Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt
Seeing Adam McKay, the writer-director best known for his comedies with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers), as the Oscar nominated director of a Best Picture candidate about the housing market crash might seem strange to some. However, it is actually quite a logical extension of his talents. In a previous life McKay was a writer on Michael Moore’s series The Awful Truth and has written pieces for The Huffington Post. And anyone who saw the end credits of his comedy The Other Guys – effectively a PowerPoint lecture on Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff – will know this obviously is a subject about which he has strong views.
Based on Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film follows a handful of stock traders, all loners and outsiders, who saw the 2008 housing market crash coming and managed to spin it to their advantage. Eccentric, mildly autistic, flip-flop wearing money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to spot that the housing market is being propped up by an increasing number of bad mortgages and is heading towards a cliff. Continue reading
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Maria Valverde
The Biblical epic used to be a staple genre of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, with films like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told being amongst the biggest productions in Hollywood. Over the last fifty years, with the marketplace becoming increasingly secular, the Biblical film has largely disappeared from the mainstream. It is therefore a peculiarity that 2014 has seen not one but two major films based on Old Testament narratives, first Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
While timing dictates that there will be comparisons made between Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, they are very different films. While Aronofsky’s film is very much a think piece, Scott’s is much more of a modern incarnation of the traditional Biblical epic – it is a big movie and all the main characters sport British accents. It has been 14 years since Scott breathed life into the swords-and-sandals epic with Gladiator, and Exodus: Gods and Kings employs a similar size and scale. The story of the son of Hebrew slaves raised as an Egyptian prince, who after a period of exile returns with the God of Israel behind him to free his people from 400 years of bondage provides opportunities for real spectacle with the various plagues, the cavalry’s pursuit of the Hebrews and the pièce de résistance, the parting of the Red Sea.
Christian Bale’s Moses is an interesting character. An intelligent and eloquent man, this Moses is not a spiritual man. As an Egyptian, he puts no stock in the advice of the mystics the Pharaoh consults. As a Hebrew, he is scolded by his wife for sowing seeds of doubt in their son’s mind. So when he encounters God at the burning bush, he must first confront the notion that there is a God before considering that God has a task for him. If Moses has faith in anything it is in his own abilities. As an experienced military general, he sets out to win his people’s freedom by training up their militia for guerrilla warfare, only to have God step in with a much faster and more drastic plan. As this plan escalates we see Moses becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the extent of the catastrophe. The question about Moses that isn’t quite answered, though, is what is his motivation? While he is shown to be a just man, he doesn’t have a particular devotion to the Hebrew people. Similarly, he is not presented as an obedient servant of God. We never really know why he is doing what he is doing, other than that is how the story goes.
Exodus: Gods and Kings has a peculiar relationship with the spiritual elements of the story, which is an odd statement to make about a Biblical film, but perhaps not surprising given the director’s agnosticism. The film toys with, without committing to, the idea that Moses’ interactions with God could be delusions. His first encounter with God, who is given the form of a mysterious 11 year old boy, occurs after he has been hit on the head and knocked unconscious during a landslide. Later we see him talking to God, and are then shown the point of view of other characters who see Moses seemingly in animated conversation with himself. This decision to give God the form of a child is also an interesting one. Obviously the booming voice from on high like in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, but giving God the form of a child means that at those moments when God is shown to be angry and vengeful, it comes across as petulant. The film takes an awkward middle ground between embracing the idea that these events were miraculous and seeking to explain them as naturally occurring phenomena. There is no daily ultimatum to Rhamses to “Let my people go” between each plague. Instead the plagues are shown to be naturally escalating one to the next. The blood in the Nile kills all the fish and drives the frogs to the land, when the frogs die that brings the flies, the flies then bring the disease which kills the livestock and the boils which infect the people. Similarly, Moses plays no direct role in parting the Red Sea. Rather the water retreats as it would before a tsunami.
