Exodus – Gods and Kings

I went to see Exodus: Gods and Kings in the theater recently

Exodus

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) – Rated PG-13

The defiant leader Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.”

Follow me and you will be free. Stay and you will perish.” – Moses (doesn’t this sound just like the classic Terminator line, “Come with me if you want to live”?)

I love Ridley Scott. He makes three kinds of movies: classics, absolutely fascinating missteps, and the occasional forgettable film. His classics are Alien (spawning five sequels and a prequel), Blade Runner (an incredible adaptation of film noir sensibilities to a science fiction setting), Black Hawk Down (still the best movie ever made about modern post-WW2 combat and a true story to boot), and Thelma & Louise (still a feminist hoot).

Unfortunately, Exodus falls in the forgettable category. It is not that Exodus is bad but it does not gel very well at all. Scott tries to ground everything in realism, which is an interesting approach for a tale full of miracles. Moses’ visions are certainly open to interpretation in the movie.

Part of the reason the movie doesn’t gel well is the need to cram too many ideas into two hours and twenty minutes of film. The showpiece, the parting of the Red Sea and the crossing, is given plenty of time to breathe. The special effects are wonderful and the scene is very well-handled but it takes a large chunk out of the running time. The plagues are all jumbled together into what practically amounts to a montage sequence.

The movie comes across as a mixture of Exodus highlights together with what are supposed to be personal moments but the personal moments don’t really work. The characters are not very fleshed out and some of the roles are poorly cast, particularly Sigourney Weaver (who I normally like). On the other hand I suppose I can’t complain about casting when The Ten Commandments had Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson as Egyptian overseers.

First, I have a bone to pick with two very stupid moments in Exodus. One of the moments has a group of Hebrews trying to light a fire. They lay a line of flammable liquid and then strike tinder to some straw and touch the burning straw to the liquid. This would be all well and good but at least three of the Hebrews are carrying LIT torches.

The second is a shot of the Sphinx without a nose. There are several main theories as to when the Sphinx lost its nose. There is a hoary old chestnut about Napoleon’s artillery gunners shooting the nose off. Weather and gradual erosion may have taken it. There are also several other martial candidates who may have defaced the monument as there is quite a bit of evidence that the damage existed prior to Napoleon’s time. However all of the theories agree that the damage occurred between 1200 and 1801.

I am glad I got to see Exodus on the big screen, especially the parting of the Red Sea, but there was no emotional investment and I doubt I would revisit this film again.

Attack of the Director’s Cut!

Things only last in their pure form for a short while after they have been named. So it is with the director’s cut. The director’s cut of a film took on significance when it was substantially different from the version released by Hollywood. It did not take Hollywood long to co-opt and market the term into insignificance.

Most director’s cuts are simply a matter of a scene or two inserted into a film that does very little to change a film. The only more useless term is ‘unrated’. Unrated is used constantly on horror movies that were watered down for an all ages PG-13 release then they add back the few seconds of violence that was trimmed when it is released on home video and no longer needs a PG-13 rating.

Alien

Still there are some director’s cuts worth noting. The director’s cut of Alien does not appreciably change the film, simply changing a few takes and adding a fan favorite scene that slows down the narrative at a crucial moment. The original cut is actually better and clearly Ridley Scott should not be allowed to tinker too much as there are now, I think, five versions of Blade Runner available.

Speaking of someone who should not be allowed to touch his completed films, George Lucas actually took his original Star Wars trilogy (you know, the good one) and made it worse by cramming special effects shot after special effects shot into an already classic series of films. Since he owned the rights at the time, they weren’t even called director’s cuts. Obviously there is some hope now that since Disney owns the rights, Han will shoot first in the future.

Aliens

Getting back to Aliens, James Cameron’s directors cut of Aliens is almost half an hour longer than the U.S. cut. There are some great scenes reintroduced but the overall theme of motherhood is no longer subtle but seems rather sledgehammered home. I enjoy the director’s cut more but the U.S. cut is definitely tighter.

Aliens 3, one of David Fincher’s first films, is an incomprehensible mess. The longer cut, which restores much of his work, is not an actual director’s cut as Fincher has disavowed it. It does make the film much better than it has a right to be. The basic premise of Alien 3 was a huge middle finger to those that loved Aliens. It was also made at the dawn of CGI and the CGI is just awful in many scenes.

Kingdom of Heaven

In addition to Blade Runner and Alien, there is also a director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. Ridley Scott filmed a fabulous epic of the Crusades that suffered from three faults. First, it starred Orlando Bloom who, while not bad, cannot carry the film. Second, it presents Muslim characters in a reasonable light and shows many Christian ones as fanatics. While that is historically accurate, this was too soon after 9/11 for audiences to embrace. The third fault was that the studio decided to cut it from well over three hours (epic length) to just under two and a half (summer blockbuster length). Gone were many subplots and much comprehensibility. The director’s cut restores the subplots making the film the near-classic it should have been.

