Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

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Titanic


Titanic

The great ship on it's last night of it's life.

(20th Century Fox/Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Bernard Fox. Directed by James Cameron

When Avatar was released, few would have predicted that it would overtake Titanic as box office champion but it did indeed. When Titanic was released, there were many who were predicting that the film would be one of the most expensive failures ever.

Brock Lovett (Paxton) is part of an expedition that is tasked with retrieving artifacts from the most famous wreck of all times, the Titanic. It becomes evident that he is searching for something specific; he sends his remote vehicles into a specific cabin and is thrilled when he retrieves a safe, sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 80 years. When he opens the safe, however, the prize isn’t in it.

They do find a portfolio of pencil drawings (how these would have survived immersed in sea water for 80 years I have no idea), one of which depicts a nude woman wearing a necklace with a large stone on it. It turns out this stone is the Heart of the Sea, cut from a larger diamond owned by Louis XIV. It had been purchased by a wealthy industrialist and was presumed to have gone down with the ship he had been sailing across the Atlantic on in 1912 (you guessed it) and would be nearly priceless on today’s market.

When images of the drawing are shown on television, an old woman named Rose Dawson (Stuart) is startled. She makes a call that is transferred to Lovett aboard the Russian research vessel hovering in the sea above the wreck and tells him that the drawing is of her. Seeing as she is Lovett’s best lead to finding the diamond, he flies her aboard. As she watches footage of the deep sea rovers filming aboard the silent, dark wreck in the endless night of the bottom of the North Atlantic, she tells him her story.

Rose deWitt Bukater (Winslet) is preparing for the trans-Atlantic crossing on board the newest and most heralded ship of the White Star line, the RMS Titanic. She is accompanied by Ruth (Fisher), her mother and her fiancé Cal Hockley (Zane), a wealthy industrialist and his manservant Lovejoy (Warner). While most of them are looking forward to a crossing aboard the most luxuriously appointed ship of its time, Rose sees it as a prison ship taking her to a life of endless boredom.

Unlike many women of her era, Rose has a spark of curiosity and adventurousness, curious about the world and in love with life. She dreads being the meek and mindless mistress of a household, caring only for her husband and children’s needs and never spreading her wings. She may look calm and serene on the outside but on the inside she’s screaming.

Jack Dawson (di Caprio) lives by the seat of his pants. He wins his steerage tickets for the great ship in a poker game and looks at the Titanic as a means of transportation only, of getting back to the United States after years of knocking about Europe (and Paris in particular) as an artist, getting by on what drawings he can sell for pennies.

Rose, desperate and looking for a way out, sees only one. She runs to the bow of the ship and intends to throw herself off. Jack, stargazing on the bow sees her and manages to talk her out of carrying through with her plan. She nearly falls climbing over the railing but Jack rescues her. A couple of crewmen come upon Jack and Rose crumpled in a heap and mistakes it for an assault on a first class passenger by a third class passenger. However, as Cal and Lovejoy are summoned along with acquaintance Colonel Gracie (Fox), the misunderstanding is quickly sorted out and Jack is revealed to be a hero. Cal wants to give the boy $20 for his trouble but this displeases Rose and so Jack is invited to the first class passenger’s dining room for dinner the next evening.

The next day Rose spends some time with Jack and they begin to get to know each other better. Rose is at first a bit put off by some of Jack’s vulgarities but as Jack shows her some of his drawings, she realizes that he is a talented artist with a rather sensitive soul. She realizes that she really likes this young man.

Jack is completely unprepared for the dinner, but fellow passenger Molly Brown (Bates) takes pity on him and supplies him with a tuxedo that her son wore. Jack arrives at the dinner self-possessed and unflappable, utterly calm in a sea full of sharks. Rose becomes more intrigued and when the men adjourn from the dinner table to go to the lounge for cigars and brandy “and to congratulate themselves on owning the world” as Rose puts it, Jack invites Rose to a party down in steerage. She is very much taken by the wild lively dancing, the drinking and the frivolity.

