Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Does Anyone Know When This Volcano Finally Erupts?

Some business to see to before we get started today. Check out what Norma has to say about Miley Cyrus and other self indulgences. Now, today we've got ourselves a movie to be reviewed. Spoiler alert: the volcano wins. Take that, ancient Romans!

Pompeii is the latest film from director Paul W.S Anderson (those endless and pointless Resident Evil films), featuring a volcano daring to get in the way of a love story in the ancient Roman world. Oh, and there are some actors in the whole thing too. It just came out in theatres last weekend. Whether or not you go to see it depends on if you feel like sitting through undeveloped characters and a cast trying their best despite the hack who's directing them, all for a reasonably decent final act.

Anderson starts out the story years before the infamous disaster in which Vesuvius erupted, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD. In Britain, a young Celt boy named Milo is taken by slave traders after his family and tribe have been wiped out by a Roman force led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Years later, the boy is a gladiator (Kit Harrington), one of several such slaves on his way to Pompeii when by chance their party crosses paths with Cassia (Emily Browning) and her servant girl Ariadne (Jessica Lucas). Milo commits an act of quick mercy on a fallen horse, and Cassia is drawn to him. As fate would have it (or as the committee of writers deemed it essential as a plot device), she's returning to Pompeii herself. She's the daughter of the city's ruler, Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), back from time in Rome.

Milo seems fated to die in the gladiatorial ring. There's a rivalry with a fellow gladiator, Atticus (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje) that gradually changes to mutual respect. He has a way with horses, and an awareness that not all is right in the earth around the great mountain. And he has a thing for Cassia (well, we can't blame him for that, can we?) and she feels much the same. Still, as a slave, there's that gulf of rank and place in society between them. And there's another problem. Corvus, now a Roman Senator, turns up, with his own plans for the city. He also intends to have Cassia for his bride, and won't put up with any upstart gladiator slaves with chiseled abs competing for the object of his affections. Needless to say, Corvus is a particularly nasty villain as villains go. Oh, and there's the whole problem with that mountain just waiting to go off.

There's an assembly line of writers and producers involved in this. That's usually not a good sign. The story sets this fictional story against a real life disaster of antiquity. It comes to us from Janet Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson. The Batchlers, a married couple, were among the screenwriters for Batman Forever (a warning sign if ever there was one). Johnson's previous credit was as a screenwriter for Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes. Their story is, well, derivative of earlier films- Spartacus, Gladiator, and Titanic are all clearly on display here in many ways. The characters feel undeveloped, and that's not really the fault of the cast... it feels more like the writers, particularly given such nefarious credentials.

Anderson as a director is certainly not of much help either. Look at his resume. Aside from six Resident Evil films, this is the same person who brought such cinematic lowlights as Mortal Kombat, Alien versus Predator, and the most recent version of The Three Musketeers to the screen. An auteur, he is not. Instead he likes blowing things up on a big scale, and at least he gets to do that here. The special effects team working for him renders their work well, giving us the requisite earthquakes, tsunamis, ash clouds, and violent destruction of an ancient Roman city as we'd expect. If only they had a better director to work for. Aside from the derivative story, the director's the weakness of the film. He persists in the use of 3D for this film, so expect volcanic fire to be hurling out of the screen right at you.

And frankly, the cast deserves better than to have undeveloped characters and a poor director at the helm. There are good actors here. Jessica Lucas is sympathetic as Ariadne, though it took me a bit of time to figure out where I'd seen her before: another disaster film, Cloverfield. Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje is a good character actor, from Lost and The Bourne Identity. He last appeared as a villain in Thor: The Dark World, and plays Atticus as a strong and honourable man. Jared Harris is likable enough as Severus (no, not Severus Snape). He's previously appeared as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows and as General Grant in Lincoln, and he's a good character actor. It's been awhile since we've seen Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix trilogy), but she's quite welcome as Cassia's mother, though she might seem too young for the part.

