“Ben-Hur” (2016) movie review

BenHurJust as epic a story today as it was during Hollywood’s golden age! Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios present the reimagined classic historical drama of Ben-Hur. Appropriately released by two of the most recognized names in the industry harkening back to the early days of cinema, Ben-Hur plays out almost as well as it did decades ago. Sitting in the auditorium last night, I wondered what it was like to see a larger-than-life nail-biting story on the silver screen when the original was released in 1959, just before the final decline of the former powerhouse of motion picture production, the studio system. The grand experience of this film is only overshadowed by the unusual pacing. Typically epic stories require a minimum of two hours, and often come close to 3-hour runtimes in order to do the story justice and tell it visually and emotionally in the most impactful way possible; however, this film is just over two hours. This moderately quick pacing hinders one’s ability to really appreciate the foreground and background stories. The grandeur of the Roman Empire fails to show as prominently as it should have in this film that bares a striking resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in many respects. There are many sweeping shots of the Circus (chariot racing arena) that are disappointingly mostly CGI’d. Still, there is something remarkable about this story. Whether you are approaching this film from a historic standpoint (historic in an appreciation for classic Hollywood stories), religious perspective (forgiveness and sacrifice), or simply for the bad ass racing of chariots in a grand arena, you will likely find something to enjoy about this movie.

On the backdrop of the final years of the messiah, Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince named Judah Beh-Hur (Huston) who is falsely accused and betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Kebbell). Sentenced to a life of perpetual rowing of Roman galleons in battle, Ben-Hur endears harsh treatment and near-death experiences in order to one day seek his vengeance. Meanwhile, Messala becomes a war hero and favorite of the people and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. When the destruction of his ship opens the door for escape, Ben-Hur finds himself washed upon the shore to be picked up by a wealthy African (Freeman) who races chariots–or pays for young men to race chariots. Striking a deal between them, the wealthy African and Ben-Hur work together to train for Ben-Hur to defeat Massala in the circus in order to reclaim his name and truly hit the Romans where it hurts–losing at their own game.

One of the most unique aspects to this film is the parallel plot between the background and foreground, the plot and subplot. At the end of the day, the message of Ben-Hur is one of forgiveness. The forgiveness between brothers and the forgiveness of Christ. Although this is not a film based upon the story of the messiah (or passion), the character of Jesus is an important element in the journey from vengeance to forgiveness. On three occasions, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus, not knowing who he is. Each of these chance meetings can be read as symbolic of the different acts (or stages) in the film itself. As the story of the passion of the Christ is one that many recognize (even those who are not Christians), it helps to get an idea of what is going on in the background at the same time at the story at the forefront of the film.

Cinematically, the film was a little disappointing. It feels like a lot of potential and opportunity for incredible cinematography and production design was wasted. Although there are many wide or establishing shots, the majority of the film consists of American medium shots. It would have been exciting to see more of the physical world of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire but instead we spend a lot of time indoors or in close proximity to our cast. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more in the way of physical production design. The world on screen should have been one that I could have almost felt. Furthermore, I find that the pacing of the film was not adequate enough to actually tell the story in the manner in which it should have. It’s mostly like there was a 2.5-3hr movie condensed into a typical 2hr runtime. Sometimes epic films are guilty of way too much exposition, but Ben-Hur definitely could’ve benefited from additional development and exposition. Everything just happens too quickly and with minimal challenge.

Chariot racing. That is synonymous with Ben-Hur. And you will get plenty of horses, chariots, and crashes. Not unlike NASCAR of today, chariot racing was all about the violence and crashes. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch heroes battle it out on the ground of the circus (or race track) to see who will be the “first to finish…last to die.” Many early films were more concerned about the spectacle of cinema more so than the story or message. After all, MGM’s famous logo states Ars Gratia Artis (latin for “art for art’s sake”), meaning the goal of cinema was to contribute to the world of the visual and performing arts. Not necessarily to entertain, although that is certainly part of it, but to create beauty, intrigue, and push the boundaries of the mind and eye. One of the most mesmerizing elements of the original Ben-Hur was the chariot racing. Likewise, the most exciting parts of this new incarnation are the sights, sounds, and spectacle of the chariot races.

Although there are certainly areas of the film that disappointed me, as I have mentioned, I highly recommend for anyone who appreciates historic dramas that wax nostalgic the days of the golden age of Hollywood. And who doesn’t love a great chariot race???

