Movie Review: “Ben Hur” (2016 version)

ben-hur-2016Let’s get this out of the way: this is not the same “Ben Hur” as was found in the wonderful version acted by Charlton Heston. In many key plot points and even some of the shared ideas, this is a different movie. I am reviewing this as a massive fan of the book (which I read annually) and the 1959 film. I went in with fairly low expectations, particularly regarding the poor early reviews. There will be some SPOILERS in the review that follows.

The plot summary that follows reveals some of the key changes from the previous film(s) and the book:

The basics of the plot are that Ben Hur is a Jewish prince whose adopted brother is a Roman, Messala. Messala goes to become a Roman soldier while Judah Ben Hur remains back in Jerusalem. When Messala returns, he wants Judah to help him track down zealot dissidents. Judah refuses, and when one of the dissidents attacks the new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Messala takes the whole Hur family into custody, sending Judah to the galleys as a slave. Judah escapes after a battle at sea and with the help of Sheik Ilderim, challenges Messala at a chariot race. He defeats his rival, disabling Messala for life. However, when he sees Jesus crucified and hears him call out forgiveness, Judah realizes his error and returns to Messala to ask for, give, and receive forgiveness. The two reunite and continue to live as brothers going forward.

Again, these are the plot basics and I don’t even touch there on the wonderful character of Esther or some of the other sub plots that occur in the film. For those familiar with the other versions, some of these plot points will be surprising. For me as a viewer, it was refreshing to see them not stick 100% to previously told versions. Some of these changes were for the better. Frankly, to show Messala and Judah reunite as brothers (though the adoptive brother spin was a bit much) at the end shows the forgiveness that is so central to the novel in a much better way.

However, some of the other changes were more difficult to swallow. For example, excising the story of Judah saving a Roman consul wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–it helps keep the pace going. But it also meant that there was little explanation for just how Judah became such a good chariot racer. Yes, he knew about horses before, but it is clear from the portrayal of conversations with Ilderim that he is a novice at chariot racing. How, then, does he suddenly defeat some of the best in the whole region of Judea? The film answers the question through tutelage from Ilderim, but it could have much more tidily and believably answered it by having Judah and Messala race chariots at the beginning of the film where they are portrayed racing on horseback. If he already knew about racing chariots, it would be much more believable. Small details like this are the main complaints I have with the plot. Overall, I think it did a great job capturing the spirit of the novel.

One of the other complaints with the film is the extensive use of CGI in some key scenes. Yes, the naval combat in the 1959 version has some dated elements, but it was awe inspiring to behold. Here, we have what is clearly an extended use of computer graphics rather than the epic way it has been filmed before. The chariot race was still pretty magnificent, but taking out the menacing teeth on Messala’s chariot and, again, using CGI to help flip the chariots around more cheapened it slightly. It was good; but not as good as the earlier version.

I liked that Esther had such a prominent role throughout the film, acting as a woman of faith and integrity throughout. Moreover, they showed women in the garden when Jesus was arrested, which almost certainly was the case given the number of female followers Jesus had. I also, as mentioned, enjoyed the strengthening of the Messala-Judah relationship. It helped show the them of forgiveness in a much more intentional way than was otherwise the case.

Frankly, it is this last aspect that I enjoyed most about the film- the wise use of various scenes to strengthen the worldview themes of the story in ways that didn’t bog down the film. It was so well-paced that I never felt bored or that something could have or should have been much shorter.

Overall, is it as good as the version with Charlton Heston? No. In my opinion, nothing could be that good. It’s my favorite movie ever. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. It has enough differences to make it interesting, and it is done so smartly that it warrants repeated viewings. As I said I went in with low expectations, and those were lowered by early reviews. However, I enjoyed it quite a bit and felt it was a worthy reimagining of the story. I recommend it highly.

The Good

+Uses many actors I haven’t seen anywhere else
+Wonderful themes poignantly told
+Very well-paced
+Capably retells the tale in a fresh way
+Good portrayal of women

The Bad

-Little explanation for how Ben Hur became so good at a chariot race
-Longtime fans of other versions may be disappointed by key omissions
-Over-reliance on CGI for some of the more epic scenes

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace– The post introducing this entire series on “Ben Hur.” It has links to all the posts in the series.

Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic– I look at the 1959 epic film from a worldview perspective. How does the movie reflect the deeply Christian worldview of the book?

SDG.

