Gladiator x 2
A look at Ridley Scott's New Film and the Director's
Cut DVD of CONAN THE BARBARIAN
An Aisle Seat Double Feature by Andy Dursin
There is something about the films of Ridley Scott that make them compelling
regardless of their subject matter, and it doesn't take someone who has
spent too many hours in film school to understand why: the man is a master
of filmmaking technique and camera-work. Even his most stilted of pictures
-- like the seemingly endless treatise on colonialism, 1492, which made
even the Marlon Brando-Tom Selleck picture look good -- boasted extravagant
visuals, a true sense of time and place, and a spectacular use of Vangelis's
music that made you overlook (at least for a while) just how monotonous
and empty the film itself was.
But through all of Scott's lesser pictures, there is a constant feeling
that the director is squandering his considerable talent on scripts that
simply aren't there, using his visuals to cover fundamental narrative flaws
that are apparent in a fair amount of his work. He's a great visual stylist
but, perhaps, not a great storyteller, and there have been many times in
his work where his directorial skills have far surpassed the material in
bringing a picture to life.
That was once again the feeling I had while sitting through GLADIATOR
(**1/2) last week, a picture that has been heavily hyped in the media
but might disappoint those seeking an action-filled romp or a historical
epic along the lines of "Fall of the Roman Empire" (which uses
similar characters and dramatic entanglements as this film).
Like a lot of movies that just miss the mark, GLADIATOR is an ideal
film to analyze since it flirts with greatness but is ultimately undone
by a pedestrian script, cobbled together by three different writers who
were unable to bring a literate or interesting angle to screenwriting material
almost as old as the Roman Empire itself. The movie is filled with so many
cliches that its surprising lack of humor sticks out like a sore thumb,
presenting its story in an almost totally stone-faced manner as if nobody
has ever seen a film like it before. (Perhaps that was the film's intention,
since its ESPN-driven marketing scheme seems to be skewered specifically
towards 18 year-old guys who have never exposed to a "Spartacus"
or "Ben-Hur" -- an audience that will almost be certainly bored
by the film's mundane drawing-room sequences).
No doubt, there is a lot of good in GLADIATOR: fine performances from
an excellent cast, often stunning cinematography, exciting individual sequences,
but, alas, a notable lack of story to fill an extravagant epic that runs
155 minutes. This is a movie that would like to be "Braveheart"
but should have settled for being "The 13th Warrior," and its
dramatic motivation and tension is no more substantial than your old Saturday
matinee filler, even though if its ambitions are far more than that.
It's a disappointing picture because there is so much to like in it:
Russell Crowe is convincing as the Roman General whose family is killed
by the tyrannical Emperor (Joaquin Phoenix, looking strikingly like Rufus
Sewell) and vows revenge against the new Caesar. Connie Nielsen plays the
Emperor's sister, who once held deep emotions for the scarred warrior,
but now attempts to help the former General rise up and restore the power
of Rome to the people, and the Senate, where it belongs.
Fresh from his triumphant performance in "The Insider" (still
my favorite movie of last year), Crowe is believably gruff and perfect
for the part, but the problem IS the part: after a solid first half-hour,
Crowe has little to do for the rest of the movie but brood and give the
expression of "revenge!" while he spends much of the middle section
off-screen, the action instead relegated to the mad ravings of Phoenix's
Emperor, and his relationship with sibling Nielsen (who is striking and
gorgeous here, hinting at a bright future for the actress ahead).
This, as it turns out, is where the focus and pacing of GLADIATOR have
major problems: I didn't much object to Phoenix's performance as much as
I did the interminable length of his scenes. The only conflict in GLADIATOR's
simplistic script is the Emperor, and he's not exactly what you would call
a multi-faceted villain. Movies have been made entirely about royalty gone
mad (see "The Madness of King George" for one) before, but Phoenix's
screen time could have been cut in half and been twice as effective in
this film. There are no side villains (unless you count one senator who
has a brief sequence with Phoenix discussing political schemes), no subplots
to enhance the antagonists. It's Phoenix alone who creates the tension,
and it's simply not enough to anchor an entire dramatic conflict in this
type of material around.
Sure, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed do their best work in many years
(though Reed's last sequence, finished with CGI, looks terribly unconvincing),
but Derek Jacobi is utterly wasted, as is Djimon Hounsou of "Amistad"
who plays one of Crowe's fellow warriors. I couldn't believe -- with the
cast that was assembled -- that GLADIATOR couldn?t have developed other
stories or characters to enhance the premise, since a true epic would have
been filled with side characters and adventures in addition to the main
plot. The one-note story doesn't have enough substance to make for compelling
drama, but that really is all there is here.