I don’t believe in criticising a film like this for deviating from its Biblical source material. As with any biographical or historical film, deviation in itself is not a problem if it has purpose. A filmmaker needs to be afforded some poetic license in their attempts to turn these well-known but often bare-bones stories into full and vibrant pieces of cinema. But the potentially lucrative Christian market at which this film is targeted can be a tough market to please. Noah was attacked earlier this year for deviating from the Biblical account even though it did so for a specific purpose, with Darren Aronofsky having a clear vision for that film and for the message that he was using the Noah narrative to communicate. Exodus: Gods and Kings, on the other hand, deviates seemingly without rhyme or reason and is sure to ruffle some feathers. This is indicative not of a Biblical accuracy problem, but of a basic story problem. It doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell.
There are numerous angles you can take in telling the story of Moses and the Exodus, but Exodus: Gods and Kings does not seem to have settled on any one particular approach. Four writers have been credited on the film – Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian – and this might go some way to explaining this narrative uncertainty. The result is not really a story of faith nor is it a story of a people. It is not quite a story of Moses’ development into a leader. The closest it comes to a focus is in being a story of two brothers, Moses and Rhamses – an interpretation that takes on particular significance when we see the film is dedicated to Ridley Scott’s late brother Tony – but even then it doesn’t completely invest in this take on the story.
Ultimately, the key test that Exodus: Gods and Kings fails is the “why” question. If you are going to remake a movie or revisit a story, particularly a story that has been told and retold as many times as that of Moses and the Exodus, there should be a reason. There should be something new you want to say, a new idea, a new interpretation, a new point of emphasis. But as much as Scott’s film nails the big spectacle elements – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, even just the recreation of ancient Egypt are all top notch – it lacks a clear central message and ends up just being a bit of a mess.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Exodus: Gods and Kings? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
With the exception of perhaps Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, no film released this year has had to contend with the immense weight of expectation that met The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, when it hit theatres in July. Nolan’s films had re-written the rules of comic-book movie-making, combining box office success with critical reverence.
The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne living in self-imposed exile after the events of The Dark Knight. When the terrorist Bane releases thousands of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals from Blackgate Prison, and succeeds in prompting a class war which brings the city to its knees – all the while obscuring his even more devastating plan – it becomes apparent that Gotham has no other hope, and Wayne is forced to once again don the Bat-suit.
When the first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released, much was said about this being a ‘darker’ approach to Batman. But the darkness wasn’t really anything new. Tim Burton’s films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) had been dark. Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One had been dark. Batman had always been a character who suited a dark, gothic interpretation. Rather, what made Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology different was his intent to ground it in the real world, asking the question “How would this work in real life?” This emphasis on grounding the action in the real world then allowed for the film to engage with real world issues.
While other comic book adaptations like The Avengers and Iron Man have been incredibly successful, their pure escapism lacks the real-world relevance of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both very much products of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight Rises draws on the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement to deal with themes of revolution, capitalism and economic imbalance (as Nolan said in an interview, “You can’t really deal with Bruce Wayne without eventually acknowledging the massive wealth he’s a part of”).
Likewise, this grounding of the Batman story in a real world means that in Nolan’s films we see explorations of the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s decisions and actions. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about consequences – physical, emotional, psychological.
Each of Nolan’s three Batman films have been generically quite different. Batman Begins had a very mythological feel to it, with Bruce Wayne travelling to the farthest ends of the earth to learn his craft from a mysterious cult. The Dark Knight largely abandoned that mythological sensibility, and instead became an urban crime thriller (Nolan often compared the picture to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995)). The Dark Knight Rises again changes direction. This time Nolan is taking us into the world of the historical epic.
Whether or not you think that The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in what it is attempting, you can’t help but admire the ambition of the film. Nolan is attempting to tell a historical epic (not the persistant allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution) on an epic scale, resulting in filmmaking on a scale that has not been seen in Hollywood for a long, long time. The scale of the picture is immense, with this size emphasised by the fact that so much of it was shot in IMAX format. The magnitude of some of the set pieces, literally employing a cast of thousands, harks back to the epics of classical Hollywood and a style of filmmaking we just don’t see in the CGI era.
The Dark Knight Rises does not quite reach the lofty heights of its prequel, but then very few films have. It is, none the less, a very good film and a satisfying end to a very impressive trilogy. It is pleasing to see a filmmaker with the conviction to take a very popular film franchise and bring it to a close rather than giving in to the temptation to drag it out. In closing the story of Bruce Wayne with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has retained the integrity of what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the key film franchises of the early 21st century.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean