Friday, September 25, 2009

BATTLE ROYALE - Saving Private Ryan vs. The Thin Red Line

This may seem, from a distance, to be an easy call. Even in my head until most recently this was never an argument. But I argue that if one were to go back and stand Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan up shoulder to shoulder with Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the argument may be closer than first thought. Of course I may be simply playing devil’s advocate here, but I argue that perhaps Malick’s film is, on a cerebral level anyway, a vastly superior film.

While the two films are almost incomparable in many ways, they share a certain historical lineage they cannot escape: both were released in 1998, both World War II films, both nominated for Best Picture. These facts are inescapable, but that is where the similarities end. Private Ryan is set in Europe, beginning with the Normandy invasion and taking us across the continent while Red Line tackles the battle with the Japanese in the South Pacific. Spielberg’s film, when released, was met with praise from all around, including war vets, some who could barely make it through the graphic and fully realized recreation of the Normandy invasion. Red Line was released that same fall, and like all Malick films, was a quiet release without as much hoopla.

The problem with trying to pick a better of the two films is that they are so vastly different. Private Ryan has one of the most spectacular, if not the best ever, battle sequences in its Normandy invasion. The first twenty minutes are jaw dropping, heartbreaking, all together amazing. And the cast of Private Ryan, starting with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Ed Burns, and working down into cameos from Paul Giamatti and Ted Danson, is solid. Something that Private Ryan has that works for it and, in some ways, against it, is a firmly entrenched plot that involves rescuing Matt Damon’s character as his three brothers were all killed in battle. The way it works for the picture is that it gives the audience and the characters a set goal, allowing everyone involved to travel across Europe and experiencing the aspects of World War II throughout the continent. However, one way it may be a disadvantage to the overall picture is the fact that it narrows the focus of a picture about something as grand and all encompassing as the World’s most important war. Certain films can do this, but films as broad as Spielberg’s might be at a disadvantage. This is nitpicking of course, but it’s still an important aspect of the screenplay. Red Line, on the other hand, did not carry the pedigree and production values of Private Ryan.

What it did have, however, is the original, creative, and patient eye of Terrance Malick, a director whose technique is naturalistic and deliberate. Malick is not a typical big-budget director like Spielberg, so his ability to put a fresh perspective on an epic war film is what makes Red Line stand alone from other war films. Not above others, but apart from them. Malick appreciates the beauty in nature, and where he lessens grandiose production value, he fills it with important, thought provoking shots of nature; clouds burnt red and gold by the sun, an alligator slinking into the water, the sunlight piercing through a canopy of tropical trees. These shots take the audience away from the action for a specific purpose: they show us the world, the setting in which we fight these battles with each other. These are the things that will be here even after the wars are fought and people are gone. Malick delivers a perspective often overlooked in War films. But Malick’s film is not all imagery, as it has its own share of compelling battle scenes.

The biggest anchor in Red Line is the battle for a ridge between the Japanese and Americans. The majority of the picture deals with either the lead up to the battle, the battle itself, or the aftermath. The way Malick is able to build suspense and create unseen, quiet tension allows the audience to be drawn into the flowing grass plains with these soldiers, many of whom are scared beyond belief. We are down there, hiding in fear with them, unsure of what is beyond the grass plains in the eerie silence.

Saving Private Ryan is an excellent film, one of the five most powerful war films ever. But The Thin Red Line is something new for war pictures. It is the thinking man’s war film, not nihilistic like Apocalypse Now, but more thought provoking than a straight war picture like Private Ryan. That freshness of ideas makes Red Line stand out, not necessarily as a better film, just as a more inventive one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best and Worst of Bruce Willis

