REVIEW: “The Post”

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Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is set in an era when the media (generally speaking) wasn’t egregiously compromised by the political pulls of the left or the right. It was a time (more often than today) when principle took precedent over ideology and the media took seriously the role of equally holding all elected officials accountable to the people. There is far less of that today, although I’m not sure Spielberg and company would agree with me.

“The Post” starts in 1965 with war analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) discovering government deception concerning Vietnam policy and progress. The story bolts forward a few years with Ellsberg stealing classified documents that reveal years of misinformation by the government dating all the way back to the Truman administration. He leaks the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times who run a front page expose before having their story shut down by a court injunction.

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All of that is setup for the meat of the story which takes place in 1971, Washington D.C. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has inherited The Washington Post newspaper following her husband’s suicide, but serving as its publisher and president has been a tough ride. Not counting her own personal lack of confidence, she’s also forced to navigate several obstacles from insecure board members to investors uncomfortable with a woman running the company. For the bulk of the film Spielberg does a good job tapping into the current red-hot women’s issues. It’s later that he moves from effectively showing us the inequality to spelling it out for us. But more on that later.

Her go-getter editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) knows there is more to uncover so he sends his crack assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (a really good Bob Odenkirk) to track down the New York Times’ source. And when sensitive documents fall into their lap, Katharine must decide whether to let Bradlee print the story risking incarceration and the livelihood of her paper.

Spielberg deftly bounces between Katharine’s personal journey and Bradlee’s newsroom. Both are given plenty of time to unfold and develop. As you would expect, Streep is very good and completely in her element. It isn’t an extraordinary performance, but it’s work from her that we sometimes take for granted. Hanks is a different story. It’s not that he’s bad here. He feels off – as if he’s really stretching to sell us a character that Jason Robards did better (and won an Oscar for) 42 years ago.

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Katharine’s stirring story and the thrilling newsroom drama come together in a tense and powerful meeting of the minds (and wills) which Spielberg unpacks to near perfection. But then something happens in the final fifteen minutes or so. In rapid succession the film begins dropping one corny, contrived ‘movie moment’ after another. Storytelling gives way to speechifying and the movie’s themes (previously explored through the story itself) are propped up by glaringly obvious scenes manufactured to the point of phoniness. And then you have Spielberg often straining to make a connection between the Nixon and Trump administration. Again, the material is there, but Spielberg sometimes feels the need to speak for it.

“The Post” does far more right than wrong. For a good three-quarters of his movie Spielberg brilliantly balanced two very different but equally enthralling stories. And for a while I was seeing it as a wonderful “All the President’s Men” companion piece. It’s just a shame the final act resorts to cheap scenes and sappy speeches that seem directly aimed at Oscar voters. But as his movie had already shown, Spielberg didn’t need all of that and the bulk of the picture is an enthralling experience.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Bridge of Spies”

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A Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaboration is a sure-fire attention getter. Such is the case with “Bridge of Spies”, an old school Cold War espionage drama made to bloom as awards season approaches. The trailers are a tad misleading. This is a dialogue-driven thriller that crafts its suspense through its many scenes of political back-and-forths, judicial wrangling, and contentious negotiations.

The story is based on the embarrassing U-2 incident which occurred in 1960 under the watch of President Dwight Eisenhower. It actually begins three years prior after a Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI. Wanting to give the appearance of a fair trial, the government appoints insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. The prosecution, the judge, the government, and the media all seek to make an example out of Abel. Donovan sees things different.

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Donovan is a man of principle and stands firm in his belief that everyone including Abel deserves due process. This sparks outrage among government agencies, the American public, and even Donovan’s own family. This is the film’s early focus. We spend a lot of time with the development of Donovan and Abel’s relationship and the uphill battle they face in the courts of law and public opinion.

Spielberg begins breaking away to young pilots being trained for a top secret reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. Among them is Francis Gary Powers who is shot down and taken prisoner by the Soviets. Fearing that Powers will give up vital intelligence, the government sends Donovan to East Berlin where he is to negotiate a hostage exchange – Abel for Powers.

Negatively, these breakaways are intended to provide context to Donovan’s mission, but they don’t offer much. None of the characters we get in these scenes are all that interesting or compelling. Even Powers himself offers nothing more than a face to the negotiations. This wasn’t a major flaw but it did seem like wasted time and it made the film drag a bit.

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Also, one of the most fascinating parts of the story was the ‘fish out of water’ element – an insurance lawyer in hostile territory negotiating between two global enemies. But I never got the sense that Donovan was too worried or fearful. Certainly there are scenes where he feels the pressure, but I would have loved to see more tension, uncertainly, and internal struggle. Instead he handles his tasks as he would any normal insurance settlement back home.

