Tag Archives: Gladiator

Exodus: Gods & Kings

In what is the last blockbuster of 2014, Exodus: Gods & Kings delivers an suitably enjoyable romp. However resident cynic Matt Lambourne proverbially pokes Ridley Scott’s latest sand and sandals epic full of holes.

By Matt Lambourne (@Matt_Lambourne)

exodus 2Unfortunately Exodus missed the release deadline for the Failed Critics end of year awards for 2014, so by default it will be spared any embarrassment for it’s absence. In truth it probably wouldn’t have harmed the chances of the eventual top 10 anyways, that said the movie is deserved of some attention.

I must state in the interest of fairness that I am an admirer of the period of history that is the source material for the film, although not necessarily a big interest in the religious aspect. Being an atheist, there are aspects of the film that are malignant to my overall enjoyment of the film. OK, now that is out of the way we can get stuck into the bones & meat of Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The first thing that will strike you about this film is the outrageously beautiful set and costume design. If there was any question where the reported $140,000,000 budget for this movie went (with the exception of Christian Bale & Joel Edgerton‘s barber costs) then look no further than this, as this film looks as beautiful as it’s protagonists’ spray tans.

For the uninitiated, Exodus retells the story of the rising of Moses and his leadership of the Hebrews as they break free of 400 years of slavery under the hands of the Egyptian Pharaohs, but in overly dramatised Hollywood fashion. Bale & Edgerton are cast in the main roles of Moses and Ramsees respectively and in fairness do a decent job for the most part in convincing they are masters of this ancient world we are thrust into.

The Make-Up/Tan/Costume of Edgerton is particularly impressive, he looks absolutely superb and entirely in place as King of the Egyptian realm. The film follows a similar opening to that of Gladiator, in whereby you are introduced to this seemingly stable power triangle in the form of the current Pharaoh, Ramsees the successor and the overly favoured army General in Moses. In fact, its the same damn template to a tee and I doubt too many people who see this movie even on a casual viewing would fail to detect this obvious repeat of formula.

You can’t blame Ridley Scott, really. It worked so well with Gladiator that when he dared to change it up a little for ‘Kingdom of Heaven‘ it didn’t yield the best return or praise. Exodus wants to be Gladiator for the most part and delivers in scale and grandeur, however it doesn’t on 2 major components; character development and battle sequences.

Don’t get me wrong, the character arcs for Moses and Ramsees are decent enough. Moses gradually shifts from part of the Egyptian machine to reluctant leader of the Hebrews at just the right pace, whereas Ramsees’ plunge into Megalomania dictates the tempo for the entire story. However the other characters are entirely symbolic and add almost nothing to the quality of the movie, nor the story other than their obligatory inclusion to be consistent with the legend of the film’s subject matter.

This moves me along nicely to one of my biggest movie bugbears, pointless casting. There are several inclusions in this movie that are fairly high on the pay-grade that I either did not recognise or felt brought zero to the table in either performance or draw of their name to the target audience.

Firstly, lets start with Aaron Paul. His stock has fallen ever so slightly since finishing Breaking Bad and immediately jumping into a shitty intellectual property in the live-action Need for Speed but he still holds a little pull for a certain audience, but why on Earth is he in this? He is just about recognisable in his get-up as Joshua (another win for the make-up team) but he delivers no performance value in this at all, in fact he barely even speaks!

Ben Kingsley will sell himself out to just about anything that requires a remotely dark complexion and has become a caricature of his standout performance in Gandhi. His face just about adds some form of safety/trust as a tribal elder but again, no value overall and another big casting fee wasted. Then there are the ones I failed to recognise at all. Sigourney Weaver totally escaped my recognition despite being fairly prominent… I’ll give that one up for my own ignorance perhaps. The usually excellent John Tuturro is cast as Pharoah Seti, whilst doing nothing wrong in performance it just appears as one of those token favour castings… why would you squeeze in a heavyweight Jewish actor in a role as a Pharoah, someone that oppresses persons of your faith? Then there was the peculiar addition of Ewen Bremner (Yes, the Scottish Ewen Bremner) as one of Ramsees’ advisors.

