Charlton Heston (oh, swoon!) in the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments. Indeed, the only thing that shall be remembered over the course of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, is the pain of watching one of the premier filmmakers of our time climbing out of a dank, oppressive cave with a single message inscribed on a rock tablet:

“(I’ve) let my standards go!”

In the Gladiator director’s newest venture out into the sands of Egypt Bale takes on the role of Moses, a former Egyptian General banished by his legal, but not blood, brother Prince Ramses (Edgerton) into exile after it becomes evident what Moses’ true blood lineage is. Raised in a climate of political convenience rather than one of familial love, Moses conflicts with Ramses ideologically, emotionally and eventually physically. All signs point to Ramses’ deep-seated envy of his sort-of-brother. This is a relationship dynamic we’ve known for as long as we’ve been out of grade school as well as it being a classic example of the friend-turned-foe story. It’s also the strongest bargaining chip Mr. Scott has at keeping an audience on board here. And we agree; we are too curious as to how thing will play out between these versions.

While he appreciates the relationship between Moses and Ramses, he is much less appreciative of his peripheral vision. Rather than going the Jim Caviezel route by casting someone who at least looked the part, and through coating much of his cast in a thick smathering of tanning lotion (this is actually the story of how Moses goes to the beach and gets badly sunburned), Scott surprisingly approved of everything here without what one would naturally assume to be a pressing need to fire a casting director, or even someone in make-up and wardrobe. Not that these actors aren’t talented. And we can’t pretend that it’s an alien concept for a big studio and a big director to skirt past native actors in search of bigger box-office draws. But why does everyone have to look like the Beach Boys? The likes of Edgerton, Bale, Ben Mendelsohn (who plays the creepy Viceroy Hegep with gleeful abandon) and Sigourney Weaver are caked in comical cosmetics that distract more than they contribute, but this isn’t the major issue. Visually, at least these pretty peeps eventually blend in with the dulcet environs.

Frustratingly Exodus: Gods and Kings — I’ve never been one to read into film titles too deeply, but this particular subtitle does seem superfluous — is intent on featuring caricatures rather than characters. Bale is ridiculously over-the-top as he forces vigilante machismo into a character that has decidedly much less of that built into his DNA. Edgerton acts like the spoiled brat Pharaoh Ramses apparently was. After succeeding the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, also ridiculous-looking when bald), Ramses becomes something of a harbinger of doom, driving the Hebrew slaves to the brink of collapse through extremely hard labor and miserable working conditions. As if life wasn’t tough enough before. During Moses’ exile, he learns of these changing conditions back home in Memphis and despite having formed a family with the beautiful Zipporah (María Valverde) he vows to return and free over 600,000 Hebrews from his brother’s oppressive, bloodthirsty rule.

WE ARE NOT ENTERTAINED!

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It’s not the big picture Mr. Scott misses. Though Exodus hardly inspires with its languid pacing — that’s actually a compliment, as it drags for a good 75 minutes out of a grand total of 150 — there is definitive movement in the saga and the enthusiasm for Moses’ finest hour begins to build in earnest when the plagues set in. But even then, it’s a dash of visual splendor that sits a little too long in waiting and appears somewhat randomly in gradually darkening skies. Rest assured, if those in attendance are awaiting spectacle, they will still get it. But it’s too little too late.

His placement of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea — each element elegant in their CGI rendering — ought to be considered the equivalent of audiences sitting in for Gladiator and having minimum expectations of seeing Russell Crowe in leather jockeys. Yes he dons such a garment, but this doesn’t exactly complete the character. And it says nothing about the way Mr. Scott’s masterpiece captures ancient history in all its grim and bloody frankness; says little about the defiance of a single gladiator who goes up against the Roman empire — except that maybe our fearless leader has an eye for men in skivvies.

But this sadly is no laughing matter. It’s difficult trying to rectify the substantial decrease in quality between the film that came out at the turn of the millennium and the one we’ve just been handed on a not-so-silver platter. If you factor in how much Exodus seems to mime the story arc of Gladiator the coalition for reason becomes even weaker. Formulaically speaking, this is no different from the adventures of Maximus Decimus Meridius. A man has his pride and political status stripped from him following a particularly bitter (and yes, unfair) betrayal, then must strike out on his own into the great unknown before deciding to return balance to the universe. Crowe had at it first, and Crowe comes out on top on almost all counts. But if we were judging this based on who rides a gigantic tidal wave of water better, then the odds are more in Moses’ favor.

