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20th Century Fox presents
Titus (1999)

"Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive/ that Rome is but a wilderness of tigers? Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey but me and mine!"
- Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: August 02, 2000

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange
Other Stars: Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Laura Fraser, Harry Lennix, James Frain
Director: Julie Taymor

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: R for strong violent and sexual images.
Run Time: 02h:42m:18s
Release Date: August 15, 2000
UPC: 024543005407
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+A+A+ A

DVD Review

No, those grades aren't misprints. Titus Andronicus was the first big hit of William Shakespeare, and helped define the genre of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Its tendencies toward goriness, murder and mayhem caused the play to fall out of favor in Victorian years. It was somewhat redeemed when Olivier revived the play in 1955, but the tragedy comes to the big screen as an absolutely mesmerizing and timeless version in Julie Taymor's Titus.

Taymor may be recalled by some as the director and designer of the Broadway version of The Lion King a few years ago. She here turns her unique visual sense to film in this adaptation of Titus Andronicus, her first major feature film, and succeeds triumphantly. She is helped by a first-rate cast, headed by Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, a superb cinematographer (Luciano Tovoli) and visually arresting set design and costuming.

Hopkins stars as Titus Andronicus, a Roman general who is returning victorious over the Goths. He comes back to Rome bearing prisoners, including the Gothic queen, Tamora (Lange) and her three sons. When Titus, following Roman ritual, sacrifices Tamora's eldest son to the gods, Tamora swears vengeance against Titus and his family.

That vengeance is not long in coming, for the Roman emperor has died, and Titus backs the wrong horse: Saturninus (Alan Cumming), a mincing neo-Fascist. No sooner does Saturninus take the throne than he decides that he will wed Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), even though she is already betrothed to his own brother, Bassiano (James Frain). When Bassiano steals Lavinia away, with the aid of Titus' sons, Saturninus decides to wed Tamora instead. Installed in the position of ultimate power, Tamora, together with her lover Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix) wages a war of revenge upon Titus, his sons, and most grotesquely, poor Lavinia (who has one of the most astonishing stage directions in all of Shakespeare: Enter Lavinia, ravished, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out.). When Titus is completely broken and mutilated, mad and bereft, the opportunity to even the score is presented, and he accepts it with glee.

Make no mistake, this is strong stuff. However, Taymor does not glorify the violence and mayhem; much of it occurs off-camera or is only implied. Not until the bloody climax does she permit the violence to run rampant in front of the camera; as she notes in the commentary, the audience having sat through this film would be terribly frustrated if they were deprived of the sight of Titus taking vengeance for his many injuries.

Taymor adds a nonverbal framing story, using the very minor character of Lucius, Titus' grandson (Osheen Jones). He begins as a boy playing with action figures of various epochs, in front of a TV playing a Popeye cartoon (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, for the curious) which presents the violence as entertainment. The boy becomes increasingly agitated and destructive, until finally a fireball explodes through the window, a Roman soldier walks in and seizes him, and he becomes part of the story. The play unfolds with him as a mostly silent observer, although by the end he has become an active participant. The theme thus becomes the effect of all this violence and savagery upon the young and what is to happen to them; that theme is echoed in the extremely long closing shot, where Titus' only remaining son carries off the infant son of Aaron the Moor, possibly removing him from this endless circle of revenge and brutality.

Interspersed in the action are three nonverbal but highly arresting "Penny Arcade Nightmares" which make expressionistic comment on the action. These effects sequences are highly dramatic and are supported by wild and often raucous music.

Taymor makes the story timeless by using sets, props and costumes which are not strictly from the Roman period. Although Titus himself, as the lone representative of the older generation, is in traditional Roman garb, other characters are clothed in garments of various periods. For instance, Saturninus is often seen in a red and black leather duster that makes him look like a Nazi fantasy (indeed, Mussolini's Square Colosseum office building is used as the emperor's palace). The Goth princes are tattooed metalheads who play videogames in between tormenting the Andonici. The music also varies from proud traditional themes used for Titus to the jazzy music of Saturninus and the speed metal representing the young Goths. While this may sound like an absurd juxtaposition, it works and works well. The soundtrack helps the effect enormously.

Titus Andronicus has long been a favorite play of mine (for which you can blame Theater of Blood), and it has been given an absolutely outstanding treatment here. This was one of the very best movies of 1999, and one of the best interpretations of Shakespeare on film, ever.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: There were two driving forces behind the image of this film; one was that the photography be as sharp and clear as possible, and the other was that a limited palette of red, white, blue, black and metal be used. This DVD transfer admirably serves both of these goals.

