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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Less Transformers more Act of Valor director Peter Berg's Battleship is a bombastic idiotic and ear canal-shattering love letter to the Navy slathered with a summer blockbuster sugarcoating that sufficiently masks any glimmer of heart. Following suit with their previous adaptation Transformers toy company Hasbro has transformed their popular board game into a sci-fi action movie as stiff and lifeless as the plastic pieces used to play. The saving grace is Berg's fondness for the ridiculous injecting Top Gun-level machismo into his tale of aliens vs. boats. Silliness is cinematic buoyancy for a movie as lazy as Battleship.
Continually finding himself in trouble's way roughneck Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch of TV's Friday Night Lights and John Carter) enlists in the U.S. Navy alongside his boy scout brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) and under the supervision of his lady friend Sam's (Brooklyn Decker) overbearing father Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). Alex works his way up the chain of command quickly earning the rank of Lieutenant just in time for the annual competitive skirmish with the Japanese Navy. It's all fun and games until — per usual — aliens drop down from the stars and wreak havoc on Hawaii. With most of the fleet trapped on the outskirts thanks to a ship-proof forcefield Alex is forced to command his own ship and take down the intergalactic adversaries with old school style. Discombobulated radar in alien waters means Alex and his team are shooting blind — will B11 be a hit or a miss?
Kitsch spends most of his time rubbing shoulders with Petty Officer 'Weps' (Rihanna) and the rest of his diligent crew whipping up ways to defeat the alien forces who only go on the offensive when attacked. That's just the beginning of the storytelling's illogic moment after moment favoring Michael Bay-inspired mayhem and tensionless spats of screaming aboard the ship's bridge over coherency. There's an Independence Day-inspired moment where an alien creature palms Kitsch's face unleashing imagery of their devastated home planet to his mind. Maybe? That never comes back and an explanation of why the aliens are here why we're fighting them or if they're really that bad at all never comes into play. Kitsch and his men just know the world's under attack and we have to blow the opposition to smithereens.
Ensuring attentive brains are never too focused the perspective in Battleship is ever-shifting jumping from Alex's Destroyer to Sam and her paraplegic rehab patient Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales together on the run from alien ground troops. Around Battleship's halfway point when the duo partners with a twitchy scientist (Hamish Linklater) and Mick rises above his disability to beat the living daylights out of an extraterrestrial is when Berg throws his hands in the air stops caring and pulls out all the stops. Giant alien roller balls that rip up everything in their path? Check. Bouncing space ships that can only be combated using water displacement theory? Check. Navy vets returning for one…last…job? Check check. Before the finale of this 131 minute monstrosity Kitsch and his Japanese counterpart Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) sit down to play an actual game of Battleship. Sure it's with actual missiles but there's a grid there's a target and there's shouting out of corresponding numbers. For those worried about board game fan service it's there (but don't sit around waiting for the infamous tagline).
Unlike his turn in John Carter Kitsch is perfectly suited for the bro atmosphere of Battleship where every moment of drama begs for hammy delivery and crazy eyes. Decker too is an asset to the overly epic blockbuster — a step up from the reductive arm candy roles of the Transformers movies. Everyone else is barely a blip on the radar; Neeson is deprived of a single badass moment while Rihanna proves she can memorize and playback scripted lines as well as pop song lyrics. Berg has control of his action in a way that's more enjoyable than the previous Transformers films but it still plays like a tired clone. The initial two-thirds of Battleship that takes itself too seriously is exhausting. The final barrage is pure lunacy. Whether you can stay afloat for that long is the true test of heroism.
Since his days directing sketches for comedy troupe The State and his seminal debut feature Wet Hot American Summer David Wain has been expertly calculating ways to make his brand of absurdist humor work within the rigid conventional world of Hollywood movies. His latest Wanderlust is the perfect example of a hollow rom-com template that Wain fills to the brim with bizarre jokes and perfectly timed physical humor. His soldier of fortune is Paul Rudd who brings the golden ratio: looks of a leading man and a comedic gravitas that is unmatched. Rudd's at the top of his game whether he's landing a one-liner stretching his face to Jim Carrey-like proportions or reacting to his maniac co-stars the actor delivers—making Wanderlust charming deranged and very funny.
George (Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston better suited for this wacky comedy than you'd think) are a happily married couple living in New York attempting to live the dream lifestyle without any of the reality to fall back on. It doesn't work—George loses his job Linda fails to sell her documentary on penguin testicular cancer and the two find themselves forced to sell their "micro-loft" in the West Village and move in with George's brother in Atlanta. During their epic car ride George and Linda make a pit stop at a local Georgian B&B only to discover it's a counterculture commune home to an eclectic group determined to live on their own alternative terms. The inhabitants of "Elysium" range from nudists to tai chi experts to organic farmers but they all have one goal: live free. Realizing they don't have too much else going on in their lives (their alternative is shacking up with George's materialistic misogynistic businessman brother Rick played by the amazing Ken Marino) George and Linda dive head first into the off-beat world of Elysium.
Wanderlust dishes out its fair share of oddities when exploring the world of Elysium but isn't content in simply exploiting those quirks. Wain who co-wrote the script with Marino fleshes out the ensemble and makes keen choices so that no character is just a face in a crowd. Comedy pros like Justin Theroux Alan Alda Malin Akerman Joe Lo Truglio Kathryn Hahn Kerri Kenney Lauren Ambrose and more round out the cast and help color the world of Elysium piling laughs on top of laughs with every scene. Theroux stands out as Seth a spiritual leader for the group who begins to woo Linda away from George with his savvy guitar skills and potent herbal teas. Seth's slow and steady demeanor is a welcome change from the usual rapid-fire style seen in the modern comedy (the movie was produced by Judd Apatow so it wouldn't have been a surprise to see the approach replicated in Wanderlust) making us laugh in a zen fashion.
Meanwhile George just can't get anything right from group "truth circle" exercises to drinking coffee made of dirt to Elysium's "free love pact " which gives both he and his wife the chance to sexually explore outside of their relationship. The couple quickly realizes the freedom of their new home divides them and Wain's sensitivity to story and character evolve the relationship in a rather conventional yet desirable fashion.
Wanderlust falls somewhere between a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy vehicle and the pleasantly obscene work of Wain's past—and it may catch some off guard. The movie doesn't mind throwing in a bit of male nudity playing with abrasive repetition or those who find laughs in patience. The movie fully embraces the weird while never lettings its characters slip fully into caricature. Much like George and Linda's own dilemma Wanderlust wants to find harmony between the mainstream and the not-so-much. Thankfully it achieves inner peace.
Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
Douglas McGrath’s new movie I Don’t Know How She Does It is based off of Allison Pearson’s wildly successful novel of the same name that was on The New York Times’ hardcover bestseller list for 23 weeks. Both mediums focus on the complicated life of Kate Reddy (played by an I'll admit it enjoyably perky Sarah Jessica Parker in the movie) who is the woman all working mothers want to be: smart determined and fiercely passionate about doing everything she can to balance her family with her high profile job at an investment banking firm. She’s the mom who’s thoughtful enough to try and distort a store-bought cherry pie with a rolling pin so it looks more homemade for her daughter’s bake sale and the one who finds joy in searching for a clean blouse that doesn’t have the marshmallows from her son’s Rice Krispies Treats soaked into it. Of course Kate dreads leaving her children each day but she loves her job very much and allows herself to part ways with them by concentrating on the belief that one day they’ll understand how much she genuinely wanted to go to work. And while it’s clear the movie’s goal is to humorously depict the lives of women who work and have families it shockingly shies away from ending the still-popular belief that women are best "pregnant barefoot and in the kitchen."
Within the first minute of the movie the fourth wall is broken -- and continues to break throughout the movie -- and several of Kate’s colleagues and friends verify that Kate is an outstanding mother and a supremely productive member of the work force (which was pretty unnecessary considering how we were just going to see all of Kate's talents anyway). Her friend Allison (played by Christina Hendricks) opens up a bit more than the others and unveils that even though Kate's totally great she really wasn't doing very well with her responsibilities last winter. Then we flash back three months and watch as Kate goes from being an unnoticed employee at her Boston firm to writing a proposal and catching the interest of Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) at the branch’s New York office. Jack is enthusiastic about Kate’s ideas and decides he wants to take the proposal and present it to a major client which excites Kate because it would be great for her career. However the problem is the proposal needs a lot of work before it can be shown to anybody and Jack is careful to ask if Kate is comfortable traveling between Boston and New York and working day and night for two months until the whole thing is finished. In the back of her mind she knows she should be spending heaps more time with her family instead of agreeing to take on more responsibilities at work but she decides to do it anyway because as the saying goes “if it ain’t hard it ain’t worth it.”
So Kate and her assistant Momo (played by a finally enjoyable Olivia Munn) begin working overtime. She spends three days a week in New York and the other four days glued to her computer in Boston. When she does make plans with her kids to do something like build a snowman she ends up flaking out because something happens at the last minute regarding the proposal and she needs to drop everything to go work on it with Jack in New York. As angry as the kids are with their mom Kate’s husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is even angrier because since his wife is away and working all the time he becomes the caregiver by default.
Now here’s where things get a little dicey: Richard is an unemployed architect and so I was surprised to watch him give his wife so much grief for working to keep their cute children fed. However the audience is supposed to understand where he’s coming from: we’re supposed to applaud Richard’s courage to make Kate feel guilty for being with Abelhammer instead of with her kids and we’re supposed to take his side as he repeatedly tries to convince her that she should be ashamed of putting her work ahead of her family. We're supposed to figure out that Richard feels bad for not working and understand that when he's screaming at Kate for having a job he's really just venting about how frustrated he is that he's unemployed. And here’s where the movie has the opportunity to open up and blossom and be symbolic of how a woman should never have to apologize for having a career. Exactly here is where the movie should have stretched out its wings and showed Kate yelling from the top of her lungs about how unfair it is that women are frowned upon for having a job and a family whereas it’s completely fine for men to have both. But instead of defending herself like that Kate responded to her husband’s grievances by bowing her head down and acknowledging that she’s wrong for working so hard for being away from her children for making bad choices and for making her husband’s life harder. But the thing is that she hasn’t made bad choices! She’s made all the right ones because her husband doesn’t work! The point is McGrath had the opportunity to really emphasize how men with families and women with families are treated differently in the workplace -- but he ended up depicting how dangerous it is to be a woman with a job because it means that one day her husband might resent her and make her apologize for it. And so instead of significantly expanding upon Pearson's efforts to level the ground for women with children in the workplace McGrath (rather confusingly) stopped just short of following her lead.
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.