As an undertaking, Exodus is a mightily ambitious undertaking. It’s easy to dismiss the film as a redundant journey back in time to a place where religious conflict brimmed more heatedly than any of those scenes between Bruce and Rachel. (Or Miranda Tate — that part was actually better.) Maybe we really didn’t need it. Maybe I was just foolish in expecting great things here. Though it’s hard to not get excited when the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton (and throw in Sigourney Weaver for the hell of it) are involved, when there’s a director of Mr. Scott’s stature leading the charge.

Casting controversy aside, Exodus is simply a film with few excuses for becoming as flaccid a drama as it truly becomes. It’s mired in surprisingly subpar performances, drifting narrative pacing and an unenthusiastic, although granted, educational, tone. No one on screen ever feels inspired. And to say that about this particular cast is a move that ought to make one feel the need to exile themselves to. . . . well, somewhere else. For right now anyway, it looks like the opposite case is going to hold true.

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2-0Recommendation: If you were holding out hope that Exodus could survive the plague of criticism that has washed over it in the past week, let me drown that hope right now. It’s not a good movie. If the odd casting decisions don’t strike you (the argument being staged for racist casting is just plain nonsense by the way; the move to hire Bale and Edgerton in particular was one of financial matters, and this is clear) then the slow, awkward pacing and the sloppy dialogue surely will. I’m done talking about this movie. Two thousand words later. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 150 mins.

Quoted: “You sleep well because you are loved. I’ve never slept that well.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Locke

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

What’s harder to reconcile — the uncertainty and doubt associated with what the future may or may not hold for you, or acknowledging the truth of what’s happened in your past?

If you don’t find yourself moved by this kind of prying, existential question, a question that you can almost feel digging fingernails into your psyche as this simple narrative unfolds, there’s probably not a great deal something like Steven Knight’s brilliantly conservative Locke can offer you.

For anyone who does find themselves so moved, the film offers even less in the way of comfort. Emotionally hard-hitting and complex, this is a film that mirrors reality so well it’s actually more impressive that any of this is scripted. Presented as something of a road trip adventure infused with a touch of film noir, Locke is entirely caught up in the here-and-now, realizing what’s most important should be the thing that’s made most readily available to the viewer, and has little time or interest in distracting with other subplots or storylines. Indeed, what we get is Hardy’s face, a hands-free cell phone and a beautiful BMW (finally, product placement that isn’t obnoxious) as the key ingredients responsible for doling out the drama.

Tom Hardy plays an esteemed construction foreman who is seen at the film’s open leaving a work site for the evening, knocking wet concrete from his boots before getting into his car and driving away. For the remainder of the film this is where both he and the audience shall be confined — a gauntlet on wheels that comes to spawn a multitude of situations and conversations, all of which are not only believable, but also inconceivable. As the drive continues, Locke’s situation perpetually worsens and in ways that are entirely too convincing, with each successive phone call devolving into another nightmarish battle.

That the film is primarily set in the driver’s seat of a four-door sedan should be enough to make for a compelling indie film reel, but that’s not where the film excels the most. Though this intimacy certainly helps elevate the film, it’s the work that Hardy turns in that separates Locke from other limited-setting movies, and by several mile markers at that.

Hardy is a one-man show, an artist so in the moment time almost seems to come to a stand-still. He imbues his character with the perfect sampling of each human emotion that invariably would surface during a car ride of this magnitude, or during any number of stressful — granted, less intricate and bizarre — situations for that matter. Sure, driving may be the only activity the man takes part in here, but the circumstances surrounding what he’s doing have a kind of gravity that will put a lump in your throat.

Locke is, in a word, defiant, and the more that’s left unsaid about it, the better. Suffice it to say, though, expect a story which refuses to bend to convention, as Ivan refuses to lose sight of his ultimate goal. We, the ever curious — bordering on frustrated — third-party simply must sit perched on the edge of our seats, nervous, as we anticipate each precious little detail as they come spilling forward, either from Hardy’s mouth or from the speakers on the dashboard. The genius in this film is that frustration mounts but it never overwhelms, and that frustration is not the end game. It’s only part of the experience. And there are so many different parts.

