TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
An hour and change into Pompeii, there's a volcano. You'd think there might have been a volcano throughout — you'd think that the folks inhabiting the ill-fated Italian village would have been dealing with the infamous volcano for the full 110 minutes. After all, volcano movies have worked before. Volcano, for instance. And the other one. But for some reason, Pompeii feels the need to stuff its first three quarters with coliseum battles, Ancient Rome politics, unlikely friendships, and a love story. But we don’t care. We can't care. None of it warrants our care. Where the hell is the volcano, already?
To answer that: it's off to the side — rumbling. Smoking. Occasionally spiking the neighboring community with geological fissures or architectural misgivings. Pretty much executing every trick picked up in Ominous Foreshadowing 101, but never joining the story. Not until Paul W.S. Anderson shouts, "Last call," hitting us with a final 20-odd minutes of unmitigated disaster (in a good way). If you've managed to maintain a waking pulse throughout the lecture in sawdust that is Pompeii's story, then you might actually have a good time with the closing sequence. It has everything you’d expect — everything you had been expecting! — and delivers it with gusto. Torpedoes of smoke running hordes of idiot villagers out of their homes and toward whatever safety the notion of forward has to offer. Long undeveloped characters rising to the occasion to rescue hapless princesses who thought it might be a good idea to set their vacation homes at the foot of a lava-spewing mountain. The whole ordeal is actually a lot of laughs. But it amounts to a dessert just barely worth the tasteless dinner we had to force down to get there.
TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
To get through the bulk of Pompeii, we recommend focusing all your attentions away from the effectively bland slave/gladiator/hero Kit Harington — sorry, Jon Snow (he's actually called a bastard at one point) — and onto his partner in crime: a scowling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — sorry, Mr. Eko (he and Snow actually trade valedictions by saying "I'll see you at another time, brother" at one point) — who warms up to his fellow prize fighter during their shared time in the klink, and delivers his moronic material with a sprinkle of flair. Keeping the working man down is Kiefer Sutherland — sorry, Jack Bauer — as an ostentatious Roman senator, doling out vainglory in Basil Fawlty-sized portions. When he's not spitting scowls at peasants, ol' JB is undermining the efforts of an earnest local governor Jared Harris — sorry, Lane Pryce (he actually calls someone a mad man at one point) — and his wife Carrie-Anne Moss — sorry, Katherine O'Connell from Vegas (joking! Trinity) — and finagling the douchiest marriage proposal ever toward their daughter Emily Browning — sorry, but I have no idea what she's from.
But questionable television references and some enjoyably daft performances by Eko and Jack can't really make up for the heft of mindless dullness that Pompeii passes off as its narrative... until the big showstopper.
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In truth, the last sequence is a gem. It's fun, inviting, and energizing, and might even call into question the possibility that Pompeii is all about how futile life, love, friendship, politics, and pride are when even the most egregiously complicated of plots can be taken out in the end by a sudden volcanic eruption. But you have to wade through that egregious complication to get there, and you shouldn't expect to have too much of a good time doing so.
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Paramount via Everett Collection
With so many different awards organizations announcing their nominations one after the other, it's difficult to remember how heavily to weigh each one's picks when filling out your Oscar pool sheet. Generally speaking, the BAFTAs are a fairly safe guide when it comes to the Best Picture category. Since 2008, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts has accurately predicted the Academy's top winners, with (even more impressively) only two discrepancies in Best Picture nominations throughout those five years (both in 2012, interestingly enough). Looking at this latest batch of BAFTA's chief nominees — which includes...
American Hustle,Captain Phillips,Gravity,Philomena,and 12 Years a Slave
— we're not especially surprised by any of the films included in as much as we are a bit displaced over the absence of one of this past year's biggest titles: The Wolf of Wall Street. By now, everyone with his ear close to the conversation is predicting that Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is a lock for the Best Picture Oscar, but the consideration rarely comes without honorable mention of Martin Scorsese's Wolf. Still, the satirical picture is far from awards fodder. Called far too "extreme" for the Academy's liking, the 3-hour tour de force of mortifying hedonism would be a far cry from an Oscar even without the competition of 12 Years. Instead, as suggested by BAFTA's list of Best Picture nods, organizations are leaning towards the safer, sweeter, more palatable, less controversial, and effectively less good spiritual counterpart to Wolf of Wall Street: American Hustle.
