Review – Pompeii

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Paul W.S. Anderson’s CGI-fuelled swords and sandals disaster flick really ain’t fooling around in its obsequiousness.

There's a potentially exciting and engaging film to be made about the tragic events that befell the city of Pompeii in AD79. This isn't it

There’s a potentially exciting and engaging film to be made about the tragic events that befell the city of Pompeii in AD79. This isn’t it

Although written by human beings, Pompeii‘s script and narrative structure could just as easily have been the product of a computer algorithm generated from the storylines of Gladiator, Spartacus, Quo Vadis and about a dozen other Roman epics, as well as Titanic and Romeo and Juliet (and a raft of others no doubt).

That in itself isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but when you’ve got Kiefer Sutherland putting on the worst English accent since Kevin Costner gave a stab in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves then it’s time to pour molten lava on proceedings.

Milo, aka The Celt (Kit Harrington) forms a firm friendship with fellow slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in Pompeii

Milo, aka The Celt (Kit Harrington) forms a firm friendship with fellow slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in Pompeii

In fact, it says rather too much about Pompeii that the most convincing character in the movie is angry old Mt Vesuvius, which can’t blow its top quickly enough, frankly.

The film follow Milo, aka ‘The Celt’ (Kit Harrington), who as a young lad witnessed the murder of his parents and fellow villagers by Roman General Corvus (Sutherland) before being kidnapped by slave traders and transported years later from Britannia (where it’s always raining – how original) to Pompeii.

Slave Milo (Kit Harrington) embarks on a forbidden romance with Roman girl Cassia (Emily Browning) in Pompeii

Slave Milo (Kit Harrington) embarks on a forbidden romance with Roman girl Cassia (Emily Browning) in Pompeii

There he befriends fellow slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and catches the eye of the rebellious Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of city ruler Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). When Corvus – now a Roman Senator – sails into Pompeii, Milo senses an opportunity to finally realise his long held desire for revenge. However, the small matter of an erupting volcano threatens to spoil everything.

Anderson is best known for directing the Resident Evil franchise, which is appropriate because Pompeii effectively turns into a computer game once Vesuvius erupts. The film could hardly be credited with depth, but it truly jumps the shark during a ridiculous chase scene involving a horse and chariot that would have had Charlton Heston spinning in his gun-lined coffin.

Pantomime villain Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) in Pompeii

Pantomime villain Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) in Pompeii

The romance between Milo and Cassia simply doesn’t work, which is a shame as Harrington and Browning at least try to inject some chemistry. A better bond is created between Milo and Atticus, whose initial rivalry and subsequent friendship is the best part of the film, especially during the gladiatorial scenes which allow Milo the opportunity to exact some humiliation on the evil Corvus.

Much like any other disaster film, you’re left twiddling your thumbs before the money shot finally arrives (just in case we’ve forgotten it’s coming, we have Atticus to helpfully point out that the regular pre-eruption tremors are just “the mountain” and nothing to worry about).

Mt Vesuvius gets angry in Pompeii

Mt Vesuvius gets angry in Pompeii

When Vesuvius finally does erupt, it at least does so with impressive style, but it doesn’t take long before boredom sets in once again and you’re hoping a fireball will take out most of the cast. Besides, anyone who’s seen the overly extended trailer will know exactly what to expect.

One suspects that Anderson’s tongue was wedged firmly in his cheek judging by the film’s histrionic tone and Sutherland’s pantomime performance, but that doesn’t forgive the sheer tedium of what’s on display here.

There’s a potentially exciting and engaging film to be made about the tragic events that befell the city of Pompeii in AD79. This isn’t it.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 4

After a cracking day of documentary it’s back to planet fiction, starting with the Scandinavian thriller Headhunters.

Once thought of as an enlightened, peaceful part of Europe, Scandinavia has become something of a hotbed of nastiness  in recent years if the glut of grisly crime fiction is anything to go by.

Steig Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy has already been adapted for film once and is getting the Hollywood remake treatment courtesy of David Fincher for those who struggle/can’t be bothered to read subtitles on screen. Danish series The Killing was a massive hit for the BBC (an American TV adaptation soon followed), which also had a stab at the Kurt Wallander series of books (hot on the heels of the Swedish TV series).

Headhunters

Now it’s the turn of award-winning Norwegian author Jo Nesbo to have his work brought to the screen. Famous for his Harry Hole detective novels and Doctor Proktor children’s series, it’s actually his 2008 stand-alone book Hodejegerne (The Headhunters) which director Morten Tyldum has brought to the screen.