Kiefer Sutherland (24) gets to have fun as the villain Corvus, an utterly nasty and ill tempered Roman. You get the sense as an actor he's enjoying himself chewing the scenery and being as thoroughly despicable as he can playing the character. Emily Browning has an eclectic resume as an actress. Looking through her background, I was surprised that she had the wisdom to turn down playing Bella Swan in those wretched Twilight films; her work varies between indie roles and some horror work. She plays Cassia as well as the story will allow (it's not her fault the characters are undeveloped). She's essentially playing Kate Winslet's Rose in this particular disaster... which leads us to the Jack Dawson of this story. Kit Harrington comes to us from Game of Thrones, so he's in his element. He has to look the part of a gladiator, which he does, though if you're looking for a gladiator like Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe, you'll have to look elsewhere, because Harrington's not in that league. At least unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrington doesn't bug the hell out of me. Browning and Harrington don't have a lot of chemistry, but again... I'm blaming the writers for that instead of the actors. 

The cast and the core story deserves better than the director and writers give them. I wonder what this film would have done in the hands of better creators. The film is uplifted somewhat by a good last act in which the volcano decides to finally get serious, kick butt, and take names. If you can hold out for that (and you don't have nightmares about dying horribly in a volcanic cataclysm), it's worth checking this one out. Just as long as you don't expect a directorial masterpiece, because Anderson's not capable of that.

Monday, February 24, 2014

All Hail The Imperial Tsar Vladimir The Annoyed Autocrat

Before we get ourselves started today, have a look over at our joint blog for a Snippet Sunday post, and let us know what you think of the passage. And go on over to Norma's blog for a post on dreams and the afterlife.

The Winter Olympics of Sochi have reached an end, and strangely enough, the closing ceremonies didn't turn out in the manner in which I wrote them (go figure). 

I thought I'd wrap things up with an image blog.

And so I leave you with the work of editorial cartoonists from here and abroad, playing around with the theme of the Winter Games in various ways. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Calling Down The Thunder

"Some believe that before the universe, there was nothing. They're wrong. There was darkness." ~ Odin

"Why don't you let me take over? I'm the best pilot in Asgard." ~ Loki
"Yes, but out of the two of us, which can actually fly?" ~ Thor

The God of Thunder rises again in Thor: The Dark World, the latest in the Marvel Studios adaptations of comic book characters, owing much to the work of writer-artist Walt Simonson, among others, carrying on the story of the warrior of Asgard, caught between loyalties at home and on Earth. Director Alan Taylor takes over from Kenneth Branagh this time out, and carries on with his themes while moving in some new directions. Chris Hemsworth is back in the lead as Thor for this film that starts in the past. Bor, father of Odin and grandfather of Thor, defeats the dark elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in the opening sequence, something that might remind one of a Lord of the Rings sequence. Malekith and a number of his men, including Algrim (played by the outstanding character actor Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje) end up in suspended animation, while Bor safeguards the weapon they were after, a bit of cosmic mojo called the Aether.

In the present, Asgard is in transition. Since the events of the first film (and Avengers,) Thor and his allies have been engaged in conflicts to restore order in the Nine Realms. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been cooling his heels in an Asgardian prison since getting smashed by the Hulk in Avengers. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo) see their adoptive son in different ways, which would be an understatement. Back on Earth, astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman) having now gone two years without seeing the thunder god of her dreams, is wondering if it's time to move on with her life. She's still working with Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who's seen better days since his possession by Loki in Avengers. Eric could use a vacation. And their work quickly casts one of their number into the heart of what is to come.

Of course the Dark Elves under Malekith make their return, otherwise you wouldn't have a movie. They're convinced the time has come for the Convergence, when their darkness will rise and blot out the light (this tends to happen when your hangers on are all malevolent nutters). And to make it happen, they just need to get their hands on that Aether... which happens to be in a rather unlikely location.

