Tag Archives: Toby Kebbell

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

Warcraft (2016)

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I must admit, Warcraft was my least anticipated major blockbuster of 2016, with the possible exception of Suicide Squad (I’ll watch that too, but expectations cannot be lower). Having never played the popular video game on which the film is based, or with any intention of ever doing so, it seemed somewhat destined to be yet another disappointing video game adaptation, following in the footsteps of the likes of Doom, Street Fighter, and Prince of Persia.

Having said that, director Duncan Jones is quite a visionary filmmaker, and many were apparently quite optimistic that Warcraft would buck the trend. However, the trailers did not instill much confidence in me — giant, muscular creatures in large-scale battle scenes with humans and magicians, and loads and loads of CGI-heavy special affects. It was pretty much just Hollywood telling the same old story.

It was with such a mindset that I went to see Warcraft, and I have to say that I came out of it very pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of flaws with it, some impossible to overcome given the circumstances, but on the whole it was about as much as I could have expected from a fantasy film of this nature.

I don’t want to get into the plot because it’s not really that important in the scheme of things, but I guess it should come as no surprise that there are humans, orcs, elves, dwarves and so forth -– but mainly humans and orcs –- who all all live in a magical realm with mythical creatures, magic powers, evil warlocks, master wizards and apprentice mages. It’s about fighting for your people and your tribe, honour and loyalty, family and friends and all that shit. It’s more less your typical RPG game.

Now, if you can get past the first stage, which is to take this kind of video-gamey premise seriously, then the rest of the film has a decent chance. Mind you, this does not have the gritty realism of something like say Game of Thrones — this is legitimate high fantasy, where you can actually see the light shooting out of magicians hands and souls being literally sucked out of bodies. 

When you take into account just what a difficult task this was for director Duncan Jones to get right, you start to appreciate the great job he did with this movie. While the storyline is indeed cliched, the storytelling is, for the most part, well done. Instead of making the orcs just brainless monsters hell bent on killing humans for no reason, Jones makes proper characters with proper character development. It’s not quite a two-sides-to-the-story kind of scenario, where the humans characters and orc characters are genuinely on an equal footing (hint: the humans still get more love), it’s at least good to see them apply a less conventional approach.

The cast is also really solid. On the human size, you’ve got Aussie Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper and Ben Foster, while on the orc side there’s Toby Kebbel (he will always be Koba to me) and Daniel Wu (I was shocked when I discovered he’s in it), and in between there’s Paula Patton, looking a little on the green side. None of these names are A-listers, but they’re all quality performers who bring gravitas to their respective roles. 

As for the action, it’s of course predominantly CGI, and to be honest it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of scale, creativity or choreography. What it does do well is the depiction of magic, which is rarely done well on film, and building up some character relationships so that we will care about the outcome of the battles and duels.

So absolutely, Jones should be commended for doing everything he could to make Warcraft the “great” film he tried to make. If you manage to immerse yourself in the story (like my wife, who said she really enjoyed it), you’ll likely think the film is a success. For me, on the other hand, there were elements I liked and places where I thought the film did a great job with, but I couldn’t get into the story or care for the characters as much as like I hoped I would. It really comes down to it being virtually impossible to introduce a whole new realm with all these different races and conflicts, not to mention focusing on both sides of the war, in a movie barely over 2 hours long. If this were a TV series where you have 10 hours to play with, then maybe you could achieve all these things. But given the time constraints and the need to devote a good chunk of that time to battle scenes, you’re going to have scenes and dialogue of obvious and annoying exposition cramming. 

Could they have reduced the number of characters and shifted the balance from CGI battles to more character and relationship development? Of course they could have. But as a one-shot opportunity to make a successful blockbuster for which sequels are no certainty, it would have been too risky an approach for any studio to take. It’s easy for critics to dismiss the cliched aspects of the movie, but sometimes commercial realities dictate these things.

The same goes for the CGI, which was limited by the technology and budget. As a result, it was a little patchy — photorealistic at times and like an Xbox cutscene at others. Perhaps part of it is also the way the orcs have been designed — they just don’t look like creatures I could genuinely believe, a feeling that is heightened whenever I see Paula Patton’s half-orc, half-human character, who looks basically like a human in green paint with two little tusks coming out the bottom of her mouth. It’s ridiculous.

