Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Titus: Special Edition (1999)
Studio Line: Fox Searchlight - The fall of an empire. The descent of a man.

Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange ignite the screen in a strikingly original film about two powerful adversaries, each with an insatiable hunger for revenge. Titus (Hopkins) is a noble Roman general whose spoils of war included Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Lange), and her three sons. But when Titus sacrifices his eldest to appease the gods, he set in motion an escalating chain of savage reprisals that will ultimately consume them all.

Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, James Frain, Laura Fraser, Harry J. Lennix, Angus MacFadyen, Matthew Rhys, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Costume Design, 2000.
Box Office: Opening Weekend: $22.31 thousand. Gross: $1.92 million.
DVD: 2-Disc set; widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 32 chapters; rated R; 162 min.; $34.98; street date 8/15/00.
Supplements: Disc 1: Audio Commentary with Julie Taymor; Audio Commentary with composer Elliot Goldenthal; Audio Commentary with Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennox.
Disc 2: 34-minute Q&A with Julie Taymor; 49-minute Documentary "Muse of Fire: The Making of Titus"; 6-minute making the "Penny Arcade Nightmares"; Costume Gallery; American Cinematogher Articles; Essay Booklet; Theaterical Trailers and TV Spots.
Purchase: DVD | The Illustrated Screenplay - Julie Taymor | Titus Andronicus - William Shakespeare | Score soundtrack - Elliot Goldenthal | Poster

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/A-

As I noted in my review of Henry V, two distinctly different approaches to film adaptations of Shakespeare exist. Movies can either remain fairly faithful to the original and just spice up the proceedings with cinematic accoutrements, or they can take a completely different path, one that portrays Shakespeare's work in a new manner.

1999's Titus clearly takes the second approach. To me, Henry V simply offered a more broadly-staged version of the play; it took the story out of the playhouse but didn't seem to do much else that marked it distinctly as a film. The same cannot be said for Titus, an audacious piece of work that could only exist on celluloid.

First-time director Julie Taymor comes from a stage background; indeed, her main claim to fame stems from her tenure as the force behind the hugely successful Broadway adaptation of The Lion King. Initially, I took this credit as a bad sign. For one, I must acknowledge my bias against theatrical work, as I'm no fan of live productions; I dislike the broadness and inherent phoniness of the genre. Add to that the fact that despite - or perhaps because of - my affection for Disney animation, I regarded the prospect of a Broadway musical based on one of those films as undesirable at best.

When Taymor's theatrical background combined with my general disinterest in the subject matter, I really had misgivings about watching Titus. Although I'm not a Shakespeare-phobe by any stretch of the imagination, I can't say that I've ever felt terribly fascinated by his work. I've not gone out of my way to avoid Big Will, but I certainly didn't seek out his plays, and I knew of no reason to think that this production would change that.

Despite my various biases, Titus turned out to be a rousing and quite compelling piece of work. She takes some serious chances, and while not all of them pan out, a majority of them do, and even the failures make for distinctive cinema.

You know something's different from the very start of the film, as we initially see a youngster with a bag on his head as he plays a bizarre war game with his action figures and a table full of food. As his battle heats up, however, a burly clown storms in and steals away the kid; he heads down a tunnel into a coliseum setting straight out of ancient Rome.

At which point my reaction was: buh? I suppose there may have been a more bizarre or confusing start to a movie, but I can't think of one right now. Actually, I couldn't help but be reminded of Time Bandits, which includes a surreal kidnapping as well (though not at the very start of the piece).

Although Titus doesn't play as a rip-off of Terry Gilliam's style, I felt his spirit on other occasions as well, especially through the movie's Brazil-esque combination of time periods and styles. Taymor takes the era-confusion seen in Gilliam's classic to a much greater degree, however, and though her mixture of modern, ancient and various periods in-between seems ludicrous on the surface, it blends well. Although this should be the most anachronistic movie ever - and one that comes completely unglued due to those factors - the wild eclecticism appears shockingly effective; not for a second did I feel distracted or confused by the various bits and pieces.

It helps that Taymor has a solid foundation on which to build her film, of course, and I guess Shakespeare's about as rock-steady as it gets. From what I understand, however, Titus was long-neglected as part of Will's oeuvre, largely because it's one of his most violent and morally ambiguous pieces.

Ironically, the factors that mired Titus in isolation for so long contribute to its success in this day and age; a vicious drama of revenge and savagery seems very appropriate for modern times and fits well with other films. Few other works seem quite as new and still remain part of the classics, and Taymor's treatment helps make it work as a fresh and exciting piece.