All Rights Reserved. Use of any elements of this post subject to approval by the author.

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80s Fantasy Movie Review: “The Beastmaster”

the-beastmaster

Yet another epic movie poster. This one looks an awful lot like a Star Wars poster.

I embarked on a quest to watch through Tor’s list of 80s Fantasy. I have only seen an embarassingly small number of the movies on that list, and have decided to rectify that! Next up is “The Beastmaster,” a highly controversial and still well-loved flick. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Master of the Beasts

“The Beastmaster” is a movie I have heard people rant and/or rave about for some time. In my viewing of it it was… uneven.

The plot was, in a word, microscopic. The Beastmaster has some special skill thing of communicating with animals and so he goes on a quest to be a voyeur over some women and get revenge kind of. Also he has a sword that looks cool but that he doesn’t use very much. Oh, and ferrets are his secret (and best) weapon. It’s not entirely clear–ever–how the different plot details interweave (or if they do) and why various things happen. There is also no real sense of a wider world beyond what you see in the movie. No lore seems to be in the background. What you see is what you get.

There was one scene that had a hint of mystery, and that was the place of the birdmen or whatever they are supposed to be called. They looked more like weird bats to me, but I don’t think the movie’s lore will be very picky either way. There was something there that could have made an interesting tidbit of story but instead we have pretty much no words spoken and they just happen to show up to help save the day at the final battle. Why? I don’t know, because the Beastmaster has an eagle animal companion or something.

The scenes with the animals were interesting and at times pretty cool. But I couldn’t get over it: I think there has to be something said about the treatment of animals in this movie. Honestly, it was tough to watch a few of the scenes with the ferrets. I mean this wasn’t computer generated stuff–they just almost let some poor ferret drown. It turns out the eagle was also dropped out of a hot air balloon because it wouldn’t fly how they wanted it to, and the tiger they painted black for some reason died due to the paint they used on it. Not a very solid track record.

There was also some unnecessary nudity again. I might come off prudish for pointing this out so much, but 80s fantasy flicks sure liked to have nudity, apparently. I just think that it doesn’t add anything to the film and is a bit vulgar. It didn’t help that the Beastmaster was highly exploitative in his own treatment of women. Oh well, it would be hard to expect more from a guy who abuses animals for a kick.

“The Beastmaster” was okay. It had some entertaining moments, but it didn’t have the feeling of a larger world that other, better films on this list have had.

The Good

+Cool concept
+Neat-looking sword featuring lots of sword waving

The Bad

-Animal abuse
-Unnecessary nudity
-Drawn out for too long
-Microscopic plot

The Verdict

Grade: C-  “Some good ideas and a cool sword waving around aren’t enough to overcome the weirdness, lack of plot, and animal cruelty found herein.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Time to Watch some 80s Fantasy Flicks– I describe my quest to watch a bunch of 80s fantasy movies. This post also features links to all the reviews done so far.

A Ranking of 1980s Fantasy that would please Crom Himself– The original list of movies that made me embark on this quest.

SDG.

80s Fantasy Movie Review: “Conan the Destroyer”

Excuse me while I kill everything. - Conan

Excuse me while I kill everything. – Conan

I embarked on a quest to watch through Tor’s list of 80s Fantasy. I have only seen an embarassingly small number of the movies on that list, and have decided to rectify that! Here, I review one not on the list: “Conan the Destroyer.” I felt that it was a good choice to continue the quest because it is also an 80s fantasy movie. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Here’s the thing, there’s pretty much no plot or development of characters in the movie. They tried–really they did–at points to give viewers connections to the characters, but overall they didn’t exactly succeed. They’re all fairly one-dimensional.

The sets are really awesome, with all kind of interesting scenery to look at throughout. Fight scenes seem well choreographed with interesting swordplay. There is a good amount of humor found through the film as well, and very little of it falls flat. There is a real feeling of epic in every scene. It feels as though there are world-shattering  events happening, and that each battle is important.

The music is good, but it is pretty much the same theme song repeated over and over with occasionally different inflection.

Conan the Destroyer was fun. There’s just not a lot more to comment on. If you want to sit back and zone out while you watch a bunch of sword fights, this is a great way to do it. Don’t go in hoping for an epic plot, however. It’s not there.

The Good

+Epic feel
+Awesome sets
+Great fight scenes
+Decent humor

The Bad

-Very little plot
-Music good, but repeats a lot
-Slows down in places

The Verdict

Grade: B+ “Who needs plot when you have Conan? Super epic movie with awesome sets and great action. Loved it.”