An existential drama disguised as a road trip movie, Locke is quite simply one of the most inventive and riveting films you will see this, or any other year. There won’t be many things quite like it.

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5-0Recommendation: An exemplary indie film that is sure to satisfy the art house crowd and Tom Hardy fans in equal measure. See it for a much more nuanced Hardy performance — it’s really quite something comparing this role to his Bane, or something like Charles Bronson. But see it for far more fundamental reasons also: if you appreciate deeply human stories, Locke is one you cannot afford to miss.

Rated: R

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Gareth, with all due respect: f**k Chicago.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Prince Avalanche

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Release: Friday, August 9, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Mumblecore may not be a lost artform, but it’s pretty clear it’s on the fringes, particularly when the recent entries are as minor as this.

David Gordon Green, after directing more mainstream, sillier things like Pineapple Express, The Sitter and Your Highness, switches gears by creating a story dependent on actual, fine-tuned performances and not upon ridiculous set pieces and poop/fart jokes. He manages to avoid being pretentious with his shoestring budget, though it’s not much of a surprise to see such a divided audience opinion of Prince Avalanche

One of the main reasons the film carries great potential to be off-putting is the extremely slow pace. Seriously. Snails probably would learn a thing or two about slowing down if they could watch this movie. (That’s not to write snails off as being snobbish, by the way; I just think A) their weird little eyes are too small and B) even if they could comprehend this, they would get bored.)

But for us humans, because the film also zeros in on an obscure, isolated job like highway maintenance — Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are responsible for applying all the road markings to a recently repaved section of road in the wake of a destructive wildfire that wiped out a good portion of forest land — there is not a lot to grab a hold of in terms of dramatic material. Plus the fact that extended moments of dialogue-free, panoramic shots of the nondescript environs dominate the narrative early on doesn’t help those who are seeking something to identify with.

When you factor in how Rudd’s character is first presented, this film seems to be making every effort to avoid becoming a crowd-pleaser. (Whoops, did I mention earlier that this film wasn’t pretentious? That might have been a bit of a lie.) Green, though, is able to find a modicum of success in his experimentation. There is a quirkiness to this weird little romp, a very natural humor that makes this story absolutely believable, even if inaccessible (or pointless) to some.

Relying on some nuanced performances, his small-time Avalanche attempts to differentiate between the concepts of ‘being alone’ versus ‘being lonely.’ He goes about this by presenting two starkly different personalities in Alvin and Lance, who show that while both concepts don’t sound favorable, one is definitely worse than the other.

A mustached Paul Rudd truly enjoys the solitude; he claims to be able to focus his downtime into gaining what he considers valuable skills, like learning foreign languages, and that being away from people — like his girlfriend, Madison who is also, by way of holy-shit-it’s-a-small-world, Lance’s sister — actually helps him better himself. Compare that to Hirsch’s whiny, materialistic Lance, who has slightly less ambitious stupider . . .we’ll just go with different goals and desires, like going into town on his days off and looking for some girls to take home with him. He’s clearly less satisfied with his employment and, hence, the lonely one.

Yet, there’s a monotonous amount of road-paintin’, and silence-havin’ — I think at some point, a bee gets to chew some scenery — all of this to get through as this simple albeit earnest story slowly gains traction. This is a movie filmed through cameras virtually ingrained into the trees and the mud and thickets through which we see this movie unfold. You have to give credit to Green and his right-hand man, D.O.P. Tim Orr for literally absorbing the environment in which they are in. At the same time, I cannot blame those who end up feeling a little insulted by watching a movie that literally takes place on the shoulder of a road.

Ultimately, Prince Avalanche is a decent film that perhaps treads the line between immateriality and art-house a bit too closely at times. The performances are too good to ignore though, and there is a warm conviction with which these two loners eventually come to embrace their statuses in life. The low-key affair is also dressed in a gorgeous soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, which, it can also be legitimately argued, the film relies on a bit too much at times.

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3-5Recommendation: Experimental at best and inconsequential at worst, Prince Avalanche is not a film for everyone yet those who do crack its hard outer shell shall reap the rewards of its heartfelt message and will appreciate the quality of the two oddball performances. It’s also a good one to check out for yet another different Paul Rudd experience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “So when you say something negative and insult the other person… You’re really just showing that other person what an unsure-of-yourself-type person that you really feel like you are.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com