Despite all these flaws, I still appreciate and admire the film Warcraft had set out to be. It’s not quite the “great” film Jones had dreamed of or the saviour of all video-game adaptation movies (that baton has now been passed on to Assbender in Assassin’s Creed), but as a high fantasy film with all the hard-to-swallow things that come with it, Warcraft is not bad at all. If you see it with an open mind, you might agree too.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

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So I ignored the warnings and went to see the new Fantastic Four reboot. I knew the odds weren’t good — critics were shut out of preview screenings and there were rumblings of a mess behind the scenes with director Josh Trank, the promising filmmaker who brought us Chronicle, one of the few watchable found footage films in history. Early reviews have been borderline terrifying.

Still, I wanted to decide for myself. I think Trank is a good director with a distinct visual flair and approach to characters, and I loved the casting of fresh, up-and-coming names such as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B Jordan and Jamie Bell. The trailers looked fantastic too, so I figured things couldn’t be that horrible.

And honestly, it’s not THAT bad. Certainly not 9% Rotten Tomatoes bad. For starters, it’s very different to the 2005 film, the only things from which I remember were the campiness and Jessica Alba’s abysmal blonde dye job. So that’s a good thing. Secondly, the young performers are all terrific dramatic actors who provide solid efforts across the board. Thirdly, Trank maintains much of his unique visual style. It’s a little dark, a little gritty, and the effects have an impressive realism to them when they probably would be cartoonish in lesser hands.

That said, I can’t deny that Fantastic Four is a savage mess. The tone, the pacing and the script are all over the place. Something must have gone very wrong during the filming and editing process because there was so much potential. If only the pieces could have been put together in the right way the film could have been a smash.

The story starts off with plenty of intrigue. A fifth grade genius, Reed Richards (who grows up to be Miles Teller), designs a teleportation device which he powers up with the aide of a classmate, Ben Grimm (who grows up to be Jamie Bell). Seven years later, their work is discovered by Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey), who hires Richards to work alongside his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and the pioneer of the project, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Franklin’s troubled biological son Johnny (Michael B Jordan) also gets involved.

As you probably already know, the experiment leads them to develop an assortment of superpowers. The problem is that at least half the film is about getting to this point, and by the time they get there there’s not much time for much else. Consequently, the film feels like the extended pilot of a TV series where everything is about setting the stage for the future. It’s an origins film that spends all its time on the origin part and doesn’t give our new heroes enough time to bond and form a real team. Certain arcs and character development sequences take far too long, while areas you would have thought are important end up being rushed or skipped over entirely. In a typical film, characters are supposed to grow from point A to point B; this film spends most of its time stuck at A and teleports to B at the very end.

It felt like they had to fit a 3-hour movie in 2 hours but couldn’t decide or agree on which bits to emphasise and which bits to cut. It’s as though everyone involved in the project expected there to be more sequels and thought it was therefore okay to deliver an incomplete first film.

The signals of messiness are sprinkled throughout the movie. It starts off with a cutesy, innocent vibe infused with some light humour, but the lengthy middle section is dead serious and flat — and worst of all, boring. The best and most compelling part of the film is when they travel via the machine and seeing their transformations for the first time. It’s basically a horror film at this point — and a very good one too — but it fits uncomfortably into the overall picture. The final climax reverts to more typical action hero cliches, which it inevitably had to do, though it’s clunkily thrown together and basically discards the tensions between the characters built up throughout the film. The “hero” speeches and dialogue as the film nears the finish line also comes across as forced and arbitrary.

The script struggles as well. There are aspects that fail the logic test, and the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense. The result is a story that tries to be more grounded than the film it is rebooting but ends up lacking credibility.

It’s unfortunate that Fantastic Four turned out the way it did because there was so much potential. While it will ultimately be remembered as a failure, the film still had a few solid moments and some flashes of brilliance that sadly remind us of what it could have been.

Some day we might hear what really happened behind the scenes. At the moment a sequel is scheduled for a June 2017 release, but it remains to be seen whether they will really go ahead with it given the poor reviews and lower-than-projected earnings. I will no doubt be in the minority, but I still want to see it made. Fantastic Four was not so bad that it can’t be redeemed by a great sequel.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: Trank, who was painted as a tyrant by some reports, is either shifting the blame or genuinely had his hands tied by his bosses. In response to the negative feedback, Trank posted and hen quickly deleted this message on Twitter: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”