War rises, of course, and before it's all said and done, grave losses have been inflicted, lives turned upside down, old lovers have been reunited, the universe itself is at stake... and one god of mischief is put into a position where he has to be trusted again. Especially if it means he can get some very good lines in along the way.

Director Taylor has a mixed background, in television and movies, but his more recent work was in Game Of Thrones. That experience serves him well here, since it feeds into a world of myth and legend. He wisely carries on with the concepts laid out by Branagh in the first film, giving the story a dose of humour but never crossing the line into parody. That reflects itself in little moments- Thor finding a place to hang his hammer, or the inevitable Stan Lee cameo (which works splendidly). The film expands on the ideas of Asgard and the Nine Worlds, and Taylor takes the story by Christopher Yost (a very good writer in the comics industry, by the way), Christopher Marcus, and Stephen McFeely, and runs with it. Asgard and the other mystical realms are explored at various moments in the film, and they look otherworldly, a nod to the special effects teams, who are obviously doing their jobs well. The visuals of these fantastic, mystical, or dark worlds is just breathtaking, as it must be in a film like this. Yes, Asgard might remind one of a pipe organ, but it also looks like a home to a pantheon of immortals. Costume design expands on the looks from the first film for the returning characters, while also creating an entirely appropriate look for the Dark Elves, which renders well compared to the comic versions. In particular, I liked the final look of Algrim, whose final hideous form in the movie is just what I would expect out of the man who became known as Kurse: it retains enough of the comics form and yet looks like its own creation. Brian Tyler steps in as composer this time out, and gives us a rousing music score that feels at home in Asgard (though I still prefer Patrick Doyle's score from the first film). 

It's the cast, of course, that has to be right for this film, and they rise to the occasion. Eccleston, who's done a wide variety of work, largely in Britain, playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, or one of the leads in the much underrated Shallow Grave, is ideally cast as Malekith, a ruthless, malevolent, and vicious being, just as I would have imagined him from the comics. There is little mercy in this character, and there shouldn't be. Algrim is played by Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje (I can't believe I can spell that without checking it up first), a character actor who's something of a chameleon with a variety of film and television work (The Bourne Identity, Oz, Lost, The Mummy Returns). If they ever get around to making a film about the Black Panther, this is the guy they should be casting.

Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings reprise their roles from the first film. Kat is as snarky as before, getting some of the good lines in as she chases after her friend Jane and finds herself caught in what might well be an end of the universe sort of scenario (oh, one of those again?) as the grave threat returns to Earth. Skarsgard, a terrific character actor whose work I always like, is back for a third time after the events of Avengers, and his character is a bit addled after the experiences of that film. Skarsgard gets to have some fun with it, from that angle. And there are some interesting cameos here, aside from Lee, one in a credits sequence that will tie into future films... and another featuring one of Thor's fellow Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), but not quite Captain America.

The rest of the supporting cast is in fine shape. Jaime Alexander is back as Sif, as fierce a warrior as she ever was. There's more of a romantic rivalry going on between her and Jane; as an immortal, she's probably more suited to Thor as it is, but she embodies the courage of Sif very well. Idris Elba is back as the Asgardian sentinel Heimdall, and he gets more to do this time out. That's a good thing, because Elba the actor brings great weight and dignity to the role. We also get a look at Tyr, the Asgardian war god, played by Clive Russell, a character absent from the first film. He's quite welcome here.

The Warriors Three return again.... well, two of the trio return, so to speak. Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, somewhat of a comedy relief character but also a ferocious and brave warrior. Tadanobo Asano returns as the steady Hogun, and as grim as ever. He's something more of the straight man for Volstagg and the third member of the trio. Zachary Levi steps in for Josh Dallas as Fandral, the dashing lothario. He fits the role quite well. All of them are willing to do the right thing- even if that means, oh... going against the word of their king.

