Sunday, May 16, 2010

Did Russell Crowe ruin Ridley Scott?


Ridley Scott sucks anymore.

Forgive the questionable grammar/semantics -- it is 100% intentional. My friend Greg from college introduced me to this terrific phrasing, which is essentially a more effective combination of "So-and-so sucks these days" and "So-and-so is not good anymore." It gets you to the point faster and makes perfect sense to anyone who hears it.

So I repeat: Ridley Scott sucks anymore.

Personally, I blame his muse, Russell Crowe. And am just glad Crowe doesn't read my blog, or at the very least, doesn't know who I am, because I hear he has something of a temper.

So Robin Hood has gotten universally negative reviews. What a surprise! Who didn't see that coming?

I think I've seen it coming since Gladiator.

Before we get any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear: At one point in his career, Ridley Scott was a great director, someone to be envied by all his peers. He made two of the best science fiction films of all time (Alien and Blade Runner), and in Thelma & Louise, one of the best of all time of two different categories: the road movie and the female empowerment movie. He wasn't always a hit-maker -- G.I. Jane, anyone? How about White Squall? But those three movies bought him a career's worth of leeway.

It was when he received mainstream recognition of his efforts in the form of an Oscar that Scott started to become significantly less interesting, and not coincidentally, significantly more prolific. Perhaps also not coincidentally, Gladiator was his first film with Russell Crowe, another creative talent who was previously excellent, and has not been so excellent since. So perhaps the destruction was mutual.

Then again, he hasn't even shown a Burtonian level of commitment to his own version of Johnny Depp -- since starting to work with Crowe, he's made as many films that did not feature Crowe (four) as those that have (four). But Crowe has appeared in his last four, and I think that's when Scott's suckitude has really started to pick up steam.

Let's consider them in order:

1) Gladiator (2000). I liked Gladiator fine, but never in a million years thought it was best picture material. It was an impressively shot action movie that looked gorgeous, featuring Scott's trademark partial slow-mo technique. I am describing this terribly, and if anyone reading this can help me out, I'd appreciate it, but it's a technique he uses regularly that seems to allow him to linger on details without actually slowing down the film speed. For example, clumps of dirt that flew through the air in the Colosseum would be clearly visible in relief against the background, almost like they were hanging there a moment longer than they actually were. (In my colleague's review of Robin Hood, I see this correctly attributed to DP John Mathieson and described as a "high-frame-rate action style." That's as good a description as any.) Anyway, it was a breakthrough technique, and I think that this is Gladiator's real contribution to cinematic history. Everyone knows Crowe should have actually won his Oscar for The Insider the year before, and that Scott should have won his Oscar for 1492: Conquest of Paradise. (Ha.)

2) Hannibal (2001). The technique I described above was present again in this film (and will continue to be, so I'll stop pointing it out), and there was a certain grandiose, international quality to this film, but otherwise, it was considered a failure as a much-anticipated follow-up to Silence of the Lambs. Perhaps we needed Jodie Foster instead of Julianne Moore. This film is bizarre and gross, though paradoxically, its best part is its most bizarre and gross part: the horribly disfigured Lecter victim played by an uncredited Gary Oldman.

3) Black Hawk Down (2001). And this is where Scott starts to establish the persona he retains to this day: technically masterful yet devoid of emotional content. A movie about soldiers killed in a skirmish in Mogadishu should have been moving in some small way, but the characters end up faceless and interchangeable in this film. There's impressive filmmaking going on, for sure, but I remember leaving the theater thinking that I wanted to like it more than I actually liked it.

4) Matchstick Men (2003). Scott's attempt at a grifter movie with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell is weirdly forgettable. It seems like an especially strange choice for a director who had been working on such a large canvas. Although I guess the fact that Cage's character has OCD gives it one additional layer.

5) Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Aside from Robin Hood, this is the only Scott film since Gladiator that I have not seen, despite the best efforts of my mom's boyfriend. (My sister and I joke about the time he wanted me to watch this giant epic about the Crusades on his iPhone.) It's a logical movie for me to have seen, but I think part of the reason I didn't is that I had seen one too many movies lately where the main character speechifies in some trite way: "Today! Is the day! Of all days! Of our destiny! Of our freedom!" And then two armies run at each other for an epic skirmish. In fact, when I was at one point going to focus only on the fact that this type of material seems incongruous for a Robin Hood movie, I was going to call this Scott's crutch, and point out that it also appears in Gladiator. I was going to call the post "Braveheart's sloppy seconds." I mean, aren't you kind of sick of that shit also?