There is a theory I have about Bruce Willis; one that I am not sure can be proven. It’s that the goofier the hair/hair implants Bruce has the worse the movie will be. If you pay attention, even in Die Hard his hair was disappearing, it wasn’t enhanced by some strange looking style or enhancement. Now look at something like The Jackal (which wasn’t even bad enough to get on the following list), where his hair is constantly changing, and usually much longer than what his hair was at the time. And that movie is bad. And this is why I am having a tough time reading his new film Surrogates because, at times he has long, ridiculous blonde hair that makes him look corny, and other times he is the shorn Bruce that is a much better actor. As Surrogates opens this Friday, it seemed a good time to look back at five of Willis’ best films, as well as his five worst. And let me tell you, the “five worst” list had a lot more options than the best…

BEST

5) Twelve Monkeys – As a disheveled time traveler in Terry Gilliam’s offbeat (imagine that) sci-fi pic about the end of civilization, not so much the world, Willis showed that he could play a weaker character. Everything up to that point had put Willis in the driver’s seat. But with 12 Monkeys, Willis played confused, injured, and often seemed completely crazy to Madeline Stowe’s character. And who can forget the zany scenes alongside Brad Pitt in the mental institution where Willis ends up because his claims of time travel make him seem insane?

4) The Sixth Sense – This is the film in his career that really turned things around for Willis. Before M. Night Shyamalan created this worldwide phenomenon, Willis was flailing away at stock cop/hero characters in the mid nineties. But here, Willis could show a softer side of himself. Where he was vulnerable and bewildered in 12 Monkeys, he was calm and understanding here, listening to the plight of Haley Joel Osment’s dead-seeing child. And this is also the one film I could find that goes against the “hair theory.”

3) Unbreakable – Willis owes a lot of his resurgence to M. Night Shyamalan, and Shyamalan owes a lot to Willis because these are his two best films. In Unbreakable, Willis plays a reluctant hero who does not want to believe that he may have special powers; the ability to see the evil in people, as well as the ability to not be injured. This is a patient, fully realized performance from Willis, whose complexity as a superhero makes this one of the better non-Marvel non-DC comic book stories ever written.

2) Pulp Fiction – I know what you’re thinking: how is this not number one? Well, I thought about putting it there, but the one drawback I had was that this isn’t really a “Bruce Willis” movie, so to speak. When people think of Pulp Fiction and they begin listing characters and actors in the picture, Willis is at least fourth behind Travolta, Thurman, and Sam Jackson. That doesn’t take away from his role as Butch, a meathead boxer who rooks Marcellus Wallace out of a heap of cash to run off with his waif of a girlfriend. This is Willis as tough guy, his best mask to wear, and his sleek, hairless dome is a great contrast to the other central characters in the film.

1) Die Hard – Siskel and Ebert, twenty some odd years ago, claimed that the follow up to John McTiernan’s action masterpiece, Die Hard 2, was in every way better than the original. This may have been their biggest mistake together. In no way is the soulless, glossy, loud sequel from action hack Renny Harlin better than the original Die Hard, a film that created an entire sub genre of terrorist siege movie throughout the nineties. What is lost in the understood greatness of Willis’ one-liners and the action sequences that are still great in the CGI world we live in today is the fact that there is soul to Bruce’s character. He is trying to get things to work out with his wife, and then this all happens. There is a real moment of panic and desperation amid the heroics of John McClane when he is pulling glass from his feet in a restroom, one that really completes the character and helps the audience pull for him even more.

WORST

5) Last Man Standing – Who could have ever thought that a re-telling of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo set in a depression-era ghost town run by thugs could be one of the most boring films of all time? Willis plays a drifter who plays both sides of the fence between an ongoing gang war, and the result is a somber, dark, dull, lifeless action-drama that never gets out of first gear. And it doesn’t help that the laws of physics don’t apply here, as people are shot with handguns and go flying through the air, through windows, and explode as if they were just hit with a mortar round.

4) Color of Night – Sigh… where to start. This strange psychological thriller was one of the victims of the wave of Basic Instinct ripoffs. Most of the copycats of Basic Instinct, like this one, tried their best to tie in psychological drama with gratuitous sex. Only in Basic Instinct, the acting, the look and the feel of everything had a drive behind it. With Color of Night, where Willis plays a psychologist who, after a patient kills himself, can no longer see the color red (yeah, I know), falls in with one of his new patients who may or may not be a psychopath. And for good measure, director Richard Rush throws in a psych group full of the most over the top clichés ever produced on screen.