Guest 1 (My Mother-in-Law): C+ “I was missing dialogue… I thought the dialogue was too brief. I could see that they were trying to make Conan sound and look like a Barbarian, but the dialogue was so brief that one might occasionally wonder if they’re all challenged mentally. Beautiful sets!”

Guest 2 (My Father-in-Law): “It was solid all the way through but never really gripping.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Time to Watch some 80s Fantasy Flicks– I describe my quest to watch a bunch of 80s fantasy movies. This post also features links to all the reviews done so far.

A Ranking of 1980s Fantasy that would please Crom Himself– The original list of movies that made me embark on this quest.

SDG.

Hopes for the next Star Wars Movies

sw-fa

We all have hopes and dreams for the rest of the new Star Wars trilogy. Here, I will be sharing mine. There will be all kinds of MAJOR SPOILERS in this post for the movie, so please avoid reading it until after you’ve seen it.

Side Characters 

The informant and her muscle man at Maz’s Castle were particularly interesting. In the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary I discovered that they are named Grummgar (the big guy) and Bazine (the woman with the black and white dress). According to that dictionary, Grummgar is a “big game hunter and gun-for-hire” who enjoys trophies of both the animal variety and the gorgeous woman variety. Having them show up as antagonists later would be pretty fun, in my opinion. I could see them working together to try to carry out an attack on Luke or Rey. Basically, I just want to see them again. I’d love to have a book like Tales from Jabba’s Palace that was instead Tales from Maz’s Castle. They need to get the books going again and expand the universe more.

I would like BB-8 to continue to be comic relief while still having a more serious personality. They did well with BB in “The Force Awakens” and I’d like that to continue.

Rey

First off, I want to say I think it’d be really dumb if she ends up being specifically related to Han/Leia or Luke. For one thing, it would be another example of a problem in the prequel trilogy: everyone knows each other/is related to each other. There is a whole galaxy of people available! Why must everyone be related to everyone else? For another, it doesn’t make sense in the plot they’ve already set up. Han and Leia had no recognition of her–and she remembered her parents well enough to wait for them–so it doesn’t make sense there. As for Luke, it stretches credulity to think that he would just abandon his daughter or that it really makes any sense for him to have fled across the galaxy over his nephew if he’d already abandoned his daughter.

Another intriguing aspect of Rey is what kind of lightsaber she might end up with. Her use of the quarterstaff opens up the possibility of her use of a double-bladed lightsaber, which would be awesome. The movie poster putting Kylo Ren’s red lightsaber along her quarterstaff also highlights this aspect. What color saber might she have? I don’t know, but I’m hoping for her to be a Jedi with the double-blade.

I’ve enjoyed how dynamic the discovery of Rey’s force powers has been, and I hope that continues. It was interesting to have her figure out how to do a mind control trick as opposed to witnessing it or being taught to do it.

Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren’s journey to the Dark Side must be explored, even if it is only through flashbacks. Moreover, they have set him up to go further down the path towards the Dark Side and so the question is whether he will have a redemptive moment or not. I think it would be better to not have a recapitulation of Vader and instead have a final battle scene in which Rey must kill Ren to end his threat. Think about it: a lightsaber scene akin to the Darth Maul vs. Qui-Gon Jinn/Obi Wan scene from Episode I (yes, I do think that scene, at least, was pretty well done) that features Rey vs. Ren. I’d love to see a huge, big scale lightsaber dual between the two as the capstone on the trilogy. Make it happen!

Finn

I’d like to learn more about how Stormtroopers are trained. It seemed like they are apparently taken at birth and trained in the system from birth, but how is this much different from a clone army (apart from not being clones)?

Finn’s development as a serious force on the battlefield is also full of possibility. He has elite Stormtrooper training. Could he end up as a major player in ground battles going forward? I think so. He needs to get a weapon all his own, though.

What about You?

What would you like to see in the movies going forward? What do you think of the scenarios I lined up? Let me know in the comments.

Links

Star Wars: The Force Awakens- A Christian perspective– I offer a worldview-level analysis of the film from a Christian perspective.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review– Here is my more traditional review of the movie.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

sw-faAs a huge Star Wars fan, who’s read 100+ Star Wars books and loved the movies since I first saw them, I have to say I loved The Force Awakens. I also know I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Hence, consider yourself SPOILER WARNED. Yes, I consider just about any new information about a film a spoiler, and I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you. So you have been warned, there are SPOILERS in this review.