The next day, Jack can’t get Rose out of his mind and attempts to go see her again, but is rebuffed. He finally corners Rose, pulling her out of a tour led by ship designer Andrews (Garber), but she tells him that their romance is impossible. He counters that he just wants to make sure she’s all right, because her lifestyle is snuffing out her spirit and will eventually kill the woman she is. She sends him away, but realizes he’s right.

The Captain (Hill) is aware of icebergs in the North Atlantic at this time of year and wants to be cautious, but the ship’s owner, Ismay (Hyde) is more interested in publicity and wants to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. Captain Smith orders all the boilers to be lit and the Titanic sails full steam into destiny. Who will survive? Can Jack and Rose survive the sinking and end up together despite all the obstacles between them?

The voyage of the Titanic holds a fascination for nearly everybody. Deemed unsinkable at the time it was built, it has become a symbol for man’s hubris, as well as for the class structure that dominated society at the time; nearly everyone in steerage drowned and there are reports that crew members kept the steerage passengers behind locked gates while the 1st class passengers were loaded aboard half-full lifeboats that there were not nearly enough of.

Some say the definitive Titanic movie was the A Night to Remember (1958) which had more of a documentary feel to it but this one at least keeps most of the salient facts correct. While much of the vessels last minutes can only be conjecture, Cameron uses legends and intelligent guesses to fill in many of the blanks. He wisely doesn’t try to include the entire Titanic mythology (the movie was three hours long as it was) but instead focuses on the romance between the fictional Rose and Jack (a trivial aside here – there was in fact a J. Dawson that died on board the Titanic, a fitter named Joseph, and his grave in Halifax is now one of the most visited in the cemetery since the movie was released). Fortunately, the chemistry between di Caprio and Winslet is marvelous and we wind up caring that they wind up together, and feel concern that they both survive the disaster (in fact, we know for sure that Rose will since her character is seen in the opening modern day sequence).

This was the movie that made stars of di Caprio and Winslet, and even seeing it as many times as I have I never get tired of their performances. In fact, in Love Actually Liam Neeson uses a video of the movie as a tonic to cure his lovesick son and I’m sure that in reality many a lovelorn sort has done the same.

The recreation of the great ship was painstakingly executed, with many of the original providers of furnishings used to make new versions based on the original plans. As a result, the sets on board the Titanic are magnificent and historically accurate for the most part (there are some subtle differences – the Grand Staircase on board the original was a bit less grand, simply because people in that era were actually a little smaller than they are today).

A movie like this almost by definition has to be special effects-heavy and indeed it is, but they are rarely intrusive. There were some primitive computer animated shots of the vessel sailing the sea, some of which are crude by today’s standards (one such shot that was more or less a helicopter shot looked patently fake, even in 1997) but for the most part the movie holds up more than a decade after its release.

This was a movie that became an event. Nearly everything is iconic, from the image of Jack Dawson standing at the prow shouting “I’m the king of the world!” to Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning theme song. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen more than twice in a theater, and maybe one of the few I’d still go see again. On a personal level, the movie has a great deal of meaning to me – Da Queen and I saw it while we were dating, and less than three months before we were married. It holds significance on that personal level and of course on a historical level for the film industry.

In many ways it was the perfect movie. It attracted nearly every niche audience; women loved the romance, men loved the disaster and everyone loved the scope of it. It works on nearly every level and even though it is in some ways a standard Hollywood romance on an epic scale, it still remains one of the movies that will be a standard other movies are compared to for decades to come.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a modern classic and some of the action holds up well. Di Caprio and Winslet have a great deal of chemistry as a couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the digital effects are a bit crude and didn’t work even in 1997. It’s quite likely you’ve already seen this movie a number of times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and violence, but the disaster epic has some horrific images that may be too graphic for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most expensive film made during the 20th century, the production cost more than it did to build the original Titanic.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is no Blu-Ray edition yet for this film, but there are three DVD versions available; a bare-bones 1999 release, a 10th Anniversary release from 2007 that has a number of features and the three-disc Special Collector’s Edition from 2005. Most of the features are fairly mundane, but there is a commentary track by two historians that gives a great deal of insight into the historical accuracy of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Green Zone