EXODUS:GODS AND KINGS***The Great Escape + Fire and Brimstone


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“EXODUS:GODS AND KINGS” is a rollicking action saga with some fine battle scenes and an awesome, drop dead plague. Ridley Scott’s take on the Biblical myth is stunningly spectacular. The vast, arid plains over which Moses travels has the majestic feel of those big ticket old fashioned Vistavision, Cinemascope epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Ben Hur” and “Dr. Zhivago”. Scott conjures up the imagined worlds of Egypt around 1200 BCE and the yawn of tribal desert that stretches beyond it with far greater verisimilitude than the digital artificiality of “The Hobbit” series. You can feel the heat, the fearsomeness of the thundering Egyptian cavalry and the enormity of the Red Sea’s tsunami, as walls of water drown the ambitions of the vengeful Pharaoh, Ramses II.

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It’s well crafted, beautiful film-making. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (one of Scott’s ‘troupe’ who also worked on “Prometheus”, “The Counsellor” as well as all the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) lights every scene with an almost tactile depth of field. And once the ten dread plagues arrive, Scott ensures that their relentlessness – the dense black clouds of swarming locusts, the blood choked rivers with their bounty of oxygen-starved dying fish, the ever-multiplying frogs, the blizarding hail that flattens dwellings etc. – evoke a vision of vengeful death that’s palpably, inescapably there.

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For Scott, first “Gladiator” then “Robin Hood” and now this, it seems like a fitting conclusion to a trilogy of movies about the nature of moral courage and leadership. Both Moses and “Gladiator’s” Maximus are highly regarded generals who are cast into the wilderness by jealous siblings. And like Robin Hood, they’re all prepared to stand up to anyone, any army in stoic resistance to tyranny.

His Moses is no introspective man of God. He may be thoughtful and just, but at heart, he’s a man of action with an understandably skeptical view about God (and, in the guise of a cute kid, who wouldn’t be?)

Christian Bale makes a compelling Moses: part action figure and part looney. Indeed the more he gains belief, the crazier he seems. His oppose number, Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as Ramses II, actually delivers a more nuanced performance. He’s the jealous, somewhat effete, callous man-god, but also a tender husband and father and, himself, a relentless warrior. He also has to fight his way past some of the clunkiest dialogue not written by George Lucas, all with a straight face.

These two dominate the movie. Even the presence of the likes of Ben Kingsley as Nun, one of the Hebrew elders, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, the mother of Ramses II and John Tuturro as Seti, the father, are largely bystanders to the sizzling sibling rivalry between the princes of darkness and light.

But “Exodus” can’t escape the problem any retelling of these Old Testament stories face. It’s not so much the absurdities of the stories. After all we’d have no real issue if this were The Odyssey or any such tribal creation myth, which is all the Old Testament is. Indeed, even at the time of its creation (around 500BCE) the telling of the story had little interest in historical accuracy, which some scholars have suggested is a mythical rendering of a –rare- successful peasants’ revolt. (Perhaps someone should point this out to the President of Egypt who has banned the movie because of its “historical inaccuracies”)

Frankly, the problem is God. It’s God who’s the diabolical one in this Genesis story. It’s plagues are merciless and inhumane. It doesn’t simply want to free It’s people (come on, It’s God; just how hard can that by?) but to wreck havoc and mete out punishment no matter the collateral damage. And of that, there’s a lot. The body count is in the tens of thousands. The Genesis story offers us the very early Hebrew God of war, Yahweh Sabaoth, God of armies. And historically, such a mean and angry God may well have worked – to inspire fear and loyalty.

But despite Scott’s attempt to accommodate a modern (and secular) sensibility through Moses’ objections to God’s draconian actions, it’s difficult to get around the wanton carnage (“as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/they kill us for their sport…”) of his vindictive God.

And in the end (maybe subversively, deliberately), Scott may have given us in “Exodus” a God not unlike any ruthless dictator: one to be feared, but never worshipped.

