“The Prince of Egypt” film review

November 30, 2014

Next week, the new film “Exodus:  Gods and Kings” opens here in Australia.  In its honour, I re-print my review of the 1998 animated film “The Prince of Egypt”, which appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 24 December 1998.

Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells
Featuring the voices of Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart

It probably seemed a bit like a joke at the time: when Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks SKG partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen reportedly dared him to re-make “The Ten Commandments” as an animated film. You would need to think of yourself of the Cecil B. DeMille of our time, and have the chutzpah to consider actually personifying Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Tzipporah, Ramses and even portraying the voice of God. But Katzenberg did, and of such big dreams are big and memorable films made.

“The Prince of Egypt” tells the story of Moses and the Exodus, from the time of Moses as a small baby set adrift upon the Nile River until the moment of receiving the Ten Commandments – all of this in just over 90 minutes. What a challenge. The film-makers state openly that they have “adapted” and “interpreted” parts of the story; certainly their changes to the Biblical accounts are likely to sponsor critical debate for some years. The worry is that films like “The Prince of Egypt” (and its direct antecedent “The Ten Commandments”) – through the power and brilliance of the film-making – become the “real” history, implanted in popular imagination.

But what of “The Prince of Egypt” as a film? It is, quite simply, superior animation and technically stunning. It offers a new style and presentation of Pharoah’s Egypt – gargantuan, using shades of ochres and desert yellows – and is willing to be both “big” and little. The big is large indeed, with enormous monuments under construction and a truly majestic (and apparently very expensive) parting of the Red Sea. When it comes to current notions of what makes an animated film “work”, “The Prince of Egypt” is both daring and conservative: in mostly avoiding the “comic interlude” and flashy song and dance production number, the film’s “ha ha” and “break out” moments are strictly limited, and the real story is emphasised in a remarkably straightforward fashion. This makes it less likely to offend religious viewers, but is not the common wisdom of how to make money from a major film release.

Moses is voiced by an appropriately deep-voiced Val Kilmer, and his complex friendship and comradeship with “brother” Ramses (the voice of Ralph Fiennes) is one of the more unusual aspects of this film. This Ramses is not the one-dimensional villain he is often portrayed as. Sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) comes across, dare we say it, as a gutsy New York Jewish woman. Brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum, with his best snaky voice) is given some key psychological points to score on Moses, very unlike the Aaron in “The Ten Commandments”. Other voices include African-American actor Danny Glover as Jethro, the high priest of Midian and father of Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is drawn of distinctly dark skin; Patrick Stewart as the Pharaoh Seti; and Steve Martin and Martin Short as the Pharaoh’s court magicians. Ofra Haza – one of Israel’s most popular singers – sings Yocheved’s lullaby to Moses as he is put in a basket on the Nile.

“The Prince of Egypt” is dramatically compelling, but not a film for small children: there is much brutality and death in the story (so what else is new?). The plagues and the strong drama are handled with great subtlety and graphic cleverness, and the obsessive care put into its production is evident throughout. A fascinating experience.

(Below a theatrical poster from the film’s release, with an interesting “tag line” that reads, “The power is real, the story is forever, the time is now”.)

The Prince of Egypt poster

Biblical films in perspective – the new Exodus arrives in cinemas

November 30, 2014

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 November 2014 in a shorter form, under the title “Biblical blockbusters”.)

The biblical blockbuster film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” opens in Australian next week and in most of the rest of the world one week later. It’s likely to be the biggest biblical film in a decade – since 2004’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ”. “Exodus” (as it’s called, for short) comes from the hand of Ridley Scott, the great sci-fi and action director who has brought us “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Black Hawk Down” and “Robin Hood”. From the evidence of its promotional trailers, it seems likely to be what we expect: a biblical action movie with Moses (played by Christian Bale) as the new action hero.

Joining Bale (last seen on screen in the black comedy “American Hustle”) is Australia’s Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby”) as Rameses, along with John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass and Australia’s own Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep.

There’s no coincidence that Ridley Scott (who turns 77 on 30 November – clearly duelling with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood for the “oldest working director” award) directed “Exodus”. He also directed the Oscar-winning “Gladiator”, starring Russell Crowe, the most popular movie in Australian cinemas in 2000 and Scott’s most financially successful. Although not based on any biblical story, “Gladiator” is commonly agreed to have reinvented the modern “swords and sandals” epics, once so popular on the big screen. With “Gladiator”, Scott showed us that audiences were still hungry for “Roman fantasy”.

Unlike Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – about the final hours of Jesus – “Exodus” tells a story from the Tanach (the “Old Testament”), and does not seem to have been given active marketing to Christian groups. This may be because Scott has said that he would be “looking to natural causes” to explain the miracles – such as “tsunami drainage” for the Red Sea parting, and star Bale has been quoted as calling Moses “schizophrenic and barbaric”.

