Film review of Exodus – Gods and Kings

December 11, 2014

This film review of “Exodus – Gods and Kings” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 December 2014, with the title “Bible story on a grand scale”.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley

Biblical movies fall into two broad categories: those that stay close to the story and claim, “this is the way it was”, and those that adapt and take creative license. The new blockbuster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes the adaptation approach but tries not to stray far from the basic narrative.

Directed by Ridley Scott, whose credits range from “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to “The Good Wife” TV series, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a big picture, straining for epic greatness and to out-do its antecedents, particularly Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments”. The sets are lavish, the cast is large, the costumes are expensive and the action – when it comes (and there’s plenty) – is big, noisy and compelling: it’s a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Although not a great film – there are a number of flat parts and the depth of characterisation pales considerably in comparison to Scott’s “Gladiator” – most fans of the biblical narrative should be satisfied. As to whether or not the world now needs another big film re-telling of the story of the freeing of the Jews and the flight from Egypt, that’s a separate question. Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”, which reinterpreted that the flood as a parable for global warming, this new “Exodus” has little new to say about our modern world of belief.

As Moses, Christian Bale’s extraordinary performance anchors the film. While he’s an Anglo guy with light brown hair well-suited for middle American Christian audiences who like to see biblical heroes who look like them (think Charlton Heston), he’s also an actor who completely inhabits his roles. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who played “Irving Rosenfeld” with a “comb-over” in “American Hustle”, three Bruce Wayne/Batmans and the young boy in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”. From anguished emotion to warrior to impassioned leader, Bale carries the role with aplomb – and thus carries the film: a true 21st century Moses.

Australia’s own Joel Edgerton plays Ramses, who is rarely seen on-screen wearing anything other than yellow and gold clothing. It’s a strong performance, but in the match-up against Yul Brenner (DeMille’s 1956 Ramses), I go with Yul. Here there is also an odd throwback to “Gladiator”: Ramses frequently speaks of how he felt unloved by his father – possibly a clue to his brutality – and celebrates how his son can sleep well because he is loved. Remember Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator”? He’s as psychologically messed up as they come, and he reflects that his nephew can sleep well because he is loved. At this point, you wonder what issues director Scott is working on, or if he is simply saying that all powerful tyrants were unloved as children.

There are some jarring casting choices, proof that once actors develop an on-screen “persona”, it’s hard to escape. As the older Pharaoh (Seti I), John Turturro certainly looks the part (his Italian features easily “go Mediterranean”), but I had a hard time forgetting that it was Turturro, star of many urban American films. Similarly it’s hard to forget that it’s actually Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”, “Dave”) playing Tuya, although it seems that her scenes were cut and she is more heavily made up. A smirking Ben Mendelsohn (the nasty viceroy Hegep) comes off better, inhabiting the character with slimy ease.

The ten plagues are suitably impressive, as awe-inspiring as any on screen to date. I found myself saying the Hebrew name of each plague as it appeared: dam, tzefardaya, kinim, arove, dever, schin, barad … you get the idea. It’s a genuinely thrilling part of the film. Strangely, however, the film does not include any scene where Moses pleads with Pharaoh to let his people go, instead presenting the plagues as solely divinely inspired in which Moses had no say and therefore unable to use in negotiation.

I also missed the unleavened bread: when the Jews left Egypt quickly, wasn’t matza a big thing? You can tell that director Ridley Scott did not grow up with annual Passover seders, eating matza for eight days every year. If he did, surely he wouldn’t have been able to resist a short matza-baking scene.

“Exodus” handles the language well, always a great challenge with biblical films. The dialogue is rarely stilted, using a modern vernacular English that avoids slipping into 21st century idioms. There’s little didacticism, and almost no unnecessary speechifying, however those looking for direct biblical quotes – unlike the recent “Noah” – may be disappointed.

Director Scott solves the issue of accents (and it sure can be one) by having everyone speak with a mild British accent. It seems to work, giving a sense of formalism and “remove” to the language that American English never does. Strangely, the only actor who does not speak with a British accent is the one who most looks the part: Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Bithiah with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent; it’s a good sound, but as she’s the only one, it comes across as odd.

There are some fascinating interpretations: the Red Sea does not so much as “part” in two as it does “recede” to one side, as if prior to a tsunami. Most troubling, however, is the appearance of a small boy with a strong English accent (most accents are quite mild) as the “messenger” of God: how the Almighty speaks to Moses. This is a high degree of adaptation and interpretation, one that Christian audiences will probably be comfortable with, but very few Jews.

The film ends (only a minor spoiler here: we all know the plot, right?) with a loud whimper. Following a short scene where Moses chisels the Ten Commandments, we see him with long gray hair travelling in a cart. The implication is … what exactly? What about ending with the successful crossing of the Red Sea and drowning of the Egyptian armies? It’s more triumphant.


How’s Noah doing now?

