Archive for February 2014

Pompeii

February 23, 2014

Pompeii-Movie-2014-Kit-HaringtonFor a minute, I thought Pompeii was going to do something narratively exciting. We can’t have a 105-minute movie solely devoted to Pompeii being annihilated, so we get a few feeble plot threads we’re supposed to pretend to care about while waiting for Vesuvius to do its thing. We’ve got Milo (Kit Harington), the hero, a soulful Celtic slave turned gladiator, whose gentle way with horses catches the attention of young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning). Milo is pissed because when he was a boy, stinky Roman soldier Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) killed his whole family. Wouldn’t you know, though, that Milo is brought to the city of Pompeii as a gladiator around the same time that Corvus, now a senator, shows up there looking to invest in rebuilding the city and take Cassia as his wife?

What would’ve made Pompeii fantastic would be to sink forty minutes or so in all this plot and then have disaster strike, wiping out both the city and the narrative. Milo, Cassia, Corvus: none of that matters now, everyone’s going to die, the Romans along with the “savages,” the innocent next to the corrupt. But Pompeii insists on riding its threadbare story to the bitter ashy end. Everything is resolved tidily. Pompeii crumbles, drowns and burns — the gods throw every last element at the city — but a few characters skitter around in the wreckage to tie up loose ends. I’ve said it for a while now: if there’s one genre that doesn’t need neat three-act structure and character development, it’s the disaster movie. We don’t go to a fireworks show to be involved in the plight of a young fireworks technician who must win the hand of a comely young pyromaniac. We just go to see the lights and feel the thunder in our bellies.

Pompeii leads up to perhaps the biggest fireworks show in recorded history, but its impact is muted by the dull foreground figures. I suspect a better movie could have been made from the 2003 novel of the same name by Robert Harris, who wrote a script for Roman Polanski to direct; the Actors’ Strike in 2007 killed the project (Polanski and Harris turned to The Ghost Writer instead). To be fair, though, few would wish a megabudget disaster flick on a master of intimate menace like Polanski in his dotage. One requires a director with a more enthusiastic chessboard-scattering hand, like Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow).

Paul W.S. Anderson got the job instead, and his resumé — including a batch of Resident Evil films and assorted other works in the realm of sci-fi or horror or both — reveals more ease with post-apocalypse than with ongoing apocalypse. Anderson knocks out a few reverberant images early — for instance, dead Celtic warriors hanging from a tree — but doesn’t find much in the repetitive shenanigans of Vulcan to sustain his energy. The festivities begin as tremors that everyone either ignores or comments on with a frown (“Is that normal?” asks Milo after a particularly demonstrative rumble). After a while, as fireballs rain down on Pompeii, the wrath of the gods is just something from which heroes and villains alike must flee. To the harbor! No, wait, the harbor’s rubbish now. To the hills! Oh, hell, we’re all buggered — let’s fight, or kiss, or do something that the audience deems a worthy stance in the face of lava!

Kiefer Sutherland milks a few suavely evil moments out of his rotten senator, accompanied by right-hand man Proculus, played by Sasha Roiz of NBC’s guilty-pleasure series Grimm. This started me thinking that a better actor for steadfast Milo than the inert Kit Harington would’ve been Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays Grimm’s fan-favorite character Monroe; lost in that reverie, I let about five expensive minutes of the movie slip away from me. (Pompeii is another $100 million baby, which in this era of the $200 million blockbuster practically makes the second Terminator film look like the first Terminator film; remember when Terminator 2’s $102 million price tag was considered scandalous?) Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss dither around as the benevolent but weak ruler of Pompeii and his wife; they’re supposed to reassure the audience that not all rich people back then deserved to turn into ashtrays. Pompeii may or may not have an Occupy Rome message rattling around in it; the nobles who come to see the slaves kill each other are vaporized, all right, but so are the common folk for whom Rome intends gladiatorial combat as panem et circenses to distract them from gross inequity. In the end, the gods wipe the slate clean regardless of who was nice to horses or nasty to women and children. I suppose Pompeii can lay claim to being possibly the year’s only movie to kick off with a quote from Pliny the Younger, though we should cautiously note that Transformers 4 hasn’t come out yet.

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The Wind Rises

February 17, 2014

the-wind-rises-image02The Wind Rises, which may or may not be the swan song of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, begins with a dream of flight. It’s early in the 20th century, and young Jiro Horikoshi wants to fly airplanes. His poor eyesight blocks him from being a pilot, so he settles for designing planes. Throughout the movie, Jiro confers with legendary aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni in their “shared dreams” of conquering the skies. The Wind Rises may be the most “realistic” feature Miyazaki has ever made — it lacks Miyazaki’s standard nature spirits and fanciful animals — but it’s still a humble tribute to imagination and creativity, and it unfolds in a gentle universe formed by nature and deformed by humans.