Which brings us to tomorrow’s topic: the highly anticipated director’s cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

The Counselor

The Counselor is currently in theaters

The Counselor

 

The Counselor (2013) – Rated R

A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.

Are you really that cold?” – “The truth has no temperature.

One Line Review: Go see The Counselor for the incredible dialogue or avoid it for the rampant misogyny..

I love Ridley Scott. Many of his films are groudbreaking examples of their genre. Alien was a great horror movie that not only spawned five sequels and a prequel but also changed the way films were made. Blade Runner has yet to be equaled. Black Hawk Down is easily the best movie about modern warfare (post-World War II) ever made. Thelma & Louise is one of the best of sadly only a few female buddy movies. Gladiator is a beautiful film about ancient Rome with terrific battle sequences. Yet each of these movies have almost nothing in common with each other.

Even his misfires are provoking. Kingdom of Heaven is fantastic if you watch the director’s cut. Prometheus is gorgeous if flawed from having to shoehorn in the Alien mythos and a few other things. Ridley Scott brings Michael Fassbender over from his virtuoso performance in Prometheus.

It goes without saying that Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy is a fantastic writer. Both Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz have previously appeared in McCarthy adaptations (No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses respectively). McCarthy’s writing is very dark and dense, not making popularity easy. The Counselor is the first script he has written for a movie.

That script is the best reason for recommending this movie. McCarthy’s dialogue is fantastic, weaving in archaic terms (donnybrook) with clever turns of phrase and tonal shifts. The entire script is a morass of moral ambiguity. The plot revolves around a drug deal gone bad in which most of the characters are involved in some way and that’s it.

There are so many things to applaud about McCarthy’s script. We are dropped right in the middle of the story with little to no exposition. You have to pay attention just to keep up with what’s going on. He does follow the gun on the mantelpiece drama rule as two early exposition statements ultimately bear fruit. Our protagonist is only ever referred to as Counselor.

Thankfully Ridley Scott has lined up a fantastic cast. Michael Fassbender is the titular Counselor, a lawyer involved in a drug deal presumably in part to finance a huge diamond engagement ring for his fiancee. Laura, the fiancee is played by Penelope Cruz and is arguably the only ‘good’ character in the film. Javier Bardem (Reiner) and Brad Pitt (Westray) play associates in the drug deal. Cameron Diaz is Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend.

We never meet the heads of the cartel who set up the deal though many associates make an appearance. There are a few niggling problems with the script in the form of questions that you will have after the film is over, I’m not sure whether that was McCarthy’s intent or if some scenes got chopped, though I will say that McCarthy practices an economy of exposition.

Lots of guest stars pop-up throughout the movie. An uncredited John Leguizamo and Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) conduct some business. Ruben Blades does some wonderful pontificating. Goran Visnjic appears as a banker. Rosie Perez has a juicy minor role as Ruth. All of the actors handle their roles and the rather eclectic dialogue well except Cameron Diaz. On the other hand it is hard to tell whether she dropped the ball or her role is simply horrible.

While I love McCarthy’s plotting, morality, and dialogue, I have to say that a lot of it comes off as misogynistic or filled with 12-year-old-boy syndrome. Also his characters pontificate endlessly, which is reasonable for one or two characters but not for all. That said, I am very much looking forward to what he does next.

People Watch: Look for beautiful Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones) in a brief but vital role.

 

Black Hawk Down – Special Forces Week

Black Hawk Down is currently available on instant Netflix

Black Hawk DownBlack Hawk Down (2001) – Rated R

“Based on a true story, U.S. Rangers and an elite Delta Force team attempt to kidnap two underlings of a Somali warlord, their Black Hawk helicopters are shot down, and the Americans face intense combat with the militia on the ground.”

No one gets left behind, you know that.”

My bone of the day to pick is this. The Hurt Locker was a very good film but not only were Up in the Air, Up, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 (all nominees) better films but, as a modern portrait of war (post World War II), you simply cannot beat Black Hawk Down.

I agree that it was long overdue for a female director to win and Kathryn Bigelow is certainly a good one but it really cheapens the prize when you start to think that the award was not actually given for Best Film but to redress a wrong or perhaps for being topical.

I guess my real gripe is that the best post-World War II war film, Black Hawk Down, was not even nominated for Best Picture and lost Best Director to Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind.

