The mighty Ben-Hur

benhurWell, continuing my recent penchant for all things epic, last night I rewatched what is arguably the mother of all epics, Ben-Hur. They don’t make ’em like they used to- Hollywood does ‘big’ now in ways that were undreamed of in the pre-CGI era, but I think its clear that many of those old Hollywood epics can teach us a thing or two about characters and drama…  and old-fashioned things like well-structured, cohesive scripts.

Music, too- I think its an important thing we are missing in current films, the role music used to play. Miklós Rózsa’s score for Ben-Hur, which won him one of the film’s eleven Oscars, a single films record Oscar-haul at the time later equalled by Titanic and The Return of the King (and frankly, neither those two later films should be mentioned in the same breath as Ben-Hur– they simply aren’t in the same league) takes such a major part of what makes the film work, from the Overture through to the Main Title… indeed, almost every scene of the film (barring the actual Chariot Race, really, where its absence serves just as much importance) features music score. Its almost like a musical narration informing the viewer what is happening and why. Watching Ben-Hur and taking in the role of the  Rózsa score I am always reminded of Basil Poledouris’ brilliant score for Conan The Barbarian, which likewise provided a wall of sound throughout its film (in Poledouris’ case, lending meaning and gravitas to Arnie’s monosyllabic Cimmerian).

The work of the actors and their performances in Ben-Hur cannot be over-stated; it occurred to me re-watching the film last night how the scenes must have seemed when being filmed on-set without that score lifting and intensifying every moment, every victory, every betrayal. The level of intensity in the performances in the cold light of a midweek morning or afternoon, on-set over multiple takes, minus that music carrying and lifting, well, it must have been a whole different experience on-set. I guess that’s the magic of movies: ‘magic-time’ indeed, as Jack Lemmon used to describe it. Its possibly a skill of actors we take for granted- reaching a level of performance and drama ‘cold’, without having that music helping.

Such a pity George Lucas was never that good a film-maker, or had the necessary ambition, to lend his Star Wars prequels the level of ‘epic’ and meaning that Ben-Hur has. Its clear that the Pod-race of The Phantom Menace takes so much inspiration from the Chariot Race of Ben-Hur, but this sequence has a drama and meaning that Lucas’ film totally lacks. Why couldn’t Star Wars prequels be as serious and dramatic and self-important as Ben-Hur? Why couldn’t the Evil Empire of a galaxy far, far away be as mighty and real and tyrannical as Rome, and Anakin be as strong a character as Judah Ben-Hur or, perhaps as flawed and doomed as Messala? Star Wars is often described as modern myth for our times, but it seldom had the ambition or self-seriousness of mythology, always content to be ‘just’ entertainment or ‘just’ a children’s matinee serial.

Oh well, I’ve caught myself daydreaming movie what-ifs again. What a thing it must have been, back in 1959 and 1960, watching Ben-Hur in cinemas for the first time, that sense of epic spectacle, of event. We have ‘event’, tent-pole releases these days but I doubt anything could really recapture what Ben-Hur must have been like when it came out.

The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle12016.97: The Jungle Book

I’ve never seen Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book, other than the clips they would endlessly re-run every Easter on Disneytime (anybody else remember those?), so in some ways I came into this one in a rather unique (I would imagine) poston of not knowing what to expect. These live-action remakes that Disney are doing are quite clever really, rather like the remakes/reboots that Hollywood in general is so keen on these days. They seem to be working quite well too, on the evidence of this one; such a pity that The Black Hole remake seems to have stalled- if ever a Disney film deserved a (better) remake, its that one. In anycase,  this film benefits greatly from modern technology giving it a fresh angle, in just the same way as the recent Apes reboots have for Fox.

Its also ironic, that speaking as someone who bemoans the amount of cgi trickery and how it mucks about with quality film-making, it must be said that the 2016 Jungle Book (inspired no doubt by some chap watching Life of Pi a few years back) would have been quite impossible without cgi. The technology can be responsible for some pretty remarkable film-making, such as Pi and stuff like Gravity. Indeed most films -and particularly much television too- benefits hugely by cgi; like any tool, it just has to be used well. Its just too easy to miss-use it I guess. Its funny, I remember much the same argument being made about those ILM effects back in the original Star Wars era.

Is it the fault of cgi that screen-writing seems to have suffered so greatly over the past twenty years or so? I mean, it has to be partly to blame, mustn’t it. Its too easy to replace drama and carefully orchestrated plots and character arcs with loud explosions and flashy spectacle, and that’s such a shame as films -particularly blockbusters- seem to have degenerated into amusement rides rather than ‘proper’ (as I would call it) epic storytelling like the 1959 Ben Hur.

But that sounds like an old bugger whingeing about the disrespectful masses who wouldn’t dream of watching anything from the pre-Spielberg era of motion pictures and film-makers who have no intention of educating them.We are where we are.

