Thursday, February 20, 2014

Entertainment, Film Criticism & POMPEII

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Tri-Star Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

            Just going to say it: Peter Bart is a moron.  Now, why in the world would I call Variety’s editor-in-chief and former Paramount Pictures executive a buffoon, joker, idiot, et cetera?  In his post-Oscar nominations column, Bart posed the question: “Ever try toget a critic to smile?”  I know what you're thinking: Why the typographical error?  Well, dear reader, if you read Bart’s column here, you’ll see that that is how Bart asks the question.
            But what you're really asking is if Bart is right.  I wish I could say that’s a simple question to answer.  I mean, if you ever join me for a movie once, you’ll know the answer is a definite YES.  You saw THE LEGO MOVIE right?  How does one not smile at the absurd humor of Legos™?
But Bart never brings that up.  Bart’s argument is with critics groups and their awards.  Two of the most acclaimed movies are 12 YEARS A SLAVE and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.  Bart argues that audiences, and in turn Oscar voters, prefer uplifting & fun movies while critics “ respond…higher on technique than on entertainment value”.  While it is true that the two movies I mentioned are wonderful on a technical level, are depressing at times and not blockbusters in any way shape or form ($52 million combined), the storytelling by the Coen Brothers is the best they have ever done and so near perfect that the viewer has ample opportunity to smile.
So, Mr. Bart, I took your advice and saw POMPEII, a movie made by a (supposed) crowd-pleasing director in Paul W.S. Anderson for purely popcorn-consumption purposes.  What I actually saw was a two hour Gladiator-by-way-of-Pearl-Harbor bland, dumb rip-off.
Milo (Kit Harrington of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame) is an orphan child-slave-turned-gladiator from Rome-conquered Scotland.  On his journey to Pompeii as a purchased gladiator, he serendipitously meets Cassia (Emily Browning), who herself is her way home to Pompeii, by mercy-killing one of her injured horses.  Yes, a meet cute thanks to a dead horse.  Once in Pompeii, Milo adjusts to life as a gladiator by being housed with African one-victory-until-free gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).  Meanwhile, Cassia’s father is trying to finish a reconstruction deal with Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland).  The cost: Cassia’s hand in marriage.
All this sounds (not) very interesting but what about the stuff that blows up real good?  Well, over the course of movie, Mt. Vesuvius rumbles, grunts & groans, causing increasingly more damage that gets decreasingly more exciting.  The entire third act focuses on the main eruption, where the action feels less like a volcanic eruption and more like the most expensive Mystery Science Theater 3000 alien invasion.  All the while, the above stories have to be finished, by any means possible.
I must admit, I have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones but if Harrington is a main character, I may not want to wash.  Granted, the script by the married writing team of Lee & Janet Scott Batchler w/ revisions by Michael Robert Johnson severely lacks in interest in the characters.  But Harrington and (to a less extent) Browning aren’t that interesting on-screen to begin with and watching them try to convince the audience that their rich girl/slave boy love is real isn’t captivating.
Who’s supposed to smile during this?  Maybe a teenager who has seen maybe 8 movies in his life, 5 of which being Adam Sandler comedies.  Kiefer Sutherland was smiling, hamming it up for the camera, channeling his inner Donald Sutherland.  Tri-Star Pictures hopes to be smiling from the box office grosses.
But, for once, Peter Bart is right.  Film critics, for the most part, will not smile during or after POMPEII.  POMPEII represents the cynicism of people like Mr. Bart who believe this is what audiences want.  Expensive, underwhelming special effects.  Pretty faces.  Cookie cutter stories & dialogue.  But some people will show up.  People always do.  But I guarantee you, Mr. Bart, most will not be smiling.  There is little-to-nothing to smile about here.


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