New Releases for the Week of December 2, 2016


IncarnateINCARNATE

(High Top) Carice van Houten, Aaron Eckhart, David Mazouz, Emjay Anthony, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Keir O’Donnell, Tomas Arana. Directed by Brad Peyton

An exorcist with the ability to enter the subconscious of his patients is assigned a tormented young boy with a particularly nasty demon inside. Fighting off the powers of this demon is no easy task, but the exorcist will also have to fight the demons of his past if he is to save the boy – and himself.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements)

Believe

(Freestyle Releasing) Ryan O’Quinn, Shawnee Smith, Danielle Nicolet, Kevin Sizemore. A businessman in a small town finds himself fighting the weak economy as Christmas approaches. Normally a sponsor of the town Christmas pageant, he finds himself forced to cancel the event. The friendship of a young boy whose faith is nearly boundless convinces him that he made the wrong decision and he turns to trying to save the pageant against all odds.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Lee Vista, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, UA Seminole Towne Center

Rating: PG (for some violence, thematic elements and brief mild language)

Christine

(The Orchard) Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia. Christine Chubbuck is a local newscaster in the Sarasota area in the 1970s. She’s smart, beautiful and ambitious, but suffers from depression in the face of personal and professional frustrations. What she does is shocking and makes broadcast news history.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace

Rating: R (for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references)

Man Down

(Lionsgate) Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney, Gary Oldman, Kate Mara. A U.S. Marine returns home from Afghanistan and finds it to be a far different place than where he left it. His estranged wife and son have disappeared and as he searches a landscape little different than the one he left, he is accompanied by a battle-hardened comrade who is more likely to shoot first than to ask questions later.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some disturbing violence and language throughout)

The Monster

(A24) Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas. A divorced mother and her headstrong daughter are driving late at night on a lonely road in the woods to take the girl to see her father. They get into an accident when a wolf runs out in front of them. They manage to call 911 and get a tow truck out but it soon becomes clear that they are being hunted  by something malevolent and strong.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: R (for language and some violence/terror)

Advertisements

Guardians of the Galaxy


Just don't call him Rocky...it pisses him off.

Just don’t call him Rocky…it pisses him off.

(2014) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Gregg Henry, Josh Brolin, Alexis Denisof, Tomas Arana, Lindsay Morton. Directed by James Gunn

So what makes for a great summer movie? Is it spectacle? Over-the-top action? Bigger than life characters? A mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action? A movie that puts you in a place where you can relax and forget all your cares?

Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel comics, has been dominating the summer market ever since they broke out with Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, it has been one blockbuster after another as they have successfully created a shared cinematic universe in a similar fashion to the one they developed for their four color division, keeping audiences invested in the goings on and eagerly anticipating the next film in the franchise. This year has been particularly successful for the Marvel brand, not merely in box office (although that is the bottom line for most studio sorts) but also by delivering what are arguably the two best films in the brand both in 2014.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized a ’70s-style political thriller as a kind of framework for a superhero movie that had repercussions across the Marvel cinematic universe (and greatly affecting the TV series Marvel Agents of SHIELD) the House of Ideas has taken a bold move; to center on a little-known group of heroes in a space opera setting that is the final stand-alone installment in Marvel’s Phase 2 before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 

Peter Quill (Pratt) is an adventurer and thief who used to live on Earth before being abducted by a group of outlaws named The Ravagers on the night his mother (Haddock) passed away from cancer. Did I mention that the Ravagers are a group of aliens led by Yondu Udonta (Rooker)? Quill has more or less broken away from the gang and is on the deserted, lifeless and ruined planet Morag. As he jauntily dances his way through the ruins he eventually finds a nondescript orb, using high tech to capture the artifact in a nod to the Indiana Jones movies.

Turns out he’s not the only one who wants the Orb. A renegade Kree named Ronan the Accuser (Pace) needs the Orb which hides a devastating secret. He’ll stop at nothing to get it and sends Gamora (Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), a malevolent figure who has designs on ruling the galaxy. Ronan is merely insane, akin to a religious terrorist who means to impose his version of morality on the Galaxy which begins with exterminating the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps who have signed a treaty with the Kree’s ancient enemies the Skrull as well as with the Kree themselves. Ronan will not tolerate this and needs the Orb to exact his version of justice.