I don’t think the blame for that goes to Hanks. His performance is superb. There is no doubt that this role is right in his comfort zone. Donovan’s down-to-earth everyday man qualities are no problems for Hanks. He has been a master of that type of character for years. I also loved the subdued performance from Mark Rylance, a fine British theater actor. His Abel manages to be the most interesting person on screen even though he offers practically no flash at all.

in DreamWorks PIctures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is an American U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union.

And then there is Spielberg. There is such satisfaction in watching a master of his craft work. The film was written by Mark Charman (and polished up by Joel and Ethan Coen). Spielberg lets their script breathe by directing with tremendous restraint. He grants his actors room to work and allows the story to unfold at an organic pace. There is practically none of that overpowering Spielberg flair that we have seen in the past. Just steady and compelling storytelling nestled in a wonderfully rendered Cold War setting.

Don’t let the trailers fool you. “Bridge of Spies” is no thrill a minute edge-of-your-seater. Instead it is a talky yet quietly made period drama. It is a fine reflection of vintage moviemaking mixed with a riveting story. It may never be heralded among Spielberg’s very best, but it does feature many of his best filmmaking traits (shaky political subtext aside). And mixed with a fine performance from Hanks, it seems primed and ready for the inevitable attention it will get come awards time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

5 Phenomenal Movie Santa Clauses

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Christmas is quickly approaching which means Christmas movies are popping up everywhere. In the spirit of Christmas I thought it would be fun to look at one iconic yuletide character that has popped up in movies for years. I’m talking about Santa Claus. Now some movies just don’t give us anything memorable but others present Santa in a way that brings us back year after year. We just have to watch these seasonal favorites. So today I’m looking at five of the best ones. Now with so many cinematic Santas I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But I have no trouble recognizing these five Santa Clauses as absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – TIM ALLEN (“The Santa Claus”)

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While I’m not a big fan of this series of movies as a whole I do really enjoy the first film. “The Santa Claus” tells the story of a pretty selfish father named Scott Calvin who through a nutty accident inherits the position as Santa Claus. Of course a lot of things come with that role – a big round belly, a snow-white beard, etc. Allen is great showing us his character’s transformation from a self-absorbed slug to a loving, caring father and ultimately Santa Claus. His performance shows that he is having a blast with the role and he is the main reason the film works.

#4 – ED ASNER (“Elf”)

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He’s certainly not the main draw in “Elf” but Ed Asner’s performance as Santa Claus is a key ingredient to this movie’s success. Asner never winks at the camera. Instead he seems completely invested which gives us some really funny moments. He not only looks the part but he carries himself just as you would imagine jolly old Saint Nick would. There are several good moments as he manages things at the North Pole but he also has some really fun moments when his sleigh crash lands in Central Park. Fun and fitting – that is how I would describe Asner’s Santa Claus.

#3 – TOM HANKS (“The Polar Express”)

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I know some people have had problems with Robert Zemeckis’ motion-captured animated film “The Polar Express”. Not me. I really like the film and it has become one of our holiday favorites. And while he doesn’t appear until the very end of the film, Tom Hanks as Santa Claus is such a wonderful addition. What makes him such a great Santa has a lot to do with the buildup. The film truly creates a larger than life, jaw-dropping perception of Santa and we the audience see him through the same awe-struck eyes of those children. The animation is gorgeous and Hanks fits the portrait perfectly.

#2 – JEFF GILLEN (“A Christmas Story”)

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How can a movie Santa Claus who only appears for 3 minutes of a film have such a prominent position on this list? When he gives us such a hilarious and utterly timeless scene. This is what Jeff Gillen gives us in the modern Christmas classic “A Christmas Story”. His tired and grumpy department store Santa grows more and more irritable as he ends his Christmas Eve shift. Unfortunately for Ralphie, that is when he goes to see Santa in hopes of getting his elusive Red Rider BB gun. Grumbling elves and Gillen’s bored and dismissive delivery doesn’t provide Ralphie with the best experience, but it sure is a load of fun for us.

#1 – EDMUND GWENN (“Miracle on 34th Street”)

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Let’s be honest, could there be a different number one? In my book Edmund Gwenn’s fabulous portrayal of Santa Claus is the perfect blueprint on how to play the character. Gwenn’s Oscar-winning performance still stands out today as absolutely brilliant. From the first moment you see Gwenn’s Kris Kringle you can’t help but be drawn to him. He has the demeanor, the cheer, the charisma, the childlike exuberance. And with the exception of one old grump, he makes everyone around him and every circumstance better. Writer and director George Seaton conceives the perfect Santa Claus and Edmund Gwenn embodies that version to absolute perfection. He is the best movie Santa Claus.

