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.
Last year super-producer Joel Silver mounted an abortive attempt to revive the blockbuster Lethal Weapon franchise and though the project quickly fell apart after star Mel Gibson passed on the idea Silver’s yen for a new Buddy Cop franchise persisted. His dream has been realized albeit in a slightly modified form by Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes a propulsive thoroughly modern action movie.
In the hands of Ritchie and his able stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic crime-solving duo has been recast as a Victorian Riggs and Murtaugh. Downey’s Holmes is a brash brilliant rogue prone to fits of both inspiration and crippling melancholy; Law’s Watson is his steady and cautious counterpart disgusted by his partner’s self-destructive tendencies but fiercely loyal to him nonetheless. Both wield fists as sharp as their wits trading verbal jabs with each other as often as they dispense beatdowns to London’s colorful collection of brawny toothless goons.
Sherlock Holmes’ story such as it is mimics portions of The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure plunging Holmes and Watson into a sweeping mystery involving secret societies governments conspiracies and heavy doses of the occult. Their nemesis is not Moriarty (he appears only in shadow presumably saving himself for a sequel) but Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) a devil-worshiping aristocratic mad scientist who aspires to rule England and invade America.
It’s all rather preposterous — and occasionally incoherent — action movie fluff. But it’s also an infectious rollicking good yarn. Best known for his flashy muscular visual style which all too often feels distractingly anachronistic in Sherlock Holmes Ritchie doesn’t get enough credit for his devilishly acute sense of humor the lack of which was the most notable feature of his regrettable Madonna period. It’s back with a vengeance in this film which builds a convincing case based on Downey’s sly subversive charm and the chemistry he forges with Law. The two actors are so good together in fact that Sherlock Holmes’ two female characters played by Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly seem to exist solely to provide the occasional reminder that Holmes and Watson are in indeed heterosexual. Did they succeed? That perhaps is a mystery to be solved in the sequel.
N.Y. Film Critics honor Sideways
The indie comedy Sideways, which received seven Golden Globe nominations Monday, continued raking in accolades yesterday as the New York Film Critics Circle named it the best picture of 2004. The film stars Paul Giamattiand Thomas Haden Church as two middle-aged best friends who go on a wine-tasting road trip outside Santa Barbara, Calif. Thelma Adams, a critic for Us Weekly magazine, told The Associated Press the film's appeal was a generational thing. "I don't think this is a twentysomething movie. I think it's a movie that works for the over-30 crowd," she said. "This is an indie movie. It has Virginia Madsen--it doesn't have Julia Roberts. It has Sandra Oh--it doesn't have Natalie Portman. It hinges on Paul who? Giamatti, a guy with hair on his shoulders--and a great, great actor. And these are the people who are overlooked." Sideways also earned acting honors for Giamatti and Madsen, and for its screenplay, which director Alexander Payne co-wrote with Jim Taylor. The N.Y Film Critics also honored Clint Eastwood as best director for Million Dollar Baby; Christopher Doyle as best cinematographer for the martial-arts epic Hero; and writer-director Joshua Marston as best first film for Maria Full of Grace. In the film categories, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was named best nonfiction film; Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education was awarded best foreign-language film; and Pixar's The Incredibles won best animated film. Acting nods also went to Imelda Staunton in best-actress category for Vera Drake and Clive Owen was named best supporting-actor for Closer.
Jackson's lawyers want charges dismissed
Lawyers for Michael Jackson have filed a motion Dec. 10 to dismiss the child molestation charges against the pop star on grounds of "vindictive prosecution and outrageous government conduct," the AP reports. Jackson's legal team also filed a motion to push back the Jan. 31 trial date set by Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville. The motions stem from an unexpected search of Jackson's Neverland ranch on Dec. 3 and 4--the eve of a deadline for turning over all discovery materials--during which authorities also took a DNA sample from Jackson. The motions are scheduled for argument in hearings to begin Dec. 20. Jackson, 46, has pleaded not guilty to charges of child molestation, conspiracy and administering an intoxicating agent, alcohol, to his alleged victim.
Clark bows out of New Year's Eve celebration
After suffering a minor stroke last week, Dick Clark will not be able to host his annual Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve--the first time he's had to miss the festivities in more than three decades, Reuters reports. Citing the fact he needs more time to recover, the 75-year-old Clark has arranged for morning talk show host Regis Philbin to take his place. "I'm so glad that Regis hadn't yet made any New Year's plans," Clark said in a statement. "It'll feel strange watching it on TV, but my doctors felt it was too soon. I'm sure Regis will do a great job and I'm thankful that he was able to step in on such short notice." Said Philbin: "It's the greatest 'temp job' in the world. I just hope I can uphold the standards Dick Clark has set for this annual event, and I look forward to his return next year."
