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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Cinematic counter-programming — during the summer, it isn't too difficult a strategy to pull off. The season is jam-packed with Hollywood's biggest, baddest blockbusters, each weekend sporting franchise installments, high concept adventures and sensory overloads designed to keep or synpases firing at maximum capacity while the sun beats us down. But what about those who want to take a break from the action? People will find a few movies that may tickle their art house desires, but other than the occasional sleek drama or black comedy, there aren't too many options.
Which is why it makes perfect sense for last year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture to hit Blu-ray this week. The Artist arrives just in the nick of time with a sweet story that's welcomely un-blockbustery (although it revolves around the blockbusters of the early days of Hollywood!). Inspired by The Artist, we took a look back at the many Best Picture winners over the years that seem like logical fits for the summer programming. Action, thrillers, children's movies — the Academy as awarded them all with its top prize at some point in its 84 years of handing out Best Picture Oscars. If you're looking for a few films with a bit of a history to them, here are your best bets:
The Best Picture Adult Comedy: Annie Hall
All raunchy misadventures and over-the-top rom-coms are in debt of Woody Allen's magnum opus, a hilarious, uniquely structured and shockingly poignant comedy. In Annie Hall, the auteur director tackles romance and relationships, but like magic, finds ways to weave in sex jokes and stand up bits wittier than most of what we see in theaters today. The film won Best Picture in 1977.
The Best Picture Epic Fantasy: Lord of the Rings
Too soon? No. Never. There have been few movies that begin to touch the tangible otherworldliness of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fully realized universe where every moment is fully fleshed out, from epic battle scene to intimate dramatic moment. After three back-to-back-to-back films, the franchise's final installment, Return of the King finally picked up a Best Picture Oscar in 2003.
The Best Picture Action Movie: The French Connection
The gritty crime tale from William Friedkin (the director of The Exorcist follows James "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) as he traverses New York City, on a mission to bust some drug smugglers. The story is involving enough, but French Connection also sports one of the best car chases of all time — yes, even in the wake of the many Fast and the Furious sequels. It was the first R-rated Best Picture winner, which it won in 1971.
The Best Picture Musical Movie: My Fair Lady
Today, most musicals are mash-ups of familiar classics — the horrific sounding "jukebox musical" (see the much maligned Rock of AgesMy Fair Lady stands as one of the most perfectly crafted of the bunch. Starring the always lovely Audrey Hepburn and the ultimate speak-singer Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady picked up the Best Picture Oscar in 1964.
The Best Picture Thriller Movies: The Departed
For awhile, it looked like Martin Scorsese was never going to pick up an Oscar, but his return to unfiltered violence and profanity (and, perhaps more importantly, a great crime tale) saw the cineaste win a coveted Best Director Oscar. The movie may have the gravitas of an all-star cast and creative team, but at its core its pulpy genre material that, in lesser hands, would fit right into the the throwaway summer season. The Departed won Best Picture in 2006.
The Best Picture Superhero Movie: Ben-Hur
Today we have crime-fighting men impersonating bats and clad in iron armor, but back in Biblical times, the world had Ben-Hur. He doesn't have super powers, but his journey is epic, falling from grace only to rise up from slave status as one of the great chariot riders. Oh, and he met Jesus. The movie won Best Picture in 1959.
The Best Picture Kids Movies: Oliver!
And just in case the young ones take a break from clamoring to see the latest and greatest in big screen entertainment, there's Oliver!, the charming, kid-centric film based on the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens classic. Oliver! works double duty: it's a ball for children who dream of living on their own, but it should sufficiently scare the crap out of them too. Fagin is one scary dude. Oliver! won Best Picture in 1968.
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[Photo Credit: Weinstein Company]
By now most movie fans have heard about Tom Cruise’s more-insane-than-couch-jumping decision to perform a series of harrowing stunts, himself, near the top of the world’s tallest building. It’s probably, at the very least, the craziest stunt pulled off by a big star without the aid of a stunt double, and the finished sequence in the film, this week’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, makes it all worthwhile (which is much easier to say as someone who didn’t have to perform said stunts). Here are the stunt sequences it rivals – the best, craziest such scenes of all time.
Death Proof: The Car Chase
The movie is about a (deranged, sadistic) stuntman, but it’s a real-life stuntwoman, Zoe Bell, who steals the show and single-handedly makes for one of the most exciting, insane stunt sequences in recent history. In Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Vanishing Point and other muscle-car revenge flicks, he clearly wouldn’t settle for CGI, and Bell – his stuntwoman on the Kill Bill movies – was game for his vision. That is REALLY her hanging off of the hood of that speeding, iconic 1970 Dodge Charger in the climactic chase scene, which took six weeks to shoot. Soooo worth it (for viewers).
The French Connection: The Train Chase
It is considered by many to be the chase-scene gold standard, and rightfully so; bonus points for the fact that most of the sequence is, in fact, real (not too many technological options in 1971). Star Gene Hackman, who does a good chunk of the driving, and the stuntmen involved, who, well, do the driving that was too dangerous for Hackman, both deserve a lot of credit, but director William Friedkin turned this sequence – in which Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chases down a hitman from below an elevated train – into an absolute masterpiece thanks to ingenious camerawork and quick cuts. Really, really quick cuts.
GoldenEye: The Bungee Jump
All James Bond movies show off impressive, elaborate stunt work; GoldenEye, namely its opening sequence, took things to a whole different level. In explanation, the scene is relatively simple: It’s a really long bungee jump from atop a dam. But stuntman Wayne Michaels could’ve died pretty easily during the shot (i.e., smacking against the wall at some point on the way down). And he set an all-time record for bungee jumping from a fixed object. And on-set anxiety. And audience amazement. Oh, and at the end of the jump, he manages to fire a gun, as seen in the movie. Not too shabby.
