Gladiator: an army general turned slave must rise from the pits of the Colosseum and take down a false leader who murdered his family, friends, and previous employer. The cast is a jaw-dropping mix of ‘classic’ thespians, up-and-comers, bodybuilders, and comedians but everyone feels completely at home in their roles. The plot is simple, but packed with so much Shakespearean betrayal and deception that feels hypnotic in parts. Action scenes are huge, flashy, and bloody – but remain visceral & entertaining, and stand up against anything coming out today. It’s hard to find flaws in this: In fact, my only minor niggle is that some of the setup feels rushed and clunky; like how you can pick anyone off the ground and make ‘em a slave. You know a film is special when even after a handful of viewings and years of TV re-runs it still grips you, and the 155 minute runtime flies by. Everything about Gladiator feels truly ‘epic’ in the classic Hollywood sense – the sets, the action, the plot, the acting, the score – and it all comes together perfectly to create what’s arguably the perfect swords and sandals film.
The Master: a veteran returns home and is eventually taken under the wing of a charismatic charlatan. To get the ‘acting’ chat out of the way, Joaquin Phoenix turns in a career-defining performance of a multi-layered borderline perverted post-war wayward career alcoholic who is – we’re led to believe – physically and mentally disabled – it’s an acting accomplishment of the highest order. PSH is good, but – and I know it’s ridiculous to say – you always expect big shouty performances like this from him now. The rest of the cast are top dollar, but only appear for minutes at a time. The film itself is rather vague; part psychology, part character study, part love story, part drama, part coming-of-age, part religious historical… it feels very unplanned and ill-though out. It borrows some major themes similarities from There Will Be Blood, and to a lesser extent harks back to Magnolia, and the similarities between “The Cause” and Scientology’s beginnings, and leader, are about as subtle as a brick to the face – it was almost silly to not name it. The Master is a strange one: the subject matter’s interesting, the acting’s top-drawer, it’s beautifully shot (so much so that plenty scenes resemble ‘art’ more than ‘cinema’) … but the way in which it’s edited, and the often bizarre content of many scenes’ make it infuriatingly alienating. By the end of this 140 minute endurance test, I was long disinterested. It’s a shame that some magnificent performances are upstaged and drowned out by such irreverent cinematic and narrative wankery (for the second time in two weeks!).