Gladiator


Gladiator

Gladiators do battle...or is that the WWE?

(DreamWorks) Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Honsou, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, David Hemmings. Directed by Ridley Scott

When everything that we love is taken from us we have two choices. We can wallow in our pain and let it overwhelm us, or we can do everything in our power to take what revenge we can. That revenge may take the form of retribution, or merely of survival – of learning how to rebuild your life.

Maximus (Crowe) is a general in the Roman army, much beloved by his men. He has just completed a successful campaign in Germania and has the eye of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Harris). Aurelius is old and dying, and as happens with the old and the dying he is reflecting on the achievements of his life and has found them wanting. He wants to do the unthinkable – restore the Republic – and needs Maximus to maintain order and see to the transfer of power from the Caesar’s family to the senate, which Senator Gracchus (Jacobi) would like nothing more.

Maximus wants nothing more than to go home to Spain, to a farm with his wife and young son, and raise crops in peace. However, Aurelius’ plan doesn’t sit well with his son Commodus (Phoenix) who is heir apparent and would lose everything if Aurelius goes through with his scheme. Being “not a moral man” as his father describes him, Commodus kills his father and assumes the throne. He wants Maximus to support him but Maximus knows immediately what has happened when he sees Aurelius, whom he admired, dead in his bed and refuses. Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Nielsen) who has a thing for Maximus takes the better part of valor and supports her brother. So does Quintus (Arana), Maximus’ second-in-command who recognizes an opportunity when he sees it.

Commodus orders the execution of Maximus. Maximus begs Quintus to watch over his family, but Quintus tells him that his family will join him shortly in the afterlife. Maximus, knowing that time is of the essence, fights out of his execution and escapes but is badly wounded in the process. He races to get home but his wounds slow him down and he arrives to find his house burned and his family crucified. Maximus buries his family and collapses in despair.

He is collected by a passing slaver, and cared for by Juba (Honsou), an African slave. They’re all taken to an outlying province and sold to Proximo (Reed), a trainer of gladiators. Proximo was a former gladiator but he was given his freedom by Marcus Aurelius himself. Despite this, he resents the late Caesar because he did away with gladiator games in Rome, banishing them to the  provinces far away from the glittering center of the Empire.

Maximus at first wants no part of anything – no part of life, in fact. He just wants to hurry up and die so he can be with his family in the afterlife, but Commodus’ betrayal gnaws at him, worrying at him like a dog with a bone. Before he sees his family he must have his vengeance, and Proximo convinces him the best way to achieve that is to become Rome’s most famous gladiator, after which he will be freed and can then do what he must.

Since Maximus is fighting as “The Spaniard,” Commodus is unaware that Maximus is alive. By the time he finds out, Maximus is far too popular for him to kill – the mob that is Rome is not yet in love with Commodus, and he needs that love to maintain his hold on the Empire. The dream of Republic that Marcus Aurelius once had is still in the air, held by Lucilla and Gracchus. They hatch a plot to break Maximus out of the gladiator’s quarters and take him to his army, which he can then lead into Rome to enforce Marcus Aurelius’ dying wish. Can a slave, a gladiator, take on an entire empire and hope to win?

This was the best movie of 2000, in the eyes of the Academy (which gave it the Best Picture Oscar) and in the eyes of this critic. Director Ridley Scott resurrects the swords and sandals genre, giving it new life. CGI recreates the glory of Rome, creating magnificent vistas of Coliseum and Senate. This isn’t Rome as it was so much as we would like it to have been, but that suffices.

That said, the cinematography is curious for this movie. At times, it seems the entire movie has been filmed in overcast conditions with badly overexposed stock. I suppose that’s part of the film’s overall look in an attempt to create a period, but it just seems unnecessary to me. I guess I’m a simple kinda guy at heart.

Nothing wrong with the performances here though. Crowe and Phoenix are magnificent as antagonists; Crowe, on a roll to becoming one of the best actors in the world, is expected to do this kind of quality but what was surprising is that Phoenix held his own and at times, outdid Crowe. Still, Crowe won a Best Actor Oscar that year while Phoenix received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oliver Reed and Richard Harris certainly could have been considered for the same nominations as well.

In many ways this was one of the first iconic movies of the 21st century. Given the note-perfect score co-composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (she the voice of the magnificent but much-missed world music group Dead Can Dance) and the opening battle scene which is one of the most impressive ever filmed, it’s no wonder. While some critics thought this overblown and bloated, over-relying on CGI and brutal gladiatorial sequences, audiences adored this movie and so did I. It’s Entertainment with a capital “E” and deserves to be treated as such.

WHY RENT THIS: An essential movie from the past decade, with star-making performances by Crowe and Phoenix.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The cinematography is a bit mannered and some of the violence is a little too Peckinpah for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of gore and violence, as well as some sexuality make this a bit brutal for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oliver Reed had a massive heart attack with three weeks left to film and passed away. The remainder of his scenes was shot with a body double, with Reed’s head inserted digitally.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has an extensive group of features on this two Blu-Ray disk version, including a documentary on the historical basis of various elements of the film, a History Channel special on Roman gladiators, and a feature on abandoned and deleted sequences and why they never made it to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Battle for Terra


She's got the whoooooole world...in her hands...

She's got the whoooooole world...in her hands...

