Ben-Hur [2016] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

Judah Ben-Hur was a prince of the Jews, and he was close with Messala, his adopted brother.  However, after Messala leaves to make a name for himself in the Roman army, their friendship was strained.  But disaster struck the Ben-Hur family when they were falsely accused of an assassination attempt against a Roman leader.  Messala refuses to acquit them and thus allows Judah Ben-Hur and his family to be taken captive by cruel Rome.  Years later, when given a second chance a life, Judah must decide how he is going to respond.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

The one thing you can say for Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is that they know what it takes to fund and create a top-notch production.  In this controversial remake, there are at least good on-set locations and realistic props.  Camera work is usually good in action and non-action scenes, but sometimes there is some dizzying and wild camera work.  Video quality is obviously clear and lighting is professional.  There are no audio errors, but the soundtrack sometimes does not fit the historical period.  Finally, the editing is quite poor as this previously three-and-a-half-hour film is shoved into a two-hour runtime.  But otherwise, this is the sort of production we need more of in Christian film.

Plot and Storyline Quality (0 points)

When an original film is so iconic, there is little point in trying to remake it except to make money off of the name.  The original Ben-Hur was a ground-breaking classic for its time, which makes even more ridiculous the fact that this modern take on the story completely alters the original plot for no reason.  As Morgan Freeman tells you everything you need to know through narration, time rushes by at breakneck pace in an attempt to hit all the carbon-copy high point scenes of the original film.  Thus, as the film speeds along, there is no time to get to know the characters or connect with their struggles.  One minute they’re here, and the next minute they are there.  The presentation is so lazy and pandering that it’s laughable.  The writers do just enough to remind you of the old movie while at the same time turning the plot inside out for little reason.  The whole experience is overly dramatic and off-putting, thus making for a disappointing film.

Acting Quality (0 points)

As if changing the story wasn’t enough, Burnett and Downey had to drag a whole slew of BRITISH people to play Jewish and Roman characters again.  What would people have said if Morgan Freeman’s African character had been cast as a white British dude?  Besides cultural inconsistencies, the acting is simply too dramatic.  Though the costuming is historically realistic, it’s not enough to make up for the mistakes of this section.  This is another bust.

Conclusion

Burnett and Downey have perfected the model of lazily ripping off and ruining Biblical and historical plots in order to make money.  What they have not perfected is actually using the rare money and resources they are able to somehow acquire for their films for something good and effective.  They are one of the rare production teams that have the ability to actually make a respectable, well-marketed, and recognizable Christian movie, but they fail at it every time, even drawing criticism from mainstream outlets.  The question is, where do they go from here?

 

Final Rating: 2 out of 10 points

 

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A.D.: The Bible Continues (Series Review)

Plot Summary

After the death of Christ, His followers were lost and confused.  But following His miraculous Resurrection from the dead, He appeared to them and gave them new strength to carry out a new task: taking His gospel to all people.  After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, His apostles and other followers stopped at nothing to tell everyone of what they had witnessed in and through Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.  Though opposition came at them from every side, the cause of Christ did not fail but only gained more followers.  Even as Christian persecution became a global event, even the ‘worst’ of sinners came to follow the Resurrected Savior.

 

Production Quality (2.5 points)

Following closely on the heels of mixed results of The Bible Epic Miniseries, A.D.: The Bible Continues uses similar production elements, yet improves upon them.  The surroundings are still gritty and realistic, allowing the audience to see that the events after the crucifixion of Christ were very real.  The camera work is exquisite—many things indicate that money was well spent in A.D.  The musical score is engaging and the special effects are used responsibly.  Really the only production complaint to raise is some slightly inconsistent editing—were more unnecessary parts cut and more essential parts amplified, production would have been perfect.  But there is still much to be proud of here; Mark Burnett and company definitely learned from past production mistakes and proved that they can do better in A.D.

Plot and Storyline Quality (2 points)

In contrast to the breakneck pace of The Bible, A.D. elects to follow a slower pace.  Since this is not an exclusively Biblical series, historical context is responsibly explored—it actually aids and enhances the Biblical narrative.  The political elements are intriguing—some of these characters are better than others—yet this portion of the series tends to eat up too much of the runtime.  Some screen time should have been taken away from certain political characters, such as Caiaphas’ unrealistic wife, and given to Biblical characters with more potential.  Yet there is still much to enjoy in the Biblical plot lines.  The events of Acts are portrayed very well; A.D. actually accomplishes the goal of bringing a part of the Bible to life.  Historical truths are introduced in slightly unexpected ways without compromising authenticity.  While the early Christians could have been developed better, they are pretty good as they are.  There are also peripheral characters that are intriguing, yet tend to get squeezed out of the picture.  Were it not for a good deal of wasted time, the overall plot of A.D. would probably have been perfect.  It is a pretty good example of what a Biblical-historical series should be and can serve as a blueprint for the future.

