★★★ / ★★★★
When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Che” chronicles the events that transpired when Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) teamed up with other revolutionaries to throw the Batista dictatorship out of power (in Part One) and Che’s doomed mission in Bolivia (in Part Two). I have to admit that I do not know much about Che’s history even though I am familiar with his political beliefs. Having said that, I decided to base this review in terms of whether or not the movie worked as a film, not for its historical accuracies (or inaccuracies for that matter). I wanted to like “Che” because I am a big fan of movies that run for hours and hours. It’s different than movies that run for two hours or less because it doesn’t rush into anything. Most of the time, it provides the audiences extra details of an already rich material. Unfortunately, this film is far from rich. In fact, I felt like the four-hour running time was empty emotion-wise (as well as content-wise) because it failed to get me to care for its lead character. I wanted to know Che’s exact motivations (apart from what he verbally expressed), what shaped his political leanings, and his relationship with other rebels such as Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and Tamara Bunke (Franka Potente). Unfortunately, we only skimmed the surface of such issues and the focus shifted to the ennui of the battlefield. I grew tired of the way the director showed unnecessary scenes right after another such as people smoking, staring into the woods and telling jokes. One or two of those scenes would have been fine and would have gone unnoticed. Those scenes did add up (to possibly an hour and a half or more) and I felt like I was being cheated of my time. Still, I decided to keep watching because I desperately hoped that it would get better. So then I looked to the acting, especially by Del Toro because he played the title character. That element was a disappointment as well because I felt as though his performance was confused in what he wanted to portray instead of what he was actually portraying. I didn’t feel power eminating from him that would make him a great leader and have other people who were sick of feeling oppressed being magnetized toward him. Although I’m not familiar with Che’s history, I felt like this film gave his story a bit of an injustice. This was a very difficult film for me to sit through because its tone was monotonous, it failed to offer any sort of insight regarding the uprising, and it didn’t have any sense of urgency. If the filmmakers don’t deliver that spark or energy, then why should the audience care? I’m familiar with Soderbergh’s work, both commercial and independent projects (I’m still in love with his film “Bubble”), and I can honestly say that this movie is one of his weakest. Nothing came into focus and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.