‘Gladiator’ at 20: More than ever, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic feels like a genre’s brief return than a full revitalization

This piece was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

“‘Spartacus’ was years ago, and that was the last important picture about Rome. So I think there’s an opportunity here—and maybe this will bring it back. Maybe it’s time for one like this.”

A white-bearded, white-toga’d Richard Harris said those words while taking a break on the set of “Gladiator” in 1999, suggesting – as did many of his costars – the significance of a Hollywood production the likes of which moviegoers had largely been deprived of since, well, Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” nearly four decades earlier. Harris, the late Irish actor who portrayed Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator,” was right with his words. And he was wrong.

Enduring works like “The Matrix,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Fight Club” indicated a bold future for moviegoing at the turn of the century, buoyed by dazzling visual innovation, exciting new cinematic voices and a general affinity for making multiplex crowds go, “Wait, movies can do that?” And then there was Ridley Scott’s Roman-set revenge spectacular, which sought to make the masses think, “Wait, movies can do that again?”, this time with the aid of computer effects. In the process, “Gladiator” embraced an existential paradox that has crystallized in the two decades since: It was weaponizing the latest leaps forward in sparkling technical wizardry to take audiences back, and to revitalize a dormant genre that New Hollywood’s grittier, urban stories snatched studios’ attention away from. The mid-60s saw Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet inspire modernized ways of thinking about movies. The allure of “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race was suddenly of another era; in came the intoxication of offers that couldn’t be refused. Even Kubrick went from the Roman Republic to space later in the same decade. Continue reading →

In appreciation: ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ 10 years later

“Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest thing we ever get to going to the movies.”

Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, the Tennessean harbinger of death and caustic quips in “Inglourious Basterds” – Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, and released 10 years ago this month – says that line in passing to a swastika-bearing Hitler footsoldier in the backwoods of France before the Bear Jew comes out, bat in hand, and, as advertised, proceeds to beat a Nazi to death.

The Basterds hoop and the Basterds holler like they’re at a movie where hooping and hollering goes unpunished, and so do we. It’s an explosion of catharsis, a bloody denouement to the suspense built on the words of Tarantino’s epic screenplay. The writer-director allows us to breath a guilty sigh of relief—the standoff has ended. And it ends for the better; the other Nazis in their capture don’t want their heads bashed off by an exuberant Eli Roth channeling his inner “Teddy Fuckin’ Ballgame” and wielding his bat with the might of an entire people behind it, and immediately provide the information Aldo was searching for. Continue reading →

Getting way too hype for the Oscar possibilities that await Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”…in 2021

We need to talk about the Oscars. No, not this year’s awards that will be presented in a few days’ time, the culmination of several months’ worth of head-scratching decisions, logistical retreadings and general affirmation that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are at a crossroads. That discourse has been beaten with the proverbial golden statuette through many an op-ed, Twitter thread and blog post.

So no, we’re not talking about the 2019 Academy Awards. Nor the 2020 ceremony. If you’ll indulge me, let’s skip ahead to early 2021, where – pending the existence of the human race – it feels increasingly likely that the revival of a certain sci-fi/fantasy property is poised to have the genre’s biggest night at the Oscars since the finale to Peter Jackson’s standard-bearing “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2004. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Cold War’ matches lush cinematography with dose-of-reality romance

You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Cold War”is a happy love story.

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski puts you in an illustrious trance with such sensual storytelling, painting the world of discordant lovers Zula and Wiktar with such visual decadence that he makes us want to live in it. It harkens back to a traditional kind of black-tie moviegoing experience where the film is experienced through an air that is always a bit hazy. Jazz music plays in the lobby. A waiter asks if you’d like some champagne beforehand.

It’s a delicious story for our senses to absorb, the foreign-language “Cold War” is. Which is why it makes the contrast all the more haunting one we comprehend the narrative playing out in this magnificent and magnificently devastating opus.

Continue reading →

Are the Oscars about to take a step back?

There’s more than one reason why we continue to remember the final Oscar awarded on the evening of February 26, 2017 – or, more specifically, the act of its awarding – as a shocking turn of events for the Academy Awards, awards shows in general and those involved, not to mention the millions watching at home.

If dictionaries included video examples of its entries, we would see this under “fiasco”: Those few moments, witnessed then and recalled now as feeling like much longer, when golden statuette-clutching “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz announced that the actual Best Picture winners were in fact those behind “Moonlight.” And legitimately so; it remains an absurd occurrence, an oft-forgotten example of the mayhem that can unfold on live television.

When the golden Oscar dust had settled, however, when all the actors (pun partially intended) involved had said their piece on what happened and media outlets broke down the sequence of events like an episode of “CSI,” a more historically impactful (and decidedly less clickbaity) reason for that event’s enduring legacy began to emerge. Continue reading →

The Surgence of the Spring Movie Season

11 years ago, amid what society at large (including The Hollywood Sphere™) had for years deemed the “movie calendar’s graveyard shift,” a comic book movie burst onto the screen.

