Sunday, April 28, 2013



In an interesting bit of irony, the Academy started the new millennium off by awarding Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR as best picture,  which was a conscious throw back to filmmaking of a different era.   In the 1950's and '60's, when Hollywood was competing with television, the studios often used big budget spectacle to lure audiences into theaters, leading to what would be known as sword and sandal films.  Usually set in ancient Rome (like GLADIATOR), movies like BEN HUR and SPARTICUS featured epic battle scenes and casts of thousands.  Unfortunately, GLADIATOR is also like many of those films in that it doesn't hold up well and goes on for too long; while generally well made and acted, it is  a reasonably entertaining movie with some good action but I think far better films were made that year.

Screenwriter David Franzoni first came up with the idea in the 1970's after reading the book THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO DIE, a history of the Roman games, by Daniel P Mannix.  In 1997, while working with Steven Spielberg on ARMISTAD, Franzoni pitched the idea of a film about a Roman gladiator to the director, who got the film green lit through the DreamWorks film studio. (Given the film's inevitably big budget, co-financing was provided by Universal Studios).   Franzoni wrote a script that combined fictional characters (the hero Maximus) and historical ones (the villain Commodus) while the  studio approached veteran director Ridley Scott to helm the film; eventually producer Douglas Wick won Scott over by showing him a copy of the 1872  gladiator painting "Pollice Verso" by Jean-Leon Gerome.  Mel Gibson was offered the lead role of Maximus, but he felt he was too old, and eventually it came to Russell Crowe, who at that point was best known for starring in serious dramas like 1999's THE INSIDER, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.  But the choice of Crowe proved correct, as the role both won him an Oscar and established him as a credible action hero.  As the other roles were quickly filled in with both newcomers (Joaqin Phoenix) and vetereans (Richard Harris, Oliver Reed) the film went into production.  At first, Scott caught a lucky break when a section of woods that set to be deforested anyway could be burned down for the film's opening battle scene.  But then trouble began: first, it took months to build a one third replica of the Roman Colosseum (which would be augmented with computer effects in the film).  And then Crowe's legendarily difficult behavior reared its head, as he began to complain about the film's script.  Scott, who had already had writer John Logan rewrite Franzoni's original screenplay, brought in yet another writer, William Nicholson, to appease Crowe.  But the star was still unhappy, sometimes walking off the set when he didn't get his way.  At one point Crowe was quoted as saying to Nicholson "Your lines are garbage but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good."(!)  To top everything off, Oliver Reed died of a heart attack before finishing the film, so a body double and more computer effects had to be used to cover for him, adding to the cost of the film.  Despite all of this, GLADIATOR would become a sizable hit, returning around $187,000,000 in the US on a budget of around $103,000,000.

Pollice Verso

Russel Crowe

Set in 810 AD, it's about Maximus (Russell Crowe) a great Roman general, who, after  leading  his army into victory against the barbarians in Germania, wants nothing more to return home to his wife and child.  But Roman leader Marcus Aurelius(Richard Harris) wants Maximus to be the next leader of Rome; when Marcus's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) hears of this, he kills his father and orders Maximus's family killed and Maximus executed.  Maximus escapes and eventually becomes a gladiator; after winning fame, he eventually heads to Rome and an inevitable conflict with Commodus.

GLADIATOR may resemble the sword and sandal films of the 50's and 60's in its story and location, but Scott clearly wanted to make a more gritty view of the past than those films portrayed; so, gone are the scenes of Roman leaders drinking wine out of huge goblets while slave girls hold grapes over their heads, instead, taking full advantage of an "R" rating, Scott gives us brutal fight scenes with decapitations and stabbings that could never have been shown in older films.  (Interestingly, Scott mentions Steven Spielberg's  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN as an influence).  Clearly, the director realizes that modern audiences, like the Roman audiences of old, expect plenty of action in a movie called GLADIATOR, and so he gives it to us, cramming in numerous combat scenes in the film's two and half hours; from the opening huge battle scene to one on one sword duels to arena melees featuring snapping tigers and chariots, Scott delivers.  And all of  the scenes are well staged and exciting, letting us see Maximus use both his fighting ability and his leadership skills.   Unfortunately, it is when it's out of the arena that the film sometimes falters; while beautifully shot (Scott's films always are) it's simple plot sometimes feels overly stretched, and the completely serious tone of the proceedings, with dialogue often delivered in a stentorian style, can also get a bit wearing. To the film's detriment, and despite its historical setting, the story often feels like one from a  modern action film, with it's improbably noble (and practically indestructible) hero and cliched revenge plot.  Still, those violent scenes are undeniably rousing, and Scott understands that the build up to the action is as important as the action itself, especially in the lead up to Maximus's debut in the arena, which is given a big drum pounding lead in as we see the nervous warriors preparing for battle.

