Friday, August 19, 2016

Reimagined 'Ben-Hur' leaves one wanting, wanting to see 1959’s ‘Ben-Hur’

By Steve Crum
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: Is the new Ben-Hur at least as good as the truly classic 1959 Ben-Hur? Answer: Nope. In fact, Ben-Hur 2016 would be a disappointment even if it were the very first version based upon the 1880 General Lew Wallace “Tale of the Christ.” It’s actually movie take five of the familiar story, including two silent Hurs produced in 1907 and 1925, and an animated version in 2003.
The oft told story involves Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Jerusalem, who is falsely accused of trying to kill Roman leader Pontius Pilate. He is then imprisoned as a galley slave for many years, but eventually escapes. He then seeks revenge on his former friend, Messala, who is now a Roman soldier.  
This new and vastly unimproved Ben-Hur is not a total failure, however, since it does include most of the basics of Wallace’s original novel, which is a very compelling tale mixing religion, family values, political principles, love, action, and revenge. A person who has never seen director William Wyler’s ’59 extravaganza might find this Timur Bekmambetov directed picture somewhat interesting. The problem is Bekmambetov, whose main claim to fame is his helming of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), has infused his version with virtually zero emotional appeal. We should care greatly about the lead character Judah Ben-Hur, his strife ridden family, and—gasp—Jesus Christ. 
As both a critic and Christian, I was curious to see how, in these days of religious anxieties, the Christ character would be depicted—if at all. It turns out He has more screen time than in the 1959 film. The huge difference is Wyler portrayed Christ in a subtle but very effective manner, hardly showing his face, and with little dialogue. Bekmambetov shows Christ’s face several times, making sure each time that Christ emotes a familiar quotation from the Bible, such as “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” After a couple of these moments, which really jerk the pace and storyline of Ben-Hur out of whack, it seems like another episode of Jesus Christ’s greatest hits. His sequences end up diverting from instead of enhancing the plot. 
In the Wyler version, Christ is well characterized. In this new take, Christ is a caricature. Both Christian and non-Christian moviegoers should feel slighted at the latter. 
From all accounts, a lot of money was spent on this Ben-Hur, but it rarely shows. We seldom get to appreciate much of the elaborate, realistic looking sets and costumes since Bekmambetov tends to overuse closeups and hand-held camera shots. Hand-held cameras used in either crowded fight scenes or the touted chariot race sequence are a cheap way to suggest action and movement, avoiding precise stunt work and/or the expense of CGI effects. This is not saying there is not precision camerawork utilized in the finale’s chariot race, so why even have any distracting jiggly camera? It makes the audience aware of the technique, which detracts from the storytelling. Additionally, many scenes are shot at night, making images difficult to see.
As for the acting, Ben-Hur includes some obvious talents—one well known (Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, the horse trainer) and several lesser known, particularly Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur. Huston, who was fantastic on TV’s Boardwalk Empire, is part of Hollywood’s famous Huston family, his aunt being Anjelica. Toby Kebbell is credible as Messala, Ben-Hur’s childhood friend—kind of an adoptive brother—who becomes an officer in the Roman army and mortal enemy to Ben-Hur and his family. 
But alas, writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) have fashioned a reimagined Ben-Hur that chops the story several ways, and opening with the otherwise finale chariot race! Then we segue into the past. Then the narrative takes sudden turns in location, omitting several subplots previously used—like the rescue of a Roman officer by Ben-Hur after the warship sinks. This kind of omission does not bother me as much as the blurring of time and sequence in the overall telling. 
In short, Ben-Hur looks less like a true movie spectacle, and more like the crop of lackluster “Christian produced” message movies that have been infrequently released over the past decade. Like them, the acting, dialogue, cinematography and score are pedestrian at best. A classier presentation would have conveyed this tale of the Christ-influenced Ben-Hur much more effectively. Ironically, this 2016 Ben-Hur has eliminated the subtitle prominent in the 1959 version, “A Tale of the Christ,” substituting “Brother Against Brother, Slave Against Empire.” Go figure.
Finally, there is a major flaw that really ruins the movie: the cornball, cliched, and unacceptable conclusion. I will not give it away, except to comment that it involves Ben-Hur and Messala…following the chariot race. It appears that when the movie was screened early on, the audience demanded a rewritten conclusion. So he, she or they were compensated with a surprise ending that looks like it was tagged on. It is dreadful. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: D-

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