AFI Challenge: Ben-Hur

Well here we go. This is my first entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page); after this there’s only 99 left in store! And as far as first entries go, this one was pretty daunting. At #100 on the list is Ben-Hur.

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Although I had never seen it, I of course knew of Ben-Hur. The record-breaking winner of eleven Academy Awards that single-handedly saved MGM Studios from financial ruin in the early 1960’s. However, when talking about Ben-Hur today, it seems that other, less positive superlatives arise. Superlatives such as “really, really, really long,” and “really, really, really boring.” While I could respect what Ben-Hur once meant for the film industry, I fully expected to hate this movie as I went into it. It is because of this that I am happy to report that Ben-Hur managed to exceed all my expectations and prove the doubter within me wrong.

This film, based on the nineteenth century novel of the same name, is simply epic. Epic in scope, epic in execution, and, yes, epic in length. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive movie ever made. If you were to apply that label to a film in today’s market, it would mean only one thing: lots of CGI. But what Ben-Hur achieves, with its ambitious use of sets, extras, and practical effects, is more awe-inspiring than the majority of the big-budget blockbusters released this past year. Watching a line of hundreds of Roman soldiers march through green pastures is marvelous because you know that the men you see in the back, at least half a mile away from the primary on-screen action, are real. It all exudes a level of care that feels more epic than most other movies, then or now.

The film’s epic status is cemented in large part by its two primary action scenes, the most famous of which is the chariot race that occurs around two-thirds of the way through the movie. This sequence is thrilling to watch even today, and I’m sure it must have had audiences writhing in suspense during its initial release. As an action scene, it is remarkably well executed for a film that is over fifty years old; it focuses primarily on the riders within the race, but cuts to enough landscape shots of the grandstands surrounding the racers to give the viewer room to breathe. In fact, it was during these wide shots of the grandstands that I caught myself thinking “How on earth were they able to realistically depict a historic racing circuit without actually building it all from the ground up?” Subsequent research answered this question: they did build it from the ground up. One million dollars was allotted specifically to construction of this individual set, used only once in the film; they literally carved the area for the set out of a rock quarry. Epic indeed.

This individual shot probably cost around $5000

This individual shot probably cost around $5000

While I do agree that the chariot sequence was enthralling, I was most impressed by the other, less-appreciated action scene from the film: the episode of naval warfare that occurs around an hour into the movie. Roman galleys clash with barbarian frigates, exchanging volleys of arrows and cannon-fire (which look more like fireworks than anything else, but are impressive nonetheless). When two ships collide, hundreds of men clash in armed combat, attempting to overtake the opposing vessel. On top of this, we see all of the action take place in the middle of a vast ocean. Now, you’re probably thinking, “well, duh, it’s naval warfare, of course it takes place on an ocean.” But my question is how, back in 1959 no less, were they able film these chaotic scenes while simultaneously depicting the water in a realistic way? I don’t know. They could have used miniatures, but then how do you explain the shots where the actors are seen in the water, all while the giant boat is in frame? And how would they have been able to get all of the static shots of the boats (of which there are many) in the middle of an empty ocean? It’s not like they could have constructed a half-dozen life-size Roman galleys and transported them into the middle of the ocean, then proceed to film it all with the less-than-advanced technology from 1959. Then again, they carved an entire set out of a giant stone quarry, so perhaps I shouldn’t assume. In any case, whereas the chariot race had me in a state of suspense, this sequence had me in a state of wonderment. Simple movie magic, through and through.

I think I’ve appropriately demonstrated the epic nature of this film, but I haven’t really touched on the fact that it also contains a lot of heart. The story of Judah Ben-Hur, an exiled Jew from Jerusalem seeking vengeance, is as soulful as it is compelling. Some may complain about the film’s length, but it is necessary in order to serve the purposes of the story. We see enough of Judah’s life before his exile to truly sympathize with him when it’s all taken away. This is bolstered by the fact that his exile comes as the result of a betrayal from the Roman tribune of Jerusalem, a childhood friend of Judah’s. The tribune, Messala, is played with skill by Stephen Boyd who, along with Charlton Heston who plays Judah, establishes a very authentic friendship between the two. While Messala becomes evil a bit too quickly for it to come off as genuine, the context surrounding his betrayal seems very real.

Judah and Messala as friends, before the whole "despicable betrayal" thing

Judah and Messala as friends, before the whole “despicable betrayal” thing

Charlton Heston gives a good, if not great performance as Judah. But whatever skill is lacking in his performances is more than made up for by the compelling story around him. It’s epic, yet intimate. Suspenseful, but full of heart. However, my favorite aspect of the story is that it is all framed around the tale of Jesus Christ. The film focuses almost exclusively on Judah (no need to retell the story of Christ, already retold thousands of times as is), yet the Messiah has an almost overriding presence in this tale. I am by no means a religious person, and I wasn’t moved by the depiction of Christ in any spiritual way, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the extra level of meaning it brought to the film. The few scenes concerning Christ are delicately executed and never seem out of place. By the film’s conclusion, it becomes evident how instrumental Christ’s brief interjections were to Judah’s development as a human being. Christ saves his physical life, then his spiritual life as well. For a film with such grand stakes, this part of the story is rather poetic.

The story’s impact should be credited in large part to the direction by William Wyler. The film is shot beautifully in widescreen format. Wyler apparently did not care for this method, but he and his cinematographer, Robert Surtees, make great use of it, depicting vast landscapes and bustling cities all in a single shot. Everything seems to brim with life, whether its the sets or the characters themselves. And when the story reaches its emotional moments, Wyler isn’t afraid to bring out a monumental orchestral score to drive the point home. It may be heavy-handed, but boy is it effective.

There is a romance in here somewhere, along with some quite depressing scenes involving lepers and some ruminations on the nature of family and self-identity. If they come off as unimportant, it’s simply because the film has its priorities straight. This is a movie with a lot on its mind, but it has the good sense to stick closer to what’s interesting (epic action and Judah’s spiritual journey) than to what’s not (I’m looking at you Esther, you and your forced romantic subplot). All in all, in spite of an uninspired lead performance and a running length surpassing three and a half hours (there’s an intermission at around 2 hrs 15 min. I highly advise you to take advantage of it), Ben-Hur is still an extraordinary feat in the realm of filmmaking. I marveled at the action, empathized with the characters, and felt moved by its conclusion. So much of this movie just seemed to be larger than life, achieving things that no other film of its time could make claim to. In a word: epic.

I give Ben-Hur a rating of…

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

I surprised even myself with that ranking, but what can I say? I thought it was a great movie.

So have you seen Ben-Hur? If so, what did you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #100 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #99 on the list, Toy Story.

Ben-Hur Info
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg
Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, and Jack Hawkins
Running Time: 212 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Production Company: MGM Studio

Review: A Most Wanted Man

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You always feel a pang of sadness when you encounter a work of art by an artist who passed away too early in their lives. It’s hard to read the great novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and not ponder what other great literary ideas he could’ve given us. How far could James Dean’s career have gone had he not died at a tragically young age? Even listening to Biggie Smalls elicits sadness from me, just because it’s hard to imagine any other rapper holding his same level of talent. I expect that from this point on, this is how we will feel when watching films with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in them.

Hoffman owns his role in A Most Wanted Man, the last starring role he had prior to his tragic death earlier this year. I was happy to watch another incredible performance from Hoffman, but simultaneously sad to know that it’s likely to be the last we’ll ever see from him. Nonetheless, it was a still marvel to watch Hoffman lose himself in yet another character. Here he plays Günter Bachmann, a chain-smoking drinker who heads a shadowy anti-terrorist organization in Hamburg, Germany. While all of the characters, including Günter, inexplicably speak English at all times, each actor easily convinces the audience that they are actually German, not just Americans playing Germans.

Günter is tracking a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant with terrorist ties while simultaneously keeping tabs on a wealthy Islamic businessman/philanthropist whose dealings may be shadier than he lets on. The less you know about this movie’s plot going in, the better. It moves at a slow, methodical pace that some people might find “boring.” But know that with each passing minute, director Anton Corbijn carefully pieces together a puzzle with a wide cast of characters, each with disparate motives (the plot is based off the John le Carre novel of the same name).

The key players are almost unanimously portrayed with a delicate level of skill. Willem Dafoe plays a banker who unwittingly gets ensnared in Günter’s scheming, while Rachel McAdams plays the lawyer looking after the immigrant, who’s played by relative newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin. The chemistry between McAdams and Dobrygin is well-executed, and provides a crucial element of heart to a movie that often seems rather cold. Speaking of cold, the normally excellent Robin Wright pops in on occasion as a CIA operative, but fails to make any impression. She develops a relationship with Günter that seems awkward and forced. Maybe its just because Hoffman is so good, but she really pales in comparison.

But it really can’t be overstated, Hoffman is the key to this movie’s success. He adds depth to a character that could have easily become a stereotype, and never lets you know exactly who Günter is beneath his callous exterior. That is, until the film’s ending. All of the slow pacing and careful plotting leads to a surprisingly involving finale. As Corbijn lays the final piece in the puzzle, you just watch, heart-racing, unsure if someone is going to come out of the shadows and throw the entire puzzle to the ground.  I’ll stay silent on whether or not that happens, but you should definitely go watch this movie to find out.

I give A Most Wanted Man an …

A-

That means go see it right now!

Also, if you’re interested (I know you must be, all of my content is really interesting) I would put A Most Wanted Man at #4 on yesterday’s list of my favorite films of the year so far.

So have you seen A Most Wanted Man? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know below!

My Top Movies of 2014 (So Far…)

Earlier today I went to see the movie A Most Wanted Man in the theaters, and I decided that in between my reviews for the AFI Challenge, I could give you guys my opinions on recent releases that I have seen. So, on that note, expect a review for A Most Wanted Man within the next day.

To fill that time, I thought I’d give you guys a rundown of my favorite movies of the year so far, with just a brief description as to why I love them so much! For the purpose of building suspense for my review of A Most Wanted Man (I’m sure you must be counting the minutes), I’m going to exclude that movie from consideration on this list. Without further ado…

10. 22 Jump Street: An absolutely hilarious riot that really had no business being anywhere near as funny as it turned out to be. Despite having many surface similarities to the original, this sequel managed to take that concept and turn it into it’s own distinct story (if you even consider these movies to have a “story). The entire cast once again turns in great comedic performances, but Channing Tatum steals the show. This guy has a surprising amount of range, and he puts it on display here.

9. The Internet’s Own Boy: Uplifting. Ponderous. Shocking. Heartbreaking. These are all words that could be used to describe the story told in this documentary chronicling Aaron Swartz’s tragically short life. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s not particularly impressive, but the true story that it tells is one that everybody should see. One of the year’s most important movies.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson has another winner on his hands. After Moonrise Kingdom, one of my all time favorite movies, I wasn’t sure if Anderson could craft a satisfying follow-up. However, with the help of a great lead performance by Ralph Fiennes, he does exactly that. A fun and quirky (who would’ve thought?) adventure, whose best scene, surprisingly, involves a cat being thrown out of a window. I think this is the only movie in history where that statement is a compliment, rather than an insult.

7. Begin Again: There’s something beautiful about the power of music, and John Carney, director of Once, certainly knows how to take advantage of it. Bolstered off of strong performances by Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, this movie proceeded to completely win me over with its lovely soundtrack and fun story.

6. Neighbors: I don’t care if he plays himself in every single movie, Seth Rogen is a funny dude with reasonably strong acting chops. This movie proved to be a perfect showcase for his talents, which he uses to spar with the equally excellent Rose Byrne and, shocker, Zac Efron. I’m serious… Zac Efron is really good in this movie. Could this be to him what 21 Jump Street was to Channing Tatum? I think so. What puts this particular movie so high up on this list, though, is its heart. I genuinely cared about the characters and their relationships by the end of this movie; it all came off as authentic and meaningful. These days, that’s a rare thing to find in a comedy.

5. Mistaken for Strangers: I am very biased in my love for this film, because The National is one of my current favorite bands (if you don’t know who they are, go look them up now. “Lemonworld,” “Sea of Love,” and “Fake Empire” are my favorite songs of theirs. Now go!). That being said, this is a very strong piece of documentary movie-making all on its own. Not content to simply be the band’s “concert movie,” director Tom Berninger, brother of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, crafts a deeply touching story about their relationship as brothers. If you have siblings that you are close to, I guarantee you will be quite moved by this film, and its especially terrific final scene.

4. Obvious Child: Don’t let its moniker as the “abortion comedy” steer you away from this really poignant tale. While I don’t expect ardent pro-life supporters to enjoy this movie, I found it to be lovely and I’m not even sure of my own views on the issue of abortion. Jenny Slate delivers a layered, yet hilarious lead performance. What I loved most about this movie was that it completely avoided this topic’s common tropes. The characters don’t treat abortion in an overly-dramatic, Oscar-bait type way, but instead in a manner that I expect most (pro-choice) twenty-somethings with an unwanted pregnancy would actually react. There’s something to be said for a movie that’s able to exercise such restraint.

3. Ida: Ida presents a pretty compelling case as to why color in movies is an unnecessary gimmick. Beautifully shot in beautiful black-and-white, with a beautiful story and beautiful performances, I found this film to be rather beautiful (I’m now at the point where I’m not sure if beautiful is a real word lollll). There’s a certain methodical nature to many European films that American audiences often find “boring.” It is true. The story of Anna, a nun who discovers that she is of Jewish ancestry and that her real name is Ida, isn’t exactly the most gripping of movies. But through its disciplined plotting, Ida builds to a conclusion that touched me in a way very few American films are even capable of.

2. Snowpiercer: Does Snowpiercer have some minor inconsistencies in the presentation of its world? Yes, definitely. And you know what? I don’t care. This is one of the most joyfully creative movies I’ve seen in a long time. My fascination with this world and story was reminiscent of how I felt watching Star Wars for the first time. I was just smiling throughout all of its unexpected twists and turns, soaking in the aesthetic pleasures that came with them. All of it builds to an ending that is as satisfying as it is insane. Some may not warm up to the style of Korean director Bong Joon-ho, but for me? The snow was definitely pierced. (I’m funny right?)

1. Boyhood: I’m probably one of thousands of people who considers Boyhood to be their favorite film of 2014 thus far. And you know why? Because it’s an absolutely amazing movie. Much has been made of director Richard Linklater’s decision to film the movie over the course of twelve years, but that’s far from the best thing about this movie. Instead, that method enables Linklater to convey his more touching messages regarding the very essence of not just growing up, but living life in general. Each individual scene is generally not related to the ones that came before it or those that will follow. But when put together, they create a beautifully realized portrait of a young man’s life. As an 18 year old boy who has lived in the exact same span of time that this movie was filmed, I of course related to the story. But my 50 year old mom found it to be just as wonderful as I did, as did my girlfriend. This movie will affect you no matter your age or gender. And I am not a crier, in any way, but after this movie ended, I wept like a little baby. I’m sure in a year, this movie will be in the upper half of my favorite movies of all time.

So, what do you guys think of my choices? Did I make any egregious errors, or exclude one of your favorite movies? Keep in my mind that I have not seen anywhere near all the movies released this year. Let me know what you think!

Up and Running!

Hey there non-existent reader base, I’m happy to inform you that this past afternoon I successfully signed up for WordPress.com and purchased rights to the (somehow not already taken) domain name “afichallenge.com.” For more information on what exactly the AFI Challenge is, or who I am for that matter, feel free to check out the ABOUT section of the blog/site (whatever you want to call it).

I’ll post my first movie review this upcoming Monday, and expect maybe some small tidbits in the meantime. Thanks for checking out this site, and I hope you become a frequent visitor!