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 In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena.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

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross

 

For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan’s Run

GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

The Eagle


The Eagle

Tahar Rahim checks to make sure Channing Tatum isn't carved of wood as Jamie Bell looks on indistinctly.

(2011) Swords and Sandals (Focus) Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, Lukacs Bicskey, Dakin Matthews, Tahar Rahim, Pip Carter, Simon Paisley Day, Aladar Lakloth, Thomas Henry, Ned Dennehy. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

It is said that in 117 A.D., the Ninth Legion of Rome marched into the wilds of Caledonia on a mission to expand the Empire. They were never seen again, nor was their standard, a golden Eagle that represents Imperial Rome.

It is 20 years later and the son of the commander of that ill-fated expedition, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) has requesting a posting for his first command in Briton. His identity doesn’t sit well with the men but they follow him resolutely like good Romans, particularly his second-in-command Lutorius (O’Hare). When Marcus seemingly uses psychic powers to detect a raid on the outpost and saves the men from annihilation, he gets the admiration of his men. When he is severely injured in the melee, he is given a commendation. He is also discharged from the army.

He recovers at the villa of his Uncle Aquila (Sutherland), who regales him with stories of his father. While recuperating, he attends some gladiatorial games and witnesses the bravery of a slave sent out to fight a gladiator. When the slave Esca (Bell) refuses to fight, Marcus is impressed and urges the mob to spare him which they do. As a reward, Aquila buys the slave for Marcus. 

When word reaches them that the Eagle of the Ninth has been sighted in Caledonia (modern day Scotland), Marcus decides to go – not with an army behind him, but just him and the slave who has said that he hates all Romans, including Marcus. There they will go where no Roman dares go – master and slave, neither one trusting the other. Together they will find the truth of the fate of the Ninth – and restore the family name of Aquila, or die in the attempt. 

Kevin Macdonald has directed Oscar nominees (The Last King of Scotland) and Oscar winners (One Day in September). This will be neither. What it turns out to be is an old-fashioned action adventure film with a nice historical perspective – it is rumored that the Ninth Legion disappeared around that time, although there are some facts that dispute it.  There is a minimum of CGI and no cast of thousands here. Most of the battle scenes take place amidst a very few soldiers, and we get no sense of vast numbers here. All this makes for a fairly intimate setting as epics go.

Tatum is not known to be among Hollywood’s most revered actors, although he has shown some promise in films like Stop/Loss. Too often he gets cast as the hunky action hero and that appears to be more or less his speed, at least as far as Hollywood’s concerned; something tells me he has a lot more to offer, given the right role. Here he does the strong silent type, although he seems to be trying to affect an English accent which slips in and out somewhat unfortunately. It’s distracting and I would have preferred he retain his American accent had I been directing.  

The master-slave relationship is at the crux of the movie, and fortunately Bell and Tatum make a good team. Bell is another young British actor who I foresee good things happening from in the near future; while this movie isn’t likely to catapult his career forward, at least it isn’t setting it back either. His performance is strong and competent.

Also of note is Rahim as the leader of the Seal People, a tribe of Celts in northern Caledonia. Some might remember him from A Prophet as the young Franco-Arab sent to prison but here he is the nominal villain, and yet he engenders such sympathy that you almost wind up rooting for him in spite of yourself. That’s the definition of a great movie villain in my book. 

If you are looking for the fairer sex here, look elsewhere. There are few women seen in anything other than as extras, mostly looking at Tatum and Bell lustfully. This is most certainly a man’s world and we are just passing through. I’m not sure that it helped the movie any – I for one like having both sexes present in a movie – but I suppose it made a sort of sense that the women took a backseat in this film.

That’s kind of odd too, because the novel the movie was based on, “The Eagle of the Ninth,” was written by Rosemary Sutcliff back in 1954 and she by all accounts was all woman. While some more ignorant critics have labeled the source material a children’s book (and Sutcliff wrote a great many of those), it was in fact not specifically aimed at children and is a good read for young and old alike.

The movie differs from the book in a number of very basic and fundamental ways so purists beware. One of the more basic tangents is the relationship of Esca and Marcus which is less a factor in the book than it is in the movie. I like the movie’s interpretation of it, although the thought of a patrician Roman and a lowly British slave becoming friends…not likely.  

Still it’s that chemistry that drives the movie and while it reeks of old-fashioned Hollywood smarm, it’s still effective in an era that tends to choose flash and glitter over story. The Eagle doesn’t necessarily blow one away visually, but the story and the underlying adventure are a bit of a breath of fresh air. For those who are fond of saying they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, here’s living proof that they can and they do.

REASONS TO GO: Good buddy dynamic between Tatum and Bell. Some nice adventure action and an authentic looking Roman setting.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit on the pedestrian side and the lack of women in the film is a bit off-putting but not as much as Tatum’s attempt at an accent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle violence and a few images that might be disturbing to the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family name of the main character is Aquila, which is Latin for “eagle.”

HOME OR THEATER: There are some battle scenes and wilderness shots that certainly will look nifty on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Just Go With It