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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Universal via Everett Collection
Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
Universal via Everett Collection
For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
One joy of having children is having the opportunity to force-feed them the entertainment that you grew up with. And, in that way, the offspring of '80s babies are lucky. It was the decade for the family Christmas special. Every beloved character got one. Here are four that you simply must dredge up on YouTube and pass along to the next generation
A Garfield Christmas (1987)
While Garfield's usual grumpiness is a true comfort to those of us who have difficulty tolerating the Odies of the world, a holiday special demands he soften up a bit. Garfield, Jon, and Odie trek out to Jon's family farm where Garfield bros out with Jon's feisty grandma and Odie constructs his frenemy the best present ever: the ultimate backscratcher. Adults should keep tissues handy for the unexpectedly poignant discovery of a pack of love letters from Grandma's deceased husband.
Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)
Your family could do worse than this Academy Award-nominated short, which was also the first theatrical Mickey Mouse cartoon produced in 30 years. Mickey plays Bob Cratchit, of course, and Scrooge McDuck, since he co-opted his whole game anyway, is his miserly boss. All well and good, but casting Daisy Duck as Bob's fiance Isabella seems a little uncool. What would Donald think?
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
Jim Henson himself cameos in this Muppet adventure, which is just as essential as any other. A childhood without Muppets shouldn't be allowed, so don't even try it.
He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)
Christmas comes to Eternia via two suitably diverse Earth kids, Miguel and Alisha. And the attempt to shoe-horn a Christian holiday into a alien world of god-like princes and flying unicorns is so '80s that it hurts. Even Skeletor can't escape the Christmas spirit, though he's relieved that he still gets to be a bad guy for the rest of the year.
The pilot episode of The Playboy Club gives us a glimpse into the first Playboy Club in Chicago, which opened in 1963. The swanky club features "bunnies," who serve privileged keyholders. Each girl on the show has her own secret and it looks like the show will unfold those secrets throughout the season. So what happens when the world's most famous bunny not named Bugs meets Mad Men? Hopefully something that does more than just cater to the teenage-horn-dog in us all.
We get a voiceover from Hugh Hefner himself, which attempts to set up the anything-can-happen vibe of the 60's-era show. We meet Maureen (Amber Heard) and besides her dancing skills and a great set of teeth (yes, I said teeth), she's pretty and the pilot does a great job showing us that through constant close-ups. However, this is all we get to learn about her in the pilot, as the show seems content with holding off on her backstory. She wants to be a star of the show, and she's got a ways to go. Of course she winds up with hunky club member, Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), who’s also dating the aging queen bunny, Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti).
So how much is skin does NBC show on a Monday night at 10 p.m.? Is it enough to warrant the NBC Salt Lake City affiliate from refusing to air the series? Is it enough to really upset feminist activist (and Christian Bale's step-mommy), Gloria Steinem, who once protested against the clubs by going undercover as a bunny and called for a boycott of the show? Surely there's more than enough gratuitous nudity to make the Parents Television Council demand NBC pull the show from its lineup? Sadly, for the naysayers, there's more skin shown during an autopsy on a procedural than on this series. Heck, Ashton Kutcher showed more skin in his first Two and a Half Men show than was seen on this series. It's just about a girl who wants to be the best sexpot she can be and that's all harmless fun.
Also roaming around the bunny-building is the aforementioned Carol-Lynne, who relishes using her acid tongue to cut people down to size. You can sense her lack of trust in people. As queen bunny, Carol-Lynne advises bunnies how to behave while working. No chewing gum, no leaving your post to dance. One can only assume someone will break the rules every few episode so that Benanti can get some snark in.
Another character running around is the club's manager, played by a very out of place David Krumholtz. Maybe the role will grow a bit as the series goes on, but the character seems badly miscast as Krumholtz is just not smarmy enough. Besides, his biggest moment in the pilot was answering a phone call from Hef.
It's easy to see why NBC picked the show up; it’s a period piece based around the glamorous and tumultuous sixties. Considering the time period has worked for Mad Men for four years now, the peacock is trying to deliver their own version of the decade, although Mad Men uses advertising for nostalgia's sake to reflect on current times works far better than using sex, which will always just be sex.
It's pretty hard to judge any series based on its first episode. The Playboy Club is no different. You have to introduce the main characters and the main story lines and a few characters like Naturi Naughton's Brenda seem primed for meaty, juicy story lines going forward. Chicago in the sixties is also known for an excess of organized crime, which is hinted at in the pilot. While it was a bit of a lackluster first episode, NBC could have a really good show on their hands if they can nurture it correctly, but as we all know, during the fast and furious fall premieres, that's easier said than done.
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.