3) Mortal Thoughts – This domestic drama starring Willis as an abusive husband to then real-life wife Demi Moore (who actually plays the friend of Willis’ husband in the picture who is accused of his murder) found no audience when it was released in 1991. The title is straight from the Lifetime movie-of-the-week vault, and the storyline and plot and character development aren’t far from that either. Willis can play bad, but playing a creep like this doesn’t suit him.

2) The Story of Us – Even for a romantic comedy, Rob Reiner’s reflective relationship study starring Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer had no real heart, or no real purpose. Told mainly in flashbacks, allowing for a whole lot of Willis hairstyles, the story wanders around and ambles through a plot that I cant even remember any details about. Willis can play variations of a lot of characters, but the romantic comedy is clearly not one of his stronger genres, even though he got his start in Hollywood with Moonlighting, a romantic comedy TV series.

1) Hudson Hawk – What a complete mess this film is. I understand that is supposed to be a screwball comedy about a couple of crooks, but what it ends up being is just an annoying, grating film with no real identity. The ridiculousness of the plot is never really pointed out by the screenplay, which may have helped the comedy aspects of the story. And if the “hair theory” isn’t enough proof for you, perhaps the Bruce Willis “earring theory” might work for you. Every time Willis dons an earring, the movie is phenomenally terrible. Hudson Hawk also marks the lowpoint of Willis’ career and his star in Hollywood. Thank goodness he was able to recover from this train wreck.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Informant!

Stool Pigeon


The Informant!: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale (108 min.)

Steven Soderbergh may be the most difficult director in Hollywood to label. His stylistic choices and stories vary from historical epics (Che) to dramatic social commentary (Traffic) to art house (Solaris and Sex, Lies, and Videotape) and experimental film (Bubble) all the way to airy Hollywood blockbusters (The Ocean’s films) and everything in between. He is someone you definitely cannot pigeonhole. With The Informant!, his latest offbeat comedy about a corporate turncoat, Soderbergh has again mixed genres into something that may not be great, but will never be slammed for being unoriginal.

Matt Damon, donning a fuzzy moustache and about thirty extra pounds, plays Mark Whitacre, an A-1 douchebag who has made a lot of money as the head of bioscience at a big time corn-syrup production corporation, has a collection of cars, a brainless Midwestern wife, and a massive colonial-style house in southern Illinois. One day, when a virus is spotted in the corn syrup, Whitacre discovers a plot from the Japanese to blackmail the company for ten million dollars. When the company decides to bring in the Feds, Whitacre gets spooked and decides, for some inexplicable reason, to turn into an informant for the FBI. The FBI, in this case, is represented by Brian Shepherd, a slick-haired Scott Bakula, and Bob Herndon, a strange-haired Joel McHale. As the agents, Bakula and McHale are passable but nothing special.

Shepherd and Herndon begin working with Whitacre, and the information he gives them about a price fixing scandal sounds like a big time score for the Feds. But what they didn’t bank on was the fact that Whitacre may be the most unreliable narrator to both the audience and the characters in the film. There is a voiceover from Whitacre throughout the picture, but most of that dialogue is a nonsensical stream of consciousness that has nothing to do with the action that is taking place. This is by far the funniest aspect of the story.

There are some more amusing areas of the film, mostly when the truth about Whitacre starts to unwrap. The story is based on a book written by Kurt Eischenwald, and apparently the story could have been told as a corporate thriller like Michael Mann’s The Insider. But Soderbergh read it as such an absurd tale that he opted to angle everything towards whimsy, from the production all the way down to supporting characters played by fringe comedians like Patton Oswalt and Tom Smothers. Even the costume design (the film begins in 1992 and goes throughout the early to mid nineties for the most part) is amped up to accentuate the cheesy, ugly style of the time period.

