Pompeii (2014)

PompeiiReleased: February 21, 2014. Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland. Runtime: 105 min.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson steps onto new territory for him with “Pompeii,” after directing a deadly fast car race (“Death Race”), aliens and predators (“AVP: Alien vs. Predator”) and mutated creatures (three of the “Resident Evil” movies). “Pompeii” has been described as a mix between “Gladiator” and “Titanic.” A good marketing statement considering those are both Best Picture winners; and successful at the box office, “Titanic” being wildly successful. It’s easy why people might think of “Gladiator,” because there are indeed gladiator scenes and it follows a gladiator; its “Titanic” connections are because of the class differences between the two lead love interests, and because this is a disaster film. But you know, this really doesn’t have as much Oscar potential as those two films.

Milo – a.k.a. The Kelt (portrayed by Kit Harington) – is a slave-turned-gladiator who comes to Pompeii to entertain the people with a fight to the death. He finds one thing in Pompeii that he was not anticipating; the love of the Princess of Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning). Cue the love triangle because corrupt Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) has his eyes set on her hand in marriage. Milo soon enough finds himself in a race-against-time to save Cassia, risking his life as Mount Vesuvius erupts, as Pompeii crumbles around him.

The fact that the relationship between Milo and Cassia is described as true love is funny considering the little they actually talk to each other. Because of that, this feels like a Disney fairy tale romance, but not particularly the charming kind. At least the relationship in “Titanic” is believable because they spend a lot of time together (enabled by the film’s runtime), but the couple here probably share twenty minutes of screen time; an hour or two real time. They’re likeable enough, but their chemistry is only okay because of that. Kit Harington is good in his role, as a slave-turned-gladiator who is the last of his villagers – the Horsemen. When he was young, he witnessed his fellow villagers be killed by Romans. Because of that his motivation is revenge, his love for Cassia, and survival. I can see some action movie star potential in him.

Emily Browning is good as Cassia, too; the pretty Australian portraying an independent woman who is put in an awkward position having to choose between an unhappy life, but good one where she’d get all she wants, with Senator Corvus; or choose a happy life with Milo, even if it doesn’t have guaranteed economic greatness. Love still seemed simpler in 79 A.D., at least the falling in love aspect of things. I mean, they hardly know each other; she’s just amazed by his kindness, and Milo sees a beautiful, independent woman. All just have to question the realism of the fictionalized romance.

Kiefer Sutherland sports a weird British accent that’s unidentifiable and inconsistent (mostly when he projects his voice) but he’s pretty good as the villain. Corvus came to Pompeii with plans of investing in the city of Pompeii, and he just happened to run into Cassia after they met in Rome. Coincidence? I think not. Anyway, Jared Harris and Carie-Anne Moss are patriarch and matriarch of royal family of Pompeii. The cast’s a good ensemble. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (TV’s “Lost”, “The Bourne Identity”) portrays Atticus, a fellow gladiator in the town of Pompeii who is one fight away from freedom. Freedom and survival is his drive, and I think he is the most interesting character out of the bunch. It’s funny, that even in non-prison movies – when a new gladiator (Milo, said to be the best) is on the block, he always gets challenged by big brutes. I find it funny.

The characters are fictionalized because the historical accuracies are based on a first-hand-account by Pliny the Younger. He couldn’t know these characters, and the relationship developments are so tailored for the big screen they couldn’t be true. I’m not saying the characters are bad, I’m just saying that if they didn’t have them, the volcano eruption would just be depicted on the Discovery Channel. People are coming to see this because it’s a disaster film with blockbuster visuals, great production design and sets that are built just so they could get destroyed; woo-hoo! It has one of the unwritten rules of disaster films; if the floor is crumbling, a character has to jump over it in a car (a horse in this case) in slow motion. I don’t think W.S. Anderson could resist doing that.

The gladiator scenes are actually exciting, too, sometimes brief – which I’m a fan of because if it’s a lesser villain against a main character, the audience knows who will win – so it’s nice that those fights don’t get dragged on. The editing during those scenes is good, not too quick and during some fights there are far away shots which I like. The disaster aspect of this is exciting (but it isn’t a fun disaster film like “The Day After Tomorrow” because, keep in mind, this is true) and it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the eruption by the end of it all; I learn there was an initial eruption on August 24, 79; and then another the next day that was much more powerful, even though in the film it’s depicted as a powerful one erupting, and then a few others eruptions as they try to escape. For the audience, the disaster aspect is about thirty or forty minutes I’d guess; in real time, this lasted about 25 hours.

Another inaccurate portrayal is that it only portrays Pompeii as the only city that’s affected; Herculaneum and Stabiae were also affected by the eruption, but only Pompeii is mentioned. And heck, I don’t even clearly remember the name of the volcano (Vesuvius) being said. The eruption is foreshadowed by the volcano bubbling, and by horses going crazy when earthquakes occur. In all, thirteen thousand people died from the eruption; and it all happened so fast, most citizens were cemented in place (because of the mix of rain and ash, turning them into statues so to speak) in their position until the site was uncovered in 1595, over 1500 years later! Fascinating, right? Anderson depicts this tragedy with accuracy as far as the disaster goes; using blockbuster visuals, a good score, and the great cast lifts a fairly weak surrounding story to good.