One of the best aspects of Titus comes from its relative ambiguity; at no point are we ever really sure which characters are our heroes and which are our villains. Virtually every role has some layer of depth to it that makes our allegiances less clear than one would expect. Even the film's nominal villain, Aaron (Harry Lennix) - the original black radical, it appears - comes across as mildly sympathetic and understandable by the movie's end.

That depth means the picture will likely hold up to repeated viewings, and it also seems more open to discussion and interpretation than most. Henry V may be the more respected film, but I definitely preferred Titus; I respected the former, but I liked the latter, which is a completely different ballgame. When Henry V ended, I was fairly happy to see it go; I thought the movie was decently enjoyable, but it didn't do a lot for me, and as soon as the DVD left the player, most thoughts of its content left my mind.

The same did not hold true for Titus, however. Of course, it didn't hurt that I had hours of supplements to digest, but I think I would have continued to consider the film nonetheless. I didn't see a lot of moral or philosophical complexity in Henry V; it was a well-written war movie but not much else in my estimation. Titus seemed to include more levels of depth and greater nuances, and Taymor's unusual visual style definitely helped spark the proceedings.

I also found the Shakespearean dialogue much easier to understand than is typical for me. Perhaps this partially resulted from such recent exposure to the Bard's work - it's only been a few days since I watched Henry V - but I don't think that really made much difference. For whatever reasons, the lines simply seemed clearer and more natural to me than I expected. Every so often I felt the urge to flip on the subtitles to make sure I comprehended the intent of the text, but this occurred very infrequently, whereas I often wanted to do so during Henry V.

Not all of Taymor's inventions succeed. Probably my least-favorite aspect of the production were the "penny arcade nightmares", hallucinogenic fantasy sequences in which bizarre images are viewed by various characters. These felt forced and seemed unnecessary.

As a whole, the acting appears good, with Anthony Hopkins providing a typically strong performance. His work can be a bit scattershot and inconsistent - perhaps unconsciously, he evokes Hannibal Lecter a few times - but his presence brings a lot to the role. Of the other actors, I thought Laura Fraser's performance as Titus's daughter Livonia seemed particularly strong; she brings a sadly noble presence to the role that makes it especially memorable.

Will a movie like Titus achieve that oft-desired goal and make Shakespeare more accessible to a large audience? I don't know; the film enjoyed a very limited theatrical release - it never appeared on more than 35 screens in the US - and I have no idea how many will seek it out on video. Is it for everyone? Definitely not - Taymor's unusual interpretation and staging will certainly be regarded as off-putting to some.

However, I hope that people will give Titus a shot, as a film this different and inventive deserves more attention that it's received. While there will always be support for classically-presented productions of Shakespeare's work, I'm not sure I see the point in continued regurgitations of the same old thing. It's a "been there, done that" issue; why stage the same thing the same way for another few centuries? I find creative approaches to the material to be more valuable and compelling, and though it possesses flaws, Titus makes for an interesting and winning production.

The DVD:

Titus appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. But for a few minor flaws, Titus offers a nearly-perfect picture and provides a terrific viewing experience.

Sharpness seems fantastic from start to finish, with crisp and precisely-defined images throughout the film; a few of the wider shots display very mild softness, but not enough to be considered a problem. Moiré effects and jagged edges appeared non-existent, and I noticed very few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

According to her commentary, director Julie Taymor used a restricted palette for the film, but I must admit I never noticed this, probably because the colors we do see are so wonderfully replicated. Red tones dominate and they look absolutely lush and bold; these hues pop off the screen with their depth and strength. The rest of the colors seemed excellent as well, with tones that appeared accurate and nicely saturated.

Black levels seem equally dark and deep. At all times, they looked solid and rich, with no lightness or gray tones to be found. Shadow detail appeared appropriately heavy without ever seeming excessively dim, even during some early scenes that take place in fire-lit tombs.

Print flaws are the most significant issue I found on this DVD, but they stay pretty minor. I detected no signs of grains, and severe problems like tears, streaks, blotches or scratches are absent, but occasional white speckles pop up from time to time. I also saw some grittiness, which was most prominent in an outdoor scene at about the 99-minute mark. I was disappointed to see even these minor flaws in such a recent film; they definitely don't have a strongly negative effect, but they were the sole reason I knocked down this otherwise excellent image to a still-very-strong "A-".

