Movies that made going to the movies suck #26: GLADIATOR

Hi everyone!  Another blog event is upon us movie bloggers. Mike at You Talking To Me? Blog is compiling a list of influential movies that in its wake brings about other movies trying to capitalize on its success. So the list is basically about the great movies the were trailed by a bunch of pretty bad ones that did everything short of tarnishing the original’s legacy. It’s both a celebration of great films and a condemnation of Hollywood’s tendency to repeat trends until they are utterly and hopelessly dead. There are 27 movies on this list that’d be revealed one day at a time, starting with It Happened One Night. So, be sure to visit his blog daily to check out if one of your faves made the cut.

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For this blog event, I recently re-watched Gladiator again. I’ve only seen the extended dvd version twice and let me just say, this movie still blew me away as much as it did when I first saw it ten years ago. Yes, it has been over a decade since this movie was released and people are still talking about it. I’d be hard-pressed to find an article/review of a film of that genre since then without Gladiator being mentioned.

It’s hardly surprising as the famed director Ridley Scott single-handedly revived the long-dormant sword-and-sandal genre that’s been long absent for over 3 decades. This article mentioned that the flop of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – despite a stellar cast of Sophia Loren, Alec Guiness and Stephen Boyd (Messala in Ben Hur) – pretty much ended Hollywood’s golden age of historical epic. It’s quite interesting that the same historical characters of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Lucilla brought the genre back to life. The story of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the Roman general who becomes a slave who later defies an empire, is pure fiction of course, craftily intertwined with the history of Rome.

The good: It’s no hyperbole to call Gladiator a masterpiece. It’s a visceral spectacle that offers a thrilling blend of intellect and physical strength.  Massively entertaining and memorable, it lived up to the promise of Maximus himself: “I will give them something they have never seen before.“ Oh yes, we’re definitely entertained.

What Sir Scott did is filmmaking of epic proportion, just reading the trivia on what it took to film this movie is awe-inspiring, i.e. building one third of Rome’s Collosseum in Malta to a height of 52 feet, the 2000+ extras used for the crowd scenes, and how the Germania battle scene in Bourne Woods took 20 days to complete. The result is an uncompromisingly gritty sequences as well as a convincing look that evoke the grandeur of Rome. The scene when the city of Rome greets their new emperor Commodus is breathtakingly majestic even a decade later. It’s not just the set that’s epic, the revenge-fantasy story is equally complex, combined with grand action and grand acting from everyone involved (from Crowe’s heroic portrayal, Joaquin’s deliciously sinister villainous role, to Derek Jacobi’s theatrical-tinged performance) that results in entertainment in a grand scale.

Yet, on top of being a feast for the eyes, Gladiator has plenty of heart. Even with all the pulse-racing action stuff, the movie never forgets to make the audience connect with the central character. We weep when Maximus finds his home is burned down, and we rejoice when he comes out triumphant one gladiatorial race after another. On top of that, the movie also immerses us in the complex political web brewing underneath the revenge story. All that makes for a movie that warrants repeated viewing because it’s so satisfying every single time.

Now, the bad: As with the success of any particular ‘trend,’ it no doubt launched scores of imitators wanting to capitalize on the now-embraced genre.  Alexander, King Arthur and Troy are all released in 2004, Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, the CGI-laden 300 in 2007 and the recently released Centurion, all carry the Greco-Roman mythology theme of which comparison to Gladiator is inevitable. There are also the B-movie versions: The Last Legion and In the Name of the King, as well as TV series: HBO TV miniseries Rome and the one currently playing on Starz cable network called Spartacus, Blood & Sand I’m sure there are countless others that escape me. The point is, Hollywood since realized that there is money to be made in this genre, and there’s no stopping them.

Unfortunately, none of those movies quite capture the ‘magic’ of the 2000 Oscar Best Picture winner, nor did it match its critical and box office success (Gladiator grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide). It’d take this entire blog to list the problems with each one, but suffice to say there is still nothing quite like the story of Maximus.