There were no superheroes in it. Six-packs, absolutely, but no genetically altered physiques housing superior, moral objectivity or superhuman wit. In other words, it would be another year before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character of Iron Man was about as familiar to the mainstream moviegoer as a contemporary Oscar contender released before March — aka, not very familiar. But, more on that later.

The movie I’m referring to is the uberviolent, uberlubricated “300.” The only still-relevant aspect a decade later is its (over)reliance on CGI as an innovated form of box office-busting, audience-driving weaponry.

(And no, I won’t hear your argument that Gerard “Sure I’ll Sign Up For Your Generic B-Movie Action Flick That Won’t Make More Than $30+ Mil Opening Weekend” Butler has remained relevant.)

(Lena Headey makes a strong case, though.)

Virtually transplanted for the screen from its comic book roots in a way that somehow didn’t constitute plagiarism, “300” transported audiences in a way few films had up to that point. More importantly, it transported them at a time when virtually any film of its kind didn’t dare to.

Continue reading →

Fish-men, dressmaking and peaches: The top 10 movies of 2017

With a few weeks left before what has quite loudly morphed into the most unpredictable Oscars in years, it’s finally time to take stock of what we had in 2017 at the cinema.

In brevi: It was an astounding dichotomy of auteurs operating – or continuing to operate – at the height of their powers (Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve) and first-time directors yielding surprise gems and excitement for the future of film (Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele).

In a year that ended with Hollywood beginning to form a new identity – the result of which may not be evident on the big screen until at least 2019 – it also gave us much to cry, scream and ponder about in the theater.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the months following an incredibly epic and incredibly awkward Best Picture win by “Moonlight” – itself a eulogy to identity and the winding road it can personify itself as – some of 2017’s best movies featured heroes, villains and everyday characters grappling with theirs.

Sometimes it involved busting out a move at an impromptu dance party in Italy, other times it was shedding your identity for the entertainment of others.

And, at other times still, it involved fish sex. 2017 truly had it all.

Adding to the sea of similar pieces that represent closing a chapter and opening a new one more than anything of actual substance, here is this film critic’s top 10 films of the year. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head. Continue reading →

Why ‘Moonlight’ deserves Best Picture over ‘La La Land’

To say it hasn’t already won the hearts of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – and the movie scene in general – with its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations would feel like a false statement.

But if history has anything to say about it, a victory for “La La Land” in the Best Picture race isn’t a total lock. Cinephiles will remember last year, when it seemed the Leonardo DiCaprio-Alejandro Iñárritu vehicle “The Revenant” had all the momentum, before the journalism drama “Spotlight” stole Oscar gold in the biggest category.

“La La Land” is critically revered and audience-adored, and viewing it through the scope as a tribute to classic Hollywood, it would be a risky gamble to bet against it as the film the Academy names the best of the year on Feb. 26.

But here’s a case for the movie that very well surprise everyone on Oscar Night; at least, those who haven’t experienced it yet. Whether the Academy recognizes it as such or not, “Moonlight” – the $1.5 million indie project by Barry Jenkins that explores masculinity and identity in crack-riddled Miami – is the best picture of the year. And it deserves to be named the Best Picture of the year.

It isn’t that seemingly every element in “Moonlight” works so perfectly and cohesively that it feels like living, breathing poetry.

It isn’t that the film – somewhat miraculously, seemingly effortlessly – makes three very different, very unknown actors portraying one character legitimately feel like one person at three different stages of his life, a la Boyhood without the gimmick.

It isn’t that (well, ok, it’s a tiny bit this) honoring “Moonlight” as the year’s best film would serve as a stamp of recognition of its masterful nature, on a night when it will be very difficult for the drama to pick up Oscar gold in anything outside of the Best Supporting Actor race for Mahershala Ali.

It’s the fact that, while it’s so easy to watch “La La Land” and imagine it taking place in the ‘50s if you remove the iPhones, “Moonlight” is so completely in tune with its time and place and setting. Even as it takes place more around the turn of the century, its subject matter couldn’t be more simultaneously relevant and timeless.

In an age when historical dramas and Hollywood-worshipping throwbacks have become synonymous with Oscar bait, “Moonlight” instead represents something so different, so inherently human in its intimacy and relative small-scale nature that it’s almost a wonder it was recognized by the Academy at all.

The story of Chiron over three distinct phases of his life isn’t an easy watch, but a substantial part of that is because it’s made in a way that we haven’t seen very much before in film, if at all. It’s a hauntingly beautiful portrait of urban America, one that it seems we’ve been waiting on for a long time, like a distant stretch of land that we can see for years from the ocean before we final reach its lush shores.

There’s extremely little dialogue in “Moonlight,” probably as much over its entire running time as the first 30 minutes of “La La Land.” When characters do speak, Jenkins’ screenplay makes every word count, but it’s the long looks between them that speak volumes more the subject matter than any movie not from the silent film era.

