A Knight’s Tale (2001)

2016 #160
Brian Helgeland | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

A Knight's TaleA squire fakes being a knight to win a jousting contest, and a lady’s affection, in this medieval comedy-adventure.

Renowned for its anachronistic use of rock music, there’s actually not much of that, but there’s plenty of comedy and adventure — too much: it’s a little long (that there’s an extended DVD beggars belief). An able cast keep it ticking: Heath Ledger hefts the derring-do and romance, with comic support from Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, and Paul Bettany; but love interest Shannyn Sossamon is clearly miscast.

Though a favourite to some, I wouldn’t say it’s under-appreciated, but it’s a fun romp.

3 out of 5

Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

2016 #55
Ridley Scott | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Exodus: Gods and KingsFor his most recent historical epic, Ridley Scott tackles the story of Moses. It’s easy to nitpick, depending on your proclivities: whitewashed cast; lack of adherence to the Bible; Ridley’s typically flexible attitude to historiography; it was even banned in Egypt for the negative depiction of both rulers and slaves.

Those aside, it’s visually sumptuous and impressively mounted, with well-imagined semi-plausible versions of the tale’s fantastical elements. However, despite the epic length (and four screenwriters), it never gets inside characters’ heads — they’re just going through motions dictated centuries ago.

Primarily one for those already amenable to its genre or creators.

3 out of 5

Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Martian, premieres on Sky Cinema today. My five-star review is here.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

2016 #111
Stanley Kubrick | 185 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English, German & French | PG / PG

Barry LyndonStanley Kubrick made a good many exceptionally well-regarded films — indeed, with possibly the exception of his first semi-amateur feature, Fear and Desire, every one of his works can lay claim to being someone’s favourite. Nonetheless, although you wouldn’t guess it from its barebones also-ran type treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, three-hour period drama Barry Lyndon places among his top works in terms of consensus audience favourites, in that it’s on the IMDb Top 250. That said, it’s at #230, while the other six films on there are in the top 100, and he only made 13 features anyway — so it sits at the precise halfway point of his oeuvre, at least on IMDb.

Adapted from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, commonly called The Luck of Barry Lyndon but whose full original title is going in a footnote because it’s so long,* Kubrick’s film narrates the life of the eponymous Irish rogue (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, runs away from home, joins the army, becomes a spy, becomes a con artist, marries a wealthy heiress (Marisa Berenson), runs an estate, and is a man of dubious virtue and questionable likeability throughout the whole affair.

Apparently the novel is considered to be the first English-language ‘novel without a hero’, aka antihero, and Lyndon certainly fits that bill. He serves his own interests throughout the tale, which is rarely seen as a desirable characteristic but can certainly be an understandable one, though at times you may despair at how his stubborn dedication to certain causes actually works against his interests. On the other hand, he has a great propensity for blagging his way through a war, and the ensuing complications, so I guess he learns from his mistakes… some of them, at any rate. It would be tough to say that Barry is a character you empathise with, but that doesn’t stop him from being a fascinating one to follow for a couple of hours. Some of this dislike may stem from the film’s voiceover narrator, who often tells us less-than-favourable things about the lead character. Apparently this is an example of an unreliable narrator, and I suppose some of the things we’re told aren’t directly evidenced on screen, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave that seam to be mined by other writers, because (on a first viewing at least) I didn’t see where or to what effect the narrator was lying to the viewer.

As played by O’Neal, Barry’s accent places him as coming from the same part of Westeros as Littlefinger. Although I wouldn’t say he did a bad job, there seems little doubt he was miscast. The story of how he came to be in the film is more interesting than his performance, really: Warner Bros would only finance the film if Kubrick cast a top-ten box office star, based on the annual Quigley Poll of Top Money-Making Stars. O’Neal was second on the 1974 poll, just behind Clint Eastwood and ahead of people like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. Barbra Streisand was the only woman on the list, so you’d think Kubrick had nine options, but apparently they were all considered “too old or inappropriate for the role” with the exception of O’Neal and Redford. O’Neal was the bigger star thanks to also securing a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the past, but Kubrick was smart enough to offer it to Redford first, but he turned it down so O’Neal it was. Ironically, 1973 was the only year O’Neal appeared in that top ten, while Redford placed first in 1974, 1975, and 1976.

