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REVIEW: ‘Ben-Hur’ is riveting, realistic and wonderful

New ‘Ben-Hur’ leads September streaming lineup

Perhaps we should get this out of the way first: It likely was a bad idea to re-make the legendary movie Ben-Hur.

The Charlton Heston-led 1959 version cost $15 million to make, grossed $74 million, and won 11 Oscars. Contrast that to the 2016 film, which cost $100 million, finished in the red with a $26 million gross, and was widely panned by critics.

It was – without a doubt — a financial disaster, a box-office flop and an easy target.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good movie. In fact, the 2016 version of Ben-Hur was inspiring, entertaining and well-done. And despite the fact that only 25 percent of critics at Rotten Tomatoes liked it, it did get thumbs up from mainstream reviewers at CNN, Huffington Post and RogerEbert.com. Not bad for a film that has forgiveness at its core and features Christ.

The newest Ben-Hur (PG-13) – which begins streaming Sept. 2 on Amazon and Hulu – differs slightly from the 1959 version. In the 2016 movie, the main characters of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince, and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who is Roman, are adoptive brothers. In the ’59 film, they’re simply friends.

But that change benefits the 2016 plot, which is set during the time of Jesus and highlights the brothers’ differences. They worship different gods and come from different cultures, and the gulf between them widens when Messala leaves the family to try and make it on his own.

Tragedy brings them back together when Judah is falsely accused of an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate. Messala – now a Roman army officer – sentences Judah to work in the galley of a Roman slave ship, where he will face a near-certain slow death. Yet Judah survives and pledges payback against his brother. He will get his revenge in a chariot race – a dangerous sport that kills most who attempt it. (The chariot race by itself makes this one worth watching.)

Ben-Hur features one of the most powerful examples of forgiveness you’ll ever see in a movie. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. It contains no coarse language or sexuality.

Also streaming this month:

 

Akeelah and the Bee
Akeelah and the Bee

Hulu

Akeelah and the Bee (PG, 2006). An 11-year-old black girl from Los Angeles competes in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. The story is fictional, but inspiring. (If you’re wanting a similar plot based on a true story, then consider the chess-themed Queen of Katwe, which is on Netflix.) Rated PG for some language. Sept. 1.

Barnyard (PG, 2006) – Otis is a carefree cow who would rather party and play than accept responsibility. His father, though, is determined to teach Otis how to work. Animated. Rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor. Sept. 1.

Nacho Libre (PG, 2006) – A monk raises money for orphans by moonlighting as a wrestler. This comedy was written and directed by the same director-writer team that brought us Napoleon Dynamite. The latter film is funnier, but both are worth a watch. Rated PG for some rough action, and crude humor including dialogue. Sept. 1.

 

Netflix

The Magic School Bus Rides Again (2017) – The classic 1990s animated series about Ms. Frizzle’s class and their magical field trips gets a 2017 remake. Let’s hope the new series is every bit as good (and family-friendly) as the original. Sept. 29.

Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (PG, 2016) – Much controversy surrounded this live-action remake and its inclusion of a gay character, LeFou. Here’s what you need to know: Once you learn LeFou is gay, it’s difficult to watch the movie and not see his sexuality in most scenes. That said, children likely won’t view it through that lens. The most problematic scenes take place in the final 10 minutes, when a character dons women’s clothes and when LeFou is seen dancing with a man. Each scene is very brief (a couple of seconds each). The music, not surprising, is splendid. Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images. Sept. 19.

Other notables: Disney’s Hercules (1997, PG, Sept. 1); Disney’s Mulan (1998, PG, Sept. 1); Call the Midwife: Season 6 (2016-2017, Sept. 18).

 

Amazon

Music from the Big House (unrated, 2010) – Blues singer Rita Chiarelli and inmates at Louisiana’s Angola Prison put on a concert. Unrated; it contains no language. Features a blend of music styles, including gospel. Sept. 1.

The Black Stallion (G, 1979) – A young boy befriends a wild Arabian stallion and enters it into a race. Based on a 1941 children’s novel. Sept. 1.

— Michael Foust
Foust has covered the film industry for more than a decade. Visit his website, MichaelFoust.com

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