Score70/100

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Hide and Seek (2005)

Hide and SeekHide and Seek

Release Date: January 28, 2005

Director: John Polson

Stars: Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen

Runtime: 101 min

Tagline: Come out come out whatever you are

Plot: As a widower tries to piece together his life in the wake of his wife’s suicide, his daughter finds solace — at first — in her imaginary friend.

Hide and Seek is too mediocre to star Robert De Niro, but he and Dakota Fanning make it tolerable. One doesn’t really know if it’s a ghost story or just an eerie stalker story, all we know it’s psychological and it tries very hard to be creepy. The flashback dream sequence that De Niro has often is strange, and the party has a cool production like Titanic and even The Shining. This tries hard to please its audience, so much so it has four alternate endings on its DVD. If you don’t like the original ending, you’ll probably like at least one of the four other ones…

The movie is slightly bland and forgettable and sort of just moves along at a slow pace, and the town-folk are rather strange. Elisabeth Shue’s character doesn’t do much for the story, except make the mysterious imaginary friend called “Charlie” angry, making the little Emily angry, in turn. The movie does get saved by a memorable third act, but everything preceding it, is dark, often creepy, but overall boring. The ending is a good surprise, and the movie keeps you guessing.

There are a few okay scares, especially when lights flash on and off. The performances are just adequate, but the talented actors aren’t utilized well. The thing is, the characters are bland and sort-of uninteresting. They’re so lifeless that they couldn’t even care for a cat they might or might not own. The storytelling doesn’t bother to tell us if the cat is a family pet, if it’s a stray, or if it comes with the house. (I’d rather a pool if anything comes with my new house. I’m allergic to cats.) The cinematography is cool and it’s shot in an interesting fashion. The movie isn’t great and overall, it isn’t memorable; but it is eerie enough to (probably) put me on-edge if I ever play hide-n-go-seek again.

52/100

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

Release Date: March 29, 2013

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

Runtime: 140 min

When one thinks of an epic, they might think Titanic, Braveheart or maybe Avatar. Even though this doesn’t have huge sinking boats, large wars or stunning visual effects; this truly deserves to be called an epic.

Derek Cianfrance (of Blue Valentine fame) brings us an small-town epic called The Place Beyond the Pines; a thought-provoking and realistic tale of generational feuds, fathers and sons, and corruption. It’s set in the small town of Schenectady, New York, that follows two families over a period of fifteen years. It’s essentially a trilogy of tales, going from chapter to chapter.

Glanton is a stunt motorcycle rider who, after finding out he has a son named Jason, begins to rob banks as a way to provide for his son and his lover, Romina (Eva Mendes). He does with the assistance of his employer, an auto repair shop owner Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), and his superior motorcycle riding skills. His motivation for this is easy to understand as he wants to provide his son and he sees this as the best way fit. He’s a guy who has his priorities in order, even if it implies reckless behaviour and breaking the law time and time again.

Cross’s motivations are harder to comprehend. He’s an ambitious young cop who wants to make his way up in the police force in as little time as possible, as he’s following in his father’s footsteps. The corruption of the police force itself poses enticing decisions for the young rookie.

The strong third act is difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but there are a few things that can be said. It’s admirably carried by young, up and coming stars Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. Cohen plays a character that is an irritating kind-of Eminem-esque wannabe  but he is portrayed adequately and his character is essential to the film.

The third tale explores the idea of legacies and how one split-second decision can send incidental shockwaves through generations. It also explores fatherly influences in a beautiful way; which is a theme that is also highlighted with Glanton and Cross, where Cross has a father figure, and Glanton is the opposite. Corruption and personal gain is best explored in the middle act involving Bradley Cooper’s haunted character. Finally, the bond between fathers and sons and the lengths they’d go to in order to protect their young is very well explored. One of the most prominent themes is, though, is there are (usually) consequences for your actions, admirably said in the movie’s most memorable quote, “If you ride like lightning; you’re gonna crash like thunder.”

The epic crime drama shifts focus a lot, and since it is a trilogy of intertwining stories, it really feels like it could end at any point. In this way, it might work better as a book – but the narrative feels fresh. It’s still one of the lengthy film’s main faults, that the film feels like it’s just coming around the bend to its climax. Thankfully, the ambiguous and hopeful ending at the place beyond the pines is more than pleasing. Some of the characters’ motivations can be also hard to comprehend, but despite the movie’s faults, it’s engaging and it packs a mighty, emotional one-two punch.

