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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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
In Duncan Jones’s sci-fi thriller Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who awakens after an enemy ambush to find himself sitting on a Chicago-bound commuter train surrounded by strangers with absolutely no idea how he got there. As he struggles to process his strange new milieu he’s pestered with small-talk by a perky fellow-passenger (Michelle Monaghan) whom he doesn’t recognize but who clearly seems to know him. When he looks into a mirror staring back at him is the image of a man who while handsome is certainly no Jake Gyllenhaal. What Hitchcockian hell has Captain Stevens wandered into? Could it all be a dream?
Before Colter can ponder matters further a massive explosion sends him hurtling into oblivion from which he emerges intact strapped to a chair inside a dark capsule-like enclosure. A woman Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) pops up on a video screen and tersely informs him that he is now part of a new high-tech front in the War on Terror: Source Code an experimental program that allows a person to assume the identity of someone else during the last eight minutes of his or her life. Whoever planted the bomb on the train is said to be readying another far deadlier attack to unleash on Chicago in a matter of hours. The only hope for preventing it is for Colter to repeatedly scour the memory of one of the train's deceased passengers in the hopes of finding clues that might help them determine the identity of the bomber.
Soon Colter finds himself in an existence not unlike that of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day revisiting the same eight-minute scenario over and over again. As a soldier his first instinct is to try and prevent the explosion from happening and save the lives of the innocents on board. But doing so is futile Source Code’s creepy and condescending inventor Dr. Walter Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) glibly explains. Source Code is not a time-travel machine but rather a “time-reassignment” device built on principles of quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus that Colter's feeble mind couldn’t possibly comprehend. The train bombing is a part of the past which is unalterable; Stevens’ actions to prevent its occurrence however heroic have no real-world ramifications. He is simply a detective whose crime scene is the residual consciousness – the “after-image” – of a dead man’s brain.
But if that were true Colter wouldn’t be able to exit the train make cell phone calls strike a romantic chord with Monaghan’s character or engage in various other activities that we see him perform in the film activities that lie well beyond the experiential purview of the dead man’s final memories. Could it be that the Source Code program is actually something more profound perhaps a kind of portal to a parallel universe? (Jones’s usage of Scott Bakula star of TV’s Quantum Leap in a clever cameo as the Colter's father provides a strong hint.) Colter's own experiences seem to confirm as much: Each time the train-bombing scenario unfolds he notices subtle differences in seemingly trivial details like the timing of a coffee spill. No two universes after all can ever be exactly alike.
This little twist exposes some potential issues with Source Code’s underlying logic chief among them being questions about the reliability of any “evidence” uncovered by Colter in his quantum adventures. The narrative asks us to take a few logical leaps of faith and I humbly suggest you comply. Source Code is more than strong enough as a film – an intelligent probing sci-fi thriller that packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch – to withstand any nitpicking about its theoretical veracity. Director Jones’s ambitions are grander his aim more mainstream his tone more hopeful this time around than in his haunting 2009 breakout hit Moon but the result is just as resonant.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Kicking off the new label DisneyNature Earth represents a return to the kind of filmmaking that won eight Oscars for Walt Disney between 1948 and 1960 under the umbrella name True Life Adventures. This time the focus is on three different animal families as cameras follow their remarkable migrations across the planet — literally — as the film was reportedly shot in 68 countries over seven continents. There’s the polar bear mother trying to protect her cubs from melting ice caps and overbearing sun as the father desperately searches for food; there’s the elephant and her calf trying to keep up with the rest of the herd through a stormy Kalahari Desert in search of water while fending off dangerous nighttime attacks by predatory lion packs; and finally there’s the mother whale and her calf traveling 4 000 miles from the tropics all the way to Antarctica.
WHO’S IN IT?
Beautifully narrated by James Earl Jones Earth avoids the hokey cutesy antics some nature films and television shows succumb to in their scripting. Jones’ distinctive elegant storytelling adds a moving layer to the overwhelmingly powerful images we see on screen. No cute talking animals in this film folks.
New technologies and more sophisticated cameras have energized this kind of filmmaking since the more primitive days when Walt Disney was regularly turning these movies out. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (Discovery’s Planet Earth) take their cameras into places no one has seen before and get incredible footage some of it heartbreaking some of it thrilling some of it funny. But with brilliant editing and a stunning musical score by George Fenton it all adds up to a breathtaking motion picture achievement adults will enjoy just as much as the kids.
Only that we have to wait another year for the next installment of the series Oceans from the talented filmmakers who gave us the equally amazing Winged Migration.
Just in terms of its haunting effect the richly-detailed sequence in which the slowly-starving father polar bear tries to get food by infiltrating a large pack of crafty walruses is both fascinating to watch and unforgettable in its impact. It’s that unstinting realism and sense that we are watching nature as it really unfolds that gives Earth its gravitas. Another grainy nighttime scene — captured on hidden cameras — shows determined lions out to kill a baby elephant as his mom and her pack try to protect him. Incredible stuff.
INTERESTED IN TRIVIA?
If this seems familiar Earth originally opened in several countries around the world in 2007 and had Patrick Stewart as narrator. Disney eventually picked up the film retooled it and now launches its U.S. premiere on Earth Day. This is the first of six annual films all also intended for release around Earth Day including the aforementioned Oceans.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Although the BBC and the Discovery Channel are partners in this venture this is a MUST on the big screen.
On the outside Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn’t be further from the mold of a “normal teenager.” He wears a suit everywhere he is precocious and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course Charlie isn’t really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that “normal teenager”: He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school’s bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity and it works like gangbusters. Before long “Dr. Charlie” is listening diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He’s got the popularity the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings) the latter of which just happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation. Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He’s an ‘it’ boy because of his acting not his looks (sorry Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin’s actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It’s all a credit to the young actor who in the span of Bartlett oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There’s nothing he can’t do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett Downey Jr. although that’s been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen and when Yelchin’s Charlie finally squares off with him the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and refreshingly the rare non-ditzy non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we’re used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor) aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and ultimately sobriety--for the character and us. For the first time in his decades-long career Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director’s chair. And after seeing Bartlett it makes sense that Poll who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant unclassifiable surprise spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson’s Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end Gustin Nash’s debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director’s rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire namely how loose today’s doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it’s also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It’s the most impressive screenplay debut we’ve seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn’t too shabby itself.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.