Acting Quality (2 points)

While British actors and actresses are still employed, A.D. does something revolutionary: cast diversity in first century Judea.  Some may consider African characters in this narrative to be inaccurate, and while there should still be more Middle Eastern characters, there is really no historical precedence to deny this.  In other areas, emotional expression and line delivery is fairly believable, allowing the audience to connect with the Biblical and historical characters as real people.  Overall, were it not for overuse of British actors and actresses, this portion could also have been perfect.

Continuity Quality (3 points)

The arc of A.D. is particularly epic.  The driving purpose behind the series is very clear.  There are multiple exciting character arcs that were just coming to full completion right before the series was cancelled.  But cancellation is not necessarily the fault of the writers, since we sincerely believe they were doing the best they could do.  Overall, the short time we were able to enjoy A.D. was well spent when it came to continuity, arcs, and driving purpose.

Conclusion

It’s a real shame that A.D. was cancelled, because it had nowhere to go but up.  It was progressing at an epic pace, had so many positive elements, adapted a historical approach to the days after Christ’s earthly ministry, and was ten times better than The Bible Epic Miniseries.  It had so much explosive potential, but it was cut off at the knees.  One factor that potentially led to the cancellation was trying to please too many people.  Perhaps if fewer edgy elements were employed and more family-engaging elements were used, then the show might have survived on Christian audiences.  But that may not have been enough.  Even still, A.D. was a key step in engaging even the Christian population in being more interested in the historical nature of the Bible.  There needs to be more of a bubble-up approach to these types of series, and independent means, such as on-demand series, may need to be used in order to make series like A.D. successful, since national broadcast ratings are often too fickle to sustain new concepts.  Future ideas for Bible series need to build off of the positive elements and the strong points of A.D. and to improve on its mistakes.  Such a series would be a thing to behold and something worth getting behind.

 

Final Rating: 9.5 out of 14 points

 

The Bible Epic Miniseries: New Testament (Series Review)

Plot Summary

After being exiled and invaded time and again, the nation of Israel longed for the long-awaited Messiah Who would save them from their troubles.  Yet when the Messiah appeared, few even acknowledged His coming and some tried to thwart His birth.  As Jesus grew, He began His earthly ministry, choosing His followers from the least expected places.  Even still, many ignored His deity and others tried to undermine His work.  But He loved every person equally and demonstrated His power through miracles and authoritative teaching.  In the end, Jesus gave Himself up, taking on the sins of the world and dying with them so that the price would be paid for all who would accept it.  After raising from the dead, Jesus instilled new hope in His followers and commanded them to take the message to the ends of the earth.  Today, we still feel the effects of His earthly ministry as we have the great privilege to take part in His continuing work.

 

Production Quality (1.5 points)

For the most part, money is once again well spent when it comes to production in The Bible New Testament episodes.  Sets and locations are mostly authentic and costuming is historically realistic.  The surroundings are overall a plus, setting new standards for Bible entertainment.  The camera work is excellent in all aspects.  The musical score is pretty good, but there are some unnecessary sound effects throughout.  CGI is overused to cut corners.  But the biggest detractor of this series’ production is the editing.  This aspect does not improve in the New Testament, and is actually worse since less time is covered.  Even when the show finally sticks with the same cast of characters and surroundings, the editing is just as choppy as before.  Mark Burnett and company put on a good show on the surface, but this series’ beauty is only skin deep.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

The final six episodes of The Bible are painful to watch.  As previously discussed in Son of God, there are many glaring errors.  The characters are lofty and inaccessible—dialogue is wasted and seems robotic.  Huge creative license is taken to the point of inserting useless historical events in order to fill time.  Rather than develop the characters, sensationalism and violence eat away at the runtime.  Jesus is portrayed as a lofty zen master who disturbingly becomes surprised when things happen or when he ‘sees’ something that’s going to happen.  The disciples are like cardboard cutouts, even beyond the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  I’m all for highlighting the role of women in Jesus’ earthly ministry, but Mary Magdalene is given far too much screen time, stealing lines from the disciples and defying historic events.  We don’t even get to hear or see her backstory—she just appears as some kind of repeater for Jesus.  Other historical inaccuracies crop up as well, including altered versions of Biblical accounts.  As mentioned in Son of God, this entire series was written for a few well-crafted scenes, including the calling of Levi\Matthew, the adulterous woman being brought to Jesus, and the torture\crucifixion sequence that holds elements very similar to that of The Passion of the Christ.  The final episode is perhaps the most painful as viewers are strapped in for a maddening ride through the rest of the New Testament, hopping from one high point to another in a matter of minutes.  To reiterate, with less historical scope to cover in the same amount of time as the Old Testament, the New Testament episodes should have been better—they were actually worse.  It all makes for a disappointing end to a series that otherwise had a great idea.