While The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were filmed in a very muted, televisual way, with no visual flourishes, Headhunters immediately feels like something different; sexier, fresher and with a cool and glossy visual style that fits the character of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie).

One of Norway’s most successful headhunters, reputation means everything to Roger, whether it’s earned or manufactured. Away from work, Roger lives in a beautiful house with beautiful trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). He seems to have it all, but in reality he’s hopelessly in debt and has turned to art theft to keep the wolves from the door.

When Diana introduces him to the charismatic Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from American TV series Game of Thrones), Roger sniffs not one, but two opportunities; to headhunt Clas for a high-flying position he needs filling, but also to solve his financial woes once and for all. For Clas is in possession of an extremely valuable painting and so Roger sets into motion with his partner in crime, security firm employee Ove (Eivind Sander) a plan to swipe the artwork and sell it on.

But the best laid plans of Roger and Ove go horribly, horribly wrong and soon Roger is running for his life and in the middle of an industrial conspiracy he can barely understand.

Headhunters is an intriguing recipe of styles; with a smattering of The Thomas Crown Affair here and a dash of Enemy of the State there before turning into what it ultimately is – a rollicking good roller-coaster ride with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller.

Unlike The Girl With… films, Headhunters also knows when to poke fun at itself and the humorous vignettes, most absurdly when Roger drives down the road in a tractor with a domestic animal stuck on the end of it, manage to sit comfortably with the moments of intense violence because they are so blackly comic.

Sometimes Headhunters can be too clever for its own good and it’s hard not to turn your nose up at some of the more unlikely plot twists (the moment when Roger makes a phone call to his wife only to get a rude awakening feels like exactly what it is, a necessary moment to move us into Act Two), but it’s equally difficult not to get swept along by the film’s kinetic energy. If this doesn’t get remade in America as well I’ll cut off my own head.

Just as the struggle to return to a normal life after the Vietnam War was addressed in films such as Coming Home (1978) and The Deerhunter (1978), so the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have seen their fair share, with the likes of In the Valley of Ellah (2007), Stop Loss (2008) and, to a lesser extent, The Hurt Locker (2008).

It’s virtually impossible to avoid politics in films such as these, but that’s what Liza Johnson tries to do in her debut feature Return.

Return

Not one mention is made of George W Bush and no-one beats their chest questioning the reason as to why our boys and girls are over there. As the title suggests, Johnson instead focuses solely on how Kelli (Linda Cardellini) copes with civvie life, beginning with the moment she is reunited with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and their two daughters in the airport after a year’s tour of duty (it’s not specified where, reinforcing it’s irrelevancy in Johnson’s eyes).

The community is delighted to have Kelli back, and following a welcome home party she returns to work at the local factory, seemingly well-adjusted and unaffected by her year away. Gentle questioning by her friends as to what is was like over there prompts the broken-record reply of “others had it much worse than me”, a mantra that becomes increasingly meaningless the more she says it.

It’s only a matter of time though before her outwardly happy exterior begins to crack and the alienation, confusion and sense of purposelessness starts seeping out. First she walks out on her job, then her marriage begins to fall apart as she discovers Mike has been seeing another woman in her absence, before a moment’s stupidity leads to her getting caught drink-driving. And when she receives a piece of devastating news, she’s left with stark choices as to where to go next.

Johnson directs with a suitably stripped down palette, a wise move bearing in mind the often painful subject matter. She’s assembled a sturdy cast, with Shannon more restrained than he’s been on screen before and Tony Slattery swapping the fine tailoring of Mad Men for a sweatshirt and battered old baseball cap as a fellow war vet and damaged soul.

However, this is former ER cast member Cardellini’s film and she doesn’t drop the ball in what is her biggest role to date. There are no histrionics, instead she reigns it in, only allowing her eyes to show the anguish and confusion Kelli is going through.

That being said, Johnson’s script can feel very clunky at times, throwing in narrative jumps that aren’t properly explained or believably handled (the breakdown of Kelli and Mike’s marriage happens very quickly, especially as he seems so keen to go back to the way things were before). Mike’s being a plumber also feels a little heavy-handed (he can fix everything except her).

The fact that it’s a woman returning from a tour is refreshing – the only other film dealing with this subject from a female perspective that comes to mind is the British indie In Our Name (2010) – but it’s not enough to give Return an honourable discharge.