Whether it was the intention or not, O’Neal often gets by thanks to the style of the narrative, in which a series of variously-plausible events keep happening to Barry as much as he is proactive in making them occur. This is not a simple, narrow-focused, cause-and-effect kind of story, but a fictional biopic, that ranges across Europe and across time to… what effect? It’s a Kubrick film, so the ultimate goal of the tale, the message(s) it may be trying to impart, are debatable. You could see a story of the pitfalls of hubris. You could see an exploration of how a certain class lived in this time period. You could just see a man who led an adventurous life.

Whatever the merits of the tale, its telling is a frequent wonder. It’s length and pace are surely barriers to entry for some — this is not a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride; it’s more analogous to a BBC miniseries, perhaps, albeit one where you’re watching all three episodes at once. Well, binge viewing is the TV watching style du jour, so that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone nowadays. Much has been made of the film’s candle-lit photography, using special lenses adapted from NASA, and rightly so; though perhaps it’s beginning to look less remarkable as we move into an era where digital cameras can produce exceptional range and quality. That’s not to say the potential commonality of such lighting decisions dulls the excellence of John Alcott’s photography, but, without knowledge of the production challenges, a modern viewer might not be so readily wowed.

Maybe I’m one of them, because for me the best shots are to be found elsewhere. The film is littered with recreations of art from the era — not obvious “ooh, I know that painting” recreations, but photographic imitations of the painters’ style, subjects, and composition. The opening shot, for instance, really looks like a painting. It’s incredible. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best shot in the film; which is not to say the ensuing three hours are a visual disappointment, just that it remains the best among greats. (That said, having looked up images online for this review, it seems slightly less striking to me now. That may be the quality of the screengrabs; it may be that the painterly quality is so remarkable at first appearance (before becoming more familiar when the whole movie has that quality) that its memorableness is heightened.)

With its measured pace, obfuscated meaning, and sporadically likeable characters, Barry Lyndon is not the most readily accessible movie ever made. Well, it’s Kubrick, isn’t it? There’s so much to commend it though, especially if you consider visual style a reason to watch a movie (not everyone is satiated by that, but, for a visually-driven medium, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable element to be particularly engaged by). It’s an imperfect film (for Ryan O’Neal if nothing else), but perhaps a brilliant one. Certainly I’d put it in the high-middle of my Kubrick viewing so far — and as his only films that I’ve seen are all on the IMDb Top 250, that’s an upgrade from me, at least.

5 out of 5

The restored 40th anniversary re-release of Barry Lyndon is in UK cinemas from today.

Barry Lyndon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

* The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim. ^

Gone with the Wind (1939)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #41

The most magnificent picture ever!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 233 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1940) | PG (1988)
MPAA: G (1971)

Original Release: 15th December 1939 (premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, USA)
US Release: 17th January 1940
UK Release: 18th April 1940 (premiere)
First Seen: TV, c.2005

Stars
Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Vivien Leigh (Fire Over England, A Streetcar Named Desire)
Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage, 49th Parallel)
Olivia de Havilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dark Mirror)
Hattie McDaniel (Show Boat, Song of the South)

Director
Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, A Guy Named Joe)

Screenwriter
Sidney Howard (Arrowsmith, Dodsworth)

Based on
Gone with the Wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell.

The Story
The American South, 1861: wealthy teenager Scarlett O’Hara spends her days attending parties and flirting with her many admirers, though she only really has eyes for her neighbour, Ashley. After he declares his intention to marry his cousin Melanie, a furious Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a practically-minded gent who only serves his own interests. When the American Civil War breaks out, Scarlett has to apply her manipulative nature to survival, as down the years she engages in a love/hate relationship with the similarly-tempered Rhett.

