A Look back at Gladiator and Match Point

by Bryan Nimmo

Hi everybody! (“Hi, Doctor Nick!” is the appropriate response, if we’re to be friends.) My name is Bryan Nimmo. I’m an amateur film critic, with absolutely no credentials whatsoever. Gotta love the internet, huh? Even dumbasses like me get a voice. You decided to click here, so what follows is absolutely your fault.

Here’s a few disclaimers about my reviews. I will be covering a wiiiiiiide variety of movies from different genres, eras, and countries; so don’t be surprised to see anything from Disney animated classics to Italian cannibal flicks showing up here. I use a scale of 1 to 10 to rate movies; a 6/10 or above is a passing grade, and a 5/10 or below is my way of saying “don’t waste your time”. I try to spend as little time as possible explaining the plot; why bother repeating what a quick IMDB visit can tell you? I’m here to critique, not recap.

And most notably, I sometimes go strongly against the grain when it comes to a film’s consensus reputation. I frequently hate popular movies, and vice-versa. Please realize that we are all human individuals with our own completely subjective opinions on arts and entertainment, and that there’s no reason to get bent out of shape over different points of view. In other words, don’t bother sending me your poorly-spelled death threats just because I say that A Clockwork Orange is a nasty piece of shit. (Which it totally is.)

Just to go easy on you folks, I’ll make this week’s entries a couple of relatively recent films which were (mostly) critically acclaimed. I considered starting with maybe an ancient silent comedy and a tawdry Japanese pinku thriller, but eh, there’s time enough for those sorts of obscurities later. Now, onto the show!

Gladiator (2000, directed by Ridley Scott): 4/10

Yeah, you saw that score correctly. I barely even tolerated this movie; and if it weren’t for Crash and maybe The English Patient, I’d call it easily the worst movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture within my lifetime. Heck, the sumptuous production design is the only reason I’d even rate it as high as a 5. The movie has very pretty sets and very pretty costumes, filled by very pretty actors under very pretty lighting. Okay. And? That’s what we expect from a big-budget costume epic. It is what’s required in that sort of genre. And there’s a couple of elements which are jarringly not what we usually expect from historical pictures like this, but we’ll get back to that.

The story is set in the Roman empire, circa 200 AD-ish. The current emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is dying, and he’s afraid to leave the Empire in the hands of his amoral son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). (And already I can hear any historians in the audience saying “wait, WHAT?!”, but we’ll get back to that.) So, the emperor decides to instead leave his top general Maximus (Russel Crowe) in charge. Sadly, Commodus is a sore loser, and he slaughters his father and Maximus’s family for this. Maximus winds up getting sold into slavery to an arena promoter (Oliver Reed), and sure enough, he soon becomes a gladiator. Maximus decides he’s gonna kill his way through every opponent, and become famous enough that he’ll eventually come face-to-face with the new emperor.

Okay, that’s all well and good. Straightforward revenge drama and all that. But why the heck did director Ridley Scott decide to slow it all way down with a shitload of politics and Freudian daddy issues? There’s a whole weird subplot involving Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), and let’s just say that this plot tangent accomplishes little besides wasting time and ripping off Scarface. And there’s a bunch of scenes involving Derek Jacobi as a speechmaking senator, and a whole lot of Braveheart-esque screaming about Freedom and the important thereof. Why? This other stuff has basically no bearing on the main plot about the general-turned-gladiator and the craven evil emperor. Cut it out of the movie entirely, and there’s nothing of value lost.

Worse yet, the movie’s feeble attempts at historical accuracy are all over the goddamned map. Crowe can’t always keep his Australian accent from peeking out at inopportune moments, and the rest of the international cast has a wild mismatch of random accents from different continents and centuries. The actors are all trying hard enough, guys like Crowe and Jacobi couldn’t be bad even if they were trying to, but their efforts can only do so much with the generic Ye Olde Speake dialogue they’re given here. If I listed all the anachronisms and general inaccuracies, we’d be here all fucking day (not the least of which is the horrible mangling of the story of Commodus, who was indeed a real guy, and much more fascinating and depraved than his whitewashed portrayal here). Suffice to say that Inglourious Basterds was practically a documentary about WWII, in comparison to the revisionist history on display here.