Also terrific is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Titus. The soundfield seems nicely broad and enveloping, with a power that adds a lot to the experience. The forward environment dominates the affair with a great deal of distinct audio that comes from all three front channels. This adds breadth to the mix, and most of the sound blends together well, although I thought some audio stayed a little too heavily isolated in one side speaker or the other; a few noises should have come from a space in between the side and the center but they hew closely to the edges.

Surround usage seems fairly good. It lacked a lot of split surround effects, which appear only on a few occasions, but it adds depth to the experience. For a few of the "penny arcade nightmare" sequences, some speech pops out of the rears, but for the most part, it's solely music and ambient effects that come from back there. The surrounds complement the forward spectrum well.

Audio quality also appears solid. Dialogue appears clear and distinct, with excellent intelligibility, a factor even more important than usual in a film with lines that would be tough to comprehend under the best of circumstances. A few bits of speech seemed obviously dubbed, but most of the dialogue blended naturally with the action. Effects are brash and lively, and they displayed great clarity that made them accentuate many points of the film. Elliott Goldenthal's score also shows fine dynamic range, with clean highs and some deep bass; the music seems very well-reproduced. The soundtrack lacks the aggressiveness I require for a true "A" grade, but Titus merits a very solid "A-".

What a difference a couple of years make. It was late 1998 when Fox introduced their first DVDs, and the reaction was not tremendously positive, to say the least; newsgroups abounded with comments of "Fox sucks!"

However, that's changed completely, and I now see threads that ask if Fox is the best supporter of DVD! That radical shift in attitudes came thanks to a series of excellent releases that combined terrific picture and sound with an abundance of supplemental features. This series includes movies such as Fight Club and The Abyss, and we can now count Titus within those ranks; although it isn't as thorough as those other killer releases, it provides a winning package over its two DVDs

Titus features three audio commentaries, the first of which comes from director Taymor. This is the only full-length track of the three, as Taymor talks pretty much non-stop about the film (unlike the participants on the other two commentaries, as we'll learn). She adds a great deal of useful information about the movie; from interpretation to anecdotes about the shoot to changes she made to the script and to the original play, Taymor provides a strong understanding of the work. She even can be critical of it at times, as she notes aspects of the movie that she doesn't especially like. All in all, it's an excellent commentary that will surely add to your appreciation of the film.

The other two commentaries are much less successful. The second features actors Harry Lennix and Anthony Hopkins, who discuss their thoughts about the film and their approaches to acting - to a degree. I make that last statement because neither man really says very much; in fact, we hear incredibly little discussion at all throughout this track. My guess is that there's no more than 20 minutes of actual commentary spread over the 162 minute running time, which makes it a very frustrating experience. I enjoyed the tidbits Hopkins and Lennix offered, but it was too little, too rarely.

One nice point: at least the DVD provides an index that lets you go right to the chapters that include comments. This makes the going much less frustrating; it doesn't take you straight to the relevant statements, but it gets you in the ballpark, and since half of the movie's chapters lack comments, that's a good thing. Kudos to the DVD's producers for including this thoughtful touch.

Similarly brief is the third and final commentary, which comes from composer Elliott Goldenthal, except he offers even fewer statements than do Lennix and Hopkins; every once in a while, he makes some mention of his musical intentions, but this occurs quite infrequently. I find this more excusable and tolerable here than on the second track because this one also contains an isolated score. However, it still seemed like a very substandard piece. Other DVDs - such as Pleasantville and Pee-wee's Big Adventure - have provided an excellent mix of music and statements from their composers, but that's not the case here. Worst of all is the fact that even with all the dead space available, Goldenthal actually talks over the music a few times. As such, this track not only seems uninteresting for commentary fans like myself, but it will also be disappointing for aficionados of movie scores. (Note: apparently the producers of the DVD were required to offer the commentary over some of the music due to legal agreements with the label that releases the soundtrack album. It still stinks, but at least it appears that this issue occurred due to requirements, not because of sloppy production values. DVD producer David Prior indicates that he worked hard to make sure the only "violated" tracks were those that also appear on the soundtrack CD, which means that the unavailable cues should be clean.)

Happily, I cleansed the bad taste these weak commentaries left in my mouth when I started the second DVD. On it we discover a nice bunch of additional materials. The main attraction here is "The Making of Titus", a 49 minute and five second documentary about the film. It's an unusual piece in that it a) provides no narration, and b) includes not one second of clips from the movie itself. I especially appreciated that latter aspect, as I hate it when these kinds of programs are bogged down by scene after scene from a movie we already own; it's redundant and tiresome.