Scott's direction has its moments of flashy brilliance (despite a grainy,
ugly appearance, the opening battle sequence is terrific), but some of
his technique gets in the way this time. The first time we see Rome and
its cityscape, he places a blue filter over the lens (?), thereby almost
completely obscuring the power of the visuals. For all the digital CGI
work in the movie, the film also feels oddly claustrophobic, with the only
sense of grandeur coming in the coliseum sequences, which at times have
the appearance of having been assembled on someone's PC. A few shots where
Crowe and Reed walk in the streets look as if they're part of a backlot
set, not the small part of a vast city.
The battle sequences are fine, but after a while, all the bloodletting
in the world loses its power, and the hand-to-hand combat sequences just
aren't as pungent as I expected them to be, particularly coming from the
filmmaker of "The Duelists." Meanwhile, Crowe's visions of his
family and his beloved wheat field are far too similar to "Braveheart,"
right down to an ending that only underscores how inferior this film is
in relation to Gibson's picture.
Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer's score has its share of eloquent moments
(though I thought the music was dialed down far too much in the general
mix), and I kept on rooting for Crowe, even if the picture didn't create
the multi-layered epic it intended to be.
GLADIATOR is certainly entertaining and is worth a look on the big screen
for those interested in seeing it, but in the great realm of cinema (or
even summer-time blockbusters), it's far from the best work that Ridley
Scott or the actors have produced elsewhere. Hopefully the lesson will
be clear: once again, next time, get them a script!
I found it amusing that the same week GLADIATOR opened in theaters,
I received an advance copy of the long-awaited, Special Collector's Edition
DVD of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (***1/2, $29.98) from Universal, which
will arrive in stores on May 30th.
Granted, CONAN is a different film than GLADIATOR, but the films share
a fair amount of similarities: both characters' families are killed, both
protagonists want vengeance over truly evil antagonists and the chance
to set things right in a barbarian-like arena (or, in the case of John
Milius's film, an entire world filled with thieves), with each film having
an abundance of fights and brutal to-the-death combat.
Now, even though GLADIATOR is tied into a specific historical context
and CONAN is set during in some sort of fantasy world (though Milius did
strip the project of most of its outlandish elements and grounded the setting
in various, authentic prehistoric vehicles and buildings), CONAN THE BARBARIAN
is a lot more fun, its ambitions dialed down to presenting an epic fantasy-adventure
with a knowing sense of humor.
Where GLADIATOR is a case of a comic-book plot masquerading as a historical
epic, CONAN acknowledges its origins and is elevated by production design,
cinematography, score and direction into being a marvelous adventure picture,
filled with elements from past gladiator epics and other sources (including
Japanese fantasy) infused into its narrative. Milius, who wrote and directed
the film (credited co- writer Oliver Stone's draft was pretty much tossed
out the window), brought not only a great visual look to the picture, but
also a lot of genuine humor, something totally absent from the glum-faced
Ridley Scott film.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's first-ever starring vehicle also makes good
use of its star's now-patented humor, with several sequences (most notably
a meeting with none-too-subtly disguised hippies) boasting some deft comedy.
Most of the movie, though, is action and myth, and it's grandly presented
with Basil Poledouris's truly awesome score (still his best work in my
mind), Duke Callaghan's nifty Panavision cinematography, a solid cast and
a great villain in James Earl Jones's Thulsa Doom, whose stare still sends
chills down your spine. It's great storytelling -- the very essence of
what was missing in GLADIATOR.
Universal's DVD has been eagerly anticipated not just by DVD consumers,
but also laserphiles who clamored for years to get their hands on a "Signature
Collection" LD release. The wait has been quite a while, but I'm happy
to report this Collector's Edition DVD is super in every way.
The movie, while not previously announced as a "Director's Cut,"
is indeed just that: Milius has extended the film's ending by a solid minute
or so, adding some much-needed interaction between Conan and the Princess
(Valerie Quinessen), whose role in the movie always seemed to have been
left on the cutting room floor. The expanded finale simply is smoother,
enabling Basil Poledouris's climactic cue to play itself out without dialogue,
and present a more satisfying cap to the kidnapped Princess plot that never
felt completed previously. Milius has also changed the film's epilogue
scroll, adding different Mako narration to place the picture in its original
intended context of a long-running series, specifically a trilogy that
has (at least as of right now) yet to be completed.
Milius and Arnold participate together in a wonderful commentary track,
which will be best appreciated by fans of the movie since neither go into
great detail about the history of the production. Instead, it's clear that
Schwarzenegger hasn't seen the movie in many years, since he's totally
forgotten about individual sequences and laughs throughout at the movie's
wonderful disregard for political correctness. The two get along well together
and it's the kind of commentary that you will actually find yourself wanting
to listen to, even if it's probably best digested in brief, 15-minute doses.
A more elaborate history of CONAN's long road to the silver screen is
covered in detail in Laurent Bouzereau's terrific documentary "Conan
Unchained," a 52-minute effort that's fascinating, revealing, and
presents an insightful look into the production and filming. Bouzereau
went to great lengths to interview every significant member of the production:
Milius, Arnold, producer Dino DeLaurentiis, Oliver Stone, production designer
Ron Cobb, co-stars Sandhal Bergman and Gerry Lopez, and composer Basil
Poledouris, who appears (looking svelte, clean-shaven and with short hair!)
to talk for a good 5 minutes about his score. While DeLaurentiis wanted
Ennio Morricone to write the music (he would ultimately score Dino's rocky
production of "Red Sonja" a few years later), Milius campaigned
for his "Big Wednesday" friend and the rest is history.