Jiro Horikoshi was an actual engineer; he designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which caused the Allies (and Pearl Harbor) so much grief in World War II. But this is not meant to be taken as a too-literal biography. Miyazaki mashes up Jiro’s life with Tatsuo Hori’s short story “The Wind Has Risen,” about a woman with tuberculosis (a disease Hori suffered with). Thus, Jiro is given a wife, Naoko, who has tuberculosis. To Miyazaki, I think, Naoko represents the innocence that would soon die in the inferno of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Japan,” says a German ex-pat to Jiro, “will blow up.” Miyazaki may be saying that if we don’t blame Oppenheimer and his brothers in the Manhattan Project for the A-bomb and how the military used it, so we shouldn’t blame Jiro for the Zero and how the military used it. In part, The Wind Rises is a tragedy about dreams bent to the will of mass murder.

Miyazaki may not have as much fantasy imagery to conjure with this time — that’s pretty much limited to Jiro’s dreamscapes — but The Wind Rises is still world-class animation, with obsessive attention lavished on the smallest, subtlest things: the flush rivets in an airplane hull; a bowl of watercress salad; moths flitting about a streetlight overlooking Jiro and Naoko. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is realized with an almost spiritual horror, accompanied by vocal effects that sound like the groaning of an angry Gaia. Miyazaki doesn’t show us the casualties, just the wreckage of houses built by men who presumed to claim a patch of Earth as their own. It’s a warning to Jiro — who is on his way to university by train when the quake hits — that human minds, however advanced and well-educated, cannot master nature and her whims.

Far from being an apologia for a man who enabled death, The Wind Rises is the story of an artist/scientist who only wanted to make beautiful airplanes, but happened to be born in a time and country that hammered every effort and ambition on the anvil of war. At one point Jiro quips that the planes would be lighter if the weapons were left out. His spiritual mentor Caproni says that planes shouldn’t be built for war or money, and Miyazaki seems to endorse this. We spend most of our time with Jiro and fellow engineers, some of whom, like his grouchy boss Kurokawa, sternly keep the engineers on the track to military accomplishment, but most likely because that’s what the culture of Japan at that time demanded. Kurokawa also presides tearfully over the quick wedding of Jiro and Naoko, so he hasn’t been completely lost to the machinery of war.

Naoko is no Princess Mononoke, defiantly spitting blood and doing battle on behalf of nature; she’s a blank signifier of Japanese suffering. That’s about the only bummer here. Miyazaki is more concerned here with the conflict of feminine and masculine in one WWII-era male, the conflict between beauty and destruction. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” The Wind Rises says that when art is made useful — mostly for the purposes of war — the earth trembles; some law of nature has been shattered. (Many guns, too, are masterpieces of design. Not to mention swords.) Miyazaki, not yet a year old when some of Jiro’s artwork strafed Pearl Harbor, has made a tragic epic about what happens when the spirit of creativity is put to corrupt usefulness.

Vampire Academy

February 9, 2014

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The team of brothers Mark and Daniel Waters on a teen vampire movie sounded more than fine to me. Mark directed 2004’s Mean Girls, still Lindsay Lohan’s brightest day in the sun, while Daniel dipped his quill pen in acid and wrote 1989’s cult favorite Heathers. So the idea of these two working on a project set in a vampire boarding school — with the attendant bitchery and snark among vampire girls — writes a big check Vampire Academy can’t cash. It’s amusing enough, and will pass the time for you painlessly on Netflix in a few months, but the damn thing — following Richelle Mead’s YA series of novels — is just too plot-heavy.

We’ve barely sat down before the film heaves a massive infodump into our laps — the relationships of royal vampires (the Moroi) to the human guardians (the Dhampir) who protect the Moroi from evil vampires (the Strigoi). With all this mythology and terminology, the Waterses scarcely have room to breathe their own sarcastic life into the proceedings. Vampire Academy comes across as a comedy some of the time, with the witty Dhampir Rose (Ellen Page lookalike Zoey Deutch) maintaining a running commentary and amusing her Moroi BFF Lissa (Lucy Fry). The short, dark-haired, sardonic girl tossing fond verbal darts at her tall blonde friend who comes from a richer bloodline — this is almost a supernatural 2 Broke Girls. (They even have a heavily-accented, heavily-lipsticked foil in the person of headmistress Olga Kurylenko, whose character will inspire a few drag queens, Halloween costumes, and fetishistic attention among viewers not in the movie’s target demographic.)

I really couldn’t succinctly outline the story for you if you held a silver stake to my heart. The gist of it is that someone is plotting against Lissa, and the vicious Strigoi are involved (never mind the politics of pitting shabby-looking, 99-percenter vampires against gilded vamp royalty and expecting us to root for the latter), and also the Moroi have magical powers over the elements and Lissa is able to bring mortally injured beings back from the brink of death. The only hitch in our presumed identification with Lissa and her ilk is that they must drink human blood. But don’t worry: they get it from human volunteers who’ve read the Twilight books too many times. (In the movie’s reality, Twilight exists and is goofed on.) There’s some satirical flavor in the idea of vamp-smitten fangirls/fanboys willingly submitting to periodic nibbling.