Review

I, like just about everyone else I know, have been waiting breathlessly for the new Star Wars movie. Would it be good? Would Disney ruin it? Actually, I never had the thought of “Will Disney ruin it” because I figured the prequel trilogy was already not so great, so it didn’t matter much if Disney did ruin it. I could just pretend they were apocryphal imitations of the Star Wars I knew and loved.

Let’s just get it out of the way: I do not think this movie was ruined. I absolutely loved it. Is some of that the nostalgia they played upon? Absolutely. But does the film have genuine Star Wars feel? Totally.

The Force Awakens is filled with nods to the original trilogy in particular. Some might not like this, but for me it was needed and welcomed. It is like Disney was giving us one big Wookie hug, reassuring viewers that yes, this is Star Wars, and it is back. Along with these nods came some meta-jokes and references to both the Expanded Universe and concepts that were never included or changed in the original movies. I appreciated this kind of fan service, but what I appreciated more was that they never took over the film.

There was a stunning sense of newness intermingled with the sense of nostalgia here. Rey and Finn were fascinating characters (particularly Rey, who is totally awesome) with enough details of their backstories teased to get me quite interested in them in upcoming films. Other characters were tantalizing (like the First Order informant’s at Mox’s place, and Mox herself of course) enough to make me want to come back again and see some books based on them. Could we have a new Expanded Universe, please?

The use of models and real sets (and real-looking ones) made this feel much more like the original trilogy than the prequels. The whole film was clearly Star Wars.

The plot was also quite enjoyable, with the mystery surrounding Luke and Kylo Ren driving the plot. Kylo Ren was not nearly as scary/powerful as he could have been. To be fair, part of this might be because they are clearly building him up. One scene featured him looking at the helmet of Vader and apologizing for feeling like he was tempted by the Light. His choice to kill his father was not unexpected in the flow of the movie, and could lead to him gaining more of a Vader-like persona in the rest of the trilogy. I loved the ending with Rey approaching Luke. Luke Skywalker has pretty much always been my favorite Star Wars character. My son’s name is Luke (in part because it is also my favorite Gospel).

The music was good, though at times I barely noticed it. I think part of this was because unlike watching and re-watching the previous films, I had to pay attention to the plot the whole time. Every time I noticed the music, I enjoyed it immensely.

I loved The Force Awakens and cannot wait to see where the series goes next. Sign me up for the rest of the movies immediately.

The Good

+Star Wars feel through and through
+Great action
+Good use of characters old and new
+Solid music
+Star Wars is back

The Bad

-Kylo Ren not as intimidating as he should be

The Verdict

Grade: 

Links

Star Wars: The Force Awakens- A Christian perspective– I offer a worldview-level analysis of the film from a Christian perspective.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

 

 

SDG.

80s Fantasy Movie Review: “The Neverending Story”

Oh 80s posters. I miss you.

Oh 80s posters. I miss you.

I embarked on a quest to watch through Tor’s list of 80s Fantasy. I have only seen an embarassingly small number of the movies on that list, and have decided to rectify that! I have seen “The Neverending Story” before, however, multiple times. It’s been several years, though. What do I think of it this time around? There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

The Neverending Story was a favorite of mine that I didn’t discover until I was in high school. And, I’ll admit, I haven’t watched it since viewing it so many times in the last two years of high school. Thus, it’s been quite a bit of time since I last saw it and it was with some trepidation I watched it again. Would I accidentally destroy all the nostalgia I’d built up for this film?

I’m happy to report that re-watching the movie did not destroy my enjoyment of it. Looks like I didn’t get everything wrong in high school!

First off, the plot hook is great. A bullied kid lacking confidence who has just lost his mother find an escape in an epic fantasy novel. After delving in, however, it seems the novel is strangely aware of the reader, and indeed the world itself depends upon him!

That world itself is full of wondrous creatures and settings–some admittedly off-putting due to dated special effects. Each new scene has a new challenge to overcome, and as Atreyu’s quest to save the world continues, we as viewers feel as though the third wall has broken and we are involved in the story as well; we are just as present as Bastian in this universe.

