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Ambitious exodus entertains but fails to move its audience

In attempting to bring the Biblical tale of Moses to the big screen, Ridley Scott faced two huge names from the past. The combination of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston loomed large over this project, that pair's work in The Ten Commandments casting a giant shadow which would daunt most film-makers so one has to admire Scott's willingness to be judged alongside such an epic legacy. However, while the director's ambition is unquestionably admirable, there are severe problems with the final result.

From the off Scott was on the receiving no end of criticism regarding his casting, with several commentators complaining about the lack of suitably ethnic actors playing the roles of Egyptian and Hebrew characters. I reckon that that was simply a case of people looking for a reason to complain, given that actors, by their very nature, are involved in a massive game of make-believe so to take issue on that subject seems like nit-picking.

Much more problematic is how Scott and his screenwriters choose to deal with the religious aspects of the story.

Certainly, DeMille didn't have any qualms about his Old Testament God laying down the law whereas Scott tiptoes around the matter, portraying Moses (Christian Bale) as a warrior king who has conversations with God (played, bizarrely enough, by an 11 year-old English lad, Isaac Andrews) after he's received a bang on the head.

plagues

The story even tries to have its cake and eat it by explaining away the Ten Plagues of Egypt courtesy of a Scottish-accented scientist.

Anyway, we begin with an exciting battle sequence as Moses and his step-brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) lead the Egyptians in a defeat of the Hittite army but soon there's trouble afoot as Moses discovers that he's the son of Hebrew slaves and is exiled to the desert.

Following his encounter with the Cockney boy God he realises that it's his duty to free the Hebrews from slavery and thus he returns to Egypt to wage a terrorist war.

As we know from his fine portrayal of Batman, Bale has few peers when it comes to brooding intensity. What would have been nice, though, would have been to actually see Bale in action a bit more, Scott deciding to film even the daylight sequences in a gloomy murk which is rendered almost unwatchable once you put on 3D glasses. Really, there can be no artistic justification for making this in 3D other than to minimise bootlegs.

Still, despite several misgivings there are times when Exodus comes alive. The Plagues of Egypt sequence works a treat and while the Crossing of the Red Sea is underwhelming there's enough on show here to make for a decent couple of hours entertainment.

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UNBROKEN

(Drama. Starring Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Finn Whitrock, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney. Directed by Angelina Jolie. Cert 12A)

The remarkable story of Louie Zamperini is truly deserving of a movie adaptation and, indeed, there are occasions in Angelina Jolie's second outing as a director when you're carried away by the sheer force of the man's drive and determination.

Born of working-class Italian-American stock, Zamperini's childhood in Depression-era California was marked by minor bouts of delinquency until he discovered his talents as a middle-distance runner and went on to represent his country at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Joining the US air force as a bombardier prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour, he survived being shot down on a couple of occasions, the last time being when he and two crewmates spent 47 days adrift on open life-rafts in the Pacific, their ordeal ended when they were captured by the Japanese and another ordeal began.

This truly is remarkable material and with Jack O'Connell ending what's been a terrific year for him with another sterling performance to stand alongside Starred Up and '71 this should have been a triumph, yet it somehow feels a tad flat. Part of the problem lies with the script, which credits five writers including Joel and Ethan Coen.

In trying to give us as much of Zamperini's story as possible, the various scribes have somehow missed out on giving us a sense of his character, with the result that Unbroken feels plodding and episodic rather than inspirational.

There are times when Jolie delivers impressively, not least in an early aerial combat scene and the section where Zamperini and his fellow airmen (played by Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Whitrock) are adrift on the ocean, fending off sharks and eating seabirds to survive.

However, things come badly unstuck once Zamperini is taken prisoner as the director simply serves up scene after scene of wanton cruelty perpetrated by a sadistic camp guard (Miyavi), with ever-diminishing results.

Far too much time is taken up with the inhumane treatment meted out to prisoners-of-war and, while we can undoubtedly sympathise with their plight, we've seen this done many times before and much, much better in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Empire of the Sun and Bridge on the River Kwai.

So, despite some excellent sequences Unbroken must count as a missed opportunity to tell a towering tale, which is a pity.

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BIG EYES

(Drama. Starring Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter. Directed by Tim Burton. Cert 12A)

Tim Burton's career has been off the boil for several years now, reaching its nadir with the double-whammy of Sweeney Todd (one of the most tuneless musicals ever inflicted on cinema audiences) and Dark Shadows, a woefully misjudged attempt to bring a cult TV show to the big screen. He really could do with a hit and Big Eyes proves that the man still has what it takes when he has a decent story to work with and great actors to help him deliver.

With Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as his leads he couldn't really go wrong here, especially given that the true story being told in Big Eyes is remarkable.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, pictures of mournful children with huge, saucer- like eyes sold by the millions and made a fortune for Walter Keane, a charming hustler who dreamed up increasingly elaborate ways of marketing these creations, much to the chagrin of the art world elite who regarded the work as crass, populist drivel.

The only problem with Keane's success was that he didn't actually paint any of the pieces. They were the work of his wife, Margaret, who was initially happy for her husband to take the credit for them given that he was a beguiling conman who could spoof his way into any company and did a brilliant job of flogging these pictures.

Waltz and Adams clearly relish their roles here, the former giving a pitch-perfect performance as one of life's pure chancers who's so good at spinning yarns he probably ends up believing his own spiel half the time, while the ever-excellent Adams totally convinces as a woman who eventually decides to come out from her husband's shadow.

There's a lovely light touch to much of Big Eyes, not least in a climactic courtroom scene in which Waltz gives a comedy masterclass. Thoroughly recommended.

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