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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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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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
This weekend's Real Steel may not be my cup of tea, but if there's one thing that solidified in my mind after seeing the movie, it's that Hugh Jackman is everything I want out of a leading man and more. He is, as we'd classically classify him, a movie star.
The "movie star" is a fading breed. Fifty years ago, studios could open any movie to big numbers as long as it starred one of the familiar faces of Hollywood. In modern times, it's anyone's game—but a few actors and actresses remain that have the magic touch, allowing them to work in almost any situation. Think Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie…and, as far as I'm concerned, Hugh Jackman.
Here are a few reasons Jackman is one of Hollywood's brightest stars, an actor with potential to do pretty much anything, while making it watchable and enjoyable:
He Can Play the Hero
Jackman broke out as the classic comic anti-hero Wolverine, but not every actor as the star power to turn a character into a four-movie hero while winning the hearts of action fans across the globe. There's a reason we're not bowing down to Ben Affleck's Daredevil or even Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man—with all the flashy special effects and over-the-top mutant carnage, Jackman stands out as a true performance. Wolverine's a cigar-chompin', rough-around-the-edges samaritan—well rounded and tough as nails. That's what it takes to be an action hero.
Big Directors Want to Work with Him
If Jackman was a one-note Nancy, he would have faded into obscurity and stuck to phoned in action thrillers a long time ago. But he's in demand. Big name director's want him. Christian Bale was an obvious choice for Christopher Nolan's brainy period drama The Prestige, but when the Batman Begins director paired him with Jackman, the Aussie actor suddenly became "legit."
The Doesn't Always Have to Be a Nice Guy
There are a lots of actors who wouldn't touch a villain character—or heck, a character with a dark side—with a ten-foot pole (I'm looking at you Kevin Costner). Jackman isn't one of them and it works to his advantage. Range is important and a well-written unlikable character can do wonders for your rep. Jackman went full on evil for the little-seen Deception, but his latest role in Real Steel is where he really diversifies. For all intensive purposes, he's a lazy, self-centered chump—and he's great at it.
A movie star is someone we can be announced in a movie and we simultaneously say, "Wow, odd choice!" and "yeah, I can see that." That's Jackman.
He Can Pull Off the Romance
Let's face it, being a movie star involves having a particular look, the kind of facial structure that helped Plato discover the golden ratio. Perfection.
Jackman's chiseled mug certainly helps him in the romance department and he has no qualms embracing his dashing qualities in a handful of films. Australia and Kate & Leopold aren't exactly critical winners, but they did expose audiences to Jackman's softer side. The man can do romance. If you're trying to win over the hearts of movie-going audiences, a winning look is a win.
He Balances Brawns with Brains
Ascending to stardom with buzzy momentum is no easy skill—see Halle Berry, won an Oscar and baffled her fans with the disastrous Catwoman. To be a real movie star, an actor has to know where they fit, but bite of a meaty role that can challenge them and their audience.
Jackman gets it. Few stars would have the courage to take on Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, a trippy sci-fi drama with heavy themes and out-there design, but Jackman immerses himself in the role (which was actually three distinct parts). It shows he takes his audience seriously, and in turn, we laud him for the courage—and even mores when his performances stun.
He Can Show Up Anywhere
There's a certain worry that when a person hits celebrity status, they grow too big to fit in certain size films. For instance, you won't see Brad Pitt co-starring in a Sundance premiere any time soon.
Thankfully, Jackman seems content with popping in, even momentarily, to whatever the heck he wants (and it makes him even more of the man). This year, Jackman had a small supporting role in Wayne Wang's (The Joy Luck Club) latest film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan along with an extended cameo in the dramedy Butter. In 2012, he'll star as a guy with balls on his chin in a compilation of shorts produced by The Farrelly Brothers (There's Something About Mary). Seriously.
No project is too big or too small for Jackman. The only requirement: it has to be interesting.
He Can Sing!
Besides being a stand up guy and a performer committed to the evolution of his own craft, Hugh Jackman stands out as one of today's best showman. He can sing, he can dance, he can make jazz hands that don't make people close their eyes and cringe (OK, most people). He can host the Oscars, he can star in Broadway musicals and he can even work magic on the small screen (Jackman helped create and co-starred in CBS' Vegas-set, Glee predecessor Viva Laughlin).
Like Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep, there's no medium Jackman can't conquer. But movie stardom isn't just about how quantity—it takes the right attitude and Jackman has solidified himself as a Hollywood A-Lister by pulling it all off with a smile. We love what he's done so far, and more importantly, we can't wait to see what he does next.