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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Sundance Film Festival: one of the few places a person can see over thirty movies in ten days and still walkaway with a lengthy list of regretful misses. This year was full of positive buzz, from rabid studio purchasing to the general thumbs-up public reactions to Park City's packed slate.
While many of the screened movies have their theatrical destinies set before the final night, the Sundance award ceremony often gives a much needed boost to films across the spectrum. Of course, like any "Best of," they also manage to overlook the true gems.
Here were the big winners of the festival along with a guide to who really should have taken home the awards:
Audience Award: Documentary - Buck, directed by Cindy Meeh
Buck has a special place in Sundance founder Robert Redford's heart - the film chronicles the true life story of Buck Brannaman, the real life Horse Whisperer (the basis for Redford's film). Buck is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser, but we're surprised the even gooier Being Elmo, a look behind one man's quest to become a Muppeteer, didn't sweep up this category. Both are must-sees.
Audience Award: Dramatic - Circumstance, directed and written by Maryam Keshavarz
The Iranian lesbian romance drama debuted to positive reviews and we're all for the win - the subject matter will be a tough enough sell for any distributor consdering picking up the film. We expected Sundance veteran Miranda July to pick this award up for her second feature, The Future, an adorable and emotional tale of a couple on the brink of splitting. While we enjoy July's brand of comedy, spreading the love to Circumstance will certainly help that picture's chances at being seen by a wide audience.
Best of NEXT!: Audience Award - to.get.her, directed and written by Erica Dunton
Critically panned by fest-goers, to.get.her, a drama concerning four teen girls' wild night, took the NEXT! category (designed for projects shot on little to no budget) by surprise. We had two favorites that deserved some the bump from winning this award: Bellflower, an off-beat mix of muscle cars and romance, and The Sound of My Voice, a twisted sci-fi/drama about a documentary team infiltrating an underground cult. Both movies transcended their budget limitations to tell engaging stories - we'll have to see if to.get.her commands that kind of attention.
Directing Award: Documentary - Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, directed by Jon Foy.
Resurrect Dead took Jon Foy five years and a significant portion of his own income to complete, but the result is a wild mystery and fun 90-minute ride. It may not be the most expertly directed documentary to play the fest - James Marsh's slick Project Nim or the hilarious Shut Up, Little Man may take that honor - but with so much sweat and blood making its way to the screen (and a thrilling subject matter: the mysterious, sci-fi Toynbee Tiles), Foy is certainly deserved of the prize.
Directing Award: Dramatic - Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed and written by Sean Durkin.
Everyone at the fest thought Sean Durkin's first directorial effort, the terrifying Martha Marcy May Marlene, would take home the top prize, but at this fest the film will have to settle for excellence in directing. There's no doubt Durkin earned it - MMMM is a gracefully paced, unnerving experience, creating a sense of paranoia and dread few of his horror contemporaries could even attempt matching. Thankfully, this one has a distributor and you'll be seeing it soon.
Excellence in Cinematography Award: Dramatic - was presented to Pariah, directed and written by Dee Rees, shot by Bradford Young.
Another fan favorite, Dee Rees' Pariah rejuvenated the tired coming-of-age drama with grounded reality and fully fleshed out characters. Bradford Young's look compliments the feel. Instead of settling for the a gritty, "urban" look of most New York indies, Young's cinematography is diverse and complimentary to the world of the film.
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award - Another Happy Day, directed and written by Sam Levinson.
Sam Levinson, son of famed director Barry Levinson (Rain Man), debuted with a harrowing feature film centered on a family that just can't get it right. Levinson picked up the screenwriting award for his script chock full of Aaron Sorkin-lite dialogue and Diablo Cody-esque pop culture references. It's not a particularly great film, but there's talent there. We would have loved to see Pariah, The Future, HERE or Terri take the prize, but the world isn't perfect.
Grand Jury Prize: Documentary - How to Die in Oregon, directed by Peter D. Richardson.
Once in awhile, a firm punch to the gut is a necessary wake up call to real world problems and issues. How to Die in Oregon is exactly that, rightfully taking top honors in the documentary category and leaving audiences across the fest bawling soon-to-be-frozen tears. The doc unravels the moral debate over Oregon's law to allow for terminally ill or elderly citizens to terminate their own lives and, as you can imagine, it's a tough one to watch. But for every gasp or sniffle, there's a moment of inspiration of hope - for an hour and a half, you're watching people do exactly what they want to do (legally).
Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic - Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus
Like Crazy hit home for many fest-goers, some calling the cross-continent relationship drama the new 500 Days of Summer. That might not be a sell for everyone, but for those who caught the picture, starring Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones and Jennifer Lawrence, it resonated in a smart, true way. There are a handful of films that would seem fit for a win in this category, but a win for Like Crazy will only help its buzz when Paramount releases it sometime this year.
Keep These Films on Your Radar: Kaboom, Project Nim, Pariah, Martha Mary May Marlene, Win Win, My Idiot Brother, Troll Hunter, The Woman, Life in a Day, HERE, Bellflower, How to Die in Oregon, Take Shelter, Resurrect Dead, Submarine, The Future, Letters from the Big Man, Shut Up, Little Man!
The So-So Bunch: Jess + Moss, Uncle Kent, The Music Never Stopped, Hobo with a Shotgun, The Woods, Knuckle, The Sound of My Voice, The Devil's Double, Cedar Rapids,The Details, Terri, Flypaper
The Disappoints of the Fest: Magic Trip, The Ledge, I Melt with You, Homework, Another Earth, Son of No One, Another Happy Day