I've already mentioned that Crowe won a best actor award for the film, but I personally don't think it was deserved.  Oh sure, he's a more than credible action hero who seems right at home slashing away in an arena, but there's not much range to his character: when he isn't fighting, he mostly glowers and sulks.  In many scenes he merely reacts to other actors expressing more emotion than he does.  Really, I prefer Crowe's performances in other films, like 1999's THE INSIDER, than the work he does here.

Joaquin Phoenix

As for Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, well, actors often say that it's more fun to play a villain than a good guy, and Phoenix certainly seems to be having a blast here!  (Phoenix also won an Oscar as best supporting actor).  Commodus is cowardly (he doesn't show up for a battle until after it's over), perverse (he lusts for his sister), and a tantrum throwing brat, and yet Phoenix gives him just enough humanity to make him often more pathetic than outright evil, especially when he admits to his father Marcus (Richard Harris) that he has fallen short of the old man's  expectations; he's almost likable in his honesty, until he has his hands around the emperor's throat.  I love the way that Phoenix absently spins a sword in his hand like a bored schoolboy while listening to the Roman senate, or the way that he chillingly threatens the life of his nephew while telling the young boy a story in front of his deceitful sister.  The dead eyed stare Phoenix gives his sister is memorable enough that he probably won his Oscar on this scene alone. The rest of the film's cast are all solid, despite the film's self serious tone,   and I especially like Oliver Reed as the warrior trainer Proximo; Reed may not have known that this was his final role, but he goes out on a high note, playing the character with full flinty vigor.  


As a straightforward piece of entertainment, GLADIATOR delivers with exciting action, but I don't think it ranks as the best film of that year. I'm far more impressed with Steven Soderburgh's TRAFFIC, which took a long hard look at the drug war and may be that rare movie that could actually change the political attitudes of the viewer.  I'm also a big fan of Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS and Ang Lee's gorgeous martial arts fantasy CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON.  Still, GLADIATOR is an enjoyable film,  and therefore not a bad choice.

Monday, April 8, 2013



The Academy's decision for best picture of 1999 was a bit of a surprise: Sam Mendes's AMERICAN BEAUTY is no sweeping epic or period piece, instead it was the first modern dramatic film to win best picture since 1988's RAIN MAN.  It's also a dark, satirical and often hilarious look at modern American suburban life, not the stuff of most Oscar winners.  Even more surprising, both director Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball had never worked on a feature film before.  Personally, I think it was an excellent, perhaps even bold choice, and I assume the Academy responded to the fact that the film is multilayered and open to a number of interpretations, along with being highly entertaining.

Ball began working on the script, which he originally intended to be a play, in the early 1990's, and he based it on the then media circus that was surrounding teenager Amy Fisher and her obsessive love for a middle aged man.  He shelved the idea for a few years while he worked as a TV sit com writer.  Frustrated with the limitations of television, he decided to try pitching movie ideas, and revived and rewrote his play.  The script bounced around for a while before the Dream Works studio decided to buy it.  Many directors, some of them big names Robert Zemeckis  and Mike Nichols, were considered.  Meanwhile, veteran theater director Sam Mendes was looking to break into films, and when Ball's script wound up in a pile on his desk, he immediately was drawn to it (ironically for such an American story, Mendes was born in England).  It turned out that Ball had seen Mendes's theater version of CABARET and thought he would be a good choice.  Together they convinced Dream Works to hire him.  Despite the studio's desire for a big star like Bruce Willis for the movie's lead role of Lester Burnham, Mendes had already decided on Kevin Spacey, who was known mostly for supporting roles in films like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.  Mendes also cast Annette Bening as Lester's wife Carolyn, and young unknown actors Thora Birch, Mena Suvari and Wes Bentley for the teenager roles.  Because the film's setting is never identified, it's anytown feel  was captured mostly on Hollywood sound stages, with a few exteriors done in Sacramento, California.  The production of the film went quickly, and it's final budget was a modest $15,000,000.  After an initial limited release, strong reviews and word of mouth would propel it to gross over $150,000,000 in the US, a rare feat for a drama lacking big stars.

It tells the story of Lester and Carolyn Burnham, a middle aged suburban couple with a high school aged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch).  Their marriage is mostly loveless and their daughter is alienated from them.  Lester becomes sexually obsessed with his daughter's cheerleading partner Angela (Mena Suvari).  While pursuing her, Lester also quits his job, starts smoking pot and buys a new car.  Meanwhile his daughter finds herself drawn to next door neighbor (and pot dealer) Ricky (Wes Bentley), and Carolyn starts an affair of her own.