Whereas “La La Land” tells a story of big dreams and the sacrifices we take to reach them in the brightest of lights, “Moonlight” contemplates much more basic urges, ones that are almost primal in their longing to answer a simple question: Who am I? And it does so without wasting nary a single frame, each beautiful shot as engrossing as anything conjured up by Damien Chazelle.

At a time when, on a political and social level, so much is being made about identity, sexuality, masculinity, and the interweaving of the three, “Moonlight” simply screams 2017, in its art and in its spirit. And it does so much in the same way “Pulp Fiction” is associated by so many with 1994, “The Social Network” earnestly captured the early 2000s, and “E.T.” the paranoid, childlike wonder of the ‘70s.

None of those won Best Picture, either.

American Sniper relies too much on the destination, and not the journey

It’s tough to decide whether American Sniper, the latest directorial effort from Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, is a biopic or not.

On one hand, the film’s main subject – Chris Kyle, dubbed the deadliest sniper in US military history – has an unwavering presence. This is his show for roughly two hours, from the southern boy to the cowboy to the soldier.

On the other hand, Eastwood is ambiguous, almost epileptic, in how he conveys Kyle’s journey. There are clearly destinations that Kyle is supposed to arrive at in terms of how the war affects him, but more often than not while watching American Sniper, we arrive at those destinations without ever realizing we were on the journey in the first place.

American Sniper is essentially two films. One tells the story of Kyle the American, during his time at home between his four tours in Iraq. These parts of the film are clearly what got American Sniper nominated for the Best Picture Oscar last Thursday. Eastwood does an incredible job showing how Kyle’s time in Iraq affects his interaction and relationships, and there is a clear transformation from the always-smiling, somewhat naïve but dutiful Texan we saw at the beginning of the film, and the troubled character he becomes the more he experiences.

 

Chris Kyle becoming one with his weapon.

Chris Kyle becoming one with his weapon.

The tight, tense focus on Kyle’s inner conflict is by far the strongest aspect of the film. Eastwood has shown his effectiveness in conveying inner struggles before, most notably with his own role in 2008’s Gran Torino. Kyle’s world changes, and he deals with the all-too-common problem of never really returning from war. There is consistent attention to detail concerning Kyle’s morphing perspective at home. Although he stresses throughout the film that he is just a soldier doing his duty to his country, it’s the things he doesn’t say or do or visibly feel – things that we know pre-Navy Kyle would do – that is a fascination to experience.

In stark contrast, the majority of the film’s time spent in actual conflict in Iraq is mostly vastly underwhelming. We all know what to expect from war films. Gunfights. Death. Patriotic undercurrents. Actions so infuriatingly suspicious that sometimes we know what is really happening before the soldiers on the screen do. American Sniper presents all these in a manner that is simply all too familiar.

An exception to this weakness is when we get to see Kyle do what he does best as Kyle the Sniper. The few – two few – scenes where Kyle is providing overwatch for his comrades are as tightly filmed as the scope he is attached to, and a sequence involving his split-second decision involving an Iraqi child is both memorable and breathtaking. We are able to see what made Chris Kyle so deadly, and it’s incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, those scenes are too few and far between. Instead, Kyle spends the majority of his time on the ground in what soon becomes nothing more than monotonous Call of Duty action on the big screen. The film neglects to add any real levity to the majority of the film’s time in Iraq, save for an intense gunfight near the end.

The most disappointing aspect of the film’s time spent with conflict is how little it adds to the story. We are able to see the leader Kyle becomes – which, some say, is a historical inaccuracy – but it’s predictable in its point A to point B narrative. We never really see how the decisions and actions of Kyle the Sniper come around to affect Kyle the American. There are only two or three truly poignant moments during his time overseas when the audience can sympathize with the horrors Kyle experiences.

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) is a revelation as Kyle. He officially sheds whatever skin he still had from The Hangover, emerging in his own right into an elite class of dramatic actor. He rightfully earns his third straight Best Actor nomination, completing a both unexpected and fascinating metamorphosis into an actor who ascends higher with each performance. The way he conveys Kyle’s ignorance to his own transformation – with his southern drawl, and lower jaw-jutting smile – is both believable and powerful. Cooper makes it easy to sympathize with Kyle and what he goes through.

One may wonder how the film would have been different if it utilized the majority of its running time focusing on Kyle’s struggle and the complex, confused character he turns into. Instead that storyline is forced to compromise and split time with the expendable,mundane, “hoo-ah” military spectacle so engrained in our culture that it doesn’t provide any surprises.

 

In a Nutshell

Bradley Cooper fully comes into his own, portraying a soldier who unknowingly realizes how the war is changing. But unlike another recent Iraqi war story, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper is inconsistent with its focus and direction, instead seemingly presenting two different films with their own motives, one vastly superior to the other. As a result, the movie ultimately ends as jarringly as Kyle’s life; there is so much more meant to be that simply isn’t.

 

6.5 / 10

 

 

 

 

American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Directed by Clint Eastwood

2014