“Exodus” arrives hot on the heels of this year’s “Noah”, the darkly entertaining epic with Russell Crowe in the title role. Director Darren Aronofsky freely re-wrote the story of the biblical Noah, expanding it in a variety of ways to make a number of ecological and philosophical points that very few of us had seen in the original.

This year’s “Exodus” has a long series of movie predecessors. The most popular book in the world (the Bible) has arguably produced the most film adaptations, extending back to the early silent years of film, traceable back to 1897. But it was really Cecil B. DeMille who helped define biblical films, with work spanning both the silent and sound eras. His 1923 silent version of “The Ten Commandments” included notable special effects of the Red Sea parting and was followed by his life of Christ film “King of Kings” in 1927.

DeMille’s 1949 success with “Samson and Delilah” is credited with kicking off the 1950s “golden age” of films based on the Bible. This included DeMille’s most memorable film, his 3 hour and 39 minute 1956 re-make of “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston in the role of Moses, which DeMille also narrated. Filmed in Egypt and the Sinai Desert, its scale, scope and sets impressed the audience greatly. Heston played opposite Yul Brenner (as Rameses), in a competition for power that became a central organising theme for the first third of the film – and appears to be replicated in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus”. Heston also starred in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” (1959), a much less didactic film than “The Ten Commandments”. Although not based on a biblical story, its setting (Roman-occupied Palestine) and themes – slavery and Jewish nationalism – place it in the same genre. It also provided a clear forerunner to Scott’s “Gladiator”, with numerous plot similarities. Audiences loved these films: “The Ten Commandments” is still the sixth most popular (inflation-adjusted) film ever released in North America (just behind “Titanic”), and “Ben-Hur” the thirteenth.

Other notable biblical films of this period included “David and Bathsheba” (1951), “The Robe” (1953), “Solomon and Sheba” (1959), “The Story of Ruth” (1960), “Esther and the King” (1960), “David and Goliath” (1961) and “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1963). In 1966, John Huston directed a financially successful three-hour version of “The Bible … In the Beginning” using the King James version wording; he also narrated Genesis 1 word for word and played the character of Noah.

Jewish film scholars disagree in part about the significance of these 1950s and early 1960s biblical films. Lester D. Friedman laments the “superficial ideas, cardboard characterization, and weak dramatic development” that were only barely hidden by “sprawling spectacles, luxuriant sets and expensive costumes”. By contrast, Patricia Erens believes that the biblical epics enabled film-makers to make covert comments on the Holocaust, Jewish suffering, Jewish survival and “reconstitution in the new State of Israel” – all of this undertaken in a time of cultural and political conservatism.

There have been numerous artistic re-imaginings of the story of Jesus: “The Gospel According to Matthew” (1966), “Godspell” (1973), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), the comic “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). None of these strained for the “epic” label, however. That was left to Bruce Beresford’s “King David” (1985) with Richard Gere in the title role; it was universally panned and flopped unreservedly. Since then – until relatively recently – producers have avoided the biblical epics pretty much (forgive the pun) “like the plague”.

There were a few exceptions. In 1998, DreamWorks Pictures produced a successful animated musical of the Exodus story, entitled “The Prince of Egypt”, with Val Kilmer as the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, along with Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Steve Martin. It follows the Cecil B. DeMille “Ten Commandments” story closely and openly acknowledges that it has freely adapted the Bible.

Why does the biblical genre seem to be returning now? The answer to this question is a long socio-cultural and historical analysis of our present moment that will only become apparent in a few years’ time. So when “Exodus” opens next month, we Jews will watch it avidly with many questions in mind. How Jewish is Moses and his people? How true to the biblical story has Scott and his screenwriters been? And what does it tell us about how we Jews live now?

(and posters from “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur” below)

ten commandments posterBen Hur poster

Film review of This is Where I Leave You

November 6, 2014

(This film review of “This is Where I Leave You” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 6 November 2014.)

Directed by Shawn Levy

Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel

Starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard and Jane Fonda

Take one dysfunctional family of adult children, many of whom actively dislike one another.  Add a death – say the father.  And then force them to spend a week together in the same house in the New York suburbs, on the basis that they all must “sit shiva” – the dad’s dying wish.  It’s a recipe for much drama and potential humour; it’s also the plot of “This is Where I Leave You”, a film based on the novel by American-Jewish author Jonathan Tropper.

“But mom’s not even Jewish, and dad was an atheist,” protests Judd Altman (Jason Bateman).  No matter; mother Hillary (Jane Fonda, in a rare return to the screen) insists that they follow his wishes.  So they settle in for a week of funny bickering and unexpected drama.  Jason has recently been cuckolded by his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), who has been sleeping with his boss at the radio station where he works.  Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) – who once went out with Judd – are desperately trying to have a baby.  Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) has a husband so distracted by work that he hardly notices her – and she too has an old boyfriend in town, living across the street and still working in the “Altman Sporting Goods” store that father Mort founded.