Our Heroes
Scarlett O’Hara is the perennial belle of the ball in her Southern community, until the American Civil War comes and she’s forced to grow up. Her innate selfishness and tendency to manipulate people (or try to, at least) helps her survive the conflict in more-or-less one piece. Equally self concerned is Rhett Butler, a gentleman not afraid to stand up to Scarlett, which is why they clash, and why they’re probably made for one another.

Our Villains
Those damn Unionists, with their trying to get rid of slavery and everything!

Best Supporting Character
Hattie McDaniel is memorable, likeable, and Oscar-winning as the O’Haras’ maid, Mammy. Whether her performance was a good thing for the African American community or just an ‘Uncle Tom’ is another matter.

Memorable Quote
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” — Scarlett O’Hara

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” — Rhett Butler

Memorable Scene
In the streets of Atlanta, Scarlett comes across the casualties from the battle. First we only see her face as she comes upon a shocking sight. Then it cuts to a long-shot: Scarlett stood by some soldiers, a couple of wounded men on the ground before her. The camera tracks back as Scarlett walks forward, gradually revealing the field of wounded soldiers she’s walking among. It continues to pull back, up into the sky, for a full 55 seconds, the injured stretching as far as the eye can see as a damaged Confederate flag flutters into view in the foreground.

Technical Wizardry
The Technicolor photography by Ernest Haller is absolutely gorgeous, and looks better than ever nowadays thanks to new restoration techniques developed in 2004 (12 years ago?! Where does time go?) That restoration is where the real wizardry lies. Gone with the Wind was shot with Technicolor’s three-strip process, in which a prism split the light entering the camera into its green, red and blue parts, which were each exposed on a strip of black-and-white film. These strips were then dyed the appropriate colour, before being combined onto a new film to create the final full-colour print. Naturally this process was liable to human error: misalign one of the strips by even the slightest amount and you get errors; small and almost unnoticeable, maybe, but less than perfection. In 2004, they went back to the original three strips and, using complicated new computer programs, realigned them from scratch. This perfect alignment revealed details that have always been on the film but would never have been seen before, meaning these movies (they also did it for the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Adventures of Robin Hood) literally looked better than they ever had. Magic.

Letting the Side Down
There are a raft of criticisms that can be levelled at Gone with the Wind, from its depiction of black characters, to making the South seem not so bad, to the faithfulness of its adaptation (too much). The second half is certainly less focused and less memorable than the first, but the whole overcomes that, for me.

Making of
The search for an actress to play the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara is legendary — it was even dramatised in an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1980. In all it lasted two years, including an open casting call that interviewed 1,400 unknowns (useless for casting, great for publicity), and the formal screen-testing of 31 actresses, including the likes of Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more. In the end, it of course went to a young British actress, then unknown in America, called Vivien Leigh. The rest is screen history.

Next time…
Fans and filmmakers alike tried to get Margaret Mitchell to write a sequel until her death in 1949. In the ’70s, her brother agreed a deal with MGM and Universal under which a novel would be written and simultaneously adapted into a film. Despite a 775-page manuscript being produced, the deal fell apart. Numerous sequel novels have been published, and in 1994 one of these, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, was adapted into a miniseries starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett and Timothy Dalton as Rhett, with a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, John Gielgud, and Ann-Margret. Apparently it’s not very good.

Awards
8 Oscars (Picture, Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Director, Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing)
1 Honorary Award from AMPAS (for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”)
1 Technical Achievement Award from AMPAS (for being “pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment”)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Clark Gable), Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Score, Sound Recording, Special Effects)

What the Critics Said in 1939
“There has never been a picture like David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind. It is so true to Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the Civil War, as it was fought in and around Atlanta, that the film is of the same epic quality as the book. […] Vivien Leigh, the little English girl imported to play the role of Scarlett, gives a magnificent performance. No other actress in Hollywood, or on the New York stage, could have come close to equalling it. […] She is pert and beautiful, lacking in erudition but the possessor of all the arts and allure of the vital female. She is quick-tempered, selfish, untruthful, sturdy and wilful as a lioness. No attempt has been made to gloss over Scarlett’s weaknesses and sins. As she is, she dominates the picture from its gay and light-hearted beginning to its tragic close.” — Kate Cameron, New York Daily News

