Tag Archives: Jesus

Ben-Hur (2016)

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I must begin this review with a caveat: I have not seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards (tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the all-time record), and so I have the luxury of not having to compare this ill-fated remake/reimagining to that film. And what an ill-fated effort this is, earning measly US$23.7 million at the international box office (to date) against a US$100 million budget. It has become the unfortunate poster child of a disappointing summer of blockbuster flops.

In my humble opinion, however, this new version of Ben-Hur is, for the most part, not bad. I was rooting for it to be good while expecting it to be horrible, but for the majority of the 123-minute running time, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Problems aside, this was a very watchable movie fuelled by excellent performances and a couple of spectacular sequences. Sadly — and I’ll get to this later — the ending was one of the worst of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian auteur who gave us Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of those films everyone hated but I loved), Ben-Hur retells the classic Biblical story of adoptive brothers Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who go from best friends to mortal enemies against the backdrop of the Roman control of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). It’s an epic tale of brotherhood, betrayal and revenge, and of course — as it also stars Morgan Freeman — redemption.

As sceptical as I was, Ben-Hur managed to suck me in right from the get-go. Part of it is simply that it’s a great story, though much of the credit has to go to the two super-talented leads, Jack Huston and Tony Kebbell (who will always be Koba to me), who act the shit out of their roles to elevate the film above the quality of the writing. Their chemistry made their brotherhood and friendship believable, and I could see the torment in their eyes when fate tore them apart.

Then there’s the action, which was generally very exciting and well-executed. The highlights are a gut-wrenching sequence on the high seas, and of course the chariot race. Some may accuse those scenes of being too reliant on CGI, but I honestly thought they looked realistic enough to get a pass. Special mention goes to the long shots of landscapes and especially the chariot racing stadium, which have a tendency to look fake in other films but were close to perfect here. If there is a complaint, it’s that the editing was too choppy due to the need to maintain the PG-13 rating. It got so bad that a key moment in the race was lost amid the confusion (I know I wasn’t the only one because I heard two separate groups of people talking about the same thing immediately after the film). I hate it when films undercut themselves in this way.

Nonetheless, the core of Ben-Hur is solid, and if it weren’t for a bunch of nagging problems, the film could have been a contender for most underrated movie of the year. First off, the look of most of the characters don’t feel quite right. There’s just too much of a modern vibe, from their hairstyles to the costumes. And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks. It was the most visually jarring hairdo in cinema since Tom Hank’s abomination in The Da Vinci Code.

On top of that, the film has a few pacing issues. While it does not feel like a long movie, there are moments where the film sags because it wastes too much time on things that are unimportant. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, there’s that ending. Had the film ended 5 minutes earlier, I would have liked it a lot more. But they had to go and ruin it with a cop-out ending that totally undermined the emotional payoff the film had been building up to for 2 hours. I understand, with the heavy religious undertones (which I didn’t mind), that it was an attempt to deliver a final message. As well-intentioned as it may be, the ending came across as forced and unnecessary. Honestly, it would have been preferable had they just pretended the entire movie was just a dream. It wasn’t just the decision to end the movie in this way either. Even the final scene and song they chose to accompany it irked me — as Donald Trump would say — “bigly.”

On the whole, however, I would still say Ben-Hur is a better movie than I had anticipated. It’s hard to get the bad ending out of my head, but there are enough positives to this remake to render it not a complete waste of time. I’m glad I saw it despite the negative reviews.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall (2014)

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American football movies are a dime a dozen, but few have stood out to me like When the Game Stands Tall, the remarkable true story of legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur, who led California’s De La Salle Spartans to a record 151 consecutive victories. Unfortunately, I’m going to remember this one for all the wrong reasons.

I give every movie, no matter how bad they might seem, a fighting chance. But it took just a couple of minutes before I told the guy next to me, “This is really bad.”

From the first scenes I could tell this was going to be one corny, sentimental journey riddled with cliches and painfully obvious plot points that hit all the boiler plate markers at exactly the moments you’d expect them to. I was of course right, as the film stayed true to itself all the way to the predictable end.

Instead of the uplifting emotions the film was aiming for, all I got was manipulation as obvious as dogs’ balls. Insane amounts of awkward, expository dialogue; catchphrases and monologues you expect to only hear on televised evangelist sermons or sports parodies; cringeworthy moments and characters galore. It’s laughably bad (I’m not exaggerating; I literally laughed out loud several times at the unintentional humour).

