Monday, September 1, 2014

Titanic under the volcano

Pompeii is not a particularly good movie. I should get that out of the way at the start.

But I liked it perhaps more than I should have, because it's nearly exactly what I expected it to be.

I'm not talking about what I expected from the trailers, because actually, I didn't see a single trailer for the movie. No, it was exactly what I expected it to be when I first envisioned it as a movie, almost exactly five years before the date I saw it.

I'm writing this post on September 1st, 2014. On September 1st, 2009, I wrote a post called "Where's my Pompeii movie??", having just come from an exhibit on Pompeii at a Los Angeles museum, and wondering aloud why there had not yet been a big-screen Pompeii movie that benefited from the latest in FX technology.

Here's a bit of what I said in that post, all of which you can read here:

"It plays terrifically in my mind's eye: You have the ornate period architecture of a movie like Gladiator, pelted with raining volcanic rock and washed away in floods of lava. Plus, the whole thing took place by the Bay of Naples, meaning you could have the A.D. 79 watercraft trying vainly to escape in the roiled sea, giving the chance for some cool shipwrecks.

"With that kind of budget, you might have to to tack on a Titanic-style love story to push the audience beyond just young males. But then again, most of these disaster movies try to have Titanic-style love stories anyway, so this isn't much of a concession."

This is, like, exactly the movie Paul W.S. Anderson made.

Both movies I casually referenced here ended up being major influences on Anderson's Pompeii. How nutty is that?

Gladiator may be the most obvious point of comparison, as all the movie's pre-eruption action set pieces involve gladiators in the arena. The lead character played by Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington is known only as The Celt, and a life full of seeking revenge over the slaughter of his parents has turned him into the most badass gladiator in the Roman empire. Well, almost -- the undefeated gladiator he's scheduled to fight is pretty up there, played by Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. And if you wanted to throw some cop drama tropes in there with everything else unoriginal Pompeii does, this is supposed to be Akinnuoye-Agbaje's "one last fight" before the Romans grant him his freedom. In any case, there are numerous scenes of gladiators fighting in arenas, and even an appearance of the famous "thumbs up-thumbs down" determination of whether a fighter should live or die.

The love story, of course, is all Titanic. And I didn't just throw Titanic out there as an example of any old love story -- it's a love story under the duress of a major catastrophe. The Celt is basically Jack Dawson, the poor boy who gets noticed by the rich girl, as Emily Browning's Cassia fulfills the Rose DeWitt Bukater role -- she's the daughter of the rulers of Pompeii, and she seems to fall in love with him over an incident in which he spares her injured horse further pain by snapping its neck. See, The Celt's people were horse whisperers, of a sort (to borrow from yet another familiar movie). That would put Keifer Sutherland in the Billy Zane role, as Sutherland plays a nasty Roman bigwig who wanted Cassia during her recent excursion to Rome, and has now come to Pompeii in part to take her into his possession in the most demeaning manner possible.

But the real comparison to Titanic is what happens after the disaster starts. The funny thing about a disaster like a ship hitting an iceberg or a volcano burying a coastal city in lava is that it can never feel like something that springs logically from the story. If the best scripts are ones where the action proceeds logically from what is written in the first five pages, love stories set against disasters always feel a bit odd, since the story is hijacked by something sudden, inexplicable and essentially irrelevant. In a tight script, what role should an erupting volcano have in helping sort out all the various dramatic conflicts set in motion during the first half? It shouldn't have any, but that's because natural disasters and man-made accidents both fall into "shit happens" territory in terms of narrative causation.

And so both Titantic and Pompeii are forced, somewhat ridiculously, to have the conflicts continue to play themselves out despite the fact that there is now a much more urgent threat that requires everyone's collective attention. Titanic is not sunk, as it were, by needing some kind of resolution to the DiCaprio-Winslet-Zane love triangle, and I think only that silly scene where Zane is shooting at them from down that stairwell fulfills the role of trying to wrap that story up. After that, Zane rightly realizes that he cares more about his own hide than trying to kill Jack Dawson, especially if it means he has to sink to the bottom of the ocean to do it.