Hustle is a fine movie all its own — it's fun, dynamic, well-acted, and does indeed feel "lived in." But it falls shy of the artistic reach represented by fellow con man epic Wolf, to which comparisons are inevitable (you can hear a terrific discussion on the matter on the latest episode of Fighting in the War Room). While we'd be hard pressed to deny David O. Russell's funny, campy, emotionally charged picture its due recognition of quality, the choice to nominate it for Best Picture over Wolf of Wall Street seems like a statement of fear: "We don't want to nominate that large, messy, outrageous picture that's got everybody all in a huff," mutters a nervous BAFTA. "But what about the one with the hair? That's sorta like Wolf of Wall Street, but cleaner. Jolly good!"
The choice is a scary one, if only that it suggests the possibility that BAFTA has veered away from Wolf of Wall Street due to the volatility associated with the movie rather than due to the quality therein. By this token, would a few more Armond Whites have robbed 12 Years a Slave of its nomination? How about a few more Neil deGrasse Tysons stealing the nod from Gravity?
Hopefully, the Academy will not emulate this aversion to Scorsese's movie — one that more than deserves mention, and would even take home a few trophies in a just system. Peruse the rest of BAFTA's nominations below (which also, obscenely, omit Her in the Original Screenplay category) and share your thoughts on the matter.
BEST FILM12 YEARS A SLAVE Anthony Katagas, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueenAMERICAN HUSTLE Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan GordonCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De LucaGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, David HeymanPHILOMENA Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward
DIRECTOR12 YEARS A SLAVE Steve McQueenAMERICAN HUSTLE David O. RussellCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Paul GreengrassGRAVITY Alfonso CuarónTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET Martin Scorsese
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAYAMERICAN HUSTLE Eric Warren Singer, David O. RussellBLUE JASMINE Woody AllenGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás CuarónINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Joel Coen, Ethan CoenNEBRASKA Bob Nelson
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY12 YEARS A SLAVE John RidleyBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Richard LaGraveneseCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Billy RayPHILOMENA Steve Coogan, Jeff PopeTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET Terence Winter
LEADING ACTORBRUCE DERN NebraskaCHIWETEL EJIOFOR 12 Years a SlaveCHRISTIAN BALE American HustleLEONARDO DICAPRIO The Wolf of Wall StreetTOM HANKS Captain Phillips
LEADING ACTRESSAMY ADAMS American HustleCATE BLANCHETT Blue JasmineEMMA THOMPSON Saving Mr. BanksJUDI DENCH PhilomenaSANDRA BULLOCK Gravity
SUPPORTING ACTORBARKHAD ABDI Captain PhillipsBRADLEY COOPER American HustleDANIEL BRÜHL RushMATT DAMON Behind the CandelabraMICHAEL FASSBENDER 12 Years a Slave
SUPPORTING ACTRESSJENNIFER LAWRENCE American HustleJULIA ROBERTS August: Osage CountyLUPITA NYONG’O 12 Years a SlaveOPRAH WINFREY The ButlerSALLY HAWKINS Blue Jasmine
OUTSTANDING BRITISH FILMGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman, Jonás CuarónMANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM Justin Chadwick, Anant Singh, David M. Thompson, William NicholsonPHILOMENA Stephen Frears, Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Jeff PopeRUSH Ron Howard, Andrew Eaton, Peter MorganSAVING MR. BANKS John Lee Hancock, Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer, Kelly Marcel, Sue SmithTHE SELFISH GIANT: Clio Barnard, Tracy O’Riordan