What the Critics Said in 1973
“The most interesting way to consider GWTW today is in comparison with the film that may eventually surpass it in profits, The Godfather. Look at the similarities. Both originated in best-selling American novels. Both are very long. Both are about predators. Both are ultra-American yet are very closely allied to Europe (Walter Scott and Sicily). And, most important, both live within codes of honor, and both codes are romances. William R. Taylor has shown, in Cavalier and Yankee, that the ‘Walter Scott’ antebellum South was largely a literary fabrication, concocted at the time, not retrospectively; as for The Godfather, our newspapers show us daily that ‘They Only Kill Each Other’ is just another escape hatch to allow us to blink facts. ‘Us,’ by the way, means the world, not just the United States, since the whole world flocks to both films. And that’s interesting, too, because it leads to a difference, not a likeness. In a new age, when the ‘realistic’ Godfather is packing them in, the romantic GWTW is still popular. There’s a crumb of comfort in that: at least culture is still more pluralist than some of our propagandists would have us believe.” — Stanley Kauffmann, The Atlantic

What the Critics Said in 2015
“Its stereotype of happy slaves and kindly masters has never been more wince-inducing […] But no one watches Gone with the Wind for historical accuracy. What keeps us coming back is four-hours of epic romance in gorgeous Technicolor. Slavery, the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, a street knee-deep in dead soldiers—all just a backdrop to the main event, Scarlett ’n’ Rhett. The feminist jury is still out on Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Nothing but a serial husband-thief? Or a resilient modern woman doing what she can to survive? You decide.” — Cath Clarke, Time Out

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“What’s striking almost 75 years on is how fresh and modern both Rhett and Scarlett remain. Gable’s eyes twinkle as he rolls Sidney Howard’s dialogue around his mouth, but there’s also a sadness there and a resignation that, no matter how hard he tries, he and Scarlett can never last. Leigh, who came through a tortuous audition process to land the part, positively crackles. Although still one of the feistiest and most driven female parts committed to screen Scarlett is, for the most part, pretty damn annoying and does little to enamour herself as the film progresses. […] Rhett sums Scarlett up perfectly when he remarks that she’s ‘like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail’.” — Three Rows Back

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I briefly reviewed Gone with the Wind after a re-watch way back in 2007, when I assessed that “the direction is brilliant, displaying styles you think weren’t invented for another 20 years; all of the design work is gorgeous; and the story is epic and expertly told, moving across genres (romance, war, melodrama, comedy) with ease. It’s easy to see why this is the most popular film ever made.”

Verdict

Last week I wrote about the enduring mass popularity of The Godfather, and here’s another case in point. Gone with the Wind may not rack up the ratings in the same circles as Coppola’s opus, but it has consistently been voted America’s most favourite movie, and its numerous massively successful re-releases mean that, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a story spanning many years and many miles, passing by historical events in the process. However, at its core it’s the story of a tumultuous romance between two people, who may love each other or may hate each other, but who, with their unique, selfish, manipulative perspectives, are surely perfect for each other.

#42 will be… #42 will be… #42 will be…

Gladiator (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #38

The general who became a slave.
The slave who became a gladiator.
The gladiator who defied an empire.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 155 minutes | 171 minutes (extended edition)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th May 2000 (Australia)
US Release: 5th May 2000
UK Release: 12th May 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind)
Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Her)
Connie Nielsen (The Devil’s Advocate, One Hour Photo)
Oliver Reed (Women in Love, The Three Musketeers)
Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, Unforgiven)

Director
Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings)

Screenwriters
David Franzoni (Amistad, King Arthur)
John Logan (The Aviator, Skyfall)
William Nicolson (Shadowlands, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Story by
David Franzoni (Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Citizen Cohn)

The Story
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believes his son and heir, Commodus, is unfit to rule, so plans to appoint victorious General Maximus Decimus Meridius as regent. Before he can, Commodus murders Marcus and orders Maximus’ execution. Maximus escapes, but returns home to find Commodus has had his wife and son murdered. Captured by slavers, Maximus becomes a gladiator, and when Commodus announces gladiatorial games to commemorate his father, he spots a chance for revenge…

Our Hero
Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the old emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, becomes a gladiator, will have his vengeance against the new emperor, in this life or the next.