So what do you think of my list? Agree or disagree with my choices. Please take time to share your choices in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “Star Trek: First Contact”

STAR TREK POSTERStar Trek is all the buzz right now and with the newest film about to hit U.S. theaters, I thought it would be fun to talk about one of my favorite Star Trek movies. For clarity, I wasn’t a huge fan of the original series. It wasn’t until “The Next Generation” that I became really interested in the Star Trek universe. The TNG cast would appear in four feature films that connected to their 7 season series. I think the best of those movies was “Star Trek: First Contact”. Even more, I think a good case could be made that it’s the best Star Trek movie period. We’ll save that debate for another time.

“First Contact” is directly connected to a popular storyline from the television series and it doesn’t take long to see that. I’m not going to say you would be totally lost unless you’re familiar with the story, but it certainly adds a lot to the movie if you know the story it’s tied into. The film begins with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) dreaming about his past experience with the mysterious and menacing Borg. The Borg are a group of cybernetic organisms made up of various species who have been “assimilated” into their collective. The Borg capture and brutally assimilate others through a painful implant procedure which eventually connects them to the one domineering “hive mind”. The Borg themselves are half-living / half-machine drones and the collective’s ultimate goal is perfection as they see it.

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The USS Enterprise – E

Picard is jarred from his troubling dream to find out that a lone Borg cube has launched an attack on Earth. It’s funny how out-of-the-blue this occurs in the film with seemingly no buildup whatsoever. The film expects the audience to hop onboard and go with it. Picard is ready to enter the fight but he and his Enterprise crew are ordered to stay away in fear that Picard’s past assimilation by the Borg could become a liability. Picard disobeys orders and enters the fray where he learns that the Borg plan to travel back in time to prevent what’s known on Earth as the day of First Contact. It’s when a lushy visionary named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) introduces warp travel which leads to our first contact with alien life. By keeping this from happening, the Borg will keep their biggest threat, the Federation, from interfering with their plans.

The Enterprise follows the Borg back in time where the movie splinters into two storylines. An away team is sent down to Earth to ensure Cochrane follows through with his test flight while others stay aboard the Enterprise to fight off the Borg who are attempting to take the ship. Jonathan Frakes, who also plays first officer Will Riker, handles the directing after big names like Ridley Scott and John McTiernan turned the movie down. This turned out to be a good decision. Frakes’ knowledge of the material after years on the TV series pays off.

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James Cromwell, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis

Frakes weaves the stories together nicely and he’s able to keep the vital Star Trek tone and feel even though the movie features a much bigger budget and heavier dose of special effects. This is something the newer Star Trek reboot, a film I’ve grown to have some appreciation for, was never able to do. Writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga deserve a lot of credit for that as well. The two begin the first draft of the script shortly after the release of “Star Trek: Generations”, a film they also wrote. Their familiarity with the characters and the history of the franchise is certainly realized on screen. The story is smart and carries with it the typical Star Trek tendencies of dialogue over action although we do get more action than we’re used to seeing.

The cast is another reason the movie works so well. The main cast has already put so much of themselves into these characters that they know them by heart. Patrick Stewart is still the best Star Trek captain in my book. He’s rock solid yet again as Captain Picard. It’s also great to see Frakes, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, LeVar Burton, and Marina Sirtis reprising their roles as Picard’s crew. I also enjoyed Cromwell’s performance which is sometimes a bit hokey but still entertaining. It’s said Tom Hanks was offered the role but turned it down due to scheduling conflicts. And I have to mention Alice Krige as the disturbing yet seductive Borg Queen. Not only does the character offer some of the film’s slicker visual moments but she gives us a Star Trek villain unlike any we’ve seen.

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Michael Dorn, Patrick Stewart, Neal McDonough

One complaint than could be hurled at “Star Trek: First Contact” is that even with its bigger budget it sometimes feels like a longer television episode. That’s not a big deal with me because there are a couple of beautifully done effects sequences that clearly make the movie stand out, but there are many other moments that give the argument some validity. There are also a few questions that are never addressed at all. For example Geordi La Forge (Burton) no longer has his air filter visor. Now he has some type of ocular implants but its never even hinted at. And as I mentioned earlier, the film offers no real setup to the Borg attack at all.