But the sum of the parts does not add up to a fully satisfying whole. Something about The Informant!, much like its lead character, is not quite right. The lighting at times is almost too dark, and there are dry spots in the story. Damon is excellent however, chubbing up and embodying a top notch doofus. Whitacre seems to be such a genuinely nice, albeit cheesy guy, but once the truth begins to come out, his nice guy persona seamlessly shifts into something a little disturbing, if not still endearing.

Credit Soderbergh for staying original, even if the story as a whole feels flat at times. His curious use of Marvin Hamlisch, the composer of the score to The Sting, as the films ill-fitting score, is an odd but sometimes effective idiosyncrasy. But these little additions mask an otherwise flat story that has moments of brilliance, but quite a few moments of stagnation.

B

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Forgotten Films of the Nineties Series: The Game

Two years after David Fincher made his mark on Hollywood with the disturbing, morose serial-killer noir Seven, he released The Game, a grandiose psychological thriller unlike anything that had come before it. But for some reason, Fincher’s follow up didn’t make it long in the theaters despite mostly positive reviews.

Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy businessman living in his family estate outside San Francisco. Nicholas is a lonely, somber man with no real friends or close connections other than his live-in maid. With an opening sequence that shows his father committing suicide by jumping from the roof of the mansion, the audience is given a glimpse into what makes Nicholas such a miserable person.

The film opens on Nicholas’ birthday, where his brother Conrad meets him at lunch. Conrad, played by Sean Penn, is the black sheep of the family, a wanderer with no real stability, and for Nicholas’ birthday he gives him a brochure to Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). This, then, begins the game.

Once Nicholas visits CRS, strange things begin to happen to him. These strange things begin to escalate into more dangerous things, and even further into what seem like life threatening situations. This game is elaborate to the point of being fantastical, but that is perhaps the idea. The film is framed by this elaborate system of pranks and actions that read like a nightmarish fantasy world of improbable situations.

Michael Douglas is the best actor working who can portray a wealthy cad with icy resolve, and Sean Penn is excellent in the smaller role as Conrad. As the events unfold and the absurdity of the situations increase, the audience is privy to one of the most interesting, original, and completely engrossing mystery noirs in the last twenty years. It is just a shame this film came and went without much notice in 1997.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE...

There is a sickness floating around Hollywood it appears, and not one that I can really give a name to. It involves actors who once may have been big players in Hollywood, actors who had a niche and had a career, and were deserving of top billing credits. But nowadays, these actors have passed that stage in their careers and have become somewhat of a joke, trading excitement at the mention of their name tied to a project with giggles and eye rolling. And these actors seem hell bent on running their popular, game-changing franchises from yesteryear into the ground with more and more sequels. Call it has-been-sequelitis for now…

Last week it was Sly Stallone confirming hew would yet again tack on a pointless addition to his Rambo franchise, this time having the 80s hero fight monsters in the Antarctic. Well brace yourselves because this new revelation is on a much grander, much more nauseating level given the success of the franchise, as Harrison Ford is thrown his fedora into the ring for another Indiana Jones installment. That is, of course, all depending on a script that he agrees with… Like the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Now if Ford’s justification for a solid screenplay is on par with what George Lucas churned out for the fourth installment, I can almost guarantee you that this fifth Indy flick will be up and running by next year. At first, my emotions got the better of me when I saw Crystal Skull, and I became an immediate apologist to those who were so quick to bash it. Even to the point where I bought a copy of the film on blu-ray. But then, well, I watched it on blu-ray and I realized the err of my ways.

Shia swinging with the monkeys… Shoddy special effects… falling down three waterfalls… The return of a tired and loopy Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood for the sole purpose of tying together a ridiculous subplot… the use of a big rubber snake… a character obviously reworked once Sean Connery bailed… and the nuking of the fridge… Just to name a few areas of weakness to a film that had plenty more. And I didn’t even bother to point out how tired and disinterested Harrison Ford seemed to be the entire time, the same way he appears to be in every movie he has done since Air Force One in 1997. Well, I guess I did point it out. It needed to be.