But again, it’s too much info too fast. It’s too bad Vampire Academy bombed and won’t get a sequel, because the sequel — with all the world-building and glossary out of the way — would give the brothers Waters enough space to sit with Rose and Lissa and their classmates and get some comic rhythms going. (As it is, if you want the full spectrum of vamp pathos and snark, you’ll have to tune in to The Vampire Diaries, which has usually found the right balance between character moments and overarching narrative.) There’s a fine moment at an Equinox Dance when Rose, Lissa, and their dorky vamp friend Natalie (Sarah Hyland) stride into the hall in their fabulous new dresses, past a gaggle of teen-girl vamps who bare their fangs and hiss. There’s also a Heatherish vamp, the pixie-haircut Mia (Sami Gayle), who might be in on the plot against Lissa; but Mia sort of gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s always fairly sad when a movie that hopes to kick-start a franchise, but whose pallid box-office receipts guarantee zero sequels, ends on a semi-cliffhanger note that screams “Come back for the next film to see how this develops!” I assume there are going to be — or would have been, anyway — more challenges to the royal privilege of Princess Lissa, and her scrappy human friend would have had to help. Truly, other than the regal presence of Joely Richardson as the queen of the vamps, I would’ve been happy enough to drop the whole royalty aspect. It’s too transparently a ploy to hook teenage girls by combining vampires, Hogwarts, and princesses, three things that teenage girls presumably adore. The actors are game for wittier, sharper stuff, as are the filmmakers, but they’re all hamstrung by the demands of YA fiction — or at least this YA fiction.

Labor Day

February 2, 2014

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Remember when Kate Winslet was the best reason to see a movie — when her presence promised fun, spirit, irrepressible emotion? Winslet is not, I hasten to add, suddenly a bad actress; she’s just gone afield, choosing counterintuitive roles. I don’t want to see her suffer; I want to see her laugh and be dazzling. In recent years it’s almost as if Winslet were doing penance for her earlier work, appearing in one dreary Oscar-chaser after another, and Labor Day is the dreariest yet. Winslet plays Adele, a depressed divorcée who barely leaves the house. Her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks out for her, pushing the car’s shifter out of neutral when Adele means to go in reverse. That’s a rather neat metaphor for their relationship: he helps her from being stuck but enables her living in the past. Winslet commits herself to this sorrowful woman, whose agonies, we learn, go beyond mere divorce. (It must be said, though, that Adele maintains a house and raises a child despite no visible job, and later she withdraws what looks like thousands of dollars from her bank account; she must’ve gotten a really sweet deal from her ex-husband.)

All this is just set-up for the real story: an escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Henry at the supermarket while Adele is busy fretting over which brand of light bulb to buy. Frank’s leg is wounded, and he needs somewhere to stay for a few hours. Dazed with fear — though Frank is courteous and not openly threatening — Adele agrees, and Frank ends up spending Labor Day weekend with the two. If you’re going to give up your couch to a convicted murderer, of course, you could do worse than Frank. His demeanor is calm and soothing. He fixes things around the house. He teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball. He shows Adele how to make peach pie. He’s the perfect man, perhaps too perfect. He’s essentially a feminine fantasy of a good bad boy (Joyce Maynard wrote the source novel, adapted by Jason Reitman).

The movie doesn’t lapse into manufactured drama, but it forgets to include any real drama, either. Everyone’s emotions seem repressed. Nobody is ever overcome with passion, or joy, or relief, or anything. The characters maintain a dull even keel. The only strong moment in the entire film is when Adele’s neighbor (Brooke Smith), picking up her disabled little boy after having left him in Adele’s care for the evening, gets exasperated at the boy’s struggling vocalizations and slaps him. The boy, of course, is trying to tell his mother that he just saw Frank — the same man who’s been kind to him all day — on TV, which constantly blares warnings of the dangerous criminal on the loose.

Labor Day might be read as a boy’s coming-of-age story (it’s narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry), a tale about that time his mom met a guy who was a better dad than his real dad. The politics of the piece are null — it could be saying that what this fearful, saddened woman really needs is a real man, and what the flat-affect son needs is a real man as his dad. When we learn the nature of Frank’s crime, it’s set up so that he’s essentially blameless, even though it grew out of his losing his temper. Director Reitman feeds us the past traumas of Frank and Adele in elliptical little flashbacks. They’re two broken people reaching for each other, and that sort of thing.

And so we return to the mystery of Kate Winslet, and why she wants to do a movie in which she sits tenderly holding a dead baby. Life has beaten the shit out of Adele, but I prefer Winslet when she’s beating the shit out of life, and has no need of a man to set her straight on the carpe diem path. It’s twenty years now since she took cinema by storm in Heavenly Creatures, in which she swooned as she announced, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases — it’s all frightfully romantic!” The Winslet who delivered that line so wonderfully would’ve spat in this morose film’s eye, and its dishrag heroine’s, too. Labor Day doesn’t risk any melodramatic excesses; it sort of sits in a blank, defeated slump. We don’t feel the depth of despair or the spike of joy; it’s a flatline movie. It leaves us with nothing except the aftertaste of our popcorn.