EXODUS: Gods and Kings. Director: Ridley Scott; Writers: Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (“Tower Heist”) and others. Production Design: Arthur Max (“Prometheus”, “Robin Hood”). Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski

BIRDMAN***** Soars


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BIRDMAN IS ALEJANDRO Iñarritu’s deliciously well written, brilliantly acted, many-layered grand finale to a pretty mediocre year of movies. It features Michael Keaton’s wonderful, Oscar-deserving return to prominence after two decades of sad obscurity (his last major outing was Robocop which like most of his movies since “Multiplicity” in 1996 or the voice of Ken in “Toy Story 3”, no one saw.)

Keaton is Riggan Thompson, an actor who, like Keaton himself, had walked away from a lucrative super-hero franchise… and into obscurity (the character grumbles about how invisible he is). In order to stage his big comeback, Riggan has decided to risk everything on a Broadway vanity project: an adaptation of a Raymond Carver book, re-written, directed and starring himself. He’s hoping the audience will forget the trivia of his Birdman character and see his true worth as an artist.

In an essentially binary world of truth or dare, the play is Riggan’s big dare to find the truth in the role he’s playing, and to face up to, or escape, the deeper truth of his serial failures: as father, husband, lover and, potentially, Broadway producer.

It’s a very self-aware work in which Iñarritu offers us multiple layers of what truth means…in a work of fiction. At a narrative level, Keaton’s character wrestles (at times literally) with dual alter-egos: the Birdman, an inner demon of his successful past, cajoling him to escape the truth of his present, sorry, collapsing world through the pretense of super-hero prowess; and his theatrical opposite number Mike (Edward Norton as a pitch perfect narcissist), the über actor, who, rightly, claims to be true only when he’s performing a role…pretending to be someone else. Perhaps in art, Iñarritu suggests it’s the actor’s honesty – in his pretense – that’s its own kind of truth.

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When we meet him, Riggan is at the point of breakdown: he’s struggling to escape his past, but the grim truth of his present life – brutally described to him by his self-centered, proto-suicidal daughter, Sam (an excellent Emma Stone) – is driving him, daring him, to an escape into drink, destruction and madness. In the two or three days of the movie’s time-frame, Riggan must figure out how to confront the truth of his past, his demons and his expectant audiences.

Like Keaton, an acting tour de force is a pretty good place to start.

For “Birdman” not only offers us the quasi truth of Keaton’s own past (his post Batman decline) but the absurdist literal truth of the actor, Keaton, playing a role but actually walking down Broadway amongst ‘real’ passers-by in his underwear in one of Iñarritu’s many extended single take shots. (Not unlike Scarlett Johansson’s ‘real life’ pick-up stint in “Under the Skin”).

The movie repeatedly uses the ‘gimmick’ of extended, flowing takes. The director’s camera tracks along with the characters as they walk and talk and vertiginously take flight in sequences so seamlessly stitched together that the tracking almost becomes an additional, unseen character. The device works. It turns the audience into vouyers. It’s a technique that in Iñarritu’s hands does not impose itself on the content for mere effect: In his search to connect with his audience, Riggan time and again seeks to break through the theatrical fourth wall – he turns and addresses the audience, walks amongst them, even threatens them. So too does Iñarritu’s directing, both with its camera unflatteringly smack against Keaton’s wrinkled, unshaven face, and with his ‘walkabout actor’, seek to break through the cinema’s own fourth wall.

And it’s not only Keaton’s role that’s so close to home it feels like a biography. One of the areas Iñarritu takes issue with is the pornography (his word) of mass-pleasing escapist, super-hero cinema. If art is a search for truth, that kind of movie-making is the big lie. In a sense the Birdman is the dangerous alter ego not only of the main character, but of filmmaking in general. It’s not coincidental that the three main actors in the movie (Keaton, Norton and Watson) are all themselves ‘super-hero tainted’ (Batman, the Hulk and Spiderman’s girl).

More than anything, “Birdman” is a showcase of superb acting: Naomi Watts is Leslie, the aging ingenue, a woman desperately seeking to retain her self respect in this her first Broadway production; Zach Galifianakis is Jake, Riggan’s stressed out, money conscious producer (a long, long way away from the dreadful “The Hangover Part 3”); Lindsay Duncan (perhaps the only good ‘thing’ in “About Time”) is Tabitha, the icy, haughty NY Times reviewer, whose prejudice against Riggan (just an LA movie star who has had the temerity to launch in New York… where ‘real’ actors ply their trade) means that she’s prepping to kill the play, sight unseen.