The large and talented cast carries the movie extremely well. Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Rose Byrne, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan (Am I the only one who thinks he’ll, at least, be an Oscar nominee someday?), Bruce Greenwood and Emory Cohen are among the cast, and they help carry the film and they make one heck of an ensemble. The tatted-up Gosling is by far the best of them all. The movie’s at its most booming and usually the most intense when he’s on-screen. He is most deserving of an Oscar nomination, and his powerful performance will remain one of the year’s most memorable. His character is as great and as mysterious as The Driver in Drive, and his performance is as good, if not better; he better not be overlooked by the Academy this time around. Even when he isn’t on-screen, his impact and legacy is felt. Other than Cooper and Gosling, DeHaan and Mendelsohn are the most notable. The score is also very memorable; with Mike Patton’s “The Snow Angel” playing in the background of some of the movie’s strongest and most emotionally sweeping scenes. Who woulda thunk one tune could be so haunting, but filled with such poignancy?

Gosling’s tale is by the far the strongest act of the three, Cooper’s sandwiched between in terms of quality, and DeHaan’s is the weakest, but saved by a fantastic ending. With an epic and beautiful drama like this, “weak” is used lightly – because it is by no means a bad act. They all just happen to pale in comparison to the act where Glanton is the focus. The intense crime drama is riddled with great performances, impressive writing, amazing emotional moments; and no matter how much the film may shift focus from story to story, all in a very lengthy flick, it all intertwines admirably in the end and Cianfrance never loses sight of his stunning and beautiful vision.

88/100

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi

Release Date: November 21, 2012

Director: Ang Lee

Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Runtime: 127 min

If 1997’s Titanic won eleven Oscars, this should get twelve.

Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, this is an incredible story of adventure and discovery, centering on Pi Patel, the curious son of a zoo keeper. He and his family hail from Pondicherry, India, but they want to move to Canada to seek a better life. They hitch a ride on a large cargo ship that is destined to sink. After a shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift on a 26-foot lifeboat accompanied by an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a fearsome Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker.

The film starts out with a beautiful opening sequence with multiple animals running all over the screen, as if they are running off of Noah’s Ark. Then from there, it gets right into the story.

An older Pi tells his life story to a writer through flashbacks and reflection. Since an older Pi is telling the story, there’s no question of whether or not he survives or not. The story is not about that question, it is about how he survives. Irfan Khan (that one Indian guy from Slumdog Millionaire and The Amazing Spider-Man) portrays the older Pi, while the younger Pi is portrayed magnificently by acting newcomer Suraj Sharma. Like Dev Patel’s film debut in Slumdog Millionaire, this is a great and promising start to a career. We, the audience, have the pleasure to watch a star being born. The only other really known actor (to the Western World, at least) is Rafe Spall (Anonymous, Prometheus, Hot Fuzz), who portrays the writer who may just sell Pi’s life story.

Pi’s story is a very interesting one. We see him grow up as a very curious boy that gets mocked at school because of his name (he gets called Pissing for a short period of time because his real name is Piscine). He is also a young boy of self-discovery who is interested in Hinduism, Catholicism and Muslim beliefs. He doesn’t know who he is quite yet, a feeling all of us experience when we are young. When Pi and his animal friends set adrift to the center of the Pacific Ocean because of the unfortunate shipwreck, the majority of the animals don’t last very long. They say their hello’s, and then soon enough the quick good bye’s come around and Pi and Richard Parker are the two remaining beings. They start off as sort of how an only child might feel if an adopted child is brought home, they both are skeptical of each other, and because of that they must keep their distance. Over time, the bond grows, and Pi and Parker become beings that must rely on each other. This transition is quite beautiful. Who said a man’s best friend can only be a dog?

The measure of faith that Pi possesses is inspirational, and brings some great themes of religion and hope to the feature. The CGI effects are great and the visuals are magnificent. The hailing of this being the next Avatar is quite accurate (in regards to the visual beauty, only). The story is about as great as Slumdog Millionaire, and the shipwreck sequence is both thrilling and terrifying, comparable to both White Squall and Titanic.

This film is not fit for the faint of heart. The shipwreck sequence is exciting and terrifying and very intense. There are also many sequences involving the tiger and other aspects. The viewer knows that the tiger is in the lifeboat, but we do not know where exactly he is, or when he will jump out and roar. This really brings on the conflict of man vs. carnivore. Other conflicts are: man vs. nature, and man vs. self (oh, and man vs. CGI; ha, ha). Both Pi and Richard must fight against waves and crazy storms. Pi struggles with his own faith and wicked hunger.

Life of Pi is a near-perfect film that gets its pacing thrown off at the ending. The ending raises questions of all the events that have preceeded it, and it adds a great sense of ambiguity. Nonetheless, it is very thought-provoking.

Life of Pi is a visually beautiful film, it’s surprisingly funny, it has a great story, great direction, wonderful cinematography, great conflicts and relationships, and it has many aspects of it that can be magnificent, terrifying, thought-provoking and saddening. The actors bring it all to the table, and short list of performers carry the film very well. This is one of the best films of the year that will be a large Oscar contender. If you’re going to see this, see it in its full 3D glory.

90/100