Yondu also wants the Orb to get the massive pay day that’s being offered for it but Peter is making his own deals these days, so Yondu sets a bounty on Peter’s head. A pair of disreputable bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (Diesel) who only speaks three words and in the same order every time – “I Am Groot,” want Peter and the Orb so that they can get paid.

 

Then there’s Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) who doesn’t want the Orb or Peter – he wants vengeance on Ronan who murdered his entire family. When he espies Gamora battling Peter for the Orb, he figures he can start moving his way up the ladder by sending Gamora to the sweet Hereafter. However, since all of this is transpiring on Xandar, the Nova Corps arrest the whole lot of them and send them off to prison.

Gamora reveals that she intends to betray Ronan and keep the Orb from him permanent-like as the Orb conceals one of the Infinity Gems, an artifact of immeasurable power that can level planets and wipe out civilizations. Quill, normally the most mercenary of men, grows a conscience but figures that the five of them can escape from this inescapable prison, avoid Ronan and is henchmen Nebula (Gillan) who is also one of Thanos’ adopted “daughters,” and Korath (Hounsou) a fearsome fighter. If they can keep from killing each other while they’re doing it, so much the better.

James Gunn is an inspired choice to helm this film; as previous movies on his resume like Slither and Super showed, he has a quirky sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. One of the things he utilizes to full effect is a group of songs from the 60s and 70s that Peter has collected on the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1 which his mother gave him prior to her death and is his sole link with his life on Earth. The tape (which is available for download or on CD) has some amazing songs that have a certain cheese factor but are actually all pretty damn catchy, ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and  “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (the latter two both classics for different reasons). It’s one of the most engaging soundtracks in recent years.

This is a galaxy that may be far, far away but there’s an awful lot that’s familiar about it too. Part of the reason for that is that Gunn takes the time to develop all of his characters. It isn’t just Quill and Gamora, the two leads, who are given personalities, but all five of the Guardians and to a certain extent, some of the villains as well – Yondu, Ronan and The Collector (del Toro) all become defined, fleshed-out characters that everyone in the audience will root for – or against as the case may be.

 

Pratt, who has mostly been known for supporting roles but made some career headway in Parks and Recreation, establishes himself as a lead movie star here. He’s funny, but also handles his action sequences with aplomb and when the time comes for him to be heroic, handles that aspect nicely. He has a great deal of screen presence and seems comfortable being the film’s center. While Saldana’s chemistry with Pratt isn’t as incendiary as I would have liked, the rest of the crew all come off pretty well.

The characters of Rocket and Groot are just as real as the flesh and blood actors is; there is a moment near the very end of the film when Rocket lets down his guard and we see his pain in a very real way. It is one of the most moving moments of the film alongside of young Peter mourning his mother. I think it isn’t unfair to say that the two CGI characters very nearly steal the film. One of the moments I loved most in the movie is Groot getting absolutely medieval on a bunch of Ronan’s thugs, beating the holy crap out of them to the point of overkill, then turning to Peter – a.k.a. Star-Lord by the way – and giving him a sheepish grin that had the whole theater in stitches.

I don’t often give perfect scores to summer movies but this is one that is getting one. This is as entertaining a movie as I’ve seen in years. I’m not big on going to see a movie more than once in theaters – there are only a very few that I’ve done that with – but as I write this, I’m getting ready to head down to the IMAX 3D theater at Pointe Orlando to see it a second time, this time in 3D IMAX. So you still want to know what makes a great summer movie? Just watch this.

REASONS TO GO: Great balance between humor and action. Spectacular visuals. Career-making performance by Pratt. Rocket and Groot work so much better than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like sci-fi, you don’t like superheroes, you don’t like Marvel or you don’t like movies in general.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel recorded all of his dialogue in a number of languages including Spanish, Mandarin and French so that the same voice can be heard in every version.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serenity

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sex Tape

The Hunt for Red October


The Hunt for Red October

Sean Connery lights up the screen.

