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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You expect a bit of schmaltz from a movie about the making of Mary Poppins. But schmaltz doesn't entail a sentiment lathered so thickly that it's feels like an anti-depressant commercial, or material so broad that it's insulting to believe that audiences above the age of five can relate to the emotionality onscreen. Saving Mr. Banks takes for granted that its viewers are fans of traditional Disney, seeming to confuse Disney fans for Disney characters, and insinuating that we bear the intellectual sophistication thereof.
The real victim, of course, is the character of P.L. Travers (Emma Roberts, charming as she can be with this material), who incurs a fraction of a storyline about overcoming (or learning to live with?) her latent childhood traumas. As a young girl in Australia (as we learn in intermittent flashbacks — by and large the dullest part of the movie, but such a hefty piece of it), young Travers adored her merry, whimsical alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, playing a character that feels as grounded in reality as Dick Van Dyke's penguin-trotting screever Bert), enchanting in his Neverland mannerisms while her chronically depressed mother watched the family crumble into squalor.
Forty-odd years later, the themes of Travers' childhood inform (sometimes directly, right down to presciently repeated phrases) her resistence to allow her novel Mary Poppins to take form as a Disney movie. In the absence of a reason for why she might have a sudden change of heart about a feeling to which she has apparently held so strongly for two decades, Travers opts to fly out to California to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, wading through the script without any of the energy we know he has in his back pocket) and discuss the adaptation process.
When it's not insisting upon clunky "melting the ice queen" devices — like nuzzling Travers up to an oversized stuffed Mickey Mouse to show that, hey, she's starting to like this place! — the stubborn author's time in the Disney writer's room is the best part of the movie. Working with (or against) an increasingly agitated creative team made up of Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak, Travers protests minor details about setting and character, driving her colleagues mad in the process. It is to the credit of the comic talents of Whitford and Schwartzman (who play reserved agitation well beside Novak's outright hostility — he's doing mid-series Ryan in this movie, FYI) that these scenes offer a scoop of charm. But Travers' gradual defrosting poses a consistent problem, as it is experienced over the slow reveal of her disjointed backstories in a fashion that suggests the two are connected... but we have no reason to believe that they are.
The implications of the characters' stories — depression, child abuse, alcoholism, handicaps, and PTSD — are big, and worthy of monumental material. But the characters are so thin that the assignment of such issues to them does a disservice to the emotionality and pain inherent therein. A good story might have been found in the making of Mary Poppins, and in the life and work of P.L. Travers. Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks is too compelled to turn that arc into a Disney cartoon. And much like Travers herself, we simply cannot abide that.
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There's a wealth of material for filmmakers to pry out of the troubles that America has faced in the past decade. The depressed economy, the plight of the returning soldier, and the loss of American industry have all informed the plots of many of the best films written in the past couple years. In his second directorial effort, Out of the Furnace, filmmaker Scott Cooper attempts to turn the myriad of America’s most pressing issues into a story set in the backdrop of the country’s hard suffering Rust Belt, but he comes away with a merely competent dramatic thriller that clearly aspired to be something grander.
In the film, Christian Bale plays the hardworking and upstanding Russell Baze, an almost impossibly good-natured man who has worked in the local steel mill his entire life, and had planned, just like his ailing father, to do so until the day he died. But when the steel mill is scheduled to close, Baze's way of life as well as the town itself is crippled. Casey Affleck plays Russell's sensitive brother Rodney, whose tours in Iraq have left him emotionally eruptive and dissatisfied with his brother’s working man existence; Rodney would rather spend his time competing in underground fighting rings where he can still feel something. Rodney soon finds himself wrapped up in violent and reactionary crime ring that doesn't take kindly to strangers. It’s up to Russell to save his brother from the grips of the areas most terrifying criminals
Out of the Furnace is appealingly glum. Cooper finds beauty in the rolling hills and crumbling infrastructure of small town Pennsylvania, and the film fully embraces the derelict beauty of its settings, down to even the homes and the cars that the characters own. The film clearly prides itself on feeling authentic and it reaches its goals visually — at the very least.
The relationship between the brothers Baze also feels remarkably authentic. Both Bale and Affleck sell the relationship deftly, and have an almost tangible amount of on-screen chemistry that expresses their bond for each other in a way that no script could. This chemistry makes the scenes where Rodney has gone missing burn with terrific dramatic intensity.
There’s a quiet desperation in these people. Though they may be hopeful and happy in their set paths, there’s a feeling that they’re all walking along streets heading nowhere. America isn’t the land of opportunity anymore, not for the soldiers or the factory workers. The only thriving ones seem to be the criminals like Woody Harrelson’s Curtis Degroat, who is so overarchingly villainous that the only thing the character is missing is a dastardly moustache to twirl.
And this is the big issue with Out of the Furnace. While Harrelson’s performance is at times chilling, the script often dovetails Degroat into an overdone cartoon bad guy, and this weak characterization flows through a lot of the characters and seriously undermines a lot of the authenticity that the film believes itself to be built upon. There's a particularly groan-inducing scene where Degroat decries the human race in the gruffest voice he can muster. Woody’s Degroat character, and most of the others in the film, aren’t so much developed characters, but act more like clichéd archetypes in Cooper’s parable about a broken America. Degroat is simply the bad guy, and not characterized beyond that one-dimensional role in this story. Affleck’s wounded war veteran feels overwrought as well, with many of his scenes laying down the melodrama in thick sheets, particularly when he’s discussing the terrors he’s faced in the war oversees.
Out of the Furnace has a lot of things on its mind about the state of America’s small towns and working class heroes, but it doesn’t know the best way to express itself, and while some of it’s sentiments ring true others clank harshly like an off-note. The remarkable cast does its best to prop up a film that wants to tell a great American story, but it only manages to tell a fairly middling one.