These issues may have bothered some more than they did me because they never seriously hindered my enjoyment of the film. This is the first Star Trek movie to feature the TNG cast exclusively and the result was fantastic. Those looking for a standard Hollywood sci-fi flick may not leave “First Contact” completely satisfied. But Star Trek fans will find that same style and unique form of storytelling that they’ve come to expect from the franchise. Personally, I love it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW : “Cloud Atlas”

“Cloud Atlas” has already stirred up quite a discussion between moviegoers. It’s safe to say the film has earned its fair share of fans. But it’s also true that it has its share of detractors. To be honest I can see where people could either love it or hate it. It’s a highly ambitious picture that pulls off an incredibly clever storytelling technique. But it could also be viewed as a three-hour grind that features many of the Wachowski’s familiar self-indulgences. So how was it for me, a groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment or an epic sized disaster? Well neither, But I did find it a chore to sit through despite the things it does right.

It’s practically impossible to give any kind of brief synopsis of the plot of “Cloud Atlas”. It’s basically six individual stories that take place at different points in time. The first story is set in the 1800s and follows a young lawyer handling business for his father on a voyage across the Pacific. The second story takes place in England during the 1930s as a young unfulfilled composer is hired to help an older accomplished composer create his music. The third story is set in the 1970s as an investigative reporter finds herself in danger after uncovering a nuclear energy conspiracy. The fourth story, set in 2012, follows a writer and publisher who finds himself in debt and in deep with some local mobsters. The fifth story jumps to a futuristic high-tech Seoul, Korea where a clone is believed to hold the keys to the future. The final story leaps further into the future where mankind is left to live in a barbaric caveman-like world.

Now there’s a process to watching “Cloud Atlas”. First the audience must adjust to the fractured form of storytelling. The Wachowski’s and co-writer and co-director Tom Tykwer don’t tell the six stories separately. Instead, the movie jumps from one story to another requiring the audience to keep up. For this to work, we first have to get to know the characters. For the most part the introductions work pretty well although I did struggle to connect with some of them. Once the characters and their stories are laid out then the audience can sit back and watch things unfold. This is when the movie was most effective. In fact, I found myself completely absorbed in what I was seeing during the middle of the film. Then the audience has to piece each of the stories together, some through more obvious and straightforward connections and others through more cryptic and allegorical meanings. This is another place where I felt the film really stumbled.

I want to start with the positives. The storytelling technique employed in “Cloud Atlas” could have potentially been a disaster. Earlier I used the word ambitious and for good reason. Taking pieces of six individual stories, breaking them up, and interweaving them together while maintaining a good strong narrative is an incredible challenge. I was blown away with how well it was done in this movie. We seamlessly move back and forth from story to story and the filmmakers are able to keep total control of the narrative. Even later when the transitions seem to come quicker and quicker, the broader story never loses its sense of cohesion. It’s intelligently crafted and executed and it serves as a great reminder of the power of cinematic storytelling.

There are also some amazing special effects and spectacular cinematography. The overall visual presentation of “Cloud Atlas” gives it a true epic motion picture feel and it beautifully captures the various time periods that it dabbles in. I loved the period-perfect look of the 1800s as well as the futuristic landscapes and technologies from the later period. Every place we visit in time looks and feels perfect. It also helps to have such a superb cast involved. The movie is loaded with strong performances from actors and actresses playing multiple roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, and Jim Sturgess all do great work in bringing this complex story to life. Each play a variety of different characters in the different storylines often in heavy prosthetics and sometimes in full drag. This is a good lead-in to some of my questions and concerns about “Cloud Atlas”. I’m not certain why it was necessary to have these actors play multiple roles. I’m assuming the filmmakers felt it added a sense of connection between the stories. Or maybe there was another underlying intention that I just don’t care to figure out. Regardless, do we really need to see Hugo Weaving dressed up as a husky female nurse?

Then there is the issue with how some of the individual stories end. There are a couple that I found quite satisfying. But then there are those that feel a little too tidy and borderline conventional as well as one that’s just flat-out silly. Also I never felt as though I made the full connections between some of the storylines. The movie simply doesn’t tie them together sufficiently. Now to be fair, a movie like this almost begs to be viewed a second time. I’m certain there are little nuggets of information that I missed. But the problem is that I’m not sure I want to tackle it again and that’s in large part due to the sometimes laborious 3-hour running time. Now I don’t mind long movies, but there were stretches in “Cloud Atlas”, particularly in the first and third acts, where the film seemed to be spinning its wheels. This isn’t unusual for the Wachowskis and I had a similar problem with their Matrix series. Much like those movies, this film at times feel bloated and self-indulgent. I also found the social commentary to be obvious and heavy-handed. Even in the instances where the message is good, they sometimes come across as blatant and contrived. Now to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all familiar with the source material, but I can’t imagine it being as glaringly in-your-face as the film can sometimes be.