Hopkins is once again ideally cast as Odin. The role is a complicated one; he can be cruel  or thoughtless at times, and at other times wise. Odin as depicted in myth and comics is always the one thinking ahead, planning and scheming. He's a wise king... but sometimes not a very pleasant Asgardian. Rene Russo reprises her role as Thor and Loki's mother Frigga, and though her connection to Loki is not a biological one, it's still strong; she worries about him, loves him, and in fact, that connection drives Loki forward through the film. She is, as before, a sympathetic character, and she plays the role that way.

It is the three leads that are integral to the core of the story. Portman as Jane is given more to do than her comics counterpart might have had. She's smart and doesn't mind showing that, and she doesn't mind speaking her mind- such as taking offense to being insulted by Odin, striking Loki for that whole invasion of New York thing he did, or wondering what took Thor so long to get back to her. She finds herself in fantastic realms for the first time... and wonders if there is truly a place for her in Thor's life. There's a good chemistry between her and Hemsworth here; they know their characters, and they feel believable together.

Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, and he's a character you can't help but admire and like, as devious as he can be. One's never quite sure where he stands, but that makes Loki work so well as a character. He always surprises you. Things are never quite as it seems with him. He plays the character as walking that fine edge between the darkness and doing the right thing, all while seeming to amuse himself. There is a good reason that drives him on in this film, a motive that gives him a ferocity. And it's his interaction with Hemsworth that really makes the film come over the top. Their bantering, the love-hate relationship between these two brothers, plays itself out out perfectly, and is really the highlight of the story.

Hemsworth is by now well familiar with Thor, having had taken the character through three films. He conveys the nobility of the man, the courage and the tenacity of the thunder god. He's wiser than he was when we first met Thor in the first film and saw a reckless, arrogant immortal. Hemsworth brings these qualities across, takes things seriously, but not too seriously. There are moments when he's having fun with the part- such as in dealing with subways or cars or chattering brothers who won't shut up. He carries himself well in the role.

The sequel holds up well and expands on what made the first film work so well: this interaction between different worlds, the bond that can develop between people of different experiences, and the complicated family ties of these immortals who seem all too human. The film leaves things off in different places, but leaves me wanting more, as it should. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

If Eleven Z-List Celebrities Bite The Dust, Is That A Tragedy?

Some links today, before I get into the oh dear God, did I actually write that blog. And we're going with an emphasis on sheer and utter cuteness with these. Take a look at Barbara's Cats for her gang of rascals. Say hello to the sweet face of Kelly. Be mesmerized by chocolate feline eyes. Check out Oscar's view out the window. And find out how the Square Dogs deal with a bath. Now then back in November I posted this blog about washed up celebrities going off to what was certainly a bad end. Today I have something of a followup.

Numerous Washed Up Celebrities Killed In Space Explosion; Branson Plugs Next Project

Los Angeles (AP) Sir Richard Branson, the tireless self promoter and head of Virgin Group, faced reporters yesterday afternoon in California after the explosion of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo in low orbit over the Earth. The crew members and passengers aboard were all lost in an event that will likely trigger a long investigation. Branson seemed tired as he spoke. "It's a horrendous tragedy. Not only did we lose the flight crew, but we lost some of the brightest and true talent in the world. Let me tell you, the world is a little less bright now that they're gone. It's going to be a long, long investigation, and there's not much I can say about that process. All I can talk about are the people who were on that flight. The captain and co-pilot were truly the best of the best, both retired military pilots. Scott "Broken Mirror" Kowalski had fifteen years service as a pilot for the USAF before he came to work for me. Outstanding chap, had a wife and kids who loved him. Hard to believe he's gone. And Alan "Dead Meat" Winters was former RAF, a top pilot, just the kind of pilot you'd trust to get you home."

Branson paused a moment before continuing. "And how do we even begin to mourn the dead? So many wonderful limelight superstars wiped out all at once. I mean, Shia LaBeouf was truly at the top of his game, one of the most respected actors of all time. And sure, I mean, he'd had some trouble lately with people making fun of him, getting into fights for no reason, and taking to wearing paper bags as some kind of performance art, but that doesn't take away from just how stupendous and talented and charismatic an actor he was."