Madonna's tour tops the year's most profitable
Madonna's blockbuster Re-Invention concert tour was named tour of the year, bringing in $125 million in total box office gross, Reuters reports. According to Billboard Boxscore, Madonna sold out 55 of 56 performances worldwide, with an average nightly take of $2.23 million. "My Re-Invention tour was by far the most creatively satisfying experience I have ever had," Madonna told Billboard. "I was able to put everything I love into one entertaining event: film, music and dance." Prince's Musicology tour came in second, drawing nearly 1.5 million people and grossing $90.2 million. Shania Twain was third, reporting grosses totaling $62.5 million and playing to nearly 950,000 fans. The rest of the top 10 included Simon & Garfunkel ($59 million), Metallica ($53.8 million), Bette Midler ($53.3 million), Sting ($52.4 million), Kenny Chesney ($49.3 million), David Bowie ($46 million) and Toby Keith ($44.3 million).
Dench honored for contribution to theater
Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench received a standing ovation Monday as she accepted a special honor given to her to mark the 50th anniversary of the Evening Standard Theater Awards, the AP reports. "I've only been given this award for 47 years of doing a job that I absolutely adore," Dench said. "I didn't set out to be an actress but I changed my mind and I couldn't be more pleased that I did." Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, who star in the West End version of The Producers, accepted the best musical award for the Mel Brooks' musical. Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall, who will appear in the West End starting next month in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, attended the ceremony, as did Christian Slater, who is currently starring in a stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
U2, Pretenders tagged for Hall of Fame
Irish rockers U2, along with The Pretenders, soul veterans Percy Sledge and the O'Jays, and blues guitarist Buddy Guy will be inducted into the 20th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, Mar. 14, Reuters reports. U2's induction will come shortly after they begin a world tour in Florida on Mar. 1, promoting their recently released new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which topped the charts around the world and garnered three Grammy nominations last week.
Humble and sincere Bobby (Favreau) an aspiring boxer and Ricky (Vaughn) his obnoxious loser friend work construction for a two-bit mob boss named Max (Peter Falk). Bobby just wants to make a decent wage to support his stripper girlfriend (Famke Janssen) and her daughter but whether its his own temper or Ricky's big mouth these two guys can't stay out of trouble. Max gives them one last chance to prove they're good for something and assigns them to a mysterious job that takes them to New York City where they hook up with a slick gangsta named Ruiz (Sean Combs). The two try not to look like the fish out of water that they are and attempt to carry out Max's instructions. But to Bobby's consternation the insufferably cocky Ricky never fails to get them into hot water and what should be an easy job turns into a comedy of errors.
Friends in real life Favreau and Vaughn have an honest chemistry on-screen and their long-awaited reunion is a joy. Though they reprise similar characters as in Swingers (serious-guy Favreau smart-ass Vaughn) Favreau delves deeper into his role as the floundering honest good guy who somehow cares deeply about Ricky despite his incessantly infuriating behavior. Vaughn hits the bullseye as a strident volatile jerk who can't keep his mouth shut. You never really like him but you can't wait to see what he'll do next--his missteps and offenses are so unbelievable you wince but you can't look away. Though not on-screen very often Falk is a hoot as the take-no-bull mob boss who is sick of both schlubs. Combs surprisingly makes a more than adequate turn as the hardcore gangster who finds himself enmeshed in Bobby and Ricky's chaos. His sidekick Horace (Faizon Love) is pretty funny too.
First-time director Favreau shows real talent behind the camera keeping up the pace and allowing the story to unfold while developing the fleshed-out characters at a swift even tempo. In Made the journey is more important than the destination--the slim plot takes a back seat to the story's twists and turns. Favreau draws the viewer into his world so deeply it's easy to forget you're in a movie theater and not with the guys as they sit in Max's office or in a NYC cab (cinematographer Christopher Doyle helps keeps it interesting with a deft touch and a handheld camera). The locales juxtapose nicely with this uneasy escapade--Bobby and his wanna-be-a-player pal stick out like sore thumbs at both the slick clubs and posh hotels and the seedy low-rent neighborhoods of the Big Apple.