6) A Good Year (2006). It seems strange, in retrospect, that the first film to reunite Scott and Crowe after Gladiator was a movie so unlike what either of them had ever made before. Normally I would applaud such diversity in an artist, but A Good Year is so slight and so frivolous that a person has to genuinely ask why either of them really wanted to make a movie about an English businessman with a hard shell who inherits a French vineyard. Maybe just as a chance to catch their breath after all the epics? It's not terrible, but it's also not consequential in the slightest.

7) American Gangster (2007). And here's where I really start to hate Ridley Scott. This is an over-long and pointless film that rips off many better gangster movies, and ends in one of the most peculiar ways you can imagine. I won't give too much away here, but you can't spend an entire movie making us view a character one way, then ask us to change how we view him in the last ten minutes of the movie. (It's Denzel Washington's character I'm talking about, not Crowe's). Although this film certainly has its fans, I consider it an utter waste of celluloid.

8) Body of Lies (2008). I actually watched Body of Lies last night, giving it the opportunity to provide Scott a stay of execution on this post. And actually, it sort of did -- until I woke up this morning and decided I wanted to write something with my morning coffee. Body of Lies is highly watchable and genuinely entertaining, but it's not something you will ever think about again afterward. Not every movie needs to be something more than it is, and here is a reasonably clear espionage thriller involving modern Islamic terrorism, set in numerous locations throughout the Middle East. Leonardo Di Caprio and Crowe are both good. However, I can't help but see this as another symptom of Scott treading water artistically, even though I enjoyed it.

9) Robin Hood (2010). Haven't seen it, don't really plan to, at least not in the theater. Crowe looks like he's playing Maximus again, and it's just shoehorned into the Robin Hood story. In this way it seems like it might be purely lazy, more than any of the other films on this list. Familiarity can breed contempt.

To take any ten-year period of a director's career and say that it's not as good as some other ten-year period is not really fair. Especially since Ridley Scott is not a young man -- he'll be 73 this year.

But I don't get the sense that Scott is winding down -- in fact, quite the opposite. Although IMDB is notoriously inclusive in terms of rumored future projects, it lists 18 such projects for Scott, at least three of which he's supposed to direct: two Alien prequels (this is the first I've heard of this) and a film called The Kind One. So far, none of Scott's future projects seem to be the same as Crowe's future projects. Maybe they had a dust-up on the set of Robin Hood. I could see Crowe punching out a man 25 years older than him.

And because Scott is still so active, I think it's fair to hold him accountable for his choices, and to expect more from him. This is a man whose films once had soul; now they do not. Whether his partnership with Russell Crowe has anything to do with that or not is left up to the speculation of bloggers like me.

13 comments:

Mike Lippert said...

I'm going to respetfully disagree although I hold all your points in esteem. First, I'm not so sure Scott is making any more duds now than he was at any point in his career. I mean, inbetween flicks like Blade Runner and Themla you have Legend and Black Rain, which are about the worst things Scott has ever done.

With the exception of Kingdom of Heaven and maybe Gladiator a bit, I like all of the films you have went through (and yes, I believe you friend is right, the effect you speak of it to speed the frame rate up in order to make everything feel more clear and in focus, it's how you capture things like rain on film).

Matchstick Men I think is very underrated and manages to juggle at least three different plots while never losing track or letting one outweigh the other. Sure, there is a bit of artistic excess going on but Cage is brillant and the movie is very entertaining.

When you talk about Black Hawk Down, you seem to want it to be a tradition Hollywood war movie. I appreciate how Scott works at capturing the confusion and violence of the war zone. By not providing stars with big roles he's basically creating a situation that is similar to what real combat would be: every man for themselves. I find this movie fascinating and few since Platoon have been so good at capturing the ever present danger of a combat zone.

