078: Gladiator

This is the twelfth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Gladiator is one of those movies, like for example Titanic and American Beauty, that people have turned against for some reason. I don’t know what it is, but it seems to be cool nowadays to go against the grain just for the sake of it. I am not one of those people. I loved Gladiator when it was released back in 2000 and I love it now, twelve years later. This is a very powerful piece of film making.

The very thought of a sword and sandal epic was outrageous before Gladiator was released. Few had tried in the years since Cleopatra and just about all had failed. Ridley Scott poured the stuffy Ben-Hur-type movie into the shell of a modern action drama. With the help of state-of-the-art visual and digital effects he kept the cost relatively low and created exhilarating setpieces that continue to thrill to this day.

From the opening scenes on the battlefield of Germania to the gladiatorial training in Morocco and the climatic battles in the Colloseum, it is all arranged, shot and directed to perfection. Scott decided to go with a gritty realism that we were not accustomed with in this genre. The fights are incredibly brutal and show us a glimmer of what these fights perhaps were back in the day. They probably were a lot more brutal than what Scott shows us.

Underneath all this brutality lies a touching story about a man who really wants nothing more than to go home. Just like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Maximus is a man who rose to the call of duty, but now he is tired and he wants to go back to his wife and son. He doesn’t crave power, although he gets it handed to him on a silver platter. He is understandably devastated when everything he knew and loved is yanked away from him.

Crowe plays Maximus with such understated intensity that it is really hard not to root for him. He is a tough character. He kills people when is asked to do so, but he also manages to rally the people around him to stand by side and fight for his plight. He wants revenge for what has been done to him more than anything. He will not fell any remorse for the death of his opponent. He is a killer and still we sit there, tears filling our eyes, when he starts his way towards his wife and child. Crowe is a master in this movie and deserves the Oscar he got fair and square.

Crowe has help across the board. Joaquin Phoenix plays his opponent, a young Emperor who behaves more like a petulant child than a statesman. Connie Nielsen is his, maybe, ex-lover who wants to help him so bad, but fears for the life of her son. Richard Harris is an aging emperor who has to choose what’s best for his empire, even though this will upset the one person you don’t want to taunt. There are so many fine performances in Gladiator that it is hard to describe them all here. You just have to see it to believe it.

This also counts for the brilliant sets and surroundings for the story. The way Scott has used real places and enhanced them to his liking is nothing short of astonishing. The moment Maximus and the gladiators enter the Colosseum for the first and the camera does a 360 around them at a low angle so we see all the way to the top of the arena is breathtaking to say the least. Moments like these are peppered all the way through Gladiator and I guarantee you that you won’t notice the majority of them. This way of working would pave the way for Scott’s next huge project, Kingdom of Heaven, but more on that later.

Gladiator is long, but that is something we have come to expect from Scott. Most of his movies have been around or above two hours. This time this is not an issue. There is no wasted second in Gladiator. On the blu-ray there is an enhanced version that has several scenes added to it. These don’t really add anything to the story and Scott doesn’t even want these in there, because at the beginning he says to the camera that this is not the director’s cut. The only reason I can think of why you should watch that version is the commentary by Scott and Crowe together. They are really funny together and reveal tons of information about the process behind Gladiator.

It is unfortunate that Gladiator’s achievement of reviving the sword-and-sandal genre hasn’t yielded a great many movies like it. We got Troy, 300 and Alexander, which were average at best, and a slew of vastly inferior movies like the wretched Clash of the Titans. It’s a shame, because this genre has the potential to provide great drama. But let’s not end on a down note. We have Gladiator and we have to be thankful for this. I love Gladiator and so should you.

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077: American Pie

I was planning on watching American Reunion sometime soon, so I thought it was wise to freshen up my recollection of the first American Pie, released in 1999. My viewing of American Reunion didn’t happen, but I watched American Pie nonetheless. And I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up after nearly thirteen years. I have always been somewhat of a supporter of the American Pie franchise. I, of course, mean the four movies and not the straight-to-video spin-offs that are truly atrocious.