The documentary is filled with great bits of trivia -- like producer
Ed Pressman discussing how Ridley Scott and a host of other directors had
been previously approached before DeLaurentiis settled on Milius. Visually,
the DVD presentation is outstanding. The new 2.35:1 (enhanced) transfer
is thoroughly satisfying, looking far sharper and less grainy than the
preceding LD and DVD releases. The cheap Universal film stock looks a whole
lot clearer here (look at the movie clips in the documentary, which appear
to have been culled from the old letterboxed transfer), and the framing
is likewise more comfortable. The mono soundtrack is still on the weak
side; Universal had allegedly planned to do both a stereo remix (as they
are for the upcoming DVD release of "Jaws") and an isolated score
track but couldn't find the masters and thus had to settle on using the
original soundtrack. It's the same old mix, but if you've seen the movie
before, you won't be all that disappointed.
The DVD is rounded out by a pair of trailers, a still-frame archive
of pre-production concept art, rough special effects footage, and other
goodies. A lot of folks have been waiting patiently for CONAN, and it seems
2000 is off to a rousing start with this great release and the promise
of more remastered titles (JAWS, SUPERMAN, LEGEND, SUPERGIRL) to follow
in the upcoming months. Thank you Krom!
Corrections, 007 DVDs, and Andy's Exclusive Link of
JAWS is one of my favorite flicks of all-time, and if you're like me
and can even find some way to enjoy the sequels (I don't care what anyone
says, I'm a big proponent of JAWS 2 also), you'll definitely want to check
out the JAWS SCREENPLAY WEBSITE, which features multiple drafts of scripts
from the entire series at
Chief among the fascinating drafts included here: Peter Benchley's initial
script for JAWS, along with a substantially different draft of JAWS 2 (credited
to Howard Sackler and Dorothy Tristan, whose name didn't appear on the
final credits). Even more interesting is that Michael deGuzman's script
for JAWS THE REVENGE is also far more entertaining and developed than the
hideous film that came from it (though it wouldn't take much, that's for
You might have seen a bit of ABC's JAWS 25th Anniversary presentation
last Saturday, with a good- looking (albeit pan-and-scan) print and interview
clips culled from the 130-minute laserdisc documentary (which will be cut
in half for Universal's upcoming DVD release). In any event, if the Brody
family are some of your fave cinematic characters, by all means click on
the site and check it out!
Some corrections to last
week's Aisle Seat column: HENRY & JUNE was the first major studio
NC-17 release (though SHOWGIRLS was the first to really roll out on a nationwide
basis, Universal was fully behind Philip Kaufman's little-seen effort).
Thanks to King-Wei for the clarification.
Preston Jones also noted that NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was a 1955 release,
and that it was the great Michael Kidd who choreographed GUYS & DOLLS
(an error which, I swear, I caught before the column went up, but didn't
catch in time).
Several laserphiles also emailed me about the MGM GUYS & DOLLS DVD,
saying that the release is missing exit music and that the Dolby Digital
5.1 soundtrack is over-processed and vastly inferior to the old 2-channel
stereo mixes from preceding LD releases. There also seems to be some question
about the transfer as well, so if you are a genuine fan of this picture,
do proceed with caution in regards to the DVD. You would be well advised
to hang onto your LDs (especially the HBO THX release).
Finally, I received the JAMES BOND COLLECTION VOL. 2 DVD box-set and
took a brief glance at the 5 "Special Edition" titles (DR.NO,
SPY WHO LOVED ME, MOONRAKER, MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, and ON HER MAJESTY'S
SECRET SERVICE, which will retail for $149 all together), along with THE
WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH ($24.98), which will be sold separately outside of
the box-set. The good news is that the commentary tracks are by and large
more cohesive than the first group of SE releases, the documentaries on
each one of the respective pictures just as interesting (though THE WORLD
IS NOT ENOUGH is only a 15-minute featurette), and all transfers are enhanced
for 16:9 TVs.
I was, admittedly, a bit disappointed by the presentation given to OHMSS:
MGM used the exact same, speckly print that they originated for their old
letterboxed laserdisc release. There are little white speckles all during
the opening reel and other forms of dirt, so while the colors and contrasts
are better than the LD, the actual print itself is just as inconsistent.
It's still acceptable, no doubt, but I was hoping for a truly remastered
effort for what is easily one of the best Bond films.
The set streets Tuesday, May 16th, and we'll have full coverage for
you in next week's column, along with THE INSIDER on DVD and a look at
BUTCH CASSIDY as well. Until then, send all emails to email@example.com
and we'll catch you then!