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Review: Casting, script issues plague epic’s remake

/ 01:09 AM December 12, 2014

To what do we owe the second coming of the biblical epic?

A genre that was once as moldy as stale communion wafers was reborn this year, first with Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and now with Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods & Kings.” The resurrection is partly to capitalize on the faith-based moviegoing audience and partly because the Bible offers stories suited to this blockbuster era, offering both spectacle and name-brand familiarity.

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Over 50 years after “The Ten Commandments,” sandals are back in style. We can only hope the trend culminates in a seemingly ordained bit of casting: Someone has got to make a Jesus film with Jared Leto.

But big-tent Old Testament tales are no easy sell in times marked by both religious discord and secular disbelief. “Noah” was interesting because it saw the ark-builder as hero of environmentalism, a protector of both morality and animals.

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The 3-D “Exodus” also refashions Moses (Christian Bale) for modern times, giving us an action-film combatant who’s less a conduit for God than a strong-minded individual whose beliefs mostly jibe with the deity who secretly appears to him. (God is seen here as an impatient child, played by the 11-year-old Isaac Andrews).

“Exodus” begins promisingly, with a bald John Turturro in makeup. As the Egyptian pharaoh Seti, father of Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and king to Moses’ prince, Turturro gives the film a touch of camp, a necessary ingredient to any successful biblical epic. Scott ought to have kept it up.

Monochrome masculinity

However, the director of “Gladiator” isn’t known for lightness of touch, but rather for a monochrome masculinity. His “Exodus” is action-heavy and more interested in the computer-generated scale of Egyptian palaces, the grotesque visitation of plagues (from the bloody Nile to the locust swarms) and the mass movements of the Hebrews.

Yet after Seti’s death and Ramses’ ascendance to the throne, “Exodus” seems to lessen in scope, turning into a mano-a-mano drama between the stepbrothers Ramses and Moses, who’s exiled after the discovery of his Hebrew birth.

For an epic, there are only two clearly seen characters in “Exodus,” with supporting players like Ben Kingsley (as a Hebrew elder), Sigourney Weaver (as Seti’s wife) and Aaron Paul (as a Hebrew slave) all but inconsequential.

The leads, you may have noticed, are uniformly white, which has spawned a controversy not abetted by Scott’s defense that his stars were necessary for financing. The skin color of the ancient Egyptians isn’t known certainly, and historical accuracy is never much a consideration to biblical epics. But that “Exodus” chose to ignore this issue of representation speaks to the film’s general lack of curiosity. It’s after spectacle, not questions.

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Big scenes

“Exodus” does indeed supply the big scenes. Slowly accepting his destiny and his Hebrew heritage, a bearded Moses rallies the Israelites and leads them to the climactic moment at the Red Sea (which isn’t as sumptuously rendered as you’d expect).

Throughout, Edgerton’s Ramses (who in the film’s best image, wraps a python around himself) is generally befuddled by the happenings. Bale’s Moses is a reluctant, weary prophet. He may be the only actor who would barely bat an eye in scenes with the Almighty. Burning bushes don’t impress this Batman.

The film’s most emotional moment comes at the end. Before the credits roll, Scott dedicates the film to his late brother, Tony Scott. It adds a tender dimension to the film’s brotherly psychodrama. But as a self-proclaimed agnostic, Scott would be better to leave Moses to a believer. Jake Coyle, AP

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TAGS: Darren Aronofsky, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Movie Review, Noah
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