In this first installment we meet Jim, Chris, Kevin, Paul and Steve, five friends who are about to graduate and go to college. There is just one thing that is bothering them… they are all still virgins. They agree to a pact: before senior prom is over every one of them must have shed the blanket of virginity. This is of course easier said than done. As the days go by and the deadline looms closer the guys get more desperate and their attempts to achieve their goal seem to be less and less effective. Until they decide to let fate take its course.

If you strip away the gross-out comedy, which is pretty gross sometimes, you are left with a story about insecurity and peer pressure. American Pie is actually a very sweet look at these kids that are so eager to grow up, but realize that growing is not always something that can be forced. It is when they let things go where they may that their lives start to pan out. Everybody finds someone they can hook up with and they can happily go to college. Therefor this is a great cautionary tale for teenagers and probably much more effective than some After School Special or PSA ad, because this is much more entertaining.

American Pie can, in my humble opinion, be added to the hallowed pantheon of classic comedies.

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076: Super 8

I was so excited to watch Super 8 last year. I had followed the great marketing campaign and for a long time silently hoped that it would be a prequel to Cloverfield. But then I began preparing for my move to the United States. This meant long nights of cleaning up the old house, packing and sending all our stuff to our new destination. We had a few days of relatively quiet days between shipping our stuff and the actual move, and that’s when I decided to watch Super 8. That was not a good idea.

I was just way too tired to appreciate anything about Super 8, so I have to disregard that viewing and start over. Now, when watching Super 8 on Blu-ray, I could really appreciate what J.J. Abrams and his friends had achieved. And Super 8 is certainly something special. Recreating the sentiments from those old movies I grew up on—The Goonies, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—was a great decision. Maybe not a decision that resonated with modern audiences, but nostalgia kicked into high gear for older audiences like me.

In Super 8 a group of friends set out to make a horror movie using their parents’ Super 8 cameras. While filming one of the pivotal scenes in their movie they are witness to one of the most horrifying train wrecks ever. A car crashes headlong into a freight train carrying a cargo that is unlike anything the kids have ever seen before. This is the beginning of an adventure that will go beyond their wildest dreams. It will try their friendships, bring about the best and worst in people and make them learn to judge a book by its content, not its cover. It is in a lot of ways a very similar tale Spielberg used to tell. Friendship is paramount, because it will help you through even the hardest times.

Super 8 shows that Abrams has lots of love and admiration for those old movies from the late ’70s and ’80s. Abrams grew up with the Super 8 format. He made home movies like the kids in the movie. He even managed to land a job cleaning up the old 8mm movies Spielberg shot when he was a kid. This job laid the foundation for what would become Super 8. A great tribute to a type of movie you don’t see often anymore. The only gripe I have with Abrams’ movie is that his monster once again looks like the monster in Cloverfield, just as it did in Star Trek. It is as if he has one model that he changes slightly to save money. This, on the other hand, didn’t diminish my appreciation of Super 8.

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075: London River

I reviewed London River for Battleship Pretension. My second movie review for David and Tyler. This is a movie I had wanted to see ever since it was released. The premise intrigued me, especially since I am from Holland, which is just a small sea removed from England. The repercussions of the 7/7 attacks on London were felt very deeply in our country as well. The whole political climate was shaken to its core and society became very tense.

This is exactly what London River is about. These preconceptions people have towards often an entire group of people. When in reality it is just a small group of people who manage to screw it all up for everybody. In London River we meet Elisabeth, who lives a fairly sheltered life on Guernsey, a British island off the coast of France. When the 7/7 attacks occur in London she fears for the life of her daughter, who moved to London two years prior. Elisabeth goes to London to look for her daughter and crosses paths with Ousmane, a French man who happens to be looking for his son, who he hasn’t seen in years. At first the relationship is rocky at best, but as more details of both the son’s and the daughter’s lives become apparent, Elisabeth and Ousmane realize they have more in common than they thought and they could actually be a source of reconciliation for each other.