The thing with a lot of the swords & sandals movies is that they tend to be more sensational to make up for a subpar script. With the exception of the critically acclaimed Rome series (which had great characters to go with its magnificent sets), a lot of the characters in these movies are one-dimensional and lack an affecting/gripping storyline. Some of them even opt for more sensationalism and provocative scenes instead of character development, as is clearly the case in the Spartacus TV series. Think about it, there is zero sex scenes in Gladiator (we have Crowe to thank for that) and even the amount of violence isn’t overblown, it’s just enough to serve the story. The most alluring thing about Gladiator is in the script and the acting.

Additionally, the look and sound of Gladiator also spawn movies with similar visual style and music. It seems like I see a lot of movies in the past decade that use the overly muted color palettes. Then there’s the much-copied Hans Zimmer score with Lisa Gerrard’s emotive, tribal-sounding chant that felt so fresh the first time I heard it in Gladiator. The ‘Battle’ score also seems to have been imitated verbatim in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. My husband was playing POTC the other day and I swore I thought it was from Gladiator (you can listen both of them here) But since Zimmer himself produced the soundtrack, it’s possible he simply recycled it.

Interestingly enough, even Ridley Scott himself has been trying to capture the magic of his own epic movie. He had tried – but failed – with Kingdom of Heaven just four years after Gladiator, but then again who in the right mind ever think that Orlando Bloom could match the intensity and credibility of Russell Crowe??! And if you were going to hire someone like Edward Norton, why the heck would you cover him up from head-to-toe playing a king suffering from leprosy??

In any case, now ten years later, the dynamic duo Scott and Crowe are at it again with Robin Hood, which a lot of people have been calling the Gladiator sequel. Even the producer of the movie himself admits it, Brian Grazer is quoted in Telegraph UK calling Robin Hood “the Gladiator version of Robin Hood.”

It remains to be seen if he can even lives up to his own work.

Conspicuous Trailer of the Week: CENTURION

I’m all for swords & sandals flicks, so naturally I’m intrigued by this Roman empire feature Centurion when I first read about it in Empire a couple of months ago. The fact that it stars one of my top ten actors to watch Michael Fassbender doesn’t hurt, either. I first noticed the rising German/Irish star as Stelios in 300, which was then followed by acclaimed indie projects Hunger and Fish Tank, and more prominently Inglourious Basterds. In this movie, he’s starring alongside another 300 alum Dominic West, both seem to have better success retaining their buff physiques than King Leonidas himself (but I still love you Gerry Butler!) 😉

Anyway, the trailer arrives last week, check it out below:

Synopsis: Based on the legend of the Ninth Legion, an army of 3000 unstoppable Roman warriors who vanished without trace, Centurion is the tale of their vicious conflict with a murderous adversary, the Picts. Quintus Dias (Fassbender), a Roman corporal, is taken hostage by the Pict King, Gorlacon and the Ninth are charged with bringing him home and ending Pict domination of Britain. Led by General Virilus (Dominic West) and guided by a Pict prisoner and warrior woman named Etain (Olga Kurylenko), the army marches towards enemy territory and finds itself in the midst of a perilous battle with a mysterious foe.

Most blogs featuring this trailer raved about it, but my initial reaction is meh, it’s like a poor man’s Gladiator. I mean I’m not dissing it for it’s low-budget as a movie obviously doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I just feel like I’ve seen it all before, and again the Romans are depicted as the good guys here. The beginning reminds me of the opening scene of the Ridley Scott epic when the Maximus-led Romans attacked Germania, it’s probably was filmed in the exact same forest! The intensely brutal fight sequences are to pretty typical in this genre, though given the director Neil Marshall is known for bloodthirsty/gory flicks like Doomsday and The Descent (neither of seems like something I’d enjoy watching), the level of savagery level might be off the charts.

The cliché-laden catchphrases are kind of ho-hum, “We live united or die divided!” and “I’m a soldier of Rome! I will not yield!” They just don’t carry the same gravitas as “At my signal, unleash hell!” or “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Then there’s every male’s favorite tough-chick Olga Kurylenko, who didn’t impress me much in Quantum of Solace (and even less so in the dreadful Hitman). She seems nothing more than eye candy for the dudes and from the reaction of the male bloggers out there, that’s probably all she needs to be.