Speed: The Bus Jump
Pop quiz, hotshot: There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do? ! Answer: Whatever is necessary to keep the bus a-chuggin’, including jumping a 50-foot gap in the freeway. Stunt-wise, this sequence in the 1994 Keanu Reeves vehicle (hehe) is the film’s climax, and director’s Jan de Bont’s setup and execution are pretty damned thrilling, even for the most silly-stunt-jaded moviegoers among us. Never mind the fact that Mythbusters – and logic – totally disproved this stunt’s plausibility!
Jackie Chan’s Entire Career
His acting is often the butt of his movies’ joke – at least his American offerings, in which he’s typically paired with cinematic opposites, like the fast-talking Chris Tucker (Rush Hour franchise) and slow-talking Owen Wilson (Shanghai movies) – but Jackie Chan’s stunt work is seriously amazing. Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Chan has performed most of his own stunts, oftentimes at the risk and expense of his well-being … and insurance from studios! Say what you will about the latter part of his career and the so-called watering down of his stunts – if there were a lifetime-achievement Oscar for actors who perform their own stunts (perhaps with a catchier category name), Chan would win. He’ll probably just have to settle for the Taurus version of that award, though, which he won in 2002.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Spielberg movies might be worthy of a Best Stunts of All Time list all their own, and Raiders could almost have ITS own list, but one sequence does tend to stand out in the Indiana Jones classic: Indy’s – er, Harrison Ford’s stunt double’s – improbable takeover of a truck … via horse.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
“You want outta this parking lot? OK.” Needless to say, Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood doesn’t follow that classic line up with a conventional exit but rather a, uh, longcut through a Toys ‘R’ Us, then a crowded mall, leaving the pursuing cops in his and Jake’s retail dust – and creating quite possibly the best-ever stunt sequence in a comedy.
One of the earliest examples of amazing stuntsmanship, this Charlton Heston Oscar sweeper featured the iconic chariot-race sequence, which required thousands of extras, the largest film set ever built and many weeks for fill-in director Andrew Marton to shoot. The result speaks for itself.
Vanishing Point (1971)
With all the ridiculous, over-the-top car stunts executed in this aforementioned Tarantino fave, it’s basically a made-for-videogame movie – you know, long before that really became a thing.
Bullitt (1968), Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
See Vanishing Point, above.
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.
Shanghai Knights is really just a thinly veiled plot device to a) show more of Jackie Chan's amazing abilities; b) show the chemistry between Chan and Owen Wilson and c) show Chan in yet another fish-out-of-water situation. As a sequel with all the "right stuff" already in place Knights apparently doesn't need an intriguing story. Starting where Shanghai Noon left off Chon Wang (Chan) is living large in 1800s American Wild West. Yet when Chon learns his estranged father the Keeper of the Imperial Seal has been murdered in China's Forbidden City and the seal stolen he immediately vows revenge. To get to the killers who have escaped to London Chon reluctantly reteams with his old partner the incompetent Roy O'Bannon (Wilson). Once in England they run into Chon's sister Lin (Fann Wong) who has had the same vengeful idea as her brother (and has the same skills). Much to Chon's chagrin Roy is quickly smitten with the beautiful Lin who has uncovered a plot to kill Queen Victoria and the royal family but has trouble convincing the authorities since the instigator of the evil plan is Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) seventh in line to the throne (hence why he wants them killed off). Not good. With the help of a kindly Scotland Yard Inspector and a 10-year-old street urchin Chon kicks Britain in the pants as he attempts to avenge his father's death--and keep the romance-minded Roy away from his sister.
The Chan/Wilson comic duo works well once again. Chan's easygoing unassuming style matches well with Wilson's smarminess. Wilson seems to have become one of those actors-for-hire saying yes to just about anything offered to him (why else would he have done I Spy?) ; still we know he has the goods when he turns in hysterical performances in quirk-fests such as The Royal Tenenbaums. There definitely is something special to his pairing with Chan who fits into Hollywood's mainstream like a glove. The only way to aptly describe his abilities is to compare him to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly who could dance with anything from a woman to a hat rack and make it look so smooth. Granted Chan is getting a little long in the tooth (rumor has it he didn't perform all the stunts) but the combination of martial arts and Chinese acrobatics he displays is stupefying. Wong handles herself very well getting in a few swift mean kicks of her own. As well baddies Gillen and real-life martial arts master Donnie Yen who plays a Chinese rebel aligning himself with Rathbone snarl with the best of them. It is intriguing to see Yen and Chan go at it in their very different yet mesmerizing styles.
Doing a sequel to Shanghai Noon was a very smart move. Why not pair up these two likable heroes again throw them in a different adventure and watch the sparks fly? It's the kind of repeat performance that doesn't require much attention to detail and director David Dobkin (Clay Pigeons) shouldn't feel the need to top Knights' predecessor. Each action sequence is spectacular and the interim goofiness sustains the time when Chan can do his stuff again. Still it would be nice to have at least some semblance of glue to hold the movie together. It's all over the place trying to pack in as much fighting as possible together with funny awkward moments with Chon and Roy as well as playing with the history of London in the 1800s. For example the kindly Scotland Yard detective who helps them is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before he starts writing his Sherlock Holmes series (Roy comes up with the pseudonym) and the street urchin so impressed with Chon's moves is a young Charlie Chaplin. Ah very clever. At least Lin gets to kick Jack the Ripper's butt. Oh who are we kidding? The film's fun and it's going to make big bucks. Who cares about a story?