So if the guideline for Ford to return is that the film has to be at least as good as The Crystal Skull, I can only imagine what we have in store for us in 2012, when Ford will be 68 years old…

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: Worst Sports Movies...

10) Any Given Sunday – I didn’t really want to put this one on the list, but I felt obligated to recognize that Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial pro-football epic was, in fact, a sprawling disaster. Without any true focus, confusing edits that include dissolves of old school players in leather helmets, a player losing his eyeball on the field, cameos stacked on top of cameos, and about forty minutes of unnecessary footage, Stone’s non-subtle indictment of pro football is excessive in every way, shape, and form. Even one of the best motivational speeches in film history from a ham-handed Al Pacino can’t keep Any Given Sunday from making this list.

9) Varsity Blues – Speaking of messes… This supposed slice-of-life small town look at the impact of high school football on a community and its players is so hokey and unrealistic it reads like a spoof of the much more gritty and honest Friday Night Lights. All the way from players drinking beer in celebration on the field, to opposing teams break dancing in the endzone, to teenagers stealing police cars drunk, nothing in this movie is realistic despite the fact that it wants to be taken seriously. On top of that, the actual football scenes might be the worst on this list, as players seemingly defy gravity and physics when they play the game. Still, too entertaining to get higher on this list.

8) Necessary Roughness – As much as it pains me to put the only film to ever be shot on the campus of my alma mater, the University of North Texas, there is no denying the ridiculousness of Necessary Roughness. With Scott Bakula as a middle-aged QB and the absurdly unfunny Sinbad as a professor turned player, the ensemble in this movie is perhaps the strangest compilation I can remember. Not to mention Jason Bateman as a rich kid and the hot-at-the-time Kathy Ireland playing a kicker. I think Kathy Ireland might date a movie more than any other actress or model. You know a movie is bad when you see Robert Loggia and think, “gee, he can do better.”

7) Major League II – It seems that a sequel to the funny and inspired 80s comedy Major League would be a good idea, especially since the majority of the original stars are back and ready to go. But wait, this second installment is going to be softened to a PG-13 rating? But the first one was a raunchy R rated comedy. That’s what made it funny. What the producers also might not have been considering were the fact that the careers of Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen, and Tom Berenger weren’t exactly on the upswing like they were in 1988, during the release of the first Major League.

6) The Replacements –
The football strike of 1987 could have made for an interesting movie. Instead, it made for this, a poorly cast, poorly acted, forgettable comedy starring the unbelievable Keanu Reeves as a football player. Keanu plays ex-football player (Point Break) better than he plays actual football player. And Gene Hackman, what the hell are you thinking? Channeling Bear Bryant and Tom Landry, Hackman hacks up a forgettable performance as the coach of a group of scab players. And speaking of dating a movie: nothing says late nineties quite like an appearance from Orlando Jones.

5) Rocky V – This turd could find its spot anywhere from this spot up on this list, but I felt for symmetrical purposes I would place it at number five. The worst of the bunch, Rocky V had Sly returning to his old neighborhood, seemingly making him dumber in the process. While there, he takes a young boxer under his wing, the ungrateful Tommy Gunn, played by real life terrible boxer and equally terrible actor Tommy Morrison. To top things off, Sly’s real son, Sage, plays Rocky’s son and is a whiny bitch the entire movie. Throw in a knock off version of Don King as a pot-stirring promoter, and the perfect storm of shit is ripe for the picking. Maybe Stallone redeemed himself with Rocky Balboa a few years ago, but nothing in my mind can fully make up for this ridiculous addition to the franchise.

4) The Babe – What a missed opportunity this film was. Babe Ruth is arguably the most recognizable, most interesting, boisterous, and most popular baseball player of all time. And John Goodman, who has the physical appearance of Ruth, is a charismatic actor who could really pull off the larger-than-life personality. It’s too bad that the direction suffocates Goodman, who has to rely too heavily on impersonation rather than his own ability to act. Goodman is forced to portray everything as a skit, and it doesn’t help that the actors surrounding him act flatly and seem rather bored with the film. The result is just a completely forgettable experience. This could have been a great film if it had been better handled from the top.