Acting Quality (1 point)

The acting quality also significantly diminishes in the New Testament, while keeping up with previous errors, such as the cardinal sin of Bible entertainment once again—the overuse of British and Caucasian actors and actresses.  Line delivery is lazy throughout the New Testament and real emotions are either nonexistent or over the top.  Actors and actresses are given more screen time in the New Testament, but it doesn’t help.  Coaching was definitely needed.

Continuity Quality (1.5 points)

The overall continuity of the New Testament is slightly more seamless than the Old Testament, but it still fails to deliver a driving purpose to the audience.  Overarching first century Judaic themes exist, such as the anticipation of the Messiah, the Roman oppression, and the religious system, but there is little else noticeable.  What is missing is the connection of Jesus to prophecy and Old Testament events, and the theme of forgiveness of sins only through Him.  Jesus is portrayed more as a community organizer disrupting a religious system than the Son of God.

Conclusion

As The Bible came to a close, a lot of things were left undone.  Millions of Americans watched this series, and we can’t help but feel that they were cheated of knowing what the real Bible truly contains.  Besides the gritty feel of the series, there is little that can cause viewers to feel connected to the characters and the struggles they went through.  If there ever was a time that Americans (including those who claim the name of Christ) needed to know what is actually in the Bible and how real it actually is, it is now.  The Bible promised to do this, but it did not deliver.  It’s no wonder that co-producer Roma Downey said afterward that they weren’t concerned with historical accuracy as much as they were concerned with making an emotional connection.  Yet in this ill-advised quest, true emotional connection was never made because viewers are still left wondering if they can ever be like those seemingly inaccessible characters from Bible times.  The people of the Bible were just like the people of today, yet Burnett and Downey portrayed them otherwise.  In doing so, their mission failed.

 

Final Rating: 5 out of 14 points

 

The Bible Epic Miniseries: Old Testament (Series Review)

Plot Summary

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He created everything, including humans.  But humans sinned against him and rejected His plan for them over and over again.  Yet despite human rebellion, God still had a plan to redeem mankind, and this plan was to be fulfilled through the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham.  But when the Israelites continued to disobey Him, He punished them and sent them into exile and captivity.  Nevertheless, God’s plan for humanity marched forward as those who loved Him awaited the coming of His promised Messiah, the One Who would save them all.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

Production is definitely the strongest point of The Bible.  With a strong budget, almost everything was left on the field—almost.  Camera work is excellent, including the video quality.  The sound quality is great and the musical score is compelling.  Everything about this miniseries was intended to be epic and dramatic, and production-wise, this is mostly accomplished.  Yet there are still concerns.  Special effects are overused and CGI usage is too obvious.  The editing is the biggest error that plagues this series.  From the beginning, Mark Burnett and company likely bit off more than they could chew.  Some episodes are edited within themselves better than others, but most of them are far too choppy for anyone to truly grasp what needs to be grasped.  As a ‘season’, the Old Testament is a roller coaster of plot and character confusion, as will be discussed next.  In short, big money requires big results, and things just did not measure up in the Old Testament.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

The Bible began with a great idea: telling a wide audience the main message of the Bible.  However, the message is lost somewhere among magnified violence, historical inaccuracies, ninja angels, inaccessible characters, hasty dialogue, and a long, winding labyrinth of time than attempts to span thousands of years in just six hours of television time.  The audience is tossed from one high point to the next without being able to appreciate the characters or even understand what actually happened in the Bible.  Just as one character is introduced, they are dispensed as time races forward to another popular story.  Narration and location titles attempt to bridge gaps of time, but it just comes off as lazy.  As previously mentioned, the characters look like real people, but they don’t act or talk like it.  Dialogue is swept along in a maddening tide of events and excessive violence.  The only positives that can be brought up here are the central concept of the series—bringing the Bible to life—and the fact that Biblical events are portrayed as real historical events, not interesting and fluffy ideas from kid’s books.  Yet plenty of historical license was taken with the plot in order to make it suit runtime.  Throughout the series, meaningful spiritual messages are stripped away and replaced with humanistic ideas that seem to indicate that stuff just happened without any real working of God.  In the end, in trying to do everything, not much was actually accomplished.  Cramming more than half of the Bible into roughly six hours was never a good idea.

