Pompeii

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.

 

 

 

Lincoln

Time passed, as happens

LincolnI’ve never cared much for political biopics, glorification of History’s Great White Guys, or the films of Steven Spielberg, but perhaps that’s why Lincoln did something for me – its subversion of all three forms.  Yes, it’s a film specifically designed to win Academy Awards, but the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln dilutes the Hollywood Design to the point that the film becomes less like a film and more like sitting in various rooms with the President during the last few months of his presidency.

The film’s title may be a bit of a misnomer, but its chief intention (Oscars for Spielberg) requires it to be the “definitive” Lincoln film, especially since two other Lincoln-themed movies (Redford’s The Conspirator and the campy Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) have been released in the past two years.  You may expect a story so definitively named to cover the title character’s entire life, or at least his up-and-coming years when he was wrestling for the presidency, but no; here, we see Lincoln in his final months of life, struggling to pass the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) whilst being driven to the edge by his home life.  Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) supports her husband’s politics, despite their marital problems, which include the death of their middle son and the fact that Lincoln once threatened to have her put in the “madhouse.”  Additionally, Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to join the army, which Mary staunchly opposes and which Lincoln, regardless of his status as Commander-in-Chief, cannot do a damn thing about.

The timeworn trials of the Lincoln family take a backseat to the political action and sometimes feel wedged between the complex narrative involving the Amendment.  It is worth noting, however, that even though we know slavery will be abolished, Lee will surrender to Grant (Jared Harris, who hardly needs makeup to look like the general), and the Amendment will pass, the story still feels urgent and exciting.  Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is depicted as the Louisiana farmboy he was, not the baritone man’s man archetype we sometimes like to glorify him as.  He actually had a high-pitched voice (the only way he’d be heard in the back row of the giant crowds to which he gave speeches).  He was sympathetic, self-deprecating, and bizarre.  He loved to tell stories and tie old parables into what was happening in the White House.  Day-Lewis, famous method actor, completely becomes Lincoln in this picture, and even gets his obligatory Day-Lewis-Closeup-Yelling scene, but even then, you’ll only see the president here, not an actor.  Lincoln’s famous bowler hat is of course included, but is never played for laughs or even for much attention; it may as well be an extension of the man himself.  Long shots provide Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast with incredible opportunities to paint carefully-crafted pictures of their historical characters.

The film’s primary standout feature, aside from Day-Lewis’s performance, is the sight of the House of Representatives floor, whereupon abolitionist and Radical Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) pushes for the passing of the Amendment while trying not to appear as a race-equality extremist.  He butts heads with slimeball Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), in fiery exchanges that I can only hope have been transcribed verbatim.  The sheer animalistic nature of the countless dozens of white men on the floor looks like something out of a parody, but we sometimes forget that this is the way it once was.  The scenes of these congressmen shouting, chanting, climbing over each other, and clawing faces, forms a perfect parallel with the opening scene of the movie – a brief glimpse at a battle from the Civil War, in which hundreds of soldiers melee to the death in a pit of mud – showcasing how absurd war really is.  Lincoln knows it, as does Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who treats Lincoln like a misbehaving child when the latter skirts histrionics or does something behind Seward’s back (such as bringing Confederate representatives to the North in order to talk peace, essentially holding the end of the war hostage until the Amendment is passed).

Lincoln features possibly the largest cast of white guys ever assembled.  So many famous and accomplished actors appear, in fact, that it becomes almost a joke after awhile, as they continue to appear one by one.  Noted comedian James Spader appears as William Bilbo, a lobbyist who has some amusing scenes as he tries to convince Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment; Michael Stuhlbarg, known for starring in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein, plays George Yeaman, Kentucky’s reprsentative, and puts on an interesting southern twang; David Costabile of Flight of the Conchords plays James Ashley, and very convincingly; Tim Blake Nelson has the part of Richard Schell, who leads Lincoln’s, shall we say, “street team” along with Bilbo; Walton Goggins, who appeared in Tarantino’s Django Unchained as a character with a much different view on slavery, appears as Wells Hutchins, one of the 16 democrats to break with their party in favor of the Amendment; Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln in 1976, plays Francis Preston Blair, the politician who arranges a peace talk with the Confederacy; and refreshingly, Gloria Reuben appears as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and Mary Todd’s confidante, who receives plenty of screen time and a very important scene with the president near the end.