Kiefer Sutherland is not quite so wise in Pompeii. Yeah, he makes a couple thwarted and typically cowardly attempts to escape the city -- slaughtering the peasants in your path, anyone? -- but he probably knows he can't really leave without getting one final showdown with the man who stole the attentions of that woman who despised him and was never going to marry him anyway. So we are treated to the spectacle of them doing battle in the remains of a coliseum being pelted by giant flaming chunks of magma. Naturally, one might say.

It's the spectacle of the final 30 minutes of Pompeii that really saves it, and by "saves it" I mean "makes it worth watching at all." The destruction of Pompeii is more or less exactly what I envisioned it might be in that museum five years ago this weekend. Oh, and remember those cool shipwrecks I speculated about? Not only do we see volcanic rock pulverizing several escaping ships, but we are also treated to a tsunami that delivers a couple of these boats right down Main Street.

Who could have asked for anything more?

I couldn't, which is why Pompeii gets a grudging three stars from me. Good on ya, Paul W.S. Anderson (a.k.a. the lesser Paul Anderson), for making me look pretty damn prophetic.

And a few thoughts about the experience of renting Pompeii ...

Support Video Ezy, you fool 

We had decided to watch a new release on Saturday night, so it was kind of a bummer when my father-in-law had to cancel a Sunday gathering at his house that was going to jointly recognize the birthdays of my son and my sister-in-law. She was sick -- same thing we'd had -- and was in bed all weekend, from what I understand.

It bummed me out because that meant we weren't going to be naturally near a Woolworth's, where we could return whatever movie we rented the night before to the Hoyts kiosk there. We weren't going to be naturally near a Woolworth's on Saturday either, but I figured as long as we could either rent or return the movie with no more than a modicum of inconvenience, we'd be good. A long trip to both rent and return it, and it wouldn't be worth doing.

When I expressed my frustration over the turn of events, my wife said "Why don't you just get the movie from Video Ezy?"

"Video Ezy charges like $5 for a new release," I told her. "The Hoyts kiosk is only $3.50."

Sounded like reasonable logic to me, so it's a good thing I have others to set me straight. "You've got to support Video Ezy if you want them to stay open," she told me. "Why do you think there's never anybody in there?"

It was true. I've rented from Video Ezy probably 20 times, and on only a handful of those occasions were there any other patrons in the store besides me. For most businesses, that would be a sign it was time to go out of business.

And I definitely don't want Video Ezy to go out of business. It's among the last of a dying breed: a place you can go and actually browse for movies to rent by walking up and down aisles. Actual, physical aisles. That experience is becoming increasingly virtual in our day and age, which doesn't bother teenagers in the slightest. For old folks like me? We like the video stores. We value them, even if only for providing us a sense of nostalgia.

It's not like Video Ezy is just down the block or anything. But it's more or less in our neighborhood, at least. And you'd think the comparative convenience would be worth the extra $1.50, especially given how little else you can buy with a meager sum like $1.50 these days.

It was nice, also, to hear my wife urge me to help keep Video Ezy afloat, because it was she I thought I was protecting by trying to go cheap (and frequenting Ezy only on $2 new release Tuesdays). I know I've got a nearly insatiable appetite for new movies, one that far outstretches your average citizen. If I knew I had to feed the beast anyway, sometimes watching movies most regular people would instinctively avoid, the least I could do was not overburden our bank account.

But I felt so good forking over $5 for Pompeii that I also picked up a $1.90 weekly rental of John Ford's My Darling Clementine, and bought my son and me a candy bar each. Mars, it was.

If my eight dollars and change goes a little further toward keeping the neighborhood video store open, then it's something I'm going to do, dammit.

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