American Gangster is a masterpiece in my eyes. To blame Scott for bailing out in the end is esentially to blame Costello for his actions in real life. Not only is Denzel great in this movie but again, Scott loves the details and this movie is a lot less about being a gangster and a lot more about being a businessman. He sees this mans operations to the very last detail and it's kind of fasinating to see how Costello got away with it. This movie should be shown in economics classes.

A Good Year is slight yes, but it's a lovely throwback to the Cary Grant slapstick comedy days (far better than Leatherheads, you may agree). It's charming, provides a nice romance and the scenery is beautiful. It may not be a great one but it's certainly underrated.

And Body of Lies, well it out Bonded Bond (because, you know, Quantum of Solace sucked hard) and, I like you, found it entertaining if forgettable. I don't know, sometimes after coming off of a major film like American Gnagster you need to make a minor one like this and although I'll never watch it again, I enjoyed the hell out of it anyway.

This way fun, let's do Tony next!

Vancetastic said...

Thanks, Mike -- I am officially adding American Gangster to my list of films to reconsider for my Second Chances series. I hadn't had it in my sights earlier because I honestly thought most people agreed with me about it. But your impassioned defense has inspired me to reconsider it. Which should be easy, considering that I own a burned copy of it.

I actually agree with you on the other films. It was funny, as I was writing this, I realized that my argument wasn't as strong as I had originally conceived it in my head. But sometimes, once you've started on something, it's hard to change course. I perhaps don't like either Matchstick Men or A Good Year as much as you do, but I agree they are both perfectly fine.

It gives you an appreciation of the epic ambitions of this filmmaker that we could ever consider a movie like Body of Lies to be "small."

I agree particularly with your point about the duds Scott has made in the past. I conveniently avoided discussion of his other movies from the 1980s and only made passing humorous references to the films from the 1990s. Since it's been 20 years since there was a Ridley Scott film I truly loved (Thelma & Louise), I guess my choice to focus on the last 10 years seems somewhat short-sighted.

I think we can probably agree that Ridley is superior to Tony, right? I've really liked some of Tony's films -- I actually really like the underrated Deja Vu -- but he has also made some absolute dreck (Domino, anyone?).

Mike Lippert said...

I guess I also forgot to mention that I agree, Hannibal is truely awful. Even if it wasn't going up against Silence of the Lambs it was bad.

Yes, Ridley is better than Tony, but Ridley always took himself more seriously as an artist (he continually insists on it during the Alien commentary) than Tony. I think Tony has made some pretty entertaining flicks but no really great ones.

I think Man on Fire was a great movie buried in the excess of a lesser one although Denzel and Walken are in top form. Domino, yeah it was bad (can you imagine the poor guy who had to edit that mess?) but Rourke and Tom Waits in the desert were inspired no? I think Deja Vu was good if were willing to meet it half way and even Pelham 123 has it's moments, but I think the best Tony has ever done is True Romance but ya know, that's basically a Tarantino movie.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Well...I agree with you that Scott is a problematic director--I have less regard for Blade Runner than most folks because Scott seems to think Deckard is a replicant—a triumph of film-design over story-logic. But, as a film stylist, he's quite good. He's just a lousy "message" director (usually because he doesn't quite know what to "say."). Like Mike, I think "American Gangster" is a minor masterpiece, and like you, I think "Gladiator" is woefully over-rated.

But to dismiss "Robin Hood" as "Gladiator" Redux, is "reviewing by trailer," which is always ill-advised. It's an interesting take on the various incarnations of "Robin Hood" (and they are many) that is quite lighter than "Gladiator," and with a cast that does uniformly good work--and an exceptional performance by Max von Sydow. There are aspects of "Gladiator" in story-structure, but the similarities end there. I would never suggest someone go see a movie--that's over-stepping my bounds as a reviewer--but one shouldn't dismiss it without seeing it.

Vancetastic said...

Couldn't agree more, Y-5. Unfortunately, I've set up my blog in such a way that I take positions on movies I haven't seen almost every week. I like to write about the new releases, because I think it's a key element in blogging to write about a mixture of the new and the old. But because I often don't see even the films I want to see until the second weekend at the earliest, and because the fact that I don't want to see certain films is my point in writing about them in the first place, there's a fair amount of projecting and predicting going on. I do at least try to indicate that I'm basing it only on my fears, not on an actual viewing.

