Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mediocre in Comparison

Ben Hur was on my movie watching list this weekend and I relived the days of yore when William Wyler directed Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in their epic grudge match. Aside from realizing that Charlton Heston was wearing a really bad wig and beard as a rower in the bowels of Roman galleys, the movie still thrilled me. Maybe it was the music. It could've been knowing that the villa where Heston and his family stayed during the filming of Ben Hur was crawling with lice, as the Italian scandal sheets claims, or that Stephen Boyd nearly went blind during the filming because he had to wear two pairs of brown contacts to hide his brilliant blue eyes. It was mainly because the musical score stirred my emotions almost as much as watching Judah ben Hur and Messala fight it out in the circus as they took their grudge match to the circus and fought it out with their chariots. The movie holds up even after more than 50 years.

As Amazon always does, they suggested more movies for me to watch and I was surprised to find a remake of Ben Hur of a more recent vintage. The remake starred Joseph Morgan (The Vampire Diaries) and Stephen Campbell Moore (Hunted and He Knew He Was Right) and was a miniseries made for TV in 2010, which is probably how I missed it before. I don't watch TV. I haven't even turned on my TV in 3 or 4 years. I do dust it infrequently, but I don't turn it on. I think the batteries in the remote are likely corroded as well. Oh, well.

Anyway, I watched the remake. There is a grittier look to the movie and it is a much smaller scale in terms of story and scenery. There are also a lot of changes made to Lew Wallace's 1883 novel, which I am in the process of reading. I want to know exactly what was changed and how. I do know that Cecil B. DeMille's version of the book with Heston and Boyd was much closer to the original story, and to the first time DeMille made the movie with Ramon Novarro. (Yes, I have seen the older version.)

For starters, there was lots of nudity, male and female, and there was sex, quite a bit of sex, but only with Messala's father's personal whore, Athene, who was also adept at the art of poisoning. After all, how is a senator like Marcellus Agrippa supposed to ascend to power without poison adept whores who  gain access to a rival's bed so he can whisper state secrets in the afterglow of sex? A man is less able to think clearly once his interest has been aroused -- and sated.

Where Heston's Judah was chaste and focused on revenge, Morgan's Judah loses his virginity to Athene and continues to bed her, especially since she taught him how to please her so fully.

Instead of Esther being a slave and Judah's property, she is the daughter of the merchant Simonides. Simonides wishes to form a more lasting alliance by betrothing Esther to Judah. Big difference there, and one I'm sure was not in Wallace's book, not to mention Simonides being crucified in Judah's place after the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, played simperingly by Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), who is struck by the falling tile Judah knocked from the roof of his home. Oops! I thought it was Tirzah who knocked loose the tile while Judah took the blame. Guess not -- at least not in the miniseries.

I could go on for at least another 10,000 words explaining the differences between the 1959 and the 2010 versions of the movie. What I noticed most is that Morgan and Moore looked more like boys playing the parts of Judah ben Hur and Messala while Heston and Boyd brought not only their stardom to the parts, but gravitas and power that Morgan and Moore lacked, even though Morgan and Moore were nude more often. After all, everyone knows that nudity and sex make a story more real and popular when on the screen -- little or big. And I don't mean the size of breasts or penises either.

Morgan simpered and pursed his full lips in place of real acting and Moore was marginally better in his close cropped hair and shining bronze armor. Where Boyd had smiling and venomous villainy, Moore was conflicted and weak in his bitter rivalry, which amounted to little more than constipated pique. About the only truly villainous character was David, played by Marc Warren (Hogfather as Teatime), who traded his overseer's position for ownership of Judah ben Hur's vast fortunes and coveted Esther. His lying, scheming, back-stabbing best nearly eclipsed Moore's vengeful Messala, who turned out to be Marcellus Agrippa's bastard son and a man who felt he didn't measure up to his Roman father's high standards. After all, his mother, who died when Messala was a boy, was another of Marcellus's personal poisoning whores. A slave.