May 17, 2014

Back on April 3, 2014 I published my review of the film “Noah”, and observed privately that the film was under-appreciated by critics but would turn out to be popular.

So how’s “Noah” doing now?

As of 15 May 2014, the film had grossed just over US$100 million in North America, plus an additional US$239 million outside North America (“foreign”, in the Americo-centric view of the world). This is by no means an American “hit”, but the international box office – comprising some 70.5% of the total – will give much comfort to the studio (Paramount) and the director/co-writer (Darren Aronofsky). It’s fair to say that “Noah” has not “broken through” to the American Christian audience, especially the “high value” Evangelicals that supported “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. But almost $340 million (and counting) in the international box office is no small change.

Here in Australia, after seven weeks of release “Noah” has grossed Aus$12,433,000. The “rule of thumb” comparing film popularity in Australia versus North America is the “law of ten”: Australia expects about 10% of the North American box office, setting aside differences in exchange rates. At $12.4 million/$100 million, we are running just over 12%: proportionately a bit more popular than in the USA. The Russell Crowe factor (although born in New Zealand, he – mostly – lives here in Sydney, so we claim him; sorry Kiwis) may be part of it. Not a great hit here, but respectable, very much so.

However the Box Office Mojo figures from other countries tell an even more interesting story: $30 million in Brazil, almost $5 million in Colombia (Colombia?), about $11 million in each of France, Germany and Italy; a staggering $33 million in Russia (1/3 of North America, surely this may be some sort of record?); $14 million in South Korea; and more than $6 million in Turkey (all $US).

You can do the sums. Increasingly, “big” films are being supported by international box office takings, and that’s no small thing.

The Passion of the Christ ten years on: are things any different now?

April 18, 2014

It’s been just over ten years since “The Passion of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson blockbuster film about the death of Jesus, opened in cinemas worldwide to great controversy.

The film was controversial for three reasons: excessive violence, the inclusion of “extra” (non)-Biblical events and themes and its suggestive portrayal of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Of these three issues, it was the last one – Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus – that was the most profoundly unsettling. The film’s directorial auteur Mel Gibson exacerbated this issue by conducting long-running public arguments with a series of media commentators and Jewish religious leaders in the USA. By the time the dust had settled, the film had grossed many hundreds millions of dollars, made Gibson a wildly wealthy man who never had to consider working again, and turned most Jews – along with a large part of American film-makers – against Gibson.

Even now, when the “passion” has faded from the controversy, the mention of Gibson’s name causes ripples of concern in many quarters.

This coming Saturday night – 19 April 2014 – here in Australia, SBS Television is broadcasting “The Passion of the Christ” on its primary channel at 9.30pm, it’s best movie spot. For some years, one or other of the commercial channels – Nine or Seven – broadcast the film, and now the broadcast rights have moved on. Whereas the commercial channels approached the broadcast in a commercial-with-religious-angle way (as they will), SBS is missing the opportunity to engage in some significant community debate about this film.

Just because “The Passion of the Christ” controversy has virtually disappeared does not mean that the film’s content has changed: the same violence, the same extra-Biblical elements and – most importantly – the same negative portrayals of Jews all remain. It was these elements that specifically do not follow the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1988 document “Criteria for the Evaluation of the Dramatizations of the Passion”.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Sr. Rose Pacatte wrote in “The National Catholic Reporter” wrote on 22 February 2014:

Gibson made a film that confirmed many stereotypes of the Jews, such as depicting the moment when the bag of silver was tossed to Judas in slow motion and Judas looked at it lovingly; the “bad” Jewish men with fang-like teeth and the “good guys” with nice teeth; the sneering hatred from the high priest when he questions Jesus; and Pilate calling the Jews “filthy rabble.” Certainly not the first to do so, Gibson uses stereotypes, some more subtle than others, to create a group of “bad” Jews to confront the “good” Jews consisting of Jesus, Mary and their followers who would be thought of as aligned with Christians today.

It’s a strong film, well-made, and has been very moving for many people. Unfortunately, as Sr Pacatte also found out, most who watch it believe that it is a totally literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Biblical blockbuster “Noah” (by Jewish film-maker Darren Aronofsky) is currently screening in our cinemas. And guess what? It too has excessive violence and loads of extra-Biblical elements. (See my review for more details.) But what it does NOT include are screen images that reinforce ancient prejudices towards Jews – or any other group.

Come on, SBS, get with it. Are you just a commercial television channel with no community responsibility? Doesn’t your status as a national broadcaster and your multicultural charter lead you to attempt to create proper discussion around the significant and misleading elements of “The Passion of the Christ”? From what I can see, apparently not.

