Ben-Hur (3D) **


Ben-Hur (1959) was a true Oscar-winning epic (eleven in total), earning the epitome “bigger than Ben-Hur” for any movie since made to be compared against. These are mighty shoes indeed to fill for any studio willing to step up to the challenge. Enter Paramount’s 2016 remake into the Roman arena.

Although like-titled Ben-Hur (2016) strives to capture the grandiose thrill of the infamous chariot race, it needed to be bigger, “much bigger than Ben-Hur (1959)”. It ought to hang its head in thin imitation shame, regardless of how much its leads, Jack Huston (as Judah Ben-Hur, the embattled Jewish prince) and Toby Kebbell (as Messala Severus, the aggrieved Roman officer) try in vain to be larger-than-life screen actors than they are.

The 2016 film needs a cast with gravitas, long the lines of Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. In fact, re-recruit the leads and director (Russian Timur Bekmambetov of Wanted fame). The only one who can stay is dreadlocked Morgan Freeman as horses betting man Ilderim, complete with that ever gleefully naughty twinkle in his eye, who always commands an impressive screen presence, doing very little for his paycheck here.

For those not au fait with the plot, Ben-Hur from Jerusalem (set in Jesus’s time on Earth – played here by Rodrigo Santoro) is from a wealthy noble family who takes in an orphaned Roman boy called Messala Severus and raises him as its own. The competitive boys grow up together, but an accident spurs an older Messala to leave the family home and join the Roman Army to prove his worth.

Years later, Messala, now a high-ranking Roman Army officer returns by Pontius Pilate’s side (played by Pilou Asbaek of A Hijacking fame), riding through Jerusalem. Ben-Hur is warned in advance by his adopted brother to stop any possible threat to the Roman visit from those who opposed Roman rule. But an attack on the party results in Ben-Hur being falsely accused of treason by Messala.

Ben-Hur is banished to be a gallon slave for five years, but a terrifying fate sets him free. A chance meeting with horse dealer Ilderim puts him in a position to seek revenge by competing against his estranged adopted brother in a chariot race, hosted by Pilate. Only one man can win – and survive.

The latest incarnation lacks the real passion and strife of the 1959 film, though it has plenty of more gore to elevate it above a tame Sunday-School educational affair. The religious aspect is very much present, complete with a physical Christ and crucifixion. To be honest, Santoro’s presence just sparks suppressed giggles in the context of things when he appears, rather than deity awe.

Huston is not hungry enough for revenge like Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur was. He’s certainly not happy being in the midst of Bekmambetov’s shipwreck of special effects, but he just seems a tad ‘unfazed’ by his brutal experience to be convincing – and no amount of muttering words of encouragement helps either. That’s not to say he won’t win some fans battling all elements in this. He does give the part as much as he can.

Kebbell fares better. He has the appropriate petulant scowl needed. However, like his brother in arms, Huston, he is even less convincing in terms of sheer strength needed to be a true chariot racer in the arena. This is meant to be a very physical film, in terms of action and effects. It just feels like latter-day CGI – which Bekmambetov does have an aptitude for in previous work – does not do this project justice. In fact we’ve been thoroughly spoilt by CG in action films to the point where we expect characters defy gravity most of the time, as is the case here.

Bekmambetov and scriptwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley have taken Lew Wallace’s novel and flattened it, rather than given it a new lease of life for a latter-day audience. Yes, Christianity is still a major factor, but showing Jesus does not seem to add anything messianic, really. They needed to go with their convictions, full throttle down the religious route, rather than flimsily injecting it, for fear of putting off less faith-led latter-day audiences.

Ben-Hur (2016) is still consumable – if you haven’t seen the 1959 powerhouse version – as the two leads try their damndest to command a real screen presence. However, the film itself lacks spirit. Bekmambetov’s subdued cinematography does make the whole affair feel rather ‘televised’, rather than like an old-school, silver-screen epic, which is a crying shame with such iconic material. Is it a case of biting off more than the studio can chew?

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Sausage Party ***


Emphasis on the word ‘sausage’ usually sparks juvenile sniggers from most grown-ups. Seth Rogen capitalizes on this in his raunchy new adult animation Sausage Party – the mere name triggering winks and nudges. This is a Pixar p*** take laced with Rogen’s preferred brand of stoner humour. Those not avid fans of the latter can still catch some laughs, but might tired long before the riotous finale of filthy food porn commences.

Rogen is Frank, a hotdog who is desperate to get inside Brenda the bun (voiced by Kristen Wiig) when they finally leave the supermarket and go home with one of the ‘gods’ (us humans). They need to be picked off the shelf and taken outside to ‘the great beyond’. But disaster strikes when one female god goes shopping, leading Frank and Brenda on a journey back to the shelf while trying to avoid enraged Douche (Nick Kroll).

However, Frank soon learns the disturbing truth about what the ‘great beyond’ really spells for grocery products, backed up by his deformed sausage pal Barry (Michael Cera) who survives a close shave. Now Frank needs to convince the rest of the food population about their fate, before it’s too late.

Sausage Party is created by Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jonah Hill, collaborating with Apatow disciples Paul Rudd, James Franco, Bill Hader, Danny McBride and the like, so you know the kind of film you’re in for, long before you ‘Get your fill’ (quoting the tagline). It’s pure filth, like consuming the dirtiest, calorific dish, awash with cheap ‘laughs’ at stereotypes along the way – Salma Hayek is horny Mexican taco Teresa, for example.

While it offers some crazy insights into the USA’s religious, racial and socio-political obsessions, Sausage Factory also prefers shock tactics to cultivating really clever puns consistently throughout that would have seriously sent up these American neurosises and Pixar’s cute character, coming-of-age adventures, where their world is oblivious to us. There are some seriously laugh-out-loud moments – just wait until the end crescendo, but F word-ing it in every sentence begins to wear thin, bordering on nauseating – and this is coming from a critic who is no stranger to a foul-mouthed rant.

It’s also hard to tell if Sausage Party wants to be taken seriously for its plethora of brilliant observations, as it just as quickly shies away when one of them becomes vaguely interesting, for fear of losing its infantile edge. That said the kitchen scene is a delightful Pixar-bashing episode, and a much needed highlight to break up the otherwise ‘samey’ plot of Frank et al trying to return to the shelf. Douche gets pumped ready for action but loses his spunk at the end; perhaps too much of a main plot distraction or an excuse for Rogen and gang to explore some anal humour? There was certainly a lot of fun had writing/ making this buddy movie, it appears.

Sausage Party goes off with a saucy sizzle and an outrageous bang but wilts at times along the way. If it wasn’t for the grand gang-bang finale boost, it would be a meaty disappointment left undercooked in places.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter