The Slimline Monthly Update for September 2016

Keeping things to the point, this month.


#143 Ben-Hur (1959)
#144 Spotlight (2015)
#145 Midnight Special (2016)
#146 Rushmore (1998)
#147 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
#148 Tale of Tales (2015), aka Il racconto dei racconti
#149 Tokyo Tribe (2014)
#150 The Survivalist (2015)
#151 Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
#152 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
#153 Mr. Turner (2014)
#154 The Saint’s Return (1953), aka The Saint’s Girl Friday
#155 Westworld (1973)
#156 The Nice Guys (2016)
#157 Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Tokyo Tribe

The Nice Guys

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  • 15 new films this month, which is exactly the same as in August, and the 28th consecutive month with 10+ films.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film was right at the start, for a change. One of the definitive historical epics of classic Hollywood, it was the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur.



The 16th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I watched a couple of Best Picture winners in September, and a couple more that were nominated for the prize, but by far the most entertaining movie I saw this month was also the newest: Shane Black’s latest buddy action/thriller/comedy, The Nice Guys.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
No really bad films this month, but a few middling ones. A couple of those I didn’t expect all that much from and so wasn’t greatly surprised, but, after a tonne of hype in certain circles, I was a bit let down by Midnight Special.

The Dick Van Dyke Award for Performing with a Cockney Accent
Someone in Witness for the Prosecution, but I shan’t tell you who because if you’ve not seen it it might spoil it.

Least-Likely Catchiest Musical Refrain of the Month
Tokyo Tribe, never ever die! Tokyo Tribe, never ever die!

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Although a raft of challengers came close to deposing it, an early lead was set and maintained for this award by my review of Ben-Hur (1959 variety, of course).



This month: pirates, hitmen, Jedi, archaeologists, and sweet transvestites star in some of the most popular films of all time.


There’s an awful lot of TV on the way — will my film viewing suffer? (Cliffhanger!)

Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Blindspot: What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016

If you read enough blogs, you’ve probably seen Blind Spot lists/projects/whatever manifesting on them over the last week. For readers who don’t know what this Blindspot* thing is, it’s essentially “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” by another name. For readers who don’t know what “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” is, it’s essentially Blindspot with a more idiosyncratic name.

And if you have no idea what any of these words mean, I shall explain: you pick 12 films you’ve never seen but really want to / feel you should have / etc, then spend the next year watching one per month.

First: my 12 picks, in order of must-see-ness. Then, a few interesting (maybe) facts about them. After that, I’ll tell you how I picked them.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest




Grave of the Fireflies





The Pianist





12 Years a Slave





Barry Lyndon





Ben-Hur





The Maltese Falcon





Snatch.





The Sting





The Iron Giant





The Deer Hunter





Howl’s Moving Castle




A few facts about this year’s 12:

  • There’s a spread of 72 years between the oldest (The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and newest (12 Years a Slave, 2013). The latter is the most recent film I’ve yet included on WDYMYHS.
  • The 1970s make up 33% of the list. The 2000s are next with 25%. There’s one film apiece from the 1940s, 1950s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2010s.
  • The total listed running time is 27 hours and 3 minutes, making the average length of a film 2 hours and 15 minutes.
  • 58% of the list are over 2 hours long; 25% are over 3 hours! Only two are under 90 minutes.
  • The shortest is The Iron Giant (86 minutes), the longest is Ben-Hur (212 minutes).
  • Just one film this year is in black & white (it was 50/50 last year).
  • Just two aren’t originally in English… but as they’re anime, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll watch them with the English dub anyhow.
  • This year features only the third animated film to make it in to WDYMYHS… and the fourth… and the fifth. Previously animation has made up 5.6% of WDYMYHS titles. This year it’s 25%.

Whereas other people just seem to choose their films, I have to turn it into A System. (I’m the guy who posts 3,000 words of statistics about his own viewing every year — what did you expect?) I must admit that I was feeling a bit uninspired this year though, so my system is nothing like as complicated as the last two years (which you can read about here and here, if you like).

Essentially, I decided I fancied achieving some more awards on iCheckMovies. So I looked at all the lists I was getting close on — “close” in this case being any with 12 or fewer films to the next award (because of the 12 films on this list, y’see). That came to 43 lists. 43! Going through them, I noted down any unseen films that I own or have ready access to. That came to 209 films, of which 110 were on more than one list. Even with 43 lists, the most prolific film (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was on just 9, which I guess is testament to the randomness and wide-ranging spread of lists I was using.

Such low ‘scores’ meant the films were all ranked quite close together, so I also threw in that grand arbiter of film quality popularity, the IMDb Top 250, to see if it shook out a top 12. And, with the implementation of some familiar WDYMYHS rules, it did. Said rules were: no repeat directors (ta-ra, Amadeus and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind!), and that a WDYMYHS film I failed to see isn’t allowed on the next year’s list (cheerio, Princess Mononoke and City of God!)

At first I wasn’t quite sure about these selections, but having sat with them for a bit I feel better about them. As a whole group, they’re perhaps a bit more… mainstream (for want of a better word), and less quirky (for want of a better word), than my systems have generated in the past few years. Maybe that’s just a matter of perspective, though: there are two anime movies on there, and, though they’re both Studio Ghibli, I don’t know that we can call anime “mainstream” even now.

Anyway, there they are. Hopefully I’ll do better than 75% this year. Even if I don’t, getting round to seeing some of these is better than not getting round to any.


* No one can seem to agree if it’s one word or two. Regular readers will know how much this bugs me. ^