(1990) Thriller (Paramount) Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden. Directed by John McTiernan

 

There are weapons of war – planes, ships, tanks, subs – that we all know about and each side keeps tabs on and has whatever countermeasures that are available to combat them. All sides have them and it keeps things honest. What if there was a weapon of war that only one side had, one which avoided the whole Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine and gave one side a critical advantage, one which in order to have would have to be used without the knowledge of the other side?

In this classic Naval thriller set during the Cold War the Soviets have done just that. The Red October is a submarine with a propulsion system that allows it to run virtually undetected by sonar (who might mistake it for whales). This is bad news for the Americans who would never know if the sub parked itself off the Atlantic seaboard and start lobbing nukes into New York City, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia…hell all over the northeast with virtually no warning.

Captain Marko Ramius (Connery) realizes that this is the only use a sub such as this would have; the Red October has nearly zero maneuvering skills and  isn’t particularly fast. He knows that the vessel he has been tasked with taking on a trial run could mean the end of everything. Therefore he enters into a pact with his senior officers, including his second-in-command Borodin (Neill) to do the unthinkable.

In the meantime the CIA is frantic. They’ve monitored a new sub leaving the shipyards and then disappearing as monitored by the USS Dallas’ crack sonar operator Jones (Vance). His captain, Bart Mancuso (Glenn) is mystified. So is the CIA. Admiral Greer (J.E. Jones) has never heard of this kind of vessel. His expert in Soviet subs is Jack Ryan (Baldwin), an analyst who is currently living in London. They put him on the first flight to DC where he is shown some pictures of a sub with an odd pair of openings in stern. Ryan takes the pictures to a sub builder (Jeff Jones) who realizes what it could mean.

Soon it becomes apparent that something extraordinary is going on. The entire Soviet fleet is scrambled, apparently searching for something. Ryan reports his findings to the President’s defense counsel, including his most senior advisor Jeffrey Pelt (Jordan). While the military men think that this signals that an attack on the U.S. is imminent, Ryan – who wrote the C.I.A.’s analysis on Ramius suddenly realizes that Ramius might be intending to defect.

Nobody really thinks Ryan is for real but Pelt wants to hedge his bets; if he can get his hands on a piece of Soviet hardware this advanced, the opportunity has to be at least explored. He sends Ryan – who is not a field agent – to the Dallas (which is by no means an easy feat) to intercept the Red October and determine his intentions – while trying to keep out of the way of the entire Soviet and U.S. Fleet which are trying to sink her.

Jack Ryan is the creation of former insurance agent and now bestselling author Tom Clancy who has made his career out of these political thrillers with military overtones. Clancy knows his military hardware and while even at this date nothing like the Red October exists (at least to the knowledge of the general public), it certainly is within the realm of possibility.  This was the first Jack Ryan novel to make it to the screen and its success both critically and commercially paved the way for three other movies to make the transition (with a fourth scheduled for Christmas 2013).

A large reason for this is Connery. He brings dignity and gravitas to the part of Ramius. Though this is a Jack Ryan film it is Ramius you will remember and it is in many ways his show. The relationship between Ramius and Borodin is crucial in the film and Connery has some pretty believable chemistry with Neill.

The sub chase sequences are as good as any you’re likely to see with the possible exception of Das Boot. I also found the political intrigue that goes on during the movie to be second to none; you get the sense that everyone is playing a game that is unique to themselves, from the ship commanders on up to the President himself. That may well be how it is in real life.

There are some who have criticized Baldwin’s low-key performance as Ryan; certainly I think Harrison Ford nailed the part better in later versions of Jack, but I don’t think Baldwin is that bad. He plays it more intellectual and less action than Ford but that’s all right – his performance is well-suited for the film, which really makes most of its action bones with the sub duels rather than individuals. In that sense it’s the captains of the various vessels involved who make the action heroes here.

There is definitely an 80s film sensibility here (it was shot in 1989) although it would open the door for the 90s political film ethos. In a very real way this is one of the movies that transitioned the 1980s action film into the 1990s special effects film. As such it’s a classic and to my mind one of a kind. I do not necessarily agree with Clancy’s political beliefs, but the man can write an excellent story and he has done so here; I’m not entirely sure if he likes the movie that came of his imagination but I know that I do.