The film actually starts toward the end of the winning streak, beginning on such a high that you know exactly where it is going to go: fall from grace, start over, work hard, minor conflicts along the way, big “f*%$ yeah!” climax at the end.

The themes are ones you’ve seen a million times. Doubts about God, passion railroaded by health, neglecting family for job, battling poverty, overbearing parents, and the jock “brotherhood.” Players clash, family members clash, but everything they say is cliched and none of it feels genuine. Everything is shoved in your face like someone handing out flyers on a street corner. The worst was the vomit-inducing heart-to-hearts between the players before the big game, barely outdoing the “inspiring” visit to see rehabilitating war veterans to give them a new perspective. Of course, this visit never happened in real life.

On top of all that, the film’s characters are harder to fathom existing than the team’s impressive winning streak. Fair enough, they attended a Catholic school and Ladouceur is, by all accounts, extremely devout, but seriously, come on. I know he’s played by Jim Caviezel, but in this film, Ladouceur is more Jesus than Jesus. He’s the complete opposite of every caricature “win at all costs” evil high school sports coach in film history. He cares for everyone (I mean really really cares), puts players before wins, always knows what’s right, spews Bible verses verbatim. And his biggest flaw is — wait for it — is that he’s a closet smoker. God forbid! He even as an obnoxious assistant coach to make him look even holier.

Among the players, the two that stand out are Ladouceur’s son Danny, played by Matthew Daddario, brother to the smoking Alexandra Daddario, and the fictional running back Chris Ryan, played by The Hunger Games‘ Alexander Ludwig. Much of the focus is placed on Ryan’s relationship with his father, played by Shawshank guard Clancy Brown, who is a caricature that combines every repugnant high school sports dad ever depicted on screen.

The only thing I can honestly say the film has going for it is some well-executed football game action. The plays look real enough to me, and even when you know what’s going to happen they offer a bit of a rush. But a lot of football films have good game sequences, and it’s not enough to offset the plethora of negatives.

When the Game Stands Tall might not be the worst film of 2014, but it will likely go down as the most unbearable. As well-intentioned as it may have been, even Jesus couldn’t bring salvation to this hackneyed melodrama.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Heaven Is for Real (2014)

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When I read Heaven Is for Real by pastor Todd Burpo (and Lynn Vincent) last year (review here) , the movie trailer for the adaption had just been released. It looked pretty good, but I was curious as to how they would tackle some of the book’s trickier elements.

I got my answer recently when I grabbed a copy of Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear as Burpo, Kelly Reilly as his wife, and with Randall Wallace (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Braveheart) directing and co-writing the script. I still don’t know if heaven is for real, but I do know if there is a hell it would involve watching Heaven Is for Real on loop for eternity.

Look, it’s not a bad film, strictly speaking, but it’s so obviously directed at a certain group of audiences — Christians who already have their minds made up or desperately long for confirmations like this one — that it leaves no room for interpretation or imagination. Leaving aside the debate over whether the experience is real or not (something I don’t want to get into because it has little to do with the merits of the movie), I found the film much less effective than the book. The characters didn’t convince me and the depictions of heaven and Jesus were as awkward as you’d expect them to be.

From what I remember, the screenplay follows the book quite closely. Burpo is a pastor hit by a string a bad luck, from his personal health to finance problems. During a family trip his four-year-old son, Colton, falls perilously ill and requires surgery to save his life. Even though the surgery report suggests that he did not have a near-death-experience (both his heart and brain were fine), Colton starts to tell his dad that he went to heaven — where he hung out with Jesus, angels, the whole shebang — and came back to tell the tale. He also saw some deceased family members he never met and witnessed some things when he was floating around.

Burpo, despite being a pastor, has his doubts about what Colton says he experienced, though he seems like he wants to believe the little boy. His wife, on the other hand, pretty much dismisses it as a child’s imagination. When the story gets out, others are naturally not so kind and give the family a hard time.

The positive things I can think of about this movie are…well, Greg Kinnear is pretty good, and the kid who plays Colton (Connor Corum) is cute, even though the way he spoke sometimes made it hard to understand what he’s saying. Wallace also does a fairly good job with what I call the John Edward moments — ie when Colton says something about the dead he couldn’t have known! Apart from that, I can’t really think of anything nice to say.