There was far too much modern psychology in place of real characters with real motives in the remake that will appeal to audiences who haven't seen the 1959 version of Ben Hur on the big screen. The pretty boys and sex did nothing to enhance the remake and the only stand
out performance wasn't by Ben Cross, who played the frightened tyrant, Emperor Tiberius, but by Art Malik, the Sheikh Ildarim. Malik's mischievous sheikh was a match for Hugh Griffith's smoldering and lightning tempered sheikh bent on proving the 4:1 odds were more in favor of the Jew -- and Arab -- than the Romans.

I'd give the 2010 remake of Ben Hur a mediocre 3/5 stars on its own de-merits. It is an admirable attempt at reimagining Lew Wallace's sweeping epic that succeeded only in gritty and realistic scenery and pretty much failed in elevating these boys to the larger than life characters and heart of the story. It was, at best, amusing at times, and quite mediocre the rest of the time.

Review: Blood Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

Ever since a friend recommended The Gift by Alexandra Sokoloff, I've been intrigued by Sokoloff's gift for creeping horror and surprising stories. I didn't know then that she was also a screenwriter, which explains how she is able to pain scenes that jump off the page. That is no less true for Blood Moon the second book in the FBI Thriller series that began with Huntress Moon. 

Blood Moon begins where Huntress Moon ended with Special Agent Matt Roarke chasing Cara Lindstrom, the only survivor of The Reaper's bloody family murders. Baptized in blood, Cara is that rarest of serial murders, a female serial killer. Roarke isn't quite convinced that Cara is a serial killer, rather more a vigilante, which is in keeping with who she kills -- men who have wronged women by rape, murder, incest, and violence. That is how Roarke first becmae involved with Cara; she said something to his undercover agent before pushing him into the path of oncoming traffic until the agent was a bloodied, broken smear on the highway.

In Blood Moon, Roarke is expressly forbidden to continue investigating Cara Lindstrom and ordered to get back to work on his organized crime take-down, but Roarke is emotionally invested in pursuing Cara. Good thing there is a holiday coming up and he and his team have a good plan for moving on Cara by tricking her into believing they are after The Reaper, a case they know will get her attention so they can get her.

While searching for a similar murder to pretend to investigate as if The Reaper was active again, Roarke and his team stumble into the midst of The Reaper's latest killing -- or so they think. All the signs are there, but Cara is nowhere to be found. She's off on business of her own, working from an apartment in the Haight in San Francisco. Cara kills again and Roarke is two steps behind The Reaper who is actually killing again in a small community in the mountains.

Alexandra Sokoloff has created a very realistic set of characters with easily recognizable quirks and talents, a team that works well together -- most of the time. Roarke's second is a dapper man who prefers the good things in life and is close enough to Roarke to realize his friend and colleague has mixed feelings about Cara Lindstrom, especially when it comes to catching her. Roarke isn't acting at all like his efficient self and that has Epps frustrated and angry. Epps doesn't want to lose his friend or see him in jail.

The relationship between Cara and Roarke has its ups and downs, but there is a noticeable pull between them that is not only understandable but makes sense -- inside and outside of the book. They are bound together by forces stronger than cop chasing criminal, forces forged when Cara was found alive in the wake of The Reaper's bloody spree. Both were forged in the blood of The Reaper's kills but took different paths.

Although the creepy horror that infused Huntress Moon is not a part of Blood Moon, the boogey man -- or woman -- have been unmasked, there remains a strong sense of purpose and excitement when it is revelaed that The Reaper has returned and is hunting families again. As clue by clue Roarke gets closer to understanding The Reaper's motives and his methods, the sense of purpose grows stronger.

Sokoloff sets up scene after scene of horror made more horrific by the idyllic surroundings and placid, happy lives that are touched by the Evil of The Reaper's evolving pattern. Blood Moon is horrifying at moments, but at it's heart is an exciting chase after Evil as Evil is being redefined and refined. Justice becomes less clearly defined and more satisfying when reached.

One question remains. How do you define justice?