Our Villain
Said new emperor, Commodus. Murders his father because Marcus favours Maximus. Fancies his sister. That kinda guy.

Best Supporting Character
Even if his performance is partially computer generated (more on that later), Oliver Reed still stands out as Proximo, the slave owner who buys Maximus and turns him into a gladiator. For a fella who does that kind of thing, he turns out to be very honourable.

Memorable Quote
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” — Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius; father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife.

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?” — Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the— yeah, you know the rest.

Memorable Scene
After Maximus secures a surprise victory in the Colosseum, Commodus enters the arena to congratulate the victor. Maximus reveals himself (cue famous speech), but holds back on his plan to murder the Emperor. As the Praetorian Guard prepare to execute Maximus, the crowd chant: “live!” Not prepared to risk unpopularity, Commodus spares him… for now.

Truly Special Effect
Oliver Reed died halfway through filming, with his key supporting role only partially complete. Famously, his performance was completed with computers, one of the first times such a thing had been done. Effects company The Mill created the additional footage by filming a body double and then mapping on a computer-generated mask of Reed’s face. The work totalled two minutes of screentime, at an estimated cost of $3.2 million.

Making of
When the HBO/BBC TV series Rome started, I read an interview with the programme’s historical advisor, who’d performed the same role for Gladiator. Asked to compare the experience of working on a major Hollywood movie versus a BBC-produced TV series, she cited the way the makers asked for information about something they wanted to include: on TV they’d ask, “did this exist?”; on Gladiator they’d say, “find us proof this existed.”

Next time…
A prequel or sequel was discussed ever since the film was a hit. The best/worst idea came from a re-write by Nick Cave (yes, that one) in which Maximus was “reincarnated by the Roman gods and returned to Rome to defend Christians against persecution; then transported to other important periods in history, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and finally being a general in the modern-day Pentagon.” As awesome as that sounds, it was rejected for “being too far-fetched, and not in keeping with the spirit and theme of the original”. Spoilsports.

Awards
5 Oscars (Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
7 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Audience Award)
10 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Russell Crowe), Supporting Actor (both Joaquin Phoenix and Oliver Reed), Director, Original Screenplay, Music, Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Awards (Best Fight, Best Work with an Animal)
1 MTV Movie Award (Best Movie)
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Line from a Movie for “It vexes me, I am terribly vexed!”)

What the Critics Said
“There isn’t much difference between the crowds cheering Maximus and fans of modern mayhem entertainment. Money is the root of all violent exploitation then and now. One of Maximus’ endearing qualities is the way he resents the attention. It’s insane to view these fights as fun. We like him enough to agree, then realize we’re gawkers, too. Scott plays cagey with this paradox, as if to say: If you want to be a ghoul, do it right. Mano a mano, with much more than profit in the balance. Viewers shouldn’t feel guilty watching Gladiator, but its impatience with trash-sports showmanship is unmistakable.” — Steve Persall, St. Petersburg Times

Score: 76%

What the Public Say
“As far as elements of technical filmmaking go, Gladiator is nothing short of a marvel. Production design team does a magnificent job in putting up set pieces that are grand, imposing & meticulously refined with the real standout being the Colosseum itself which is undeniably a sight to behold. The culture, politics & life within the Roman Empire is illustrated in splendid detail. Costumes, artefacts & other props are in sync with the timeline its story is set in but it also incorporates a slightly urban touch to it that brings a flavour of its own into the picture and enhances the look & feel of the whole imagery.” — CinemaClown @ Letterboxd

Verdict

Gladiator’s influence is plain to see: it was hailed at the time for reviving the classic swords-and-sandals epic — and indeed it did, because in its wake we’ve had so many that my original plan to list them here became untenable. The ‘original’ is still the best, though, thanks to director Ridley Scott’s feel for the epic, Russell Crowe’s strong hero, Joaquin Phoenix’s slimily unstable villain, and a mix of a straight revenge tale with familial/political plotting and the importance of public relations, thumping action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects.