I understand the source material is difficult to adapt to the screen, which is why I thought they might tinker with it to make things more subtle and leave room for viewers to decide for themselves whether what Colton experienced was real, made up, or a hallucination. Give us the pros and the cons, make us think and question our beliefs, wherever they may lean.

This is what Jesus apparently looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by Lithuanian prodigy Akiane Kramarik
This is what Jesus supposedly looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by American prodigy Akiane Kramarik

Instead, the film takes a very straightforward approach and essentially presents Colton’s story as real, complete with a visual retelling of his experience, such as seeing angels, chatting with Jesus (face covered by shadows, but still, with the white robes and sandals and all), hanging out in “Heaven park” and so forth. It’s more vague in the book, but in the movie, we have no choice but to be shown what it’s like, and the results are lamer than I anticipated. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it tacky, but I was laughing for the wrong reasons. Rather than making the experience more real and tangible, the depiction had the opposite effect of making it less believable.

OK, so a decision was made to appease the target audience by shoving Colton’s experience in our faces so we’d believe him, but then why make his parents such unreasonable skeptics? This was something that just didn’t sit well with me. Maybe I am overestimating the faith of American pastors, but I thought it was odd for Todd to be so desperate to search for a “rational” explanation to his son’s experience. He’s in church every Sunday trying to convince everyone how wonderful God is, so if anyone was to jump to conclusions, he’d be the perfect candidate. And he’s actually the person most willing to take a leap of faith. It made even less sense to me that his wife — who married a pastor, goes to all his sermons and sings (terribly) regularly in the church choir — would so readily dismiss Colton’s experience and refuse to even contemplate the possibility that his experience could have been real.

Is the whole point of this to tell Christians that it’s OK to have doubts but you still ultimately need to have faith in God? Or are the filmmakers so naive that they think this approach would connect with non-believers or fence-sitters and convince them to start believing? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit by thinking that the film is aimed only at Christians and wannabe believers.

And I don’t know if it is because I had read the book and already knew what he was going to say, because I didn’t find any of the drama particularly engrossing. They tried to add in some extra conflict that wasn’t there, and it showed. It wasn’t as trite as it could have been, but it was intentionally sappy and had a TV-movie vibe to the heavy-handed execution.

Notwithstanding everything I’ve written here, I didn’t hate Heaven Is for Real. It’s a film that knew what it was doing and who it was catering to. It’s just not very good and not very convincing. All things considered, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been, and it’s certainly not as good as it had the potential to be.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect (2015)


Jesus may have raised Lazarus from the dead, but in the case of the Lazarus Effect, death would actually be a welcome relief from this disaster of a horror flick.

I didn’t have high hopes for this film, but I figured anything with a star like Olivia Wilde in the lead role can’t be that bad. Wilde plays a medical researcher (really believable already) who along with her fiancé (Mark Duplass) and a couple of other guys who could not look less like medical researchers (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) develop the “Lazarus” serum, a magical concoction they believe can bring the dead back to life.

You already see where this is heading, right?

The catalyst for moving the plot along is the arrival of a young and attractive videographer (Sarah Bolger), who has asked to tape their experiments — though thankfully, this is not a found-footage film.

I don’t consider the following a spoiler because it’s obvious from the poster. Naturally, after attaining some level of success, something happens that ends up requiring Duplass to inject Wilde with the serum. And of course, she “comes back”, but is not quite the same, and shit soon starts to happen.

The biggest problem I had with The Lazarus Effect is its complete sense of predictability. The premise is actually quite good, but the script pulled out every horror cliche in the catalogue and the story went along exactly as you would have guessed for a movie of this kind. I don’t claim to know what they could have done differently, I just know whatever they did failed to work.

There were a handful of times throughout the movie when I said to my wife, “X is going to happen” or “Y is going to say Z”, and each time I was proven right, and right on cue. Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films, but it was just disappointing to not experience anything unexpected, including the scare tactics, most of which were “boo” moments we’ve seen many times.

The cast is nice to look at and their performances are fine, though they don’t get to do much because of the insipid characters they’ve been given.

It’s a shame, because The Lazarus Effect has some interesting themes and questions about life, death and the afterlife, but none of these are even close to being fleshed out. Instead, the experience was bogged down by familiar horror tropes, wasting a promising premise and cast.

1.5 stars out of 5