WHY RENT THIS: Quite realistic. Details are superb. Connery, Baldwin, Jones and Glenn are amazing. Great sets and breathtaking story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Something of a throwback to cold war attitudes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some violence, a few adult themes and a bit of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film was released on VHS, the tape was colored red.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200.5M on a $30M production budget; this was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Das Boot

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Uncertainty

The Roommate


 

The Roommate

The backwards on the floor no-look door opening technique rarely works.

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) Leighton Meester, Minka Kelly, Cam Gigandet, Aly Michalka, Danneel Harris, Frances Fisher, Billy Zane, Tomas Arana, Chris Bylsma, Nina Dobrev, Matt Lanter, Katerina Graham, Ryan Doom, Carrie Finklea. Directed by Christian E. Christiansen

 

Ah, sweet college days. The parties, the friendships, the dorms. Who can forget that sort of half-baked roommate, the one who drove you crazy? Of course, there are always the crazy roommates who were really crazy…

Sara (Kelly) is a fresh-faced young fashion student mending from a broken heart and attending a school in sunny Southern California which must look pretty cosmopolitan to a girl off the farm in Iowa. She winds up with Rebecca (Meester) as a roommate. Rebecca comes from good money but she has a lot of problems. She’s an art student with a taste for let’s just say the darker side of art. She also is a bit obsessive when it comes to Sara. She wants Sara to like her. Her and nobody else, to be exact.

This becomes somewhat inconvenient for the other people in Sara’s life, such as the hunky frat boy Stephen (Gigandet) that she’s dating, or the ditzy party girl Tracy (Michalka) she’s friends with. Rebecca goes further and further off the deep end and we know what murky waters that can lead to.

Christiansen has an Oscar nomination to his credit (for a live action short) so we know he has at least some talent and imagination. At times he sets up some fairly innovative camera shots but that really doesn’t help this mess out much. The problems here are myriad and mostly have to do with the writing and the acting.

While not credited anywhere, this seems disturbingly similar to the Jennifer Jason Leigh/Bridget Fonda film Single White Female which is a far better movie than this one. It contains a lot of similar elements to The Roommate but is executed much better. Single White Female at least has the courage of its convictions whereas The Roommate is something of a tease, wanting to titillate with the promise of homoerotic encounters as well as straight-out gore and really, delivering neither.

The cast is attractive enough, although they tend to lean heavily towards CW alumni. Unfortunately, most of the characters they play lean towards the single dimension and other than Rebecca we really don’t get much background whatsoever. In short, we aren’t given a reason to care about any of them. That’s not always a problem with the script; some of the acting seems to be a bit forced while in other cases the performances seem obligatory, as if the actor just wanted to collect the paycheck and move on.

For me there is a point where reboot ends and rip-off begins and that’s pretty much the way the filmmakers went at it here. There’s little or no originality and some of the creepier elements that made Single White Female work so well are absent here. The filmmakers, rather than going for suspense and tension go instead for cheap thrills. Unfortunately, there are far too many movies out there where you can get those. I think the film would have been better served to go for an R rating instead of a PG-13; more gore, more sex might have given the film an edge it doesn’t possess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some very good-looking actors and actresses at work here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A poorly executed rip-off of Single White Female. Could have used some more edge.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence and menace, some sexuality, teen partying and a few choice bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, the poster depicts the Christy Administration building from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. While the photo of the building was legally leased from a stock photo service, the school was concerned that their image might be tarnished by the depiction of their school in the poster of the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a nice feature on the wardrobe department for the film, something that doesn’t get coverage often on home video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on a $16M production budget; the film made back its production costs and a bit more than that during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Lebanon

Limitless


Limitless

Abbie Cornish monitors Bradley Cooper's hand positioning very carefully.

(2011) Science Fiction (Rogue/Relativity) Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, Darren Goldstein, Ned Eisenberg, T.V. Carpio, Richard Bekins. Directed by Neil Burger

We all are victims of our own limitations. We forget things, often almost as soon as we learn them. Still, that knowledge is there, locked in the recesses of our own minds, waiting for us to access it and use it. What do you think would happen if we did?

Eddie Morra (Cooper) is a writer. Excuse me, a wannabe writer. He’s been given a book contract for which the deadline is fast approaching and he hasn’t written one word. He lives in the ugliest, most slovenly bachelor pad in New York. And his girlfriend Lindy (Cornish) has just given him the boot.