So anyway, Jon Favreau’s rather remarkable new Jungle Book is quite the wonder. As someone who grew up in the ILM bluescreen era, for whom these cgi wonders are still eye-popping so long since Jurassic Park changed the movie landscape, much of the imagery and trickery on show is utterly astonishing. It looks quite ravishing, and I always watch this kind of stuff wondering what Hitchcock or Kubrick would have made of it (sorcery, maybe, but what wizards they might have been handling a toolset such as this in their movies?).

Newcomer Neel Sethi is something of a particular wonder as Mowgli, though, a mote of humanity in a cgi landscape whose bubbly personality and sense of pure innocent wonder is quite charming and steals the show from the effects boys.  His performance is a wonder when one considers what the live-action shooting of this film likely entailed (i.e. nothing at all like what the finished film looks like). Vocal casting of the animated characters is pretty spot-on too, with Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and particularly Idris Elba as the villainous Shere Khan all very impressive and largely equal to the cgi visuals. The jungle feels real, although it most likely is utterly virtual. I have the impression that, like Avatar and Gravity before it, this new Jungle Book is a stepping-stone to something; I’m not sure exactly what, but there is something up ahead, a particular film in ten years time maybe, that when it hits will blow people away and people will trace its lineage backwards to stuff like those films, in just the same way that the Flash Gordon serials led to Star Wars. In anycase, this new Jungle Book is fine entertainment, one of the real achievements of 2016.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

hail12016.87: Hail, Caesar! (Amazon VOD)

Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brother’s rather affectionate ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood. There’s little mystery to why the critics lapped this up- for anyone who loves those 1950s Hollywood classics that many of us grew up with on television, whether it be the biblical epics, innocent Westerns or musical extravaganzas, this seems like a love-letter to a lost age when the old Studio system yet reigned. Its full of elaborate sequences of films being shot in the manner of Golden Age movies, like complex musical numbers and huge spectacles that are rich with nostalgia for the period. I’m not so sure though that it actually works as a movie in itself, which is likely why the public weren’t so enamoured with it. Besides, many of the in-jokes and film-genre references are likely lost on any viewer under the age of forty unless they are film-lovers enough to watch the cinema of that era (most of my colleagues at work are largely ignorant of films made prior to 1980, unless Lucas was involved).

One of the problems is an unfocused script, with myriad plots and sub-plots vying for attention. The central character, and unlikely ‘hero’, is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of Capitol Pictures who is overseeing film projects and the lives and careers of the talent signed to his studio.  If a starlet becomes pregnant or a star is caught in a compromising position with someone who isn’t his wife, Mannix is the man to step in and sort it out. If the tabloids get a potentially damaging scoop, Mannix knows how to strike a deal with a more favourably-scripted scoop instead. If your star lead in your major blockbuster of the year disappears from set mid-production, its just one more problem for Mannix to solve.

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The secret to Mannix’s success is that he lives and breathes the movies; its truly in his blood. During the course of the film he is approached by Lockheed with a major management post, the Lockheed rep promising him a career in something with a future, something more important than a management job in a silly business like film-making. The rep doesn’t understand that his overtures are a lost cause, but he is right about a career with a future- films might have a future, but the studio system and the film-making so beloved by Mannnix is surely doomed. There is a sadness that is woven inside the jokes and warmth of the film studio depicted here. Time is running out for these kinds of movies and movie-making, and studio heads like Mannix.

Film within-film Hail Ceasar! is a biblical epic in the tradition of Ben Hur, which falls into production woes when its star  Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped in a Communist plot that intends to ultimately undermine the Studio system so beloved by Mannix. Mannix has to manage the costs of the delayed production whilst negotiating Whitlock’s return, whilst juggling all the other daily problems that arise for his attention.

Its all fairly chaotic with a great cast possibly actually wasted, as they are spread rather thinly to the point of being just cameos. But the film is warm and affectionate, and while I’d hesitate to describe it as genuinely funny, it is quite fun. Some of the on-set recreations of movies of that era are very complex, like a musical number involving sailors singing and dancing in a bar that is an obvious ode to the films of Gene Kelly. Also, the ‘real-life’ sequences involving the kidnap of and hunt for kidnapped star Whitlock are shot like they belong in a Hitchcock thriller. Its homages within homages, films within films within films. Whether it actually makes for a good film in of itself is open to some debate. Maybe it improves with repeat viewings- it wouldn’t be the first time a Coen Brothers film sneaked up on me over the years.

Clearly a film made by and for film-lovers then. Not quite the resounding success I had expected it to be, but worth watching nonetheless.