London River wants to show the world that there is hope in the world when two very different people can put aside their differences to get through these trying times. A beautiful message that is not heard enough. Director Rachid Bouchareb always chases stories that have a very serious social agenda. Whether it be children in post-war Vietnam or soldiers in North Africa, Bouchareb doesn’t shy away from a story that could shake people to their core. This message is underscored by the brilliant performances by Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyaté, who put everything out there for us to see. Each in their own manner. Blethyn has always been an actor who wears her emotions on her sleeve, while Kouyaté doesn’t. He isn’t outgoing at all, he does it all with his eyes and his demeanor. Both of them stunning performances.

London River is a heartbreaking movie nobody should miss.

> IMDb

074: G.I. Jane

This is the eleventh movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

G.I. Jane is considered by many to be one of Ridley Scott’s minor works. I have never been one of those people. When G.I. Jane was released in 1997 it was panned by critics because of the weak script and the director’s supposed attempt at pseudo-feminism. Now, nearly fifteen years later, I have to admit that I still very much like this movie, if only for the performances by its two main actors, Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen.

I agree that G.I. Jane has its problems. The last twenty minutes of the movie are totally unfocused and useless. It makes the Navy Seals look like a bunch of stooges with more in common with The A-Team than the badass mythical Navy Seals we have come to expect. Yes, they are fresh out of training, but that doesn’t excuse them. It just gets a little silly towards the end. Another thing that could be seen as a flaw is that fact that Moore more and more starts to resemble a man as the movie progresses. This could negate the whole ‘fitting in on my terms’ method that Moore’s character believes in. She needs to look like a man to be amongst men. Something to think about.

Even though the final twenty minutes are sub-par, the rest of the movie is surprisingly intriguing. The political maneuvering, the dynamics during the training and the sheer brutality of that training are riveting to watch. Shot with the usual Ridley-flair by Hugh Johnson, who also made White Squall and later Kingdom of Heaven, the movie looks like a postcard from the edge of sanity. It is that pretty and at the same time very gritty.

Demi Moore needs to be commended upon the fact that she gave her all for this role. Undoubtedly inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s decision to shave her head for Alien3, another one of Scott’s strong female protagonists, she decided to do this as well. It lends a tremendous amount of credibility to the tenacity she harbors for finishing this course. Although I think the way in which she does away with her hair in the movie, by sneaking into a barber shop and doing it herself, was a bit misguided. Why could she not have it clipped by the barber and have no control over it? That would be much more dramatic. Otherwise I think she does a great job. She really sells this premise. It is hard to believe she actually won a Razzie for Worst Actress for this movie. Unbelievable.

Moore, who also produced, also very much benefits from having one of the greatest actors living today across from her. Viggo Mortensen is a powerful presence, reciting poetry at the first meeting with the new recruits to make them question his sanity behind those pitch black glasses. He and Moore manage to develop a relationship, a relationship that is on the one hand based on respect and on the other hand on contempt. This interesting dynamic is what drives this picture and culminates in a fight that ends with the now famous retort, “Suck my dick.” Again, the last part of the movie makes the relationship feel a bit icky, but that can be forgiven.

I heartily recommend people revisit G.I. Jane. It is not as bad as people want you to believe.

Scott’s other movies here:
072: Thelma & Louise
063: A Good Year
058: 1492: Conquest of Paradise
049: Blade Runner
043: Alien
036: Black Rain
031: Someone to Watch Over Me
024: Legend
022: White Squall
012: The Duellists

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073: Lock Out

Lock Out is exactly what you should expect. Loud, dumb, stupid, macho. Nothing more, nothing less. But it still it manages to lift itself above its peers by sheer will. It goes balls out with its comedy and action. It actually feels like watching one of those fantastically bad action movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris. You know you shouldn’t be supporting a movie like this, but secretly you do… once in a while.