Branson shook his head. "You know, I heard earlier that Harrison Ford remarked upon hearing the news that he wished it had happened before Shia got cast in that last Indiana Jones movie. I don't understand how he could say that. Wasn't Shia just wonderful in that role? Didn't he make that film so much better just by being there? I think so, and I'll keep saying that no matter how many times Lucas and Spielberg say they made a horrible mistake casting him."

Branson paused again. He reached into a pocket, glancing at a small mirror. "Mirror mirror, who's the most suntanned of them.. oh, right, I'm still in a press conference." He cleared his throat. "Well then, Shia was not the only big time celebrity to perish in the great calamity over the earth. No. Simon Cowell also died on board SpaceShipTwo. Never again will we hear the condescending baritone of that great man. Never again will he roll his eyes or sneer. The world has lost one of its best when Simon was blown to smithereens. You know, I was speaking to his old antagonist Paula Abdul just a few minutes ago by phone. She sounded shattered. It was as if she couldn't believe it was actually true. She muttered something about it couldn't have happened to a more deserving person. I guess she was just proud that he made it to orbit."

Branson looked out over the crowd. "Unfortunately the Backstreet Boys met their maker too on that doomed flight. All five of them. They paid for their ticket and told me to get them into space so they could do a comeback special. It would have been over the moon. Well, not literally, since Virgin Galactic was never meant to go to the moon. But think about it... the Backstreet Boys are gone. Dead. All of them. It's a tragedy. It's the day the music died... and yes, I know, that expression belongs to the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in that whole plane crash fiasco, but when it really comes down to it... weren't the Backstreet Boys more important a musical legacy? We can at least be grateful for one thing. The boys were going to do a performance with Justin Bieber, but he couldn't make the flight. Too many legal problems, so he was grounded. He was kind enough to give Corey Feldman his ticket. Little did Corey know it would be the last flight he'd ever take. Think about it, people: Justin Bieber could have been on that flight. Wouldn't his loss have been such a monumental tragedy?"

Branson wiped away a tear. "And lest we forget the rest. You know, they were misunderstood in life. Hopefully in death we'll remember them better. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were the best of friends through their many reality shows, pub crawls, party crashes, and court appearances. They set the world on fire with their attitude and their elegance and their debating skills. I like to think that the two of them lent a certain dignified air among the passengers on that doomed flight. I'm sure they'll be missed by all who loved them. Particularly by the latest little lap dog to be part of Paris' life. I understand Trixie Tinkerbell will inherit whatever money Paris had left to her name."

Branson took a moment to compose himself. "Last of all... the sheer talent this young woman brought to the world, her grace and warmth, her radiant spirit, shall be missed. Yes, the last few years were not kind to Lindsay. It is true that she found herself in many, many court appearances, rehab facilities, and mug shots. Yes, it is true that her parents are even now fighting over who gets to orchestrate the memorial service. I like to think she was misunderstood by a Hollywood that hired directors who preferred working with someone who was more stable. How could they pass up Lindsay? Well, dear girl, you're at peace now. After being blown to bits in that explosion. I don't know... maybe it was a horrible way to go."

Branson shuddered. "You know, I'm reminded at this moment that it could have been even worse. I was supposed to go on that flight. It was supposed to be me up there... dying with those brave thirteen souls. Instead, I came down with the flu and had to stay home in my island paradise. Is that karma? Good luck? Or the fates of the cosmos saying, Richard Branson is too important to die? I don't know. I'm sure I'll have to figure that out in time. For now, I have to mothball Virgin Galactic. The investigation must play itself out so that we can figure out what happened. I'm moving onto other things for the next few months. I'll be offering kitesurfing trips with me to any lucky lady willing to consent to the dress code. She has to wear her birthday suit. I wonder if I can convince Paula Abdul to give that a try...