And then there’s younger brother Phillip, played by Adam Driver (“Girls”, “Tracks”) – a “cut-up” who has not changed.  He’s the immature playboy, fiery, funny and proverbially late – including to his dad’s funeral.  He also arrives with an older woman in tow, Tracy (Connie Britton), his former therapist.  Tracy in turn is a great fan of “mom” Hillary, who became famous for writing a “tell all” book about her family and her children, entitled “Cradle and All”, which revealed various sexual secrets about her children as they grew up.  Resentment still stirs from the experience.

Fortunately for Judd, his old childhood sweetheart Penny (Rose Byrne) is back in “town”.  And then there’s the rabbi (Ben Schwartz), an old family friend who has been tormented by the Altman siblings ever since his youth; despite his rabbinic position, some things never change.

It’s quite a set-up, an ensemble cast of mixed characters with interlocking histories in close quarters and forced to come to accommodation with their past anger and present disappointments.  Think “Parenthood” mixed with “The Big Chill” and the rarely seen “Eulogy”.

What happens?  The adult kids argue, couples split, others get together, all of it proceeding from the (is it particularly American?) notion that the romantic relationship we have at age 20 affects us forever.  With one exception, the overladen plot is predictable, with director Shawn Levy (“Date Night”, “Night at the Museum”, “The Internship”) usually telegraphing plot points well in advance.

Fortunately Levy has assembled a wonderful cast, with Jason Bateman the true stand-out.  Bateman, particularly known for his role as “Michael Bluth” in the TV series “Arrested Development”, has slowly grown in stature as an actor.  Here he is the real star, on screen more than anyone else, and he truly shines.  He is the “broken” brother, but also the most mature, the one who through personality, wisdom and caring helps everyone to heal.

This is Where I Leave You

Do all American history professors really want to be the Secretary of State?

November 5, 2014

A few weeks ago, the American television series “Madam Secretary” premiered here in Australia. It’s being billed as a contender for the “The Good Wife” audience mixing it up with “West Wing”, with a strong and attractive female central character played by Tea Leoni. I am a great fan of Leoni, despite the fact that she has never really had a “great” screen role: my favourite films of hers are “Family Man”, “Fun With Dick and Jane” and “Ghost Town”, none of which qualify as truly memorable, despite their warm hearts and Leoni’s warm performances.

In “Madam Secretary” (which she also co-produces), Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent turned history academic who gets tapped to become the Secretary of State. It’s a great set-up, with endless possibilities around the conflict between academia and governmental service, the former CIA connections and the nature of women in the halls of power. Sadly, despite the attractiveness of the cast, I am left underwhelmed. Sadly, I should say. McCord has a wonderful husband, a religion and ethics professor (played by Tim Daly); wouldn’t all professional women want a man like that – he cooks, looks after the three handsome children during her inevitable long days and nights in the office, AND holds a full-time full professorship.

The show is popular, but it plot lines are simplistic and often unrealistic, the supporting cast mostly uninspiring, and – as Woody Allen would say – there are so few of them. Where is the rich panoply of supporting (and one-off) characters that we find in “The Good Wife”? Even the President (played by Keith Carradine) comes across as bland. Where indeed are her under-secretaries, the ambassador to the United Nations, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor?

There is also a basic issue with Leoni in this role: at age 48 (and a youthful-looking one at that), she is too young to be a Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton made it there at age 62. The current one, John Kerry, is almost 71. Sure, Condoleeza Rice was 51 when she took on the role, but at least she had been the National Security Advisor first. And that’s the natural role for Elizabeth McCord – with a possible elevation later on. But the producers were impatient, and the show is all the poorer for it.

A number of academics have risen to become Secretary of State. Aside from Rice (Stanford University), we have had Madeline Albright (Georgetown University) and Henry Kissinger (Harvard). When I studied at Cornell University in the 1970s, we even thought that my American history foreign policy professor, Walter LaFeber – now 81 years old and still going strong – was aiming at that office. I studied with him for two semesters, three lectures per week, which he did with no notes and a simple chalked outline that he wrote behind him. The third lecture was on Saturday mornings. And here’s the thing – in this day and age you might expect that few students would attend the Saturday lecture (or any, for that matter) – they were the best-attended. Why? Because people brought their friends and visitors. That was how well-respected and impressive LaFeber was on the Cornell campus at that time.

Was it just a rumour that LaFeber was interested in the role? Who knows. But “Madam Secretary” shows that this interest does not fade.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary