In his day, Charlton Heston had the market cornered on the epic movie. The prolific leading man would turn his name into a genre watermark, delivering behemoth films about fantastic people and places. Teaming regularly with visionary Cecil B. DeMille, Heston breathed life into Bible stories from Testaments Old and New, and invited audiences to take a new, dramatic look at cultural icons. His career brought him to fallen empires, strange planets, and thrilling mysteries. And although many would argue that Heston's cinematic accomplishments cannot truly be duplicated, Hollywood will try, try again to relive his majesties. The latest in the film industry's many endeavors to reproduce a Heston classic involves Ben-Hur, William Wyler's three-and-a-half-hour drama that set the star as a Jewish prince forced into slavery and then thrust upon a revenge quest against the companion who betrayed him.
Deadline reports that MGM, the studio that produced the 1959 opus (and its 1925 silent film precedent), is looking to recreate the story of Judas Ben-Hur for modern audiences. The studio will call back to writer Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which inspired both pictures. Interestingly, Wallace's Ben-Hur stood as the second best selling piece of writing in the world, next to the Bible, from the time of its publication until the release of Gone with the Wind. Living up to the glory of its source material, Wyler's Ben-Hur maintained status as the only film to win 11 Academy Awards (Best Picture included) for almost 40 years (1997's Titanic broke Ben-Hur's record with 14 Oscar wins).
With this sort of legacy, the plight of a Ben-Hur remake will not be an effortless one. Looking at reattempted Heston pieces of past, we can surmise just what direction in which MGM might plan to take its bountiful new prospect...
The Tim Burton Travesty
In 2001, Tim Burton kicked off a long line of disappointing remakes with Planet of the Apes, transforming the 1968 science-fiction allegory into a misguided mass of Wahlbergian yelling. And just imagine what a field day Burton would do with Ben-Hur's famous chariot sequence, what with the endless reach of modern stop-motion animation at his disposal and an inexplicable penchant for spiraling appendages.
The Sub-Disney Animated Family Film
From Heston's Ten Commandments came a like-titled animated movie, with the likes of Ben Kingsley, Christian Slater, Alfred Molina, and Elliot Gould (as the man upstairs) offering voices to the Biblical characters. The reason you might not have heard of this 2007 picture is because of its critical panning, minute gross, and small studio backing. Ratatouille it was not. (Although a Pixar take on Ben-Hur might be worth exploring...)
The Tuesday Night Sitcom
A decade following Heston's turn in P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Show on Earth, Jack Palance took on the ringleader role in an ABC dramedy that involved the star in the trials and tribulations of his various circus performers. The show didn't last very long, failing in the ratings warfare with more popular comedies of the era. Today's small screen Judah B.? Probably something in the vein of Noah Wyle, if he can ever step away from Falling Skies.
The CGI-Heavy Franchise Seedling
A far more successful endeavor than any of those mentioned again stemmed from Planet of the Apes. The 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes was markedly more imaginative than Burton's turn with the material, this time predating the events of the original film with a prequel of sorts, placing ape Caesar at the center of the story. There aren't too many animals worthy of shifting the focus toward in Ben-Hur... maybe the racing horses? I wonder what they're thinking... Call Serkis.
[Photo Credit: MGM]
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Alfred Hitchcock is noted as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and rightfully so — his body of work comprised of over 60 films is skillfully composed highly dramatic and eclectic from beginning to end. So pulling back the curtain on the legend in his own medium was only a matter of time a how'd-he-do-it biopic that could pay respects to the collected works while revealing the master's process. Hitchcock directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) pays its respects but also reveals another unexpected quality of the auteur's behind-the-scenes life: it wasn't all that dramatic.
Anthony Hopkins slides into the silhouette of the recognizable director and does a reasonable job nailing his cadence and posture. Side by side with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) who as the movie reveals was the director's close collaborator Hitchcock strides confidently into the world of independent cinema for the first time balking at studio heads who demand something more audience-friendly than the gruesome Psycho. Investing his own money into the film Hitchcock risks everything to turn the story of murderer Ed Gein into a high art horror picture. He finds a leading lady in Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) a script in a screenwriter with mommy problems and a closeted actor to portray the sexually exploratory Gein.
And that's about it. Hitchcock disguises the usual stresses of moviemaking as major hurdles even representing Gein as a specter who haunts Hitchcock's every decision. Aside from the brief suspicion that Alma abandons him mid-production for charming writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) which feels stuffed in and meandering rather than intrinsic to the making of Psycho there's little explanation for Hitchcock's anxiety and downward spiral. The film even dabbles in Hitch's well-known infatuation with his leading ladies — explored to a terrifying degree in last month's The Girl — but places the director on too high a pedestal to ever dig deep.
The real star of the show — and perhaps one who would have made a better subject for feature film — is Alma a complex second fiddle overshadowed by the greatness of Hitchcock. Mirren once again delivers a lively performance as a woman desperate to live her own life; the scene when she lets loose on Hitchcock is easily the high point of the movie. But like the audience who unknowingly appreciated her work behind-the-camera Hitchcock is too obsessed with the man at the center of it all to open up and give the character or Mirren the spotlight.