Film review of Noah

April 3, 2014

(A shortened form of this film review of “Noah” appeared in the “Australian Jewish News” on April 3, 2014.)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone

The new biblical epic film “Noah” is a dark, entertaining, messy but rich cinematic experience. Its Jewish director, Darren Aronofsky, is best-known for his feverish and emotionally bleak films with mystical overtones (“Black Swan”, “The Wrestler”, “The Fountain”). In “Noah”, he has created an apocalyptic story of undeniable beauty, which even ventures to illustrate the creation of the earth and replay the story of Adam and Eve. Much of the first third of the film shows Noah – apparently the last righteous man on earth – wandering with his family in a landscape of depravity, debauchery and ecological disaster, increasingly haunted by hallucinations of tragedies to come. These images, and later ones of the large rectangular ark, are powerful and truly memorable.

“Noah” features an all-star cast, headed by Russell Crowe in the title role. This brooding, highly conflicted but yet driven character has heroic action and fighting capabilities, despatching groups of bad guys through great sword and spear fighting skills, oddly reminiscent of Crowe’s “Gladiator” role (Noah as action figure: who would have thought?). Aside from Crowe – who gives one of his best performances in years, other actors include rock-hard Jennifer Connelly (Oscar-winner for “A Beautiful Mind” co-starring with Crowe) as Noah’s wife Naameh; a mature Emma Watson as Shem’s wife Ila; Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s wizard-like grandfather Methuselah; Ray Winstone as Noah’s nemesis Tubal-Cain (see Genesis 4); and Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo Carrell as the sons Ham, Shem and Japeth.

The last major biblical story to “open wide” in movie theatres was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, back in February 2004. While “Noah” has caused some controversy (and been banned in a number of Muslim countries), it pales by comparison to the antisemitism, violence and interpretation controversies that surrounded “The Passion”. The story of Noah, of course, is from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”, in Christian terminology), and it has a Jewish director with expertise in dark “art” films and who – unlike Gibson – has never claimed divine inspiration for his work.

Aronofsky’s lack of “final cut” (full artistic control) of his film – held by the film studio Paramount – may very well have caused some of the film’s uneven-ness in tone and story. The resulting experience is part art film (it’s stunningly beautiful to look at), part biblical epic and part modern large scale action movie, complete with a climactic battle scene straight from “The Lord of the Rings”. That the three parts of this film fit together uncomfortably is not a fault of trying too little, but attempting (and risking) too much with a story that comprises only a handful of pages in the Bible.

Despite Paramount’s attempts to woo the Christian audience (especially in the United States, where evangelical Christians make up about a third of the population), “Noah” the film is the biggest “Jewish” film epic to come on screen in decades. Although both Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel identify publicly as atheists, both were raised in Conservative Jewish families, and worked on their vision for the film through what they describe as “Jewish Midrash”, researching extensively through Jewish texts, apocryphal books and even going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Despite – or more probably, because – of this research, “Noah” the film re-writes the story of Noah in a number of very significant ways, ones that may drive viewers scrambling back to read the original story in Genesis. One of the strangest inclusions in “Noah” was a major elaboration of “The Watchers” (the “Nephilim”, or “fallen ones” from Genesis 6:4), using mostly ex-biblical sources like the books of Enoch and Jubilees. As presented in this film, these large stone creatures (half out of Harry Potter and half from the “Transformers” series, complete with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella) are angry with humans, but agree to assist Noah in making the ark and protecting him. In the preview screening that I attended, Paramount ran a promotional trailer for the next “Transformers” film (“Age of Extinction”, opening Australia in June). Seeing the stone transformers-like “Watchers” on screen a short time later caused some titters in the audience. We are meant to take “Noah” seriously as a story, and this explicit pop-culture reference was both distracting and unintentionally funny.

More significant than the inclusion of “The Watchers” is what actually takes place just before and on the ark. While the Bible tells us that Noah’s three sons in turn bring three wives onboard the ark, in this film version only one does – and she’s pregnant. And Aronofsky’s fanatical Noah believes that they are all doomed to die anyway, setting the scene for significant family tensions (to say the least). Further, unlike the biblical narrative (forgive the minor spoiler), there is a human stowaway on the ark.

Unlike Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, “Noah” comes to us in full English with no attempts at ancient languages. Here every character sports some version of a British accent (Crowe frequently sounded Australian to me, but perhaps I was imagining it). This follows a long but rocky tradition of accents in biblical epics: British accents work well for Americans (still the primary audience for this film), giving them just enough “remove” to feel sufficiently “ancient”. The word “God” is never mentioned, with everyone simply referring to “the Creator”.

Another way to view “Noah” the film is as a parable on global warming and environmental desecration. This is not an unusual message: the ecological message of living in harmony with nature featured obviously in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar”.

The story of Noah is a popular one: John Huston played Noah in the 1966 film “The Bible”; Steve Carrell played a funny version in “Evan Almighty”; and a 1928 silent version entitled “Noah’s Ark” was blighted by the deaths of three stunt performers while shooting the flood.

Certainly this “Noah” is the darkest version of the story in recent memory. It’s often clumsy and maddeningly uneven, but never less than sincere and entertaining.