3) Rollerball – Let’s see… The original Rollerball was a dystopian science fiction sports thriller starring James Caan in the lead role. Caan is a gritty, tough guy actor who brings an interesting angle to most of the parts he plays. John McTiernan’s adaptation stars Chris Klein, a vapid, emotionless, stale, forgettable pretty boy with no charisma or discernable talent as an actor. This was the first mistake in this disastrous remake that came and went faster than an isolated thunderstorm. McTiernan, the talented action visionary behind Predator and Die Hard, must have needed some money for his soon-to-come legal fees.

2) Caddyshack II – Not only one of the worst sports movies ever made, but Caddyshack 2 (I won’t dignify it further by sticking with the roman numerals) is perhaps one of the most deplorable, hated movies in the history of cinema. First, you replace Rodney Dangerfield with the infuriatingly unfunny Jackie Mason, whose bit part in The Jerk was too much. Then, you replace ace comedic actor Bill Murray with Dan Aykroyd, the one member of the old-school comedy club of Chase, Murray, Martin, and the like, who was never funny to begin with. And then, you put them in a movie that delivers more migraines than laughs. It’s hard to believe that Chevy Chase’s career was low enough to reprise his role in this disaster flick.

1) The Program – I’m not sure what EXACTLY is so terrible about this college football “drama,” I just know that everything in it has its own amount of terrible, so much so that the sum of the parts equals a superpower of suckage beyond any other football movie ever made. Maybe it’s the fact that the script is overwritten much like John Singleton’s Higher Learning, where every sports cliché about college football is thrown in, from the impoverished superstar who injures himself, to the roided up defensive hammerhead who paints his face, to the emotionally distraught superstar Quarterback who is folding under Heisman pressure, to… oh god forget it. This thing is an annoying, poorly written trainwreck that seemed cool when I was ten. But a few years later, when my mental capacity outgrew the script in my freshman year of high school, I realized how bad it really was. This was one disaster where James Caan was not on top of his game.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE...

The words “Sylvester Stallone” should be enough to strike fear in the hearts of any self-respecting moviegoer, but this new story just makes everything in this world all the more absurd. Hell, I needed confirmation from more than one website because my first reaction was that this had to be a joke. I know I know, Stallone is getting the gang all back together for an Action romper called The Expendables that has the internet abuzz… but he also has this…

That’s right, folks, in an attempt to stretch yet another franchise as thin as his own leathery skin, Sylvester Stallone, just 18 months after releasing the last of these sequels, is planning Rambo 5. I know what most of you are saying… Wait. There was a fourth Rambo? Well, for those of you saying that, you have answered your own questions surrounding this fifth installment. Your answer? Noted indifference.

For everyone else, remember that turd that floated through multiplexes last January where Stallone blew a lot of shit up and killed a lot of people? Remember that nihilistic and pointless addition to a franchise that had outgrown its “soldier back from the war” bit about halfway through Rambo’s single-handed destruction of Afghanistan in the third installment? You know, the one that some how, some way, despite its futility, erased all fond memories of First Blood, the one and only quality picture of the whole franchise? Well, that shitstorm of bad ideas, bad acting, and a deplorable waste of money in such lean times was not the last addition to this now ridiculous franchise. And something tells me this fifth installment is not either.

But wait… It gets better.

If I gave you, as Alabama Whorley said in True Romance, “a million years to ponder,” you could never come up with the plot for this fifth Rambo installment. From comingsoon.net:

"John Rambo could track anyone - or anything - on earth. Now the military desperately needs him for a mission that his ultrasensitive instincts tell him he should refuse. A beast is loose somewhere north of the Artic Circle. It has already decimated a secret research facility and annihilated a squad of elite military guards. And the raging creature is headed south toward civilization, ready to wreak bloody devastation.