#39 will make you… an offer you can’t refuse.

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

2016 #78
Noam Murro | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Taking place before, during, and after the events of Zack Snyder’s surprise-hit graphic novel adaptation 300, belated follow-up Rise of an Empire tells the wider story of what was going on in the war between Greece and Persia. In particular, it follows Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he commands a series of sea battles against the Persian navy, led by Artemisia (Eva Green).

300 was known from the off as a case of style over substance, both in terms of its visuals (the ultra-heightened colour palette at a time when extreme digital grading still felt new; the slow-mo/fast-mo/etc editing) and its storytelling (taking an historical event and ramping it up to the level of legend; dialogue more concerned with being readily quotable than sounding plausible). But it committed so thoroughly to that methodology that it kind of worked, in its own ridiculous way. It helped that, as I said, it was all quite new — 300 was a visual revelation back in 2007, and that was enough. Now, plenty of films look like that, leaving 300 2 in search of a hook. It doesn’t find one.

It doesn’t help that the CGI this time is terrible, making the whole thing look like a computer game with real people occasionally dropped in. It’s not just the low quality of the graphics (calling them “effects” or “visuals” seems generous), but the way the camera moves and frames things. And the gore is gorno-level outrageous. In one shot early in the film, we see a horse rise up in fright, slow motion emphasising how its whole body is lifting into the air on its hind legs, its front hoof flailing, its eyes wild… before it comes crashing down, its hoof smashing into a grounded man’s head, the not-even-vaguely-plausible CGI blood exploding everywhere — in slow motion, of course.

It’s also terribly obvious that it was shot for 3D. I’m not normally one to criticise a film for that — I think when some critics know a film is being released in 3D they see that in its shot choices, even if they’re perfectly valid choices for 2D. But Rise of an Empire screams that it was made for 3D from the start, with all manner of things thrust towards the camera, usually in slow motion, and the constant explosions of blood (to call them squirts or sprays implies a more liquid-like quality than they actually possess) which go nowhere else but camerawards. Presumably the only reason it’s not an 18 for violence is because it’s all so bloody silly.

There is no point discussing or analysing any other aspects of the film. In every respect — from the clunky structure, to the leaden dialogue, to the poor performances, to the cheap visuals, to the fake CGI — this doesn’t feel like the $110 million blockbuster it is, but like a direct-to-Syfy TV movie.

1 out of 5

300: Rise of an Empire is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Gangs of New York (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #35

America was born in the streets

Country: USA & Italy
Language: English
Runtime: 168 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 20th December 2002
UK Release: 9th January 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Revenant)
Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, Lincoln)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, My Sister’s Keeper)
Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, Another Year)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kingdom of Heaven)

Director
Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed)

Screenwriters
Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Silence)
Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Kenneth Lonergan (The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Margaret)

Story by
Jay Cocks (Strange Days, De-Lovely)

Inspired by
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, a non-fiction book written in 1927 by Herbert Asbury.

The Story
New York City, 1846: after his father is murdered in a fight by fellow gang leader Bill ‘the Butcher’, young Amsterdam Vallon is dumped in an orphanage. Sixteen years later, he returns to the Five Points district. With revenge in mind, he tries to establish himself with the ruling gang and get close to their leader — Bill.

Our Hero
In the first of his five (to date) collaborations with Scorsese (or six if you count that advertising short they were paid an insane amount for), Leonardo DiCaprio is Amsterdam Vallon, son of a murdered gang leader who, decades later, plots his revenge. His nemesis is a cunning so-and-so, however…

Our Villain
Although he’s a ruthless killer, and the unquestionable villain from the outset, Daniel Day-Lewis manages to render Bill a perversely charming creation, who unavoidably captivates your attention whenever he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Priest Vallon, Amsterdam’s father, only appears in the opening sequence, but his influence and death hangs over the rest of the movie. That’s why you need an actor of Liam Neeson’s calibre for the part, and of course such casting pays off.