The anamorphic picture is razor-sharp, without edge enhancement of any kind. Blacks are solid and deep, and there is very good shadow detail. The reds are rich and gorgeous without bleeding or chroma noise. The blues are deep and beautiful, and the glint of metal comes through nicely. No damage of any kind was observed. A very nearly perfect picture.

Image Transfer Grade: A+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The sound on this disc is magnificent. The music comes through richly, without distortion, and the percussive drumming that is heard throughout makes for a good subwoofer workout. Goldenthal's soundtrack is well-served by the 5.1 track. There are moments where there is a plaintive sax wail that will break your heart. While not an effects-laden film, there are moments that are highly directional. In the quiet sections, there is no hiss or noise to be heard. The Dolby Surround track is nearly as good, though without the dynamic range to be heard on the 5.1 track.

Audio Transfer Grade: A+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
4 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by Director Julie Taymor; Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix; Composer Elliot Goldenthal
Packaging: Alpha
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:23m:00s

Extra Extras:
  1. Costume Gallery
  2. Two articles from American Cinematographer magazine
Extras Review: Extras, extras, extras! Fox does a super job of presenting this film. We begin with three commentaries. The first is a full-length one by director Julie Taymor, which is devoted primarily to pointing out various decisions that were made in production and giving the reasons for them. Since she was a first-time filmmaker, it's almost like we're learning along with her. The already high appreciation I had for the film was significantly enhanced by this commentary, which is one of the better ones I've ever heard. She does, however, have a slightly annoying penchant for describing all of the performances as "amazing".

The second commentary, featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix, is somewhat of a disappointment. Only Lennix's commentary is screen-specific; Hopkins seems to just be snippets from an interview which relates to performance of Shakespeare and his thoughts on acting in general terms. Rarely does he touch on the subject matter of this play or the making of this film. Lennix does a good job on his portions, but since Aaron the Moor, one of the greatest Shakespearean villains, is onscreen for only a small part of the time, there ends up being great stretches of silence. It's too bad they couldn't have gotten Lange to pitch in on the commentary.

The third commentary is by composer Eliot Goldenthal, who shares the space with the isolated music score track. Unfortunately, this track was put together by having him talk over parts of the music, and not in the dead silences in between. This tends to be a slightly frustrating presentation. However, his comments are brief and cogent, and we do get the heart of the music without other sounds.

Okay, that's Disc One....a total of nearly eleven hours of programming. Then, there's Disc Two! The centerpiece of this disc is a "Making of" documentary. But it's no mere studio fluff piece. This documentary tracks the making of the film, from rehearsals through filming to sound recording and final editing. We get almost zero of the usual, "Oh, it's so great to be working with Anthony Hopkins, blah blah blah." The focus is on content, and this valuable documentary feature runs 49m:07s. The second "documentary" is an interview and Q-and-A session with Julie Taymor at Columbia University. This feature (34m:31s) takes a slightly different angle, concentrating on the adaptation of Taymor's stage version of the play to the film version.

A shorter featurette is devoted to the "Penny Arcade Nightmare" sequences, and includes workprint material and interviews with Kyle Cooper of Imaginary Forces, who did much of the effects work on them. While brief (05m:15s), this is an invaluable look at the creation of these effects. There is a costume gallery, with design sketches for more than two dozen of the costumes (unfortunately most of the notes are in Italian and unreadable by me). Wrapping up the documentary package are two articles from American Cinematographer magazine; one concentrates on cinematographer Tovoli and goes into a good deal of technical detail for those who are interested, and the other is an interview with Taymor. The astonishing part of this huge mass of supporting material is that very, very little of it is duplicative of other parts of the disc.

Finally, there are two theatrical trailers provided. Both are presented in 1.85:1 in Dolby Surround, and one is PG and the other a rarely-seen red-band R trailer. Four TV spots are also included, two of which are presented in 2.35:1 and the other two in 1.85:1. All are in nice condition, with good color.

All in all, probably more extras than anyone would ever want, and nearly all of them are interesting. The only thing keeping this disc from straight A+ ratings is the less-than-perfect presentation of the Hopkins/Lennix and Goldenthal commentaries.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

Fox just keeps raising the bar for DVD releases. An excellent movie, given an absolutely superb presentation. Very, very, highly recommended. Although I've reviewed close to 100 discs thus far, this is the first one to earn straight A's from me. If you have any interest at all in serious drama, you must buy this disc. Go on, do it!

 


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