Friday, December 12, 2014

In Theaters: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

(US/Spain - 2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass, Ewen Bremner, Isaac Andrews, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Dar Salim, Andrew Tarbet, Ken Bones, Hal Hewetson, Kevork Malikyan, Giannina Facio. (PG-13, 150 mins)

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Ridley Scott's epic, gargantuan retelling of the saga of Moses and Ramses, arrives on a wave of controversy so large that it could riding the parted Red Sea. Yes, the lead actors have an overwhelmingly white shade to them, no matter how much bronzing makeup they're wearing, and such casting is as antiquated a notion as massive, bloated Biblical epics of the Cecil B. DeMille variety. On one hand, it's nice to see something like this getting made today, but on the other, whether it's the legitimate issues of casting or addressing concerns of religious audiences, attempting a film of this sort in 2014 just seems to be asking for trouble, as evidenced by the myriad of theological hissy-fits surrounding the release of Darron Aronofsky's NOAH earlier this year.

Scott doesn't go as far off the rails here as Aronofsky did, and if there's any director who could pull something like this off today, it's the seemingly ageless BLADE RUNNER director. 77 years old and showing no signs of slowing down (though, like Clint Eastwood, he cranks his movies out so quickly that you have to question how much work he's delegating to the second unit, overseen by his son Luke), Scott is to be commended for making his CGI spectacles look as organic and practical as possible.  He's come a long way from the blurry, unconvincing Coliseum crowd shots of GLADIATOR in the primitive days of 2000.  With EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Scott goes old-school to a certain extent: the CGI and VFX teams handle the bulk of the heavy lifting, but there's an unusual number of actual sets in Spain and the Canary Islands, with real, costumed people milling about on them, and it makes a difference. It brings a living, breathing vitality to these scenes. Of course, digital takes over when it has to, but even then, Scott and the technicians go the extra mile to make it look convincing. As it is, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS isn't one of Scott's essential films, but it's one of his best-looking.

The core story remains the same: in Memphis in 1300 BCE, Moses (Christian Bale) is a general in the army of Egyptian pharoah Seti (John Turturro as Mark Strong). Seti trusts Moses and views him as just as much of a son as his actual offspring, the vain Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Seti even privately confesses to Moses that he feels he would make a better leader than Ramses. Moses goes on an official mission to Pitham to check in on Seti's Viceroy (Ben Mendelson) overseeing the Hebrew slaves and concludes that the Viceroy is living too much like royalty, wasting too much money, and blatantly mistreating the slaves. While there, Moses is informed by aged slave Nun (Ben Kingsley) that he was born a Hebrew and raised an Egyptian. Moses refuses to believe Nun's story but when the Viceroy gets wind of it, he reports the news to Ramses, who has just succeeded his late father. Ramses is conflicted, but exiles Moses out of Memphis. Nine years pass and Moses is now a shepherd married to Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and with a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson). When Moses is hit on the head during a mudslide, he has a vision of God, personified as a young boy (Isaac Andrews), who tasks him with freeing his people. Once back in Memphis, where Ramses has become every bit the cruel tyrant Seti predicted, Moses' efforts are slow and ineffective, prompting God to take matters into His own hands and unleash the ten plagues on Egypt. Ramses, perhaps one of civilization's earliest one-percenters, refuses to free the Hebrew slaves, citing the economic impossibility, though after the plague of the first-born claims his own son, the devastated Pharoah tells Moses and the slaves to leave. He quickly has a change of heart, swearing vengeance on Moses and leading his army into the mountains to kill Moses and the slaves, who had a four-day head start but are stopped by the Red Sea.

Scott and the committee of screenwriters (among them SCHINDLER'S LIST Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian) borrow a little of Scott's GLADIATOR with the recurring theme of a king father expressing doubts about his son's ability to rule (think of Richard Harris' Marcus Aurelius' concerns about Joaquin Phoenix's petulant Commodus). There's other interesting elements, like some present-day political parallels and the vengeful, Old Testament God being a little kid. Bale is a suitably driven, intense Moses and there's some ambiguity whether this could all be in his head. Though he doesn't take a strictly secular approach, Scott attempts to rationalize some of the more spiritual elements, such as the parting of the Red Sea being a catastrophic weather event complete with storms and swirling funnel clouds. The visual effects in the last third of the film, particularly the show-stopping parting of the Red Sea and Ramses' army's chariots trying to navigate narrow mountain roads, are jawdropping in 3D. But there's some negatives: as Ramses, Edgerton has little to do but scoff and scowl after a while, and the rest of the cast is really left adrift by some choppy editing and what would seem to be a contractual stipulation that Scott keep the film at 150 minutes, which it clocks in at exactly. Scott is one of the chief proponents of director's cuts and extended versions for DVD and Blu-ray (the director's cut of his 2005 epic KINGDOM OF HEAVEN being a textbook case held in especially high regard), and it's often painfully obvious that there's a longer EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS that will be surface at some point in the future (maybe doing this as a high-profile HBO or Netflix miniseries where characters and conflicts could be adequately established and built upon would've been a better idea). After a strong start, details start getting glossed over on the way to Moses' exile and then again during his return and the plagues, and Scott starts filling in the blanks with montages. Kingsley is in the whole film and is the focus of a few scenes, but mainly he's just hanging around in the background. At least he gets the spotlight once in a while, which is more than you can say for Aaron Paul as Joshua and Sigourney Weaver as Seti's wife Tuya, both of whom have almost no dialogue and whose entire roles consist of little beyond nodding or looking concerned about something someone else has said (Ramses is reluctant to banish Moses, and it's implied that Tuya is actually behind his forced exile, but it's hard to tell, since all she does is glare at him when it's brought up). Weaver had more screen time with her cameo in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, and she and Paul are nothing more than prominently-billed extras here. Like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN's theatrical cut, it's a safe assumption that what's here is a compromised, incomplete version, and it's likely that a longer cut will expand on the themes and give its supporting cast something to do. As it is, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, but unfortunately, it feels like you're only getting about 75% of it.

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