Memorable Quote
“I’m 47. 47 years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.” — Bill

Memorable Scene
Scorsese captures an entire lifecycle in New York’s Five Points within a single tracking shot, which begins with immigrants arriving fresh off the boat and ends with coffins lined up on the quay.

Memorable Music
I have mixed feelings about U2 (because, y’know, Bono), but the theme they crafted for GangsThe Hands That Built America — is a pretty good track, and sits very appropriately at the end of the movie. It was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Eminem’s Lose Yourself from 8 Mile.

Letting the Side Down
Scorsese tried to make Gangs of New York for ages. At one point, he wanted Meryl Streep for the lead female role. He ended up with Cameron Diaz. Say no more, eh.

Making of
Unable to film in New York, which no longer looked like it did back in the mid-1800s, the production was mounted on a large set at Rome’s Cinecittà Studio. According to Wikipedia, production designer Dante Ferretti constructed “over a mile of mid-nineteenth century buildings, consisting of a five-block area of Lower Manhattan, including the Five Points slum, a section of the East River waterfront and two full-sized sailing ships, a thirty-building stretch of lower Broadway, a patrician mansion, and replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater, and a gambling casino.” Now that is a set!

Awards
10 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound, Original Song)
1 BAFTA (Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis))
11 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Award nominations (Best Fight (the opening), Best Stunt Coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 Teen Choice Award nomination (Choice Movie Liplock)

What the Critics Said
“The ambition is immense. This is Scorsese’s version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and there are echoes of Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Visconti, as well as the nod to Welles […] As with Heaven’s Gate, judgment on this film must await Scorsese’s longer version. Nevertheless, this remains an astonishing achievement, a film with a passionate sense of life, by one of the greatest filmmakers at work today.” — Philip French, The Observer

Score: 75%

What the Public Say
“This movie, even if it ended with Amsterdam’s degradation rather than his triumph, would be fabulous, probably only inferior to Raging Bull and Goodfellas among Scorsese’s oeuvre. The problem is that the movie is nearly three hours long, and that the movie continues after Amsterdam’s maiming. There is a marvelous story to be told about American tyranny, about the immigrant experience, about just how firmly entrenched the powerful are. Do you choose bellicose racism as Bill does, or do you throw your lot in with benevolent corruption as Tweed does? It hardly seems to matter; you will be expunged and forgotten in the slop and grime of the Five Points all the same while someone else wears a tall hat and eats well.” — speakerformediocrities, Seeing Things Secondhand

Verdict

Gangs of New York ended up with a bit of a mixed reception when it finally came out in 2002, which is only to be expected after Scorsese had been intending to make it for over 20 years, and the version he had shot was stuck in editing for a year (considering all the Director’s Cuts we get nowadays, why have we never had Scorsese’s original 48-minutes-longer cut?) It’s undoubtedly a compromised film, then, but one that retains a rich atmosphere, engaging performances (even if it suffers from two of the leads, DiCaprio and Diaz, being two of the least accomplished), and an impressive sense of scale. It may have a relatively simplistic revenge-tale throughline, but class swirls around it.

#36 will be… 攻殻機動隊.

Lincoln (2012)

2016 #62
Steven Spielberg | 151 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 2 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing.


Daniel Day-Lewis allegedly stars in this account of the final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, which might more pertinently be called The 13th Amendment due to where its focus lies. I say “allegedly” because I’m not convinced they didn’t find a way to resurrect Lincoln to appear as himself, then just pretended it was Day-Lewis acting.

Although this project started life as a traditional biopic of the 16th President of the United States, as director-producer Steven Spielberg developed it over several years, it was eventually whittled down to what we have here. Most reviews and the like describe it as being about the final four months of Lincoln’s life, and in a literal sense that’s true because the last couple of months are covered at the tail-end of the movie. However, it’s really about one month: January 1865.

