Movie Review ~ Pompeii

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A slave-turned-gladiator finds himself in a race against time to save his true love, who has been betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator. As Mount Vesuvius erupts, he must fight to save his beloved as Pompeii crumbles around him.

Stars: Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I remember reading reviews of Titanic back in 1997 when it was first released and thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, but what about when the boat sinks?’  James Cameron’s Oscar winning film benefited from the introduction of characters, plot, effects, and ideas that culminated in the famous sinking of the titular ocean liner which made it more than just a soggy retread of the popular disaster pictures of the 70’s.  As a high school student still finding my critical legs, all I cared about was how the boat looked when it was sinking.

I mention Titanic because the makers of Pompeii clearly hatched their notion to retell the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius during a screening of Titanic when it was re-released in 3D a few years back.  So instead of this being an all out disaster epic, it’s less about the lava and more about the love…and more’s the pity because even a trio of screenwriters can’t muster up a decent bit of dialogue that would help the audience pick someone, anyone, to root for.  Yeah, you say, but what about the volcano?

I’ll get to it…trust me.

Opening with a factual quote from Pliny the Younger who had a firsthand account of the volcanic event, it’s pretty much fiction for the remainder of the film.  A young boy is orphaned at the hand of a cruel Roman soldier (Kiefer Sutherland, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Flatliners) and raised in slavery, becoming a gladiator along the way.  So good at his craft that he’s brought to Pompeii to fight top gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Thor: The Dark World) he has the misfortune to arrive not only at the very moment Vesuvius cracks open but also to fall in love with a member of Pompeii’s upper crust (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch).  Ok, you say, good to know…but what about that volcano?

Getting there…

For the next hour there’s a lot of speechifying by braggadocios, both political and civilian, none of which has the least to do with the fate that awaits nearly everyone within Pompeii’s walls and harbor villages.  The love story is paper thin and too much time is spent introducing secondary characters that are merely there to push our leads out of the way of falling rocks before meeting their ends shortly thereafter.  Ah, you say, I understand…but what about the acting?

Wait, what?  The acting?  Well…I was just getting to that…

Browning comes off the best of the bunch…though here is another movie set in an Italian speaking country where everyone has (or attempts to have) a British accent.  Harington impresses solely on his first entrance, exiting the shadows and preceded by his eight pack abs which is probably why the film is being released in 3D.  Jared Harris (Lincoln) and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) are wet noodles as Browning’s parents and poor Jessica Lucas (That Awkward Moment, Evil Dead) is barely an afterthought.  Sutherland makes zero effort to do anything special here…which is too bad because he’s a more than capable of playing a nasty bad guy.  Between his non period Jack Bauer haircut and UK accent by way of Billings, Montana (when he bothers to use one at all), he’s incredibly miscast here.

So the volcano…

It erupts pretty spectacularly and provides several opportunities for actors to outrun fireballs, tidal waves, and clouds of ash…but not the inevitable.   The volcano blowing its top is kinda worth the wait and kinda not because so much filler has weighed the film down before its arrival.  It’s the best visual effect in the film, with other moments coming off with badly rendered CGI.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson has four Resident Evil films under his belt as well as a host of other bombastic films with a sci-fi slant (Event Horizon is a guilty pleasure of mine) so he’d seem a natural choice to helm a disaster epic…but he merely moves the pieces around without ever bringing them together in a memorable way.  Pompeii isn’t a total wash of a film but, like the city of its title, it’s gone in an instant.

Movie Review ~ That Awkward Moment

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Three best friends find themselves where we’ve all been – at that confusing moment in every dating relationship when you have to decide “So…where is this going?”

Stars: Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas

Director: Tom Gormican

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I can imagine writer/director Tom Gormican sitting at home late one night and happening upon an early episode of Sex and the City.  Perhaps he caught one of those episodes with its four stars getting into some sexual pretzel involving relationships and that scary four letter word spelled L-O-V-E.  Over brunch at a swanky Manhattan eatery they would talk about all things bedroom related while never stopping to ask, “How’s your mom doing?” before strolling away to their tony loft apartments.