(Iñarritu’s clear contempt for reviewers and art critics – “you risk nothing,” Riggan tells her, “what you do is lazy; you just put labels on things” – is so palpable that at times, it comes close to authorial intrusion)

But this is Keaton’s movie. What a comeback! Riggan is a pretty loathsome character. He’s inconsiderate, thoroughly self-centered (indeed, the entire movie is centered in his head), petulant and mentally quite a few bottles short of a case. But Keaton also shows us a side of the man whose fragility and vulnerability make him endearingly appealing. His super-hero alter ego is both a destructive self-deception and the simple fantasy of a child gone astray. It’s a character we root for, alter-ego and all, right up to the end.

BIRDMAN. Director (and principal writer): Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (“Biutiful”, “Babel” “21Grams”). Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”)

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES*** Ends with a Bang not a Whimper


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FREE AT LAST! Free at last!

After about seventeen hours in dark cinemas, over a span of thirteen years, and with a body count of about at least a million dead Orcs, dwarves, elves, humans, hobbits and other random creatures, Peter Jackson’s massive, exhaustive reimagining of Tolkein’s Middle Earth has finally ended.

“The Battle of the Five Armies”, the final of the Hobbit trilogy, ends with the massive treble-underlined moral that has knitted the series together: GREED IS BAD.

We begin almost mid-sentence where the last one ended. (Has it been a year already?) Bilbo and the dwarfs are in Smaug’s treasure-filled cave and the Benedict Cummberbatch-voiced dragon has flown into the night’s darkness with menace on his mind and fire in his belly. The residents of a nearby village are the unlucky victims of the awakened dragon’s anger as it swoops down and rains upon them fiery hell and fury.

Jackson’s technical wizardry is awesome; the sheer imaginative spectacle and visionary scale of the production hits its high-water mark in this the final fling of the series: Smaug’s sinuous swoop into the stricken village and the resulting conflagration of homes, bridges, fragile towers and unlucky people is a visual masterwork.

It’s an exciting, well crafted first chapter, as it sets out the thematic and narrative journey that’s to follow: The Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) tries to sneak away from his burning village with as much gold as his laden barge can muster. In his gluttony for wealth, he’s prepared to kill anyone who gets in his way. At the same time as this storyline is unfolding, we’re reintroduced to his moral opposite: Bard (Luke Evans, “Dracula Untold”, “Fast and Furious 6”), the selfless, principled father figure who takes it upon himself to plunge into the flaming danger even as the Master flees it, in order to battle the odds and take down the dragon.

Greed and goodness.

In Jackson’s simple morality play, it is the toxic opposites of such greed and goodness that wrestle for supremacy. It’s not so much a battle of five armies but a battle of those two.

And they’re both at war for the soul of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), leader of the dwarfs, who, when we meet him, is sinking under the spell of Smaug’s limitless treasures. Whereas the ring was the object of dark and dangerous temptation in “Lord of the Rings”, here it’s simply gold. Thorin’s degeneration epitomizes the evils of greed, this fearless leader having become petulant, suspicious, inhuman and domineering.

It’s up to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the good-natured, naive, brave little hobbit to rekindle Thorin’s intrinsic decency and free him from his gold-drugged dependency.

This moral journey is set in a landscape of fragile alliances as armies battle to save Middle Earth from Sauron and the Orcs. In the midst of all this war is the briefly sketched – doomed – love story between a dwarf (Aidan Turner as Kili) and an elf (Evangelina Lilly of “Lost” as Tauriel). The elves are basically a snobby superior (and stunningly well dressed) species who won’t tolerate the purity of their blood-line being sullied by too much fraternization with dwarfs. Even in Middle Earth, inter-species/inter-racial relationships are infradig.

But, love will out, even amidst the anger of war.

And oh what a lovely war. The serried ranks of armoured men clash violently against each other, like metallic waves. Brave elvin and dwarfish heroes ride into bristling thorns of lances and slashing swords, lopping off arms and heads with daredevil impunity. Huge monsters charge and shatter fortifications as if they were mere children’s blocks; swift footed archer, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), fells anyone in his way; booming voices issue stentorian martial commands, “Fall back!” “Cut them off at the pass!” etc.