As for Robin Hood in particular, I'm glad to hear that you liked it. This makes me slightly more likely to see it. (Who am I kidding - I'm going to see it on DVD eventually.)

Oh, and that's another vote for me revisiting American Gangster.

Mike, I always wanted to see Man on Fire, if not only because of Denzel, but because my favorite musician (Trent Reznor) worked on the soundtrack. I'll have to prioritize that one.

I think the funniest way to write about Tony would be to make a list of the top 10 movies that should be Tony Scott movies but aren't. The execrable Eagle Eye might be #1 for me on that list.

Castor said...

Every director goes through high and lows. Although you are right that Scott's movies have been "colder" as of late, he is still technically masterful and can direct set action pieces like few others can.

I agree with Mike about Blackhawk Down style being a positive aspect of the movie. It's almost a documentary-like war retelling and there is absolutely no need for lengthy character development for example. As for American Gangster, I don't see anything wrong with it since it's based off a real story. Should he have created a fictional ending?

Great post!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Hmmm, good question but Crowe has been good since Gladiator it's Scott who hasn't. Yes, I'll say he was good in A Beautiful Mind even if I don't really like the film, he was excellent in Cinderella Man and Master & Commander...but I'm really sorry Robin Hood is taking such a beating...who's surprised?...me! I was expecting good things...or at least hoping.

moviesandsongs365 said...

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You might remember I gave "Almost famous" the thumbs down on breathingmovies fav. movie moms ( :

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Vancetastic said...

Castor,

You bring up an excellent point that relates to all movies based on real material -- if it really happened, can we really quibble with it? The answer is yes, because the writer and the director choose HOW they are going to present the material. Let's make an admittedly inexact comparison to reality television, specifically, something like Survivor. If they edited the footage all season to make it seem like someone was a villain, and then changed the way they edited it at the end to cast that person in a heroic and/or pitiable light, you'd feel like they were messing with you, wouldn't you? That's how I felt here, though I've already vowed to revisit it, and will surely have more to say on the topic in the coming weeks.

Andrew,

You are 100% right about Crowe having been good since Gladiator, at times. I agree with you about A Beautiful Mind (I was genuinely moved at the end of that movie) and Master and Commander (though I have to say, I didn't like that as much on the second viewing). I know this is something I am guilty of from time to time -- we probably all are. It's coming up with a thesis for a post and tending to ignore evidence to the contrary. If it were a scientist doing the same thing, it would be considered a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why it's nice to have commenters who will force you to keep it real!

Vancetastic said...

Gladly, MAS365! I think I negotiated the -- Danish, is it? -- correctly in order to become a follower of your site. As for linking, I've got to take some time to update my blog roll sometime soon. I've got a lot of good blogs I've discovered in the last couple months that I'd like to direct my readers to.

moviesandsongs365 said...

Yep, I’m from Scandinavia

I agree with Castor that no director goes a whole career without a few average movies.

Stanley Kubrick & David Lynch to me are 2 directors with the fewest misfires. It’s about time Jason Reitman made a bad one, 3 good ones in a row ( :

I can’t think of any director who gets better with age?
Directors most often have more energy and ideas at the beginning.

Some directors only have one good film in them, and it’s a shame they continue year after year embarrassing themselves.

I happen to love Gladitor, but I didn’t enjoy it the 2nd time on TV, I think it has to be seen on the big screen. Awesome visuals around the Colosseum. I do feel Ridley Scott has a message in Gladiator. It’s my 2nd fav Ridley Scott movie behind Alien. Blade runner was also great.

The Hannibal soundtrack was exquisite in my opinion, the movie average.

Anonymous said...

I think if your going to play critic, watch the damn movies. Robin Hood was nothing like Gladiator. I enjoyed both movies. I chose not to jump on the band wagon when I saw the trailers for it. And I also chose not to jump on the band wagon calling Ridley Scott a bad director when I saw Robin Hood got bad reviews. Dont run through Ridley Scotts career when you haven't even seen all of his movies, or tried to stay up late watching them.

Vancetastic said...

Anonymous,

So are you saying that the only films one can discuss are films that they've seen? As long as you admit that you haven't seen the film and are only speculating, I think it's perfectly legitimate to talk about what you expect from a film, what you're worried it might be, etc.

Also, come on -- you can use your name. I won't hate you forever. :-)