This documentary is an unusual piece overall. It offers a lot more "behind the scenes" footage than we usually find; in fact, the entire thing essentially is a combination of footage from the production and interview snippets. The former are especially terrific, as we see lots of great shots of the show as it progresses; we see the cast and crew go from rehearsals to the shoot itself, and we find all sorts of material that usually escapes these kinds of programs. It's a terrific program that provides a valuable look at the production; my only complaint is that I wanted to see more.

Also excellent is a presentation of excerpts from Julie Taymor's appearance at Columbia University from last winter. This shows an interview with a moderator and a "question and answer" period with the audience, and the whole piece lasts about 34 and a half minutes. After having heard more than two and a half hours of commentary from Taymor and then witnessing more information from her during the documentary, I'd think her welcome would be worn out by now, but she actually conveys quite a lot of new and compelling details in this piece. In a lot of ways, it's an extension of those others, as the subjects largely remain the same, and a few of the details are redundant. However, there's a surprising amount of information unique to this program, and it also helped me to understand and enjoy Titus.

More video materials appear in "Penny Arcade Nightmares", a five minute and 15 second feature that details the special effects work behind those strange segments. The footage comes both from the film itself and from raw shots, and it's accompanied by commentary from effects creator Kyle Cooper. There's nothing new here for folks who've experienced other supplemental sections about effects-heavy movies, but it's well-presented and offers a nice look at this aspect of the movie.

The next section on DVD 2 is a stillframe "Costume Gallery" of designs created for the film. We find 26 sketches in all. I'm not a huge fan of this sort of material, but it was interesting to see these and compare them to the finished products in the movie.

More stillframe programs appear in the next area, "American Cinematographer Articles". We find two text pieces: "Timeless Tale of Revenge", which mainly focusses on the comments and experiences of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, and "From Stage to Screen", which offers another interview with Taymor. The Tovoli piece becomes pretty technical but much of it sticks to material that seems intelligible for those of us who don't know an f-stop from a bus stop. Taymor's article may seem like overkill, and we do find some material that touches upon already-covered ground, but astoundingly, it contains enough new stuff to make it worth a read. Both articles will increase your understanding of the film, no mean feat after all the previous extras.

Finally, the DVD finishes with some advertising materials. We get the film's theatrical trailer, plus one created for its home video release. We also find a promo made for PBS (hmmm... could've sworn they don't run ads on PBS... you don't suppose those folks, with their "no commercial interruptions but we have ten minutes of 'sponsored by' notices at the start of each show and we'll spend months on end begging you for money during our 'pledge drives'" are slightly hypocritical, do you?) plus three other TV spots. The DVD's booklet also contains a good essay from Jonathan Bate that appeared in the January 2 2000 edition of the New York Times. Despite my disappointment with two of the three audio commentaries, this all adds up to a pretty terrific package of supplemental features.

Oh, and it includes at least one "Easter egg" as well. Go to DVD 2 and highlight the "Making of Titus. Then click to the right and an icon will highlight. If you press that, you can read the DVD's credits. No, it's not much, but it's my Easter egg, and that's that! (Too bad the DVD doesn't include what would have been the coolest hidden feature: snippets from the TV sitcom Titus. The existence of that program made the "Titus coming to DVD! posts on newsgroups very confusing, as some people couldn't figure out why a mediocre, brand-new TV show would appear on DVD. Hey, it's a Fox program, so they might have been able to toss in some clips here!)

One last note: after the usual (and unfortunately unskippable) copyright warnings at the start of the first DVD, we encounter a promo for "Fox DVD". This combines a large variety of brief clips from Fox films, both those already available on disc and those still in theaters as I write this (such as X-Men and Me, Myself and Irene). It essentially tells us how wonderful Fox DVDs are as it covers a slew of different features we find on them. The ad runs for about two minutes and 10 seconds and can easily be skipped with your remote. I don't mention this piece because it bothered me, because it didn't; no, I felt compelled to comment upon it because similar ads found on Disney-distributed releases have cheesed off so many people, and I thought that those concerned about such promotions should know that Fox has one as well, at least on Titus.

I don't know enough about Shakespeare to judge where Titus stands in regard to other film adaptations of his work, but I know what I like, and I really enjoyed Titus. The movie's off-beat and stylized production will definitely make it less appealing for some, but it worked for me; I found myself more involved and entertained by a Shakespearean production than I can ever recall. The DVD itself marks another terrific release from Fox, with excellent picture and sound plus a number of fine supplements spread across its two discs. A film this interesting deserves at least a rental, and I don't think you'd make a mistake if you bought it, as the movie seems to offer great depth and should hold up well to repeated viewings.

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