The whole casting smacks of some sort of agenda. You have the most caucasian actors in the world playing all the juicy Egyptian/Hebrew roles (with the aid of heavy tanning I might add!) whilst they carefully selected performers with Arabic heritage for the few select roles that were of that ethnicity. This is the biggest issue with Exodus in general, it massively leans towards the Zionest slant of the story and appears to depict that everything good about Ancient Egypt came off the sweaty and bloodied backs of Hebrews.

I won’t even go into whether that is right or wrong historically, however it comes across as somewhat deliberate, to the extent that it may prevent the film getting any long-term praise for its technical merits in a similar fashion to Mel Gibson’s historical bludgeonings like The Patriot and The Passion. I can’t imagine the Arabic community at large being terribly ecstatic about the movie either, which then makes you wonder who the movie is really being made for? The general viewership won’t care for the underlaying message or the historical appeal, they just want to be entertained.

Ultimately this is where Exodus misses the mark. The marketing for the film implies (at least in my person interpretation) an epic battle at the centre of the conflict between Moses and Ramsee however it simply doesn’t exist. In fact the film’s main action sequence is over and done with rather quickly into proceedings. That leaves you waiting patiently for something that never really occurs and whilst you’re sitting back enjoying the Plague scenes (which are truly spectacular by the way) you’re still looking forward to the big climatic battle, which is sadly denied and audiences don’t enjoy feeling mislead about what they’re handing over money for.

The ending really doesn’t satisfy in any sense and I’m left to wonder how much better this could have been if a few tweaks had been made here and there. For me, this is a film for fans of ancient/religious history but isn’t quite good enough for the main stream. The critics will have quickly panned any slim Oscar chances for Exodus as far as Cinematic achievement goes, however I will give this massive kudos for the stunning costume, make-up and set design as previously mentioned… its here where the movie really excels and does have some legitimate chance of picking up some accolades during awards season.

In conclusion, go and see it and enjoy it as it is pretty good, but its far from a genre-classic like it’s director’s other attempts such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (directors cut only of course!)

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A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2000

The first in a new series of articles where  Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favoruite films from each year of that decade, and give us a little insight into the legacy those years have left us.

As this is Gerry’s (from the Failed Critics podcasts) own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Today he counts down his favourite films from 2000.

5. Meet the Parents

A remake of an independent film from 1992 and essentially little more than a comedy about families, Meet the Parents is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Ben Stiller is his usual self and brings some good laughs, but it’s Robert De Niro who is the real star here with a wonderful comedic performance. It hasn’t aged as well perhaps as the likes of American Pie and Zoolander but these are situations we can all empathise with and it is this universality that makes it so consistently funny.

It’s more slapstick and slightly less gross-out than the other comedies of that era, making it more of a family-friendly and arguably complete film than most of its ilk. The sequels which followed it never quite reached these heights but it’s always worth a watch and at the very least helped inspire American Dad, Family Guy’s sister show.

4. Battle Royale

Brutal, violent and shocking, Battle Royale somehow manages to be genuinely thought-provoking despite its subject matter. Now a cult classic, it tells the tale of a class of high-schoolers who are forced to battle it out to the death on a remote island by their sadistic teacher, the iconic Takeshi Kitano.

The obvious inspiration for The Hunger Games, the film and the novel it was adapted from sparked massive controversies both in Japan and worldwide, with the Japanese Parliament trying to ban both. They succeeded only in generating more interest and the film has become one of the most successful in Japanese cinema history. Tarantino counts it as the only of the films released since the beginning of his career that he wishes he had made, and there is certainly a Tarantino-esque flair for combining violence with social commentary.

The Hunger Games made a big splash this year and James talked about this genre here. In my opinion this is basically a far superior original that was copied and made for Western consumption by Suzanne Collins 9 years after the Japanese novel’s release (Collins denies copying Battle Royale, for the record). If you’ve seen the Hunger Games and not this, go and rectify this immediately. Harrowing but brilliant, Battle Royale is that rarest of things – a violent action thriller with a deeper message that’s well communicated.