It's a job that Rambo and his 22-year-old hunting partner, Beau Brady, can't turn down, but they and a team of highly-skilled special forces kill team discover that the prey is a terror beyond their wildest imagination - a half-human abomination created by a renegade agency through a series of outlawed genetic experiments. It has man's cunning, a predator's savageness, and a prehistoric power that has transcended the ages. And even if Rambo and Beau survive its unrelenting hunger for human blood, they'll still have to contront the grim reality that it may have grown immortal."

That’s right, John Rambo is now a beastmaster, hunting strange humanoid creatures at the Antarctic circle. I told you you couldn’t make this up if you had all the time in the world. But, hey, the synopsis is apparently an adaptation of a novel that Stallone has owned the rights to for some time, a novel called “Hunter,” written by author James Byron Huggins. So, it does have literary credibility to back up its completely ridiculous story. But for some reason, I don’t think that is going to save this from being one of the most absurd films of all time.

Sylvester Stallone needs to be stopped. The steroids have effected his central nervous system and, much like batshit-crazy Gary Busey, have damaged the portion of his frontal lobe that manages reason and good judgment. I am convinced of it. And if you have note yet been convinced of it, consider now the promo poster Stallone is planning on releasing at the Toronto Film Festival. Again, this is not a joke, and yes, that it is the same pose of Rambo from the last stupid ass installment…

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BATTLE ROYALE - Braveheart Vs. Gladiator

With the release of both Mel Gibson’s triumphant Scottish epic Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Roman opus Gladiator on blu-ray, it’s time now to decide which battle-heavy period epic triumphs over the other. Throughout history certain pairings of films draw inevitable comparisons, and human nature cannot help but rank these two similar pictures. Braveheart and Gladiator may be the most difficult to rank, but let’s take a shot:

Released in 1995, Mel Gibson’s semi-fictional, semi-factual story about the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace brought home five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Gibson and Best Picture. Braveheart is unofficially heralded as the picture that created the medieval-styled battle sequences that we are all too familiar with now. You know the one, where one side stands opposed to the other, a battleground separating the two. It is in this battleground where we have the “money shot” of the two opposing sides charging each other and eventually colliding into a heap of fury and sparking metal. Braveheart was the first to employ this sequence, and every period epic from there on out had to have a sequence as such in order to seem valid.

Five years later, Ridley Scott released Gladiator, a polished Roman epic starring Russell Crowe as Maximus, a Roman general who is sent to be executed by the evil, conniving son of the emperor, played devilishly well by Joaquin Phoenix, only to escape and return for his revenge as a Gladiator, celebrated by the common people. Scott’s epic brought home five Academy Awards as well, including Best Actor for Crowe, Director for Scott, and Best Picture. Thanks to technology, Scott was able to show audiences the Roman Empire like never before. Scott’s ability to place his characters in a fully-realized world as such is one of his staples as a director, and his ability to place real characters that the audience cares about in this magnificent worlds is what separates him from the likes of Michael Bay.

Both Gladiator and Braveheart are excellent pictures, the pinnacle of the period battle epics throughout film history, but it seems to me that Braveheart wins by the most narrow of margins. While Gladiator is definitely a spectacle and an exhilarating action picture, and Phoenix’s Commodus is more realized than the any of the number of evil characters in Braveheart, the grittiness and the realism that permeates every shot of Braveheart give it a more personal feel. Gibson portrays Scotland as I imagine it was; a dreary, rain-soaked world. Everyone seems dirty, as I imagine they were.

Aside from the realism, the murder of Wallace’s young wife in the first act of the film is more emotionally unsettling and powerful than anything in Gladiator. The audience is given a glimpse into their lives more than Maximus and his family, and the brutal immediacy of the murder in the village generates more personal anger for the audience.

Again, Gladiator is a great film, but Braveheart also has a bit of originality in its corner. Beyond creating the battle scene that audiences have grown accustomed to, Braveheart was not a story shown before. Gladiator, on the other hand, holds heavy comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. This is not a knock on Gladiator, but it is a point in Braveheart’s corner. All this being said, I would consider Braveheart 1, with Gladiator at 1a. Both excellent films, but one only slightly more impactful than the other…