With the American Civil War not yet over, though clearly in its final stages, and an election recently reaffirming Lincoln’s presidency but bringing changes in the House of Representatives — changes that, importantly, don’t take effect for a few more weeks — the president decides now is the time to push through the unpopular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery. He wants it passed because it’s the right thing to do, though there is far from consensus on this point. However, the passing of the amendment would likely bring about the end of the war, which leads some to back it even though they don’t agree with the amendment in and of itself; and the forthcoming changes in the House mean there are a raft of senators soon to be looking for new jobs, whose votes might be bought with the promise of a cushty position in the near future.

If that all sounds very political, it is. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Lincoln plays like a period version of The West Wing, but it bears repeating because it’s true. If the idea of men standing (and sitting) in rooms debating political manoeuvres — who might be persuaded to vote which way, and how they might be persuaded, and what they will want in return, and what deals need to be struck, and so on and so forth — sounds like it might make for an engrossing movie, then there’s a fair chance Lincoln will be your cup of tea. A not-insignificant proportion of viewers protest that it is boring, however, and while I in no way agree with them, your mileage may vary.

From a filmmaking perspective, this is first-class work. Spielberg shows a more restrained side to his proclivities than in the similarly-themed Amistad, but exhibits perhaps a little more flair than in his next film, Bridge of Spies. Much like that latter movie, his sentimental streak only really manifests itself in one short scene right near the end… though historians who contest the commonly-taught history of Lincoln as an upstanding man (a view this film clearly maintains) may argue the whole film gives in to this aspect of the director’s work. Either way, the film is a visual triumph, its production design award well-earned. Even more so, however, is the work of Spielberg’s regular DP, Janusz Kaminski, whose candle-and-gaslight photography of interiors is breathtakingly good. The whole picture exhibits a richness and a sharpness that, perhaps for the first time, made me wonder if 4K might be a really worthwhile idea after all.

The real meat of the film comes in the performances — not the actual political debate, because we all know how that should go, but the men performing said debate. Of course the title performance dominates the movie, but Day-Lewis does not. As I alluded to at the start, it’s hard to see the actor’s presence in the role — it’s not a performer, it is Abraham Lincoln. Not to do anyone else in the film — or, indeed, any other performance in any film ever — a disservice, but Day-Lewis embodies the President in a way few other actors have ever embodied a role. It’s quite remarkable.

It’s a real testament to the rest of the cast, then, that in the face of this powerhouse performance they all do such sterling work. Sally Field tackles a complex, potentially thankless role with aplomb. The movie is about the titular man, so her scenes are really about illuminating the President’s psyche and so creating the biopic side of the movie (i.e. the reason why it isn’t actually called The 13th Amendment), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t make Molly a believable human being in her own right. Tommy Lee Jones also stands out as hardline abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens doesn’t get on with Lincoln and thinks the 13th Amendment doesn’t go far enough, but will he concede it’s better than nothing in a social climate where many think the opposite? And then there’s James Spader as behind-the-scenes political persuader W.N. Bilbo (yes, like the Hobbit). When he first tumbles onto the screen he looks like a misplaced comedy creation, and he does bring some much needed levity to the film, but in a measured way that doesn’t tip the scales too far. It makes the whole better because of it.

They’re still the tip of the iceberg, however, because in the film’s expansive two-and-a-half-hour running time there’s space for accomplished performances from David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, David Oyelowo, Adam Driver… I’m just naming them in the order they are in the cast listing. Some of them are only in one scene. I still think I’ve missed some people.

For me, there are few black marks (unfortunate choice of phrase…) to be held against Lincoln. Does it give in to Spielberg’s sentimentality? Yeah, a little — but it’s a long, long way from the worst case of that, and I think you’d be nitpicky (or have a different opinion on history, which, you know, is a matter of opinion) to criticise the film too harshly for that. As to whether it’s boring, that’s entirely a matter of preference. If you think The West Wing is boring, people who write lists of “the greatest TV shows ever” will disagree with you, and you also likely won’t like Lincoln. I like The West Wing, though.

Lincoln is going to be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, and in many respects that’s fine, because (as I’ve said a couple of times now) it is an astonishing piece of acting. Fortunately for the viewer seeking out that performance, there’s an awful lot more to Spielberg’s polished political drama.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Lincoln is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5