Black Hawk Down did win Best Oscars for Editing (amazing and well-deserved) and Sound (if you have good speakers, you can almost feel the bullets hitting). It was also nominated for Best Cinematography (again well-deserved – Best Cinematography does not always have to be pretty) and the aforementioned Best Director for Ridley Scott.

Poor Ridley Scott. In 1979, he made one of my all-time favorite horror movies, Alien. In 1982, he made one of my all-time favorite science fiction movies, Blade Runner.

He finally got his first Oscar nomination for Thelma & Louise, THE female buddy flick but lost to The Silence of the Lambs. He got his next one for Gladiator but lost to Traffic (seriously? he lost to a remake of a BBC miniseries where the miniseries was better than the movie.). He lost the Best Director nod on Black Hawk to A Beautiful Mind.

So to sum up my favorites: Ridley Scott made Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. The best director films for those years were Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi, Traffic, and A Beautiful Mind. Which set of films are still watched today? I have to give you that Silence of the Lambs was better directed than Thelma & Louise.

Well I guess I have used up all my room to rant. I better quickly run down why you should see this film.

Part of the reason Black Hawk Down is so good is the incredible attention to detail. The black hawks and little birds are real black hawks and little birds. Real Rangers do the rope scenes. The satellite maps behind Garrison are some of the real scenes from that battle.

Ken Nolan did an incredible job of trimming down the unbelievably detailed book by Mark Bowden. Most of what is trimmed out are pre- and post-raid events, an examination of the drug khat, and some Somali points of view (from what I remember).

While I deride Tony Scott for his unnecessary jump-cutting, bleached out cinematography, and sped-up and slowed down scenes, here Ridley Scott uses all of these to great effect. If I had to use one word to describe Black Hawk Down, it would be intense.

I am going to be brief about the acting. There are a number of name actors in this film but also many unknowns. I found all the performances to be spot-on. Josh Hartnett is the lead but this is really an ensemble film. Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Ewen Bremner, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard and more all put in fine performances.

I really love that there is no one hero – these are all heroes. I defy you not to tear up the first time you hear the snipers volunteer to go to the downed chopper.

As if you could not tell, I whole-heartedly recommend this incredibly intense film. The only reason not to see it is if you are extremely averse to realistic warfare.

Interestingly while this is a right-wing favorite (it is actually a personal favorite of George W. Bush), it is also a favorite of the Somalis (although for quite different reasons). Regardless of ideology this is one humdinger of a true story. By the way “skinnies” is not a malnutrition reference, it comes from “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein.

People Watch: Yes that is Legolas (Orlando Bloom) tumbling from the helicopter that starts the disaster rolling.

Aliens Attack! Prometheus Edition

Prometheus infuriates me. The more I think about this movie, the madder I get.

Prometheus (2012) – Rated R

“A team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race. “

First off let me state that I will keep most plot points as vague as possible since much of the enjoyment of this movie is from how it unfolds.

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is the nominal star here as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. She does a fine job and has a good physicality as our Sigourney Weaver replacement.

She is overshadowed at every turn by the real star of the film. Michael Fassbender has an incredibly playful turn as our resident android, David. Every time I see Fassbender, his performance is completely different from the last movie and makes me look forward to his next gig. Equally impressive was Charlize Theron as corporate boss Meredith Vickers. She was tough, in charge, and yet made you question her motives.

The rest of the cast is good but largely wasted. Guy Pearce is Peter Weyland, the head of Weyland-Yutani, hidden under much age makeup. Idris Elba is Captain Yanek who has a small but integral role. Both actors clearly have scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

The acting is probably the only aspect of this film that I didn’t have quibbles with.

Ridley Scott directed two of the greatest science fiction films ever made: Alien and Blade Runner. Both created vibrant, realistic worlds where it was clear that the story being told was just one of many that could be told. He also recreated, to marvelous effect, the worlds of ancient Rome (Gladiator) and the Middle East during the Crusades (Kingdom of Heaven) as well as the greatest film ever made on modern combat, Black Hawk Down.

I was ecstatic when I heard that he was finally returning to the world of science fiction, and that it would be an Alien prequel no less. Next to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Prometheus was the film I was most looking forward to this year.

Prometheus has many great scenes but it has an equal number of clunky ones. The first hour is a fairly effective science fiction epic. Here are a number of things that bothered me to distraction:

* As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, Meredith Vickers (Theron) states in the film that they are a half billion miles from Earth, which would only put them just past Jupiter.

* A minor character comes to Dr. Shaw and has a major expository speech to sum up and move the plot forward. The problem with this is that that character not only has no knowledge of what he’s saying but also has no particular reason to be saying it to Dr. Shaw. More than one scene must have been cut.

