Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Movie Review: Pompeii

Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson.
Written by: Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson.
Starring: Kit Harington (Milo), Emily Browning (Cassia), Kiefer Sutherland (Corvus), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Atticus), Jared Harris (Severus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Aurelia), Jessica Lucas (Ariadne), Joe Pingue (Graecus), Currie Graham (Bellator).

There are some things I have to admit that I’ll just never understand. One of them is how director Paul W.S. Anderson has been elevated by some into some sort of great director – or at least a “vulgar auteur”. I didn’t know this was happening, until a small debate raged back in 2012 when Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and the latest Resident Evil film by Paul W.S. Anderson opened the same weekend – and a vocal minority of critics (Hi Armond!) claimed the later was a masterpiece, while the former was dreck. Cinemascope Magazine, which normally looks down on pretty much all popular movies, even named Paul W.S. Anderson one of the 50 best directors under 50 – and in their review of Pompeii, even bring up Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Journey to Italy (1954) as a companion piece to Anderson’s old school “epic”. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. There are moments near the end of Pompeii – when the lava starts flowing, that are admittedly beautiful to behold – and for the most part, he does prefer more stable compositions rather than the shaky camera, rapid fire editing of most modern action directors, which render their action sequences largely incoherent. Perhaps if Anderson had a decent script to work with, he may actually make a good movie. So far though, I don’t think he really has.

Pompeii’s most obvious influence is James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), as the first half of the movie is largely taken up with a love story between a slave turned gladiator named Milo (Kit Harington) and the daughter of a wealthy man in Pompeii named Cassia (Emily Browning) – including having a despicable rival, Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). The second half is all about the people we met in the first half running away from inevitable disaster – not a sinking ship, but an erupting volcano.

If you can ignore pretty much the entire first hour of the movie – which is insufferably written and lazily performed by a cast of actors who all seem to know the movie is nothing but a pay cheque and don’t even try, than Pompeii does offer some great images in the final act, after the volcano erupts, and starts destroying everything in its path. When the movie completely ignores its human characters, and just focuses on destruction – as it does in the wonderful sequence where the harbor is destroyed – I can at least partly see why Anderson has so many defenders. It is a wonderful sequence – and most of his movies have at least one of those.

But is sitting through 90 minutes of almost pure crap worth it to see one great sequence? Anderson has yet to get a credible performance from an actor that I can recall, he’s yet to tell a coherent satisfying story. He doesn’t seem interested in them at all. This would less of a problem if there were more great moments in his movies, and if on a surface level of plot and character, he wasn’t so horrible.

Anderson’s Pompeii is essentially a tragic love story, where two people fall in love, and have that love ripped apart before it can even really get started. Say what you want about Cameron’s Titanic, but all the flaws in that movie could not take away from the tragic emotions in which the love story between DiCaprio and Winslet live though, and its devastating final moment. In Pompeii, Anderson doesn’t seem to care that much – the tragic end is just another excuse to put some special effects on the screen. And if he doesn’t care, why should we? We’re 20 years into Anderson’s directing career, and Anderson continues to do his thing. He has defenders – and good for them. I still don’t see it though – and at this rate, I don’t think I ever will.

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