OUTSTANDING DEBUT BY A BRITISH WRITER, DIRECTOR OR PRODUCERCOLIN CARBERRY (Writer), GLENN PATTERSON (Writer) Good VibrationsKELLY MARCEL (Writer) Saving Mr. BanksKIERAN EVANS (Director/Writer) Kelly + VictorPAUL WRIGHT (Director/Writer), POLLY STOKES (Producer) For Those in PerilSCOTT GRAHAM (Director/Writer) Shell
FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGETHE ACT OF KILLING Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge SørensenBLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR Abdellatif Kechiche, Brahim Chioua, Vincent MaravalTHE GREAT BEAUTY Paolo Sorrentino, Nicola Giuliano, Francesca CimaMETRO MANILA Sean Ellis, Mathilde CharpentierWADJDA Haifaa Al-Mansour, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
DOCUMENTARYTHE ACT OF KILLING Joshua OppenheimerTHE ARMSTRONG LIE Alex GibneyBLACKFISH Gabriela CowperthwaiteTIM’S VERMEER Teller, Penn Jillette, Farley ZieglerWE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS Alex GibneyANIMATED FILMDESPICABLE ME 2 Chris Renaud, Pierre CoffinFROZEN Chris Buck, Jennifer LeeMONSTERS UNIVERSITY Dan Scanlon
ORIGINAL MUSIC12 YEARS A SLAVE Hans ZimmerTHE BOOK THIEF John WilliamsCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Henry JackmanGRAVITY Steven PriceSAVING MR. BANKS Thomas Newman
CINEMATOGRAPHY12 YEARS A SLAVE Sean BobbittCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Barry AckroydGRAVITY Emmanuel LubezkiINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Bruno DelbonnelNEBRASKA Phedon Papamichael
EDITING12 YEARS A SLAVE Joe WalkerCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Christopher RouseGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, Mark SangerRUSH Dan Hanley, Mike HillTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET Thelma Schoonmaker
PRODUCTION DESIGN12 YEARS A SLAVE Adam Stockhausen, Alice BakerAMERICAN HUSTLE Judy Becker, Heather LoefflerBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Howard CummingsGRAVITY Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne WoodlardTHE GREAT GATSBY Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn
COSTUME DESIGNAMERICAN HUSTLE Michael WilkinsonBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Ellen MirojnickTHE GREAT GATSBY Catherine MartinTHE INVISIBLE WOMAN Michael O’ConnorSAVING MR. BANKS Daniel Orlandi
MAKE UP & HAIRAMERICAN HUSTLE Evelyne Noraz, Lori McCoy-BellBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Kate Biscoe, Marie LarkinTHE BUTLER Debra Denson, Beverly Jo Pryor, Candace NealTHE GREAT GATSBY Maurizio Silvi, Kerry WarnTHE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Peter Swords King, Richard Taylor, Rick Findlater
SOUNDALL IS LOST Richard Hymns, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, Micah Bloomberg, Gillian ArthurCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro, Oliver TarneyGRAVITY Glenn Freemantle, Skip Lievsay, Christopher Benstead, Niv Adiri, Chris MunroINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Peter F. Kurland, Skip Lievsay, Greg OrloffRUSH Danny Hambrook, Martin Steyer, Stefan Korte, Markus Stemler, Frank Kruse
SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTSGRAVITY Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould, Nikki PennyTHE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric ReynoldsIRON MAN 3 Bryan Grill, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Dan SudickPACIFIC RIM Hal Hickel, John Knoll, Lindy De Quattro, Nigel SumnerSTAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton, Patrick Tubach, Roger Guyett
BRITISH SHORT ANIMATIONEVERYTHING I CAN SEE FROM HERE Bjorn-Erik Aschim, Friederike Nicolaus, Sam TaylorI AM TOM MOODY Ainslie HendersonSLEEPING WITH THE FISHES James Walker, Sarah Woolner, Yousif Al-Khalifa
BRITISH SHORT FILMISLAND QUEEN Ben Mallaby, Nat LuurtsemaKEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES Megan Rubens, Michael Pearce, Selina LimORBIT EVER AFTER Chee-Lan Chan, Jamie Stone, Len RowlesROOM 8 James W. Griffiths, Sophie VennerSEA VIEW Anna Duffield, Jane Linfoot
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.