Worst of all, this movie helped to greatly popularize two recent trends in filmmaking that I absolutely despise. The first is what I refer to as “shakycam”; this is when you’re watching an action scene and you can’t see what the fuck is going on, because the camera is handheld and jerking all over the place. Usually, this tends to be accompanied by tiresomely quick editing, cut in the style of a music video; and sometimes they’ll play around with the shutter speed in order to give it a stroboscopic effect. So, thanks, Gladiator, you laid the foundation for unwatchable bullshit like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The second trend is a bit more subtle, but still awfully annoying: the use of blatant, phony CGI digital effects in a historical period piece. If you want a Coliseum, then just build a model of the fucking thing, don’t program it out of thin air like you would an exploding spaceship. That kind of thing is aggravating even in pure fantasies like Lord of the Rings, but in a “realistic” movie like this one, it’s unacceptable. It’s like the movie is whipping its phoniness out of its pants and cockslapping you across the goddamn face with it.


Match Point (2005, directed by Woody Allen): 8/10

Fucking hell, but it’s gonna be hard to review this movie without talking about the Big Twist which comes along later. So let’s be delicate, shall we? Woody Allen’s Match Point is, for its first two acts, a very different film than it ends up being in the third. It’s not often you see such a hard left turn into a completely different genre like you do here; not many movies remind me of both Jane Austen and Alfred Hitchcock. Although, there is one of Woody’s old classics which is very similar; but if I named which old Woody classic, that would be giving the game away entirely.

Our protagonist is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a former tennis player who abandoned the pro circuit in favor of an easier job as an instructor to rich wannabes. He happens to strike up a friendship with one of his clients, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a rich businessman and member of an even richer family. Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) takes an instant liking to Chris; however, while Chris thinks that Chloe is very nice and all that, he’s in overwhelming lust-at-first-sight upon meeting Tom’s fiancé Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a smoldering and moody American actress. Chris is drawn further and further into this family, and, well, various shit ensues. Saying more would be way too much of a spoiler.

First off, let’s congratulate the actors. Oh, Johansson is predictably reliable, and I’ve come to adore Mortimer more and more with every new role I see her in. And certainly it’s no surprise that such fine old character veterans like Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton turn in such damn fine work. But Jonathon Rhys Meyers impressed me to almost a surprising degree. Early in the movie, I had the uncomfortable feeling that he was a generic prettyboy, or at best a blank space with “insert Jude Law here” scrawled within the margins. But as the movie goes on, he owns this part, in such a subtle way that it took me a while to even realize it. Yet an even bigger surprise was Matthew Goode; after seeing his fucking dreadful performance as Ozymandias in Watchmen, I thought this prick had absolutely no goddamn talent at all. Goode proves me completely wrong here, being smarmy yet intelligent and overall grand in his deceptively challenging role.

We’ve kinda gotten to the point now where we take Woody Allen for granted, don’t we? He’s been so ridiculously prolific, churning out dozens and dozens of films, that it’s not anything special to say “oh, there’s a new Woody Allen movie coming out soon”. If he were more of a Terence Malick or Stanley Kubrick in limiting his output, maybe we’d be more appreciative. After all, is it even a compliment to say “and this new Woody Allen film has really good dialogue”? We expect good dialogue out of Allen; hell, we get angry when it’s sub-par by his own lofty standards. That sort of what-else-is-new attitude is also dismissive of his wonderful way with actors, and oddly inspired choices for camera shots, and unusual rhythms for editing, and a hundred other little touches which so irrevocably make Un Film De Woody Allen.

I must admit one piece of personal bias here: I totally agree with the film’s general world view, which can be succinctly summarized by the famous old quote “it’s better to be lucky than good”. The movie does hammer kinda hard on its message of how random chance makes the universe tic, but, well, I’m on board with such a statement. All too often, the bad enjoy success while the good languish in misery and despair. Or, in other word: shit happens. Yep, it sure does.

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