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Please distribute this URL as you see fit. By Ted Baldwin {short description of image}
Gladiator "

It is A nearly perfect experience in cinema - garish contrasts in social and personal justice played out in a seamless recreation of life, 200 AD.
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Five possible. No bread and circuses story ever came close to the power of this grand epic. Easily a contender for best picture.
     It was a time of heavy political unrest. The warrior ruler of a far-flung empire, who took the leadership from an old warrior and literal father figure, personally oversaw military campaigns in Europe but was more content being the idol of his subjects. Sexual tensions pervaded the halls of power, homosexuals were in the Senate,* and the Great Leader forced himself on unwilling women who could not defend themselves. The people, being distracted by a variety of games, were beginning to believe their government could and would give them everything.

     But enough about politics today.

     Gladiator takes place in 11th century Rome, just after the death of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome. Much of the story is rooted in history, but the details have been molded into a compelling, fast paced panorama of bloody battles and dark intrigues.

     Ridley Scott, who helmed such masterpieces as Bladerunner and Alien, has reached the height of his career powers in this exquisitely photographed and polished slice of Roman Meal bread.

     Gladiator takes us into a living Rome, with incredible 3D animated shots of the coliseum filled with people - banners streaming, all new and vibrant, with details such as the sliding sun roof on the coliseum, statues and people hanging out in windows looking just like people do when they are looking out windows.

     Russell Crowe takes control of Gladiator with a powerful portrayal of a good man in a bad situation, but Joaquin Phoenix steals this show with his complex and humorless portrayal of Commodus.

     The son of the Emperor, Commodus falsely ascends to the throne, crudely eliminating those who will not immediately align themselves with his reign. Lacking bravery, honesty and many other virtues of great men, he nonetheless has those qualities associated with cruel bureaucrats and dictators - perseverance, cunning and dedication to cause.

     Take nothing from that to mean Commodus is a slouch. In a brief scene at the beginning, Commodus, who has belatedly joined his father at the front in Germany, takes exercise with a sword against six or seven soldiers, demonstrating prowess and the potential to be a real adversary. He is no creampuff, but he is deranged.

     And it is not just that the fledgling Emperor is ruthless and conniving, it is that as a man he is desperately trying to get people to love him. He just does not know how to get the acceptance he wants - from his father whom he adores, from his sister, from Maximus. His frustration at Maximus grabbing the glory is funny, painful, and full of dire consequences.

Moments to watch for
1. Tigers versus men in coliseum. Why not lions? Tigers are more cunning, and much more colorful. That's why.

2. Teardrop mask gladiator fighting Maximus.

3. ColiseumColiseum re-creation.

4. Ending shot of Rome and its seven hills at sunset.

5. Battle scenes in Germany against the recalcitrant barbarians.

6. Commodus battling Maximus.

7. The battle of the Barbarians against the Chariots of Carthage.

8. Commodus' triumphant return to Rome with all of the paid spectators (like those paid to attend the N.Y. democratic convention?)

9. Maximus' escape from the death squad at the beginning of the film.

10. Total lack of mention of Christianity or persecution thereof. (Unless I missed it twice.)

11. Powerful score, which was also used for the great escape theme of the TV trailer for Chicken Run, no kidding, cut 10, 4:00 on the CD, also a Dreamworks film.

12. Joaquin's intensity, Crowe's straighforwardness, Harris' weariness, and Reed's former glory.

      Emperor Commodus starts giving the people games and bread to celebrate his ascendancy, but it is not enough. In the brilliant machinations of the script, Maximus, whom Commodus converted into a gladiator by way of trying to kill him, takes the love of the people away from him. This maddens the cowardly Commodus, and further attempts backfire - with astonishing results.

     It is the eternal struggle between those that have and those that want. And how doing the right thing still reigns supreme.

      Oliver Reed is the second gem, as an aging gladiator running a small town arena. He takes Maximus under his shield - so long as he kills on command - and provides Maximus the opportunity to steal Commodus' thunder. Reed died before this film was released but he is a shoo-in for a supporting actor nomination.

The third gem in this crown is Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius. At this point in his life, he is of such stature that he commands whatever he wants by standing still. Tired, bent and broken, you believe this is an old man on his way out - but still possessed of strength and determination. The last of the great empire builders, he neglected his family, and it costs Rome dearly.

In a grand gesture of cinematic foreshadowing, Maximus promises to be the best gladiator ever - in fact he will "show them something they've never seen before…" It is one of those moment where you know without a doubt he will, and it is worth the wait.

And Ridley shows us something we have rarely seen before - a nearly perfect film fit for all ages and interests with arresting visuals, haunting and driving music and sound effects, fantastic battle scenes, tortured psyches, unjust power - a grand tapestry of hideous desires and callousness - interwoven with the finest, slimmest thread of decency and hope.

And most vexing of all, it is about how one man with nothing at all but his name can take the heart of the people from someone who has it all.


     *not that there is anything wrong with that.

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