At this point Gormican could have thought to himself, “Hey, guys do that TOO!” and just took several episodes of the popular HBO show and reworked them, replacing Sarah Jessica Parker with Zac Efron, Kim Cattrall with Miles Teller, and Kristin Davis with Michael B. Jordan (sorry Cynthia Nixon, no dude parallel for you!) to provide the male’s eye view of romance in modern day New York.

That’s all well and good and more power to the filmmakers for following a proven model but yikes if the film isn’t terribly shallow and not nearly as insightful or entertaining as it thinks it is.  Even the meteoric charm of the three leads can’t keep the thin film afloat, though Gormican and company do try to distract you with plenty of shots of Efron nearly nude and nobly clearing the way for two females to shine.

Efron (Neighbors, The Lucky One), Teller (The Spectacular Now), and Jordan (Fruitvale Station) are twentysomethings moving through New York City in the ways that only a film would allow…with fantastically gigantic apartments and jobs that don’t require them to be there much of the time.  Efron and Teller work for a publisher and Jordan is a doctor with a marriage on the rocks.  Single and mingle-ing Efron and Teller make a pact with Jordan not to get into a relationship so all three can play the field.  Trouble is Efron and Teller find love quickly while Jordan, a hopeless romantic, keeps going back to a wife (Jessica Lucas, The Evil Dead) that can’t decide if it’s really over.

Efron’s job affords him the kind of stunning NYC apartment that would make the cast of Friends salivate (especially when you consider that Jordan and his lawyer wife live in a place one quarter the size) and his wardrobe of layers upon layers of sweaters, button-ups, and scarves gets the point across that he’s always warm.

While this role feels more age appropriate than what Efron’s been stretching for lately, it still tries to cast him as a cad…a charming cad to be sure…but a cad even so.  This seems to go against what Efron winds up playing so in the end we don’t understand in the least who this guy really is.  Though the unconventional beauty of Imogen Poots catches his eye, for some reason he can’t resist (probably because the script says he has to) doing things that are incredibly disappointing.  In fact, the film hinges on a decision Efron makes that’s so cruelly unforgivable and out of character that I don’t feel he ever fully recovers by the time the credits roll.

This turning point started to really bother me because up until then the movie could have been written off as well-intentioned but slightly off the mark.  That’s also when everyone else in the picture lost their damn minds and started saying, doing, and feeling things that were out of left field.   I choose not to believe that people are so shallow as to negate the emotions of those they claimed to care for so it became increasingly harder to accept that Gormican’s script could have led them down such a cooly mean-spirited road.  It’s a disservice to the talent onscreen to sell them that short.

Poots and Mackenzie Davis are honestly the real reasons to see the film.  Both come pretty close to walking away with their scenes…mostly because Gormican avoids making them stereotypes and the actresses bring a relatable believability to the screen.  And for all the shenanigans they get into, our lead trio do have a chemistry that’s hard to create, though it’s never clear how they became friends in the first place.

Fine for a rental when the day gets rainy but not necessary to trek though winter weather to see in the theater, That Awkward Moment has its fair share of charm but lacks the depth vital to truly make its moment memorable.

The Silver Bullet ~ That Awkward Moment

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Synopsis: Three best friends find themselves where we’ve all been – at that confusing moment in every dating relationship when you have to decide “So…where is this going?”

Release Date:  January 31, 2014

Thoughts: Though Zac Efron is the biggest name of the three leads of That Awkward Moment, 2013 was pretty good to the other two stars of the film.  Michael B. Jordan may be on his way to end of the year award ceremonies after his strong turn as the doomed central figure in Fruitvale Station and Miles Teller headlined the most honest teen romance film in a decade in The Spectacular Now.  It’s nice to see Efron continue to gravitate to more adult fare (until the crude comedy Neighbors comes out in June) and if the right balance is struck between boorish comedy and keenly observed insight into romance among millennials this might be a nice sleeper surprise.