It’s been a bad day for Eddie. However, somewhat serendipitously he runs into his ex brother-in-law Vernon (Whitworth) on the street. Eddie was married to Vernon’s sister Melissa (Friel) right out of college and though the marriage didn’t last, Vernon remains something of a douchebag. He was a drug dealer when Eddie knew him but he’s graduated to a much different kind of drug.

It’s called NZT and it allows you to access 100% of your brain capacity at once, instead of the 20% we normally use. Eddie is skeptical but when he takes one, he suddenly remembers things half-glimpsed and is able to fend off a nagging landlord’s wife (Carpio) and not only help her write her dissertation, but ends up bedding her as well.

He also winds up cleaning his apartment, then sits down and bangs out 40 pages of the book he has been unable to write due to an advanced case of writer’s block or, more likely, a terminal case of nothing in particular to say.

However the pill wears off and he goes to Vernon’s apartment to get one and instead winds up with a stash. Now he finds himself learning new languages, and finishing his book in four days. He has become irresistible to women and sleeps with a bevy of super-attractive Manhattan partiers.

He also has become bored. He wants to make money faster, so he learns the art of day trading and quickly turns a paltry stake into millions in just ten days. This gets him noticed by Carl Van Lune (De Niro), a ruthless energy tycoon who is in the midst of brokering the biggest merger in American history with the company owned by Hank Atwood (Bekins), whose meteoric rise to the top has puzzled a lot of pundits.

Even as Lindy comes back to Eddie, there are cracks appearing in the façade of Eddie’s perfect existence. A Russian mobster (Howard) who accidentally took one of Eddie’s pills has decided he needs Eddie’s stash. Worse yet, the pill is showing signs of having major side effects which unchecked can be deadly. Is Eddie smart enough to think is way out of this one?

In a very real way this is the legitimate heir to Charly (which was, like this, based on a work of literature, in that case Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and here Alan Glynn’s “The Dark Fields”). Unlike the other which was more of a drama this is more of an action film slash thriller. The ramifications of a drug like this on humanity are only hinted at in the broadest terms and the story often leaves that conversation behind for the murky and sometimes meandering plotlines with the Russian mobster and the Machiavellian industrialist.

That’s too bad, because this could have been so much more compelling. Cooper is a charismatic lead, coming into his own a couple of years after his breakthrough role in The Hangover. He is easygoing and charming, for the most part but the role deceptively calls for more. Cooper makes both the slacker Eddie of the first reel and the brilliant Eddie of the rest of the film mesh together, clearly the same man at heart but wildly different in personalities. This is Cooper’s first real leading role; given the success of the movie so far, I can’t imagine there won’t be more in his very near future.

De Niro is, well, De Niro. Of late he seems to be coasting more and more in parts that are truly beneath him. While Van Lune has the potential of being worthy of a De Niro performance, at the end of the day he’s just another corporate villain, offering no real insight into what drives him or people like him and reminding me – not in a good way – of De Niro’s role as the Senator in Machete and when did you think that De Niro wouldn’t be the strongest acting performance of all the cast in a movie?

Burger uses a lot of interesting tunnel vision-like effects that can be dizzying. The first time he does it, the effect looks cool. By the fourth or fifth time it kind of loses its magic. There are an array of digital effects that represent Eddie’s growing intellect that are well played in the movie however.

The premise is clever; it’s a bit of a disappointment that they didn’t do more with it. Still, as I write this I realize I’m coming off as harsher on the movie than it really deserves and quite frankly, I enjoyed it. The movie hums along at a brisk pace and the story is compelling enough that given the fine work by Cooper in the lead role you have enough for a recommendation from me. However, I kinda wish these pills really existed. Maybe I could take some and start writing great screenplays right?

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is an engaging lead. The cinematography is stylish and the movie is surprisingly clever.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many “Look ma I’m directing” shots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is extensive drug usage (it is a film about a miracle drug after all), violence, some disturbing images and finally, a bit of sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first film from new distributor Relativity Media to be #1 at the box office for the weekend.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the digital effects are kinda cool, for the most part this works equally as effectively at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casino Royale

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