“Risen” movie review

RisenThe Gospel–detective movie style! For more than 100 years, stories of Jesus have been the topic of movies. Many early works of cinema featured not only Jesus, but Moses, Sampson, David, etc, but this film is quite different in that it carries a much lighter tone than most faith-based productions. Sticking to the basics of what is known from the Bible and other Jewish and Roman historical accounts of the event, Risen lacks the pious and pretentious nature many of the films in this same sub-genre contain. Not quite cinematic per se or traditionally action-packed, the film has relatively slow pacing but keeps it interesting by supplying well-developed characters and simply the thrill of the original man-hunt. Although the message of the Gospel is clearly stated and shown in the movie, it does not come off as proselytizing. In many ways, the central character is an everyman because it is fairly easy to place yourself in his shoes–or sandals in this case–and imagine what it must have been like to have been in charge of guarding Christ’s tomb and then having to answer for the disappearance. One thing puzzles me; and that is Columbia Pictures’ timing of this release. Honestly, it makes more sense to have released it the weekend prior to Easter. Anyway, I digress.

Risen is about the most famous and controversial man-hunt in the history of the world–and no, I’m talking Jimmy Hoffa–but for the Jesus of Nazareth. You may have heard the Gospel before, but not like this. Follow Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is personally commissioned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to supervise the burial and subsequent Roman guard of the famed tomb. Assisted by Lucius (Tom Felton), Clavius closely manages the burial of Jesus’ body and instructs the guards to keep watch to make sure the body is not stolen so Jesus’ disciples can claim resurrection. As we know from history, the tomb is discovered to have been blown open and thus begins Rome’s search for the body of Jesus in order to snuff out any uprising or violent radical upheaval. Clovis’ search for the body of the proclaimed messiah will force him to question his own beliefs as he encounters appearances and fervent faith that we cannot reconcile against the world he knows.

A history and mystery in one! From either objective or subjective points of view, this is my pick for the best “Jesus” film ever. And yes, I am including the box office smash Passion of the Christ in that assessment. But what makes this particular movie more receptive and less controversial and other faith-based films in the past? Answer: lack of pretense. Whether talking God’s Not Dead or Passion of the Christ, both films do not attempt to appeal to a broad audience. They play on the court with the rest of the faith-based movies both good and bad. Risen plays to the audience differently because it concentrates on developing the realistic historic characters by pairing what is known by way of Biblical or Jewish/Roman historic texts with logical conclusions or using context clues to fill in the gaps. The writers did an excellent job in developing the character of Clavius as someone with whom many in the audience could identify because whether believers int he resurrection or not, we have all questioned our various and respective beliefs at one point or another and often look for answers very much in the same way a detective solves a mystery.

Unlike other films where the focus is either directly or indirectly on Jesus, the focus of this film is primarily on the delicate political landscape between the Jews and Romans and of course our protagonist Clavius. However, this film uses the indirect approach to discover why Jesus’ was so special to his followers (and it still to this day). This indirect approach is far more effective for speeding the Gospel message than typical “Christian” films. Although this film is clearly about the mystery surrounding the resurrection of Jesus in the background, the foreground is a personal journey thus making it more of a historic film than a “Christian” one, so to speak. Therefore, most anyone who enjoys Roman or Jewish history will find something of interest in this film. The relationship between the Romans and Jewish leadership is handled very well. It shows the game the Romans had to play with the Jews in order to keep peace in Jerusalem–especially because Caesar is arriving soon and Pilate needs to show him that he has the Jews under control.

The person of Jesus is also handled better than any other film I have seen. He comes off as an average Joe–that is, an average Joe who can heal lepers. But, he connects well with the audience and is very much down to earth in his appearance and mannerisms. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why his disciples then and followers to this day would choose to follow such a man, but this film makes it clear why. He embodies love. On a lighter note, I’ve always found it funny that in most historic/Biblical films, such as this one, most of the characters speak with a British or transatlantic accent. Pretty sure that was not the case back then. But, at the same time, it does not hinder the story in any way. Although the film is a little slow and the pacing isn’t always executed well, over all, it keeps in line with the traditional three-act plot structure and sufficiently supplies the audience with the proper turning points. Risen also handles character development very well. I really appreciate the development of not only Clavius but also Pilate and Lucius as well. To an extent, we also see some development in some of Jesus’ disciples as well. At the end of the movie, the characters in the story felt like real people, and that is a remarkable achievement in this movie.

Ordinarily, we don’t see movies like this until Easter time. Even though we are a month out from it, I feel that if you enjoy Biblical or simply historic movies that are down-to-earth, written, acted, and developed well that you will enjoy this movie. Traditionally, I am not a fan of most faith-base movies because they are cheesy, pious, over the top, or just executed poorly; however, I very much enjoyed this film and hope you do too.