A new way of looking at Carbonite

pompeii-movie-still-13There’s not much reason to write about Pompeii.  It’s a formula action movie, and its plot is a facsimile of Gladiator (which is itself derivative enough).  Its dialogue is laconic, unoriginal, and plot-driven, and the cast is an ensemble of stock characters.  But I’m interested in Mount Vesuvius, particularly the eruption that wiped out an entire population of people who had no idea what was happening, and whom we know almost nothing about.  I’m interested in the imagining of who those people could have been, an impetus for filmmaking that seems extremely genuine on director Paul W.S. Anderson’s part.

Milo (Kit Harington), also known as “the Celt,” is the sole survivor of a tribe of horsemen needlessly slaughtered by those damned Romans, led by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland).  Milo is now everyone’s favorite gladiator, which means that the politicians hate him.  He shares the main narrative with Cassia (Emily Browning), Pompeii’s equivalent of a princess, who is a bit more vocal about her contempt for Rome than her reticent parents (played by Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) are.  Corvus comes to Pompeii under the pretense of helping improve the conditions of the city, when he really wants to marry Cassia, even threatening to have her parents killed for treason when she refuses.  What must happen from here?  Cassia and Milo must become drawn to one another.  Corvus must antagonize Milo, but not recognize him until a pivotal moment.  Milo must cause a scene in the Amphitheater that gets everyone talking, and then lead the remaining gladiators (which includes champion Atticus, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to freedom.  The slave must defeat the corrupt politician, and the forbidden love must be allowed to bloom.  You know the formula.  Hopefully you’re tired of it, and not as hopelessly addicted to it as are so many seekers of casual entertainment, who can barely stomach the thought of real characterization (read: they don’t know what it is).

But the most interesting character is Mount Vesuvius itself, a plot device that not all other action period pieces have.  It’s fascinating to see the reactions of Pompeii’s citizens, most of whom think their Gods are punishing them for violating one silly tenet or another.  This is where the film’s characters are really defined: how they behave when an active volcano is about to devour their entire world.  Cassia, Atticus, and Milo want to evacuate as many people as possible; Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), Cassia’s servant and friend, wants to stay by Cassia’s side instead of saving herself (which yields results you can guess at); Graecus the slaveowner (Joe Pingue) wants to get out of town without a second thought for anyone else; and best of all, Corvus, along with his right-hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz), is just petty enough to stay in a doomed, collapsing city to settle a score with Milo, even though no one’s ever going to know about it.

I can’t help but like Kit Harington, with all of his pouty brooding.  What unfortunate situations his characters find themselves in.  What loss they experience.  Emily Browning is another find.  There’s a lead actress there, and one who’s able to play tender drama and badass heroism together.  I want these two to win, even when the film’s poster essentially shows them about to die.  On the other hand, Carrie-Anne Moss, once a leading action hero herself, hard-bodied and kicking butt and doing it with Matrix-era Keanu Reeves in an elevator, is relegated to the role of the ill-fated mother (her voice role as Aria T’Loak in the Mass Effect games is a revelation; why are filmmakers forgetting that she was Trinity?).  Akinnuoye-Agbaje still plays the aloof tough guy with a code, and does considerable justice to whom his character may have been.  Sutherland phones it in, and as monstrous as his character is supposed to be, he’s nothing compared to Eva Green’s deliciously evil warrior-woman in the otherwise mediocre 300 sequel earlier this year (a film whose anachronisms and embellishments make Pompeii look like a documentary).

The film is worthwhile if you know a little bit of the history.  Anderson’s stimulus is an image of two real-life people, discovered in the excavation of Pompeii, who were entombed in the mountain’s pyroclastic flows, creating casts of their exact body shapes when they died.  The casts were later filled with plaster to create the now-famous molds of people in their final poses.  It’s romantic to think that these two may have been heroic lovers and not simply citizens holding each other in shared terror, but these people (along with another cast of a man believed to be from North Africa) inform the film’s characters, and how fantastic it is to think that these people can be immortalized this way.  Even if we’re just making up stuff about them and using their made-up story to satisfy adolescent boys on a weekend, maybe more people will become interested in the historical narrative.

Pompeii (2014); written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Jessica Lucas, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.




Killer Elite


I have to admit something: Killer Elite looked like a very bad idea when I first saw the posters.  “A shameless Jason Statham vehicle,” I thought.  However, after seeing Yvonne Strahovski’s name in the top four billing slots, as well as reading that the film was inspired by Ranulph Fiennes’ controversial book, The Feather Men, a story he claimed was a nonfictional account of his rescue by the Special Forces from a group of assassins, my interest was piqued.

My initial instinct was half right, though I must admit, the film exceeded my expectations.  It is only marginally based upon Fiennes’ book; the story and characters are pure invention.  It’s a bit smarter than most action fare, though, lacking a maniacal arch-villain and the usual quota of explosions.  Statham plays the central character, Danny Bryce, an ex-mercenary blackmailed into one last job: assassinate a group of ex-SAS members.  The job is given by a Dubai Sheikh whose sons were murdered by the ex-SAS members during the Oman war.  If Danny doesn’t do the job, then his best friend, Hunter (Robert de Niro) will be executed.

Yvonne Strahovski does what she can with her role, which I’d originally thought might be that of an assassin, but alas, she appears as Anne, Danny’s Australian girlfriend, who sits at home and worries.  Her involvement increases when she is targeted by one of Danny’s greedy contacts, known as the Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but this section of the story still only involves her being moved from place to place and worrying more.  She gets one very good scene with Robert de Niro, however, and I think we should acknowledge how significant this is.

Danny’s team, Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young) work as a dysfunctional machine, and the assassination scenes become much more interesting when we’re introduced to the rule that the killings must look like accidents.  Eventually, Spike Logan (Clive Owen, in a role that rhymes with his name), a member of the Feather Men, becomes aware that his friends are being killed, and decides to hunt the assassins who are assassinating assassins.  I could have fit another occurrence of “assassin” in that sentence, but the plot is cluttered and disjointed enough.  Despite this, the tension never wanes, even when the filmmakers attempt to increase the suspense with cheap, horror-movie-style music catches.  We even get a new, sort-of funny acronym, which could only exist in the British lexicon.

The best part of the film’s major conflict, sausage-fest as it is, is the fact that neither side is inherently bad.  Danny and his team do the job in order to save an innocent man (the ones who are in it for the money don’t live very long), and Logan, similarly, is trying to keep his friends from being systematically murdered.  All parties receive a relatively fair, if hopelessly safe and cozy, ending.  Luckily, Statham isn’t given the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue, and while he carries the most responsibility, de Niro is given plenty to say, and Strahovski’s importance is stressed by the narrative, though her scenes can’t help but seem thrown in.

Also of interest is a cameo appearance by an actor playing Fiennes himself after the book is published in the film’s fiction.  As the film’s story is inspired by the book, the scene in which the book is revealed is a very good “gotcha” moment which simultaneously gives off the tang of anachronism, and while I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a time loop, it was better than being beaten over the head with absurd stunts, relentless Bull-shitsu, and fake-looking CG.  If you have to choose an action movie this month, choose Killer Elite over anything that takes place on an animated planet.  Your brain will thank you.

Killer Elite (2011); written by Matt Sherring (based upon Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men); directed by Gary McKendry; starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert de Niro and Yvonne Strahovski. 

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