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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 the Week!

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

http://www.freeyellow.com/members8/jawsscripts/Index.htm

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 sure!).

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 dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then!


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