Hitchcock's time period flourishes and camera work are presented simply (Gervasi keeps hat tipping to the auteur's oeuvre to a minimum) while Danny Elfman whips up a score that riffs appropriately on longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernhard Hermann's works. But there's no hook to elevate the film from a puff piece and even the biggest Alfred Hitchcock fan will be grasping for something more.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Pixar makes it ten gems in a row with this enchanting animated story of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen a recent widower who decides to fulfill his (plus his late wife’s) lifelong dream of tying thousands of balloons to their house and floating off to a mountaintop in South America. But he soon discovers a stowaway in the form of Russell a precocious eight-year-old “Wilderness Explorer” who he reluctantly allows to accompany him on his journey. Together the unlikely pair embark on the adventure of a lifetime encountering Kevin a rare 13-foot tall-flightless bird; Dug an overly-friendly talking pooch; and Charles Muntz a once-famous adventurer who now lives alone in a massive airship surrounded by a pack of attack dogs.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sticking to their general custom of casting actors not big stars in key voice roles Pixar assembled a superb cast for Up led by veteran TV star Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as the aged Carl who takes flight in his house and finds there is a lot to learn about life even as you near death. Asner’s grumpy delivery provides the perfect counterpoint to nine-year-old Jordan Nagai’s Russell a bright and optimistic kid who proves an invaluable assistant to Carl throughout their journey. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) is authoritative and intriguing as the obsessed Muntz and John Ratzenberger (Cheers) extends his streak of Pixar films to 10 as a construction engineer who tries to convince Carl to sell his house. Bob Peterson does delightful double duty as two of the key dog voices lovable Dug and the menacing Alpha head of the pack.
Like Pixar’s previous Oscar-winning masterpiece Wall-E Up is a ‘toon that is not content to explore the same places we’ve seen in previous animated blockbusters. Centering an action comedy around a 78-year-old man isn’t a strategy you’ll find in the youth-obsessed Hollywood recipe book but it pays great dividends here with a moral that life’s greatest adventure is the one you share with someone you love. The non-humans — particularly Kevin and Dug — are hilarious and unique and a silent sequence detailing the courtship and marriage of the Fredricksens is a sweet touch that could have come straight out of a Charlie Chaplin movie.
With a string of critically-acclaimed hits that includes Toy Story Finding Nemo The Incredibles Ratatouille Wall-E and now Up Pixar is ruining it for everyone else. There is simply no way they can be topped when it comes to pushing the boundaries of animated movies. Bad for other studios. Good for us.
Could Up which just became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival also become the first to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (before the Animation category was even established)? At this point in the year it’s actually a good bet. Whatever the case expect Up to earn several nominations come Oscar time.
A swashbuckling swordfight across the skies between two near-octogenarians? It’s the best action scene in a summer full of ‘em.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Oh pleeeeeease! Get to a theater fast. Up is also available in 3-D at select locations. Either way it’s a must-see.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Happily N'Ever After centers on what would happen if the classic fairytales we all love didn’t have happy endings if the villains actually won out in the end. When the wizard (George Carlin)—who maintains the age-old balance between good and evil in Fairy Tale Land—goes on vacation his incompetent assistants (Andy Dick Wallace Shawn) make a mess of things opening up an opportunity for Cinderella’s evil stepmother Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) to take control and call in all the bad guys. Meanwhile Cinderella aka Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tries to get her beloved Prince Charming (Patrick Warburton) to save the day—except he is a nincompoop too. Actually the real hero is the Prince’s dishwasher Rick (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who secretly loves Ella. Not too hard to figure out how this ever after will end. Gellar and Prinze Jr. are as bland in voice as they are on screen playing the two potential lovebirds with very little enthusiasm while the “hilarious sidekicks” Dick and Shawn totally overdo it as the bumbling wizard assistants even if Dick does have a few laugh-out-loud moments. Warburton does he’s usual dumb guy routine and Carlin is completely wasted. The only one who seems to tap into her character succinctly is Weaver as the wicked Frieda. Of course playing someone evil is always more fun—especially a fairytale villainess CGI-created as a cross between Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Madonna. Weaver certainly works the look. Last year’s Hoodwinked—which took the Little Red Riding Hood tale and turned it into a CSI meets Rashomon—tried to satirize and modernize the fairytale genre. Now we have Happily N'Ever After. While their premises are indeed clever and the CGI animation crisp they fail to deliver a strong story to back up the initial idea. Happily just feels slapped together for the kiddies’ sakes with a few dull attempts at adult references. It’s not a good sign when even your kid sitting next to you starts to zone out halfway through the movie. Also the fact there are about six different animation houses and production companies attached to the project doesn’t bode well. I think it’s probably just best to keep the fairy tale spoofs to the Shrek professionals.