October 19, 2006

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One Night with the King (PG)
The big soapy Bible epic returns with the story of Queen Esther of Persia in One Night with the King.

I love the biblical movies of Cecile B. DeMille. I love Charleton Heston as Moses and Anne Baxter as the bitchiest Queen Nefertiti ever. I adore Edward G. Robinson as turncoat Dathan, who, I could have sworn, chomped on a cigar throughout the movie and met his end yelling "you'll never take me alive, God of Abraham" and shooting up the golden calf with a tommy gun. DeMille is absolutely right in his oft-repeated claim that any handful of pages from the Bible (especially the blood-and-guts Old Testament) could make for a killer movie, especially if you're not super concerned with historical accuracy or understated acting.

A one-of-a-kind talent when it comes to turning Bible stories into movie spectacles, DeMille is a high bar for anyone to reach. That the crew of One Night with the King doesn't entirely live up to his Bruckheimerian standards is a let down, but only slightly so.

After all, we've got our outrageously pretty heroine, Hadassah (Tiffany Dupont), a nice Jewish girl growing up in Persia in 482 BC. She lives with her Uncle Mordecai (John Rhys-Davies), a scribe for the Persian king Xerxes (Luke Goss). Hadassah wants to go to Jerusalem to check out the building of the Temple but Mordecai wants her to stay home, where it's safe.

Safe, however, is a relative term. Xerxes is getting a lot of flack from his soldier types about Greece. The Greeks, they trot around the ancient world like they own the place, spreading their lunatic ideas about democracy, his advisors say to him. Xerxes' soldiers want him to go to war, but his wife Queen Vashti (Jyoti Dogra) thinks it's good for ab-so-lutely nothing. So she refuses to show up for one of his yay! war banquets, at which point he divorces her, because Xerxes' boys claim she's dissing him and Xerxes is really susceptible to peer pressure.

Now queenless, Xerxes orders his soldiers to round up the pretty girls of the country so that he can play a round of The Bachelor: Persia (and by the way, the threat of death makes that game a lot more interesting) to pick a new wife. (He also rounds up some of the young men to hack off the beans portion of their beans and franks and make them palace eunuchs who tend to his harem of would-be brides.) Despite this extremely brutal method of getting the country to play your dating game, Xerxes ain't all that bad. Dressed up like a Vegasy version of Jesus (flowy hair, sparkly outfits and some dazzling silver eye makeup), Xerxes makes a lovely Prince Charming for our Princess Hadassah, who is now calling herself Esther in an attempt to seem, well, less Jewish.

Yes, sadly, even though this is an age before TV or plumbing, the BC-ers are still completely modern in their anti-Semitism. The king's ever more powerful enforcer, Hamen (James Callis), holds regular, Hitler-ish rallies wherein he accuses the Jews of colluding with the Greeks to spread their horrible democracy and undermine the Persian empire. Just to underline his bad guyness, we get a flashback of his ancestors and how King Saul's army wiped them out all but Hamen's great-to-the-eighth-power grandmother, who escaped with a vengeance-seeking kid growing in her womb. She crafted for this lucky little child (who I'm sure was completely well-adjusted and had no weird family issues at all) a vaguely swastika-ish charm to help him remember that one day he or his descendents needed to take some time out of their busy schedules to think about grandma and kill all the Jews. (Why is that always the go-to solution for power-mad fascists?)

Naturally, Esther quickly becomes the leading contender in the queen contest, in part because of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows (damn, those fourth-century BC waxers were good) and in part because she's a smarty who has a lovely reading voice and tells some really crackling stories. (Actually, she's rather a one-note, entertainment-wise, but her Older Testament tales do please the crowds.) She wins over Xerxes and finds herself Queen of Persia not a bad gig for the member of a threatened minority. Not a bad gig, that is, until Hamen decides to unleash his final wackadoo plan for annihilating her people while her husband is off at war. Then Ester must defy the laws of the nation and go before Xerxes to ask him to be a little nicer to her in-laws.

Esther's constant hemming and hawing over what she should say to Xerxes is a little tiresome. She's portrayed here as a girl who, despite her book smarts, could really use a little more backbone. Her dialogue is among some of the very clunkiest in a movie full of clunky, ham-fisted dialogue.

But heck, this isn't about her character. It's about her really fabulous wardrobe of metallic-embellished silkly wrap dresses. It's about her eunuch friends (who are, I suppose, the Wills to her Grace) and their helpful, king-winning and -keeping tips. It's about Xerxes' ice skater makeup and his inexplicably roller-coaster-like emotions.

And, above all, it's about the batpoop loony racial hatred of Callis' Hamen. Callis is perhaps best known for talking to an imaginary (or is she?) robot and leading his people into slavery as President Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica. He can do operatic strangeness like nobody's business and, in keeping with the ruling aesthetic of Biblical epics, he lets his crazy flag fly.

Ah, what an excellent way to revive a classic movie genre. An early happy Purim everybody! B-

Amy Diaz