“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult movie to process. It can sometimes be exhilarating cinema and at other times a frustrating chore. From a technical standpoint the film is astonishing. Both the visuals and sound design are phenomenal and the ability to capture the uniqueness of each time period is quite amazing. Even more impressive is the artistry involved in the unconventional storytelling method. There’s a crisp lyrical harmony to how we’re moved back and forth from one story to the next. Unfortunately there are a host of other problems, including those mentioned above, that keeps “Cloud Atlas” from being a really good film. But I haven’t asked the bigger question surrounding this movie. What’s it really about? Is it above love conquering all? Is it about choices and the blessings or consequences that follow them. Is it about a deep interconnection that all mankind share? I’m not sure, but in the end “Cloud Atlas” is a relatively small movie hidden underneath its lavish ambition and grandeur. It’s an exercise in style over substance that has enough flaws and misguided conceits to overshadow the things it does really well. That’s a shame.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE HERO DEATHS

SPOILER: THESE ARE 5 FILMS WHERE THE MAIN HERO DIES. BE FOREWARNED!

Everyone loves a great hero. In fact, entire movies can stand or fall on how good the main hero of the story is. We’ve all seen the “ride off into the sunset” endings where everything is happy and uplifting. The boy gets the girl (or vice versa) and all is right with the world. But then there are the movies where the good guy may win, but dies in the process. If you think about it, there are several films that feature their hero dying. I’ve chosen five fantastic deaths that are worth some praise. Now there are many I had to leave off so this certainly isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie hero deaths are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “ROAD TO PERDITION”

Sam Mendes’ “Road to Perdition” may have one of the saddest hero deaths in cinema. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a mob hitman who gets revenge on his bosses who turn on him and kill his wife and younger son. The mob higher-ups seek to silence him and he escapes to a small town on Lake Michigan called Perdition. Sullivan stands by a window of a beach house looking out over the lake waters when two bullets hit him from behind. Jude Law walks out of the shadows as Sullivan falls to the ground. Sullivan kills his killer then dies in the arm of his crying son. It’s a devastating scene involving a young boy losing his father and even though Sullivan isn’t the most upright hero, we still root for him.

#4 – “THE PROFESSIONAL”

Jean Reno stars as Leon, the most loveable movie hitman who befriends and shelters a troubled young girl named Matilda (Natalie Portman) who has witnessed the murder of her family at the hands of Standfield, a corrupt DEA agent played by Gary Oldman. Stansfield brings his forces for a big final showdown in Leon’s apartment building. He gets Matilda to safety before sneaking out after a massive gun battle. He makes it out of the building and while hobbling down an alley Stansfield shows up and shoots him. Leon hands him a grenade pin that he says is “from Matilda”. Standfield rips open Leon’s jacket to expose a number of live grenades. BOOM! Leon take Stansfield with him. A hero going out with a bang.

#3 – “PAN’S LABYRINTH”

While young Ofelia isn’t your typical hero especially for this type of list, I had to put her on here. Fleeing from her brutal stepfather, Ofelia carries her infant brother into a garden labyrinth. She puts her life on the line to save her brother but her stepfather soon catches up with her and shoots her dead. He gets his when he reaches the exit of the labyrinth and plenty of people are waiting. But one of the most devastating scenes is when they discover Ofelia. What makes her death so powerful is the sad life she was confined to throughout the movie. In her fantasy world she went on to rule. But in our world she died a true hero’s death.

#2 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”

After all Ben had been through the night before, to be killed the way he was just stinks. Zombies corner up seven people in a Pennsylvania farm house and only Ben (Duane Jones) survives the night. After barricading himself in the cellar, he comes up after all seems quiet upstairs. It’s daylight outside and Ben hears dogs barking. He sneaks up to a window and peaks out. At that second he gets shot in the head by a group of men who mistake him for a zombie. Just like that. Ben was cool and calm and managed to survive the zombies. It’s too bad he was later mistaken for one.

#1 – “GLADIATOR”

Russell Crowe’s performance as Maximus in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” was exceptional and his death was certainly that of a hero. After being stabbed while chained up by the sniveling Emperor Joaquin Phoenix, the wounded Maximus is then brought out to fight the Emperor and die in front of the huge crowd in the Coliseum. But just like a true hero, Maximus prevails and kills the Emperor just before passing out. He dies there in the Coliseum and we see him being reunited with his wife and son through a dying vision. Maximus is carried off while the Emperor is left laying in the dirt. It’s a poignant and moving ending and it still gets to me no matter how often I see it.

There ya go – 5 Phenomenal Movie Hero Deaths. Now I could easily have done a top 20 so I know I’ve left some good ones out. What’s your favorite movie hero death?