∼ Reviews by Anne Brodie
Ben-Hur. We are fans of the 1959 epic retelling of Lew Wallace’ 1880 novel, starring the late NRA advocate Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur was the bestselling novel of its time the original silent film was the highest grossing film until that time, the 1959 was too. It was a massive undertaking by its time’s standards, an iconic film with real horses racing around the “real” Coliseum on the Cinecitta back lot, real deserts that drove our hero mad with thirst, a local cast of thousands that rallied round the Hollywood flag. No film until Cleopatra some years later had extended its reach so far. It cost an unheard of $15M which paid off with earnings of $75M and defined and drove the Bible epic trend of the 50’s and 60’s. It’s happening all over again. We are in the midst of a growing faith-based film trend and once again Ben-Hur has been adapted for film, for the sixth time. Jack Huston, the handsome scion of the Huston dynasty is Judah Ben-Hur the Jewish prince whose wealthy family take in a Roman orphan Messala (Toby Kebbel). The boys become best friends but in adulthood they quarrel and Massala leaves to fight a series of wars in Germania. He returns psychologically wounded as commanding officer of the Roman legion. He focuses his power – and demons – on Judah. He sends him to the galley ships where he is enslaved for five years, rowing while shackled to an oar. He escapes, joins a nomadic tribe and wanders the desert and fast forward to the all-important chariot race. It’s a well-known story capably retold by TV producer Mark Burnett and his actress wife, Roma Downey as a faith film. The third act has those elements as Judah connects with Jesus on his way to the crucifixion, but its relatively low key for the first two thirds. Funny how the same faces show up in Biblical films shot in Italy – saw many of the extras previously in The Passion of the Christ, which come to think of it, re-launched the faith based film trend lo, these many years ago.
War Dogs is based on the true story of a couple of Florida small businessmen who launch an online shopping business and wind up in the weapons trade. Miles Teller and Jonah Hill’s naïve salesmen win a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan during the Iraq war. It’s a secret mission so they are truly alone in their mission. The idea that the US government under George Bush would entrust such novices with guns ‘n’ money seems insane, at the very least reckless but apparently it happened. Writer director Todd Philipps of The Hangover fame created this “comedy” and manages to marry gravitas to laughs but in a bigger, deadlier playing field. It reminds us of some of the lunatic foreign policies that probably got Donald Trump where he is today.
Gifted voice actors animate Kubo and the Two Strings – Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughay, Rooney Mara and Games of Thrones’ Art Parkinson and Isaac Hempstead. Kubo is the fourth film from the anime-inspired boutique Laika studios – The Box Trolls, Coraline, ParaNorman and Corpse Bride – and as these were, Kubo is a gift. Kubo is a Japanese boy who lives in a cave on the seashore, caring for his mentally unhinged mother, protecting her from the wicked ghosts of her sisters and earning their living by performing multi-media street theatre. He plays a brilliant lute-like instrument as his origami creations come to life as characters, ideas and dreams. The witches are dangerously narrowing in on Kubo and his mother, so he must ramp up his efforts; that means finding the magic armour of his late Samurai father and become a warrior. His adventures through barren winter landscapes, teeming cities and underwater are surely inspired by Homer’s Odyssey; they are dramatic, majestic, the ultimate and basic war between good and evil. The film may be too intense for young children but for those old enough to appreciate it, Kubo and the Two Strings is a mature and meaningful experience. It looks glorious and the sounds of Kubo lute will haunt you for days.
Edge of Winter. Holy cow. What happens when a woman drops off her two sons with their father, whom they barely know, and goes on a cruise with her new hubby? Guess she didn’t know – by some weird script mistake – that her -ex isn’t just “troubled”, he’s a raging violent sociopath. He’s angry, lonely and desperate and he’s never ahd the kids in his care. He’s awkward a d stiff with them and then decides to take then out into the coming blizzard in the mountain forests, to teach them survival skills, That’s his comfort zone, certainly not theirs. These are city kids through and through but before long, they drive, shoot, kill and defend themselves – against him. He says they’re “soft”. Sow he the truck crashes and they are stranded in sub-zero temperatures, he really teaches them. He disables their cell phones and so begins a terrifying ordeal. The film builds nicely and authentically. The father, played by the interesting Scandinavian actor Joel Kinnaman of The Killing, is actually written according to psychiatric diagnosis of a borderline personality disorder, veering into paranoia. The big takeaway is how these two “soft” boys man up and do the right thing, using their intelligence and common sense to survive. Young stars Holland and an incredible 13 year old Percy Hyde White are terrific actors and Rossif Sutherland joins them as a kind of deus ex machina. For a while. Shot in Sudbury in -40 temperatures.
The Night Manager I’d heard buzz about Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager and had visions of poorly-lit, sordid goings on a la The Night Porter but it isn’t by a long stretch. Hiddleston’s Mr. Pine takes pride in his work as a night manager in an upscale western hotel in Cairo. But his attraction to and attempts to “save” a woman who is the mistress of a drug lord lands him in water so hot its deadly. He takes himself undercover to find out who killed her and try to stop the imminent importation of arms from napalm to tanks because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. His efforts are noticed. He’s asked to become an agent by a British CIA officer (Olivia Colman) and jumps in for reasons that are unclear. That in itself is interesting and promising for future episodes. Thus begins an international adventure of huge danger, multiple identities and promise to eliminate Mr. Roper (Hugh Laurie) a British ex pat and family man who happens to be one of the most dangerous man in the world. And who is Mr. Roper’s mistress? Interesting stuff. BBC of course!