Mini Reviews (March 2014)
Winter's Tale, Stay, Pompeii
Winter's Tale (March 5/14)
Based on the book by Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale tells the brazenly bizarre story of a turn-of-the-century burglar (Colin Farrell's Peter Lake) who falls in love with a dying heiress (Jessica Brown Findlay) - with the couple's happiness threatened by a nefarious and possibly otherworldly figure named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). There's little doubt that Winter's tale, though it eventually becomes quite striking and engrossing, has been burdened with an off-puttingly incoherent opening half hour, as first-time filmmaker Akiva Goldsman, working from his own script, drops the viewer into this fantastical world with little in the way of context or exposition - which does, as a result, prevent the viewer from initially embracing the characters or their respective struggles. And while the palpable chemistry between Farrell and Findlay keeps things interesting even through the movie's less-than-captivating opening stretch, Winter's Tale stays pitched at a level of consistent mediocrity right up until it arrives at the halfway mark - after which point the previously impenetrable storyline simplifies and becomes far more engaging than one might've expected. (It's worth noting, however, that the movie's mystical attributes remain half-baked and underwhelming right through to the curiously impassive finale.) Farrell's character is, once the movie enters its second half, forced to take a more active role in pushing the off-kilter storyline forward, which paves the way for a pronounced momentum that's heightened by late-in-the-game appearances by Jennifer Connelly and Eva Marie Saint - with the latter's surprisingly moving turn providing the movie with a rare instance of emotional resonance. It's ultimately clear that Goldsman has effectively adapted a notoriously unfilmable novel for the big screen, with the movie's appealing characters and irresistible romance generally compensating for the narrative's preponderance of almost inexplicable elements.
Stay (March 5/14)
Stay follows May-December couple Dermot (Aidan Quinn) and Abby (Taylor Schilling) as they're forced to reevaluate their romance after Abby falls pregnant, with the movie detailing the characters' respective efforts at deciding what to do next (eg Abby returns home to Montreal to be with her father). Filmmaker Wiebke von Carolsfeld has infused Stay with an almost excessively subdued feel that does, at the outset, seem a good fit for her low-key screenplay, as the appealing character-study vibe is heightened and perpetuated by a pair of fine performances and an overall atmosphere of authenticity. The movie's effectiveness is slowly-but-surely diminished by the increased emphasis on time-wasting subplots, as von Carolsfeld augments the narrative with a number of periphery storylines that grow more and more tedious as time progresses. (There is, for example, an ongoing emphasis on the exploits of a pregnant teenager that adds little to the picture's overall effect.) The erratic atmosphere extends even to scenes involving the movie's two central characters, with Quinn's Dermot pulled into a fairly pointless digression involving an encroaching housing development and the discovery of a mystery item on his property. (Everything involving Schilling's Abby, on the other hand, fares surprisingly well and remains a consistent highlight.) The viewer is ultimately forced to wait for Dermot and Abby to arrive at the personal epiphanies that they're obviously due, yet by the time this occurs, it's become impossible to wholeheartedly care about their respective fates or the narrative's outcome - which ultimately cements Stay's place as an earnest misfire that might've worked better as a short.
Pompeii (March 17/14)
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, Pompeii details the chaos and destruction that ensues in the title city's ancient landscape after a nearby volcano erupts - with the disaster affecting, among others, slave-turned-gladiator Milo (Kit Harington), villainous senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), and fetching princess Cassia (Emily Browning). It's not surprising to note that Anderson, along with screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson, has infused Pompeii with a larger-than-life feel that generally fares rather well, with the hoary setup paving the way for a watchable (yet uneven) storyline that's rife with familiar elements - including, of course, the Titanic-like central romance between Harington and Browning's respective characters (ie he's from the wrong side of the tracks and she's being groomed to lead a kingdom). There's little doubt, too, that Anderson and his scripters have suffused the narrative with a number of needless elements designed to pad out the running time, with the sluggish midsection containing a number of asides and subplots that wreak havoc on the movie's momentum (and, ultimately, prove a test to one's ongoing patience). The exciting nature of Pompeii's gladiator sequences keeps things interesting through its overtly underwhelming stretches, and it's clear that things pick up considerably once the aforementioned volcano erupts and all hell breaks loose - as Anderson offers up a third act that's as gleefully over-the-top and unabashedly ridiculous as one might've hoped. The end result is an almost prototypical guilty pleasure that fares better than most contemporary blockbusters, with the movie's refreshingly brisk running time and emphasis on coherent set pieces setting it apart from its big-budget brethren.