(Roadside Attractions) Starring the voices of Evan Rachel Wood, James Garner, Dennis Quaid, Luke Wilson, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Brian Cox, David Cross, Chris Evans, Justin Long, Ron Perlman, Beverly D’Angelo, Rosanna Arquette. Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas.

One of the more conventional plotlines in Hollywood-style science fiction is that of the alien invasion. It’s the one where evil aliens with far superior technology and vast numbers attempt to conquer the Earth for her valuable resources, and plucky humans make a last-ditch stand to save the planet and its inhabitants. However, we rarely see this scenario from the point of view of the invaders. And what if the aliens were humans?

Terra is a peaceful, idyllic world with a civilization that values art and music over technology and conflict. The inhabitants live in harmony with the wild and abundant natural life of their world. Like most of the life on Terra, the civilized inhabitants have a natural power of flight which they often augment with gliders, dirigibles and mechanically-driven flyers. They are ruled over by a benevolent council of elders, chief among them Doron (Garner). Young Mala (Wood) has a restless curiosity and a wild sense of adventure that often causes her to get into trouble. She has no problem pushing the boundaries, as when she races her more timid friend Senn (Long) in powered flyers, but comes too close to a dangerous wind tunnel, forcing Senn to rescue her.

On that day, an ominous shadow darkens the Terran sky. The shadow turns out to be cast by a gigantic spacecraft, which sends scout drones to abduct Terrans for study, including Mala’s father Roven (Quaid). Mala herself barely evades capture, leading one of the drones on a thrilling chase before using her knowledge of the terrain to cause the drone to crash. She comes to the site and finds the pilot, Lt. James Stanton (Wilson), injured and in need of oxygen (the Terran atmosphere has almost none). She brings the injured pilot home, and is followed by his faithful robot Giddy (Cross) who instructs her on how to build a makeshift oxygen tent and save Stanton’s life.

Once awake, Stanton realizes that he has stumbled onto a culture that values peace and life, and is not so far removed from his own. However, the human race is in dire straits. Earth has been wiped out by ecological disaster and civil war. The last surviving humans have assembled a gigantic spaceship called the Ark and journeyed over several generations to the nearest habitable planet. Unfortunately, the Ark is falling to pieces and structural defects take the lives of its inhabitants on a nearly daily basis. They have no other options but to somehow make this world theirs.

While the human council, led by President Chen (Glover) dithers, unable to make a decision, General Hemmer (Cox), leader of the Earth Force military arm, takes matters into his own hands. He orders the terraforming machine launched into the Terran atmosphere. This machine would convert the atmosphere into something that humans could breathe. Unfortunately, that atmosphere would kill all the existing life on the planet. As both sides prepare for a battle for their very survival, one thing becomes clear; one of these species must die in order for the other to live.

Writer/director Tsirbas has mostly worked as a digital effects artist for films, television and videogames. This is his feature debut, and it’s a dandy. He based this on a seven-minute animated short called “Terra” (the events of which are repeated early on here). While the concept of invading aliens isn’t new, this is a totally unique take on the subject, and the writing is superb. While some of the characters are a bit cliché – the plucky hero, the evil General, the wise elder – the story is riveting. You find yourself unsure of which side to root for and despite the overeager General, there are no real villains here. I found that rather refreshing.

Considering that this is an independent feature from a first-time director, the voice cast is impressive. Wood makes for a fine heroine, and Garner deliberately gentles his distinctive voice as Doron to satisfying effect.

The animation isn’t up to the standards of Pixar or DreamWorks, but is spectacular in places (particularly during the climactic battle). What makes it all the more amazing is that they had about 20 animators as opposed to the more than 100 usually employed for major studio animated features. The depiction of the alien world and its inhabitants is very imaginative and at times you’ll forget that you’re watching an animated film. If I have a quibble, the humans look a bit plastic and too similar. It does jar you out of the film in a few places, but after awhile you do get past that.

There’s not a lot of humor here, which is rather refreshing but that isn’t to say that it’s as humorless as Final Fantasy: the Movie. This is definitely a movie with a heart, and plenty of charm. While the concepts are pretty complex, the story isn’t so hard to follow that wee children will have difficulty keeping up, and they’ll love the creatures and joie de vivre of the rebellious teenaged leads Mala and Senn.

This was the first film we saw at this year’s Florida Film Festival and it was a great way to kick off one of our favorite events of the year. It’s also one of the most unusual animated features you’ll see. I doubt if it will get an Oscar nod with Pixar’s Up and Miyazaki’s Ponyo but I think it deserves some consideration. Strangely, Sony’s Planet 51 has a similar humans-as-invaders theme but done for laughs; I haven’t seen it yet but if it’s half as good as this, it’ll beworth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: Superbly written, with a story that contains a perspective not usually seen in its genre. An imaginative alien world full of life and color delights and amazes. A spectacular battle sequence at the film’s climax will leave you conflicted as to whom to root for.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the animation is sub-par, particularly the human characters who look plastic and unrealistic. There are too many cliché characters that might have been fleshed out better.

FAMILY VALUES: Despite the complexity of the story, even small kids will have no problem following it. An uplifting anti-war message is delivered by alien characters that will delight most kids. Definitely suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Earlier in his career, director Tsirbas was a digital artist on the special effects crews of several Star Trek series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS:  On the Blu-Ray edition, an animated version of Tsirbas walks around the CGI sets of the movie, explaining his love for filmmaking. Not especially informative, but different.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: When Did You Last See Your Father?