Fassbender looks like he fits the part well, but it’s hardly a far-reaching role for him. I’m more interested to see him as Rochester in the latest Jane Eyre adaptation, which has lined up a pretty impressive cast, apparently Judi Dench, Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) and Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) have just been added.

Anyway, no US release date is set for Centurion, but the UK release is April 23, 2010. What do you think, folks? Yay or nay for you? It’s definitely a rental for me just on account of Fassbender.

Hollywood’s love affair with ‘swords & sandals’ flix

Clash of the Titans Remake – thrusting into theaters March 2010

Perseus ready for battle!
Perseus ready for battle!

I came across a pic of Gladiator-like Perseus wielding his sword the other day, and it piqued my interest. My hubby Ivan’s a big fan of the original movie with Harry Hamlin, which basically tells the classic Greek mythology of the hero Perseus who defeat Medusa to save Andromeda. Surely you’ve seen all kinds of statues of a naked guy holding the severed head of serpent-haired Medusa. Well, that naked dude is Perseus.

The role now belongs to Aussie actor Sam Worthington (most recently stole scenes from Chris Bale as Marcus in Terminator Salvation). Gone is the Hugh Grant-like flop, replaced by a shaved head a’la Gladiator‘s Maximus. Even the costume & shield look curiously similar – I’m guessing MPAA would slap them with  NC-17 rating if the flix were to follow the statue’s costume or lack there-of. In any case, Worthington could be the next Tinseltown’s ‘It Boy’ if he played his cards right, having also been cast in Jim Cameron’s Avatar (his biggest project a decade after Titanic). From what I’ve seen and read so far, he seems to have the same gravitas and intensity as his fellow Aussie Russell Crowe (minus his temperament I hope) and the tall, brawny physique of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas in 300.

I’m a big fan of historical romans/greek tales, but Hollywood’s ripe with as many misses as there hits. Alexander, The Last Legion, and In the Name of a King are all critical duds and box office flops. But apparently they’re not giving up this genre just yet. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Prince of Persia (based on the popular video game) is promised to be a big blockbuster much like Clash of the Titans, both due out in 2010.

Not a big fan of Gyllenhaal myself, I’d put my money on the latter. Consist mostly of European talents: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Danny Houston, Mads Mikkelsen to name a few, it’ll focus more on Perseus personal life more than the original. Not a bad cast indeed! (Geek sidenote – James Bond connection alert: Mikkelsen was the baddie with the bloody eye in Casino Royale and Arterton played Agent Fields who ended up drowned in petroleum in Quantum of Solace). French native Louis Leterrier is directing the project, whom I thought did a good job re-imagining the Hulk with Ed Norton. Let’s hope this one is more in the same breath as Gladiator and less Troy

With that note, here’s a list of my fave swords & sandals flicks:

1. Ben Hur – Charlton Heston’s born to play the Jewish Prince (albeit he didn’t look Jewish in the slightest) and the production is what you’d call an epic proportion. Sure it’s a bit cheesy and slow at times, but the incredible chariot race scene alone is worth sitting for the 3+ hours running-time. The story of overcoming injustice and finally finding forgiveness through Christ still touch me to this day. They don’t make flix like this anymore. 

2. Gladiator – Russell Crowe in his Oscar-worthy role as Maximus is still the one to beat. He’s one bad-@$$ with a heart wronged by the very kingdom he’s sworn to protect.

3. 300 – I put this on the list more for Zach Snyder’s directing than Mr’s Butler’s role as Leonidas (although his 12-pack certainly didn’t hurt). The stylized, hyper-realistic visuals were shot almost entirely on green screen. I personally think the stunning CGI work helps distinguish this flix from the rest of the flock.

I’d have put Troy on the list if it weren’t for Pitt’s and Orlando Bloom’s involvement as Achilles and Paris. Even Eric Bana’s noble Hector and Brian Cox’s terrific portrayal as Agamemnon couldn’t save this movie.

So what do you think? Are you ready to be entertained?!