All very jolly and bloodless and epic and meticulously well staged.

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And we’ve seen it all before. There’s certainly a sense of déjà vu in the entire proceedings: if you didn’t really like any of the others, this last outing certainly won’t change your mind. But if Mr. Jackson kept dragging you back time and again to see his latest reiteration of basically the same old story with the same old cast, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a fine note to end on.

And it ends as it began all those years ago. The shire’s undulating valleys are bountifully green and cheerful. Bilbo is at home, now an old man, fingering a ring when there’s a knock at the door.

“Who goes?” he asks

“It’s your old friend,” comes the reply from without, “Gandalf”

And we all know what comes next.

PADDINGTON****A Delight


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WHAT’S REMARKABLE ABOUT “Paddington” is not only the extraordinary CGI rendering of the bear, but the fact that it’s a joyfully funny, good-natured movie without a trace of schmaltz.

The writing (by Michael Bond who created the original character) and directing (by Paul King who co-wrote the script) is solidly aimed at what’s marketed as ‘family fare’… which is enough to run away from as fast as you can. But in this instance, the few tartly directed adult jokes and the pro-immigration, anti UKIP/Conservative sub-text are only there to fool the adults in the audience and lull them into their voluntary submission of adult-ness in exchange for regressive childhood fun.

Indeed, there’s a stand-out scene where Paddington is trying to find his way around the mysterious tools (toothbrushes) and equipment (the loo) of a modern bathroom. His clumsiness and curiosity result in the kind of hilarious chaos that the makers of “Horrible Bosses 2” strove so hard and earnestly to find and never did.

We saw the movie in a theatre-full of delighted kids, all of whom I guarantee will be seeing this again and again and again over the next year or so (I myself might)

The story centers around a young Peruvian bear with a love of marmalade and all things British. As is usual with kids’ stories, a sad parental loss precipitates the action: he’s forced to leave his ancestral homeland and stows away to London in the hope of reuniting with an explorer who had stumbled upon and befriended his family many years ago. Alone and abandoned in Paddington station, with a label around his neck that reads, “Please look after this bear. Thank you”, he’s ‘discovered’ by the Brown family who take pity on him for one night only.

Hugh Bonneville of Downtown Abbey is the stern, accident obsessed father, Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”) is the mother, Samuel Joslin and Madeline Harris are the kids. They’re all there as foils for Paddington’s wild, anarchic introduction to a forgiving, accepting life in multi-cultural London. But, despite a stellar cast that reads like a who’s who of British film: Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Ben Wishaw – as the bear’s voice – Michael Gambon and Peter Capaldi, the CGI animated Paddington is the absolute star of the show. There’s nothing about the CGI effects of the bear (executed with mind-boggling skill by –mainly- Framestore, the company who brought us “Gravity”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Sherlock Homes: A Game of Sorrows”) that allows you for a moment to think that you’re seeing anything other than a real bear.

Indeed, the range of expressions the bear displays: bewilderment, innocence, heroism, bravery, stoicism and what have you, are considerably more real than the range of expressions Nicole Kidman’s Botox allows her.

Nicole is Millicent, the daughter of the explorer who’d stumbled into the bears in the Peruvian forest. But she’s a taxidermist with a mean axe to grind and an eye to Paddington as a stuffed prize. She’s also the only figure in the film whose plastic animation makes her seem like an animation. She’s the only one whose acting looks like acting.

Paddington is of course an illegal Latin American alien (though a remarkably English sounding one at that). And, as we noted, the narrative has great fun with this. Because in the movie, so unlike the present mood of the country, Paddington’s accepted and after a pause of British reserve, fully welcomed as one of the family. The pro-immigration point is underlined by a brace of calypsos that bookend the film, and that act as a nice time displacement of the setting, which is part ‘now’ and part 1955 (the time when UKIP wants us all to regress to).

Paddington’s arrival is heralded by a calypso fresh from the Empire Windrush (that was the steamship that brought the first generation of West Indian immigrants to England in 1948) with the lovely lyrics, “I was never told that London could be so cold”.

Maybe we’ve been fooled all along. Paddington is no Latino from Peru. He’s really a Trinidadian.