The story, it must be admitted, is itself fairly standard fare. A hero is chosen to save the world. But it transcends its simplistic premise by interweaving elements of the “real” world and Bastian into the plot, while also presenting enough unique characters and locale to remain interesting throughout. There are some scenes in which the film drags, but these are few and fare between. Even in those scenes, the scenery and detail of costumes are so robust that I didn’t even care how slow it felt like it was moving.

The only real complaint I have about the film is that some of the special effects haven’t held up well at all. That’s not to be unexpected–it is over 30 years old, after all–but it can be distracting at times. But, often enough excellent sets and wonderful costumes are enough to offset whatever difficulties with imagination the special effects cause.

At its root, this is a story mostly about Bastian and the gaining of self-confidence in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, but it does so much more than that. It’s full of detail, wonder, and magic, as all fantasy should be.

 

Thus, we have the Neverending Story. Presumably it continues because it draws on the readers to construct it themselves; it forms a continuing chain of fantasy that, well, doesn’t end.  The movie, at a deeper level, is a call for those of us viewing it to continue to write the plot: to make our own stories, our own adventures, and our own fantasy. It’s a stirring story that cannot but be charming.

The Good

+Interesting and unique plot
+True sense of wonder
+The world seems very real
+Fun meshing together of the “real” world and fantasy
+Excellent costumes

The Bad

-At times fairly slow
-Some of the special effects don’t hold up well at all

The Verdict

Grade: “A film full of unique plot devices interwoven into a stirring and epic fantasy tale.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Time to Watch some 80s Fantasy Flicks– I describe my quest to watch a bunch of 80s fantasy movies. This post also features links to all the reviews done so far.

A Ranking of 1980s Fantasy that would please Crom Himself– The original list of movies that made me embark on this quest.

SDG.

80s Fantasy Movie Review: “Dragonslayer”

The existence of this poster makes the world a better place.

The existence of this poster makes the world a better place.

I embarked on a quest to watch through Tor’s list of 80s Fantasy. I haven’t seen many of those flicks, so I figured I’d watch through. Here, I review “Dragonslayer,” which promises to have at least one Dragon being slain. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

A boy who wants to be a wizard is given the mantle of his tutor when the former sacrifices himself, apparently for naught. Thus embarks an epic quest for the boy to slay the dragon.

I really wanted to love this movie. Who wouldn’t want to love a movie named “Dragonslayer”? But there are many problems here, and the longer I watched the more apparent they became. The movie moves very slowly. It seems like the actors were told that they should pause a few seconds so the camera could focus on them while they apparently deliberated internally for a length of time about whether to do something or not. The plot itself takes a long time to really develop. This isn’t always a bad thing; indeed, it can give a more epic feeling to a movie. But here, it’s as though the movie was artificially lengthened in order to draw it out more.

The plot is not just slow-moving, but it is also paper-thin. It takes a lot to type out all the details, but really this is just a kind of coming-of-age story with a bit of deus ex machina thrown in to slay a dragon. It’s cool at parts, but there’s not enough of substance or background to really give viewers a feel for the world. This is surprising, given how slow-paced the film is. But it was hard to care too much about the plight of the characters when they all seemed set against a kind of generic background. We never get a sense of a larger world in play  Another problem is that the voices of the main characters are really annoying. It’s hard to listen to Galen talk.

The twist in which wizard-man comes back to save everything by blowing up the dragon with… himself… is pretty awesome, but feels a tad contrived. But hey, I like cool things as much as the next person. Let’s just let this be cool. Also, the fact that the princess wasn’t saved was pretty shocking to me. The movie did do a good job in this category: unexpected twists. There aren’t a lot, but those that were there were pretty cool.

The movie has a classic epic premise: damsel in distress from dragon; dragon must be killed. But it just doesn’t go much beyond this classic premise and ends up feeling a bit cliche. Not a terrible movie, but not as epic as it could have been.

The Good

+Some cool scenes
+The plot twists are cool

The Bad

-Voices of main characters annoying
-Never quite lives up to its attempts to be epic
-Paper-thin plot with poorly developed world
-Slooooooooooow

The Verdict

Grade: C+ “I could never quite decide how I felt about the movie. I just never got sold on it.” 

Guest Score and comment: My wife gives the movie a B+ “‘Dragonslayer’ was slow at times but it was a pretty fun movie.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Time to Watch some 80s Fantasy Flicks– I describe my quest to watch a bunch of 80s fantasy movies. This post also features links to all the reviews done so far.

A Ranking of 1980s Fantasy that would please Crom Himself– The original list of movies that made me embark on this quest.

SDG.