If the film has one pitfall, it’s where Spielberg chooses to end it.  A lovely scene on the night of Lincoln’s death features the president leaving his cabinet behind in order to hurriedly meet with Mary for the opera.  “I guess it’s time to go,” he says, “though I would rather stay” – purportedly Lincoln’s real-life final words to his cabinet that evening; whether or not he prophesied his own fate is up to you.  He then hands his gloves, which he refuses to wear, to his black butler, a free man, who watches Lincoln traverse the hallway until he becomes a silhouette of that tall, bearded, bowler-hatted American icon we all know.  In shadow, he then descends the stairs, leaving this life behind, the gloves perhaps a metaphor for Lincoln passing the baton to the people he has helped free.  This is where the film should end.  Instead, there is maybe another two minutes of reel, in which Lincoln’s shooting is announced to opera-goers, a doctor pronounces him dead as his family grieves, and then a flashback of his second inaugural address is shown before the credits roll.  Is this pure indulgence, a stab at absolute completion, or does Spielberg believe that modern viewers don’t know what happened to Lincoln that night?

Lincoln reminds me of something my dad said the other day, regarding HBO’s John Adams miniseries: “I learned so much more watching that than I did in school.”  Do biopics like these take liberties with history and dramatize people and events?  Yes, of course.  Historical fiction exists to observe and interpret history, not to provide a substitute for facts.  Is there something real, though, that can be learned from a film like Lincoln, whether about the man or the time period?  Maybe.  Regardless, let’s hope we can continue to remember without relying upon the entertainment industry, or else our grandchildren are in trouble.

Lincoln (2012); written by Tony Kushner; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Hedgehog goulash, anyone?

I find it interesting that Noomi Rapace’s American film debut occurred within a week of the release of not only an American film featuring Michael Nyqvist, but a remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  It’s like an excellent-actors-out-of-type party.

Rapace’s Hollywood debut comes in the form of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the second (and final?) in Guy Ritchie’s series, loosely based on the cozy detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.  Although the anachronistic fighting and quota of explosions are still present, Ritchie (director of such powerhouse films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and RocknRolla) makes at least a small effort to use material from Doyle’s original stories (which should have been part of the plan all along).  The story once again follows Holmes and Watson (Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, the latter of which would have made a better Holmes had they based him on the character from the books) as they attempt to take down their greatest adversary, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), whose motivations are far less murky and Bond-villain-ish in text form.  His plans involve the brother of Sim (Noomi Rapace), a fortune teller who tags along with Holmes and Watson and runs through the woods with them a few times.  Also in the cast are other characters taken from the original stories: Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother; Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler; and Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, a villain from the books who was defeated but never killed off, and whom Ritchie wisely doesn’t kill off in the film (y’know, in case there’s another one).

If there is one thing Ritchie is consistent about, it’s style.  As he does in Snatch, he shows us bareknuckle fights percussed with beautiful folk music.  The steampunk overtones remain prominent, and the entire landscape seems to be washed green.  The banter between Downey and Law hasn’t quite staled yet, and there is enough to go around in the two hours twenty minutes that this film runs, but we also get something we didn’t get before: personal drama for Holmes.  When he loses someone important to him, the search for Moriarty goes from a gentlemen’s game to a quest for revenge, and when they finally confront each other atop a waterfall that will look all too familiar to anyone who has read Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” it truly feels like the final scene.

Funnily enough, the phrase “no loose ends” is repeated several times in the film, yet the film itself has quite a few (Moran being one of them).  I won’t spoil the background details of the story, but after you see it, try to explain to me what everyone’s motivations were and how everything got resolved.  In addition, Rapace is criminally underused, and Anderson overused considering how things turn out.  Fry, however, finds a happy medium, and aside from when he’s walking around nude, is a refreshing presence, and his character gets some truly funny moments.

Ritchie is well documented for his lack of ego, and it’s plain to see why actors like to work with him.  With the way this movie’s story turned out, however, there’s no need for a third one.  He’s said he plans on making the sequel to RocknRolla, so let’s see that happen.  After all, Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes so he could focus on more serious literature, but he eventually gave in to his fans and wrote more stories after “The Final Problem” (whether or not we acknowledge the preposterous circumstances under which Holmes “survived” the incident).  Ritchie already jumps that particular shark in the end of this film, but it’s still enough.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011); written by Keiran Mulroney (based upon the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle); directed by Guy Ritchie; starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace and Jared Harris.

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