Acting Quality (1.5 points)

As usual, The Bible commits the cardinal sin of Bible entertainment: British actors and actresses.  A few here and there is one thing—it’s hard to have a fully authentic cast—but when nearly every character is so obviously Caucasian, it gets silly.  For the most part, the acting is pretty good.  Some actors and actresses are better than others, and frankly, some of them barely get a chance to do anything.  But overall, the acting can’t be considered as anything more than average.

Continuity Quality (1 point)

The Old Testament already has a continuous theme and driving purpose, yet this was not adapted in the miniseries.  Each episode seems largely isolated from the others, like the events before Christ were just unconnected and random.  However, there is some mention of continuity, such as the nation of Israel and promise of the Messiah, that saves this section from being zero.  But we expect much more than this from a historical narrative that is already laid out.

Conclusion

The Bible is just another prime example of what could have been.  The money was there, but with such funding and a spot on a national network comes compromise, unfortunately.  However, one good thing does come out of this miniseries: it hopefully shows someone that the Bible is real and gritty, not a collection of nice stories that happened a long time ago.  Burnett definitely set the standard for realism in Bible entertainment.  Hopefully there is now no turning back from this point.  The Bible was a cultural phenomenon for a time, but it is hard to discern what its true legacy will be.  Had a more meaningful message been adapted, lasting good could have been accomplished.  Yet it is left as a below average series that could have been better.

 

Final Rating: 5.5 out of 14 points

 

Son of God [2014] (Movie Review)

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Plot Summary

The life of Jesus Christ is timeless.  This rendition is centered around the unity of the Bible, the role of John son of Zebedee, and the political power struggles that existed during Jesus’ three year earthly ministry.  Son of God seeks to concisely portray this three year ministry from start to finish in a way that brings emotional connection from the audience.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

For starters, Son of God looks professional on the surface.  The video quality is good and the camera work is above average.  Action scenes are filmed fairly well.  Sets, locations, costumes, and props are pretty authentic, which is something many Bible movies bungle.  The musical score is commendable, but there is also an overuse of loud sound effects.  Sometimes the first century surroundings seem authentic, but other times, they do not.  For instance, too many locations exist in CGI format, including Herod’s Temple.  Some characters are able to get dirty, but others remain untouched by grime no matter what.  Another big issue here is the severely choppy editing.  The story does not flow well at all and there are too many location and sky footage scenes.  It is too obvious that this film was cut from a television miniseries.  In short, the production is above average, but not good enough.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

As previously mentioned, the storyline is hard to follow.  It seems like this film is a collection of Jesus highlights, with no real common thread or day to day life elements, just hopping from one familiar story to the next.  The characters cannot be connected with—they are just random people saying rehearsed lines.  The Jesus character is very inaccessible and seems lofty and aloof.  What is more disturbing is that, at times, Jesus seems obviously surprised that certain things are occurring.  There are multiple glaring Biblical inaccuracies that are more obvious than the usual Bible entertainment blunders.  Scriptural narratives are chopped up, edited, rushed, and forced together in order to suit this movie’s runtime.  On the bright side, there are some very engaging scenes that do bring the Bible to life, but it seems like the entire movie\miniseries was written for these few scenes.  In summary, it is a great idea to make a movie about the life of Jesus, but this is not how to do it.

Acting Quality (.5 point)

Son of God is very poorly cast.  Why do Bible characters have to always be played by British actors and actresses?  A majority of the characters in the Gospels were Middle Eastern and\or perhaps African.  Each actor and actress has been forced into a role that does not work for them and their culturally incorrect accents are distracting.  On the surface, they seem professional, but a lot of their lines are very forced.  No emotion is present.  Therefore, a low score is awarded.

Conclusion

In the beginning, The Bible miniseries and Son of God seemed to have good ideas and good intentions.  But the longer they went on, the more confusing and muddled they became.  In trying to play off of sensationalism and emotion, Son of God loses the original message and forgets what the Bible and what Jesus’ first coming was all about.  You will not find theological truths or realism in this film.  As Roma Downey once put it, they were not going for Biblical accuracy, but for emotional connection.  It looks like they succeeded, but at what cost?

 

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 10 points