The film is narrated in funny, bright tones by Spacey's character Lester, who blithely mentions right away that he is speaking to us from beyond the grave; it is a tribute to Ball's excellent script that the narration is used sparingly, mainly at the beginning and end of the film, without falling into the usual trap of "over explaining" that film narration often does.  And it's appropriate that Lester's narration is only sporadic in that this film is not just about one man facing a mid life crisis, but a whole group of interconnected people facing their own problems.  And what problems we see!  Ball and Mendes rip the facade of bland suburbia away and shows the lies and desperation underneath: from infidelity and drug use to repressed homosexual urgings and dysfunctional families.  And all of the characters feel true, like people we all know, without being wholly good or bad, and with layers that aren't readily apparent.  (He even gets the teenage characters right!) For example, Wes Bently's Ricky seems creepy and odd when he first appears videotaping Jane without asking her, but we eventually see him as a gentle, poetic soul who videotapes things because he sees the beauty in everything around him and wants to remember as much as possible. 

Wes Bently

Spacey won a best actor award for his performance, and it's easy to see why; although his Lester never shows big emotions (he seems calm even when hurling a plate at the wall), we always know what he is thinking, and Spacey makes his transformation from pudgy shlub to buff dynamo more than just a physical one.  The film's attitude towards him always seems complicated: while it's hard to condone his lust for a teenage girl, it is that lust that reawakens something in him, making him a better man, pushing him to leave his boring job and stand up to his overbearing wife, often in hilarious fashion. (I love the way he yells "I rule!" after telling his wife he's bought a new car.)  While he may seem silly as a 42 year old man trying to act like a 22 year old, his attempt to recapture his youth at least makes him happier, so it's hard to condemn.  The real make or break point comes for him at the film's end, when he finally has a chance to have sex with Angela and she tells him that she's a virgin, and then he realizes the absurdity of the situation and calls it off; but the realization that he can't be young again doesn't depress him, indeed it seem to push him into a state of serene acceptance, one in which he is glad to hear that his daughter is in love and reminisces of good times with his wife .  It is the film's final act of cruel irony that Lester's final moment of bliss comes seconds before he is shot and killed.  But, is this a happy ending or a sad ending?  His narration from beyond the grave is clearly coming from a better place, so did his final moment of realization prepare him for the after life?  Was it a revelation that made him a better man at the best possible moment, gaining him a trip to heaven? By resisting temptation, was he made holy? It almost looks like he's is praying as the gun appears behind his head. There are no easy answers given, in fact the last lines of the film clearly imply that only death can truly explain everything ("You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure." Lester intones, "but don't worry... you will someday."), but the fact that such thought provoking questions are even being raised is a rare and wonderful thing in a Hollywood film.

Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari

Along with Spacey, every other performance in the film is excellent, with even minor roles being filled out by good actors.  Bening is very good as Carolyn, as she finds a sympathetic side to a cold, perfectionist woman who could come across as just a shrew.  I love that way that she gives herself  a pep talk when trying to make a real estate sale ("I will sell this house today.") and then cries and slaps herself when she fails, showing that she is just as hard on herself as she is on others.  And then there's Chris Cooper as Col. Frank Fitz, perhaps the film's most tragic character, a repressed gay man who's outwardly homophobic to cover his own self loathing; although his actions are terrible, as when he beats his son, we still feel sorry for him when he makes a clumsy attempt to kiss Lester, and Cooper sunken, beaten expression in that moment movingly conveys the tragic sense of longing the character feels.  Also memorable is Alison Janney as Fitz's wife Babara; even though she only has a few scenes, she perfectly shows the years of being trapped in a loveless marriage in her almost catatonic eyes.

Yes, this is a great and though provoking movie, and I can't really find any serious flaws in it; even Conrad Hall's cinematography expertly captures the suburban locations in cool, stark and almost colorless beauty ( a look that contrasts nicely with Lester's fantasy sequences, which almost burst with color), while Thomas Newman's unusual, electronic score fits perfectly. It's an both a unlikely Oscar winner and an unlikely Hollywood movie in general, the kind of film rarely made, and rarely made right.


1999 was a very good year for Hollywood, with a surprising number of good oddball films like Spike Jonez's BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and PT Anderson's MAGNOLIA somehow getting made, and while I certainly enjoyed those two films, I think AMERICAN BEAUTY holds up as a modern classic that people will watch years from now to see how Americans in 90's lived.