 

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

fall22016.37: The Fall of the Roman Empire (Network Airing)

Back when I saw Gladiator, people often seemed to talk about The Fall of the Roman Empire, and now I know why- the first twenty minutes or so of Gladiator is pretty much the first hour of The Fall of the Roman Empire. We meet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on a long campaign away from Rome battling the Germanic barbarian hordes. Vast dark forests, falling snow… just like in Ridley Scott’s movie. Noble Roman army Commander Livius (Stephen Boyd), who is in love with Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) is the man that Aurelius wishes his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), could have been. Surely I’ve seen this film before, I thought, only it starred Richard Harris, Russell Crowe , Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix? Indeed, other than the character of Livius being named Maximus in the Ridley Scott film, even the characters names are the same.

Aurelius is close to dying and advises Livius that it is he who Aurelius intends to be his heir. Unfortunately before Aurelius can put things in writing to ensure his wishes are obeyed, he is murdered by aides of Commodus and it is he who becomes Emperor.  It is only at this point that the two films diverge, Gladiator becoming a Ben Hur-inspired story of betrayal and revenge of a murdered family, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire descends into something of a long-winded potboiler. At least we care about what happens to Maximus- in this film, Livius, by allowing Commodus to the throne without any argument, actually dooms Rome. Some kind of hero. Even at the end of the film with half the cast dead and Rome finally falling apart, all I could do was point at Livius and say “it’s all his fault!” With heroes like that, who needs villains?

The Fall of the Roman Empire dates back to the tail-end of the period of big historical/ Biblical epics that gave us Ben Hur,Quo Vadis, The Robe, Cleopatra and Spartacus and so many others. The Fall of the Roman Empire may actually have been responsible for ending that cycle of films because it is pretty awful and was a terrible commercial failure at the time (less than two million earned against a $20 million budget, a shortfall that was catastrophic).

The problem is the script. This is an overlong and dreary film- at something around three hours long it actually feels much longer. Its certainly is ambitious -its huge scale alone is testament to that- but the film needs some solid foundation to its spectacle. The cast all seem to be woefully miscast (Boyd is a good villain, but a lousy hero, for instance) and all at the mercy of the terrible script- the dialogue really is simply awful. Director Anthony Mann seems more interested in the huge scale of the production and getting it on the screen than looking after his actors and giving them any meaningful direction. Yeah, he put impressive visuals on the screen but it’s all for nothing, a warning for future directors of blockbusters that doesn’t seem to have been heeded.

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Visually it really is quite spectacular. The sets are terrific and the photography really quite beautiful, particularly the outside location stuff- at times it looks quite modern. The scale is huge; The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most impressive such films that I have ever seen- huge outdoor sets,with  vast armies of extras. The scale is quite breathtaking, particularly as it’s of the pre-CGI era when the massive crowds are real (an organisational nightmare I’m sure) and likewise the sets too. Sometimes I would look at some of the shots convinced it involved a matte painting but then the camera would move and the extras in the distance reveal its all indeed quite real. Incredible production design really- quite immense, but it only accentuates how terrible the story is. You don’t really care about any of the characters, none of them really convince. It’s a terrible mess of a film, well-intentioned that it may have been. A cast of thousands can be just as boring as a modern blockbuster with thousands of virtual characters. Maybe the film-makers thought that with such huge sets and vast extras that that would be enough, that their work was done. Alas, they hadn’t really started.

But it does really look beautiful.

 

 

 

The Frustrating Dune

dune1Late last night I found myself idly flicking through the channels before retiring to bed and came upon David Lynch’s Dune playing on the Horror channel (there’s a commentary in that scheduling just in itself). It was toward the end of the film, and I found myself sticking around until the bitter end (truth be told, those last twenty-thirty minutes are the worst the film has to offer, the film collapsing into an awful turgid mess as it falters towards its conclusion).

I hadn’t seen Dune in a good while, but it always suckers me in. I love the book you see. Its the Ben Hur of science fiction, and just begging to be given a three-hour epic treatment on the silver screen, its religious allegories as timely now as ever. Back in 1984 its excellent marketing/mysterious posters with the twin moons… well it looked to be something special. It wasn’t of course. It was a mess.

I’d love to be able to sit down with David Lynch, if only for a half-hour, to listen to him explain what happened with Dune. Now, Lynch doesn’t talk to anyone about the film, having utterly disowned it. Understable as that may be, I do think there is a fascinating discussion there. What was he trying to do with it? Where did it go wrong? When did he lose control? When did he know it was just hopeless and time to walk away?

Or did he think it was brilliant and became appalled at its reception? Who knows? Lynch of course went on to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and so much more. Dune would be just a mainstream blip on his increasingly weird resumé. But it just sits there forever on tv re-runs, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray releases… a broken film that looks utterly captivating in places and full of odd casting, disjointed editing, a rock soundtrack, so many bizarre decisions that sometimes work and most times don’t. It looks like a film that could have been so great but turned out pretty poor, never becoming ‘cult’ as other commercial failures like The Thing and Blade Runner would do. You’ll never hear about Lynch’s Dune being a misunderstood classic movie to be rediscovered. I’d just love to have a chat with Lynch and hear his thoughts about it after so many years.