3. Snatch

Building on the success of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s frantic cockney gangster film managed to combine comedy and brutal violence so perfectly that he practically spawned a new sub-genre. The cast is large and features the likes of Brad Pitt as an Irish-gypsy boxer and everyone’s favourite platform diver Jason Statham (seriously, look it up – he doesn’t just bang hot models you know) among many others. Ritchie’s supreme ability to manage such a large cast and juggle so many sub-plots is what makes the film so outstanding – all the characters end up being well developed and the world created is utterly believable.

Visually, the film is also great – fast paced, brilliantly edited and with an almost constantly moving camera. Whilst the film is very similar to its predecessor, the characters are brilliant enough to distinguish themselves, even if some of the actors are the same. With a whipping 163 usages of the F-word, Snatch’s dialogue could have been crude and boring; instead, it is consistently funny and created a cult following whose only downside is that your mate always quotes the film to you in certain situations. Must-see viewing for all Brits and surprisingly successful across the pond, this film helped put British cinema back on the map. Takings of £12m+ domestically and $30m+ in the US, from a £3m budget, certainly helped make our filmmakers an attractive proposition for studios.

2. Memento

Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggling thriller was made for just $5,000,000 and was only his second feature-length outing. Having garnered a lot of critical acclaim following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film was a major success around Europe when it was released towards the end of the year; however the project struggled to find a US distributor initially and was passed up by the likes of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Once the film found a distributor and made its way onto US screens in March 2001, eventually grossing $25,000,000, Weinstein and his pals realised their mistake. Nolan hasn’t struggled for work since and went on to make some brilliant blockbusters.

The plot is complex, as Guy Pearce’s Leonard tries to overcome his amnesia and discover who murdered his wife. Running two strands of the storyline parallel to each other, with one moving in normal chronological order and the other in reverse, was a brave decision which put off the likes of Weinstein. It paid off massively. Memento was a breath of fresh air and managed to find the right balance of complexity, thoughtfulness and thrills.

I’m quite a fan of Nolan, as most of the world seems to be now, but I still think this is one of his finest films. I probably even prefer it to Batman Begins, and as you know I’m a big Batman fan. Accomplished, compelling and innovative, Memento launched the career of one of the biggest figures in the industry today with very good reason.

1. Gladiator

If one film dominated the box office in 2000, it was Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic. Russell Crowe is iconic as Maximus, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly sinister and scheming as Commodus, and Connie Nielsen is captivating as his sister Lucilla. It’s the casting outside of the three main protagonists where I think Gladiator really excels though – Oliver Reed famously died during filming and some scenes were added using CGI, but he’s absolutely fantastic throughout; Marcus Aurelius is played convincingly by Richard Harris; Djimon Hounsou launched his career off the back of his turn as Juba, Maximus’ companion in the arena. The characters have become so recognisable thanks to the excellent performances of all the cast.

That said, this was not an easy shoot by all accounts. Harris, at 70, could not be bothered to learn new lines when re-writes were made, although he reportedly became good friends with Crowe. Reed, on the other hand, is purported to have offered Crowe out at one stage having taken an instant dislike to the gruff Australian. Similarly, Crowe emulated Harrison Ford in clashing frequently with director Scott and the writers, and criticising the dialogue (as James mentioned on a recent podcast). The schedule was punishing and shoots went on so long that the film was altered significantly by the long days: the blurring in the opening battle sequence was necessitated by the light running out and everyone being too tired to come back again the next day, while the usage of CGI to replace Reed was preferred to going back and shooting scenes again by the now exhausted crew.

Despite all these difficulties, Gladiator is a cinematic triumph. Shying away from the clichés of the genre such as the Emperor languishing in a chair being fed grapes, Scott nevertheless builds on classic elements from films such as Ben Hur and gives them a vibrancy and reality that those productions never achieved. This Rome feels real, gritty, crawling with corruption, greed and malice. The North African setting looks dusty, hot and uncomfortable, the sets look lived-in rather than freshly constructed. The battle scenes are amongst the best I have ever seen and have set a benchmark, in my view, for all that has followed. We’ve probably all seen it, we all know it won 5 Oscars and it’s one of the most quoted and spoofed films in recent history, but we can’t forget just how great Gladiator is. Undoubtedly the best film of 2000.

Honourable mentions:

American Psycho
Amores Perros
Billy Elliot
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Road Trip