* The first scene in the film is completely superfluous and doesn’t make sense in the larger narrative as the information is reused later. I can only think they used it because it looked cool.

* The final twenty seconds of film are absolutely shameless and again have no context within the narrative. It actually smacks of post-production tampering.

* Either the screenwriting was terrible or a heap of scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Never mind, the answer must actually be both. Characters act with knowledge that they don’t appear to have and then ignore really important information that is right in front of them.

* After a particularly devastating attack, there is no discussion among the remaining crew and no real handling of it. It seemed as if the scene was spliced in from another movie.

* Characters consistently make decisions dictated by the script rather than reality.

* Lots more but it would involve spoilers

In spite of all of the above, the movie is definitely worth seeing. It is just infuriating because it could easily have been a masterpiece. Acting is fine (Rapace, Elba) – great (Fassbender, Theron), the special effects and scenery are amazing, and the plot is pretty decent.

People Watch: Look for Patrick Wilson in a brief cameo as Dr. Shaw’s father.

Black Hawk Down – Help! We are Surrounded week

This is Help! We are Surrounded week. Black Hawk Down is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Black Hawk Down – Rated R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence and for language.

When U.S. Rangers and an elite Delta Force team attempt to kidnap two underlings of a Somali warlord, their Black Hawk helicopters are shot down, and the Americans suffer heavy casualties, facing intense fighting from the militia on the ground. Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) captures the brutal, incessant battle scenes with powerful and intimidating framework and pace in this military drama based on a true story”

“No one gets left behind, you know that.”

My bone of the day to pick is this. The Hurt Locker was a very good film but not only were Up in the Air, Up, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 (all nominees) better films but, as a modern portrait of war (post World War II), you simply cannot beat Black Hawk Down.

I agree that it was long overdue for a female director to win and Kathryn Bigelow is certainly a good one but it really cheapens the prize when you start to think that the award was not actually given for Best Film but to redress a wrong or perhaps for being topical.

I guess my real gripe is that the best post-World War II war film, Black Hawk Down, was not even nominated for Best Picture and lost Best Director to Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind.

Black Hawk Down did win Best Oscars for Editing (amazing and well-deserved) and Sound (if you have good speakers, you can almost feel the bullets hitting). It was also nominated for Best Cinematography (again well-deserved – Best Cinematography does not always have to be pretty) and the aforementioned Best Director for Ridley Scott.

Poor Ridley Scott. In 1979, he made one of my all-time favorite horror movies, Alien. In 1982, he made one of my all-time favorite science fiction movies, Blade Runner.

He finally got his first Oscar nomination for Thelma & Louise, THE female buddy flick but lost to The Silence of the Lambs. He got his next one for Gladiator but lost to Traffic (seriously? he lost to a remake of a BBC miniseries where the miniseries was better than the movie.). He lost the Best Director nod on Black Hawk to A Beautiful Mind.

So to sum up my favorites: Ridley Scott made Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. The best director films for those years were Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi, Traffic, and A Beautiful Mind. Which set of films are still watched today? I have to give you that Silence of the Lambs was better directed than Thelma & Louise.

Well I guess I have used up all my room to rant. I better quickly run down why you should see this film.

As with Zulu yesterday, part of the reason Black Hawk Down is so good is the incredible attention to detail. The black hawks and little birds are real black hawks and little birds. Real Rangers do the rope scenes. The satellite maps behind Garrison are some of the real scenes from that battle.

Ken Nolan did an incredible job of trimming down the unbelievably detailed book by Mark Bowden. Most of what is trimmed out are pre- and post-raid events, an examination of the drug khat, and some Somali points of view (from what I remember).

While I deride Tony Scott for his unnecessary jump-cutting, bleached out cinematography, and sped-up and slowed down scenes, here Ridley Scott uses all of these to great effect. If I had to use one word to describe Black Hawk Down, it would be intense.

I am going to be brief about the acting. There are a number of name actors in this film but also many unknowns. I found all the performances to be spot-on. Josh Hartnett is the lead but this is really an ensemble film. Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Ewen Bremner, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard and more all put in fine performances.

I really love that there is no one hero – these are all heroes. I defy you not to tear up the first time you hear the snipers volunteer to go to the downed chopper.

As if you could not tell I whole-heartedly recommend this incredibly intense film. The only reason not to see it is if you are extremely averse to realistic warfare.

Interestingly while this is a right-wing favorite (it is actually a personal favorite of George W. Bush), it is also a favorite of the Somalis (although for quite different reasons). Regardless of ideology this is one humdinger of a true story. By the way “skinnies” is not malnutrition reference, it comes from “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein.

People Watch: Yes that is Legolas (Orlando Bloom) tumbling from the helicopter that starts the disaster rolling.