Movie Review ~ Evil Dead (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of a Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods. The evil presence possesses them until only one is left to fight for survival.

Stars: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead was a great example of doing a lot with very little.  With practical effects that completed the overall homemade “let’s make a movie” vibe, the film is a rough and tumble raucous romp filled with the right amount of comedy and horror.  When this ‘new vision’ of Raimi’s seminal piece was announced, it set the horror hounds on the project until Raimi (Oz The Great and Powerful, Indian Summer) and original star Bruce Campbell gave the production their valued blessing.

After seeing the ooey, gooey, and oh so bloody final product (which drops the “The” to be just Evil Dead) it’s not hard to see why Raimi and Campbell liked the film so much.  Though like the original it’s less concerned about a coherent plot, it delivers what scare junkies crave so much…blood….gallons and gallons and gallons and gallons of it.  I don’t think I’ve yet seen a horror film with quite so much of the red stuff used to such delirious effect. 

Not an outright remake but more of a re-imagining of the story, director Alvarez collaborated on the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues, later bringing in Oscar winner Diablo Cody (Juno) for some revisions.  The set-up is still the same: five friends drive deep into the woods to stay at a ramshackle cabin and meet up with hungry demons over the course of one very gory weekend.  In the 2013 version, it’s not a simple weekend getaway but a detox/intervention for Mia (Levy).  Her estranged brother David (Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Blakemore) are present as are friends Eric (Pucci) and Olivia (Lucas).  See if the first letters of their names spell anything interesting, why dontcha?

With probably ten times (at least) the budget of the original, Alvarez and company have designed a crack production design, complete with dilapidated cabin that has an ominous trapdoor to a very scary basement (it looks an awful lot like The Cabin in the Woods actually).  Wisely choosing to mostly stick with the practical effect model of the original, the special effects crew has their work cut out for them as the cast members are stabbed, shot, beaten, eaten, sliced, and diced over the 90 minute run-time. 

This is so not a film for children or the faint of heart – a member of my group gagged at one point at the shocking level of gore on display and I know that I had several moments twisting around in my seat from sinews being stretched and limbs being hacked.  The make-up design is first rate…as the film progresses and members of the quintet are possessed by evil their eyes glow, their skin cracks, and a lot of other unpleasant things befall their nubile bodies.  One unfortunate takes multiple lickings and keeps on ticking…resulting in some comical happenings the more they turn into swiss cheese.

With a film riding this heavy wave of gore, you need a cast that give themselves fully to the material and Alavarez has put together a group of young Hollwood-ites that squeal happily as they toss themselves through the razored ringer.  Levy is most impressive as the detox-ing Mia who gradually becomes a catalyst for all things demon related while Pucci takes a needle to the eye like a pro.

The barely there plot is really just a ploy to put our actors into harm’s way so try not to get too bogged down in the developments.  True, the acting isn’t bad considering the genre but if Cody was brought in to punch up the script I can only imagine what it was like before she arrived.  Alvarez is a slick filmmaker and he makes great use of lighting, a diverse orchestral score, and a constantly moving camera to keep you on the edge of your seat.  He also includes several subtle nods to the original film – I caught a few but missed some too.

Though the film has about four endings, it’s the final one that should give you every penny of your hard-earned dollar that you plunked down to see it.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers but it culminates with a moment that had the audience I saw it with cheering and applauding louder than I’ve heard in some time. 

If you’re a fan of old-school horror films where the emphasis is less on a deeply developed plot and more on just making you squirm in your seat you’ve found a film to rejoice over because it’s a rollicking ride for those that have the stomach for this kind of movie-going experience.  Make sure to stick around for well-designed end credit sequence and a nice stinger before the lights come up.