Snow (Guy Pearce) is an ex-CIA operative. He has been framed for a crime he did not commit, or so he says. For this he is sentenced to jail time in stasis on the first orbital prison. At the same time Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), the President’s daughter, goes up to the same prison to check on the ‘living conditions’ there. But then a prison break occurs and the station is taken over by the inmates, all criminals of the worst sort. The only solution to this problem appears to be Snow, but he is a loose cannon who the powers that be would rather see put in stasis.

Pearce relishes this character, which is a combination between Die Hard’s John McClane and The Fifth Element’s Korben Dallas. This last comparison is not really a surprise. Lockout is one of many concepts sprouted from the mind of Luc Besson. It was his idea and the screenplay was written by him in conjunction with first time directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger. Let’s not kid ourselves. Lock Out is a bad movie with a mildly interesting premise.

072: Thelma & Louise

This is the tenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Ridley Scott’s movies have always been male-oriented, but he also has a knack for putting women at the forefront. This gives his movies a non-traditional edge. His second feature, Alien, is one of best examples of this. After Alien, Scott didn’t really return to this female-driven approach until he made Thelma & Louise, and he decided to double up on this one with two female protagonists.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress in an average diner. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a housewife whose overbearing husband is just a complete jerk. Louise has to go on a road trip and asks Thelma to come along for the ride, although Thelma would never get permission to go from her husband, so she doesn’t tell him she is going. This is the beginning of a trip that goes from bad to worse when a man tries to rape Thelma in a parking lot and Louise shoots the guy. They decide to make a run for it and head to Mexico.

The trouble is that both ladies aren’t exactly what you would call career criminals. They leave traces of their flight left and right for the police and FBI to find. Within no time they are hunted by both. During their race to freedom they discover more about themselves and each other than they would ever have expected. Thelma turns into a really confident criminal, shooting and robbing. She has truly been freed from her shackles of marriage. Louise remains the conscience of the duo, but she finds that she doesn’t need a man as badly as she thought she did.

Sarandon and Davis are excellent as these embattled women who have become somewhat feminist icons. They take matters into their own hands no matter what the consequences are. It is not often that we see these kinds of roles in the hands of two women. We follow them on this journey and Scott manages to put us square in their court. Their infectious enthusiasm, fueled by their new-found freedom, leads to some questionable and foolish behavior, but as a spectator you never find yourself condemning them. This is because Scott shows empathy for them and therefore so do we.

Next to the wonderful performances by Davis and Sarandon there is a slew of secondary characters. The law enforcement side is played by Harvey Keitel and Stephen Tobolowsky. Keitel as the sympathetic policeman who just wants them to come home before they do anything stupid. Tobolowsky as the humorous FBI agent who just wants to catch them and be done with it. Christopher McDonald is Thelma’s husband and he is one of the stand-outs for me. He is so wickedly stupid in a self-important way. He has such a hard time being nice to Thelma that the suggestion by the police of him being nice on the telephone to her gives him pause. This is ultimately what gives him away and that makes him and the police look even more stupid. A wonderful performance and a lesson to all of us men.

Michael Madsen is Louise’s boyfriend who just doesn’t want to commit. That is just about his only crime. He is good to her, he even agrees to deliver money for her, he just doesn’t want to commit. Last, but not least, there is the young gentleman J.D. who plays Thelma for all she’s worth. Thelma is so hungry for attention, as shown in the scenes in the bar that lead to the attempted rape, that she doesn’t pick up on any of the signs that could tell her J.D. is up to no good. He is civil, he is polite and he is a thieving bastard. As you can see, men don’t really fare too well in Thelma & Louise.

I like Thelma & Louise and will even go on record as saying that this is one of Scott’s best movies. It shows that he has more in stock than just pretty visuals and male chauvinism.

> IMDb