Movie Review ~ Pompeii

pompeii
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.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Shabana Azmi

Director: Mira Nair

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Every now and then a smaller movie rolls around that you feel like you should get a gold star for choosing to see over a more mainstream feature.  There’s a certain sense of back-patting that goes on for plunking down your cash to see something more intelligent and timely than the latest 3D action adventure film playing on nineteen screens.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one such movie, a film that feels very prescient in our world that is still reeling in a post 9/11 culture…but it’s also a movie that you exit feeling you should get at least two gold stars for sitting through.

Now let me say that I had high hopes for this one going in, though I’m weary of these types of international relations dramas I’m a fan of director Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) and of many of the people involved with bringing this adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel to the screen.  The end result of this collaboration, however, is a densely worded rehash of a plot that feels overly familiar and a little late to the party.

Not that Nair hasn’t delivered a decently oiled product for audience consumption because much of the film is rich with her trademark stylistic use of color and controlled narrative.  Told in flashback between 2001 and 2011, the movie lives and dies with its lead performance and star Ahmed ably handles the role of a conflicted man torn between his ideal life in the US and possibly more important obligations at home.  Ahmed is onscreen for nearly every frame and he fills up the space nicely.

As he moves from college campus to the offices of a Wall Street corporation, he develops a relationship with a troubled photographer and that’s where the film takes the first of its missteps.  I generally like Hudson and though she has a dynamite scene late in the film, for most of her short time on screen she seems lost in the role and abandoned by her director.  I don’t think Hudson is necessarily wrong in the role but she looks so washed out and idle that it’s hard to pinpoint what our lead character sees in her.

Schreiber’s character feels constructed to give Ahmed’s fundamentalist an outlet to spill his life story to and though we gradually see that there’s some complexity to the person Schreiber is portraying, the film never makes a case for why the two dialogue for so long with increasing unrest/danger outside their door.  The best performance in the whole film is Sutherland as Ahmed’s superior, a bulldog of a businessman so tightly wound you can practically hear the gears grinding against each other when he walks.  It’s through Sutherland’s scenes that the film has the biggest impact but sadly he’s not on screen as much as the audience wants him to be.

This is a talky film that requires a lot of your attention – and maybe it asked more of me than I was willing to give in the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  It’s not a film I’d choose to see again and not one I could recommend to anyone that doesn’t have more than a passing interest in political films of this nature.  It could use a slick trim of excess scenes (mostly Hudson’s) and a more focused approach to some final act business that feels unresolved.  Reluctantly, I say this was a disappointment.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Release Date:  April 26, 2013

Thoughts:   Director Mira Nair has given us some of the most visually sumptuous films in the last several decades; I loved the popular Monsoon Wedding and still wish that The Namesake had received more notice when it was released.  Now comes The Reluctant Fundamentalist and its shows the director moving away from themes that involve family relations and on to more political overtones.  Nair has assembled a surprising and diverse cast, couple that with an intriguing plot and you have a movie I won’t be fundamentally reluctant to see.

Down From the Shelf ~ Flatliners

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Medical students bring themselves near death; their experiment begins to go awry

Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, William Baldwin

Director: Joel Schumacher

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There are some movies that bring up a lot of memories when you hear the title and for me just hearing the name Flatliners takes me back to the summer of 1990 when I anxiously awaited the August release of this thriller.  I recall the movie was released when my family was at our cabin and I wouldn’t be able to see it until we returned to the cities but it wasn’t long until my dad took me (hey, I was still underage for an R-rated movie!) to Yorktown 3 for a weeknight showing.

Flatliners has always been a guilty pleasure film for me with its over-the-top concept, stylish direction by Schumacher, and enjoyable performances by a cast that have all gone on to bigger and better things (well, maybe Baldwin excluded).  Revisiting the film again recently, I found that it still packed a nice little punch even if my adult eyes saw many of the cracks that previously went over my head.

Schumacher was a hot director at the time and was still riding the successful high of The Lost Boys three years earlier.  His remake of a French romance (Cousins) was well-received yet Schumacher would change course again to deliver what may seem like a horror film but is really more of a drama-thriller.  Re-teaming with one of his Lost Boys (Sutherland) and nabbing shooting star Roberts (who filmed this before Pretty Woman was released in March of 1990) was a bit of a coup and both actors, along with Bacon, Platt, and Baldwin formed a nice quintet of players as medical students pushing the line between life and death.

Sutherland has always been an interesting actor (much like his father, Donald) and he turns what could have been a one note hero/anti-hero role into a guy with some depth though it’s masked by a false bravado.  Film history has established that doctors have a God-complex and that notion is played up as the medical students each take turns ‘flatlining’ in an after-hours illegal pseudo-study group.  It’s when they are brought back that, unbeknownst to them, they bring something else back with them.

Essentially, the same scenario is replayed over and over again as each of our leads has a different experience in the thin line between heaven and earth.  All of the post-revival happenings are menacing in one way or another but none are of the serial killer variety…though the film’s preview tries to trick you into thinking they are.  Sutherland begins to be terrorized by a boy from his youth, Roberts sees her dead father, and Baldwin’s seedy past comes back to haunt him.  The secret to Bacon’s struggle seems to parallel what Sutherland is going through but a surprisingly emotional twist brings the film its best scene between Bacon and someone from his past. 

This could have been made by any number of directors with any combination of actors but the group that has been assembled strongly delivers a thriller even with its definite B-movie origins.  Elevating it slightly is James Newton Howard’s alarming score and Jan de Bont’s excellent visuals.  The film was shot around Loyola University in Chicago and Schumacher mines the campus and its gothic design for all it’s worth.

Flatliners does fall, um, flat in the middle section but I’ve always responded well to the movie in my numerous viewings of it throughout the years.  Yes, the basic plot stretches the bounds of any logical credibility and in hindsight much of it doesn’t line up but I’m willing to forgive a lot from a film that has its eyes and ears in the right place.  From a visual standpoint alone the film is recommended, and if you’re looking for a slick thriller from the 90’s that isn’t too horribly dated, you can’t miss with this one.